Chapter Eighteen: Trials & Tryouts
They stood there, all of the five, quietly waiting for the one who had summoned them. The first was tall with skin the colour of ebony and hair like the roots of an oak. He wore robes of burgundy and emerald and a roguish grin that showcased pearly white teeth. Next to him was a girl much shorter than he was. She had her hand clasped tight around the shaft of a long staff caped with a fist-sized daemon core. Tendrils of wood wrapped around this core, fixing it in place. She wore a hooded cloak clasped around her shoulders only with the hood was down allowing her face to be seen.
Pale skin and dark eyes. That was the first impression you got of her. Her features were aristocratic, beautiful even but the sheer focus in her gaze took you away. She stared past you, eyes fixed on something only she could see and the very set of her jaw revealed how serious she was. Hair, pitch black fell behind her, held away from her face by a golden headpiece that framed her face. Truthfully, she was one of the most imposing characters gathered in the room.
Her only other match stood next to her, clad in cobalt plate armour decorated with black and gold filigree with a golden mantle that shrouded his broad shoulders. His hair was short where hers was long and his skin a healthy olive tan. Behind him hung a strange object; a giant silver orb that pulsed and rippled in response to his breathing. Its master was different today. A formless pressure hung about him, making him seem foreboding. His usually nonchalant visage now hid a cold gaze and his very essence seemed primed for action.
The last two in the room stood together. The first was a tall black girl leaning against the wall with her eyes half closed and her hand resting on the hilt of a longsword. She wore neither robes nor plate. Her protection came from a sleeveless gambeson, a tight pair of breeches and an armoured pair of boots. Six long braids stretched out behind her and her right arm bore a strange bone vambrace. Her companion was the smallest in the group of five. Slight in both stature and aura, her presence was seemingly overshadowed by the others. She stayed close to the dark swordswoman, a little nervous about the meeting to come.
The petite girl’s red hair roamed freely in large curls some shielding her alabaster skin and hiding the nearly unnoticeable dusting of freckles over her nose. Today, she too carried a mage’s staff, one tailored to her petite build. Hers had a large crook at the top and in that crook hung a flaming ruby. The sundress and sandals she had worn only hours before had been traded for a form-fitting black dress and a pair of thigh high boots. This changed her look significantly. Taking away some of her innocence and replacing it with a more mature aura.
Lady Bloodworth entered the room without any fanfare. Behind her was the butler of the household.
“You are all here”, she said in place of a greeting. “We can start immediately then!”
Taking the strange atmosphere in the room, she shook her head with a laugh and sat herself by the fireplace, leaving them standing.
“I trust you have acquainted yourselves with each other?” she asked.
Valerian looked at the others. Hue and Wynna seemed okay enough but Sweetrot had not left a good impression on him. Taking a glance at the lady to his side, he frowned. While her essence levels were not as high as Wynna’s it was potent enough that he could sense a shroud around her, almost as if earth attributed essence was congregating around her, availing itself for her use. ‘This one might be trouble’, he surmised. Operating on the assumption that he might have to fight the others, he had not taken any steps towards interacting with any of the other ‘legacy disciples’. Considering that he had only been in the manor for a matter of hours, this was very telling. He wondered what it must have been like for the others over the last few days or weeks.
Watching the shifty and warry looks they gave each other made Lady Bloodworth laugh. Valerian’s eyes narrowed at the old lady warming her bones by the fire. There was no way she could not have known this would happen. That begged one question. Why?
“Lady Bloodworth..?” the girl next to him ventured. “We have all been wondering, ma’am, who among us is your legacy apprentice?”
The old lady gave them a funny look. “That’s your concern?” she asked incredulously. “If it were me I would be more concerned about whether or not I would remain a legacy apprentice.”
“I-I …I am not sure I understand”, the earth mage stammered in confusion. Valerian did not blame her, he was confused too.
Lady Bloodworth mered sighed. “Understand this, I have chosen you. All five of you. I have lived a full life, one more interesting than most. The things I have learned, the things I have done, the things I have yet to do, the things I have gained… I have been blessed with much power in this life. More wealth, art and prestige than many could conceivably achieve. It is all more than one person can bear or reasonably manage. So I chose you, each and every one of you.”
Valerian’s mind spun this news around. All five of them were legacy apprentices? She could not be serious. Unfortunately, she appeared to be. The old lady kept going muttering unbelievable things into their ears.
“You being chosen means you are the best I have found. The most suited to inherit my skills. Regrettably, not everybody sees things this way. Some have questioned my judgement. Others are protesting for the sake of fair play and equal opportunity. It would seem that there are many who wish the chance to become my apprentices and many who wish to prove their worth to me in the hopes of getting accepted. To quell the dissenters, I will give them that chance. I am going to open the selection of my legacy apprentices to the public”, she revealed.
Sweetrot’s mouth fell open with shock. Valerian’s heart sunk. The girls’ expressions varied but they all said the same thing, shock. They stared disbelievingly at the old lady in front of them. What was the use in choosing them then if it was going to be a public selection? She answered, nearly before the thought was completed having anticipated it.
“Think of this as a test or better yet, a trial”, she said. “You are the apprentices I chose. The ones coming to compete with you are different. They, or those behind them, doubt your qualifications. They think they are more worthy. Pass this trial and you will truly become my legacy apprentices. Even the dissenters will recognise your position. Fail and you will return to what you once were and whoever defeated you will take your place.”
“Wait!” Sweetrot exclaimed unable to help himself. Finding everyone’s eyes suddenly on him, he struggled for a few seconds to get the words out. “The choice of a legacy apprentice should be yours. It is yours! I do not see why their complaints should matter, whoever they are. They are not the ones choosing apprentices, you are!”
“He is right!” the earth mage quickly seconded.
“Trying to influence another’s choice of legacy apprentice goes beyond all decorum and flies in the face of tradition and history”, she argued, stepping forward. “I humbly request that teacher ignore these ‘dissenters’. Their words alone imply that they have no respect for teacher’s opinion or discernment.”
Valerian found himself agreeing. He had never heard of someone’s choice of legacy apprentice becoming a matter of public deliberation. Besides, they were arguing on his behalf as well. He said nothing but stepped forward as well in a show of solidarity. He could only imagine how muddy the waters will be if everyone and their dog was allowed to fight for a chance to be Lady Bloodworth’s legacy apprentice. ‘Would I even qualify?’ he asked himself.
Faced with their united front, Lady Bloodworth merely snuggled deeper into her armchair, a hidden smile in her voice. “You would be right except they make some valid points. I am Lilian Bloodworth, the greatest warrior in Bathar’s history. A retired Field Marshal. A Lady Earl. A former Guardian of the Realm. An alumn, former teacher, administrator and Grand Elder of Marrbissi, Bathar’s most excellent school of cultivators. My position is more than myself. Any who become my inheritors will automatically have a huge role to play in this kingdom. My selection of a legacy apprentice or apprentices is a matter of serious importance. Do others not deserve a chance to try for the positions?” she asked. “Better yet, should not they who are to inherit my legacies be the absolute best of the best?”
Sweetrot shut his mouth, looking like he had been forced to swallow a peeled lemon.
“It is not my skill or power that is being challenged here. It is yours!” the old lady pointed out. “The ones coming are those who believe that they will make better legacy apprentices than yourselves. This trial is as much for them as it is for you. The selection is only open to student of Marrbissi and only to those whose cultivations, attributes and general ages are a match for yours. Neither party will be disadvantaged. To win and retain your positions as legacy apprentices, you need simply prove that you are better than them. The trial will be simple and to the point; one-on-one combat.”
“We are going to fight them?” Valerian asked.
“Of course”, Lady Bloodworth affirmed. “Is there any better way to choose the heirs of Bathar’s greatest warrior?”
They shook their heads. Satisfied, she continued, “In three days, an arena will be set aside and everyday for the week after you will stand on it. There you will be challenged by others like you, young talented cultivators who wish to inherit my legacies. If you win, you get to remain on the stage and to continue defending your place as a legacy apprentice. Should you lose, however, you will be replaced by the victor, who then becomes the defender. That position on the arena could be said to be a place in this manor. Win and you still have a place here. Lose and you have to go home. At the end of the week, I shall take the final winners as my legacy apprentices.”
“Go!” she told them. “Prepare yourselves for the trials ahead. By now news of the selection should be in circulation. Your opponents are no doubt readying their arsenals. You should do same.”
Seemingly as an afterthought, she added, “Remember, I chose you. Your talent, power and skill will certainly not be lacking in the face of your opponents’. When the time comes, I will look forward to you proving me right and yourselves worthy of my attention.”
With no other choice, they left the hall and made their way back to their assigned chambers. The mood was incredibly sombre but that was understandable. The meeting had turned out worse than anything they had previously imagined. Originally, they thought they would be fighting each other for the position of legacy apprentice. Now, it turned out that they were going to be defending their positions from an entire multitude of unknown challengers.
Valerian was one of only two who was unperturbed. The meeting had played out differently from how he had expected it but in the end, it toed the same line. He was still competing for the chance to be the old lady’s legacy apprentice. The fact that there would more competitors did not change anything. He was just glad that the test was trial by combat. He was a Strapping’s Elite. Battle was the last thing he feared. Everything he had been promised was still right there in front of him. If all he had to do was beat some challengers into the dirt, he was fine with it.
Trivia Question Two: What phenomenon, potentially manifested in earlier tiers, is believed to aid in the awakening of the King’s Will, an important characteristic of Third tier cultivators?