MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR!
I was delayed by festivities but I hope this reaches you as intended. If not then I hope waking up on boxing day to read this feels like an extra present.
Extra warm holiday greeting and thanks to everyone who chose to support me on patreon. Please join me in thanking them as well. I appreciate the Christmas gift.
Chapter Two: Talk of Advancement
“If you fail this project then you have failed this course!” Elder Theoren announced to the class.
A soft muttering filled the class at the news. Each of the sixteen students sat in front of an expansive array circle that they slowly filled in with glyphs. Their goal was to master it; correctly deploying and employing it in under three minutes. Extra credits would be given for constructive modifications and more specialised arrays.
“The school rules prevent me from sacking you from my class or automatically failing you”, he admitted.
“Nevertheless, if you fail his project then you might as well quit. Transmission arrays are the cornerstone of our civilisation. Forty to sixty per cent of an array master’s career usually involves transmission arrays in some fashion. Any place worth its name runs on thousands of transmission arrays and we are the ones who build and maintain them. As array masters, we transmit information. We transmit energy. We even transmit objects and people. So if by the end of this project you realise you aren’t cut out for this, do yourself a favour and don’t waste your time or mine.”
That sort of matched up with what Jonas had taught him, Valerian realised. Collection, transmission and storage made up the majority of basic arrays. Spell arrays and enchantments, Valerian’s specialities were just that, specialisations. Well, he had been lucky. Those were Jonas’ specialisations. They simply got passed on during their training. It was the numbers he was unsure about. Then again, how would he know? Despite his certification, he had never actually worked as an array master and as far he knew, his uncle made a tidy sum layering defensive wards on residences.
He walked between the rows, checking the work being done. Watching them like this gave Valerian a somewhat conflicted feeling. This was supposed to be a fourth-year class. Most of these eighteen to twenty-year-olds had only gotten in touch with arrays in their second year. Valerian had been working on them since he was eight. They were expected to graduate with a mastery certificate in four years as opposed to his seven.
While he was not quite sure what he expected when Elder Theoren asked him to step in as his assistant, he knew it wasn’t this. There were moments like now, where he felt like a coop raised chicken finally let out to roam the yard and see how ‘real’ chickens lived their lives. For instance, unlike the courtyard where he and Jonas often did their practical lessons. Each student here had an expansive desk that came with its own magical features. The style of the seats made it so the students could lean back in their chairs and project their arrays above their desks for inspection.
The lights in the classroom were slightly dimmed to make the arrays stand out more. In fact, Valerian was certain that even if they were completely off, the multitude of glittering arrays would provide more than enough light to illuminate the room.
The differences were stark, especially in terms of instruction. This was especially clear when new material was introduced. Their first few lessons would cover the glyph’s history and yeses and then go straight to shaping it out of essence.
‘Where are the books and the tracing paper?’ Valerian nearly asked. ‘What happened to the months and months of drawing the same ten glyphs so they filled multiple books and then doing the same thing in a sandpit.’
It was two years before Valerian drew his array in essence instead of ink or sand. Granted, these were seasoned, consolidated cultivators and not snotty-nosed eight-year-olds but still. Some part of him felt cheated. The destabilisation of an array two columns to the right drew his attention forcing Valerian to quit his whining and rush off to do his job.
“I’m never going to get this!” Grace said slapping her hand on her thigh in a fit of pique.
“Sure, you will”, Valerian assured her as he reconstructed her array. “You just need some more practice.”
She turned, giving him a coquettish look. “Really?” she asked.
His eyes still fixed on the array, Valerian answered, “I’m sure of it!”
“Will you help?”
The request made Valerian pause for a second before he shrugged mentally. ‘Why not!’ It wasn’t like it would take much time. She had the basics down already. Her’s was nowhere near the worse array he had needed to step in for today. It was quite good actually. She just needed to focus a bit more to prevent it from deteriorating. Plus, she was smart enough to ask for help when it was clear she needed it.
“Great!” She exclaimed happily.
“I have a room over in at the Nuth Dormitory. This should get you in”, she said, shoving a small metal card into his hand.
And just like that, Valerian realised he had been had. “I meant in class. I’ll help in class”, he said backpedalling.
To her credit, Grace did not falter in the slightest. Leaning forward in a stretching cat, she pouted cutely and asked, “Are you sure? One on one instruction is usually better isn’t it?”
It took a lot more effort than Valerian would care to admit but he succeeded in keeping his eyes away from Grace was one of the prettiest girls in the class and the girl clearly knew where her best assets lay.
“I am just a class assistant”, Valeria said, reminding himself more than her. “I am happy to help in class but I’m afraid my duties are limited to that. Please excuse me!”
Absentmindedly completing her array instead of just fixing her problem, Valerian walked away from the desk, pretending all the while like he was off to help another student. It fooled no one. Behind him, he heard the tittering of Grace and her friends no doubt revelling in their act.
It was several minutes after he left that he realised that he never gave her key back.
“Are you going to take her up on it?” Elder Theoren asked Valerian.
Feigning ignorance, Valerian asked, “Take what from who?”
“Hmph!” the old man snorted.
“You want to be one of those, do you?” he said, taking his seat. “Take it from someone who knows kid, it doesn’t really pay off. You’re young. Seize the day now before you grow decrepit!”
“It’s not like that!” Valerian protested.
“What is it then?” the elder barked.
“You too virtuous, or something?” he spat. “It’s not like you have any influence over her grades. Or is it because of that sword maiden you’re sweet on?”
Valerian kept silent.
Unfortunately, the old man took that as an admission of guilt. “Boy, you best get that out of your system before it festers.”
“You said we would talk about the precept of authority this time!” Valerian reminded the old man, hoping to all the spirits above and below that he changed the subject.
Elder Theoren levelled a look at Valerian that made him wish he had kept his mouth shut but in the end, the man obliged him. He gestured to a desk. Valerian quickly scrambled into it.
“Last time, I was satisfied by your general knowledge and skill and mentioned that we would discuss your promotion to the next circle”, he corrected. “As you have no doubt learned, it is impossible for an Arcane Disciple to become a second circle array master. Much of that has to do not just the power requirements of Second Circle arrays but the nature of cultivation in the first place.
“Advancement in arcane cultivation is straightforward”, Elder Theoren began. “You prepare a vessel, gather essence… Well, you know the basics. Let’s skip them. The important thing to note is the methods of advancement. To become an Arcane Lord, you need to attune your essence to a degree deemed sufficient by the heavens and then use that attuned essence to refine your core. Succeed and you gain heightened spiritual senses and affinity. You may then condense aspects; attributes of the elements that enhance your abilities in myriad ways.
Here he paused, hesitating as if unsure whether to continue. “To become a king, you need at least five aspects combined to form a crown. Five or six is typical. I used eight. Building the Crown of Aspects is no simple thing and too many fail at this final hurdle. Yet, solving this problem is contradictorily difficult and simple. You just need intent!”
“Understand that attaining intent is not mandatory to become a King tier cultivator. Nevertheless, it makes the process so much simpler that it might as well be”, he clarified. At this point, Elder Theoren began to pace as he spoke, his voice gaining a manic vigour.
“An intent is will made manifest. It is mental focus, insight and experience that a cultivator forcefully applies to himself and his surroundings. The reason it is so desired at that stage of advancement is that building the Crown of Aspects requires a very strong will. You are essentially bending the elements to your will, condensing all your insights thus far and constructing the prototype of your future path. Ignoring the matter of the aspects themselves, simply creating the construct is no small feat. However, if you are someone who has reached the stage where you can already manifest your will then you are more than qualified to build your crown. The stronger the intent, the better.”
“Is it like condensing pre-term aspect?” Valerian asked.
The old man sneered as if insulted. “A pre-term aspect is leagues more difficult”, he said. “How many people have you met with intents? How many have you seen with pre-term aspects?”
Valerian considered it. Truth be told, he had never even heard of pre-term aspects before the reality of Sweetrot’s cultivation was unveiled. He supposed that was a point in their favour. However, personally, it had taken longer for him to form his intent than his pre-term aspect. His face must have looked noncommittal or something because the elder immediately followed his questions with answers.
“An intent is a sign of strong willpower. There are countless cultivators with strong wills. The very act of cultivation requires it. Any decent Lord will gain one by the time of his promotion and every single King definitely will”, he explained. “A pre-term aspect is a mark of incredible talent and insight. It is a sign that Verre itself is so impressed it bestowed on you a blessing that granted you a bloodline and augmented your cultivation from that point forth. There is practically no comparison between the two.”
“You…” perhaps seeing that he was going on a tangent. Elder Theoren cut himself off. Taking a deep breath, he tried to return to the topic at hand.
“A disciple consolidates essence. A lord condenses aspects.” he said going through them again. “When he has reached a sufficient number of compatible aspects, he constructs his crown and becomes a king. When you become an Arcane King, you develop…”
“The king’s will!” Valerian said, answering without being asked.
“Yes!” the old man acknowledged with a careful look. “The King’s Will is a phenomenon at the third tier that essentially allows a cultivator to subjugate the elements. A King tier cultivator can no longer be harmed by mundane items. Ordinary swords and spears will simply break against his skin. Not because he is tougher or stronger but because he is on a higher metaphysical level of existence. Once crowned, a cultivator ascends the metaphysical ladder and becomes something that’s a little more undefinable. His will springs forth, seeking to bring his wishes to reality. This is where we get the first murmurs of authority.
“Nothing significant, not at first. However, this is just the beginning” the old man stated. “Once a King tier cultivator can use his will to subjugate his surroundings, he becomes an emperor. Within his sphere of influence, his domain, his every word becomes as law. His very self and essence become imprinted with a certain something that can only be defined as…”
“Authority”, Valerian finished breathily. He was finally beginning to understand how big a deal this was.
“What you have is still leagues away from true authority”, Elder Theoren informed him. “Aspects, in general, are merely badges representing insight into the attributes of the elements and not the true thing but it is a start. A very good start!”
“You’ve already seen the benefits. Your control over your essence and body has skyrocketed. Even within that formation of yours, where you should all be equal, you could easily wrest control from your fellows and dictate its changes. Should you continue to improve and perhaps even condense more aspects, you will gain the ability to extend your will far past yourself and force it on your surroundings and even on other people”, he added slowly.
Only an idiot would not have caught the implied warning in the old man’s tone.
“I won’t do that!” Valerian exclaimed, protesting his innocence.
Elder Theoren stared at him with hard eyes for a few tense breaths before nodding. “You better not. The empire, in fact, society in general has a very dim view of mind benders. There are many faiths, Valerian and most do not agree on much else except this; a person’s will is sacred. Without it, we would be less than golems. We would be unliving.”
The pause that hung after the old man’s words were poignant. There was meaning in that silence and though Valerian was loath to break it, he had to know. “How does this help me advance to the second circle?”
Elder Theoren’s eyebrows rose for a moment before he snorted. “Eyes on the prize, eh?”
“There are laws, Valerian”, the old man said, sitting down. “Divine principles that govern the cosmos. They explain the whys, the whats and hows of existence. What it means to live. How the elements work. The boundaries of space and time. Everything is governed by them. My gran used to say that we cultivate so we might reach these laws, that we might understand and master them.”
“There are many kinds of laws. More than I care to name. There are elemental laws. There are precepts like authority. There is vice and virtue aplenty. Arrays, too, are governed by laws. In fact, I dare say they are closer to the laws than many other fields. Arrays fall into the category of the arts much like alchemy and artificing. Swordplay too.” he told Valerian.
“Do you know the Imperial spell system?” he asked suddenly.
Valerian nodded. “I have studied it. Lady Bloodworth has some books in her library that have been very helpful. However, the explanations themselves are very sparse.”
“The Imperial spell system clearly outlines the various steps on the path to law”, he revealed to Valerian’s widening eyes. “Unfortunately, it is only useful for elemental laws. It is easy to say such and such fire is hotter than so and so but the same cannot be said for the other fields. Arts, like ours, use widely different ranking systems.
“Most arts involved in production are ranked in tiers according to the rank of what they can produce. A first-tier alchemist can produce ordinary and elite pills. A second-tier alchemist can produce noble pills, and so and so forth. Arts that involve a practice like say swordplay, tend to be ranked by the advancement of mastery. A first-tier swordsman is one who has attained sword force. A second-tier swordsman will have sword intent. A third tier swordsman will have an aspect.
“We are called array masters for good reason. Despite appearances, ours is a disciple of mastery over essence and not necessarily the production of arrays. However, there is no such thing as array force and if anyone ever says he has array intent, smack him in the face. Our ranks of mastery are; Structure, Property, Concept, Law and Principle.
Much like Lord tier cultivators, Second circle masters rely on their insight of the elements. However, they do not rely on affinity and aspects but knowledge and understanding. With this knowledge, we can mimic properties of the elements, of materials and people and layer them over our subjects.
“Here!” the old man said. With a gesture, the pointer on the teacher’s desk flew into his hand. “Watch carefully.”
The pointer was a long thin rod of finely carved wood that Elder Theoren usually used to point out things on the board. He set it on the table between himself and his student. As he did so, Blemry glyphs, formed from unattributed essence appeared around it. Because he knew the glyph script, Valerian recognised them as the primary glyphs for a sword array of some sort.
“The first circle focuses on the structure of essence”, the old man explained as the glyphs arranged themselves. As they spun, essence coated the pointer, granting it a visible shroud of energy. Under the direction of the glyphs, this shroud slowly refined itself into an edge no less inferior to an actual sword.
“The second circle array focuses on properties”, Valerian heard elder Theoren say.
His eyes were trained on the changes happening in front of him. Glyphs of strength and sharpness were beginning to appear around the pointer. In response, the stick itself changed. The essence did not just coat it, it transformed it. Valerian watched as the wood suddenly gleamed like steel, growing an actual edge to match its new rapier-like proportions.
“At the heart of a third circle array is a concept”, a voice seemed to say.
The glyphs changed again. Their language did not. Valerian could still read them just as easily as before. However, they gained a certain weight to them that caused the atmosphere of the room to change and when they acted on the former stick, it changed as well. A certain metaphysical weight descended on the room. Warning bells rang in Valerian’s head and he sprung away from his seat. The desk that the pointer rested on split as its newfound sharpness cut it in two.
Stunned, Valerian watched as the glyphs slowly sunk into the new sword, becoming part of it. He could not believe his eyes. His hands itched to examine it. Only common sense prevented him from bending to pick it up. Eventually, his eyes left the strange tool on the floor and rose to meet its maker. Unvoiced questions shone in their depths. How had the old man accomplished such a thing? Better still, how
could Valerian do same?
“Arrays allow us to use language to spell out changes to reality”, Elder Theoren explained, watching him in turn. “I’m sure you can now understand how your authority can aid in that.”
We finally have a proper cultivation road map. Check out the lore posts if you want to refresh your memory of the ranks or the elements/precepts/orders.
We also get to see what Valerian is up to and some much-needed insight that is sure to explain a few things about a certain bloodline the discord server has been obsessing about. Yes, it’s more foreshadowing, sue me! Sorry! Sorry! We’ll get to it soon.