Chapter Three: The Ties that Bind
Valerian grabbed another large book off the shelf, this one was a summarised account of the life of Array Master Taevan Alexius, the legendary figure who invented the three-tier enchantment system and the Onthed glyph script. Placing, his former reading material back, he resigned himself to yet another night of reading. Already the book was large enough that he needed both hands to comfortably hold it. That boded ill for him.
The books in Elder Theoren study tended to have pages that multiplied as you read them with new pages appearing out of thin air everything you thought you had reached the halfway mark. The last one had chronicled 2300 years of its subject’s professional history. That was it meant to read a summarised account of the life of Fifth Circle Master.
Still, it was interesting reading… sometimes. Plus, they nearly always led to interesting discussions with his teacher. Which unfortunately led to more reading.
“Sir, the books you’ve had me read”, he asked, approaching his teacher. “They list ‘Law’ as the highest mastery level for most of the arts…?”
“You want to know why array mastery lists principle?” Elder Theoren cut in with a chuckle.
“It is because laws are meaningless unless enforced!” the old man revealed. “For most disciplines, cultivation is a very personal thing. Array mastery, however, is founded on knowledge and knowledge is not one man’s fief. It is the summation of countless contributions. The greatest accomplishment for any array master is creating his own script. Masters of the fifth circle are masters of principles because their glyphs remain in use long after they are gone. Anyone can use them because their meanings are recognised by the world itself. The principles they establish can be used for generations after they are gone.”
“Laws must be enforced! Principles become fundamental!” Valerian muttered to himself.
A cultivator at the level of law could enforce his vision on the world and one of principle could have his recognised and maintained by the world without any further input necessary. This made principles self-perpetuating to an extent. From the moment he learned this, Valerian’s mind immediately went to his own heritage and his impending Blood Rites. Only his teacher’s words put that to rest. “Everything dies and in time, even fifth circle arrays fade.” The Empire spent unfathomable amounts of wealth maintaining the ones they had.
Glyph scripts were essentially languages recognised by Verre. However, like any language, you needed to know how to speak it before anyone could understand what you were saying. It didn’t help that languages could be lost. Once all the speakers died out, there was little hope of resurrecting a language. With enough study, you could maybe surmise the meaning of some words but you could probably never construct a meaningful sentence, at least none that would be readily recognisable to a native speaker. The same was true of glyph scripts.
As for fifth circle arrays? Time eroded even the most stalwart structures and arrays were no different. It could take millennia but even essence channels could decay. Glyphs would grow distorted and those who owned the arrays could forget their functions or even how to operate them. The Blood Rites did not fade. They did not require maintenance. They did not even need to be understood and they barely required any knowledge to operate as is.
While Valerian was quick to point out similarities between his bloodline and what he had learned, his teacher doubted that the Blood Rites were even the work of an array. Whatever Atapagum did went beyond any fifth circle array that Elder Theoren had ever heard of. An impossible feat when you considered the fact that there was no sixth circle. That was where Valerian’s current confusion lay. There had never been a sixth or seventh circle array master in the history of Verre.
Theoretically, it wasn’t impossible for someone to rise to that tier. The laws of arrays were not inferior to any of the other great arts and the others had higher tiers. Hue’s ancestor, for example, had his master ascend past the sixth tier. Yet, for whatever reason, no array master had ever achieved a similar feat. That’s not to say no array masters had ever become Immortals. However, none had ever done so through the sole pursuit of arrays.
This conundrum was one of the great unsolved mysteries of array mastery.
Groaning, he placed the book over his face and slumped in his chair. ‘Why is this so hard?’ he asked himself.
“Is there something you need, master?” Pugio asked softly.
The sound of his voice caused a thought to occur to Valerian. He watched Pugio dutifully refill his cup, trying and failing to string the right words together.
“Do you ever sit and consider how we are expected to just live with the things our ancestors did?” Valerian inquired, giving voice to his frustrations. “Someone somewhere made a choice hundred… No, thousands of years ago and you are just supposed to carry the burden of that through life.”
“You do remember that I am a dagger, right?” his servant asked somewhat snarkily
“I remember! It’s why I asked.” Valerian told him plainly.
He felt if there was anyone who would understand, it was Pugio. While there was no clear parallel between their circumstances, Valerian nonetheless felt some kinship between them. He too was forced to carry a duty he had never asked for.
Even today, thousands of years after the fact, the O’be lived in hiding, unable to live freely due to the multitude of enemies they had made over the millennia and as well the numerous parties who saw their bloodline as a holy altar that held the key to artificial bloodlines. Valerian clearly remembered the first time he read through the numerous obligations ‘the blessed’ had to the family and the disbelief he felt that a once great clan could be driven so low.
For their part, the Shadowed Daggers were bound in eternal service due to the sins of their predecessors. As much as he appreciated and respected Pugio, some part of him rebelled at the fact that his friend had to live his life in servitude because some people hundreds of years ago went on a religious killing spree. Valerian was not sure he could follow through if it was him.
“Anything in particular trigger this?” Pugio asked.
Valerian thought back to many things he had learned about his clan this past year and of the things he was still learning. His mind even went back to what Elder Theoren had told him about the times the Imperial clans had attempted to purge the O’be from during the legendary Eastern Marches. Valerian tried not to dwell on the fact that the Edict was technically never overturned and that some very powerful imperial clans who had the legal right to hunt him down should he show up in their territory or that his new teacher’s clan was one of them.
“No reason!” he said responding a little too hastily. “I was just thinking.”
Pugio’s left eyebrow rose quizzically.
“Look”, Valerian began. “It’s not that I don’t trust you. I’m not allowed to say”, he explained.
“I… see” Pugio stated slowly in a tone that said he did not.
Valerian considered the fact that his friend was a trained spy and assassin who had once gone to the extent of attending two years of military school just for a single mission. Having Pugio ferret through his life for answers would end badly… for him and then, maybe, for the family.
“Rest assured that if I get permission and the time is right. You will be the first to know”, he assured him. “Just… wait!”
“Right!” the tellurian acknowledge with a nod, seemingly putting the matter aside. “What was the question again?”
Now it was Valerian’s turn to shoot him a look, one that was returned with a cheeky grin.
“I guess for me it’s not a big deal” Pugio answered. “I mean… that’s just how the world is.”
“Yes”, Valerian acknowledged. “But should it?”
“I don’t know”, Pugio said with a shrug of his shoulders. “I am just a dagger. Let the big guys decide that stuff. My job is to follow my master’s orders and stab people when their back is turned.”
‘Why did I even bother?’ Valerian thought facepalming in exasperation.
‘No!’ he told himself. ‘That can’t be it!’
“You never wonder why they did it? You never think of breaking free?” he asked in a heated tone as he leaned forward in his chair.
Unexpectedly, Pugio burst out laughing.
“Free?” he asked half-doubled over with mirth.
“No one is free, Valerian”, he said somewhat seriously or as serious as you could be while trying to suppress giggles. “The instructors back home called them the ‘ties that bind’. Family, friends, property, jobs, status, masters, servants, dreams, fears, desires, everything, even food; each of these is a shackle on the mind, body and soul.”
“We are born in chains, Valerian”, he said with all the airs of someone quoting something important.
“Everything we do as we go about our lives simply adds more. Most don’t go about intending to chain themselves. It just happens. We remove a few here and there but everywhere we go, we are shackled. Only in death are we free and perhaps, not even then. Some know this, others don’t. Many people go mad trying to break the ties that bind. Others allow themselves to be weighed down by them.”
Valerian sat back, stunned at Pugio’s words. If he needed any reminder that the Shadow Daggers were bizarre people, this was it. Their predecessors were, after all, a cult that went around killing people under a banner of deliverance. Worse, he was beginning to understand just how such a thing could have made sense.
“Hey!” his increasingly strange friend called, breaking him out of his momentary reverie. “I do not know what ties you’ve inherited that makes you worry so but I am here. I will be the dagger that cuts the ones that weigh you down and the blade that slaughters those who would use them against you.”
Valerian looked up at the suddenly serious tellurian next to him.
“Thank you, Pugio!” he said meaning every word of it.
The assassin grinned and said nothing.
Right then, someone coughed softly next to them. Scrambling for their weapons, the two of them turned to find Lady Bloodworth’s butler right next to them. The butler was a thin slip of a man always clad in sharp livery. Despite, his bright coat, he had a very muted presence that made you subconsciously dismiss him. Strangely, his coat was his only remarkable feature and if asked to even Valerian with his vaunted memory would struggle to describe him accurately.
“I am sorry to interrupt young master Valerian but madame requests your presence”, the man announced completely ignoring their startled glances and attack stances.
Valerian turned to exchange a look with Pugio only to confirm that neither of them was sure just how long the man had been standing there. Sweetrot had once joked that he was the quietest man to ever live but this was ridiculous. It did not bode well that even the assassin had missed him.
“Again, I am sorry but we should probably get going”, the quiet man insisted.
Curious and worried, Valerian got out of his chair, Pugio following right behind him.
“Alone!” The butler said fixing Pugio with a look that instantly stilled him.
“What is it that is so urgent?” Valerian asked once they had put some distance between them and the room.
“Dame Bloodworth has discovered a suitable target for your bloodline ascension!” the butler informed him.
‘Finally!’ he yelled mentally.
“What is it?” he asked in a tone that positively dripped with eager curiosity.
The butler gave him a look, pausing as if deliberating something.
Valerian quickly realised that he may have asked the man to overstep and so he quickly added, “It’s okay if you’re not supposed to tell me.”
“No! It’s quite alright!” the man said, acquiescing. “There’s no issue with me being the one to tell you.”
“The target selected for your ascension is a Steel Monolith!”
And just like that I have put an end to a year of discord debates. If you guessed that Valerian’s first Blood rite would focus on his Monolith bloodline pat yourself on the back. You deserve it. As to what would happen and what the results would be though… that’s still to come. Look forward to it.
I’m not too happy with this chapter. I meant to do more that it didn’t work right. There are a few paragraphs on how shadow daggers are made that I kept trying to shoehorn in that never quite fit the context and flow of the chapter. It’s semi-important lore (eh… 3/10 on my scale) but in the end, I was forced to cut them out. I might put them up on patreon later.
This was meant to be the Valerian-Pugio chapter and while I think I succeeded in showing how ‘off’ or ‘on’ the mark Pugio’s thinking is as well as clarifying their dynamic. I am afraid I failed with respect to clarifying his past. There will be more chances of course but this still bothers me.