Hardcore: Qi Worlds

Chapter 84

Chapter 84: Loctris 5

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 Hasard led the Vanguard to the war room. He asked them to wait outside while he spoke to the Paladin Alejo.

 Benzhi sat and meditated as soon as it was apparent they were going to be waiting for an indefinite period. He sent a qi message bubble to Kebo and another to Glamour. To Kebo he asked when their next session would be, as a long time had passed on Basal, the payment would make it worth Kebo’s while for another lesson and please if possible send word ahead of arrival so Benzhi could prepare.

 The next message was to Glamour; I hope this message finds you well. It saddens me to inform you that this land is now under attack from the Myrkalfar and while I would seek your aid, I cannot attach an anchor to this message as we are currently within the Domain of the Kingdom of Loctris. If we have time, we will travel outside of the domain and secure an anchor for future use.  Benzhi gave details of the Myrkalfar force. If you are able to assist in the defence, please let us know your terms, we expect the attack in three days, our time.

 Finally, Benzhi practised qi barrier technique to shield against an aura. He began by enhancing the qi sight of Gisael and Reyas began to teach them as well. He could only manage two external qi sights, Anastasia had to watch her with her own. Of the three, her qi sight was the best, but she could not see details in patterns to the extent Benzhi could.

 If they were to come up against Myrkalfar, shielding from dread or other aura’s was a necessary skill. It was foreboding that the lead Myrkalfar was called a Dread Lord.

 They practised for over an hour, in the waiting room outside of the war room. The waiting room itself had bench seats, a carpet on the hard stone floor and tapestries depicting heroic whitecloaks in battle or being thanked by the public for some benevolent act. Benzhi thought the tapestries were akin to marketing material for the whitecloaks and chuckled to himself.

 A figure clad in white armour and a billowing cloak walked into the waiting room. Benzhi had never seen the like, his armour was magnificent, predominately white, black underlay with gold clasps.

 His armour was not leather, it was hardened, perhaps some sort of metal painted white or something else entirely. He was wearing a white chestplate, gauntlets, boots and greaves. Underneath and between the armour segments he wore a black mesh material, similar to a gambeson. Benzhi could see no runes on the armour, but when viewed under qi sight the tracings were apparent by the qi pattern which layered the armour. It must have been carved before the white enamelling was applied.

 Benzhi surmised this must be Alejo, the Paladin, if the armour did not give it away, his qi core, circulation and aura did. An aura which he was impervious to. His companions were affected to various degrees as they advanced at different rates with their shielding practice. The Aura was not Dread, nor Worship, it was something different entirely.

 Benzhi could sense the aura stemming from his link with his companions. He allowed it to influence him for a moment to get a sense of its effect. Interesting it was a mix of calming yet inspirational, it filled him with a strong desire to overcome all in his path. If he had to pin it down to one word it would be courage. Benzhi closed his link with his companions, and the effect immediately disappeared, his shield was working as intended.

 He had made an important discovery, one that could have proven fatal if it remained unknown until the midst of battle. If his linked companions were affected by an aura, the influence would travel through the link and affect him as well. His companions either needed to be able to shield or be cut off or more importantly if they were to combat Myrkalfar Dread Lord, they either need to be able to shield themselves or not partake in the battle at all.

 The Vanguard stood as one.

 The Paladin inspected each of them, looking at their equipment, enveloping them with his aura, Benzhi wondered if the Paladin’s aura also gave him insight into their ability.

 “I see that you are all attempting to shield,” his voice was calm and confident, “I am Alejo, and I thank you all for volunteering to defend this city.” He walked around the across the room, he had no weapon on his person, Benzhi wondered what sort of weapon he used.

 “Please, be seated I want to ask you a few questions before you commit yourselves. There must be no weaknesses when we face the enemy,” Alejo continued, “I will ask you a question, you either agree or disagree. Only for an extreme reason do you agree with conditions. Our predeterminations will be black or white. There will be no confusion.”

 Benzhi had to smile to himself, he was much different to Alejo, he allowed shades of grey, embraced them as the way of the world. Yet, when it came to a fight, he could see the need for the purity of purpose amongst companions.

  “I will be the sole judge of who commits to battle and who stays behind to assist the evacuation of the city,” Alejo waited for an answer.

 Benzhi’s companions said nothing waiting for him, he reopened the link, despite the aura they needed to communicate with him. He had an issue with the very first question, already he and Alejo would be at odds.

 Benzhi sighed, “if one of my companions cannot shield themselves adequately, will you commit them to battle?”

 Alejo did not look angry, he did not get upset. He stared at Benzhi challenging him, trying to subdue him with his presence. Silence reigned. Benzhi stretched his arms, he patted his mouth theatrically as he yawned awaiting an answer from the Paladin. His companions were strong-willed also, none of them bent to Alejos’ pressure. Was this a qi ability? Benzhi could not tell, it seemed as if it was an indirect result of one strong with qi circulation and core.

 While waiting for Alejo to stop playing games, Benzhi thought about it. Had not Sable been intimidated by him, he had not even meant to pressure the lady. Well, not much. It may well be an indirect result of a strong qi core and practitioner, a presence which pressured the mundane or less adept.

 Only one problem for Alejo, the Vanguard were not mundane nor untalented. Perhaps Reyas and Anastasia could have been affected, he imagined no one being able to intimidate Gisael, her personality would not allow it. But the link between the four of them easily withstood any pressure from Alejo.

 Seeing no effect on the four Hasard drew a sharp intake of breath. He expected them to crumble under the Paladin’s authority. After a minute of glaring at Benzhi, the Paladin made a grunting sound in admission.

 “Very well,” Alejo said, “I will restate my question. I will be the sole judge of who commits to battle and who stays behind. Agree or leave.”

 Benzhi shrugged, “agreed,” he did not want to break the treaty at the first step, and if it came down to it he would protect two of them with a shield, one at least had to be able to learn the skill in the next few days.

 The Paladin made no sign he was happy with the answer and continued with his next demand, “on the field of battle, you will follow my orders without question, without hesitation.”

 “What if you are dead?” Benzhi asked. Again Hasard gasped at the sheer audacity of the question. From his perspective, Alejo would be the last to die if it were possible at all.

 Alejo showed no irritation at the question and answered honestly, “then I expect you to do your best to protect the people of Sandstone, that will be my standing order for the circumstance of my death or incapacitation.”

 “Agreed,” Benzhi said, and his companions followed. Alejo made it known he expected everyone to answer.

 “When I pass my authority on to another, as a circumstance of your deployment this may occur,  you are to follow their orders as if they are my own,” Alejo demanded.

 “How is that different to following your orders which we already agreed to?” Benzhi asked, “you would just order us to follow this person’s orders.”

 Hasard protested, “stop showing disrespect!” He turned to Alejo and pleaded, “my apologies Paladin, these outsiders are barbarians they do not know what they do.”

 The Paladin waved his hand at Hasard, “I do not care, all I care about is protecting the people.” To which Hasard grovelled, how pathetic thought Benzhi. He did not mind Alejo, he was the same when it came to the Alpine Forest, but Hasard was worshipping the man. Grow a spine Hasard, he thought at the whitecloak.

 The Paladin turned to Benzhi, “you are correct. I do not want any,” he emphasised the word any, “misunderstandings. That is the point of the question.”

 “You mean demand,” Benzhi answered. “A question can be answered in many ways, you are not asking you are demanding,” then Benzhi waved his hand in dismissal. “Just to move this along, we agree. We will follow orders of your designated captain, or whatever you whiteys call them.”

 The last quip earned a giggle from Reyas, bless her heart. She was certainly one to buck authority.

 Gisael was above all this, she wondered how long the stupid men would yap and puff themselves up with their own importance. This thought included Benzhi.

 Anastasia was more interested in studying Alejo as a qi manipulator whose techniques she was trying to unpick. Something Benzhi could certainly appreciate.

 The Paladin was standing as if at attention during the entire exchange. He relaxed a tiny amount. “Now that is over with, I would like to get to know you a little. I see you were practising shielding when I arrived, I could sense different levels of success in keeping me out, with you,” he pointed at Benzhi, “blocking me altogether.”

 Benzhi nodded, “my companions only began practising this skill today while we were waiting, as we just heard of the Myrkalfar invasion. I have been practising on and off for a few months.”

 The Paladin shook his head, “this skill can take years to master, even the most talented it would take a year to reach your level. Surely you continue to test me?”

 “I am not going to try and convince you, you asked a question, and I answered. I do not care if you believe me,” Benzhi replied with little care factor.

 The side of Alejo’s mouth lifted in what was a half smile, he did not look convinced in the slightest. “This afternoon, all the potential defenders will attend the practice yards to the north, if you wish to continue your shield training you can go there now and wait. Hasard will continue to be your guide.” He turned to Hasard, “if they are hungry ensure someone fetches them some food and drink to their liking.”

  The Vanguard stood and followed Hasard to the practice yards. Good to his orders Hasard fetched them food and water.

 The Vanguard continued to practice shielding, Benzhi switched to Anastasia and alternated between Gisael and Reyas with qi sight, to try and even out the time spent with his enhanced sight.

  As the hours past qi warriors began to stream into the practice yard and surrounds. The practice yards themselves consisted of four corals designed for combat practice, where the centre cross shape could be removed for one large arena. The arena itself was surrounded by rooms on one side, a stand on the other which could house a couple of hundred people and it was open at the north and south ends to allow access from the keep and city.

 The Vanguard did not need the coral itself for their practice, merely applying a barrier against auras was something that could be done while seated in the stand. With the food delivered they had made a picnic of it. It must have been quite a site for some of the male blackcloaks, although at least a third of the warriors were female.

 Benzhi was surrounded by three extraordinarily beautiful and exotic women. Two of them in tight black and brown leather, tall, dark-haired beauties and the third a wood elf warrior wearing almost nothing at all. Gisael wore, what she thought to be a conciliatory outfit, her usually bamboo silk panties and bra.

 The Vanguard had all their weapons on hand, Anastasia had fetched Benzhi’s spear upon request.

 By the time the Paladin arrived, the commander of the Sandstone force, whether they be white, black or pink with purple polka-dots cloak, there were sixty qi warriors present.

 Over twenty whitecloaks and a similar number of blackcloaks. There were also six nobles of varying colours, shapes and sizes. As explained by Melvina, most of the talented qi warriors were blackcloak or whitecloak.

Perhaps many nobles sent sons and daughters to become whitecloaks due to the power they wielded. It seemed to be the case since the Governor was related to the king, albeit a distant relative. And the blackcloaks possibly consisted of those not of noble birth, but of significant talent, and searching for wealth.

 The Paladin was about to speak when one last person arrived, dressed ready for battle wielding a long bladed spear, Kyandre marched into the yard and stood at the rear of the whitecloaks as far as she could be from Benzhi and the Vanguard.

 “We cannot waste time,” Alejo began to address the crowd. “We will attempt to determine the lead and support force today. If we cannot achieve this, we will be back at dawn to continue. Even if we do succeed, we will be working from dawn to dusk on tactics, teamwork and strategy.”

 He looked towards the whitecloaks who naturally congregated, “I know most of you. Your skills, strengths and weaknesses. If you have had a breakthrough or significant improvement since we last worked or trained together move into the coral now. Otherwise stay at the south end.” Six whitecloaks moved into the coral, including Kyandre.

 The Paladin paired them off and selected two of the nobles to complete the group of eight, two in each of the four corals. Benzhi enabled qi sight on himself, Reyas and Gisael. Anastasia would watch the fourth group with her own qi sight. Out of his three companions, she had the greatest skill with the ability. Manipulating three qi sights at once stretched Benzhi’s skill to the limit, but it was worth the focus in order to gain information on new and unknown combat abilities.

 The sparring began, the link shared four individual contests at once, it was a massive overload of abilities and actions. Benzhi scanned for the most interesting or powerful. Some of the abilities were similar to ones they knew, even if they diverted slightly in form and effect. It was not a surprise that Kyandre had the most interesting. She connected multiple streams to her opponent, and from what Benzhi could guess she was forecasting their movements.

  The opponent struck from her left, she moved at the last moment with her spear positioned in the most opportune place for a counterstrike. She had predicted exactly where her opponent would be and what they would do. Instead of acting immediately she had let it play out and used the knowledge against her opponent. Benzhi, Reyas and Gisael all studied her and agreed that was the most likely explanation for her technique and action.

 Benzhi swore through the link. This was not something they could emulate. It was to do with Kyandre’s empathy affinity. They began to scan the others, but it was too late the bouts were over.

 The Paladin didn’t even bother to line them up against new opponents to watch them further. His aura had spread encompassing the entire yard. He merely sent seven of the eight away. Only Kyandre stayed.

 Alejo called to the stands, “our friends from the north come down into the yard we will see your mettle.” He was referring to the Vanguard. Benzhi wondered when they had become friends. He also summoned the last four nobles. Perhaps he wanted to weed out the weak quickly. If he thought the Vanguard was weak he was about to learn otherwise.

 Benzhi removed his remote qi techniques, preparing shunpo and qi body techniques on himself. The link was still active, so he had many viewing angles to utilise. He drew his ebony sword and hefted his shield as the Vanguard were all paired against nobles. He did not want to kill the poor flop who drew him. He did not activate qi blade on his sword. If needed, he would stun them with qi strike from the shield then tap their head to end the bout.

 “Do not hold back,” the Paladin encouraged, “I need to see your capability. If anyone is injured or worse, I will take responsibility and care. It is important that we have the best in the lead force and those equipped to face a Myrkalfar in the support. If you die here today, you would never have been in one of those two groups.”

 A handkerchief was dropped, when it hit the ground, the bout would begin. It must be the way the kingdom ran their tournaments.

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