Dee curiously observed her surroundings. The closest she had been to the center of the Day city had been on her trip to the Cauldron of Blood with Sarfina. The Cauldron had been in the fifth circle, and now they were in the fourth circle where the harshest competition between differing communities happened. It was the circle where unprepared communities went to die, while the prepared communities managed to survive. On rare occasion one of the communities showed their brilliance and gained real glory, usually by getting into the top thousand communities within the three inner circles. That however was exceedingly rare. The communities in the top thousand didn’t gain their position by accident.
The area they teleported into was somewhat unusual for the fourth circle. Normally the communities within the fourth circle were fiercely hostile to one another due to the competition they were in with each other. This led to isolated areas controlled by each community and a distinct lack of commercial endeavors because any trading might end up helping their competitors. In addition, there usually was a distinct lack of people or buildings that weren’t directly associated with the community ruling the particular area. The areas themselves dotted the fourth circle like islands in an ocean with varying distances between them.
This area however was filled with commercial activity and various smaller groups not directly associated with any of the fourth circle communities. This was due to the influence of the five large communities surrounding the area. The Mystic’s guild, Freelancer’s guild, Holy Orders, Order of the Radiant Sun all had their headquarters in this area, which made the space between the four headquarters the safest place in the entire fourth circle. For added security, the flying island palace of the Threads of Fate spent most of its time in the area as well.
As a result, a large city had sprouted in the safe space. In addition to unassociated people that were here visiting for commerce purposes, the city was inhabited with people either associated with the five communities, their families and people who had wares or services that could benefit the five large communities. These services ranged from essentials such as blacksmiths and alchemists, to leisure such as restaurants and entertainment. Many of the families that sent each successive generation to train with one of the five communities also lived in the city. Unsurprisingly, the Threads of Fate also managed several large auction houses in the city that also happened to be the only ones in the fourth circle. As such, they were very popular and prestigious.
Naturally such gathering of people drew in others that would benefit from the people in various ways. These others included seedier elements such as thieves and pickpockets, as well as those that were frowned upon but not really illegal such as bookies and loan sharks. Then there were the people that were necessary, but which the communities couldn’t directly associate with such as information brokers and even assassins.
Yes, even the area right next to the communities that opposed Zabaniya and other assassin organizations had assassins. The internal struggles within the communities sometimes required outside help, because sometimes the power struggles could turn bloody. This caused the communities to overlook their presence as long as the assassins behaved. Strictly speaking it wasn’t so much the killing of others that the communities opposed in any case, as they did enough of that during their own activities. It was more the oppression of weaker communities and the death individuals necessary for their purposes. Also, immoral activities such as using child assassins, wanton destruction and collateral damage were heavily cracked down upon.
As a result, the safe city was the liveliest place within the fourth circle, and pretty much the only one filled with people not directly involved with powerful communities of the fourth circle. Hawkers lined the streets and plenty of civilians and servants ran around on various errands. Notably, the value and quality of goods was much higher than in the lesser or even middle circles. As one got closer to the center of the Day city, the heavier the ambient mana and ki, which resulted in a vast increase in available power for the production of various goods.
Simple foods were replaced with delicacies filled with mana and bred for both their taste and positive effects when eaten. Weapons and armor for sale was all heavily enchanted and made from the most precious materials and magical items were seen everywhere. One notable difference was also the prevalent presence of magitech. Whereas in the lesser circles it was not very efficient to have too many machines or even lights powered by magic because they would need their power reserves to be recharged, here the ambient mana was enough that recharging was only necessary for items with the heaviest of power costs.
Of course the cost of anything was leagues above anything seen in the lesser circles. You could buy a decent house in the eleventh circle for the cost of a good meal here. As the ambient mana was so prevalent, you couldn’t simply buy most items by using generic power as currency. You either had to have something special to offer, like psionic power or a rare mana element, or you paid for your purchases with coins.
The coins weren’t normal gold either. It was a form of white gold created by imbuing normal gold with vast amount of power, which could then be easily extracted and used for various purposes. Alternatively the white gold could be used as materials for various purposes as it was a very versatile material. It obviously held power well, which made it ideal for enchanting and holding enchantments. It was also heavily used in construction and making other goods like weapons, mostly to reinforce other materials, as the process of imbuing the gold with so much power turned it especially sturdy and suited for such purposes. A stone wall reinforced with the white gold was much harder to destroy than most metallic walls.
The four headquarters were situated at the cardinal directions. The Holy Orders in the south and the Radiant Sun in the east had much larger headquarters than the others, and their areas had effectively grown together, covering the whole of the south-east side of the city. In the north were the Ivory Towers of the Mystic’s guild. Although their towers weren’t actually made of ivory, Dee noted they were still completely white. They were also the tallest structures she had ever seen, the tops of the towers getting lost in the clouds constantly circling the towers.
In the west was the fortress that held the Freelancer’s guild. Compared to the others, the fortress was a lot less impressive, but that was mostly because their guild was much less unified and centralized as the others. The fortress mostly existed so that the freelancers could point to somewhere as their home and to fully claim their place as a fourth circle community, even though their power most likely dwarfed most third circle communities.
That was another factor contributing to the peaceful nature of this city. None of the five communities actually belonged in the fourth circle when you considered just their power, which ensured none of the other communities were stupid enough to attack them. The five communities chose to be here and protect the lesser circles. At least that was the theory. Some less kind rumors suggested that the communities simply liked being the proverbial big fish in a small pond.
Sarfina noted that after coming into the fourth circle, Dee had spent quite a bit of time privately discussing with various people ranging from street urchins to guards and merchants. On several occasions money changed hands, and not always in the same direction. Some people handed Dee coins, while some got paid by Dee instead. There didn’t seem to be a consistent theme either. It seemed that the street urchins got paid the most often, but even those seemingly poor kids dropped the occasional coin in Dee’s hands. Sarfina estimated that Dee was braking roughly even though, so money making wasn’t the purpose of these transactions.
Finally Sarfina couldn’t contain her curiosity. “What are you doing with all those people? I can’t figure you out.”
“Information trading. Mostly I’m gathering gossip and info on my competition, but I’ve learned a few other interesting details as well.” Dee replied.
“Are you sure that’s wise? The street urchins especially are notorious for scamming new people and providing false information and advice. The order even has a standing order to catch any of them spreading false information.” Sarfina warned Dee.
“That’s because you don’t’ know the right way to ask. You are part of the force that keeps harassing them and their kind, so of course they would mislead you. On the other hand, when they look at me, they don’t see a sucker or a paladin. They see something much more dangerous.” Dee explained.
She had not forgotten the Zabaniya’s lessons on information gathering. She had also not forgotten the signals used to identify oneself as someone dangerous to cross. The recruitment events at the five headquarters were some of the flashiest events in the city, and they also happened to be some of the most profitable events for the shadier side of the city. That brought them out in force. Dee’s signals identified herself as one of them, though someone they did not want to piss off. She didn’t identify herself as an assassin, that would be foolish after all, but the people could read between the lines.
Importantly the bookies made a killing gambling on the success and failure of the various applicants. To make the whole endeavor profitable, the bookies had to gather as much information on the hopeful applicants and their background as possible. Otherwise they would give wrong odds on the applicants and might lose a lot of money. Notably the bookies were also fairly interested to know of the presence of dark horses such as Dee. That’s because although one or two people could make it big betting on said dark horses, most of the gamblers would bet on the people they thought as safe bets. And if the dark horses took the victory, the bookies would rake in the money.
“So what did you learn?” Sarfina asked curiously. She wanted to know what to look forward to, even though she slightly disapproved.
“Well, first of all it seems that the rough average level of applicants is somewhere in the third and fourth rank range.” Dee started, before being interrupted by Sarfina.
“That makes sense. Most of the applicants we take in are around the second and third rank, with the best at fourth. It seems obvious that the average level in the headquarters is higher.” Sarfina said with some interest. In the case of applicants, the ranks almost always referred to their rank as warriors, either due to ki or just due to the strength of their race and bodies. There were some rare exceptions such as Dee who was a psion or a couple of mages that wanted to change their paths to that of a templar or a paladin.
“Anyway, the strongest applicants are apparently at the fifth rank. There are four that I should especially keep an eye out for. There was a girl from one of the communities that often sends their young to train with the templar. They were called Lacademonians, I believe.” Dee started off.
“You should be careful of Lacademonians. They are a group of High Humans famed for their strength and warrior culture. They are some of the most skilled fighters I know of, and almost always defeat those at the same level they are. They send half of their young to us and half to the freelancers. After rigorous training of their own of course. They’re one of those groups that I was talking about where they are trained to fight with and without weapons since birth.” Sarfina had some less than pleasant memories of the Lacademonians, though she herself had never directly clashed with them.
“That matches the information I got. Two others are twin elves. You might know more about them. Apparently they come from Tuatha Dé Danann as well. The Dawnreaver clan?” Dee asked. She had heard some things herself, but wanted Sarfina’s inside information.
“I’m fairly sure I’ve heard that name. One of the more important clans of the Autumn Court. That usually means Dark Elves, but doesn’t have to be. Plenty of other elves have aligned themselves with the Winter Court. Sorry I can’t offer anything more, but the politics of Tuatha Dé Danann is something I’m actively trying to avoid. Not to mention complex.” Sarfina replied with a sigh.
The empire of Tuatha Dé Danann was divided into four courts. The empire was ruled by the Sidhe courts of Winter and Summer, while the elves that aligned themselves with the two Sidhe courts were part of the Autumn and Spring Courts respectively. Sarfina’s family was a staunch supporter of the Sidhe of Summer Court, and as such the elven family was part of the Spring Court. The politics and the game of intrigue among the various courts would make a normal person’s head spin.
“That’s alright. I’ll deal with them if it becomes necessary. The fourth person to look out for was a werebeast from the Winter Wolves clan. No one was entirely sure how strong he was, but apparently he’s the favorite among the bookies. Something about being the son of the current holder of some important Authority. They weren’t very specific with details, mostly because they didn’t want me to bet on him.” Dee speculated, fairly correctly.
“Winter Wolves? They are the most prominent clan of wolf type beastmen. They have several important Authorities, and at least one major Hero Authority called Silver Fang. I hear they’re even competing for the Authority of Fenrir, though that one is still up for grabs due to how hard it is to acquire. Even you should steer clear of that applicant when possible.” Sarfina tried advising Dee.
“I’m not going there to pick a fight, but you heard what Moirai told me. I am to stomp anyone foolish enough to stand in my way.” Dee replied with a grin.
“That reminds me. Did they have any info on you?” Sarfina asked with fair bit of curiosity.
“Two of the bookies had odds for me. Fairly insulting odds at that. They know one of the kids rescued from Zabaniya is supposed to taking part this year and you did a rather horrible job of hiding things. They know I’m taking part here in the headquarters and they know roughly who I am. At least they don’t really know about my strength as they’ve estimated me at the high end of the fourth rank. At least they’re giving me slightly better odds than others of that level, probably due to my training with the assassins.” Dee replied with a lopsided smile.
Sarfina snorted. “They’re several years behind in their guess.” She frowned. “If I wasn’t against betting on selection events like this on pure principle, I’d place some bets on you myself.”
Dee just looked at her meaningfully. Translation: “I already did it you doofus. Do you think I’d miss a chance like this?”
Sarfina just snorted again in reply.
“That reminds me. You never told me what eventually happened to the other kids you rescued.” Dee suddenly prompted. Her information on the other kids was several years old. Not that she really cared, she was simply curious.
Sarfina gave a deep sigh. “Most of them are dead unfortunately. Many of them couldn’t deal with what they had done and either went crazy or committed suicide. Of the ones that still live most were scooped up by the shadier parts of our organization. Those were mostly the kids that didn’t really mind continuing on the path of darkness. The few that were left are still either too young or they were enrolled at the other training centers. The powers that be wanted to place them somewhere where no one would recognize them, even the trainers.”
“So I’m the only one here? And others are aware of my background at least to an extent?” Dee just asked to make sure. If the bookies knew about her past, then of course the others would know as well, or would find out shortly.
“That is the long and short of it. They don’t really know details as you mentioned, but…” Sarfina was slightly worried that there would be bad blood towards Dee, but she was also sure Dee was capable of taking care of herself. She was actually more worried of the people trying to pick a fight with Dee, if she was being honest.
“So how does this whole testing process work? I got some details out of the people I talked to, but they weren’t very specific.” Dee suddenly changed topics.
“Well, the bookies probably don’t know all the details because they change every year. There are always some common themes of course. There will be several different tests that measure strength, agility, speed, stamina, quick thinking, personality and so on. There’s probably also going to be a fighting test, but that’s almost as much to establish a base line for your current skill, and not really something that would prevent your enrollment.
If they are doing it the same way as they usually do, and the betting suggests they will, then you will get points for every test. At the end, you will all be ranked according to your total points, and there will be a cut off at some level of points depending on how many students the order wants to recruit this year. Those with the most points will usually get picked up by the various groups for grooming. In your case, we’re looking at the scouts hopefully picking you up.” Sarfina explained.
“So what’s up first?” Dee asked, as they finally reached the headquarters of the order.
There was a large walled area with tall white walls off to the side, while the rest of the buildings sprawled around the walls especially towards the south, where they would eventually join up with the Holy Orders headquarters. You could tell that the walled off area had been here first and housed the most important people and the main buildings, but the whole complex had outgrown the walls and now sprawled far beyond it. Walls were no longer practical. Blacksmiths and bowyers had dozens of shops here, in addition to the numerous barracks and clerical buildings. Security was maintained by heavy guard presence, as well as several spells that covered the area. Dee noted one spell in particular that covered the entire area and seemed to track any people without proper identification. Dee had no idea what that identification would be, but she could read the spell.
The two of them walked towards one of the largest clerical buildings, where several large lines of hopeful recruits were already forming. The rest of the testing would take place in various locations around the area. But this was where they registered.
“First they will test you for potential with holy power. Although it is rare, some people can’t use holy power no matter what, and there’s no point in testing someone like that further. They use a specialized testing stone for that. If you have the potential and you’re not blessed, the stone will give a soft clear glow. If you are blessed, the stone will glow with the color of the rank you possess. Since the stones are rather rare, this test is not done in other recruitment centers. You don’t need to hide your blessing anymore, since you won’t be the only one with a blessing.” Sarfina explained.
“Wait, I’m pretty sure Mazatl told me that priestesses and templar alike are given their rank mostly due to their skill and not their level of holy power. They will be evaluated by a group of higher ranking priests and templar, and given their rank accordingly. How would the stone know what rank they are?” Dee asked confused.
“That is essentially correct, but I’m sure Mazatl also mentioned that the deity who gave the blessing has a say in all this. The stone will show the ranking that the deity has decided for their follower. For example, you have no official ranking yet, but I’m pretty sure Lumen has already assigned a rank for you, and it’s not rank one. However, some gods like to toot their own horn by embellishing their servants, or they straight out lie, hence the testing and outside evaluation. We use the stones during the rank up examinations as well to get the god’s opinion, and sometimes completely ignore it.” Sarfina explained with slight amusement.
Dee wasn’t sure if the test would be problematic for her or not. At first they had hidden her blessing because she had been too young to take part in the Ritual of Choosing, and because Dee essentially just sneaked in to do it on her own. While any member of either Radiant Sun or the Holy Orders only got blessed after reaching a certain point in their training, you could get blessed earlier if you went through the tests that Mazatl had administered to Dee as well.
There would also be others with blessings among the applicants, though they would be few and far between. Unlike years ago, the problem was no longer the fact that she had a blessing, but who she was blessed by. Also, it was unlikely the other applicants would have as extensive training with their holy powers as she’d had, so her ranking according to the stone might be problematic as well. She wondered idly if she’d be forced to go through the Ritual again along with everyone else anyway, or if she could just skip it.
“Well this should be interesting.” Dee mumbled to herself.