The Veldt were one of the old noble clans of the dales. In fact, they held a barony in Cragsveil. However, they had never been satisfied with that and thus, they conspired for the viscounty. It took years of planning but they finally succeeded in making the previous peer look unsuitable for his position.
Luckily, the viscount at the time had been a poor one. When the war broke out and the twin towers were cut off by the enemy forces he quickly declared Cragsveil lost and fled towards the capital. Granted, the Veldt fled as well and the viscounty truly seemed lost but it was a golden opportunity and one that the Veldt quickly seized.
They paraded the old Viscount’s weakness and cowardice and shunted blame onto him for the loss of Gragsveil and the disarray of the army. After all, how was a defence to be mounted without a commander-in-chief? It was obviously the panicking of the viscount that lead to the first rout and caused the hysteria and exodus that followed. Clearly, he was not fit to rule.
Who could have predicted what came next?
Really, who could? Who had? Dorian wanted to know. He wished to curse that person for not warning them. All the hard work of his clan. A business of decades that had allowed them to set themselves up as the most viable candidates for the position of viscount. The resources and effort they had expended in the shadows to make the viscount lose his position …
Only for it to be snatched by someone else!
Roland Steelborn. That was the name of the burly peon who had seized the position that he had been groomed for. In the end, the only ones his clan could blame were themselves. They had pushed too hard and too soon. No. Actually, it was the war’s fault. If it hadn’t happened, he would have taken the peerage in less than a decade.
As things stood, the King and his Royal Court ended up granting the position to the one person who saved the viscounty where the previous Viscount failed: Roland Steelborn. Even now, he couldn’t help but grit his teeth whenever he thought back to that moment when news came back to them that DaleGuard had not fallen as expected and that a young captain was leading the Bathan forces.
It never crossed his mind that even before the main battalions of the army could reach the battlefront the unknown captain would singlehandedly bring about the destruction of the enemy forces. That he would be hailed as a war hero and then granted the seat of Cragsveil.
When it happened he was in shock. How? How had the peerage slipped from his fingers just as it got within reach? It was days before he recovered his speech but once he did he got to work. Using the pull of his clan he established this secret society. Drawing together many of the other clans, figures and forces who were against the upstarts in their midst.
That done, he spread his insidious fingers, leading them from the shadows. Veldts never did anything themselves. Not when others could do so for them. In truth, besides the figures present at this meeting and a few others in his clan there were no living beings who knew of his involvement and none of them could even speak of it. Just as it should be.
Nonetheless, his goal, the goal of his society had yet to come to fruition. He had initially thought that the Steelborns being barbarians would fall easily, but very few of their machinations ever succeeded. They were powerful, closeted and paranoid. Unfortunately, they were also incredible warriors and great leaders.
Dorian was forced to admit that even with the forces marshalled against them the Steelborns really had transformed the viscounty for the better. That didn’t matter though. They’d fall still!
Roland Steelborn strained himself to keep his composure in the face of the marvel in front of him. He stared at his great-grandson as he floated a few inches off the ground, taking his transformed features. Drawing closer, he completely disregarded the aura the boy emanated and grabbed onto one of his wings.
They were beautiful. Dark gold feathers that looked a bit like elongated fish scales with an indistinct pattern.
‘Are those clouds or waves?’ he asked himself.
Then he grabbed a feather and squeezed. Immediately, his visage changed. He tried again just to make sure. Still the same. He let go and took a deep breath to calm himself. Giving a side glance at Valerian’s face, he shook his head inwardly.
‘What a terrifying ability! Truly befitting a divine legacy’, he admitted.
His son spoke from behind him. “We were hoping that you’d have some method that we can use to hide it”.
“Hide it?” he asked. Valan nodded.
“Why?” Valan questioned.
Roland took a few seconds to compose his answer. “This is a daemonic inheritance, a blood legacy. That puts it in the same class as our own …” he turned to give Valerian another look before adding. “… in some respects.”
“You can disguise it but I doubt the clan has anything that would work on something this powerful. The only other method we could use is to seal it and that would be terrible for Valerian. The legacy is in his blood. Sealing it would cut him off from part of himself and also seal away anything connected to it. He would be unable to use its abilities, his method and seeing how his qi and physique are connected to the legacy they would be sealed away as well”, he finished.
“I doubt any of you want that?” he questioned.
“So there’s nothing we can do?” Valan responded.
“I didn’t say that. I just said we can’t affect his legacy”, Roland stated. Following that, he once more turned to face Valerian.
“Could you transform back but this time go into your halfway form?” he requested.
Valerian, strangely subdued, nodded and switched. His wings grew smaller, becoming transparent whilst his predatory aura vanished. The patriarch nodded and clapped. Then, turning to face his audience he proclaimed.
“As you can see, we don’t have to. His legacy does so for us. There is no Peng here. Only a boy with wings made from essence. In this form, he has neither the presence nor the appearance of his true legacy. True, he is weaker but we can work with this.
“In this form, he possesses enough monolith features for us to call it a mutation of the normal bloodline. Plus, his wings don’t look too different from our other legacy the StormHawk wings. I’ll have the clan slowly release information that our bloodlines have begun to merge. When he unveils that form in public, they’d think that instead.”
Valan considered it. He was no stranger to the application of propaganda. It just might work especially of the clan actually worked at it.
Dorian looked at the assembled lords as they filed out of the chamber. Just as he had expected, they just rambled and complained till the meeting ended. If something wasn’t done soon he’d lose his hold over them. He sighed. His plans would have to wait till he brought them back in line.
“Father”, his son called.
“Yes Priam!” he answered.
“Have the Steelborns really requested the presence of all the lords in this year’s Zebre?” Priam asked.
“Quite imperiously too. Hmph, can you believe that? Acting like kings”, was his response.
Dorian sighed mentally. He loved his son. He was gifted at cultivation, handsome and strangely charismatic but he just didn’t have that edge or mental acumen. His grandson though, the boy reminded him of himself.
“It’s a clumsy and obvious power play. They want everyone there at the Zebre because they wish to make use of their supposed might to reaffirm their position. They want all the lords there to watch and get defeated before the whole kingdom”, Dorian explained.
“Tch! Sadly, they’ll probably succeed. That muscle head Roland would never commit to it if he wasn’t sure that they’d win. The rewards and prizes this year will draw cultivators from all over the kingdom and all the lords in the viscounty are to contribute”.
“Can you imagine that?” he added with a touch of anger. “Forcing us to offer prizes so that his people can sweep them up”.
Priam brow furrowed as he thought about it. “What if we don’t go?” he offered. “I mean, if we’re going to lose anyway would it not be better not to go at all?”
“Don’t be daft!” Dorian yelled. Have you seen the amount of attention that the Steelborns are drawing? Every cultivator and personality in the Kingdom is probably looking forward to it. If we were to withdraw or find an excuse it would be the same as letting the whole of Bathar know that we are afraid or even inferior to them. And that’s not the worst part.
“Already, faith in our side decreases every day. The current generations were born under Steelborn rule, so unconsciously they see nothing wrong with it. Our bonds with our allies are frail and those who would support us despair in the face of the Steelborns. If we do not make a good showing now when the Steelborns seek to consolidate their strength they just might give up on us.
“If the disparity in strength is too great they’ll label us a sure loss and move on. Then, there are the loose cultivators. They’ll be invariably drawn to the winning side. This Zebre might just be the most important in our clan’s history. We cannot afford to fall here not when our plans are taking shape. Not just us, the standing of every party in the region will probably be affected by it”.
Priam looked worried as he well should. He scrambled for a solution. “So we have to cheat”.
Dorian sighed in defeat his physical form visibly deflating. “In any other circumstance, we would. Indeed, it is the surest way. In this, however, we can’t. Given the importance of this event, the fights would closely be monitored and I’m sure the Steelborns would enjoy parading and shaming any party found violating any rule.”
“Father, what do we do?” his son asked fearfully.
“We have no choice, we have to pull out every last stop and trump we have that can ensure a win. It is our only chance. It would draw some attention but we can’t afford the alternative. We have one month to prepare.”
So, Valerian! I’m given to understand that you are quite talented in the [Fighting arts of Harry and Clude] and that your spellwork is nothing to scoff at either”, the patriarch said.
Valerian shifted a bit under his gaze unsure as to how to take praise from such a legendary figure.
“Now that your qi issues have been resolved and your physique so radically improved I’m hoping you’ll pursue the martial path more intently. Your talent for combat is extraordinary. I hope you don’t let it go to waste”, the man added.
“I won’t sir!” he answered.
“Good. Any plans concerning the path you’ll take? Your array skills are top notch as well. Steelborns have always been gifted at combat. Nonetheless, your talent as an array master is very welcome in the clan. We would be willing to help with that as well”, his great-grandfather asked.
“Well, right now Uncle Richard and I are thinking of putting me through the paces so that I can get a good handle on what I’m capable of. Afterwards, I’ll work on tellurian skills for a bit. I’ve always wanted to learn them but I couldn’t because of you … know?” Valerian responded.
“Good, good. From what I can see, you won’t have any problems with that. Your comprehensive ability is quite high and your battle awareness is well worthy of note. I have full confidence that you’ll master any skills you choose without much effort”, the patriarch stated.
Valan took this opportunity to interject spitefully, “Note that he means that literally, Valerian. He does see. If I remember correctly he constantly blankets the entire city with his spiritual sense.”
The patriarch turned to give him an annoyed look but said nothing. He chose to ignore his son and focus more on developing a rapport with his great-grandchild.
“Just remember Valerian, practice and actual battle are two different things. Practice makes perfect, but without suitable experience, you will be unable to draw out your full potential or learn how to properly apply what you learn”, he warned.
“That is a lesson that my tutors have made sure to teach me”, Valerian said. He was intentionally trying to draw some attention to his two uncles who had been sitting quietly the entire time, fading into the background.
“As a matter of fact, I plan to participate in this year’s Zebre to gain more experience”, he added.
“You probably shouldn’t!”
Valerian looked around surprised. That was not the reaction he was expecting. Why had both his grandfather and great-grandfather protested so loudly? Even they were surprised that they spoke at the same time. Turning to face his grandfather, the first speaker, he asked.
“Because …” the man sputtered. “You can’t. We still aren’t sure about your legacy and how to manage it. We can’t let you just stride into a duel without knowing what would happen. Besides, you are not ready yet”.
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN NOT READY YET?” Valerian yelled. The room stared at him in shock. He coughed to hide his uncharacteristic outburst and calming himself he said. “We had an agreement that once I consolidated the first stage you’ll help me make a debut in the arena. I’ve done that and more, what else is there?”
His grandfather looked flustered. Still, he was quick to answer. “That was agreement was made under different circumstances and under different assumptions. Things have obviously changed.”
Valerian’s voice turned cold and dark, “Are you trying to go against your word grandfather?” he asked.
There was a barely masked threat in those words. One that put everyone in the room on high alert. Thankfully, the patriarch was quick to come in.
“I’m sorry but I must agree with your grandfather, Valerian”, the man began. “You are not ready. Not for this Zebre. If you try to enter, you’ll be thrown together with other consolidated first tiers. Your skills and innate gifts are great Valerian but you are not ready to battle at that level no matter how ready you think you are.”
He turned to his uncles for help but they just looked away, unwilling to get involved. The decision had already been made. He made a few attempts at protest but it was clear that neither figure would budge so he stormed out of the building.
Valerian was beyond incensed. He lay on his bed trying to calm down but his mind kept going back to the matter before. He couldn’t even meditate. For the first time in his life, Valerian felt like punching his grandfather in the face. The man was determined to keep him weak and at home his whole life.
Well, he refused to play by his rules any longer. He would not let the man continue to suppress him. In truth, he had made up his mind to confront the old man after the incident with the bandits. Unfortunately, events spiralled out of control and he never got the chance.
He was weak and it was partly his grandfather’s fault. He had been forced to confront it when the bandits attacked.
He was a cultivator with a perfect arcane vessel and more arcane energy than he knew what to do with. How then was it that nearly all of the spells he knew were intended to defend, flee or craft? His first action in battle was to layer shields for Delrein’s sake. The only proper attack spells he had were the ones his grandmother taught him and he was eternally grateful for that.
Not to mention that he completely lacked combat experience. During the battle, the only thing he could do was stand passively and let his enemies whale on his shields. Sadly, he hadn’t connected the dots until the soldiers came. After the battle, he’d begun to think up ways to overcome his lack of offensive skills when Avery received that call from the soldiers.
Soldiers that just happened to be in the vicinity when he was attacked and yet far enough away that his constant tracking and scouting spells never flagged them. Soldiers who knew the signature of Avery’s personal communication talisman. Soldiers whose first priority was to get him home after he was attacked. It was all proof of just how much his grandfather controlled his life.
He never doubted Avery’s loyalty. For him the answer was clear. Who was the only person who had both the pull and motive to get that team to trail him and Avery to co-operate with them? Who was it that designed his lesson plans?
Valan Steelborn, his grandfather!
Under all the anger, Valerian knew the man was just being overprotective. It still didn’t stop him from hating how he was scripting his life. He was actually doing everything he could to keep Valerian from straying into anything he deemed dangerous or just didn’t approve off.
Well, Valerian wouldn’t let him do so anymore.
“Avery!” he called.
“Yes young master!” the man answered from his post.
“I’ve been told that entering into the Zebre is folly and that I am not ready. That I am too weak to do so. What do you think?” he questioned.
‘Oh boy!’ the man exclaimed mentally. He hated being put on the spot like this. Nonetheless, he gave his opinion.
“I’m afraid they’re right Master Valerian. I don’t think you can compete”, he answered.
“Oh!” Valerian intoned. He had not expected that. “Explain”.
At his command, Avery did so. “I’m sure you are aware that if you enter you’ll be fighting other consolidated first tiers?”
Knowing it was a question, Valerian nodded.
“If you were not one it wouldn’t be so bad but since you are then I don’t think you have much of a chance. Consolidated first tiers are so powerful that they aren’t allowed to fight those beneath them despite being in the same tier. Also, the Zebre is uncommonly fierce”, Avery explained.
He’d be placed in the Young Cultivators’ Division with all those twenty-five years old and below. That wasn’t the problem. The tournament he’ll be placed in is the one of most watched and anticipated in DaleGuard. It is known informally as the Young Lords’ Tourney and for a very good reason.
When the Young Cultivators’ Division was first started it was a way to draw out the most talented in the younger generation and everyone regardless of creed or station was allowed to enter and technically they still can but no one would.
Over time it became a way to tell not just the promising ones in the younger generations but also which families had the most promising youngsters. Once this view spread the families began taking it more seriously and invested heavily in it. Soon, ordinary cultivators couldn’t keep up and were forced to quit entering.
The tournament became the stage for the most talented youngsters of the noble clans and great sects in the region. A staging ground whose results directly affected the standing of the various powers in the viscounty.
In the end, it was unofficially separated from the other events and the age restriction was lowered from fifty to twenty-five years. Only the very best would dare participate. The clans, families and sects who took part invested so heavily in it that they at times trained explicitly trained disciples for this event and even made them hold back their cultivation so that they would remain at the very peak of the first tier when the Zebre came.
Valerian continued to lie on his bed listening to Avery’s explanation.
“Young master, it is not that I think you incapable but the Young Lords’ Tourney is very competitive stage. I reckon that if I were to be matched against any of the competitors the only way I’d win would be due to luck and my decades of experience”, the man was saying.
That caught his attention. Avery was an elite and experienced guard. Valerian wasn’t sure he would prove a match for him and yet he had no confidence in winning a fight in the tourney?
“You’ll not be fighting against ordinary cultivators Master Valerian. You’ll be fighting against the best in Cragsveil. All of them would possess titles, methods, skills, spells, abilities, weapons and teachers that would be the best their backers can give them. They might even be superior to yours”.
“I see”, Valerian said.
However, Avery didn’t think he did. “As you are now, you wouldn’t even last a round with the weakest among them. If you really want to compete, my suggestion will be to wait and train. Maybe in a year or two, you can try and enter”.
Valerian was quiet for a few seconds, seemingly pondering the matter. “Alright Avery, you’ve convinced me. The Young Lords’ Tourney is the best place for me to test my skills. A tournament for the best and brightest? I’ll cut a place there for myself. If I’m not good enough right now I’ll just have to become so”, he proclaimed.
Avery stood there slack-jawed. Had his master not heard a single word he said?
“Begin getting things ready, Avery. I need practice dummies, skill books, essence stones, new weights, anything and everything that would aid in training. We only have a month to get ready. I plan to spend all that time training, pushing myself until … wait where are you going? I’m not done?” he exclaimed.
Avery spun around. He had already made it to the door. He only turned to deliver a parting shot.
“I’m off to tell Richard that you are ready. He has been anticipating this moment for years.”
– Zebre is yet another word from my language. It means “fight”! (I’ve sort of lapsed at this, haven’t I?. I’ll go through and add any others.)