In a special, roofless viewers’ box in the Steelborn Arena.
William Steelborn, Viscount of Cragsveil, turned to his brother. “So that is Valan’s boy!” “Not what I expected.”
James glanced away from the fighting platform to look at his brother. “I know. Much more interesting”.
Together two of the sons of Roland Steelborn sat quietly for a moment as they considered their estranged great-nephew.
“He is a tellurian practitioner now when he had so many issues before. His body is constantly drawing the world essence in and his essence levels… think this is the reason for the meeting the old man called at that time? He did do so after Valan visited the compound after all.”
William spared his brother a glance. “You didn’t go to the meeting? Why?” he asked.
“You didn’t either!” James pointed out. “Besides, it was a meeting with the great elders. We are invited to sit in but not obligated to. Nonetheless, I’m now curious as to what was said and how much of it had to do with the boy before us”.
William considered it for a moment. “I don’t doubt it. But there doesn’t seem to be enough to justify that meeting being called. Unless… the meeting was more concerned with the reason or method for his sudden and miraculous recovery and power gain”.
By this point, Valerian had gotten off the stage and a new battle was taking place. The first one from Group Two between a young lady from the Veldt clan and a Junior Acolyte of the Shadowed Hood Sect.
“Hmmm”, James let out. “That is possible. Especially if it was quite rare or precious. I’ll have someone find out. Still, there is one question…”
“Oh!” William exclaimed softly, his left brow rising curiously. “Ask away”.
“How would you rate him? What do you think his chances of winning this tournament are?” James asked.
William actually required a few seconds to mull it over. “That is surprisingly difficult. I know incredibly little about the boy and his prowess and I would have to base most of my assumptions on the match he just had”.
James nodded, acknowledging the difficulty. He still looked forward to what his brother had to say. William was always good at reading and figuring out people.
“His control over his arcane energy is exceptional. There are none his age that I know who are his match. He was able to split the standard [Wind fist] into three without even the slightest waste of energy. Moreover, he could do this en mass, reforming them and controlling each separately. That was impressive. Then again, he is a First Circle Array master of three attributes.
“However, I would be flummoxed if his control over his qi is even half as good considering how long it’s probably been at his disposal. With that in mind, I expect any tellurian skills he has to suffer some penalties. Despite this though, I believe he would do quite well.
“His combat awareness and acuity are noteworthy. As you saw, he was not only able to pay attention to the clash but also planned ahead. Setting concealed traps in the midst of the confusion and preparing follow up attacks. He could read the battle quite well and his self-control was miles above his opponents.
“His spell choice plays into his strengths and thus far have been chosen to fit the situation. Something he has proved to be apt at. To be honest, I don’t see any problem with him doing well in this tournament provided this display wasn’t a onetime thing”, William finished.
“You didn’t answer my second question. What do you think his chances of winning this tournament are?” James made sure to point out.
“Slim to none, I’m afraid. If it were any other tournament then he would have no problems getting a good place in the finals. Sadly, it would appear our efforts have had more than the intended effect. While this will be good for the clan it has forced everyone to pull out their best. Right now, I’m worried about his chances of even making it through the group stages”, his big brother confided.
“Ah yes! The count’s addition?” James acknowledged.
Together the two of them turned to look at the man who occupied the seat of honour at William’s right. The Count DriftCloud, Lord of the county of the same name. The county in which they resided. Technically, he was William’s boss.
There were many noble families and ranks in Bathar but the ones that truly mattered were the peers. These were the noble houses that held seats in The House of Lords. The ones who had not only land, title and wealth but peerage. Their ranks were structured in hierarchically order. These ranks in ascending order were Baron, Viscount, Count, Earl and Duke.
The barons were lords that governed or ruled about two thousand five hundred to three thousand square kilometres of land. Their land was called a barony and was the basic regional unit in Bathar. They were the basic peers, granted title, seat and the permission to recruit their own private armies for the protection of their land. The further up the ladder you went the greater the boons, wealth and power.
For example, there were three baronies in every viscounty and it took three viscounties to make a county and so on until you got an earldom. There are only two earldoms in a duchy and only three duchies in the entire kingdom. What land remained was under the direct control of the royal family who superseded everyone and anyone in power.
For the most part, each of the peers operated separately with the exception of their obligations to the immediate superiors and to the crown. However, the events in DaleGuard were obviously of such great import that it had drawn the attention of many. Many powers had come to take note of the happenings and see how it affected them, if it did at all.
It wasn’t just Count DriftCloud. Looking around the Lord’s Booth, William and James could make out many visiting dignitaries who under normal circumstances would not be here at this time. There was a Viscount from a neighbouring county. Someone who they knew as the nephew of its current Countess. There was an official of the Duchy sitting with some merchants, drinking wine and covertly keeping an eye on the proceeds in the booth.
There was even a general of the royal army who had come to watch. And that was not counting the various other personages and their different allegiances.
Clearly, everyone was aware that the events in Cragsveil had the potential to change the regional political climate. They were thus rightly concerned. After all, the ripples could go on to affect them. In fact, none was more so than the Count of DriftCloud, the county Cragsveil lay in.
The man had not only shown up without a due cause or proper invitation, he also brought along his nephew, a young and powerful true practitioner, to partake in the events. Many of the onlookers could do nothing but smile sadly in the background. Everyone was aware of the fact the prestige of the Steelborns had begun to outshine that of the DriftClouds. They just never spoke of it.
It is hard being compared to your subordinates all the time. For the common folk to look up to them more than they did you. Ever since the Roland Steelborn became the greatest war hero the region had had in recent memory the Steelborns had enjoyed constantly growing prestige. It didn’t hurt that by controlling DaleGuard they had their own feudal army in addition to influence over the regional one.
An annoyingly large number of Steelborns served in the military where they possessed an uncomfortable amount of pull. Long story short, even though the Steelborns had not made any moves at expansion they were still the most watched and most respected clan in DriftCloud.
Now that they were taking further actions to consolidate their power and reaffirm their position the Count also had to scramble to prop his up. If not he would lose even more influence and control over his subjects. Thankfully, there was a slight opportunity he could make use of. The Zebre was open to all warriors.
That was why earlier today he suddenly announced that his beloved nephew had followed him on his trip. He declared the boy’s intention of joining the tourney, saying that his nephew, being a martial enthusiast, had felt his blood grow hotter at the thought of pitting himself against other warriors his age. It was all good.
If the Steelborns were going to use might to prove themselves overlords, he could do same. For a DriftCloud to win the Steelborn tournament would send the message out quite well. He wasn’t worried. His nephew was sure to take it. Besides being the most gifted youngster in their clan, he was acknowledged as one of the favourites in the competition as well as the most powerful in Group One.
The same group that Valerian was in.
The Second Day of the Zebre.
Valerian prepped himself for his battle. The second round of the group stages was to start. This was especially important for him. Normally to qualify for the final required two wins. Due to the nature of his group, he needed three to be safe. Yesterday’s match was easy but he had been assured that today’s would be different. He had to give it his all.
He was up against a youth from the Lytaun Dojo. They were a powerful, battle oriented cultivator school. However, the Lytauns had only sent out one student this year, unlike the Greater Mountains who brought two. That meant he was bound to be the best they had. Definitely more powerful and well versed than his previous opponent.
He climbed up the fighting stage after listening to Richard’s usual warnings. By then, his opponent was there waiting for him. Blake of the Lytaun Dojo was a decent looking fellow. He was the same height as Valerian and dressed mostly in comfortable leather armour, sans sleeves. His feet however were shoved into boots made from a hard opaque material and his knee had metal plates covering it with spikes sticking out.
He bowed first, announcing himself, “I am Blake, titled Zir Naa’re, Tellurian Practitioner and representative of the Lytaun dojo in this tournament. May we duel?”
Seeing how more reserved and cultured this opponent was, Valerian did not hesitate to do same. Slipping into their fighting stances, they stood at opposite ends of the platform looking at each other, trying to glean some clues before the fight began whilst waiting for the signal.
“FIGHT!” the referee ordered and Blake immediately burst into action.
His stance changed slightly, his upper body leaning forward and low as the only pre-indication of what came next. He shot of like a firework, wind attributed qi swirling around him as he run towards Valerian. It was so quick and sudden that he was nearly halfway across the stage before Valerian’s counter came.
He fired a volley of wind fists, seeking to block Blake’s advance. It was not difficult to see what he was planning. Valerian had proved his superiority at ranged battle in the last match. Obviously, any tellurian would choose instead to engage in at close range instead, where arcanists were notoriously poor at. Thankfully, the wind fists hampered that plan somewhat.
‘As if I’d let it be that easy’, Valerian snorted mentally, at first.
To his surprise, none of the wind fists he sent out had the effect he expected. When they appeared a swift change happened in Blake’s qi. The swirling streams around him quickly condensed forming a brighter cyan glow that centred itself on his legs. When that happened, a strange grace slipped into his movements as his skill transformed.
He began to jump and leap, twisting and contorting his body to evade the wind fists that came his way. With nothing but grace and skill, he moved ever closer to a stunned Valerian. He had not expected that!
The combat skill that Blake was using was one of the Lytaun Dojo’s prized ones: Zota’s Six Drives. It was a method that allowed for six special skills; two movement, one evasive, two attack and one supplementary. Blake started with the First Drive, [Rushing Wind], a dash skill that boosted linear speed then switched to the Fourth [Playful Gust] in order to manoeuvre through Valerian’s volley.
It was an impressive display of skill and even more impressive one of control. Not many experts, even in his own dojo, could switch between Drives as easily and quickly as he did. There was a reason he was the primary discipline of his generation.
Valerian quickly tried thinking of a counter but he had already run out of time. Blake was already before him. Left with a mere four-metre gap, Blake again did something unexpected. He leapt into the air. Valerian fired a series of wind blades to pursue. They didn’t help.
Blake had switched to the Sixth Drive – [Tornado Kick]. The streams of wind qi appeared again only this time in greater number and intensity. Blake continued to rise until he was about five metres in the air and then he began to spin, his qi spinning with him. Faster and faster he went, forming a miniature tornado in the air. The wind blades Valerian sent were caught in this sudden storm and sucked in, becoming part of it.
For the first time in the tournament, Valerian felt some trepidation. As if to give justification to this feeling, Blake shot downwards. His figure could not be seen. There was only a bladed twister of wind qi.
Valerian swung his mace to meet it. His arcane energy surged and a massive screen of metal essence responded. The sound of screeching metal filled the arena as the spectators became witnesses to a tornado attempting to grind its way through a metal sheet. The stalemate lasted for maybe a second and then surprisingly, the tornado was sent flying away.
Blake was barely able to stop himself from being thrown out of the arena. Using his spin to his advantage, he was somehow able to arrest control of his force and land back on his feet. However, he was clearly shaken and drained by the clash. There was an ache in his lead foot. The one that formed the tornado’s point.
The two youths stared each other down, huffing a bit at as a result of their abrupt and intense exertion. Slowly, a smile crept onto Valerian’s face. The trepidation in his heart had given way. All he felt now was excitement. A strange calm came over his mind with his excitement whilst his heart begun to beat faster. This battle was a pleasant surprise and exactly the sort of stimulation he had been seeking.
Blake was the same. He had hoped to end with that but it seemed his opponent was tougher than he expected. Still, he realised that he had to end this quickly. [Tornado Kick] was the most qi intensive skill he owned. Its power came at a cost and it was not enough. It had nearly been but it lacked that final push. He had to break through his opponent’s defences before he run out of qi.
With this in mind, he ran at Valerian again, taking huge steps forward before jumping and transitioning into a flying kick.
Valerian looked at his opponent somewhat warily but with a trace of bemusement. The idiot was attempting a flying kick from a dozen meters away. How was he supposed to hit anything from there? Then his sharp eyes caught the twist his foe’s body made. A split second later, they widened in shock as Blake once more turned into a tornado.
‘That skill can be used laterally?’ he exclaimed mentally in shock.
– “Zir naa’re” means “Blood Foot”. An apt title for someone who rips others to shreds with his feet I think.