The next couple of days were very quiet and awkward in the magistrate’s household. Valerian tried not to pay it too much attention. He was still a contestant in the Zebre and there was only one more match before the finals – his. He had no time for other matters.
For the best chance of getting into the next stage, he would need to win every match especially since the remaining competitor in his group had also won every one of his matches and was a favourite to win the entire thing.
That morning, he had breakfast in an unbelievably tense atmosphere. There was no longer any need to hide anything. No more covert transmissions around the table. He just informed Richard when he was ready and they left for the arena.
The arena was pumped up like Valerian had never seen it. Today, was the day of the very last group match. Valerian Steelborn vs Kalian DriftCloud. Afterwards, the runner-ups in the groups would duke it out to find the fifth seat. Everyone was looking forward to it.
There had been no true dark horse in this particular Zebre. Each and every single competitor had at least one claim to fame. Only, some were more well-known than others. Even Valerian who did not have much of a social presence was acclaimed far and wide as a genius array master and infamously as a ‘cursed talent’. He just hadn’t been known as much of a fighter.
The person he was going to be fighting was similar but in the opposite way. Kalian from the House of DriftCloud was the nephew of the count of the region. Unlike Valerian, he was known as a martial talent with a particular flair for combat. The DriftClouds were recognised as both a powerful and an ancient family. They were not only one of the oldest clans in the region, they were also its lords.
The name of the county was taken from their surname, not the other way around. That’s how long they had had control over the region. Kalian was considered a fitting successor to that legacy. A combat genius who had distinguished himself at an early age. Whilst Valerian’s rise to fame was as a disappointment, a ‘cursed talent’. His was that of the ‘blessed one’.
When it was announced that he would be taking part of this year’s Zebre, many were filled in excitement. They couldn’t wait to see this star in action. They were confused as to why he would go all the way to DaleGuard to compete but they were excited nonetheless. Many rushed over, swelling the already record high numbers in the city.
At first, it seemed as if he would have no challenges until he met the other favourites. To his fans, their hero had smooth sailing until the finals but Valerian changed that. Everyone was now looking forward to it. The House of Cragsveil versus The House of DriftCloud. The two greatest powers in the land. Valerian might not be the primary Steelborn competitor but his performance thus far had inspired faith in him. Others still felt he was too inexperienced and that actual combat wasn’t even his field.
He was an array master, not a warrior.
Valan Steelborn made his way to the Lords’ Booth, his wife at his side. His presence surprised many of the figures. There were many who did not know who he was but those who did were truly surprised that he would show his face at such a place. Some city officials quickly went to greet him. Others were confused. This old man was clearly a major player and yet they knew nothing about him.
Valan maintained his customary look of nonchalance as he made his way towards the front and centre of the room. Seats in the Lords’ Booth were arranged according to power and affluence. The greatest seat of honour was the centremost one in the front row. A seat currently occupied by the Count DriftCloud himself. The closer you were to that seat, the more important you were.
That was why city officials and rich merchants sat at the back. The nobles and other truly powerful figures were up front and that’s where Valan was headed. It was an eye-opener for many who still hadn’t figured out his identity. They gave him and his wife several look overs, wondering just where he was going.
It must be known that sitting in the wrong place was more than a simple faux pas. It could be social suicide. That was why people tended to wait till they were announced and directed to their seats instead of seating themselves.
As for Valan, his bearing was impressive and his robes, beyond fine, but as for his cultivation it was beyond deplorable. The woman at his side, however… maybe, he was escorting her.
True. If Valan was to rely on his position as a city official there was no way he would go further than the second row from the back in this setting. However, he wasn’t here today as Valan Steelborn, Magistrate of the Western Sector of DaleGuard and its environs but as Valan Theophilus Steelborn. Youngest son of the Steelborn Patriarch. The brother of the Viscount and technically an elder figure of the viscounty’s ruling house.
Thus, he made his way towards his brothers. Thankfully, the organisers always made sure to leave a few seats unoccupied in the noble area just in case another dropped by. He sat himself down and Clara sat with him.
“I was wondering if you would ever actually show”, William said as greeting.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Valan asked.
It took a while before he realised that both his brothers were shooting him incredulous looks. “Was that meant to be a serious question?” William inquired.
Valan sighed mentally. It appeared his attitude and opinion were indeed known far and wide. It didn’t matter anymore.
“Well, the past is the past. I am here today to support my grandson!” he declared.
In response, his brothers merely shot him a glance and focused back on the stage. Clara, however, gave him a pat on the arm as if to tell him, “Good boy!”
Valerian stood in front of his opponent. Kalian DriftCloud was the handsome sort. At least, he was more so than Valerian himself. Both were lithe, muscular fighters, hinting at a predilection for speed. Despite that, Valerian was slightly taller even though his opponent was older. He was also clad in metal armour whilst his adversary wore leathers and flowing silk robes.
Another difference between them was that Valerian was clearly prepared for the battle. His face was, as usual, composed but any who knew him would be able to tell how tense he was from the set of his shoulders. He had his mace out ahead of time and the spell glimmer on his armour was brighter than usual.
Kalian, on the other hand, was completely at ease. He was so carefree it was hard not to think of him as overconfident. The smile on his face was broad and he stood there with his hands behind his back. From time to time, he would raise a hand and wave at a particular group of screaming fans.
Valerian was a bit tired of it. He announced himself, “I am Valerian, son of Valiant. Surnamed Steelborn, Dual force possessor, Array master of the first circle, Circle master of three attributes, Arcane Disciple of the metal and wind attributes, Tellurian Practitioner of the same, Scion of the House of Cragsveil. May we begin?”
His opponent ignored him at first choosing instead to turn and wave at yet another screaming fan. The disrespect had no visible effect on Valerian. However, he did resolve himself not to hitch his punches as much for this fight.
Eventually though, Kalian did same. Announcing himself as, “Kalian, son of Darius, Surnamed DriftCloud, ‘The Bright Cloud’, Tellurian Practitioner of the wind attribute, Scion of the great and illustrious House of DriftCloud. I grant you this chance to duel me.”
Valerian had begun to believe that his opponent was deliberately trying to provoke him so he paid him no mind at all. Rather, he prepared for the commencement of the battle.
“FIGHT!” the referee called.
Valerian waited for his opponent to attack but after a few seconds, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. Kalian was still catching kisses from the crowd and waving at his increasingly louder fans. Turning to Valerian with a condescending smile he said, “Feel free to attack first. I don’t want to be seen as bullying a junior. Besides, it wouldn’t matter anyway.”
Valerian raised an eyebrow as if asking if he was serious but Kalian had already gone back to what he was doing. He was obviously baiting him but Valerian didn’t mind. He sent out a few probing attacks. All of them were attacks he had used before so that he could some card to himself.
A mass of [Wind Fists] and [Scything Blades] rushed at Kalian. At first, it looked like he was completely ignoring them but at the last moment his form shimmered and appeared a few metres in front of Valerian. The spells continued flying onwards behind him. After that brief pause, he disappeared again, his figure shimmering and dispersing like the morning mist under the glare of sunlight.
Luckily, Valerian had been prepared for a counter or attack of some sort. Even so, he barely caught what happened next. Kalian wasn’t teleporting he was just running from one spot to another. Only he did so so fast that all Valerian and most of the audience saw was a blur at first. He weaved through the attacks. Stopping to let everyone know that he had evaded Valerian’s attack and then attacked himself.
His counter was blindingly fast. Alarmed as he was, Valerian barely caught it. One second Kalian was in front of him, the next he was swinging a sword at him from his left. He poured as much energy into his [Valiant Armour] as the spell and time allowed causing it to flare brightly even in the daylight.
Sword met arcane shield in a grinding, blinding clash. The impact stopped Kalian causing him to become visible to many of the spectators who could previously only hear his rushing wind. Valerian’s heart had leapt into his throat. Kalian’s sword was not an ordinary weapon. It burned in his enhanced vision, revealing its nature to be an essence artefact that was actually superior to his mace.
Due to the brightness of his shield spell, many were unable to tell but Valerian thanks to his proximity and abilities could see the blade force its way into his shield spell. Frantically reinforcing it, Valerian swung his mace at his foe.
Like a dream upon waking, Kalian slipped away like it was second nature. All Valerian’s mace met was air. He rushed forward, trying to continue his attack by spinning and bringing the increased force on his opponent’s shoulder. Then, Kalian blurred again.
Valerian barely got his arms up in time to block the kick that came at the right side of his head. He was fortunate to have done so. Even with his [Valiant Armour], the hit rocked him. Due to the precarious position he had been in, amid swinging spin, he was almost toppled. It hadn’t been a light one either but thankfully his constitution handled it without any problems.
Unfortunately, in order to protect his head, he was forced to let go of his mace which caused it go flying off and left him bereft of a weapon. Thinking quickly, nine weapons flew out of his interspatial ring to orbit him causing Kalian to back off again.
The scion of the House of DriftCloud landed lightly on his feet. Somehow doing so a dozen feet from Valerian with little discernible movement. His sword remained out, gripped in his right hand. Valerian was covered in cold sweat knowing full well how close that sword had come close to striking him in that last exchange.
If his weapons hadn’t come out when they did, his adversary would have completed his transition from kick to sword swing. Thankfully, he was interrupted.
“You’re better than I thought”, Kalian said mockingly. “Not by much but still better than I thought. You’ve surprised this young lord”.
Valerian ignored him. His mind was busy trying to figure out a way out of this predicament. He had known beforehand that his opponent was not going to be as easy as the other two but even that hadn’t prepared him for the reality of the situation. Kalian was too fast. At least twice as fast as Blake. If he did not find a way to limit his opponents speed, he would continue to be at his mercy.
Evidently, the stories were true. The DriftClouds were indeed the fastest clan in the region. Then again, they should be. Their legacy technique was the [Wind Borne Cloud], the only mid-exalted ranked movement skill in the entire duchy. There was no one who can contest them in the speed department.