The wind swirled without warning causing everyone to look up. They didn’t have to look far. The commotion was happening only fifty metres above the fighting platform. The more essence sensitive had a slight edge over their contemporaries. They could sense the ridiculous amounts of arcane energy that was directing the events.
An unseen hand shaped the wind to its wishes. Kalian took several steps back, his attacks on Valerian temporary forgotten as he stared upwards in fear. He was right to. Before his stunned eyes, the sky began to fall. At least, that’s what it seemed like to those watching.
In truth, that wasn’t exactly far from the truth. [Wind Fists] and [Wind Blades] begun to rain down from above. They came chaotically, in different sizes and intensities, from the size of a small blade or a child’s fist to massive fists that dwarfed men and blades that could slice oxen lengthways. Many didn’t even fly straight nor did they come straight down. Rather, they descended from a variety of angles. There were some that didn’t even hit the stage but flitted here and there like falling leaves.
Too late, Kalian turned back to Valerian to discover that he was smiling at him, safely ensconced in a massive spherical blue arcane barrier. Realising that Valerian was the one responsible made his expression worsen. However, he did not despair. He began to blur again.
The raging winds lasted for close to two minutes. In that time, Kalian was everywhere. His characteristic blur did not even pause for a second. There were many instances where it looked like he had been chopped to pieces or crushed but he just kept going. He even seemed to stroll through some of the attacks and in some cases, you could hear his sword clashing with some of the wind blades.
The crowd watched mesmerised, strangely quiet as if afraid to disturb his concentration. There wasn’t a single person who had expected the turn of events. One moment, Kalian was abusing his opponent, the next it was uncertain if he would even survive the onslaught that had been called forth. Not even Valerian was exempt from the wind barrage.
It was not something he could control. What he had done wasn’t a proper spell after all and even if it was, not all spells could be controlled. He had stirred up the wind essence around him and given it some guidance. Then, he sat back and let the rest develop naturally. However, he was not lax. Only an idiot would create something he couldn’t create without putting up some countermeasures.
Valerian was not an idiot. The first chance he got, he cast [Mage Guard] to protect himself. Only then did he stood back calmly in his arcane dome and admired his handiwork. The entire surface of the fighting platform was scared and scoured. There were a variety of different sized craters and gashes in the sturdy stone and yet it failed to put down his opponent.
Kalian stood in front of him, panting slightly and looking victorious. He raised a hand and cried out in triumph inciting the crowd to cheer. Valerian could only gape in astonishment. Besides being sweaty, the only signs that Kalian had been through an ordeal were the rips and tears in his clothes and a shallow cut on his right forearm.
Deciding not to stand there slack-jawed, Valerian charged forward hoping to catch the idiot whilst his guard was still down. The nine weapons around him shot forward, forcing Kalian to parry them. Reaching him, Valerian did not hesitate to grab his arm and twist it into a hold. He attempted to force his opponent to his knees but with a queer flourish, Kalian’s arm slipped from his grasp.
He was like a ghost or better yet a plume of smoke. His arm seemingly became formless and with a twist, it escaped Valerian. He backpedalled quickly and fell right into the second half of Valerian’s plan. When his foot touched the ground as he retreated, a circle of light appeared and numerous cyan bindings reached out and tied him up.
Valerian smiled as he strode forward. He had long since bowed down in recognition of Kalian’s superior evasive skills. It was like everything he saw he could avoid. The obvious solution to this was to give him an attack that he never saw coming.
While he had hoped that the spell squall he called down would do the job he was not one to leave things to chance. Using the storm as a cover, he prepared other spells as failsafes. Who would notice a few more wind attributed energies in the midst of storm raging with them?
With this thought in mind, he prepared his spells in the middle of the storm itself and then sent them down, anchoring them all over the platform in the chaos. The anchored spells were all trap and binding spells. The only to win this battle was to prevent his opponent from making use of his speed and this was his solution to it.
Valerian stretched out his hand and his mace responded. It flew up from its resting spot on the side of the arena and shot right at Kalian. With his other hand, Valerian cast his favourite attack spell: [Heart Seeking Bolts]. Those nine weapons that he always carried with him. The ones that had been the doom of many a wild beast shot forward with deadly intent.
“[Burst]!” Kalian yelled frantically.
Just then, the pendant on his chest let out a bright light and shattered. When that took place, a massive brown energy dome appeared around him. With the sound of arrows meeting a stone wall, the heart seeking bolts were turned away.
‘Damn it!’ Valerian yelled inwardly.
He swiftly diverted the mace’s course, making it fly into his hand instead. Taking a deep breath, he gripped it with both hands and brought it down on the earthen barrier. With a resounding crash, cracks quickly spread through the barrier and it collapsed. The moment it did, Kalian rushed out at full speed, not giving Valerian the chance to dish out another attack.
In his usual blurry motion, he made his way far away from Valerian. Unfortunately, it was not so easy to get away. In his haste, he stumbled into another anchored spell. This one flipped him into the air, dangling him there even as it bound his limbs. He screamed petulantly causing Valerian to smile as he launched [Heart Seeking Bolts] once more.
This time, however, the distance between the two was quite a bit and Kalian with his incessant blurs managed to slip out before the spell reached him. He darted away like a fleeing hare only to stop suddenly and turn back to rush at Valerian. Drawing his sword, he begun to fire beams of sword qi at him.
Valerian rushed to block, discarding his attack and going on the defensive. This was undoubtedly what his foe wanted because once Valerian’s assault stopped, his did as well. He stepped back and begun clapping yet again.
“Well done. Well done!” he spouted. “This young lord was worried there for a moment there. You are really quite good. Unfortunately, you are lacking in too many areas. If not, then you might actually give this lord a challenge.”
For a brief moment, Valerian wondered if his opponent was insane. Who did this in the midst of battle? Valerian did not have much combat experience but thus far every foe he had faced had been the type to quietly fight things out. The bandits, Blake and of course, Richard, none had been the type to have meaningless conversations in battle.
“The way things stand now, things will surely end in my victory. You know why?” Kalian said.
Valerian gripped his mace tighter feeling the urge to rush up and burry its head in his foes annoying face. Slowly, he begun to build up more arcane energy, taking his time to ready his next spell. A thought occurred to him.
“Why?” he asked Kalian. If his opponent wanted to talk so much why not give the chance. It meant more time for him to get ready.
Truthfully speaking, Kalian wasn’t an idiot. Well… he wasn’t much of one. He was a combat genius. Fighting was what he knew and possibly the only thing he was accomplished at. However, he had been given special instructions for this battle. He hadn’t just come to DaleGuard to win. He didn’t understand the specifics but apparently, the Steelborns had begun to think too highly of themselves.
It was his duty to show them their place. He was to crush his foes. Let them expend every effort they could muster and then reveal to them and to all those watching, the futility of going against the DriftClouds. His actual target was Ethan Steelborn, the Steelborn heir. Nonetheless, he had been given an appetizer. A younger, weaker Steelborn. One just as gifted but not as accomplished.
This was to be his warm-up. All he had to do was reveal his superiority before the watching crowd. All he had to do was show just how more incredible he was. That was why he acted like he did. It was a task that he was aptly suited for. A battle hungry, glory hound like him could ask for nothing better.
Like an artist, he had been given canvas and the chance to paint whatever he wanted so long as he got the job done. Of course, he took some liberties. Alas, things weren’t going exactly as expected. That he was faster, more powerful than his opponent was a given but this Valerian brat was a tricky one. If not for his luck and skill he would have been done in by now.
What’s worse he had been forced to use a protective talisman in the last exchange. He could sense the crowd wavering. He had to divert their attention from his opponent’s achievement and back to himself. The entire objective of this battle was come out victorious and smelling of roses whilst making his opponent look much weaker and hapless by comparison.
So he began to speak.
“I’m glad you asked. You see, the mistake juniors like you often make is to not listen to their seniors. Since you are such a good prospect, this young lord would take some of his precious time to give you some pointers. You want to know your first mistake?” he asked.
Without waiting for Valerian to answer, he did so himself. “Your first mistake was entering into this tournament!”
“It was a foolish, naïve decision. Honestly, I wonder what your clan elders were thinking entering you into this tournament. You are what … fifteen… sixteen? This young lord is twenty years old and yet this is my first Zebre. It is not because I could not win by entering earlier but because of common sense. It is always better to shore up strength first before attempting something.
“I learnt you broke through not too long ago. And you just up and entered the Zebre? That is a decision that honestly stumped this young lord. You have some potential but doing this is a sign that you will get yourself killed early.
“Remember that one should never pick up a stone he cannot carry. The Zebre is not a competition for weaklings like you!”
Valerian looked on as his opponent suddenly switched over to barbed verbal attacks. Where was this coming from? Just who did this bastard think he was?
His opponent, however, was still speaking, ignoring the dark look valerian was giving him. He sighed and shook his head as if sad before continuing.
“Do not think that this young lord is being unduly harsh. It is just that I fear that you would understand if I do not put it this way. Your problem here is that you think this competition is a tournament for Consolidated First Tiers.”
Valerian gave him a look as of asking, ‘What in Delrien’s name are you on about?’
Kalian continued to speak, bearing in mind that it wasn’t just Valerian listening to him but the entire arena. “Instead of a competition for first tiers, it should be called a competition for those not yet second tiers!”
“I understand your confusion. The two seem to be the same but they are vastly different. Take you, for example, you have just achieved consolidation but do you know when the other competitors like this young lord did so. We have long since passed that level. That is the reason why you are so helpless before us.
“WE are in the midst of the elemental attunement necessary to break through to the second tier. Did you not notice how easy it was for me to break through your winds spells? How easy it was for me to undo and disperse your bindings. Even that two-bit wind tellurian from your last battle could absorb your wind spells, how more less this lord.
“I’ll tell you this right now. None of your wind spells are capable of harming me. That is the difference between our two levels!”
Valerian nearly went blank from the shock. That’s because he realised that Kalian’s words were true. It’s not like he did not know about attunement. He just didn’t have the time to think about breaking through to the next stage with the Zebre coming up. Besides, he possessed essence that had an intensity and volume that did not lose out to the average Lord.
What did he have to fear? In his mind, his essence should be able to match up to anyone he met in the tournament but if his opponent was right then his wind attribute was useless here. Attunement strengthened the cultivator’s connection to an element.
It was like Jonas told him when he was little, if essence is like tea then attributes are the different flavours of tea. Elemental attunement took this further by enhancing the flavour until it became no different from the actual thing itself. Imagine mint tea that became like mint itself.
It also meant that your essence would become stronger and your control over that element would grow. At lower levels, this wasn’t obvious but if Kalian had really relied on this to break free and endure the wind squall then there was no way Valerian could compete with him using the wind element. The bastard would just disrupt the spells. No wonder the squall didn’t harm him.
He immediately abandoned his plan. He had been planning on layering wind cloak and wind speed in an attempt to catch up to his opponent’s speed but it was better to give it up. Especially if Kalian could disrupt his spell.
“Are you trying to say that I cannot win?” he asked keeping his voice impassive.
“Yes! See, this young lord knew you would get it. That is absolutely right! You have no chance of making it further in this competition. If you must know, all the incompetent ones have already been eliminated. Only you are left and that’s because your match is the last.
“In fact, if not for this lord taking pity on you and wanting to play a bit, I would have ended this match a minute after it started. Surely you have seen and felt what I am capable of”, Kalian said, rubbing the back of his sword for emphasis. He saw the twitch in Valerian’s temple and smiled mockingly.
“Do not feel discouraged. You are not too bad. Truthfully, you remind this lord of himself. A little weaker but still you should be fine if you go home and train for a few years. Better yet do not enter the Zebre until this young lord grows beyond the age limit. That will be in five years but you are young. You have the time.
“Use it to improve yourself. If you need help seek this young lord out. I’ll give you pointers but seriously, find someone to teach you how to fight. Your close combat skills are an eyesore”.
“What did you just say?” Valerian asked icily.
Realising that he had hit a nerve, Kalian went for it. “This young lord meant exactly what he said. Seeing you fight made me want to scrub my eyes out. I mean, how many punches can you throw without a single one hitting anything? Your teacher must have been a wooden post. And the way you move. Dear spirits!
“Your natural speed is not bad but there’s a more to speed than just running really fast you know.”
“…there’s more to speed than just running really fast.”
Those words rang in Valerian’s skull. They seemed significant. “What do you mean?” he asked his voice losing its dark tone to become curious. Kalian being the windbag he was, was happy to answer.
“What you call speed is more than just going from one point to another quickly. There’s coordination, balance, spatial awareness, body control. Hmph! You can’t even control your movements properly. Even if this lord explained it there’s not much you can do about it. From what I know, the Steelborns don’t even have a single movement technique worth a damn. But what can you expect? You were born to take beatings from others.
“We DriftClouds are different. Our legacy is penultimate. We are born and raised to be the best. To move and leave all others in our wake. Anyway, this lord is tired of speaking. I will let you have one final attack before I finish this. Use it wisely, it might not change anything but it might let me keep my good impression of you”, Kalian ended.
However, a strange idea had crept into Valerian’s mind. “Am I to take from what you said that your clan’s movement skill is really that great? That you possess all these facets and that makes you the best?” he asked.
“Are you mad Steelborn?” Kalian exclaimed. “Do not pretend to be stupid now. There are none in the duchy that are our match in speed”.
“I see”, Valerian muttered. Then he added, “Say Kalian, what do you think of making a little wager?”
For a moment, his opponent was puzzled and then s smile came over his face, “What kind of wager?”
“A simple one”, Valerian answered. “All you have to do is avoid me until the end of the match. If your clan’s skill so great then that should not be a challenge.”
“And the terms”, Kalian asked.
Valerian thought for a moment before saying, “Whoever wins the wager wins the match. However, to sweeten the pot, I am willing to undertake three tasks for you without commission.”
Kalian was confused. “What kind of tasks?”
Valerian smiled. “It goes without saying. I am a First Circle array master of three attributes. I’m sure you know what sort of tasks I am capable of”.
Kalian’s face brightened. To have an array master do three tasks for you free of charge. That was a good prize. He immediately thought of the many things he could have enchanted or the sort of talismans he could have made.
“I want five!” he proclaimed.
Valerian’s face changed. “I am not sure you want to continue with this wager. It appears you do not know what it is you are asking. I am a First Circle Array Master of three attributes. The youngest in an age. To this day, the only people who have obtained my work are my close family members. The only other place you can obtain a sample is in the Array Masters Association itself and even that is the one I made during my examination.
To offer you three is already beyond generous and now you want five. Do you know how many would …”
“It is fine. I’ll take the three as is”, Kalian quickly said.
He realised that he had been too greedy. To be the first person to get a commissioned work from Valerian, was already prestige enough. Valerian was bound to become more famous as time went by increasing the value of his works. The first piece of which would be in his hands.
For his part, Valerian smiled inwardly. In truth, five wasn’t much to him. However, that did not mean that he would just hand his work out. That would reduce its value.
“When do we start?” Kalian asked eagerly.
Valerian looked at him, taking the time to assess whether he was making the right decision. If he went through with this he would be unveiling one of his trumps. Perhaps even something he shouldn’t. However, his gut told him he was making the right choice. Taking a deep breath he let the change overcome him.
A golden outline came over his body and his hair raised upwards. His qi begun to surge and his body begun to change. First, spikes erupted from his shoulders, elbows, knees and heels. Then his hair turned into metallic bristles only with the central crest becoming a bright gold. His knuckles toughed becoming harder and his nails elongated. Finally, his wings emerged.
There were not his actual wings but the watchers did not know that. All they saw was a great expulsion of qi from his shoulder which shaped itself into massive translucent golden wings. Cries of shock could be heard from all over the arena but Valerian paid them no mind.
Hovering in the air, he stared at the man who proclaimed his clan the penultimate in speed and stated, “Let’s start now!”
I am sure that there are many of you cheering at being proved right. Feel free to. The entire purpose of this fight is to shape Valerian’s character and more importantly turn him into the speed freak he was meant to be. Having tasted it first hand, he would crave that strength that comes with superior speed and see its usefulness. Instead of remaining the strength based melee fighter that he has displayed so far, it will turn him into a speed demon befitting his legacy and lineage.
I just hope I handled it correctly. It is the longest fight I have ever written and hopefully the longest I’ll ever write. I don’t like Kalian.