The finals were to begin. The Zebre was nearing its end. Every category had completed its group stages and now all that was left was to discover the true winners. The best combatants and their respective rankings. The day before the runner-ups from the various groups had met for a final clash to determine the fifth seats. As for the rest, they’d remain unranked.
That’s just how things were. No one cared about the others. They were the ones who had failed to cut it. Instead, they focused on the upcoming matches. You’d find that everyone, from those on the streets to the ones in the bars and taverns, was debating on the competitors and their strengths, weaknesses, chances and possible matchups. That was the only topic people were concerned about at the moment.
As a matter of fact, it would appear that the battles this year nearly completely outshone the rest of the festivities. Yes, the battles were the main part of the festival but that had never been made so clear, at least in recent memory.
It was customary to use the Zebre as an excuse for partying, drinking, noise making, equipment sales, hosting fairs, auctions and having unofficial underground duels but this year … The main battles held all the attention. The betting houses were making a killing and the proceeds from this festival’s arena ticket sales so far was more than the last five combined.
Many famous loose cultivators, mercenaries and warriors were taking part this year, drawn in by the incredible prizes and fame that winning this particular Zebre would bring. As for the Young Lords’ Tourney, that was shaping up to be one of the most stimulating tournaments of them all. This year’s quality had been far above the previous ones and the battles, twists and turns had made for the most enjoyable watching.
Due in part to the profiles of the competitors and the forces they represented, everyone, especially those sensitive to the shifting winds knew it was a must watch. These were the viscounty’s best and brightest. Their future! As result, the competitors garnered massive followings as their fans and their backers drew more attention to them.
It wasn’t uncommon to find people fighting because of an argument on who was better or who would win. Nor was it uncommon to see people lining up and registering to join the forces who had clearly proved themselves the best in the region. The Fire Sage School, for example, being the only great school to reach the finals, received an unprecedented number of pledges and sign-ups this year.
As for the other schools, they were largely ignored and when it came to ones that hadn’t even participated. Everyone looked down on them, calling them cowards. It was clear that the reason they didn’t participate this year was because they feared not making the cut. Many considered this worse than actually taking part and losing.
All in all, the Zebre had not only called up the people and aroused their fighting spirit. It began to polarise them. People began to take sides, professing their support for this party or the other. It couldn’t be helped. It was human nature to follow the strong and the promising. However, the majority waited wishing to see the true winner before making their decision.
Perhaps, it was because of this us versus them mentality that begun to crop up that made the first matchup so surprising. At first, it nearly caused some division but under the guidance of certain people in the shadows, it created excitement instead as people begun to look forward to it.
This matchup: Ethan of the Steelborn versus Valerian of the Steelborn.
Valerian stood on the stage in his polished armour. In truth, he had maintained the same look he had at the beginning of the tournament. Nonetheless, he appeared different. His looks might not have changed but his presence sure did. The light in his eyes had grown harder. His stance was more prepared and his face whilst still nonchalant showed his readiness.
He put forth a subtle pressure now. The same kind that experts put out, only weaker. Valerian had begun “eating blades” as some put it. The exposure to battle he had experienced over the last few days was transforming him. Valerian had always been cast from steel, now he was being annealed.
Across from him was one of his cousins, the Steelborn heir as a matter of fact. If nothing went wrong, he would inherit first the position of clan leader and then that of Viscount and finally that of Patriarch. Looking at him now though, all you could see was a young man. A very tall and fit young man.
He was two point two metres tall with a muscle-bound frame that made him look like he bench-pressed buildings. His entire form was clad in Steelborn plate, only his was of a darker material than Valerian’s, adorned with gold filigree and possessed much more ornate pauldrons. His hair was dark and matched his armour quite well.
The two stood there looking at each other. Their battle should have started by now but they were forced to wait. The Viscount was supposed to make an announcement. He was the one they were waiting on now. The entire arena was bristling, they understood that whatever their lord had to say was probably important, however, they did not want to delay the battle or its resulting gratification.
Eventually, though, he stood, walking to the very front of the Lords’ Booth. He was flanked by the one of the city’s highest officials and a Steelborn Grand Elder. Once he stepped forward, all noise and grumbling fell away as as one the people turned to face him, ears open to what he had to say.
“People of DaleGuard, People of Cragsveil, People of the Plains! I come before you not only as your lord but also as a bearer of good news. It has been nearly one hundred and ninety-nine years since you opened yourselves up to my clan and accepted us as your rulers.
“In that time, we have overcome tribulations and accomplished more feats than many would deem possible. With the exception of the seniors, many of you might not see it but Cragsveil has changed over the years. We have grown stronger! We have grown populous! We have grown prosperous! Clearly, the Heavens look favourably on us and the Earth bestows us with blessings”, he said.
Lowering his pitch and causing his voice to become more solemn, he continued, “For this, I come before you, a representative of my entire house and blood to say thank you.” “THANK YOU GREAT PEOPLE OF CRAGSVEIL!” he yelled emphatically.
“We say thank for these things for many point to us as the instruments of this change. In fact, the King is preparing to reward us for it but we know the truth. This is a transformation that came by your hands. That you worked for with your strength. That you have put sweat and blood into.
“Look around people of Cragsveil at the many changes that have been instituted over the years and know that you are their root cause. This is a change you worked at and you deserve glory and honour and praise. It is you who welcomed my clan into your arms. It was you who rallied behind my father to fight for your freedom and survival. It was you that granted us your fealty and the title we now hold.
“Even these many beneficial changes that the viscounty has gone through were the result of your trust and your own hard work. We may have led but that would have accomplished nothing if you hadn’t followed. We might have worked but would have all come to naught if you did not support us. Thus again, we say thank you!”
Here, The Viscount bowed to the surprise and admiration of many. It was deep bow. One that communicated respect and gratitude. It was not one directional. Keeping his head down, the Viscount made sure to move such that his torso made a complete three-sixty degree turn such that he appeared to bow to all the people in the arena.
The podium where he stood was completely exposed and had a clear line of sight to any part of the arena seating. Thus, everyone could see his actions. They were already trying to recover and understand the things he said to them. Seeing him bow let them understand how serious he was. Many in the Lords’ Booth cursed but it was hard not be moved by his actions.
Raising his head to address his people, the Viscount continued, “I would like to make an oath, here and now. Before all of you and under the auspices of the Heavens and the Earth. I, William, Surnamed Steelborn, Head of all who bear that name vow that so long as you people have need of us. So long as you continue to support us and accept us, we the Steelborn clan. No… we the House of Cragsveil will continue to do our best for you and with you. This we swear!”
Unbidden, every Steelborn in the arena including Valerian, Ethan and the other members of the Magistrate’s household rose to their feet and repeated unanimously. “THIS WE SWEAR!”
It made for an impressive image, dozens of people scattered around the arena standing up and yelling out in such a resolute manner and at the same time. Even Valerian had to confess that it looked planned. However, he hadn’t even known that the Viscount was going to make such a speech. Judging from his reactions, Ethan didn’t either and yet they hadn’t needed to be told.
They just supported unflinchingly and instinctively. It was probably the same for many of the others. Their actions though matching would be seen through by anyone with enough experience just like they would have if they had rehearsed beforehand. This way though, it seemed truer and was more convincing.
He looked at the Clan Head still standing at the podium, looking out at his people. ‘Did he know we’d respond that way?’ Valerian asked no one in particular. The man began speaking again.
“This is an oath we’ll keep for eternity!” in response to his words, a change occurred in the surrounding world essence. Even the non-cultivators noticed. It felt like a tremor but nothing actually moved. Like a rumble in the sky but without thunder, lightning or clouds. The oath had been accepted by Verre itself. Unable to help themselves, the spectators began to murmur.
However, the Viscount continued speaking, causing silence to fall once more and everyone to hang on his words. “The Heavens and the Earth have acknowledged our oath and I can assure you that we will keep it!”
Then his face broke into smiles, “Additionally, I have more good news for you. I am here to announce that the Steelborn Clan, has grown stronger and will continue to do so. For years, generations now, we have been your protectors and perhaps in recognition of our efforts, the spirits have rewarded us that we might continue this task.
“Our two blood legacies the Steel Monolith Transformation and The StormHawk’s Wings have begun to merge!”
Despite themselves, the crowds nearly went into a clamour. This was getting more fantastical by the second. The Steelborn blood legacies were merging? What did that even mean?’
The Viscount answered them. “Yes! Our very power grows with each generation. We are unsure what this holds in store for us but we can tell you something. It has strengthened our abilities and given us new ones. In fact, let me introduce to you two of the holders of this combined legacy…”
With that, he turned and held his hand out, pointing at none other than the two individuals on the stage. Valerian suddenly found himself the centre of attention as people begun to whisper to each other musing over whether that was what he revealed in his last match.
Feeling put on the spot he glanced back at the Viscount. Even with the distance between them, he could make out the expectant look on the man’s face. Realising that it could not be helped, Valerian gave a sigh of resignation and transformed. The now familiar gold outline came over his body and began to change it. Beside him, a similar transformation was occurring.
Ethan looked at his grandfather, snorting inwardly as the man fed his audience with a lie. What merged legacies? He didn’t know about Valerian’s circumstances but he would go out on a limb and say that it didn’t hold true for him as well. That excuse was originally crafted for Ethan’s use after all.
As a toddler, he had been taken before the clan’s guardian spirit for a blessing, as was his right as heir. Unfortunately, things went awry. Instead of obtaining a blessing he suffered miserably and then underwent a mutation. Not knowing what to do the Grand Elders looked at his new form and came up with a cover story about “merged legacies”.
The two changed in front of their audience. A gold aura around Valerian and a grey one around Ethan. Spikes erupted from their joints and their hair turned into metallic bristles. That was where the similarities ended. Massive translucent wings unfurled themselves from Valerian’s back. In Ethan’s case, feathers begun to sprout on his body.
They popped out of the back of his forearms rising through the bracers of his adaptive armour and the top of his skull. The ones on top of his head were straight and long. Being just as dark and metallic as his hair, they stuck out, creating a magnificent plume. Massive steel talons grew from his finger and toenails and most shocking of all, his face scrunched itself.
All of his facial features blended together and instead, a wicked looking beak shot out of his face. It was curved like that of a hawk and made of glistening steel. His eyes changed as well. His iris grew much larger, dominating most of his eye and becoming a dark yellow whilst his pupils remained dark and foreboding. Nostril slits appeared on his beak whiles his ears melded into the side of his head.
Valerian looked at his cousin, suddenly feeling like he had bitten off more than he could chew. The spectators felt the same as well. They had come expecting a showdown between Steelborns but right now there wasn’t a single person who thought that this would be a fair matchup.
Ignore his opponent’s age, experience and even the massive curved beak and talons that looked ready to tear flesh from bone or even the many sharp, metallic feathers that added to his menacing appearance. Ethan was three times Valerian’s size!
Unlike Valerian who never changed size when transforming, Ethan was a normal Steelborn….mostly. This meant that his transformation changed him from a two point two metre tall giant to a four and half metre monstrosity. Combined with his heavy steel armour and massive talons, the scene on the fighting platform had become comical. This was the great and anticipated matchup?
A Golden Sparrow versus a Great Taloned Ostrich! That’s what this was.