Ignoring the reactions of the crowd, the Viscount began to speak again. “What you see before you is a sign of new growth. Thus far, the changes have been varied and without set form, making it clear that this is just the beginning and that there’s more to come.
“Despite our efforts, none of us have been able to predict where the changes would lead but it should be obvious that once it stabilises we would have something even greater and more unique. We couldn’t be more grateful. It has been a long time coming.”
The audience looked at their Viscount trying and failing to understand what was going on. Many of them had never ever seen the [StormHawk’s Wings]. Not surprising. It was a legacy only available to a select few Steelborns. Even then, it only showed up amongst the arcanists. Given that only one every eight Steelborn cultivators was an arcanist, the chances of it showing up were very low.
The entire Steelborn clan numbered ninety-six individuals. Of these, only seven had access to the [StormHawk’s Wings]. This brought up a lot of questions. If the trait was so recessive how was it able to contend and merge with the dominant Steelborn legacy? As if reading their minds, the viscount quickly answered this unspoken question.
“There is only one thing that is responsible for all this. The Steelborn StormHawk! People of Cragsveil, there is no denying it. As a matter of fact, you have seen the signs and many of you even know outright. Our Guardian spirit has grown more powerful.
“This is what allows it and its legacy to more easily express itself in our line. However, we are not the only ones benefiting from this. Yes, many of you forget but the Stormhawk isn’t just the spirit of the Steelborns but also the Spirit of Cragsveil’s lords. A guardian spirit’s domain encapsulates not only those it is bound to but also those who are bound in turn to its people.
“This means that just as our clan grows so too does our spirit and just as the land grows, so too does its spirit. I can see many of you are confused but at the same time I can see that many of you have had an epiphany. To those people, I will confirm that YES! That is why StormHawk answers your prayers.
“As you do fealty to me, you do as well to the StormHawk!” he yelled.
“You might not accept this but ask yourselves. When was the last time pestilence blighted our lands? When was the last time the storms of the Wildlands spread destruction amongst us? When was the last time that the rains failed to come when needed? When was the last time that our troops were not victorious in battle?
“That is because the StormHawk watches over these lands. Providing it with power and reason for doing so is precisely those amongst you who go the extra mile. You that directly worship and offer sacrifice to our spirit. This grants the StormHawk more power and in turn makes it looks to you like he would any one of its blood. That’s why he answers your prayers and bestows you with blessings. In truth, just this Zebre, a few families of devout followers had their children blessed by the StormHawk right in this very arena.
“That is why I have come out to confirm to you that indeed the StromHawk is not just the Guardian Spirit of the Steelborns but Also the Guardian of the House of Cragsveil and the Guardian of Cragsveil itself. Every day when I pass by the StormHawk shrine and see worshippers I feel my heart lift. I am glad that there are people who see its wonders and goodness. I come to you to tell you that your every prayer, your every sacrifice is remembered. The StormHawk rewards the faithful and in fact, I have been licensed by the StormHawk itself to inform you that you are permitted to build shrines in your homes and your communities that you might more easily reach out to it and it to you. You will be able to…” here the viscount paused as if unable to continue and sighed.
“I would tell you more my dear people of Cragsveil but I am afraid I must end here so that the Zebre can continue. Any who wish to know more may visit the StormHawk shrine. The priests there will answer all your questions. LONG LIFE AND PROSPERITY TO THE HOUSE OF CRAGSVEIL, LONG LIFE AND PROSPERITY TO THE STEELBORN STORMHAWK AND LONG LIFE AND PROSPERITY TO CRAGSVEIL! Thank you!”
With that abrupt end, the Viscount left his podium and walked back to the Lords’ Booth. The arena was filled with murmuring as people quickly begun to discuss the announcement. Others looked pensive as they strove to digest what they had heard. There were just too many issues and unfortunately the Viscount had ended without fully explaining them all leaving them hanging.
As he walked back to the booth William smiled mentally. The Steelborn agenda was proceeding as planned. Next, they would have agents spread the news all over the viscounty. Then, they’d prepare for the aftermath.
The situation in the Lords’ Booth was completely different. Dorian Veldt felt like hanging himself. He was not the only one. The assembled nobles had come expecting the Steelborns to make a power play using their might but now they realised that that was barely a third of the ploy. The most worrying part. The smart ones among them could tell.
The Steelborns were looking to set their spirit up as the official patron of the entire viscounty. Where that would lead they weren’t sure but it was clear that if they succeeded, their power would grow exponentially. What’s more, they would have the people completely under their thumbs. Discreet transmissions began to be made and plans begun to be drawn up.
So, how do we do this?” Ethan asked him.
Valerian looked upwards, the only way he could stare his cousin in the face and gave his answer. “I think we should just go at it. Make it an exhibition of a sort.”
Their fight had completely lost its lustre. Their audience had not even noticed that it had commenced. So engrossed were they in discussing the Viscount’s announcement. Neither youth held it against them though they’d probably be thinking of it too if they didn’t have a battle ahead of them.
Ethan considered Valerian’s proposal and said. “That is okay. You start.”
Rather than being insulted at being given the first strike, Valerian merely got into a stance and took off. He went at his cousin at full speed, swinging his mace at his face. A sharp clang of struck metal rang through the air as Valerian found his mace blocked by the back of his cousin’s gauntleted forearm.
Valerian was impressed. Steelborns might not be very quick on their feet but they did not lack speedy reflexes nor were their attack speeds anything to scoff at. Mindful of this Valerian hastily created a cushion of wind between himself and his opponent. It was a good call considering his foe’s counterstrike was a massive fist bigger than his head.
Ethan struck the air cushion with dull whump, and Valerian borrowed that force to leap backwards. He remained in the air, hovering half a metre of the stage floor examining his opponent. This would be his first fight against another clan member his age and he wanted to make the most of it.
Truth be told, he had expected the attack to be deflected in some manner. Clude’s principles dictated so. However, Ethan had chosen to block instead, robbing him of his momentum and stopping him long enough for him to strike back. Clearly, his cousin had had experience fighting against people faster than himself.
The whole thing made Valerian excited. He had diligently practised the family fighting style every day since his awakening. Even though he had only now begun working on the tellurian techniques, he believed that his actual combat form was not to be discounted. Richard and Elder Foreson often complimented him on it after all.
Nevertheless, he would not claim he was experienced at using it in actual combat. Before now, his qi cultivation had been woefully lacking and he was forced to rely on his arcane techniques in every circumstance that called for combat. Even his standing in the Zebre was the same. With the exception of his battle against Kalian, he had relied on his spells for everything.
Right now, he couldn’t help but be filled with the desire to test out his actual fighting form. He planted his feet in the air as if he was on solid ground and then tightened his grip on his mace, filling it with his qi. It responded to his surging fighting spirit, its head glowing gold from the infusion of metal attributed qi. Then, with a savage grin on his face, he called on the wind and stepped forward.
His wings beat, flashing him forward so he could slam his mace’s glowing head into his cousin’s ribs. Ethan reacted swiftly, sending a palm strike his way to slap him away. Valerian’s grin grew. He changed targets, choosing instead to smash his mace into Ethan’s wrist. The offending hand was harshly struck away causing its owner to yelp in pain.
Valerian did not stop. He turned on the wind, becoming a golden streak that shot behind Ethan, his mace swinging towards the back of his head. It never made it there. A massive sword appeared in his path to obstruct him. Valerian nearly crashed into its handle. Retreating quickly, he examined it.
It was a greatsword, if you could even call it that. It was about four metres long and in the style of a two-handed claymore. The blade was about thirty centimetres thick and double-edged. Despite its great thickness, it appeared quite slender due to its great length. All it had done was to materialise on its master’s back, hanging there as if in an invisible baldric and yet it had sent Valerian fleeing.
Valerian looked at the sword in alarm. Not because of its size but due to its aura. As a metal attributed cultivator, he could clearly sense its power and characteristics and they were more than enough to fill him with dread. As he stood there trying to think of a new approach, Ethan spun around to face him. He was no longer smiling.
His face was set in a serious expression and his left hand was clutched in his right. His wrist was fine. A little sore but fine. His own durability and that of his armour were the only reasons the bones in it had not been crushed. Leaving it alone, he reached his right hand behind his head and grasped his sword’s handle. Immediately, his aura changed.
He was no longer the friendly looking Ethan he had been before. His aura and that of his sword began to blend together becoming dark, cold and above all sharp. His eyes never left Valerian giving him the feeling that his gaze was cutting through the air to get at him. Spreading his feet, he held the massive claymore in front of him and grasped it with both hands much like Valerian had done with his mace. Done, he opened his mouth and the voice that came out was nearly unrecognisable.
“Come again!” he said to Valerian.
Despite the invitation, Valerian found himself reluctant to go forward. Ethan’s tone had been daring but it was also dangerous and dark. Plus, he had the feeling that he was now looking at the real Ethan Steelborn. Like a veneer had been cast off so he could see the true material. He shook himself, realising that his opponent’s aura was getting to him.
Still, he took the time to check on his shields before he rushed forward again. This time the metallic ringing from their clash was even stronger. Valerian found himself straining against his opponent. Their weapons were locked together between them with each side pushing at the other. It was a strange sight, seeing Valerian’s small form pushing against the gigantic form of his cousin. For a moment they looked to be equal in strength. However, Ethan was only using one hand!
The other shot at Valerian in a cruel left hook, much like before. Only this time, it was faster. Valerian ignored it, choosing to fire off [Scything Blades] at his opponent’s face. Ethan backed off, choosing to protect his eyes instead of attack, just like Valerian expected. Whilst, he fully intended to test his close combat skills, Valerian was not one to neglect his other abilities. Who on earth would toss away half his deck before entering a card game?
He had arcane abilities and he would use them in conjunction with his tellurian ones. Besides, both Clude and Harry had stressed one particular fact. “Keep or seize the battle rhythm!” In addition, Harry reminded. “Seize all openings to put down your opponent!”
Valerian definitely wasn’t going to let this opportunity go. He struck quickly, mace flaring brightly from the qi he used. Unfortunately, his opponent knew Harry’s principle too. Even as he twisted his torso to avoid the spell, he sent his own attack at Valerian. [Misty Outcrop]
His knee shot upwards, smashing into Valerian’s chest. Like a tossed ragdoll, Valerian was sent skyward where he met his cousin’s right fist, already prepared to send him back down. He struck the fighting platform in a sickening crash that sent cracks radiating from the point of impact. Coughing blood, he looked up to find his cousin’s steel sabatons coming down on him.
Harry’s final principle flashed through his head at that moment, “Finish decisively!” there was no doubt in his mind that if that foot landed the battle would indeed be finished. In fact, he would lucky if he came out of it in one piece. Valerian frantically called on the wind. It tugged him out of there, buoying him up and supporting his wings as he hightailed it away.
As he made his escape, he was treated to the sight of his cousin’s foot stomp the stage, smashing downward so strongly he created a three-metre wide crater. It didn’t end there. A shockwave moved through the fighting platform nearly knocking the referee over. Luckily, Valerian was in the air and thus was unaffected. He hung there, witness to the destruction Ethan had caused. Even recognising the move he had used.
[Tremor Step], a prized clan technique.
Belatedly, he ran his hands over his chest. Thankfully, the knee failed to make it through his shield and breastplate. If not, the knee spike would undoubtedly have gored him. Still, the force of the hit had hurt him internally. Valerian swiped the blood dribbling from his lips, aware that this was his first true injury of the tournament. He swallowed the blood still in his mouth, eyes focused on his opponent. This match was going to be difficult.
Even so, Valerian felt his blood churn. Some part of him was getting worked up and something was pushing him forward revelling in the pain and feeling of danger. Perhaps, it was because for a moment there when he had been in the shadow of Ethan’s foot he feared for his life. That survival instinct had spurred him on and pushed him into his optimum state, physically and mentally.
Valerian looked at his cousin and surprisingly felt an even greater urge to fight. Not out of anger, well maybe there was a little but there was also this primal urge to just grab his opponent and beat the shit out of him. To prove himself the stronger of the two. For a brief moment, Valerian considered holding it back but he changed his mind. Ethan looked like he could take it. Today, he would unleash his full strength.
His eyes swept the stage, finding his mace leaving a few metres from his adversary’s feet. He thought of calling it to him but discarded that thought. His trusty mace was unfortunately, too weak to be used in this fight. It made for a good arcane focus but it was inferior as a melee weapon especially against the sword in Ethan’s hands. Valerian had already seen chips flying from it in the last clash. Best keep it out of the way in the fight that to come.
Instead, he used [Rending Talons], allowing the qi to coat both his arms and shape them into imitations of a peng’s talons. Prepared, he shot forward at his waiting opponent.
Ethan had waited for him to recover choosing to play the defensive role in this battle. In his mind, he had already designated himself cluder and Valerian harrier much like he would when sparing with his other cousins. This was different though. Normally, he limited his strength for fear of hurting them. With Valerian though, he feared not using enough and getting struck down instead.
Seeing him come at him, in his strange eagle-like manner, reminded him of the last two clashes. He had been lucky. His abilities and experience let him come out top in them but he had been pushed each time. Who knows if Valerian would succeed this time and land a critical hit? It was probably best for him to keep him away.
With this thought in mind, he infused his sword with qi and swung it. His form was practised and perfect, with each sword swing sending forth a beam of sword qi. His sword grumbled at not being able to taste Valerian’s blood directly but he dismissed its complaints and continued slashing at Valerian from afar.
To the spectators what he shot weren’t sword beams but rather streams of sword qi. Each sword wave was five metres long and each carried a sharp, frigid aura. They had been released from a four-metre sword held by a four and a half metre tall birdman so even though they were proportional to him they were huge to everyone else. Also, they left a brutal chill in their wake that could be felt from the stands and were made of sword qi so sharp they created slash marks on the stage floor that preceded them.
Valerian stared at the many sword waves heading towards him. Each came at him in a different manner such that together they formed a net of sword qi. Concentrating, he sped up instead of slowing down. Relying on the wind to guide him, his translucent wings beat even harder, making it difficult for spectators to even see his image clearly.
Up. Down. Left. Right. Tilt. Slash.
That became his mantra. His mind centred itself entirely on [Soaring through the Heavens]. Those waves that he could not avoid, he cut through with his talons. He did so till he made it through the net of sword qi leaving his beautiful mantle the only victim of Ethan’s assault. It floated down behind him, reduced to little strips but he didn’t even notice.
Rather, his advance went unhalted. Racing forward, his arms kept up their movement this time sending out triple beams of qi from his [Rending Talons]. It was the first time Valerian had ever done so but it came instinctively. He just filled his talons with his qi and his intent to dice up his enemy and then swung at him. This allowed his qi to fly forward, guided by his fighting spirit and shaped by his technique.
Now it Ethan’s turn. Unlike Valerian, he didn’t even move from his spot. Instead, his qi surged and his sword swept forward once more. His movements were lightning quick, making it seem like his sword was at three, four places at the same time as he endeavoured to parry each talon strike. However, Valerian wasn’t only striking from afar. He too seemed to appear at more than one place at the same time.
Relying on his speed, he circled his cousin, raining down qi strikes like he would spells. He kept this up till it seemed like he had blanketed the air around Ethan with them. Seeing his foe occupied, he went in. First, he struck at his right heel, his talons sinking into the armour and steel-like flesh beneath to slice through the Achilles tendon. Ethan cried out from the pain but remained standing. That notwithstanding, he lost focus for a split second allowing a talon strike to land on his breastplate.
Regrettably, the qi strikes were not as powerful as an actual close up [Rending Talon] and so all it did was leave cuts in his armour. Even so, it gave Valerian the opportunity he needed to fly up and cut through the ligament at the back of Ethan’s knee as well. This time Ethan buckled. He went down to his knees with yet another cry of pain. Fortunately or unfortunately, this caused many of the qi strikes to fly over him.
Valerian had purposefully aimed at his head and torso so that he could attack his legs safely. Ethan’s reduced height made some fly above him but it also meant that the rest were now all around head height. Acting quickly, Ethan raised his hand to cover his head. His skin and armour shone, a steely glint covering them as he activated a defensive skill.
Valerian took this chance to fly away. Rising sharply through the air and leaving his cousin to face the aftermath of his attack. He was treated to the sight of his qi strikes striking Ethan’s head and upper torso. Some missed and cut apart the stage floor instead. Sadly, they had absolutely no effect. The only thing they did was create sparks as they struck Ethan’s glinting body. He ground his teeth in frustration and begun building up qi for his next move.
As he did so, he noted that Ethan did not move an inch until the steel glint left his body. ‘He can’t move when he uses the skill’, Valerian concluded. That would be a nifty thing to exploit if he got the chance. He watched impassively as Ethan stood up, wincing as he put weight on his right leg.
“This will be my final attack cousin, prepare yourself!” Valerian warned him.
Ethan’s glowered at him, his eyes dark and his sword grip tightening only for his eyes to widen when he saw Valerian’s stance. In truth, every Steelborn at the arena looked at Valerian in the same way. He hovered, ten metres over the stage floor, fists clenched and held at his sides. Around him, his qi swirled rising and covering over his body like a golden flame.
Ethan barely had time to raise his sword in front of him and awaken it before the avalanche started. Bright, whitish blue light burst from the sword to wrap around its master just as Valerian launched the first fist.
The [Cascading Fist] was an area of effect tellurian skill designed for use against multiple enemies. The Steel Monolith transformation, despite its great power also put smaller enemies out of the user’s reach. This was especially dangerous when facing multiple foes. One could be surrounded and slowly worn down or they could land many debilitating strikes to bring you down.
That was how pack animals like painted lycaons hunted down large prey like Devil Elands. They’d surround it and bite at its legs till it crumbled. The Eland often lost because he could not fight the entire group at the same time. Despite its strength, it could only attack one at a time leaving the rest to attack it from the flanks or the back. It was to prevent such a thing from happening to transformed Steelborns that techniques like the [Cascading Fists] were invented.
It did one thing and one thing only. It blanketed the area with qi enhanced fist strikes, crushing anything and everything in the vicinity. It was like rain. It came down in single drops that together washed away all opposition. It was like a rockslide. One rock was worrisome but when they fell together en mass nothing could block them. It was also one of the only Steelborn tellurian skills Valerian knew and he used it with all the force he could muster against his cousin.
Each of his fists shot forward, releasing massive metre wide fists of qi. They went in turns when one shot forward the other was drawing back and building up its next charge. Valerian floated in the air, his fists blurred and indistinct from the speed with which they moved. Soon, only their effects could be seen as massive golden fists descended on Ethan and the fighting platform in droves.
Dust rose, obscuring the stage. The only thing that onlookers could make out were the flashes of light that appeared whenever a fist struck the stage. The sounds created were like those of a thunderstorm. Crashes and booms, that’s all anyone could make out. They were so loud that they rocked the place, creating visible tremors in the fighting field.
After what seemed like the hundredth fist, Valerian stopped. He hung there, panting visibly as sweat poured down his brow. Everyone waited for the dust to clear so that they could see just how beat up Ethan was. The winner of this fight was clear. Valerian had bobbled him. There was no way he could move properly much less avoid the fists and there was no shield that could possibly endure that volley. They just hopped that they hadn’t just witnessed parricide.
Suddenly, a beam of sword qi shot out of dispersing dust clouds, cleanly slicing them into two. A second followed, creating a cross-shaped sign as they flew at Valerian. Pushing his tired body to the limits allowed by his flight technique, Valerian just managed to sidestep the sword beams. They shot past him continuing upwards where they cut open the overhanging clouds.
Valerian examined himself in fright. He had almost been killed in that last strike. Despite dodging it completely, he still suffered internal injuries from the qi that made up the attack. Hoarfrost covered his armour and his sweat had frozen. The feeling of that freezing sword beam lingered in his heart, filling it with shock and fear.
Looking into the quartered dust clouds, Valerian could make out Ethan standing there unscathed from his [Cascading Fists]. His body stood ready to continue and his sword was now completely different. Icy, whitish-blue light glimmered over its blade like a fire and its aura buffeted the very world essence around it. Valerian didn’t need to be told to know that Ethan had been suppressing its true power before.
However, now he was done playing games. His very gaze was murderous.
“I SURRENDER!” Valerian found himself screaming, his voice cracking in the middle.
So, how many of you predicted that ending? Even more importantly, how many of you think you know what the Steelborns are up to? I’d like to hear your deductions.
Sorry if the fight disappointed you. Valerian just can’t win this battle. Ethan is a mutant with the blessing of a minor divinity not to mention a fully trained tellurian combatant who was raised to one day head a clan full of burly knights. He is better trained, with a higher cultivation, a more powerful weapon and in possession of the best skills and methods from the clan archives. Even full form, Valerian would loose. Marginally, true. As his raw power might overwhelm Ethan for a bit but he has his own trumps. He is the blessed one after all. In addition, it would be a pyrrhic victory at most if Valerian won ’cause then every lord and mercenary in the arena and all their dogs, horses and allies would be after him like José Jalapeño ON A STICK!