I lost. I lost so shamefully.
Those were the words that kept echoing in Valerian’s head. He was still in shock. When the referee called the match, he meekly went home, ignoring all of the platitudes that were offered him by his family and well-wishers. He just walked into his room and sat on his bed, unable to come to grips with what happened.
It’s not like he expected to win the match. He had known from the very beginning that he was not going to win. Everyone had told him, warned him. Ethan had never even transformed fully in any of his previous matches. Not that his opponents were weak but because he was too strong. He steamrolled them without much effort. He was the prized genius of the clan. The top of his class in his academy. An institution that trained officers for the Royal Bathan Army.
Be it weapons, skills, tutors, training, cultivation resources, he had lacked none growing up. He was considered by the elders to be a true heir to the Menhirionn legacy. Fit, powerful, with incredible battle instincts and enough raw strength to flip hills. In their entire generation, the only person who completely outclassed Valerian in pure strength was none other than that same Ethan. Bear in mind that Valerian was more than twice as strong as the average Steelborn at his cultivation tier.
Then there was the rumour Richard had told him. That Ethan had the favour of the StormHawk and the ability to call on some of its powers in battle. Valerian had confirmed most of those rumours today. Ethan’s strength really was greater than his. His transformation, even without its “extra features”, was also a step above their peers. As for his sword, just thinking about it caused Valerian to shudder unconsciously.
No! Valerian had not gone into the battle expecting to win.
That notwithstanding, he had not also expected to lose in the manner he had. His intention was to climb up that stage and reveal some of his fighting prowess. Let everyone know that he wasn’t just an arcanist and an array master but also a tellurian and a Steelborn tellurian at that. After displaying some of his best moves, he would then concede and bow out gracefully.
That would not only showcase his skill but also win the favour of the clan and the elders. It would make it clear to the Steelborns, who he confessed to being a bit isolated from, that he was still a clan member and that he was willing to put aside his own aspirations for the clan. Putting Ethan before himself would show them that he greatly considered the clan and his place in it. However, he made a big mistake. He had considered himself to be Ethan’s equal.
In spite of all the warnings, he did not accept that Ethan really was that far above him. In his head, even if Ethan was more powerful, he would not be that far behind. Both of them were Steelborns, weren’t they? Both of them were lauded as geniuses and most of all, Valerian himself was not just a tellurian he was an array master and the descendant of the Golden Winged Peng. Even if Ethan was more powerful, it was only because he was eight years older than him, right? The gap couldn’t possibly be that wide.
He was wrong.
He let his own arrogance and pride steer him wrong. If Ethan had taken him seriously from the get-go…. Valerian felt his heart skip a beat from fear. His body experienced the phantom sensations from before. He saw that cross slash again in his mind’s eye. Only this time, he was unable to dodge and it cut him into quarters. He put his hands together and squeezed, trying to stop them from trembling.
He nearly died today. If he hadn’t dodged? If Ethan had followed up quickly instead of pausing when he did? He would be dead. There were no two ways about it. The fact that Ethan had been taken aside and harshly admonished by the clan elders for using that attack was more than enough proof.
The spectators didn’t know. They didn’t experience what he did. They didn’t have the same extrasensory abilities. That moment when the sword first appeared, Valerian had known something was off about it. Truthfully, he didn’t even notice the sword at first. He just sensed the bloodlust and quickly backpedalled, abandoning his attack. It was only when he got away that he noticed that it was a sword. Plus, the way it changed Ethan when he held it…
Even so, he didn’t see it for what it truly was until Ethan drew our its true power and attacked him with it. It was a noble artefact! Forget normal essence artefacts like his mace. Ethan’s sword was a weapon that should only be in the hands of people at the lord tier or above. In terms of power, it was at least fifteen times greater than his poor mace. How Ethan was able to control it was a question on its own. The thing that frightened Valerian was not its power but its aura.
Everyone saw the frigid sword qi that Ethan shot from it but Valerian with his abilities saw more than that. Neither the sword nor its qi possessed any freezing or ice abilities. Yet, the blade somehow froze everything in its vicinity. It did this by leeching the heat and life of everything around it. Valerian remembered clearly and he doubted he would ever forget. That cross-shaped slash he dodged. Despite dodging it, he felt his blood chill, his body grow cold, his qi diminish, his vitality drain away and his whole self, get covered in hoarfrost.
All that, just from coming close to some of its expelled qi. Imagine if the sword qi hit him or if the sword itself did. He turned to look at the claymore wondering what sort of weapon would do such a thing and then saw it. By taking off the suppressants, Ethan also allowed him to see the sword for what it truly was. It was all he could do not to scream in fright. The thing was evil. It was a bloodthirsty, life stealing weapon, of destruction.
That’s what it was. What it did. What’s worse, that’s what Ethan did. His aura was entwined with the blade, enhancing it just the sword did him. Valerian’s senses reached for his cousin only to recoil in shock at the realisation that the sword had taken lives. Dozens of them. Proudly. Happily. All at Ethan’s hands. He could sense the energies gathered in the blade, strengthening it and its wielder. A wielder whose eyes communicated the intent to do him harm and whose sword thirsted for his blood. Both of whom were gearing up for another attack.
Valerian surrendered immediately knowing that he would die if he didn’t. Shit! He had nearly died just a couple of seconds before. He was not proud of his decision but at the time he had been staring death in the face and contrary to his own expectations, Valerian did not stand firm. He lost his composure. Not just surrendering but doing so in obvious fear. He wasn’t sure which was first. Nearly dying or having everyone see him at his weakest moment.
Valerian Steelborn never lost nor did he fail at anything. He never backed down from a challenge and he never went back on his word. Today he had failed at not one but three of his maxims. Valerian could honestly say that that had been the closest he had ever knowing come to death and he was disappointed in himself. Not just for losing but because he had just realised that he may be the type to tuck tail and scurry away when the big moment came.
His mattress sunk, a form suddenly appearing at his side. Surprised and already on edge, Valerian nearly struck at it with his mace. Thankfully, his uncle was able to grab onto it and stop it. Valerian looked at his uncle and Richard looked at him understanding clear in his eyes.
“We need to talk!” the armoured giant said softly.
Valerian looked at his opponent today. Aaron Veldt was praised and hailed a genius of the bow. There was even a story circulating of him tripping over a strung crossbow as a child and causing it to shoot a target dead centre. Despite that though, he did not use a crossbow but a longbow. He was a tellurian who specialised in ranged warfare and whose enemies were often defeated before they could even get within three metres of himself.
He was about Valerian’s height but probably a few centimetres taller, with long hair drawn into braids. He was surprisingly pale for someone who supposedly spent twelve hours a day shooting targets at his family’s range. Also, he seemed very tense. His bow was already drawn and his kept running his fingers over the quiver at his side. Interestingly, he carried two of those. One at each side.
Valerian was more interested in the bow though. It had a strange scaly appearance. The material looked like bone covered by golden scales. There were also red strips of cloth wrapped around the ends. ‘A stylistic choice perhaps?’ Valerian wondered. Then his eyes were drawn to the stands where a few females screamed for their ‘hero’ whilst waving coloured kerchiefs. ‘A token from a lady or something?’
Whatever. He could guess the reason for his opponent’s nervousness. Aaron too had lost his first match. Right now, it would seem that first place was already out of both their hands. The winner of the zebra would be determined by the number of wins. Unless both Ethan and Tirenael lost a match each, there was no chance for them to catch up. Valerian doubted his monster of a cousin could even lose. Still, he felt no pity or empathy for his opponent. He too had come here to win and he had already resolved to crush him.
“FIGHT!” the referee yelled.
Immediately, both sides sprang into action, seeking to seize the initiative. Faster than he would have deemed possible, Aaron had drawn and fired. Arrow after arrow flew at Valerian but he was long gone. A gold streak shot into the air, pausing to reveal Valerian already in his transformed state. He looked down, noting Aaron’s surprised face.
‘He probably didn’t think I could transform that fast’, Valerian realised. He snorted in derision. ‘How useful could a transformation be if it took too long to enter it?’
Impassively, he swung his mace downward and let his arcane energy loose. Forgoing [Wind Fists] his go-to choice, he released [Wind Blades] instead. They were harder to shoot down. Yet, Aaron managed to do so. He shot them out of the sky like a hunter would pheasants. The strange part was the care he took to ensure that not even a single one landed anywhere near him.
Valerian immediately caught on that his opponent was on guard against his tactic of hiding spell anchors in other spells. As he dodged a series of incoming arrows, he frowned. That would make things harder. He raised his mace high, shaping his next spell. [Wind Scythe]. A massive, one and a half metre long, curved blade took shape from the world essence. Valerian directed it towards his adversary whilst shaping another one.
Aaron left his position and run as far and as fast as he could. That was not a spell he could shoot down. Unfortunately for him, Valerian had sunk his consciousness in the spell and was controlling it remotely. Thus, it followed him. He looked to the side to find another bearing down on him and a third descending from above. Three! Three wind scythes were chasing him. None of which had any intention of dispersing or flying off course.
He gazed upwards searching for Valerian even as he leapt and run around the platform. Scurrying under a scythe that came too close for comfort, he confirmed his suspicions. Valerian hung in the air, his mace raised and his eyes closed. He wasn’t moving. Knowing that the only way to stop the spells pursuing him was to defeat the caster, Aaron grabbed an arrow from his quiver and begun to infuse it with his qi, intending to release his first skill in this match.
The sky, elevation and the high ground were all great and obvious strategically superior positions. Nevertheless, everyone knew that ranged fighters restrained that advantage. There was nothing else to be said. The bow was specifically invented to attack things from afar. It didn’t matter if they were on the ground or in the sky. In fact, the sky was worse. It had no cover. Nowhere to hide from his arrows. A smirk came on his face as he observed his arrow shoot towards Valerian’s oblivious figure.
The Veldt were predominantly lightning attributed. That posed a problem for them. Despite the lightning attribute’s power and destructive capabilities, it fared badly against certain kinds of foes especially people like the Steelborn who were metal attributed. Metal conducts lightning making them resistant to their powers. This was the only reason he brought physical arrows into this fight.
Normally, Aaron would merely shape his qi and fire it at his foe. Such a tactic was ineffective on the Steelborns would could ignore the majority of the attacks power. However, once the lightning was centred on a physical object even if the elemental damage would not be much the penetrative force of the arrow itself would enough.
The skyward lance he had fired was even better. It used lightning qi to boost the speed penetrative power and force of the special arrow he had fired at his opponent. It streaked through the air, expelling lightning from its fletchings as it shot towards its unwary target. The crowd watched as what could only be described as a bolt of lightning went ground-up and through Valerian.
A grin snaked across Valerian’s face as he intoned, “[Burst].”
The [Wind Scythes] glowed brightly for a split second before fracturing loudly. The pieces shot everywhere, tearing through everything in their vicinity. Most notably, tearing through a dumbstruck Aaron. Having expected the spells to disperse once he disrupted the caster’s concentration, or in this case injured him greatly, he had taken his mind off them. He hadn’t done so for long but it was long enough for what Valerian intended.
The Valerian in the sky shimmered and dispersed, fading away like smoke blown away by the wind. As it did so, the real Valerian appeared, a full ten metres away from the first. Having dispersed the [Mirage spell], he hovered in the air to survey his handiwork. Shards of stone and bits of stand were still flying around from the explosion of wind shards he had created. A dust cloud obscured the part he wanted to see most.
The smile on his face was yet to fade. His plan had worked perfectly. Aaron might have prevented him from anchoring spells around him but what about spells around Valerian himself? He knew from the beginning that the [Wind Scythes] probably wouldn’t work. Plus, his opponent was being conservative with his skills and qi. Funny then that all he had needed was a decoy to act as bait and he was able to get him to drop his guard enough to slip in that attack.
Who would have thought he would get so much utility from a spell that he was taught for hiding traps and his presence when hunting? He had to thank his grandmother after this match. That and see if she had more nifty tricks like this one.
Valerian really wanted to fire another [Wind Scythe] or two into the dust cloud. He really didn’t want to take chances. However, he could not be sure about the state of his opponent. If he did so and ended up killing or maiming him he could end up being disqualified from the tournament. Still, he gathered arcane energy and called on the wind to clear the obstruction.
Aaron was hurt, badly. His body was littered with cuts and his body felt like it had been struck multiple times with a meat tenderizer. That explosion had carried both force and sharp implements. As he bled into the dirt, he couldn’t help but fear that he had lost the match already. It was that thought that woke him up. He couldn’t lose. If he did, the clan would do more than kill him.
Struggling, he pulled himself to his feet, using his bow as a crutch. Then, he began to undo the ribbons wrapped around the ends. Gritting his teeth, he channelled his qi into the weapon, still unblemished from the calamity that had befallen its temporary master. When Aaron first got this weapon he was filled with awe. Following that came dread and apprehension. For his clan to be willing to go so far to win against the Steelborns was worrying and telling.
The last month he had been fed the best medicines. Given special training and even been the subject of no less than four forbidden techniques. The most his body would handle. His qi and body had been strengthened. His cultivation boosted and all at the cost of twenty years of his lifespan. Also, he would probably never enter the Emperor realm in this lifetime. The last he wasn’t worried about. He had had a less than one percent chance of doing so anyway.
The gains were tremendous. If he succeeded in winning the Zebre, he and his closest relatives would be catered for for the rest of their lives. He would continue to enjoy the treatment he had just experienced as well. That was more than enough for him to put his life on the line. What he couldn’t do was lose. Keeping this in mind, he finished unwrapping the bow. His qi continued to be sucked in, the weapon voraciously devouring his essence. Then, their aura’s begun to merge and its power began to flow into him. This was his trump card. The one that would ensure his success.
He had already lost one match but the clan had understood. The weapon and its abilities would have been useless against his opponent. Even so, he had been warned against losing again. No matter what, he had to beat the Steelborns. That was his true goal in this tournament. On that matter, Aaron wasn’t worried. Burstfire was a Steelborn slaughterer.
The wind blew, obviating his cover. Aaron looked up at his opponent’s smiling face. He watched transfixed as that smile turned to horror. Somehow, he could tell that things had changed. Sadly, the Steelborn could do nothing. His qi surged, Burstfire boosting it to levels that a Tellurian practitioner should not have. Feeling invigorated, Aaron raised the bow. Drawing it and releasing it whilst aiming at his winged target.
An arrow of fire shot across the distance faster than he could blink. It was practically a skyward meteor. One that struck Valerian in his chest. He couldn’t even scream. The heat and pain were beyond intense burning his throat and lungs. Smoking and burning, he fell from the sky.
I know you are probably wondering what Richard talked to Valerian about. Well, maybe not that but definitely what was said, Sorry! That would come later.
There are more important questions here. What is happening with Valerian for one?