Tirenael Reed surveyed the fighting platform, delighting in the chaos that had been unleashed. Below, a mighty behemoth raged. Fifteen metres tall and built sturdier than a marble obelisk, the armoured spectre tore through everything in its path, guided by nothing but dark fury. However, it wasn’t quite… there.
The giant knight was grey, translucent and possessed a sturdy armoured carapace that was a facsimile of Steelborn plate. Yet, despite how solid it looked, its spectral nature was easily discerned by even the most ignorant of the many people watching. To many, it seemed like the ghost of Valerian Steelborn. A dark arisen whose purpose was to take vengeance for the pitiful boy who had died a painful and violent death. That wasn’t completely far from the truth. If ghosts appeared as fifteen-metre tall knights that is.
It was in the way it appeared and in the way it moved. Everyone had seen it rise from the collapsing Valerian. Steel grey smoke that coalesced into a spectral giant. But it appeared to be a touch out of sync with reality. The wind did not ruffle its hair nor did its movements produce any sound. The world around it seemed darker and most telling of all, it had no feet. It was not fully formed. All that existed below its thighs were faint wisps of spectral essence. It actually hung in the air without them, drifting hither tither as it beat the stuffing out of everyone that faced it.
Still, it was alive. Tirenael’s special sight told him that much. It was pure essence and spirit given form. Driven by feeling and intent. Much like a spell but instead of being crafted, it was drawn out of the deep self and sent forth. Instead of something cast, it was an innate power to be invoked in times of peril. A guardian. A protector. An alternate self.
His dark red eyes couldn’t help but glance over to its source. At the burnt heap of a boy that lay sprawled on the fighting stage. The match officials had succeeded in rescuing his opponent. At least, they had managed to get what was left of him. Personally, Tirenael would have let him die. It would probably have been kinder that way. What would an archer do without his arms?
Right now, they were focused on making their way to the phantasm’s creator but it was having none of it. He watched as the main referee was sent flying by a brutal blow that tossed him dozens of metres away. Luckily, the man’s shields held, saving him.
It stood there, steadfast, and for a moment all the stories and rumours concerning the Steelborns run through Tirenael’s mind. A gigantic figure composed of steel grey essence. With the strength and defence of a mountain. With wraithlike, metallic limbs and armoured carapace. It was planted there, refusing to let anyone or anything get close to its master and it didn’t seem they could either. He was starting to see why everyone feared the clan so much.
If he didn’t see it for himself he likely wouldn’t have believed it. To think that the array using brat would have something like this dwelling inside of him. For a moment, Tirenael felt the spark of envy burn within him. It made him smile. It was a hideous sight. His thin lips curved and parted revealing multiple sharp teeth and ashen gums. Impossibly wide, it looked like his face was being split in two. As always, his schoolmates edged away from him at the sight but he didn’t mind.
This had the potential to be interesting.
He had come to make his name in this Zebre. Thus far, he had had a stellar performance. All of his enemies had been defeated in a flash, his power too much for them to withstand. He alone had proved the power of the Fire Sage School. It had proved his power, ability and claims of being the most powerful arcanist of the generation but it had also made for some pretty uninteresting fights. The only fight that had caused his blood to pump was the one against Beatrice, the eliminated Steelborn contestant.
Sadly, even she fell screaming to the power of his flames. Her mettle and metal meeting their superior in him. For a while, he had wondered if it had been a little unfair since her attribute was particularly weak to his but soon he cast such thoughts from his head. He had been gifted with the fire attribute and raised with one of the greatest methods in the county.
That was his strength. That she was weak to him was just further evidence that this was his time. An assertion made more certain by the fact that all the other major contenders shared the same weakness. A weakness to him. The only one who could possibly prove to be a challenge was the Steelborn heir with that essence draining claymore of his. As for the array master, the fact that he had a phantasm had only made his defeat inevitable.
Wind fuelled fire. Metal was weak to it. The innate phantasm? It was a spectral entity. The flames of the infernal realm excelled at tormenting spirits.
With that thought, Tirenael turned and walked away. His interest in the struggle below was gone. The phantasm was being calmed and the chaos was no longer disturbing the crowd. There was nothing more to be had here. Thus, Tirenael went away, already dreaming of the pain he would visit on Valerian and anyone else unluckily enough to end across from him. His smile came back, causing the blue, ever burning flame at the head of his staff to flare in response.
His only hope now was that Winged Steelborn recovered enough to stay in the competition. That they might meet. If not, he would find another way to take his pound of flesh.
Valerian woke up in a familiar bed, in a room filled with a pure and tranquil essence. He drew in a deep breath, pulling in more of the essence to soothe his stings. The bed was surprisingly comfy and the sheets were white. It didn’t take much to figure out that he was back in the Steelborn infirmary. This was confirmed by the calming smell of the purifying incense that Healer Brian always had burning in the rooms as well as the portions of the numerous arrays he could see drawn on the ceiling, walls and floor that created, maintained and circulated the healing essence.
‘It’s been a while’, he thought, letting his head sink back into the pillow. ‘Not since I opened my third meridian.’
He examined himself. His body was wrapped entirely in bandages. There was barely space for him to see and breathe through as well as a thin slit for his mouth. Bringing a wrapped arm to his nose, he caught a whip of whatever ointment or oil his bandages had been soaked in. Whatever it was, it felt quite cool and good on his skin. Turning to his side, he rang the small bell that hung there to let the healers know he was conscious. In a few seconds, Healer Brian and one of his assistants pushed aside his curtain and invited themselves in.
“Already awake I see Valerian. What did I tell you about your stunts fool boy?” came the man’s greeting.
“I’m sorry Healer Brian!” Valerian said automatically with a small smile.
Ever since that incident when he started cultivating Healer Brian had been the go-to healer whenever something went wrong with his cultivation or when he suffered injuries during training. The fourth level healer was careful, kind and meticulous in his care for his young charge. Over time, the man had grown on him and he on him. This, in turn, had caused the man’s bedside manner to change from that of a professional to that of an exasperated uncle. Unfortunately, this time, the man wasn’t up for their usual banter.
“You really did it this time Valerian. Nearly seventy-four percent of your skin was burned off!” the man announced. “I thought the resolution of your qi troubles would be the end of your flirtations with death and yet here we are!”
“I’m sorry Sir!” Valerian responded automatically.
“Sorry! This isn’t something that can be solved with sorry!” the healer stressed exasperatedly. “I learnt you went to head to head with a Veldt in possession of a fire-aligned noble artefact. Do you have no sense of self-preservation? You should have quit when you had the chance. That you would continue with the battle when you had no hope of winning and a decreasing chance of survival can only be the epitome of foolishness.”
“It’s not like that!” Valerian protested. “I was just trying to win. I…”
“And you think that justifies what you did?” Healer Brian spouted angrily. Valerian swallowed his protests at that. He had never seen the kind healer this worked up. The man looked at him angrily before composing himself and continuing in a disappointed tone.
“Try and think of the consequences of your actions before you act Valerian. Life is not as cheap as people seem to think it is. It should not be bought or gambled so easily. The fact that you would go so far for a simple competition worries me greatly Valerian. It truly does. There are indeed somethings that are worth sacrificing for but it is clear that your perspective on the issue is skewed if you actually think that going to such extent for victory is okay.
“What if you had died or been crippled? Did you think of that?” he asked. Valerian remained silent. “Your great future tossed aside for a competition that will only be remembered and discussed till the next one comes along. That would be a very fitting sacrifice would it not?” Healer Brian continued sarcastically. “And what of your family? Your grandparents and uncles. How do you think they would have taken your death?”
“I..I…” Valerian spluttered. Healer Brian’s words cut deep. Very deep and he wasn’t done.
“Life is something we only possess once. If you cannot take a temporary loss along the road of life then you would not continue along that road for long. If you cannot treasure what you have then you might as well give it away!”
The man could see that his speech was being considered or at the very least that Valerian understood what he was saying. With a sigh, he added.
“Perhaps, I have no right to be so preachy but I cannot help but worry. Just promise me, Valerian, that you will be more careful. That you will weigh matters more sensibly. Promise that you will better appreciate and protect your wellbeing and that you will not throw your life away in some foolish endeavour or gamble.”
“I promise!” Valerian told his healer.
The two looked at each other for a moment. Valerian’s eyes begging the other to believe him and Brian’s checking to make the other wasn’t just spouting empty words to appease him. Satisfied, Brian simply muttered, “Good!”
“Now, let me just give you a once over and then I will have your family brought in. They have been waiting anxiously for news about your condition.
His family burst in like water breaching a dam. His grandparents were allowed to lead the charge and they did so, leading their party of seven to his bedside. His grandmother quickly sat on the edge of his bed her hand reaching out and drawing him close enough to clasp to her bosom. The rest of them merely arranged themselves around him quietly.
“Oh Valerian, we were so worried!” she exclaimed softly.
He looked up, meeting her eyes and seeing the pain and worry they held only to swiftly look downward in shame. Healer Brian had been right. Thinking on the man’s words ensured his mind now teamed with thoughts of the pain and hurt he had no doubt caused his family with his reckless actions.
“How do you feel Valerian?” his grandfather asked, his worry evident from his tone.
“Fine!” he answered quickly, unable to meet his gaze.
“Brian! What’s his condition?” a strong voice inquired from the foot of his bed.
Valerian glanced towards the speaker and was surprised to see not only his great-grandfather but also an unknown great elder at the foot of his bed. The man was gaunt, for a Steelborn at least. A big frame that was neither filled nor fleshed out properly but had clear traces of once being well defined, like he had been starved for a long time and had yet to recover. Now, Valerian would never claim to know all the great elders but if not for his maroon mantle then he would never have pegged the man as a great elder.
The unfamiliar man carried none of the aura of nobility and authority that his contemporaries seemed to have. Instead, his aura was dangerous and furtive. He wasn’t the most powerful man here, not with the patriarch present, but his aura was the one that set Valerian on edge the most. It had an undertone that drew his attention, one that was bestial and feral. One he did nothing to hide. With a start, Valerian realised that just as he was observing the man the man had been doing so to him. Scrutinising him in search of something. Uncomfortable with the man’s intense gaze, Valerian turned his attention to what healer Brian was saying.
“Thankfully, he is going to be alright. The majority of his injuries were superficial. The flames burnt him badly but his own essence was potent enough to keep it away from his organs and his meridians so I did not even have to worry about those. A benefit of his legacies no doubt. His ventral portion, however, received a lot of damage. I was forced to get rid of what remained of his lips and nose as well as the scant remnants of skin he had and regrow everything. That was after banishing the foreign qi that lingered in his flesh.
“It will take some time for him to get used to his new skin and for the structures to properly set. Valerian has already mentioned that it feels tender and soft but I expect that to stop over the course of the week. Still, is a bit weak and sensitive right now so I’ll leave him covered for now till his essence diffuses properly into his new flesh and skin and it truly forms part of him”, the healer pronounced.
“So he is going to be alright?” His grandfather asked.
“Yes!” the healer admitted. “His vitality is even greater than I originally estimated. The moment his qi begun recovering, his body did as well. I was even forced to put him under when he began waking up in the middle of the procedure despite the emergency crew doing so at the site. Even so, he woke up far earlier than I figured. Then again, I did not account for his phantasm. I’m guessing that its awakening may have added to his physique. We’ll need to run tests later to see how far and by how much he has changed as a consequent.”
Valerian listened intently. If he heard right, something about him had changed. Again! Only, this time he didn’t know what. The only thing that stuck out was one word. “Phantasm?” he asked. “What Phantasm and what is it doing me?”
Everyone turned to him at that, a sort of wave of realisation passing through them.
“Valerian…” the patriarch begun tentatively. “How much do you remember from your last battle?”
Valerian’s face became pensive as he tried to recollect the battle. “There was fire, a lot of fire. As well as a lot of heat and pain”, he began. “…a lot of pain.”
His voice trembled as the phantom sensations washed over him. He closed his eyes and focused turning away from the feelings and focusing solely on the events. “I remember not wanting to lose and wanting to crush Aaron and his bow. To make him hurt as much as I was. But I was running out of qi and arcane energy and then my qi…” his eyes widened and his voice turned frantic.
“Wait… what happened after I passed out? No, wait… what day is today?”
A hand clasped his shoulder, squeezing softly in an effort to comfort and calm him down. “It’s all right Valerian!” His grandfather told him. “Everything is going to be fine! Everything is fine. Just breathe!”
A sharp intake of breath could be heard as Valerian took a very deep breath as he fought to calm himself. Once he had done so, he asked again. “What happened?”
“You drew out the Phantasm of the Menhirionn in your attempts to fight the Veldt. That is a feat no Steelborn has accomplished in generations. It is pity you cannot remember doing so. Though I am sure the strain of doing so for the very first time and in your condition at the time must have been very … stressful”, called an unfamiliar voice.
Valerian looked to the foot of his bed to see the strange great elder stepping forward. The Patriarch considered him for a moment before introducing him.
“Valerian, this is Elder Allard. He is the clan’s foremost expert on phantasms and a formidable tellurian in his own right. Given his expertise on the subject, I will let him explain it.”
The man focused his gaze on Valerian, seemingly excluding everyone else. Then, he began to speak.
“To answer your question, a phantasm in the simplest of terms is a spirit. The spirit that walks among the living. The kind we are referring to at the moment is the type created and used by cultivators. This kind of phantasm is spectral entity is created through rituals that essentially claim and condense the essence of a daemon in the spiritual core of the cultivator. Allowing him or her to call on a spectral version of the daemon for a myriad of uses.
“Phantasms are relatively rare among cultivators. The reason for this is that one has to be at the third tier with the mind’s eye open at the very least in order to even have the slightest chance of obtaining one. That is just the condition that must be satisfied beforehand. The most important part is the method by which the essence is condensed and the spectre or phantasm is created. The method determines everything: the kind of phantasm you will have, its capabilities, the ways in which you can employ it and even the effects it will have on you. However, this is only true for created phantasms.
“I have four!” he announced. “Four hard fought and hard won phantasms. You seem to have been blessed with an innate one. When it comes to innate phantasms you can forget pretty much everything I said before. The two are dissimilar enough to be considered completely different beasts. Unlike a created one, you don’t need to attain any particular level of cultivation or martial state. You need no method or ritual. Hell, you don’t even need to kill a daemon. From what anyone can tell, you just need to be born with one. You just need to be blessed”, he added wistfully.
“You are blessed with the clan’s innate Steel Monolith Phantasm!”
Valerian took it in calmly. “That’s my phantasm?”
“Yes”, Elder Allard answered. “Unlike created phantasms that are limited and determined by the method and or ritual, innate phantasms are limited by one thing and one thing only. The user. With the right method and the right daemon, a cultivator can create a phantasm with whatever level of cultivation he or she requires. It could be the equivalent of a King or a Lord or even higher if done right. With an innate one, the entity is only as powerful as the person who bears it. Yours, for example, is merely at the first tier. If you were to become more powerful, it would as well.”
“What does it do?” Valerian asked curiously.
“What do Steel Monoliths do? What do you do?” Elder Allard laughed. Your phantasm is you! I told you phantasms are spectral entities. You were born with one, have one slumbering in your core, what does that tell you/” he questioned.
Valerian thought hard about the question. Phantasms were basically chained ghosts that were created by taking the life force of another creature and adding it yourself. If he had one without taking another being’s essence… if his had come out of himself, been a part of him …?
“My soul…” he realised. “It is a part of my soul! How?” he voiced out breathlessly.
This chapter is quite important to me. It touches on an issue I have always had an issue with. That is, how easy it is for protagonists and antagonists to pretty much throw their lives away in pursuit of trivial goals. That is why I took time to address the issue before moving on with the story.
It always surprises me when a character suddenly goes: “I want to become strong enough to save my family from …./ defeat my greatest enemy/ get revenge for… So I will put my life on the line for a something that does not even matter in the long run.”
Perhaps it is just me or my upbringing but I’ve never really understood that. To gamble your life, ambitions and the hopes of all those who depend on you for something inconsequential is just…. ah well. I’m rambling.