When Valerian saw his opponent he could not help but think of the more stereotypical depictions of arcanists he had read growing up. Tireneal Reed fit them to his ‘t’. He was gaunt, sickly and pale. His eyes were red, appearing bloodshot at first but on closer inspection revealed a cruel, crimson light. His bony fingers clutched at a bone staff that honestly looked healthier and better fed than himself. Two horns from an unknown daemon were attached to the head of the staff forming a beautiful stylish ‘U’. This created space for the blue flame covered core that floated in the “U’s” bowl.
His robes were dark red and flamboyant. Fitting loosely on his overly skinny frame. The whole thing made it that Valerian couldn’t help but think of the scholarly old arcanists that locked themselves up in towers and so neglected exercise and diet that they ended up emaciated and frail. As things stood, Valerian couldn’t imagine any scenario where Tirenael would survive a punch from even a normal man without protection.
Even so, he never once thought of him as weak. Not even for a tenth of a second. This arcanist was dangerous. That much was clear. His senses were warning him, telling him to stay away. Valerian didn’t even have to look elsewhere for confirmation. Tirenael’s smile told him everything. It was an evil, perverse thing that completely twisted his face into something horrific. It was the smile sadistic children made as they tormented animals and twisted the limbs of insects. Only, this one was directed at him.
Obviously, the rumours about his character were true. Valerian knew he was going to have to be really careful in this battle. The referee announced the start of the battle and Valerian quickly got to work. He created a thick, strong [Mage Guard] to protect himself. Using [Valiant Armour] would be suicide against this kind of opponent.
“Are you not going to introduce yourself?” came his opponent’s voice. It was soft, soothing and completely not what he was expecting.
“Pardon?” he asked confused.
“Introduce yourself. You did so with the other fighters. Why not with me?” Tirenael asked.
Valerian appraised him before answering honestly, “I was under the impression that I would not be given the chance”.
A grin split Tirenael’s face. “You’ve been listening to what they say about me”, he accused.
“Listening? If you talking about the rumours being mongered then I am sorry but no. I’ve seen and heard for myself the treatment you give your opponents”, Valerian informed him.
“And still you choose to fight?” his opponent asked.
“Why should I not?” came Valerian’s response.
“Hahaha!” Tirenael laughed. Unlike his voice, this was a dark, screechy thing that disturbed the ears.
“You’re brave!” he said to Valerian. “I like that. Most brave people are stupid but not you. You are smart. But you are ignorant and a bit arrogant perhaps. You simply do not understand your place. It’s better that way. Makes it more fun to break you. When I drown you in despair you will know your place but by then it will be too late. You will already be burning!”
He followed this with even more laughter. Valerian looked at this and smiled.
“On the contrary, I think you will find at the end of this match that you will be the one burning” he declared.
“Oh! Is that so?” Tirenael asked. His laughter was gone and all the mirth had left his face. His eyes had hardened. Now, he looked at Valerian seriously.
“Quite!” Valerian affirmed. Then he bowed slightly saying, “I am Valerian, son of Valiant. Surnamed Steelborn, Dual force possessor, Array master of the first circle, Circle master of three attributes, Arcane Disciple of the metal and wind attributes, Tellurian Practitioner of the same, Scion of the House of Cragsveil. May we begin?”
Tirenael did not bow. He laughed and raised his staff bringing it down hard to create a sharp thunk when it hit the platform. “I am Tirenael, son of Dernael. Surnamed Reed. Scion of the House of the same name. Third of my line to be titled “Brimstone”. Arcane Disciple of the fire attribute and today, I will hear you scream.”
At his words, a flare of blue flames burst from the ground beneath Valerian’s feet but when it dispersed Valerian was nowhere to be found. Tirenael swivelled searching for him but all he received was a quick wind scythe to his mage guard. The arcane shield shuddered but held easily. All the attack did was reveal Valerian’s location to his opponent. It didn’t matter though. He wasn’t even bothering to hide.
He hung in the air, his giant essence-formed golden wings holding him aloft. He had been prepared for Tirenael’s surprise attacks from the very beginning. There was no way he was going to fall to it. Absentmindedly, he tucked in a strip of bandage that had come loose and reviewed his plan.
Tirenael’s title was Brimstone. Moreover, he was the third of his line to hold that title, the only other living one being his grandfather. The family had gained that title due to their famed cultivation method: [Torch of the Netherworld].
Once, a devil from one of the netherworld planes found itself in Cragsveil. It wreaked incredible havoc until a campaign was undertaken that put an end to it. It was during this campaign and due to his contributions that Tirenael’s twice great-grandfather, an elder of the Fire Sage School obtained the method. It was a method that allowed the user to cultivate an arcane vessel that would allow him or her to produce, hold and use flames similar to those of the lower planes. However, it did a bit more than that.
The fires of the hells were flames created with the express purpose of torturing souls. The devils and devils who used them were those who delighted not in its efficacy but in the torment they visited on their victims. This did not mean that it was a weak flame. Conversely, hellfire possessed incredible renown for its destructiveness and heat. That was the kind of fire that Tirenael wielded. Intense blue flames that carried with them the terrible choking smell of sulphur. This was the reasoning behind the esteemed family title as well as why his character was so twisted.
[Torch of the Netherworld] was a devil technique. It did not just allow the user to create hellfire it transformed him or her into a vessel for it. Any vessel that hoped to hold a devil flame would have to be devil as well. Therein lay the problem. After generations of practising this method, the family had been irrevocably twisted. His grandfather had even informed him that they couldn’t stop using the method if they wanted to. Nothing else could help them control their devil abilities. Abilities which only grew as the generations went by.
Tirenael was the prime example of this. He possessed incredible abilities as well as the greatest synergy with the method in his family. Unfortunately, he had also gained many of the negative things associated with devils. He could perceive souls and tormented spirits and he had also gained a penchant for sensing negative emotions. But most worrying of all he had developed the ability to feed off the torment of those around him. Something he had already become addicted to.
Honestly, Valerian did not know what to make of Tirenael after discovering all of this. His first reaction had been pity but Tirenael was not someone who deserved his sympathy. He delighted in it: his power and his abilities. He tortured his foes and his allies alike so he could feed on their fear, pain and despair. He was a devious, twisted individual who took pleasure in nothing but the pain of other people and the chaos he caused on a daily basis. That notwithstanding, Valerian did not hate him. He had no reason to. They were different kinds of people and one might even argue that Tirenael was not even completely human but part devil as well.
If so then his actions and proclivities should be expected. They weren’t to be excused though. Valerian for one did not care for it. He grasped the air, light appearing in his palm. He had a battle to win.
“Scorching flames of the pits”
Valerian looked down at his opponent, stunned. He felt the emanations of power when Tirenael uttered those words. Were these spellwyrds? That was all the warning he got. Flames burst into being around him. Channelling [Soaring through the heavens] Valerian barely managed to slip out before they completely surrounded him. Shocked, he appeared a few metres away watching the conflagration as the last few embers on his Mage Guard disappeared.
He had never encountered a user of spellwyrds before. He had heard of it but never seen it in action. The Steelborns did not approve of the method. Arcanists could cast their spells in a variety of ways. They could use set incantations and signs, focus them through arrays, use reagents, deploy them from talismans or craft them directly like Valerian did. The last was the Steelborn way. It forced the arcanist to control the world essence directly with his own and shape it to his desires. This was more will and essence intensive but ensured that when the user mastered forming a spell this way he would forever be able to cast it with will alone.
The others were different. Incantations and signs helped focus the power but in reality, the arcanist still did a portion of the crafting himself. All they did was guide the power and reduce the cost making it in some ways better than the traditional approach used by the Steelborns. The same with the other methods. Arrays took time to form or draw and they only received mainstream use in production arts and rituals. Reagents performed much the same way incantations did but actually boosted the power of the spells in addition to reducing cost and control requirements. Unfortunately, good ones were often expensive. However, talismans were the most expensive of all as they were basically spells sealed into containers that could be released and used by basically anyone with a hint of cultivating knowledge.
The drawback to using these methods was the reliance they created. The methods by which an arcanist trained and used his or her energy often stuck with him or her for life and that was the danger. The Steelborn method though old-fashioned and intensive made it such that they could cast at any time and under any condition. A Steelborn could be bound, gagged, sick, stripped bare or have any other similar condition applied to themselves but so long as they energy remained unbound and they could bring their will to bear, they would always be able to work their craft.
The same could not be said for the other methods. Take away a person’s reagents or talismans and you would have basically crippled them. Prevent some from speaking or making hand signs and the result would be the same. And there was something worse. Interrupt one of these methods or prevent the user from being unable to use it properly and chaos would ensue. There were numerous examples of arcanists who had their incantations interrupted. All their stories had one common end. They all lost control of their spells, sometimes comically, others disastrously. Replace a reagent in a spell and the effects would no longer be predictable. As for those who begun casting only to realise that they had run out of an essential reagent. Their tombstones could be used to pave hundreds of roads. This was the one weakness that spellwyrds shared with the rest of the other casting methods.
Spellwyrds were powerful tools. They were not incantations but litanies. Incantations were used to focus the mind and guide the magic. Spellwyrds made it that each word uttered was charged with power such that you were not guiding the magic but effectively casting a spell on the magic you were already casting. These were often personal arias that allowed an arcanist to reinforce his magic or apply certain effects to it. It had a high power requirement. Higher than even will shaping but its returns more than made up for it. It also did not help with control but rather compounded it. Using spellwyrds while casting spells could produce great effects but if the user lost control the results were guaranteed to be disastrous. Valerian only hoped that Tirenael couldn’t employ them to their full effect and that he would not lose control.
“Thy master has need of thee”
Flames erupted around Valerian again but he was already expecting that. Ordinarily, he should be able to feel the build-up in essence before the magic took effect but he guessed that one of the effects of the spellwyrds was to take that advantage from him. As it were, flames continued to burst into existence in the air. It was making it impossible for him to stay at one place. Whenever he stopped for even a split second, they would be around him. The audience was being treated to an amazing sight. A gold blur was zipping around the stage with bursts of fire blossoming around and behind him.
“There is a sinner we are to address”
By this time, even the spectators had begun to notice. Many were standing from their seats pointing and yelling. Why? Tirenael’s flames had yet to disperse. None of the fires he started when Valerian took to the air had gone anywhere. They just hung in the air, continuing to give off their scorching heat and sulphuric stench. Slowly but surely they were crowding the air above the platform. If this kept up then eventually, Valerian would have no place room to escape.
“Come deliver your welcoming embrace”
With these final words, every single bit of hellfire shot towards Valerian. Streaks of blue heat raced towards the golden one that was him. They came from every direction and from every angle. There were no openings just waves of blue fire that threatened to wash upon him. They were just the opportunity Valerian was waiting for. He shot downwards as if purposely aiming for the flames below him. People screeched in fear thinking they were going to see him burnt horrifically yet again. That was if he was lucky. Tirenael was never good to those who went against him.
Just as Valerian was about to go through the flames numerous sheets of steel appeared in front of him. Using them as a makeshift shield Valerian dived through unscathed. Just as quickly as they appeared the metallic sheets disappeared again. He was through the wall of flames. However, he had not escaped. The flames were still behind him seeking to embrace him like their master ordered. Valerian paid them no mind. He was faster than them. Far faster. That was why Tirenael had to resort to stealth and wave tactics. Once they were behind him they would never catch up. Besides he had more important matters.
Pushing his movement skill to the limit, Valerian all but disappeared from the sights of most people. Those who could make him out saw he shoot towards his adversary like an arrow launched from the bow. As he grew closer, Valerian drew his arm backwards. His [Rending Talons] coated it with nary a word and he punched forward, piercing through Tirenael’s arcane defences like they were made of paper.
[Rending Talons] was a technique that had allowed Valerian to butcher a high tier dragon whose kind were particularly known for their defence. How could a [Mage Guard] put up by an Arcane Disciple compare? He had barely scratched the surface of the technique and already nothing thus far had been able to resist his talons. Add that to the momentum he had gathered due to his speed and you had an incredible attack. Tirenael was just lucky that Valerian did not want to kill him. Even so, the fight was over.
The entire arena watched stunned as the unbeatable devil, Brimstone, screamed like the hounds of hell were after him. Pain, like he had never known, erupted from his abdomen. Not surprising given that the talons of Valerian’s left hand had pierced through there and out his back. The second hand had its talons positioned in front of his throat. Panicky and irrational, Tirenael tried to shove his opponent away. His physical strength was pitiful by Valerian was careful not to hurt him too much so dismissing the talons of his right, he slammed his palm into his opponent’s chest.
There was a flash of white light and Tirenael was sent flying away. He lay there for a moment clutching at his bleeding belly in disbelief. The arena was quiet. Everyone remained deathly still as collectively they tried to make sense of what had happened. One minute Valerian was about to lose the next he had snatched victory. Many had not even seen what happened in those last moments.
Ignoring the weight of the stares that were upon him Valerian turned to his referee. His intentions were obvious. The man in question stepped forward ready to do his duty when a cry of rage rang through the air.
“I’LL KILL YOU!”
It voice was nothing like Tirenael’s had been earlier. All it held was dark promises and rage. It was painful to hear and quite literally buffeted the area with dark energies. Many spectators had to clamp their hands over their ears in an attempt to block it. Conversely, the person that voice was directed at merely turned to look at the crier for a moment before turning back to the referee.
“Hurry up and call the match”, he said.
“RAAAH!!” Tirenael screeched. His staff, a noble artefact slapped itself back into his hand so he could draw on its power. His essence blew to immense proportions, growing darker and viler. And yet Valerian merely looked at him as if unconcerned. No one had any sense of what was happening anymore much less the reason for Valerian’s confidence. And then the screaming began.
Tirenael’s aura diminished instantly as steam and smoke began to rise from his body. He fell back to the floor, his staff rolling out of his grip whilst he crumpled. The screams coming from him were inhuman. They were loud, sharp and so filled with pain that the watcher could not help but shudder a little. All they saw next was Valerian take a few steps towards his opponent his right hand covered in a bright white light. As he did so, Tirenael’s screams lessened in volume making it obvious that he was the one behind it.
Voice hoarse from screaming, Tirenael could barely speak. He forced himself to though. “What did you do to me?”
Valerian ignored him.
“When I get up I will…” he ground out. Immediately, the white light on Valerian’s hand flared up and Tirenael was left squirming on the floor again. It was less intense this time as opposed to the last. No longer was he blanking out from the overwhelming pain. This time he could practically taste its nuances. Soon, he could take it no longer and begun to beg.
“Argh! It burns. It burns! Make it stop! Please make it stop!” he begged.
“You were defeated. On the floor, suffering the effects of an unknown spell and yet to attempted to threaten me. Clearly, you did not know your place”, Valerian said to him. “Tell me Brimstone, do you know it now?”
The look his adversary shot him was so dark others would think it a curse but Valerian did not shy away. Tirenael quickly looked away frightened. Valerian smiled. He was glad. His plan had worked out. Before coming to this arena he had developed no less than five different ways to defeat his opponent and in the end, he used two. The second was more of an insurance really.
The fight with Aaron Veldt taught Valerian a crucial lesson. He had believed the entire purpose of the Zebre was for young cultivators to showcase their skills. While it was not wrong he had taken a near-disastrous approach. He had held back. He avoided finishing blows. Did not strike with intent to kill or maim for fear of the rules. He had focused more on showing off his variety of skills and his planning whilst the others had focused on winning. That was why he chose to outmanoeuvre his opponents instead of simply firing heart seeking bolts into their chests.
At least until he met Aaron Veldt. The boy had come into the battle with a noble weapon he could not control. One that had been chosen specifically to target his weaknesses. He displayed little skill in their battle, relying on brute power and attribute superiority to win. That was not the surprising part. The surprise was that everyone had let him. No one had thought it wrong. That was how Valerian knew he followed the wrong approach. With the exception of that braggart Kalian and his cousin, who had never even had to try, every other opponent had been fighting to win.
Even his cousin had nearly killed him when he got serious. Aaron had nearly permanently disfigured him. Tirenael had tortured his opponents. He himself had inadvertently ruined Aaron’s life and future career in return. No one had truly been bothered by that. His detractors had tried to get him disqualified not because he had gone against the rules by maiming and nearly killing another contestant but because he won. Valerian had never felt so stupid.
The aim of the Zebre wasn’t to wow the crowd or prove his skills. It was to win. One could take down his or her opponents however they wished. It didn’t really matter what they did so long as they seized victory. The rules were more guidelines than anything else. So Valerian revised his strategy. When he came into the arena today, he hadn’t bothered to fight his opponent in a display of skill but to take him out. He was not fighting. He was hunting. After explaining himself to his family, he had spent the preceding days researching and studying his opponent, juxtaposing their strengths and personalities till he found several weaknesses.
Tirenael was a devil who loved to torture his opponents so he could feed on their negative emotions. There was no way he would ever finish a fight quickly. The best chance of success lay in him defeating him before he grew bored, got serious or felt threatened enough to use his noble artefact. Secondly, Tirenael had a devil’s arcane vessel. It gave him many strengths but also gave him many weaknesses. Good thing was, Valerian already possessed a fitting weapon. [Eliminating the Darkness]. It was an array commonly used to enchant weapons with light energy so that they became effective tools against dark attributed foes. It was the first thing Valerian focused on when the fight started. Only, he made sure to keep it small and concealable until it was ready for use.
Once that happened, he had two choices. Enlarge the array so that he could send weapons through it, temporarily turning them into anti-dark weapons or somehow transfer the array onto his opponent’s person. He chose the latter. An array that turned anything it was on into an anti-dark weapon and he placed it on the body of someone who had a devil’s arcane vessel. The moment Tirenael began channelling his powers it activated turning his own energy against him. The only reason Valerian stepped in was because he was afraid that Tirenael was going to kill himself in the beginning.
He turned to the referee again and this time the man did not hesitate.
“Winner: Valerian of the Steelborn!”
Sorry guys! The chapter is late, I know. I may have had too much Christmas merriment. Luckily, there are things called alarms that wake you up no matter how much you don’t want to. Then, cue panic. Man! I’m just glad it’s still Christmas somewhere.