| |

BK II, Chapter 5: The Zebre


Cragsveil was charged with energy. The entire viscounty was filled with a certain joy and spirit. The Zebre had come. The Zebre is a festival held once a year over a two week period in pretty much every town or city of the plains folk. In the eye of most, it is one of the most important festivals, second only to the harvest festival.

As such, preparations often began weeks in advance and bit by bit the cities come alive with decorations, food, music and dance. Everywhere, household shrines are cleaned and offerings are made to ancestors, guardian spirits and deities requesting their favour in the days to come. Thousands flock to the cities and towns to join in the celebrations and hundreds gather hoping to take part in the rites.

Nevertheless, Zebre is not just a festival of feasting and dancing. True, it is a celebration but the reason that it is regarded with such import is because it is the festival of champions, the festival of warriors. The Zebre was the season of battles and tournaments.

It was a celebration created for the adoration of power and martial might. One designed to weed out weak warriors and present to the people their champions. One that glorified battle and bestowed honour on the victorious. It was the most popular festival of the plains folk. A piece of their heritage that they would never part with.

The Zebre was conceived ages ago. It was a time when the tribes were young and depended on the cultivators in their midst even more than they did now. They were their defence against the daemons, the hunters on which they relied on to procure food and essence materials. The Zebre was a celebration held in their honour. A platform for them to display their skills. A proving ground for the young and above all an important tool for ranking warriors.

That had not changed. Zebre had evolved over the millennia but its core remained the same. For the people of Cragsveil, it was more than tradition, it was life. Nearly every settlement and community hosted their own tournaments. Clans, families, sects, schools, dojos, individuals, all of them competing for the prize. However, the place to be for the Zebre was DaleGuard.

It was the martial city. The capital of the region. Warriors came from all over Bathar to take part in the battles. Some even came from neighbouring kingdoms. It didn’t matter, DaleGuard was prepared to accommodate them.

It was the busiest time of the year. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing discussions about the competitors of have some peddler try to sell you a talisman or piece of equipment. And the characters … the sort of people you’d meet. All of them warriors, cultivators attracted by the lure of glory and gold.

Tirenael Reed looked at the city walls as the carriage drew closer. Using his mage sight, he could make out the many elaborate glyphs embedded in the dark stone. The sheer power they held filled him with awe. He deliberately tuned out the wards. Their glare was too bright. They were still kilometres away from the city and yet its presence affected him.

‘So this is DaleGuard!’ he thought.

He was impressed. Despite being a native of the viscounty, Tirenael had never been to DaleGuard. Even now, he had yet to step through its gates. He and the rest of the people in the carriage were from a sect in Blackford, the old capital. Looking at DaleGuard, he was forced to admit that it truly deserved to be the capital of Cragsveil no matter what the others said.

It was a place that lord should live: isolated, defiant, glorious, and surrounded by his soldiers.  Viewing it from a distance did not lessen its greatness. Thanks to his powers, Tirenael could gain a sense of just how many had perished around it. The lands surrounding the city were ancient battlefields soaked in the blood of soldiers, Bathans and their enemies alike. Many armies had ridden at DaleGuard in its long history, all of them failing to breach its walls.

When he grew older he’d definitely get a place like it. Something worthy of him. He was glad that his school was coming to DaleGuard for the festival. Frankly, there was no other place worthy of his debut. After this Zebre, everyone in the viscounty would know his name.

Aaron Veldt and his cousin prepared to depart to DaleGuard. The last month was simultaneously the best and the worst of his life. He was the most talented Veldt his age and had always enjoyed the best the clan had to offer. At least, that’s what he thought at first. The past five weeks had made him far more powerful than he was before. However, this came at a price.

One the clan paid on his behalf. “An investment”, he was told. One he would have to prove worthy of. If he fulfilled their demands, he would enjoy such benefits for the rest of his life if not, well … he did not want to think about it.

He had spent the last year training harshly for the Zebre and he had considered himself an elite prospect until an elder called on him and everything changed. He alongside one other were taken aside and given ‘special preparations’ for the upcoming tournament.

He knew, at least partly, why it this event was so important and he knew he could not afford to disappoint. This was his chance to secure a great place and life for himself and his clan. He couldn’t just be the most talented Veldt his age. He had to show everyone that he was the most talented in the generation. Standing there, he clenched his fist in determination.

He had to win the tournament!

Ethan, Beatrice and many other Steelborn youths stood before their clan head. They were ready. They had prepared for this day and it was finally upon them. They were to go out and reveal to the world their strength. The strength of the Steelborns.

It was more than just a desire for the fame or the incredible prizes. It was a matter of pride. For nearly two centuries, the Steelborns had claimed and held the position of mightiest in Cragsveil. They could not lose now. Many of them, despite not being in the know, could tell that this tournament was different.

The prizes were nearly five times as great and not just that but the tensions between the various noble clans had heightened in the last three months. Just this month, many clans and schools had publicly announced that they would not be competing this year. That was more than a tell-tale sign.

Every family, clan, sect or school trained their elite youth for the Zebre. Victories and losses in the tournament were the yardstick by which they and their younger generations were ranked. For them not to participate meant that they had somehow been scared off. That these recognised and acclaimed powers would choose the ignominy of resignation over possible loss was a warning.

The assemblage of Steelborn youth tried not to be concerned about this. They were the most powerful group of competitors the clan had ever put out. They were Steelborns. The strongest and the hardiest. What did they care about others? Still, the more perceptive amongst them wondered about the help, resources and tutelage their elders had offered them.

That this Zebre was different was a given. Was there something they should know about?

“I will not say much,” the clan head begun. The assemblage quickly quietened and looked up at their lord. He ignored their looks of reverence and instead he addressed them in his low, booming voice.

“You know your roles. Above all, you know who and what you are. Have no fear! Be enthused! This is our scene. We are Steelborns. We are the mightiest there are. We are born champions, born warriors. Today is the start of the festival of champions, of warriors. It might as well be our festival.

“This is what we are good at. It is your duty to go out there and remind the world that lest they forget. So, when you stand in that arena, have faith in yourselves. Be confident in your victory and know that you carry us and our name with you. Know that I am with you. That the entire Steelborn clan stands with you.

“You will do us proud. You will do our ancestors proud. Of that, I have no doubt. You know why? Because you are Steelborns. As long as you keep that in mind and give it your all, you need do nothing else. So prepare Steelborn sons and daughters, in a quarter hour we march to our arena and come dusk we’ll return, laden with victories”.

Message delivered, the clan head walked away from the courtyard, flanked by his guards. Having accomplished what he came to do, he set off to the next task. That was his nature. The young Steelborns looked at his departing figure with awe. That was their clan head; powerful, inspiring and diligent. They mulled over his words.

It wasn’t the kind of speech that led to raucous cheering. It was the kind that sparked and stoked a hot, lasting fire. One that conveyed sentiment and carried you with it. There was none there that would not remember it and in the years to come it would remain in their minds. When they felt beleaguered, tired, pressured or useless they’d just have to think of it and be calmed and reinvigorated. Because of one speech, a solid reminder that they were Steelborns.

Few would notice Ethan and Beatrice slip out and walk away. They had their own preparations to make. Theirs would be the hardest challenge. They were the only competing true practitioners after all.

Valerian finished putting on his armour and strode out of his room, Avery a step behind him. The rays of the morning sun made his armour gleam as he crossed the threshold. Avery had given it extra polish for today. It was a big day and he had made sure to look his best.

Bright, Steelborn plate over a cyan doublet and a fine cyan mantle over his shoulders. His mace was tied at his side and his hair carefully and purposefully tousled. Attached to his breastplate was his array master’s badge. Combined, it made for a striking image. He looked very much the part of a young lord. Perfect for the day’s tournament though the effect was slightly ruined by the actions of his grandmother.

“Oh!!! My little boy has grown up so fast”, she squealed as she enveloped him in a tight hug. Pushing him to arm’s length for another look she added, “You look so dashing.”

He tried his hardest to keep a straight, nonchalant face through the fussing and he could see his uncles doing their best to do same albeit for entirely different reasons. The past month had been tough. Much tougher than had he had estimated but it was worth it.

Everyone pitched in. His uncles, his grandma, Avery, all had been involved in his training. He had benefited tremendously from this and he couldn’t wait to reveal to the Cragsveil what he had learnt. They’d best be prepared though. Even he was astounded by his prowess. He just hoped that after all his training, the tournament would not be a disappointment.

Valerian was not being arrogant. Well, maybe a little. In his mind, competing in the Zebre was not him overestimating himself. He had to face off against the best and brightest in the land. How else was he to grow, to prove himself?

He was weak and he needed to become strong. Something he couldn’t do without experience and opponents to face. Throwing himself into the deep end was the best way to learn. In truth, he had stopped considering himself normal a long time ago. At first, despite his many great successes, he still had complications with his qi cultivation.

Not even his accomplishment as an array master could wash those away. At best, he was smarter than them and had a bit of a talent as an arcanist. However, recent events had changed all that. His primary problem had been resolved, freeing him from that crippling and suppressing mental anchor. His physique had also greatly improved putting him far above his peers.

Paramount amongst them, he had discovered that he was the descendant of a deity and the carrier of its legacy. He was also an heir to the illustrious Menhirionn. To him, all of this was proof that he should not think like or compare himself to the ordinary cultivator. That would be an insult to his blood. The only ones he could compare himself to were the geniuses. The scions of other great clans.

Only they could be considered his peers and even amongst them, he had to distinguish himself. His goal shouldn’t be the best amongst the lowly but the first among the best. Only then could he say he had achieved something. Only then would he live up to his name and legacies.

He had made a promise, to each of his grandparents, to Richard and most importantly to himself. One he would live up to. He would be powerful. He would be mighty. He would be great. Today would be his beginning. His true debut as a cultivator. The start of the attainment of his dreams.

Valerian looked at his family, glad to have their support. Without them, he would not have even made it this far. He smiled at them and then looked past them to the entrance of his courtyard.

“Let’s go to the Arena”, he requested.