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BK II, Chapter 6: It begins

The Steelborn Arena. Roland’s Bowl. The Home of Champions. The lure of the city. It had many titles, all of them true epithets to its greatness.  Commissioned by the former viscount, Roland Steelborn, it was perhaps the grandest structure in the entire city. The most renowned of its kind in two counties. Not surprising given it bore the Steelborn name.

Enormous wasn’t enough to describe it. Besides the great battlements that circled the city, the Arena was the greatest construction in the city. DaleGuard reportedly had enough districts to house an estimated fifty thousand people as opposed to its current thirtysomething. The Arena could comfortably seat more than seventy thousand and its walls were as tall as the ones protecting the city.

Circular with a multitude of seats and pavilions, with a fighting field that was 160 by 90 metres, it was an accomplishment that showcased both human ingenuity and effort. It was built of the same dark, enchanted stone as the city battlements and was nearly as secure both from the inside and outside.

This protected the fans when attacks from cultivators battling in the fighting field headed towards the seating and allowed it to be used as a shelter for citizens in case of emergencies since it was protected from the outside.

The entire thing was a marvel to see. The plazas surrounding it were littered with statues of notable warriors in history and even a past champion or two placed in its yard. It gave the place a respectable and even a solemn atmosphere.

The Arena was a place that honoured strength and a place that allowed others to find and witness it for themselves. A place where battles were glorified and the victorious, worshipped. In a way, it could be said to be a temple for warriors and those who revered martial forte.

It was also the site of the Zebre.

In truth, the Zebre began the day before. That was when the sacrifices were made and the other rites observed. Priests from the viscounty’s greatest temples and religious sects would come forth and invoke the heavens and the earth, the deities, spirits, and the ancestors.

They would ply them with offerings and ask them to bless the land and people, especially the cultivators. The warriors tasked with the task of keeping the kingdom and humankind at large safe from the elements and the daemonkin. To make them strong and to ensure that the competitions would bring to light the greatest of their number so that they be known.

It was a colourful affair. Many of the more devout came to watch, hoping to catch a glimpse of the spirits being invoked. No deities ever descended but sometimes some ancestral or guardian spirits would appear and claim the offerings. This year, the Steelborn StormHawk, the principal spirit of DaleGuard showed itself.

Not in person. Rather, all that the assemblage witnessed was a gathering of the clouds and winds, a loud avian cry and the feeling of its majesty. Its presence was truly divine and beatific carrying an aura of might and matchless power that washed over the gathering causing all including the spirits present to bow in supplication.

Somewhat greedily, it claimed everything that had been set out leaving the three others to appear with nothing. However, the most notable thing it did was to bless two children in the stands.

Blessings from the spirits are rare and many of the people present, priests included had never even seen one. So it came as a surprise. People tried to get closer to the blessed but some Steelborns quickly appeared on the scene to whisk them away.

That alone was enough to make it clear to all that this Zebre was going to be like none other in recent memory. Even more people rushed into DaleGuard to participate and watch the proceedings to come. Right now, everyone was waiting for the next event to start.

The Young Lords’ Tourney.

Valerian had long since discovered that the Young Lord’s Tourney was more than he had initially thought. Besides the battles for the consolidated first tiers, there were separate branches for team and dual battles.

Right now he stood next to the other Steelborn competitors, all of them shooting him curious looks. He didn’t blame them. They were probably just wondering what he was doing here. Together they listened to the rules. They were delivered by one of the referees, an elderly man from one of the major sects in the viscounty.

The contestants were to be put into four groups. Over the next few days, every participant would battle another person from his or her group. This would go on until each person had battled all others in his group. Then the person with the most wins would move on to the next and final stage alongside his or her counterparts in the other groups.

Each match was allotted an hour. If the outcome was not conclusively decided by then, the judges would then rule in favour of whoever had made the greatest impression in terms of technique, power and combat acuity.

The referee would make any necessary calls and had the authority to disqualify anyone found breaking any of the rules. These rules were the standard ones used in the arena: No outside help. No weapons or equipment more than one tier above the participant’s cultivation and no killing blows. The conditions of victory were surrender, knock out or a call made by the referee and or judges.

Following this, they were introduced to the judges in question. Three ancient elders who were all past Zebre champions themselves. They sat on a raised dais in a portion of the arena seating just below the canopy of the watching lords.

The contestants found it hard not be intimidated by the fact that the most powerful figures in the county would be watching their performance.

Soon the participants of the consolidated first tier tournament were called up. Valerian stood up and walked up to the stage surprising those around him. There were a total of thirteen of them. As a group, they went up and drew lots to decide which groups they would be in and who their first opponents would be.

Valerian looked down at his piece. He was in group one. The largest group. Given that there were thirteen participants and only four groups one had an extra member – his. The matchups were quickly announced and put up on a large notice board that hovered over the stage for all to see.

Match One: Valerian of the Steelborns vs Daniel of the Greater Mountain School.

He looked at it wondering who the Daniel was, aware of the many eyes gazing at him. Being the only unknown amongst this year’s contestants, he expected it. His sharp ears caught some of the questions and conversations being had concerning him. They made him smile. Few knew anything about him. The rest wondered what he was capable of. If they really wanted to know, he’d be happy to show them.

The referee marshalled the other competitors off the fighting stage leaving Valerian and his opponent as the only ones besides himself still on it. He reminded them that they had five minutes to prepare but Valerian waived the opportunity. His opponent, however, did not. The burly man he now recognised as Daniel rushed back down to confer with his mates and handlers.

When the time run out, the burly man clambered up the stage. As he reached the top a member of his team rushed up to whisper something into his ear that caused his face to turn into a scowl. Leaving his team member behind, he stalked up the stage. His steps picking up a furious gait.

In a moment, he stood before Valerian allowing Valerian to properly appraise him. Steelborns were naturally heavyset but this guy was huge. Valerian doubted he was truly below twenty-five.

Daniel stood perhaps two point four metres tall, with a shaved head and full, dark beard. His muscles were thick and corded, bulging obscenely on his gigantic body.

Obviously, he was very proud of them since he wore no shirt. In fact, besides his vambraces and baggy trousers, he didn’t seem to have anything else. Valerian couldn’t help but wonder at the standards of the Greater Mountain School. Then the giant spoke.

“I have been informed that you are supposedly some sort of once in a millennia, gifted array master. Is that true?”

‘Huh!’ Valerian mused. ‘His voice is softer than I expected.’ Outwardly he gave a small nod.

“I see”, the man stated. “Let me give you some advice. Fighting is not the same as whatever it is you do. This tournament is not something you can just sign up for willy-nilly. We spend years training and preparing ourselves for it. Now, I’m not sure how you qualified but it would be in your best interest to just forfeit and go back home”.

Valerian ignored him. Turning to the referee, he signalled for him to start the match. Obligingly the referee did so.

“FIGHT!” the man yelled.

His opponent, however, ignored the order, was infuriated by Valerian’s casual dismissal. Nothing he had said was untrue. He had trained for years in the hopes of marking his place with the Zebre. This year he turned twenty-five meaning he was ineligible for any following tournaments.

Imagine his surprise when he saw who his opponent was. From the information his school had, there were to be only two Steelborns competing yet here was a third. Quickly they scrambled to gather whatever intel they could in an attempt to improve his chances of winning.

The one who whispered in his ear conveyed what they had found out. His opponent was an up and coming array master. Some homegrown, homeschooled, half-crippled pansy who spent his time arranging glyphs and making pretty lights.

Everyone knew the Steelborns were making a power play. Clearly, they put this boy in their midst to remind everyone that they had produced … was it the youngest array master in the century? Not wanting to waste his time he tried to get the boy to quit for his own good instead of becoming a pawn in whatever game was going on behind the scenes.

He had been ignored. Daniel hated being disregarded. After a brief lapse, he calmed himself. ‘Some people did not know how to recognise the good intention of others’, he told himself. He’d show the brat the error of his ways soon enough.

Valerian watched as his opponent’s face went through at least four colours. He never knew faces were that expressive. It made him glad for his training. With that in mind, he took two steps forward and executing a picture perfect bow he announced himself.

“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?”

His opponent mumbled something unpleasant under his breath. He hated pretentious brats like this one.

“I am Daniel “Fury Palm” Tenor, Tellurian Practitioner of the earth attribute, A Representative the Greater Earth School in this tournament”, he answered.

Valerian nodded calmly as this confirmed something for him. Avery had been right. He was going to face titled cultivators in this tournament. Titles were symbols of power. Appellations granted to cultivators who had distinguished themselves. They granted a bit of insight into their styles and specialities.

For example, Jonas’ title was Burst Blaze due to his talent in explosions. Richard’s was “Stalwart Spear” for his superior spear and shield skills. A title was a mark of a true cultivator. A sign that he or she was recognised in his or her chosen field. One may choose a title for his or herself but it would not be official until it was acknowledged by his or her peers and superiors.

The fact that Daniel had a title meant that his skills had something to do with palms and that he was quite good at it. Raising his hand, he motioned for him to begin the attack.

Daniel’s eyebrow twitched as the brat made a come hither motion. However, he hesitated slightly. Something at the back of his mind bothered him. The boy was too calm. There was none of the jitters or nervousness that he would expect from someone who was as inexperienced as he had been told. He was even egging him on. Something was not right here.

His gut told him that there was something off about the whole thing. Deciding to end this quickly, he eased himself into a practised horse stance and thrust his arm forward, firing off a skill. A burst of qi left his palm, somehow retaining its shape as it flew at Valerian. It was as quick an arrow fired from a bow and as it covered the distance between the two fighters it grew in size until it became a giant brown palm two metres tall.

The brown colour of the qi betrayed its earthen nature and its soft glow highlighted the small smile on Valerian’s face as he stood still to welcome it. To the spectators, it seemed as if he took no measures against it. It seemed certain that the qi palm would smack him down. However, just before it struck him a gold sheen came over his armour.

The large earthen palm struck him, shattering as it met his defences yet leaving him completely unharmed. Valerian was not even been moved by the strike. The scene stunned the watchers who were surprised that someone would face such an attack head-on. The smile on his face grew slightly more noticeable.

“I suppose it’s my turn then!” he said swinging the mace in his hand.

His response was swift and precise. A massive wind fist hurtled towards Daniel who barely had time to prepare. Quickly, he crossed his arms in front of his face and chest in time to receive the attack. Even so, the impact was jarring. So much so that if Daniel did not lean forward when he did he could have been blown backwards.

There was a lull in the crowd as everyone focused their eyes on the stage. Daniel raised his to meet his opponents and was met with the smile he was now sure was mocking him. “YOU…” he ground out.

Daniel had been warned that his opponent was a special case and that he should take care not to hurt him too badly lest he and his school face reprisal from the Steelborns. The warning had come particularly because of how hot-headed he was. The fury in his title had good reason to be there. No one wanted his quick temper to cause an incident.

Sadly, that warning was now lost on him. His opponent was clearly looking down on him. Enduring his attack and then sending another back in the same style as if trying to make everyone know that he was better than him. From start to finish, the brat had not even taken him seriously. Daniel hated being disregarded and looked down on. And that smile. He’d smack it off his face.

Valerian waited for his opponent not out of malice but due to his own desire to test and prove himself. He couldn’t help it. He was getting excited. Battles were fun.

“YOU…” his opponent yelled angrily. He didn’t even finish his sentence, choosing to attack instead. His arms blurred slightly from his quickened movement and volley of palm strikes begun showering on Valerian’s position.

These were not like the first one. They were much smaller, the size of Daniel’s actual palms and created from condensed qi. Thus, they flew faster and hit with greater force. Reacting instinctively, Valerian countered.

The air around him shimmered as his arcane energy forced the world essence in the vicinity to obey his wishes. The very air condensed, taking on a slight cyan glow as it shaped itself into a multitude of wind fists that launched themselves at the attacking projectiles. Every brown palm was met a wind fist and forcefully dissipated.

The crowd watched with wide eyes. Daniel’s, however, became red. The brat was doing this to make him look bad. Rather than desist from his current attack, he increased his output. Firing palm strike after palm strike. There was no way that he would back down in front of everyone. To do so would mean that the brat would succeed.

The number of energy attacks in the air doubled creating a light show that pleased the spectators. It was unbelievable. Even with the increased number of attack and the chaotic mess that the space between the two had become Valerian was still capable of meeting his opponent’s attacks with his own. With precision and skill, he targeted each attack and shot them down with his wind fists.

Eventually, even Daniel realised that he wasn’t getting anywhere. He began feeling the drain on his reserves and was left with no choice but to stop. Once he did so Valerian did as well. Confused he stood still for a moment. The [Stone Palm Barrage] was his best skill. It’s mastery the source of his title. He had never heard of it being countered in such a manner. His mind was still a little numb and at a loss for what to do. Had he just been beaten at his own game?

There was no way. With a cry of denial, his skin darkened as he infused it with earthen qi and he began to run. Lumbering towards Valerian, he barely made it five steps into his run when a bunch of thick gold chains erupted from the ground beneath his feet and wrapped themselves around him. Stunned, he squirmed and struggled, tendons and muscles straining from his efforts, but they did not give.

Instead, the chains pulled him down to his knees. He was so focused on freeing himself that it took the cries of the crowd to alert him to what came next. He glanced upwards only to come face to face with a massive blade of golden metal essence rushing forth to meet his neck.

Unconsciously, Daniel closed his eyes, unable to confront at his own death.

The crowd cried and yelled in alarm as the massive gold blade neared the kneeling Daniel. The referee even released a pulse of arcane energy to raise a shield around him. It was unneeded. Just before the spell met Daniel it dispersed. Cancelled by Valerian himself.

He now understood why Richard kept emphasising the need to keep one’s head in battle. Previously, he had thought it was obvious but seeing how his opponent had barrelled straight into his trap, one of three anchored [Jailor’s Shackles] littered across the platform, he was forced to admit that maybe it was not so to everyone.

He turned to glance towards the handlers’ station where a pleased Richard stood with his arms crossed over his chest, Avery at his side. Perhaps, this was another thing to be chalked up to good training. Then, turning back to stage, he waited for the referee to announce his victory.

Standing in the centre of the stage before his thoroughly defeated adversary and under the stunned and admiring gazes of the thousands of cheering spectators, Valerian stood and hoped that his next opponent would be more of a challenge.