Chapter Forty-six: The Ever-present Danger
Gigne watched Valerian stumble onto his feet with a wicked smile on his face. It served the lanky bastard right. Did he really think he could sneak up on him? The lion himself? Pausing his steps ever so slightly, Leonidas shook the thoughts and the rising angry ego out of his head. He needed to remain clear-headed at this time. Merging with his phantasmal self gave him extraordinary abilities but the combined being that resulted was a little too willful at times.
As spectral entities, phantasms could gaze beyond the physical realm and interact with spirits and souls. Leonidas hadn’t actually seen Valerian. He’d picked up on his spiritual presence and then imposed the sight of his phantasmal self over his physical one allowing him to track Valerian by his soul. This channelling of soul essence had the effect of causing all his attacks to inflict mental and spiritual damage.
That was the reason why Valerian remained generally listless, struggling to get up and to control his limbs. Currently, the effects weren’t too great but that was only because his cultivation was too low. When he got older and more powerful he’d be able to extinguish another cultivator’s soul with his attacks. The possibility alone was enough to excite him.
Spiritual abilities and soul attacks were not the only skills he had. The Gigne clan had the noble blood of a sun-burst lion in their veins. From infancy, they practised a method to use this blood legacy and to cultivate their innate phantasms. Through this, the inner lion spirit was turned into a secondary existence for the cultivator.
Leonidas was not just a man. He was also an adolescent sun-burst lion. This sort of dual existence was made possible by the method in their secret manual. Their phantasms weren’t just the ghosts of the daemons they could have been but rather an alternate self. This gave rise to two consciousness in their bodies, an intentional provision that allowed them to accomplish feats such as do two things such as cooking and reading and up to even cultivating two different things at the same time or the same thing with twice the speed and effort.
It also allowed him to specialise in two different things. There was the him who focused on hand to hand combat and fire and there was the one who sat behind, plotting, scheming, making bizarre and unexpected soul and mental attacks, etc. There was always one controlling the phantasm and another in the main body. In fact, the Gigne clan’s method was so great that he had not one but two lives. Even if his physical body was destroyed, he could live on as a spectral man-daemon like the elder in charge of their family crypt.
When both sides were merged, his power nearly tripled. His essence reserves would grow to a size that allowed him to shower techniques on his opponents with little care for their expenditure. His flame affinity grew to new heights giving him unprecedented levels of control and making his flames burn that much hotter. The physical abilities that you’d expect from an elite consolidated fire tellurian received a boost from the addition of those of a young male sun-burst lion.
That punch he’d given just Valerian? That was barely half of how hard he could hit.
Gigne walked up to his stumbling enemy in a manner that could only be described as a stalk. Remembering just how terribly the other had beaten him the other time made his hair burst into flames. Never had he been so humiliated. If not for his other consciousness taking over at the last moment, he would have declared the loser. More and more of his body continued to transform as he thought about it.
This was the major drawback of the fusion. His emotions were all doubled and heightened, leaving him with a hair trigger for as long as it lasted. His father had assured that he would learn control over time but thus far he had had to watch out for certain triggers. Anger. Lust. Pride. These three had a tendency to carry him away. Stopping himself, Leonidas tried to pull himself together again.
“I was surprised when I came to and my other self told me you were like us”, Gigne said calmly. “Thing is, he also informed me that your phantasm was feral and unchained. I couldn’t believe it.”
“Are you leaving it feral intentionally or do you simply lack a means to control it?” Gigne asked with a strange tone in his voice.
“That is none of your business!” Valerian spat at him, trying to get his feet under him.
“It is my business, Steelborn. You have left a feral innate phantasm to roam freely in your psyche! Do you know what that does? How dangerous it could be? I’ve had family members who failed to corral their bestial selves and ended up becoming daemons. Worse, phantasms aren’t your regular daemons. They are instinct and primal chaos without reason.
“That thing will eat you up from the inside until you go hollow”, Gigne warned. “Then, it will ride your flesh and follow those instincts that drive it. It will eat, kill, fight and fuck until someone puts it down.
“Clearly, mine is different from yours”, Valerian told him, finally rising to his feet. The transformation into his battle form did not even take second. Translucent wings outstretched, he put his feet in a ready stance, watching his opponent closely.
“You’re not listening!” Gigne yelled. “Phantasms have to be controlled. You have to tame them or risk them seizing control and running wild. People focus on the power and abilities they grant and choose to ignore the fact that they are ever-present dangers residing in the most vulnerable aspect of a cultivator. You might not like or trust me Steelborn but know this, an uncontrolled phantasm is just an invitation for trouble. In fact…” he trailed off.
Reddish mist seeped out him rising into the sky like a fount of steam to coalesce into a massive feline shape. The creature was not as large as Valerian expected it. The height of his phantasm was measured in storeys whereas this one was only one and half times the height of a horse. It had great bulk to it though. Enough that it was nearly half as wide as it was tall. All of this mass was muscle and despite its spectral nature rippled visibly with its movements. The moment its form was complete its mane burst into bright orange flames.
It roared, making a loud sound that buffeted everything in the area and forced Valerian to shield his watering eyes. Even so, Valerian stared at it, wondering how Gigne had done that so fast. His summoning had taken two seconds at most.
“I’d rather not win like this but it will prove my point”, his human self stated.
“Open your eyes to the danger of a feral phantasm!” the ghostly sun-burst lion roared.
With a flash of ghostly flame, it sped off. Heeding the bad feeling in his gut, Valerian aimed to follow but Gigne blocked his path.
“What are you up to?” he asked.
“Just wait, you’ll see”, Gigne answered.
By this point, Valerian’s communication tool was buzzing with messages.
“Squad Leader!” Alenwaa was yelling. “I’ve picked up a massive essence signature headed straight for the base at alarming speeds. It should reach us in…” A loud explosion sounded.
“Damn! It’s already here!” came Alenwaa’s voice. This time, however, it sounded strained.
“Valerian! The signature belongs to Gigne’s phantasm. The damn thing is trying to claw its way in. Tamara has activated the flame suppression array but it is doing as well as we had hoped. The ice on the walls is also melting. I think it’s using some sort of special fire.”
Valerian’s face turned but there was nothing he could do. He couldn’t even grab the tool and send a quick message back for fear that Gigne would seize the opportunity to attack him. Mentally, he snarled. Where were the others? They should have come back by now.
Right then, an extremely loud roar reverberated through the battlefield. Valerian could instinctively tell from the intent behind the sound and its maker what it was. It was a challenge! Having only just begun, the ripples of the roar spread everywhere. Listening to the sound caused something to lurch inside of Valerian. To his shock, a ghostly mist began to rise off his body. Alarmed, Valerian tried to hold it in.
More and more of the grey qi continued to seep out and nothing he tried to hold it back worked. Whenever he latched onto it, it would buck and throw him off. It was like trying to catch smoke. No matter how hard or well you cupped your hands it would worm its way out through the gap between your fingers. Eventually, the phantasm got free, ripping itself right out of Valerian.
For a few moments, Valerian felt faint, spots of light danced in his vision. The extraction hadn’t hurt per se but the force of it combined with the friction and exertion between both parties left him drained. Focusing his sight upwards, Valerian was granted his first proper look at his own phantasm.
It looked like a metallic sculpture of some tribal warrior or an athlete, with perfect, awe-inspiring muscles and strange silvery spurs coming out of its joints. Towering over them at sixteen metres tall as opposed to the recorded fifteen, it also appeared to have had a small growth spurt. All in all, the metal giant while bulkier, possessed a face and structure eerily similar to Valerian’s own which was to be expected. What was not, however, was it bounding away right after materialising, taking the same exact look Gigne’s sun-burst lion had taken.
It shouted unintelligible words as it ran and upon hearing them, Valerian’s heart sank. He did not know what his phantasm was saying but he could understand it from its intent. The steel monolith was yelling a warning, blustering as it tried to get the sun-burst lion to leave its ‘territory’. Roaring, the lion responded with defiance causing the monolith to declare war against what it saw as an interloper.
“Valerian!” came Alenwaa’s voice over the communication tool. “Can you hear that? I’m picking another unregistered essence just as massive as the lion phantasm barrelling our way. What’s going on?”
Valerian turned to Gigne, understanding on his face. This was a trap. The kind he had never expected and he fell for it. They had somehow used his phantasm against himself and his squad.
A few seconds later, his number two came on the line again. “Valerian, is that you?”, the voice asked tentatively. “You have a battle golem?”
“Do you see that?” Gigne asked Valerian. “Do you see how it casually tossed you aside and hurt you to pursue its own goals. Steel monoliths are class four daemons known for their territorial tendencies. All I had to do was send another daemon into an area that was awash with your essence and make a challenge and it did what its instinct demanded. It responded. You could tell it was a trap from the very beginning. The phantasm, however, could not and even if it could, it did not care.
“All those arrays and enchantments you put over your base?” he jeered. “They are going to go to waste. It was clear that it would be stupidity to storm your redoubt. Why do you think we used ranged attacks? Now, that place is going to become the battleground of two phantasms. I wondered how your traps and such would fare. What of your teammates?”
“I trust that my point has been made?” the bushy-haired tellurian ventured. “Do you know now understand the folly of keeping a feral phantasm, Steelborn?” Valerian shot him a cold glare in response. making him smile wryly.
Gigne suspected that Valerian thought that he’d only gone on his spiel to sabotage him. If so, he was partly right. The fire-maned youth could have come up to him anytime in the last few months but he had waited till their two sides were facing off in battle, cornered him and used the fact against him first. Even so, Gigne felt he had done his part in making Valerian aware of the weakness he had and the danger he was in.
“Well, whatever! I’ll say this though”, he said, suddenly taking a battle stance. “When I’m done melting your phantasm into a pool of ectoplasm, my squad and I will sweep through whatever and whoever is left.”
This was precisely the moment when a dagger took him in the spine, severing it clean.
You had to give it to Pugio. He picked the perfect moment. The attack caught Gigne, who had previously been able to detect Valerian’s spiritual presence completely off guard. The bushy-haired tellurian couldn’t do anything. He’d already lost control of most of his body. Just attempting to turn and see his attacker sent him toppling to the ground. Unluckily for him, Pugio wasn’t one to let him lie quietly. The spine severing was a fatal wound but apparently, that wasn’t enough for the dagger-wielding youth.
Black qi covered his hand forming sharp spikes that bespoke death. Stepping back in after letting Gigne’s counter pulse pass harmlessly by, he shoved them into Gigne’s kidneys. There were some fire cultivators who could renew themselves through their flames. Even if Gigne was one of them, he’d not be able to do so this time. Not with what Pugio had just stabbed him with. The deathly qi ate through his vital organs like acid, liquefying him from the inside.
The first strike had been too sudden and efficient and its very nature had numbed its target. Conversely, this was both effective and cruel. From the moment the qi touched his flesh, all Gigne could do was wail. He had never experienced anything as terrible as this. He didn’t have to scream long though because Pugio loped off his head soon after before subjecting it to similar treatment.
“You sure took your time!” Valerian told his friend, completely ignoring the corpse between them.
The cold, detached look that the other wore warmed and fell away, allowing his teasing grin to resurface. “Please!” Pugio began. “You were already about to stop his heart with your killing intent when I got here”, he joked.
It was as if he wasn’t the same person who had just brutally and callously cut down another human being just seconds earlier.
“Could you kill him some more for me?” Valerian asked, pulling the streams of liquid metal he’d been planting around as a trap back into his mercurial orb.
“Nah! Not really!” Pugio said smoothly. “The [Stygian Spikes] contain a soul component. That’s why they hurt so much. I’m told it feels like your mind is burning.”
Valerian turned, gazing at him with his left eyebrow raised.
“You can never be too careful”, Pugio explained. “There are too many cultivators out there and too many life-preserving techniques. Dead as a doornail isn’t good enough for some types.”
“Where are the others”, Valerian finally asked. None had shown up during his fight with Gigne.
While listening to Pugio talk, he grabbed his communication tool to brief Alenwaa of the situation and inform everyone to fall back to base. In a few seconds, he was properly updated on the situation. Things didn’t sound too good. John and Cybele had been taken out. Tamara reserves were empty, leaving Drusilla to hold the fort. Berengar had held an opening in the wall until the tertiary defences kicked in and left him stranded outside. It didn’t take long after that for him to get killed.
Flapping his translucent wings, Valerian asked Pugio, “Can you keep up?”
The dagger-wielding youth nodded mutely and without further ado, they took off leaving trails of gold and black in their wake.
“Valerian…” Pugio said softly, finally speaking up.
“How much did you hear?” Valerian asked, focusing on avoiding the trees ahead.
“Enough!” Pugio stated. “Is it as bad as he said?”
“Not sure”, Valerian admitted. “This is the first I’m hearing so much doom and gloom on the issue. I’ll find out later. Even if it is, it doesn’t matter right now. We’ve got to back to base and stop that…before it gets any worse.”
Pugio said nothing allowing them to hurry onwards in silence. Running the calculations in his head, Valerian knew they could make it back in time. There was just one problem. He had no idea what to do once they did!