Guess who got food poisoning? I’ll give you a hint. His is a ten letter name starting with L and ending with g.
But enough about that. We’re having a double release today to celebrate my recovery. It is also to announce that HoGW has a new patron. That’s right we’ve got a new entry in the Hall of Heroes and it someone who has made the big step of contributing financially to support my work.
All me to introduce, ScruffyBobo!
Please join me in thanking him for his contribution.
Chapter Thirty-five: Combat Drills II
It looked logical and simple, didn’t it? Valerian had kicked Fallenwood and his friends off his squad. Now, Fallenwood had seized this chance to challenge him. Mayhaps for revenge or to assuage his honour. Too bad the entire thing was scripted. Valerian found himself annoyed beyond measure that Clearcrest would resort to this measure to deal with him and that he was the one she chose to challenge first.
He caught on the moment Fallenwood asked to bring his friends onto his team. Valerian hadn’t just spent the first exam playing games with Pugio and running the course. He had been evaluating the other applicants trying to find potential squadmates and identify future rivals. Fallenwood was one of Clearcrest’s people. He’d been sure of it. However, the fact that he chose to volunteer to be assigned to Valerian’s squad made him wonder whether their relationship had become strained or if Fallenwood had perhaps seen a better future with him.
It didn’t matter. Fallenwood was an excellent cultivator and Valerian was happy to have him. Then, he requested those three to join as well. Originally, Valerian would not have minded but the moment he saw them, he knew something was off. Searching through his memories and observations, he was able to confirm that each of them possessed a connection to Marcella Clearcrest. One person leaving Clearcrest’s group to join him could be overlooked but five?
A story flashed through his mind. Vorm had told him a tale of how one of the elite was sabotaged back in his day. The idea behind it was simple. All applicants who passed the exam were of a general level of skill and power but there’d always be a few among them who outshone the rest. Vorm had warned him that sometimes, those who started out great did not do too well with Strapping’s conditioning. He also mentioned that that by their second year, when specialisations came in, the rankings would unrecognisable when compared to their admittance.
That, however, didn’t change the fact that some of the cultivators had better starts than others or that many held unique skills that would serve them and whichever squad they ended up on incredibly well. Every year, the elite chosen as squad leaders would rush to recruit these individuals before their counterparts did. Often it came down to who chose first. That was why everyone wanted first place. The first ranked elite was always first to choose. But what of the others?
One came up with a plan. He convinced some fellows to volunteer to be assigned to a rival’s squad, filling up his slots and ensuring that he didn’t simply have his pick of cadets. When it was his turn to chose, he chose the cadets he had been eyeing all along and then had those he made sign up for his rival’s squad, quit and return to him. It was a sinister plot and one that had the entire centre buzzing for weeks on end, causing Vorm to hear about it.
Thing was, cadets could quit squads if they wanted, a fact that this elite used to his advantage. He broadened his pick of cultivators whilst making his rival look foolish and best of all, the victim of his plot was left with only the surplus cadets to choose from.
Realising what was afoot and sufficiently angered, he turned to look at Clearcrest. She gave him, then, the same exact look, she did just now. A shitty innocent look that wouldn’t deceive a child. He dismissed Fallenwood and all the others who had come with him even Amis, a respectable cultivator, after remembering that Fallenwood and Amis came from the same school.
As expected, when her time came to choose, Clearcrest picked up Fallenwood and one other person from that group. Fallenwood tried to convince Amis to go with him but the latter was angry and refused. He later went to Reynard instead. As for the remaining two, they were ignored suggesting that they were only pawns that Clearcrest used to make up numbers. Afterwards, Valerian was left to ruminate on the fact that Clearcrest had chosen to move on him even before they were to be set against each other. Today, she was doing it again.
Valerian could guess the motive this time as well. She was gathering information about him. Fallenwood was being sent up as a test and measuring stick. Some of the cadets might look at this and think that the challenge was coming for other reasons. Reasons like the fact that the very first challenge, the one between Tiabire and Vole, had come from his team to hers. Now, she was probably returning the favour. Others might favour the ‘Fallenwood’s revenge’ angle but Valerian knew better. He heard from Berengar how Vold had been sent to spy and recruit from within Reynard’s squad and under his own nose.
Clearcrest was exactly the sort of girl his grandmother warned him about. A manipulative witch, with little honour, no respect and boundless ambition. Valerian had to admit, though, whatever she was, smart was part of it. Her plan was well thought out and she seemed to place emphasis on knowing her enemies and working to undermine them. She’d nearly used Reynard’s arrogance and laissez-faire attitude against him and her plot during the team selection would have worked if Valerian did not know the story as well. Still, if this was how she was starting the hostilities then Valerian wasn’t sure he wanted to know what she’d do once they really got into it.
Fallenwood picked up a spear as well before climbing up onto the platform. “You humiliated me Steelborn!” he growled. “Let’s see what makes you so great.”
“Do be quick”, Valerian told him. “I’d rather not waste much time on you.”
Fallenwood’s face coloured but Valerian couldn’t care less. He was right. Being held up or worse, defeated, by someone like Fallenwood would ruin what little image he had. If he was seen to struggle against someone of this calibre then the challenges would never stop coming. Clearcrest had already targeted him thinking he was the weak link in the chain of squad leaders. What would the more run of the mill cadets do if they thought so too? Even so, revealing his trumps would be just as bad. It was what she wanted and he doubted any of the others would pass the opportunity by as well.
The instructor stationed there stood to the side of the stage and announced. “This will be a full contact battle. There is little if anything barred. However, ensure that your attacks are performed with your weapons to minimise injury and refrain from going for the kill. Know that I possess the authority to call the match and disqualify any combatant should I think it necessary. Do you understand?”
“Good!”, the man acknowledged. “Charles Fallenwood vs Valerian Steelborn! FIGHT!”
Fallenwood tried to seize the initiative and Valerian let him. He attacked with a quick thrust of his spear. Valerian struck it to the side. Moving swiftly, Fallenwood advanced on Valerian. His footwork was quick but steady and his handling of his spear was artistic. Each sweep and thrust was performed with precision. Onlookers watched him match Valerian blow for blow as they danced languidly around each other. Each seemed to have a turn to attack and advance before seemingly giving way for the other to do same.
Slowly, they began to speed up until their spearheads could barely be seen. The soft blue glow of Fallenwood’s spear grew brighter and brighter and his movements more graceful. He dodged one of Valerian’s thrusts by bending over backwards and twisting himself like a corkscrew only to use that force to spin himself out of the way of the descending strike that followed after. Valerian on his part relied on the wind to sense where his opponent’s strikes were coming from. He did not have the other’s flexibility.
Despite himself, he found himself enjoying the spar. Fallenwood was good. Valerian could tell that unlike himself, the tellurian had spent quite a few years training on mastering the weapon. It showed. He handled it with a natural ease making spins, turns and twirls with the weapon in a manner, he suspected was meant to be distracting. Valerian ignored his opponent’s more artful flourishes and focused on what he could pick up from the battle. He made a couple of thrusts towards his torso and watched him bend out of the way.
Next time their spears met though, something strange happened. Fallenwood’s spear curled around his, slithering up it like a snake. He felt a tug on the spear but held on tightly. Fortunately, Fallenwood’s strength was leagues beneath his otherwise, he would have lost his weapon. Abandoning his failed ploy quickly, his opponent retreated. Valerian, however, stood still and watched as the spear went from being animate and snakelike to the rigid weapon it was before.
Fallenwood watched him with a smirk on his face. “Like that?” he mocked. “I practice the [Swift Viper Style] of spear arts”, he revealed. “Your spear arts, on the other hand, are incredibly shoddy. Frankly, I’m surprised you made it this far.”
Valerian remained quiet. Clearly, he had been played. Fallenwood had tried to lull him into a false sense of security so he could attack unawares. Mentally, he made a note to on guard against such tactics in the future. Warily, he made a few thrusts in Fallenwood’s direction watching as the other evaded. Then, he stuck! Until that moment, all he had displayed were his spear arts. He hadn’t even enhanced himself with his qi to talk of using skills.
[Wind Blade] he intoned mentally.
The trusty spell sent several arcs of sharp wind at his opponent. It was here he saw Fallenwood’s true style. Copious amounts of water qi pulsed through him as he sewed through the spells. If he’d been flexible before, he was pretty much boneless now. Twisting himself in ways that would have killed an ordinary man whilst steadying advancing, Fallenwood struck out at Valerian with his spear. Valerian rose his to meet it. Big mistake!
His opponent’s spear wasn’t struck aside or held at bay. It bent around his at the point of impact, curling around itself from that point on and launching itself at Valerian like some sort of angry, venomous serpent. Valerian took one hand off his spear and batted it aside, deflecting it as his uncle Richard taught him all those years ago.
“You’re lucky this isn’t my real spear. Mine is poisoned. You’d have lost your arm if not your life”, Fallenwood bragged as he continued with his attacks. Each one came from strange, uncommon angles. His overly artistic moves started to make more sense now even as they got more exaggerated. He could spin and send his spear flying. He could crack it like a whip or even have it change directions mid-thrust. Valerian doubted that putting an actual serpent in his hands would affect his art in the slightest.
“You know, I can’t imagine how you became an elite in the first place. You might be a dual force user but you’re clearly weak”, his opponent was saying. “Stick to your fancy writings, Steelborn. You weren’t meant for real combat.”
Smiling at the childish attempt to provoke him, Valerian decided he’d had enough. Next thing Fallenwood knew, he was gone. Valerian had disappeared from his sight. Before he could express his shock, he was struck down. The right side of his face erupted in pain and a savage blow knocked him off his feet. He lay on the floor, dazed, confused and staring at Valerian’s feet. One of them came up, kicking him in the side and forcing the air out his lungs.
“Get up!” Valerian commanded.
Fallenwood cursed, spitting a mouthful of blood to the side as he forced himself to his feet.
“How did you do that?” he demanded.
“I think you’ll find that my spear arts are practical. Simple, but they work quite well. Yours on the other hand… I’ve never seen anything more wasteful in my life!” Valerian said to him, ignoring the question. “All those fancy twirls and bendy moves? Unnecessary! Where did you learn that? The stuff you showed before was much better. I might not be a spear expert but don’t worry, I’ll teach you something.”
“In a fight,” Valerian began. “The most important things are speed…”
He disappeared again. Fallenwood couldn’t even see the next hit coming. Valerian swept him off his feet before stabbing his illusionary spear through his chest and into the platform. “…and strength”, he finished nonchalantly. His opponent looked up at him with shock and disbelief.
“You lack both! Work on them instead of your vain bending and maybe that spear of yours will become useful”, Valerian added.
“Winner, Valerian Steelborn!” the instructor announced.
There was a lot of scattered cheering and clapping, mostly from Valerian’s team. Most of the other cadets merely looked on in shock. It was to be expected. Valerian had humiliated his opponent. He made it clear that he hadn’t even need to take him seriously and it was true. He’d believed his challenger had more to him. Some hidden cards or powerful aces that would test him but in the end, Fallenwood was just too slow. All he’d had to do was call on the wind and he was beyond him. Combine that with Valerian’s urge to end things quickly, you got a quick albeit unsatisfactory match. If Fallenwood had any trumps, he never got the chance to use them.
Valerian moved over to the steps leading off the fighting dais aiming to leave but a loud yell stopped him.
“Hey, Steelborn! Hold on just a sec!”
Valerian turned around, searching for the caller. Standing in front of the crowd of spectators on the next fighting platform was Gigne. He was shooing off some girl from Clearcrest’s team who’d challenged him and staring directly at him. Seeing that he had Valerian’s attention, he crouched slightly and leapt mightily in his direction.