Valerian’s qi began pulsing like mad and in response, his body began to change. His hair became feathery bristles, spikes grew from multiple joints and huge translucent golden wings burst from his back. Before Gigne could express his shock at the unexpected form, Valerian was already on the move, his [Rending Talons] out and slashing at his foe.
Hanging in the air, as he had earlier, was a mistake. Even with the aid of the wind, his manoeuvrability was extremely poor without his wings. [Mage Guard] was an elementary spell he probably should have quit using a long time ago but he kept it to bolster the defence provided by his [Valiant Armour] and for its nifty ability to be neutral in the element cycle. [Valiant Armour] on its own was good but it consistently proved susceptible to fire attacks. Truthfully, Valerian should have gotten better defensive skills ages ago.
But he didn’t.
Valerian had forsaken the Steelborn focus on gaining impenetrable defences. He had a different way of keeping himself safe. It was simple. Why block a hit when you can avoid it altogether? Initially, he proved fast enough to evade all of Gigne’s strikes up until he transformed. Now that he too had transformed, the speed scale was tipped so far in his favour it was nearly vertical.
The flames covering Gigne’s right side parted cleanly like someone had sliced them up. The only indication that he had even been attacked was the fact that his defensive skill activated scant moments afterwards, releasing a red ring of force that buffeted nothing but the loose flecks of stone at his feet. The next strike, however, he blocked allowing some of the slower cadets to finally see Valerian, his talons stopped by the back of his opponent’s gauntlet.
His wings held him aloft and with a quick beat, carried him backwards and away from thick streaks of flame that would have bisected him had he stayed. Gigne made to follow but Valerian only laughed and slipped behind him with his superior speed, attempting a quick leg sweep. The attack connected but Gigne managed to resist and remain standing. Valerian frowned, flashing away from the counter pulse and attacking immediately after it ended with far greater strength.
The flaming lion was waiting. He roared, flames rising to a new level of power and intensity. Even the people watching were beginning to feel the heat. Pushing his skill to its highest level, he moved his hands at hitherto unseen speeds. Massive arcs of sharp flame were sent flying with one of them actually glancing Valerian. With a series of quick steps, Gigne was in front of him reaching out for a grab. Valerian let him. To his surprise, Gigne found he could not pull Valerian over. Fearfully, he eventually discovered that he was the one being pulled in instead.
Lifting Gigne clear off his feet with one hand and uncaring of the flames that singed it, Valerian greeted his torso with a closed fist. This time, he did not hold back. He put in the entirety of his strength. The blow sent his foe a full metre into the air and Valerian didn’t let up. He followed that with a series of furious punches. Each strike sent made a loud bang as it struck Gigne’s armour and thanks to the other being sent so far upward, the response of his defence system never landed.
Gigne made a few attempts to defend himself but his arms were always knocked aside. Valerian kept jabbing him in the chest, each strike causing his ribs to feel like they were about to shatter. Seeing that he was completely at his opponent’s mercy, Gigne did the only thing he could think of. The qi shroud that surrounded him grew thicker, its glow picking up in intensity. Catching the alarmed look in his foe’s eyes, he detonated the skill prematurely, not wanting Valerian to get away.
What followed was a massive explosion caused by him expelling tremendous amounts of fire and qi in all directions. Even his transformation disappeared, its power having been fed into the explosion as fuel. The aftermath was horrifying. That entire section of the stage disappeared. All that was left was a blackened crater that glowed red here and there from the heat. Steam and smoke rose skywards as the some of the quicker spectators pull their hands from where they’d shielded their eyes or ears.
Valerian stood at one of the far corners of the fighting stage, his armour steaming and with visible burns. He’d been both lucky and quick enough to get out there. If not, who knew what would have happened? Gigne fell back to the ground coughing and hacking up blood but Valerian held no pity for him. On the contrary, he was enraged. He’d been too merciful. Throughout the fight, he had abstained from striking too hard at his opponent’s vital areas. He hadn’t even used his full strength at the beginning for fear of causing too much harm. Even when he had him dead to rights, he attacked his torso and not his unhelmed head.
In return, what did he get? That last attack could have killed him. A dark look overcame his features. Well, if that’s how he wanted to play things…
Gigne never had the chance to look up to see the roundhouse kick that snapped his head to the side and sent him flying away. As he bounced away, he met Valerian who delivered a powerful strike with his elbow spike to his solar plexus. He coughed up blood, splattering Valerian’s armour with it as he was smashed into the floor of the stage. Looking up, he caught the look of murder on his opponent’s face and knew immediately that something had gone very wrong.
Valerian followed that with a [Tremor Step], a ground stamp that sent shockwaves into the earth. Lucky for him, Gigne managed to raise an arm in time. His gauntlet shaped itself into a shield to absorb the blow. It helped but it was unable to negate all of it. The crater beneath him widened and deepened. Knowing how vulnerable he was, Gigne roared. Taking advantage of the backstep Valerian took to avoid his counter pulse, he activated his [Flame Monarch] skill. Flames shrouded his body once more.
Leaping to his feet, Gigne backpedalled at first. He was hurt, angry and humiliated. Suddenly, his earlier decision to keep some of his trump cards hidden no longer mattered. A crushing presence was made known on the field. It was like someone had dropped a huge weight on the shoulders of everyone within a hundred metres of the flaming tellurian. Gigne’s eyes began to glow ruby red and his flames gained a darker hue. His presence changed, becoming tyrannical and fiercer. You got the sense that he was going to come over and rip you apart.
Valerian felt his body stiffen and his muscles grow tense. His essence began to grow sluggish and a strange fear tried to creep into his heart. Even the air around him felt heavy as the interference surrounding Gigne hampered his ability to control the wind. The feeling was familiar to him. His eyes widened with shock. Gigne appeared to have developed and mastered battle intent.
He roared, rushing at Valerian. His strides were longer and his faster, more powerful qi surged vigorously. On the other hand, Valerian could feel that his own prowess had been reduced. Still, the feeling was nothing new. It wasn’t even as severe as his uncle Vorm sometimes made it in training. In spite of this, he became guarded, wary of whatever else Gigne had up his sleeves. The wind was slow to respond but he made it heel, reminding it of just who he was and demanding that it not cower in the face of his enemy.
Resuming his attacks, Gigne slashed at him, sending streaks of roaring flame in his direction. Valerian spun around them. Rather than go on the defensive, he did the opposite, rushing at his opponent. His [Rending Talons] appeared again and this time he meant to use them as they had been intended. The two cultivators raced around the field, a whirlwind of sparks, flame and flashes of golden light much to the shock and awe of the crowd.
Despite the danger and the crushing battle intent Gigne put forth, they forced themselves to get as close as possible. The cadets crowded around the platform, watching the battle with peeled eyelids. Many of them had never seen anything like this, at least, never from people their own age. The instructors were hard pressed at keeping them from straying into a demarcated danger zone and worked to prevent the clashes on the stage from reaching the crowd.
Valerian ducked under yet another slash, sending one of his own screeching along Gigne’s breastplate. He had to give the older youth credit. Valerian whiles much faster than him could barely get hits past him. His reflexes were sharp and honed. His reactions swift and guided by experience. That notwithstanding, Valerian was certain that if not for his armour he would have reduced the other into so many chunks of shredded meat.
Most of his injuries came from the counter pulse the damn thing let off and the flames that shrouded his opponent ensured that staying next to the lion felt like putting your hands into a bonfire. Valerian was never happier about the fact that he had fire resistant armour. It was one of the only things keeping him in this fight. Even so, he was drenched in sweat, covered in blisters and panting from the heat. He knew that even with his endurance, he would not last long under these conditions. He had the essence to spare but the heat drained his stamina. This had to end fast.
Gigne was thinking along similar lines. Now that he had gone this far, he couldn’t afford to lose. His injuries were piling up. Breathing was becoming difficult. He was sure that his smaller opponent had cracked a few ribs and his jaw throbbed with pain. His essence reserves were dwindling. The [Flame Monarch] skill was a constant and expensive draw on what little he had left. The battering his armour was receiving was another expense. The function that created those pulses took the necessary qi straight from his reserves. It wasn’t much but together they amounted to a huge cost.
However, Gigne would not deactivate that function. Not when it was one of the few things keeping his opponent at bay. He realised now that he should not have activated his armour’s last-ditch skill. The explosion had cost him dearly in terms of qi and apart from a brief respite, did nothing. His mind raced, trying to come up with some sort of plan. Taking a hit on with his arm shields, he staggered backwards from Valerian’s demonic strength.
With a loud roar, he spun around, claws out. Sharp streaks of fire expanded in a circle, much like his counter pulse only with a greater range. To his chagrin, his foe merely flew over it. He did not let up. His flames formed giant lion’s paws on his hands as he sent metre long blades of fire at the flying bastard. Then, the impossible happened. Valerian dodged left and right at the same time.
Gigne stared in disbelief as his opponent seemingly split into two copies. One went right, the other left. He watched, confused. It was the same for each attack he sent. Each Valerian would split into two when they evaded. One going left or down, the other right or up. Soon, he was surrounded by Valerians. Some looked down on him from their places in the air whilst others glared at him on the ground. They were scattered in the eight cardinal directions watching him with predatory eyes. Then by some unspoken signal, they attacked.
Gigne raised his arm, fending off a strike from above. Another did not wait for an invitation and rushed to slip under his guard, ignoring the counter pulse. Gigne was not surprised, he knew the counter pulse could be resisted but even when it was, it still struck back at his enemies. That was its purpose, after all: to pay back any who dared attack him. However, Valerian had taken great care not to get struck too many times so far. Being metal attributed, he was weak to fire attacks and yet, it appeared he had thrown caution to the wind.
The counter pulse surged, crashing into the attacking Valerian who dispersed like mist. Gigne’s eyes nearly bugged out of his skull. An attack to the side of his head, following just after the pulse, proved their moorings to be secure but it also caused his vision to swim. Forcing himself to concentrate through the pain, Gigne struck back at his attacker but he was already gone and another clone was attacking. Roaring in anger, he slashed it. However, his claws went right through it, dispersing it.
Gigne went on a rampage, clawing at everything in sight. Many evaded him but a few were unable. They made moves to block him but Gigne found his claws and flames dispersing them instead of being met with resistance. He watched in stunned silence as they faded from his sight.
‘They’re illusions’, he realised.
Alas, his new discovery was of no help to him. He had no way to tell which was real and which wasn’t. They all looked the same, moved the same, sounded the same and even carried the same essence signature. He stopped, taking a defensive position with his shields held outwards. Staying still, he attempted to tell which was real by scent. ‘He can’t possibly deceive all my senses’, he concluded.
The sense of smell was a powerful one and one that Gigne, thanks to his lineage could use adeptly. When concentrating, he was able to track and uncover traces that even bloodhounds would miss. He was certain that he’d be able to find his elusive opponent. Even so, standing still in the middle of battle was a mistake. Red hot pain filled his mind as an unseen foe slashed up his face, cutting straight through his flame shroud and leaving grievous wounds all over his face and head.
Gigne tried to scream but his mouth and nasal passage were filling with blood. The bastard had cut off his nose. Blood entered his eyes from a cut on his forehead stinging terribly. Unfortunately for him, before he could do anything about his miserable situation, hands clamped on to his pauldrons he felt another person’s back against his own but he was already too late to stop the reverse shoulder throw that would slam him into the ground so hard he felt something break and the ground shatter at his feet. Then, Gigne saw red.
Valerian was winning. [Illusionary Strike] had given him the opening he needed. But before he could capitalise on it, an intense pain filled his head. Screaming in pain for the very first time that match, Valerian found himself stumbling backwards. His mind was filled with loud lion’s roar and it hurt. It felt like someone had placed a bell over his head, rang it a hundred times and set his hair on fire for good measure. He knew what was happening but he couldn’t think or defend himself. The image of a giant lion’s head rising in the east like the sun with a mane of flames filled his mind creating a burning sensation in addition to the disorienting roars. Valerian found himself falling to his knees, his hands clasping his head as he screamed in pain.
Then, somewhere within his psyche came a flash of grey. A metallic giant many times the size of the lion’s head was falling from the sky, fist in hand, elbow spike extended and glinting dangerously with harsh light as he came down on the lion’s head. [Sharp Elbow], a Steelborn skill, one Valerian had yet to practise much let alone master. With it, the steel monolith phantasm smashed into the mind avatar and brought it crashing down. It also provided Valerian with the opening he needed.
He gave a sharp cry, concentrating on bringing his full cultivation and both his forces to shore up his mind palace. Not stopping there, he called to mind memories of his great ancestor, letting the feel and presence of the peng flood his mind and crush the mental assailant.
With it gone, Valerian opened his eyes. The pain that had felt like ages had only really lasted a few seconds but it was one of the worst experiences he’d ever had in his life. Blinking his way past his spotty vision, he forced himself to stand. A few metres away, Gigne was doing the same. Valerian stared at his opponent with a mixture of shock, fear and murderous wrath. Whatever skill Gigne had used on him, it utilised his battle intent to force a portion of his will into Valerian’s mind. Valerian had heard of mental attacks but this was his first encounter with one.
His assailant, Gigne, was also trying to stand. His fire transformation had disappeared again allowing everyone to see just how grievous his wounds were. Blood dribbled freely down his face and his posture was off like something was wrong with one side of his body. His presence, however, had changed. Valerian knew instinctively that the person standing in front of him was not the Gigne had been fighting scant seconds earlier. This one was far more dangerous.
Slowly, some sort of mist began to gather around the bushy-haired tellurian. The moment he saw it, Valerian’s eyes widened. When it appeared, fire sprung up on the stage and the sun overhead seemed to get brighter. The flames expanded rapidly covering the entire surface of the platform and forcing Valerian to take to the air. There, he watched as the mist began to gather more rapidly. Soon, he could make out the image of a lion’s head taking shape.
Many spectators began to scream in fear asking their fellows what was going on. Valerian knew what it was. He also knew that it was coming for him and it would not rest until it tore him apart and devoured him. Something deep within Valerian burst forth at that moment. It responded to the challenge and the danger.
An internal switch was flipped and his gaze immediately went from murderous to cool. Glyph after glyph began to appear in the air around him, each carrying a strange deadly feel. Forcing his wings and the wind to carry him skyward, Valerian looked down at the threat below. He’d made up his mind. He was killing Gigne!
“Okay, that’s enough!” called out a strong voice.
Everything came to a sudden stop. Both combatants found that they couldn’t move. The gathering mist was gone as were Valerian’s glyphs. Even the flames on the stage had been extinguished. Slowly, they were steered to face a figure in the middle of their fighting stage; the Chief Instructor.
“What say we call this match a tie?” he said calmly. Despite his tone and the clear question asked, no one dared think it anything less than a command. “Squads One and Two, come claim your leaders!” he added. “There will be no more battles today. You may all return to your barracks.”
Slowly, the cadets began to shuffle away with the mentioned squads fussing over their leaders. Apart from the sounds of their parting, they went quietly. They were a little in shock at what they had seen and needed time to come to terms with it. However, the Major knew that the moment that happened, they’d start talking. Soon, everyone would know what had happened here today.
“That escalated quite quickly, didn’t it?” he said to the instructors assembled in front of him.
This chapter was a bit too long in my opinion but it was necessary. I had to make sure it was wrapped up properly as it would set the tone for many chapters ahead. Who can guess what happened to Gigne? I’ll give you guys five guesses. All the clues are there so I won’t be giving any more. Also, what happened to Valerian in this chapter? And before I forget, Valerian’s phantasm made an appearance. Then again, someone did barge into his home and start wreaking stuff.
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