Gigne landed on the platform, taking the place Fallenwood was vacating. Straightening his knees after landing, the gold armoured two-metre tall elite swaggered over so that only a few yards separated them. Valerian watched him warily. The dark skinned, bushy haired tellurian was the removed, cocky sort. He rarely spoke to anyone outside of his circle and he never acknowledged them either. Surely, he wasn’t thinking of…
“That last match was very disappointing”, the bushy haired tellurian begun, his intentions all too clear. “I trust that sham of a fight did not tire you out?”
Valerian found himself shaking his head as his tongue had no words to play with, courtesy of his shock. Was he really going to do this now? Valerian hadn’t predicted this. Vorm hadn’t either. He was coming to discover that everything his uncle had told him was either wrong or so inaccurate what truth they held was nigh useless to him. How were elite fighting in the second round on the first day of combat practice? It was same with the entrance exam. It was supposed to be individual with team building only coming after the selection and yet… If he hadn’t adapted when he had… Was it to be the same story here?
He had been under the impression that the leaders would hang back, jockeying for influence and say in the platoon even as they struggled to build up their teams to counter and defeat each other. He had to admit, Gigne had rattled him and probably everyone else. He had seized the initiative. Right now, Valerian who had had a plan for every step thus far was unsure how to play this.
Despite being ranked second, he was aware that he had the lowest standing among the squad leaders. Even Reign and some of the others had more prestige than him. He couldn’t afford to lose more. However, he couldn’t also display the full extent of his skills. The others, Clearcrest especially, were watching. Gigne was the second to move against him. It made something very clear to him. They considered him the weakest of their number. Why else would they target him first? Gigne could have challenged anyone present but he chose him. Clearcrest did as well. He supposed that Reynard was merely late to the party.
Something had to be done. A phrase from one of the litany of the hunter rang in his head. ‘…as we hunt, we too are hunted.” If this was their way of seizing initiative then he guessed he’d have to as well. They’d come after him first. They shouldn’t have problems when he did same. His mind set, Valerian visibly calmed.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked his challenger. “Here? Now?”
Gigne grinned happily. “Of course. The matches so far have been quite lacklustre. As their elite, it is only right that we set an example. It is the task of all leaders ignoring, of course, those ignoble ones”, he answered turning pointedly to look at Clearcrest.
Valerian considered it. It appeared Gigne had a problem with Clearcrest’s methods. Truth be told, he wasn’t so much bothered by them, only by the fact that she seemed to be targeting him, for now at least. In fact, Valerian saw the merit of her plan and concluded that perhaps, had things been different, he could easily be that kind of underhanded person. The only thing that held him back was that he didn’t like feeling out the shadows or hanging on the sidelines. He believed he could scheme quite well but his passion, he had found, lay in outright subjugating his foes.
Dominating, overwhelming, his foes pleased him far too much. He’d first noticed it in the Zebre and he indulged in it just now when he fought Fallenwood. Matching and proving himself the better of others beyond all reasonable doubt brought him a feeling of pride and shot of pleasure. It was vindication. He was on the path he had set himself so long ago. He was becoming powerful.
“Why?” he asked his would-be opponent.
“Why not?”, came his reply. “I wish to spar against someone with a name like Steelborn, see what it’s all about.”
“And I suppose a name that basically means ‘The fourth lion lion’ is just run of the mill then”, Valerian said to him. Gigne laughed good naturedly. He made to say something but then a voice interrupted them.
“Do be clear”, the instructor manning their stage said. “Are you fighting or not?”
“I am!” Gigne proclaimed.
Valerian found himself the centre of dozens of expectant gazes. Everyone had taken notice of them and they all seemed to watching intently. “I’ll fight”, he said, giving in.
“Then pick your weapons and await my signal to begin”, the man told them.
“I don’t think that would be necessary, Captain”, Gigne voiced. “I’m sure Steelborn and I can manage with our own.”
His words sent the cadets staring at them tittering as they realised what he meant. He wished to fight with live weapons. The Captain, the instructor for Squad Three, made to refuse but Valerian caught him receive a signal from the Major himself. The man immediately looked indignant and uncertain as he deciphered it.
“Very well, Cadets”, he said. “Note, however, that you’ll have none but yourselves to hold responsible should anything unfortunate happen.”
“Noted! Please start the match, sir!” Gigne said impatiently.
“Very well”, the man repeated. “Valerian Steelborn vs Leonidas Gigne IV! FIGHT!”
The two leapt into action immediately, each seeking to land the first blow. Four wicked looking claws sprung out of each of Gigne’s gauntlets and nine blades popped into existence around Valerian as they dashed at each other. With him at their helm, the blades were faster, cutting through the air in an instant and attempting to do the same to his opponent.
With a swing of his right, Gigne swiped two out of the air. The others circled him but he was already in front of Valerian. The gold etchings on his armour glinted in the sunlight as he made a savage swing upward. It would have completely eviscerated Valerian if it struck but he wasn’t even close to doing so. His target had somehow put a full two metres between them.
Valerian watched the trails of red light Gigne’s claws left in the air fade. They looked like angry scars in the air itself. Sparing a glance at his weapons, he saw how those who had come into contact with his opponent had been heated by his qi.
‘Why is it always fire?’ he asked no one in particular.
Calling on the wind to speed himself up, he slipped under the next swing. His own [Rending talons] coming into play. Without wasting a breath, he thrust his golden claws at his opponent’s armpit. They struck a previously undetected qi shroud. One that glowed an intense red, its power growing.
Alarmed, Valerian backpedalled as fast he could. He didn’t quite make it. A large super heated wave of force was expelled by Gigne’s body, slamming into him and tossing him aside. Using that force to make a couple of somersaults backwards, Valerian made to steady himself. Unfortunately for him, his opponent had no intention of letting him do so. Valerian found himself on the defensive, forcing himself to duck, weave and mostly let his summoned weapons take the hits for him.
The lingering red scars from Gigne’s claw swipes began to multiply in the air. By now, their watchers had started screaming and yelling their support. However, Valerian could not afford to make out their words. His mind was wholly focused on avoiding his opponent’s attacks. Slowly, he was able to steer them around so he had the greater portion of the stage to his back.
Next thing Gigne knew, his smaller foe was leaping backwards. Valerian cleared at least five metres vertically and nearly twice that horizontally. Looking up at him, he watched as blade after blade appeared around his smaller foe. He barely had time to cross his arms in front of him before they began to rain on him. His arms glowed an intense red and his arm armour expanded to form small shields for him to hide behind. They helped, at first. Seeing his opponent take cover only made Valerian send more weapons at him.
Hanging in the air thanks to the power of the wind, Valerian drew out nine of the baselards he received from Elder Allard. Keeping a steady stream of weapons flying at Gigne, he cast [Heart Seeking Bolts] using the baselards as the focus. Contrary to the crowd’s expectations, he didn’t make them circle his opponent. He had them fly straight at Gigne’s shields. With a loud bang, they smashed into the shields, unable to cut through. Gigne groaned at the strain but managed to keep his head down and more importantly, his shields steady. However, the force of the strike wasn’t so easy withstood and sent him sliding backwards.
The furore of the crowd reached a new high as they caught on to Valerian’s ploy. Gigne’s supporters, in particular, did not hesitate to scream their warnings. Despite fearing the consequences of taking his eyes away from the focus of the battle, Gigne took a quick glance backwards at their urging. He was shocked to discover that he was only a few metres away from the edge of the fighting platform.
Realisation dawned in his eyes. All that time he thought he was pushing his opponent back, he was actually being led closer and closer to the end of the fighting stage. No. He must have noticed how close they were and decided to take advantage of that. Gigne refused to believe the other had planned so far ahead. Still, a couple more strikes like he had just received and he’d be pushed out of bounds. Resisting the battering his shields were taking and the toll on his arms, Gigne dug his heels into the stone of the platform, visibly crushing it. He wouldn’t lose!
Dagger after dagger clattered onto the stone of the fighting stage. They quickly rose again to resume their unrelenting siege on Gigne. The baselards were no different. Gathering them again, Valerian cast his spell once more. As before and despite his best efforts, Gigne was sent sliding backwards. But as soon as the spell ended, his counter begun.
A genuine lion’s roar resounded in the vicinity as the bushy haired tellurian burst into flames. Before anyone could blink, the shields were gone, replaced by the claws. This time though they looked different: less steel and more like the claws of some fiery beast. So warped and enhanced were they by the flames. The bright flames wrapped around him made Gigne’s hands take the shape of actual lion’s paws and let the claws poke out as white hot blades of death.
With a mighty pounce, the fiery apparition that Gigne had become was upon Valerian. It grasped at him, its claws piercing through his mage guard. Luckily, Valerian wasn’t one of those who layered his defences directly on his body. The lion’s roar rang out again as Gigne tore shattered the mage guard with nothing but brute force. Valerian forced as much power into his [Vailiant Armour] as it could safely take, even as he dived at the ground. Alas, the flaming figure did not intend to let him go that easily.
He was swatted by a massive lion’s paw formed of flame, sending him bouncing and rolling on the floor of the stage. Wrapping himself with the wind allowed Valerian to soften the blow somewhat and after a few rolls, pull himself to his feet. His body ached and he had left several depressions in the ground but Valerian did what he could to keep his cool and stop his thoughts from flying from the impact to his head. Raising a hand to his mouth, he wiped away some of the blood from his split lip as he watched the flaming figure circle him.
“I truly hope that’s not all you have Steelborn. Otherwise, this match would also be disappointing”, Gigne said. Stalking him like the beast after which he was named. Valerian could barely make out the features of his face in the flames. The bushy hair that had formerly framed his face had even transformed into flaming locks reminiscent of a lion’s mane. “I was hoping to see the famous steel monolith transformation at the very least.”
Valerian smiled. It wasn’t out of his expectations for people to learn about that. No one could have both fame or recognition as well as anonymity. It was easy enough to investigate the more common specialities of most noble houses in Bathar and some of their notable deeds if you had the clout. For instance, Valerian had learnt all about the illustrious Gignes, their sterling military careers and how they were descended from a Sun-burst lion long before the first exam was completed. Back then, conversations were abuzz about all the famous people discovered among their number.
“It seems you’ve learnt a few things about my clan”, he said to the flaming tellurian. “Too bad. That time would have been better spent making enquiries about me.”
“Is that so?” the other shot back.
Valerian ignored him, gathering himself and formulating a plan. “I’ll admit”, he said to his opponent. “You’re quite good. I might actually have to get serious.”
Gigne laughed at his words but it was not unpleasant, merely daring. “Well”, he teased. “What are you waiting for?”
Valerian gave him small but confident smile and initiated the change into his battle form.
We don’t have cliffhangers often. Got to see to that. They’re quite fun from this end of things.
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