Rather unceremoniously, Valerian was marched straight to a carriage and then carted to the clan compound right in front of several startled spectators. Once there, he was taken to the clan’s private temple in the Steel Heart and from there to a strange portal that supposedly led to the Stormhawk’s abode. He was to go alone. His family weren’t even allowed to follow him. As he was marched through the carved pillars in front of the portal, Valerian turned to give them one last look, unsure he would ever see them again.
“Valerian! Valerian, look at me!” came his grandmother’s frantic voice.
He turned to face her.
“Everything would be alright Valerian.” His grandmother tried to assure him. Richard held away the guard that attempted to push her back over the demarcated line. “Your grandfather is speaking with the elders right now and we’ll be right here. Don’t worry. Everything will be al..”
By this time, the priest had had enough of Valerian stalling. “Hurry up boy!” he said. Right before he shoved Valerian through the rippling curtain of essence.
As he vanished through the portal, Valerian made no attempt to respond to the arrogant priest. His mind was too preoccupied with his grandmother’s words. Wondering how they were supposed to comfort him when they did nothing for her. The worry in her eyes had been clear for all to see. Things were clearly not going well.
Valerian’s stomach was twisted into one giant knot. Not even he was certain which emotion he was feeling at the moment. Fear? Trepidation? Excitement? Perhaps all and none of these. He was about to meet the Stormhawk. The personal deity and guardian of his clan. It was the closest thing to a living god that Cragsveil had. Ordinarily, meeting the Stormhawk would be the highest of honours. However, being summoned as he had, so suddenly and forcefully, with an escort of elders and the inability to refuse or even say anything. To have his words, status and family so disregarded in the process. It got one thinking.
Just what had he done?
This couldn’t be anything good. However, the priest had refused to say anything. No matter what questions he or his grandparents had asked. He had merely walked up, announced his purpose and drawn Valerian away. His grandfather and his uncle Jonas quickly shot off to look for answers. The rest of them came quietly at first, not wanting to cause a scene in so public a place. Besides, they wouldn’t have been able to refuse the summons even if they tried.
It was only when they reached the inner sanctum of the clan’s temple that his family were told they could not accompany him any further. The Stormhawk had summoned Valerian and only Valerian they were told. The portal guards had not even permitted them to step across the line that separated the temple proper from the portal to the Stormhawk’s abode. His grandmother had protested but her words fell on deaf ears. The priest refused to budge and in this matter his word was law.
The priests of the Stormhawk were afforded special status in the clan. Technically, they possessed the same rank as the elders. However, they answered to none but the Stormhawk and the top figures in the clan. They were agents of the Stormhawk and avatars of its will. Any command coming from them was to be treated in the same manner as if it had come from the Stormhawk itself if not the Patriarch. This gave them an incredible amount of authority but given that they were not in charge of actual clan matters and only the affairs related to the Stormhawk it was mostly situational. In this case, where a priest had come to call Valerian to answer the Stormhawk’s summons? Not even the Viscount could carelessly interfere.
All of this begged the question as to why. Valerian could not come up with answers.
The portal was cold. As an artificial artifice that affected spatial dimensions, it felt wholly unnatural, doubly so to Valerian’s arcane senses. It only lasted a moment but in that moment it was like he was cut off from the world essence. For a scant instant, the world made no sense. Valerian’s stomach lurched, his mind telling him that though he had stepped forwards into the portal he most certainly wasn’t moving forward. Then suddenly, everything reasserted itself. He was moving forward, stepping out on the other side of the portal.
Stunned and disoriented he turned back to look at the portal. It remained there, a softly glowing swirl of essence flanked by pillar carved with the necessary glyphs for its operation. It seemed perfectly innocuous but the sensation Valerian felt when going through it bothered him. Some internal sense had been badly affected by the experience but before he could ponder on what it was, he was prodded forward by his escort who had felt nothing in the transition.
“Hurry up!” the man told him. “We are almost there.”
The command shook Valerian from his stunned state and allowed him to perceive his surroundings for the first time. Where ever they were, it was beautiful. It appeared to be the summit of a mountain. It looked like a hill but the foam like clouds that edged the side told Valerian otherwise. Right in front of them were stone steps that lead upwards. They were flanked by boulders and mystic plants artistically arranged to create a scene that was both appealing and serene.
As a wind attributed arcanist, the atmosphere was incredibly pleasing to Valerian. The air was rarefied and the wind essence incomparably thick. His spirit rejoiced in it but something else did as well. There was an undertone to the air. A presence that Valerian found both familiar and threatening. It was the same as the one that hung around the priest only not so confrontational. It welcomed Valerian, pulling him in, recognising him as family but at the same time, it made him wary.
Swinging his head from side to side, Valerian tried to take everything in. There was a cobbled path to the right of the staircase leading towards a handful of wooden buildings. People actually lived here. In fact, his eyes were able to make out his great-grandfather standing in front of one of the buildings seemingly engaged in conversation with a grey-haired man dressed exactly like the priest beside him only in more elaborate robes.
At the sight of them, his escort quickly began to lead their party in that direction. He even took the lead, marching proudly in front of Valerian whilst brushing his clothes clean of imaginary dust. The two gents stopped talking when they noticed their presence, choosing to look their way instead and under the weight of their eyes, their party bowed to them, saying.
“Greetings Patriarch!” then turning to the man beside him, they bowed again this time saying.
“Greetings High Priest!”
This startled Valerian. Knowing the protocol, he had joined them in the first greeting. When they bowed again, he did so again, guessing that the man who had been speaking with the patriarch was important in his own right. He was correct. Even so, the man’s identity shook him quite a bit.
“Ah! Steven, you’ve returned and with Valerian I see”, the patriarch observed.
“Yes, milord. I have brought him,” announced the priest in a pleased tone.
The patriarch spared him a second glance before focusing completely on his great-grandchild.
“Hello Valerian!” he greeted.
“Greetings Patriarch!” was his response.
The man smiled broadly and waved him closer. Hesitating slightly, Valerian strode forward till he was only a metre away from the man.
“I was not expecting you today, Valerian. Did something happen or did the ceremony actually finish early for the first time?” the patriarch inquired with a slight teasing tone to his voice.
Not expecting him? Valerian found that hard to believe. He had been all but accosted, brought to the domain of the Stormhawk itself and delivered to two of the most powerful authority figures in the entire Steelborn clan. How could this not be arranged? Nevertheless, from the expectant pause the man was leaving he truly wanted an answer to his question.
Confused by this, Valerian could only say, “I was told to come here, sir. It is said the Stormhawk demands my presence.”
A worried look crossed the man’s face for second but he hid it well. Glancing towards the priest he named Steven, he asked. “Steven, explain to me the circumstances in which you found young Valerian.”
The eager young priest was quick to answer. “The boy was sitting in the arena, laughing and chatting with some other clan members.” Right then, a mischievous light entered his eyes as he recalled the actions of Valerian’s family. This was a clear opportunity to get them in trouble. So with a tongue innately suited to tattling and whining, he began.
“Patriarch, you wouldn’t believe how obstinate that group was. Even though I made the Stormhawk’s wishes known to them they still dared protest. One of them even threatened me and there was this old lady who nearly forced her way to the portal. They are probably still fighting with the guards as we speak. Grant me the permission to call some of the others and we’ll go back, capture them and bring them you for punishment.”
The Patriarch stiffened, suddenly feeling the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose and shake his head in frustration. “Tell me you did not go to the arena and seize him in front of everyone.”
Sensing that something was wrong, the enthusiastic look on Steven’s face died just moments after being born. “But Patriarch, you said that the Stormhawk requested the boy’s presence”, he ventured.
“I told you to convey the message that the Stormhawk wanted to see him not go and snatch him away from a public gathering under the eyes of thousands of people and dozens of dignitaries!” the Patriarch clarified in an angry tone.
“Lord!” he exclaimed. “How am I going to explain this?” he added whilst raised his hands to shade his eyes.
“Patriarch, I-” Steven hurried to apologise.
“Leave!” the man commanded, even going as far as to make a shooing motion with his left hand. “I’ll think up a fitting punishment for you later.”
Without an ounce of hesitation, Priest Steven scurried away with his tail between his legs like a chastised dog. Valerian watched him go, unable to bring himself to feel pity for the man. Besides, he had his own mounting confusion to deal with.
“I’m guessing that it’s Clara that Steven claims is besieging the portal?” the patriarch asked him.
“Grandmother, Uncle Richard and Avery”, he corrected.
The patriarch swore under his breath. “And your grandfather?”
“He and Uncle Jonas left to look for you when this started”, Valerian told him.
The man pressed his fingers into his eyes this time before he swore. He did not have time to deal with this. ‘Argh!’ he grunted mentally. ‘Why now?’ When things were just beginning to go as planned and they had so much work on their hands. He could only imagine what the witnesses in the arena were thinking, saying,…spreading. With but a gesture, his guards appeared at his side. Swiftly, he gave them commands sending them to diffuse the situation in the temple and send a message to his son before an even greater fuss was kicked up.
“What do we do now, Uncle Adler?” the patriarch asked, addressing the high priest.
Valerian’s mind halted for a second. The grey-haired man next to him was the patriarch’s uncle? That would make him his….? Struggling with figuring out the relationship between himself and the high priest and finally understand why large clans had resorted to using the addresses, uncle, aunt, elder and senior to simply things, Valerian missed out on the next few exchanges between the two men in front of him.
Once he regained his senses though, he made sure to give the high priest a quick glance over to burn his image into his memory. The man looked like an ordinary Steelborn albeit one who had grown old and grey. That was to say, he looked nothing like a priest and instead like a warrior. That notwithstanding, age had taken its toll on him. The muscles outlined in his robes were loose, unable to retain their tautness. His hair, now that Valerian examined it, looked more white than grey and the staff in his hands was positively ancient.
The only thing priestly about him was the genial, serene aura he carried. That and the tranquil expression on his face. It felt like you could punch him in the face and he would still smile at you. He would do so sadly, disappointedly and possibly with blood stained teeth but he would still smile at you with acceptance. Valerian though saw more. Something that made him wary. The secret lay in his eyes. There was a hidden glint in their depths. A sharp, focused light that Valerian felt he should be able to recognise. It was the only thing that betrayed the impression of tranquil acceptance.
“I suppose he is here. We might as well get it underway”, the priest noted.
The patriarch nodded in agreement. “That is probably best.” he said and with barely a look at Valerian he added, “Come, Valerian, we’re going to the summit.”
The summit of the mountain was nothing like Valerian thought it would be. In fact, Valerian had begun to doubt whether this setting was even that of a mountain. They stood at the very top, a place so high that the clouds circled them about a hundred metres below. However, Valerian felt neither the cold nor the lightheadedness he learnt affected people at high altitudes. The air was light, rarefied but not so much so.
Most telling of all, there was an abundance of simple greenery. Plants Valerian knew could not survive at their apparent height. The two men accompanying him ignored the inconsistency of their environment or perhaps they were already used to it. Instead, they walked forward towards a largish one-metre tall boulder. It was at least metre wide at the base but gradually rounded out as you got to the top. Or it would if it was not rent by the massive gashes that rent its surface.
Behind the odd boulder was a beautiful dais masterfully crafted from wind-streaked jade and essence imbued metals. Situated right beside it was an exquisite though large marble basin set on a pedestal so that it was of equal height to the rock. Inside the basin, was a pool of sparkling water like substance that put off a noticeable energy signature. Energy that no doubt came from the many essence stones placed into the water. The displayed finery made the simple boulder stand out starkly making Valerian wonder why it was even there.
“Nervous at meeting the Stormhawk?” his grandfather asked.
“Yes!” Valerian admitted. Who wouldn’t be nervous when meeting a deity. As a matter of fact, Valerian had been trying very hard not to think about it by focusing on the landscape instead. An effort his great-grandfather had just ruined causing the uncharacteristic jitters to rush back into his gut.
By this time, the high priest had retrieved an ornate bowl from somewhere. It was made from titanossis and engraved with dark steel and gold leaf. With a solemn manner, he walked up to the basin and fetched a bowlful of the fluid within. Holding the bowl in his hands, he swirled its contents. Then, he knelt in front of the boulder and began to chant punctuating each line by splashing the boulder with blessed water he kept swirling in the sacred bowl.
“Honoured Guardian, we call on you.
Great Protector, we invite you into our midst.
Swift are your wings and harsh is the wind that heads your direction.
Harken now to your people, your family, your charges.
Great spirit, your vassals request your presence.
Come Kuruksa’ar, we implore you, come!”
The response was immediate. The air stilled and the clouds around them surged, churning in frothy madness. Following that, the wind picked up and a massive presence made itself known. Dark grey mist gathered over the dais. Its shade the same as storm clouds and in response lightning crackled in the distant clouds. A sharp oppressive air descended over the summit forcing Valerian’s breath from his lungs and shaking his spirit.
Feathers. Massive grey and black feathers took shape out of the mist. Each at least seventy centimetres long. They were edged in steel so sharp they visibly sliced the air as the wings they formed, beat. Then came the voice. One so thunderous it cracked the air like the aftermath of a lightning strike.
“Summoning me again so soon, Adler? Did I not make my wish to survey the land known this morning? You had better-”
Massive jewelled eyes flicked over to Valerian from above a viciously sharp beak, pinning him with a gaze that might as well have a been a steel wrought javelin given how it pierced him and stopped his heart.
“Ah! Peng child, you’re here! Good” a wickedly pleased tone evident in its booming voice.
Valerian had never been more scared in his life.
Just a quick poll. I’m interested in seeing who wins. We’ll do the antagonistic characters next. On to the story!