Sorry for the late release!
Chapter Four: Steelborn Fighting
Valerian rose before the sun. Last night’s talks had not let him rest easy. He’d had too much to think about. Thus, he did his breathing exercises quickly and stepped out to do something more involving, hoping the exercise help him clear his head. When he stood in his courtyard, however, he realised for the first time just how small it was. He looked at it with nostalgia, remembering all those times he was forced to run around it, the training. It had all seemed so strenuous and daunting then. Now, however? He’d have to find a new place to train.
“Leave the dreams in your bed when you wake”, came a gruff voice. “That way you don’t stand around wasting daylight.”
With a smile, Valerian turned around to greet the newcomer. “Good morning, Uncle Richard!”
The man nodded in response before saying, “Come with me!”
“We’ll head to the back of the estate and see what exactly you learned at Strapping’s.”
The backyard of Magistrate Valan’s manor was the living space of the family daemons. The parcel of land behind the manor covered more ground than the manor compound itself and each of the daemons had carved out small territories there for themselves. That wasn’t to say they did not stay at the manor. They just preferred the outdoors. For example, Sela spent a lot of her time sunning on the roofing tiles but her true nest was out back. The same was true for all of the other beasts with the exception of Fuooh who never left her mistress’ side.
It only took a few seconds of walking before Valerian realised that they were headed towards Pan’s area. It made sense. Pan and Richard were good friends. Their relationship might even be deeper than the one between him and Sela.
“Is Pan okay with us turning his place into a training ground?” Valerian asked.
Devil Apes were notoriously territorial. Pan was very laid back but you never knew. An important part of dealing with daemons was the ability to recognise and respect boundaries. The idiot who keeps trying to pet a growling dog is the one who gets bitten.
“He suggested it”, came the figure in the lead.
“I see”, he said, some foreboding building in his guts. “This training isn’t an excuse for two of you to pull me away from the manor and pummel me to bits, is it?”
Richard smiled. Valerian couldn’t see it but he could hear it in the response that followed. “You have good instincts.”
The Devil Ape’s home was incredible in a primal way. There were large boulders scattered about as both decorations and training implements. Cracks and fist imprints covered many of them. There were also a variety of trophies, prominently displayed. Devil Apes fought anything and everyone to prove and improve their strength. Trophies like these were proof of their victories.
The bleached skull of a water buffalo hung on a roughly hewn obelisk. There was even a section of skin from an unidentified scaly beast draped over one of the boulders. Plume feathers of great taloned ostrich made the bedding in his cave and its eponymous talons were strung up alongside several miscellaneous claws, talons, fangs and stingers at one side of the cave entrance where they clattered in the wind. Interspersed between these rare but grim remains were many mystic shrubs and herbs that Pan grew himself. A few were ornamental but most were valuable medicines.
It was a brutal display of power and wealth. It caught the eye but not necessarily for the right reasons. There was a lot of death on display here just as there was a display of power. The background seemed there to confirm the life of its owner. The death as a contrast his life and the wealth to affirm it. It looked good but Valerian doubted many would be able to shake off the atmosphere that had been created. In his mind, he wondered what squeamish people like Petilia and the others would say if they were brought here.
“Valerian…” came the low voice of the great ape. “You’ve come to fight?”
“Sorry!” he told Pan. “I doubt I’d prove to be any good against you. Uncle Richard said we could practice here though. Is that alright?”
Somehow, during the exchange, Valerian was able to keep his eyes from glancing towards the many remains of those who had actually been stupid enough to challenge the daemon in front of him. If asked, Valerian would admit he was afraid. Not of Pan. He’d known the big ape all his life and trusted him like he would any of the others. Despite this, he never could quite get rid of the apprehension the ape made everyone feel. It was like having an incredibly sharp sword with you. Looking at it filled you with pride and assurance that those who marched against you would be split in two but at the same time, you made sure to clean it carefully so it never cut you and kept it close so no one could turn it against you.
Strangely, none of the other daemons gave him that feeling. Gulsama was at least twice as powerful as Pan and yet Valerian had never once thought such about her. There was a time he had felt guilt over this. He’d felt wrong for not trusting his family. It was only later, after confessing this to his grandmother that he had discovered the source of this feeling. Pan.
Devil apes exulted in the fear others showed them. There was a low-level field surrounding them at all times. It heralded their presence and warned all within it of what they faced. It basically made sure you knew just how dangerous they were and what they were capable of. The apes relied on it top prove their place amongst their fellows. the more powerful of their kind could displace the ‘fear fields’ of the weaker. In any gathering, the strongest devil ape would have his replace and dominate all the others.
For all his temerity, Pan could not change his nature. He was dangerous. He knew it and he made sure others knew it too. It was an important part of being a Devil Ape. if you were powerful enough, you could throw it off but Valerian was not and being in Pan’s presence was a constant reminder of just how far he had to go and how easy it was for someone to reach out and snuff him from existence. It was a good reason to be scared even without the terror field.
“Let’s see how much stronger Little Valerian has grown”, the big ape said. “Maybe, I will spar with you later. Teach you some skills.”
This caused his ears to perk up. ‘Skills? You could never have too many of those.’
His uncle, on the other hand, walked into the centre of a patch of dead, hardpan dirt and took a simple stance.
“Focus on your task, Valerian”, he told his nephew. “We are the ones here to fight. You are too easily distracted.”
“Yes, Uncle”, Valerian answered, rushing over and slipping into a stance of his own.
“I’ll suppress my cultivation to match yours and you will come at me with everything you have. Let’s see how much you’ve grown”, Richard said with a small smile.
“Listen to your Uncle and hit him good!” Pan added with a laugh. “His head is harder than the boulders.”
Valerian took this under advisement. Slowly shifting into his battle form, he let his baselards and mercurial orb out to play. Not waiting for a starting signal, he swept in, going for a frontal attack. His uncle’s greatest assets were his strength and his defensive abilities. Usually, that meant that the opponent would not be the type to evade. This was doubly true for someone who was an acknowledged master at [The Fighting arts of Harry and Clude].
One of the things his fighting experience had taught Valerian was that, if someone offered you a free strike, you went for it. Even if you couldn’t follow through, you could manoeuvre your opponent into a desirable position. One which locked him in that spot and forced him to take what you had in store.
Alas, such a manoeuvre depended heavily on one thing; that you could, in fact, lock your opponent down. It wasn’t the sort of thing you used on someone who excelled not only in defensive skills but also, retributive strikes, as Valerian soon discovered.
Richard took a step to the right and as he did so he reached out and grabbed Valerian’s left arm with his own and yanked it past his left side. This had the result of pulling Valerian away from and past his target. It completely threw his attack off and left him exposed for a brief period. Richard couldn’t have missed this opportunity if his eyes were closed. His right fist came hammering down, landing squarely between Valerian’s shoulder blades. The next moment, the poor youth found himself coughing up blood and trying to pull himself out of his spot embedded in the ground.
Richard knew Valerian. He knew most of what he was capable of, how he thought and most of all, he knew exactly what those talons could do. They weren’t yet powerful enough to be a threat to him but given that it was a technique to shred through dragonhide they definitely had the potential.
“That was pathetic”, Richard said, staring down at his fallen opponent. “Did you forget everything I taught you when you went to Strapping’s? We might need to revise your skills!”
He raised his left leg up, intentionally taking his time to ready his [Tremor Step]. “Tell me”, he demanded. “What is Harry’s second principle of attack?”
The answer flashed through Valerian’s head. ‘Seize all openings to put down your opponent!’
There is no better motivation to get out of dodge than the threat of a spine-crushing attack. Valerian flashed from his place in the ground before you could say ‘gone’. He needn’t have bothered. Richard’s foot didn’t come crashing down. He set it down tamely, returning to his defensive stance and inviting him to try again. Valerian stared down at him. His opening move trashed, he resolved for something much more flashy and destructive.
Holding nothing back, he cast his spells. [Wind Scythe] after [Wind Scythe] formed around him and once he had five, he sent them out. They tore through the air, curling through it to arrive at their target from different angles and slightly different times. The first set came from above, the left and the front. The second came from the right and the back hoping to take advantage of whatever lull, if any, appeared when Richard defended against the first three. Each thrummed and shone brightly, packed with as much power as valerian could force into the spell structure. Yet, they proved useless.
Clude’s first principle demanded that Steelborns deflect everything. However, that was only when they were in a position to do so. Richard crossed his arms in front of himself. In response, a steel grey barrier appeared. His qi spiked and manifested in the air around him to form something that looked vaguely like a tower. It was just what Valerian was hoping for. Keeping up the barrage of [Wind Scythes] and flapping his wings mightily, he flew in again, [Rending Talons] at the ready.
He pumped everything into his talons, fueling the technique with enough qi to cause his arms to ache. He was rewarded with the sight of his talons growing longer and sharper though, their outlines started to look fuzzy, a sign that their structure was having troubles holding up. Ironically, he planned to use them for the same reason Richard wanted to avoid them; to peel away his opponent’s defences and get at his juicy insides. Using his full strength, he stabbed into the shield, getting his talons to poke through. Once the first was in the second followed, slamming into the shield so hard that it ripple visibly.
Valerian couldn’t afford to waste his time. He summoned all he had and pulled his talons sideways, widening the holes he had made in earlier when he stabbed into it. The skill Richard was using blocked all incoming attacks but it rendered you immobile. The [Rampart] was stubborn. It fought back just as hard as Valerian but with his cultivation suppressed, Richard did not have what it took to defend against this kind of attack.
The moment the opening was wide enough, Valerian went to the next phase of his plan. Harry’s Fighting Arts had only five principles and Valerian intended to use them all.
Put in all force when attacking. Take out your opponent in a single strike!
Seize all openings to put down your opponent!
Dictate the battle rhythm! Outmanoeuvre your foe!
Attack swiftly and unrelentingly!
A giant, grey hand shot out of his abdomen as his phantasm made itself known. Even if Valerian hadn’t known it before, it was knocked into him by the vicious counter his uncle had employed earlier. He could hold nothing back in this battle. The phantasmal monolith reached through Valerian’s body and grabbed at their hapless enemy. In the meantime, Valerian began readying his [Agnarr Formation]. Then, he caught his uncle smirking. The action was so uncharacteristic it had him backpedalling. Unfortunately, he was too late.
The man quit crossing his hands and instead grabbed at the ghostly limb that was reaching for him. His hands grew larger, turning grey and metallic. The formation shot out to intercept him but that just forced him to transform fully. Now, none of the blades could cut him. Valerian could only watch in shock as his uncle grabbed his phantasm and began pulling it out. It tried to resist but he just placed a hand on Valerian’s shoulder for purchase and dragged it out.
Clude’s Second principle: Counter to disrupt battle rhythm.
With a loud yell, He pulled it completely free from its host. Then, twisting into a throwing, Richard tossed the phantasm far behind him, letting it crash through the boulders scattered around whilst he advanced on his nephew. Several slabs of metal imposed themselves in his path but he just tore his way through them leaving large indents of himself. Luckily for Valerian, the barriers bought him enough time to flee skyward.
“How did you…?” Valerian demanded. “You can move when you use [Rampart]?”
The technique was the equivalent of curling into a ball on the ground. It allowed you to defend yourself as best you could but you couldn’t do anything else when you were curled and if you tried, you left yourself open to a strike from your foes. And yet, his uncle had done so. As a matter of fact, the technique was still active.
“Techniques can be modified, Valerian. I’m told Vorm taught you that” the man explained, looking to Pan for confirmation. The devil ape nodded. He’d been there for that particular lesson. “Besides, do you really think you can tear open a [Rampart]?”
Valerian considered it. The technique was a Steelborn last resort. It left you immobile but nigh invulnerable like a turtle retreating into its shell. It could be broken but it took substantial skill and power. He’d just thought he had gotten lucky. Besides, the whole reason he put so much effort into his [Rending Talons] was that they were perfectly suited for cutting open defensive spells… in theory. It turned out, however, that he had been baited.
“We call this technique the [Palisade]”, his uncle was saying. “It is based on the same principles as the [Rampart] but it doesn’t lock you down. Think of it as a fence around the house and the [Rampart] an enclosure. You can’t leave your enclosure. However, with the [Palisade] the fence always surrounds the house, no matter where the house is. The [Rampart] prevents anything from entering a defined space and the [Palisade] makes sure to defend the house. That is the primary difference. Do you understand?”
“I think so”, Valerian answered.
Stomping sounds came from behind Richard as the phantasm made its way back to them from wherever it had landed. Richard gave it a glance, seeing it complete for the first time. The thing looked eerily like Valerian though given what it was supposed to be, that was to be expected. It stood fifteen metres tall and was shaped like a burly weightlifter in a mock-up of Valerian’s armour. However, instead of armour, it was skin, flesh and bone.
He wasn’t the only one scrutinising his nephew’s ghostly self. Pan stared at the thing like you would a new toy. A quick search via spiritual sense showed Gulsama watching from ways off and Sela curled up at the top of one of the obelisks. All of them looking at the new daemon.
“Pan!” he called out to his friend. “Keep an eye on that thing for me. This is a test for Valerian. Do not let it interfere!”
Pan grinned. Forgoing human speech, it called out to the new arrival, Come! You fight with me.
“Uncle Richard, wait! The phantasm is me. We should fight together. We would always be fighting together”, Valerian reasoned.
Richard thought about it for a second. The boy had a point. “Fine!” he accepted. “But if the two of you…yous are doing this together then we have to take this up a notch.”
“Not fair!” Pan argued. Despite his grumble, he was already taking his seat to watch the coming battle.
The phantasm turned to look at Valerian, making a beckoning motion with its hand. Understanding what it wanted, he formed a giant sword out of the formation and gave it to him. Surprisingly, the spectre did not wield it. It placed the blade on its back, locking it in place with its essence. Richard watched this with his eyebrows cocked before reaching in and readjusting his level of cultivation.
“I am now an entry level Lord!” he announced. “When you are ready, you can come at me!”
Valerian and his phantasm exchanged a look and without further ado, both of them shot forward. Pan just sat back and clapped his giant hands in delight.
It’s nice to know that Uncle Richard remained badass while Valerian was away. And yes, that was a refresher course in the [Fighting Arts of Harry and Clude] from book one. Valerian still uses the former but his fighting style has changed a lot over the course of the story. Personally, I think he is heavily skewed towards attack (not that that’s a bad thing). This chapter shows something different as Richard is the exact opposite. His style is not ‘attack, dodge and restrain, attack’ but ‘deflect and counter and block and slash’.
Which do you think is better? Offense or Defence?