And here it is! The long awaited chapter, plus extra. Good news too. I’ve finally figured out how to fix the 404 errors that kept popping up on the site as a result of the restructuring of HoGW!
Chapter Five: Ghost Goals
“I hear you and your phantasm fought against Richard this morning?” Great Elder Allard asked.
Valerian groaned and looked away, moving the cloth bag of ice from his face to the back of his head. This revealed the large black eye his loving uncle had given him. Given that the eye was nearly swollen shut, Valerian had to settle for glaring at the old man with the other one. Battered and bruised as he was, he could do nothing else except lie there and ache.
The old man laughed at his expression. His question had been rhetorical anyway.
“You!” he said, calling Avery. “Help me move him to the courtyard. We’ve got lessons.”
The dutiful manservant looked from the great Elder to his master hesitantly. Looking down at a back covered in swellings and welts and his own hand, still dripping with balm. His worry was clear.
“It’s not that kind of lesson!” Elder Allard told him. “Get moving already!”
It was a testament to Avery’s service that he did not jump at the great elder’s commands and instead looked to his master for confirmation, only acting when he received a reassuring nod. Even so, Valerian stood up and walked out himself. He was not so injured that he needed help to move. Richard was harsh, not sadistic.
“Have your phantasm come out!” the Great Elder demanded.
Valerian complied, reaching out mentally to the spectre and prodding it awake. His uncle had not been as gentle with it as he had him. Ghosts couldn’t die nor could they be injured by mundane means. To add to this, innate phantasms were near immortal. So long as the host remained alive, they were nigh impossible to kill. Only an expert in soul attacks could destroy it without first killing Valerian.
The injured monolithic phantasm plumed out of Valerian like smoke from a choked chimney. It was nothing like the voluminous eruption of smoke it normally manifested with and once it appeared, you could see why. The poor thing could not even take shape completely and the parts that did didn’t look right. Its right arm was nowhere to be found and there were numerous smoky holes in its otherwise solid chest. It didn’t bother solidifying anything below its waist choosing instead to conserve its energy and heal.
Elder Allard stared at Valerian’s phantasm with a complicated expression on his face. His eyes traced the spectre, looking past its injuries and even its face as if looking at something else.
“Did you ever wonder why I was chosen to train you to use your phantasm, lad?” the man asked.
“You’re the clan’s greatest expert in the field”, Valerian answered.
“There’s that I suppose”, the old man acknowledged. “However, that’s not all. There are other phantasm users. I’m a great elder. Why am I here when anyone could have given you the basics?”
Answering his own question, he continued. “My father was the last clansman to have an innate phantasm. It is the sole reason I specialised in the field. Looking at you now…” he revealed, trailing off.
Then, acting as if nothing had happened, he focused on what he had come for.
“From what I was told, you and phantasm have reached some sort of understanding. You can communicate with it and it doesn’t display any hostility or antagonism towards you. It’s a good start!”
The phantasm glanced down a Valerian questioningly, but Valerian merely shrugged. What could he say? This was just how Steelborns were.
“There are five realms when it comes to phantasm control or mastery”, the old man was saying. “The first, [Understanding], is the foundation. Everything will be built on this. You and the spectre need to understand each other, recognise each other’s roles and positions and be willing to communicate and cooperate. However, it is merely the initial stage. The real work begins after you have attained [Understanding].
“The second step might require some demonstration”, he said.
A strange haze came over his body at his words and something exited his back so quickly, Valerian barely caught it flash by. When it came to a stop though, he could. It wasn’t one object, it was three. One was a giant bird, large enough that its wings were seven metres across. It had long spindly legs and an equally long neck matched with a sharp looking beak. Valerian identified it as a heron of some sort though its plumage was more colourful than that of any he knew. The second was a mangy looking wolf with lots of bone spurs poking out of its hide at the joints. Large enough to ride and with a clearly bad attitude, it snarled at Valerian when it noticed him staring, revealing its sharp teeth.
Wisely, he looked away, his eyes coming to rest on the last one. It was a stone giant. A creature so tall Valerian had to tilt his head back see its face. Just like his phantasm was made of metal, this one was made of stone. However, it was far larger. The giant must have been at least thirty metres tall. Valerian watched as the elemental giant stared unflinchingly at his own phantasm. The sudden appearance of these giant figures meant that Valerian’s small courtyard was instantly filled. He and his phantasm backed away slowly, feeling crowded in.
“Did you see that?” his teacher asked.
“Ghost plumes are a dead give away. You’re basically putting your hand on display before you play it. Summoning a phantasm has to be quick and it has to be unexpected. When you use your phantasm is just as important as how you use it and even what it does”, the man reiterated.
Valerian nodded, his eyes making sure to focus on his teacher and not the newly risen ghosts that surrounded him.
“The second level of mastery is called [Shared Mind]. right now you and your phantasm are two distinct consciousness in a single mind. Should you attain this, you’d be able to bridge that gap. No longer would you need to communicate or even speak. You will be in sync, truly sharing the same mind. Whatever he sees, you see. Whatever he feels, you feel. Whatever you think, he knows. In battle, you will not be two people fighting but one person in two places at the same time.
“There is little that can hold you back when you are like this and I dare say that had you attained this stage before fighting Richard, you might have won”, Elder Allard said. “With [Shared Mind] you do not get in each other’s way. It’s like how your feet do not cut each other off as you walk. Instead, all efforts and strength are multiplied. Imagine fighting with four hands instead of two. Imagine being able to attack from two different directions or with two different attacks at the same time. Imagine what you would be able to pull off. Imagine being able to think and plan two different things from two different perspectives and implement both at the same time.”
Valerian became lost in thought, considering the possibilities. It was certainly appealing.
“What’s more, [Shared Mind] is merely the first step to a true merger of you and your divergent self”, the old man said. “The third step [One in Two Forms] will take you further. Here you and your phantasm cease to exist as separate beings.
“We’ll cease to exist?” Valerian asked in alarm.
“In a sense”, his teacher told him. “Your consciousness will merge. There will no longer be a human Valerian nor will there be a daemon Valerian. There will just be one entity and that being won’t be human or daemon phantasm. Rather those will be the forms or shells it can assume and use at will. Imagine being in your current body for one moment and then switching into your spectral form in much the same way you assume your battle form.”
Valerian considered this as well, however, he was unable to view the matter in the manner his teacher was trying to put it across. Ceasing to exist as himself? Giving himself up? He tried to imagine not being human and faile. He had been human all his life. He could not fathom anything else. Now, this man was telling him that he had to leave that behind, leave himself behind and become part daemon? For the first time, he understood what Gigne had been on about that day. If he was having such thoughts then it was reasonable to bet his phantasm did as well. What would it pick, itself, him or them?
“A colleague at Strapping’s warned me that a phantasm must be overcome and kept under strict control least it go wild and devour the host’s soul or take over the body. Simply speaking, he made it clear that you either consume the phantasm or the phantasm consumes you”, Valerian told the man, “What do you say to that?”
“Pah!” Elder Allard spat. “That person knows nothing about phantasms. The correct path to follow when you have an innate phantasm is reintegration. Merging yin with yang. Going back to the origin. That is the true way to develop your phantasm. In fact, it is the true way to develop yourself.
“That person was the son of the Lord Gigne”, Valerian made sure to point out. “Their clan has a reputation for innate phantasms and they have a technique for cultivating their phantasms into second selves. This supposedly gives them another life.”
“Gigne? The Mad Lions?” Elder Allard before snorting loudly. “I thought you were going to say something sensible and you quote them.”
“Listen”, he cautioned. “Any animal that is cornered and faced with nothing but death will fight and it will fight with all it has because that is all it has. I’m not sure where they gained their method from but everything I’ve heard about it leaves me to believe that it is flawed. It is a method that is able to increase the chances of an innate phantasm appearing in a creature, allow you to enslave it and even as you said, refine it into a second life. You don’t need to be an expert to see that there is something fishy there.
“Besides, we have tonnes more lore on phantasms, daemonic legacies and spirit than they possibly have. Remember that we are the heirs to the Menhirionn and the menhirionn were horde leaders, rulers of a beastland for sixty thousand years and until their fall. I would not beat my chest and claim them to be the best in the world but our techniques and methods have been refined through the ages to suit us, our need and our experience”, he told Valerian.
“Keep this in mind nest time someone talks about consuming your phantasm”, he said. “Consuming your own phantasm is like cannibalising yourself. Are you telling me that should you go hungry to today, you’ll eat your arm? What good will that serve? Choosing to eat the very arm you could have used to gather food. That’s cutting your future sort for an empty, short-term benefit. You’ll feel full for a moment but you haven’t really contributed anything to your being. Rather, you have detracted from it.”
Pausing as if realising something, he asked Valerian, “Does it have a name?”
Valerian was startled, realising that he had been referring to his alternate self as the phantasm or the monolith this entire time. He glanced up at his spectre all of sudden curiously as to what to call it. The ghostly being taken a brave step forward attempting to speak for itself but Elder Allard was not having any of that.
“You dare not name yourself!” he said menacingly. “Your name is Valerian! That was what you were named at birth and that is the moniker you will bear. Is that understood?”
The phantasm looked ready to protest but it thought better of it after looking around at the other phantasms. It didn’t look happy but it clearly knew it was unwise to fight with someone who had several phantasms, each more powerful than itself.
“This is something you must insist on and be mindful of yourself”, Elder Allard said after turning back to the human Valerian. “Your goal is to reduce the gulf between your dichotomous halves not give them excuses to further the split. You must remember that you are one being and that even though your psyche split at one point that remains true.
“If you were trying to master an acquired phantasm then things would be different. You could fight and squabble and be different but that is not the case here, is it? You want to re-integrate yourselves into one being, trust me on that!” the man assured Valerian.
“Why?” Valerian found himself asking. He wasn’t the only one. The monolith-no other Valerian- did too.
“What do you mean why? I just explained it!” his teacher asked.
“I mean, why do we have to merge?” Valerian explained.
Elder Allard was quite for a few seconds as he worked out how best to answer the question to his satisfaction.
“Are you familiar with oozes and slimes?” the man finally asked. Valerian nodded.
“An ooze daemon grows by devouring other things. With each meal, they grow larger, more powerful and more resilient as they assimilate some of the traits possessed by their meals. Now, oozes and slimes walk a thin line. If they eat something much greater than they can digest they’ll destroy themselves and if they eat anything too far beneath them it would not contribute to their development at all”, he explained.
“Acquiring a phantasm is a bit like this. If the tellurian gets one too beneath him it will be useless to him. If he aims for something beyond his capabilities, he’ll die or have his flesh taken over by the phantasm. Success means an increase in power and a growth of the cultivation base and failure…well I’ve already said that.
“Having an innate phantasm is different”, he said. “Think of it like this. Imagine one of the ooze daemons that gets chopped in two only for its two halves survive and go their separate ways with each slowly recovering and growing to the point where they are just as great as their original self. Each half becomes just as large and powerful as the original and each having gone separate paths acquired new diverse traits from devouring different prey.
“Then comes one fateful day when the two halves meet. Now, several choices lie before them. They can choose to go their separate ways or they can choose to fight and attempt to devour each other. The winner would, of course, grow from the encounter and become the sole remaining version of itself. The loser will be gone forever.
“Nevertheless, remember that even though oozes can devour other beings they cannot take in everything. They acquire some traits and grow based on what they have eaten but they do not add their victim’s power to themselves. They merely use it to fuel their own growth. If these two halves were to devour each other they would only regain part of what they originally lost and they would never acquire the full strength of the other.
“However, there is another path before them. They can use their shared origin as a foundation to achieve more. They were once a single being and should they put in the effort they can become so once more. Should they succeed they would not be taking bits of each other or using each other as catalysts for growth, they will be merging and adding to each other.
“That’s the choice people like you have to make; cling to your individuality and remain parts of a whole, fight for control or subsume one another or merge and become something more”, the gaunt elder said. “Which will you two choose?”
Valerian looked back at the spectre floating behind him and was not surprised to see it stare at him in turn. They were silent for many minutes, communicating in the realm of the mind, their mind. Eventually, a conclusion was reached.
“We’ll merge!” Valerian said, turning back to his teacher.
The old elder smiled as if expecting that very answer. “I thought so! Now, I’ll teach you some mental and physical exercises designed to help you deepen your level of [Understanding]. With that, your bond will improve and you can start working on attaining [Shared Mind].”
Valerian listened in carefully unfortunately, anything else the gaunt elder had to say was cut short when Avery rushed over to them.
“Excuse me sir but there is a Steelborn guard here requesting to see the young master. She says that a Great Elder Richard of the Smithing Division demands his presence.
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this. Would you be willing to lose your individuality for more power? Trade away what makes you, you so you can have more you? (Very weird sentence that)
Valerian has a cop out here. Technically, he’s fusing with a clone/ identical twin/ horcrux/ ghost/ daemon essence/ conjoined twin/ alternate version of himself and not a completely different person. Plus, he’s not the only one. The other guy is doing it too. He’s going Vegito only when he is done, the potara are never coming off.
Question is, would you be willing to do the same?