Chapter Twenty-four: Unexpected Aid
Valerian swung his spear, cutting down a swathe of illusionary opponents. The incessant beating of his own wings reminded him of just how much more effort it took for him to change positions than he was used to. He snarled and focused on the shadowy enemies he had conjured. They had no distinguishing features or even faces for that matter. They did not need them. What they did have was a faint aura of malice and a murderous intent that made the simulation much more believable. Each had the speed and strength of Onit, the swordsman he fought in the morning though they lagged far behind him in terms of actual skill.
Pulling his spear back, Valerian’s arcane energy grabbed hold of the surrounding world essence and forced it into the shape of the numerous sharp weapons he needed for his [Heart Seeking Bolts]. The spell shot forward, lacking the physical component his baselards usually lent it but losing none of the ferocity. The leading shadow was forcefully dispersed, its illusionary body torn to shreds by the attack but another was quick to take advantage of Valerian’s position.
With his spear still extended from the thrust that launched the [Heart Seeking Bolts], Valerian found himself all but helpless to defend against the shadow. It slid in, slicing through the air in a low stance that brought it into Valerian’s guard. One tight spin later, its sword was headed for Valerian’s waist. He was done for. The attack was poised to slice into his abdomen, his kidneys and if he was truly unlucky, his spine.
Left with no choice but to react quickly, his qi surged through him before blasting out in an explosion that cratered the ground around him. The shockwave dispersed all the illusions leaving him alone in the small courtyard. Leaning on his spear, Valerian tried to catch his breath. There was sweat beading on his brow but that was only a minor symptom of his exhaustion. This was the fourth time he had detonated his qi that way in the last hour. The defensive skill, inspired by Gigne’s own, cost an untenable amount of qi. Additionally, the sheer force with which the qi left his body caused his bones to ache and yet for all its faults, it was one of the best defences at his disposal.
Finally able to compose himself, he raised his spear once more, settling into a guarded stance. He stared at it, lost in thought. Despite his bluster, Onit was right. Valerian’s skill at weapons was subpar. It was not just the spear. He had no force at all. Even though he had been trained in the use of multiple weapons, his skills were relatively elementary. Before, it had not mattered. Now, where, he found himself regularly confronting and being confronted by cultivators with noble tiered armour and weapons, however, it was clear that this could backfire.
He was good with his fists, his claws and his spells. When he did use a weapon, he relied on his speed and strength to carry the day. There was a part of him that said to forgo weapons and continue with his pugilism but something held him back. Words from a dog-eared book in his grandfather’s study rang in his head.
Every man has five claims to power;
His sway over men
His handiness at battle
The strength of his shield
The edge of his blade and
The tenacity of his will
Five claims! Even if Valerian considered himself to have grasped at four, he would be stupid to neglect the one he lacked. Taking a deep breath, he looked to his spear and tried to imagine a way to do better. He had no spear energy, no spear qi and no force of any kind. Thankfully, he had come up with a unique workaround. After choosing to focus on the spear – Lady Bloodworth’s preferred weapon—he had a small epiphany on which direction to take. His new teacher was an arcanist famed for being able to burn armies to ash with each swing of her spear and stack enemies on her spear like a meat skewer. He had just had to follow in line.
Of course, he had chosen this path under the assumption that he would be the old lady’s legacy apprentice, that she would be training and passing her skills to him. Whilst that might not be the case at the moment, it did nothing to change the rationale behind the decision. She had taught him nothing thus far but did not mean that he should sit idle.
He already had everything he needed to start; a weapon that amplified spells and control over arcane energy that masters envied. What’s more, his mercurial orb could even serve as a spell anchor, holding them in place perpetually and allowing full access to their effects, so long as he had the energy to maintain it. While spear force was beyond him and he lacked the skill to command the elements with his spear, nothing prevented him from simply using it to cast spells, as unorthodox as it might seem.
Acting on this, he used the spear to cast a [Wind Scythe] keeping the spell wrapped around his spearhead. It hummed softly under a coating of cyan essence, parting the air with each test swing. The spell worked like a qi coating, enhancing the spearhead’s sharpness to a great degree. It also gave it a nice additional function. Making a large swing, he let it loose and watched it cut through the air with a pitched whine. The two metres wide blade of air whistled forward for a close to ten metres before he dispersed it.
A forty per cent increase. That was a far cry from setting the sky ablaze with a spear technique. Clearly, it was not what he wanted. Did this even count as a spear technique? Weapon cultivators could merge their insights and techniques with their weapons but spells? Even he had his doubts.
“Save some of that for the battles tomorrow!” said a soft voice to his right.
Valerian spared a glance at Hue and her but said nothing. He may have chosen this courtyard for privacy, but he had had no illusions that no one would find him.
“You have been at this for an hour and while your dedication is impressive I do not understand your motives”, she said, taking no slight at being ignored. “I am all for personal improvement but I feel I must remind you that you have matches tomorrow. The trials will be over in a few days. Can this not wait?”
Valerian looked at her again but said nothing choosing to bring up more illusionary attackers. His stance was clear. The two girls remained on the sidelines watching. Hue, in particular, looked exasperated. Prepared for another face off, he was stopped by what she said next.
“You are going about this wrong!”
Valerian sighed and doubled down on the task at hand. He thought he made it clear that he was not in the mood to chat. The day’s battle had shown him both his failings and a way forward. Sadly, it was just a way. Now, it was up to him to follow that part. Hence, the training. He was not far off the mark he could feel it. Spells and spears. He had already proved it could be done. The process only needed to be smoothed out a bit. Dodging a sword slash, he slipped around the shadow and brought the spear down on its head, smashing it in before thrusting it at another charging foe.
Sharp sword qi swept past him, slicing through the shadowy figure as well as the one beside it. Annoyed, he turned to face an unrepentant looking Hue.
“I said, you’re going about this all wrong”, she reiterated, sheathing her sword. “I can help. Do you want my help or not?”
“Your problem is not your lack of skill”, the swordswoman told Valerian.
She was standing in front of him now, her bracelets clinking as she paced.
“You are better than most with that spear and your training shows. However, you are unable to wield your weapon efficiently amid combat. A part of that is a clear lack of practice at flying and fighting at the same time. There’s also the fact that you are unused to your spell spear tactic. It takes too much out of you and your movements become forced when you try to cast and direct your spells. That part where you had to awkwardly transition from a thrust to a swing just to get the [Wind Scythe] going unsteadied you. Anyone even slightly competent would have capitalised on that.”
Valerian frowned remembering that set. Fumble notwithstanding, that was two practise sets ago. How long had they been watching him?
“Let’s not beat about the bush”, she stated. “You know your problems and you know your solutions. None of these problems would exist if you had spear force.”
Valerian felt the beginning of a growl begin at the back of his throat. She said that like it was so easy.
“Your problem is that you have neither the correct style nor mindset. When you fight, your weapon remains lifeless. Your style is calculative, rational and it interferes with how you wield your spear. You do not feel for it and thus cannot connect to it. There’s a saying; the sabre is like a fierce tiger, the sword is like a flying phoenix, the spear is like a swift dragon and the staff a turtle snake”, Hue was saying to him.
“These words speak to the various weapons and the mentality that should go into wielding each one”, she added wistfully. Making a quick downward swing with a knife hand, she elucidated. “The sabre user must be dominant, aggressive. The sword, especially a piercing one, must be furtive and controlling, striking precisely and decisively. A spear should run rampant, surging out the waters and rising to the sky!”
“The staff user must be defensive and patient, waiting for the opening to strike like a serpent!” she added with an illustrative thrust.
“What about maces and hammers?” Valerian asked.
She was taken aback for a moment, falling into deep thought. Wynna giggled.
“I confess”, she admitted. “I am unfamiliar with them. Same can be said for many other weapons, but I would imagine that there should be principles for them as well.”
“My focus is the blade and the use of it. Sabre. Sword. Dagger. I can wield all of them to a high degree of mastery. My heritage and training allow for great versatility and power. So believe me when I say that the significant portion of weapon cultivation isn’t the action but the mind. It begins after you have learnt to wield the weapon and involves continuous refinement of the mental state and the acquisition of insight. In fact, becoming a sword cultivator or even a spear cultivator has nothing to do with knowing how to use the weapon in question!”
“You heard me right!” she said to a shocked Valerian. “It all depends on the sword mind. Attaining a sword mind is what lets you wield a sword beyond the normal limits. The real reason for training with and mastering a weapon is to gain the sword mind. Not the other way around. Some like myself can skip the training step altogether.”
“And you know this how?” Valerian asked in clear disbelief.
“As I said, I have a high mastery when it comes to bladed weapons”, she said confidently.
“Am I supposed to take that as an answer? You cannot justify something you said with another thing you said!” he refuted.
“Look, do you want my help or not?” She asked testily.
Valerian raised his hand placatively, understanding that his scepticism may have been too blatant. “I am not dismissing you just asking for justification. Those are some very questionable claims you are making. You have to give me more to go on besides ‘because I said so’!”
“My family is descended from the sword of an immortal”, Hue revealed.
“The sword of an immortal?” Valerian asked with a bit of astonishment.
“Yes!” she stated dryly. “At some point, my ancestor gained life and was thus left to manage the immortal’s holdings in this realm when he ascended. Langston Clan, River Valley, Erianon. Look us up if you want. I understand you Batharians aren’t used to such occurrences.”
“I am not sure about others but I certainly am”, Valerian said with a smile hoping to calm things down a bit. “I was just a bit surprised that’s all.”
“That so?” She asked incredulously. Even in Erianon her clan was viewed a bit strangely for their ancestry. Despite their fame and renown, there were some who found their legacy of having sword souls very strange so it was hard to imagine that Bathar, a kingdom that no noteworthy artefact clans, would be more accepting.
Pointing his thumb over his shoulder at his mercurial orb, Valerian asked. “See that?”
“That is a legacy weapon custom made for select individuals in my clan. I discovered a month ago that one of my ancestors was apparently very intimate with his.” Seeing the look on her face and fearing that she might misunderstand, he quickly added. “No! Nothing like that!”
“Late in his life, he had no heirs besides a single granddaughter. His orb, however, had a son. His line was about to end and on one hand, he had a granddaughter and on the other the son of the one person he trusted most. So, my ancestor decided to tie the two together. It was strange to learn that fact, especially since I have an orb of my own. I could not stop thinking about it for days. Something about the whole thing felt vaguely incestuous”, Valerian confessed. “So… yours is pretty tame, all things considered. Take it from me, my family tree is needlessly complicated.”
Hue stared at him with a mouth that was slightly ajar. Valerian mistakenly took this expression of shock to be a response to his tale. He was right just not in the way he thought. Hue knew exactly what it took for an artefact to have children. True life was the province of profound artefacts. In cultivator terms, it would be on the sage tier. By revealing this fact about himself, Valerian had inadvertently told her that his clan had produced sage tiered cultivators in the past and not just one from the sound of it.
The problem? She had read the report on his background. There were only two confirmed Emperors in his clan with two additional suspects. One of the two confirmed was Valerian’s great-grandfather, someone who had apparently forced his way into the Emperor tier with the aid of a guardian spirit and a few precious pills. How could a clan like that, newly risen to power, have sages –plural—in its history? Something was clearly off.