This chapter is longer than any I have done in a long time, probably has more mistakes too.
Please help me thank our new patrons. Your support is greatly appreciated!
- Kyle Ryan
- Kenneth c King
- Gabriel Boudreau
- Izek Davis
- Desert Wight
- Filippo Sagra
- Joshua Strider
- Matthew Hodges
- Lars Townsend
- Nyge Dzorwa
- Sasha Hasic
- Tom Pulk
- Evans Lawson
- Patrick Ayres
- Michael Day
Chapter Twenty-one: Two Witches and an Amazon
The crowd cheered as the two beauties took the stage.
“We support you Heidi!” screamed a gaggle of girls.
“Look she’s got a new staff!” one of them pointed out.
She was right. Heidi usually carried a dark pear wood staff adorned with four glowing bulbs. The staff she was taking to battle was topped with a daemonic core the size of a fist, kept in place by root-like tendrils of wood. She had an intense aristocratic air, more lady of the keep than noble damsel. With the exception of her rich embroidered cloak, she was dressed in simple, if fine, riding clothes.
“So…this Lawic bird, know anything about her?” the senior asked the girls with a smooth smile. He purposefully ignoring the juniors he had been talking with before, especially the one who had who had been overestimating himself.
“Heidi Lawic is one of the best cultivators among the first years!” one girl happily answered. “She is also the top of the earth division and a genius at constructs and construction.”
At her words, another girl tugged her sleeve whispering harshly, “Soldo.”
The girl quickly amended her statement. “Well, Heidi is the top-ranked female in the earth division. She is basically the best at everything. She is definitely going to win.”
“So she has a high combat ranking?” he asked.
Nothing was said about the second girl’s correction or the first’s change in position. He had heard of Soldo. A big shot new kid intent on breaking records. His feats had reached the ears of the many of the upper years.
At this, the girl seemed unsure. “Well… Heidi doesn’t usually fight so I don’t know.”
Her friend was quick to interject. “She is plenty powerful though.”
The first nodded, saying, “Uh hmm! Plus, she is the daughter of a general. There is even a Former Lord Constable in her clan, so I am sure she is really good!”
“Oh, those Lawics!” the older youth exclaimed in recognition.
“You know them?” the first girl asked curiously.
“I know of them”, he admitted. “Strange. I thought that General Lawic only had sons. I never heard of a daughter.”
“What of the other girl?” he asked.
“I do not know”, one answered. “She seems strong.”
Miss sleeve puller struck again. “She’s wearing bone.”
The other girl made a sound of disgust.
“Bone? Are you sure it is not ivory?” she asked.
Her friend looked insulted. “I know the difference between bone and ivory, Michelle!”
“Look, Heidi’s opponent!” her friend yelled out. “Isn’t that Marlon?”
“Who?” the senior asked.
“Marlon Brightsoul”, she answered. “He is Soldo’s right hand.”
“Soldo is not pleased, Heidi”, Marlon said on stage.
“So he sent you, I take it?” she asked nonplussed. “Here to convince me to change my decision.”
“He did not have to”, he answered. “You had your chance and you blew it. The boss has already made his offer. As I recall, you spat in his face. Did you think that was the end of it?”
Heidi said nothing.
Marlon frowned pulling his glaive from his spatial ring. “I wonder, did you already know about this then? Was it a place with Lady Bloodworth that gave you your false courage? You are tricky enough that I wouldn’t put it past you. Always had a superiority complex too. I will tell you now. Give up now while you have a chance. The boss has already decided to take everything from you, starting with this.”
Heidi laughed holding her staff above her head in a two-handed grip, “After I beat you and you run back snivelling to your little master, tell him this. Tell him that he is welcome to try!”
At those words, she slammed the butt of her stand into the ground. Four thin pillars of stone rose around her, one for each of the four cardinal directions. All it took was an additional wave of the hand and they were covered in esoteric glyphs. It was the strangest thing. It was like the spell was cast in advance but only came into being when she waved. Once it took effect though, it was like she was removed from the rest of the world almost as if she inhabited a different space. Her voice whiles unquestionably lifted and chanting was distorted like she was gargling water. Nonetheless, that did not stop her spells from working.
The four glowing bulbs on her staff flew off passing through the barrier with little trouble. The moment they were out they fell to the ground only to rise from and with it. The floor of the stage practically wrapped around them before shaping itself into two-metre tall golems. A burst of light shone on Heidi’s staff and ceramic armour covered the golems. Marlon, on his part, did not stand idle, he charged forward swinging his glaive at the nearest elemental construct. The battle was on and the crowd was going wild.
Hue’s eyes scanned the spectators as they cheered for the woman on the other stage and not for her. She frowned, a small pang of jealousy shooting through her. The feeling was uncomfortable and unfamiliar. She could not recall ever being envious. Tapping her fingers on her sword hilt, she tried to sort through it.
‘I am not jealous of Heidi’, she realised. ‘I am just unaccustomed to having other receive so much attention whiles I get so little.’
Back home people would fight for the chance to see a Langston in combat. They had always cheered or curtsied when she came by. She was the Sword Princess, an inheritor of one of the greatest sword styles ever created. Here, she was nobody. No one here knew her skills, appreciated her background or respected her worth. That was about to change.
Sharp eyes watched as her foe, a hesitant arcanist summoned a shield in the form of a whirlpool. Currents of water essence, slightly visible to the naked eye, swirled around him.
“Is that the best you can do?” she asked him.
He faltered, actually pausing in the middle of his recitation. It was embarrassing. She took her hand off the hilt of her sword. She would not need it. Instead, she held her right hand out in front of her in a plain knife hand and poured her qi into it. Thick water attributed qi, fluid but viscous gathered on it, there was so much of it looked like some of it was going to drip to the floor. Curious eyes were drawn to her but she was beyond caring at this point. All she did was raise her hand up till it pointed up into the sky and bring it down for a cross slash.
The act was slow, almost lazy and yet when she was done, she turned around and walked away. A single breath later, her opponent fell to the ground in shock as massive sword wound opened in his torso. Blood poured from a slash that went from his left shoulder to his right hip. Dropping his wand, he tried to stop the bleeding with his hands. Whilst slipping into shock, he struggled to understand what had happened. There had been no essence fluctuations, no warning or sign of attack. One moment he was standing upright and the next, his shield had fallen apart and his chest was gushing blood.
There was a sudden chill in the crowd. Few had seen the strike let alone understood it. One thing was obvious to all though, she was not one to mess with.
Sitting in their seats, Sweetrot turned to Valerian, “Ok. I’ll admit. That was pretty intimidating.”
For the first time in his life, Valerian felt slightly emasculated. Right before him was the perfect example of the Steelborn ideals only in another arcanist. Perfect defence, overwhelming attacks, masterful control, it was a synthesis of everything his tutors had tried to teach him in a form that he had never considered.
He watched as Marlon met with one of Lawic’s constructs. His glaive cut through it easy enough only to get trapped in its chest by its rapidly repairing body. He did not let that stop. Launching a powerful front kick, he shattered it to bits only for a second to appear to his side, swinging a massive battleaxe. To everyone’s shock, he raised his left hand and caught the axe whiles his eyes searched the scattered shards at his feet for the control orb implanted in the first construct. The rationale was simple. It would take a lot of effort to destroy Heidi’s barrier. While he did that, the constructs would have a field day attacking him.
Usually, the strategy for defeating arcanist versed in the use of constructs or summons was to defeat the arcanist as quickly as possible. Even if the constructs were not destroyed afterwards, they would be without directions and possibly, essence. In this scenario, however, it was the other way around. He either destroyed the constructs quickly and permanently or he would never get a clear shot at their controller. They would wear down him otherwise.
It was only Hue’s cheering that clued him in to the fact that Wynna, the shy redhead, had also taken the stage. This forced him to split his attention between the two battles. He very interested in the petite girl who had greater reserves of essence than every other first-tier cultivator he had met. His curiosity was the only thing that let him catch her battle. It was over that fast. One second, her opponent was charging at her with a war hammer and the next, he was gone, blasted off the stage by an explosion so bright and powerful, it left flashing lights in your vision. He had thought Hue’s battle was quick but this was definitely, the fastest bout he had ever seen.
He switched his attention back to Lawic’s match only to be disappointed. That fight was also on its last legs. Her opponent, Marlon had made the mistake of ignoring the growing number of broken parts around him. he had basically fallen victim to the same ploy that nearly felled Sweetrot. Those previously discarded limbs and pieces were now holding him in place, allowing Lawic to do anything she wanted to him. This match was yet another doomed to a swift conclusion. A shame. He was looking forward to seeing more of the puppeteer’s skills. Perhaps, the next batch of challengers would be better.
Sadly, this was not to be. When the day’s events came to a close he was sorely disappointed. The others had it better but in his case, none of his challengers proved the least bit challenging.
Valerian walked into the dining room to see the others huddled over a pile of pamphlets. Lawic was trying to say something to Langston whilst Sweetrot scowled at a pamphlet in his hands.
Grabbing a plate, he asked, “What am I missing?”
To his surprise, it was the shy redhead that was first to answer. “Heidi brought us some copies of the student news. Our trials are featured in it!”
“That so?” he asked simply. “There is a formal student news bulletin?”
“More like formalised gossip!” Sweetrot spat before leaving the room in a huff.
“Ignore Robern”, Lawic teased. “He’s a bit upset because Ander’s Eye marked him as the weakest among our group of disciples.”
“Ander’s Eye is the newsgroup?” Valerian asked. The name sounded familiar. He remembered that they supposedly had a representative present for the fights.
“Not really”, Lawic clarified. “Ander’s Eye is more of an intelligence guild than a newsgroup. They come highly recommended and their information is rarely free.”
This threw Valerian for a loop. “The academy allows such groups to operate on the grounds?”
“Of course!” Lawic said with a smile. “It is a student group, headed and run by students of this academy. They are very proud of it too. Ander, the founder, started out as a snoop selling pamphlets on the happenings and goings in the school. Now, the guild is recognised all over the kingdom with military contracts and a guild house in the Royal Capital. Of course, the external branches are run by alumni and hires, not students.”
“Good for them”, he nodded. Pulling up a chair and placing his plate down, Valerian picked up a pamphlet. He only went a couple of lines before his eyebrows rose.
“Lawic?” he called softly.
“Call me Heidi, please!” She stressed.
“Okay, Heidi…” Valerian began. “According to this, my role on ‘our team’ is tactical support. Does that mean what I think it means?”
“Probably”, she told him. “Reconnaissance, defensive systems, communications; you know, scrying, wards, traps, enchantments, that sort of thing. You were in the military so you probably have some experience with that.”
“Are!” Valerian corrected.
Valerian said it again, “Are not were.”
“I am in the military.”
This was news to the others at the table. Langston looked up from her own report for a quick glance at him. Before Lawic could say anything else on the matter, he cut her off.
“I know what it means”, Valerian clarified. “I am just wondering the whys and hows that made them peg me as that.”
Heidi leaned towards Sweetrot’s former seat and grabbed a pamphlet that lay in front of it. “Let’s see here”, she said, reading through it. “According to your profile, you are the kingdom’s youngest array master and you specialise in spell effects and enchantments. You also recently attended a military academy where it is theorised that you were trained to use your skills to serve in military capacities. I’d say that’s why.”
“Let me see that!” he demanded.
Once it was in his hands, he poured over it. The thing was meticulous making him wonder just how far the reach of this Ander’s Eye extended. It had everything but his personal life and his time in Strapping’s going so far as to mention his brief time at Fang’s Grammar School. His troubles with his tellurian training attributed to a complication involved his merged bloodlines, and the rumours that surrounded him in his childhood were also featured. Even his participation in the Zebre, his win ratios, injuries, etc were included and as for his known skills and proficiencies…
An ability to use arrays in combat scenarios
A penchant for wielding a mace-shaped focus as well as proficiencies in fisticuffs and claw strikes
A speed focused variant daemonic transformation born from the fusing of two related bloodline legacies with its noted characteristics.
An innate phantasm that manifests as a fifteen metre tall Steel Monolith
He could not help but raise his eyebrows. Nearly everything about his life before Strapping’s was there, summarised so it could fit on a three-page spread. The fourth page was half blank, consisting of a small warning about his possible capabilities and predictions based on his growth and known proficiencies. It noted for instance that Strapping’s was an institution that focused on teamwork and that his abilities would likely have developed along that trend was a heavy focus on arrays and the tactical support they provided.
Apart from being amazed at the breadth and scope of the information they had gathered as well as the powers the intelligence guild clearly had, Valerian could now understand their reasoning. It was no wonder they had him listed as tactical support with a ranking that put above only Sweetrot in their group’s internal hierarchy. As much as it annoyed him, he could not say he was surprised. Ander’s Eye had only done what everyone else did when they first met him. They focused completely on his skills as an arcanist and his talents as an array master and ignored everything else. Case in point, the mock profile barely had anything on him as a tellurian.
It was so bad that even his status as a dual force user barely got a mention. Besides the stuff on his early training troubles, the only other indication of his status as a tellurian was the note that his daemonic transformation was controlled by his qi. Valerian tried not to let it bother him. He was used to it. What did bother him though was what Heidi said next.
“So… how good are you?” She asked.
“How good are you?” she repeated. “I know you Strapping’s fellows are supposed to be the best of the best, but you are all teamwork and assigned roles and duties, right? Makes it hard to tell how good you are outside that framework.”
Valerian’s nominally bored expression gave away nothing. “I’m good. You do not need to worry about that.”
She nodded. “Ah, the stern warrior guy, got it! My brothers are the same as well. Is that something they teach at Strapping’s?”
That got his attention. “Your brothers went to Strapping’s?”
“Two of them”, she revealed. “One went to Steven’s, the last two chose not sign up much to my father’s shame. There’s a bit of schism in my family on which school is better, their styles and purposes are so different though in my view it all depends on what you think makes a better soldier.”
Wondering if he was being baited, Valerian leaned back in his chair, “Oh, tell me more.”
“Well, Steven’s stresses tactics and command whilst Strapping’s is efficiency and teamwork. Their ideologies are different. Whereas Steven’s stresses the importance of having a good, tactical commander, Strapping’s holds the skill and capabilities of the individual and the unit as paramount”, she answered.
“Your army has different schools to teach different things?” Hue butted in.
“I want to say yes but no, not really”, Heidi answered in a helpful tone. We do have some special centres, but those are for specialists, your machinists, array masters, warders and what have you. For the most part, we have training centres for general troops no matter their specialisation. They all train soldiers but the difference in their commanders sets their tone and focus. Steven’s and Strapping’s are perhaps the most renowned among them.”Again, they are only different because of their commanders and focus and that is why I believe that Steven’s has the more rational ideology.”
Valerian raised an eyebrow at this.
“What?” she asked. “The very fact that their leaders is what makes them different is verification of the Steven’s maxim that commanders are more important, don’t you agree?”
“I do! Commanders are indeed more important than soldiers”, he answered.
Heidi seemed surprised at his statement. For a moment, it looked like she had nothing to say but after a second’s pause, she engaged Hue in talk and left Valerian to eat in peace. That is until Hue involved him in their discussions.
“Valerian, Heidi was just telling us that the people we are fighting against aren’t even our challengers!” Hue said, drawing him back in.
“Apparently, the Marrbissi has this special social class. Those at the top of the food chain tend not to make moves too often unless they are moving against each other. They are unlikely to come forth until the last few days of the trials if they intend to step forward at all”, she explained.
Valerian watched Heidi as Hue spoke, his sharp eyes could tell that she was unhappy that Hue was for telling him. The part of him that was raised in the image of the Magistrate tut-tutted at her transparency. She hid her expressions well, but not well enough, or maybe, he was just used to better.
“So we are fighting runts?” he said coolly. “It explains why they are so weak at least.”
“Yes”, Heidi said, joining in. “My guess is that the others are adopting a wait and see approach. None of them will want to be the first to move. It will be taken as a sign of weakness and desperation. They will send scouts to suss out our skills first and then adopt strategies to neutralise us whilst guarding against their rivals.”
“I’m guessing Soldo is one of them?” Valerian asked with a pointed look. He had noticed the tension between Heidi and Marlon. It also helped that the latter had not been big on speaking softly.
Heidi frowned, confirming his conclusion with a look of distaste, “Soldo is most definitely one of them. Currently, he is one of the top cultivators still at the first tier. He is also the best in the earth division, or at least he thinks he is.”
For a moment, Valerian considered pressing for more. He doubted that was all to the story. Heidi certainly had some connection to Soldo she was avoiding. In the end, however, he decided against it. Digging out her secrets would require offering some of his own. Instead, he settled back and let the girls talk noting absentmindedly how Wynna pushed food around her plate with her head down.
“I’m not sure if that will work, finding an effective means of winning the trials is paramount right now. Valerian, in true Strapping’s fashion, has been very cost effective in his fights!” Heidi was saying.
Taking his attention away from his chicken, the soldier looked over for a minute. He was ever more certain that the other girl was baiting him for some reason. As such he decided to keep quiet and say nothing.
“From what I understand, Strapping’s favours that strategy a lot. You crush your opponents quickly and with maximum force to avoid a drawn-out battle and further losses down the line. That way you can keep your hand concealed and at the same time provide a deterrent to others. Winning harshly would discourage others from coming up and doing so without using your true skills would give the image that you do not even need to”, she added.
“I would use this strategy, myself, but I am afraid I am too well known in Marrbissi. It would never work. They either know not challenge me or come with a full arsenal.”
Her words made Valerian bite down with extra force. Her tone implied that he had gone all out in his battle, bluffing his opponents with a weak but strong looking hand. Pushing his chair backwards, Valerian stood up. It was best he left before he said something. He was not yet sure what the puppeteer’s game was, but for now, he was going to remove himself from it.