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So, what are you waiting for?
Chapter Twenty-six: Army Killers
To say Valerian was surprised when he got to the Arena on the third day would be an understatement. The place was packed. Compared to the days before, when at least three out of every five seats were empty, today had very few empty seats. He was not the only one. The others watched gobsmacked at the multitudes that fought and cajoled to get to their seats, some with snacks, a few clutching tickets and Aarons Eye pamphlets.
“Fuck!” Sweetrot swore. “Look at the challengers!”
They turned to see with Hue letting out a laugh and Heidi a worried smile. Rather than cut down the numbers, yesterday’s events had more than doubled their number of challengers. Valerian stared at the queues stunned at the simple fact that they had more than one. Cultivators of all shapes and sizes were lined up at the registration booths.
His astonishment only lasted a few moments before a cocky grin replaced it. Perhaps this day would be just as interesting and fruitful as the one before. Glancing at Sweetrot, he asked, “Hey, Sweetrot!”
“This bunch will need to be tested. Are you up to it?” he asked.
The lanky youth stumbled from the shock and he was not the only one.
“You want me to do that thing you did yesterday?” he asked to clarify.
“Yes!” Valerian answered. “All you have to do is blow away the chaff and put the others on their toes. That is if you can handle it.”
Sweetrot gave him an intense stare trying to figure out if he was being serious. Realising he was, he gave it a ponder. He and Valerian were not close so he found it difficult to believe that the latter was doing this as a favour. Taking a few glances at the many challengers and the rowdy crowd, he made his choice.
“Thanks but I think I’ll pass”, he told Valerian. “My attacks aren’t very suited to this sort of thing.”
Valerian said nothing at the refusal, turning to the others he made them the same offer only to receive pretty much the same answer. Heidi gave him an incredulous look and pretended not t hear what he said. Hue simply shook her head. Ironically, it was Wynna, the person he considered least likely to speak among them that gave him a relatively positive answer.
“You do this one. I’ll take the next one” she said.
Hiding his shock much better this time around, Valerian simply rolled with it. “I hear you, but no backing out tomorrow, got that?”
She nodded happily and let him with nothing else to say on the matter. Nothing except…
“Let’s get the show started!”
“Welcome, one and all!” Valerian yelled at the crowd. They yelled back.
Waiting a few breaths for the furore to die off, he continued, “It is good to have all of you come to watch us bloody each other. They always say that at the end of the day, there is a winner and a loser but they tend to forget the third party; the spectator.
“There are three parties here today”, he told them.
“Us”, he said, gesturing towards his colleagues.
“Them”, he said indicating the assembled challengers.
“You”, he added, pointing at the crowd.
They roared their acknowledgement.
“YOU’RE GOING DOWN STEELBORN!”
“ON WITH THE FIGHTING ALREADY!”
Valerian listened to this with a half-interested ear. He cared little for their actual words. All he wanted was to sample whatever sentiment was currently dominant in the arena. For the moment, it was clear that his group was still the enemy, however, he was the face of the opposition. Most of the screamers had his name on their lips which he appreciated. It meant that he was considered the leader, the first disciple. He doubted any of the others could overturn this and come what may, that perspective would stay. His efforts had not gone to waste.
Smiling dangerously at the crowd, he added, “Of course, you could easily change your role by jumping in here with me.”
The yelling died quickly. It was interesting to watch. Many of those standing even retook their seats and when he sought to make eye contact, they wilted before him. Valerian could not help but smile. It felt good. What they expressed was fear or at least trepidation. It was far from the awe and respect he wanted but at least, they acknowledged his strength. The rest would come with time.
“Speaking of jumping in, take a look at today’s challengers”, he said loudly.
The group in question had no idea what to do clearly not expecting to become the centre of attention so soon. Having thousands of people staring directly at you took some getting used to. Valerian piled it on with his next few words.
“Come now, show them some support!” he demanded. “They are a brave lot. Although many would not make it through, their courage is admirable.”
What greeted the challengers was a few scattered cheers as Valerian’s words sunk in. If his first sentence stimulated the crowd positively, the rest of his statement killed that spirit. They were loud enough sure but their show of support paled in comparison to their loud displays earlier. Ignoring the diehards, the crowd had just been reminded that many in the small assembly of cultivators would not make to the actual challenging part. Why cheer for them then? They quickly adopted a wait and see approach. Then there were those few who did believe in Valerian’s group and already expected the challengers to lose. Valerian only had to look at the challengers to see that his ploy worked. They had suddenly realised how little faith the crowd had in them. It was enough to shake the spirits of the weaker willed.
Valerian would not give them any time to recover. “You are all clear on the new rules, I take it?” he asked them.
Not even waiting for an answer, he continued, “You test is simple; Survive unscathed through one of my attacks. Any person who feels they are not up to the challenge may step down. Try not to trouble our limited medical staff because of your recklessness.”
He waited but nothing came of it. Even those who looked unsure were staying. That meant it was time to show his teeth.
“No one giving up? Then, prepare yourselves!”
Shields were made ready and spells were cast. For a moment, Valerian was uncertain which approach to use but then, a wicked idea occurred to him. He raised a leg, climbing through the air as easily as one might climb a set of stairs, his feet finding purchase in the air. As he rose, he focused all his will and essence into one hand materialising golden glyph after golden glyph in front of himself. It did not take long. Within two seconds, maybe a little more, he was a dozen metres into the air with a fully actualised array in front of him. Valerian watched the amazed expressions on the faces of his audience with a smile. This would be the first time he was using this array in combat. He hoped it made an impression.
“This is your final chance. You may withdraw at this juncture without consequence. After five seconds, the offer will no longer be available and I will launch my attack!”
“Bring it, Steelborn!” someone yelled. They either passed or they did not. Backing down at this point would be even more humiliating than failure.
“So be it!” Valerian said in a tone that made it sound like he was pronouncing judgement.
Contrary to their expectations, he did not attack immediately instead, he raised his right arm, holding his forearm out horizontal to his body. With his thumb tucked in and his fingers outstretched, he raised his arm and repeated his actions only with his left palm crossing the right vertically. For Valerian, completing a first circle array in under three seconds was nowhere near enough to showcase his skill. If he really pushed himself, he could do it in less than two. There was, however, a reason he chose to conserve his energy. Knowing he had their full attention, he slid his left palm across his right, slowly separating them and watched the [Myriad Darts Array] in front of him divide into two complete arrays.
Regrettably, the technique Valerian was using took too much concentration to afford him the luxury of checking up on the spectators or he would have seen just how awed they were by his move. It was a delicate procedure. Though it looked that way, he was not actually splitting the array. Anything that occupied space denied others the chance to occupy that same space. They also left impressions on the world around them, visible or not. What he was doing was pulling his array out of the space he occupied whilst filling the impression he left with essence, for all intents and purposes duplicating it. It was akin to stencilling only, the original array was the cut-out. Using its impression he could create an infinite number of copies so long as he had the essence and willpower to maintain each resulting array and most importantly, the impression itself.
It was the impression, its maintenance and use that turned the whole endeavour into a needlessly painful task. He needed the willpower to keep world essence out of the space his glyphs had occupied, whilst maintaining the structure itself. Then, he needed fine-tuned control over his own essence so that it did not overrun the impression or distort it when it filled the gaps. Truthfully, it was an unnecessary show of skill. The duplication technique took him four seconds. He could have made both arrays from scratch in that same period of time. Not to mention, that all it would take was one slip on his part and he would lose everything and be forced to start anew.
However, looking at it that way would be missing the entire point of the display. This was not just a show of force but also of skill and nothing said skill like the practised use of a technique that was impossible for most veteran first circle masters.
The moment both arrays were stable, he fired them into action. With his sharp eyesight and high vantage point, he expected the challengers to be easy picking but not even he was fully prepared for the power of the [Myriad Darts Array]. Its very name provided an inkling of what it was capable of; twelve darts, each of them two centimetres wide, fifteen centimetres long with the punch of a charging ram and the speed of a sharp swallow were fired every second, seven hundred and twenty of them every minute, and forty-three thousand, two hundred per hour.
With the spell version, the duration and efficacy were dependent on the skill and reserves of the caster. The array, on the other hand, was supplemented by world essence. The array’s matrix also handled the minutia. Things like the formation of the darts, their density, their release, speed, etc were already spelt out in the glyphs. All that was required by the circle master were control and direction as well as the will to empower it. Theoretically, once created and primed, the array was inexhaustible. It would fire darts nonstop with no depreciation in speed, power or any other factor.
Valerian made two of them!
They were army killers. Spectators could only watch in horror as challenger after challenger went down under the onslaught of golden darts. No defensive spell could hold in the face of this barrage. As for the poor saps that were hoping to rely on their agility to avoid the strikes, they fared the worst out of all the challengers. Shields were quickly punctured. Those that held the sturdy ones were unable to cope. Magical barriers shattered like glass, defensive tellurian skills were torn through. Blood, warm and red, flew up in spurts whenever a dart scored a hit.
The attack lasted nearly eight seconds before Valerian stopped the arrays. When it was done, the platform was awash with blood and screams. Not a single challenger was left unscathed and more than one person was in critical condition.
The trials were forced to a close. There would be no matches today.