Only one day in and already a missed post. Couldn’t help it. I flood the house last night. You read that right. I flooded my home with enough water to ensure that three rooms and a hallway were covered in centimetres of water all because I left a bathroom tap open. How the hell do these things happen to me? My brother and I spent hours fetching and moping up water. Getting everything nice and dry will be a whole different task altogether.
I have both posts up today though. Not quite a double post but it puts me back on schedule.
Chapter Twenty: The Open
Three days is a nigh insignificant time for cultivators. This was something that even mortals knew. What was a day in the life of an ordinary person to speak little of superpowered individuals for whose potential lifespans were measured in centuries? Still, the preparations and heightened tensions made the three days before the trials seem to take forever to the point where Valerian wished that they had begun the day after Lady Bloodworth’s proclamation.
Strangely, when the day finally came, he found himself lethargic like all the suspense was gone and the very essence of waitting had settled into his bones. New armour buckled and polished and with his mercurial orb at his back, he made his way to the hall where he and the other four were taken to the trial site in a carriage similar to the one he came in. It was a quiet journey. All of the occupants were too focused on the coming battles to chat.
Conversely, those who were only going to watch were beyond excited. By this point, everyone knew the true purpose of the impromptu tournament. Lady Bloodworth, Marrbissi’s most famous cultivator had chosen a set of legacy apprentices. To display their prowess, these legacy apprentices had thrown a gauntlet to all of Marrbissi, challenging all cultivators of the same level putting their newly acquired positions on the line to prove that they, like their teacher, were the absolute best at their tier. The sheer arrogance of the move was mindboggling. Challenging the best school in Bathar? It was madness. Many theorised that this tournament was, in fact, a test by Lady Bloodworth. A way to weed out the weakest among her prospective apprentices.
All the rumours surrounding the event further the hype making it so that despite it being an event for first and second years, many third and even fourth years showed up to watch the affair. Everyone was eager to see these so-called prodigies to believed themselves unbeatable. When the carriage pulled up, it was met with yells and jeers. The mood of the crowd, whilst not outright hostile, was unfriendly but that did not appear to concern the five who stepped out of the carriage.
“Look!” someone pointed out. “That’s Heidi Lawic! She’s ranked in the top ten among the first years and top three in the earth division. I heard she was chosen but I didn’t believe it. Soldo must be so mad.”
In another part of the arena, others were discussing Sweetrot. “I can’t believe that loser was chosen when I wasn’t. Seriously, what is he even doing there? I am ranked fourteen places higher than him.”
“I dunno”, someone answered. “Maybe Lady Bloodworth just needed some to make up the numbers.”
“I doubt that”, a senior sitting beside them interjected. “I hear that old biddy is cutthroat. There’s no way she’d keep trash around. What is his combat ranking? Or, his ranking in his elemental division?”
The first speaker faltered, “I don’t know.”
Realising that his answer was less than satisfactory, he quickly added, “Sweetrot is a slacker! Everyone knows that. he barely comes to class or does the assigned work. The instructor is always on his ass.”
The senior turned away staring down the stands to the entering participants and at a dark-skinned youth who was obviously enjoying the attention. “Clearly, he knows something you don’t!” was his final statement.
“Gentlefolk”, a booming voice began. “I am Geoffry Bulworth, titled Frostwind, instructor of the third-year wind division and the primary officiator of this event. With me are two other instructors together with some helpful fourth-year volunteers who will take up the task of maintaining the wards around the platforms and stands. In addition to this, we have one of the lovely ladies from Ander’s Eye giving us the commentary and run down of the battles.”
Introductions finished, he started laying down the rules for the competition making sure to let the bustling crowd know that each round would have two simultaneous battles and that the stars of the event, Lady Bloodworth’s prospective apprentices, were going to alternate their battles and be allowed to rest for up to an hour between each bout for a total of three to five matches for each day of the tournament. Pumping up the crowd for a bit, he then announced the names of the first two fighters.
“May we have Valerian Steelborn and Robern Sweetrot up on the stages, please!” he yelled. “Remember, the challenge is open to all first and second-year students whose affinities match those of our champions, in this case, metal and wood respectively. All you need to do is come up to the judges’ table, register and you are good to go! The rules are simple. The challenge audacious and the rewards, unfathomable. I wish the best of luck to all fighters today!”
The spectators watched suspensefully as the first challengers were chosen. The first to go up the metal stage was an armoured arcanist. He wore a strange harness around his torse that helped hold the large case he carried behind him in place. It was nearly the size of a cupboard extending past his shoulders and almost to his knees. Seeing him climb the stairs sent the audience tittering.
“That’s Ethed Landstrom. He’s one of the high rankers in the metal division among the second years. They say he messed on a mission and got injured last year. His wounds were so bad he spent months recovering and fell many ranks even among his own colleagues. His cultivation even regressed causing him to miss the chance to break through to the lord tier”, someone whispered.
“Bad luck that!” his friend acknowledged. “I heard he tried hunting a daemon lord as preparation for his breakthrough. That’s why he was so badly torn up. If not, he would have advanced and joined the third years. Still, he is making a good comeback. You can tell he is very eager to put last year behind him. This time, I’ll say that kid is unlucky to face him.”
They watched as a silent Ethed prepared his arsenal even before the referee announced the start of the match. The large case on his back opened and numerous metal implements flew out to orbit their master. Most were chakrams that gleamed in the morning light. The only thing to stand out was the large ornate shield that actually looked too big to fit in the case it came from. All it took was a single hand sign for Ethed to prime his weapons. The chakrams spun rapidly building a sharp rotational energy. The show of mastery had Valerian on guard. He counted fifteen weapons with only twelve of them being visible. His own experiences with metal manipulation told him there was a formation or secret skill at work here. This might prove troublesome.
“Winner, Valerian Steelborn!” the referee announced in a surprised tone.
The audience was gobsmacked. The match had not even lasted five minutes. Ethed’s impressive start and spinning weapons were defeated by a single punch. Nothing he threw at his opponent was fast enough to touch him. This created a scene where Valerian simple weaved through his numerous flying weapons before closing the distance and settling the match with the aforementioned punch. The spectators felt cheated. This was the high ranked cultivator that everyone praised? Many began to even feel that he had been overrated. Either that or he had yet to recover from his alleged injuries.
None was more underwhelmed than Valerian. He stared down at his disappointing opponent with only one question on his mind. ‘Was this it?’ He had felt something was off from the start only he had believed it was his opponent trying to lure him into a trap. He looked over to the other platform where Sweetrot was still fighting. His opponent had summoned some strange plant that was all thorns and tendrils.
The two of them moved across the stage in a way that Valerian and his had not. The daemon held Sweetrot’s attention, matching him blow for blow and even overpowering him with the sheer volume of attacks. They seemed to come from every direction at once; thorny tendrils that lashed out like cracking whips all the while trying to grab onto a limb or brush past their quarry to use their barbs. The arcanist was not just sitting on the sidelines either. He chanted furiously casting spell after spell to hinder his opponent or injure him outright. The onslaught appeared to excite Sweetrot.
He laughed loudly, mirthfully dodging attacks that would have killed him by the tiniest of margins and in ways that were practically inhuman. For Valerian and the other spectators, it was like seeing a leaf or a feather in freefall. Sweetrot was impossibly light and agile twisting and turning in the wake of the attacks sent against him. Any force sent at him only helped push him away. Not only that, he was insanely flexible as well. Valerian watched with stunned eyes as Sweetrot literally twisted himself like a ribbon, his upper body performing a complete 470-degree spin whilst his lower body performed a stationary full split in mid-air. It was like he had no bones or organs for that matter.
The crowd was going wild at the display and Valerian could understand why. this was a display of precision and skill. Sweetrot was clearly more than fast enough to avoid the strikes entirely but he did not. Instead, by avoiding with such slim margins and not bothering to counter or attack, he made a game of it, playing to the crowd and upsetting his opponent at the same time. He even looked to be enjoying himself right to the point where his challenger took advantage of his theatrics.
The successul arcanist prepares beforehand!
This quote, first recited to Valerian by his uncle, Jonas had stuck with him from the second he heard it, colouring his actions. Sweetrot’s opponent, it seemed, shared similar ideals. As he leapt wildly around the stage, the cocky tellurian did not even realise the situation e was in until the trap was fully sprung. Even Valerian, who prided himself on his ability to sense essence missed it at first. Using the attacks of his daemon as well as the spells he fired wildly as a cover, the arcanist had set up a restrictive formation. When the time was right, it solidified itself, taking the shape of a gigantic rafflesia thirty metres in diameter catching a completely oblivious Sweetrot like a trapped fly.
The arcanist did not waste the opportunity. Whilst his quarry struggled, he chanted furiously, weaving the surrounding essence at a pace much faster than before showing that he had downplayed his own skills at first. Curiously, he did not have his daemon plant attack. Rather, he had it fall back whilst the phantom image of an enormous glowing daisy formed in front of him. With no warning, the glowing shape fired. Bright scorching light spewed from its core, washing over a futilely struggling Sweetrot for a full two seconds. At the end of it, the arcanist was visibly drained and the tellurian… Sweetrot lay in the centre of a smouldering crater like burnt roast.
For all Valerian and Sweetrot could be said to be on the same team at the moment, he felt nothing but admiration for the arcanist at the moment. His strategy had been nothing but masterful. Everything from summoning the daemon to laying the trap and that final spell deserved applause. Valerian had never seen a wood attributed spell that caused fire damage before this. It was a well-executed plan and well-earned victory. At least that was what he thought until Sweetrot stood up.
The tellurian had seen better days. He had just been burnt to a crisp. In fact, his flesh, seared, blackened and cracked was still smoky and yet he stood and acted like nothing had happened. All over the arena, people were standing and screaming in confusion and astonishment. Valerian did not blame them. That attack had been brutal, lethal even so to see a burnt corpse up and about was indeed shocking. However, having better eyesight than most let you see things, things like the fact that Sweetrot’s burnt flesh was recovering at a pace faster than he would have believed possible if he was not watching himself. He watched with morbid fascination as Sweetrots cooked eyeballs repaired themselves and gained their light, stared as his burned, dry flesh flushed, regaining its turgidity and shedding its similarity to coal. The regeneration was so perfect that Sweetrot’s clothes begun to repair themselves as well.
Valerian looked to his side at the referee who had been officiating his match and was pleased to see shock on her face as well. Good! It was not just him then. Crowd aside, Valerian was trying to find confirmation that having near corpses restore themselves in seconds was not something common to Marrbissi. He momentarily ignored the fact that he should be stepping off the stage in favour of continuing to watch the unfolding battle.
By this point, Sweetrot had recovered enough to have his expression be one of anger. Understandably, his opponent was unnerved by the turn of events. With a command, he sent his pet on the attack. It scrambled forward lashing out with its thorny tendrils. This time, however, instead of dodging, the dark-skinned youth simply let them hit him, seeming unconcerned. Blood flew as large lacerations were quickly made to his body but again Sweetrot merely seemed to be annoyed. His hands shot out, grabbing two of the offending tendrils whiles his body continued to repair itself.
The plant daemon was unable to escape Sweetrot’s hold and could only watch as it was pulled closer to the savagely grinning youth. The arcanist who summoned it barked orders at it demanding that it sever those tendrils but the daemon hesitated and that was all its attacker needed. He shoved a thorny tendril into his own chest and with his hands aglow with wood attributed essence he let a strange but visible pulse into the daemon causing to it let out a loud scream before falling silent. Its master yelled to no avail but his companion seemed to have become insensate. Then, a bright glow the same colour as the pulse from earlier began to emanate from the plant daemon causing its master’s face to pale.
Raising his staff, the wood arcanist chanted as fast as he could but the more astute in the crowd could already tell that his actions had come too late. Sweetrot was even laughing at the attempt.
Clapping his hands, he yelled a single command, “Get him!”
The plant daemon reacted instantly, leaping back where it came and curling its tendrils around its former master. The arcanist already drained from his last attack could not even keep it off him. All it took was a few seconds of intense pressure from the large daemon and his shields shattered. What followed next could be imagined. The thorns on the vines dug into the arcanist’s flesh leaving large gashes as they grew tighter and tighter. Blood began to ooze from the gaps in the tendrils as its summoner cried out in pain. He struggled, vainly in its grip. He was neither strong enough to fight it off or composed enough to bring his magic to bear. Soon the floor under him was awash with blood. Thankfully, the referee for that platform took that as the cue to called the match.
The crowd was completely torn. With Valerian, they could cheer on his opponent because he was the outsider. Sweetrot, on the other hand, while clearly not popular or well liked was one of them. His opponent though was much more favoured.
“Blimey!” someone exclaimed and she watched a completely unharmed Sweetrot step on his platform. “Was Sweetrot always so… so?”
“I know right!” a companion agreed.
As for the boy who had disparaged him before the fight began, he was already wishing he could pull his head into his torso like a turtle just to avoid the glances the people around him were shooting him.
“Emmert was ranked in eighth place in the wood division wasn’t he?” a friend nudged him.
“Yeah”, he answered softly.
His insensitive friend whistled. “Man! Sweetrot sure hid himself deep, didn’t he? Still think you can take him?”
If he could slug his companion he would but the humiliated boy’s mind latched onto something he said instead, namely the fact that Sweetrot had concealed his true abilities. ‘It is not my fault’, he rationalised. ‘I didn’t know. Clearly, I wasn’t meant to know.’ Besides, it was reasonable to think that being ranked fourteen places above your opponent granted some security of victory. Even so, seeing his division’s infamous slacker beat someone twenty-seven ranks above his standing was an eyeopener.
For everyone else, the questions; “How do you beat someone who can shrug off wounds that would be fatal for everyone else?” and “Was it even possible to fight someone who treated serious injury as a temporary inconvenience?” echoed in their minds.
Remembering the annoyed eyes and nonchalant pose Sweetort had after effectively getting flash-fried left shadows in their hearts. All of a sudden many of those who had been considering registering a challenge no longer felt confident in doing so. One of the champions had only needed a single punch to down his opponent and the other was an immortal freak who could control daemons with his blood. Despite this, no one could stop their eyes from lighting up when they saw which matches were next.
The Puppet Mistress–Heidi Lawic and Hue Langston, the fishskin wearing swordswoman were going up for their turns.