Chapter Twenty-two: A Stand
The second day of the trials did not have as great a start as the first. Many of the fights of the previous day had not been as exciting as the spectators had hoped. For those who had come hoping to see the folk who had allegedly challenged the entire school beaten into the ground were disappointed. They took consolation in the fact that cream of the first and second years had yet to make a move. Thus those who came early on the second day were more subdued. The boisterous affront they put up earlier was gone. The five prospective apprentices had proved their skill. they were strong and unless the top cultivators came down or appearance of some sudden upset they would run roughshod over their competition today as well. Contrary to expectations, however, the second day was not a repeat of the first. The dual force cultivator with the floating sphere, Valerian, had ascended the stage to make an announcement. Calling every registered challenger, a full fourteen, forward as well. “Good morning everyone, it has come to my attention that some of you might be taking this trial too lightly”, he began. “I am not sure what stories are going around but hear it from me. This purpose of this trial is about finding the most powerful first tier cultivators of the five principal elements to become the legacy apprentices of one of the greatest warriors to grace this Kingdom and yet my fellow disciples and I have been challenged by people who are anything but.” Pausing, he added, “Forgive me, but I fear I must be blunt in saying that I thought Marrbissi better than this. For a school lauded to produce the best and the most powerful, you have not done much to live up to the praise.” His words led to an uproar from the crowd. For many, this was too much. The challenge was one thing and Valerian’s assertion was another. The second insulted the students and questioned the honour of the school. The furore was so serious that many were on their feet, shouting obscenities. “What do you think you are doing?” Lawic hissed in an essence transmission. She was not the only one. The other prospective disciples wanted to know why he was riling up the crowd. Valerian did not bother elaborate. He simply sent a simple message to all of them that said, “Just go with it for now.” Gathering some arcane energy, he snapped his fingers, producing a loud bang that caused them to shut up and take notice. “Believe it or not, I understand how you feel right now; insulted, looked down upon, talked down to. Truth be told, just yesterday, I was almost certain that the many stories I had heard praising Marrbissi were just that, stories. Maybe they had been true at some point but not for my generation. Then, I learned something shocking. The ones my fellow apprentices and I fought were not Marrbissi’s best but then you probably know that better than anyone. You are from here!” Hearing several “That’s right!” and “Of course!” as well as several other affirmations from the crowd made Valerian smile. Some even yelled. “Soldo will kick your arse!” His plan was working. “Might I ask something then?” he requested, addressing the crowd politely. “Where are they?” The crowd was silent as well. It was a question they wanted to know as well. Where were the Soldos and Hendricksons? Where were the cultivators that serenely occupied the top spots in the divisional and overall rankings, garnering the respect and admiration of the masses? You think they would jump at an opportunity like this. “Tell me”, Valerian asked. “Are they scared?” The uproar that came this time was noticeably more subdued. As much as they wanted to argue differently, the idea had already occurred to some of them. By this point, Valerian’s intentions were obvious. Sweetrot, for one, was grinning like a loon. Wynna looked uncomfortable under the attention and the other two ladies, simply tried to look pensive though he caught Lawic watching him with narrowed eyes. “Oh! Not scared then?” Valerian teased. “And they cannot even show up or defend themselves in person? It would not surprise me if they were but suppose they are not”, he conceded. “Our trial was announced days ago. We gave you, the geniuses of Marrbissi all the time to prepare so what excuses do they have for not being here.” All of sudden something seemed to occur to Valerian and he shook his head. “Correction”, he said to the crowd. “Perhaps, they needed more time, after all, I recently learnt that they were the ones responsible for yesterday’s poor showing. Apparently, they do not feel comfortable fighting us without sending patsies to force us into showing our moves first. I wonder if that is the standard practice here in Marrbissi.” This time the hubbub barely got off the ground. Everyone clearly remembered Lawic’s match the day before. Marlon was not the only. Many of the challengers from the day before and even those who were waiting their turn today belonged to associations led by the upper echelon cultivators. Many had already guessed that the top-ranked cultivators would only show up on the last or second to last day of the trials. However, at the time it had looked like a status thing now, with Valerian words in mind, it took a different form. Once the suspicion snuck in, it took root and caused doubt. They looked around, suddenly seeing a different dimension to the empty seats and the absence of the big names. The challengers were not exempted. Those who had come for that express purpose had become uncomfortable whilst the others had become doubly suspicious considering they had come for the mouthwatering rewards that had the third, fourth and even fifth years wishing they qualified, it was indeed strange that the notable cultivators among their number had distanced themselves from the trials. “All of this notwithstanding, this trial is meant for the most powerful first tier cultivators in Marrbissi, we are not here to fight every Tom, Dick and Harriet. To prevent yesterday’s events from repeating themselves again we are going to do things differently from now on. Only those who are proven to have a certain measure of power will be allowed to challenge us. “By whose authority?” one of the challengers asked. “MINE!” Valerian answered, his aura flaring. His essence pulsed out as his monarch intent activated. Roaring out like a massive wave of will and force as it expanded it to its full range before condensing and hammering it down on the people around him, the referees, other officials, challengers and people brave enough to sit in the first two rows. He would have loved to be able to incorporate Hue and the others in it but he could not. His intent did not work that way. They need to follow him truthfully or be close to him personally in order to enjoy its benedictive effects. Since that was not the case, he had to settle for simply leaving them out of it altogether. As for those caught in its wake, however, they were crushed by it. An incredibly dominant will pressed down on them restricting the flow of their essence and leaving them feeling weak and breathless. It had one message; Those who stand with me will rise with me. All who stand against me shall fall before me. Locking eyes with the person who asked the question, Valerian watched dispassionately as his quarry spluttered and swayed in the face of his monarch’s intent, barely able to keep from falling to his knees. “The authority of Lady Bloodworth’s first apprentice!” he elaborated. The reactions to his actions were as you would expect. The challengers they were forced to swallow their protests, the spectators simply discussed this new fact raising the level of the background murmuring. Many simply watched in awe as he suppressed everyone else with his battle intent. The other prospective apprentices, on the other hand, reacted differently. “You…” Sweetrot snarled only to stopped by Lawic. Valerian was not sure who was more surprised about that fact, him or the dark-skinned tellurian. He looked at her, taking full note of the anger in her eyes as well as the cold regard she examined him with. It was like she had finally seen him for what he was and had taken a step back to reassess. Like an advancing conqueror, Valerian took a menacing step forward, continuing with his speech, “It is as I said. A change needs to be made. We are here to fight Marrbissi’s best, not to waste time. Thus, I am instituting a new requirement. Any who wish to challenge us must first prove their might by enduring a single attack from me.” Leaping into the air, he transformed before a dumbstruck audience. the other apprentices could do nothing but stare in disbelief as his aura changed yet again and wings that spanned several metres took form. His hair became steely bristles and spikes grew from his joints. He looked like a predatory daemon preparing to swoop down and seize its prey. Completing his attunement had benefited Valerian greatly. His qi’s transformative abilities increased manifold. His body had gained much of the strength and toughness attributed to titan’s bone and his qi had become more imposing giving him what the Steelborns referred to as the physique of a Steel Titan. That combined with his previous physique of the Wind King made for an awe-inspiring show of power. Addressing the challengers below him, he said, “I will give you ten breaths of time to make up your minds. Leave if you wish to withdraw your challenge! Stay and I will test your qualifications!” Ignoring the horror that was beginning to dawn on their faces, Valerian began counting. “TEN!” All hell broke loose.
It had taken Valerian all of an hour to come up with this plan. Ironically, Heidi was the one who had suggested it. Watching her actions the day had been like watching his initial entrance exam to Strapping’s. He did not see it at first but the moment he realised what her game was it clicked in his head. The helpful but assertive persona. The display of power, resources and backing. She was trying to win the others to her side and set herself up as their leader. He should have seen it coming. The trials had in no way ended nor were they restricted to the fighting platforms. Everything from setting them against each other in the beginning to the speech in the parlour and the fights themselves was part of it. In focusing on the fights themselves, Valerian had nearly been misled, blinded to what was right in front of him. They were to fight the most powerful first tier cultivators in Strapping’s to prove themselves. The old lady herself had told them that they should be concerned with proving themselves and securing their places. They might all be prospective apprentices but their own internal rankings and hierarchy had yet to be determined. Heidi, being the first to notice had seized the advantage, temporarily alienating him, her competition, whiles she brought the others into her fold. He reasoned it out. Besides herself, he had had the most impressive performance the day before. She was also familiar with Sweetrot and given that she had been at the manor longer, she had had some interaction with the other two girls. Sweetrot was a mess; a cocky, reckless, thrillseeker. The girls, however, would be more amenable to mutual cooperation and failing that, a truce. As for him… Valerian reviewed his interaction with the others, trying to figure out how she would play it. ‘She would corner me’, he realised. ‘All that talk about the army, cost-effectiveness and hierarchies was merely a smokescreen to feel me out.’ She would recruit the others to her side, at least two of them, before approaching him. Confronted by the majority, he would be forced to accept her terms. The idea made Valerian smile. It was not because it was a poor one. Truth be told, it was quite good. It was only lacking because it made too many assumptions. he doubted that it was her only plan but regardless of what she thought it up. She would be doomed to failure because of one fact: Lady Bloodworth was the Teacher of Marshal Strapping. Assuming that even half of the principles the Marshal lived and forced others to live by were inculcated by her then he knew exactly what to do. The principles Strapping’s taught were simple; initiative, teamwork and above all, the power to back up actions. taking this in mind, Valerian put together his own strategy. He was not going to cosy up to the others like Heidi was doing. There was no point. He was familiar with them enough for that to work. He also did not have much to offer them, certainly not enough to compete with Heidi. Plus, he remembered how that turned out for Alenwaa. There was only one viable plan. The same one he used then only modified for this scenario.
“ONE!” he intoned finishing his countdown. Immediately, his fists blurred forward. Massive fists of qi, at least a metre in length, began to rain down on the arena as Valerian fired off his [Cascading Fists]. The technique was originally created for the sole purpose of assailing multiple opponents from a higher position and it performed its task to perfection. The phantom fists fell like meteors. The first to land was dodged but still managed to strike the platform hard enough to leave an imprint. Nearly a hundred fists pouring into the bowl of the arena in the space of a few seconds before mercifully letting up. Clouds of dust and dispersing essence two storeys high had been kicked up in their wake making it difficult for anyone to see the results. When they cleared, the spectators were given a brand new arena complete with a shattered platform and multiple fist prints that covered all but one small space in the arena’s bowl. It looked like a giant had thrown a fit, razing the place to the ground. All the healers on hand rushed into the place stepping cautiously around the craters whiles looking for the victims of the disaster. “Lord on high!” Someone exclaimed softly. The sentiment was shared throughout the arena. Even the other four prospective apprentices, safe in the only intact space, looked amazed at the destruction. They could do nothing but stare in shock as Valerian floating down to them, transforming back into his human form. “Your four!” he called out pointing out the only challengers to emerge unscathed from the attack. “Congratulations on passing. You have two hours to prepare for your challenges. Rest! In the meantime, can we have people come tidy up the place? Have them reinforce the platform as well.” The referee, one of the few people not targetted in the attack, nodded numbly. “As for the rest of you”, Valerian said, languidly stepping towards one of the injured cultivators. She was a pretty young thing who at that moment struggled to raise an ornate earthen shield many times her height and width. Seeing him drawing close she stiffened in fear and tried retreating only to trip backwards and fall, her arm still trapped in the loop of her shield. After examining her, he was able to tell she had suffered compound fractures from trying to defend herself from his attack. Compared to some of the others, namely, the two fellows who lay unmoving in the craters whilst being attended to not far from her, she was barely touched. Giving her one last glance, Valerian walked past her saying. “I am sure you know what to say to those who sent you. Make sure they understand that while I was merciful this once, I will not be if there is any repeat of this.” Turning to his colleagues, he said, “Let’s go!” Every single person in the arena watched as he leapt off the destroyed stage and went to sit at his seat as if nothing had happened. Having seen his battle form, many found it difficult to connect the person in front of them to the one they had seen before the attack. They now knew him to be a daemonic figure, destruction incarnate. His slightly boyish looks and charm were now considered a human guise that hid his true self. Yet, the eyes that followed him held more than fear, there was admiration, envy and awe. His parting words registered in their ears as they surveyed what he had wrought. This was him being merciful?