The judges of the Zebre were a queer sort. They were all ancient. The youngest was nearly four hundred. True, very few had beards but you don’t really need a beard to be old and the other one’s overly long moustache pretty much doubled as one.
They were all powerful cultivators. The weakest was at the latter half of the Arcane King tier and the strongest… they weren’t sure. There were three of them, well three at this particular Zebre. Their actual number was closer to twelve. It was an imprecise number because one of them passed away in his sleep the year before and there were a few of them who hadn’t been heard from in a decade or two so twelve was about right.
The thing that made them queer was their habits. They were all what you would call members of the senior generation who like to keep an eye on current affairs. They always wished to know what was happening in the region. The Zebre was of particular interest to them
They loved to watch the younger generations duke it out. It reminded them of their younger years and helped them to measure each generation’s strength or power. There were times when they returned to their abodes disappointed and others that they went back to their stuffy homes happy and proud that they had worthy successors.
Truthfully, they weren’t a formal order or even a single group. They were just former winners of the Zebre who had grown in both might and age. They recognised each other’s leanings and shared a similar desire to keep watch over their region. Every year, a few of their number would go to some of the major centres and officiate the Zebre.
This year they nearly fought. Everyone knew of the Steelborns’ power play and everyone wanted front row seats to the action. In the end, it was these three that won and they rushed over excited to see the events play out.
To all who glanced at them they seemed to be a group of serious elderly gentlemen. Watching the fights closely and ready to dispense judgement but in reality…
“Hand me that wineskin Kanlu!” the judge at one end yelled at the one on the other.
“No! We decided on an order. Each of us would only hold one at a time. After taking a swig we’d pass it to the next person. Pass the gourd to me first. I’ll hand the skin to Burrun and he’ll give you the drinking horn”, the one called Kanlu said.
Ataburrun ignored the other two, too busy stuffing his face with the meat and delicacies on the table. It’s not like they weren’t taking in the proceeds they were. It’s just that it was always more enjoyable to have something to eat and drink when watching a show.
Thanks to Kusko’o on his left. They had nothing to worry about. He was a great elder of the Shadowed Hood Sect and his illusion skills had no match in this county. No one would ever know. Ah, the Zebre is the best time of the year.
In this manner, they passed through the group stages. Eating, drinking and commenting on the matches.
Valerian of the Steelborn versus Daniel of the Greater Earth School
“I heard of this boy. He’s supposedly the youngest array master the kingdom has had in an age. I wonder if his combat skills receive such a high ranking as well”, Kanlu asked.
Kusko’o scrutinised Valerian and made his judgement, “He has dual forces. If his arcane studies have progressed as far as they say there’s no way that his tellurian skills did not suffer for it. However, his energy levels are incredibly high. I wonder what the Steelborns have been feeding this kid”.
When Valerian’s match came to a close, they opened discussions once more. “His opponent was trash. What kind of idiot goes charging in without looking where he is going? Remind me to chastise boulder head about the quality of his disciples”, Kanlu stated
“I’m disappointed in the finish as well but his opponent was just going to win anyway. To have the foresight and control to anchor a spell in the chaos whilst casting multiples of a different spell. He truly is gifted”, Kusko’o concluded.
Their approach was the same for the other matches.
Tirenael of the Fire Sage School versus Charles of the Northslopes
“I can’t believe the Fire Sage School actually allow the practice of such a technique”, Kusko’o tutted.
“Oh shut up! You only say that because you wish your sect had it”, Attaburrun refuted.
“There is good reason why it is my sect that practices those kinds of techniques. We have history with them. We know how to both control and cultivate them. That art will twist that boy, mark my words”, Kusko’o explained.
“Are you saying that the people from your Shadowed Hood Sect are not twisted?” Kanlu inquired.
Kusko’o wisely chose not answer that question.
Ethan of the Steelborn versus Blaine of the Swiftdeer
“So this the Steelborn heir, how mighty!” Kanlu exclaimed.
“He truly is. I ask again, what are they feeding their kids? This one might not possess the fine control that the other one has but his combat experience and natural strength. I dare say none of the competitors is his match”, Kusko’o announced.
“He is peculiar. He never transforms his who body. Just his right arm. Is that really all he needs or is there another reason?” Attaburrun ventured.
Valerian of the Steelborns versus Kalian of the DriftClouds.
“Is this what the DriftClouds have been reduced to? No wonder they are losing so much to the new powers. Pah! If he was my descendant, I’d spank him till he can’t sit down!” Kanlu yelled.
“He is quite skilled though. His movements are extremely fluid and I think he has touched on the second of the [Wind Borne Cloud]’s three levels. To do so at such a young age requires incredible talent and perception”, Kusko’o stated.
“I’m more impressed by the Steelboy”, Attaburrun proclaimed. “It appears we are now seeing the depths of his planning. I like the way he is able to keep his cool and plan so many steps ahead.
A few minutes later
“See what I meant? He has a talent for layering plans, the mark of a good strategist. That is what you call a true genius. It clear how he has amassed so many accomplishments in his meagre years. It’s a pity though…” Attaburrun lamented. “If he is unable to come up with something that changes the….” His words were quickly forgotten when Valerian transformed in front of them.
“Since when could Steelborns do that?” Kanlu inquired loudly.
“Shhh!” Kusko’o shushed him, waving at everyone to be quiet. The tables had changed unexpectedly. Not even they had predicted what just happened. It seemed this would be the most interesting fight thus far.
Valerian looked at his stunned opponent. “Did you not hear me? We start now!”
“But you…ou! How?” Kalian stammered in shock.
“Forget the how!” Valerian told him. “Think on the bet and get ready because I’m attacking, NOW!”
With that final cry, Valerian’s ephemeral wings beat once, sending him forward. His qi surged, circulating happily whiles his heart whopped at the feeling. He wasn’t running anymore. His feet barely skimmed the ground and yet he was moving faster than he ever had.
The idea came to him as he listened to Kalian speak about his clan and how they were born to be the best and the fastest. How their legacy technique made them invincible. It made him think of his family. True, the Steelborns weren’t fast people which was why they had so many blocking and deflecting skills. Unfortunately, those were all tellurian skills.
Until recently, Valerian knew none of those. Now, he had four under his belt and none of them would help with his current situation. Their family produced very few arcanists. Most of these became support forces, healers, craftsmen, warders, etc. Those who became warriors often followed their own path. There were no arts like those of Harry and Clude to guide them.
This was a failing on their part and a failing on Valerian’s. He wasn’t comfortable being the kind of arcanist who hid behind shields and cast spells, never moving around. He also wasn’t one of those big muscly Steelborn tellurians like his uncle. His build was pure offensive, speed and attack not attack and defence like the rest of his clan.
So he did what felt best. He’d run forward when he saw an opening using his superior speed. He’d bludgeon through things with his strength when need be and he’d cast whatever spells were appropriate in the situation. At least that’s what he did until he heard what Kalian said.
“…there’s more to speed than just running really fast.”
A lamp lit in his head. The bastard was right. He knew how to attack, how to defend, he knew how to cast spells and create arrays but he did not know how to move. Steelborns didn’t dodge, they didn’t run around. They deflected hits until they found an opening and then, they countered. They didn’t go fast. They advanced steadily. In his heart, somehow, Valerian knew that just wasn’t for him.
It was Kalian who let him understand that. In claiming his family was born and raised to be the best at speed he reminded Valerian that he could say same for his family. Not the Steelborns! The Golden Winged Pengs. His ancestor was the fastest of all the divine birds and he had inherited that blood legacy. If that wasn’t being born to speed, what was?
There was one problem though. Unlike the DriftClouds, he had no legacy technique to use. If only his mother or even the Peng himself had left him some way to make use of his abilities. The Valerian remembered the dreams he had had in the egg. The memories of the Peng. He remembered what his grandmother had told him about high-class daemons and how they left hereditary memories to their descendants containing techniques and cultivation experiences.
That was where the answer was, inside the memories the Peng had left him. Valerian didn’t know it for sure but his instinct told him he was correct. The secret to all his abilities could be found in there but how to access it? That was when an idea crept into his mind and he issued the bet.
All techniques are built on concepts. Even the [Wind Borne Cloud] was built on the concept of a cloud drifting through the sky. The vast majority of techniques, however, were built on concepts gained from observing daemons. That’s why there were so many techniques that bore the names of daemons. Even the Steelborns had their [Monolithic Arts].
What Valerian needed was this same concept. This was why as he flew towards Kalian, he closed his eyes, relying on his enhanced senses to guide him towards his quarry. He submerged himself in his subconscious seeking any and all memories he could of the Peng in flight. He would express these concepts and in doing so embody it and its principles. That way when he moved he would be the same. A peng in flight.
But to do that would require training and practice. To do that would require a training dummy. Lucky for him, a dummy had volunteered.
Kalian stumbled backwards in shock. Initially, when he heard the wager he had laughed inwardly feeling as if he had succeeded in pushing his opponent into a corner so desperate that he just dug himself deeper without realising it.
In his head, he had everything to gain and nothing to lose that’s why he had agreed. When he saw the Steelborn begin transforming he could barely hold back from laughing out loud. Everyone knew what the Steelborn transformation did. The brat must really be desperate to resort to it.
The Steel Monolith Transformation did increase speed but only by a small margin of fifteen percent. The growth in size and weight actually made them less agile and dextrous than they would be in their normal forms. The best they could do was charge.
However, the laughter in his heart died out when he realised that his opponent wasn’t growing any larger. Trepidation tried to crawl in but he held it off and then the wings appeared. Immediately, he felt some foreboding but what came next was what truly frightened him.
The winged…thing in front of him shot towards him. The speed it moved at was nearly twice what Valerian had displayed before. He took a few shaky steps backwards in shock. Those few instances were enough for Valerian to appear in front of him. Letting out a shriek, he turned around and shot off, the winged Steelborn following.
Kalian didn’t know how nor did he know when but he had the feeling that he had made a big mistake.
“So that’s it huh?” William asked his brother. “Just the first form and it is already this impressive. Divine legacies really live up to reputation”.
Wordlessly, his family members nodded. No words were needed. The results spoke for themselves. That burst of speed Valerian put on after transforming carried so much force that it disturbed the air around him and stirred up the dust and sand of the platform floor. The effects on his speed had been seen by all. His speed had gone up tremendously and all he did was flap his wings once!
“Lord Cragsveil!” came a soft call.
Thus far the Steelborns had been chatting amongst themselves using the enchantments provided in the seating to mask their words. This was the Lords’ Booth after all. There were many discussions going on, many of which their speakers could not afford to be heard. In truth, no noble would feel comfortable speaking if he or she knew it could be overheard.
Still, everyone took precautions. The more paranoid ones and the ones with important things to hide took three. Nonetheless, though the seats could mask conversations they also allowed their occupants to send messages to people in other seats. That was how the Viscount had been contacted.
Checking, he discovered his caller to be none other than the count himself. It was to be expected but he hadn’t figured it would be this soon. However, he had no choice but to answer.
“Is there anything I can help you with milord?” he answered.
“I am merely curious William. I was not aware that your clan had such a transformation. It is quite new and strange in my eyes and I confess to being at a loss. Could you tell me about it?” came Count DriftCloud’s gravelly voice.
“This servant begs your indulgence milord but could I plead with my lord to wait on that? There is to be an official city-wide announcement on this and other related matters on the first day of the finals two days from now. I fear that letting the cat of the bag too soon might spoil the surprise. I can promise you that all the answers you seek will be given then”, William replied.
“Hmm”, the Count intoned, somewhat displeased. “Very well, this lord will wait till then”.
The crowds, lords and judges watched the chase before them. A blur raced about the stage, twisting, turning and leaping. Basically, it was doing all it could to stay out of reach of the winged figure behind him.
Once he got over his initial shock, Kalian and all the spectators realised that he still held the advantage in the battle. His opponent was fast, sure but he was clearly inexperienced at high paced battles possessed far less skill and agility when compared to himself.
Valerian did not turn as well, stop as easily, change directions quickly without issues or perform other actions with any proper finesse. His linear speed was outstanding though. He moved from one spot to another so fast all you saw was a hint of gold and the rushing winds. Kalian recognised this fact and did his best to rob Valerian of that advantage.
He would not move even five metres without changing direction, sidestepping or straight out leaping into the air in that strange featherweight motion of his. That was the only thing that was making the chase last this long. Little did he know, he was playing right into Valerian’s hand. At this juncture, Valerian did not care whether he won the wager or not, in fact, he never did.
The whole thing was a test to see if he was instinct was right and it was! Even if he lost the wager, he’d gain tremendously more. Right then, whilst everyone saw a chase, he was busy, his mind elsewhere, buried in his inherited memories.
He was the peng and the peng was him! Flying in the skies. Skimming the clouds. Soaring over the oceans and the lands. Peering down at mountains. Fighting other sky lords. Hunting down dragons. That was all that filled his mind.
Gifted watchers began to murmur amongst themselves, all of them noticing one thing. Valerian was getting better! Getting faster! He no longer took as long to recover after a turn. He did not disturb the air as much when he passed through it. His form was growing even more streamlined and his flying technique was improving, reducing the wind drag and clumsy movements.
He followed his adversary, the gap between them growing ever smaller. Kalian noticed this as well and panicked. He began to let out afterimages. Each of them racing in different directions in an attempt to distract Valerian. It did not work. He had no idea Valerian had seen through this move from the first time he used it. He continued to chase him remaining barely a metre away.
Nevertheless, there was something he was missing. Valerian could feel it. His movements were getting better and with practice, they could become perfect despite this there was something crucial he lacked. The essence of the concept he was trying to comprehend was lacking something.
As he chased down his prey, Valerian pondered on it, mulling over it. Ironically, it was Kalian who provided him with the answer. Valerian had long since noticed the minute amounts of qi Kalian released into his surroundings. It was part of his technique. The source of his blurring. However, it also did more than that only Valerian couldn’t figure it out.
That was then. Now, in his current state, Valerian’s condition was greatly boosted. Even more importantly, his essence was strengthened and increased allowing him to see what he had missed before. This led to an epiphany.
That was what he lacked. That was the true purpose of the qi Kalian released. It acted like an access code, telling the surrounding air and winds to let him through. That was why he disturbed so little in his parting. Why he wasn’t hindered as much and why he weighed so little. By modifying this qi release he would receive less wind resistance and even get the wind to aid him where favourable.
Understanding this let Valerian also understand what he was missing. The Golden Winged Peng was a bird. A Monarch of the Heavens. A Sovereign of the winds. That was what he had failed to add in his conceptualization. He copied the movements, the feelings the core essence and left out the supplementary one. He corrected this immediately and one-upped Kalian.
In truth, one-uppedped all the DriftClouds, Lytaun practitioners and all the other speed based wind cultivators in the county. He did not use a special technique, qi flow, spell or method to gain the winds assistance. He just commanded it. He was the descendant of the Golden Winged Peng, a divine sky lord. It was his right.
Like a loyal dog summoned by his master, the wind obeyed. It did so happily and joyfully. It responded, wrapping him up in its embrace. Not only did it assist his movements, it buoyed him up and helped him along. At that moment, Valerian felt invincible. More than that, he felt vindicated. He had been right. His instincts did not lead him wrong.
He could feel his connection to the wind like it had always been there and in a way it always had. The feeling was akin to what he felt in his true form only more subdued. He could tell he had succeeded. He had comprehended the basics of the peng’s unique flight technique.
[Soaring through the Heavens] his mind supplied. The technique was called [Soaring through the Heavens].
He came to a stop, surprising everyone. His aim had been achieved. The wager had no purpose. Kalian stopped as well, watching him warily.
“We’ll end the wager here!” Valerian announced. “You are no longer of use to me”.
Kalian was relieved at first and then something clicked in his head and he became indignant. “What are you talking about? Are you trying to renege on our bet?”
Valerian looked at him and then started laughing. “Far from it. It is just that the results had become a forgone conclusion. I did not want it to end that way so I am changing the rules to give you a chance”.
Kalian was confused. “What is your meaning?” he asked.
Valerian waved dismissively, “Enough! This lord is tired of speaking. I will let you have one final attack before I finish this. Use it wisely, it might not change anything but it might let me keep my good impression of you”.
Kalian’s face immediately coloured he recognised those words as his own only they were being thrown against his face. “You…are you mocking me?”
Valerian ignored him, pondering instead on the satisfaction he was gaining from his current action. ‘Is this why he does it?’ he asked himself. Outwardly though, he called out imperiously, “Hurry up! Don’t waste my time!”
“You…!” Kalian ground out darkly. Then, without any warning, he moved. He had never been so insulted. Fine! If the idiot wanted him to attack, he would. He’d make him regret it.
He blurred forward and split into seven copies of himself. This was the maximum number he could create and sustain at any time. Together, the many DriftClouds circled Valerian. They crisscrossed each other in their movement, moving in such a myriad pattern it caused some of the spectators to become dizzy. Then their swords started glowing.
Valerian watched impassively as the many images clouded his vision. This time he had not even bothered to track the original. They run around him till all he could see where blurs. Even so, he felt Kalian’s qi begin to build obviously in preparation of a skill.
He closed his eyes thinking back to what he had experienced. The flying peng memories he had reviewed held more than just flying. Without meaning to, he had gleaned some insight from them. now he would check it out.
The many Kalians drew closer the swords in their hands beginning their swings at Valerian. Still, Valerian ignored them. He mind was focused on the image of the Peng taking off and rising into the sky. Nothing can hinder the peng’s flight. Not even the clouds, especially the clouds.
The peng in his memories reached the cloud layer and saw them in front of it. It flapped its wings and the wind responded blowing them away and leaving its master’s path clear. Out in the real world the many DriftClouds had launched their attack.
Valerian’s incorporeal wings flapped once. ‘[Scattering the Clouds]’ he intoned mentally. In response, a strange pulse left his body dispersing all of Kalian’s afterimages and flinging him far away. Valerian opened his eyes in time to catch his opponent coughing up blood.
He smiled and raised his right arm intoning the name of another technique he picked up. This one from the memory of the peng hunting a dragon. His qi surged, collecting in his arm it flowed outwards through his pores and covered it. Before his eyes, it shaped itself around it froming massive birdlike talons over his fingers.
Watching on the side, Avery was startled. He was the only one who recognised that phantom limb. It was the same one that Valerian had used to tear apart the Steel Scaled Wyrm a month ago.
Valerian took off again, in pursuit of his prey. Kalian tried to run away but this time Valerian was the one circling him. Then, a naughty thought came into his mind causing him to smile. Preparing the arcane energy necessary, he cast a spell.
Kalian was frantically waving his sword, firing off beams of sword qi at the winged figure circling him. Valerian quit circling and rushed straight at him. Kalian didn’t hesitate. With a cry of anger and fear, he unleashed his sword skill infusing it with as much qi as he could. His heart filled with hope as it sailed at Valerian who did nothing to block it.
Then it sank as he saw the skill pass right through his winged opponent. Instantly, he knew he had been had. Regrettably, it was too late to do anything about it. The real Valerian was right behind him, having approached him leisurely under the cloaking of his illusion spell.
He stuck his talons into Kalian’s back. Not too deep, just enough to leave flesh wounds and then with a flourish he swept past his opponent leaving a diagonal trail of gashes from the top his right shoulder to his hip bone. To show that he could have severed his spine if he wanted.
Then leaping backwards he cancelled [Mirage], the wind spell he had cast over their surroundings. The judge having seen everything called it.
The match was over!
Hurray! The fight is over. Here are some translations for the names in this chapter.
- “Kanlu” means “will not fall” or “will not be brought down”
- “Attaburrun” means “He who is patient” or “One with great calm”
- “Kusko’o” is a bit more complex. “Kus” is from our word for wind and “ko’o” is water. Contextually it means “Wet wind”. I shortened the much longer phrase for the name. It would have been “ko’o Kusehoko”, “water bearing wind”, “moisture laden wind” or more literally “Water wind” completely different from “Sa’ar Kusehoko”, “rain bearing wind”.