Chapter Twenty-eight: Soldo’s Five
Ahwontara coincidentally took his eyes of one those very spies, a lady with the distinct posture of a soldier and leaned back into his seat. “This is the true reason why you came to me, isn’t it?”
His friend sighed. “Few know the answers you seek and I’m not surprised that none will talk to you. In many ways, Lady Bloodworth is a national treasure whilst you are a foreigner and a Magocrat at that, no offence. Look, I know you like puzzles but you might want to steer clear of this one, trust me. The last thing you want is for people to think you are a spy or worse.”
Reading between the lines, Harper realised, “This is a trap!”
“Yes”, Ahwontara confirm. “A very obvious one, mind you, but one that is too alluring to resist. To understand, you first have to know how bad our relationship with the Wherries is. Back, when the war was still new, we suffered terrible losses but we stuck at it, fighting back against their attempts to conquer us. One of the reasons we held on was because of this very school.
“There was a draft and as a result, Marrbissi was forced to send its best and that was what they were, the best. What made them stand out was the fact they were a small unit, just five in number, but they had the strength of a hundred”, Ahwontara said with a look of awe on his face. “I know what you are thinking but no, that is not an exaggeration. If anything it is a lower estimate of their capabilities. The reason for that is they employed a certain formation in battle; [The Grand Order of the Five Phases].”
“It is a five-point formation that required five cultivators of equal power from each of the five phases to operate. Thanks to it, they were practically invincible. They could fight multiple opponents above their tier, using skills so powerful they scarred the land. Lady Bloodworth was one of them. Funny thing is that she’s not even from Bathar, you know? She only joined because of her lover. She’s actually…”
“..from the Gavriel clan of Erianon. I know!” Harper said. “Get to the main point.”
His friend shot him a strange look. “What? I read up on her a little?” he sheepishly admitted.
“Uh huh!” Ahwontara said with a suspicious look. “Lady Bloodworth would eventually marry her betrothed, a member of her squad called Saros Bloodworth, but their happiness would not last long. A series of assassinations aimed at the eliminating the squad would nearly succeed. Attacked separately, only she would survive. The Marshal would go on to make the Wherries regret it. She slaughtered them in droves. Kings, Emperors, Sages, none could withstand her might. Go to the war plains right now and you will find a vast field of eternal flames where she laid waste to the Wherry Sage Mera Blacklake.
“No one knows how she did it but somehow, she internalised the formation. Can you imagine that, a five-point formation that multiplied the powers of its operators a hundredfold being employed by one woman?”
Harper tried and failed. Everything he knew told him that that was impossible. The only thing he could reconcile with was the fact that if such a thing existed, it would be priceless.
“That is what the fuss is about”, he said in a hushed tone. “People expect her to pass this method on to these disciples? Hasn’t she done so already?”
“No, she has not!” Ahwontara stated. “There was a lot of controversy concerning that when she announced her retirement causing her to reveal that as powerful as it is, the [Grand Order of the Five Phases], especially the version Lady Bloodworth is using is not without its drawbacks. In practising it, she essentially cut off her martial path in exchange for power. That is the reason why Lady Bloodworth has been an Emperor for over five hundred years and yet she cannot break past the final barrier between her and the Sage tier. Fearing the same will happen to her students, she classified it a forbidden technique and refused to teach it to them.
“I’ll admit I do not know much but I do know the original technique requires five equally powerful cultivators with very high affinities to the elements of fire, metal, wood, earth and water working in tandem. The Marshal has only ever had three apprentices and only two yet live. I doubt she has passed that on”, he added.
“You’re telling me that this dying old lady might be passing down one of the most powerful supplementary techniques in the kingdom to whoever wins this free for all.?” Harper asked in disbelief.
“Yes!” his friend stated simply. “Now, while there are many who would jump at the chance, the offer, in many ways, is too good to be true. You were right in saying that everyone is watching but not everyone is participating. However, that may change because the mere fact that the technique could be passed on is both too tempting and daunting to ignore.”
As if to prove his words, the atmosphere in the arena changed with many beginning to cheer.
They came from the east, flying into the arena on a series of crystal plinths arranged in an arrowhead formation. With the early sun as their backdrop, they forced onlookers to shield their eyes just to make them out. In a display of dominance, they did not even bother to land. Remaining in the air above the stage, they looked down on the assembled challengers.
“Your presence is no longer necessary. You may leave!” their leader commanded.
There was a murmur of protest but it was quickly quelled when he followed up with, “I will give this chance to leave without embarrassing yourselves or our academy any further. Take it!”
A few began to leave but a some remained, Celeste, being one of them.
“You would go against me?” the young voice asked.
Intentionally surging their essence, they weighed their powers on the remaining challengers in a provocative and dominant mana.
Valerian sat in his seat and watched in amazement as together the newcomers drove the other challengers away. The most incredible thing about it was that Soldo, the cultivator he had heard so much about, was a child. He stood there in his dark robes on his crystal plinth, not even a metre and a half tall. His smooth babylike face made Valerian realise that he could not be more than twelve years old and yet the aura of power and command that surrounded him was unmissable. All the same, Valerian found himself asking the question, ‘This is Soldo?’
The earthen arcanist’s companions were themselves a flamboyant cast. Immediately flanking him were an aristocratic young man and brusque looking female respectively. The man wore a buffed leather armour with a sword belted to his hip whilst the female favoured simple, silk fighting robes with shiny metal, leg and arm guards. Next to her was a disinterested, monocled male arcanist in a duelist outfit. Standing analogous to this arcanist was the last member of the troupe, a robe wearing female shrouded in an icy mist.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Heidi cried. “You have no right to stop them.”
Soldo gave a dismissive glance, saying, “Your time will come, Heidi. I’ll deal with you then.”
“No, you won’t!” she spat. “You’ll never be able to.”
Thankfully, the others rose from their seats as well to back her up with the exception of Valerian who remained in his seat.
“She’s right, Soldo!” Sweetrot stated, painfully aware that he was addressing one of the most powerful cultivators in the lower classes. “Quit it! You have neither right nor authority!”
“But I do have the responsibility”, Soldo refuted. “They have embarrassed the academy enough. All they are doing now is lining up so they can go back to their dormitories with injuries and a story of how some outsiders beat up students of Marrbissi.”
“Get over yourself and tell us what you are here for Soldo?” Heidi asked snidely.
The boy arcanist and gestured to his group. “Isn’t it obvious? We’re here to replace you!”
It was at this point Valerian stood and you could feel the eyes shift when he did. Striding forward, he uttered a few simple words. “More challengers are always welcome but I feel I must stop you before you embarrass yourselves and your Academy.”
Soldo made to respond but someone beat him to it.
“You, Steelborn?” The leather-clad tellurian asked. “Clearly, whatever lesson you were taught did not stick.”
“Do not think us as easy as the chaff you fought before. Strike at us and we will strike back. Lady Bloodworth will have to collect what’s left of you before she can punish you and that is if she was still interested”, he added.
Valerian looked at them and smiled. He could feel their gazes on him, the unspoken challenge they expressed. They all wished to fight him.
“You act like Valerian is the only one who can test challengers!” Wynna yelled supportively.
The tellurian spied her for second and laughed. “Who will do it, you?”
Wynna took a steady breath, agitating her core and bringing its power to bear. Raising her staff, she took aim at the smug tellurian’s face.
“Say that after you survive unscathed!”
The buildup was quick and it was intense. Fire attributed world essence, directed by Wynna’s arcane energy rushed to the designated location. There it gathered until it became too much. What followed was a detonation. With how much Wynna put in this time, it was going to be the biggest explosion she had cast thus far. At least, it was supposed to.
There was a bright flash of blinding light but no flame or bang. When it faded, all were surprised to find the leather-clad male holding the explosion at bay with his bare hands. It pulsed, a volatile orb of essence that sought to force its way out of his grip but he held firm, preventing its expansion. The crowd went wild. This was the first time they had seen such a spectacular result from the ‘home team’ in these tests.
“Wynna from the Gavriel clan, right?” he asked, slowly compressing the detonation in his hands. “Well, I guess ours will be the first match. I’ve heard stories about your clan’s blazing fire spirit. Hopefully, it will not be this disappointing.”
With those final words, his qi surged revealing its fiery nature. At once, the angry ball of fire essence in his hands was no more, somehow wiped out of existence.
“Don’t worry”, he said patronisingly. “I will make it quick.”
“I pity him”, Hue said as she stared at the stage.
“What do you mean?” Valerian asked. He trusted Wynna to win the battle but Hue’s words seemed to hint at something more.
“It is simply impossible for a fire cultivator of the same tier to compete with Wynna. For a moment, I imagine he knew this from his early words but it is more likely that he simply heard the title somewhere and formed his own opinions about it.”
“Mousey girl is that good?” Sweetrot asked in disbelief.
“Wynna isn’t mousey!”‘ Hue said confrontationally. “She is reserved! You wouldn’t look down on her if you knew it was for your own good.”
Turning to look at the stage, she added softly. “Sometimes having too much power can amount to a curse.”
On the stage, Wynna confronted her opponent. She held her staff with both hands, keeping its head trained in his direction. When her hat threatened to slip over her eyes, she took a hand off her staff to straighten it. Brushing some imaginary dirt from his pristine leather vest, the tellurian chuckled. This was going to be easy. Perhaps he was being overconfident but he did not think so. They had done their research. Whiles his opponent might be powerful she had neither the aura of an expert or the mannerisms of someone competent at fighting.
“Are you ready?” he asked with a smug smile.
Wynna pursed her lips and nodded. That was all the signal he needed. With a mocking bow, he introduced himself.
“I am Fintan, Son of The Withering Flame, Practitioner of the fire attribute. Secondary heir to the House of Mosa.”
Wynna followed suit. “I am Wynna Gavriel. Inheritor of the Blazing Fire Spirit. Scion of the Gavriel Clan of Erianon. Arcane Disciple of the Way of Fire.”
“Well met, Wynna Gavriel!” Fintan said.
“Wynna Gavriel vs Fintan Mosa!” the referee announced. “Fight!”
Immediately, the stone on which Fintan stood exploded. However, he was no longer there. Alongside Soldo and the others, they had watched every single match in the trials dissecting each prospective apprentice and their fighting styles. It was clear to all that Wynna preferred to resolve her fights swiftly, relying on her superior power and vast reserves to overwhelm her enemies with explosions. Unfortunately for her, it made her much too predictable.
Fintan slammed into her shield, greeting it with a fist covered in flames. It held allowing her to turn around and aim her staff at his face. Predictably, an explosion went off but again, Fintan was no longer there.
[Bull of the Sun]
Retreating, he took a deep breath to stoke the flame in his chest. He did not need any more strikes to know that the shield would hold. Fintan had hoped to end the match with a quick strike but this was just as good. Stealing a glance at the crowd of cheering spectators, he smiled. This was a chance to showcase his skill.
Dodging yet another explosion, he began to chant.
“The sphere of the heavens once bore a son.”
His body trembled as he uttered the words, filling with power. Some part of him wondered if Wynna was even worth the exertion but he chastised it. He had worked long and hard to master this skill and this would be his first time using it in front of a large audience. If he was going to win, it was best he did so convincingly. Besides, his opponent had lasted this long in the trials. As the first true target of his battle hymn, she could perhaps let him show off his improvements.
Dodging yet another explosion, he continued the chant.
“A great bull to pull it across the sky.”
Flames burst from his chest lighting it up and his qi reserves soared. It became even easier to avoid his adversary’s frantic explosions. Before, he relied on following the trajectory of her staff. Now, he merely needed to see the flash that preceded it or sense the triggered fire essence.
“Black as night, with the strength of giants…”
Wynna let out a slow, measured breath. All she needed was one solid hit. Unfortunately, she had already fired off a dozen shots. It was time to admit that Fintan was much too agile for her to hit with her customary explosions. He required a different strategy to defeat. For the first time since coming to Bathar, she reluctantly reached into herself and drew on the power she had hidden deep. It was like a dam broke and let its waters loose.
A nearly audible roar sounded as the true depth of her essence reserves were made known. Wynna was quickly outlined by phantom flames caused by her body drawing fire attributed essence from the surrounding closer. Instantly, it was like the sun had turned an angry eye upon the stage. The temperature skyrocketed to skin blistering heights. Spectators were dismayed to find their view obstructed by a sudden heat haze caused by Wynna bringing her full power to bear on the surroundings. Random fires blazed into existence around them.
“What is happening?” Valerian asked Hue. A strange uncomfortable feeling was building in his gut and he did not understand why. She was the only person who had any knowledge of Wynna’s capabilities.
The swordswoman simply smiled at him and said, “You’ll see. Wynna is just warming up!”
A wide-eyed Heidi turned to her asking, “That’s warming up?”
Fintan was completely nonplussed. He strode through the blistering heat like it was nonexistent. Tellurians were usually resistant to their own attributes. To a talented one like Fintan, this was not even a warm bath.
This was why Wynna did not simply use her arcane abilities to send waves of fire his way and relied, instead, on the force from the blasts to do him in. She would need a high degree of firepower just to overcome his natural abilities.
Nevertheless, this did not mean the fiery tellurian was unaffected by her tactic. While blanketing their surroundings with her arcane energy was very expensive in terms of cost, it prevented her opponent from accessing the surrounding world essence and made it much easier for her to cast her [Detonation Point] spells. She could make them appear anywhere within her influence without any sign of buildup.
Fintan was unimpressed at first. Then, an explosion went off right on top of him. He succeeded in blocking it with his own qi but it sent him flying backwards. More followed, knocking him around the stage like a kickball. He remained defiant. Since evading the blasts was no longer possible. He took a stand.
“You think this does anything?” he screamed. “Mine is the WITHERING FLAME!”
At the declaration, his flames changed losing much of their size and instead, growing in intensity. They also lost their yellow-orange colour becoming small, red-white tongues of flame that curled around his fists and burned in his chest. Fintan’s powers grew, chasing all trace of Wynna’s from his surroundings. In fact, it was worse than that. The power of the withering flame was its ability to cause anything it touched to languish and deteriorate. Not even Wynna’s arcane energy, or world essence for that matter, was spared.
It was akin to watching water being evaporated. Everything in Fintan’s presence would diminish under the power if his withering flames. World essence grew sparse. the ground beneath him cracked like river bed in a drought. Even the air began dry and thin and he was just getting started. Done with making this match look good, Fintan obeyed his urge to simply blitzkrieg his opponent until her shield caved-in. Calming his heart, he skipped to the second verse of his hymn.
“Young and innocent, the curious bull descended from the sky.”
His charge was so fast, you wondered if distance was also affected by his powers. Faster than you would blink, his fists were drumming on Wynna’s arcane shield. This time, his punches had a noticeable effect. The withering flames were burning her shield away. Unable to do anything but defend, Wynna sent all he could into this final protection. You could see the strain on her face as even with her colossal reserves she struggled to keep the shield up. The ground beneath her began to cave as Fintan literally, beat her into the dirt. Even so, the shield held, keeping her safe.
“He brought with him the sun, scorching the earth with its burning might.”
The chant of his battle hymn giving him strength, Fintan’s power continued to grow. No one knew how high it could reach but it was already clear to them that the match was lost. Wynna’s shield was now fading faster than she could repair it.
“SHIT!” Hue cursed.
“REFEREE! she yelled. “YOU NEED TO STOP THIS MATCH BEFORE SHE KILLS HIM!”
The request seemed nonsensical but before anyone could look further into it, Wynna’s shield finally broke. Without wasting a beat, Fintan slugged her, sending her crashing into the dirt. Thankfully, he was not a complete villain and restricted himself to knocking her unconscious. Regrettably, there was no victory to be had because the very next second, an angry and monstrous presence descended on the stage.
Are you excited? Who wants to guess what Wynna’s power is? Remember she and Lady Bloodworth are from the same clan. In fact, she is descended from her younger brother.
Anyway, Soldo’s Five will pull the closing curtains on this arc, allowing us to move on to better things. As you can see, I plan to end this with a bang.