Marcus was up before the sun. In fact, he hadn’t slept. Today was too important for sleep. He was too excited. The only other time he’d been this excited was when he was to have his prospects tested at the Graybar temple. That was a let-down. Then again, they hadn’t expected anything much.
This was different. There was no dread congealing in the pit of his belly and no nervousness cloying up his insides and squeezing his heart. All he felt was joy and amazement as well as gratitude towards his father. He still wasn’t sure how the man managed it.
Today was the day of the long-awaited title match. John Hammerfist would be fighting that upstart Scatter Seed in an attempt to retain his title. It was a fight that half of DaleGuard would be watching and the best part was – his father had somehow gotten his hands on tickets for the fight. That meant that he would be right there watching the fight live instead of merely hearing about it later.
He rushed through his chores barely registering anything he was doing. It was so bad that his mother had to stop him before he added sugar instead of salt to his food.
In a completely different part of DaleGuard a similar event was occurring.
“Really, Uncle Richard?” Valerian inquired.
“Yes.” The man stated with a smile. “Today we will head to the Arena. There’s a prize fight on. This way, you’d get to see how cultivators fight.”
“Thank you Uncle Richard!” nine-year-old Valerian exclaimed.
He’d wanted to go for so long. Everyone in DaleGuard went to the Arena and yet he hadn’t. Grandfather considered it … “Wait!” he realized.
“Yes, Valerian…” Richard asked exasperatedly.
“Grandfather isn’t coming with us, is he?” he asked.
Richard gave him a look. He understood what his nephew meant. Their eyes met and a strange connection, nay communique passed between them.
“Of course not!” he answered.
“Good!” Valerian added in relief.
DaleGuard is a martial city. The connotation that holds is not readily apparent to many because having never lived in one they are unable to accurately hold that concept in their minds. You have to be in it to understand it. To feel that rhythm. The beat of the martial drums that formed the pulse of the city. The sight of armour and weapons wherever you turned.
DaleGuard was the city of ten thousand soldiers. The place that had as many smithies, armouries and weapons shops as it did food stalls. It didn’t matter that two-thirds of the soldiers were deployed at any given time. Their families remained in the city. The largest residential areas in the city were the barracks and the bungalows for the soldiers.
In the addition to the soldiers, DaleGuard was mercenary central of Cragsveil. Not only was it the administrative capital and hence the major dissemination spot for missions but also the prime place for business. Everything a mercenary needed was here, rich clients, work, goods, equipment, housing, you name it.
All of this contributed to a special atmosphere. It was a city of warriors but it was also a great place for trade due to its unique location close to the borders of three different nations and its proximity to the Wildlands made it a great place to set off from for expeditions.
DaleGuard was a bustling city and at the same time the most secure and militarised one in eastern Bathar. However, it was not a city of many delights. Half the city was restricted to military personnel only and the rest only had trade as its only true attraction. Sure, it had a few nice parks and temples but who in this plane would come to DaleGuard to look at those? What DaleGuard had was a lot of fighters and they took advantage of that.
The Arena was the greatest leisurely pursuit it had. What else could hold as much attention in a city of warriors? Every day hundreds flocked to it. Even the merchants, civilians, cultivators and non-cultivators alike all found their way there. Some taking seats to watch, others waiting in the fighter’s lounge for their turns on the stage.
It was more than the money that could be won there. There was the glory, the fame, the furore of the crowds, the acknowledgement of one’s power, skill and talent. It was where grudges and disputes were solved by way of duels. It was where they matched skill, power and will against others like them and saw who came up on top. It was a place where careers were made.
It was the dream of many to win a coveted trophy in the Arena and the people loved it. There were matches held every day but not every one of them would have people rushing in to watch. Today’s highlight was one that had been anticipated for weeks. John Hammerfist, eleven-time champion of the Kelheran Tournament, was confronting Antony the Scatter Seed a rookie upstart.
The Kelheran Tournament was a special event held three times a year for people under the consolidated first tier. It was a chance for many to shine but for the last four years, John Hammerfist had completely dominated it. He had turned it into his own individual stage. Today, he was to answer a challenge from a much younger and frankly, green fighter.
Ordinarily, Antony would have had to compete in the Kelharen to face the hammerfist but he couldn’t wait and the crowd couldn’t either. After establishing himself as a top contender in the Arena he challenged and defeated five of the noted fighters from the last Kelharen and then in accordance with the rules finally stood up to challenge the current champion.
The rumpus this caused in the city can now be understood. No matter where you went, people were talking about it. Many had followed The Scatter Seed’s rise and even more were diehard fans of John Hammerfist. Their fight was highly publicised and greatly anticipated. Normally, many wouldn’t care.
The Kelheran was a competition for low tier cultivators and not a very noted one at that. It was something that was watched mostly by non-cultivators. That notwithstanding, even many of the higher-ups in the city were curious as to how this would end. Would the rookie make history or would the veteran retain his title and prove himself once more?
The upcoming fight was also highly commercialised. It was the fight of the decade, the century, one that would go down in history and all the other catchy phrases guaranteed to sell more tickets and souvenirs. The tickets were also exorbitantly priced. This was why Marcus was so surprised that his father had obtained tickets.
Marcus stood with his father in the throng. Together, all the prospective spectators moved at a steady but minute pace towards the Arena’s entrances. He was beginning to wonder if they’d ever get to the Arena. Even if they did, would there be enough space? The Arena was big, the biggest structure in the city, but was it big enough?
Feeling the incredible press of people around him didn’t let Marcus think so. As large as it was, the gathered multitude would probably cause it to overflow. In his mind, he pictured the fans fill the stands till they ran out of space, spill over to occupy the fighting field and then fill the circular Arena so much they began to run down the sides like a bowl overflowing with water.
He could barely turn or move in the crowd. There were just too many people. The sidewalks of DaleGuard were wide and paved with good cobblestones. This was especially true for the ones along the main avenues. Five stout, heavily armoured men could walk abreast down them with a little space to spare. In fact, according to his father, that was the measurement used when the city was being constructed in order to ensure ease of movement when necessary.
As one of the primary structures in DaleGuard, the avenues leading to the arena were of that standard and still there was no space for the masses trying to get in. It was a sweaty, noisy group and there was a lot of pushing and shoving and dirt and stink.
To take his mind off this, Marcus chose instead to train his eyes on the arena itself.
It was huge. If he hadn’t seen it himself, sat in its seats and lived in its city he’d never have believed they made buildings this big. He couldn’t wrap his head around it. How did they make it or the walls? He knew that arcanists were involved but still. It didn’t look like something humans could do.
Looking past the shoulder of the sawdust flecked carpenter in front of him, he gazed at the structure that blocked most of his view of the sky. The shadow it cast seemed to stretch over his heart as well. He felt small, insignificant.
That was greatness right there and he couldn’t compare. It was built only more than a century ago and would probably last an age. It was known far and wide and even now people clamoured to get in. You’d often find visitors to the city staring at it in amazement and Marcus could understand what they were feeling.
It was a feat that was hard to match. Marcus knew he couldn’t.
Still stuck in the crowd, Marcus was pulled from his uncharacteristic reverie by a commotion on the street. Two horses were cantering down the avenue pulling a topless four-wheeled carriage behind them.
‘Oh, more nobles’, he surmised.
It was nothing strange or uncommon. Many carriages had come by in the time they’d spent in the throng. All of them carting nobles and other rich, influential personalities to the Arena. Besides being the most prominent military base in the area DaleGuard was also the viscounty’s administrative capital.
Aristocrats followed the trail of power and in Cragsveil that meant coming to DaleGuard or going to the old capital, the viscounty’s cultural hub – Blackford. Blackford was an ancient, sprawling, riverside city named after one the old Plains Lords; Tyraine the black.
Marcus had heard that most nobles preferred to be there though. It was said that they could get away with a lot more there since they would be out of the direct supervision of the Steelborns. But that was beside the point. Nobles weren’t rare. The only reason that this one attracted so much attention was because of the insignia on its side. The Steelborn StormHawk.
There was no living person in the county who wouldn’t recognise it and this particular variation of the insignia meant that the carriage belonged to actual Steelborns not vassals or agents.
Even Marcus was interested. Peeling his eyes to catch a glimpse of the city’s most prominent family, he peered into the topless carriage. Sitting in it were two males in the distinctive Steelborn armour. One was quite young, about his age whilst the other looked his father’s age but Marcus knew better.
Cultivators never looked their age. The one that looked his father’s age was clearly an expert. He could be a hundred years old and he’d never know the difference. The most eye-catching thing about the two was the massive serpentine form that coiled around the young Steelborn.
Marcus didn’t need to be told to know it was a daemon. He could see the wings and horns, normal snakes didn’t have those. Its mixed colouring made it stand out in the carriage and its long scaly body took up a lot of space. Gasps could clearly be heard up and down the avenue as the crowds took the group in.
The serpent opened its mouth wide and yawned, displaying its sword length fangs. Even more gasps could be heard as people quickly backed away. Even Marcus’ father drew him closer in response. The serpent was clearly basking in the attention. Snakes didn’t normally let out their fangs when yawning.
It’s not like daemons were rare in DaleGuard. They were quite numerous actually. Many aristocrats and cultivators had beast companions. A rather large number of army officers did so as well. There were also the ones that helped with other branches of city management such as the birds that carried messages. However, they were mostly horses, antelope, dogs, cats and the like. High-class daemons, like this one obviously was, were rare.
Serpents tended to cause alarm. Even normal ones inspired fear even in cultivators given how dangerous some were. A specimen like this was definitely not the norm.
The crowds and even some of the riders and carriages parted to let this set through. They went on their way amidst the admiring and envious gazes of the crowd. Marcus was ashamed to say that he was one of them.
There were no cultivators in his family. His mother was a seamstress and his father was a city guardsman. None of them had the necessary levels of essence for anyone, not even themselves to seriously consider cultivating.
When he was younger he had dreamed of being one of those elite soldiers or mercenaries that ambled along the city streets. To go on adventures and be in great battles but that dream was never going to come through. It was so unfair that he had spent days crying his eyes out.
He admired the strong and he wanted to be like them but as he grew older he began to realise that maybe it had been impossible from the start. Dreams were just that dreams. He was the son of a seamstress and a guardsman who helped out at a bakery. He knew his place.
Valerian looked out into the streets as they passed through in their carriage. Sela had elected to come with them. He didn’t mind the company. Sitting in the carriage Valerian looked out at his home city. The magistrate’s household was not too far from the Steelborn compound but it was in an affluent neighbourhood.
There were clear, grand avenues leading from it to the central parts of the city. It took less than half an hour to reach the arena’s environs. On getting there Valerian was amazed at just how many people were headed to watch the fight. The streets were cluttered with people all of them arguing and pushing forward in an attempt to reach the arena gates.
‘This fight is definitely greater than I thought’, he said to himself.
He scanned the crowds and the city streets. He’d never seen anything like it. At least not when there wasn’t a festival on. For a few moments, he observed them catching snippets of arguments about Hammerfist and Scatter Seed. Were those the people fighting? The sounds and scents of the throng came at him in waves on account of his sharp senses.
People stopped what they were doing to watch them as they passed by but Valerian was used to the attention. He was a noble that alone put him in the public limelight. In addition to this, he was a Steelborn and one of the more well-known ones at that due to his sensationalised affliction. Everyone watched when he went by but there was nothing to do about it.
Sela displayed her fangs, delighting in the attention. People drew back in response despite being metres away. A few even fainted. Chuckling to himself he raised a hand to rub her rough scales. Then shaking his head, he focused on the task at hand.
Today, he was going to watch a fight in the Arena. He was a full citizen of DaleGuard now. The thought made him look at the structure in question. Really look at it. Its official name was the Steelborn Arena and it was commissioned by the former viscount, his great-grandfather. Like anything that bore the Steelborn name, it was very nearly grander than life.
Enormous wasn’t enough to describe it. Besides the great battlements that circled the city, the Arena was the grandest construction in the city. DaleGuard had enough land to house an estimated fifty thousand people as opposed to its current thirty-something. The Arena could seat more than seventy thousand. Its walls were as tall as the ones protecting the city.
Circular with a multitude of seats and pavilions, with a fighting field that was 160 by 90 metres, it was an accomplishment that showcased both human ingenuity and effort. It was built of the same dark, enchanted stone as the city battlements and was nearly as secure both from the inside and outside.
This protected the fans when attacks from cultivators battling in the fighting field headed towards the seating and allowed it to be used as a shelter or citizens in case of emergencies since it was protected from the outside.
Valerian having never been in it knew little about its interior design but from what his uncle Richard told him it was a wonder to see. From the outside, you could see many statues all of notable warriors in history and even a past champion or two placed in its yard. It gave the pale a respectable and dare he say, solemn atmosphere.
It was a place that honoured strength and a place that allowed others to find and witness it for themselves. A place where battles were glorified and the victorious, worshipped. In a way, it could be said to be a temple for warriors and those who revered martial forte.
Looking up at it from his place in the carriage, it seemed silhouetted against the clear Cragsveil sky. That immense background weighed on him. Even the Steelborn Arena, the greatest marvel of its kind in two counties and a structure that towered over nearly every other building in the city looked insignificant. Just a small piece in a tapestry that stretched on forever.
It gave you a feel of how vast the world really was as well as made you question your place in it. Glancing past the dark stones, Valerian looked at the sky suddenly feeling a strange calling.