Hello, I would like to beg your indulgence. Midterms are beginning and I would not be able to post any chapters next week. I had hoped to be able to complete Book One before they begun but unfortunately things aren’t going as planned. Just one more week and we’d have been done. If I could, I’d push through but I’m worried that I haven’t been studying enough as is. I hope you understand.
Even so, look forward to the next few releases. We’ll be rounding off the Zebre (God it’s been going on for a long time hasn’t it?) and then bringing the book to a close. When that happens I will be unveiling some pretty cool stuff. So, stay tuned.
Chapter Forty-nine: Innate Phantasm
Water overcomes fire. Earth overcomes water. Wood overcomes earth. Metal overcomes wood. Fire overcomes metal.
That was the order of the primary elemental circle. It was something that popped into Dorian Veldt’s mind the moment he saw that damned Steelborn brat fall out of the sky like a dead bird. It took a considerable amount of mental effort to keep away the smile of satisfaction that fought to appear on his face.
For a moment there, he had been worried. He knew that Aaron was forced to conserve his qi just in case he needed to awaken Burstfire. But that last attack made him wonder if they hadn’t made a mistake in their approach. The most powerful weapon in the world could never help you if you were defeated before you could use it. Luckily, Aaron managed to undo the artefact’s bindings and bring it to bear on his opponent.
Before the arrow even left the bow, Dorian knew that they had won. The results confirmed it. With one strike, the Steelborn was out. This would be their weapon against the Steelborns. Those metal dullards were nearly all melee combatants. Using fire attributed ranged weaponry was pretty much a guaranteed win. It was also what they would do when the time came.
This Zebre had not gone on too well for them. They had come to DaleGuard hoping to make it clear to their dependents that they could still stand up to the Steelborns. Unfortunately, it seemed like they had missed the critical points of the Steelborn ploy.
The entire thing had gone pear shaped. The Zebre had become the staging ground for the Steelborns. A massive recruitment drive had sprung up. That bastard William had gone and reaffirmed his position in the eyes of the people and as for that oath he and his clan had made. It had reassured and strengthened the fealty of the masses. Even he couldn’t believe that the Steelborns actually swore an oath on the Heavens and the Earth.
The dangers alone that action presented were too many to count. Yet they had gone through with it. It made the people calm and joyful. Knowing that their lord had sworn such a powerful oath to protect and provide for them was already appeasing the masses and causing them to look at the Steelborns with different eyes.
As for the revelation that the Steelborn legacies might be merging. That one had scared him. The thought that the Steelborns were growing even stronger was frightening to him. Considering that his clan had barely made headway because of the same fact that the Steelborns were more powerful than them, the widening of that power gap spelled doom for their ambitions.
As for the bit at the end concerning the clan’s guardian spirit, that had nearly caused him to despair. Thankfully, he wasn’t the only one. He had been lucky to glance around the Lords’ Booth at that moment and seen the different expressions on the faces of the assembled aristocracy. Immediately, he realised that he was not the only one that this affected adversely. Many other regional powers would of course be worried. To him, that presented new opportunities.
Putting those things out of his mind, he decided to concentrate on the present. Instead, he quickly initiated “the act”.
“What? Where did he get that weapon?” he spat out angrily as he turned on one of his clan members in his retinue.
“My lord, I though you knew. Elder Crow gave that artefact to Aaron when he became his apprentice”, the ‘surprised elder’ replied.
“You mean he actually thought it would be a good idea to give a noble artefact to his apprentice. The boy cannot even control it. Didn’t any of you talk some sense into him?” Dorian steamed, not letting off.
“I..I milord I’m sorry. We were just thinking that an extra edge would not be too bad. Besides, Aaron is not the only one with a noble artefact”, the elder sputtered defensively.
Dorian seemed to be mollified by this causing the elder to let off a visible sigh. Inwardly, he smiled. Dorian did as well. It felt good to finally win something especially at the expense of the Steelborns. Honestly, their entire performance had occurred under the cloaking wards of their seats. However, that did not mean that the other parties in the booth were unable to notice the commotion that had occurred in their area.
From the corner of his eye, Dorian could make all of the people glancing their way. They might not be able to hear but they would see the argument and connect it to the events on the stage. He stood up, leaving his seat and making his way towards the viscount and his party.
For Dorian, the smartest thing his father had done was to get in good with the usurpers. Publicly, the Veldts were one of the most peaceful and compliant clans in the viscounty. They were also a placating force that helped the Steelborns manage the other factions. Indeed, they hadn’t made a lot of headway. The Steelborns were notoriously isolated and paranoid but no one can deny that the actions of the Veldts were genius. Who would suspect one of their most ardent supporters to be the ones marshalling their enemies against them?
Politely, he greeted the Viscount and his family before going straight into the matter.
“My lord Cragsveil, I am ashamed to say that this servant did not monitor his people properly. I had no idea that young Aaron was allowed to enter the competition with such a weapon. It would appear that the desire to win has caused some to act inappropriately. This servant begs your forgiveness. I promise to do my best to punish him later. I also ask that young Valerian’s treatment be left to me so I can make amends for this” he implored.
The Viscount merely glanced over him before answering, “That will not be necessary Lord Veldt. You are not at fault. The rules allow for contestants to carry up to one artefact that is a single tier above them”.
‘Yes they do, don’t they?’ a smug voice said in Dorian’s head. In truth, the only reason he was even standing before the man was to play the dutiful servant. There was no way that the Steelborns could even punish them for this. It was perfectly in accordance with the rules. Though of course his actions would appease them and prevent them from acting out in other ways whilst maintaining the illusion that they were loyal to them.
“Besides”, the Viscount added. “The fight hasn’t ended yet.”
It took a second for Dorian to understand that statement but the moment he did he spun around to look at the fighting stage. There he saw the Steelborn brat still standing. ‘How…?’ he questioned.
Quickly, he made some excuses and apologizing for his impetuousness he rushed back to his seat. It’s ironic then that he never saw the looks the three Steelborn brothers shot his retreating back. The Veldts were indeed the most helpful barons to the Steelborn. Even without being asked, they’d provide their services and help in administration.
Even when they first assumed the peerage, whilst the other clans and baronies were protesting the decision the Veldts were among the first to pledge their allegiance. However, they would never guess that it was this same helpful, compliant, loyal attitude that made them the very same people that the Steelborns were most guarded against. They were the most scrutinised power in the faction and they didn’t even know.
The children of the mountain learnt from their mistakes. The dumbest thing they could ever do was fall the same way twice.
Following that, their eyes left their disloyal vassal to look worriedly at the stage.
Valerian crashed into the fighting stage. The fall was jarring and only served to aggravate his injuries. He rolled on the floor in pain trying in vain to smother the flames. Reaching out, he called the wind to his aid. For a full minute, he lay on the floor still in shock and pain. Grunting, he forced himself to his feet. He couldn’t believe things had gone this bad, this fast.
That blast had broken through his [Valiant Armour] and compromised his armour’s defensive abilities. Some of his hair had been burnt away and his entire body was covered in blisters and burns. His armour? Bent, cracked and blackened. Thankfully, that arrow was completely made from qi so nothing actually penetrated him. In a way that was worse. He had qi burns all over his body. Those would be difficult to heal. His armour and flesh were visibly steaming and the rents in his armour revealed burnt flesh.
Across from him was a smug looking Aaron. His body still showed signs of his attack but the wounds were no longer bleeding and his entire body was being strengthened and bolstered by the noble artefact in his hands. He looked at Valerian who could barely keep himself standing and asked.
“Do you surrender?”
The words echoes in Valerian’s head causing him to think back to his previous match. ‘No! Never again!’ he told himself. His lips and throat were covered in burns so he didn’t even trying speaking. Rather, he let his actions speak form him.
Aaron looked at Valerian’s preparations and smiled. He drew back on his bow. Fiery qi sparked at his finger and shaped itself into an arrow. The qi arrow continued to grow more and more intense as he and Valerian faced off.
“[Smiter’s Bolt]” he intoned as he loosed his bow.
“[Wind Scythes]” Valerian yelled mentally as he let the five wind spells he had built up rip forward.
The result of the clash was a no brainer. The bow skill created using the noble artefact tore through the wind spells and struck against Valerian’s arcane shield. The shield was powerful, yes! However, the arrow was powerful as well. Plus, it possessed incredible penetrative power allowing it to puncture Valerian’s shield and strike him down like a victim of a righteous god.
The concussive force from the resulting explosion alone was enough to shatter what remained of Valerian’s shield and buffet the wards that protected the stands. It cratered the stage and sent flames and shards of rock flying all over the place. The crowd watched, eerily quiet as they watched Valerian get decimated by an opponent with superior fire power.
Turning to the referee, Aaron spat out dismissively, “Call the match!”
The battle was over.
Valerian thought he knew pain before but he was forced to revise that assertion. He felt like he was in hell. The flames around him had yet to die adding to this image. His armour had practically been seared to his flesh and if not for the fact that he could not produce sounds everyone would hear a first-hand account of what sounds came from a man whose flesh was melting.
He lay there, praying that someone who come to his aid quickly to help with his torment. Nevertheless, despite the physical pain he was currently feeling and the very real possibility of permanent disfigurement, his heart hurt from the realisation that he had lost. AGAIN. The whole situation made him think back to the talk he had with his uncle Richard.
“There is no shame in losing. At times, the choice isn’t even ours to make. We try as much as we can to resist the possibility but even so, there are instances where we can only accept it. What you must do is focus not on the defeat but on what comes after. Think not of your fall but on you standing up. Every defeat is a chance to learn, a chance to better yourself, a chance to grow.
“You made a good call by surrendering today and don’t let anyone tell you different. There is no shame in fearing death. Nor is there shame in clinging to life. That is our instinct as living things. It is the source of our motivation and the fuel for our daily struggle. The fox that fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.
“That is something that took me a long time to realise and even longer to come to grips with. What I am going to tell you right now Valerian is my most shameful moment. It is also one of the most defining moments of my life. It is a story you have wanted to hear for the longest time. The story of how I got my injuries.
“During my time in the army, I was assigned to a small contingent of soldiers whose mission was to deal with a burgeoning horde lorde who was causing havoc in the western areas of Cragsveil. There we found ourselves victims of a powerful emperor tier dragon. The daemon was vicious and it was all we could do to stay alive when our leader, some high born bastard from the House of DeArbre, abandoned us and pretty much threw us at its maw to survive.
“I lost many friends that day. We fought and died as our leader and two of his cronies having succeeded in trapping us, fled. That was how I received my injuries. By becoming the plaything of a dragon. It raked me with its claws twice and that was enough. I lay on the floor, bleeding out and watching helpless as my colleagues were slaughtered. I was so injured I couldn’t even properly. All I could do was lie there and cry in despair.
“Eventually, all my colleagues were dead and only I remained. The dragon spun around, surveying its handiwork and do you know what I did?”
Valerian shook his head, struck mute by the story.
“I played dead! That’s right. I Richard Steelborn pretended to be dead so that the dragon would pass me over”, his uncle said, laughing darkly and sadly at his own words.
“There was nothing else I could do. At the time, the only thing I could think was that I did not want to die. It was days before I was found. For a long time, I felt guilty about this this and worse, I could not live with myself. Was I any better than the superior who left us to die? It was only with much effort on your grandfather and Jonas’ part that I recovered.
“I came to an epiphany then. If there was something I couldn’t live with then I wouldn’t let that happen. My greatest fear is being helpless whilst those who I hold dear suffer. To prevent this I fought hard. I pushed myself to recover and until I gained the power at my hands now. Many were sceptical that I would even walk straight again but look at me, I stand here a Tellurian King.
“What I am trying to tell you is that if you cannot bear to lose then make sure you do not. Fight as hard as you can, train to the utmost and push your limits. Let this experience teach you and at the same time don’t let it repeat itself. Do you understand?” he asked.
Valerian nodded dumbly, his mind busy mulling over his uncle’s words.
“Good!” The man said to him. “Now get up! Let’s go train and go over you plans. You’ll be fighting that Veldt boy tomorrow.”
If you cannot bear to lose then make sure you do not.
Valerian though on these words. ‘Well, it would appear that I failed to do that Uncle Richard’, he said to himself. It tore him up inside. His greatest fear wasn’t really losing. It was disappointment. He could bear to disappoint himself, his family and his blood. He was a child of the mountain. A child of the Golden Winged Peng. If he couldn’t live up to that then what was he? What of all the promises and assurances he kept making to himself and his family members? If he couldn’t keep them then wouldn’t his words ring hollow? Wouldn’t they be meaningless?
In the end, it didn’t matter. He had lost. There was no way he could win this battle. There was nothing he could do. ‘No! There is something I can do’, a small, dark, reluctant part of himself said. ‘What? What can I do?’ he asked it. ‘I can take him with me’, it answered.
The crowd waited for the referee’s pronouncement. The fight had come to a close. Many were saddened and disappointed but that’s how it was. Someone had to lose. The healers were on stand-by waiting to rush up the stage.
“WINNE…” the referee was unable to finish the statement.
Before everyone’s stunned eyes, weapon after weapon begun to appear in the sky above the stage. Swords, quarrels, knives, axes, spears, javelins, tent pegs and miscellaneous scraps of metal were being expelled from the interspatial ring on Valerian’s finger. It was everything he had and he was even tempted to add what coins he had as well.
They spun above him, a veritable maelstrom of death. He forced as much qi into them as he could and they began to glow as they spun. Slowly and painfully, he forced himself into a seated position, horrifying the spectators with the image of his burnt body. In the end, he had decided. He would do as his uncle advised.
Fight as hard as you can, train to the utmost and push your limits.
He sent his weapons forward, making them rain on a shocked still Aaron. The first a crossbow quarrel went into his thigh as he turned to escape. The rest followed suite but their target was already running. Flares of fire could be seen as Aaron tried vainly to shoot them out of the air.
Valerian doubted he would win this battle but he would give it his all. Briefly, he considered transforming fully but knew it was a terrible idea the moment it crossed his mind. Instead, he focused on his cores, pulling out as much power as he could. If he was going to lose then he might as well do so after giving it his all shouldn’t he?
So he did so, emptying his qi and arcane energy into the implements he sent flying at his enemy. It worked, somewhat. It was incredibly wasteful but the attacking equipment were faster and stronger than they had any right to be. They were actually pressuring Aaron even with the power of his noble artefact. However in return, his reserves drained rapidly. Soon he was running on empty. This forced him to dive deeper and deeper into himself drawing out all he could.
This drew out more than he expected though. He had never noticed it before but there was a strange grey essence underlying his qi and arcane energy. It was there, mixed in but remaining separate. He did not know how it escaped his notice before but it was there now and it was forcing itself on him.
His body stiffened as it crept into his meridians. He tried to circulate it, control it but it escaped him, refusing to stay put. Instead, it forced its way outward rising from his pores like a steel grey steam. Once it begun it did not stop. It just kept coming. Instinctively, Valerian begun helping it along. Allowing it to rise into the sky to accomplish its true purpose. By this point, the shock from his injuries and essence exhaustion was getting to him.
Shaking his head and trying to stay conscious Valerian looked skyward at whatever it was he had brought forth. It was a massive spectral figure. It was made from steel grey essence and shaped like a giant man. It was fifteen metres tall and built even more sturdily than his uncle Richard. It roared, running forward to engage Aaron.
Unable to stay awake, Valerian crumpled, falling into the world of darkness and dreams. He did so thinking about how that spectral grey figure resembled all those paintings of Steel monoliths he had seen. But at the same time, he felt some doubt. Why? That Monolith had looked like him.