Chapter Nineteen: Grim Prospects
Allard looked at him appraisingly before answering. “The how is something very few understand but I can tell you of the necessary conditions for it. The first is to have daemonic ancestry and a very strong blood tie at that. The second is to have very potent essence. Truthfully, innate phantasms are just another kind of daemonic legacy albeit a very powerful one. However the phantasm is not just another bloodline power or ability. It is you!”
“Me?” Valerian asked.
“Yes, you!” Allard confirmed.
“Me?” Valerian repeated incredulously. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
Allard sighed. “Created phantasms are spectres of the daemons used in their creation. Innate phantasms are different. They are daemonic spectres that spring from the user’s daemonic blood or essence. They are a representation of the user as a daemon of his bloodline.”
Understanding begun to dawn on Valerian’s face, “You are saying that…”
“Yes”, Allard confirmed impatiently. “Your phantasm is a representation of yourself as you would be if you were born a Steel Monolith!”
Valerian’s mouth nearly fell open in shock. He turned to his grandparents. “Is this true?”
His grandmother nodded noncommittally but his grandfather did say something. “As far as we tell, yes. Innate phantasms are one of the top expressions of daemonic heritage. It is not uncommon for those whose essence and the blood are strong enough to manifest phantasmal guardians to protect themselves.”
Perhaps a bit miffed that his assertion had been doubted and that Valerian had chosen to confirm it somewhere else right in front of him, Allard’s voice cut in harshly, “Your denial is not something I care for nor do I have any time to indulge- any discussion on the topic. I am here on behalf of the council to confirm your status as a possessor of the clan’s innate phantasm. Anything else would have to be done later.”
“How do we do that?” Valerian asked.
“It’s simple!” the man began. “Just listen to and follow everything I say.”
“Do you have a solid grasp on the essence?” Allard questioned.
Valerian nodded in response, striving not to let his focus slip. It had been difficult finding that thick essence that had overwhelmed him the last time. It rested at the very bottom of his qi pool and was quite reluctant to rise at his behest. Still, he had succeeded in latching on some portion of it.
“Good!” Elder Allard pronounced. “Now, draw it out. Let it rise through your pores much like how you would manifest your qi.”
Valerian followed his instruction and at his urging a steel grey smoke begun to rise of him, slowly surrounding his body. Everyone’s eyes were on him. They had formed a semi-circle around his bed, staying a few feet away so as to give him some space. Valerian remained on his bed, wrapped in his many bandages. Slowly opening his eyes he focused them on the ethereal qi that swirled above his chest and belly. Was this all he could draw out? Pathetic. However not everyone thought so.
“Good, good.” Allard exclaimed happily.
“Now shaping the essence and controlling your phantasm can be especially difficult at the beginning but try and imagine it as an extension of yourself or your limbs rather than as qi or arcane energy to be shaped by your will”, he mentioned.
“Think of your right arm. That essence is as much a part of you as your arm. In addition, the connection is already there so you do not have to forge one. Just focus on the arm and imagine the essence responding to it. Can you do that?” he asked. Valerian nodded again.
“Good. Now extend that arm and retract it. Focus on the sensation that comes to you as you move the limb and have the essence resonate with it. Now imagine the essence responding to that sensation. Stretch forth the arm and your essence!” came Elder Allard’s tense voice.
Valerian stretched, trying to immerse himself in the sensation he was feeling. Around him the spectral essence stirred but nothing happened. “Argh!” he grunted in frustration. He was so close, he could feel it. The sensation was there. The resonance. He could feel it but he couldn’t maintain a steady connection.
“It’s okay Valerian”, Elder Allard said softly. There was a tinge of regret in his voice. He had pushed too far. Seeing the essence had been all the proof he needed to conform that Valerian possessed a phantasm. However he had gotten excited and pushed for more. Now wasn’t the time. The boy was still in his sick bed for Delrein’s sake! There would be other opportunities.
“You don’t need to get it down right this moment. All you need to do is learn the process and practise. It will come to you eventually. For now, just concentrate on resting and getting better. We’ll train when the time comes’, he tried to tell the boy. However the strained look on the boy’s face made it clear that he wasn’t listening. He watched as the boy kept moving his arm trying to provoke a reaction from his essence.
“Are you listening?” Valerian he asked, placing his hand on the boy’s leg. “That’s enough we’ll con….” The rest of his words fell out his mouth unsaid for right in front of him, something begun to take shape.
It was barely recognisable. Nothing more than amorphous smoke but you could still see the shape it was trying to emulate if you looked at it just right. The end was the most identifiable part and that was the bit that drew everyone’s attention. Four smoky fingers reached out as if trying to grasp something in the distance. At their base, one could make out a partially formed arm, hanging there without any support. It lasted barely a second before it all collapsed. Valerian let out a deep breath from the exertion and raised his hand to his brow to wipe at sweat that had not been there before. That had taken more out of him than he had expected.
It couldn’t always be this hard. Voicing his thoughts, he watched as Elder Allard composed an answer.
“At the end of the day your phantasm remains an alternate self. The only way you can truly control that self and make use of it and its abilities properly is to seize control. Unfortunately therein lies the problem with phantasms. Why should they submit to us? Because we are the dominant personalities or because we created them? I’m afraid that forcing your phantasm to submit will be the actual problem.
“All phantasms especially the innate ones want to be expressed. Yours just awakened. At first it would be directed by instinct but I can assure you that it watching right now sifting through your memories learning, growing. Until you find a way to control the phantasm itself using it or its powers will be remain difficult. There are some innate phantasm wielders who even end up unable to leash the daemon and end up subsumed by it itself. That is not a pretty sight.”
Valerian uttered the words on everyone’s minds when he replied, “That is worrying.”
Elder Allard merely chuckled. “Power doesn’t come free young Valerian. Your own experiences should have taught you that. Be that as it may, we need it to fulfil our dreams and are thus forced or call upon to pay its price.”
His grandmother squeezed his hand in an attempt to comfort him but he could see from the tight smile on her face that she was worried as well. His grandfather was clearly uneasy with the whole thing and his uncle’s … The patriarch stood there wearing a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. The man had barely changed his stance since he entered the room. He maintained a bit of distance from the rest of them didn’t engage in the displays of affection, make any comments and said very little, only watching with careful eyes. Valerian couldn’t help but wonder why.
Mayhap because he already had his eye on his estranged great-grandfather but he was able to catch an almost imperceptible gesture the man made. One which Elder Allard responded to instantly. He moved backward automatically slowly but surely moving to stand by his leader’s side.
“We’ll continue this later Valerian. For now, rest. Recover. When the time comes I will call on you and we’ll begin your training”, the man announced.
“Okay”, was Valerian’s simple response.
The man was prepared to leave but before he could make his way towards the door the patriarch suddenly spoke up. “Do you not wish to know the results of your battle Valerian?”
The words cut through the room. Healer Brian frowned and moved to speak with the man but was silenced by a raised hand. Talk of the tournament had been intentionally avoided and Valerian could hazard a guess why. Healer Brian did not approve of it. He was of the opinion that so long as there was no pressing need or medical reason victims of traumatic events should be given some time to recover before the event was brought up.
This was especially true for patients who had just woken up. They had already seen how Valerian reacted earlier. To bring it up again just for the scores… Had it been anyone else the Healer could possibly have forced him or her out of the infirmary but this was the patriarch. Valerian honestly wondered what the man’s goal here was. He was not the one. That notwithstanding, he could not keep the man waiting for an answer.
“I would indeed like to know the ruling”, he admitted honestly. It was a match he had risked so much for of course he wanted to know the results.
The patriarch ignored the harsh glares being sent his way. Choosing to nod sagely, he said, “The match ended with you burnt beyond recognition and barely breathing. Your opponent lost his arms when your phantasm caught him and tore them off. They could not be reattached. Additionally, the other injuries it inflicted on him so twisted his spine I doubt there is a healer in the county that could safely heal him. Besides that, five officials were injured when they tried to stop your phantasm. One was grievously injured when he was caught by again, your phantasm.
“On account of the turn of events, there were several complaints brought up. Many complained that you used a forbidden life powered technique to attack your opponent when it was clear you were losing. As you well know, such techniques are not allowed in the tournament. As such, there were calls for you to be disqualified and forced to pay reparations to the people you injured, your opponent especially since you basically ended any hope he had as a cultivator.
“These complaints were thrown out when it was proved that the there was no skill used but rather that the trauma of your injuries were probably a trigger that awakened your phantasm. Unfortunately, this only furthered the argument. A review of the events shows that you keeled over as the phantasm appeared. This some argued was proof that you had passed out before your opponent did meaning that ruling should be that you.
“There was a lot of back and forth on the matter but in the end, the judges were forced to rule the match a draw” having said this, the man leaned forward and asked. “How do you feel about that Valerian?”
Valerian kept himself composed, understanding that his great-grandfather was testing him for something. Even so, he was incensed at the thought that some people had apparently taken a great deal of effort to try to discredit him. Thankfully, they had failed. However, Valerian knew that was less of a failure on their parts than a success on the part of the Steelborns at defending their own.
“I’ll admit I’m surprised”, Valerian answered. When I woke up here I did not expect to have won but to hear that it was draw is interesting. I am a bit curious as to why people would try so hard to get me disqualified though.”
The patriarch smiled. “That my dear Valerian, was merely a reaction out of desperation. Let’s just say that the clan has had some unprecedented successes during this Zebre. There aren’t many parties happy with that. This was simply an attempt on their parts to win something back and even slow down our march somewhat”.
“And if they were successful they could have blown it up to cast some doubt on our results”, Valerian summarised.
The patriarch gave perhaps his first genuine smile since he walked into the infirmary. “Correct! I see Valan has taken the pains to see you properly educated in these matters. He has always been good at them.”
The magistrate bristled but his father continued, “You were right Valerian. It is interesting. Chiefly due to the parties involved I’d never have expected some of them to work together. It was enlightening.”
“I see”, Valerian said. “But why?”
“Sorry, why what?” his great-grandfather asked.
“Why tell me all of this?” Valerian inquired. It was clear he had been made party to something few people were to know.
The man merely smiled again. “Oh, no reason. I just thought you should know.” And with that he turned to leave. “Get well soon Valerian! Have a nice day all of you!”
They all watched him go all of them feeling that something was amiss. True enough when he got to the door he turned back and said, “Before I forget Valerian, we were able to get a stay on your behalf. The remaining matches in your division have been postponed. Given that both contestants were so grievously injured, it was felt that some time should be given for them to recover before re-joining the tournament. You have been granted three days. Your next match will be against Tirenael Reed of the Fire Sage School.”
The entire room was shocked by the news. Valerian was still in the tournament.
Before I leave I wish to know Valerian. Will you still compete or will you drop out?”
Having finally had enough Valerian’s grandfather stepped forward, unable to stay quiet amidst his father’s machinations. “Are you mad? Can’t you see that he is still injured?”
He was not alone. Healer Brian and Uncle Jonas followed him. All were silenced when the patriarch raised his hand making a simple point as he did so. “The decision is not yours to make. Let us listen to boy.”
All the attention in the room became focused on Valerian. It grew deathly quiet. Valerian scanned the room his mind racing but failing to see a way out of his situation. There were waiting for his answer. Choosing to avoid their eyes he made his choice.
“I will do it!” he stated.
His great-grandfather grinned victoriously before slipping out of the room. “I expected nothing less.”
The room immediately erupted into chatter.
“What is wrong with you?” his uncle Jonas was shouting.
“BOY!” yelled Uncle Richard.
“Clearly you are still….but that is no excuse. You will….” his grandfather said, beginning to wind up.
What is the meaning of this Valerian? I thought we had an agreement”, Healer Brian was saying
Everyone was speaking at the same time. His grandfather’s fury was expected but he was surprised at how animated his uncles became as well. The look of disappointment and betrayal on Healer Brian’s face was painful to watch. As for his grandmother she laid her hand on his shoulder and squeezed.
“You will not be leaving this bed Valerian!” she stated matter of factly.
“I have a plan!” Valerian managed to get out. The entire room became focused on Valerian again.
“You are not going back on that stage!” his grandmother declared.
“Wait!” his grandfather called out. “What is this plan of yours?”
The Steelborn Arena, three days later
The crowd was tense. Today’s match had the arena packed more than ever before. This year’s Young Lords’ Tourney had become one of the main attractions. The fights had been spectacular. Now everyone, young, old, healthy and infirm wanted to see how it would end. It had been a surprise when they learnt that the Valerian Steelborn had chosen to remain in the competition. They had seen the results of his last fight and many had feared that he would never fight again.
Yet here he was. He had actually come to the arena. Leading his numerous fans to cheer. The Steelborn had been one of the most interesting combatants to follow this year. His unique backstory, incredible and rare abilities as well as his peculiar fighting style had garnered him a rather large following. However, even they were worried. Valerian had shown up with bandages wrapped around every exposed part of his body. Had he been hideously scarred from his last battle? They didn’t know but clearly, he was still injured. Would he be up to fighting his opponent?
Valerian stood to the side of the stage absentmindedly rubbing the new and still tender skin under his bandages. His uncle had been right. He would be fighting Tirenael today. The tournament officials were hoping to get rid of the stragglers and leave the main attractions. He was to fight Tirenael and Ethan would get Aaron Veldt. It wasn’t a bad decision. They were injured and stood no chance of winning anyway. Keeping the two strongest contestants from meeting each other until the finals would only help build tension and attract more viewers on the final day. Slight problem though.
The ploy assumed that Valerian would lose.
Unfortunately he hadn’t come all the way to the Arena and trained his butt off to just give up without a fight. The referee signalled for him to climb up. The fight was to start soon. He made to do so when a hand clamped onto his shoulder. Turning back, Valerian was surprised to see his cousin Beatrice. She won the fifth seat after beating Kalian DriftCloud to a pulp in the runner ups battle. Sadly, she missed out on the finals due to being defeated by the very same opponent he was about to face.
Beatrice was stunning. Long dark hair that fell in beautiful waves around her head and a very full figure that turned heads wherever she went. She had those classical beauty features coupled with a fit body. She was the sort whose beauty intimidated rather than attracted and she was made even more intimidating by the fact that she was incredibly tall for a female. Even Valerian was shorter than her. Then there was the fact that she wore full plate armour and carried a massive kite shield at her back and a long sword at her side.
Valerian looked at her, waiting for her to say something but she simply stood there. Not wanting the silence to become drawn out, he asked. “Can I help you?”
“I…” she began, unexpectedly looking unsure of herself. Thankfully, that didn’t last long. “I just wanted to tell you to be careful up there. His fire, it does more than burn.”
“Noted!” Valerian replied. He was pleasantly surprised. He hadn’t guessed she would come over to warn him about his opponent. They weren’t exactly close though the same could be said about his relationship with the other Steelborn competitors. There was hope then.
“Thank you!” he told her truthfully. Not for the information. He already knew that but because she had cared enough to warn him. He gave a smile and she smiled weakly in return. Seeing the referee beckoned he turned around and rushed up the stage, leaving his cousin standing there watching him go. A complicated expression on her face.
Beatrice had originally come to tell him to quit. To warn him that there was no chance of winning. That Tirenael Reed was a devil. But unfortunately, she just couldn’t do it.
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