Chapter Twenty-four: When Before Your God...
Massive eyes, like polished, pastel sapphires shone down at them, their inner fire setting them off with a harsh light. They peered from the sides of a cruelly hooked beak that positively glinted with steely sharpness. Five feathers, long and elegant, stuck up at the front of its head, rising high into the air before falling over its back to reveal exactly who the priests were imitating. Its grey and black patterned feathers were beautiful to look at but their sharp edges and the clinking that they made as it moved sent a clear message as to their use.
The Stormhawk hovered in the space above its dais not even bothering to flap its wings. This was its domain. The very air would support it even if it chose not to. Besides, as a spectral being, all of that was unnecessary.
With a wingspan far greater than its already six metre tall body would suggest, the guardian deity of the Steelborn could only be called gigantic. As things stood, it was far bigger than Valerian could wrap his head around. It wasn’t a matter of size. No. He had seen bigger creatures in his inherited memories. It was a matter of presence, of aura. The Stormhawk had so much of it that its crushed everything else in his vicinity.
It was akin looking at a mountain and comprehending how minuscule ones own existence was. Except, that mountain was not actively putting forth its presence. The Stormhawk was different. Its presence actually preceded it, emanating from its core as if to assert dominance over everything around it. Even before, when the spirit’s being begun to coalesce in front of them, everyone on the mount, even those far below could feel it. They knew that a deity had descended. In fact, the very air shook in acknowledgement as the mighty being took form and when it appeared, things only magnified.
Truthfully, it didn’t always do that. As a matter of fact, the Stormhawk seldom ever appeared in person and it was conscious enough of its own presence to reign it in when meeting people too weak to withstand it. Nonetheless, it usually took the care to find out or was informed about such things in advance. Today, it had already made a special appearance to go over the events of the Zebre with some of the clans higher ups as well as be apprised of the details and progress of their plans. It was not to be summoned again so soon.
Additionally, it was Adler who had called it. Adler was no mere high priest. He was the retired chief priest. He was one of the few who could withstand the Stormhawk’s casual aura without issue. As such, it would never bother holding back in front of him. Nevertheless, the Stormhawk would usually adjust its weighty aura to prevent suffocating any ordinary or weak people around. Yet, even after seeing Valerian there and watching him suffer under the weight of its presence it did no such thing. All it did was ask.
“Do you know who I am young Valerian?”
A trembling Valerian nodded so fast and hard that his chin struck his chest.
“Then why do you not kneel?” it boomed.
The wind around the mountain whipped itself into a furious frenzy at its words, developing a freezing chill that sent a touch of icy cold into all present. Knees already close to buckling from the pressure, Valerian hit the ground in supplication. His fevered mind was only now noticing how both the patriarch and high priest were still bowing to their deity.
Luckily, Valerian’s senses didn’t completely leave him for in the next moment he yelled, “Great spirit, your child only came to greet you. Just now, I was overawed by your majesty. PLEASE FORGIVE MY DISRESPECT!”
He remained kneeling, not daring to look up. The freezing winds buffeted him but he ignored them because no matter how cold they got they could not compare to the dread chill that clammed up his heart and blood. It seemed that despite how he had tried to psyche himself up before meeting the stormhawk he had only failed in the end. Some dark portion of his mind wondered whether he would be smote or simply cursed for his actions.
So filled with thoughts of getting happened next surprised him the weighty aura quickly faded away. Not completely mind you but it did retract enough for valerian to resume breathing properly once more. What’s more, he could no longer feel it crushing him.
“Good child. You are forgiven but know this. You may not kneel as you have done now before any other being. No deity, no king, no cultivator is worthy of that respect. None save myself. When the situation requires it you may bow or genuflect. Never will you kneel or prostrate yourself before another. Only I, as spirit of your clan, can dare claim such from you. Is that understood?” The spirit said to him.
Valerian nodded fervently, not trusting himself to speak as his mind was still shaken by the events that had just transpired.
“Good!” it intoned before leaving Valerian to focus on the adults present. Allowing him the time to compose himself.
Valerian had never felt anything like it. At the time, he could barely think, barely speak, barely breathe. It felt like a hill had been set upon his shoulders, slowly crushing him with its weight. Even the inborn pride that came with his peng instincts shrank away under that pressure. Was this the power of a deity?
“You have good seed Roland”, the Stormhawk was telling his great-grandfather.
“Another great hatchling has come our way via your line”.
“I am merely fortunate Lord Kuruksa’ar”, the patriarch replied with a bow.
“Hmmn. Fortunate or not, it has happened and the clan is all the more better for it. With each passing generation, I am more pleased and thankful to have joined with your clan”, it affirmed.
“We are the ones who are thankful that you did milord!” Adler was quick to pipe up. Then, continuing with a contemplative look he added, “Now that the boy is here, how are we to confirm the news?”
Valerian’s eyes shot to the man, wondering just what was going on. The words that came from their patron’s mouth put him at ease.
“No need. I have already done so. The boy is indeed what they say he is”, it announced.
The priest seemed satisfied by this and returned to standing beside the boulder, only now he faced Valerian and the patriarch not the dais.
“Do you know why you have been brought before me Valerian?” it questioned.
“Great one, this one is not so informed”, Valerian quickly answered.
“The matter is simple” it told him. “I am Kuruksa’ar, sworn guardian and spirit of the Steelborn clan recognised as the house of Cragsveil, lord of its people and its lands. I am the inheritor of the Menhirion’s will and people, a divine being of the fifth rank. Despite all my powers and titles though, I remain a stormhawk, a daemon of the sky, a bird.
“Imagine my surprise then, when Roland came to me with news that one of his line had awoken the legacy of the KunPeng. A being that is to my kind what the Grand Boundary is to stones by the wayside”, it appended.
“It should be possible then to conceive my curiosity and need to confirm this news for myself. So what do you do say peng child? I have already examined that essence within you. Would you now show me this fabled form of yours?”
Valerian listened to the deity speak, understanding that while it may have phrased its words as a request, it was giving him a command. He hastened to comply.
A thick essence burst from his pores, rising to cover his body, like flames. His flesh twitched visibly as the changes begun. Bright spikes burst from his joints and his hair turned into metallic bristles. His nails elongated into talons that would not be out of place on a raptor. The remaining essence gathered behind his shoulder blades to solidify into the massive golden wings of his full form. A tail made of freely flowing essence accompanied it, forming a fan of soft feathers that extended from his tailbone. Finally, his aura changed and he begun to exude his own presence.
The aura of a top predator spread from him, sending danger signals that were only ignored because the people next to him had nothing to fear. What’s more, the fear, nervousness and apprehension that previously affected Valerian simply faded away. Replacing it was the sort of easy arrogance that came with knowing you sat at the top of the food chain. It would be hard to reconcile the Valerian from before with the one in front of them now. This being with the aura of a king, the eyes of a hunter and the form of daemon.
The only other two humans there watched with eyes peeled, not wanting to miss anything. This was their first time seeing the transformation as well. They were not disappointed. Even the Stormhawk after taking it all in could not help but exclaim.
Valerian looked at the being in front of him through the eyes of his true form. His fear had left him but an increased wariness had taken root. The gap between them was not so simple. As a matter of fact, it was even clearer now that he was far out its league. Forget the Stormhawk. Even High Priest Adler would be able to kill him without much trouble. The urge to flee, to retreat to a safe distance filled his gut but he chose to ignore it. The peng in him knew. Despite his innate superiority over all the creatures in front of him he was no match for them.
The chicks of eagles were regularly picked off and eaten by lesser birds like crows and vultures. Should any of the people around him wish it. He would perish. It was good he did nothing because the voice of the stormhawk rang out again, buffeting the entire mountain top with its bass.
“I wonder little chick, what it must be like in your head right now. The aura of this form shields you somewhat from me and I am not so cruel as to tear into the mind of one of my own. I have so many questions but answer first this one” it began.
“Do you truly believe yourself to be a peng?”
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