Chapter Twenty-five: Blocked In
Valerian was cornered. He was now being attacked by three opponents at the same time and his shields could barely handle the damage. Arrows, sword strikes and exploding light orbs from the end of the arcanist's wand all crashed against him. It made it even harder for him to attack since his concentration was focused on buttressing his shields to prevent the bandits from breaking through.
He could be likened to a tortoise, stuck in a shell, afraid to stick his head out for fear of being eaten yet unable to do anything aside from preventing them from finding a way to break through his only protection. If they failed, he lived. If not, he became a meal.
However, Valerian did not like to sit helpless. He didn't need to look to tell that Avery was still being led away by the other bandits. He could clearly hear the ringing of metal on metal coming from his direction. The crafty criminals had actually succeeded in separating him from his protector. The minder was even out from under the shadow of the forty metre tall outcrop.
‘Shit!' he cursed.
He couldn't let them have their way. As things stood, they'd just wear him down till his shields came down and deal with him then. In the worst case scenario the trio attacking Avery finished him of and came over to help his own attackers break through his safeguards. It was imperative that he regroup with Avery but how?
He could not leave his position at the moment. Forget the attacks raining on him. The only reason his adversaries had not surrounded him was because he kept his back to the rock wall behind him and there was a massive boulder to the left. This restricted their attacks to his front. If he left this defensive position they'd circle him and leave him with nowhere to go. Plus, it blocked his movements as well. The only way out was through them.
‘I need to carve a path through them', he realised.
That was easier said than done but luckily the makings of a plan begun to form in his head. With his mace raised high by his right hand to support his lifelines he stretched his other hand out. The weapons he kept on his person responded, coming out of their resting places.
The nine weapons rushed towards his enemies like they had minds of their own. The swordsman he attacked earlier scrambled out of the way nearly ending up a pin cushion. Then they swooped down like raptors towards the archer forcing him to also abandon his rapid assault in favour of cover.
The weapons weren't as good or as powerful as flying swords but they were still sharp and under his control they could deal out some damage. His attackers knew this and made sure not to get in their way. This bought him the breathing room he needed to start casting a spell but a sudden blitz from the sky nearly rendered that moot.
Crescents of frigid sword qi came down like rain upon the bandits around him. It tore apart the earth and in the archer's case ripped him apart. Valerian raised his head to see an awe inspiring sight. Avery hung in the air, scowling like a vengeful spirit and sending down the crescents with each wave of his sword.
The arcanist, someone Valerian was beginning to recognise as a warder – a specialist in defensive spells – raised his wand to form another light screen that held up against the sword attacks. Valerian instantly seized this opportunity to cast his favourite single target spell – Heart Seeking Bolts at the swordsman who had so far defied all his attempts to deal with him.
The flying weapons were instantly enhanced with the now familiar gold shine becoming deadly implements that boded swift death for anyone designated as their target. The sword wielding bandit who had previously been lucky enough to somehow survive all of Valerian's previous attacks was unable to do so this time.
Already busy trying to avoid death from above he was not able to react when the spell caught up with him. Five quarrels drove themselves into his vulnerable organs whilst the daggers left crisscrossing slashes through his flesh. They barely even slowed when they went through him. Going in and out cleanly leaving nothing but holes and spurts of blood in their wake.
It took him a full second to register that he had just been killed. Unsure of what to do he tried to stem the flow of blood from his throat with one hand, whilst the other clutched at his chest. But they never quite got there. His vision merely faded and he fell to the ground.
No one had the time to care about him. The arcanist simply wrapped his shield more solidly around himself and Avery finally fell to the ground. Whatever skill he was using to extend his hang time expired. The moment he landed, he rushed to Valerian's side yelling out.
“Hurry! We have to go”.
Relief evident on his face Valerian dashed off with his protector. The two of them left the now arriving Lait and the rest of his men behind. The bandit leader was cursing again even as he urged his men to follow. They couldn't let them get away.
Conversely, Avery and Valerian knew they couldn't let themselves be caught. They may have killed two of the bandits but they only got the weakest ones. The group was well organised. Two people in the meridian opening stage, two in the manifestation stage, one mana condensation stage arcanist and a true practitioner.
They also had effective co-ordination, communication and strategies. It would seem the Vults deserved their reputation.
The remaining bandits were undoubtedly the toughest and most powerful. They wouldn't be hesitating or underestimating them again either and they were bound to be pissed that two of their own died. Yeah, they had to make sure to leave them as far behind as possible.
Sadly, they did not make it far. They barely got two kilometres from their campsite when a barrier of light suddenly appeared to block their way. Heading towards the scrubby woods at the side revealed that their way was blocked off by beams of sword qi coming from their rear.
Turning around they were confronted with the sight of their pursuers closing in on them. The arcanist was in the lead flying their way on a platform of light. Right after him was Lait, the bandit leader. The man's face was contorted in fury and his flaming broadsword looked particularly menacing. In contrast to the furious tellurian and the smug looking arcanist the remaining two weren't very eye catching.
Exits covered, Valerian's eyes swept the area scanning it for anything that could help them in the plight. He noticed that there was a wide crevice in the rock wall to their right. It got him thinking.
“Avery, let's make our way over there”, he said pointing to the cleft.
“Why?” the man asked incredulously. He had been thinking of how he'd break through the barrier ahead.
“We don't have time. Just trust me!” he uttered before dashing there and leaving his minder with no choice but to follow.
The man did not understand. They were already cornered. Why put themselves in an even better trap with no way out? The crevice was only eight metres wide at the mouth and had high wall not unscalable for cultivators in normal conditions. However, given the kind of tail they had, they'd definitely be shot down if they tried to climb it.
Still he followed Valerian, praying to his ancestors that the boy actually had a plan.
Once they made their way a bit ways in Valerian asked his protector. “Can you buy me about a minute's worth of time?” he said in a serious tone. “Make sure they don't come close. What I am about to do cannot be interrupted”, he stressed.
Avery looked at him wondering what exactly he was planning. For a moment, Valerian was unsure whether the man would follow his order but he just nodded and rushed back out of the crevice to face their pursuers. The young man just sighed in relief and got to work.
From his interspatial ring he took out six cubes of tempered steel. They were large, blocky and heavy, measuring fifty centimetres at the side. He just left them lying around him and began to force himself into a focused state. He pushed himself to ignore the sounds of combat coming from close by. Rather he imposed a strange calm attentiveness upon himself.
This attentiveness was trained on the world essence around him. In a few seconds it was all he felt, all he saw and all he cared about. He fixated on the flow and ebb of the essence around him. Then, cupping his right hand, he raised it in front of him, his left holding his focus loosely.
Under his control and compelled by his arcane energy a stream of metal elemental essence collected in his palm to form a glyph. Once one was formed another followed, soon they were pouring out of his palm to gather around him. Before long, a multitude of glimmering symbol shaped motes of metal essence were floating around him.
This was Valerian's chosen method of glyph creation. It was also the one Jonas used and the only one he had received full training in. Many other arcanists chose to directly draw the glyphs out of world essence either with their fingers or an arcane writing implement often a personal, stylus-like focus. However that required training and practice in calligraphy not only to draw glyphs correctly but also do so speedily.
Directly condensing them from world essence was more difficult than the standard path. It required a lot of focus, will power, visualisation and control of over both world essence and personal arcane energy but in return it was faster and far more precise.
So long as the mental image of the glyph was accurate and vivid the ones produced would be the same as well. You just had to picture them in your head and force the world essence into that shape.
That was what he was doing now. He started slow but his speed quickly picked up, condensing glyphs faster than he ever had before. When they were all done he did not rest. He begun to conduct them into places and configurations for his array using hand motions to help the process along. Soon there was a rather complicated one circle array half a meter in diameter.
It floated before him, a bunch of indistinct bits of glowing gold light. It was Valerian's best work yet, but he wasn't done. With a strong pulse of arcane energy the six steel cubes rose into the air to hover around him. Now ready, he came out of his hyper focused state to implement his plan.
Avery stood with the crevice at his back, blocking it with his form. The sharply dressed valet was a mess. His clothes were disordered and splattered with blood. Sweat covered his brow and blood trickled from a cut over his right eye causing him to constantly wipe it lest it blind him. In spite of everything he remained in front of the gap, an insurmountable obstacle.
He was panting heavily, breath coming with a slight hiss on account of his bruised ribs but his face was largely impassive. An ice cold qi exuded from his body chilling all in the vicinity. Even the blood on his sword was frozen making it look like red crystals were growing on it.
This was nothing. His opponents were worse off. He had dealt them twice as much damage as they did him. Unfortunately that damage was split among all his assailants and there were four of them. Right now, they stayed out of reach watching him warily as the lull in the battle dragged on. None of them wanted to be the first to step forward and face someone so far out of their league.
Mercifully, a cry came from inside the crevice.
“Avery I'm done. Get in quick!”
He did not think twice. He took off an arrow fired from a bow, hastening into the shadowed crevice. The bandits made to follow him but he sent a few flying crescents of sword qi their way causing them to scatter momentarily.
Making his way to his charge he took note of the array hovering over the boy's palm.
‘Was this what he was working on?' he pondered.
He just hoped it would be enough to get them out of the mess they were in. Then he saw the floating steel cubes. ‘What are those for?' he questioned with his eyes bugging out.
Valerian barely registered Avery by his side. The majority of his mental effort was still trained on the array. The instant the man cleared the boundary he had designated in his mind though he burst into action. With a flick of his wrist the array sailed outwards towards the mouth of the crevice growing as it did so.
This was an advanced array master technique referred to simply as enlarging. It was exactly what it said on the tin. Instead of drawing the array full sized, a competent arcanist would draw it smaller and then infuse world essence into it to enlarge it to the required size. It was faster that way, only it required a fine degree of control and lot of concentration. It was also one of the techniques that set Valerian apart during the array masters' examination.
The array continued to grow, covering the width of the crevice in a second. It was followed closely by the large steel cubes that Valerian was keeping afloat. They flew into set points of the array melding seamlessly into the array circle, becoming part of it. Before the bandits could even think of forcing their way through Valerian activated the array.
The entire thing glowed brightly for a scant second before reducing a bit in intensity. It blockaded the mouth of the crevice, an impassable, indecipherable scrawl of glyphs and lines with six large cubes of steel embedded in it. As soon as it was in place Valerian fell to his knees finally feeling the strain he had been under.
He grabbed a handkerchief and wiped his sweaty face even as he tried to compose himself. Avery just stared in awe at the massive array shielding the place.
The array was known as a Cladded Fortress Gate. It was both the most powerful array Valerian could create and the most powerful defence in his repertoire. In its simplest form, it created a screen of metal essence to fend of attacks, but its true power lay in its ability to be cladded. In this, the steel cubes served an important purpose. They were the true heart of the array.
Each cube was 50 centimetres thick and what the array did was incorporate their properties into its matrix. A single cube ensured that the screen was comparable to a fifty centimetre thick sheet of steel. Having six meant that the entire golden essence screen was in fact comparable to six layers of fifty centimetre thick sheets of steel.
This was an absurd level of defensive might. The absolute peak of first circle arrays. Valerian would not be able to do more until he became a second circle master but this was more than enough. How many people could get through three meters of steel?
The only problem with the array was that it took too long for him to set up making it an impractical choice for battles. Also, unlike his other defensive spells which protected his whole body the Cladded Fortress Gate was one dimensional. It only blocked incoming attacks from the front. A smart enemy would simply go around it.
That was why he had them come to the crevice. There was only one opening making it the best place to set up the shield. It probably wouldn't last forever but once it was active it would buy a lot of time. Enough for a quick break and a draft of their next course of action. In fact, he had something that might work. Pushing himself to his feet Valerian began working on the next stage of his plan.
Avery continued to gaze at the array. He could hear muffled cries of anger and frustration coming from the other side. Someone was cursing up a storm as well. He slumped against a rock taking the respite to catch his breath and regain some qi. His gaze wandered to his young charge. The boy was certainly full of surprises.
He watched as the boy got back up and begun removing other chunks of metal and weapons from his interspatial ring. Then he started weaving streams of arcane energy into the masses of metal. Avery blanched the moment he recognised the actions.
This was a spell he had seen Valerian practice. It was not a pleasant spell and the results were very messy. His suspicions were confirmed when the metal pieces began to clump together to form slightly glowing spheres. The child minder promptly distanced himself a bit more from the young lad. Why?
Valerian was making enhanced Explosive Spheres.
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