BK I, Chapter 23: Hunting Solo?

It is said that in the beginning all there was, was a timeless void. A plane devoid of all but itself until the wheels of fate and time were set in motion and Verre was born. A mass of heaven and earth that swirled around each other. The earth becoming the core, the provider, the base, the domain of mortals, the stern father of all. The heavens wrapped around the new earth becoming the ordering force, the apex, the domain of the ascended, the capricious mother of all.

This was Verre, the world, the planet, the home and parent of all who lived within its confines. Split into the heavens and the earth, the order and the chaos, the changing and the stable, the favouring and the indiscriminate. Filled with wonders beyond telling and perils beyond imagining, with numerous hidden depths and lofty heights. It was an entity to be worshipped and respected. To be obeyed and revered above all.

Worship of Verre itself, the heavens and the earth was the oldest and most widespread religion in the world. The ‘Backol’ or diviners, the priestly class of the old religion, lived lives attuned to the mysteries of the heavens and the earth, seeking to explain these to the people and lead them in the worship of the primal divinity whose essence all relied on for life.

Looking out at the magnificence of Verre from his moss covered overhang, Valerian took in the landscape. He could gaze up at the beautiful clear patches of sky and the mutable clouds or look down at the grassy plains, the distant knolls, the stranded trees and all the creatures that lived in sky, earth and betwixt.

Faced with such splendour and shrouded by the world’s essence he could understand why Verre was worthy of such praise and worship. He could comprehend the curiosity and awe that would drive someone to abandon a normal life and devote him or herself to decoding its mysteries.

The outdoors were Valerian’s favourite place. They were just so vast and beautiful. The open plains, the towering mountains, the many trees; tall and mighty sentinels governing the grasslands. Right now he stood on a mountainside gazing out at the remarkable view. The mountains were the only place in Cragsveil dominated by trees and not grass. The roots of the latter found it too difficult to find purchase here.

It didn’t matter to him. Valerian himself did not require deep roots to live off the mountain. He had been hunting since he was eight. There was little about surviving in the wild that he did not know. Plus, while he was not with his grandmother he was not alone. Avery was with him.

The middle-aged man had not aged even a day. He still looked exactly as Valerian remembered him, looking back when he would stand guard beside his crib. But he did look a bit more tired though. He wondered why. Regardless, the man had maintained that stern, stoic look on his face and two-handed longsword in his baldric throughout the time Valerian had known him.

He also rarely left Valerian’s side. So in truth, Valerian while hunting solo, wasn’t really alone. Avery hung around to do his job. A two-fold task that entailed acting as his aide and ensuring that Valerian was protected. Thus he followed the young man everywhere he went. Even now on this hunting trip, he stood at the bottom of the outcrop looking up at his ‘young master’.

Valerian leapt of the rocky outcrop and landed deftly on the ground by his manservant. He was clad in his Steelborn armour. Simple and grey with a dull golden glow about it. Perhaps that could be attributed to it being an actual essence artefact. It was not the training version he had used as a child. It still had the same effect but its worth and defensive ability was much higher.

“This is the perfect place for us to use as our temporary hunting camp”, he told Avery.

Avery nodded, agreeing wholeheartedly. The spot was up against a rock wall covered in crevices and furrows and dominated by a massive stone outcropping that jutted out from the mountainside.

From it, whether on top or under one could see for kilometres whilst the overhang provided decent shade and protection from rain. The place itself was well hidden due to the stone outcrop and the other massive boulders that covered that side.

The shaded area wasn’t deep into the rock face so it wasn’t a proper cave but it would more than suffice for their needs. The only problem would be the thicket to the east, but with a few warning spells, they’d have nothing to worry about.

The reason why they were checking this place out like prospective tenants was because that was what they were. Hunters on long trips would often set up temporary base camps from which they would make their forays. They would live there for the duration of the trip only leaving for home when they got enough of what they needed. Valerian intended for this trip to last at least a week. This spot would be theirs.

The hunt was progressing smoothly. Valerian continued to lead the juvenile hog daemon towards his carefully laid trap. Hidden to the side Avery watched, ready to step in if anything went wrong but he knew he wasn’t needed. This was a manoeuvre Valerian had perfected.

Valerian’s armour glowed gold and bright. One of the things his grandmother had taught about the wilds was that you could never be sure when trouble would strike. Upon her advice, he wore at least one defensive spell wherever he went.

The spell was never at full power because that would be an unwise drain on his reserves but he kept it up nonetheless and remembered to boost it when trouble did arise. That was the source of the dull golden glow that always surrounded him.

His defensive spell of choice, Valiant Armour. It was one he chose both for its name and its defensive capabilities. It created a layer of magical armour over his skin from gold coloured metal essence. With this up, he could endure at least one strong charge from the hog daemon without issue. Yet Valerian did not stop there. He had added a second spell. The more common, Mage Guard.

This one was a blue unattributed barrier that surrounded him like a cocoon. It wasn’t as strong as the valiant armour defensively but it lacked any elemental weakness making it a valuable spell in its own right. With the two together Valerian was not only safe, he was confident and secure.

Moving swiftly and surefootedly, he harried his quarry. A bunch of daggers and quarrels hovered around him. There were nine in total. Nine being the maximum number he could control freely without issue and without the act taking too much of his concentration. Concentration he needed to evade and fight against the maddened hog that was trying to skewer him.

He clutched his arcane focus firmly in his right hand whilst the other remained outstretched before him controlling the weapons. The daggers he used to slice up the beast’s skin, the quarrels he drove into its flesh. Neither was powerful enough to land a critical blow but then again that wasn’t his intention. He just caused some small wounds whilst riling the beast up.

This ensured that it followed him right into the trap he had laid out. He just kept his mind on the surroundings and felt for the anchored spell with his mind. Once the hog charged past the threshold, he triggered it.

[Iron Clad Shackles].

Chains burst from the ground rooting the hog in place. With his foe momentarily helpless in front of him, Valerian did not hesitate. He thrust his focus out intoning mentally, ‘Heart Seeking Bolts!’ At this command, his formerly ineffective weapons became enveloped in bright metal essence, their offensive might increasing many fold as they became the medium of the spell.

In a flash, they forced themselves into the hog’s body, slicing up internal organs and killing it in a single blow. Whereas before, the hog’s skin was too thick and its defensive essence layer too formidable, the shackling spell not only restrained its movements but also suppressed its power allowing the enchanted weapons to kill it with ease.

Valerian stood there a few moments more, panting in excitement. This was a long-tusked hog daemon, the same kind as the one Pan had killed that day. Whilst several times weaker than that one, he could now fight a daemon and win. He lowered his focus to take a short rest.

Every arcanist worth his or her craft had at least one focus, Valerian had three. Arcanists relied on their abilities to draw on and control world essence to cast their spells. The process was difficult and required a lot of training and concentration. An arcane focus helped with that.

It halved the work required by reducing the burden on the user when it came to collecting and controlling arcane energy or world essence. For example, Jonas carried a staff caped with a red crystal. That was his primary focus and it had a high tier fire daemon core at the top to help him control and summon fire essence.

Many other arcanists were the same – staff carrying robed cultivators who colour coded their clothes and equipment to match their respective attributes. Nonetheless, there were others who used wands, staves or other more esoteric devices as their foci.

Valerian’s primary focus was a little more unique though. It was a mace. The original plan was to have a stave made. A simple piece about seventy centimetres long, but somehow thanks to the suggestions of his uncles he ended up with something just as long only with large metal flanges fixed to the top. It was also three times his weight and had a core that glowed a strange constant swirl of cyan and grey gas.

In addition to his, the gauntlets of his armour had been modified to serve as his secondary foci. Each gauntlet was inscribed with special glyphs to help conduct arcane energy and had small cores embedded in the back.

The right one had a wind core and the left a metal one on account of his dual attributes. They were far inferior to his mace but they were a boon nonetheless. It was wiser to have something to fall back on.

Only the spirits knew how many arcanists had perished because their foci had either been destroyed or because they were disarmed in combat and left with none. Jonas himself carried two wands tucked into his robes and his grandma had a wicked looking dagger carved from a daemon fang with a dark core as the pommel.

Having rested a bit, Valerian got up and began dressing the hog. First, he removed the prized tusks and then he dug out the daemon core. The core was the essence crystal of a daemon. It was were its essence was stored and could be used for all sorts of things such as the crafting of weapons or foci and as a storage or gathering tool for elemental energy. The latter, however, was limited to the attribute of the daemon beast whose core it was.

The hog had a brown core that exuded an earthen aura, signifying that it was an earth attributed beast. However, Valerian knew that already. He fought it. Putting the precious items away he sliced open the belly and began removing the viscera. He would have skinned it but the skin was much too torn up from the battle and would be worthless so he left it on.

Avery looked on, watching his master’s practised stroke whilst keeping an eye on the surrounding area. The smell of a freshly killed beast was sure to attract unwelcome guests.

Lait Mayne walked up the mountainside with his team. He was a simple enough looking guy with a coarse dark beard and decent leather armour. He had a sword at his waist and no less than four daggers strapped to his other side.

The rest of the men with him were the same but his position as their head could be inferred from the fact that he walked at the very front, actually leading them up the mountain. Also, he was the only one not carrying any baggage.

As for the rest, they were a band of scruffy looking fellows in a mishmash of clothes and styles. The only thing that really identified them as part of the same group was the tattoo that each bore. It comprised of three dark spots with a blood red ‘V’ running slanted through the gaps without touching them. It was prominently displayed on their chests and arms.

Each of the men walked briskly and maintained a tight formation, however, their guards were clearly lapsed. This was a route they had walked many times. People rarely came this way and the only time they really had to be careful was when they left to make sure they were not spotted or followed, even by their colleagues.

They were bandits. A small splinter of the actual force on their way to one of their secret hideouts to stash some of their more precious loot. Every single one of them was a cultivator with levels ranging from the third stage to true first tiers like Lait. They were also among the most trusted of their leader’s men.

Bandits were not nice people. None would think so and no one should think so. They lived hard lives and resorted to stealing and pillaging the fruits of others’ labour so that they would not labour themselves. They were criminals of the violent kind and not above turning on each other even under the best circumstances. The ideal of honour among thieves is not one that is widely held.

The mission of this particular six-man cell was secret and important but it was not complicated. All they had to do was avoid being seen by their colleagues and any patrolling soldiers, drop the loot in the secure location and make their way back. Their actual base was only two mountains away so it was not a particularly long trip.

They marched leisurely, making good progress but not keeping their presence to the minimum for which they could not be blamed. They had grown accustomed to the easy trip and did not take the precautions they should have. Unfortunately for them today was not like the others.

They walked out of a thicket and instead of coming upon their secluded hiding spot they came upon a youth and middle-aged man sitting in the shade of the rocky outcropping, a fire in their midst and a roasting hog spitted over it. Stunned, Lait merely glanced at the two people camping in the front entrance of their band’s secret trove. His men did same.

Sadly, their entrance was not quiet and the subjects of their observation noticed them, twisting, in turn, to look upon their observers.

The two groups stared at each other for a moment in strange silence.