Oblivious to the events taking place behind him, Valerian ran like his life depended on it. His figure blurred as it rushed through the landscape. Already tired, he forced himself to keep going. Despite his incredible speed and endurance, he was tapped out. He was panting and stumbling as he made his way across the mountainside and over the rocks. However, he did not stop to take a rest.
He knew instinctively that he had to keep going. The moment he stopped would be the moment that would bring him down. He would not be able to muster up the energy to continue. His qi was drained and his arcane energy had long ceased supporting the spells he cast. Luckily, the Wind Speed wasn’t a sustained spell but a timed spell.
Just then, like a dream upon waking, the spell faded. Valerian nearly went tumbling head over heels when he felt the last vestiges of energy leave his body. His run petered to a stop. Utterly exhausted, with his muscles burning and his vision blurring, he just lowered himself to the ground. There he clutched his side in the pain that came with extreme exertion.
Sprawled in the sparse grass and stony dirt, Valerian gasped and coughed as he tried to pull air into his screaming lungs. Sweat matted his form, plastering his hair and inner clothing to his skin but right now he could care little about how he looked. He glanced back the way they came and was pleased to note that the bandits still hadn’t shown up.
They’d made it!
They had run for nearly two-fifths of an hour and Valerian had put in his all the entire time. They must have covered close to sixty kilometres in that sprint. Thankfully, pushing himself like he did was not for nothing. He had managed to take advantage of the bolstering spells to open up the distance as much as possible. The bandits couldn’t possibly follow them now.
Avery stood on the side and watched as his charge struggled to pull himself back together. In his opinion, Valerian had lasted too long given how he pushed his limits. The young aristocrat famed for his comportment was now a mess. His hair was in disarray, his clothes and armour were filthy and he was lying in the dirt, curled up and panting like a dog freed from a hot box. It was a bit disconcerting.
The man took the occasion to straighten himself. Quickly wiping his face and trying to pull his tattered vest and sleeves together to look more presentable, the manservant found a small boulder to sit on as he too begun to rest. His exhaustion was much more manageable than Valerian’s due to his long years of training, his higher level of cultivation and his age.
The two just stayed the way they were, recovering slowly as the light of day changed to dusk. As the light fled, Avery stood up. Bandit free or not, it would be unwise for them to remain out in the open in the mountains at night.
“Master Valerian!” he called but received no response. “Master Valerian. We should go. We have to find some shelter for the night.” Again he received no response. Strange.
Slightly worried, Avery walked up to his charge. The boy was just lying there with his eyes closed. Quickly, he bent over to check on him. Then he sighed in relief and stood back up.
The boy was merely asleep.
When Valerian came to, it was to the smell of broth cooking over a small fire. He rose slowly, muscles still aching slightly from the trouble that morning. His arcane energy and qi were all replenished. That alone was enough to make him feel safer. Tossing the blanket covering him aside, he sat up, surprised to find himself sans armour and only in his leathers.
The dancing flames of the fire cast warm light on the stone walls surrounding him, informing him that he was in a cave or underground cavern or some sort. Cold air came rushing in from the entrance, brought in by the night breeze, chilling his toes. Still a bit on guard from before he opened his hand and called his focus to his side. The weighted metal artefact immediately slapped into his palm after shooting over from where it was. At his side.
He hadn’t been disarmed. A bit confused, Valerian observed his surroundings with more detail. Whilst they were definitely unfamiliar he could recognise the sheet he had been covered with and the pot simmering over the fire. Training his gaze on the entrance he was greeted with the even more familiar broad back of Avery.
A sense of warmth and security filled him. Settling back down he nestled himself once more in the blanket. He was clearly safe and sound. However, Avery had heard him. The man immediately made his way over.
“Young Master Valerian. How are you feeling?” he asked.
“I’m alright”, Valerian answered sitting up once more.
“Please sit still, I’ll fetch you some soup”, the man told him.
True to his word, he got a small bowl and ladled up some hot broth for Valerian. Clutching the hot bowl in one hand and a spoonful of soup in the other, Valerian blew some air over his soup and drank it quietly. The broth was simple, made with some ingredients they had brought with them and some wild hare meat. Despite this, it was some of the best tasting soup Valerian had ever eaten.
He merely sat there emptying bowl after bowl whilst Avery stood by filling it every time it emptied. Apparently, nearly dying had both increased his appetite and refreshed his pallet. Soon he was done and the two sat in the small cave in companionable silence. Valerian did not feel like talking. Instead, he just lay in his blanket and went over the events of the day.
All of a sudden, Avery shot up in excitement removing a communication talisman from his storage ring. He spoke into it hurriedly. The call was very brief but Valerian did make out Avery giving out what sounded suspiciously like a location.
“Who was that?’ he asked after the call was done.
“A passing patrol saw our signal and are in the area. They just now managed to make contact. I told them where we are. They should be here within the hour” Avery explained.
This was good news. They were even more secure now. However, Valerian’s eyes were narrowed in Avery’s direction. Unfortunately, the man did not notice it.
“They called you?” he asked.
“Yes. Why?” Avery questioned with a puzzled expression.
Putting on a happy smile Valerian shook his head slightly, commenting, “Nothing. I’m just relieved that’s all. Their response time is getting good”.
Avery just nodded absentmindedly not really registering Valerian’s words.
Whoever heard of guardsmen calling and not the victims calling first? Plus, how do they have the signature to Avery’s personal communication talisman?
The soldiers made it over even faster than expected. There were six of them. A full team. Each was geared not just for battle but also for surviving in the wilds. Their cultivation levels ranged from the third stage to the leader, an axe-carrying man who was a true practitioner. Valerian was very impressed. On arriving, they lined up and saluted him.
The leader came up and began talking to Avery and Valerian.
“We saw your signal”, he said. “It took some time to track you down and catch up but we only made it there in time to see that landslide you caused. It was impressive”, he admitted. “Anyway, we rounded up the Vults who attacked you and slowly tracked you here.”
Valerian nodded calmly taking it all in. The man’s story surprised him but he had nothing to say on the matter. “Where are they?” he enquired instead.
“Boys, bring the bandits over. Young Master Valerian would like to speak to them” the man shouted.
Three soldiers acted. Following the order, they dragged their quarry over. Valerian looked on as the battered remainder of the band that had caused him so much trouble was placed at his feet and mercy. The men were not looking good. The arcanist especially. He was unconscious and the back of his skull was bleeding from a rather large gash. As for the leader, his face was just one giant bruise. The last was covered in bruises as well.
“Hello again”, Valerian greeted coldly.
Lait looked at him defiantly, too trussed up with essence suppressing manacles to do anything else.
“Do you mind telling me why you attacked us? What are you even doing here?” he asked.
The bandit and his cohort kept their mouths closed. These were the very questions they’d tried to kill them to keep from being asked. There was no way they’d spill the beans now.
Valerian looked them over. “Tell you what”, he began. “I’ll make sure the person who speaks receives a full pardon. However, if no one does so I’ll make sure you receive a punishment worse than the one you’re probably imagining”.
“We’ll never tell you anything Steelborn!” the manifestation stage bandit spat.
The look on Valerian’s face grew even colder. It looked like he was about to kill them right there. “I see”, he simply stated. “Do you feel the same?” he asked Lait.
The bandit leader struggled to get his broken jaw working right. Speaking through the pain he told Valerian, “You’ll never get anything from us. I promise you that”.
He meant it. His team was chosen not for their skill or power but for their great dedication and loyalty to their leader. There was no way they’d betray him now.
Valerian gave a cold smile. “You say that now. But I can assure you that there are numerous ways to get even the most unwilling to talk and the clan has quite a few experts in such matters”, he pointed out.
“Whatever you are trying so desperately to hide will come out eventually. You’ll spill your secrets and then I’ll make sure you get twice the punishment you deserve. I for one make sure to keep my promises”, he finished.
Unable to help it, Lait’s countenance paled. His subordinates did as well. Even the leader of the soldiers was unnerved. The cold, deathly assurance in Valerian’s voice shook them. It was clear to them that he was not joking. The boy was dangerous. The weakest bandit immediately began to struggle, trying to escape his bindings but it was of no use. Valerian merely gestured to the soldiers and they were carried away.
The team leader stepped forward and in a more subdued voice, he spoke. “Vults really are something. When we met these lot the leader succeeded in crushing an interspatial ring. When captured, he nearly killed himself. They are secretive, organised and efficient, very unlike the usual bandits. If you didn’t know better, you’d think they were soldiers or in some martial sect”.
Valerian listened distractedly. He’d read their file. He wasn’t learning anything new. There was definitely something off about the whole picture. Everything he knew told him that they not only had a purpose in coming to this place but also that it was a very important one. The fact that the leader crushed his interspatial ring was more proof.
Those rings came with all sorts of enchantments to protect and create the interdimensional storage they held. Destroying the ring meant losing whatever was in it forever and yet the man had done so. Plus, they had panicked when they run across him and Avery and had done all they could to silence them.
Whatever it was he would find out.
In the meantime, he said, “I’d like to thank you for your help sergeant! Who knows what could have happened without your intervention. I’ll pen a message. When you take the bandits to DaleGuard give it to my grandfather and you’ll be rewarded for your troubles”.
The man was perplexed. “And you sir?” he asked.
Valerian’s left eyebrow rose. “For my part, I will try and see if this hunting trip can be salvaged. Things may have gone a bit wrong but there’s no reason I can’t accomplish what I came here to do. Life goes on. Why do you ask?”
Unsure how to broach the subject the sergeant tentatively inquired. “Well, I was thinking you’d come back with us”.
“Oh? And what, pray tell made you think that?” Valerian asked. His eyes were narrowed and their hidden depths suddenly seemed teaming with dark promises.
“Oh, no young master! I wasn’t trying to be presumptuous. I was only thinking that given your harrowing experience you’d like to return to the city and recuperate”, the man hurriedly explained.
Valerian’s eyes remained focused on him. Actually, they seemed even more suspicious. A feeling of danger struck the sergeant making him reach for his axe unconsciously. He managed to stop himself before he drew a weapon in front of his lord. The same lord whose tone now carried a hidden edge.
“Your thoughts are neither welcome nor asked for”, Valerian groundout. “What I do is none of your business. If I wanted to return to the city I would have said so. As it stands, I have given a directive. Get on with it! I have my own matters to attend to”.
The soldier was a little stunned but he held his ground. “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that sir!”
The moment he said that the atmosphere changed. Now, his men had begun to notice as well. It was a sense of danger that people who fought often would grow familiar with. It was like a mental alarm bell that warned when something was about to happen. Only, the sergeant could not place this one. In front of him, Valerian took a single, purposeful step in his direction.
Too late he realised that the source of the pressure was coming from the boy in front of him. He very nearly drew his axe and backed off right then. However, he was veteran, fully capable of dealing with the pressure and confident that he could handle a noble brat with a weaker cultivation level. Or so he thought.
“Can’t let me do what sergeant? What makes you presume that you can let me do anything?” Valerian inquired, his tone dark and daring.
The man was tongue-tied. He couldn’t think of a proper response. Putting his hand on his back, he rubbed the flat of his axe for assurance. Abandoning all subtlety he ventured, “I’m going to need you to come with me, sir!”
Valerian merely took another step in his direction. “Really?” his asked whiles giving a short laugh. There was no mirth in it and his eyes remained dark and angry.
“That’s funny. Well, let’s say that I refuse to come with you. What are you going to do then? Enlighten me”, he dared.
The sergeant was nervous now. That feeling of danger was now intense. Everyone was now watching him, waiting for his response. His arm, unbidden, reached for his axe again. That was the wrong move because as soon as it begun grasping the handle Valerian’s voice came again.
“Are you sure about that, Sergeant?”
The inflexion on that last word seemed like a trigger. It reminded him that even if he could beat the boy and drag him home he was after all, still a sergeant. His background was common and his influence minute.
His opponent was a noble from the most powerful house in the viscounty and his own position placed him as one of the most influential youths in his family. Say he succeeded and carted him off. What then? He would have made a very powerful enemy.
One whose current power was more than enough to ensure that he never found paying work again. Even if his current backer could shield him for now, what was going to happen in a few years when the boy grew more powerful than the old geezer, like he was sure to? He stood there contemplating this issue. Thankfully, the choice was taken out of his hands.
“Why don’t we all calm down?” Avery ventured.
Everyone’s eyes immediately turned in his direction. Many had forgotten that he was there but now that he had spoken they dearly wished he could diffuse the situation. The sergeant, in particular, looked at him with hope.
“Young master, the sergeant is only doing his job. Please forgive him. You know soldiers are coarse tongued. He merely didn’t know to put his words together properly” he offered.
“Oh!” Valerian expressed in fake surprise. “Are you siding with him, Avery?”