Even with Valerian’s assurance that there were no daemons within four kilometres of them the sergeant still insisted that they take their time and exercise caution when it came to exploring the cave that lay behind the giant boulder. He got his men together. Besides two who they left to guard the prisoners, the rest were marshalled into a simple raid team.
First, they confirmed that the beast had been out for a while by checking the boulder. From the dust and track in the ground, it hadn’t been moved in days. Satisfied with this news they worked together to push it out of their way. Then, they arranged themselves in a simple arrow formation. Two took the lead, two at the sides and Valerian, Avery and the sergeant took the centre.
If he was honest, Valerian would admit that he admired the sergeant to some extent. It only took a snap of his fingers to get his men to act and they obeyed his orders promptly and without question.
But then again Valerian would never admit it. Not when the man had left that bad impression on him in their first encounter. His own reservations about the man’s roles and job aside, he refused to respect anyone who did not respect him, and it was clear from their first interaction that the burly soldier didn’t.
So he maintained his practised disinterested face. That didn’t mean he did not take precautions of his own when walking into the lair. His armour glowed with the sheen of his favourite spell and the other was on his lips. Oh, how he hated that that was his default response. Still, it was the wise thing to do in this situation.
The entrance to the lair was a cave mouth ten metres high. It did not exactly fill the men with confidence to know that they were going to be snooping in the home of a monster that required an entrance that big. However, they were ready to go in anyway even if only to get the whole thing over with and be on their way before the homeowner returned.
Lighting torches, they made their way in. They needn’t have bothered. Apparently, the daemon wasn’t too fond of the dark itself. The inside of the cave was lined with luminescent stones that shone a bright light into the cave corridor. Everyone gave them a wary glance knowing that the extravagance meant that the inhabitant of the cave may be even greater than they thought.
The inner complex was simple but grand. There was a long corridor from the entrance to the first chamber. It was a gigantic room with a ceiling height of about twenty metres and an area of a few hundred metres. They stood in it for a few minutes admiring its simple beauty and the numerous exposed veins of precious mineral that lined the walls and floors.
It was a display of wealth and power that Valerian had never heard of. How powerful was the daemon to be able to carve this place into rock embed with titanossis and frost iron not to mention the other minerals. Valerian suspected that it was a metal attributed beast. It all fit. If it had abilities like his, this would not only be an abode but also a fortress, training area and a weapon.
With such powers, it could make this lair easily and it would benefit greatly from the metal essence in the area. He hadn’t been in here long but he could already feel its effects on his essence. How much less living here all the time. The minerals were not only wealth but also a readily available source of weapons that could be hurled at foes. It was a perfect lair.
Valerian gave it an appraising look. He wanted one just like it.
Quickly, they moved to the second chamber. This was a much smaller corridor that had two openings leading out from it. One lead to the right and the other was in the far back, opposite the one they had just come through. One of the soldiers was sent to check out the right offshoot. Advancing carefully, he made his way over to the entrance and peeked in. Then with an outstretched arm, he made a few signs to indicate that the room was empty.
There was only the other chamber left. Eager to get it over with, they hastened towards it. At this juncture, they had all subconsciously accepted that the daemon truly wasn’t home. Now, they just wanted to examine the sleeping chamber and leave. With any luck, the third chamber would contain the information they were looking for.
In their haste, none of them, not even Avery noticed the strange state that came over Valerian. For some reason, his grey eyes glowed gold and his mouth begun to salivate. A great hunger came over him. He suddenly felt like he was starving. Like he had never actually had a meal in his life and proper food was lying in the room ahead.
Conversely, with the hunger came a great burst of energy. It was like he couldn’t keep still. He had to get there. Both the pace of his heart and his feet quickened dramatically. Fortunately or unfortunately, everyone else was speeding up too and so his increase in speed went overlooked.
Inwardly, Valerian was startled and worried. He struggled bravely to bring his body back under his control. He didn’t understand what was happening. However, the moment he crossed the threshold of the chamber all attempts at control became fruitless. The hunger more than doubled. Anything he did at this point was the equivalent of tossing pebbles into a ravine.
The first soldiers to enter the chamber could barely believe their eyes. Today had been a day of many surprises but this took the cake. This chamber wasn’t empty. There was a massive creature in front of them. But the heavens were kind and it was dead. That didn’t stop their hair from standing on end though. Nor did it take away the fear and awe in their hearts.
Dragons tend to do that to people. Dragons were powerful, majestic creatures and when others encountered them, they couldn’t help but be dumbstruck at the sheer magnitude of their presence. However, the effects did differ a bit from dragon to dragon. Some inspired more fear than awe others more awe than fear. This one gave more than the healthy dose of both.
“Blimey. That’s a Steel Scaled Wyrm”, one of the soldiers pointed out.
“Ar..are you sure?” another asked, struggling to get his tongue to work.
“Of course! I mean, what else could it be?” the first exclaimed.
He was right. The dead beast before them was a Steel Scaled Wyrm, a feared kind of dragon. It was a giant reptile six metres tall at the shoulder, twenty metres long and covered in massive scales that gleamed with a steely metallic sheen. The fact that it was a dragon was evident from the fear it caused but what could have possibly killed such a great daemon.
Its scales had been ruptured and its blood had caked on the floor. It lay on its side, maw open in a painful grimace. This notwithstanding, there were no signs of battle and the entrance had been closed when they found it. The sergeant couldn’t imagine what could have caused the death of this steel titan.
Avery was stunned as well. Turning to Valerian he asked, “I can’t believe it. Young master, are you seeing this?”
It was only now that Avery noticed Valerian’s strange state. The boy just stood there, eyes unfocused and unseeing. From his mouth came an inordinate amount of saliva. A shocking look for someone as concerned about his appearance as Valerian. As for the rest of his visage, it was contorted into a tortured expression.
“Young master?” Avery asked worriedly. He placed a hand on his shoulder and shook him gently.
“Young Master Valerian! What’s happening?” he tried again. This time a little more frantically. The commotion drew the attention of the others in the chamber who turned to look at them. Then Valerian moved.
Being as close as he was, Avery was able to make out the savage hunger that sparked into existence in his charge’s eyes. He couldn’t help taking a step back in fright. Alas, he did not have the chance to recover his composure because Valerian was already walking towards the dragon’s corpse. As he got closer to it, a shocking sucking force came from within his body.
The world essence in the area was drawn in by it. Everyone present watched with scared eyes as the suction coming from Valerian created a visible vortex that rapidly consumed the world essence in the vicinity. Even non-cultivators would probably be able to sense the drain.
“What’s going on?” The sergeant yelled questioningly.
“I don’t know”, Avery yelled back but then he detected something. “Wait… I need all of you to leave.” Seeing them stare at him in befuddlement he shouted at them. “NOW!”
The sergeant gave him a searching look before ushering his men out. When they went out to of the chamber Avery walked to the entrance of the chamber and stood there guarding it, praying to all the deities he knew that he wasn’t wrong.
He shot a glance over his shoulder to Valerian whose suction power was targeting the true essence being emitted from the dragon’s corpse with a vengeance. Directing his spiritual sense, he examined the boy’s body. Yes, Valerian’s qi levels were rising dramatically. He thought back to that fateful day in the courtyard and hoped that once again he was making the right choice.
When Valerian was checking the area for signs of life, he used a sensory spell his grandmother taught him. The more powerful a being, the greater its essence and thus the greater the life sign. That was why he did not detect the dragon. It was dead and therefore did not have a life sign.
However, when he stepped into its chamber and saw its corpse he was hit with the full force of its essence. It diffused from the daemon’s core and flesh drifting into its environment and breaking down to become part of the world’s essence.
Daemons, unlike humans, do not possess the distinction between the physical and spiritual forces. Consequently, when they ‘cultivated’, they directly developed their essence. That was why they were more powerful than their human counterparts.
It was this true essence that drew Valerian closer. He hadn’t been able to determine it before but his fleeting consciousness had now figured out the source of his hunger. The dragon’s essence was just there for the taking. It wafted in the air like the aroma of a delectable dish.
Valerian wasn’t just hungry, he was ravenous and right now he had a craving for dragon.
If anyone was privy to this thought they’d probably scream in fear and wonder. Dragons were to many, the ultimate beast and Valerian’s instinct when encountering one was to eat it. Not only that, he was drooling.
Completely unable to help himself, Valerian moved closer to the massive corpse. His body trembling in the presence of the daemons essence. Unlike the others, he wasn’t affected by the fear and awe-inducing effects of its aura. He basked in it. He felt his flesh moan in gratification and greedily slurp it up but that wasn’t enough. He needed more.
By this time, Avery had taken note of his strange state and tried to rouse him. Valerian could feel the man’s hand on his body and hear his worried voice but he just couldn’t respond. He had long since lost control of his body. A body that walked closer to the source of the delicious true essence.
In but a second, his rate of absorption went beyond his limit. What was previously a trickle that went into his body became a surging river. The dragon had been of a high tier when it was alive and because of this, there was a lot of powerful true essence wafting around. Valerian’s instinct-driven body wanted it all. Like someone dissatisfied with using a spoon it grabbed the bowl and raised it to his lips drinking ravenously.
The previously passive absorption had become active. The suction was so great that all the world essence, as well as the dragon’s true essence in the chamber, began to pour into him. It was intoxicating. Despite himself, Valerian’s mind ceased fighting back. He sank into the pleasurable sensation. Ancestors! It was beyond savoury. The draconic energy tasted too good.
With each glug of true essence his mind drifted away, awash with new sensations and sights. The world around him started to fall away and he began to forget who he was.