Chapter Twenty-three: The Secret Ace
The fire pit was filled with metre tall flames. It had been burning for an hour now, with its flames being constantly tended to by an entire commune of willing sprites. Every sprite would go to its edge and toss armfuls of tinder grass to feed the blaze. Brandr had already informed them that their adversary was dead. He had received the notification when it happened, however, they still continued. It was almost a kind of minor pilgrimage. They were doing their part to condemn the creature that had slaughtered their people to hell.
Brandr and Thorn allowed this to continue, both were aware that the faefolk needed this to vent. Soon, they broke apart, some crying, some crying out with joy and relief. For most, it was like a dream. The creature that had reduced a community of hundreds to just forty-eight was gone, dealt with, destroyed. ‘Forty-four’, Brandr corrected himself. There had been a few casualties in the battle, mostly from the injuries they had sustained. It was unfortunate but he was not a healer and with his powers, as they currently were, he had not even been unable to save the one who survived long enough to make it to him. It was a glaring weakness and one Brandr knew he had to circumvent.
When he was younger, Brandr relied on personal recovery skills, pills and elixirs. He would have to find the time to grow a few panaceas and healing mystical herbs but for now, he had to be content with what he had. It was already a blessing that the shadow of death was not hanging over the sprites. Perhaps, they had merely grown accustomed to death after watching so many of their own be killed and eaten before their eyes. Whatever the reason, Brandr was grateful. It made things simpler. All was not lost though, the fallen warriors looked to be set on a path to becoming folk heroes.
Slowly, the tears and shock gave way to laughter, relief and joy as it fully sunk in that they need never fear the troll again. The creature that had killed so many and caused them to live in fear was gone. Their people had been avenged. Their plight was over. They had their lives again. Brandr was not too sure how it started but before long, a small fete had sprung up. The warriors, Proudsprout and his ilk, as well as Bluecap and Echo, who were responsible for luring the troll into the dungeon, had places of honour and praising them was the centre stage of the event.
The ‘trollslaying’, as they were already calling, had not gone as planned but the goal was still attained. In sniffing them out, the troll had destroyed the second trap which required Proudsprout and his warriors to buy time for Echo to get a knot of malevenomous serpents in place above the troll’s head. Afterwards, the warriors would disengage and give the snakes room to strike. Left delirious and half paralysed, it would be easy to lure the troll into a fire pit deeper in the dungeon. In the end, however, Brandr was forced to pay a heavy price to create a new fire pit beneath the troll to prevent it from killing his warriors. Still, a win is a win. It had not been pretty but they got the job done that was what mattered. They had earned this.
Looking on at their excited merriment, Brandr smiled. This was why he wanted them to fight. The troll, Makas, was no obstacle. From the moment he made an assessment of its strength he knew he could handle it by himself. The only concern was preventing the burly troll from crushing his crystal in a single hit. He was not immortal anymore. Initially, he planned to create a horde of poisonous creatures to swarm it. Weakening it first before attacking but after his epiphany, it was clear that was unnecessary. However, he had to think of his new subordinates.
In his mind’s eye, he pictured the motley group of despondent, bedraggled refugees who had first trooped into his domain and compared them to the spirited creatures now in front of him. The one thing a general needed, more than anything else, more than even skill or smarts, was troops. All kingdoms are built on people. You could not be a teacher without students and many other idioms. Now that Brandr knew what a dungeon was and now that he had reaffirmed his status as a cultivator
He needed capable people. Capable people were not broken. If he was truly going to have to rely on them for the foreseeable future then he needed them healthy, hale and motivated. Sure, he could take the time to resolve their issues and build them up afterwards but helping them defeat the troll would do more for the sprites than killing their enemy for them. So that was what he did, making sure that the efforts of the fae were core to defeating the troll when he could just have easily done without them.
Despite this being the right decision, Brandr was unsure whether to be happy or sad that he never got to use his secret ace.
Two days earlier
“What was the problem you mentioned, Master?” Thorn asked.
he had just finished explaining to his people that the Blitzwing Tablet was never going to fade or be consumed and explaining the value of such a thing tasked them to guard it with their lives.
“Take a look”, Brandr said pointing to one of the Gu vats. “Those hornets are acting strangely.”
Thorn looked into the clear vat, his stomach suddenly queasy. The hornets in question were savagely tearing a death snake to pieces. Each was nearly as long as he was tall and their abdomens had alternating bands of red and black, ending in wicked stings that looked like black steel. Their mandibles were like saws, cutting through the snake’s scales like they weren’t even there. He really tried to see what Brandr was talking about but the only thing he actually noticed was that all the hornets were feasting. They had lookout staring menacingly at the creatures in the vat, daring them to come near.
“They are strangely intelligent”, he told his master. “What did you do to them?”
Brandr shot him a side glance. “It is not that”, he told him.
Clarifying, he said, “I have employed a gu technique. Gu is an ancient practice. You seal a number of poisonous animals in a container and using some techniques and special materials, you curse them to fight and kill each other. While I am not an expert, I do know that there are three possible outcomes. One, they kill each other till there is only one creature left. After going through the gu refining, this survivor will have the combined power and poison of all the creatures that died in the container.”
Thorn gasped. He had never heard of such a dark technique. He would not have imagined such a thing was even possible. A shot of fear was pumped into his heart. What sort of person would even know such a technique let alone practice it? However, Brandr had not finished speaking.
“That is the aim of most gu techniques, however, there is a second outcome, though lesser result. So long as refining a gu does not completely fail even if all the creatures die, you should be left with a concentrated poison miasma or liquid when all is done. This, of course, will be a poison refined from all the creatures, something much more powerful than the sum of its parts”, Brandr added. “The third outcome is also the rarest, though many consider it to be on par with the first. It is when all the creatures die but what is left is not poison but a curse. A combination of the curse refinement, the deaths and resentments of all the creatures that died come together to create a curse that when used, make the target feel exactly what the creatures that died to form it did.”
Pausing for a bit to let this sink in, he again informed the sprite, “That is why I am at a loss as to what is going on here. The creatures in this vat should be singlemindedly killing and refining each other and yet those hornets are working together. Clearly, something is either wrong with my application of the technique or the hornets themselves. You are an expert in animals, you tell me which?”
Thorn scratched his head for a bit. “Well, I remember the warriors bringing in Spike Stings so I am guessing those are the ones that got turned into this” he began. “Given the numbers they brought, I doubt they took them from different sources. It must have been a single hive. If so, then I don’t see anything wrong. Wasps stick to family lines and they do not attack relatives. In fact, they only do things together.”
Brandr listened closely, already growing accustomed to his assistant’s terrible explanations. ‘So the creatures have strong family bonds which keep them together to the extent where there is no internal conflict. They function as a unit and only react to external threats’, he surmised, reading between the lines. He wondered if the same was true for his world as well. He never really considered it but a lot of poison cultivators also happened to carry nests of insects to employ their techniques. Even the immortal, he obtained this technique from had possessed a hive of parasitic wasps. Was this why? Where hive insects the go-to solution for army or wave tactics when it came to poison cultivation?
Resolved to find out, he began modifying the parameters for the technique to ensure that the hornets survived. He was no longer simply refining a gu. Instead, he was refining the hornets into a gu. When he finished he stepped back and looking at the sprite he asked, “Spike Stings?”
“Yes”, the sprite answered. “The pain of their stings is comparable to having a spike driven into your flesh.”
Brandr smiled. When he was done, they would do a lot more than that.