Chapter XLII: If Only You Were Lonely
The Hunter awoke with a startle, finding themself not surrounded by fire on a sinking boat, but in the dilapidated house of Alphonse in the town of Kingsport.
"Easy there," Alphonse said. "Ye've been out for a while."
"When can we head out?" The Hunter asked, reaching for their hat.
"In the morning," Alphonse said. "It is much too dark to go out to sea like this."
"Is there a weapon smith in town or similar? She needs arrows."
Alphonse shook their head. "I'm afraid not," they began. "There's nothing out there in the swamp worth hunting and can't fish with a bow."
"Then she'll need a weapon until we can get to another town."
Alphonse ran a hand over their mostly bald head. "I likely have a harpoon or a spear I can spare unless ye wish to try yer luck with what armaments either get scavenged from the swamp and ruins, but I wouldn't chance it. There's still plenty evil in these lands and I'd rather not see either of ye get cursed."
"Have you ever used such a weapon?"
Sasha shook her head. "I've only ever used a bow."
"Before the bow, hunters used the spear," the Hunter began. "It's a simple and straightforward to use weapon while still allowing you to keep some distance between yourself and your prey."
"If that settles that, I'll get to looking," Alphonse said.
The Hunter stood on the Kingsport docks, staring out at the sea, the strange feeling the moon awakened in them in conflict with the feeling of serentity that the sea brought over them.
"Where do you intend to go from here?" Sasha asked.
"Wherever Alphonse can take us."
"Do you recall what happened between the monsters and now?" Sasha asked.
"We killed them and then..." The Hunter trailed off.
There was more to it than that, but the Hunter could not recall what.
From the outskirts of the town to the Dream Lands, but what happened in between? It wasn't normal for large gaps in their memory to appear much to the dismay of the Hunter.
"You don't remember, do you?"
"You don't have to follow me everywhere when we're in a town," the Hunter said.
If you don't like what is being said, the Hunter recalled someone saying to them once. Change the conversation.
They were wise words from someone the Hunter could not recall the name of as one would expect from a brief meeting under chance circumstances.
"I don't, but..." Sasha trailed off as it was a pointless gesture trying to talk to the Hunter especially when they were more unwilling to talk than usual.
Do you get lonely?
"This vessel can take ye as far as the Elemental Foothills if that'll do ye fine," Alphonse said while boarding a vessel similar to the one that took the Hunter out to the Sea of Pitch, but much more time and weather worn.
"That's fine," the Hunter said as they boarded, Sasha following, a well used and maintained harpoon in hand.
As the vessel disembarked and began its voyage across the bay, the Hunter stood at the bow, the sounds of the tide and occasional seabird once more bringing them peace of mind as the sea salt air began to mask the scents of mud and blood on their attire.
The Hunter's mind began to wander and with it came thoughts of what could have been.
Would they have lived a happy and fulfilling life in their hometown free of the death and violence that followed them in their current least favourite life or would they have lived a meaningless life of suffering brought on by the horrors they have witnessed and in the present hunted?
The Hunter looked over towards Sasha and wondered if she had similar thoughts.
How can someone choose to leave their entire life behind for one devoid of happiness and peace?
The Hunter's mind wandered further until they no longer thought of Sasha and focused only on the sound of the sea.
Their vessel drifted with the tide, the shores of the Elemental Foothills still a ways away, but from their position in tje bay, they could see smoke rising in the distance, but it was not from the long dormant volcano that the mad pyromamcer Xan had occupied.
"Yer next quarry, I presume?" Alphonse asked.
"No one can say," the Hunter said, the sight of the smoke bringing them back to reality.
Were the Elemental tribes that inhabited the region in conflict or was something else amiss such as someone or something creating a disturbance?
The Hunter checked their pack to examine what tools they had if there would be a need to investigate and a potential hunt to engage in.
The bombs and fire bundles they had used in the Dream Lands were missing which while not surprising was disappointing, but fire in a realm where Fire Elementals resided would not be particularly useful and while they had lightning bundles, those would not be useful for a similar reason.
They had resins with different poisons for inflicting blindness, sickness, as well as caustic substances for corroding flesh, scale, and bone.
The Hunter wondered about the one who told them about the making of poisons and other toxins for a moment.
She had lamented about indulging in such practices, but knew it was either divulge her skills or not have a roof over her head for the night as there wasn't a lot of desire for a lone dancer with no real reputation to speak of.
If you don't like what is being said, the Hunter recalled her saying. Change the conversation.
Lastly, beyond the flint and steel, hip lantern, and various shot, they had some balsa wood bombs packed with salt and iron powder.
Alphonse's vessel neared the shoreline of the Elemental Foothills, Alphonse having reversed the sails to avoid being marooned on the opposite side of the bay from the place they called home.
"Appreciate all the assistance ye have blessed us with," Alphonse called out as the Hunter and Sasha disembarked.
Sasha waved to Alphonse as they began to turn their vessel around and begin the journey back to Kingsport while the Hunter gazed up at the smoke rising beyond the treeline.
As expected, it was not coming from the former fortress of Xan.
It had been some time since the Hunter had been in this region, but they couldn't imagine much if anything changing in what was largely untouched by the hands of those from human civilization.
Was it new prey, something to offer to Nodens or was it something else entirely?
While these lands were largely only inhabited by the Elementals, it would not be wise to let something that could stir up a frenzy in a volatile group run rampant.
Sasha turned away from the bay and looked out towards the treeline, the leaves awash in red, orange, and gold like a great blaze that the smoke billowed from.
How long have we been travelling? She thought. Days? Weeks even?
They weren't too far away from the region where her home is which she left what felt like ages ago which made Sasha feel somewhat homesick, but she knew it was too early to go back now if she was ever going to go back.
Sasha thought of the similarities between where they are now and the cove they spent the night at after their first hunt for the wolf spawning thing in the swamp, but she knew the Hunter likely wasn't thinking the same as they went into the trees to find the source of the smoke beyond.
By their own admission, the Hunter was not particularly adept with magic, but they could feel some of the innate magical energy in the land.
They could feel the wind on their skin as a light breeze blew through and the wet mud beneath the sun dried earth beneath their feet and even a slight electricity in the air signifying the Elementals that called these lands home and their effect on the land.
While it had not been their first time in the Elemental Foothills, it was always sort of relaxing to be there although not to the same degree as being near the sea.
Eventually they would find the source of the smoke, the Hunter glowering.
In the more mountainous area of the region, they came across an encampment for what they could see was an active geological surveying sight perhaps for a developing mining operation, the smoke coming from a newly formed cave that had been blown open recently.
Various workers milled about the area, entering and exiting the newly made cave, removing debris as they dug deeper into the earth.
Observing the workers were three figures, an adult male in attire that was formal and expensive looking even by what standards may have been set by the wealthy of the continent.
The second figure was a child in attire just as extravagant as the adult.
And lastly was a male around Sasha's age in the standard attire of the Shadow Hunter which caught the Hunter's attention much more than the other two, the adult male in extravagant clothing being the first to notice them.
"Welcome, travellers," the man said joyfully, his hands gesticulating as he spoke as if to emphasize his greeting.
"Um, hello," Sasha said nervously.
"I am Cornelius, the proprietor of Strahl Industries and this is my boy and heir to the Strahl name and all it entails, Sebastian," the man introduced himself and son.
"Pleased to meet you," Sebastian said with a slight bow and exaggerated hand gesture, seemingly imitating his father if not inheiriting more than just his father's wealth.
Lastly was the Shadow Hunter who eyed the two, but especially the Hunter with suspicion.
"Cashel," the Shadow Hunter said with a bow that was too deep to be sincere.
What stood out about Cashel to the Hunter was around their neck was a necklace of dried and decayed animal ears on a thin chain.
As part of their training to be Shadow Hunter's, one was tasked to make multiple runs through Castle Valtrith to cut through various monsters until they encountered a Wereliger which they would then slay and carve the heart out of.
It wasn't the easiest of task for some and would often filter out who weren't up for it often with their death, but for those that did succeed, they would continue their training.
The Hunter did not see it as something that warranted keeping trophies and saw those that did such a thing as arrogant and only looking for fame.
Those types often didn't survive long.
"I'm Sasha," she said with a slight bow. "Pleased to meet you all."
"Well met, young lady," Cornelius said with the same exaggerated hand gestures. "And who might you be?"
"I'm a Hunter," they said. "That's all you need to know."
Cornelius burst into laughter.
"Straight and to the point," he exclaimed, his hands gesticulating dramatically. "That's the kind of attitude I like to see. Tell me, what brings you two here?"
"We saw the smoke and came to investigate," the Hunter said. "No good can come from a disturbance in this region."
"Well, I appreciate the concern," Cornelius began with a dramatic gesture, not noticing Cashel sneering at the Hunter's words. "But as you can see, we have everything under control here and if something comes up, Cashel here is more than capable of handling a rogue Elemental or two."
"Thank you, sir."
In the newly developing mine, workers of of various identities hefted hammer and pick axe, bringing their tools down against the rock while others worked to reinforce the walls.
Cornelius had told them all the world was changing and he would be the one to take the reins of development and with their assistance be the one to chart the course of history.
Some said it felt like they were apart of something larger than any of them while others viewed Cornelius as a grifter at the very least and an exploiter at worse.
Among the elves, humans, and other races, there was one worker in particular who stood out from the rest.
They were a large individual, much larger than the others, more like a golem than any human or human-like race in stature, their attire while the same as every other had been custom tailored for their immense size.
While the other workers wore a blue bandana either around their neck or head, the large one wore a full head wrap that obscured their face like those who travelled across the Sandsea as they tirelessly hammered away at the far end of the mine like some sort of automaton.
The workers addressed the large worker as "D," as none could pronounce their name, but thought it sounded like it started with a D and as they hadn't protested, everyone figured it to be acceptable.
While the large worker was addressed as "D," the other workers would refer to them as The Lurching Man in private on account of how they always had a lurching posture even now as they banged on the wall of the mine.
"D" tirelessly hammered at the wall, scattering dust and tiny bits of rock every which way which while impressive to some was mildly annoying to others as pebbles and bits of rock hit them, but no one was brave or stupid enough to say anything to the giant among them.
"D" believed they could feel what they were searching for getting ever closer with each swing of their hammer.
The object that would further their evolution, their ascent, their transcending of what remained of their humanity as the Great Khan had spoken of several times during "D's" time under their tutelage.
The Strahl family was among one of the older families in the Land of Dragons alongside the Arkham family, but unlike the Arkham's who're largely unknown outside of an obscure corner of Doomwood, the Strahl's were more public, fancying themselves as pillars of whatever community they found themselves in when they left Swordhaven.
It had been some time since either family had been in communication with one another, Cornelius never mind Sebastian had not corresponded with either and Cornelius was more than happy to keep it that way, recalling the stories his own father had passed down to him by his father.
Cornelius was quite proud of being a member of one of the old families, a living piece of history that had shaped and guided the direction the world had been going for generations.
Of course he never thought about how the Strahl family initially achieved their wealth having just attributed it and been told his whole life, it had been achieved through innovation rather than any nefarious or mystical practices.
A tale that would continue when Sebastian would come of age and inherit the family fortune and company.
Workers emerged from the mine including "D," the Lurching Man, one shouting "Fire in the hole," before an explosion shot out a cloud of dust, the very earth they stood on shaking.
Cornelius let out a loud chuckle.
"That's always my favourite part!" He exclaimed, his hands gesticulating wildly while smoke trailed out of the mine as the workers went back in to continue the excavation process.
The Hunter noticed the especially large worker was the first to return to the mine, moving at a pace that seemed out of the ordinary for someone of their size. It was almost inhuman.
When they disappeared into the mine, the Hunter's eyes shifted towards Cashel who had been staring, gawking really at them and Sasha as if sizing them up.
"Does he seem 'off' to you?" Sasha whispered to the Hunter.
"The one who won't stop staring," Sasha said, having not been paying attention to the workers heading back into the mine to notice the especially large one.
"There is somethinf about him," the Hunter began. "Nothing threatening."
"D" resumed banging against the face of another rock with their hammer, whatever it is they sought growing closer and closer.
Every now and again they'd stop and place a hand against the rock, hoping to feel something through their gloves and eventually as time went on from the beginning of the operation to present they went from feeling nothing to feeling a feint warmth beneath the rocks surface.
Perhaps within another day or two and maybe another nitroglycerine blast, they would break on through to the other side and with it find the treasure they had been searching for.
From outside, a few workers could hear screaming followed by a crack of thunder, the signs of another Elemental attacking the camp.
The attacks were growing more frequent as if they corresponded with the depth of the mine they dug, but Cornelius assured them that Cashel would handle any Elementals and they would be perfectly safe.
From the wooded area, a few workers ran out screaming, pursued by a pair of Earth Elementals, Cashel immediately springing into action, drawing both of his weapons, firing a shot at one of the Elementals.
The Hunter watched, motioning for Sasha to stay put as they observed the Shadow Hunter out of his element, fighting the forces of the natural world come to life rather than the things that lurk in the dark.
The shot served more to draw the attention of the Elementals rather than do any sort of harm to them, the Hunter not looking down on Cashel for it as they themselves weren't properly equipped to fight a living rock which is why they employed the use of various tools such as bombs.
The Elementals moved to flank Cashel, the monsters demonstrating a level of intelligence most would likely have not expected from such primal creatures.
Cashel dashed back, tossing his firearm into the air and from his freed hand, unleashed a flurry of magical energy at one of the Elementals, cracks and dents appearing on its body.
Catching the firearm, Cashel fired another shot at the Elemental that was unlike the first, having been imbued with his own innate magical abilities.
Thunder roared as the shot tore through the Elemental, leaving a sizable hole in its body, the monster collapsing in a heap, its core destroyed.
The Hunter did not outwardly show any sign that they were phased by the display as by their own admission they were not adept with magic, even what little was used by Shadow Hunter's.
Cashel pivoted, ready to repeat the display that had surely impressed Cornelius Strahl, stopping when the remaining Elemental began to do something no one present had ever seen before.
The Earth Elemental began to vibrate, the vibrations growing stronger until the land itself began to shake, the shattered remains of the other Elemental moving towards its vibrating kin, drawn to it.
Cashel steadied himself by planting his sword in the ground as he noticed the fragments of the fallen Elemental beginning to merge with the remaining one while the land began to darken and wither as though it were assimilating the earth itself.
The Elemental's body grew larger, its hide thicker as it stood far above Cashel and possibly even "D," the Lurching Man.
"That shouldn't be possible, should it?" Sasha asked, steadying herself on her harpoon as the vibrations ceased.
"I'm not versed on Elementals," the Hunter said, not looking away from Cashel and the transformed, mutated even Earth Elemental.
Cashel dashed backwards as the Elemental raised its enormous hand-like appendages, slamming them down, causing a great tremor, Cashel once more using his sword to steady himself before lunging in, his sword pinging uselessly off of the Elemental's almost steel-like armour.
The Elemental pulled back one of its hand-like appendages, a direct hit from its boulder-like fist surely being enough to severely cripple if not be lethal should it connect with Cashel's body.
Cashel pivoted around the monster, attacking once more with his sword, making no visible markings in the monster, capping it off with a shot from his firearm.
The monster appeared no worse for wear, but to a keen eye such as Cashel or the Hunter, they could tell some likely insignificant damage had been inflicted and for a time would continue to be inflicted as time went on.
But time was not a resource any of them had.
The Elemental slowly turned around to face Cashel who circled around it, putting some distance between the two.
"May I seek your assistance, Hunter?" Cashel called out, trying his best to maintain a carefree and level tone.
The Hunter thought of tue poisons and caustic substances they carried and the massive Elemental.
How different was stone from scale?
"Stay put," the Hunter ordered.
Retrieving the resin of choice, the Hunter applied it to their blade, a sickly black substance that oozed and dripped, sizzling against the dry earth as they dashed forward.
The two flanked the Elemental, Cashel beginning with a burst of magic while the Hunter took a swing at one of the arm-like appendages of the Elemental being reminded of the thing from the Sea of Pitch in a way, the sickly black resin adhering to the stone.
Thunder cracked as the two fired into the creature, Cashel's lone shot roaring over the two shots of the Hunter, the Elemental staggering ever so slightly.
Seizing the opening, the two made their move, their swords seemingly doing nothing to the armoured creature, more and more of the Hunter's resin burning away at the heavy stone.
The creature began to curl in on itself, the two dashing backwards as the monster flung its arm-like appendages out, a section of its body near what was always assumed to be the head of an Earth Elemental opening up like the maw of a great creature as it let out a roar that could be heard far and wide.
Inside the gaping maw of the Elemental that seemed to grow stranger and stranger as time passed was a red glow like a great ember.
Flames lapped at the jaws of what was percieved to be an out of the ordinary Earth Elemental as it turned its gaze towards Cashel, hunkering down.
Cashel strafed as the monster exhaled a jet of fire that shouldn't have even been possible for what began as an Earth Elemental to do, firing a shot that seemed to have no effect.
The monster slowly pulled itself up as it began to turn its attention to the Hunter who began to close the distance on the strange Elemental, resin trailing off of their blade.
Flames lapped at the jaws of the Elemental which staggered slightly from another shot from Cashel, the Hunter making no attempt to preemptively avoid what onlookers expected to be another stream of fire.
The Elemental let out another roar, the Hunter's resin coated blade piercing the great ember in its maw, the strange concoction eating at it as it had been doing to its body.
The Hunter dashed backwards, yanking their sword free from the ember as the monster reared up, spraying fire into the air, its cries becoming weaker as its core was eaten away until it fell apart into a heap.
Stunned silence fell over the dig site as the two Strahl's, Sasha and the various workers looked on in amazement and even horror at what they witnessed.
Even Cashel who presented himself as haughty and even a bit arrogant was stunned by what he had witnessed.
"That wasn't natural," Cashel said staring at the smoking heap that was the Elemental.
The Hunter would be lying if they said they weren't surprised by the Elemental, but at the same time they had encountered multiple creatures on the way to this point that were far from natural, but there was a certain mysticism about the fire breathing Earth Elemental that was absent from the wolf creature, Tear Collector, and Keeper of the Mire, and even the Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake.
Cornelius Strahl hesitantly approached the two as if afraid the smoking heap would reanimate, Sebastian clinging to his father.
"That was...that was quite the spectacle, you two," Cornelius said, wiping his brow with a handkerchief in one hand while gesticulating with the other. "I can't say I ever expected to see such a thing, even in these lands."
"I appreciate your assistance, Hunter," Cashel said with a bow that was less exaggerated than when he had introduced himself earlier. "Should you ever need assistance, no matter where, do not hesitate to ask."
"That won't be necessary," the Hunter said, flicking the remaining resin from their blade before sheating it.
"Then perhaps you may accept some form of payment," Cornelius offered, his hands flailing about. "I cannot in good faith let such invaluable work go uncompensated."
"Six hundred and lodging for the night for the two of us," the Hunter said, motioning to Sasha.
"Why of course, but are you sure about such a low amount?" Cornelius began. "I can assure, I can pay you far more than a mere six hundred gold."
"We travel light."
From the entrance of the mine, "D" watched the fighting, their eyes lighting up at the sight of the Earth Elemental exhaling fire like a dragon.
Surely it must mean that the Great Khan was correct and the secret to their evolution, no their transcendence was within these grounds waiting for them just a little deeper into the mountain.
Sasha and the Hunter met outside the developing mine, away from the encampment, the Hunter holding out a small satchel to her.
"What's this?" She asked.
"Your cut of the payment."
"But I didn't do anything," Sasha protested.
"You're out of arrows and even if you weren't, observing is still participating, assuming you learned something."
"I guess..." Sasha said, hesitantly taking the satchel. "There was a noticeable difference between you and Cashel. Not that it was a competition or anything."
"Yes, he's gifted enough to utilize even the little magic that Shadow Hunter's are trained to use while I am not. That's why I utilize various tools."
"Would you recommend I do the same?" Sasha asked.
"I would suggest it, but you will need to acquire the materials and either funds or knowledge in how to make them," the Hunter began. "I can provide some of that knowledge."
Sasha smiled in the darkness, the moon covered by clouds.
"You know," Sasha began. "I really like moments like this without the monsters and we're just talking."
"Don't think too much into it," the Hunter began. "It's not a bonding moment."
Don't you get lonely? Sasha wondered.