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RE: (DF) The Hunter

 
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9/7/2020 9:48:25   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Chapter XXVI: Come Now, Sleep

The world around the Hunter flickered in and out of view as they fought the urge to collapse and sleep on the road in an act of defiance against the gods of the Dream Lands.

Scarcely beneath the surface, they knew it was a vain struggle, but there was a sort of feeling of petty satisfaction in the idea that they were possibly irritating the gods of another world. It was a hopeless endeavour, but one they pursued nonetheless.

***

Sasha made her way down the road, looking back and seeing Theo fade from view, hoping he could help those lost to the Tear Collector find peace.

She felt her heart grow lighter at the thought of those lost finding peace and just from having the time to talk to someone who would listen about her experience.

Sasha thought about the Hunter and how closed off they are and wondered if there was someone out there who could do the same for them and if so who?

***

The Hunter continued down the road, the Falconreach Guardian Tower coming into view over the horizon, popping in and out of view as they struggled to keep their eyes open. It was a lengthy walk that only seemed to grow longer as exhaustion attempted to overwhelm them.

How many gods were going to badger them and for what reason?

The Hunter knew they couldn't keep this up longer and thought back to the eccentric apothecary Jackson and his offer. If he had something that'd allow them sleep, perhaps he had something that'd allow them to stay awake.

Of course it was too late to turn back now and what's past is passed or so they liked to tell themselves as they passed through the west entrance of Falconreach.

They knew Falconreach had an alchemist, but they actually knew very little about them and as much as they told themself that they'd never count on or trust anyone again, they knew they could count on Jackson to fulfill any request they had.

Inside the Falconreach inn, the Hunter's vision faded in and out as they fought to keep their eyes open and for a moment visions of a familiar face, a grotesque monster, and a memory of the day that forever changed them and shaped who they are today.

***

The Falconreach Guardian Tower began to appear on the horizon as Sasha continued down the road the extent of the trip being as much of an experience as the events that led up to this moment.

She was reminded of the view of Oaklore Keep on approach to an extent, but Oaklore always grew larger and larger on approach, the Guardian Tower never seemed to grow in size.

Eventually Sasha would enter the western entrance of Falconreach and much like Swordhaven she would be mesmerized by the sights, sounds, and sheer amount of people going about their lives.

For all the horrors she experienced since leaving home, Sasha found the sights of new places all the more soothing and healing even.

***

The Hunter barely found the resolve to remove their belt and hat as they entered their room at the inn, the allure of the bed being far more captivating as they crashed down onto it, sleep coming to them in an instant and with it, the words of another of the Dream Lands many gods.

< Message edited by NagisaXIkari -- 9/15/2020 7:15:08 >
DF  Post #: 26
9/11/2020 10:58:02   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Chapter XXVII: The Cost of Dreams

The Hunter stood in a vast oasis at the base of a white temple that resembled one that might be found in the Sandsea.

There was a sort of strange feeling of comfort in being in the oasis as though it and the very sky above were carefully manufactured and curated to be as comfortable as possible despite the otherwise harsh conditions barely visible through the flora.

But just beneath the surface of that comfort was a sense of danger as the Hunter could feel the gazes of various others staring at and through them.

"So nice of you to make it," came an almost bored sounding voice from the trees. "Your summoner awaits just up ahead."

The voice rolled its r's much like the cat from outside Swordhaven, the Hunter trying not to roll their eyes at the idea of being in a sort of cat realm.

"Best not to linger for too long," the voice began. "Some of those here don't take too kindly to outsiders even if they are special guests."

The Hunter began to walk towards the temple, their hand going to their waist, stopping at the sound of a hiss.

"Don't do that either," another voice said groggily. "At worst you'll be torn apart before you can do anything."

"At best, a single gaze is all it takes," the first voice said.

As if to affirm the warning came a low growl that ceased when the Hunter moved their hand away from their weapon followed by a low rustle as whoever that growl belonged to slowly stalked after them.

Climbing up the steps of the temple, the Hunter could see a number of cats of various sizes basking in what appeared to be the sun. Some were alien in appearance with multi-hued coats and long ears almost like that of a rabbit and some with multiple tails.

Some cats looked at the Hunter curiously while others looked at them dismissively or just ignored them as they continued to bask in the light.

Inside the temple's sanctum more cats lied about, some acknowledging the Hunter, others ignoring them and among them sprawled out on sofa that showed evidence of scratching was a humanoid yet also feline figure in attire that was strange yet sensual like a dancer, watched the Hunter approach with gold cat-like eyes, her ears adorned with gold earrings twitched as she stretched out then arched her back before sitting up, her long, spotted, lion-like tail hanging off the sofa, the tip brushing against the floor.

"About time you arrived, Hunter," she said, rolling her r's as the cats did. "You would be wise to not keep the divine waiting."

"Perhaps, those who feel the need to summon me should explain why."

The goddess yawned, revealing her fangs and waved a hand dismissively.

"I was operating under the idea that someone had already done so, if not Nodens then perhaps Hypnos," she said. "Or someone else for that matter."

"I've not spoken directly to Nodens."

"He must still be standing watch over that old asylum in your world then," she began. "Then maybe his envoy or whatever it is her position or role is then. And if not, it's not my fault the others can't be bothered to communicate with you despite wanting you to..."

The goddess trailed off as she let out another yawn.

"Wanting me to what exactly? What could the gods of another realm want with a mortal that they can't do themselves?"

"Personally, I'm curious about that myself which is why I've called you. As for the others, if I had to guess, Hypnos is as unsure as you are as to why you've been summoned to this world, but they probably hope to use you to their own ends and those ends can't be good for me," the goddess explained.

"And Nodens? What is it they want?"

"Well, you've placed your faith in them much like all these darling felines placed their faith in me," she began. "And so you've been brought over to this world. Or perhaps you always could traverse the borders between sleep and this world. For what purpose though...I bet it has something to do with the one they've been hunting for a very, very long time."

"And who might that be?"

The goddesses ears twitch and flatten as she shrinks back into the sofa.

"I would not dare speak any of their names and should you ever learn them, neither should you," she said, shivering. "What I want is to not be dragged into this millenia old conflict and should you agree to assist, I will assist you to the best of my abilities."

"How can a goddess be so unsure of her own abilities?"

"I'm not going to traverse into your world that's chaotic enough as is without the appearance of those from other worlds. It wasn't that long ago before it almost came to an end because of such an incident," she said. "I will assist you the same way I summoned you, but I can't guarantee they'll always be so compliant."

The Hunter tried to suppress their irritation. The goddess was more helpful than either Hypnos or the mysterious woman, but there were still more questions.

"For some, the ability to dream is free and welcoming," she began. "Unfortunately, you're not in that group and have to bear the cost of that ability. It might even seem like a curse and for that, I'm so sorry," she said sadly.

"You didn't start any of this, you have nothing to apo-"

***

The Hunter awoke in their room, the moon's light shining in through the window and with it the temptation to take to the streets for reasons they did not understand.

Looking out the window, they basked in the luminescent light feeling a sort of warmth like what the cats who pledged their faith to the goddess may have felt while basking in the light of what could have been a sun.

If basking in the sun's light was something typical of cats, what did it make them who basked in the moon's light?

They thought about their meeting with the goddess and she had said about the summonings to the Dream Land, Nodens, and the cost of dreams.

What was the reason they were being called? Was there even a reason or was it indeed a curse?

***

Sasha sat up in her bed having abruptly woken up. She did not recall having a dream, but she found herself unable to fall back to sleep.

As she gazed about the room only partially illuminated by the moon shining in through her window, she thought about the Hunter in the Great Lake of Mud and how they were captivated by it for reasons that continue to be unclear to her.

Were they in Falconreach right now entranced by the moon's light or were they somewhere beyond the town's walls?

Sasha got out of bed and walked to the window, the view of the moon shining high above the Guardian Tower was a sight to behold as though it too watched over the town alongside the home of its defenders.

She was reminded of seeing the moon over Oaklore Keep which was similar, but also lesser than the sight she currently gazed upon.

Still feeling as though she is unable to return to sleep, Sasha dressed and departed from her room.

***

The Hunter departed from their room, Sasha having left her room at the same time, the two meeting in the hallway.

"Do you insist on continuing this journey?" The Hunter asked.

"Yes," Sasha said firmly.

"Very well," the Hunter began. "We're going to find a place called Moon Lake."
DF  Post #: 27
10/14/2020 2:29:06   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Chapter XXVIII: Wandering Under the Moonlight

The streets of Falconreach during the nighttime hours were lively unlike those of Swordhaven during the same time, but nowhere near as bustling as they were during the daytime making it seem like they had come to an entirely different town.

"May I ask what made you change your mind?" Sasha asked.

"You have potential, but need refinement," the Hunter began. "Don't think of it as anything other than me offering tutelage until I believe you're capable of honing your abilities the rest of the way yourself."

"That's...fair, I suppose."

The two wandered the streets of Falconreach, despite the Hunter's apparent change of heart of allowing Sasha to accompany them, she felt even further away from them than when they had first met.

During their wanderings, Sasha watched the Hunter who even under their attire that largely concealed their appearance, could see they were gazing up at the moon, fixated on it just like in the Great Lake of Mud.

What is it about the moon that captivates you so much? She wondered.

While the Hunter watched the moon, they had the same thought as Sasha.

What was it about the moon that captivated them in the way it did? What strange being drew their gaze to it?

"Excuse us," Sasha said to a Guardian on watch. "May we ask you a question?"

The Guardian looked at the two, a pair of strangers in Falconreach not being an unusual sight in most cases, but one staring off into the sky was a peculiar sight.

"Yes, but may I ask what your companion here is doing?"

"Oh, they're um..." Sasha began before giving the Hunter a nudge, bringing them back to reality.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes, I'm fine," the Hunter began as though they had not been brought out of a strange, otherworldly trance. "Who might you be?"

"Guardian Logress," the Guardian said. "Your companion wanted to ask me something."

"We're looking for a place called Moon Lake," the Hunter began. "Do you know anything about it or know someone who might?"

"I can't say I've heard of it, but there are plenty of people coming and going who might," Guardian Logress said.

"Very well," the Hunter said. "Thank you."

***

"Where did you hear about this Moon Lake?" Sasha asked as the two continued their wandering of the Falconreach streets.

"A rain damaged notice on the board in Swordhaven. I already inquired with someone there who I believed to be the most informative and they couldn't answer."

"That was just one person though. There could've been others who might have an answer," Sasha said.

"Countless people pass through Falconreach regularly," the Hunter began. "And with those people comes information. There is bound to be someone with an idea of where to find this Moon Lake or what it even is."

Sasha looked at the Hunter in confusion at their investment in a place they only heard of from a rain damaged posting. For all either of them knew, the posting never said Moon Lake originally, but there was a lot about the Hunter she didn't understand.

She thought back to the day they met and the awe and wonder she felt when speaking to them and also the sadness she felt when they said they don't feel anything when it comes to hunting.

"What makes this place so interesting that you backtracked so far out of the way to find a lead on it? Do you think it's a significant hunt or is there something else to it?"

"My reasons are mine alone," the Hunter began. "I didn't relent on you joining me because I wanted someone to open up to."

"Yes, I understand."

Sasha stepped back from the Hunter, their voice being eerily similar to the one they spoke in during that day in the woods with their gun drawn and pointed in her direction.

"I think it would be best if we made separate inquiries around town."

Without waiting for an answer, Sasha made her way further into the moonlit town and away from the Hunter who in what seemed like ages ago was someone she could look up to and would've been ecstatic about learning from like a dream come true.

Looking over her shoulder towards the Hunter, she wasn't sure what to think about them now.

***

The Hunter wandered the moonlit streets of Falconreach, their thoughts a haze as their gaze was fixed on the moon.

The Dream Lands and its gods who sought them out for reasons not known to the Hunter seemed forgotten as if by some spell cast by the moon itself or whatever presence inhabits it.

As the Hunter continued to gaze upon the night sky, their focus was broken not by the actions of another, but by the presence of another, the Hunter instinctively reaching for their firearm.

"Steady yer hand, Hunter," a raspy voice said from the darkness between a building and a tree. "I don't come to do ye or the woman harm."

"Identify yourself."

"Hmm," the voice began. "Let us say...Hiram. Hiram of Kingsport."

"What do you want?"

The name Kingsport wasn't unfamiliar to the Hunter, but they couldn't say they had ever been so far up north. And what did Hiram of Kingsport want with them and why did they seek them out?

"Ye seek Moon Lake, is that right?" Hiram began. "Moon Lake and the prey that calls it home."

"What is Moon Lake and what is this prey you speak of?"

Hiram chuckled, their raspy voice sounding like an object being dragged across gravel.

"The Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake," Hiram said with a smile, their teeth glowing an almost supernatural white in the moon's light.

"Where is this Moon Lake?"

"Deep in the Greenguard Forest on the approach to the hidden glass adorned town of Ashen Rose," Hiram began. "It will be quite a trip, but ye've become accustomed to that, haven't ye?"

***

Maybe it's just how one has to be to live this life, Sasha wondered. Leaving no room for attachments 'cause everything can end in an instant.

Unlike the Hunter, Sasha did not gaze upon the moon in some sort of trance-like state, but rather at the ground below not wanting to show her face to the few people milling around the streets, nor did she want to see them.

Despite what she said to the Hunter, Sasha began to make her return to the inn, drained by her interactions with them and her mind too clouded by thoughts of what it could mean to walk the path she desired.

She thought of Theo and his words to her in Swordhaven about respecting the lives of the things whose life she will take so that they may find peace and of the Hunter who closed themselves off from the world and focused only on the hunt.

Can one close themselves off while respecting the lives they bring to an end? Would she need to close herself off from the world to be able to succeed or was it only a choice the Hunter made themself?
DF  Post #: 28
11/19/2020 23:03:19   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Chapter XXIX: Road to Carnage

The Hunter lied in their room, the words of Hiram of Kingsport clouding their mind.

The man did not answer any questions about his request although the Hunter did little to press, more concerned with what could possibly compel them to traverse the region twice over in order to learn even the slightest bit of information about Moon Lake.

Was it in the name and their ongoing question of what it is about the moon that captivates them like a common beast or was there something else to it?

***

Sasha lied in her room, her gaze away from the window and the light of the moon that shone in, the light reminding her of the Hunter and her conflicting feelings.

Is this really the path I want to walk? One with no home to return to and one of loneliness, fear, and death?

Sasha knew what she wanted to do for so long, to help those in need like she thought she had done before her self-imposed exile.

Sasha thought back to Cry as she often did when she was uncertain about her actions and how he did what he thought was right even after his identity was stripped away.

The Hunter offered their tutelage even after Sasha began to wonder if she only followed them to amend what she thought of as a past betrayal that she consciously knew she had to move on from.

I did what I thought was right for not only myself, but what's right for us, Sasha recalled Cry saying, his eyes watering while her own grew heavy.

***

The Hunter's eyes grew heavy and soon enough sleep came to them.

"Welcome back, Hunter," the familiar voice of the woman said. "It has been quite some time."

"It has," the Hunter said nonchalantly.

"Has your meeting with the others been an enlightening experience?" The woman asked.

The Hunter looked around at the surrounding landscape, a single lively tree standing taller than any mountain they had seen in their lifetime that offered no shade in the center of a blasted heath.

"Not particularly, no. The goddess was the only one who was straight forward in the slightest about what she wanted."

"The Goddess of Cats does not wish for harm to come upon her or her subjects and thus wishes to not be involved in the conflict," the woman explained, telling the Hunter what they already knew.

"Who or what is it that Nodens has been hunting for so long as why have I been summoned?"

"Since time immemorial, Nodens has hunted the one with a thousand names and faces. One who has been in your world recently as far as those who don't perceive time as you do are concerned," the woman said. "Another of the gods of this realm and their bride who has remained hidden."

For the first time in many years, the Hunter laughed.

"The gods of this realm including the god I have pledged my faith to seek to use me, a mortal to hunt a god?" The Hunter asked with a chuckle. "The absurdity of such a request cannot be lost on you, can it?"

The woman did not answer for a moment, only gazing up at the great tree, its top unseen by her eyes or the eyes of any mortal.

"I do not pretend to understand the will of the gods," the woman began. "I am merely a guide for you through this world."

"Are you just a guide or are you something more?" The Hunter asked.

"I am a guide for you and an envoy for Nodens."

"What is the purpose of bringing me to this wasteland in a world I am unfamiliar with?" The Hunter asked gazing up at the tree that offers no shade.

"I do not control where you are brought, I merely manifest where you are barring interference from another," the woman began. "This world is similar to your own, but it is not a replica. Where you are in the waking world is located where we stand in this world."

The Hunter continued to gaze up at the tree that offered no shade, the sun beaming down on them and the blasted heath around them.

"You'll be awakening soon," the woman said, the Hunter never doubting her words. "Farewell, Hunter. May you ever continue to dream."

***

Sasha stood outside the Falconreach inn, her eyes straining under the morning sun.

What's right for me...

"We're going deep into Greenguard Forest," the Hunter said as they exited the inn.

"Is that where we'll find this Moon Lake?"

"Moon Lake and more," the Hunter said, recalling the name Ashen Rose Hiram of Kingsport spoke of.

"What do you hope to find there?"

"Answers and prey," the Hunter said heading to the western gate of Falconreach.
DF  Post #: 29
12/10/2020 17:05:26   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Chapter XXX: Harder Than You Think

Once more the two travelled into the Oaklore region, Sasha gazing into the distance, thinking of home and then the logging community Elisa called home and whether or not Theo's travels brought him there to help the dead find peace.

In contrast to Sasha, the Hunter's gaze was fixated on the road ahead, the places they had been and the monsters hunted and slain, buried deep in their memories beneath the ones that shaped them and their worldview.

"How far into Greenguard Forest will we be going?" Sasha asked in an attempt to break the silence and distract herself from the feelings she grappled with.

"As far as we must."

"I see," Sasha said dejectedly.

Of course they wouldn't speak at length, Sasha thought. They have no desire to open up to me or maybe anyone else for that matter.

"Don't let your mind wander if it results in shutting out the world," the Hunter said in a tone that brought Sasha's father to mind.

"Right, my apologies."

"Don't apologise to me," the Hunter began. "Do better to maintain your focus. We've both seen what resides in this region, but we haven't seen everything that lurks in these woods or what else could be in the swamp beyond the tree."

"Right."

You make it sound so easy, but I guess it comes with experience.

"Focus your eyes on the road ahead," the Hunter began. "And focus your hearing on the world around you. Your hearing is what you will be relying on the most in any situation."

Sasha thought back to the wolf hunts and even pursuing the Hunter and the darkness from which she hunted in.

What the Hunter said was nothing new to her, but nothing new had to be said. It wasn't a lesson, it was a reminder.

"I want you to succeed like I know you can. And success is survival."

And survival is all there is, the Hunter thought.

***

The two stopped at the side of the road, Betrubung Swamp and The Great Lake of Mud beyond the trees on one side and the great Oaklore Forest and the bay beyond on the other.

"It takes time to be able to close out so much and focus on so little effortlessly, doesn't it?" Sasha asked.

"It's harder than you think," the Hunter began. "No matter how much time passes, what I see, or what I do, it still takes a concentrated effort to be able to focus on the road ahead and listen."

"How do you do it?"

"I ask myself that everyday," the Hunter said, a glimpse of the pain they carry peeking out from behind the walls they built around themself. "Use this stop as an opportunity to clear your thoughts and focus your sight on the road ahead and listen to the world around you."

Sasha closed her eyes and took a deep breath as she tried to bury her thoughts of the world around her deep in her mind, leaving only the sounds of the world around her were left before opening her eyes.

Sasha could hear the wind as it blew gently enough to be felt, but normally unheard as well as the faint motions of various animals milling about in the woods out of sight.

If Sasha could describe how she felt, she'd have described it as feeling numb.

***

The two continued in silence, their minds blank as they focused on the road ahead and the sounds of the world around them, burying all other thoughts deep within their minds as the sun began to set, Swordhaven still out of view as they entered Greenguard Forest.

"We'll stop here," the Hunter said, breaking the silence.

"You don't spend nights in towns or cities very often, do you?"

"Not unless I have to," the Hunter said, procuring their rations from their bag. "Adds unnecessary costs which are best avoided."

"Do you think you'll ever find a place you'll call home?"

"I already have a place I call home," the Hunter began. "I'll return to it when the time comes when I can no longer hunt."

< Message edited by NagisaXIkari -- 4/17/2021 4:48:56 >
DF  Post #: 30
2/14/2021 5:26:37   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Interlude III: Survival Instinct

In a world composed of and made real by magic, not only can its inhabitants tap into the innate magical properties of the world should they choose, they too are made of the same magic that the world they inhabit is made of.

To deny this reality is to be a threat to those who live it with the threatened banning together, sometimes with those they'd naturally oppose out of a shared desire for survival against a common foe.

Man and untamed beast typically were at odds, but even a wild dog no matter its state was a magical creature and if a human offered to aid them in survival, they wouldn't turn them down.

Chapter XXXI: Hidden Sadness

Trekking through Greenguard Forest, the Hunter began to feel a strange feeling creep upon them, their will and ability to focus dwindling before their movement came to a stop.

"What's that smell?" The Hunter asked aloud.

Sasha inhaled deeply, smelling only the scents of the surrounding trees travelling on the wind and the scent of the very earth they walked upon.

"I only smell the forest."

"It's a strange scent," the Hunter began. "It's new, but also familiar. Intoxicating, even."

Sasha did not understand the Hunter nor could she tell what their expression was from their naturally concealing attire and the encroaching darkness as the Hunter went deeper into the woods.

***

As they trekked through the woods, the sky grew darker as time went on, a strange sort of mania growing inside them as the scent grew stronger.

What is it that they smell? Sasha wondered as she followed the Hunter deeper into the forest, their movements beginning to sway as though intoxicated by whatever it was they could smell.

As the brush began to clear, a body of water with the most ethereal glow as if they stood before the moon itself came into view in a clearing.

Sasha covered her eyes, the light almost blinding as the Hunter continued to sway entranced by the luminescent waters, unaware of what resided in and around the lake.

"Watch yourself, Hunter," came the familiar voice of Hiram of Kingsport. "Less yer last step be to tread into sacred waters."

The Hunter was unphased by the man's warning, stopping only when Sasha grabbed hold of them and pulled them away from the lake and towards her.

"What's wrong with you?"

"The Hunter be afflicted by a strange lunacy," Hiram of Kingsport began. "I'm sure ye've seen it too. The way they gaze upon the moon in an almost hypnotic trance."

The Hunter struggled to free themself from Sasha's hold, the lunacy that previously took hold of them usurped by intense discomfort and a desire for freedom like an animal trapped in a snare.

"What is it that led to this Hunter?" Hiram of Kingsport said rather than asked. "Is it the unending hunt and the blood ye wash yerself in or is it something more?"

"Let me go," the Hunter said, pleading. "Please, let me go."

Sasha could feel her hold on the Hunter weaken as not only the words of Hiram of Kingsport echoed through her mind, but the pleading of the Hunter whom she initially saw as a hardened killer if not a little eccentric despite that, appeared frightened in her arms.

"Let me go, please," the Hunter pleaded once more, their normally icy, blue eyes illuminated by the light of the lake and wet with tears.

Sasha slowly let go of the Hunter, the hardened and seemingly fearless killer presented as afraid and fragile as the walls they erected around themself collapsed and their true self was revealed if only for a moment.

"Well, Hunter?" Hiram of Kingsport began. "Now that ye've found Moon Lake and exposed yerself as..."

The Hunter whirled around, their gun drawn in a flash and trained on Hiram of Kingsport, hammer cocked.

"What is the meaning of bringing me here?" The Hunter demanded, the fear, fragility, and tears replaced by fury and strength, the strange light illuminating their icy, blue eyes.

"To hunt the inhabitants of the sacred waters of the lake, Hunter," Hiram of Kingsport began. "Ye feel their presence, correct? The peculiar, intoxicating lunacy that paints yer eyes a golden hue."

Sasha looked to the Hunter, the words of the old man ringing true as the Hunter's eyes indeed took on a golden hue as though a pair of moons rose in their eyes.

This isn't right, Sasha thought.

Sasha put a hand on the Hunter's shoulder, their body primed like a steel trap for only a moment until they falter and look away, the Hunter's eyes returning to normal.

"What are you doing?" The Hunter asked weakly.

"There's more to this than a hunt and you know it," she began. "You cannot tell me otherwise."

"There be many ways to control another," Hiram of Kingsport began. "Sometimes it's as simple as a single word and later, a key location. We are all born of and afflicted by magic in some capacity and the Hunter was drawn to this wellspring of-"

Hiram of Kingsport was cut off by the sound of thunder, a single shot discharging from the Hunter's gun, extinguishing the life of the old man.

Sasha looked away, her hands over her face as the lifeless Hiram of Kingsport slumped to the ground, the Hunter holstering their weapon.

It was not the first human life the Hunter had taken and deep down they knew it would not be the last, but they still carried the weight of each human life taken with them.

If I cannot be free in my dreams, then I will be free while I'm awake.

"How could you do that without even flinching?" Sasha asked, not looking at the Hunter or the man they had shot dead.

"Experience," the Hunter said, their normally nonchalant tone betrayed by what Sasha could only speculate was remorse. "But unlike slaying beasts and monsters, it never gets easier."

It only gets worse.

< Message edited by NagisaXIkari -- 6/22/2021 5:03:30 >
DF  Post #: 31
2/19/2021 6:19:49   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Chapter XXXII: The Dark Hearts of Men

The Hunter continued through the woods, away from the lake the deceased Hiram of Kingsport referred to as a wellspring, struggling to maintain hold of themself in spite of the strange lunacy that threatened to overwhelm them, Sasha trailing behind, trying to grapple with the events that had unfolded just now and days before.

Ariandel and Ariamis were possessed by a parasitic entity, but what of the old man unknown to her as Hiram of Kingsport?

"How do you decide who lives and who dies?" Sasha asked.

"By putting my wellbeing above theirs," the Hunter replied, their cold tone sending chills through Sasha's body.

"How can you say that so coldly?"

"If you want to live the life I do, you have to be willing to put your own survival first," the Hunter began. "All else is secondary."

Pushing through the woods in silence, the glow of the strange Moon Lake faded from view while the peculiar mania that began to take hold of the Hunter weakened.

"Why do you live this way if it means putting your life at risk?" Sasha began. "You can guarantee your own survival by not doing any of this."

"Why do you insist on asking me questions about myself?"

"You're hiding a lot of pain," Sasha began. "No one who resists being held even if it's for their safety is free of it."

"Drop it."

***

The two pushed through the woods coming to a hamlet built in a clearing.

It was a small, uninspiring place that if not for the smell of ash in the air, would not be too out of the ordinary.

Entering the hamlet, it became more apparent it was far from ordinary with the few buildings decorated with flags and banners reminiscent of The Rose and the smell of ash growing stronger as they approached the hamlet center and saw a smoldering pyre.

"Be on your guard," the Hunter warned.

"What is this place?"

"Welcome, travelers!" A male voice called out from the doorway of what could best be described as a manor.

A well dressed man approached them, the Hunter noticing his hands seemed to be stained black.

"Welcome to Ashen Rose, the name's Harold, mayor of this community," he said, extending a hand, seemingly oblivious to the black stains on it.

"Hello," the Hunter said, shaking the man's hand who then extended it to Sasha.

"Not often we get travelers 'round these parts," Harold began. "What brings you here?"

"We were passing through the woods on a tip." The Hunter said.

"Oh? Perhaps I may be able to assist," Harold said. "What is it you're on the look for?"

"The Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake," the Hunter said.

Harold was taken aback by the Hunter's words, choking on their own.

"That's quite the task you've set out on," Harold began. "Myself and the folks here have been attempting to put them out of our misery for some time now to no avail."

"If I may, what is your interest in them?" Sasha asked, eyeing the flags and banners around the hamlet while catching glimpses of moving curtains while the inhabitants of the town eye them, likely with suspicion.

"We here in Ashen Rose seek to uphold the legacy, philosophy and ideals of The Rose," Harold began. "Happy is the town whose wizards are all ashes, we like to say. The dogs and the lake they inhabit being so close to us not only threatens, but undermines that. Unfortunately, the world outside has turned its back on those things and thus we have taken it upon ourselves to continue them and hopefully spread the good word of a world free from the threat of magic."

"I see..." Sasha said hesitantly, eyeing the smoldering pyre and Harold's black stained hands, feeling what rubbed off on her own to in fact be ash.

"I am a hunter and she is my protégé," the Hunter began. "For a fee and lodging, we will hunt and exterminate the dogs. Whatever material can be gathered from the kill will be proof the job is done."

"Excellent!" Harold exclaimed. "As we don't get many travelers around here, we do not have an inn, but my abode has plenty of spare rooms you may use until the job is done."

***

A knock came on the door of the room Sasha chose in Harold's manor. It wasn't a powerful knock, more of a light rap as if the one knocking was trying to minimize how much noise they made. She knew it could only be the Hunter.

"Come in."

The Hunter slipped in, quickly, quietly closing the door behind themself like a child sneaking into a room they weren't supposed to be in or a thief avoiding patrols.

"What's your reasoning for taking this job?" Sasha demanded. "This isn't right and you know it."

"That's what I've come here to speak to you about," the Hunter began. "I won't kill the dogs that inhabit that lake."

"Then what will you do?"

"Feed the inhabitants of this place to them," the Hunter said, grimly. "Come daybreak, we shall return to Moon Lake and investigate their whereabouts and work from there."

"How can I be in your own words, your "protégé," if I can't understand your line of thinking? How can you kill a man you perceived as a threat maybe hours ago and then decide the next course of action is to feed a town to something you don't even know for sure exists?"

"The Rose was a threat to me in the past and those who seek to emulate them are a threat to me in the future," the Hunter began. "Whatever inhabits that lake didn't seek to harm me, so why should I harm it?"

"That doesn't make sense," Sasha retorted. "If I didn't grab hold of you, you'd have walked out into that lake in whatever trance you were in and who knows what would have happened after."

"You put too much weight on the words of a dead man."

"That dead man wasn't wrong," Sasha spat. "Every night the moon is out, you always stare vacantly at it. You did the same thing in Falconreach and Arborvale Forest and probably long before we met."

"Drop it," the Hunter said. "I didn't relent on letting you follow me or refer to you as my protégé because I wanted a friend, but because I was impressed by your abilities as a hunter. I don't need a friend or someone to open up to or anyone else."

"If that were true...then why do you look so sad?"

Without a word, the Hunter left the room and returned to their own where for the first time in what felt like a lifetime, they cried.
DF  Post #: 32
4/18/2021 7:16:19   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Chapter XXXIII: Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake

Despite the Hunter's original words of saying they and Sasha would investigate Moon Lake at daybreak, the long trek through the forest, the exchange with Hiram and later exchange with Sasha and the tears they shed took its toll on them and instead they fell asleep, making an unwilling trip to the Dream Lands.

"Welcome back, Hunter," the woman said in her usual almost maternal tone.

The two stood in what appeared to be a mimicry of the forest Moon Lake resided in, contrasted by a strange almost sun-like glow radiating from the lake.

"What is this place?" The Hunter asked, shielding their eyes from the glow of the lake.

"It is a wellspring of light and fire," the woman began. "A primordial glimpse of the very sun up close and a source of great power for those who tap into it."

"Is that what Moon Lake in the waking world is?"

"I cannot say, but if it's similar to the wellspring we stand before, I would assume so," the woman said.

"What may inhabit these wellsprings?"

"Primordial elemental spirits," the woman began. "They are born from intense concentrations of mana that have risen to the surface and much like any elemental, they may be docile until provoked or indiscriminately hostile."

The Hunter attempted to steal a glance at the wellspring before them and the woman, barely catching a glimpse of something moving within before averting their gaze from the intense light.

"Tell me about the moon."

"What do you mean?" The woman asked with a quizzical expression.

"Why does it and a wellspring that seems to imitate it captivate if not hypnotize me?"

"I cannot say, Hunter," the woman began. "The moon has different effects on man and beast alike, but I can only speculate why."

Is it the unending hunt and the blood like Hiram said? The Hunter wondered. What am I?

"You'll be awakening soon," the woman said, the Hunter never doubting her words. "Farewell, Hunter. May you ever continue to dream."

***

The Hunter awoke, far later than intended to a faint light coming from outside the manor that was unmistakably a roaring pyre constructed to turn someone who either used or was accused of using magic to ash as Harold decreed was the town dogma.

The Hunter stepped out of the room, Sasha waiting for them outside.

"We're going out to the woods, aren't we?" Sasha asked.

Agonizing screams could be heard as an accused magic user was put to the pyre that raged in the town center.

"There is no we in this situation," the Hunter began. "Only I have to do this."

Sasha remained silent as the Hunter left down the manor's hall, the screams from outside faded only to remain in their memories.

***

"Hunter!" Harold called out, he and the citizens of Ashen Rose illuminated by the pyre in the town's center. "Beginning the hunt, I trust?"

"Yes," the Hunter said, their voice cold despite the atrocity that had unfolded, their gaze turning towards the woods.

"Excellent!" Harold cried, turning to the gathering crowd of locals. "The dogs of the lake shall be no more!"

Various voices cheered as the Hunter steeled themself to avoid showing any form of emotion.

By their own admission, they were not adept in magic as others who have taken on the role of Shadow Hunter, but the ideals of The Rose remained a threat to them regardless and threats were to be eliminated by any means necessary.

"Do what you must."

***

Sasha stepped out of Harold's manor, recoiling from the stench of recently scorched flesh and the life taken.

Who were they? What could they have done? Who could they have been?

Did they too walk a road in search of themself and what their place in the world is only to take a wrong path?

Sasha covered her face with her cloak in an attempt to block the smell of the poor soul put to the stake as she approached the smoldering remains, fighting back the tears.

"I hope in spite of this tragedy," Sasha began, choking on her words. "I hope you can somehow find peace."

***

Pressing through the woods, the Hunter could feel the strange mania begin to creep upon them as the lake drew close, the people of Ashen Rose following closely.

"Do you feel that?" The Hunter asked.

"Feel what?" Harold said, looking back at those who followed, none of whom seemed different.

The Hunter did not answer, but as the lake came into view and the strange mania grew stronger, with it came another more primal feeling that seemed to be emphasized by the bestial growling of the spirits inhabiting the lake.

"The wolves draw near!" A member of the crowd called out.

"People of Ashen Rose," Harold called out as he turned to the crowd. "The time has come for the scourge of our lands to be vanquished!"

"Here they come!" Another member of the crowd calls out.

From the wellspring, the spirits in various shades of white, blue, silver and some combination of in their dog-like form pull themselves from the lake, their numbers far greater than either the Hunter and Harold and the people of Ashen Rose had thought or known.

"Can you fulfill your duty?" Harold asked, his voice trembling as the dogs began to circle not only him, but the Hunter and the townspeople.

Dogs closed in on the Hunter, sniffing at them as corporeal dogs would, a familiar scent from the Hunter compelling them to turn their attention to the people of Ashen Rose who sought their destruction.

***

Barking and screams rang out from the woods, prompting Sasha to cover her ears in an attempt to drown out the massacre.

She thought back to the hunting parties and the howling and screaming that came from the woods and echoed across the fields and pastures and the terror that loomed over her for many years.

But this was different. It was deliberate and peering at the smoldering remains of a total stranger, deserved.

If you still want to walk this path, you'll need to accept that not everything you'll come across will be a monster or beast, Sasha recalled the Hunter saying after the encounter with Ariandel and Ariamis.

Sasha wretched at the scent of charred flesh of someone she could only hope was the first victim of the people of Ashen Rose and not just another, but she could not imagine herself going to the same lengths of the Hunter.

She thought of offering a prayer for those the Hunter fed to the dogs, but would they be able to find peace knowing their mission was as unrealistic as it is would go unfinished?

If she didn't offer a prayer, some level of forgiveness for monsters, would they one day arise from the dead and if so, would it be her fault?

"What would you want?" Sasha asked the smoldering remains of the stranger.

< Message edited by NagisaXIkari -- 9/23/2021 5:48:04 >
DF  Post #: 33
4/28/2021 4:57:15   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Chapter XXXIV: This World of Sorrow

The barking and screams died down until Ashen Rose and the surrounding woods were silent, leaving Sasha alone to imagine what transpired in the woods.

Did the Hunter succumb to the strange hypnosis that had seemed to overtake them previously or did they also fall victim to the dogs that inhabited the lake? Was it worthwhile to investigate or just leave the town behind and let time run its course?

But where would she go from a hidden hamlet deep within Greenguard Forest? Further into the forest and beyond or turn back until she finds a road that will take her to Swordhaven?

***

The Hunter stood on the shore of Moon Lake in a fugue, unaware of the gore around them or the dogs that returned to the wellspring from which they came, occasionally brushing against them affectionately, or even themselves.

Just what had transpired that made creatures that appeared hostile towards them previously now appear to be friendly?

The light of Moon Lake began to dim and fade as though it were entering a dormant state if not burning out, the Hunter slowly beginning to regain a sense of their surroundings and what passed for a sense of self.

The Hunter took in the sights of the violence that had unfolded and choked back a familiar feeling of horror and dread as they recalled a similar view from some time ago, but unlike then there would be no black snow to blanket the dead.

***

Sasha began to make her way through the hamlet and into the forest, leaving the horror of Ashen Rose behind to haunt her memories.

She recalled a time when The Rose was a dominant power in the land and the tales of mass imprisonment, slavery, and conquest, but not public execution.

Had those in Ashen Rose not been on the fringes of the land and broader society, would they have been a farce to the tragedy of The Rose or would their death driven ideology be an inversion?

Trekking through the woods, they seemed to grow darker and uglier as she went as if reflecting her own emotions and thoughts about what she had seen not only in Ashen Rose, but since leaving her home and even before.

Sasha wondered how long she might last in this dark, ugly, and sorrowful world which she had only recently begun to see for herself without the safety of a community and the heroes of the land to protect her.

How long had she been walking aimlessly into the unknown her thoughts so clouded she'd be completely unaware of if anyone or anything were following, tracking, or even hunting her?

***

The silence that befell Ashen Rose seemed unnatural despite what had transpired in the woods. Was that really the entire population of the secluded hamlet gone in what seemed like an instant?

The Hunter tried to remember how many people there were gathered in the center before going into the woods, but could only recall a bluish white haze and the aftermath of what the dogs did to the people.

It would take more than one person to try and put the pieces back together.

The Hunter briefly surveyed the town center, seeing no sign of life, not even from the windows of what few buildings made up the hamlet. Was everyone gone or were they in hiding? Did it make a difference?

Most notably Sasha was gone.

Sasha, the protégé from an obscure farming community in a far corner of Surewould Forest and the first person to impress the Hunter with seemingly innate skills. And the first person to draw attention to the sadness that lies beneath.

It doesn't have to be this way, the Hunter thought. I don't have to think like this or feel like this.

***

Wandering through a dark and unfamiliar forest in an unfamiliar part of the continent had the effect of time appearing to flow differently.

It only felt like a few minutes had gone by, but if it were hours? What little of the sky Sasha could see through gaps in the forest's canopy was still dark, so it couldn't have been too long, could it?

And what of the Hunter? Would they come looking for her as her mentor or had they gotten so fed up with her, they'd be willing if not eager to abandon her?

Sasha cracked a small grin at the idea of the Hunter expressing eagerness or anything other than frustration, determination, cold, and...sadness.

The Hunter was right, it wasn't her place to press them about who they are or what they feel and if they didn't find her, she wouldn't feel disdain for them.

I'm sorry, she thought, possibly rehearsing what she would say to the Hunter if she saw them again.

Sasha thought of her arrival in Falconreach and if this was any different than then. Would they eventually reunite, carry on to the next stop, argue and then separate creating and perpetuating a cycle that would do neither of them any good?

It was a worrisome thought that only grew worse the further and further into unfamiliar land she went, but there was no turning back even if she did not reunite with the Hunter.

She had never been more scared in her entire life than this moment.

***

The Hunter followed Sasha's tracks into the forest. She wasn't trying to conceal her departure either intentionally, out of negligence or both.

Did she assume the worst had happened in the woods surrounding Moon Lake or was it something else that prompted her to leave?

The Hunter thought back to the night before in the home of Harold, the late mayor of Ashen Rose.

She regularly shows concern for them to the point of prying only to be lashed out at time and time again.

For the most part, her concern is annoying at worst, but also something else the Hunter wasn't sure how to describe for reasons they could only assume was because they had just forgotten.

The Hunter looked up into the darkness of the forest canopy above trying to clear their mind of anything other than just finding Sasha. If something happened, it would be potential going to waste, nothing more.

Create more distance, the Hunter thought. It's no different than accepting a job.

As the Hunter moved through the woods, closing a real, measurable distance, they continued to steel themselves and their heart to maintain and further an emotional distance as they always have.
DF  Post #: 34
5/6/2021 5:49:08   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Chapter XXXV: Don't Look Back

The woods began to open up to the world beyond them and for Sasha, an entirely new world.

Sasha could tell time had passed, but she could not tell how much had passed. The moon was no longer visible, but the sun had not begun to appear on the horizon.

Sasha looked up at the night sky which had begun to transition from black, but it was not a blue tint that it was beginning to take on, but something entirely different than what she would expect as though the sky itself behaved differently when viewed from whichever part of the continent she was now on.

Outside the trees, the world remained dark and along with the fear of being in an unknown place, there was also a sort of sadness to it that grew as the black sky turned to grey.

The world ahead of her was an ugly and dying eyesore, that was slowly, but surely trying to pull itself free from the brink as what little new life emerged from the rotten land sought to become one with the forest.

Sasha had considered she may have found herself in the Deadlands, but it didn't seem right to believe so.

***

The Hunter pushed through the woods, continuing to follow the trail left by Sasha, closing in with every step.

Where would the path take them, they wondered?

Despite their occupation, the Hunter was not particularly well travelled having only really been to a few regions within the Land of Dragons and this deep into Greenguard was not among those places.

What feelings of excitement and adventure that could have been were overshadowed by feelings of urgency and anxiety.

As the woods thinned out and the sky turned to a murky sort of grey, the brightest it would get, the Hunter would receive a full view of the ugly and rotten landscape that from their perspective, struggled to be born.

Sasha's tracks became easier to follow in the mud that the flora sought to emerge from and for a moment, the Hunter was reminded of the Great Lake of the Mud and the strange Witchtree that once stood in the center of it and what lay beneath the surface of the ground they walked.

Sasha started coming into view, a lone figure in a vast expanse of decay.

There was a sort of beauty in the decay, like looking at an old, timeworn painting in some thought abandoned manor or castle and off in the distance, a lone figure like a spirit inhabiting the painting, breathing new life into it like the flora emerging from  the mud.

***

Sasha's ears twitched, but she did not look back because she knew there could be only one person or thing that would be following her.

There was a sense of relief in knowing the Hunter survived what transpired in the woods, but it didn't cleanse the feelings of unease and discomfort that came with the knowledge.

"I'm happy you're okay," she said, her tone a mixture of sadness and relief.

The Hunter was silent as they approached, stopping beside her.

"I don't expect you to look beyond what I did," the Hunter began. "All I ask is you don't look back."

"Focus my eyes on the road ahead," Sasha said, remembering the Hunter's words from when they were in Oaklore.

"That's all that matters."

It's all that ever matters.
DF  Post #: 35
5/19/2021 21:53:30   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Chapter XXXVI: A Place I'll Return To

It was no easy task to find a suitable place to rest in what could best be described as a poison swamp.

As the two sat across from one another on slabs of what could be rock or the remains of some long forgotten stronghold, they did not speak as neither of them had anything to say nor did either of them want to speak.

The Hunter briefly scanned the surrounding landscape, the poisoned swamp a far more scenic view than the blasted heath and its impossibly tall tree that provided no shade in the Dream Lands.

Sasha scanned the world around her, the desolate landscape being a stark contrast to the fields, forests, and beach she spent most of her life seeing.

Even the swamp where the wolf spawning thing was a more memorable landmark than the featureless swamp that had no discerning feature in any direction as far as the eye could see.

It almost seemed like they had wandered into the edge of the civilized world.

The Hunter's eyes grew heavy as they surveyed the swamp which while more scenic in comparison to the other locales they had seen in the fantastical Dream Lands, was not engaging enough to stave off the exhaustion that the night before brought on until sleep came to them.

***

For once the Hunter did not find themself in some fantastical Dream Lands locale, but instead a familiar place from long ago, their hometown.

It was a town locked in a perpetual dusk on the border of Doomwood and the uncharted lands south of the Kingdom of Greenguard.

The Hunter had never thought of how their home sustained itself or even what lied to the south in those nameless lands.

For the longest time since they left, they hadn't even thought of home other than one day they will return.

The streets were vacant, but there were no signs of any sort of conflict or attack, but this was a dream after all and thus there was no indication their home even existed anymore.

Regardless of its current state, regardless of their state, one day they would return.

***

Sasha watched the Hunter as they drifted off and eventually fell asleep, noting an almost transformation like state came over them.

She thought about their earlier encounter and how they said the sea always seems to put them at ease.

As far as she could tell, they were not near the sea, but the Hunter seemed at ease. At peace, even.

There was a certain vulnerability to them as though the walls they so meticulously crafted and maintained around themself had collapsed at this very moment.

She wondered if the Hunter dreamed and if so, what did they dream about?

It had to have been a pleasant dream if it allowed them to be so exposed.

Sasha smiled, a feeling of relief coming over her.

If someone is so guarded, living a life of misery and blood can allow themself to be exposed in such unfamiliar lands even if for only a moment, maybe the whole journey wasn't a complete nightmare.

***

Residences, commercial and political structures stood unmarred by as the Hunter remembered as they walked the empty streets.

The home they spent the majority of their life in from birth until the day they left as well as the homes of friends stood, filling them with a sort of sad nostalgia that would later be only sadness.

The gun on their side grew heavy with the weight of those whose lives they took.

Friends, family, comrades in arms. Some of whom came from this town, others they had met along the way.

The Hunter looked down the idyllic streets of their home, seeing the peace that they could scarcely recall even outside of their dream and thought how even when they do return, it will never be the same.

Violent lives do not have peaceful ends.

***

Sasha looked up at the sky that began to grow darker, signaling the approach of rain at the very least and a storm at worst.

Feeling the first drops of rain on her skin, Sasha picked herself up and moved to awaken the Hunter, hesitating as her eyes drifted towards the firearm on their hip.

She remembered the day in the woods after they had met and when she left home.

Her failed attempt to track the Hunter and the swift fluidity of their movement as they drew it, ready to kill in an instant.

Would they react the same way? She wondered as she reached out to nudge them.

"We have to go," she said with a nudge.

The Hunter groaned as the rain began to pick up.

Wherever they were going, it would be treacherous.
DF  Post #: 36
6/1/2021 2:45:33   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Chapter XXXVII: Call of the Ocean

Neither of them had an idea of what lie ahead as the ground beneath their feet threatened to swallow them whole as the Betrubung Swamp had previously tried.

As the rain began to come down harder, the Hunter felt something akin to the woods outside Ashen Rose and the draw of the wellspring.

It was a weaker pull, still leaving them with their sense of awareness and surroundings intact, but it was calling out to them.

Someone or something wanted the Hunter to come to them and out of necessity, they could not resist.

***

"The end is nigh!" The madman began chanting. "What is down, comes up!"

The people of Kingsport largely ignored the madman and his ramblings of the sea's return and the return of what lies beneath. After awhile, they realized even just venting their frustration by cursing at the madman was of no use and kept those feelings deep inside.

All they could do was what they did everytime a storm began to take shape and that was to secure everything they could, their entire lives, and take shelter while the madman continued his chants somehow never lost in the storm.

It was almost enough to make the people wonder if perhaps there was some truth to his words that granted him protection from the wrath of the sea and sky.

"Ia!" The madman called out with the crack of thunder.

***

The Hunter began to drift and wander as they followed the pull of what compelled them to walk towards the storm clouds growing in the distance.

Sasha did not feel the same pull as the Hunter, but she followed not only out of concern which she struggled with the idea of repressing, but obligation.

Is that what she wanted to achieve? Did she just want to repress any feelings she had beyond what was required most until everything she did was only out of obligation?

She wanted to help people like those from the community she left who could normally not help themselves because it was the right thing to do not because she was obligated to do so.

Is that what the Hunter did? Go from place to place out of obligation?

Thunder crashed in the distance where dark grey clouds darkened the already grey sky and the rain came down harder as if the sky itself reflected the state of her heart and mind.

In their seemingly aimless wandering through the increasing rainfall, structures unlike the bits and pieces of ruins scattered around the land began to appear in the distance.

A sign of civilization, an oasis in the desert that is poisonous swamp they found themselves in at what could've been the end of the world as far as they knew.

What was once a sign, now worn away by weather and time to the point of illegibility came into view, a relic of a forgotten time while beyond the structures and other signs of life grew closer and closer until they stood at the entrance to a ramshackle town where a couple people scrambled to tie down and secure whatever the coming storm threatened to carry away and destroy.

All the while the madman continued his chant.
DF  Post #: 37
6/24/2021 22:14:43   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Chapter XXXVIII: The Storm

"Hey!" A townsperson shouted as the two entered the town. "Ye can't be out here!"

The Hunter continued to wander and drift as the ocean came into view, a feeling of serenity coming over them.

"Ye have to get inside!" The townsperson shouted over the thunder and growing rain, running over the wet, rotting boardwalk towards them.

The sea always seems to put me at ease, the Hunter thought.

The Hunter snapped back into a reality if only for a moment as Sasha grabbed hold of them, the townsperson still shouting at them, now in their face.

"Get inside, there's a storm coming!"

Before they could react, the townsperson dragged them into a nearby house and barricaded the door, the wind beginning to howl outside.

"What do ye think yer doing out here?" The townsperson asked as he began to barricade the only window in the small house by lugging a heavy shelf in front of it.

"We don't even know where we are," Sasha said.

"Kingsport is what we call this place still," the townsperson said eliciting a surprised look from both Sasha and the Hunter.

"You traded with the community where I'm from across the coast," Sasha said.

"Yer a long ways from home, miss," the townsperson began. "Ye two really cross half the entire kingdom ill prepared on foot?"

"Yes," the Hunter began. "We came from a town called Ashen Rose on the word of a man named Hiram."

The townsperson removed their wet cap, running a hand over their mostly bald head.

"We drove Hiram from here some time ago and it seemed like he never stopped..." The townsperson trailed off.

"Stopped what?" The Hunter asked.

The townsperson began to speak, stopping with a crack of thunder and the chanting of the madman.

"Hiram found something out in the wastes, perhaps something from the war that ravaged these lands," the townsperson began. "After that, the storms began to rage far more frequently and strange people began to arrive with them."

"He brought something evil upon this town," Sasha said.

"Aye," the townsperson said. "If ye encountered him then he sought to spread evil elsewhere."

"Hiram is dead," the Hunter said bluntly.

"Well, then," the townsperson said with a cough. "I suppose that takes care of that."

The townsperson ran a hand over their mostly bald head, visibly nervous.

"We're not here to hurt anyone," Sasha assured the townsperson. "Maybe we should introduce ourselves. I'm Sasha and this is..."

Sasha trailed off, looking towards the Hunter still not knowing their name.

"I'm a Hunter and that's all that matters."

"Alphonse," the townsperson said.

"You said 'strange people' started coming into town with the storms," Sasha began. "What do you mean?"

"We don't know where they hail from," Alphonse began. "But they linger on the docks and the shores chanting, calling to something or maybe responding to something calling to them."

"Do you believe there's something out there?" The Hunter asked, gazing towards the barricaded window, the rain rattling on the glass.

"Mayhap," Alphonse began. "Mayhap the evil that poisoned the land is retreating into the sea. Possibly amplifying an already existing evil that exists beneath the waters."

The Hunter thought back to the time that they believed did more to shape who they are than when they had first been inducted into the world of the ShadowHunter and the first time they took the life of a monster.

It wasn't just taking the life of another they fought alongside as comrades that shaped them, but the torment that another inflicted upon them as they did so.

Torment that could not have originated from the darkness of the land, but somewhere else. Somewhere deeper.

The moon, commander of the tides that captivates them so and the sea that always seemed to put them at ease.

But was that all? Was it just the moon and the sea?

Thunder cracked, the wind howled, and even still the madman could be heard chanting as if defying or being amplified by the storm and its cause all while the Hunter gazed at the barricaded window, the rain rattling against the glass.

It called to them.

The sea that always seemed to put them at ease was calling to them, but it wasn't a welcoming call, it was one like the hunt and the blood they washed themself in on a regular basis.

"Ye all right there?" Alphonse asked.

The Hunter would visit the Dream Lands when they slept. The ocean's call and the storm told them as such.

Sasha shook the Hunter by the shoulder, snapping them back to reality.

"Everything all right there?" Alphonse asked.

"Yes," the Hunter said unconvincingly.

"Well, I can't in good faith send ye two out in this storm not that I've any idea how ye two intend to cross the swamp."

"Is there nothing else out here?" Sasha asked.

"Nay, lass," Alphonse began. "We're at the end of the continent, only way anywhere else is back the way ye came or across the bay."

"Tell us more about what happened before Hiram was expelled," the Hunter said.

Alphonse ran a hand over their balding head.

"Besides the mad folk and their chanting with the storm or what might lurk beneath?"

"Yes," the Hunter began. "If we're to stay here and even seek passage across the bay, we will earn our keep to do so."

"I can't say for certain if something is out there, those mad folk would be the ones to talk to, but they ain't the talking sort."

The Hunter moved to the door to move the barricade, Sasha grabbing hold of them.

"What are you doing?"

"Ye out of yer mind?!" Alphonse exclaimed. "Ye go out there and the storm'll tear ye apart."

The Hunter knew it was more than just the claim of earning their keep that drove them to wanting to brave a likely supernatural storm in search of not only answers, but to answer the call.
DF  Post #: 38
7/18/2021 5:50:50   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Chapter XXXIX: The Kingsport Horror

The Hunter as they had expected found themself in the Dream Lands, but it was not before the woman they stood as was the norm, but Hypnos, The Lord of Sleep.

"I trust you are in good health, Hunter," Hypnos said, feigning concern.

"Why have you called me?"

"For a hunt, of course," Hypnos began, a wry smile forming on his lips. "Next you dream, you will be on the trail of a monster that resides in the Sea of Pitch. Kill it and I will point you in the direction towards the reason for your being in this world."

"I have no ties to this world," the Hunter began. "Why should I fulfill your request?"

"Is it not a hunter's duty to hunt?" Hypnos asked. "Be it in the waking world or the world of dreams, a hunter must hunt, for that is your purpose."

My purpose, the Hunter thought.

***

The Hunter awoke to Sasha and Alphonse conversing, Sasha wearing a rugged and heavy coat much like their own, but obviously meant for dock and boat work rather than general travel, but more suited for harsh environments than the travelling cloak she had worn previously.

"Is there really nothing beyond the swamplands?" Sasha asked.

"If there is, we know nothing about it," Alphonse began. "And it could very well have succumbed to the poison that retreats from these lands."

"So, it's across the bay for us then."

"Not without conducting an investigation of these madmen," the Hunter said. "Then we'll plan our next move."

***

While the rain had slowed to a slight drizzle and the skies grew quiet, the sun did not shine in the perpetually grey sky while the madman continued to chant.

"The end is nigh!" They cried. "What is down, comes up!"

Along the docks were signs of strong winds having torn through with boards ripped out of the boardwalk, crates and barrels torn from their restraints and shattered against anything unfortunate to get in their path, and further scarring on already patchwork housing and other structures.

While Kingsport weathered the wrath of the sky and sea, the madman was unharmed as if protected by some divine force.

The madman ceased their chanting and looked towards the Hunter as they approached, their body covered in strange markings and symbols, both drawn and etched into their skin with a strange, otherworldly glow like that produced by some horrid deep-sea creature.

"You hear it too, don't you?" The madman asked, crawling up to the Hunter. "The sweet, sweet sound of the ocean. It calls to you, sings to you, doesn't it?"

The Hunter backed away, the madman's words as alarming in their truth as they were off-putting.

"Join us," the madman said. "Let us gather along the sea and chant feverishly to the one who brought us into this world and the one who will bring us out of this world."

The madman clutched their head, letting out a low, pained groan that grew into a euphoric moan as their body began to bulge and stretch until the flesh began to tear and the bones began to visibly and audibly reshape themselves, strange marine-like appendages emerging from the body of the madman.

"I...I have been chosen!" The madman exclaimed. "Blessed!"

The sound of thunder rang out through the town of Kingsport, Alphonse and Sasha emerging to investigate while other townspeople stopped in their tracks.

The madman slumped to the ground dead, partially formed tentacles and crustacean-like claws beginning to protrude from their body.

"By the Avatars!" Alphonse exclaimed. "Is this yer idea of an investigation?"

"Wait," Sasha began. "They wouldn't have done this without reason."

The Hunter stared down at the fresh corpse of the thing that was no longer fit to be considered human.

The way the transformation began reminded them of how someone infected with lycanthropy would begin to turn, their entire body contorting and tearing as if being stretched by some invisible force rather than a virus transforming its host.

"There are others, correct?" The Hunter asked.

"Along the shores, yes," Alphonse said.

"This is how we're earning our way across the bay, Sasha," the Hunter said, setting off towards the outskirts of Kingsport.

***

Along the muddy shores of the Kingsport outskirts, the two could see ghastly chimeric creatures that were more deep-sea lifeforms than man, shambling along the shores.

Their movements were spastic and lacked coordination, but the two knew they would be heading towards the town.

Sasha reached for an arrow, noting she had very few left. Her shots would need to be true.

The Hunter slowly approached, weapons in hand as Sasha knocked an arrow, searching for an opening.

The crustacean-like claws that had emerged from the transformed madmen were covered in an orange shell which she could only assume was mature and hardened, its growth accelerated by the dark arts that caused who were presumably once regular people to descend into madness before being forced from their natural forms.

One monster raised a claw towards the Hunter who in an instant, fired from the hip, stunning the monster briefly before running their sword through it and twisting.

Two more attempted to surround the Hunter as they ripped their sword from the first monster and shot into another, Sasha letting loose her arrowing into another.

The first monster stumbled, ichor-like blood pouring from the gaping wound left by the Hunter who plunged their sword into the monster they had just shot, tearing it open like the first.

Sasha knocked another arrow as the monster turned its attention to her, an arrow protruding from its alien carapace.

Arrows weren't enough, especially when there were so few to use.

The monster had a strange head with red eyes perched atop a mass of tentacles.

That would be her target.

The monster let out a strange, alien wail as the arrow hit its mark, but it wasn't lethal and she had two arrows left.

Another shot rang out and the Hunter would drive their sword deeper into a monster, forcing it through the body and carapace of the monster, spraying its ichor-like blood over them as they ripped their sword from the monster.

Beneath the collar of their coat, the Hunter bared their teeth, their eyes burning as a strange, powerful feeling came over them similar to how they felt when plunging their hand into the monster referred to as The Will of the Mire and later the Witchtree.

Since that cold, dark winter, this is what the hunt was like. This is what their life was like.

Sasha loosed an arrow into the remaining eye of the monster which was again, not lethal, but a blind monster was less threatening than one with its sight intact.

With one arrow left, this one would have to be the kill shot.

With another shot, the Hunter slew another monster in the same brutal fashion as the first, further covering themself in blood.

Sasha held her bow with bated breath, final arrow knocked, the blind monster flailing around.

With what she believed to be her best chance, she let the arrow loose, her aim true and the monster fell with a third arrow between its eyes.

Sasha exhaled while the Hunter deftly made their way back to Kingsport, in spite of the mud.

She caught a brief glimpse of the Hunter's eyes and the ferocity that burned in what were normally colder than any ice or steel.
DF  Post #: 39
9/16/2021 8:03:11   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Chapter XL: Sea of Pitch

Back in Kingsport, two more monsters terrorized the town, the Hunter making a frenzied dash towards one that was in the middle of stripping the flesh from a townsperson.

With an inhuman leap, the Hunter plunged their sword into the soft flesh of the monster, forcing it deep into its alien anatomy, its ichor-like blood if that's what it really was, soaking through their garments.

Sasha entered the scene as the monster collapsed, the Hunter driving their sword deeper into it, the second monster approaching, a townsperson dangling from its crustacean-like claw.

The shots weren't focused as they typically were, three shots fired seemingly at random, most not striking the monster in any vulnerable spot.

Other townspeople scrambled from where they hid behind boxes and barrels if they weren't fortunate enough to get inside before the monsters attacked, their dwindling population now two people fewer, hastening the inevitable end of Kingsport.

Sasha stared in shock and horror at what she saw as the growing savagery of the Hunter beginning in the swamp and continue to culminate in the obscure and dying town of Kingsport.

Out of arrows and with no other weapon of her own, Sasha could only watch as the Hunter once more raced headlong at the remaining chimeric creature that like the others was presumably once a human being.

Was there anything left of the human inside the monster that she could pray for to perhaps allow them some kind of peace in death?

The Hunter slid along the mud and boardwalk, slicing into the monster's tentacles, the monster collapsing to the ground in a broken heap that lashed out aimlessly.

Covered in mud and ichor-like blood, the Hunter stood over the creature, slicing through the monster's dominant tentacle, furthering their dismantling of the creature.

Sasha looked away from what she could only see as an act of cruelty against not the monster, but what remained of the human inside if there was anything left following their transformation.

The monster attempted to pull itself up by its crustacean-like claw until the Hunter finally put it out of its own and the misery of the people of Kingsport.

The Hunter looked down on the monster as what remained of its life and possibly humanity left its body, their heart pounding in their chest and breathing heavy.

They would not recognize the frenzied feeling they were experiencing for some time or why they felt it as they still recognized themself as a hunter and not as some berserk warrior from some far-off barbarian tribe influenced by strange potions, concoctions, and a lust for violence and battle.

The Hunter gazed out at the ocean, the strange frenzy leaving them as the sounds of conflict faded and only the sounds of the sea that always seemed to put them at ease remained.

There would come a time for rest and with rest, the next hunt assigned to them by Hypnos, The Lord of Sleep.

The world began to fade and flicker until there was only dark and the Hunter collapsed.

***

The people of Kingsport slowly came out of hiding, fear and anxiety flooding through them, Alphonse coming up to the two from their house, stepping around the body of the last monster slain.

"They all right, lass?" Alphonse asked.

"I...I think so," Sasha began. "We have to get them inside."

"Aye, lass," Alphonse said, picking up the Hunter as Sasha collected their weapons.

Inside, Alphonse lay the Hunter down before running a hand over their mostly bald head.

"By the Avatars, lass," Alphonse exclaimed. "Just what happened out there?"

"I...I don't know," Sasha began. "I think...It's like an entirely different world since I left home."

"It's okay, lass," Alphonse said. "Ye don't have to understand everything that has transpired or will transpire. Even this far corner of the continent is always changing and will continue to do so."

"Don't you try to understand it?"

"Sometimes the best thing to do is just move with the ever-changing world even if we fail to understand it," Alphonse said. "Ye two aren't the only newcomers to have come to this town after all."

"I see."

Sasha thought on Alphonse's words as well as those of the Hunter and Theo.

The world wasn't the only thing in a state of constant change.

"Would you mind if I assisted in burying the dead?"

"Thankee, lass," Alphonse said. "I'm sure they'd appreciate that greatly."

***

"Welcome back, Hunter," the woman said as was custom.

The Hunter stood in along the cobblestones of a coastal town that on a map likely aligned with Kingsport, but it was not just the cobblestone walkway rather than crude boardwalk that differed, but also the architecture of the surrounding buildings that were unlike anything in the Land of Dragons.

"I trust you are here on account of The Lord of Sleep."

"I did accept the hunt, yes," the Hunter began. "But I cannot say why."

"It is the duty of a Hunter to hunt, isn't it?"

The Hunter looked down the street at the abandoned buildings, untouched by time, memories of their dream of home coming back to them.

"It is, isn't it?" The Hunter asked aloud. "For the hunt is all there is."

"Do you truly believe that?"

The Hunter remained silent as they stared between the buildings towards the black sea the town was built along.

The Sea of Pitch is what Hypnos called it, the Hunter thought.

"I believe you are my guide in this world, correct?" The Hunter began. "Will you guide me to my prey?"

The woman shook her head.

"I cannot, Hunter," she began. "But I can guide you to the one who will take you out to sea."

"Take me to them."

The woman led the Hunter through down the cobblestone path and into one of the buildings, untouched by time on the inside as it was on the outside as though it and the town were still maintained by someone or something to create the illusion of life in this strange, dead world.

The building seemed to be a tavern of sorts as per another norm of the Hunter's journey, but what made it stranger beyond the pristine condition of the abandoned establishment was the presence of a lower floor in a coastal town.

Sitting alone at a table was a figure dressed in black, a strange-looking hood that seemed to have been made from a sack on their head, completely obscuring their face.

"Not everyday I get guests," the hooded figure said. "Even less frequent those guests have the stench of the gods upon them."

"And you are the one to take me across the Sea of Pitch?"

"No, not across," the hooded figure began. "But I will take you out to it as much as I'd prefer not to."

"Then you are aware of why I'm here."

"Between the stench and my own profession, even in this world, information is not hard to come by," the hooded figure said. "And with the unusual nature of your request, I will be seeking a handsome payment in due time."
DF  Post #: 40
9/23/2021 11:13:49   
NagisaXIkari
Member

Interlude IV: On Guard

The Deathknight's blade clashed against the asylum door as it had done for a few years, but to the one watching over the asylum, it was more like mere minutes.

Two tireless beings, one not of this world and the other, one who refused to die.

They felt the prayers of the one chosen for a very particular hunt, but they would not meet.

It was not the Deathknight that kept them where they stood, but it was another strange being that had been discovered long ago as far as humans were concerned then rediscovered.

Chapter XLI: The Beast From the Sea

They stood on the dock, staring out at the oily black sea that rippled as though it were water.

The hooded figure walked out to the edge of the dock and began muttering under their breath, the Hunter straining their ears to hear the alien words spoken by the hooded figure.

From the oily black sea emerged a sailing vessel large enough to accommodate the three of them, perhaps more, but by no means a vessel for combat.

Despite emerging from a sea of oily black, it was pristine as if it had just left the construction yard, sharing the same pristine appearance as the town.

"All aboard then," the hooded figure said. "And try not to sink her when fighting the beast."

***

The dead were laid upon sheets of wood and beds of dried seaweed with something that the remaining townspeople thought best represented them such as their fishing pole or harpoon as befitting of the people of a fishing town.

"We are born of the sea, and in death, we shall return to the sea," Alphonse said solemnly as the dead were set aflame and cast out to sea.

Sasha said a prayer in silence, wishing those who had fallen would find peace and rest in whatever lied ahead for them.

"Thankee, lass," Alphonse said. "I'm sure they will be at ease when their final journey reaches its end."

***

The Hunter took stock of the tools in their possession wondering what would be the best to use and what sort of effect they would have in this world of dreams.

Would they even be worth using?

Balsa wood firebombs as well as bundles similar to what they used in the Betrubung Swamp against the Keeper of the Mire, but made with the powdered scales of a fire dragon rather than an energy dragon, but just as difficult to acquire materials for.

If the sea is truly made of pitch, then fire would be preferred, but great care would be required less the Hunter send them all to the bottom of the sea.

The vessel shook as something beneath the surface grazed against it. Something big.

A large, muscular vaguely humanoid arm with webbed claws reached up on the port side of the vessel, the oily black substance that made up the sea dripping off of it, painting the deck black.

The Hunter struck a bundle of resin and powdered fire dragon scales against the blade of their sword, the flames roaring to life as another identical arm reached up onto the deck of the vessel.

The hooded figure cursed under their breath at the sight of the Hunter setting their sword ablaze before making their initial attack, their movements formless, shapeless, like water wielding the weapon of an archangel.

***

Sasha and Alphonse returned to the latter's residence to check on the Hunter, their condition appearing to be unchanged.

They had removed the wide brimmed hat the Hunter worse, the high collar of their coat still concealing most of their face, but what they could see was unkempt grey hair like that of someone far older than her she or even Alphonse, but what little of their face she could see was quite youthful.

Sasha would be lying if she said she wasn't curious as to what the full face of the Hunter looked like, but it wouldn't feel right to expose them any further.

"Is this normal for them, lass?" Alphonse asked.

"I'm not sure," Sasha began. "I have seen them go into such a state before, but they never passed afterwards, but I also haven't known them for long."

She looked at the sleeping Hunter seeing the same peaceful, almost serene look about them as before.

"But they always seem at peace whenever they're asleep."

***

The monster's arm was engulfed in fire as the Hunter's blade struck it, demonstrating that the sea truly was one of pitch which consequently also cauterized the monster's wound, the flames spreading to the spilled pitch on the deck of the vessel.

"We're going to have to abandon ship, Miss," the hooded figure said, steering from the cockpit.

"We cannot abandon the Hunter."

"Miss, if the gods are requesting them for this hunt, they must be watching over them," the hooded figure said. "I cannot speak for you, but I know they're not watching over me."

Pulling itself further up to the vessel, the monster revealed its head to be like that of a shark with tentacles dripping with pitch, hanging off of its face like a beard.

Its mouth opened in the shape of a circle, revealing rows upon rows of teeth like a cylinder of spikes as it let out a roar that sounded unlike anything they had ever heard as it began to crawl aboard the vessel, threatening to capsize it.

The Hunter retrieved a firebomb, lighting it off of their sword and throwing it into the gaping maw of the monster, its claws digging into the deck, fire and pitch spreading as it let out a far more alien sound as the small explosive ignited its mouth.

"Suit yourself, Miss," the hooded figure said as they abandoned their post and made for a small lifeboat on the stern. "Out of decency and self-preservation, I will ask you once more to accompany me."

"I will not abandon the Hunter."

"Then I pray the gods are watching over you as well," the hooded figure said.

I thought my instructions were quite clear.

The Hunter moved back towards the statboard side of the vessel as the monster drew closer, its claws tearing up the deck as the flames continued to spread.

With another swipe from their blade, the monster's other arm was consumed by fire along with more of the vessel that began to sink under the weight of the monster, the Hunter slipping towards its maw that only seemed to grow wider and wider.

With another firebomb lit as the flames engulfing the sword went out, the Hunter made more space between them and the monster, correcting the vessel ever so slightly.

There wasn't much time left.

***

"If you don't mind me asking," Sasha began. "What made you stay in Kingsport?"

"Not at all, lass," Alphonse said. "The answer is simple, really. It's home, warts and all."

"That wouldn't change even if you chose to leave."

"That is true, but it isn't so simple to leave and often those who do, don't make it far," Alphonse said. "Mayhap it was fear as well as sentiment that keeps me here."

"I see."

***

Flames spread up the monster's form and into the sea, the monster slamming its arms down on the deck of the vessel, letting out an alien roar.

As the pitch burned away from the monster, the Hunter could see its caustic yellow, insect-like eyes and no matter the prey or the world they were in, the Hunter had no reason to believe that its eyes were anything but vulnerable.

The woman watched as the flames took over the vessel, the Hunter drawing their firearm as they slid towards the monster once again.

She was as much of a judge as she was a guide, but judging for who she did not know.

With two cracks of thunder, the monster once again let out a pained noise as the shots tore into the soft bulbs protruding from its face.

The Hunter's flaming sword slide into thr monster easier than expected, flames lapping up the Hunter's sleeve, burning their flesh, their body inches away from the spiked tunnel that was the inside of its maw.

They holstered their firearm and with one last firebomb, lit off the burning monster, the Hunter forced it deep into the punctured eye of their quarry.

One more pained alien sound unlike anything the Hunter had ever heard before and the creature slunk away from the vessel that continued to sink and burn.

"Farewell, Hunter," the woman said despite the flames and the dying noises of the monster. "May you ever continue to dream."
DF  Post #: 41
12/4/2021 7:04:55   
NagisaXIkari
Member

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.

"Which one?"

"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.
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