Gentle red light spilled out of the open pouch as it sat on the bar. The light of firestones. They belonged to Rowan of House Stoutfire. Ten stones were in the pouch. That should be enough to get him through this hunt, he thought. He turned his attention to the bounty card that sat next to it. Reward. Larval Bane Creeper. Disturbance High. The words were large to grab the attention of Banehunters, like himself.
Rowan twisted a red stone between his fingers as he read, the only one not in his pouch. He felt a connection to it as if a thin thread ran from it to somewhere near his heart. He picked up the bounty card and scanned the rest of it intently.
Eventide Mine Closed. A larval bane creeper has halted the mining operation after killing twelve and wounding four. A bounty has been issued for the removal of the threat of the lesser bane and restoration of a safe environment for the Earthstone mine to return to full operation. Please see Mayor Winehearth with the jaw of the creature for payment.
Class Bounty - 50 Silver chips
Disturbance Bounty - 5,000 Silver chips
Rowan slammed the paper down on the bar. Burning fools. He wished the ones who founded this settlement were in front of him so he could ask them a couple of questions before he knocked them around a bit. Namely, what idiots put a settlement in the shadow of a mountain range? Out of reach of the Pillar’s light. Hidden from our only defense, he thought. Well, not our only defense. That’s why he was here.
Normally if some creature like a creeper was threatening a town it would be because it had simply become corrupted by darkness. Once corrupted it was known as a bane, a creature that hungered to spread its corruption. But in this case the town was threatened because it had actually been set directly in the shadow of a mountain meaning threats by corrupted creatures would be a regular occurrence. His right hand gripped the firestone tightly, it pulsed warmth as if in answer to his anger.
“Are you going to solve our bane problem?” A tall and yet still plump man said to him from the other side of the bar. He was the innkeeper.
“What gave you that idea?” Rowan asked
The innkeeper nodded to the bounty card in Rowan’s hand.
“I'm afraid your bane problem will be ongoing innkeeper. But this one I will handle,” He replied
The innkeeper leaned in discreetly and spoke in a hush.
“My cousin went on a banehunt once. He says when one’s in a room the lights go dim. Like the light is being sucked out of the room. Doesn’t matter if it’s torchlight or stonelight neither. It’s not natural. Not natural at all.” His hand trembled slightly as he poured in some more of the clear amber liquid Rowan had been sipping. Rowan nodded his thanks. He picked up the glass, swirled the drink around and set it back down.
“Someone once told me light and dark are ancient enemies. In every room a silent battle rages between the two. The light from a stone and the shadow on the wall are battle movements in this long war. A bane is darkness given flesh and when one encounters light the battle rages. Greater darkness will beat weaker light. Greater light” he nodded past the walls of the inn towards the Pillar of Light that stood just south of the mountains that shadowed this settlement “will always beat weaker darkness.” He took a large gulp of the drink before him.
The innkeeper glanced to the side at the earthstone lantern hanging on the wall. It's light flooded the room. But there were shadows too. Behind the bar, under tables, Rowan's own glass cast a shadow. Rowan watched him see it with fresh eyes.
“Aren't bane all that’s left out there? Out in the dark beyond the Pillar’s reach?” He asked Rowan as if he expected first hand knowledge on the subject.
“I don’t know. I guess that’s most of what’s out there, that’s all that comes across the border anyway.” Rowan had heard rumors of people living outside the border but that couldn’t be true so he didn’t bother bringing it up.
“Maybe we’re like ghosts then. Holding onto another’s world,” The innkeeper said thoughtfully.
“You are quite the philosopher innkeeper aren’t you?” Rowan asked with a chuckle. This snapped the man out of his thoughtful stupor and he laughed deeply.
“The only kind of philosopher you can trust!” He laughed “And what house are you from again?” Rowan saw his eyes run over the sigil on his leather breastplate. It was a shield with flames licking up the sides.
“House Stoutfire,” He replied. The man returned his answer with a blank expression. Rowan shifted on his stool. He never got used to the uncomfortable silence and awkward expressions he received when he answered that question.
“We’re a new noble house. A house of banehunters.” The man nodded vaguely
“Are you very good? At hunting bane, I mean?” He asked running his eyes across the many facial scars Rowan wore. One in particular seemed to have caught the innkeeper by the throat and he was unable to speak or look away. This would have been the scar running the length of the side of Rowans head. He often found that people were distracted by his scars. He didn’t mind the attention. He had his hair pulled back in a braid and the sides of his head shaved to give this one the prominence it deserved.
“This one was from the time I fought three lesser bane creepers,” He said gesturing to the scar,
“Ah creepers, those have a hundred legs don’t they?” The barman asked. Rowan nodded.
“That's right and each is as sharp as a blade. One caught me as I was trying to duck it. I got him but it nearly cost me my life. My father had to cauterize the wound to stop the bleeding.”
The innkeeper winced. “That must have been unpleasant.”
“I remember screaming but I don’t remember the pain thankfully.”
The innkeeper’s eyes stopped on another scar near his collarbone. Only the very edge of this one was visible as it was mostly obscured by his leather armor. There was a bad burn and a sunken gap in his collarbone. It was the only scar of which he was ashamed. The only scar that represented failure on him. A failure that had cost his father’s life. He still had guilt to this day over it.
The innkeeper seemed to sense his discomfort as his eyes rested on the scar and he spoke. “Do most banehunters have a lot of scars?”
Rowan bristled slightly, he heard doubt in the question.
“Most have some scars, though many take more pains to hide them. I see them as marks of success. Every scar shows my service to the kingdom and that I survived the encounter with darkness.”
“The other hunter didn’t have any scars.”
“What other hunter?” Rowan asked, suddenly alert.
“Another hunter was here earlier before going up the mountain.”
“How do you know he was a hunter?”
“He had the same bounty card as you. Wore a greycloak.”
Rowan dropped his stone, it hit the wood with a thunk and stayed. Greycloak? The elite guard of the Wildwood wore greycloaks. What would one be doing so far from their border?
“Was he from the Wildwood?”
He scratched his chin, “Now you mention it he did feel like a foreigner. Had a funny accent.”
“How long ago was he here?” Rowan asked.
“Couldn’t have been more than three hours ago.”
Rowan stood up quickly, and reached into his pack. He pulled out a handful of coins and tossed far more than were necessary down on the bar and grabbed his crossbow and spear. He was in the doorway of the tavern when he felt the thread pull taut. He had almost broken the invisible connection between him and his firestone. He turned around and could see it across the room lying on the bar softly pulsing. Internally he pulled the thread and it flew across the room and into his hand.
“Hey Banehunter!” A voice called from back inside the tavern. He turned on his heel to face the innkeeper.
“A lone hellcat was spotted near the mountains this morning after the dimming ended. Be careful.”
“He probably sensed the bane up in the mountains,” Rowan said.
If he could find the hellcat it could lead him right to his target. He turned and walked out.
Rowan climbed a well-worn path that acted as a natural staircase in the side of the mountain. His eyes followed the path to a pass that he expected would lead to one of the mine entrances where his hunt could begin. This side of the mountain was a curious sight. Though the dimming wouldn’t happen for many hours this side of the mountain range was always dim. Direct light from The Pillar would never touch it. But the southern side of the range would be fully lit all day until The Pillar dimmed in the evening.
On that side of the mountain the vegetation consisted of plants that enjoyed the heat and needed very little water. This side was a completely different habitat. Rowan was surrounded by trees with massive trunks to support their climb towards heaven. They were bare of much vegetation for hundreds of feet saving it all for the tops where they could drink enough of the precious light that slipped through the gaps between the peaks and the clouds. Smaller plants that could survive on the low ambient light alone covered the ground as well.
One of those plants caught Rowan’s eye. It had no flower and it’s leaves unrolled in thin spirals. Its fronds were green but the tips were red. Feverfern he thought as he pulled a knife from a sheath on his chest. He cut a frond in half and separated the leaves from the stem. He had seen feverfern work before when one of his friends had been bitten by a small baneling rat. The corruption was not severe but it had gotten into the boy’s blood and once that happened it was beyond being burned out by a firestone. Since no earthstone users were nearby their small town to draw out the corruption feverfern in the right dose was the only option. He could still remember the heat that came off him and the seizures that racked his body for what seemed like hours. It was horrible, but it had saved the boy’s life. Rowan hoped he didn’t need it but now he had the option.
While he finished gathering the herbs a dark figure moved in his peripheral. A wave of adrenaline hit him; telling him to act quickly. His pouch of essence stones hung off his belt just below his hand and he felt the thread connecting him to the firestone. In an instant it could be in his hand and he could be weaving an attack. But he didn’t know what it was. If it was a larger predator like a hellcat or the very creature he hunted he did not want to frighten it into attacking. Instead, he reached slowly into the pouch, gripped the stone and turned his head. Nothing was there. No, something had been there and now it was gone. While scanning the area he took the stone in his left hand and guided it into its slot in his steel vambrace. He no longer felt the thread. The firestone was now part of him just like his limbs or an organ. And if it was damaged he would feel it until the all to painful severing of the connection between him and the stone. He reached into the pouch at his side and pulled another firestone that was only partially charged. It glowed softer than the one in his right vambrace. He dropped it into its slot and listened for a moment. There were no other sounds or signs of anything to fear. He slung his pack back over his shoulders and picked up his spear.
It wasn’t long before the ground in front of him became level. He had reached the pass. Periodic gusts of wind were guided through the mountain pass by the surrounding slopes. One hit him with some force knocking him back a step. He bent his knees and leaned forward slightly into the wind. After a moment the gale subsided and he nearly fell forward. A few yards in front of him in the side of the mountain was a large opening. There were pickaxes strewn about and a couple carts as well. This must be the mine entrance, He thought. Just then another strong wind blew in from the west and turned him sideways. He could see two other mine entrances on the opposite side of the pass with similar signs of being active mining sites. Now which one to enter first.
He remembered what the innkeeper had said about another banehunter. If Rowan could identify which entrance the other hunter had gone in he could gain some ground on him. He looked for some sign of tracks but the rocky ground guaranteed there would be little in the way of tracks for him to identify.
Clack clack clack. The sound of rocks being disturbed and bouncing down the side of the rock face echoed in the highlands. Rowan looked up and around for the source of the sound. The wind howled above him. Maybe that’s all it was, the wind disturbing some rocks. The sound of something sliding towards him shattered that thought. He turned just in time to see it’s black body leaping down. He rolled to the side, pulled his crossbow, and stood back up all in one fluid motion. The creature was in his sights but it was walking away from him. It sniffed some of the digging equipment and Rowan got a look at its massive frame supported by four muscular limbs. It didn’t have fur so much as coin-sized plates that interlocked like a suit of armor. The plates were dark yet glassy like obsidian. It turned its head to the side taking note of Rowan but otherwise unconcerned at the weapon of death pointing at it. Rowan saw its glowing coals for eyes. His finger twitched slightly on the trigger. The Hellcat turned around and walked away towards the other entrances sniffing as it went. Rowan lowered the crossbow. He didn’t understand the creatures but he knew when they were on the scent of a bane they found it and took down anything that stood in there way. That thrill of the hunt, Rowan did understand.
The first entrance he had seen looked to be the largest and have the most signs of activity around it. This must have been the main entrance. It was as good a place as any to start. He started into the mine and then the Hellcat entered his peripheral again. To his left about twenty yards away there was a shadowy corner. It looked like a dark corner of the mountain and nothing more. But then the hellcat’s entire body disappeared into the shadow. Rowan waited for a moment and it didn’t reappear. He walked over towards the shadow and as he reached the corner he could see a small gap in the mountain. He ducked the low entrance and squeezed himself between the sharp edges of the rock and once he came through the secret pass he reached out in front into the sea of darkness and felt the sides of a tunnel that he could follow. The firestones on his arms glowed faintly but Rowan needed more light. Almost in response to this realization they began to pulse brighter. That was better but he still needed more. He traced a circle in the air with his right finger and a ball of flame filled the exact tracing of his finger. He held his hand out, palm up and it hovered above. Further down the passage he saw the burning coal eyes turn and look at him again. He wouldn’t get in it’s way, he would follow it up unto the moment it found the giant earth-eater and then, he would strike.
Their smaller tunnel connected with a larger one. Rowan kept back while he watched the creature turn left into the larger tunnel. He followed on after it. He had followed like this for at least an hour. Keeping a good twenty yards between him and the hellcat. Rowan didn’t have any delusions that the creature didn’t know he was following it as it periodically turned and looked to see if he was still following. Rowan knew it was silly but he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was making sure he was still following it. He had followed for another mile or so when he saw light down the passage.
he thought, A lot of them.
Earthstones, like fire, wind, or water glowed with energy. However, earthstones were white and the light they glowed with was brighter than the others. There were also stones that were forbidden to use. Corrupted stones. Darkstones. The more corrupt the darker they became until they turned solid black. A known corrupt stone user was branded “darkstone” and wanted throughout the land. There was a catch to using a darkstone. Your ability to use pure stones was tainted forever as their power came from another source. The same source that spread and turned creatures to bane.
Before they could reach the earthstone deposit the hellcat turned down a dark side tunnel. It probably wanted to stay out of the light since it was hunting. He turned into the tunnel as well. A moment later he heard a loud metal clang ring out and the hellcat let out a yelp of pain. Down the tunnel a fire came alive. As he neared it he could see the hellcat struggling to free it’s leg from something. It was caught in some type of metal trap and trying to burn itself free but the metal wasn’t melting. The heat was intense and Rowan couldn't get any closer to help. He looked up. His ball of fire still hovered in the air above him. He reached up and pulled at the edges with both hands widening it out in front of him. The glow from it softened as Rowan drew heat back into the stones at his wrists. What he had in front of him now was a net that could absorb the heat and reflect it back so that Rowan could get close enough to see the device that had trapped the Hellcat and if possible free it. He held his hand out in front of him holding the shield with an invisible grip. The heat from the hellcat surrounded Rowan but suddenly curled back and was sucked into the shield. Rowan pushed forward towards the creature. The heat was growing less intense; it was giving up. Rowan came up next to it and looked at the steel jaws that had it in it’s grip. The metal glowed but, amazingly, it was still intact. What is this reinforced steel? He wondered. He could see the release pin underneath he just needed the creature to be still. He took his free hand and looked at it. Wisps of heat reached out of the stone and enveloped his hand. Similar to the shield he held this heat glove would take and absorb additional heat folding it into itself. He reached up and stroked the thrashing creature. There was a look of recognition on its face. Maybe something that could withstand its intensity could be trusted. It stopped thrashing and let its fire burn to a smoulder. Rowan moved back to the creature’s leg and found the pin. He pulled it and the trap released the tension. The hellcat’s leg came free and it sprang down the tunnel and around a corner.
“And here I thought we were forming a friendship,” Rowan said to himself as he let go of the heat shield and organized it back into a ball of fire. It hovered above him lighting the scene.
He looked at the trap and felt anger surge inside of him. He was going to make sure this trap couldn't be used again. He motioned the ball of fire down in front of him. He put the pin on the ground, looked at it and nodded to the pin. The fire weave down onto the pin with force and held there until it was nothing but a few beads of molten metal.
“That should do it,” He said.
The trap could just as easily have caught him. Instead it scared off the creature that should have led him right to the bane.
Bane. The other banehunter.
He looked up and around half-expecting a man in a greycloak to be staring down at him. The tunnel was empty. But as if in response to his search he heard light footsteps around the corner. Rowan quickly released the fire weave hovering above him and it dissipated into the air. As the light quickly faded he caught sight of an alcove on the opposite wall of the tunnel from the trap. He moved to the alcove, removed the fire stones from his wrists and slipped them into the pouch at his side. He still felt the strong tie to his favored stone. It pulsed in the bag urging to be used. Not now! He said internally. Light from the bag reflected on the ceiling of the alcove and Rowan quickly pulled the strings tightening the bag closed.
Another light shone down the tunnel. This one wasn’t steady like the light from essence stones. A large cloaked figure holding a short spear in one hand and a torch with flickering flame in the other walked by the alcove.
He thought, Why wouldn’t he use an earthstone for light?
The light inside an earthstone was bright enough even without using it and it didn’t give off the same heat a fire weave did. This made it ideal as a light source. The benefit of using a fireweave for light to Rowan was having something he could already work with without having to build a new weave. The figure that walked by was hooded and wore a mask over the bottom half of his face. Rowan watched him and the color of the cloak as the light fell on it. It was grey. He was definitely the other banehunter. Suddenly he turned his head and shined the torch into the alcove. Rowan flattened himself to one side of the entrance. The light shined in but the other hunter didn't step in and look around. Instead he turned, knelt down and looked at the trap. Rowan caught a glimpse of the unmistakable green glow of a windstone in the man’s wrist. No doubt he was noticing the missing pin. He looked down and touched the now dry metal beads on the tunnel floor. While he was distracted Rowan slung his crossbow off his shoulder and soundlessly crept behind the man. He was right behind him when the man spoke.
“Are you the one who sabotaged my trap and set my bait free?” Rowan froze. Somehow the man knew he was there without looking at him. He continued.
“Of course you are, you were waiting in that alcove for me to come back and check my trap.” The man sighed when he finished the sentence. His accent was definitely foreign. It didn't even resemble the dialect of the Wildwood tribesmen that lived near the border of their two countries. On top of that, his condescending tone and slightly nasal voice gave Rowan all the more reason to dislike him.
“You could have just as easily caught me in that trap and I would be feeling a lot less friendly right now. Instead you injured and scared it off before it could mark the bane for me,” He said, his crossbow aimed in the hunter’s direction. He’d better not move. Rowan wasn’t a murderer but the other hunter walked a thin line between enemy and obstacle. And Rowan didn’t have much use for enemies.
“If you were caught in that trap you would be down a leg so that is fortunate for you. I
am the one who should be angry here. This will take a lot longer and be a lot more dangerous without bait and that is your fault.”
“I’ll be sure to tell the Bards of Brithomere to get started writing a dirge for you. Right now I’ve got a bane to hunt and I don’t need you in my way,” He took a step towards the man, “And just so we’re clear killing, injuring, or maiming the hellcat in any way will count as getting in my way.” The Greycloak drew up to him and Rowan was reminded of his shorter than average size to most people he squared up against. He stood his ground anyway.
“What you need to understand, tinderbox, is that I have been given a mission and Greycloaks do not fail. We overcome or cut down
obstacles that get in our way but the mission
will always come first.”
“I’m Rowan of House Stoutfire. We don’t back down from any hunt. For anyone.” Rowan felt the color climb up into his cheeks but he didn’t say anymore. He turned down the tunnel and started in the direction the hellcat had run. After only a few steps he heard footsteps behind him. The Greycloak was walking in the same direction.
“Are you following me?” Rowan asked incredulous.
“Of course not! I’m following the hellcat, like you.”
“Oh, now you adopt that technique after maiming it first. Smart.”
“I wouldn’t have had to adopt that technique if someone
hadn’t released it!” Rowan was successfully getting under the man’s skin. A thought came to his mind and he grinned.
“You know I saw the hellcat get a scent off the trap before it ran off. I’m not sure it’ll be too forgiving when it smells you near it again.” No answer came from behind him. He turned his head and saw the Greycloak walking silently. Yet in the dim light of his torch Rowan saw the very pale outline of the man’s face beneath his hood. He smiled. He hadn’t really seen the hellcat get a scent before it ran away but for all he knew it did.
After a bit more walking they came to a fork in the tunnel they had been following. Rowan noticed a small pool of blood at the fork.
“Which way did it go?” The Greycloak asked.
“Not sure,” Rowan said simply while crouching down and looking closer at the blood.
“What are you doing?”
“Tracking.” Rowan reached into his pouch and pulled out the bonded firestone. He closed his eyes and dipped a finger in the blood. He could feel the trail vaguely stretching down the tunnel.
Though every drop was not physically connected the essence of fire was in every bead as something like the magic contained in Rowan's firestone ran through the hellcat's veins in liquid form. He could sense it. He could touch it. He could channel into it. Lights flickered to life down the tunnel one by one in broken asymmetrical lines. Rowan stood up satisfied. He glanced to the side and saw the Greycloak staring down the tunnel with his mouth slightly agape.
“Did that weave...track the hellcat for
you?” He asked Rowan.
“Not exactly. I detected the fire essence in the blood and was able to sense the trail through the tunnel. Once I had it the weave lit the trail,” He explained.
“I’ve always known the reputation of Ciallmhar is wisdom and innovation. I guess it’s true what they say about your countrymen,” The Greycloak said.
“I guess so. So, do you have a name you can give me so I don’t have to make one up?” Rowan asked
“My name is privileged information. This mission is privileged information for that matter,” The man said reverting to his serious demeanor.
“Ok. Priv it is,” Rowan said with a smirk
“Yeah short for privileged information.”
“That’s not what I me-”
“I know, Priv, I know,” Rowan said as he started down the tunnel towards the burning trail.
They had covered a hundred yards or so when the fires ceased. The trail had literally gone cold. Priv looked behind them and cocked his head. Rowan turned as well to see what he was looking at. One by one the small flames were doused starting farther away until the last trail fire ceased at their feet.
“The fires only stay lit for a short amount of time. It’s a built in protection for the hunter using the spell,” Rowan explained again.
“How does it protect you?” Priv asked.
“Because if what you are hunting circles back around those fires become a trail to you.”
Priv nodded in understanding and they both turned around. The trail may have gone cold but not before leading them into a large room of dark rough stone floor with smooth reflective stone running up the walls. Earthstones lit the expansive room. On the first floor they filled up carts and littered the stone floor. On the second and third levels they reflected off the slate rock wall in which they were set, as yet unmined. There were carts and pickaxes like at the mine entrance but many of the carts were turned over and many of the pickaxes were damaged.
“The trail is gone. Any more hunter tricks up your vambrace?” Priv asked.
“The trail isn’t gone it’s just changed. Now the trail becomes more subtle. Look for a footprint in debris, fire burnt material, anything to give a clue,” He finished uncertain if they would be able to find the next clue that would put them back on the hellcat's trail. Rowan hoped he hadn’t seen the last of it. He was growing fond of it and the last thing he wanted was for it to face the bane alone.
Priv went to one side of the cavern and Rowan went to the other. There was a minecart smashed to splinters and its white gemstones piled against the wall where it had impacted. In fact the more Rowan looked around the more he noticed damage all throughout the room. Split hafts of pick axes and more carts of earthstones smashed against the wall. It was as if something had scattered them away from itself. Rowan had an idea of what might want to knock away caches of earthstones. He came across a pile of earthstones and at the foot of the pile something caked onto the floor illuminated. It was hard to make out on the dark floor so he crouched down and ran his finger along it. Blood. Dried blood. He looked up and around. Now he could see the dark opaque stains all along the ground and walls. It had the look of a crime scene. There were no bodies but Rowan hadn’t expected to find many. The bane creeper was killing for food which meant these bloody stains were all that would be left behind.
Rowan looked up towards the other levels. A system of ropes and pulleys served the lift system as there were three levels in this room. On the second level tucked into the side of the stone there was a wooden room. Likely where the foreman observed the operation of the mine. Something told him to go up there. He followed the wall to a set of stairs roughly cut into the rock. They were uneven in spots and slick in others, more caked blood causing him to lose traction. As he neared the second level a foul smell filled his nostrils. At the top of the stairs and just around the corner he found his first corpse. A red-haired man slumped against a wall. He couldn't have been there for more than three days as the body had not begun to bloat. His brown eyes were open but distant, head down chin touching his chest. He was missing a large piece in his side and here is where he succumbed to his injuries. Rowan noticed he held a keyring in one of his hands. He pried the fingers open and took the keys. They would most likely open the foreman’s office up ahead. While he moved the man’s hand to get the keys he noticed a faint glow of something hanging from his belt. Rowan unclasped it from the belt. From the shape of the scabbard it looked to be a dagger. Light escaped from inside the leather. Rowan unsheathed it and it’s light blinded him momentarily. His eyes adjusted but it was still difficult to look at it directly. The color and glow were unmistakably earth essence which meant the blade itself was an earthstone. Essence stone weapons were difficult to make. Cutting them into such a thin shape was rarely well done resulting in blades that could crack easily. This one was the finest attempt at one he had ever seen. He clasped it to his belt, closed the unseeing eyes of the man and nodded his thanks before heading towards the door of the foreman’s office. The wooden structure was still intact except the window facing out towards the room looked to be broken. He leaned his spear next to the door and took the first key and stuck it in the lock and tried to turn. Not that one. He went to the next one. Not that one either. He was at the last key on the ring. He put it in the lock and turned.
A steady sound started from behind the door. Like someone sawing at wood very loudly. It had the sound of something large producing friction. Why did it sound so familiar? He quickly slotted in two firestones then grabbed his spear. He bent his knees holding it with both hands and eased open the door with the tip. Behind the door, was a tangle of scales, slime, and black eyes inside a flat shovel shaped head. There was a sheen on its skin that reflected the light of earthstones shining in through the broken window and open door. It writhed back and forth, scales scraping against each other in long continuous strokes warning Rowan not to come closer. It was coiled and ready to explode towards him.
A sudden gust of wind hit Rowan, knocking him sideways. The roof of the foreman’s office blew off as well and the larval bane creeper was pinned to the wall. The earthstones in the wall and ceiling nearest the bane instantly dimmed slightly. Rowan glanced over his shoulder to see Priv standing below in the middle of the room. Arm outstretched and hand cupped towards the creature. It flailed against the wall but remained pinned by the wind. Several earthstones in the wall right next to the creature were completely suppressed. Rowan steadied himself and walked towards the pinned creature. He had killed bane creepers before but never seen their larval form. If they were anything like their adult form he just needed one good lateral slice with his spear to separate the head from the body. The wind increased and Rowan lost his balance sliding against the wall. That was a little overkill. The creature was already pinned, yet Priv was increasing the gust. With this wind it would be difficult to form a fire weave as it would almost immediately be blown out. The wind died suddenly as Priv yelled out. Below Rowan saw a large cat covered in black plates squaring up towards Priv. The Hellcat had found him.
The ridge of plates on it's back stood up and it burst into flame. Rowan quickly turned back to the bane. It was starting to regain its wits. He charged it throwing his weight behind the spear and into the creature. Its head pushed to the side but instead of digging in the blade’s tip slid off barely making a scratch. He raised an eyebrow before the creeper’s head lunged right for him. He rolled to the side and made a downward vertical slice. Again the blade slid down but didn’t penetrate.
Eternal flame! What is going on? he cursed.
He threw a bright spray of sparks from one hand and spun to the side of another attack. He reached for the earthstone dagger he had pulled off the corpse. The light from it was suppressed being this close to the bane but it was still an earthstone and he had to try something different. While the creature was momentarily blinded he buried it in its side. It didn’t go in deep but it did penetrate the initial layer of scales. The creature writhed and the dagger ripped out of Rowan’s hand. While it thrashed about he ran and dove for cover behind an overturned cart nearby.
He wouldn't survive long if his attacks remained ineffective. He needed to get it downstairs to give it more than one threat to deal with. Rowan peered around the cart and saw one of the lifts hanging away from the ledge above the first level. That would be one way to get down quickly. He had to distract it somehow so he could make it to the suspended wooden platform. His usual distraction technique was to light something on fire. A flaming wooden cart might do the trick. He stayed low but put a few steps between him and the cart. Then he hit it hard with a blast of flame that simultaneously ignited it and knocked it into the air. It hit the scaly bane in the face. While it rounded on the cart he ran.
The edge of the second level was fast approaching. He pushed hard off the ledge launching toward the rope-suspended lift and caught the edge. The rope holding it snapped and down the lift went and him with it. He let go of it and his momentum carried him just feet from where it landed. He hit the ground and rolled to absorb some of the force of the fall. When he stood a moment later he was looking right at Priv who’s greycloak had a tear in it though, inexplicably, he had managed to keep his hood up. He turned around. The hellcat was circling them both now but looked less certain with Rowan standing between them.
“Did you kill it yet?” Priv asked as they continued to match step for step with the hellcat.
“About that, my spear isn’t hurting it,” Rowan said.
“That is discouraging Rowan,” Priv said.
“Imagine how I feel.”
“Where is it?” Priv asked.
At that very moment it jumped or did the closest thing to jumping as a leg-less bane could. Soaring above them was the entire hulking body of a larval bane creeper. Priv dove to one side, Rowan and the hellcat dashed to the other. Instinctively Rowan sparked a fire-weave to life. In a few heartbeats it had grown to a blaze. A second later it impacted shaking the ground violently, several large pieces of the ceiling split and fell. Rowan leveled the wall of fire at the creature pouring everything from the firestone in his left vambrace into it. As he sent his attack, a twin stream of fire came from somewhere else. Both hit the creature at the same time. He glanced to the side to see the hellcat fully lit unleashing a blaze of its own. In spite of this Rowan could see the bane moving towards both of them.
How is this possible, He thought.
Suddenly it was struck in the side of the head by two large boulders that Priv had apparently been keeping from crushing them both. It was knocked to the side for a moment. Rowan’s left vambrace was empty, the hellcat now barely smoldered as it was drained too. Rowan looked back at the bane, it was shaking it off. Not just the blows from the rocks but the burnt skin from their attacks was peeling away too. They had hardly damaged it. Rowan glanced at Priv who looked grave. His eyes met the black eyes in that abnormal shovel head and it charged him mouth open, teeth bared. He lowered his spear toward the bane and braced. It slammed into him and pushed him across the floor. He hit the wall hard and something snapped. The creature let out a roar and jerked backwards. Rowan faintly saw the haft of the spear lying on the ground, the head had broken off, buried somewhere inside the creature.
“Did I get it?” He heard himself asking as he dropped to the floor.
Stars wheeled above. No not stars, earthstones. His vision was becoming clearer. He sat up. He was in the large room with the mining carts and-the bane! What had happened to it? The last thing he remembered he slammed into something hard and his spear head snapped off. He looked at the haft lying next to him. Burn it all, he’d liked that spear. Rowan noticed a large dark lump laying a few yards from him. It was the hellcat, its plates were folded against its bulky frame. Its chest rose and fell indicating it was just sleeping.
“It passed out the same moment you did.” Priv walked around in front of Rowan as he spoke. He was rubbing the forearm that had the windstone in it.
“Strange connection you two have,” He said.
“Connection? What are you implying Greycloak?” Rowan asked.
“It happens on occasion with elemental creatures under the right conditions. The Griffin riders in my country all have to form a bond with their Griffins as the final part of their training. If they can’t form the bond, they can’t be Griffin riders.”
“I don’t have a bond with this hellcat, Priv.” He wasn’t sure why he was being so defensive. Maybe it was because he always saw himself as a lone hunter. Similar, in a way, to hellcats who almost always lived solitary lives. Others couldn't get hurt that way.
“You may not have one yet, but you’re forming one. You touched it with fire essence from a stone when you rescued it from my trap didn’t you?” Priv asked.
“And then you channeled into its blood.”
“And then your magic touched again when you attacked the bane together.”
He had thought it odd how coordinated the hellcat’s attack seemed to be with his. Could the Greycloak be right?
“What happened to the monster?” Rowan asked eager to change the subject.
“It fled after eating the head of your spear. I do not think it enjoyed the flavor.”
Rowan thought back to the encounter. The bane had scales, no legs, and a flat broad head. It didn’t have mandibles but a ring of teeth on the inside of its mouth. The bounty card said it was a creeper larva but he had never seen a creeper that looked like this one.
“Did that look like a creeper to you?” He asked Priv.
“Not like any creeper I’ve seen in the Wildwood. Perhaps that is what creepers are like in Ciallmhar?”
Rowan shook his head, “I’ve never seen a creeper without legs, even in their nymph form they have at least twelve legs.”
“Scales on creeper bane in Ciallmhar?” Priv asked.
“Not that I’ve seen. They have chitin. Tough chitin but nothing compared to those scales.”
“Seems like this bane was misidentified,” Priv said.
“Misidentified and misclassified. There’s no way that was a lesser bane.”
“Perhaps it was a lesser bane when it drove the workers out of the mine. Something is changing it, making it grow. Making it more resistant to attacks, more than usual for a bane.”
“I think you’re right. But that still doesn’t explain what it is. If I don’t know what I’m up against how am I supposed to kill it,” He said exasperated. This was why he hunted alone. He got himself in over his head and others got hurt trying to help him. He shouldn’t care much for this winder but now he was in over his head again and he knew if something happened to the man he would carry the guilt like he did for his father. The dark lump near him shifted. He looked over and saw the hellcat stirring. It stretched it’s hind parts up into the air and yawned showing it’s huge razor like teeth. It’s glowing eyes opened and instantly locked with his. It slowly walked towards him sticking its snout up into the air smelling something. It was a few feet from him when he heard it make a sound. Was it purring? It rubbed its head against his arm. Thankfully it’s plates were laying flat at the moment and it was a plus that it wasn't on fire. It continued to purr and rub its head against him. It now moved around his back and he winced as it rubbed against his shoulder blade. It wasn’t broken. He would’ve been in a lot more agony if it was. But it must’ve been severely bruised which was plenty painful.
“I see the bonding is going well,” Priv said noticing the activity. The hellcat began a low growl at the sound of Priv’s voice. His eyes widened and Rowan grinned.
“It really is amazing how it knows exactly what I think of you,” He said. It snarled and bared its teeth at Priv.
“Rowan call it off!” Priv said backing away slowly. The hellcat advanced.
“Hey you,” Rowan said. Amazingly, the hellcat turned its head and looked at him, “We need his help, don’t eat him yet please,” Rowan said standing up and starting towards the staircase in the corner of the room. It seemed to grunt in disappointment and turned and followed Rowan towards the stairs.
“Where are you going?” Priv asked.
“Back to the foreman’s office where this started to look for some clue about the bane.”
Rowan winced going up the stairs as his shoulder twinged with pain. Hopefully that would heal quickly. With some effort he made it to the top. He approached the office and among the debris that had fallen from the ceiling something bright caught his eye. He walked over and knelt keeping his back straight. It was the earthstone dagger. No doubt its effectiveness was suppressed by the bane's own dark essence but it didn't have a mark on it and had done actual damage to the bane. He picked it up and slid it back into the scabbard clasped to his belt. Before he stood up he heard a short burst of smaller roars come from behind him. The hellcat was marking something. It growled and whined a bit wanting him to come over. He stood up gingerly and slowly walked closer to the office missing the roof. The bane they had just fought was definitely not inside so he cautiously made his way inside the wooden structure. To his left when he entered the room against the wall was a somewhat large cage. Inside was a scaly worm a little less than two feet tall coiled around an earthstone. The sound of scales on scales met his ears again as he saw the worm writhe in such a way as a warning.
“Could it be?” He heard Priv's astonished voice behind him. Apparently, he had decided to join Rowan upstairs as well, “They were the same species.”
“Not possible. You saw how big that thing was. These don’t get any bigger than a dog.”
“What is the little devil?”
“These are worms they use to locate earthstone deposits. They make nests beside them, it makes their skin tough as nails...and resistant to fire as well.”
Rowan thought back to the encounter in the foreman’s office. It’s skin had a strange sheen to it. Then when he and the hellcat used their attacks some of its skin peeled away.
“Maybe it was looking for a safe place to molt,” Rowan said everything clicking into place, “And why wouldn’t it feel safe in the room where it molted in the past with others of its kind?”
“Others of its kind?” Priv clearly wasn’t following Rowan’s thought process.
“Yeah the other scale worm in the cage.”
“I thought you said it is not possible they are the same species?”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense. It explains the resistance to fire and our weapons. Somehow the corruption is causing it to grow to a massive size,” He said.
“This is why it was identified as lesser bane. It was lesser bane at the time before it grew again,” Priv said catching on, “So what do we do now?” He asked.
“What we should do is leave right now.” Priv looked at him confused. He continued, “This is a full bane. If it molts again who knows what class it will be. This is not a two man job. But by the time we come back with a team this thing could have molted three or four more times. It could be twice the size it is now. Who knows what damage it could do and how many it could kill when it starts looking for more food. We have to end it here and now. But how?”
Silence for a few moments. The scale worm in the cage had stopped it’s threatening writhing and was very still. After a moment it began flexing and inching out of its skin. It was molting. It looked like an exhausting process.
“You said it was looking for a place to molt,” Priv said, “Why don’t we let it?”
“I just told you Priv because when its done it’ll be even bigger and stronger. Are all Greycloaks this slow?”
Priv waved the insult away, “But while its molting, it’ll be like this little devil. Weak and slow. It will be vulnerable.”
Rowan nodded thinking. He had a point. He continued watching the smaller worm in thought. It was almost halfway out of its skin. Didn’t molting take a lot longer than a few minutes? A minute later the worm had finished. It began eating the skin slowly. It turned Rowan’s stomach. Priv made a face. The earthstone in the cage with the scale worm looked much dimmer than it had when he first saw the creature. Had it instinctively channeled the essence from the stone to speed up the process?
“You have a good plan but it can’t be that simple. They molt quick. This one because of the earthstone, our bane worm may draw on the dark power of its corruption to speed up the process.”
“What do you propose, tinderbox?” Priv asked.
Rowan raised an eyebrow, “I propose we put a firestone in it, overload the stone and then,”
Rowan put his hands together in a circle and then spread them apart, “Boom.”
The plan was in place. Rowan gave Priv the earthstone dagger to be sure he could cut in deep while the bane molted. Priv had acted strange when Rowan gave him the dagger. Handling it delicately, he hadn’t even taken it out of the scabbard to inspect the work of art Rowan had told him it was. It leaned beside the opening to the main tunnel as he and Rowan examined a map they had found while going through the foreman’s office. The top of the map said “Mine Progress” and had X’s over the tunnels closest to where they were indicating which had been cleaned out of earthstones. Since it seemed sensitive to the earthstone dagger they both agreed it was likely to choose a spot that had already been heavily mined of earthstones. The first two tunnels marked with an X branched almost immediately off the main tunnel. The first branch went to the left and the next went to the right. The left branch dead-ended and then had another side tunnel off of it to the left and an exit to the right that led out to the Pillar of Light. The only use for the exit would be a rudimentary garbage shoot as the environment this close to the Pillar was too inhospitable to use it for anything else. This had Rowan thinking it unlikely the bane would go that way as it would have to pass too close to the Pillar before turning to the left down the side tunnel. They settled on taking the tunnel that branched right off the main tunnel.
Priv walked slightly in front of Rowan and the hellcat. His hood was still up and mask over his mouth.
“So, Priv, is it a crime punishable by death to let your hood and mask down in the Greycloaks or just a personal preference?” Rowan asked.
“My identity is privileged, remember? That includes facial features,” Priv answered gruffly.
“Wow that is some serious control. Are you able to have any life outside of the next mission Priv?” Rowan asked genuinely curious.
“Not for a long time.” His posture didn’t change but his cadence sounded forlorn to Rowan.
“Ever wish you had chosen to do something else with your life?” Rowan pushed a little further.
“I did not choose this,” Priv said forcefully, “I-I mean you can not choose your calling it chooses you.”
Rowan didn’t think that is what he meant but he decided not to push any further. He didn’t want to fluster him further before what he hoped would be the end of their hunt. The branch to the left came and went. The right branch would only be a little further. A growling sound drew Rowan’s attention. He turned to see the hellcat behind them sitting by the entrance to the tunnel entrance they just passed. Priv turned around too.
“What is it doing Rowan?” Priv asked
“I don’t know why are you asking me?” He said
“Oh I forgot, you are in denial about your bond.” Priv chuckled.
Rowan ignored Priv and gestured for the hellcat to follow him. The hellcat gestured with its head towards the tunnel entrance it sat beside.
“No, it wouldn’t go that way. Come on!” Rowan said
The hellcat just grunted again and started down the left tunnel that Rowan thought they needn’t visit. Priv began to follow it.
“Priv what are you doing?” Rowan asked.
“I thought I would follow the hellcat, a hunter once told me they were great at marking bane.” Rowan noted Priv's nasal-ness came out stronger when he was being sarcastic.
“Priv, I’m the one who told you that,” he said annoyed.
“I know, tinderbox,” Priv said with another chuckle. When did he get so cheeky? Stupid winder, stupid hellcat, and stupid bane if it did go that direction. He followed them both, he was already being stupid himself continuing to hunt this eratic bane, might as well not be stupid enough to look for it alone.
After a minute or two more of walking Priv slowed down to walk beside him.
“So explain to me again how this overloading technique will work?” He asked
Rowan sighed, “I have a strong connection with the stone in my right vambrace. It’s bonded to me. I have a fully charged firestone in my pouch that is not bonded. This firestone” He said pointing at his vambrace, “can recognize my other stone. If I channel fire energy into the already charged stone from my bonded stone it will overload and-”
“Boom.” Priv cut in
“Yes. Boom. In fact,” he reached into his pouch, “I can just give you the stone right now so you have it.” Priv took the stone in a gloved hand and it lit up part of his arm that was unarmored. It was wrapped and faintly he could see blood seeping through.
“Why didn’t you mention you got injured during the fight with the bane, Priv?” Rowan asked
Priv quickly stowed the stone in a pouch of his own and his arm disappeared under his cloak.
“It is nothing to be concerned about. Just some blistering when the hellcat got too close.” He seemed to wince remembering. The hellcat hissed at him after he said that.
“Hey, what did I say before? We need his help!” Rowan raised his voice slightly. The hellcat scarcely seemed to notice but it did leave Priv alone. As they walked the hellcat suddenly turned into another tunnel that hadn’t been on the map. It looked like it had been recently dug. Rowan read the map using the stone in his vambrace for light.
“I guess digging its own tunnel is one way to avoid the Pillar. This tunnel should avoid the dead end by the Pillar entirely and cut straight across.” Rowan said
They followed the hellcat in silence the rest of the way. Rowan could feel the adrenaline start to pump into his veins as every step brought them closer to a monster unlike anything he had faced before. The end of this tunnel was approaching. They began to hear cries from what Rowan assumed was the creature molting. He imagined it was a painful process. Stretching, changing, leaving behind a part of yourself. It was a process the creature itself probably didn’t understand. But, like an animal that’s gone rabid, it needed to be put down. The came to the opening and could see the large, lengthy body of the bane. It was dimly lit by the few earthstones that had been left in the rock above due to some unknown impurity or defect. The room itself was mostly open. A naturally formed column stood to one side formed by a stalagmite and stalactite meeting connecting ground and ceiling. Rowan gestured them to follow him as they moved low to a stalagmite that was large enough to provide them all with cover. A little closer now Rowan could see most of the giant worm’s head had pushed out of the skin. Good, it wasn’t molting as fast as the worm in the cage. Its muscles slowly convulsed where the body pushed its way out of the skin otherwise it seemed completely still.
“All right Priv, you’re up,” Rowan said turning to him.
“Do not look so concerned tinderbox,” Priv said annoyed, probably because he was the one that got to sneak up to the bane while it molted then stab it and shove something inside of it.
“I would use an air weave to insert the stone Priv, who knows what this thing’s blood will do to your skin if you try to do it by hand. And be quick about it, we don’t know what it will do once we’ve interrupted its molt. It may be paralyzed until the process is done, or it may just get really really angry at us.”
“I will be sure to move like I am stabbing a big angry monster with a little splinter.”
Priv moved low out from the cover of the stalagmite. He reached the column near the end of the creature’s body. Rowan lost sight of him behind the body of the large worm as he walked the length of it. The firestone in his vambrace brightened expectantly as if it knew he would call on it soon. Rowan never knew if this was something he did subconsciously or if the stone really was doing it independently. Suddenly, a bright light appeared near the creature’s head. It let out a terrible cry as, no doubt, Priv had cut into it with the dagger. The hellcat paced anxiously behind the stalagmite. Rowan waited for the signal the firestone was placed. None came. The creature began convulsing and thrashing wildly. Where was Priv?
“Come on, we’re not waiting anymore.” Rowan said to the hellcat. It looked pleased. They both dashed towards the column to get closer to the creature. When they got to the column Priv was running towards them.
“Did you get it in Priv?” Rowan asked urgently.
He shook his head.
The creature roared as it’s old skin ripped from its body. A long barb stuck out from the end of its tail and a horn protruded from its head. More mutations brought on by the corruption. It whipped its length around looking for them. Suddenly to Rowan’s horror he saw the hellcat standing out in the middle of the cavern. Rowan felt it’s fire coming to life. It darted out of the way of a downward blow from the barbed tail and roared launching several fire balls at the worm that detonated on impact. They didn’t seem to phase it. A swing of the tail was its answer and the hellcat rolled low avoiding it.
There was a dark cloud of some kind that seemed to be building around the bane’s horn. Suddenly a beam of shadow fired from the horn at the hellcat. It was caught off guard and knocked to the ground. The tail came down to strike again but buried itself in the rocky ground as the hellcat rolled out of the way again. Despite being wounded the hellcat's fire seemed to burn more fiercely and it roared sending its own beam of bright flame at the creature. The clouds around the bane's head thundered and it countered the hellcat with another beam of shadow from it’s forehead. The beam of light and dark collided in a shower of sparks. The dark beam was quickly overpowering the hellcat’s attack. Rowan had to do something. He could feel the fire essence living in the hellcat just as he had felt the essence in its blood while tracking it. It had a firestone inside it but its power level was dropping. His own stone pulsed urging him to use it. He instinctively channeled along the bond from his firestone into the hellcat’s stone. The already bright flame of the hellcat turned an even brighter blue and pushed back. The beam of shadow stopped advancing. Both creatures roared and Rowan was barely aware that he was now standing out from behind cover, arm outstretched, letting out his own yell of defiance.
The blue beam sheared through the horn on the bane’s head. It fell to the ground with a crash. Rowan dropped to one knee in a daze. Burn it, that had taken a lot out of him. He lifted his head and saw the hellcat looked woozy as well.
“Priv, we have to finish it. While its down.” He said through labored breathing.
Priv walked by Rowan toward the bane. The dagger, Rowan could see it still leaning against the column.
“The dagger Priv! Get the dagger!” Priv didn’t seem to hear him as stopped in the middle of the room and lifted his left hand. The cloak fell back revealing a vambrace with a stone in it. A dark stone. Priv’s feet were planted apart, bracing. A cold wind blew in and swept his hood back but he kept his footing. The darkstone began to radiate something. Not light but anti-light. It was pushing away the light from around it. As it did Rowan saw the the bane stir and rise.
he thought then the bane’s horn repaired.
“No!” he yelled as Priv led it over to the smouldering hellcat. The anti-light fell across his face and made him look inhuman. It revealed dark veins running up his neck and behind his head.
“I am sorry for my betrayal Rowan. As I said, my path was chosen for me. The Blackstones have taken an interest in this bane and I have someone whose life depends on me. I can not fail them. I will spare your life but I can not have the hellcat follow me and the bane has just molted. It has to feed.”
“I am sorry.” He said again a tear rolling down his cheek. Burn his tears, burn his regret!
“NO!” Rowan said rising to his feet. All the firestones in his pouch pulsed in unison. He felt the threads on all of them humming with energy. Mentally he pulled the thread on every single one. All at once they leapt from his pouch and found their places in the armor of his arms, legs, and chest. They pulsed. No, he pulsed. He couldn’t feel where the fire essence stopped and he began. Glowing like a human flame, he faced Priv and clapped his arms together. It pealed like thunder and a cloud of fire and lightning erupted from his hands and screamed towards Priv and the bane. It hit the bane and knocked it back into the wall of the cavern. Priv summoned a dark wall from his stone that absorbed the inferno that was hurled against it but then it faltered and Rowan heard the unmistakable sound of a crack. It’s anti-light failed and it fell from the slot in his wrist in two pieces. Behind him a thunderous roar shook the very ground as the bane recovered from Rowan’s attack. It rushed at Rowan knocking Priv aside. He wove a heat shield as the creature slammed into him with his tail. It barely blunted the blow and he was knocked into the stalagmite column. Something definitely felt broken in his shoulder now. The giant worm leapt and a shovel shaped head full of teeth came down on top of Rowan. He blinked. Just above him the creature struggled, suspended in mid-air. Priv stepped forward a new dark stone in his wrist. The anti-light ball he stood inside was so large at the strained power it nearly pushed all light out of the room. Rowan heard a loud grunt from Priv as he hurled it into the narrow tunnel it had dug to shortcut into the room. Then he pulled down the ceiling on top of it. The anti-light from his wrist faded and he rushed over to Rowan’s side.
“Come on. This stone will fail if I try to use it to control the creature again which means we are out of options.” Priv said
“Oh, you think we are on speaking terms just because you saved my life after nearly getting me killed?” He spouted as Priv helped him up
“I think your shoulder is broken and I do not want you to die here because of me.”
“And what about her? Are you ok with her dying because of you?” Priv looked at Rowan confused.
“What? I know the hellcat is a she. It’s the bond thing you were so sure about,” Rowan said.
“I am Misfortune, Rowan. That is my name. I bring calamity down on all who know me.” He looked away as he spoke as if remembering something. Rowan just stared.
“You always were dramatic. Come on lets get her up and get out of here.”
Rowan kneeled down. He pulled out some feverfern and held it under her nose. She stirred and slowly stood up. Rowan closed his eyes and let the power from one of his stones empty into her stone. Her smoulder rose to flames. Priv helped Rowan stand back up again and they started down the tunnel leading away from the shortcut. The ground started to shake.
“Of course that didn’t kill it.” Rowan said
“The mutations caused by the corruption are very unique. It only gets stronger the more damage it takes.”
“What?” Rowan didn’t know how but they couldn’t allow a bane this dangerous to survive. Could it grow into something that would end all of Arsatir?
“We have to kill it.” He said
“We can not kill it. We can only survive,” Priv said. The tunnel reverberated with cries from the creature. It was coming for them. Rowan sensed the hellcat behind them holding it off. Don’t die on me, girl he thought. The impression came back that she had heard his thought. They approached where the tunnel could continue straight or turn. There was a faint light at the bottom of the tunnel that went straight. It was the garbage chute that sloped down and led out to the side of the mountain exposed to the Pillar of Light. If they could get it out into the Pillar's light it would be greater light versus lesser darkness.
“We’re going straight down the slope and out into the light,” He said to Priv but somehow he knew the hellcat heard him.
“It won’t follow.” Priv said matter of fact. Rowan heard the dogged efforts of the bane trying to get to them. If not for the hellcat it would have them already.
“Oh I think it will. Though it might need a last nudge out the door,” He said.
Rowan had eight remaining fire stones with charge not including the one bonded to him strongest. As they moved down the slope he consolidated their energy into four fully charged stones. They were passing scraps of wood, metal, animal bones. They were nearing the end of the slope where all the garbage had piled up.
“Priv - when we get out of the tunnel - I need you to collapse it - behind the bane.” He said between breaths with the occasional wince of pain.
“What will - you do?” Priv asked breathing heavy as well
“Kick it out the door” Rowan said, a smile curling his lips.
Their eyes had no time to adjust to the blinding light flooding into the tunnel’s entrance. They ran straight through it. Rowan had never been this close to the Pillar before. It towered above them climbing ever higher until it climbed out of sight. It was oppressively hot. Rowan shook his mind from the heat and mentally called the hellcat and she was at his side in a moment. She took something from him and ran near the entrance. The bane screeched as it neared the tunnel entrance and felt the heat. Before it could retreat farther back into the tunnel Priv collapsed it as planned but the creature still was not out in the light and the immediate sounds of scales slamming on rock were heard as it desperately tried to get back into the tunnel. It could tunnel, they had to hurry.
The hellcat bolted in and came back out. Rowan felt the threads of the stones and sent everything he had from his last stone down the threads. He felt the thread of the bonded firestone fade to nothing as the last essence of fire left it. At once explosions blew rock, garbage, and the bane out into the white heat of the Pillar. It writhed and screamed in pain. Rowan watched the battle between light and dark. The bane didn’t stand a chance against the column of light that stretched from ground to sky and was wide as a mountain. With a few final slams of its ugly shovel head into the sand the creature went still. Flakes of skin began to blow off it as the entire creature broke down in a mere minute. All that was left were two darkstones. One the size of a melon was oblong and uncut. The other was much smaller and would fit in the slot of a vambrace.
Rowan looked around and saw Priv walking toward a gap in the mountains where there was some shade. He wasn’t getting away that easily. He hurried to catch up to him.
“Hey! Where do you think you’re going?” He asked
“To find some shade.”
“And then what? Back to serve the Blackstones?”
“I told you I do not have a choice. Someone is depending on me,” He said while holding the bandaged arm seeping blood.
“Are you ok? What really happened to that arm?” Rowan asked.
“There are consequences when a darkstone user channels through a pure essence stone.”
“You keep saying someone is depending on you. Are they really worth all this?” He said gesturing to Priv’s general sorry state. One arm was wrapped from blisters and still seeping blood and the other had jagged dark veins running up it. His face had paled quickly in the light of the Pillar. The dark veins around his neck seemed to have mostly receded.
“It is my sister, she is my only family. It has been like this since the beginning. If I do not continue to do their will they will hurt her,” He said.
“I don't get it. You seem pretty capable. Just grab her in the middle of the night and go!” Rowan said.
“It is not that simple.” Priv replied solemnly.
“Nothing ever is, Priv. Priv? Should I still call you that? What’s your real name?”
“I like Priv.” He said
Rowan paced trying to think of what to do. If he brought him in to be arrested chances are he would be in prison for a long time. Who knows what would happen to his sister. But he couldn’t just let him go. He looked out of the gap in the mountain and began to speak. He didn’t see Priv back into a particularly dark shadow in the gap or see the glow from the darkstone pulse as he disappeared inside the shadow.
“You must know I can’t let you go back to the Blackstones. I’m honor-bound to bring you in but maybe I can-” As he spoke he turned around. No one was there. He looked out of the gap on both sides. There was no sign of him out on the flat lands next to the mountain side. He stepped back into the gap and saw something leaning against a dark corner in the rock. It was the scabbard holding the earthstone dagger. Next to it was a firestone. The one he had given Priv. There was a drop of blood on the ground. Rowan knelt down and picked up the firestone. He touched the drop and closed his eyes. “Got you.”