The Storm rules, and the world belongs to monsters. Yet at the edge of darkness, the Pillar of Light burns unceasingly, keeping the last stubborn speck on the map from being snuffed out. But the Pillar’s unmoving light doesn’t reach all shadows. And so banehunters tread the dark in a constant struggle to keep The Storm’s monsters at bay.
An obscure banehunter named Rowan takes pride in his scars. Except for one. A routine banehunt, a hellcat, and a rival hunter that’s not what he seems will force him to confront an old wound and a larger threat than any he’s ever faced.
Gentle red light spilled out of the open pouch sitting on the bar. The light of firestones. Rowan reached in and pulled one out, inspecting it. Like the others, it was round and fitted to go into any of the slots built into his leather armor. It cost more to have them cut this way, but it was worth it to have both hands free in a fight and still have the option to throw a fire weave now and then. The red glow at the center was dim, as if the power inside was sleeping. It was one of ten stones in the pouch.
Should be enough to get through this hunt, he thought.
Next to the pouch, a bounty card lay with large letters to grab the attention of banehunters like Rowan. He picked it up and looked at it.
REWARD - LARVAL BANE CREEPER - DISTURBANCE HIGH, it read.
He twisted the red stone between his fingers as he read, feeling a connection to it, as if a thin thread ran from its fiery center and connected inside his chest, somewhere near his heart. He turned his attention back to the bounty card, scanning the rest of it intently.
Eventide Mine Closed. A larval bane creeper has halted the mining operation after killing twelve and wounding four. The mayor has issued a bounty on the lesser-bane to restore the Earthstone mine 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.
He’d seen it time and time again, settlers taking the darkness for granted and setting up near long standing shadows like the ones cast by these mountains. Bane hated the light, so they tended to keep to the shadows. They also were driven by instinct to spread their corruption. As a result, Rowan had seen many smaller bounties show up in the guild house back in the Capital for this settlement.
Usually, he ignored them or left them to the rookies. But, now they had a real problem on their hands. Twelve people were dead and Eventide Mine was closed. He was annoyed at them all for staying in this dark place, but he was more annoyed that he cared. 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, plump man said to him from the other side of the bar. He was the innkeeper.
“What gave you that idea?” Rowan asked, annoyed at the man’s presumption.
The innkeeper nodded at the bounty card in Rowan’s hand.
“I’m afraid your bane problem will be ongoing innkeeper. But I will handle this one.”
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 brought it to his lips. A thought interrupted him and he set the glass down.
“Someone once told me,” he began, “light and dark are ancient enemies. Look at The Storm, it never stops pushing at the Pillar's Light and the Pillar never stops pushing back. Even in this 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. If a bane is darkness given flesh, then when one encounters light, that same battle rages. Greater darkness will beat weaker light. Greater light,” He nodded in the direction of the Pillar of Light that stood just south of the mountains shadowing 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. Its 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 as if he expected firsthand 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.
Rowan chuckled. “You are quite the philosopher innkeeper, aren’t you?”
This snapped the man out of his thoughtful stupor, and he laughed deeply.
“The only philosopher you can trust!” He said.
The innkeeper’s laughter died down, and then his eyes ran over the sigil on Rowan’s leather breastplate. It was a shield with flames licking up the sides.
“And what house are you from again?”
“House Stoutfire,” Rowan 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 an up and coming house. You may have noticed us in the banehunter guild rankings,” he said. 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 seemed to have caught the innkeeper by the throat, and he couldn’t speak or look away. This would have been the scar running the length of the side of Rowan’s head. He often found that his scars distracted people. That was ok, 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 out of the way. 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,” he said.
“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 his leather armor mostly obscured it. There was a terrible 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?” he asked.
Rowan bristled slightly. He heard the 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,” the innkeeper said to himself.
Rowan sat up, suddenly alert. “What other hunter?”
“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 grey cloak.”
Rowan dropped his stone. It hit the wood with a thunk and stayed. Grey cloak? The elite guard of the Wildwood wore grey cloaks. What would one be doing so far from their border?
“Was he from the Wildwood?” Rowan asked.
He scratched his chin. “Now you mention it, he felt like a foreigner. Had a funny accent.”
“How long ago was he here?” Rowan asked.
“Couldn’t have been over three hours ago.”
Rowan stood up quickly and reached into his pack. He pulled out a handful of coins and tossed far more than was necessary down on the bar, and grabbed his crossbow and spear. When he reached the doorway of the tavern, he felt the thread pull taut. He had almost broken the invisible connection between him and his firestone. He turned around and saw it softly pulsing on the bar. Internally, he pulled the thread, and it flew across the room and into his hand.
“Hey Banehunter!” the innkeeper’s voice called from back inside the tavern. Rowan turned on his heel to face the innkeeper.
“Travelers reported a lone hellcat near the mountains this morning after the dimming ended. Be careful.”
Probably sensed the bane up in the mountains, Rowan thought. If he could find the hellcat, it could lead him right to his target. He nodded his thanks, turned, and walked out.
Rowan climbed a well-worn path that acted as a natural staircase on 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 the light side of the mountain, the vegetation comprised plants that enjoyed the heat and needed very little water. This side was a completely different habitat. Trees with massive trunks to support their climb towards heaven surrounded Rowan. 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 its 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 a small baneling rat bit one of his friends. 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, calling him to action. His pouch of essence stones hung off his belt just below his hand. He felt the thread connecting him to his firestone. If he wanted, it could be in his hand and he could be weaving an attack in an instant. But he didn’t know what it was. If it was a larger predator, like a hellcat or the very creature he hunted, he didn’t 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 something damaged it, he would feel it until the all-too-painful severing of the connection between him and the stone.
He reached into the pouch at his side and pulled out 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. Then he saw it. A thick column of pure light beyond the mountains, stretching on higher still than the tallest peak till it disappeared from sight. The Pillar of Light. The four nations of Arsatir, the last of the light-blessed lands, depended on this mixture of magic and technology to keep darkness at bay. He forcibly tore his eyes away, noting the after image that stayed with him for a few moments and continued forward.
Periodic gusts of wind slammed into him, guided through the mountain pass by the surrounding slopes. One hit him with such force it knocked 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, on the side of the mountain, was a large opening. There were pickaxes strewn about and a couple of carts as well.
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 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.