41. Predator, to Prey
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With no flowing water or essence, Jake could only hear faint echoes of the Warrior's distant footsteps. They were well behind him at the edge of his Sensory magic, and they maintained that gap. If Jake looked behind him, he could just barely make out their silhouettes. The dim light of the mana crystals overhead wasn't much to speak of and if they were any further back, he likely wouldn't have known they were there. However, the overhead light was thinning. As Jake progressed into the tunnel, the frequency of the crystals steadily dropped. He was nearing the end of the 'safe' zone. While there was no scent of rot in the air, Jake still felt on edge.

His eyes began to seek out the minor details in the walls. He sniffed at the air regularly and his left hand tensed up, ready to snatch out his blade should the Maedra somehow get the jump on him again. Jake wouldn't fall for their petty trick again but the Maedra had shown that they were crafty. His mana remained primed, coiling near his fingers, as he kept himself ready for a fight. The Maedra would get only one single breath of initiative if they ambushed him this time and that was all he would give them before eviscerating them.

"Here it is..." he whispered. The last overhead crystal lodged into the ceiling barely illuminated a tiny sign showing the end of the line. From here on, there would be no light. There was no guaranteed safety and the area beyond was considered 'Beast Territory'. Unlike the other sign Jake had seen- this one was marked with red ink towards the top of it with the word 'DANGER' scribbled beneath it.
Jake felt the corners of his lips curl as he stepped past it. His hands furled and his blood raced as adrenaline mixed with it. As the light faded behind him, Jake fed mana into his eyes. He triggered his Night Vision and the dark tunnel came to life in front of him. With more accurate control over the skill, he was able to walk as if it were fully illuminated. However, the thickness of the dark limited just how far he could see into the tunnel. To overcome that deficiency, Jake triggered his Sensory magic. While the tunnel beyond his sight wasn't illuminated, he could see faint outlines and traces of mana in the air. He poured even more mana into his eyes and extended the range of the skill even further.
This time, there would be no hiding.
Jake looked over his shoulder after he was well past the sign to check on his Warriors. They had widened the gap, increasing their distance from Jake so that they could utilize their own form of light- a mana torch. With the increased distance, they were still within Sensory range but their light was faint to the normal eye. The Maedra likely wouldn't be able to detect such a minor detail from so far away.
The people that lived in the Ravine had developed quite an array of tactics to counter the Maedra. From their system of Scouts and Warriors to their use of mana crystals, to even their fighting methods. It was all adapted to counter the Maedra as best as possible. They had learned the range of the Maedra's 'sight', had learned how to kill them without entirely destroying their cores, and had learned a variety of ways to detect and find the Maedra in the tunnels. While the detection wasn't perfect and still required actively hunting the Maedra, the Scouts were highly trained in picking out traces of the creatures. Of all things, though, they were taught the unmistakable evidence that the Maedra were close by. The smell. A smell one could never forget.
A smell that Jake's nose suddenly picked up.
The boy paused and took a knee, signaling the Warriors behind him to stop once they saw him. He peered straight ahead, his eyes scanning the walls and his Sensory magic prodding the area for traces of the Maedra. He saw none at first but there was an uptick in the density of mana in the air. Along with the scent, the change in mana density was a second giveaway. Maedra thrived in places with excess mana, which made this place a prime location for them.
Jake stood up again and advanced. He slowed his pace and affixed his eyes straight down the tunnel. He used his ears to listen for the faint rumbles or howls, and he sniffed more frequently as he gauged the level of rot in the air. No changes hit him at first, but then he spotted something shift at the edge of his vision. It was slight and subtle. He paused again to verify what he'd seen. He lowered again to a knee, signaling the Warriors once more. He slowed his breathing, lowering the volume of it as he put effort into listening. Then, he waited.
And waited.
And waited...
"Got you." He heard a very soft wheeze followed by the cracking of rock. Jake dumped mana into his eyes and his Sensory magic flooded the tunnel. Just as he'd expected, the Maedra had gathered ahead. They weren't in a horde or a mass. Instead, they were scattered throughout the length of the tunnel beyond. They were small, though, almost juvenile-looking. If Jake had to guess, these Maedra were likely newborns or something close to that. He didn't expect to ever see such a sight as he had only ever encountered their larger forms. However, seeing the smaller forms of Maedra was no surprise. While they weren't Surface Creatures, they likely had their own cycle of 'life'.
Jake dared to inch closer and brought more and more of the young Maedra into his range. They weren't moving much and only a handful seemed to be wiggling in place. A few of the 'adult' Maedra moved among the younger ones. They seemed to be monitoring the youth, or they were just fully developed ones that had been born earlier. Uncertain of the specifics, and uncaring, Jake moved in until he was a mere fifty meters away from the closest Maedra. Then, he knelt on the floor and held out his hands.
He pushed the mana out of his palms and channeled enough to create three compressed Wind tubes, stacking them just off to his left as he aimed their coned tips down the tunnel. He lined up the first and waited, adjusting the nose slightly. His breathing steadied and his mind eased. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, Jake started his assault.
With a wave of his hand, the first spell cracked through the air. The Maedra at the other end never heard it or saw it. The wall of the Library was stiff, magic stone. High quality and stronger than any material in the Overworld as it not only was created out of refined marble but also had mana infused with it. In comparison, the rotting flesh of the Maedra was nothing but film in comparison.

The Maedra on the other end of the attack were blown to shreds as the coned tube hollowed out their cores. The grotesque flesh bags popped from the sharp change in air pressure. With the combined impact force, their small bodies splattered the walls, and their crystals scattered into dust. After enough resistance had built and knocked the arrow off its original path, it careened into the wall of the tunnel and blasted apart, releasing the contained air. The wind ripped in every direction, a powerful gust further scattering meat and flesh. Shrapnel from the stone wall only added to the gory scene, the sharp stones tearing into the meat of the nearby survivors.

The Maedra gurgled and twisted about, looking for the source of the spell, only for a second one to rip them apart. The tube was transparent and moved faster than the sound of the cracking wind at its back. Those struck by it were killed before they realized what happened. The survivors were thrown off and disoriented by the seemingly silent attack. They whirled and began to scatter, looking for the perpetrator.

Taking advantage of their confusion, Jake advanced and continued his ranged attacks utilizing the deadly spell. Slaughtering the Maedra with ease. The spell was proving to be more effective than he thought. The Maedra were no match for it. Their weak, frail bodies were fodder for the powerful arrows as their soggy flesh simply ripped away when struck. Without ever needing to call the Warriors forward, Jake cleared the tunnel of threats. He pushed forward, stepping over the melting bodies of the dead, and hustled through their scattered guts, his magic clearing the way. The tunnel rumbled from the explosive impacts until there were no Maedra left standing.

The howls went silent and Jake finished off the last Maedra by collapsing the surrounding air. Its body twisted and contorted as the air caused it to fold in on itself, its meager bone structure cracking and popping. The juices and fluid within the Maedra's body gushed from every orifice. When the pressure peaked, the crystal inside its body punctured through its flesh and oozed out, dropping to the floor. Jake released the spell. The crushed ball of meat fell to the ground with a satisfying splat.
He never counted the number killed but there were at least fifty at the least. As he advanced, Jake exchanged sight for power and reduced his Sensory magic's detection range. He had those killed beyond it which he never saw. However, there were numerous fragmented crystals scattered around his feet. They were the only evidence of the Maedra's numbers and their massacre.
Jake knelt at the edge of the scene, his Sensory magic stretching down the tunnel and his eyes seeking out any trace of more of the creatures. The smell of rot was fading and the mana in the air had stabilized. It was still thick but Jake had taken advantage of it to aid in his casting. The Maedra could eat it and Jake found satisfaction in using their food against them. Something about it just tickled him inside.
The Warriors behind him threw away their silence and were running up to see what the commotion was. They had been chasing the noise ever since Jake's onslaught had started but their equipment had slowed their pace. Jake had nearly outrun them but slowed his speed to ensure they were still close for backup if something went wrong. Nothing had so their presence had been more a formality.
"What happened?!" Ryn called out, his eyes taking in the scene. Numerous craters lined the walls, crystals were scattered, and leftover traces of Maedra juice dripped from the ceiling and soaked the floor. The bodies melted but the level of violence Jake had taken meant that not everything was clearing up as nicely as normal.
"Beasts," Jake said nonchalantly. He didn't see any other traces of the Maedra ahead, so he stood up and turned to face the Warriors. There was a mixture of confusion and awe among them. "At least fifty or so," he added.
"Fifty? And you killed them?" Ryn spat, his eyes widening beneath his helmet's visor. Jake nodded.
"It didn't take much. We should be fine if we keep going." While they had advanced quite a ways from the sign, Jake was confident that he could handle another horde like that if they continued. With his magic, they likely could even scout well beyond the normal distance.
"What did you do?" Tux picked up a crystal and scrutinized it.
"Magic," Jake shrugged. "Wind magic to keep the Beasts from spotting me and a higher level spell to kill a bunch at a time. I didn't think it would be as effective as it was but I took the opportunity I had and killed them all. No sense in calling your teams forward if I could handle it myself." Jake checked on his mana and made a mental note of how much he had expended. By combining the use of internal mana and mana in the air, Jake had lowered the overall amount used from his internal pool. While the spells had lost some strength since he hadn't infused them entirely with his higher class of mana, the damage was still effective. A repeatable result.
"Seems we've got quite the scout leading us," Tux said, dropping the crystal back to the floor. He stood up and looked back at the runner. "Runner, head back to the village and notify them to get a Worker team dispatched as soon as possible."
"A worker team? But the tunnel isn't-" the Runner's eye widened, and he blinked, confused by the order.
"The tunnel is secure up to here, and we'll be continuing on. They'll be safe behind us once we move on and if anything happens, you're here to run back and tell them to return to the village. Also, ask for a third Warrior team. They can act as the Worker's sentry unit."
"I'm not sure the Elders will permit such a change," the Runner scratched at his head and looked away, avoiding eye contact with the team leader. Tux's eye narrowed.
"Shut up and do your job. Hurry up," Tux snapped. The Runner stiffened and nodded before running off back down the tunnel. With him leaving, Tux whistled to his men. "Set up sentries. We'll rotate guards until they get here."
"You sure about this, Tux?" Ryn asked.
"I am. If the Scout can kill the Maedra that easily, there's no sense in waiting to advance the tunnel. We'll do it now and take advantage of the situation." As he spoke, Tux stepped over and stood in front of Jake again. He took off his helmet and tucked it under his arm. "You're the mage from yesterday, aren't you? The one that sealed the tunnel and aided in the retreat?"
"Yea, that's me." Jake nodded. It seemed word of his work had been spread around. Talk about fast.

"Then even more reason to push onward. If anything goes wrong, you can seal the tunnel, give enough time for the workers to retreat, or collapse it if things get dicey." Tux turned to Ryn as he spoke. Jake felt a smile creep onto his face. It was nice to see someone having faith in him, someone whom he had never worked with or seen before.
"Fine, your call Tux. But if this goes south, it's on you." Ryn sighed and ordered his men to help with the sentry rotation as well as to help with gathering the crystals in the area. Tux organized their small campsite and the Warriors quickly set up a resting area. Jake used magic to start a few fires for them to gather around and then utilized water magic to provide something for them all to drink. He couldn't make food appear, but a few of the Warriors had been tasked with bringing light meals just in case they found themselves stuck or on an extended mission.
"You're not an Oryx. Surface Walker?" As they relaxed in the tunnel, the conversation drifted over to the topic of their new addition. Jake nodded.
"Yes. I come from the sand village of Hawa. It's half a day's walk from the edge of the Ravine," he answered. The Warriors looked at him oddly, which was expected.
"What's sand?" One asked. "Ravine?" Another muttered. Tux smirked and Ryn sighed. Jake laughed.
"We've got time if you want to talk, kid." Ryn shook his head and bit into a slab of meat, his teeth ripping it from the bone. Jake stared at the fire rune in the center of their circle for a minute, thinking of the best way to describe things to the Warriors. The silence told him if they weren't interested in listening before, they were now.
"This place you guys call home is actually pretty far beneath the surface." Jake reached out and utilized rock magic to create a visual. He pulled a decent-sized chunk of stone from the wall and cracked it in the middle, creating a replica of the ravine in it. The details weren't precise but it would do.
"To us, it's called 'the Ravine'. It's a massive tear in the ground that stretches almost endlessly in both directions. It cuts my country of the sand off from our neighboring country, one that's covered in rolling green meadows, trees, and plenty of wildlife." He paused as the Warriors all hummed and whispered to one another for a moment.
"Sand is like grainy dirt. It sticks to everything and is very coarse. It actually hurts and irritates the skin if you don't clean it off. The desert is too hot for anything to grow in and it doesn't rain enough to supply water to normal plants. Only certain plants can grow in the harsh environment and even fewer survive in it." Jake returned the stone to the tunnel as he spoke. Once that task was done, he sat back down beside the fire rune.
"My people gather near small pockets of water that can be found. They're called 'oases'. They're natural springs of water formed above underground rivers. Between the occasional rain and the few Water Magi in the village, one oasis is enough to sustain a small village as long as we don't overuse it."
"Sounds pretty tough. You come from one of those villages?" Tux asked. Jake chuckled.
"It's only tough if you're old or weak. Yes, I come from the village, Hawa. As I said, it's about half a day's walk from the edge of the Ravine. As far as I know, it's the closest village to the Ravine. I didn't come across any others on my way here." Jake sighed as he remembered that trip- both the first when he came alone and the second when he came with Chul. Thinking of Chul caused his stomach to tense up a bit, but he didn't feel too sad this time. Just a bit lonely.
"So, you gave up that warm paradise for this place? Quite the choice." Ryn scoffed. A few of the Warriors chuckled. Even Jake grinned.
"Not on purpose. My friend and I came down here looking for something. We got... separated." Jake didn't feel like going into the details of his trip, so he made sure to pick his words carefully. The spot was still a bit sore, too, so he didn't want to travel down that mental path again. Even though he was already beginning to remember the last time he saw his friend.
The boy glanced at the back of his right hand, his grin fading into a solemn smile.
"At least you made it to Ewana. Not sure how you would've faired at one of the other villages down here." Ryn sighed and moved away from the fire rune a bit. He used the wall as support and leaned against it, adjusting a bit as he made himself comfortable. Not comfortable enough to sleep but enough to rest his body.
"How did you find Ewana? These tunnels are a maze," one of the warriors asked.
"I met some other Oryx in the tunnels on my way here, and they led me back. If it weren't for them, I probably wouldn't be here." Jake stared down at the rune, sighing as he remembered his first meeting with the trio.
"Interesting," Tux muttered. "Lucky you, yea?" He said. Jake huffed.
"I guess if you call this kind of life lucky," the boy hawked. A few of the Warriors laughed, likely agreeing.
"It's not the best, but we make do. Right boys?" Ryn grinned and looked at his men. They let out a single grunt in unison for their little cheer and pumped their fists.
"You certainly do. I never would have expected to come across a whole village of people down here. After I encountered the Beasts, I thought this place would be entirely void of life. I'm glad I was wrong," Jake said. A few of the Warriors looked at one another. One let out a little laugh.
"We Oryx are tougher than we look," the Warrior grunted, causing a few of his buddies to nod along.
"There are other villages just like Ewana?" Jake asked, curious to know if the other places operated in the same style. One with a normal populace and a sect of Warriors and Scouts as well.

"In a way, yes, but there are only two other large villages like ours that we've come across. Only one of them was actively pushing into the tunnels like us. The other had secured a trade route with the surface and fought only to protect its entrances." Tux explained. He scratched at his face, his nails digging into the scruff of his modest beard. "Most other places are small pockets of people living in little caverns or coves. They survive by mining the ore near their villages and by trading it away for supplies. Our village and the other two large ones are the hubs of their trade. We provide a safe location for them to meet and sell their goods."
"And if they get sniffed out by the Beasts, they come running us for safety," Ryn added, rolling his eye as he grumbled out the detail. Tux shook his head.
"Not everyone in the tunnels is so lucky to have guards and a large Warrior force, Ryn," Tux retorted, but the other team leader didn't bite.
"Then they should stop skulking around in the dark, mingling with the beasts. If they just moved to Ewana, Thyne, or Sistine, and cooperated with the Elders' request, we wouldn't have to deal with their stupidity," Ryn spat, his voice full of annoyance and a little hint of disgust.
"But here we are, doing just that, so shut it." Tux snipped. Ryn rumbled but didn't offer a response. He just stared at the fire rune.
"That all sounds pretty tough, having to protect all those small groups," Jake said.
"It is but it's not that bad. Once the Beasts are cleared out, they don't usually come back. Only when they wander too far before we catch them do they ever become a threat again. The Elders have increased patrols recently, though. A village nearby was attacked a few months back, so they've been on edge ever since."
Jake recalled that. When he had woken up after drowning, during his trip back to the Dragon Vein he had come across the Maedra eating a bunch of Oryx. That might have been the village Tux was speaking of.
"At least they're trying to keep people safe," Jake sighed and looked around at the warriors. The sentries were being rotated out, their replacements tapping the tired guard and sending them back to the fires.
"I wouldn't say that," Ryn interjected again, earning him a light kick from Tux. Ryn hissed and rolled over onto his side.
"Don't mind him. He's annoyed because he can't see his cute, wonderful daughter as much as he'd like anymore." At Tux's comment, a few of the Warriors began to snicker. Ryn looked over his shoulder and glared at his compatriot, who only grinned back at him.
"Sergeant. The workers are coming." One of the sentries who had just taken guard at their rear called out the observation. The camp came to life, a mixture of shifting and rustling echoing briefly into the tunnel as they all turned to look. Just as the guard had said- a small group of Oryx workers being led by their Runner and another group of Warriors.
"Party's over, boys. Get ready to move," Tux called out, stirring his men to life. Those that were laying down groaned as they rolled over and sat up. While the sentries pulled back from their posts, returning to the group to help with preparations. Jake stood up with Tux and Ryn and the three walked over to greet the new group of individuals.
"Tux. Ryn. Good to see you, boys." An older sounding Oryx called out from the front of the approaching group and removed his helmet, showing a battle-scarred face. His hair was gray and long but smooth and straight. A majestic, brilliant silver beard covered the lower half of his face.

"Captain Lin," Tux bowed at the waist, as did Ryn. "You're a surprise. They sent your team out?"

"Yes! Your little Runner here came sprinting into the compound, asking for anyone available. Another Scout team canceled their request so my team was ready to go. It was quite convenient actually! I feared I wouldn't earn any beer money today!" The aged Oryx let out a loud, bellowing laugh, his upper body shaking as his voice boomed into the tunnel. He was rather noisy but from his size and gear, he likely had little to fear. Jake doubted the Maedra would be able to kill him easily. The warriors at his back didn't look like pushovers either.
"The Elders permitted us to be dispatched and these Workers were rounded up and sent out with us. We don't have a lot of supplies to be out here long but a second team will replace us shortly for a more long-term solution."

"Understood. That's good to hear. That means we can move on." Tux nodded and then gestured down towards Jake. "Sir, this is our scout. Jake from Pharos Squad. He's the mage from yesterday's operation."

"Oh, you're that mage! I've heard quite a bit about you. After seeing this, those rumors must be true!" The man laughed again and his lips split into a massive, toothy grin. "No wonder the Elders sent us out right away! Usually, it takes a long while to get permission for this kind of thing."

"Is it really that odd to do this?" Jake asked. All three of the team leaders nodded in unison.

"It is," Tux said. "Normally we would have ended the expedition here and left a team to secure the tunnel. Workers would be sent out later on once the tunnel was deemed safe, and they would move the sign up to the new space."
"But with the Hero of Operation Nest at the lead, we can push on!" Lin howled, laughing once more with pure joy. Jake wasn't laughing, though. This was the first time he had heard of that nickname, and he already hated it.
"Good. Then let's hurry onward. I'd like to clear as far down as we can," Jake turned away from the overly expressive Oryx Captain and started towards the other side of the camp- the direction they needed to go.
"Understood. We'll wait until they've settled and then move out." Tux whistled for the attention of his men. He and Ryn began to spit out orders, reorganizing their teams to better fit the change in the mission. Lin set up a small camp of his own and informed the Workers of their tasks. His warriors spread out through the tunnel to assist the expedition team, set up guard points, and help the Workers prepare for their duties. After around twenty minutes, the team was ready to continue and Jake pushed out from the camp.
"Good luck, Scout," Captain Lin said with a smile as Jake walked by. The boy nodded and activated his Night Vision, illuminating the tunnel in front of him. As Jake stepped off, the Warriors began to talk to one another behind him, waiting for the boy to reach the planned distance from the camp.
"Stay safe. You lot are too young to come back in bags." Just before the group was out of earshot, Jake picked up the faint words from Captain Lin. Jake clenched his teeth and glanced over his shoulder towards the old man. Aged and experienced, with enough of a presence to support that. He had likely been down these tunnels quite a bit in his time as a Warrior. Long enough to see plenty of others come and go.
"He must be even tougher on the inside," Jake thought. He turned forward and opened his stride. He checked behind him as his distance from the camp increased until he saw the Warriors setting off after him. Then, he slowed his pace. Tux took point this time, and he held the mana torch, illuminating his silhouette faintly in the dark. Jake kept his eyes forward now that he was assured his back was covered and returned to his task of hunting the Maedra.
Yes, hunting. After coming across that horde from before and eliminating them with almost zero effort aside from rushing in to keep his advantage, Jake felt confident in his magic now. The Maedra were once more nothing but pests. Overgrown, grotesque, mana-leeching pests that deserved nothing other than to be exterminated. Jake was well aware of their capabilities still and would remain on his guard but there was no longer any reason for him to be so afraid anymore. His nerves had settled and his mana coiled steadily in his hands. His Wind spell was ready to be triggered at any time with his right hand and his left remained primed to draw his dagger should he need it.
While he hadn't needed to utilize the Fang Style technique he had developed yet, he wasn't complaining. Using that technique would mean he was being overrun, and he quite enjoyed watching the Maedra scramble in their own fits of terror. They weren't the scariest thing in the tunnels anymore. They just didn't know it. Today, he planned to make sure they'd learn.
His right hand coiled into a fist, and he let out a long, controlled breath through his teeth. His eyes blinked, the mana in them surging as he extended his Sensory magic's range. After walking for almost five minutes, the mana in the air changed. Pushing further into the new atmosphere, Jake picked up the familiar stench of the Maedra. Even further in he spotted the first prey.

"Hello, rat," Jake seethed out a whisper. His right hand stretched to his side and an array of five Wind tubes appeared. They were longer and thicker. Their tips were even narrower as the cones stretched out for more penetration power. The name 'Wind Arrow' didn't quite fit the behemoth of a spell that it was. So, instead, Jake named it after the result of its impact- 'Stone Breaker'. With more power, the spell would likely become a staple of his Maedra killing skill set.
Jake advanced slowly, quietly, and steadily towards the Maedra. His Sensory magic picked up a large number. Like before, a massive horde had gathered to feast on the pocket of dense mana. The tunnel widened ahead, allowing for even more of the beasts to accumulate and grow. After examining his foe further, Jake noted that a few Maudragas were even skulking around within their numbers. Jake would make quick work of them first. He just would need to keep his distance.

Once he was set, the boy knelt and prepared his spells. He conjured up an array of Stone Breakers, stacking them in three rows to his right, five high. His mana coiled within them, their translucent tube bodies shimmering faintly in the dark. Jake targeted the closest Maudraga first and waited until enough of the Maedra were aligned to cause the optimal amount of damage to their numbers. The perfect shot never came, but he took what he could get. Jake fired off the first spell and then quickly followed up with a second. There were six Maudragas within the horde, and his Stone Breakers tore through them within the initial few seconds of chaos.
The unfortunate Maedra that were either in the path of the spells or too close to their impact points were torn to bits or incapacitated. Their bodies and juicy insides scattered like mud into the tunnel. Their howls echoed, only to be quickly suppressed by the sound of the air snapping and the walls being blown apart. The more Jake used his spell, the more accurate he was becoming. Both in its casting and his targeting. The walls shook and quaked with each thud. The dark tunnels turned from nesting ground to graveyard.
One step at a time, Jake was moving forward. He was growing, learning, and improving. With each spell he cast, with each Maedra he killed, with each step he took, he was getting closer to avenging his fallen friend. While he knew it would never be enough to kill the smaller forms, Jake would put their existence to use. At some point, he would have to return to the Ravine. There, still lurking somewhere within it, the Maudrake he was truly hunting was alive, sucking the essence out of the air as it lived out its final days.
He was going to enjoy ripping that thing to pieces.