Yun awoke to a warm, gentle feeling, sliding across her face. She opened her eyes, staring deeply into the long-lashed face of a yak. She was still splayed out on the ground from the night before and her back ached from sleeping on uneven ground.
“Hey! Hey! What did I tell you about- oh! You’re alive!” A young voice called from out of sight, from on top of the yak, before a child with short cropped hair popped over into Yun’s sight. “Well ain’t that a sight. A real adventurer in the flesh!”
“You got a name?”
“Sounds familiar. You famous or something?”
“Not even a little bit.”
“I’m Artyem. You wanna come with back to our village?”
Yun thought about that for a moment.
“Sweet. That means you can deal with the hornants!”
There was always a catch. Nasty creatures. Pests the size of dogs. Hornants were particularly devastating to rural communities that relied on farming, setting up sprawling nests that made working the soil impossible. They’re often attracted to the concentrations of tubers in areas like this. This area was also quite a distance from the nearest Guild Outpost, so it was likely they weren’t able to get outside help.
“Very well,” Yun said, scooping her sore body upright.
Artyem’s thread was just developing from the tangled mass of golden lines characteristic of children. His gift would be manifesting soon. Yun had a good feeling about it. She could instantly tell he had the talent nurturable into a fine adventurer, if he so chose.
“You look like a witch, miss, but you’re telling me you can’t use magic?”
“You an alchemist, then?”
“Not exactly. I can do alchemy, though.”
“Could you teach me?”
“I’ll think about it.” She said, as the village came into view. Stone buildings with tiled roofs, sitting where the plains met the mountains. As picturesque as it was, it was clear there was a great deal of tension in the air. Much of the fields looked untended, rotting produce sitting around mounds of upturned dirt; the telltale signs of a hornant infestation.
The villagers looked shocked to see someone else riding on the back of Artyem’s yak, but quickly switched gears to welcome her wholeheartedly. What little they had left, they were eager to offer up, not that Yun would take it.
“Oh how long it has been since a capable adventurer has passed by. It must be the blessings of the divine creator hearing our prayers,” an older man said, looking all the part of a village elder, perhaps even a mayor.
Hold on. On second inspection, it was pretty clear she had seen this man before. She had been here before, years ago on her journey. Yun stretched her throat, getting ready to deepen her voice into anonymity.
“Just show me where the biggest entrance is and I’ll get to it,” Yun said.
“Oh dear adventurer, there is time for that later. Rest for tonight and we shall show you to it tomorrow.”
It tired Yun how generous and hospitable townsfolk tended to be. Obviously, it endeared her to them, but it also felt constricting to accept such treatment, especially when she felt like she hadn’t done anything to earn it.
“May we have your name?”
“Welcome Lady Yun. Would you care for some cider during our welcome feast?”
She mulled it over in her mind for exactly two seconds before nodding. She couldn’t resist the call of local product. She would relent, this once.
Yun spent the next couple of hours entertaining the local children and gathering supplies. Sturdy ropes, planks of wood, and chalk.
“So what ya gonna do with all that?” Artyem asked, now dressed up wearing a bandana and holding a large stick.
“Can’t ya do alchemy anywhere drawing those cool symbols?”
“Alchemy depends on precision. If you’re sloppy, your results are sloppy.” Alchemists were all about preparation and precision. Even combat alchemists who were more adept at drawing sigils on the fly carried plenty of prepared items. Yun never could get the hang of alchemizing under pressure, but with enough time, even she could perform adequately in matters of simple transmutation.
“Alchemy seems kinda boring,’ Artyem said, lounging.
“It IS kind of boring,” Yun replied, nailing boards together. “It’s like if you turned magic into math.”
“I hate math,” one of the other kids piped up.
“Me too. Trust me,” Yun said, drawing and redrawing a circle numerous times before deciding to take Artyem’s stick and tie chalk to it, using it to draw a circle centered around her by spinning in a circle.
“Too bad I can’t fill in the rest of it yet.”
“Why not?” He asked
“I don’t know the composition of the end-product.”
Artyem looked completely lost.
“I’ll explain it later.”
Yun was surrounded by enthusiastic villagers, each asking for stories, giving gifts of food and potentially useful objects from their homes. She received their gifts, in turn, enjoying charcoal-grilled goat, freshly baked bread, pastries and desserts, meat-filled pies, and more, until even Yun could eat no more. The cider was delicious, tart and refreshing, but retaining the bright characteristic of the local apples. She could taste wild berries as well, all sweetened with honey that tasted of the winds.
The merriment was cut short when the earth began to tremble, as a hornant the size of a horse emerged from the ground, right underneath the banquet table. Its mustard yellow exoskeleton was covered in bumps and hairs, giving the impression of a particularly nasty booger that had somehow become sentient and huge. A large horn protruded from its forehead, waving in the air, the light catching on its edge.
“Just my luck,” Yun cursed. “Get out of here! If you’re strong and able-bodied, stay behind to help!”
The panic began to set in as people began to run in all directions. Luckily, it seems like it was just a single scout for the moment, sent to investigate the activity on the surface. In fact, the opportunity was perfect; Yun wouldn’t even have to lure one into a trap if it walked willingly into her grasp. Still, it was concerning just how big this hornant was. Normally they only got to the size of a large dog, but this scout easily cleared that size. An ill portent.
Yun ran around, pelting rocks at the hornant to keep its attention. Her body still hurt from falling off the train, but it honestly felt a little good to get moving again. Or, it would have if she weren’t filled to the brim with food. She ran laps around the premise of the banquet area, giving directions to the few who stayed, mostly young farmers with strong arms and sturdy backs.
The hornant would charge occasionally, forcing Yun to roll deftly out of the way. If she were impaled with that horn, it would be difficult to generate enough mana to ward off the injury entirely. All the while Yun swapped rapidly between looking at the strings of fate and manipulating them, one by one. She cursed again. This was so much easier when she had her staff to establish her domain.
“NOW!” Yun shouted, rolling to the side as the hornant charged. The farmers on either side of the rope pulled hard, biting down hard as the massive insect launched into the tangle that sprang up, squirming violently as the ropes were steadily brought around. Yun sprang forward, brandishing a carving knife she had nicked off the table and jabbing it deep at the connecting point between the head and the thorax. That was where the exoskeleton was the thinnest, the most pliable. It provided some resistance but eventually buckled to being pierced, like hard cartilage. It squirmed suddenly, throwing her off. Yun hit the table hard, feeling dizzy from the impact.
“Keep holding it down!” She shouted, looking for anything with an edge. She scrambled over to the first thing that fit the bill: an old shovel, well-worn and covered in dirt. She lifted it, feeling its heft and hauling it over to the tied-down hornant. Moving the point of the shovel next to the knife, she gave a shout before kicking hard, then another time, then another. It took a good couple shoves before it found purchase, the creature’s head being forcefully gouged off. Though its body kept twitching, she knew that was just the remnants of reflex, haunting the now emptied husk.
“Does anyone have a sharp butchering knife?” Yun said, her eyes drawing up to the horn.
Yun woke up sore. Again. She really hadn’t had a great day of rest in a little while and was really hoping she could take it easy soon. But the hornant nest wouldn’t wait for her to be rested. Ugh. She got up with a groan, feeling her aching body click back into its proper form.
In the barn of the house she was staying in was the head of the hornant, sitting ominously like a sacrificial offering. In the hazy-gray morning, it seemed to take on an almost supernatural characteristic. Like she would be spirited away at any moment.
A hand grabbed at her shoulder, ready to drag her to hell. Yun screamed, only to turn around and recognize the familiar form of Artyem. The surprise and fear rapidly turned into annoyance.
“What are you doing here, Artyem.” That wasn’t a question.
“You said you’d teach me alchemy.”
“Didn’t you say alchemy was boring?”
“Still wanna learn it.”
“Fine. Sit down. I’ll try to explain.” Yun got to work explaining the diagram she was drawing to identify the components of the hornant’s pheromones. She started lecturing about the field of alchemy and all its intricacies, how it draws energy from the user, but at a rate far less intensive than using magic, the major breakthroughs that have led to its current efficiency. Yun eventually wrapped around, remembering that she was teaching a child no more than 12.
When she looked at his eyes, they weren’t those of a bored child avoiding a lecture, but those of a hungry, curious scholar.
“Did you… get that all?”
Artyem nodded. There was a spark there. The spark of understanding. She checked her sight, witnessing the braiding of his thread in real time. Now reassured, Yun continued, walking through the process of identifying the material components of the hornant.
At the end of the day, Yun had scrawled diagrams all over, many on boards she’d laid out, but many spilling over onto the wooden floors and up the walls. Though she hadn’t moved much, and the stiffness was beginning to take its toll, the greater fatigue came from the amount of mana she had expended. Though alchemy was far more efficient than arcana, utilizing it all day still took its toll on the body. It was complex work, but it wasn’t particularly hard, just time-consuming.
“Shit. I’m going to need a notebook.” Yun chewed her lip in frustration. All her supplies were left on the train.
“I got one for my last birthday. I’ll let you have it if you teach me some more.”
Yun snapped, waiting a second before being sorely reminded she didn’t have her staff with her. It was getting too dark to make out the notes she’d scribbled everywhere.
“We’re starting bright and early tomorrow.”