Chapter Twenty-one: Innocence Lost
Victims either eaten or stored away, the contracted daemons lazily loafed around in a small glade. Valerian sat in front of his grandmother, who was the only one standing.
“Besides some basic hunting lore, I’ve shown to you four basic hunting methods. Outmanoeuvring, ambushing, confronting and cornering. Can you tell me what you’ve learnt?”
Knowing something like that was coming from the start, Valerian was already prepared. It wasn’t hard to predict. His grandmother liked to teach by example and then buttress her points. Plus, she kept mentioning that she was teaching him this or that this was a demonstration.
“The objective of the first was to keep the target off balanced and direct it into a situation not only favourable for you but also let you hold the supreme advantage. The objective of the second was to attack an unwary target and get away before any counter attack can be mounted. The third required subduing the target with power or strength and the last had you making sure that there was no escape”, he listed out.
“Good but there is a lot you are missing”, his grandmother said calmly. “Outmanoeuvring requires planning and forethought. You need to consider yourself, your opponent and your environment, taking into account the factors present and your objectives. You not only have to place your target in a position favourable for you but also ensure that it is helpless to do anything about it.
“Did you not notice the similarities between the first and last examples? They were exactly the same only the second could fight back. That should not happen if you have truly outmanoeuvred your opponent. Cornering only occurs if you do not properly outmanoeuvre. In fact, cornering an enemy is never really a desirable outcome. Can you guess why?”
Valerian thought about it carefully. Drawing a blank he tossed out a weak attempt, “Is it because they fight back?”
His grandmother merely looked him over. “Well, you are not wrong. It is because they fight back but the issue is how they fight back. Cornered prey fight back with everything they have. Many would not hesitate to ignite their essence and or use life threatening moves just to either get away or take you down with them.
“Even the most timid of animals will attempt to fight if that remains the only avenue available. Though of course there are also those who would put that effort into escaping and then you will have nothing to show for your work.
“There is only one scenario where you should actually consider cornering an opponent on purpose. That is if you intend not to confront your target but instead provoke a reaction. The things people will do when their lives are at stake can tell you a lot”.
Valerian looked at his grandmother, suspicion clear on his face. “This is about more than just hunting isn’t it?” he asked.
She smiled in response telling him that he guessed correctly. “The principles of hunting work against any adversary and in many situations. It is a guide on how to handle or tackle issues”, she admitted.
“For instance, that day in the courtyard you attacked the first soldier before he was truly aware of what you were doing. You blindsided him, preventing him from mounting a defence or calling for help. That right there was an ambush. With an ambush you need to attack swiftly and decisively. Do not reveal you intent beforehand, do not let your opponent defend, choose your spot carefully and wisely to both give you an attack advantage and an avenue of escape.
“The right thing to have done after that was give up the attack and retreat, either to a safe spot or into concealment to prevent your enemy and his allies from pursuing you. You did not do that. That was a bad call. Even performing an ambush like you did when you were surrounded by multiple opponents who were stronger than you was unwise. You had no cover, no back up plan and no true means of escape.
“Lucky for you, you had allies in the vicinity. That could have turned out badly especially when you stalled and missed multiple opportunities to get out of there”.
Valerian’s head hung down when he was reminded yet again of that event and his bad choices. He was just about slipping into melancholy when his grandmother kneeled in front of him and caressed his head.
“Don’t be sad Valerian! I’m not doing this to berate you. To be honest, you did remarkably well for a young man with little training and no combat experience. I’m only trying to help by showing you things you can improve on. I want it to be that the next time you find yourself in a similar situation you will know how to react and that you will subdue all you opponents. Standing tall and proud without even a speck of dust landing on your robes”, she said soothingly.
It must be said that Valerian’s grandmother was probably the one who understood him best. She knew just what to say or do to motivate him, to calm him, to infuriate and to bring him down or up as she pleased.
She played on his pride calling him ‘young man’ avoiding the terms little or boy. She did not speak down to him or treat him like you would a child and she planted an image in his head. An image she knew would resonate with his will and ambition. She was right.
Valerian could already picture himself standing there, tall, elegant and nonchalant as foes fell before him with little effort. He did not know it but being praised always for his intellect and feats had made him develop a complex. He was something of a perfectionist. He could not fathom failure on his part. He could not picture not being excellent at something. Not when he succeeded at nearly everything he did. It was a mind-set that made him try harder than one could think.
He could not perform below his standard. If there was something he did not understand he would work to master it. It fuelled his determination and made him work harder than most would, all so he could maintain that simple disinterested gaze that made it seem like nothing was beyond him.
However it also opened him to mental demons. As a matter of fact, he already had one. Valerian, He-Who-Failed-at-nothing had failed consistently and consecutively at qi cultivation.
No one but he knew how hard he had tried. How many hours he had spent in his room doing all he could and coming up with nothing. Unable to accept his failure, he had nearly killed himself by forcefully moving his qi. This proved that his pride not only helped him but hindered him as well.
Upon failing for the umpteenth time and having it broadcast that he was hopeless and crippled, Valerian had developed a shadow in his mind and heart. He had begun to doubt himself. That was partly the reason why he had gotten so angry that day instead of ignoring the insults with his usual indifferent air.
All this his grandmother had guessed and though she had no way of determining its severity, she could still find ways to remind him of his potential. She could get him focused on his triumphs, both future and present instead of letting him focus on his failures. That’s what she did. Valerian was already thinking of what it would be like to be an unstoppable cultivator and so long as that seed she planted in his mind remained there as a focus she would have nothing to worry about.
“Come on. Don’t be a baby. Let’s get back to what I was saying” she said teasing. As expected Valerian looked embarrassed and quickly straightened himself up.
“A confrontation only works in you favour if you are more powerful than you opponent or possess some sort of factor that gives you a distinct advantage over your target. It might be a skill. It might be your expertise. It might be some innate ability that your opponent cannot account for, defend or attack you through. This is important to note.
“Earlier Pan won his battle because his opponent was unable to tell his true strength and because he completely held the advantage in combat skill and experience. You must also remember that the other forms of hunting are either inapplicable in some situations or engender disdain when used. For example you cannot ambush your opponent when you are supposed to duel and there’s no way to truly outmanoeuvre a target you know nothing about.
“It is also the reason why all cultivators put emphasis on personal combat skills because you never know when you will be in a situation that calls for self-defence or for you to make a decisive attack or display of power. It is what we all fall back on. As someone who wishes to stand tall with unquestioned might you must take this one into serious consideration and focus on it.
“Nevertheless, you must practice the others well and be able to employ them in any circumstance. The reason for this is because all combat possesses some connecting similarities. You can apply the principles of one mode of hunting in another. For example, Sal’s aim was to outmanoeuvre her prey and yet she lay in wait, stealthily for a perfect opportunity like she was planning an ambush. She had her power to fall back on in case it resulted in a confrontation.
“Sela planned an ambush but had to make sure to position both herself and her prey and take numerous factors into consideration as well as employ a great deal of power, skill and speed. Pan confronted his but kept certain skills hidden to surprise his opponent and put him a situation where there was nothing he could do but wait for death. Fuooh factored her and her opponent’s strengths, the environment and ended up in a confrontation that she knew she would win.
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“When hunting or fighting or doing anything for that matter, do not restrict yourself to one way of doing things. To remain stale is to spoil and die. You must learn to adapt trying new and different things for every situation you encounter”, she finished.
Valerian sat there coming to grips with what he was learning but there was just so much. His mind had actually been opened to new possibilities and a new way of viewing things. It began to whir and spin as it churned up ideas based on what he had just learnt. Raising his right hand to stroke his chin, he began to fall into deep contemplation and he tried to digest this new information. Thankfully he was stopped before he went in too deep.
“You can ruminate on this when we go home but first we have something to do”, she said laughing. She found it funny that he had lost himself in thought in front of her.
Valerian looked around sharply his mind stirring. He saw his grandmother’s amused gaze and grinned bashfully before recalling what she had just said.
“What else is left grandmother?” he enquired.
“This!” she said pointing behind him.
He spun around and came face to face with Gulsalma. His heart leapt a bit. Not because he feared that she would do something to him but because he had not noticed her leave, nor had he noticed her return with her current burden.
In her mouth, she carried an antelope. It was a young female but of a different kind from the one they killed earlier. This one was much smaller and had a reddish brown coat. The thing was asleep and unharmed. It just lay in her jaws unconscious.
“I am going to teach you how to slaughter and dress an animal”, his grandmother explained.
Valerian glanced in her direction once before sighing. He had suspected that today he would be forced to make a kill. He just relaxed because he had thought it over with the morning’s events. He resigned himself to his fate. How could he be a hunter or a warrior if he was afraid of killing? So he watched impassively as the young deer was laid at his feet.
He looked at his grandmother asking what to do. She came closer and said to him.
“Place the hind legs together and place a foot over them. Then do the same for the fore legs”.
He did as asked and looked up for more instructions. It was only now that he realised that he had become the centre of attraction. All of his grandmother’s beasts had gotten up and surrounded him, eyes trained on what was to come.
“Grab the horn like I said and do what must be done”, the old lady stated simply.
Valerian did so not noticing his grandmother making a hand sign beside him. Immediately the antelope was revived. It jerked awake to find itself surrounded and in the middle of a bunch of predators. Screaming and struggling fitfully, it tried to get away. The whole thing was so unexpected that Valerian nearly let it slip loose.
He quickly came to his senses and kept a good hold on it. Then, reaching over to the small of his back he grabbed the bone handle of the knife slung across there. He pulled it from the sheath in a swift, smooth motion and held it over the neck in the same way his grandmother had to the antelope they caught earlier.
Then he hesitated.
The reason why Valerian had dreaded this moment was because he had read a lot of books about killing and making your first kill, and the descriptions bothered him. Was it really as bad as they said?
That was why he hesitated. He was stopping to evaluate his own condition. He looked at the antelopes fear filled eyes, listened to its frightened bleats and felt it struggle beneath him. There was no spell restraining this one’s voice or movement.
He looked at it. Really, looked at it whilst waiting for the feeling described in the books. Was he just going to kill an innocent animal who had done nothing to him just for food? The thought of food made him think of venison. He had eaten a lot of it in his eight years of life. He liked it. The eyes looking at the antelope changed in a way that was not necessarily noticeable but to the predators gathered there it was as clear as day.
Valerian drew his knife across the beast’s throat, firmly and confidently. Watching him, you would not have thought that it was his first time. It was so clean and efficient. Valerian’s face remained impassive and focused as he made that smooth, purposeful cut. The whole thing was instinctive and without remorse or much conscious thought behind it.
This was different from when he attacked that soldier in the courtyard. At that time, his mind was clouded by rage and his actions guided by anger. It showed on his face and in his thoughts. Also, he did not consider his actions then. This was nowhere near the same. He actually gave himself time to consider and still killed it.
Valerian slaughtered the antelope, realising in the end that the creature beneath him was food and he was hungry. That was it. That was all he needed. Aside from Sela and Fuooh, none of them had eaten since they left DaleGuard that morning. So, he held the antelope as it finished bleeding out and through its death throes.
Surrounded by predators like himself and under the pleased gazes of the heavens and the earth, young Valerian made his first true kill.
The hunt was concluded.
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Hello everyone, sinisterSonnet here. The editor. Unfortunately, LupineKing couldn’t make today’s author notes. We were out at sea (in our homes) when a terrible storm struck (ISP problems). As he vanished beneath the waves, his last words were, “Sinister! The chapter! If you ever make it back alive, make sure the fans get it. I couldn’t bear the though of keeping them from it”. And he hasn’t been heard from since.
So, let’s all hope he washes up on some tropical beach soon. In the mean time, here’s the promised chapter.