The Ravener’s hunter emerged from the sea, shaking the salt water from its iron-hard hide. Two splashes followed right behind; its two siblings quickly surfaced on the isolated beach. In its travels far and wide—pinging for its kin—it had only managed to join with these two. Another was found, but it had been mortally wounded by a powerful wild monster far to the north.
The others were either too far or too spread out to locate. Or, they could even be long dead.
The three hunters had searched out the others for a time, but eventually abandoned their quest. They knew where their quarry was and needed to act in case it escaped. Each assassin was equal to a hive-queen or other dungeon guardian in battle.
Three would be enough.
Before setting out, they paused to check one another’s skin with their curved claws, grooming away sea-weed and ocean creatures that had tagged along on their hides. Their skin was rough in texture like thousands of scabs joined together, offering hiding spots for tiny vermin and parasites to nestle in and make their home. The hunters had learned that these minute creatures were torturous to them when they became an infestation, biting and feeding off their life blood. Removing them was well worth any time they spared now. So, once their grooming was done—a surprisingly gentle ritual—they stalked across the moonlit beach and slipped into the forest.
The lead hunter—the one who had found their prey and then gathered the other two—solidified a plan: they would herd the followers they needed from within the groups of local monsters and build a force to use to slay their quarry.
Pings had revealed that their target was still within the city of mortals where magic was strong. This no longer mattered even if it meant invading the city itself. When they finally increased their number, all that would be needed was for one of them to slip through the defences and rip apart the Ravener’s enemy, while the city’s defenders were kept occupied.
If all three of them were to die after that crucial task was complete, that did not matter either.
In the end, what was important was fulfilling the task given them by The Ravener. The only regret, should they die, would be that they could not return to their master to report the fulfilment of their existence.
But, so long as their quarry lay slain, that would be enough.
The creatures moved quickly from the beach through the countryside, and the first hunter found that it was far easier moving through the fields this time. The armed mortals that had stalked the countryside were all but gone. No longer were scores of humans about or others wielding magic and steel, searching every forest, cave, and bog as though seeking the leader’s head.
It communicated this difference to its siblings as they approached the great wall separating lush, warm lands, from the dusty place that was even stronger with mana.
They hid near the wall, watching carefully as guards patrolled it. These patrols were well-armed and vigilant, but they kept their gaze mostly toward the hot, barren place.
They did not seem to be watching for any threats seeking to enter the dusty place from the countryside. That proved a boon for the trio: they silently bided their time, waiting until a guard stopped in one of the towers built into the fortification, then moved silently to the wall.
With curved claws, power and agility, they scaled the stones in silence then dropped down on the other side. Their dark hides blended with the night shadows and they loped into the wastes with none the wiser.
The dry air hit them like a strike from one of the Ravener’s greatest enemies, and they grimaced against it: these were creatures that could move through any environment, but were most comfortable in places cool and wet. They had learned to deal with a wide variety of climates, though, and continued to move forward.
And that was not the only thing they had learned.
It had been months since The Ravener had sent them on their mission, and they had used that time to study and mimic creatures they had encountered.
The lead hunter, who had roamed this land before, had continued its hobby of observing mortals, mimicking their language. Over time and with observation, it had begun to actually understand the sounds that were being made as it copied them.
It could now lure and call mortals with their own language as well as understand many of their words, making it even more dangerous than it had been before. The leader would teach its siblings as they travelled, granting them another tool, but the two of them hadn’t gained that high a level of proficiency with the tongues of humanity and other sapient creatures, yet.
What they did excel at was mimicking and even understanding the calls of beasts. The three hunters intended to share all of the learning they had acquired and then make use of it here.
They had a horde to build.
First they needed to find shelter.
Searching through the dusty lands—shocked at how quickly the heat rose with the sun in this place—they found a large cave buried in a cliff face.
They did not find it unoccupied.
A monster howled and rushed out to defend its burrow—a strange, massive creature that was all misshapen bones—and struck at them with its tail. The hunters were far quicker and their claws horrifyingly sharp.
They swarmed through the bone creature’s defences, carving away pieces of its skeleton with great tearing strikes. Their terrible strength split its shell and their teeth bit down, injecting deadly venom into the wounds.
Their attacker was dead within seconds.
And so, the hunters had their shelter.
And food to go with it.
From their new lair, the trio explored the dusty lands slowly and carefully. They saw no humans or other mortals around, but that did not mean those enemies were not watching since they still patrolled outside the wall.
They remained cautious.
As they ranged out further, continuing to feast on the bone creature’s body—pickled and preserved by their toxin—they soon found other monsters.
Other bone creatures stalked the dust, far from where they had killed the first. These creatures, it appeared, were solitary, staying clear of each other’s territory. The trio watched them constantly, learning their habits. They witnessed how they hunted, how they warned each other away from their terrain.
Finally, they witnessed their behaviour of dominance one day when one had made a kill: a large bony creature that swam beneath the dust like the huge, krill eating creatures that swam within the sea. Suddenly, another larger bone creature appeared, howling, hissing and screeching at the smaller one.
The smaller one hissed back for a time, but soon cowered away from its meal.
Observing this display showed them how these beasts could be controlled.
And so they began to mimic.
The largest of the three hunters—covered in scars from a fight against a giant it had encountered when it was alone—was the first to understand the bone creatures’ cries.
It was tasked with finding then subduing the largest of this type of creature for their horde. Its two siblings watched their scarred kin venture into the wastes, seeking their needed quarry.
Now, the pair of hunters sought out other creatures to rule. They had found one powerful type of beast so far; now they needed numbers.
The next creatures they found were massive monsters that were humanoid in shape, but lacked their intelligence. They ate massive amounts of flesh, and used strength and numbers to hunt and kill. Though the monsters showed fear of the bone creatures and avoided them most of the time, the hunters witnessed them gather in a great pack, then stalk and kill one of the bone creatures to consume it back in their lair.
They would be suitable for serving them, the two hunters decided.
They continued to watch the humanoid monsters as they gorged themselves on meat. Over time, they began to learn their hierarchy: they were social creatures, and most often the largest, strongest and most dominating of their number, commanded the rest.
At times, they did find smaller ones that led the others, but it was through superior aggression, savagery and fighting ability.
Over time, their observations revealed more of the large creatures’ vocal communications until at last, one of the hunters found it could mimic and understand them.
This hunter was the leanest of the three, but was quick and vicious. Its task was to pick a pack, kill its leader, and take control of the rest by mimicking their cries.
It went on its way, leaving one remaining hunter to secure a force: the one who had brought its two siblings to this place.
The hunter considered what other types of creatures they might need. Its sole purpose was to be an assassin of its master’s foes, but all of The Ravener’s higher monsters were also armed with instinctual tactical knowledge from their moment of birth, giving them the ability to command dungeons, and guide the forces the dungeon cores created.
From this knowledge, it understood that—for its purposes—their forces were still lacking. To kill their quarry, they would need cover: enough to turn the mortals’ eyes to their forces while the assassins engaged their target largely unopposed.
Its scarred sibling would bring one or two large, powerful monsters for their force; they would be their champions. Its lean sibling would gather a pack of the hulking humanoids; they would be their elites.
A champion could be broken by an enemy champion. Elites could be cornered by enemy forces, though.
What they needed now was fodder: numbers to work and spread an enemy’s force thin for the ultimate in distraction.
Its task would be to search for that fodder.
It soon found the perfect subjects to give them those numbers.
Groups of short, large eared creatures stalked the wastes away from where they’d found their other choices. They were numerous, vicious and worked well together.
The hunter watched as the little beasts cornered some long-necked creatures as they travelled from glowing hole in the earth, to glowing hole in the earth. They hid beneath the dusts of the wastes, then sprang up when their prey was among them and attacked, injuring them with thrown rocks or clubs of scavenged bone.
Then they jumped on the wounded creatures from all sides, spreading their mouths impossibly wide and sucking flesh from bone. The shock killed the creatures quickly.
The hunter was impressed by the little creatures’ savagery: it could almost believe they were a creation of its master or one of the dungeon cores. It studied these curious creatures almost lovingly, learning and listening to each call, cry and chirp that they made to each other.
The hunter stalked them silently through all hours of the day and night: unheard, unscented and unseen. It had learned from its early days, and was far better at remaining undetected.
So, it watched and it stalked.
It listened to their growls of anger.
It mimicked their coos of contentment.
It learned their howls of excitement.
And then—after a time—it understood.
Its voice box moulded and changed by its will and it went amongst them. The hunter showed itself to them and called to them in their own familiar vocalizations. It almost relished the creatures’ shock as—for the first time in existence—they found a creature not of their kind that spoke to, and understood them.
Some were suspicious—and hungry—and attacked the hunter anyway.
Its claws quickly tore apart their flesh.
The rest fled, but it followed them back to their lair.
Then it called out, mimicking the cries that younger creatures made when they challenged a leader for dominance of their group. At first, they responded with hurled rocks, but the hunter persisted. It killed any who ventured out to fight, and continued its cries of challenge.
At last, the little creatures’ leader had no choice but to accept the challenge, or risk starvation in their lair.
It cried out its return challenge and fought with all it had.
But the hunter was one of The Ravener’s higher monsters…and the little leader’s flesh proved to be delicious.
Through fear, the others unwillingly followed the hunter after that, and so, it led them to other lairs where more of the little creatures were found, dominating group after group.
All during the time it was gathering its horde, it hoped that its quarry might again appear in this wasteland. But it only felt their presence once…but the one with monstrously powerful mana, was also present.
Frustrated, yet patient, it kept itself well away from the area where such a powerful mortal was until they finally vanished.
At last, after many days and nights, the hunter had its horde of little creatures built: enough to terrorize a number of mortal settlements if they were led well enough.
And so, it returned to its siblings at their shared lair and found they had found success as well.
The scarred hunter had brought two of the largest bone creatures they had seen. The lean one led more than a score of big, strong humanoids. And the first had gathered the horde of small, flesh-sucking monsters.
They examined each others’ offerings and found them to be good and suitable enough to match a horde produced by a well-fed dungeon core after it had time to build its numbers.
Then came their next task.
They picked an area that already had a natural complex of caves where they could hide their force from discovery. They hunted for meat for them, keeping them well fed, and used commands and vicious power to keep them in line. The first hunter set its horde of little creatures to begin digging far enough from the wall to avoid detection by the mortals, but close enough to tunnel beneath it.
It would not be what the mortals would expect. The hunters had found no monsters in the waste that could organize, build or direct themselves to a single purpose. The little creatures were excellent diggers, but had no interest in what lay beyond the wall and its dangerous defenders.
But now, they worked to the hunters’ purpose, and that single purpose would drive them like a claw drove into a wound.
They tunnelled deeply, but quietly, keeping most of their activities to the coolness of night.
The work seemed slow—and many times the hunters wished that their master’s dungeon cores could live beyond their homeland as they would be useful to quickly bend the terrain to their will—but, with their horde’s numbers, steady progress was eventually made through the dry earth.
Finally, the three hunters cheered in human sounding voices, celebrating as their force at last broke through the last length of dirt. They had scouted out a small forest quite far from the wall: a wood large enough to hide their gathering force and far from the notice of the wall’s defenders. The tunnel was then widened for the bone creatures to get through, and then they would wait.
Their plan was to set up a small lair in that area, and then push into the mortals’ city.
At least that was their plan.
Opportunity came in strange ways at times, however.
Unexpectedly, the hunters’ pings returned something intriguing.
It seemed their prey was on the move.