The town of West Vale was protected by a large stone wall that had been created by the combined efforts of arcanists with earth affinity cores. It stood at about fifteen feet tall and had only two exits, the northern gate, and the southern gate, both of which were guarded by two peak first core arcanists and a single second core arcanist. We left through the southern gate, which was already open when we arrived.
The excitement and nervousness grew as we passed through the gate, though our group, save for Jeremy, remained calm. Unlike most people in our class, I"d been out of the town before with my aunt, and I knew for a fact that Leyton"s father had taken him on hunting trips, though not for aether beasts, and well from the way Thomas and Misty remained calm, they must have been out at some point as well, although that could just as well be a facade.
The wilds were what people referred to as the uncivilized lands and the places where aether beasts roamed, and where aether towers were most commonly found, not that they remained that way when something like sect found one. Aether towers provided great rewards and benefits for arcanists of all kinds so when a sect found one, they usually set up some sort of temporary camp around it, or sometimes a city if it was one of the harder towers. Not that I"d ever seen a sect. West Vale was far away from any cities and the only time outsiders arrived was the annual caravan which was set to arrive soon, just in time to take any arcanists who wanted to leave along with them. It was what most people who left did, as it provided safety, and the caravans had been doing the trip between the city of Orton and the town of West Vale for years so they knew the best paths.
As we got further and further away from the city and closer to the edge of the forest that was close by West Vale, Luten instructed us to remain calm and do as the hunters said. As much as I wanted to explore, I knew he was right. I wasn"t even a first core arcanist, so I would basically be dead the moment I ran into any kind of aether beast.
"Hey, you think we"re actually gonna get to fight," Leyton whispered from beside me.
I shrugged. "Maybe, but I doubt I will. I haven"t got my first core yet, remember."
He winced in sympathy. "Sorry."
We traveled in silence after that, with only the occasional bit of information from Luten. It was the same old thing we"d learned dozens of times before. How the calamity had struck earth, and how pieces of other worlds had stuck to our own, and brought the energy we know as aether and new creatures to this world. And the arrival of the aether towers and great labyrinths. It was something that everyone in the town, even non-arcanists knew.
"So class, can anyone tell me what an arcanist is?" Luten asked.
A teen part of Jason"s group raised a hand and I recognized him as one of Jason"s hanger-on"s.
"Arcanists are people who infuse aether into themselves to grow in power. They infuse aether into their bodies so that they can form cores which can be used to store essence."
"Basic, but can anyone elaborate on that."
Another person raised a hand. "Humans can"t produce aether, unlike beasts who can produce unique types of aether, like fire aether or water aether. Arcanists absorb essence into their cores from the cores of aether beasts. This allows their core to produce that type of aether, which can then be used by the arcanist."
"Good, very good, and who can tell me how we increase the power of our cores."
"Through condensation," Another teen said. "By absorbing pure aether from the world around us and similar essence to the essence in our core and mixing them, then pushing the aether together to condense it we can increase the power of the core."
"Accurate, but simple. The truth is that there are two paths an arcanist must travel. The path of aether infusion and the path of aether condensation. Increasing the power of your body and mind to give yourself the ability to hold more cores and condense the essence within your core so that you can pull more power from it. Does anyone know the stages of aether infusion and condensation?"
Thomas raised a hand. "There are nine levels of aether infusion, and the stages of aether condensation go from smoke, hydro, Iron, steel, crystal. The goal is to reach the crystal stage and have your core reach its full potential."
"Indeed, Aether beasts are born with crystal cores, as for them its natural, but for us, when we kill an aether beast only a thin layer of crystal remains and the majority becomes smokey essence. This is a benefit to us as if we were able to only absorb the core as it was then there would be no room for growth, but since we can absorb the essence, it allows us a foundation from which we can build upon. I"m sure some of you use aether dust in your food and drinks?"
"Good, but take care, too much can lead to problems. Now one last question? What are the aether affinities?"
Leyton nudged me and I reflectively moved my shoulder, which Luten caught. His eyes turned to me and I shot Leyton a glare before turning back to the professor.
"There are sixteen aether affinities," I said.
"And can you-"
Luten"s words were cut off as one of the hunters stopped suddenly, their hand going to the longsword at their belt.
"Do you sense that?" he asked his eyes darting over the trees and foliage around us.
We were still in the outskirts of the wilds outside of West Vale, which meant we were only a few miles from West Vale. They shouldn"t have been any aether beasts around this area, then again he could be sensing some normal animals.
"I sense it too," Luten said, his face becoming serious. He turned to us and quickly barked, "Behind the hunters, now!"
The class quickly moved to do as he said, everyone, recognizing his serious voice and the command. I glanced worriedly at Leyton and Thomas who had confused and slightly scared looks on their faces.
I opened my mouth to comfort them, but a sudden crash sounded and I turned just in time to see something crash into one of the hunters, sending the man flying into a tree.
"Get them out of here," Luten shouted to the remaining hunters who were staring in shock at the beast that had appeared.
I was doing the same, unable to comprehend what a gale wolf was doing this close to West Vale. In our classes, we"d been taught about many aether beasts, especially those around West Vale so I knew that gale wolfs were found far outside of West Vale, and yet here one was. Its fur was grey and it had a mane of pure white fur around its neck that moved as though by an invisible wind. Its eyes were black and its fangs looked sharp enough to cut through flesh with ease.
Someone screamed and before I knew it everyone was running, including the hunters, with only Luten staying behind since he was the only one who could fight this beast. It was a two-core wind affinity beast, but that"s not what had me most worried.
The wolf howled and half a dozen others responded in kind from all around us.
They hunted in packs.
I turned and ran, cursing myself, as I"d stood still for too long and was behind everyone else. I pumped my arms and gave everything I had to running, not daring to look back, even as the sounds of combat began. Growling, shouting, and the sound of metal crashing against fang.
I ran and ran, and for a moment it seemed like I would make it to the group, but then a wolf came out of nowhere and slammed into the hunter closet to me, latching its jaws around the hunter"s neck and tearing it out. The hunter"s scream turned into a gurgle as blood sprayed, coating the nearby ground red.
I turned left, not about to try and run past it. It was a wind affinity beast and had two cores at that. It would move so fast that I would literally be dead in the blink of an eye.
I don"t know how long I ran for, but just as I thought I had lost them, I heard a rustling from behind me and I felt tears begin at the corner of my eyes. I didn"t want to die, not like this. I didn"t stop running, and just as all hope was lost, I saw a rock face in front of me, with a small opening.
I dove for it, not caring about its size, and squeezed myself through. I felt the pain as my skin scraped against the rock as I moved further in. I was almost completely in, with just my leg outside, when I heard a growl. I increased my speed, not caring if my skin was torn, and just as I managed to get completely into the hole, I heard a snapping sound and a gust of wind. I froze only for a second before I continued further into the hole. I was crying, but I didn"t care, I just kept moving.
Sometime later, when my body was out of energy, the hole opened up and I fell a short distance before I impacted the ground.. I barely had any time to look around before darkness took me.
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