Armor clicked softly as Franclin slowly drew his sword. In front of him, the druid stood as still as a tree. For all Franclin knew, it might have truly believed itself to be a tree. Druids were weird that way. Slowly, he pointed the sword at the creature and flashed a small smile.
“Come with me quietly and I’ll allow you to live.”
“It wants me to come quietly.” The druid hissed back at him. “It doesn’t understand what I am.”
“I understand that your people attacked Nettingo about a month back.” Franclin raised an eyebrow. “You destroyed all the roads in and out of the city, a problem that to this day hasn’t been sufficiently rectified.”
“We were trying to save the world.”
“Right.” Franclin sighed and took a step closer. “You always are trying to do that, aren’t you? And yet, you always wind up-”
The druid turned and thrust its hands up, a wicked smile on its twisted, plant-like face. Roots and vines exploded out of the soft dirt, striking at Franclin’s legs. Franclin just smiled and swung his sword, drawing on the enchantments that had been so carefully placed in his armor.
Flames erupted down the length of his sword, burning away each and every plant that tried to attack him. He didn’t even have to shift his stance, and the druid hissed.
“It thinks that it’s doing well.”
“I think I’m doing better than most.” Franclin balled his left fist. “Now, surrender and you won’t be hurt.”
Franclin shrugged and thrust out his left fist. Enchanted gemstones lit up as their internal magic activated. Ice exploded off his armor, launching a thousand icy knives at the druid. The creature held up its hands, conjuring a bark shield out of thin air. The ice slammed into the shield, chipping away bark and wood but doing no permanent harm.
Of course, harming the druid with ice hadn’t been Franclin’s plan in the first place.
Franclin launched himself upward, activating gemstones on his armored boots that allowed him to jump dozens of feet in the air. The druid, blinded by its own shield, failed to notice the move. Franclin sailed through the air, arcing over the shield and into view of the creature once more.
Before the druid had a chance to react, Franclin swept out his sword again, blasting it with flames. Pure blue fire washed over it, burning off its skin and turning its bones to ash in a split second. Franclin landed in the druid’s remains an instant later, smiling as the bark shield covered in ice collapsed.
“Well, now.” Franclin slowly climbed to his feet. “How are we feeling now?”
A wind sprang up around his feet, an obviously magical breeze. The ash that he was standing in blew up into the air, swirling around his head for a few seconds before blowing off into the melting forest. Franclin sighed and watched it go. He had incinerated the druid, but its life force had likely still survived. It would take a week or two until it could be reborn, which he supposed was something.
Slowly, Franclin took a deep breath and turned around. He was just outside the walls of Isogodriir, doing a routine patrol. He only had a bit more of the wall to cover before his shift was over and he could head back into the city. For a few moments, he considered chasing after the druid’s ash to try and destroy it further, but abandoned the idea after several seconds. The last time he had done something like that, he had paid the price.
It took him fifteen more minutes before he finished the circle around the city and made it to the gates on the elven side of the border. As a neutral Dragon Hunter, Franclin was one of the few individuals in the entire continent of Calsin with the distinct privilege of being able to walk across sovereign borders without passing though a customs department. That included being able to walk around a border city on patrol.
The two guards on duty waved at him as he walked back into the city itself. Limestone walls rose around him, and he sighed. The elves were so grandiose. They paid him for protection, and yet refused to take any of his advice on how to make the city safer. Nix the statues, build a few more guard posts, and they’d be far better off.
With his shift done, there was little Franclin could do but return to the governor’s palace to report. In border cities, that got a little complicated. Without hesitating, Franclin swept through the streets, angling towards the central government district.
His armor clacked against the cobblestone, far more than most armors. It was the result of several enchantments imbedded deep in the armor, a trick to make himself more intimidating. And it certainly worked. On all sides, elves drew back as he stalked through the streets of the town. He was only nineteen years old, but he was a Dragon Hunter. They had every right to fear.
Finally, after entirely too much time, he reached the governmental district. Nearly all cities in Calsin had a governor of some sort, a regional ruler designed to keep a closer eye on things than the kings could. Border cities, though, had two. Of course, they had to keep their official courts separate, because it wouldn’t be right for the ruler of one nation to hear disputes in a different nation. That said, since security was such an important issue in Calsin, they did have a joint court that they could convene should the need arise. As far as Franclin was concerned, now was one of those times.
When Franclin blew through the massive, bronze doors into the joint court, he wasn’t surprised to find it empty. The two governors didn’t particularly like to talk to each other unless they absolutely had to. Franclin sighed and glanced around the room. It was more or less like any other throne room he had ever seen. A large, open expanse designed for holding large audiences if necessary. At the front of the room, on a raised platform, were two thrones that were exactly identical in every single aspect possible. After a few moments of contemplation, Franclin raised his right hand, activating his fire enchantments. Flames exploded across the room and lit a magical torch in the middle of the stage. The flame burned green, and Franclin let the attack die down.
The torch was a way of signaling the two governors, a manner of alerting both of them at exactly the same time. Mere second passed before the door on the left burst open, and the elven governor swept into the room. The door on his right burst open an instant later, revealing a flustered dwarven royal.
“Feeling a little slow today?” The Elven governor, Kalis, slowly sat down on his throne. Franclin had to hide a smile, as always, at the fact that the back of the throne was at least a foot too short, allowing the governor’s head to extend well above the too-small chair.
“I might say that you appear anxious.” Nuridix stomped up to his chair and sat down as well. For the dwarf, the back of the throne rose several feet above his short head. “Perhaps you’re nervous because of something you’re hiding from me?”
Franclin closed his eyes as the two governors bickered. Sure, they were in charge of a border city, but it wasn’t a particularly important border city. Most of the trade between the two nations went through Dirotoussou, at any given time, nearly seventy-five percent of the population of the city were simply travelers, those wishing to pass through as fast as possible.
“Now, I believe our resident Dragon Hunter has something to tell us.” Kalis finally cut in, giving Franclin a clue to open his eyes again. “Franclin, what would you have to report?”
“I finished my daily sweep of the city perimeter.” Franclin dipped his head. “I encountered a family of dwarves trying to sneak across the border, but they were simple enough to deal with. Dwarven customs has them now.”
Nuridix glanced at Kalis. “I apologize! I take no responsibility for-”
“No one is blaming you.” Franclin held up his hand. “That’s not why I’m here.”
Both governors turned to him and crossed their arms, waiting. Franclin sighed and plowed forward.
“I had just crossed back to the elven side, on my final quarter, when I found a druid. I can’t be certain what he was doing there, but it did appear that he was preparing to attack the city in some fashion.”
“Did you deal with him?” Kalis leaned forward with interest. “You certainly…”
“I dealt with him.” Franclin sighed. “At least as much as a druid can be dealt with.”
“Then I hardly see the issue here.” Nuridix crossed his pudgy arms. “The threat has been nullified. Case closed.”
“No.” Franclin shook his head. “For starters, that druid will be back. Secondly…” He sighed. “The angels aren’t gone yet.”
“Don’t start with this again.” Kalis groaned. “We’ve told you before-”
“I know what you’ve told me.” Franclin balled his hands into fists. “I know what the rules are, I know what my contract says. What I am telling you is that the battle of Nettingo isn’t over yet. The angels may have vanished from the countryside, but I don’t think they’re gone.”
“Forgive me for cutting in, but let’s look at the facts. Shall we?” Nurdix crossed his arms. “The angels appeared out of nowhere. Correct?”
Franclin nodded tightly. “Correct.”
“And, once they appeared, they killed thousands individuals across Calsin.”
“Millions, possibly.” Franclin ground his teeth together. “Tirinnoufin was almost completely wiped off the map. Elsinor reported hundreds of thousands of losses, and we haven’t even received reports from…”
“Please, don’t interrupt.” Nurdix held up a hand. “They came, they slaughtered, and even your magic and expertise wasn’t enough to stop them. I do believe that you failed to kill them on multiple occasions when they attempted to attack Isogodriir.”
“No one else has found a way to kill them, either.”
“And yet the druids managed it.” Nurdix chuckled. “You’re jealous because you weren’t able to do what your hated enemies did in a heartbeat.”
“Really, now?” Kalis entered the fray once more. “You deny that you want to find a way to defeat the angels?”
“No.” Franclin took a step forward. “That’s exactly what I want to do. Please. Release me from my contract, if only temporarily. I’ll be back in a month’s time, I promise.”
“Never.” Nurdix slammed his fist down on the arm of the chair. “The druids are loose in Elsinor and may very well be crossing over into Dirnor before long. We need your skills here. The angels are gone, there is no use in learning how to kill an already-defeated threat.” The dwarf climbed to his feet in tandem with Kalis. “If you attempt to leave our service before the term of your contract is up, we will submit a notice to the Hunter Council, and you will forever retain a black mark on your record. Is that clear?”
Franclin turned to Kalis. “Please. The contract was signed jointly, you could give me the leeway I need.”
“I’m sorry.” Kalis held up his hands. “You’ll forgive me, but it took a great deal of our resources to afford your fee. I’m not giving that up so you can go running off on some wild specter chase.”
With that, the two governors turned and marched back through their respective doors. Franclin sighed as they left, and slammed his fist into the palm of his hand.
The title of Dragon Hunter wasn’t a title that was given out to just anyone. It required studying at all five of the major academies throughout the world, followed by a stress course at the Hunter Council. Only a dozen individuals applied to the program every year, less than half of them were accepted, and only one of those would ever succeeded. Most washed out in the differing academies as they tried to master magic and culture unfamiliar to their species, with countless more failed or died in the final stage of the process.
Once confirmed as Dragon Hunters, individuals would go out into Calsin to seek employment. The demand for Hunters was high, most cities would pay thousands of gold pieces just to have the Hunter live there. However, there was a catch.
Hunters had to sign contracts with whoever wound up employing them, whether it was a city or a rich individual. Once the contract was forged, if it was broken, the employers could send word to the Hunter Council. This would result in an instant black mark on the Hunter’s name. No employer throughout Calsin would hire a Hunter with a black mark, since no one wanted to be left unprotected at a vital time. In addition, all other Hunters were given a free license, above all laws, to kill the rogue Hunter on sight. In short… Being marked was a terrible situation to find yourself in.
That said, so was the threat of angel attacks. Franclin sighed, turned, and marched back onto the streets. He began to meander aimlessly through the deep, twisted streets of the city, not particularly caring where he went. No one paid him any mind, but that didn’t cause him to lose his guard. Too many Hunters had been lost simply due to arrogance.
Eventually, after far too long, he found himself at the doors to the “Slaughterhouse,” a pub of some note in the underbelly. With nothing else to lose, Franclin sighed and pushed through the door, walking into a teeming hub of drunken individuals, a mixture of elves, dwarves, and humans. Most were likely criminals, many likely would be executed if the authorities found them.
“Franclin!” The dark elf behind the bar waved as the orange-clad warrior stalked through the door. “My favorite customer!”
“Just because I’d kill you if I wasn’t.” Franclin sighed and walked up to the bar, pushing past a group of dwarves that bristled with knives and weapons. He fished a gold coin out of a belt on his waist and tossed it onto the counter. “Moon ale. Make it light.”
“As you wish.” Tefurung took the coin and dropped it into an enchanted lockbox, then grabbed a clay mug and placed it under a tap. The golden liquid began to drizzle down into the mug, and Franclin sighed. “Come to fight tonight?”
“Not tonight, I don’t think.” Franclin sighed and unclipped his gauntlets. Slowly, he took them off and set them down on the bar, allowing the metal to clink on the wood. He flexed his fingers, feeling the air on his skin for the first time since that morning. “I guess we’ll have to see.”
Teferung set the mug on the counter, then reached below the bar and lifted up a pitcher of milk. He poured in a healthy amount of the liquid, then replaced it and slid the mug across the counter. Franclin picked it up and took a deep draught while Teferung sat down on a small stool.
“Rough day?” Teferung raised an eyebrow. “Any tough battles?”
“Is a druid tough?” Franclin shrugged. “Nothing else interesting.”
“What about border jumpers?”
“Awe.” Teferung sighed and tapped the bar. His voice dropped, and Franclin leaned closer. “What about angels?”
Franclin grimaced. It was the question he kept getting asked, day after day. Being the sole protector of a city could be exhausting sometimes. So many questions.
“We haven’t seen a thing since Nettingo.”
“They’re out there.” Teferung grimaced. “They’re hiding, just waiting to strike back.”
Franclin set the mug back down, half-drank. “I’m not arguing. Can you…” He paused. “How many other people think the same way? Be honest, don’t skewer things in your direction.”
Teferung frowned, scratching his chin as a high elf came walking up to the bar.
“Can I get a…”
“Go away!” Teferung snapped. “I’m busy! I’ll get to you in a minute.” The high elf crossed his arms and bared his teeth, and Teferung turned back to Franclin. “I wish I could say it was just me. Over half the town is convinced they’re just going to show back up and wipe us all out. Every person in this room would stake their lives on that claim.”
“Hey!” The high elf snarled. “Get me an ale!”
“In a minute!” Teferung yelled back, then lowered his voice yet again. “Look, I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news, but a lot of people are starting to question if you’re really the best fit for this job. They think you’re great being here and all, but a lot of people would be willing to risk the druids if they knew you left to find a way to stop the angels.”
Franclin sighed and scratched his head. “I’ve asked Kalis and Nurdix three times if they would release me from my contract. It doesn’t even have to be forever, just a month or two. They just keep saying no.” He shrugged. “If I leave, I get a black mark, and then I’m as good as dead.” He held up his hands. “There are other Hunters out there, I guess. With luck, one of them finds something.”
The high elf walked up and placed a hand on Franclin’s armored shoulder. Franclin turned as the elf pulled a large piece of coal out of his pocket. Instantly, the room seemed to freeze. High elves and coal didn’t exactly mix well. The elves could draw on its power to inflict the Blight on anyone they touched. And right then, he was touching Franclin.
“I want an ale.” The high elf spoke slowly. “If you don’t give me one, I’ll kill this man.”
The room froze. Teferung took a step back and crossed his arms.
“I take it you’re new in town.” Teferung crossed his arms. “You might want to rethink that statement.”
“I will rethink nothing.” The elf gripped the coal tighter. “I’ve killed a thousand men in my time over far less. This one will be no different.”
Franclin sighed and drew on the latent magical field that all humans could tap into. Power flowed through his body, filling him with a magical energy. Carefully, he focused it all into his palm, where he focused on one element.
A purifying wave of blue fire erupted from his palm, burning through the high elf’s chest in a mere instant. The man didn’t even have a chance to look surprised as he collapsed to the ground.
“Sorry for the mess.” Franclin sighed and returned to his ale. “I know you hate cleanups.”
“At least you had the decency to use fire this time.” Teferung walked back to the bar and sat down again. “No blood to stain the floor.”
“I like to think of my friends when I’m killing ruffians.” Franclin finished off the rest of the ale, smiling at the vanilla-flavored cream that had settled to the bottom of the glass. “You know what? I think I’ve changed my mind.”
Teferung raised an eyebrow. “You’ll fight?”
“Put me on the roster. I’ll make back the money to cover the body removal.” Franclin climbed to his feet and put his gauntlets back on. “I told you. I think of my friends.”
Franclin took a deep breath as he walked down the stairs leading to the arena. True to its name, the Slaughterhouse contained an entrance to a fighting pit under the city. Official city regulations prohibited its existence, but Franclin had seen more than a few law soldiers and even court officials cheering for the carnage.
According to rumor, when the city had been built, the dwarves of Dirnor had tunneled under it quite extensively before being told by the elves that they needed to stop. Though they did eventually stop, they left behind a massive series of caverns and caves that served to propel the underworld beyond its already-bloated state.
The area was in a massive cavern, hundreds of feet below the surface. The stairs simply wound down, down, and down some more, before finally coming out into the bleachers overlooking the enormous room.
As Franclin came out into the room, he could only imagine what the true mountain dwarves of Taninor were capable of. The battle cage itself was little more than a platform, around two hundred feet across, that rose from a pool of lava perhaps a hundred feet wider than the platform itself. Around the pool of lava, stone rose sharply to a height of around fifty feet, at which point the bleachers took over. The only way to get to the platform was through floating platforms, powered by dwarven enchantments.
To Franclin’s right, willing contestants lined up next to a small landing pad. The tiny flying chariot was currently docked, with the driver at the ready. Two orcs thumped their chests and roared at the top of their lungs, though they had yet to actually enter the vehicle.
Franclin made his way over to the line, where an arena attendant looked up as he approached.
“Ahh, Franclin!” He waved at the Hunter, then glanced down at a scroll. “Teferung has you going in three fights. Says he needs you to pay off some bills.”
“More than a few, if I had to guess.” Franclin walked past the growing line. “Do I get something fun to fight this time?”
The attendant, a man whose name Franclin had never bothered to learn, frowned down at the scroll. “I can’t tell you ahead of time, you know.”
“I know.” Franclin clapped him on the shoulder and walked up to the railing. “Yell when it’s my go. Just make it difficult, okay? Last time was a breeze.”
“As you wish.” The attendant whistled sharply, and the two orcs climbed into the chariot. The driver, a dwarf, ran his hands along the controls. Instantly, the chariot broke away and began floating down towards the platform. As it traveled, Franclin glanced at the bleachers.
They were, unsurprisingly, quite full. He sighed and shook his head. The arena always got busier when people were nervous. They liked to see battles, liked to see men triumph over beasts. It gave them a sense of accomplishment, made them feel like they were in control. Never mind the fact that it caused competent fighters to lose their lives, which technically made the city less of a force to be reckoned with should anything attack.
The orcs reached the platform a moment later and jumped out, roaring loud enough to be heard all the way in the bleachers. Franclin sighed as they started running back and forth, waving their arms. They didn’t have a single weapon on them, weren’t wearing an ounce of armor. Only small loincloths. They were dead, he was certain of it.
With a resounding crash, the floor in the center of the platform sank below the ground. The orcs barred their claws and knelt down, preparing to charge. Several painfully slow minutes passed, and the platform began to rise back into view. Franclin watched with interest. What would they be paired against? What…
With a roar, a massive korcat sprang into view. Franclin whistled softly. The beast, a tiger as large as two horses, sported two massive tusks that dropped down from its upper jaw. Venom dripped from the long, pointed teeth as the monster stalked forward.
Korcats had exactly two weaknesses. The first was a point just behind their jaw, where a sword could be driven straight into their brain without resistance. It was generally advised to avoid this location, as it required getting entirely too close to their teeth. The second was their underbelly, though this still required significant maneuvering to reach. All things considered, korcats were best avoided at all costs. Given that they were native to the jungles of Sournous, it usually wasn’t a problem to stay away from the creatures.
The orcs charged forward, not hesitating. The korcat rushed to meet them, leaping across the stone platform in bounds that covered fifty feet at a time. The first orc leapt up to meet the cat, and the beast lurched forward, striking the man in midair.
The korcat didn’t even slow, and simply batted the orc out of the sky. The man slammed into the platform and was sent rolling towards the lava. The cat ran alongside, smacking him again with its enormous paw. The orc screamed as it flew off the edge and into the molten stone. Franclin frowned as the orc died. Five seconds. Not great.
The second orc let out an enraged roar. His skin turned black, and Franclin grinned. Orcish blood magic. Now things would get interesting.
The korcat turned and leapt at the second orc, claws outstretched. This time, when the cat slammed into the orc, the orc didn’t budge an inch. The cat slashed at the far smaller being, slicing off enormous chunks of flesh. The skin and bone regrew almost instantly, and the orc let out a devastating scream. The korcat was thrown backwards by the force of the magic yell. Franclin’s armor clattered loudly as the shock wave struck him a moment later. Before the cat could recover, the orc sprang forward, sinking its claws into the cat’s side.
For a brief instant, it looked like the orc might actually win. Then, before the orc could press its victory, the korcat spun and sank its tusks deep into the orc’s chest. Franclin sighed and shook his head. Game over.
Sure enough, only a breath passed before the orc stumbled backward. His skin faded back to green, and he fell to his knees. The korcat began pacing towards him, only to leap away as the orc exploded. Fire engulfed the body, scattering the charred remains across the platform. Franclin sighed and tapped his gauntlets against the railing as the korcat limped back to the center of the platform, where it descended out of sight again.
Orcs were powerful, but they were hardly invincible. Blood magic, their greatest strength, was by far their greatest weakness as well. Once they were done using it, the effects were almost always powerful enough to kill the wielder unless the orc was in pristine health. Franclin had seen countless orcs felled by their own magic, long after the fight had ended.
The korcat had just descended out of sight when the chariot began to descend again. This time, it was a lone avian. Franclin frowned, before noticing a red collar around the creature’s neck.
Avians were an unusual species, but easy enough to kill under normal circumstances. Most of the time, they were perfectly peaceful, not even understanding the concept of combat or disagreement. Some, though, were the exact opposite. The “blood avians,” as they were called, simply didn’t understand the concept of life, and only wished to bring death to as many as possible. These individuals nearly always left Sournous to simply kill and pillage. Likely, one had made it as far north as Isogodriir, and had been brought to fight in the arena. Franclin glanced to the side to see a grim-faced elven soldier, a Commander, if Franclin read the stripes on the uniform correctly. Curious, Franclin walked over to the man, who watched the fight with an unseemly interest.
“Got a prisoner, there?” Franclin crossed his arms and nodded at the avian.
“Goes by the name of Bloodletter.” The commander muttered. “He’s one of the smart ones, really. We caught him in the countryside, attacking small caravans. From our correspondence with other cities, he’s been attacking people up and down the mountains for months. Dozens of deaths.”
Franclin sighed. “I wish we could understand them.”
The commander snorted. “The day that a normal biped can understand an avian will be the day this world falls into the Internal Flame.”
Franclin raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t take you for the religious type. Especially for a religion of a different species.”
The commander turned to Franclin. “And I didn’t take you for a curious type.”
Franclin shrugged and turned back to the impending battle. “The more I know, the more powerful I become.”
“The mantra of a Hunter.” The commander sighed. “Is there anything in this world you don’t know how to kill?”
“Still working on a way to kill the angels.” Franclin sighed and rapped his knuckles against the metal railing. “I’d appreciate any insight you had.”
“Got nothing, I’m afraid.” The commander leaned on the railing. “They took over half of my soldiers, even the ones that didn’t like girls.”
“Yeah.” Franclin sighed and shook his head. “They’re something else.”
“I’m honestly surprised to see you here.” The commander raised an eyebrow. “Three other Hunters have passed through Isogodriir in the last week alone. Seems like every one of them is heading down to Distisil to try and figure out what’s happening.”
Franclin ground his teeth together. “Believe me, I’d love to be with them.”
“Right. Black mark.” The commander sighed. “Seems to me there’d be a way to break a contract if your employers are idiots.”
Franclin laughed. “I take it that you’ve met Kalis and Nuridex?”
“How they managed to become governors of this city, I’ll never know.” The commander sighed and stood up straighter. “I’ve served my life here, and I’ve seen some poor leaders, but they take the cake.”
“Indeed.” Franclin grimaced, then shrugged. “In any event, no, there’s no real way to break a contract. Death and subsequent resurrection will do it, but that’s the only way.”
“In that case, I wish you an easy death and a quick rebirth.” The commander mimed a toast, then nodded at the ring. “Looks like the fight is starting. Forgive me, but as soon as I see the conclusion of this battle, I’ll be leaving.”
“Nothing to forgive.” Franclin shrugged. “I understand that this atmosphere isn’t to everyone’s tastes.”
Below, the avian stalked back and forth on the platform, squawking loudly. Its red feathers stood out against the obsidian stone of the arena, and Franclin frowned as the middle platform began to rise back upward.
“What did you request he fight?” Franclin glanced at the commander. “Anything good?”
“Something that would kill him fast.” The elf sighed. “Something that gets him out of my hair. Public executions require so much paperwork.”
A chitinous form slowly rose from the obsidian, and Franclin whistled. It was a theocar, a species of enormous crab that inhabited the northern oceans. Twenty feet tall, with two primary pinchers the size of orcs and several dozen smaller pinchers, they were nothing to face single-handed. Franclin himself had only ever faced down one of the monsters before, and that had been in a controlled environment at the elven academy. He had nearly lost the fight, in fact. They had almost no weaknesses, only slightly vulnerable points at their joints.
True to form, the theocar lunged forward, sweeping across the platform in a massive rush. The avian glanced at the theocar, glanced at the lava, and calmly stepped off into the burning rock. It died in a fiery burst, and the theocar began to pace back and forth before slowly heading back to the lift.
“And that’s that.” The commander sighed and brushed his palms together. “Good luck, Hunter. For all our sakes, I hope you find the answers you’re looking for.”
“Franclin!” The attendant called out. “You’re up!”
The commander frowned and glanced at Franclin as he took a deep breath and pushed back away from the railing.
“You’re fighting, too?”
“Have to make a living somehow.” Franclin sighed. “Besides, there’s not that many threats around here. I need to keep sharp.”
“In that case, I might stick around for a minute.” The commander sighed and walked back up to the railing. “Good luck, Hunter.”
Franclin just grinned and walked over to the chariot. He climbed inside with a small wave to the attendant, and the driver pressed a small rune. Instantly, the chariot began to descend into the arena. Franclin sighed and fingered the pommel of his sword. It was strange, being suspended over the lava, just hovering in midair.
The dwarven enchantments required for flight were… Interesting. Franclin knew that there were limitations to them, fairly severe ones, that prevented such craft from simply being used in common travel. He didn’t know or particularly care about those restrictions, it was just interesting to think about.
The chariot arrived at the platform, and Franclin jumped out. His boots struck the smooth, polished obsidian, and he smiled. The chariot flew off in a rush, and he started pacing, back and forth.
To prevent combatants from having any prior knowledge of their opponent or time to prepare, they didn’t even start loading the creatures into the lift until after the competitors landed on the platform. Franclin sighed and started pacing back and forth, slowly awaiting his challenge. Idly, he walked up to the edge of the platform and gazed down into the lava. It was a ten-foot drop, too far to jump should a person fall in and somehow survive long enough to think about escaping.
The platform shook with a soft rumble, and Franclin turned back to the center. He began walking inward, away from the lava. There were several creatures that could utilize powerful breath attacks to knock opponents back, and though he doubted he would be facing anything like that, it was worth being prepared.
With a roar, the platform rose back into view. Sitting on the tiny circle, curled to avoid the walls of the chute, was…
Franclin’s eyes opened wide. The dragon that he had captured outside the city uncurled itself, stretching to its full fifty-foot length. It stretched out its wings, releasing a powerful roar. Franclin glanced back up at the attendant, who reached over and pressed a small rune.
“A dragon for the Dragon Hunter!” The man sounded pleased with himself. “Fight away!”
Franclin sighed and turned back to the dragon. It should have been killed as soon as he led it into the entry chamber. He had known for some time that the massive cave system designed for capturing large beasts led to the arena, but he had thought that they weren’t that stupid. Apparently he had been wrong.
“Please.” The wings of the dragon lit up, glowing with a powerful light. Intricate, twisting lines covered both of the leathery appendages, and a moment later, a misty apparition appeared only feet in front of Franclin. “I don’t want to fight.”
Franclin sighed and glanced past the illusion at the beast. Where the creature had once been primarily blue and green, it was now a faded blue with shades of brown. Whatever they had been doing to the dragon, it hadn’t been pleasant. Franclin didn’t particularly mind just killing something, but torture? That was a bit excessive.
“Really?” Franclin turned and yelled up at the attendant. “You got me a dragon that’s sick and doesn’t even want to fight?”
“Oh, it’ll fight!” The attendant boomed back. “Just cut it a bit! It’ll get mad!”
Franclin turned back to the dragon. “You know they’re just going to kill you if you don’t fight.”
“And you’ll kill me if I do.” The dragon shuddered. “The only chance I have at surviving is if I kill you, and we both know the odds of that.”
Franclin sighed and scuffed at the obsidian. He didn’t want to fight something that didn’t want to fight back! He wanted to fight a druid, a horclops, the angels…
A thought struck him. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant thought, but it was something. Carefully, he activated an enchantment that would allow him to speak directly to the dragon without anyone else hearing. The noise of the arena faded, and he flashed a small grin.
“How would you like to get out of here with your life without fighting me?”
The illusion shimmered slightly. “I’d like that. How?”
Franclin sighed and scratched his head. “That’s the hard part.” He puffed out his cheeks. “You might wind up dying anyway, but it’s a shot at freedom that you won’t get otherwise.”
“Why would you free me?” The dragon frowned.
Franclin shrugged. “Because it could free me as well. I want to kill angels. You want to head home. I think…” He sighed. “I think we can both get what we want.”
Franclin grinned as he allowed the security enchantment to die. The dragon lowered its wings, allowing the illusion to fade, and Franclin took a deep breath. Slowly, he reached up behind his head and tapped a small xenophile crystal imbedded there. Instantly, his helmet unfolded, snapping around his head perfectly. He drew his sword in the next breath and took his stance. If this was going to work, they were going to have to do things very carefully.
Cheers exploded through the room as Franclin charged across the platform, racing for the dragon. The dragon flapped its wings, roared, and charged at him. He smiled, thankful that there were no other Hunters in the area. If there were, they would have known that he was faking it. After all, charging straight at a dragon was a quick way to end up dead.
The dragon roared and flew straight at him, opened its mouth wide, and emitted a blast of flame. Franclin simply held up his left arm and activated protective enchantments, casting a ward spell in front of his desperate flight. The flame split and flowed by on either side of him, and he jumped forward. The sword hung in his hand, poised to strike…
The dragon’s massive claws latched around his arm, halting his forward run and yanking him around backwards. He involuntarily yelped in pain as his shoulder tried to pull out of its socket. Wow, that had hurt! For several moments, the area swirled around him as the dragon flew a quick lap. Any moment now…
With a flick, gravity seemed to vanish. He was falling, dropping straight towards the lava. Franclin sighed, took a deep breath, and activated his armor locking enchantments.
It was a series of magical locks designed to seal his armor in the event of emergencies. It made it impossible for him to move and rendered him blind, but could theoretically protect him from being crushed by rockslides, torn apart by wild beasts… And, hopefully, immersed in lava.
He struck the lava with a dull splat. For a moment, he was rather surprised with how thick it was. Rather than simply sinking below the surface, he actually floated on the top of the lava for a few brief moments before slowly being drawn in by the magma. It was like being stuck in quicksand.
His armor grew hot around him, and he grimaced. He wasn’t on fire or dead, so… That was good? Nevertheless, after only moments, it felt like being naked under the sun of the Vamsick desert, and experience that he rather didn’t want to duplicate again. If only the dragon would…
It probably only took moments, but it certainly felt like hours. The dragon rose up underneath of him, rising through the lava, allowing him to land firmly on the dragon’s back. As they erupted up and out of the pool of liquid stone, Franclin allowed his armor to un-lock, straddled the dragon’s neck, and held on for his life.
The lava drained away from his face to reveal a stunned stadium. He could only imagine how they looked, a dragon and a Dragon Hunter, rising from the pool of fire. At least… Well, he was rather hoping that with all the fire, no one would notice the tiny human clinging to the dragon. Before anyone had a chance to truly examine the creature, the dragon spun over the platform and dove for the center life. Franclin placed his hand on the dragon’s throat, adding as much of his own magic as he could to the dragon’s fiery blast.
The concussion that rolled from the dragon’s mouth was truly something to behold. The lift was blown into slivers, and the dragon dove down the narrow tube, folding its wings around itself. It struck the bottom a moment later, landing on all fours with expert ease.
Below the pool of lava, a massive cave system stretched out for miles on end. Thousands of cages filled the area, themselves holding all kinds of massive and deadly creatures. Only a small handful of them actually fought in the arena, most of them were simply for trade and private collectors. Hundreds of handlers spun to face the dragon as it roared, shaking the room.
“Go. Go now.” Franclin whispered. “They’ll have you if you hesitate.”
He wasn’t sure if the dragon heard him or not, but the creature erupted from the cave in an instant, flashing down across the cages spitting fire like a volcano. Franclin added his own magic, breaking open several cages to give the handlers more targets. In the distance, a light shown, the exit to the deadly area.
It took them mere seconds to reach the exit, where they burst out and erupted into the sky. Just south of the border, inside Dirnor, they were free. The dragon roared loudly, then flapped its wings, angling towards the nearby mountains.
Franclin took a deep breath and glanced back as handlers and mages ran from the black market cave, shaking their fists at the sky. They were, indeed, free. That said… They were far from out of the woods.
They flew for well over two hours, and were well into the mountains, before the dragon finally began to drop lower in the sky. Franclin frowned, before noticing a small ravine in the rocks that would be almost completely invisible from the ground. They dropped into the crevice, and Franclin jumped off, landing on the ground with a dull thunk. The dragon sighed in relief, and Franclin slumped against a nearby wall.
“Well, that was fun.” Franclin sighed and glanced down at his armor. Now-hardened magma coated most of it, burning off the brilliant orange coat of paint. His limbs felt heavy, as if his enchantments of lightness weren’t working. Carefully, he struck his arm against the stone wall of the crevice, trying to crack off some of the stone.
“Fun?” The dragon flared its wings to cast its illusion, then began picking dried stone off its own body with its claws. In the dragon’s case, the stone simply flaked off. It made sense, dragon scales were fireproof, able to withstand such conditions with ease. “We nearly died.”
“Nearly.” Franclin held up a stone-covered finger, then turned and punched the wall as hard as he could. At the same time, he activated a force enchantment, designed to allow him to punch harder. With a crack, the stone exploded off his hand and right arm, showering the nearby area in slivers. His enchantments, the gemstones set in his armor, began to spark brilliantly. “If we’re lucky, they think you’re an incredibly deadly beast, and that I’m dead.”
“You forget that this doesn’t really solve any of our problems.” The dragon growled. “The reason that I submitted to you in the first place is because it’s impossible for a dragon to make it from Elsinor to the Scorched Lands on their own. There are probably mages en route already. Word is being sent ahead, armies will converge on us.”
“One problem at a time.” Franclin took a deep breath and punched the wall with his left hand, activating the same set of enchantments. This time, the explosion was powerful enough to lift him off his feet and toss him into the far wall. Both arms emitted a dazzling array of lights before simply falling dark. Once again, his limbs drooped, heavy, and he sighed.
“Is this another problem?” The dragon gestured with a claw at the armor. “You don’t seem to be doing so well.”
Franclin sighed and pointed his arms up into the air, then drew on a fire enchantment. Nothing. Ice, gravity, and several others produced equally fruitless responses, and he sighed.
“This armor cost a fortune.” Franclin sighed and unclipped his gauntlets. They fell from his hands in pieces, the bits and pieces of metal and stone clattering to the ground. With that, he began pulling off his arm guards as well. “The Hunters Academy won’t be pleased that I destroyed it.”
“They think you’re dead.” The dragon flapped its wings, dislodging the last few slivers of stone on its body. “If they find out you’re alive, they’ll try to kill you.”
“One problem at a time.” Franclin sighed and attempted to unclip his helmet. Unfortunately, since it had been designed to retract into the rest of his armor through a xenophile crystal, there wasn’t a standard latching mechanism to secure the thing. He wound up having to smash his head against the wall as well in order to chip away enough of the rock to get it off. As it clattered to the ground, the metal gave a spark and burst into flame. “There. See? We’re fixing things.”
“Do you need help?” The dragon reached out a claw. “I can assist.”
“I’ve got it,” Franclin frowned and shook his head. “Just… Give me a minute.”
Battering his chest and legs against the stone proved substantially more difficult than the other parts of his armor had been, but soon enough, he stood there in his simple combat robes. His sword was gone, his armor was destroyed. Even without a black mark, the Hunter’s council would kill him just for the loss of the suit.
“Whew.” Franclin sighed and leaned against the wall. “One problem down.”
“And now the next.” The dragon growled. “How do we avoid everyone trying to kill us? Where are you wanting me to take you?”
Franclin raised an eyebrow. “And what makes you think I want you to take me somewhere?”
“Because humans think they’re owed the privilege of riding around on our backs like horses.” The dragon growled. “All of them.”
Franclin snorted, softly. “Well, then.” He held up his hands. “I guess you’ve got me. I need to get to the mage’s college in Distisil. With luck, the realm mages there have some sort of an idea what the angels are.”
“You want me to head to Distisil.” The dragon tilted its head back in a roar that Franclin was certain was a laugh. “There are more Hunters in Distisil than anywhere else in Calsin.”
“Even more of them are there now, trying to figure out what threat the angels pose.” Franclin shrugged. “Pretty much just a place of death for you if you were to show up unannounced.”
“You’re not helping your case.”
“Except I am.” Franclin held up his hand and drew on Calsin’s magical field. Magic gathered in his palm, and he poured it into the rock face of the cavern. Instantly, a rough map of the mountain range appeared, a bas relief in the stone. “Now, here’s the deal. Hunters have secret hideouts throughout Calsin. In our case, there are five of them, located here.” Several small dots rose from the stone, marking the hidden locations. “These Hunter safehouses are for Hunters only, and serve as a place for us to do anything we need to do. Kidnap a king? You bring him to one of these. Need to resurrect an ancient sorcerer to help wipe out an army you can’t defeat on your own? You can find the resources here.” Franclin paused. “Traveling with a dragon? Hide out here.”
The dragon sighed. “This will work?”
“Every Hunter knows that, under certain circumstances, working with the dragons may be the best key to success.” Franclin waved his hand, dissolving the image. “Get rest, recharge your magic so you can fly again tomorrow. I’ll keep watch, and we’ll leave at first light.”
The dragon scratched at the ground. “You don’t need sleep?”
Franclin chuckled and leapt upwards, calling on his magic to help him. It wasn’t as effective as his enchantments, but it worked well enough. He landed on the top of the ravine, where he could see down into the surrounding forests. A small spell enhanced his eyesight, and he smiled at the sight of several dozen mages dashing through the woods, looking desperately for a dragon they would never find.
“One problem at a time.” Franclin chuckled. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
“You’ll be dead if you don’t sleep.” The dragon slowly lay its head down as the sun began to set on the horizon. “I’ll be dead if you don’t sleep.”
“Don’t worry about a thing.” Franclin snapped his fingers and began to stimulate growth among the local plants, drawing up a curtain to shield himself from view. His palms began to burn, and he winced. Calsin’s magical field was available for any humans to draw upon, but it was difficult to do so for extended lengths of time.
Overhead, the moon came out and cast its light down on the springtime world, slowly pivoting through the night. Franclin kept guard over his mortal enemy, staying awake through the long night.
He didn’t know what he would find when he reached Distisil. He didn’t know if he would find answers, or only more questions. He didn’t know if he would get away with faking his death, or if he would be given a black mark.
For the moment, though, he didn’t need the answers to any of those questions. His goal was simple: Keep the search parties from Isogodriir from finding him, and then he could move on from there.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical means, without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.