Simon had only seen a Dragon Hunter in action twice before. The second time had been in preparation for the Battle of Nettingo, where he had observed Franclin training with Sapphire. The first time had been during the roughly six-month period where he had been stranded in Calsin without any sort of indication how he had gotten there. His wings had been glimpsed under his cloak while traveling through a town in Distisil, and he had subsequently been chased for nearly a hundred miles before he had been able to escape by flying out across the Inland Ocean.
During both of these other occasions, he hadn’t actually felt any particular terror or fright. Watching Franclin train had mostly just been amusing, as the latent tension between the armored male and Sapphire had been quite entertaining. Running from the other Hunter had simply been an attempt to avoid being locked up, as at the time, he hadn’t had any particular worries about a permanent death.
Now, though, he felt himself very nearly paralyzed by fear. He was injured, he was barely able to keep his wings from revealing themselves, and there was an angry mob racing towards him. Should they actually survive the mob, they were likely going to be faced with the Dragon Hunter’s own wrath. No, the situation wasn’t good. And it wasn’t likely to get any better.
The Hunter’s silver armor gleamed in the soft morning light as enchantments began to flicker with internal magic. Behind them, the mob raced onward. While the people on foot seemed to be falling behind, a number of them had leaped up onto horses, which allowed them to rush forward with a speed that Simon really didn’t appreciate.
“Not to worry, not to worry.” Mav took his stance at the rear of the wagon. “I’ve faced off hoards worse than this, believe me! We’ll make it through, and you’ll have a story for your grandchildren.”
“Uh, huh.” Simon took a deep breath, some of his pain returning. “You’re going to take on all those people?”
“My dear sir, I would never willingly harm another sentient being. I am, after all, a monster slayer.” Mav dipped his head. “However, I do hope that I can talk some sense into them. Most people, even fogged with rage, are quite reasonable if you approach them properly.”
“I don’t buy it.” Fortrina raised a wrinkled eyebrow. Still in her elderly form, she wasn’t doing a particularly good job of actually selling her ancient status. “If you’re so good with words, why are they chasing us?”
Mav chuckled deeply, his voice booming across the nearby forest. As the laughter died down, he took a deep breath and simply firmed up his stance, holding his sword at the ready next to his side.
“Should I pull over?” The driver called back, his voice trembling. “I don’t want to get hurt, and-”
“Nonsense!” Mav called out. “We’ll be fine! I guarantee it personally.”
“I’m trusting those words less and less.” Simon muttered softly. As he spoke the words, his back began to itch. He scratched his shoulder against the wooden surface of the wagon, only to feel his skin blister as feathers began to form. He quieted and took a deep breath, trying to re-absorb the wing pieces before any damage could be done. Quite unfortunately, the feathers resisted the move, and in fact began to slide out a bit farther.
The wagon continued to rumble onward as the mob slowly grew closer. Nearly five minutes passed until the mob grew close enough that their shouts and angry incantations began to reach Simon’s ears. Bolts of magic leapt from the fingertips of the lead mobsters, sending blasts of fire and streaks of electricity past the cart. Mav placed his left arm across his chest, projecting a shimmering silver shield across the rear of the wagon, which deflected several of the magical attacks. Nevertheless, even Mav winced as several massive cascades of ice smashed into the shield.
Finally, as a fireball slipped past Mav’s shield and zinged past the driver’s head, the young boy pulled back on the reins. Mav turned and glared at him, but quickly turned his attention back to the mob as they raced up and surrounded the wagon. Swords, spears, and glowing magical hands all pointed at the group. Simon held his breath as Mav lowered the shield and spread his arms wide.
“Boys, boys! You know, if you really wanted to talk to me so badly, you could have just sent a letter. The Hunters are quite good at delivering mail, we could have arranged a proper meeting, maybe had a meal, and-”
“Silence.” A soldier, dressed in full plate armor, slowly clopped forward. The sword in his left hand was massive, and looked as though it could probably cleave a person in half without much thought at all. “You know why we’ve stopped you.”
“You know, I was never really given that memo.” Mav frowned. “Care to refresh my memory?”
“You killed the Sewer Beast!” The soldier roared. “The Sewer Beast has been the heart and soul of Ondtov for centuries!”
Mav frowned, appearing quite genuinely confused. Simon groaned and let his head fall back against the rear of the wagon. Mav didn’t even know why people were mad at him? Simon at least would typically have a few solid ideas.
Simon was, quite unfortunately, denied the chance to process through the statement any further as his facial features instantly reverted to their initial form. He noticed Fortrina move in surprise, and once more he desperately tried to shift them back, but to no avail.
“The Sewer Beast?” Mav frowned. “You mean the dragonspawn that I was brought here to slay?”
“That was the Sewer Beast!” The soldier roared. “You’ll pay for what you did!”
Mav held up a hand as shouts echoed through the air. Collectively, the mob began to press forward. Mav glanced at the two angels, fear in his eyes. Fortrina made a sharp gesture at him, and a ray of understanding flashed across his face.
“Wait!” Mav held up his hand. “I have an idea.”
The soldier paused, his face invisible behind the thick helmet that protected his head. “Speak.”
“You said that I would pay for what I did. Well, quite unfortunately for you, I actually got paid for what I did.” Mav sheathed his sword and snapped the fingers on his left hand. A small bag appeared in his palm, which he tossed at the soldier. Their attackers clumsily caught the projectile, which he passed to a nearby man who looked like he could have been a beggar. The second man slid his dagger back onto his belt and pulled the sack open. His eyes went wide, and he turned to the soldier.
“There’s a lot of money here. Must be a dozen scepters.”
“A dozen scepters?” The soldier’s voice sounded pained. “You would kill our sweet beast for such a low sum?”
“I’m giving the money back to you.” Mav crossed his heart. “I never keep blood money. What I thought you would be most interested in is who gave it to me. I’ve never been to this city before, and didn’t know that the Sewer Beast was a proper icon. I am innocent in this matter. The woman who hired me may not have such innocent intentions.”
The soldier immediately straightened up. “Tell us.”
“Her name was Lady Hisinda, of the Upper Regiment District.” Mav inclined his head back at the city.
“Then we will march on her fortress and bring her to justice!” The soldier raised his sword high. “To battle!”
“To battle!” The mob echoed his cry. Collectively, they turned and began to thunder away, their horses receding into the distance far faster than they had come. As they vanished, Mav sighed and sat back down.
“Words. I told you, they’re powerful.” Mav tapped the wood. “Driver? We’re ready to continue.”
The driver muttered something under his breath about entitled passengers, and quickly started the cart rolling again. As they rumbled away, Mav sighed.
“So, tell me about yourselves. I find that long road trips are often more exciting when you know who you’re traveling with.”
Simon’s body chose that moment to rebel completely, as he fully reverted to his primary self. Wings exploded out of his back, his limbs shortened, and his pain exploded through every single nerve he had. As he lay there, fully exposed, Mav jumped back to his feet and drew his sword. Simon tried to scramble away, only to have darkness fall across his vision once more.
He made one futile attempt to fight it, only to be quickly whisked away. Once more, he was in severe trouble. Once more, he was likely being placed in a situation where he would quickly wind up dead.
He only hoped that it would be painless.
When Simon’s eyes flickered back open, he found himself staring at the open stars. They weren’t quite as amazing as when viewed from the observation deck of the realmship, but they were good enough. He sighed deeply, slowly sitting up as best he could. His bones still ached, but he felt a good deal better than he had felt before.
As he took a look around, he found himself lying next to a small campfire, though only glowing coals still provided any heat. They were surrounded by the sparse forest of Istinis, oaks and maples, which meant that they hadn’t gone too far while he had been passed out. Fortrina lay on the other side of the fire, her wings wrapped around her body like a blanket, while Mav sat on a log nearby. The Hunter nodded softly in Simon’s direction as he rose to full awareness.
“You’re up. Are you actually here this time, or are you going back to sleep?”
Simon rubbed his head, which felt more or less like it had experienced the full force of an anvil dropped from the height of a mountain.
“I guess that implies that I’ve woken up before.” Simon sighed. “How long have I been out?”
“Three days now.” Mav shrugged. “You gave that poor driver quite a fight. I had to bribe him not to go running to the authorities.”
Simon nodded slowly. “And you’re okay with sheltering an angel?”
“The Hunters are a unique bunch.” Mav sighed. “When the angels started appearing across Calsin, I initially sought a way to kill them, just like every other Hunter did. That said, I soon found that the angels were powerless against us, even when in direct contact with our skin, if we refused to agree to go with them. Rather than commit to an offensive that I could never win, I chose to focus on a defense just as impermeable as their own.”
Simon nodded slowly. “What does that have to do with me?”
Mav shrugged. “As the war with you people drew on, I guess I developed a bit of an empathy with you. Most Hunters just kept focusing on how to kill the angels, but I started actually recognizing that there were multiple fronts, angels fighting on different sides of the battle. I already told you, I don’t kill sentient beings who don’t deserve it. To me, you look like someone just trying to survive. That’s nothing deserving of death.”
Simon sighed and nodded slowly. “Thanks. I really appreciate it.”
“No thanks necessary.” Mav slowly climbed to his feet. “As a Hunter, my job is about more than killing monsters. It’s about protecting life. Fortrina told me about your former immortality and the battle to regain a mortal lifespan. She made sure to note how fiercely you yourself fought for such a right. I respect that.”
Simon chuckled. “I wasn’t expecting to be faced with losing that mortal life so quickly after I took it up.”
“My friend, whether we spend a single year or a century on this world, it will always seem far too quick when the end finally comes.” Mav flashed a grim smile. “Would you care to take a walk with me?”
Simon frowned, then nodded. He climbed to his feet, his joints aching as he did so. Mav quickly produced another vial of the strange blue potion, which Simon happily drank. The pain flowed from his body, and Mav reabsorbed the empty bottle.
“It’s a juice that comes from the jumbaji fruit in Sournous.” Mav offered by way of explanation. “The trees only grow around mineral-rich hot springs, which make the fruit rich in metals. It’s the only juice in the world that can be enchanted. Sure, witches can brew up potions from magical herbs, and can sometimes endow spells into liquids, but nothing in Calsin comes close to jumbaji juice.”
Simon took a deep breath. “And how did you get a hold of some? Sounds like something that would be both rare and expensive.”
Mav chuckled softly. “Though it may not seem so, the richest people in Calsin reside deep within the jungles of Sournous. I daresay that the regents of Donenrot or Ondigor would hotly contest that statement, but it’s certainly true. I’ve done work for them in the past, and received a supply as my payment. I hope to go back sometime.” He took a deep breath and motioned off into the woods. “Now come with me, please.”
Simon nodded and followed the Hunter as he set off, winding through the darkened forest. It wasn’t difficult, as the forest was still quite sparse. Trees rose many dozens of feet apart from each other, while the ground between was simply covered in soft grasses and low shrubs. They hadn’t traveled far before Simon began to notice something blotting out the stars ahead of them, like some sort of massive formation in the middle of the woods.
Sure enough, they soon arrived at the base of a rock outcrop that simply rose from the nearly-flat forest floor. It wasn’t large, looking more or less like a craggly pillar that jutted up into the sky. Mav began to climb up a narrow staircase that had been carved into the side, and Simon did his best to follow. It wasn’t an easy task, as he had to keep his wings folded tightly in order to remain small enough to fit.
Climbing up the structure took the better part of ten minutes, at which point they arrived at a small shelf situated at the very top, over a hundred feet above the forest floor. Mav sat down on the edge of the expanse, which was only half a dozen feet across. Simon rather tentatively sat down next to him, a bit uncertain about what would happen next.
“Tell me something, Simon.” Mav spoke softly. “What do you see? There’s no right or wrong answer, I’m just curious.”
Simon nodded slowly and let his gaze wander outward. In the dim light of the stars, the forest stretched out to the horizon, as far as he could see. Off to his right, sitting on the very edge of what he could see, a small cluster of lights seemed to indicate the presence of some sort of town. Meanwhile, off to his left, another pillar seemed to rise from the ground several miles away.
“Well, there’s no moon, so I’m not seeing much.” Simon sighed. “Trees? There’s a city over there. Am I supposed to be saying things like possibility or opportunity?”
“Like I said, there’s no right or wrong answer.” Mav shrugged. After a few seconds, he put a hand on Simon’s shoulder. “May I make a prediction about you?”
“Sure.” Simon nodded. “I’ve had plenty of people try to predict my future, usually with limited success.”
“Perhaps I can provide further clarity.” Mav sighed. “I sense much distress in you, Simon. Much confusion. According to Fortrina, you left your fortress because you wanted to be free of rules. And yet, when I asked you what you see, all you mentioned were things that provide cover and safety. Trees, cities, confusion. You didn’t mention the things that can be seen through the treetops, because that might indicate that there lurks danger even within safety. You didn’t mention the other rock outcropping, because that would take you above what you believe to be your shield, your armor.”
Simon frowned. “What are you saying?”
Mav sighed. “What I’m saying is to be careful. I’ve told you that I live to serve those who are alive. I live to protect people. The more that I hear from Fortrina about you, the more I feel that you will wind up destroying yourself as these two natures battle for control.”
“I’ve been doing fine so far.” Simon frowned. “I think I’ve really been quite outgoing since I left. I did something crazy at a bar, that was something that didn’t have any sort of protection. I even got captured.”
“You did, yes.” Mav inclined his head. “Do you mind my asking a question, though?” Simon held up a hand, and Mav pressed onward. “Why did you try to use thatmethod of garnering a room for the night? There are dozens of other options that might have worked, from choosing a secluded alleyway to simply transforming into a bird and finding an empty attic. Instead of following a more creative path, you chose to simply fall back on your old habits.”
Simon scowled. “Who made you my guidance counselor?”
“If I’m overstepping my bounds, I do apologize.” Mav shrugged. “As I said, I seek to serve. My time on this continent is likely drawing to an end. I don’t want to depart for the underworld with any regrets.”
“Fair enough.” Simon sighed deeply. After a few seconds, as they sat there, he shrugged. “So what now? Are you leaving us behind for greater battles, or are we together for the time being?”
“If your traveling companion has her way, our paths will be intertwined for some time.” Mav chuckled. “She has a strong heart, that one. I do not know if I have enough time or skill to take on an apprentice, but I have no issues with her tagging along for awhile.”
Simon grimaced. “Any chance that you’re heading to some exotic location with warm sands and plentiful resources?”
“Only if the boundaries of the Scorched Lands fit that description.” Mav gestured to the south. “At the moment, I am scheduled to meet up with two fellow Hunters to engage in the clearing of a slav nest that’s been spotted near Firgor. Fortrina wants to go with us, though I will insist that she remain behind when we go into battle. You are more than welcome to come with me as well, though of course I will insist on the same restriction. I will also understand if you desire to part ways. Do not feel obligated to me for my services.”
Simon puffed out his cheeks as he thought through his options. He could certainly continue on his way, but…
But he didn’t know how long he would be able to remain in any particular form before his body would rebel and he would shift back. He didn’t know how long he would be able to stay hidden before angry mobs, furious and grieving from the Angel Incursion, dragged him out into the streets and slayed him for good. He needed to regain his strength before he attempted to go anywhere by himself.
Even as those thoughts swirled through his mind, the voice of Mav himself rose in his mind. Accusing Simon of being too afraid to truly venture out. Now that he was injured… Was that true? Was Simon truly so terrified of death, of change, that he would only stick to cover?
Whatever the case, it was true that he still needed help recovering from his injuries. That much would be true regardless of whether or not he was a truly adventurous spirit.
“I think I’ll go with you. At least for now.” Simon slowly nodded after a few seconds. “Just for now.”
“Of course.” Mav slowly climbed to his feet. “Then let us head back to camp. We have a hard ride over the next several days if we are to make my meeting on time.”
With that, Mav walked across the small platform and began descending the stairs. Simon climbed to his feet as well, spreading his wings wide. As he prepared for flight, though, he paused. Pain flickered up and down his limbs, and he slowly folded his wings back against his back. If he were to take to flight, only to fall from the sky, he would risk injuring himself greatly. He might even risk death.
No, he needed to play it safe. He slowly puffed out his cheeks and followed as Mav began to wind down the stairs. He wouldn’t stay like this forever, just… Just long enough to heal. Once he was back in one piece, he would get back on the road, get back to meeting new people, maybe form a few new relationships.
Yes, that was his plan. Just a few more days. Just a few more days and then he would be free again.
“Ahh, Mav!” A massive, bronze-armored Hunter climbed to his feet as the trio clopped up to the small set of ruins on the edge of the Scorched Lands. “I didn’t know you ran passengers!”
“Ahh, you know, it’s never too late to pick up a new hobby.” Mav swung out of the saddle and raced across the ground to his old friend. “Where’s Boar?”
Simon tuned out the conversation as he swung off his own horse. Fortrina dismounted as well, taking the reigns of her beast as expertly as though she had been born with the skill. Simon sighed as she began fastening the horse to an old stone ring hanging from one of the nearby homes, then took his own horse and began to lead the skittish animal towards a similar ring nearby.
When Mav had told them that they were heading to the edge of the Scorched Lands, he hadn’t been joking. They had left the trees behind earlier than day, and now simply walked on an open plain that had more gravel and stone than grass. A near-constant wind blew from the land in front of them, a hot and dry breeze that made Simon’s face dry out if he kept it exposed for too long. In the distance, beyond the ruins, the edge of the lands rose sharply, in the form of cracked red rock formations that jutted up at sharp, harsh angles. The ruins themselves were small and simple: a few small homes made from red stone hewn from the Scorched Lands themselves. According to Mav, they had once been home to a group of monks that worshipped a fire god of some sort, but it had long been abandoned as the land simply wasn’t habitable.
“Simon, Fortrina!” Mav gestured at the two angels, waving for them to come over. “I’d like you to meet a good friend of mine, Thadragor. We actually both received our commission as Hunters on the same day.”
“I technically received mine first.” Thadragor growled and pulled off his bronze helmet, revealing a green face marked with two enormous tusks. He took well over a head higher than Mav, probably nearing eight feet tall. “Was it only by two hours? Yes. Is that important? Also yes.”
“Always so competitive.” Mav crossed his arms in feigned annoyance, then shrugged. “So where is Boar? I haven’t heard anything from him since the angels, but I can’t imagine that he would have been one to fall to their magic.”
“He did not.” Thadragor shook his head. “That said, he still will not be meeting us today. Did you not receive my letter?”
“Apparently not.” Mav scowled. “We really need to get better mail carriers.”
“I thought you said that the Hunter mail system was excellent.” Simon raised a finger.
“Oh, that was a complete lie.” Mav shook his head. “Getting mail to a Hunter is almost impossible, especially those of us who only sign contracts for a single monster at a time. We’ve had this meeting set up for over a year now, it’s just taken us that long to get together.”
“We could have met sooner if some of us would be more willing to endure fasts and not eat so grandly for every meal.” Thadragor growled. “You could thus survive on a lower salary and take fewer jobs.”
“Oh, posh.” Mav waved his hand. “So, Boar? Any help here?”
Thadragor sighed and shook his head. “I’ve not seen him personally, but in a meeting with the Council, they assured me that they had met with him and that he was embarking on a more unconventional mission. Your guess is as good as mine what that may mean.”
“I’d actually be willing to bet that my guess would be a good deal better than yours.” Mav chuckled.
“And I’d be willing to bet that my fist can knock a hole through that puny foil that you call armor.”
Mav chuckled while Simon and Fortrina just glanced at each other.
“Well, shall we get going?” Mav held up his hands. “The slavs aren’t getting any weaker while we’re waiting.”
Simon frowned as Thadragor slipped his helmet back on. “You’re just going to go running off? No rest or preparation?”
“A Dragon Hunter must always be prepared.” Thadragor growled. “Once we have cleared out the slavs, we will return, feast, and rest. Perhaps we shall even go into town and celebrate properly!”
“I’ve been sitting down all day anyway.” Mav shrugged. “If we rest any more, I’ll just atrophy away.”
Thadragor pointed off towards the Scorched Lands, at a point a bit to the south. “The nest is that way. It’ll just be a short fight, no more than a few hours. Its size seems to have been somewhat exaggerated by the explorers who reported it.”
“Then let’s be off.” Mav clapped his hands. “The two of you can just wait here.”
Simon nodded and started slipping towards the nearest shelter, only for Thadragor to cut in.
“They cannot wait here.”
Mav frowned and crossed his arms. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t be able to wait for our return.”
“Dragonspawn have been seen in this area.” Thadragor shrugged. “Unless you think either of them will be able to defeat a dragonspawn in open combat, they will be safest joining us in our battle.”
Mav grimaced. “I was hoping-”
“We’d love to come along.” Fortrina cut in before Simon could say a word. “Just give me a sword. I’ll hang back, don’t worry.”
Thadragor stared at Mav, who sighed. He held out his left hand, where a steel sword materialized in his palm. Fortrina took it with gusto, while Simon did his best to breathe and just slowly backed up.
No. No. How had it come to this? All he had wanted to do was leave the angel fortress, and now he was stuck with three Dragon Hunters who were getting ready to raid and pillage a slav nest? He didn’t know much about the slavs, only that they were considered among the most dangerous creatures on the continent. Of course, dragonspawn weren’t exactly much lower on the list.
“You look as though you might simply die before the slavs ever get a chance to take a swing at you.” Thadragor stomped over to Simon and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Ordinarily, I would suggest that individuals as fearful as you go crying to their mother. Here, I fear that the pheromones you’re emitting may draw even more enemies. Shall I just knock him out?”
It took several moments before Simon realized that the mighty orcish hunter was talking about him. He shook his head and backed up, even while indecision flickered across Mav’s face. “No! No, we should not knock me out.”
The orc thankfully hesitated, but that didn’t change the appearance of his face. Simon glanced over at Mav, whose face was alternating between annoyed and confused. Simon quickly jogged over to the Hunter.
“Come on. You can’t seriously expect me to go into a slav nest, right?”
“I’ve sworn to protect life. You know that as well as I do.” Mav sighed and nodded towards the Scorched Lands. “And, right now, you’re likely to be safer with us than out here. If you truly understand that statement, you’ll understand just how severe the danger is right now. Stay with us, and I swear that I’ll protect you.”
Simon took a deep breath and nodded slowly. “I don’t like this.”
“None of us do.” Fortrina sauntered forward. “Except for me, and I just don’t like the fact that you’re along.” She spun slowly, twirling her sword through the air. “As everyone keeps saying: Shall we get going?” She flashed a small smile. “I think we’ve got quite the battle ahead of us.”
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