With a quick, twisting motion of his hands and a rapid succession of words, Yusun finally managed to bind the creature with his spell. A joyful shout burst from the mouths of his companions as the creature froze in place, its eyes wide with panic. Yusun breathed a sigh of relief. He steadied his hands into the maintenance forms that would keep his spell in place.
Jina pushed through the undergrowth, drawing her shortsword as she approached the animal they had been hunting. Yusun followed behind, hands knitting back and forth in front of him to ensure that the creature didn’t flee from them once more.
“You put up quite the chase, little one.” Jina chuckled. She held her sword between herself and the beast, ready should it spring free of Yusun’s binding. He didn’t blame her for her lack of confidence in him.
Now that he could finally see the animal up close, Yusun realized just how beautiful it was. It had the lithe, graceful body of a deer, but the hallmarks of Sophonalia’s kindred made it obvious that it was born of the Lady of Ice. Soft white scales covered its body, rather than fur, and its long, lithe legs ended in clawed feet instead of hooves. The air around it held a chill like Yusun had rarely felt. He had heard that Sophonalia’s domain was cold, but he had never been near to her or any of her kindred.
Gerrick and Ephonse approached from the other side of the clearing. The creature bucked, twisting its head. Yusun struggled to keep his spell in place. It felt like all of his knuckles might crack, if the deer fought hard enough. This was very different from practicing with his classmates.
Jina reached out to touch the deer’s neck. It squealed. The sound came out twisted and unnatural, like a warp form of a true deer’s voice. Its eyes were wide with panic. With a burst of strength, it tensed its body and exhaled powerfully. The moisture in the air before it crystallized as its breath burst forth, striking the leaves of a bush. A layer of frost appeared instantly upon it. The white crystals stood out starkly against the black leaves.
Yusun swallowed hard, then spoke another string of words, extending his spell to encompass and close the deer’s mouth.
“Yusun, do you have it, or not?” Jina asked sharply.
Yusun could only nod. He feared speaking would break his concentration.
Jina nodded appreciatively. “It’s rare we get to see one of the kindred so close while it’s alive,” she said.
“What’s the point?” Ephonse asked. “You should have just let me shoot it when I had the chance.” He was a short, slight man, with deep black hair and a beard he kept trimmed close. Ephonse was also an impressively skilled archer. No doubt he could have ended their efforts much sooner, had Jina allowed him to do so.
Jina put her hand on her hip. “Yusun is with us to learn,” she said. “Would you deny him that opportunity?”
As the tallest person in the group, Jina was the largest and most muscular woman Yusun had ever seen. She bore the warhammer on her back like it weighed nothing. Her hair, shaved on both sides, only made her more intimidating. When she spoke, the men listened. Somehow, however, Yusun suspected that they would have listened to her even if she had been the shortest. She just had the sense of command about her. She didn’t rely on her stature to make people listen.
“Nay, but he can do plenty of learning at that fancy college of his,” Ephonse said.
“He will, and he has,” Jina said. “But they know, just like you do, that practical experience is worth just as much as learning from books.”
Yusun was glad Jina took his side. He was, physically, the weakest among them. He barely knew how to use the sword they had given him to keep at his side, and he felt uncomfortable and clumsy in his light leather armor. If it weren’t for his education, he wouldn’t belong with them at all.
After their first year of education, the College at Tyneros sent out its apprentice wizards to spend six months in the field with a group of Hunters. Those that made it back alive and unbroken were welcomed back to the College to complete their training. The College didn’t want to waste years training students who didn’t have any place in the field.
“This isn’t very practical, though, is it?” asked Gerrick. Gerrick had broad shoulders, and he might have been handsome, if he didn’t look perpetually unkempt. Not that he was unclean. He bathed as regularly as the rest of them. It was just something about the way his hair grew and his clothes fit his body. He pointed at the bound deer. “It’s pretty neat, but we could have killed it already.”
As entranced as he was by the deer’s beauty, Yusun wished one of them would just end it. His fingers were cramping up. As he’d read in class, the dragon’s kindred were harder to hold than more mundane creatures. He wished it were night, when spells were easier to work.
“Be that as it may,” Jina said, “I’m glad we allowed Yusun to try.” Without warning or ceremony, she slipped her sword up under the deer’s throat. She made the motion look effortless. The blade sliced through the soft scales of the deer’s neck and slid up into its skull. Yusun felt it stop struggling. He released his spell, and the deer’s body crumpled to the ground.
Gerrick knelt next to the deer. He placed his hand on its shoulder. “Cold,” he grunted. “That’s the eeriest thing about the Ice Queen’s kindred. They feel like ice, even on the hottest day.” He gestured to Yusun. “Come feel it, boy.”
Yusun approached with apprehension. He had been with this group for just over a week, now, and they hadn’t encountered any kindred of this size before, nor had they seen any of Sophonalia’s kindred. In fact, the only kindred they had dealt with so far were birds of Volphyret’s brood, which Ephonse shot out of the air almost casually, often before Yusun even noticed them.
He ran his hand down the creature’s side. The cold stung his flesh. The scales were so smooth and fine that, though they were stiff and hard, they felt almost soft to the touch. Yusun shuddered.
“The hide will fetch a tidy sum,” Gerrick said. He set his pack down and began to pull out his blades to skin the deer. Yusun turned away. He had a weak stomach for that kind of thing.
“It’s too bad the people of your country have such a superstition about eating their flesh,” Jina said. “Where I come from, we think the flesh of the dragon kindred brings strength.”
“That’s disgusting,” Ephonse said, though Gerrick just shrugged noncommittally. “Besides, my mom always said you might turn into one of the kindred yourself, if you ate their flesh.”
“And some people think you might become pregnant with one,” Jina said. “I assure you, neither are true.”
She was right, of course. Yusun had learned as much at school. The only way to produce dragon kindred was by direct union either with a dragon or with one of their kindred of your own species. People throughout the world knew the Laws themselves word for word, but superstitions arose regarding many other aspects of the dragons. The fact that dragon kindred weren’t bound by the magical Dragon Laws only served to add to those superstitions.
Jina took Yusun by his arm and led him away from the rest of the group, just far enough so that they were out of earshot. “You did well today, Yusun,” she said, her normally gruff voice softening.
“But I didn’t catch it the first two times I tried,” he said. He hated how weak he sounded, compared to Jina and the others.
“You did catch it,” Jina said. “That’s what counts. Besides, nobody expects you to be perfect on your first try.”
“It seems like Ephonse does,” Yusun said, glancing back at the two men.
“That’s just how he acts,” Jina said. “Don’t pay any attention to him. I’m smarter. You should listen to me.”
They laughed together, then laughed harder when Ephonse snapped his head around to look at them. Jina put a finger to her lips and hushed Yusun conspiratorially, which only made him laugh harder.
They sold the deer’s hide at the market in town. Gerrick complained about how little they made from it, though in Yusun’s estimation, it was not an insignificant amount. It was more than the wages Yusun would earn in a month, during his time with these Hunters. Gerrick just grumbled that he would have made far more in a larger city. Their horses, however, were highly uncomfortable around the kindred’s flesh, and Gerrick had been forced to carry it on foot while Ephonse led Gerrick’s horse.
Though it was not yet late in the day, Jina led them to the inn for dinner, saying that Yusun deserved a treat for his first real hunt. As soon as they stepped through the door, however, the innkeeper bustled up to them.
“A messenger came for you while you were out, my lady,” he said, bowing to Jina. He handed her a sealed envelope.
“Well that was fast,” Jina said, voice flat.
“He must have been right on our tail as we arrived,” Gerrick grunted.
“I believe he came from the nearby waystation,” the innkeeper said. “Though he didn’t chat much.”
Jina glared at him. He scuttled quickly away. She had been irritated with him the moment she met him. Yusun felt a bit bad for the innkeeper. He had continually plagued them with questions and acted far too interested in what they were up to, but Yusun knew what it was like to live in a small town where nothing interesting happened.
The wax seal on the letter revealed the innkeeper’s story to be true. Yusun recognized it as belonging to the waystation the Hunters maintained nearby. Waystations were small outposts scattered all over Tyneros which held sleeping quarters for Hunters. Some also had supply centers, with food for travelling, weapons, ropes, and other things the Hunters might need. All of them had one or two messengers, who listened to the needs of the people in their precinct and kept track of nearby Hunters so that they could be dispatched to deal with dragon kindred.
“Well, what is it?” Ephonse asked. “Wild or domestic?”
Jina’s face grew grim. “Domestic,” she said. She glanced at Yusun. “It’s going to be a difficult one. It’s one of Kiraimorvid’s kindred.” She stopped abruptly, as though she had more to say.
Ephonse nodded. “I see.”
Yusun felt as though he were missing something. He knew of Kiraimorvid the Passionate, of course. His kindred had red scales. They were difficult to deal with if you let them get too close, because their breath inflamed the positive emotions of those who inhaled it, making it difficult to find the hardness necessary to deal with them properly. Jina and Ephonse seemed to be implying there was more to it.
“What’s wrong?” Yusun asked.
“Nothing,” Jina said. “It’s just another lesson you’re going to have to learn.”
Ephonse and Gerrick wore mirrored frowns. Despite their gruff demeanors, Yusun hadn’t seen them quite like this before. They seemed almost somber, as though they had just gotten sad news about a relative.
“We’ll talk about it when we get there, Yusun,” Jina said. She sighed. “We’ll have to head out now. The message came in early this morning, so the kindred has had time to get a head start.”
“It’s fleeing?” Yusun asked. If Ephonse’s distinction between wild and domestic meant what Yusun thought it did, he’d thought perhaps a farmer had discovered one of his livestock giving birth to kindred, or that perhaps a local cat or dog had born a scaled litter. Sometimes people were afraid to deal with even baby half-dragons. But that didn’t match up with the idea that the creature would run away.
Jina nodded. “Go collect your things from the room. I’m going to get us some provisions to take with us.”
Yusun did as he was bidden, despite his confusion. Jina didn’t seem like the type to obfuscate the truth. She had been nothing but honest and straightforward with Yusun since he had first met her and the others.
What, then, could she be hiding?
The village from which the summons had been sent was not far, but even so, night had begun to fall by the time Yusun and the others reached it. Jina led them directly toward the center of the town. The thud of the horse’s feet on the packed dirt echoed through the otherwise quiet streets.
A door opened in front of them as they approached the town square. An man stepped out and shut the door behind him. Jina pulled her horse to a stop. The others followed suit.
The way the man moved revealed his anxiety even before he spoke. His motions were quick and tense, and he kept looking around him, as though afraid the rest of the village would see him. “Are you the Hunters I sent for?” His voice trembled.
“We are,” Jina said. “Are you the head of this village?”
“No,” he said quickly. “I just… I thought I was doing the right thing. Nobody else seemed willing to make the summons.”
“I see,” Jina said. “It can be difficult, with the Red One’s children, to do what is right.”
“Everyone has grown so affectionate toward her,” the man said shakily. “It makes me sick. They… Her parents convinced us just to send her away, rather than deal with her ourselves.”
Yusun’s limbs felt heavy, as though his leather armor had been replaced with lead.
“I take it she became of age this morning, then?” Jina asked.
Ephonse and Gerrick had their eyes on the ground. It was odd to see them this way. They had known what was coming. They had seen, immediately, what sort of kindred they would be hunting this time. There was no excitement in them. It shook Yusun deeply.
The man nodded. “Today is her tenth birthday.”
Across the town square, the door to another house opened up. A woman ran out, heading directly toward them. A man followed behind, calling to her to stop.
“I take it those are her parents,” Jina said.
The man nodded. Jina turned her horse away from him and set it walking toward the parents. The rest of the group followed. They met the man and woman halfway, right in the middle of the town square. High above, the azure light of the cielmoss was just beginning to shine through the fading light of day.
“Please,” the woman breathed, before Jina had even said anything. “Please don’t do this.” Her husband grabbed her shoulders, pulling her back. She looked as though she might fight Jina herself, despite her lack of weapons. “She’s just a little girl.”
“I must follow the law,” Jina said. Her voice was hard, yet brittle.
Gerrick peeled away from them, moving toward the couple’s house.
“Where is he going?” the woman asked, frantic.
“He’s going to see if he can pick up her trail, though it will be difficult for him in town,” Jina said. “If you can give us a clue as to where you think she went, it would be very helpful.”
“I’m not going to help you hunt my child!”
Yusun couldn’t listen anymore. He decided to follow Gerrick, rather than listen to Jina attempt to reason with the parents of the kindred they had been brought here to hunt. He knew that the Hunters did this, but to know something and to witness it first hand were entirely different. To take part in it? Well, that was even worse.
Gerrick had already dismounted by the time Yusun caught up to him. “It’s going to be difficult,” Gerrick said, the first words he had spoken directly to Yusun since they’d left the other village.
“Which part?” Yusun muttered, with no intention for Gerrick to respond.
“All of it,” Gerrick answered. “Finding her, hunting her. Killing her.” He shook his head. “No matter how many times we go through this, it doesn’t become any easier. Especially with the Red One’s kin.”
“Well,” Yusun said reluctantly, “I can help with finding her.”
He swallowed. He didn’t want any part in this. It felt wrong, even though he knew it was necessary. It was part of the Hunter’s pledge to fight Vanaprimax and his progeny. Vanaprimax would never stop until dragon blood flowed through all life on Draevum. The Hunters sought to prevent that in the only way they could.
“Can you, now?” Gerrick said.
“Yes, I just need something of hers,” Yusun said. He felt sick. He knew how to lead them right to this girl. “Preferably something that came from her body. Like, a scale.”
Gerrick grunted. He opened the door unceremoniously and strode into the house as though he owned it. Yusun’s eyes widened. It felt like an invasion of the family’s privacy. Hunters were allowed to take certain liberties when pursuing their quarry. Yusun couldn’t have done it himself, though.
Yusun waited outside. He couldn’t bring himself to enter the house. He thought that, with time, he could force himself to be as businesslike as Gerrick. He did not yet have that strength.
To Yusun’s surprise, it was not long before Gerrick returned. Jina and Ephonse were still speaking with the parents when Gerrick came out of the door holding something cupped in his hands.
“You found something?” Yusun could not mask his astonishment.
“Clippings from the girl’s claws,” Gerrick said.
“There’s no sign of a pet, so they must be hers. Will that work?”
“That’s perfect.” It was exactly what Yusun needed, though instead of relief, he felt the heavy weight of disappointment. He had hoped that Gerrick wouldn’t be able to find anything, and that, in turn, they wouldn’t be able to find the girl.
Now his only hope was that his spell would fail. It was a spell that, given the principles behind it, didn’t belong in the first year of education for students of wizardry. During that year, they focused first on learning the words and how construct phrases in the specialized form of the draconic language that they used to cast spells, then on the vocabulary of motions that could be used to accompany and alter the words that they spoke. Incorporating material components came after their return from their time with the Hunters.
The finding spell Yusun was about to cast was taught by rote to students leaving for their time with the Hunters in the month before they left, since it was so useful for that duty. Yusun didn’t know all the principles behind incorporating objects into his casting. He just understood this particular spell well enough to alter its parameters based on what he was trying to find, and its connection to the object he possessed.
Yusun took one of the claws from Gerrick. He grasped it between his fingers and began to cast. Most of the motions and words were familiar, even outside of this spell. They were just put together in a way he didn’t yet fully understand. His mind and his hands flowed through the casting easily. As he spoke the last word, he felt it settle. Success. Holding the claw carefully between his fingers, he looked at the ground. Pools of purple light in the shape of footsteps shone out from the packed dirt of the village’s streets. The led out from the door and between houses, out of sight.
“Jina! Ephonse! Ho!” Gerrick called. The others immediately turned away from the parents, moving their horses swiftly toward Yusun and Gerrick. “Good work, kid. Can you keep that up while you ride?”
That was the first time Gerrick had praised him. Yusun nodded. “Yeah, there’s nothing fighting me with this spell, so it’s much easier to maintain.” He only had to keep the hand holding the girl’s claw in steady motion.
“Are we following that?” Jina asked, pointing at the line of glowing footsteps.
Gerrick nodded. “Yes, and let’s get going, before those parents wake up the whole village.”
The pace Jina set made Yusun nervous. In the fading light, he feared that one of the horses would catch its hoof on an errant vine of the weave and tumble, breaking its leg and perhaps its rider. Jina led, with Yusun following close behind. The lights sprang up before them and faded after Yusun had passed as the sphere of his spell’s influence intersected with their quarry’s path.
The girl had run through a field of crops and into the forest. Jina slowed their pace as they moved beneath its boughs. The trees grew close together on either side of them, but the footsteps led down what appeared to be a well-trodden path.
They came into the clearing suddenly. Perhaps Gerrick and the others had know the forest would open up — Yusun had much less experience reading the woods. Before them, surrounded by trees on all sides, was a round lake. Its waters reflected the light of the cielmoss and a passing brightcloud. The footsteps led to its edge, where, on a large rock, their quarry sat hunched over, with her face on her knees.
In the faint light of the brightcloud, Yusun could see she was not beautiful, as the deer had been. She stood as the horses crashed out of the tree line. She was graceful, and taller than Yusun had expected, for someone ten years of age. Kindred aged quickly. The humanity of her silhouette was destroyed by the two gleaming horns curving forward from her head, and the two additional arms protruding from her torso. Yusun had read that the kindred of the Red One often had extra limbs, a reflection of their father’s form. The illustrations did not do justice to the alien form standing before him.
Yusun dismissed his spell. The girl’s breath came quickly. He could see it, in the dim light, as she exhaled: a shimmering, rainbow mist. The breath of her father. If they drew too close and inhaled that breath, they might not be able to complete their task.
“Bind her, Yusun.” Jina’s voice came as little more than a strained whisper.
Yusun hesitated. The words of the spell wouldn’t come to his mind. He wanted to walk toward the girl and apologize to her for what they had to do. She took a step toward them. Yusun felt a brief pang of guilt for thinking that she was not beautiful, before. He saw her beauty now in the grace of her movement, in the way the prismatic mist of her breath sparkled in the air.
Wait. Yusun blinked. When he opened his eyes, he blinked again, unsure of what he saw. The girl’s hands — all four of them — moved slowly to her chest. She fell to her knees. Yusun hadn’t even heard Ephonse ready his bow. He hadn’t even seen the arrow cross the distance between them. It was though it had just appeared there, in the girl’s chest.
“He can learn about this later,” Ephonse said, looking to Jina. She didn’t turn to face him. “Let’s spare him the rest of this lesson, for today.”
Jina said nothing. She turned her horse and came up next to Yusun. She patted him on the shoulder, then led them away. They left the girl’s body where it had fallen.