• Published 7th Jul 2017
  • 593 Views, 22 Comments

Hunter's Path - SwordTune



In a time long forgotten, unicorns and pegasi were nothing but mutants, and monsters ravaged the land as much as famine, war, and pestilence. The only hope for any pony's salvation was a professional. A monster hunter.

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The First Art

The northern port of Bovinus was unlike how she left it. Fiora leaned off the edge of the ship as it docked, watching cows and bulls, and even a goat, salt the walkway planks so the winter cold didn't turn any rain into ice and frost. She listened as Navier bickered with the dock master over his right to enter the port. They had sent a message by bird ahead of time, but clearly the he was hoping for some extra verification of the golden variety.

On the outside, Navier looked like he hadn't been crammed into an underground prison. She thought on the trip back from the north, however, and remembered how he had devoured bowls of oats. She rubbed her neck. He also had an appetite for other things.

Once the dock master gave up on Navier, the rest of the crew began unloading the ship, with some help from the harbor's workers. Fiora shrugged off two bulls trying to help her carry her sword and saddlebag. They were paid by the hour, not by amount lifted, so they gladly passed her and tended to the other crates.

Aeduard's lieutenants took most of the weapons and explosives with them after every pony had returned to their ship, but there was still plenty they couldn't stuff onto their own. Navier, and thus his employer Stranglethorn, was left to deal with storing no less than a dozen crates carry polished steel blades and jars filled with potassium nitrate. The thought of Stranglethorn having so much at her disposal was disturbing, to say the least. But equally shocking was who had chosen to welcome her back to Bovinus.

Thesa Ruse, accompanied by four heavily armed guards and two cows as servants, beamed as she approached and tossed Fiora a heavy satchel of gold. "I came as fast as I could when my messenger told me Navier had docked with a ship he didn't leave with. I hope the shipment made it through."

Fiora levitated the satchel and stowed it in her saddlebag, but gold was the farthest thing from her mind. She wanted to grab the pompous brat by her fancy dress, but the guards would undoubtedly make it a struggle. "I'm not in a good mood, Thesa, so I'll give you one chance to tell me exactly what you and your aunt had planned when you put me in a ship to a war zone."

Thesa chuckled, somewhat confused. "I'd hardly call some northern barbarians enemy soldiers. And my aunt's away in South Coast. She had business deals she had to uphold."

Fiora reached her wing into her saddlebag and rummaged out the letter that came with Stranglethorn's gift. She showed it to Thesa, letting it explain everything just as it explained it to Aeduard.

"I don't understand, why would she expect you to need 'emergency equipment?'" Thesa remarked, flipping the letter over to see if there was anything else. "This is her writing, but this doesn't sound like a business partner."

"Not unless you count the business of war," Fiora stared at Thesa's scanning, intrigued eyes. "She never told you, did she?"

"My aunt didn't get to where she is by trusting ponies," was her answer. Thesa didn't sound surprised in the least that she was kept uninformed about the what was happening in the north.

"Where is she now? I have some questions for-" Fiora turned to a sound she could never forget, the voice of Loralae, the Nixe she had met at the Golden Hills. Her magic cast her words across the harbor so that only Fiora could hear her words.

"Stranglethorn sent a hunter while you were away," she whispered. "He took Island Hopper."

Thesa sensed something was off, but couldn't tell what. "Is everything alright? I'm afraid my aunt's away on business in the south. She'll be away for at least two fortnights."

That bitch. Sending her to help insurgents in the north wasn't her only plan. It left Island Hopper exposed. He helped Geiss and her friends after Bach Kha'morghen was taken. The least she could do was save his life.

"I'll talk to her later I guess." Fiora let her training become a mask, covering up any sign of trouble. It wasn't hard, considering hunters were expected to be monotone freaks anyway.

She bade farewell and trotted immediately for where she heard Loralae. It was pointless asking Thesa. Her response to what happened north proved that she either supported her aunt's plans to the fullest, or was kept in the dark to keep those plans secret. She'd have to get answers herself.

"It's not safe in the streets," Loralae whispered in her ear again. "I'm on one of Island Hopper's ships, the black one with a bright orange stripe. Come to the captain's cabin."

The frigate wasn't anything spectacular, but Fiora guessed that was the whole point. Everything about the ship, even the captain's cabin, was crafted sturdily, but lacked any extravagance. Lora was stood over the table at the center of the room with a map of Bovinus over it.

"Glad you came," she spoke with a normal voice.

"I owe you and him this much," Fiora replied. "I take it you're still looking for the hunter who took him?"

She nodded. "We thought we had killed him before, but I'm sure it's the same one that was after me before you came to the city."

"You said you killed him," Fiora remembered. "What makes you so sure now?"

"I saw him fighting Island Hopper in the street behind the Golden Hills," she said. "He had golden dragon emblems on his pauldrons. The same as before."

"Could be the same, or just another hunter from the Dragon Arts." Fiora leaned over the table to take a look for herself. "Either way, we should find them soon, Island Hopper doesn't have much time."

"Do you have an idea of where he may have taken him?"

There were three possible places in the city, according to the map. Lora didn't know them, but thinking like a hunter, they were the only spots Fiora could imagine killing a higher vampire like Island Hopper. There were plenty of storehouses large enough to do the job, but only three had no owners with reservations against bringing a vampire onto their property.

One of them was in the middle of the city, and too close to ponies to work. If he was willing, Island Hopper could manipulate the mind of a bull or cow nearby to charge through and make an opening for him to escape. If she were killing him, she'd do it in one of the storehouses near the edge of the city.

"These two buildings are the only places I can imagine killing Island Hopper," Fiora said, simultaneously realizing how strange it sounded aloud. But the information was too important for the diction to bother Lora.

"Argent took Geiss out of town to see about a contract in the countryside, so we'll have to search them ourselves." Lora grabbed the harpoon from the display cabinet at the back of the cabin. "You take the one by the masonry district, I'll go to-"

"Better let me do both," Fiora interjected, pulling the harpoon back to its cabinet. "We're not near any bodies of water, and I don't mean to offend, but the Dragon Arts have boiled killing your kind down to a science. There's a lot they know that they still keep secret from other schools of hunters."

"I won't do nothing while he's captured," Lora said firmly, pulling herself away from Fiora.

"And he wouldn't want you running into a hunter's trap." She drew her sword, exposing the night silver impurities in the steel. Magic could not abide the touch of night silver, and Nixes had more magic than most creatures. Loralae flinched immediately from the sight of the blade.

Fiora sheathed her blade. "I'll check both places out, don't worry. Even for a Monster Hunter, killing a higher vampire is still in the realm of miracles."

=============================================================

The most likely spot was the storehouse in the poor sections of the city. Bulls, bison, and unfortunate ponies with nothing to their name, they would not raise any problem for a hunter.

Fiora wondered why a public execution wasn't in order. It'd make finding this hunter much easier. It wasn't as if the city had some fondness for monsters. Owner of some successful inns or not, they still would have called for his head. The merchant elite would have liked it the most. If Island Hopper died, that left his inns open to purchase. Then again, no pony but Stranglethorn would control it in the end. That was her plan, most likely.

Fiora drew her senses in until it was they functioned almost naturally. The roads to the storehouse grew narrower, while the inhabitants were crammed closer and closer together. She stepped to the side of the street as she passed a bull with his head hung low. She didn't need to look at the cart he was pulling to know he was a waste collector, gathering trash and waste pots. His stomach looked too thin to be healthy.

She moved on quickly to escape the scent. The storehouse was close now, somewhere on the street she turned onto if she remembered correctly. Though it was supposed to be abandoned, not guarded at the gate by two thugs.

"You there," said the one with a scar across his nose. "What're you doing, comin' over here?"

"Me? Nothing," she answered. "Just window shopping."

"Ha ha," the other mocked a laugh. "Where'd you come up with that?" He was a bovine, like over half of the city's working population, and though he wasn't the picture of health, he certainly wasn't as scrawny as the other underpaid laborers in Bovinus.

"Same place where your mother thought of you," Fiora insulted. If there was any place Island Hopper would be kept, it'd be here. Stranglethorn's husband was a big name in the criminal elites, from what she had heard. These thugs weren't in any uniform to distinguish them, but they owned sharpened steel, something no ordinary worker could afford.

The scarred thug laughed at his companion's expense. The bull grunted under his teeth. "You should just turn back and trot away. A pony like you doesn't belong here."

Fiora raised a brow at that comment, fluffing out her wings a little. "Can't you tell? I'm no pony, I'm a freak. And right now I'm guessing you have some freaks of your own inside that storeroom."

The both of them looked at each other and rhe scarred thug pointed his hoof at her. "You stupid or deaf? You're not getting in."

Fiora sighed and lit her horn. "Fine, but you look like you could use a drink."

A simple stream of magic jammed her suggestions into the scarred thug's mind before he knew that his thoughts weren't his own.

"Damn, you're right, I'm thirsty." He looked the other way. "I think there's a bar 'round here."

"Wha-" the bull reached for his coworker, but his confusion gave Fiora another chance to implant more magic.

"Leave, and tell any pony you talk to not to come here," she commanded him, and he obliged. He shook his head and saw the scarred thug trotting off.

"Hold on, I think I want to come too," he called out, catching up.

"Same old story," she shook her head as she tested the door to the storehouse. It was unlocked, but only led to a small room where workers and visitors could leave their personal effects before going into the main section. Chairs and lockers lined the walls of the cramped space, and on her right was another door.

Her hoof jerked when she tried the second door. Locked, of course, but it didn't matter. She could burn it down, or just blast it apart with a shockwave. But she didn't want to give everything away, if the hunter really was inside. She focused on the lock, feeling the weight of the pins until she controlled them all and unlocked the door.

The inside was something she never expected to see. The storehouse had been converted into some kind of indoor garden. A few cows walked between the planters, watering the soil and checking the fruit. On the far end, a stallion armed with a whistle around his neck was checking on the work of one of the cows.

Poppy weed, river maid, bark rose, Fiora smelled them all until it almost made her sick. It was a different kind of disgusting compared to potions, a kind that ponies savored to escape the mundane. She was almost certain whoever owned the place planned to make narcotics. But it didn't matter to Fiora.

"Damn, wrong one," she muttered, turning to leave.

"Hey!" the manager whistled as he marched across the garden. "Who the hell let you in?"

Fiora sighed,"I don't have time for this." As it stood, talking to the two outside had wasted precious moments to save Island Hopper.

Without anymore words she drew her weapon and slashed the stallion across the chest. He panicked, fumbling at his whistle while he searched for the dagger at his side. Fiora guessed he rarely, if ever, had to use it. A bolt of magic followed, throwing the stallion back into a row of potted plants. Fiora walked up to his battered body and finished him off with a point to the gut.

"Now I know where you are." The cows were shrieking but she was already out the door.

=============================================================

There was a crowd filling the street before the storehouse. Ponies railed against a dozen of the city guard who blocked the entrance. If the hunter wanted to kill Island Hopper quickly, he'd need not just time but privacy too. Fiora kept far back, expanding her magic until her hearing could pick out the conversation between one of the guards and a salespony.

"-won't accept this!" the pony said.

"Stand back, the city orders that no pony can enter," the guard replied.

"How much sacrilege are we going to suffer?" the salespony stomped around. "We tolerate the bovines already. What ever is happening in that building is black magic!"

Fiora strode up as she heard those words. It was easy enough to build on the fears of citizens and provide a simpler solution to those in control.

"Couldn't help but overhear," she intervened. "Did you mention black magic?" She doubted there was a witch or a highly intelligent grave maker, but the work hunters did and the monsters they tracked down often seemed mystical to ponies.

"Wait, are you a Monster Hunter?" the guard asked.

Fiora nodded. "And looking for work. What's in the storehouse?"

The guard turned to some of the other guards and told them that a hunter had finally arrived. One seemed awfully relieved when he heard that they'd be done soon.

"I cannot give you details here," the guard leered at the salespony seething at him, "but the city guard can assure the payment. Three hundred gold pieces."

"Not particularly in a mood to haggle," Fiora said. "Fine."

The guard, who by now Fiora figured was some kind of captain, barked orders at three others who were not essential to keeping the crowd at bay. They motioned Fiora to follow and trotted around to the back entrance, a doorway that had been locked up with chains.

"Chains?" she noted. "If I'm going to hunt whatever this is, I'll need some details."

The three guards stood grimly and drew their swords. "Only thing you need to know is this: Stranglethorn sends her regards."

They moved on Fiora in formation, attacking so that she couldn't parry all three blades at once. If she were any regular fighter, their ambush would have worked. But as it stood, she had already turned the odds against them. She sent a shock wave of magic into the ground, where it dispersed and toppled back the three.

She immediately severed a leg of one of the guards. Fiora moved quickly on another, and in his panicked swings and retreat, he tripped and plowed his face into the ground. The third tried attacking from behind, but he had to raise his hoof high to aim the point of his sword into the back of her neck, and it made his three-legged gait even more noticeable. Fiora turned and caught the blade in her cross guard and flung the guard into the locked door of the storehouse.

She picked him up by the collar of his gambeson and pressed it against the chained door. "I'm done with your boss. I'm going to tell you what I want, and you're going to make sure I get it."

The guard responded only with a whimpering nod.

"Get your key and unchain this door," she told him, taking her weight off to let the stallion breathe.

He fumbled for his key and grabbed at the two locks holding the chains in place. As soon as the chains were loose Fiora pushed the guard aside and ripped off the chains with magic.

Inside looked abandoned for sure. A small brazier, barely larger than a bucket, was the only source of light. Fiora produced a vial from her bag and downed its contents. She felt her eyes change, the irises expanding to let in more light, while her magic honed every detail until the darkness was no different than a day under the sun's zenith.

But there was no hunter, nor was there a captured Island Hopper. Just outside the brazier's circle of light was a pony tied to a chair, beaten bloody. A bowl below the chair gathered the blood trickling from the limp body. Fiora looked over the injuries.

A cracked jaw, fractures in the skull and ribs, deep cuts along the limbs, and twisted joints. Whoever did this was ruthless. She turned and dragged in the guard, holding him tight in a magic grip.

"He was here," Fiora said, showing him the battered pony. "Where did the hunter take Island Hopper?"

"I don't know!" he struggled. "You don't know what he's like. It was like I was staring at a monster. I didn't dare ask anything."

Outside, the crowd continued to call for righteous justice. They grew louder as the wall of guards shrank back slightly. Fiora turned her eyes to the front door, and then back to the guard.

"Let's make a deal," she said. "I'll tell the crowd that I wiped away the black magic, after you tell me where I can find the hunter and Island Hopper. Keep quiet, and I won't be your only problem. Those ponies are going to demand action."

The guard thought for a moment. His eyes looked over the pony, wondering how long the pony suffered.

"All I heard was something he mumbled to himself," he explained as he stared at the limbs that were turned the wrong way. "About leaving the body intact enough."

Fiora let the guard go and kneelt by the body, taking a closer look. She pulled a knife from her herb pouch and with the handle, prodded at the injuries. He had been recently killed, by the viscosity of the blood. She smelled the corpse. When creatures died, their muscles relaxed and both bowels and bladder lost their usefulness. But on this corpse. It smelled of blood and only blood.

Fiora freed the body from its sluggish position on the chair and looked further. The pony's flank was scalded in a struggle, irregular lines of raised flesh around the rear gave away what the hunter had done. Any path that waste could have taken was burned closed.

Something to hide? Fiora couldn't be sure, and as unpleasant as it seemed, she needed to look further. She cut into the abdomen, pulling open the upper flesh and muscle until she reached the moist, bloated innards sticking together.

The guard was repulsed, collapsing backward at the smell. But beneath the scents was something unusual. Fiora forgot the blood, bile, and shit-filled intestines. She produced another flask, similar to the previous one, and drank from it. A light burning sensation shot up her nose as the potion drew in all the smells.

She made an incision at the small intestine and caught the scent of arsenic in the mix. Torture alone was bizarre practice for a monster hunter, and it was even stranger now. The Dragon Arts rarely relied on poisons; hunters from the Murder of Crows mastered the use of arsenic on the other hoof. Was she dealing with multiple hunters, or one who made a habit of borrowing from other teachings?

Either way, she got the message. Arsenic wasn't easy to come by. It was found in the ground and water, but in small amounts that needed to be processed to be used by any killer.

"Is there a place in Bovinus that makes arsenic?" she asked the guard, but he just returned a blank stare. She rephrased the question. "I need to know the biggest ore refinery in the city."

"Stranglethorn bought most the major smelteries in the city and transfered them," he told her. "Nearest place is a two hour hard gallop west from the city. Close to a coal deposit, I think."

Fiora hoisted the corpse and leaned it back on the chair. Without any acknowledgement to the guard, she walked out the back and returned to the main street. She instantly received gasps, and the familiar eyes of fear and relief. Blood covered her hooves and wings, and though the ponies assumed she had removed the problem, none were brave enough to even ask.

"Is it dead?" cried out a child before her father covered the filly's mouth.

Fiora nodded. "It was a tough fight that needed to be kept off the streets, but you're safe now. Go back to your homes." As she told her tale, she noticed the looks of confusion and relief from the other guards. Some turned with concern back to the storehouse. They were bought off by Stranglethorn as well. It must have been surprising for them to see her not only alive, but helping.

"You weren't supposed to come back out," the lead guard said to her, but his stance said he was unsure of what to do.

She counted the rest of the guards, who were simply waiting for the crowd to leave before they drew swords. "The nine of you against me? How brave."

"We don't have a choice. No pony refuses Stranglethorn's orders." The leader rushed with his pointed forward, followed quickly by his comrades.

Fiora simply took a low stance and tripped them over with a shockwave of magic. She drew on more magic and blasted them back again, and their bodies tumbled against the storeroom.

One guard, an older stallion, propped himself up spat a tooth on the ground. "You're a nutter!" he shouted at the leader. "I'm not fighting a fuckin' mutant Monster Hunter!" He turned and ran. The others saw their senior flee and took his wisdom to heart. They too fled the scene.

The lead guard stood, leaning himself against the storehouse wall. "There'll be hell to pay when Stranglethorn finds out you escaped."

"Good," Fiora said. "Never seem to have enough gold, but if she'll collecting hell, I can give it."

"Funny," the guard snarled. "But I wasn't talking about you. You're a Monster Hunter, not many who can trifle with you. Us on the other hand, we'll be running the rest of our lives."

"Well then," Fiora looked down at his hoof. He leaned against the wall because a joint had been sprained by the blast of her magic. "You better hope that heals up fast."

The ironworks was close, but she had wasted enough time already. This hunter wasn't just doing a job. The body, the guards, Fiora felt like she was being goaded into a trap. She'd have to keep her senses sharp, there just wasn't any other way. She wasn't going to let Island Hopper die, he was owed that much after helping Geiss.

=============================================================

A coal mine ate into the mountainside behind the compound. Karam Ironworks, the sign outside the smelting compound read. Island Hopper talked about him all the time. The King of Thieves, a contradiction to itself. Who could be a king among backstabbers and cutthroats?

She felt the ground. Even this far away, she could feel the intricate flow of magic. Island Hopper's was in the mix, fluctuating from waves of strength to a suddenly meek aura. There was night silver for sure, but something else. Magic all garbled together. It was like looking at a tent made from animal hides; different shapes and colours cut up and woven together into a single structure.

"Lora, what the hell are you doing here?" Fiora galloped up behind her. "How did you find out that this was the place?"

"Mutant magic is very unique," she explained. "I tracked you once I felt you leave the city, and once you passed the limits of the farmland, it wasn't hard to guess where you were headed."

"You shouldn't have come," Fiora said grimly. "You're going to get hurt."

"I can sense Island Hopper in there, and something's not right with his magic."

Fiora wasn't going to let Loralae add to the problem. "Island Hopper's a higher vampire, and his magic is ancient. The Dragon Arts developed the method all hunters use now to kill vampires like him. He's being tortured while enraged with blood; he's not in pain, but his magic will be drained quickly."

"You tell me this and still expect me to stand by?" Loralae cast her eyes on the ironworks. The spikes and drops in magic made sense now.

"I'm telling you so you realize that power had nothing to do with this," Fiora asserted. "The hunter we're dealing with is prepared to handle magic at the highest level, including yours. This needs to end the old fashioned way." Fiora patted her sword.

"If you can't save him soon," Lora warned, "I won't wait any longer. You have 'till the end of the hour."

Fiora nodded. There was no more time to spend passing words.

The whole compound had been emptied, likely so the hunter could work unmolested by curious laborers. Doubtless the hunter already considered every entrance Fiora could make. Save for, of course, an entrance from above. Though their wings were crippled in a specific way to disable flight, mutant monster hunters with wings were still able to glide, and found climbing to be much easier.

She recalled her days at Bach Tor'al, doing physical training with Master Guerrier. She remembered the crumbling rocks that opened holes in the walls, just large enough for a hoof to latch on. The look on Guerrier's face after she spread her wings and glided for the first time, reaching a beam of wood that would have been impossible for any pony.

What Stranglethorn had built in place of all the smaller smelters in Bovinus was nothing short of a spectacle. Instead of one or two brick houses with a furnace in each, bulk amounts of iron and coal were brought into the main building, where multiple furnaces blasted away, creating steel.

Fiora hoisted herself to the top of the central building. The top two floors were bunkhouses for the workers, while the furnaces and raw materials sat on the ground floor. She could see what surrounded the furnaces as well. Smaller houses and cabins, some big enough for a few tables, some with just a bed and a campfire outside. It was almost its own village, and all the property of Stranglethorn and the King of Thieves.

The clay tiled roof clinked quietly. Fiora watched her step, almost gliding across the top until she found the one window from the overseer's suite. Always reliable, architecture was. Ponies placed so much importance on where they slept, and it always linked to who they were. Any pony tasked with managing Karam Ironworks would've expected proper lodgings to accompany the title.

She slipped through the window and landed deftly on the bed. The sun had just set behind the mountains now, and the only sunlight was a pinkish orange that painted the ceiling as the sun crept away. As soon as she stepped out of the room, the air became heavy, like she was wadding through knee-high water.

"What the-" she coughed, and the metallic smell gave it away. The air was filled with an incredibly fine night silver dust. She felt its force coming up from the floor where some had settled, trickling her magic out of her body. A screech echoed from the ground floor, overlapping the sound of rattling chains and sizzling magic.

It had to be Island Hopper. She passed the cluttered beds and made her way downstairs, quickly but carefully. It was hard to hear anything other than Island Hopper's voice, but her trained hearing picked up the faint humming of another pony, a deep voiced stallion.

"Sounds like company's finally arrived, vampire." Fiora paused. Had Loralae rushed in, or did he really hear her through Island Hopper's enraged thrashing?

"Don't bother waiting." There was a clank as something metal was dropped. "Love drives creatures mad. Hurry up so I can see you. I'd rather not spend time on a Nixe."

Fiora stepped out, wing firmly grasped around her sword. Though, for a moment, she questioned if it would even make a difference. The hunter was clad in plate and chain, as usual, but this suit of armor was nothing like its kin. It looked like a scroll of ancient texts, with runes, glyphs, and wards arranged in a perfect geometry with each other. He was a pony, through and through, but with the suit he must have carried more magic than any other hunter.

"Went through a lot of trouble to find you," Fiora said. Her voice was monotone, giving no tells for the other hunter to go on. Yet his voice was strangely optimistic for a hunter.

He brushed off blood from his armor. "Went through a lot of trouble to set this up."

One of the furnaces for turning iron into steel ingots was not like the others. It was filled in with concrete, and surrounded in a cage of night silver. Island Hopper was inside, his limbs sealed in the dried stone. But there was nothing of the pony Fiora knew.

His hind legs remained pony, but his upper torso had become leathery black, his forelegs had spread and expanded into massive wings that crumpled and folded. He could have been as big as a wyvern, but the cage held him in a bind.

"Hunt's going well," the hunter chuckled.

"Hunt's over." Fiora tried to draw on her magic, prepare a blast of magic to topple him first, but the night silver dust was even thicker on the bottom floor.

"And if I continue?" He turned to her and raised a shaven brow. He looked as much a monster as Fiora did. His face was scarred on almost every inch of skin, and one eye had clearly suffered damage even potions couldn't repair.

"You won't." Fiora moved sideways, away from the stairs. She let herself get closer, even if by only a few steps, to Island Hopper. All it took was a few extra seconds.

The hunter laughed. "The Flower of Battle," he called Fiora. "Come, show me how you got that name."

Fiora instincts made her roll out of the way. A second later the bomb he thrown detonated, throwing a cloud of purple in the air. Fiora covered her nose immediately with a wing, not daring to even catch a whiff of it. She knew the recipe, a bomb of Houndpaw petals, whose poison slowed and stopped the heart.

"If we're going to dance, mind telling me your name first?" she asked, moving away from the poisonous powder.

"Holpein," he thrust his hooves wide open, taunting. "Hunter of the Dragon Arts, affectionately coined-"

"The Red Reaver." Fiora turned her head to the cage at the end of the room. Island Hopper's guttural voice spat out the name with hatred. He hissed, saliva spraying over the bars of his cage as his mouth watered at the scent of blood. Bowls of it were set out in front of him, just out of reach.

"You were the one who killed those other workers," Fiora finally confirmed. How the message was sent, the beaten pony's blood pooling in a bowl, made her suspect. Now, this confirmed it.

"Stranglethorn wanted some motivation to speed you along," Holpein said, not even trying to deny his actions. "I figured the blood would be enough, but obviously this vampire's got a silver tongue."

"Spoken word has nothing to do with it. Stranglethorn pulls the strings, and I'm guessing you're the enforcer."

He shook his head. "I would never take a husband's role. The King of Thieves is very protective of his wife's ventures, you know. To start, he was the one that hired me. Understood that sometimes a professional is needed when the vermin grow too big."

"But you left a body, must've suspected I could track you down," Fiora said. "Why?"

"No better bait." With his answer, Holpein swung a hoof, and a chain erupted from the joint of the armor.

Fiora rolled backward, but didn't expected the chain to be able to give chase. It reached her and she saw the glyphs activating. They were similar to the ones on hunter horseshoes, the kind that blasted magic as a force, however these were arranged in different angles and sizes. Their spell manipulated the chain, pushing it to wrap around Fiora's leg.

She slashed it with her blade, knocking the chain aside, and lunged forward with swift strikes of her own. They were aimed for the weak spots of the armor, but whoever made Holpein's armor was a master, and the gaps were barely accessible. Even with her precision, she couldn't draw blood.

He came around with his other hoof, slashing with a curved blade whose spine linked to the two ends of his horseshoe. The cleaver scratched the dragonscale armor, but little else.

Fiora turned her blade as she sidestepped and brought a cutting blow to the head. Holpein twisted, removing himself from the sword's path and bucking Fiora into a cart of iron ore. Fiora shook the ringing from her ears. Holpein swung his chain at her, its glyphs constricting the metal around her leg.

"Shit," she muttered, gripping her sword before flying across the building.

Her back slammed into a table of ingot casts. She needed to risk using magic. As the chain came around for a second pass, Fiora pulled on all her magic, sending a gout of fire at Holpein. Night silver dispersed the magic halfway through the air.

Fiora's eyes widened as the wards across Holpein's armor glowed, drawing on the magic and storing it in the runes. The night silver in the air should have rejected the magic, sending the energy out of the building.

Holpein noticed her stare and laughed. "Black platinum impurities. Useful for helping runes hold down magic."

"Listen," Fiora cautioned. "However you think this is going to end, you won't come out on top. Stranglethorn won't let you go free, not without manipulating you into her agenda. I know."

"Is that what you think this is, a thought-out plan to get rid of you?" He raised his bladed hoof and pointed at Island Hopper. "That's a contract paid for by every noble and merchant under Stranglethorn's hoof."

He aimed his point to Fiora. "But the only pony out to hunt you, is me."

"I don't know you," she replied, but as she studied his burning eyes it seemed that may not have been true.

"One of many problems," Holpein grimaced. "Do you know how many of my school are left?"

He waited for an answer but Fiora was lost; the Dragon Arts worked west of the High Mountain, so it had been decades since she thought about them.

Holpein nodded, the silence was a good enough answer. "Five. No pony talks about us now, not when mutants traipse around Equestria with their reputation. A monster killing a monster."

He seemed so sickened that he spat on the floor. "Ponies always have a soft spot for poetic justice, and no one's better sung than you."

Fiora picked up on what he meant, but that was back when her family was still a family. "I left the High Mountain Kingdom. That reputation can't be same."

"Perhaps not, but it's still enough," he lamented. "I took this job because Island Hopper's bounty is enough to buy a holding in the High Mountain Kingdom, land big enough to finally bring back the Dragon Arts. But the lord won't invest in a new fortress."

"Lemme guess, the housing market crashed," Fiora mocked.

"Mutant hunters passing through." He barely paid any mind to her comment. "He said the Dragon school was dead, and that mutants were a much better investment."

She could smell the rage he had worked up to now. But his brute strength couldn't phase her. Every monster hunter needed to have confidence in their skills. Any hesitation or doubt in the heat of battle meant death at the hand of some monster. A hunter or not, he wasn't any different. Stronger, tougher, and filled with magic--she knew how to handle that.

He lashed out with his chain, its magic too concentrated for the night silver to disrupt it. Fiora changed her stance, letting the weapon glide by. She cut, her hooves reaching forward, but changed at the last moment. When Holpein realized the feint had passed his cleaver, he felt the sting of steel in a gap of his armor.

Fiora thrust herself back, rolling out of even the chain's range. Bloody and pissed off, Holpein slammed his hoof onto the ground. The glyphs on his horseshoe fizzled, the magic suppressed by the night silver, but slowly it grew. It suddenly resurged, arcs of magic pooling at his hooves.

The spell shot out, chasing Fiora down. Surprised, she tumbled out of the way, but the spell of lightning ran her down like a snake. It took over her body, arresting all motion, and blasted her into a furnace. She could hear Island Hopper hissing as she regained focus on the fight.

She tried moving but her limbs still felt numb, and she could only watch as Holpein fired up a furnace and stuck in a clay pot of night silver. He saw her starring. With cold uncaring, he whirled his chain around and snapped it at her head.

Fiora leaned out of the way, but the glyphs of force exploded near her ear. The ringing in her ear shot through her head and began to blur her vision. It was impossible to see when the chain had constricted around her neck, but she was thankful that the glyphs gave up power for control. They gripped tight, but couldn't crush her neck.

Fiora mustered up the magic to launched a bolt of fire, but he just yanked the chain and her aim went awry. Holpein turned and grabbed a pair of tongs, dragging Fiora as he removed the molten night silver from the furnace, saying nothing.

He trotted up to Island Hopper's cell, his eyes glaring straight through the bars into Island Hopper's hulking form. Bones protruding from his wings were cracked and scratched from his endless attempt to batter open the night silver cage. Nevertheless, he still raged against it, even when the bars bit back and denied his magic.

Holpein tossed the clay crucible at Island Hopper, molten night silver splattering over the cage, and his skin. The monstrous roar that followed wrenched at something in Fiora's gut. It wasn't some involuntary reaction of disgust, she realized. Despite all of Holpein's measures, Island Hopper could still flex his magic out. If the night silver surrounding him hadn't spread his magic out, the scream would have, without a doubt, killed both of them.

Fiora erected herself, planting her hooves firmly. Night silver dust shimmered on the ground and air, all except for a few part of the floor. A path was untouched by night silver, like a path wiped clean, following where Fiora had moved to avoid Holpein's weapon.

His spells followed her because she made the path, stepping and rolling and clearing away the night silver dust. Fiora focused her magic now, aiming along the trail Holpein's hooves left behind. Arcing through the path and concentrated by the push of night silver, a river of fire flooded the ground, bounding after Holpein.

Fire licked the edges of his armor, but the black platinum and wards drew on the magic, taking in what it could. The rest of the magic swirled around him, scalding Island Hopper's skin as well as the spell searched for a path of escape.

"Damn," Fiora muttered to herself as she closed in. Holpein slammed his hoof on the ground, but she was wise to the trick. She flapped her wings, throwing up a cloud of night silver dust that worked like a shield. Holpein turned away, letting the spell be drawn to his armor.

Blow for blow, Fiora couldn't tell who was the better fighter. She saw now why he was so confident in proving himself. The Dragon Arts was nearly dead, though most ponies ignored the history of internal politics and assumed their hunters were less skilled than modern hunters.

Fiora jumped back to avoid the cracking strike of his chain. He had a reason to believe he could bring back his school. Gone or not, Fiora spent most of her time as a hunter around the High Mountain. Doubtless he'd become a legend for bringing proof that he beat her.

But, they both heard, that wouldn't be the case. Fiora was only surprised that it took Lora so long. Her voice grew louder as she charged for the iron works. Even from such a long range, the ground began to shine like waves under the sun, rippling with magic as she projected her wail.

"You can't fight both of us," Fiora warned him.

He scowled, and twitched his head at Island Hopper. He turned back to Fiora. "As long as you live, they'll leave the Dragon Arts to die."

"But when pressed for time..." Holpein reached into Island Hopper's cage. Runes flared with magic, and he ripped the vampire out from the night silver cage with a single motion.

Fiora moved in an instant. Island Hopper couldn't die so quickly, but coming back from what Holpein was going to do would not be a quick process. Her blade struck forward, but a gap that was once in the armor shifted with his motion, covering up the exposure.

With all the magic stored in his armor, Holpein's horshoe crackled with energy. Arcs of force took the form of lightning. He struck down once at Island Hopper's fanged, bloody face, and splattered it across the floor.

Night silver did little to stop the surge. Loralae burst down the building, bricks and iron crumbling, convulsing, under the weight of her fury. She was a nixe, a being of rivers and water. Every stream and pond wretched their water from their bowels. That was the meaning of her scream. Hers was the fury of nature.

Fiora saw the flood circle Island Hopper, not a drop touching his corpse. It made for Holpein like a ravenous hound, baring down on him until the walls and metal beams of the building bent and caved in. She wasn't going to sit around and wonder if his armor could withstand weight of the rubble.

With holes opening everywhere, Fiora made for open land, away from the ironworks. She galloped. On and on she galloped. Earth sped below her hooves as fast as her heart was pumping. Behind was the roof of the building, consumed by the mud below. Nothing else remained.