• 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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Kings and Peasants

The road to Bach Kha'mohrgen passed through the front lines of the war between the kingdoms of the Far Coast and the armies of the High Mountain Kingdom. But, given that amidst the High Mountain King's agenda to become an emperor the Far Coast kingdoms still fought each other, no pony expected them to remain unconquered for long.

Still, with all the monsters that prowled the wilderness, sending armies was still slow, and Fiora was surprised to see remains of a High Mountain encampment on the Far Coast's side of the war.

"They've advanced pretty far," she considered, looking to the road ahead. Trees were burned or cut down, leaving a clear path until the water channel ahead. There were buildings, small huts hastily built with logs, broken boards, and tarps, where refugees lived as they waited to get across the channel to flee the war.

The soldiers, Fiora spotted their insignia on a flag as she approached the refugee camp, were of the southern king of the Far Coast. Clearly, he wasn't eager to have Midshore refugees flood his lands.

Ponies stared; among peasant ponies, even they knew mutants only ever had wing or a horn, never both. But, perhaps this time it wasn't her unique appearance. A lot of the refugees, she noted, had wounds that could only have been made by monsters. Claw marks, bite marks, magic scorches.

A monster hunter would be something to look to, though from experience Fiora knew it could be either good or bad. Then there was the filly on her saddle. She was fully healed on the outside, but still badly injured within. At least, badly injured for any other pony. Over the two days Fiora carried her, checking on her. Every hour her mortal wounds grew better, with no sign of slowing down.

She truly wondered what this filly was.

She stopped in her tracks as she approached the guards at the bridge across the channel. Two soldiers in layers of chainmail approached.

"What's this?" demanded one of the soldiers, who wore a gold insignia instead of the standard black. "A fucking mutant trying to cross? Get in line, mongrel, can't you see there are ponies waiting for their passes?"

"Bugger off!" agreed the other soldier.

"Who issues these passes?" Fiora didn’t budge.

The gold insignia soldier hacked a disgusting chuckle, his breath comprised of cheap wine and a local narcotic herb.

"There a problem?" Fiora pressed her inquiry, leaning slightly aback to distance herself from the soldier’s boorish, though not unexpected, scent.

"You bet," he answered coarsely. "Only the general gives out passes, and he's not about to give one to a mutant before peasants eager to farm for the army."

"How about a monster hunter?" Fiora asked. "A lot of monsters attracted to war. Got to be a contract on something."

The two soldiers traded glances, unsure of how to respond. The soldier with the gold insignia ran back to the tower posted by the bridge for a few minutes, leaving his partner standing uncomfortably with the hunter.

He returned with another stallion. He was adorned in polished chest plate painted green with gold trims, and wore a dress sword on the side of his saddle.

"You're a monster hunter?" He asked, continuing before Fiora could answer. "Good. There's a nest of creatures, I don't know what you call them, who've been attacking my soldiers on both sides of the channel."

"Might not know the name, but I could do with a bit more detail," Fiora replied.

The general nodded. "Of course. They're massive, flying monsters, of that we are sure. And it leaves hoof prints and claw marks around its nest."

"Any bodies I could examine?" Fiora suggested. The general's description of the monster was lacking, and she needed more information.

"We've had to dispose of many bodies in the channel," explained the general, "but we haven't collected bodies from the recent attack two days ago. It's about three miles north west."

Accepting the contract would be a lot easier than trying to trick her way through. Besides, once the war was over and there were no more soldiers to hunt, a monster nest would cause problems for the innocent ponies trying to return to their lives.

"I'll look into it," she told the general.

He nodded. "And I'll see to it that you are compensated properly. Including a pass across the channel."

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

Fiora left the filly in one of the tents around the site of the attack. The scent of the monsters that came was enough to drive off even hungry corpse eaters, so she reasoned it was as safe as any place for the cursed pony while she completed the contract.

"Multiple monsters attacked from all directions," she noted. The soldiers were all facing different directions with no sign of a scuffle. The camp was a just a massacre.

Fiora inspected two bodies lying side by side. One had his stomach and intestines ripped open by powerful claws. Only scraps of the liver remained, the majority consumed. The other was entirely different.

Large holes were punched through the chest, killing the soldier with a crushing force strong enough to bypass steel plate. Not a single scratch or bite mark seen.

"Different monsters attacked together, that must be the case," Fiora spoke to herself, thinking it out. "Incredibly rare. Leader must be powerful. A fae of the Aos Si, maybe. Or even a Moroii."

Fiora sniffed the air. The scent of blood and monster salivation was rich in the ground, their appetites dripping their scent all over the ground. She followed the smell farther north, noticing broken branches up in the trees. Definitely tried flying, she thought to herself. Too large to be any kind of fae, however.

After a couple more miles she got her answer. Screeching came from above, two distinct voices, while two more around the ground came from up ahead. The base of a hillock was up ahead with a few snapped trees and torn bushes, sure signs that the monsters had made their nest in the area.

She'd never be able to see them coming if she stayed in the trees, and thanks to monster hunter training her wings were useless for flying. Fiora ran for the edge of the woods to where armies had fell and burned trees into an ashy grassland, but the moment she showed herself, two massive talons swooped for her.

Fiora ducked to the side, projecting a magic shield around herself to deflect the next blow. It was fortunate, for the following strike lashed out behind her, sending a shockwave through the shield from the impact. In the sky, two griffins circled while the manticore prowled from the trees.

Following it, another monster that was rarely seen, even among monster hunters. Its front half resembled pony, though it was far larger, and its back half was that of a chicken. It was a female hippalektryon.

The manticore's scorpion tail rose to strike her shield again, but a roaring command pierced the air from above.

"Save your strength, Ryammus," called out one of the griffins. To Fiora's astonishment, the manticore obliged immediately. The griffon and his follower landed on the ground with such force Fiora's shield tremored.

She could immediately see why, once the dust settled. The griffin that approached her was not of common breed. He was a royal griffin sporting an appearance similar to a great horned owl, with four imposing horns that grew like trees from its head.

Common griffins like the one who trailed behind the royal was not much larger than ponies. But this royal stood at least twice the size of its brethren. Fiora felt the magic in its sound as a deep reverberation emanated from his chest. All three of the monsters laid their heads low, bowing to the royal griffin.

"Seems we have become a problem for those soldiers," mused the royal. "I take it you are their solution?"

Fiora nodded.

"Plan to fight us still?" he asked.

Fiora looked around, judging in a second which gaps she could dart through before a monster tore her apart. "If I have no choice, then yes."

"A good answer," chuckled the royal, "but we are not here to fight."

"Then why are you here?" Fiora wondered, nodding her head towards the manticore and hippalektryon. "Those aren't exactly a royal entourage."

"Fellow monsters, though lacking sentience, are still fellow monsters," answered the royal. "The manticore, Ryammus, is named after the late Ryammus, head of House Stormbreed until he passed and his son, my father, took over. I plan to make the manticore part of my family, just as ponies do with guard hounds."

"And the hippalektryon?"

"Sentiment," he responded quickly. "The war has taken her grasslands away, so I intend to bring her back to the griffin lands so she may live in peace."

"How nice of you," she marveled sarcastically. "But you've still eaten your fair share of ponies. There are much better hunting grounds, so why here?"

"I suppose explaining myself could save a little bloodshed for both parties," he decided. "What do you know about griffins?"

Fiora spoke comfortably, but kept her shield up and senses sharp. "Same as any monster hunter. Your kind, along with hippogriffs and cynogriffons, hail from a continent beyond the Far Coast. Royal griffins rule over groups called houses, using their own hordes of wealth to buy loyalty. Unlike your followers, you can ignore your natural greed."

"A well read hunter," the royal nodded his head. "And that last fact is what brings me to your continent. The times are changing. I'm sure you've noticed the new monsters lurking around. Areizals, or baykoks as you call them, flood these lands. We've found merchant pony ships washed along our coasts with unusual golden artifacts that first appeared about the same time as the areizals, and I want to find more. So, I’m starting here."

"So much for ignoring greed," mumbled Fiora.

"It's more than that," growled the royal, and as he did so the other griffin's feathers bristled slightly. "House Stormbreed has always been the reigning house among our kind. But a recent artifact has granted a rival house the power to subvert control and expand. They've doubled in size and are threatening the other houses."

"So instead of waiting for an artifact to show up, you decided to look for one yourself?" Fiora asked, not sure if she understood his reasoning. "If your willing to come all the way here, stealing the artifact must be pretty hard."

"Incredibly," the royal said in agreement, but he didn't explain that any further. Instead, he turned to his follower and uttered something with the sound of a bird. The griffin raised his head and walked up to his master, regurgitating a gold amulet onto the ground.

"This is one of many trinkets we've found," the royal said. "But its powers have limits. As does that of my rival house. I do not want their artifact, as powerful as it may be. I want one even stronger, something that will command all griffins to swear fealty to house Stormbreed."

"If it exists," said Fiora.

"I believe it does," the royal defended himself. "If I can't find it while I live, I will set my family on the path to its power. So, now you know my purpose here, and why I'm followed by your prey. Do you still intend on carrying out your contract?"

"As a professional, I have standards," Fiora admitted, "but I'm not about to fight all of you at once, at least not without preparation. And I don't think you'd like to take unnecessary risks on your journey."

"A safe assumption," affirmed the royal. He was clever, and quick to offer an alternative. "I've exhausted my search here. Scouts had confused a castle nearby to be a mage college, but it only housed a few horned mutants useful to Midshore's king. If you let us go, the problem will be solved and you will have completed your contract, even if only on a technicality."

"One problem," added Fiora. "It's customary to bring proof of accomplishment when hunting monsters. I'll be discredited if I don't return with something of the sort."

The royal said nothing, but raised a claw to stop Fiora from explaining further. He reached to his head where his horns were adorned and clasped the end of the largest one. In a single motion he snapped it, wincing greatly even though he only gave a meek grunt. The hippalektryon and manticore didn't react, unaware of the importance of the act, but his follower spouted protest at the act instantly.

"But my lord, you horns are-"

The royal cut him off. "They are for grandiose posturing and empty shows of strength. Should any monster question House Stormbreed for a petty ornament, I will remind them why my family flies over half of the griffin lands."

Fiora looked at the horn the royal tossed to the ground at the edge of her shield. She lowered her shield and picked up the horn, examining the point where it broke.

"Five centimeters from the base, just enough so it'll grow back," she mentioned.

The royal nodded. "I don't intend on crippling myself for a hunter."

"I must admit," Fiora confided, "I try not to kill sentient monsters when they want to live in peace. What happens between your houses is none of my concern. Just promise you'll hunt something other than ponies."

"Plenty of other game further west," the royal agreed, reverberating his chest and commanding his beasts. His griffin took to the sky, scouting their path ahead, followed by the two others.

"I hope you are paid handsomely for my horn," the royal squawked at Fiora as it began to flap and take off with its entourage. "It's a cut above the usual beasts on this continent."

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

The cursed filly twitched her leg on her saddle as she returned to collect the reward from the general. It was the first movement she had since Fiora encountered her in Warfstead. She hoped recovering from her injuries would be enough to tire whatever magic powered the curse on the filly. If not, she could be bringing trouble to Bach Kha'mohrgen.

"A nest of griffins?" the general asked, incredulous, as if it weren't possible despite what he already knew. "I must admit, I expected it to be... less expensive hunt than that."

"You still plan on letting me pass though, right?" pressed Fiora.

"Yes of course." He beckoned to a soldier who handed a scroll of velum to her, signed by the general, permitting her to pass the channel.

The general also untied a pouch of coins from his armor. "And this for you as well. The army can afford to pay hunters properly."

Fiora felt the coin in her hoof. About four hundred, she guessed, and put it in her saddlebag. "So long then."

The general gave a slight nod and returned to his tower. The guards moved aside, somewhat begrudgingly, and returned to their posts by the bridge.

Fiora turned and walked back into the refugee camp, looking around at the ponies trying to build makeshift shelters. None looked terribly welcoming, but travelling was tiring, and even more so with the filly on her back. So she wandered looking for a comfortable spot to rest for tomorrow, before the night caught up.

Around the camp, refugees picked plants in desperation for food. Most found useless weeds and shrubs, though she spotted a few good herbs and roots she could use in her potions. Then she spotted a pile of well picked flora.

Those herbs and roots were amassed by a single tent, one twice the size of any other in the camp. Light, and smoke, rose from it. In the setting sun it became the centerpiece of the camp, the darkening sky shrouding the tent. The sounds inside were not as pleasant, however.

Fiora guessed what it was, and when the sharp scent of alcohol, oils, and herbs hit her nose she knew she was right. Two herbalists tended to patients laying in pain on fur blankets. It was likely unnoticeable for normal ponies, given that the strong ingredients for tinctures and infusions masked the air, but Fiora could smell the lingering presence of vomit, faint enough to have been five days old.

"A lot of sick have been here," she said to herself. The young mare who assisted the elder herbalist turned her head quickly to Fiora then looked back to the stallion she was stitching up.

"I don't know what you want, but if you help this'll go quicker," she blurted, pointing to a mortar on the table full of flowers and leaves. "Grab that poultice, my mother's too busy to do it."

"And the dressings beside it too," added the mother, focused on another stallion that was probably the other patient's brother. It wasn't their coat, one was grey and the other orange, but their eyes. Wracked with pain, their green irises seemed nearly identical.

Fiora rushed over to the desk and grabbed both. The dressings she gave to the mother's eager hooves, and the poultice she applied immediately to most painful spot.

"Easy!" exclaimed the daughter. "This part of the leg has a massive artery under the cut. Too rough and we'll intensify the bleeding. Fiora wasn't an expert on treating ponies, but she looked harder through the stitching and saw a few strained fibers of muscle stretched over a throbbing artery, already stressed by the inflamed tissue around it.

Fiora softened her application, using her wing to gingerly apply the poultice just before the daughter calmly wrapped up the sewn muscle with a bolt of cloth. She saw her flick her eyes toward her wings, though the mare had a lot more courtesy than most ponies and only glanced for a second.

Finally, she calmed her patient down with a long, relieving draw from a wine skin. "Get sleep, you'll be fine," she assured him, looking at her mother's finished work. "And so will you brother."

The mare stood strait, stretching after what must have been an hour at least of back-breaking work. "You seem to have some experience," she acknowledged.

"Girl, what are you doing?" sputtered her mother. "Making small talk? We still haven't the whisper wort for these two if they get infected. Chat all you want after." A potato sac flew across the tent and landed on the daughter's head.

"Whispering wort," Fiora pondered, recognizing the local name for a small mushroom that grew at the roots of imposing, shady trees. "Saw huge patches of them in the forest not too far from here. Could take you to them."

"That'll make things faster," she breathed with relief. The daughter then squinted at Fiora's eyes. "After all, I don't have mutant eyes."

Fiora left the filly resting at one end of the tent where she'd be out of the way of the herbalist's activities and hurried with the young mare to the edge of the forest. They galloped for little more than two miles to reach the edge.

"Call me Silver Drop," the daughter beamed as they ran. "My mother's Lemon Grass."

"Fiora," she replied."It’s refreshing, meeting ponies doing some good in the world."

"Have to," agreed Silver Drop. "Couldn't sleep otherwise. Besides, my father's somewhere fighting a war with raiders from the Frost Coast, so we have to earn coin somehow."

"You see war injuries often?" Fiora asked out of curiosity.

"Occasionally, but not nearly enough," lamented Silver Drop. "Hundreds of dead, I've seen, because I've never traveled with the war, only after it."

"War's no place to want to be," cautioned Fiora.

"But I can't help any pony if I get there too late," was her answer, and the last word spoken before they stopped at the edge of the forest.

Neither needed to speak to harvest the mushroom they were looking for. Under the light of Fiora's horn, they both knew what to look for and pulled what they needed. Fiora plucked mushrooms up deftly, crushing only a few of the small fungi as she picked. But Silver Drop had a better hoof at it, using nothing but a stick to sweep up the mushrooms she was willing to take, leaving behind the ones less attractive.

In just a few minutes the whole potato sac was stuffed with mushrooms, and even in the dead of the night, Silver Drop still managed to collect more than Fiora.

"Seems I've got more to learn," chuckled Fiora as they took for the camp.

Silver Drop smiled. "I might not know as much about hunter potions as you might, but I've learned everything my mother has to teach about being a herbalist, and she's better than any army surgeon in the Midshore forces."

"Really, she seems like she might treat you like a-" Fiora started almost finished.

"-child?" Silver Drop completed. "Sadly she does. She always thinks she's the one with the key to making me better, but I've always wanted to study at a medical college in a big city like Warfstead. I'd even go back north to study in Chantumbury. I heard they got a mage who can heal magical injuries."

“Ever try going on your own?”

Silver Drop chuckled. “I don’t know. I mean, I want to help ponies, but I’ve never been in a city before, let alone an actual school. Being a good herbalist probably doesn’t count for anything in places like that.”

"You should try your best to do the best," was all Fiora could say. "I don't see war ending any time soon, and skilled, good-natured doctors will be few and far between."

“You don’t even know me,” Silver Drop replied. “How can you sound so sure I’ll make a difference?”

“Because monster hunters live a long time,” she answered. “I’ve seen more than I ever thought possible, and I’ve seen the ponies who can make a stand in this world. The ones who fail are the ones who envision success before trying to succeed. You have the opposite. You’ve been trying, now just keep going until you reach the goal.”

“I don’t think it’s that simple,” Silver Drop laughed confidently with some pony else’s support.

“It’s true, a lot of ponies only imagine themselves at the finish line,” Fiora asserted. “They forget how hard it is to get there. Besides, you said being a good herbalist might not count for much in a city. I’ve been to Warfstead; being a good anything will get you far in a place like that.”

The two of them returned to a camp gripped by fervor. A bonfire at the center of the hundreds that were fleeing the war torn Far Coast. Ponies danced in a circle, holding hooves and moving around the fire in a craze. Even soldiers moved among the rabble, though only a few. Even from a distance Fiora could smell the cheap mead passed around the fire.

"Today's supposed to be a festival for some of the local villages," Silver Drop explained to Fiora as they slowed to a trot and made their way back to the tent. "I was told it'd be a fun party instead of usual festivities. You know, with the war and all."

Fiora nodded. Silver Drop looked at her and raised a brow. "Mother'll probably insist on brewing the mushroom infusion herself. After we give them to her, wanna show me how monster hunters party?"

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

Music flung the ponies around their fire and compelled young reckless stallions to challenge each other to see who could leap farthest over the bonfire. A merchant, whose wares were lost to an occupying army, had only mead to sell.

Ponies paid in eggs, spoons, peppers, grain, and just about anything else they could find to trade. Much to Fiora's surprise, the merchant was generous with his prices.

Silver Drop spun in a circle, trying to balance on her hind legs and follow the crowd around the bonfire, but she constantly stumbled -as did many others- from commanding power of eight cups of mead.

Fiora listened to the chanting. Half the camp seemed to sing in common tongue, but the other half responded in a dialect she didn’t know, though she guessed it was what the locals spoke.

I saw the wolf by the Weeping Willow,

I saw the bear, she stood by me.

I saw the owl waiting in the forest,

I saw the jackalope circle the tree.

---

Ei vist lo loup pard Pluerer Urbre,

Ei vist la uors, elle sorgi par ma.

Ei vist lo chott aten aen lo forret,

Ei vist la mottan tourn l’urbre.

---

All year ‘round, we work like beasts.

I saw those animals, looking at me.

With hooves of a master but life of a pauper,

The animals come, and little we eat

---

Throun l’anna, nos prud bette gahgne.

Ei vist lus creatins, regard ut ma.

Vec sapets aissent mais viva dein puvra

Lus creatins ses montras, quau nos madge.

---

They leave nothing, we look like fools,

They may be animals, but we’re just tools.

Yet the more they fight, the less they live,

And after that, the less I give.

---

Lya reina, nos e prud por vra,

Luis eck creatins, mais luis nos utell.

Mais vec plus quarat, luir cin wen tom

Co aen pais apres, moiv ei don.

And on and on the ponies sang. Reed flutes and drums made from hollowed logs and stumps rattled. Even colts and fillies batted sticks against each other, clacking the night away to the happy, upbeat tune of their woes. More soldiers joined, and less mead was available.

Late in the night, dozens of stallions were sound asleep, passed out from brawls or simply being too drunk. Fiora herself had two barrels of mead, though compared to hunter potions, the mead might as well have stayed as honey.

Fiora listened to the mumbling of the ponies while she walked back to the herbalists’ tent. Hopefully they had space for her to spend the night. She didn’t intend to sleep on the floor with the other dozen or so drunken ponies. She heard Silver Drop’s voice, singing away by the tent flap.

“There once was a doctor.... no other was smarter... her looks unmatched....”

Fiora paused, deciding to sit by Silver Drop. She waved a hoof in front of her face, even flicking her nose, but she barely noticed.

“Maybe go inside,” Fiora tried lifting her up, but her slouched position was too awkward. “You’ll embarrass yourself less.”

“And they say monster hunters are heartless,” slurred Silver Drop. She tried getting up, but the tent was no replacement for a wall to lean on, and ended up rolling into the tent instead.

Even though she was sober, Fiora was still tired and realized she still had to cross half a swamp to reach Bach Kha'mohrgen. She followed Silver Drop inside the tent and flopped onto a fur mat at one end of the tent. The scent of whisper wort gave away that the two brothers had gotten an infection from their injuries, though Fiora didn’t care deeply.

In any case, the mother had more sense than her daughter, and with her wits still about, tended to the two brothers. Fiora slept, knowing two ponies could be taken care of without her intervening.

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

Fiora was kicked awake. Her instincts shocked her up, even though she could already smell that it was just the mother.

“Explain yourself, miscreant,” snapped the old herbalist, pointing a hoof at the filly Fiora had carried with her.

“She’s been asleep far too long and I can’t wake her up with anything,” she continued. “What trouble are you planning to cause?”

Dim grey light crawled under the tent flaps. The sun was about to rise, which meant Fiora still had a few precious minutes more to sleep.

“Found her during a contract,” Fiora groaned. “Don’t bother, the cause is magic. A curse.”

She tried to turn away, back to sleep, but the Lemon Grass was stronger than she let on. The vile old mare rapped Fiora’s head with the handle of her broom until she stumbled out of the tent.

“I bet you talked to my daughter about how great it is to go to a college in some smelly, corrupted city,” Lemon Grass scowled, bringing out the cursed filly and shoving her into Fiora’s hooves. “Last night may have seemed fun, but it proves she’s still a child. I can teach her how to save lives, without your ideas of magic.”

“Listen, she can help a lot more as a surgeon than a herbalist,” defended Fiora, setting the filly onto her saddle. “And in any case, she’s no younger than the king of High Mountain. She can make her own decisions.”

“Take that cursed wretch and leave,” spat the mother. “She’s already made her decision.”

Lemon Grass unfolded a piece of parchment from her apron pocket and threw the wrinkled thing at Fiora’s hooves. She levitated it and read Silver Drop’s words. She told her mother she loved her, but gained nothing more by listening to her by-gone ways. She had fled back north, to find any city with a medical school that would take her.

Fiora folded the parchment and kept it in her saddlebag. She couldn’t believe that some simple words of encouragement could compel a daughter to leave. But, the seeds of her desires was already planted, that much was clear even to Fiora.

“Well, no helping it now,” Fiora sighed. “Hope she finds what she’s looking for.”

Author's Note:

Inspiration for "Ei vist lo loup."
Ai Vist Lo Lop: