• Published 7th Jul 2017
  • 592 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.

  • ...
4
 22
 592

Bach Kha'mohrgen

The tower of the mutant hunter fortress stretched high, taller than even the many mage colleges that were growing throughout the kingdoms. Even here, deep in swamped land, change affected the hunters.

The hunters resting at the fortress had taken to naming the filly after her favorite word--Geiss--just as Fiora had. She learned other words fast enough, but was much keener to take up the martial training. Her fumbles were, at first, an amusement to the hunters. Then, a week after she had healed herself completely, she blurred into a rending gale and tore a wooden target into shreds.

Fiora sat with her mentor, Argent Ploja, on a crumbled stone wall beside the central tower. It was a storehouse for weapons, until a deathworm broke into the keep two decades ago. Though mutants and monster hunters, the residents of Bach Kha'mohrgen cared little for their fortress, which was little more than a supply cache for most.

"Are you sure this is a curse? She could be a monster using polymorphism," Ploja suggested.

Fiora shook her head, handing him a sample of krakenweed. "I had her eat this when she woke. It's a common enough plant in the rivers around Bach Tor'al. It alters potions of revelation by changing the shape of the garou enzymes. The new enzymes don't just interfere with polymorphism, it completely denies the ability."

Argent Ploja took the dried purplish plant and put it in the pocket on his gambeson. "You said you came across a royal griffon on the way here?"

"With an entourage of monsters too," she confirmed. "Wanted artifacts of control. Otherworldly in nature, according to him."

"I'm starting to think this 'curse' might be from a similar source," Ploja reasoned, looking at Geiss practicing with flame-glyph horseshoes. "Though the vurm velum you mentioned means the magic crossed over hundreds of years before the first portal started dumping monsters here."

Fiora looked across the courtyard to a small training yard against one of those monsters. A baykok, chains around its neck, struggled against the wall that bound it.

This one was like most of its kind, vicious but unimaginably stupid. Young hunters-to-be trained against the thin beast with spears extended, letting it charge itself onto their point.

"Speaking of which, anything in the swamps I should know about?" It was a peaceful ride through to the fortress, but there were clear signs of monster activity. Trails made by heavy creatures, Corpse Eater prints, loose scales dropped by another type of otherworldly monster, a Qirin.

Ploja waved his hoof. "Forget about it, you've been on the path long enough, and your young filly there only just recovered. You could use a break."

"Hunting is a break," Fiora insisted. "Besides, I haven't had a good, clean contract for a while."

"Alright," he conceded. "I can think of one you might be interested in. The lord Northwest of this swamp sent a messenger with a list of monster contracts. The messenger never made it."

"Ironic. I bet one of the things on those contracts killed him." Fiora adjusted her sword belt, moving it to a more comfortable position.

Argent Ploja cautioned her with a hoof. "Swamps aren't the same since you were here. More monsters, more danger."

"More danger needs more training," she added, pointing to a pile of training swords by the sparring grounds. "Care to see if I still deserve my reputation?"

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

Argent Ploja weaved through Fiora's opening flourishes, catching Fiora's wing and disarming her, or at least he planned to.

Fiora stepped around Ploja, levitating her sword with magic instead, and threw a cut at his head. His silver hair, the same color as the raindrop mark on his rear, brushed against the training sword as he ducked. He turned and threw his own strike, but Fiora had stepped out of his reach.

"Your masters at Bach Tor'al taught you well," Ploja chuckled, levitating his sword behind him in a high striking guard. It was reckless, exposing the entire body, but good timing always placed a cut in the path of the opponent's attack.

Fiora switched her blade back to her wing and stood in a hanging ox guard. "Learned more from monsters who threatened to kill me."

Her attention shifted to another horned mare walking out of the main tower into the sparring arena. She had a prominent horn and walked with incredible control of her magic, but her slender frame did not look like a fighter's body. That, and she didn't have a single scar on her body.

Without looking Fiora interrupted Ploja's wild cut, letting his sword slide off the parry and turning her pommel to his face.

"Who's that?" she asked, stopping the strike.

Argent Ploja looked over to the mare and they dropped their guards. "That's Cyana Blueberry. Figures you wouldn't know her, the last time you stopped by she had left for her hunter trials."

Fiora gave him a doubtful look. "She a hunter?" She had seen ponies like her before, but only as nobles and poets and actresses.

Cyana's eyes perked up, and she stormed over to Fiora in an instant. Argent Ploja turned away immediately, paying no attention.

"No, Miss Battaille, I did not pass those barbaric tests of brute strength," she snapped. "I much prefer the unparalleled power of the arcane arts, if you don't mind."

"Figured as much," Fiora replied. Her aura was weak, but Fiora could tell there was a difference to it. She could feel with her horn how her magic danced along her skin. Most horned mutants let their magic flow, letting a lot of it go to waste, and even though Fiora had trained to concentrate her magic, Cyana had clearly mastered it far better.

"So, what could interest you in our 'brutish' sparring arena?" Fiora asked.

Cyana turned and pointed, her hoof landing on Geiss. "It so happens the other masters can't wrap their head around your little filly's curse. So, they asked me to look into it."

It was an interesting thought. The hunters of the keep had all tried to make sense of the curse, but to no avail. That included using all the books in the keep's tower. "Glimpsed upon some arcane knowledge we should know about?"

"None that I'm willing to share," Cyana smiled. "But I can assure you, she is in safe hooves."

"Not the hooves I'm worried about," Fiora said sternly. "Magic can be volatile."

Nodded in agreement. "Only when done wrongly. And since my office is on the top floor, while all the night silver is kept down here, there shouldn't be a problem."

"Good then, because I'll be watching." Fiora tossed her sword onto the weapons rack, but Cyana tisked.

"No, that won't do, hunter," she informed, levitating the sword back up and the grip back into Fiora's wing. "Your magic causes far too much interference. I can only work with mine and hers."

Ploja eased the tension on Fiora's shoulder. "Listen, we all trust Cyana. Just let her try."

Fiora shrugged off his caution. "Like hell I'm going to let her-"

Without a hint of emotion, like a child squishing a bug, Cyana flicked her horn and threw Fiora back into the weapon rack, scattering spears and maces and swords onto the ground. There were glances for sure, but none of the other hunters training dared to look directly at the sorceress.

The spell didn't hit like normal. She started the spell inside Fiora's chest, blasting it through her body like a steel bullet from a ballista.

"I don't meddle with your nokkens and wraiths," said Cyana, walking away toward Geiss where she was practicing her balance on a steel beam. "So don't interfere with my business."

Argent Ploja helped Fiora up, who was still reeling from the blow. "Want to take a break before we resume the sword? You look like you could use a drink."

"Got any Devil's Tongue?" she coughed. It was a popular vodka among mutant hunters, flavored with spices grown by certain dryads.

Ploja nodded."Alright. Let's have a few bottles," she said, catching her breath.

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

Even before she spoke up, Fiora knew who had just entered the tower. The first floor was a massive dining hall and kitchen, with a kingdom's worth of alcohol in the cellar below. It was always the first stop for hunters taking a break from their path.

"Why is the first thing I see when I return my grandmare getting drunk?" The young mare took a seat on her left, since Argent Ploja was busy mixing ale with potions on her right.

Once upon a time, Fiora was centered around a stable family. A nice farm, a friendly yet unfortunately mortal husband, and many children. Mutants, all of them.

She looked at the hunter who sat by her, trying to guess her name. She had had three bottles of Devil's Tongue, but her mutant body certainly wasn't drunk enough to get confused. The sad truth was that she had driven her children away by raising them like hunters. Now, she could only guess at her grandchildren's names.

"That blank stare isn't from the drink, is it?" her granddaughter finally said after a few awkward seconds. Like her cousins, she understood that her mother and her grandmare were not on the best terms.

Fiora sighed. "Your grandfather was a better parent than I was. All I knew how to do was train them like hunters."

"Well you taught Sterling Shard what not to do." She reached over the counter for a bottle of water. "Never saw mom touch a bottle of wine."

"Growing up on an orchard makes wine seem, common place," Fiora said and emptied her mug of spiced cider. "But I'm glad to see you've been raised better... um-"

"-Silver Pearl," her granddaughter supplied. "But I go by Sylva, instead. Ran into another hunter from the Murder of Crows that used the same name."

"Changing names must run in the family," Fiora said, turning away. She gazed forward in a lost memory, tossing her mug into a basket over the counter for the cleaners.

Sylva recognized her look. It was the same look her mother had whenever the topic of her father came up. "Mom took me there, once. It was a nice place."

"Yes, it was." It was a family farm, fertile land with grapes and apples and peace, and now half of it was in smoldering ashes. "Where is she now?"

"A couple years ago, mom left me a note about a contract she took in the far north, beyond what any map has covered," Sylva said. "She mentioned having to help some mutants, an ultra rare breed, find a new home. Haven't heard since."

Fiora sighed. "You staying around for long?"

Sylva finished her water and shook her head. She wanted to talk to her grandmare more, it was the first time they had really met, but the life of a monster hunter was on the road, always walking away on a path.

"I came to grab some night silver for a couple contracts," she said sadly. "Wish I could talk more, but I might not have much time left."

"You do what you need to," Fiora said, letting her granddaughter leave for the weapons cache in the cellar, where the sensitive night silver was kept away from the equally sensitive magic.

Ploja, who had been silent the whole time, broke his concentration away from his experimentation with alcohol and volatile hunter potions.

"Not many of us have families, or even love," he told her. "Yours might not be the best, but its better than most."

"Thanks," Fiora replied, but it wasn't much consolation.

He grabbed her by the hoof and dragged her weakly away from the table. "Now, I think I've mixed two things I shouldn't have, and I need to work it out of my system before I pass out."

"I don't think that's a good idea," Fiora cautioned, balancing her mentor before he teetered off his seat and onto the floor.

"Nonsense!" he garbled. "Mutants have... resistance against these things. I just need some time."

Fiora groaned. "'Some time' usually means a few hours when it comes to you. Come on, we can spend those hours where we left off."

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

"That's no Cynogriffon technique," Ploja laughed, jumping backwards from Fiora's tricks.

Fiora kept herself planted, flapping her wings to blow the noxious dust around Ploja. It was a common poison substitute for sparring, but nevertheless the powder made from nightstealer glands caused terrible motion sickness that could incapacitate even the sturdiest of hunters.

Ploja surrounded himself with a bubble, drawing the toxin into his magic to remove it. He shattered it and launched shards of poisoned magic at Fiora in return. She side stepped and lunged forward with her sword, turning around and striking Ploja's side while he shielded himself from the feint. He took the hit, using it for a chance to unleash a shockwave of magic.

Fiora leaned back in anticipation, throwing up a magic barrier and deflecting the spell.

Her mentor grunted in approval, rubbing his side where the training sword had landed a blow. "Three hundred years, and you fight like you're no more than a hundred."

Fiora laughed, but was cut short by the gates of the fortress opening for two hunters. One had wings, and was dressed in a gambeson with runes stitched onto it. The other a horned mutant with sections of chainmail on top of wyvern leather.

"Oh no," Argent Ploja murmured.

"What' the matter?" They were badly hurt and covered in blood and mud. Both of their armor looked torn up by a powerful monster, but it wasn't anything a blacksmith and a few potions couldn't fix.

Ploja hung his head. "Three hunters went to track an Inchneumon that made its home atop a hill south of here."

Fiora knew from personal experience how strong Ichneumons were. The monsters resembled giant mongooses, and often nested in places rich in mud which they used to cover themselves for armor. As natural hunters of dragons, they were one of the fastest and most vicious creatures known to hunters.

Three hunters would never have been enough to take one down.

She spotted a horned huntress galloping from the main tower and noticed the grimace that came over Ploja's face.

"What happened? Is Lebre alright?" The huntress ran up to the hunter in broken chainmail. "Where is he?"

"Jalla," he replied, unable to look her in the eyes. "He didn't make it."

The huntress, Jalla, stepped back speechless. She looked at the other hunter, but he didn't have anything to say either, only sad eyes. The other hunters and hunters in training stopped one by one to look. The sound of weapons clashing and beating wood dummies was replaced by silence.

Jalla used her magic and swung her mace across the hunter's helmet, knocking the dented piece of metal onto the floor. "You son-of-a-bitch. You knew how dangerous the contract was, but you still took my husband without me!"

The other horned hunters, including Fiora, could hear the chainmailed hunter's voice. Their hearing was enhanced by magic, and the silent choking in his throat was as clear as spoken words.

"I could have kept him safe," she continued. "The four of us agreed we'd kill it together. Was a larger cut of the reward that important to you?"

"No!" he exclaimed through gritted teeth. "For Equestria's sake, no. Lebre wanted to protect you, and I agreed. He didn't want to risk you."

"I've finished as many contracts as you, Mezzer," she said.

He grabbed her by the shoulders. "Not an ichneumon! The last time you took on a High Fiend it nearly killed you. This monster was ten times worse. Lebre's my best friend, was my best friend. And I wanted to protect you too, for his sake."

She shook him off. "Thank you. I feel so safe, now that my love is dead. Did you even try to bring him back?"

Mezzer reeled back, unsure of what to tell her. The other hunter didn't have the same doubts. "The ichneumon found Lebre first. None of us could react when it ambushed us and-"

His voice broke for a moment. "By the time my eyes focused, Lebre was ripped to shreds by that monster's jaws. There was hardly anything left to bring back to bury."

All the other hunters, embarrassed to look at such a scene, turned away to resume some other, quieter task. Most distracted themselves with gathering potion ingredients and alchemy tools. Fiora watched, her eyes following Jalla as she ran away from the two hunters to console herself.

"Every year it's one or two of us," Ploja lamented and put his training weapon back in the pile. "With so much war, monsters are around every corner. It's good work, but deadlier too. Like I said, your family's better than most."

Fiora tossed her training sword back too and buckled her sword belt back on. "That messenger has to be somewhere between here and the swamp's edge. I'll see if I can find the list of contracts."

Without another word, she broke into a gallop through the open gates and into the pathless swamp.

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

Any telltale sign of a corpse was the trail of corpse eaters. If the messenger died on the way to the fortress, then his body was certainly in their claws. Fiora scanned the swampy ground for any sign of where the pack went. The were being led by a grave maker, a big and powerful one at that.

It was the middle of the day, but whether down south was cloudy. The sun's light glowed orange through the clouds that blew in from the warm lands south. Few had ever explored down into dragon territory, but it was no secret that they lived in harsh, cracked deserts.

Dust infused clouds left the sky with a light orange-yellow hue, and down in the swamps everything was a shade of brown or greenish brown.

Grave makers were good at concealing their tracks when they wanted. Usually they didn't unless they knew a hunter was on their trail, but with the pack so close to Bach Kha'mohrgen, this one was wise to hunters tracking it. But there was nothing it could do to mask the scent of its last kill.

The scent of blood was strong, and even if its tracks were intentionally muddle, Fiora knew where they were headed. There were little mistakes on the way, claw marks on fallen trees and skin peeling off one of the corpse eaters who must had been shedding.

The pack must have been large if the grave maker couldn't control all of its followers.

Fiora's pace slowed to a creeping crawl, crouched in the wet mudflats, covered by the few trees and bushes that grew from the land. The pack of corpse eaters fought over scraps while the alpha devoured the liver of a stallion by itself. Somewhere in the mess of blood and torn clothes, was the list of contracts.

Fiora uncorked a flask from her saddlebag and swallowed its contents. The potion's solvent was not water, but acid from a kumo demon--a spider-like relative to imps and djinn.

It burned its way through her throat and into her blood. Though resilient to most potions, this decoction of monkshood roots and daphne berries was far more lethal than typical brews. She only had a few minutes to eliminate the pack and administer the antidote.

She leaped out and decapitated two corpse eaters before they caught wind of her, twisting her body out of the way as the rest of the pack lunged onto her. She moved through them, weaving in a fury to kill as many as she could in the initial chaos.

But one low, guttural cry pulled back the reckless beasts. They circled her. It was a fitting tactic, since corpse eaters resembled mangy wolves. Hairless, their skin was coated in a sweaty fluid infamous for the deadly diseases that festered in their skin.

It was made worse with rotting flesh strewn across stronger members of the pack. Very few corpse eaters killed on their initial attack; they struck their prey and waited for infection to sit in. Their deformed fangs and jaws forced large serrated fangs to jut out, and even a single bite exposed their victims to more than enough diseases to kill.

But the grave maker was worse by far. Bigger, stronger, and more intelligent, it was often described by peasants as "a timberwolf made of flesh and bone." This one was old and smarter than most of its kind, a likely reason for why it dared to live so close to a fortress of monster hunters.

Bones of all types were tied to its body with intestines and stringy plants, like armor. It clattered as it burst forward, giving Fiora no time to create a magic barrier. It jaws tore her armor apart, exposing her shoulder the most.

She rolled away, but was met by two corpse eaters digging into her foreleg and neck. Fiora grunted, letting the pain wash over her, and slashed at the monsters. They retreated, but the alpha timed its attack perfectly and slashed its claws across her back.

More corpse eaters descended onto Fiora, who had no choice but to stumble in the mud and slash at whatever came her way.

It was all she could do to keep the whole pack from devouring her at once. As they fought, however, the corpse eaters grew slower.

One by one, the monsters coughed and wretched at the blood they consumed. They turned to their alpha, confused. Fiora raised her sword to taunt it to attack, knowing that if the grave maker could take a single bite of her poisoned body, it'd be dead within the day.

But it had survived too long to fall for such simple tricks. The grave maker barked orders at its pack, taking the strong remaining monsters while the other corpse eaters choked on their meal, shaking on the ground as the decoction's poisons coursed through their system.

As soon as they were out of sight Fiora collapsed onto the ground. She took off her saddlebag and fumbled through its contents for the antidote. The pack was larger than she thought, and getting through her opening strikes took longer than anticipated. She tore through the contents until she found a vial of a white, watery liquid.

Its soapy, bitter taste was a welcomed sensation if it meant the toxins in her body were flushed out. She slipped her saddlebag back on, but fell back down when she tried to stand up and search the messenger's remains.

The decoction had worked long enough. The damage wouldn't be permanent, but without any potion to heal the internal damage on her nerves and organs, there was no telling how many hours it'd take for her body to recover.

Before she hit the ground, Fiora just hoped she sent the grave maker a strong enough message. There in the runny mud, she laid herself to rest.