• 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

Sail North

Fiora didn't like leaving Geiss with Ploja and Loralae. Ploja was busy tracking down materials needed to detect magic from long range, and Lora had to sing most nights at the Golden Hills. But, seeing the ship she and Sharp Tone were about to guard, she was reminded that a storm could sweep a little filly like her off the ship. Her magic wasn't under control, and there was no telling if she could use it to save herself.

The Sunken Sow was like everything else Stranglethorn owned. Massively extravagant and intimidating with its defenses. A steel prow made it a deadly ramming ship, and the deck was loaded with giant versions of crank bows. Fiora walked past the bolts meant for one of the weapons, and it was longer than she was.

"You think we can buy a couple of those for when we take back Bach Kha'morhgen?" Sharp Tone asked. As soon as she told the other hunters about this job, he was quick to insist on joining. Fiora just shot him a quick look. "Whatever Ploja wants to do, we're going to take it back eventually. Better to start planning now."

A young stallion called out to them from across the ship before approaching. "I see we have two new guests! What are you here for?"

"Stranglethorn wants more security on her ship," Fiora said, gesturing to herself and Sharp Tone. "Here we are."

He looked over them both. "Not one to judge, but you're both monster hunters, right?"

They nodded. "Fiora de Battaille and Sharp Tone, Discipline of Mutants, if you couldn't tell."

He sucked wind through his teeth and extended a hoof to Fiora. "I was sorry to hear about your fortress. High Mountain's thrown us into the deep end, taking away the only hunter stronghold on this side of Equestria."

Sharp Tone's feathers ruffled at the mention of Bach Kha'morhgen. Fiora raised a brow. "Ponies don't care about hunter castles. Where did you hear about our fortress being taken?"

"Well for one thing, I work for Stranglethorn, and that mare knows how to find every speck of sand on the Far Coast," he chuckled. "That, and the Sunken Sow travels all across the Far Coast. Some pony, somewhere, is going to whisper that kind of news."

"Well, thank you for reminding us," Sharp Tone said impatiently, "but we were told to report to the captain of the ship as soon as possible."

The stallion laughed, grabbing Sharp Tone's hoof and shaking it. "Ain't a cabin boy, I'll tell you that."

He turned and bowed dramatically to Fiora. "Navier Duvent, your spectacular and amazingly humble captain."

"Oh great," Sharp Tone bemoaned. "I love these kind of guys." He immediately headed for the crew quarters below deck to unpack his bags.

"Excuse his manners," Fiora covered. "Young, egotistical hunters are usually the ones to die. He prefers not to know those kinds of ponies to spare himself the effort."

Navier huffed. "Well I hope he thinks better of me by the end of this trip." Fiora noticed that he didn't even try to refute Sharp Tone's perception.

His gaze wandered from Fiora's eyes to two stallions about to topple a barrel of Bovine Spice Spirit into the water. Like a parent racing after a child, he broke their conversation and rushed to save the shipment.

Fiora found herself managing a laugh as Navier's hardy sailor appearance, complete with a windswept golden mane and cotton shirt torn at the sleeves, fell apart as he struggled with the other stallions to pull a heavy load of alcohol from the edge of the port.

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

Fiora kept her armor locked in the private chest at the foot of her bed. As additional security, she and Sharp Tone had the larger guest rooms, as opposed to the regular rooms for the crew. A small desk with just enough space for a letter stood by her bed with a candle holder, though the light coming in through the small windows near the top of the room provided plenty of light for the moment.

The Sunken Sow had just left port, and as Thesa advised, Fiora went to check on the cargo with Sharp Tone. They got the manifest from the Quartermaster and checked every barrel, crate, and bushel. On the surface, there was nothing, and Sharp Tone's mood didn't help with his patience.

"I don't know what you're looking for but she's wasting our time," he said, tossing aside the copy of the manifest. "I didn't come for accounting work."

"Sharp, I get that you're pissed and you have every right," Fiora replied while she took a closer look at a crate. "But you won't retake Bach Kha'mohrgen if you're too hotheaded to do any work."

She was reminded of the note as she looked. Additional goods sent with grain seemed innocent, but if that was the case it'd be out in the open to see. She didn't know what kind of work Grain Rye was doing to make ends meet, but Stranglethorn was another matter. Vampire or not, Island Hopper's life was threatened simply because he controlled a business that she didn't. Fiora decided to take a risk and look further, wrapping her magic around the top of the crate and prying it off to expose the bags of corn meal inside.

Sharp Tone pulled her away from the crate. "Are you crazy? I've been in Bovinus for a couple days and I've already heard six bad things about Stranglethorn. You really want to mess with her stuff?"

Fiora levitated the bags up while he protested. At first the bottom was well concealed, low enough to almost look like it was the bottom, but her senses were too keen to be tricked. Sharp Tone stopped his objections once he noticed it too.

"It's too tough for me to pull with my magic," Fiora said, pointing to Sharp's sword. "Could you make it a little looser?"

He jammed the tip of his blade very reluctantly--he wanted to preserve the edge--until he forced open a small gap and began to pry it. Working alongside Fiora's magic, the managed to remove the false bottom quickly and quietly.

Swords and horseshoes were wrapped up in cloth underneath. Fiora and Sharp Tone traded perplexed looks. They replaced everything the way it was and checked another crate. Below it, there were polished spear heads. Under another there were bags of sugar and pot-ash.

"Hold on," Sharp Tone said. "The Dragon Arts used pot-ash to make potassium nitrate for their explosives."

Fiora nodded. "If I recall, they mixed it with sulfur, but under the right conditions sugar is good substitute."

"Weapons shipment. Not liking Stranglethorn even more." Sharp Tone sheathed his sword. "Put everything back, I think we've seen enough."

"You'll hear no argument from me." Fiora gently set the bags of meal back where why belonged and sealed the top of the crates. It took some effort to force the nails back in, but she could do it if she focused on each one. But that took time, and they both lost focus when some pony started coming down the stairs.

"Just make it look untouched," Sharp Tone hissed, grabbing up the ship manifest and pretending to count the number of wine bottles fastened to a shelf.

Fiora planted the the crate covers back on and hid the nails underneath just as the boatswain entered the hold. His head bobbed around the shelves by the entrance before he spotted the two hunters.

"Wad'ya two don' down'ere?" he asked them in a heavy Inland Tundra accent. "Gon' kep luking a' me, or tell me wad'ah asked?"

"We're the extra security Stranglethorn hired for the cargo," Sharp supplied an answered, waving the manifest around. "We wanted to know exactly what should be here."

The boatswain peered at both of them with squinted eyes. "And wad got'ya lukin a' those crates? Ah got eyes an' ah see those nails down dere."

Sharp Tone leaned over the shelves and gave a nod at Fiora's direction. She saw him and walked closer to the boatswain. Before he could back up and question them further, she waved her horn around his head, casting magic over his mind.

"We're just making a security check, to be safe. Do you want to take a risk with Stranglethorn's goods?" Fiora cut of the spell, letting the magic linger over the stallion. Magic glamoured her words to be more suggestive, but it did not work wonders. She had to be reasonable enough to make the boatswain agree.

He nodded with his choice. "Not gon' take a risk." His glazed over eyes looked around, grabbed some rope, and returned to the upper deck.

Fiora waited for his hoof steps to go silent before putting the nails back on the crates and leaving for their cabins. They had spent a good hour in the cargo hold, and if they didn't want Stranglethorn to catch wind of what they did, they needed to make it look like they had spent the day in their cabins.

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

Fiora relaxed by the candlelight with the rum and plate of steamed vegetables that the ship's chef served for dinner. There were books left around the cabin by previous residents, and over time a small stack of fifteen or so books formed in the corner of the room.

She flipped through Candid Trails by Voltine Grim. It was a satirical work about a stallion oblivious to the cruel world, travelling from one place to another in search of some kind of peaceful paradise. Above, sailors were drinking and chanting together. She ignored them at first, until a voice bellowed out the lyrics of a shanty.

She leered up at the ceiling of her cabin. Navier couldn't see her, but she was staring daggers at him for interrupting her reading time. She realized from the chanting of the crew how Loralae's voice had set the bar too high. A Nixe's voice was unmatched, often compared to a goddess for good reason.

But there was some other quality to the shanty. Fiora found herself compelled to join them on the deck to feel it for herself. She could hear it in the ship, through the salty air and wooden planks. The voice of an imperfect unison of stallions strengthened the emotion in the chant, for it was only the muddling of voices that could sound like a bond of a crew. Good or bad, thick or thin, they sounded like they'd fight and die together.

Navier's voice, who led the shanty, was strangely organic. Loralae's voice was a crystal, clearer than the sun. But Navier sung deep, drawing on a primal joy of being joined by his crew. He was smiling all throughout the song, but as Fiora joined the crew around their brazier, Navier's movements and dance grew livelier.

We'll be alright, when the sirens sing their song!

We'll be alright, for it's cotton that we've brung!

We'll be alright, for these sailors won't go wrong!

So we can all rest and be fine!

---

And we'll sail away, from leviathans 'till morn,

And we'll sail away, from the monsters at the dawn,

And sail away, from the ashrays from the north,

So we can all rest and be fine!

---

Oh! Well a night dance with a naiad, wouldn't do me any harm,

I can waltz and she can sing, and we'll gaze up at the stars,

Then I'll take her to by the hoof, and she'll sail me very far,

So we can all rest and be fine!

---

And we'll sail away, from leviathans 'till morn,

And we'll sail away, from the monsters at the dawn,

And we'll sail away, from the ashrays from the north,

So we can all rest and be fine!

---

Another leave at shore, that could do the crew some good,

Before they take the sails apart and then leave me alone, marooned.

It can be stressful when we're sailing, we could sink to Death Lagoon,

Where we will all rest and be fine!

---

Some pony at some point found their way around a flute and started playing along to the rhythm of the crew. Through no willing but the song's Fiora found herself dancing and singing alongside the sailors. The ponies didn't mind a mutant beside them. In fact, they were thrilled to dance with her wings, grabbing on and swaying around on the deck like the mad drunkards they were.

Fiora felt alive with the crew. In truth they were strangers brought together by coin, but the vast sea had its way of bringing together those trapped on its tides. Never in her life had a job brought her joy of companionship. Monsters, forests, swamps, and scowling ponies, that was her world. But, if she ever realized she was ready to retire again, she swore to herself she'd try a life out at sea.

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

Her cabin felt smaller compared to the cold ocean breeze. Snowflakes blown from the northern glaciers peppered the deck of the ship. But below deck was warmer, insulated from the nature above. Even the candlelight seemed small compared to the brazier they danced around.

She stared at the pile of books in the cabin. She loved reading, escaping into stories where the character was certain to succeed. Some were quite like her own experiences, but in a book she always felt certain of the outcome. Yet now that safety felt small. On a ship at the mercy of the tides and wind she couldn't be absolutely sure what came next, and that excited her. The world was big and open and changing. She'd need a library of books to even come close to that sensation.

There came a knock knock from her door. Fiora whirled her head to find Navier standing with a small wooden box and a bottle.

"Hope I'm not intruding," he smiled. "I figured we could wind down together after all the craziness above deck."

"Wind down with more rum?" she raised a brow at the bottle.

He followed her gaze. "This? No, it's more of a medicine. You might be familiar with it, since the doctor who gave it to me based it on a hunter potion."

"Oh? Which one?"

He scratched his head trying to remember. "A weird language, something something Tog."

"I can think of five off the top of my head that fits that name," she said. "What does it do?"

"That, my good madam, has a story. May I sit down?" He gestured to the chair by the desk. Fiora took a seat on her bed and waved him in.

"By all means, not much else to do but learn stories." She pointed to the books left in the corner. "And hearing is sometimes better than reading."

Navier sat and carefully uncorked the bottle, pouring the pinkish clear water into a glass. He filled the second, handing it to Fiora.

"It's clears the body of toxins," he said, sipping. "It's supposed to be for poisons and venom, but it's not potent enough to stop lethal doses, so it's useless in that regard. Great for sobering up though."

"Sedispe Sang Tog," Fiora supplied a name, instinctively drawing on her knowledge of potions. "The words have no grammar, they just translate to Clear, Blood, and Fog. It means 'to clear the body of interfering substances' but that doesn't roll off the tongue."

"Neither does the other name," Navier muttered under his breath as he drank. He continued his explanation of having the medicine. "You have to understand the kind of stallion my father was. In the South Coast, the system of gaining 'Lordship by Merit' meant my father could be lord for the favors he did for the king. Naturally, as his only son, he told me I'd inherit his title."

Navier opened the box he brought with them. Inside were crunchy oatmeal cookie balls stuffed with raisins and raspberry jam. He offered one to Fiora and chewed on one as well.

He ate it thoughtfully, then broke into the next part of the story with no warning. "But, though I was his only son, I wasn't his only child. One day he changed his mind, almost on a whim, and wrote in his will that my sister would inherit the title. Since it was a Lordship by Merit, I couldn't hold any status through blood ties. But I didn't care."

Navier took two more from the box. "I bought these for my sister to celebrate when she got her ship. I was happy for her, despite losing my inheritance. But she had to go on a trade route with our father to Warfstead. First it was trade routes, then guild meetings, and after a year they attended balls and dances together with other nobles."

Fiora watched him. His eyes stared, but they weren't glazed over in a dead look into the past like most ponies had. Wrapped in his memory, his eyes were focused.

"I wasn't a noble," he said, as if he was making the realization all over again. "I could have handled my father shunning me; he didn't become a lord by being a soft stallion. But he had turned my sister against me."

"My older sister, whom I looked up to, wouldn't even speak to me because of him. I was low-born scum to them. I turned to heavy drinking to forget the pain until my doctor said my liver couldn't take it anymore." He waved the bottle of medicine around. "Now I need this unless I want to drink myself into the dirt."

Navier put the bottle down and sighed. "I know the drinking sounds like my problem, and it is, but everything else I blame on my family, my father especially."

"My father is dead," Fiora blurted.

Her bluntness shoved Navier out of his own pit of sorrowful memories. "Oh wow-- I mean, I'm terribly sorry to make you remember that."

She reached her wing out and took another cookie ball. "It's fine, he wasn't technically my father. I never called him that, at least. But he was the stallion who found me and trained me at Bach Tor'al. The news just showed up like any other fact of the world."

Fiora paused, coughed, and mimicked reading from a letter. "To the hunters of Bach Tor'al, due to the death Monster Hunter Guerrier, the payment for both High Fiends will go to the castle in his stead. The High Mountain cordially thanks you for your contribution to the kingdom."

She sighed. "He died in a forest killing High Fiends for a bag of coin from a lumber mill owner." Admitting that loss was something that weighed her more than she realized. She focused on one tragedy to blame for her pointless wandering, but she had many breaking points.

"Never said I loved him," she said. "Never called him father."

"Did he call you his daughter?" Navier asked, and Fiora shook her head. "Then I'm sure he felt the same. All hate can be described with words, which is why we're so expressive with it. But love unspoken is stronger than anything else. You two didn't need to say you were a family to be one."

They both looked at the box, now emptied of sweet cookies. "I can't tell if I feel better after all that," Navier closed it. "I share my story with my crew, but I always feel like I'm just reminding myself of my own motives."

"And now?" Fiora asked.

He looked at her piercing eyes. "I feel light, a little empty, and," he paused to phrase his words, "now I hope you're feeling what I'm feeling."

Fiora looked back. She knew what she looked like, a mutant with eyes that saw death every day. Monsters, ponies, it didn't matter who bled anymore. And when they said that one's eyes can look like stars, she was certain hers was the fading ones that shone dimly in the black night.

Navier's eyes had warmth, like the first star to strike the heavens. Bright and glorious, Fiora wanted those eyes. She wanted all of it and the life behind it. Without a word she reached out with her magic and locked the cabin door, and they pounced on each other like wild animals.

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

Fiora questioned herself, whether or not she'd be okay with what they did. She didn't regret it, not yet at least, but hunter training never included how to deal with lifelong feelings.

Was her love for her late husband exclusive? For a long time it felt so. She clung to the home they had in his memory, and her children reminded her of his kindness and decency that so many others lacked. Hunters always lived on the road, but life with a family made her forget how to leave her memories behind. She couldn't run away from the past.

But wasn't that what she had been trying to do? Soldiers burned her home. Every city she visited, and every contract she had taken, kept her moving from place to place. She was already running away, so why not let her feelings do the same? For so long she felt obligated to love only Ripe Apple. Did the dead have the right to make demands of the living?

Navier Duvent. The name didn't sit on her tongue with love as she mouthed it silently, but he did offer comfort. Her eyes shifted to her shoulder, where his hoof met a scar she had gotten from a chimera. With fascination he traced the scar to her shoulder blade and down her back.

She wanted to say something, but didn't know where to place her words. Was it just a night for them both? She couldn't be sure if she wanted more from him. Though, she didn't have the chance to say anything.

Shouts came from above deck as the ship teetered. Navier's box and glass bottle clattered on the floor as everything was thrown off balance. In an instant, she stripped herself of feelings and became the relentless monster hunter she was raised to be.

Levitating her armor from its chest, she slipped into it like a second skin and wrapped her wings tightly around her sword. She burst through the door, following Sharp Tone, who was already racing up to see what had happened.

They met fire on the deck and ropes dangling from the masts. It was an hour before sunlight would break the horizon, but the other ships that surrounded them cast red light across the whole deck. Fiora's eyes shot around, counting the ships. Five had surrounded them, trapping them in the water, but there were more further back. They launched spears from massive crank bows and lobbed pots of burning oil from catapults.

The attackers were not dressed like the crew of the Sunken Sow. They had black gambesons over chainmail, some even had scaled peytrals and cruppers that covered their front and back legs. They fought with boarding axes strapped their legs. Others had horseshoes that stretched out into two daggers. And they flooded the deck. The sailors who fought back were brutally slaughtered. Many of them had axes too, but no armor to speak of.

Sharp Tone and Fiora cut down the first few that rushed them before the ship teetered forward. The front was taking on water from the ram that cut through the side of the hull.

A sailor, one with the scaled uniforms, rushed for Sharp Tone, tacking him into a mast. Two more jumped on him, pinning his wings down as they took his sword from his belt. Fiora rushed to his side but back dragged back by another just like them.

He rammed his daggers at her face, missing by a hair as she ducked. Fiora's sword was slashing in an instant, but the blade was long and tangled with the rigging dangling above the fighting. She had to sidestep to avoid the sailor. She twisted her sword out of the rope and thrust into his armor as he came in to stab her chest.

Her blade could puncture chainmail and a gambeson with enough force, but it never reached the inner layers of his armor. She felt it stick in, and knew what they were wearing. The sailors had scales made from lacquered wood. The armor was penetrated by her sword, but it never got any deeper than the tip. The wood gripped the sword, immobilizing it in Fiora's wings.

The sailor looked at her with a wide grin and howled with his tongue out, slashing Fiora's face with the daggers on his horseshoe. A second ship turned and crashed into the Sunken Sow, throwing every pony around on the ship. Fiora lost track of the sailor who had her sword in his chest, but didn't have time to look for him. She widened her stance to keep balance on the crumpling ship, but was helpless to stop the countless stallions tumbling over and knocking her down.

She felt her hoof slip first, then her body. The deck had given way and she was plummeting into the icy northern sea. Her first instinct was to rejoin the fight, but sheathed her sword before her impulses got her killed. She swam deeper under the ship to avoid the falling debris. Toppling masts and splintering wood fell above her, but she was safe.

Her saddlebag was still in her room, with the potions she needed to breath underwater. She hoped for a moment she could find it, but her bag wasn't any different from the ones the other sailors used. Her hunter training did help to hold her breath longer, but even then she didn't have the time to look through the dozens of bags scattered in the water.

She swam to the surface once she was clear of the Sunken Sow. In the chaos, whoever ambushed them didn't notice the numerous sailors dropping in the water. They probably assumed whoever fell was dead, or would be soon. Gently, to avoid drawing attention, Fiora forced herself to swim further through the cold water and latch onto one of the ships the surrounded them.

She clung to its back, where hopefully no pony would care to look, and waited. She held, forced to listen to screaming stallions dying with blood in their throats but unable to help. There wasn't a battle to be one, just a slaughter that she had to wait out so she could be taken back to whoever was responsible. She didn't know if Navier was alive in the mess. The only thing she focused on was hanging onto the back of the ship.

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

Fiora was exhausted by the time she found herself on the coast. The ship was not an easy thing to cling to, and the water this far north chilled her to the bone. She dove off before the fleet met the docks, swimming to shore away from the small port.

She splayed herself on the rocks, catching her breath. She considered ditching her armor the entire time, but now she was glad she didn't. Hanging with the chainmail and dragon scale wasn't easy, but she made it, and now she would need her armor if she came to blows with any pony. After a few minutes, sat up and cast her eyes onto the port.

Plain blue flags fluttered over the warehouses but some crates being moved around were marked with hte symbol of a mountain with the coming dawn behind it. It was the sigil of the High Mountain Kingdom. She kept to the protruding rocks that covered the beach, spying on the docks as she moved closer. She could see the soldiers unloading crates and barrels marked by Bovinus. She should have guessed that a shipment of weapons would interest an invading force.

She clamored up the coast to a higher point. Land deeper in was elevated above the beach. It was covered in sparse grass covered in snow, but she was just high enough over the port to avoid being spotted by wandering eyes. Higher, she could see the prisoners on the ship--the crew of the Sunken Sow as well as Sharp Tone. They were moving them along a road that led away from the port.

A wide dirt path cut up through the land to a small village on a hill, overlooking the shores. Tall tree trunks formed a wall around the town, with archer towers encircling the village. It wasn't a strong or large fortification, but Fiora looked around and saw no signs of battle. Evidently, the villagers took the chance to surrender before High Mountain troops burned their homes. It was an easy victory for the kingdom, and meant they now had access to the sea.

Fiora pulled herself back and headed for the tree line further inland. She was a monster hunter, and would not hide in the shadows. Her whole life the only thing that fed her was being able to fight smart, so that's what she needed now. She'd wait for her armor to dry off. If she showed up drenched, they'd know she was on the Sunken Sow. But if she showed up as just another hunter, she'd at least get a chance to ask for a contract.

She was lucky the High Mountain troops could only occupy a small seaside village. The land was still dominated by the wilderness, and signs of monster activity were scattered across the forest. Wide claw marks on the trees and old blood stains deep in the dirt, they all whispered secrets into Fiora's senses. She had enough of Stranglethorn's schemes. Whatever was going on, it messed with her friend, and some pony was going to see the edge of her blade.

Author's Note:

Inspiration for Rest and Be Fine-- David Coffin - Roll the Old Chariot