Trees swept past on either side. Branches reached out, and Hunter smashed through them.
A Lancer in full battle kit didn’t stop easily.
Without slowing, he half-turned to see that the forest was literally bending around his pursuer.
Hunter let the Lance fall to its strap and reached for the short sword tied across his back. The standard Lancer kit required some kind of long bladed weapon, usually a machete or similar, but Hunter had substituted in a dotanuki, which quite literally meant ‘sword that cuts through torsos’. It handled tree branches pretty well.
Slashing and cutting, Hunter was able to move a bit faster, but not fast enough. He leapt onto a fallen log and raced across it.
“I don’t believe in fairies,” he muttered angrily.
The log went over a stream running at the bottom of a shallow gully. It was a clear path and while he wasn’t sure he could outrun his pursuer in the open, he was positive he couldn’t in the forest.
So he leapt off the log and landed in the stream with a splash.
The barely ankle-deep water did slow him down, but racing through the creek was still quicker than the woods. He heard several trees rip and hit the ground behind him, and then a rather ominous rushing sound.
Chancing that whatever made the sound might be slightly more dangerous than what was chasing him, and slowed and half-turned, just in time to see a seven-foot wall of water sweeping down the six-foot-deep gully behind him.
Adrenaline surged in his veins and Hunter ran.
He was a big guy, no one could argue that. He was also a big guy wearing a lot of liquid-enhanced Kevlar and several ceramic polymer plates, not to mention a heavy pack and carrying a rather large machine gun. Lancer gear was engineered to be the lightest, most compact and durable equipment around, but there was a lot of it in a standard field kit. The average Lancer in full battle kit weighed in at nearly three hundred fifty pounds, and Hunter was a good deal heavier than average. He was just a big guy.
He could run surprisingly fast despite this handicap.
“Idon’tbelieveinfairiesIdon’tbelieveinfairiesIdon’tbelieveinfairies!” Hunter screamed as he ran down the gully.
Up ahead a second ditch intersected with his, and it was dry with an upwards slope. To Hunter, it was a shining ‘Exit’ sign.
He slid through the gravel and raced up the new path, not even bothering to see if the water turned to follow him. This kind of magic was dangerous, deadly, and predictable.
The sudden wall up ahead meanwhile, was not.
Hunter threw himself into a roll and came up facing the opposite direction, Lance raised. He was at a dead end, the walls were forty or fifty feet high and he didn’t fancy trying to climb. The fight-or-flight instinct which had driven him this far finally succumbed to the former.
His winged pursuer slowly floated up and hung in front of him.
She was quite beautiful, if short, and had long silvery wings like a butterfly. Short was probably not an accurate description as her kind were fully formed and… developed, just miniature with regard to humans. Every race or being pretty much had its own size, and it wasn’t Hunter’s nature to discriminate.
Which had something to do with how he’d gotten himself into this position in the first place.
“I don’t believe in fairies,” Hunter warned.
“That only works in children’s stories about never growing up,” the fairy spat back. “If it were really true, we’d be quite extinct right now.”
“Yeah, well you’re about to become pretty extinct anyway,” Hunter growled. “You been’ chasin me, I don’t usually run.”
“This is already ugly,” the fairy replied condescendingly. “But I’m not above compromise; give back what you stole and I’ll consider allowing you to live.”
“Turn around and fly home to mommy and I’ll ‘consider’ doing the same,” Hunter countered. “You wave wand, I shoot bullets, but I’ve already got my gun raised.”
“If you honestly believed that weapon of yours could hurt me, you wouldn’t be wasting your time bargaining,” the fairy giggled. “You’re Gudersnipe, you boys just shoot first and… that’s pretty much it.”
“We’re equal opportunity,” Hunter defended. “Besides, I don’t think what I took is worth killing for, did you think it was worth dying for?”
“What I think,” the fairy said darkly. “Is that you should simply give it back, and not ask questions.”
“You’re Norina, right?” Hunter responded. “You were there last night. You didn’t seem to mind answering too many questions then.”
Norina’s cheeks burned and her tiny hands clenched into fists.
“You used us,” she accused.
“Yeah,” Hunter admitted. “I did that. What did you really expect? I’m Gudersnipe.”
With that Hunter let off a salvo, sweeping the narrow canyon with rounds in case she tried to dodge. The bullets simply bounced harmlessly or fell right out of the air and… crawled away.
Even though he had realized the futility, Hunter still switched to the rocket-propelled grenade mounted under his weapon’s double barrels and fired.
About halfway between himself and the fairy, it turned into a couple of doves which chirped cheerfully and flew away.
“All right, so fairy magic beats bullets and RPG’s,” Hunter sighed. “I’ll be sure to make a note in the database.”
“It does a lot more than that!” Norina screamed angrily. She threw up her hands and formed a ball of green and brown energy which she hurled at Hunter.
This was going to be bad.
Fairy magic was amongst the deadliest in the known worlds, owing simply to the fact that fairies belonged to the same genus as dragons, in other words Magical Creatures. To the dragons, unicorns, centaurs, and the rest of the plethora of weird semi-mythical things, using magic was as natural and straightforward as breathing is to humans. But, that often served as a hindrance, for a dragon can no more conjure a spell than a human can make their hair grow. It was a natural part of them, but not one they could consciously control.
For fairies, on the other hand, it was quite different. Most magical beings had brain chemistries and thought patterns very different from humans. Hunter knew, the School had done research on most of them. This, it was believed, accounted for their latent magical capabilities, but of all the magical beings, fairies were the most similar to humans. Picture a human with the ability to make their hair grow at will, or change the color of their eyes, that was what it meant to be a fairy.
It also meant they could weave terrifyingly complex spells.
Normal magic, human or passably human spells, followed a very specific set of finite rules. These rules could always be broken if the wizard knew what he was doing, but that could only be done in predictable ways. There were only so many variables to account for, and while attempts had failed for centuries to scientifically quantify magic, there were a few givens.
Most spells, especially those cast in haste, were simple. A blast of elemental energy, a dagger of dark light, spirit attacks, battle energy, the list went on and on. Each one had a specific wavelength and a specific energy.
And a predictable weakness.
It was there in the rules of antiquity, magic’s version of the laws of physics. For every point there was a counter-point, for every strength there was a weakness. Once a spell had been formed, the wizard’s opponent had a split second to determine that weakness and search for a counter.
But fairy magic was unpredictable. While it always tended to include lots of earthy colors or flying pink hearts, the actual effect of the spell was always changing, constantly in motion, and able to adjust itself even as it raced through the air towards its target.
Any attempt to counter it would fail.
Unless of course you were the type of person who could get away with listing ‘awesome’ on your resume under Skills.
“FORCE RETURN!” Hunter screamed as he sent out a massive wave of counter-magic. The one universal rule that applied equally to both magic and physics was that any force could be countered with an even greater force. Magical strength tied as it was very closely to physical strength, insured that he was stronger. Fairies relied on the complexity of their skills and not the final strength.
So, ideally a massive force-return spell could at the very least knock her spell off target, if not straight back at her.
It was very annoying when things didn’t work according to the established laws.
Hunter was thrown back against the stone wall behind him, and the fairy wheeled end-over-end through the air.
Hunter regained his feet quickly and began to conjure another defensive spell, but Norina only laughed at him.
“Maybe you don’t believe in fairies,” she grinned. “But you will soon.”
“Oh, I’ve always believed in fairies,” Hunter replied.
He reached into his pocket and carefully produced the small purple drawstring bag, tied with silvery thread, and held it up triumphantly.
“Why did you think I went to such trouble to take this from you?”
“Give it back,” Norina ordered. “You’ve no idea what you’re dealing with!”
“I know exactly what I’m dealing with,” Hunter spat back. “It’s fairy dust, ten times more powerful than sorcerer’s sand, one of the rarest reagents in the known worlds—or so the legends say, no human has ever had their hands on any since the Mage Wars.”
Norina’s face suddenly turned grim and her eyes fell.
“And I suppose you don’t even care how they got it, do you?” she asked darkly. “Over the slain and mutilated corpses of my kin!”
“Oh, I care,” Hunter admitted. “I’ve read the stories, how it took hundreds of lesser-path magicians leading armies of thousands of men, just to capture this much.”
“They burned our forests, slaughtered our people!” Norina accused. “And took what they could!”
“It’s called a looter mentality, all they cared about was what they could take,” Hunter explained. “That’s why I went to such lengths to get some without resorting to violence. You wouldn’t even have missed it.”
Hunter hurled the bag through the air and drew his nine millimeter pistol. One quick shot and the bag exploded into a rain of gold and silver dust that caught on the wind and scattered.
“NOOOOO!” Norina screamed.
“Now you’ll miss it,” Hunter spat.
He holstered the weapon and took up his lance, shouldering it nonchalantly as he began to walk down the gully.
“You haven’t got anything to fight for anymore,” he warned. “Now think: do you really wanna kill me?”
He was about ten paces away when Norina’s head came back up and the fire burned in her eyes.
“Yes,” she snarled.
A hand of roots and dirt shot out of the ground and wrapped itself around Hunter’s waist, then punched him into the cliff side without hesitation.
Hunter struggled, tried to counter, but gasped as the wind was knocked out of him.
Exhaling had been a bit of a mistake as his lungs were now collapsed and the hand was pushing hard against his chest. As dizziness overtook him and hypoxia set in, Hunter watched Norina slowly approach.
Fairies were normally very beautiful and whimsical. Angry fairies shared none of these qualities.
Her fangs were bared and her eyes now glowed red. This was perhaps a fairy’s true form, the form mortal men saw only before they were viciously slaughtered. Or perhaps it was just the way all women looked when they were very, very angry. Hunter had certainly seen a few of his love interests get close.
It was a strange thing to feel the life leaving your body, as was currently happening to Hunter. It was strange, fearful, and largely unpleasant. Lights danced in front of his eyes and his vision blurred. The end was… quite near.
He’d come this close to death before but always managed to escape.
He was done holding back.
It wasn’t so difficult, but there might be a line to cross. He might be doing it for the wrong reasons.
But then there was instinct for survival, and that was always a right reason.
The tree branch/hand exploded backwards from him and Hunter floated away from the cliff, eyes burning brilliant blue. His clothing and Lancer armor bulged and finally tore, revealing scales and rippling muscles.
“What say from one magic being to another, we agree to go our separate ways?” Hunter offered.
“A dragon-half!” Norina blurted. “But—”
Hunter lashed out and grabbed her by the throat with one clawed hand, holding the other back, ready to strike at her heart.
Temptation was there. Fairies weren’t all that powerful, but they were more powerful than humans. He’d sworn never to do this to a human because it wasn’t worth it, but she wasn’t human.
She also wasn’t an enemy.
Instead, Hunter hurled the limp form to the ground and landed, reverting quickly to human form. He’d only successfully—and consciously—accessed his dragon-half a handful of times, and always out of extreme anger. Just the knowledge that the power could also be called forth out of need was reassuring.
As he returned to human form, Hunter exhaled, then stood over his opponent.
“Get lost,” he ordered. “You can’t beat me.”
The fairy struggled briefly to her feet, then immediately took flight. One of her wings was damaged and left her hovering at an odd angle, and her arm hung limply, clearly broken. She was injured and bloody, but still maintained a look of smug superiority.
“Killing you would be a release,” she warned. “You were hit by my spell, remember? A curse has been laid upon you, for you and your children—and your children’s children—for a thousand generations!”
With that she fluttered off in an awkward circle and disappeared, and Hunter was left to collect his scattered battle kit. His pants had survived the transformation largely intact, but the rest of his clothing was wrecked. The straps had also been torn off the pack, so he tucked it under his arm and started for the ravine.
Then, he stopped suddenly, glanced around at his surroundings to ensure he was again alone, and thoughtfully pulled the other bag of fairy dust out of his pocket.
“Meh,” he shrugged. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
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