Summer in Arindell was once again upon him, and that meant thunderstorms. This didn’t bother Hunter, but it did mean he would frequently have a bedfellow who would happily demonstrate her ability to maim him with one hand if he tried anything hinky.
Things could always be worse, as Hunter was infrequently reminded. They were worse sometimes, but that was usually when he’d made some horrible mistake or volunteered for a mission he had no business touching with a ten foot pole.
Be that as it may, other Trials were fast approaching, and it was time for the trainees of the Keep to get their medical evaluations over with. This was the sort of thing Hunter was used to more than the others, as he’d gone through them regularly at Gudersnipe. Physical evaluations, medical examinations, and occasionally psych-eval were routine.
Why exactly the Alliance felt is was necessary for everyone requiring an eval to show up at the same time and then stand in a long line before their checkup eluded Hunter, but it was entertaining to listen to the rest of the trainees—especially the ones from lower-tech dimensions where the very concept of healthcare was foreign.
Amidst complaints and claims of high health, he leaned against a wall with a bemused grin on his face. While it was only slightly more entertaining than watching paint dry, it was entertaining nonetheless.
“What are you smiling about?” Lina hissed tersely.
“Oh, just another day in paradise,” Hunter shrugged. “You been here a bit longer than me, what’re these evaluations like?”
“I don’t know,” Lina admitted. “This will be my first one as a trainee. I did one a while back with the military, it was pretty unpleasant… the doctor spent the whole time telling me about how primitive the local medicine in my homeland was and how amazing it is that I survived into adulthood—and yet my people have a higher infant-survival rate than his!”
“I can see the difficulty,” Hunter nodded.
They sat in silence for a long while.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Lina finally remarked.
“Hmm?” Hunter grunted.
“What’s on your mind?” Lina shrugged. “Shows how bored I am.”
“Right now?” Hunter blinked. “Talking Unicorns.”
“Why do I even ask?” Lina sighed. “All right, continuing with this game, why are you thinking about talking Unicorns?”
“Well have you ever met one?” Hunter replied.
“No,” Lina growled. “No, I have not.”
“I’ve never met anyone who has,” Hunter nodded. “And I’ve met Unicorns, but they weren’t particularly talkative. I’ve hung with dragons, fairies, centaurs, orcs, goblins—even hobgoblins—and had delightful conversations with all of them, but not so for the unicorns.
“But they always talk in fantasy books, usually in Common, and with perfect enunciation. Every other non-humanoid being I’ve ran across either can’t speak Common at all or has some outrageous accent. Dragons are a prime example, their mouths can’t make the hew sound, so when they try to say words like ‘human’ it comes out as ‘uumen’.
“Of course that’s never a problem in fantasy books, for some reason those dragons can speak fluent Common with perfect enunciation. Same with elves, who by the way have really entertaining accents.
“And then of course the Fantasy Unicorns always have really high-minded things to say, and they have all kinds of really neat ideals. It’s kinda funny, actually, the way authors in my home world portray them.”
“And what are they really like?” Lina asked, half to make conversation and half because she was by now genuinely curious.
As she’d grown closer to Hunter, the differences between them emerged very much like storybook characters. Hunter’s life or at least the bits he’d described in detail seemed so much like a science fiction novel, while from what Lina could tell her own history was a bit like a fairytale.
It hadn’t been until she left her homeland that she discovered what the world of literature held. What passed for fantasy in the rest of the novel was easily realistic fiction on her world. And then they had this great science fiction genre, which Lina couldn’t get enough of. But then she’d go talk to Hunter, and realize just how much ‘fiction’ there was to the science fiction, meanwhile Lina’s own life could probably become a best-selling fantasy book.
“Unicorns are egotistical,” Hunter explained. “To the extreme. They always look high-minded on paper, but really they think less of us than the dragons do, and dragons see nothing wrong with eating uumens for lunch.
“You know that whole thing where if a youthful lass of virtue-true sits under a tree and waits a Unicorn will show up and let them touch it? Yeah, it turns out they only do that to encourage more girls to let them get close. Really the just want to gore the virtue = false ones.”
“Did you just say an equal’s sign?” Lina blinked.
“Yeah, you have to be able to speak C or some other compiler language to do that,” Hunter scratched his head. “Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
“Right,” Lina nodded. “So why d’you suppose Unicorns are so mean?”
“They think they’re better than us,” Hunter shrugged. “According to my research it’s ‘a stupid Unicorn thing’ although personally I think they do it out of spite because we almost hunted them to extinction during the Mage Wars.”
“Just out of curiosity, how do you actually know how a Unicorn feels if it can’t talk to you?” Lina asked.
“Can’t and Won’t are two very different principles,” Hunter explained. “While I may not have experienced this directly, I understand they will occasionally lower themselves to engaging in Mind Speak with certain mortals who have A) mastered the technique to the utmost and B) done something that makes them worthy in the Unicorn’s eyes of conversation. I understand this from talking to Dragons, who tend to view Unicorns about the way you or I view kittens and puppies, which is to say cute and harmless and amusing when they bite. Although that is still a step above humans, whom they consider with the same regard as cows.”
The door to the examination room creaked open and a youngish wizard poked his head out.
“Jusenkyou, Hunter?” he read off the card in his hand.
“Well, at least you got the name right,” Hunter shrugged and waved a quick goodbye to Lina. “On with the probulating!”
“Um… we don’t do that here,” the wizard stammered as he closed the door behind Hunter.
The exam room was quite possibly the furthest thing from what Hunter would have expected, if he hadn’t long ago given up all pretense of getting the things he expected and instead treated every doorway as a trap set by one of his arch rivals. In fact, this particular room seemed to have more in common with a laundry room than a medical facility.
The walls were dirty and sagging, and while there was a rusted metal sink in one corner it didn’t look operable. The only furniture was a simple stool, and there was a wide counter topped with wood. Somewhat dirty, clearly germy wood no less. This seemed to be a less than ideal setting for an examination.
“So uh… yeah,” Hunter muttered as he took a seat on the counter. “I dunno exactly how thorough you were planning to be, but I can tell you right now ‘turn your head and cough’ is right out.”
“Oh it’s not that kind of exam,” the wizard waved, pausing briefly to straighten his hat and push back his long, flowing sleeves. “I need to check your auras.”
“Well, turn your aura and cough I might do,” Hunter shrugged. “So long as it doesn’t involve taking my pants off, that door doesn’t have a lock and there are ladies outside.”
“Yes, well I don’t usually need to see my patients naked,” the wizard admitted somewhat hesitantly. “In any event please just sit quietly and focus on a calm, serene thought.”
“Got it, a zamboni,” Hunter nodded.
“A what?” the wizard blinked.
“You know those vehicles they use at hockey rinks and ice skating places?”
“Oh! You mean that big thing that smoothes out the ice?”
“Yeah, there you go, man.”
Hunter sat quietly and began a series of breathing exercises while the wizard wove his spell. Hunter was dimly aware that all living things generated weak auras at all times, but it had never really mattered much to him because he had no control over his, only the battle aura which had to be willfully materialized. Seeing his regular aura around him for the first time was very interesting.
“Hmm, that’s odd,” the wizard remarked. “Yes very odd indeed… would you kindly remove your tunic?”
“Thought you said it wasn’t going to be that kind of examination,” Hunter grinned. He quickly pulled off his jacket and unbuttoned his burgundy shirt. “Just what are you looking for anyway?”
“Blood sucking parasites,” the wizard replied. Again he made Hunter’s aura materialize and examined it thoughtfully.
Hunter did as commanded, then heard a holler and a thump as the wizard tripped over his stool and smacked into the wall.
“It’s cancer, isn’t it?” Hunter said in his best self-pitying voice. “You can tell it to me straight, doc, don’t sugarcoat it!”
“This is—this unbelievable,” the wizard gasped. “I—I’ve never seen anything like it, ever! What is… how?”
“It’s called a ‘Rising Dragon’, doc,” Hunter explained. “See Dragons are bound to the path of righteousness unless they make a conscious choice to fall off, in which case they become known as Fallen Dragons and don’t get to go to ‘dragon heaven’.
“Now from what I understand, because it’s a conscious decision to go down the path to Dragon Hell, the place is at least twenty-five times worse than human hell; because humans can be going to hell without even realizing it. So the Monster Gods gave them an escape route.
“A condemned dragon has the choice to try and redeem itself as a Rising Dragon. Rising Dragons take on human hosts and are bound to their will. And if the actions in life of the human host are righteous and honorable enough, the dragon has a chance to be reborn again and not fall.”
“And you have three of them?” the wizard gaped.
“What can I say,” Hunter shrugged. “They like me.”
The tattoo of the three dragons on Hunter’s back had been hard earned and could, in times of need, grant him great power. The dragons knew he was half, but most of the humans around Arindell didn’t. For Rising Dragons, a dragon-half like Hunter was a virtual free-pass, so once he had proven his worth and taken them on, they were perfectly willing to lend him all the power they could.
He had used them, off and on, when he needed it, and even crafted a suit of mystical armor from their scales. But while his spirit companions were devoted to him, he had to very carefully weigh his actions and his intents. The power they offered came with great responsibility; and to abuse the Rising Dragon, was to lose the Rising Dragon.
“I see,” the wizard gulped. “You understand, I will have to report this.”
“Knock yourself out,” Hunter gestured. “They only offer three damn good reasons why I should be a Slayer Dragon. Well, three more damn good reasons.”
“I’ll just… continue with the examination now,” the wizard replied. “Hmm, lets see, there was one other… oh my!”
“Cancer?” Hunter sniggered.
“Not quite,” the wizard replied. “But something nearly very equivalent.”
Hunter blinked uncertainly a few times and turned to face the wizard.
“I have a good sense of humor,” he explained. “But if you don’t start smiling and laughing soon I’m going to not find that last remark funny.”
The door behind him opened and Lina’s head popped in.
“What’s taking so darn long?” she demanded. “The—wow!”
She eyed Hunter’s back up and down a few times, then stepped in and closed the door.
“Excuse me,” the wizard mumbled, pushing his baggy sleeves up again and straightening his pointed hat. “Are you familiar with such concepts as privacy and doctor-patient confidentiality?”
“I’m not,” Hunter waved. “Everything in my medical file is a matter of public record. The Foundation is very big on the concept of ‘if you don’t want anyone to know it happened to you, don’t let it happen, damn it’.”
“The Foundation is clearly very big on swearing,” Lina summarized.
“Yes well, we have these concepts here,” the wizard sneered. “Please do kindly wait outside p—”
“Oh, just out with that bad news already,” Hunter interrupted. “Or if you’d prefer, skip the bad news and go directly to the part about how to fix the bad news and make it go away forever and, if possible, die in a fire.”
“You’re cursed!” the wizard threw up his hands in frustration. “With a fairy curse no less! Honestly, in this day and age, how does anyone get a fairy curse?!”
“Would being some kind of depraved deviant lead to such a thing?” Lina suggested. “Because if so, he’s probably got a lot worse.”
“Oh I am so not letting you see my curse!” Hunter scowled and attempted to cover his bare chest with his arms. “Wait—where is it anyway?”
“It’s entwined in your aura,” the wizard explained. “Tell me, have you any clue how you could possibly have received this curse?”
“Well,” Hunter pondered.
Many years earlier…
Read the next part.