Hunter eyed Lina carefully and gripped his staff.
“Not really,” he replied. “Couldn’t we just cuddle?”
“This is an ancient and sacred Rowen tradition,” Lina growled. “If we are to be wed, you must be willing to embrace it.”
“I don’t see you tossing your arms around any of my ancient or sacred traditions,” Hunter replied tensely.
Lina let loose a war cry and charged, spinning and angling the staff as she attacked. Hunter parried the first blow, then the second, retreated a few steps to avoid the third, and finally found himself locked face to face with his fiancé.
“Ok, seriously, admit it,” Hunter growled. “This is NOT a Rowen marital tradition!”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Lina huffed as she eased off and relaxed. “I’ve just never attacked anyone with a giant stick before, it seemed like fun.”
Hunter sighed and leaned on his quarterstaff. “I know I promised I’d respect your cultural heritage, but you make it pretty hard when every other day you trick me into thinking something or other is a sacred tradition. Do your people even HAVE any sacred ancient traditions?”
“Hmm… I think you’re supposed to give my dad some livestock,” Lina scratched her chin. “Or maybe a few cart loads of grain. It depends on what time of year it is, I guess.”
“Farm girl,” Hunter teased, wrapping an arm around Lina’s shoulder.
They were out in some of the gardens that bordered the inner walls of Stormwind Keep. Legend held that when Uther laid down the plans for his jewel of a city, he commissioned the finest botanists in the land to grow for him flowers that could bloom in the near constant shade of the inner walls.
Of course, the more recent and actually true story was that this area had been covered with Astroturf for the past two or three Ages and set aside for outdoor functions for which it was seldom used. Before that it was part of the stables, and before that there was a tannery on site. Then, as recently as the last century, someone had the bright idea to put in a garden, and a quick call to the local garden supply store got them a fine collection of shade-tolerant plants.
Still, there were other, more beautiful and sunnier gardens elsewhere in the castle, which left this one open to anyone looking for a nice out-of-the-way spot.
As they continued through the shade, a runner came sprinting up to them and slide to a halt along the dirt path.
“Slayer Dragon Jusenkyou,” he panted. “The Pendragon seeks you at the gatehouse.”
“Yahoo,” Hunter waved. “Wait, why the gatehouse? Shouldn’t it be like, the Enclave, or something? Maybe that fly office of his?”
“Do you have to use words like that?” Lina pleaded.
“Yes, it’s a sacred and ancient tradition of my people,” Hunter folded his arms.
“And which people would those be?” Lina growled.
“Orphans,” Hunter quipped as he headed for the gatehouse.
The castle’s gatehouse was an elaborate marvel of construction, all the more impressive since it was built so many eons ago. Try though he might, Hunter could not conceive of a more defensive design against a ground assault.
Air attack might be another story.
Inside a niche in a wall, a low arched doorway led to a claustrophobic guard station, through which an even tighter door led to a secret receiving room. Hidden passages from here connected to a network that went all over the castle, though this one was designed to be narrow and innocuous enough to escape notice.
“Hunter,” Hokori waved as Hunter entered, then gestured to a man leaning against the far wall.
“Hi, how are ya?” Hunter waved.
“Better, now that I’ve seen you,” the man replied. He didn’t speak another word or make a gesture, just started towards the door Hunter was currently blocking. Almost without thinking, Hunter shifted aside and let him out, then followed him wordlessly through the castle gate to a waiting car.
This in itself begged some explanation, as cars were not allowed on the streets of Arindell by day, and it was clearly either eleven o’clock or one o’clock. Hunter didn’t remember which direction the sun was moving.
Still, he climbed into the passenger seat while the dark strangled moved behind the wheel. Hunter waved goodbye to Lina and Hokori as the car started to drive.
“Well let’s see,” Hunter said as soon as they were underway. “You’re obviously Foundation, definitely Gudersnipe Graduate, not a student still, of course. Important. Confident. But you look to young to be a commissioner, definitely not a presiding general—graduates don’t take day jobs like that.
“But you’re more than a few terms out of school; I’d say twenty years, at least. Which is odd because by now one would think your standing in the Foundation would give you people to do your dirty work.
“The fact that someone like you would traipse all the way out here to see little old me says volumes. It says this isn’t the sort of thing that can be handled by an intermediary, or over a secure channel. I mean, I know I’m hard to contact, but you could have done it. That means, then, that you’re intelligence.”
There was a long silence. The stranger’s face was impassive, but that alone said enough. The weight of the situation had been clear since the moment their eyes met. Gudersnipe had a wide array of daughter agencies and oversight commissions. Special organizations, elite units, the list of groups under the “intelligence” umbrella was so large it defied definition.
“Let’s see, you can’t be with the review branch,” Hunter speculated, if for no other reason then to pass the time. “First, I’m XGSO, no GA. Second, I know I’m inactive but accounted for, hence no need for a checkup.
“And, of course, I’ve officially renounced most of my rank and standing to get this Slayer Dragon gig, so I know you aren’t with the promotions board—I am so far off those people’s grid it ain’t even funny. Then there’s the Guild, but I’m registered as inactive, and even if they are tracking my movements, I haven’t done anything funny recently.
“No, I’m guessing NSA, maybe IOD—but then, the Intelligence Oversight Division is supposed to oversee the rest of intelligence, of which I am not a part.
“So that leaves the myriad of watchdog organizations; one of which clearly thinks it needs me. That is why you came, isn’t it? You folks need me for something.”
The stranger let out a sort of grunted chuckle. By now they had left he city line of Arindell and transitioned onto a dirt road, running through a few fields outside of town. Corn was in season, and higher than the car windows, making it seem as if they were driving down a green trench.
“I must admit,” the man said. “You don’t disappoint. I had my doubts, but you do not disappoint.”
“Well, I’m a pleaser,” Hunter replied. “So, which is it?”
Instead of a response, the stranger pulled the car off a road and up a driveway. They emerged onto a hill, here, with low cut grass all around. An island in the sea of corn. Atop the crown of the island sat a desolate farmhouse, a single old tree next to it, from which a tire swing swayed dystopically in the breeze.
There was life here, though. It came in the form of two trucks baring the insignia of the
military police. A dozen guards were currently moving about around the house, but all of them headed for the trucks as soon as they saw Hunter and the stranger arrive. Alliance
One truck left immediately, while the other waited for the commander, who came to lean in through the stranger’s window.
“Everything prepared according to your order,” he said curtly. “We’ve swept the area within a four mile radius and cleared it of all personnel. The house has been checked for bugs. Everything should be secure.
“Thank you,” the stranger said kindly as he put the car into park and made to get out. The MP nodded and climbed into his truck, and in a moment they were alone.
Hunter followed the man into the house and shut the door behind him. The windows had been boarded up from the inside and in place of lights they had a few dozen candles.
A small bank of equipment was laid out on the floor, a series of boxes and batteries connected by big cables. Electronic counter-measures, anti-eves-dropping technology. State of the art. Extremely over-kill
“Rustic,” Hunter commented.
There was no furniture safe for a card table and a few fold-up chairs. The stranger carried an intricately-locking suitcase which he placed on the table and began the process of opening.
“I suppose I don’t have to explain the notion of ‘top secret’ to a seasoned agent like you,” he spoke. His voice had a sort of low, twanging sound to it, like he was a man very used to speaking in whispers.
“Now, but how about you do anyway, just for a treat,” Hunter grinned. He took a seat opposite the stranger in one of the folding chairs and crossed his arms over his chest. “And I’m a soldier, not an agent. Only you guys have agents.”
“Fine, fine,” the man waved. “Let’s start with the basics: you may call me Eli.”
“That short for anything?” Hunter asked, turning his head to the side casually.
“Elijah,” Eli replied. “MY parents weren’t very good at the whole naming thing.”
“You got beat up a lot in school, didn’t you?” Hunter grinned.
“And how,” Eli nodded. “But that’s neither here nor there. Well, Mr. Jusenkyou, to be perfectly blunt: I have a mission for you.”
“I don’t work for you people anymore,” Hunter snapped. “Or didn’t you get that with the whole ‘inactive’ thing?”
“Inactive is merely a suggestion,” Eli stated. “As long as you draw breath you work for us, and we can recall you to active service whenever we see fit. Like now, for example.”
“Yeah, I figured the dodge wouldn’t work,” Hunter sighed. “So what’s the skinny? Make it fast, I got a fiancé who won’t stop with the shenanigans and I need to have my barrel pants dry cleaned.”
“Does it ever occur to you that just maybe something a bit bigger than you might require your attention?” Eli asked.
“Not once,” Hunter shook his head. “I am a narcissistic, self-centered ego-maniac. Or hadn’t you noticed?”
“I’ll get to it,” Eli growled and finished opening the case. “First, let me state for the record that it was your qualifications and service history that put you on our radar for this assignment.”
“Good to know,” Hunter nodded.
“You personal connection to all of this is completely not withstanding, and had you taken a different route you would still have been the man for this job,” Eli continued. “This assignment has nothing to do with your being a Slayer Dragon, your access to necromancers, or your… personal history. Though those factors add to your utility in this scenario, they are not deciders.”
“Yay me,” Hunter rolled his eyes.
“You have something of a reputation, Mr. Jusenkyou,” Eli explained. “Four dozen research calls, and every time your name was the first on a very short list. You aren’t just the right man for the job; you are ‘the man’. Anytime they said it couldn’t be done, you did it. Anytime they said there wasn’t a way, you made a way. You are the man.”
“Flattery is heartwarming, but it doesn’t become you,” Hunter pointed out.
“It’s not flattery,” Eli snapped. “When I say that you are the man, I’m saying it so that you’ll understand the gravity of the situation. This is matter that concerns you both as a Slayer Dragon, as well as a member of the Foundation. Indeed, the fate of the very World of Life may rest on your shoulders.”
“Gravity, got it,” Hunter flashed Eli a quick thumbs-up. “Care to read me in?”
“Well, that’s the tricky bit,” Eli admitted. “You see, despite all that, you still don’t have high enough clearance to be read in on this one.”
“O…. k,” Hunter nodded. “That’s… um…”
“IF I could read you in,” Eli explained. “I wouldn’t need to go through all this ‘the man’ crap.”
“It’s ‘da’,” Hunter replied.
“What?” Eli asked.
“It’s pronounced ‘da’,” Hunter said. “I am ‘da man’, not ‘the man’.”
“Dare I ask why?” Eli frowned.
“Because shut up,” Eli replied flatly.
Eli opened his case and took out a glossy sheet of photopaper, which when it came into the flickering candlelight revealed a darkened, familiar face.
“Ryoga,” Hunter growled.
“You recognize him,” Eli said quietly.
“We’ve met,” Hunter nodded.
“I understand the Slayer Dragons practically exist to kill him,” Eli said. “But… you’ve got a slightly more … personal relationship.”
“He killed my mother,” Hunter said bluntly.
“Yes, well, you are free to settle the score with him if you like,” Eli waved. “Just as long as you accomplish your mission.”
“Which is?” Hunter asked, glancing up from the photo.
Eli produced another sheet, this one a composite of images showing a long wood and metal pole arm. It looked about eight feet from bottom to head, with a large metal counterweight at one end. The main shaft was wood, with a long and fairly cruel-looking metal head.
“Souvenir?” Hunter asked.
“And ancient relic,” Eli replied. “I’m not authorized to tell you what it is. The short version is that Ryoga has learned its location. Your mission, Mr. Jusenkyou, should you decide to accept it, is to stop him from getting it. How is up to you. To put it mildly… if Ryoga is allowed to gain possession of that spear… the Mage Wars would seem like a trivial battle by comparison.”