Hunter practically jumped out of his skin. While still debating the impracticality of doing so, he managed to return to earth and get a feel for what was going on. Amuro was now standing next to him.
He’d been walking alone down a reasonably busy street, full of other kids with backpacks on their way home from school. The session had just let out, and for Hunter it was a chance for a much deserved break.
Amuro, meanwhile, seemed to be undercover, also carrying a book bag and wearing a baseball cap. From the right angle, he looked just like any other school kid on his way home.
The old man’s features were a curious and ever-shifting mix. Under the right light, he could look any age. And Hunter was sure it was more than just a trick of the eye, there was something at work that hid his identity. Something that insured no two witnesses would describe the same man.
“You’re coming with me,” Amuro explained. “I need you for something.”
“This is new,” Hunter pointed out. “Unless of course that ‘something’ is to be savagely beaten to a pulp, as usual, under the guise of ‘training’.”
“Not training, this time,” Amuro explained. “C’mon, I need you.”
“This sounds incredibly ominous,” Hunter pointed out.
“And yet you continue walking beside me,” Amuro replied. “What does that tell you?”
“Aside from that I’m crazy?” Hunter asked. “Well, for starters, my house is this direction, so I was kind of walking this way anyways.”
“And you’re going to keep walking,” Amuro nodded. “Because you don’t say no to me.”
“I am really not digging this master-pupil thing at the moment,” Hunter complained.
They walked on in silence, past Hunter’s current faster home, past the one he’d been in last week, and finally past the edge of town. They continued on, heading up a hill as the sun began to set, walking beside a freeway up into a mountain pass.
At length, the sun finally saw fit to dip bellow the horizon, and Amuro seemed to choose this exact moment to leave the path intermittently lit by passing headlights. Off into the pitch darkness he went, with Hunter following a few paces behind.
It was cloudy and probably the night of the new moon, which in light units translated into somewhere between zero and negative one. Hunter was able to follow Amuro by sound alone; he was completely blind in the pitch blackness.
This way continued for what felt like hours. He had moved in directly behind the old teacher, keeping only a step or two for follow distance. It was terrifying, not being able to see at all; and yet Amuro walked on as if it were mid-day.
After an eternity in darkness, the first lights graced the horizon. Immediately, Hunter thought of daybreak; except their were two lights and they were white instead of yellow. They shone like two glowing eyes in the darkness, and unwaveringly, Amuro walked towards them.
Some time later, a porch became visible between the lights. A porch, gravel driveway, and the eaves of a house. Finally, as his eyes adjusted to the hint of light, Hunter could make out the edges of the path he and Amuro traversed.
It was nothing more than a mountain trail, barely wide enough for the two to walk on. Definitely not enough for side-by-side. To the left, the mountain rose impossibly above them. To the right, it dropped away into a ravine. This was a treacherous path to be taking in the dark.
But a handful of steps more and they were walking across the driveway. From here, Hunter could see that a narrow bridge spanned the ravine, and that the bridge and path were the only ways out of this cleft in which huddled a small, old house.
It was wooden, and a hundred years of it was a day. A simple log-cabin, nothing to write home about. Across the dirt driveway and up the front steps, across the porch and through the door without a moment’s hesitation.
Inside, the place was brightly lit. Electricity, which flowed from a generator that hummed somewhere nearby, burned bright in an array of bulbs and halogen lights. All white, nothing yellow. Just soft, plentiful white, as if driving back the falling darkness outside.
Through the maze of lights, Amuro led Hunter to a bedroom at the back of the house, where an elderly man lay under a homemade blanket, propped up on a few pillows.
“I’ve brought him,” Amuro said quietly.
The man on the bed looked older than the house. He looked old enough that when the house had been built, at least one of the workers called him ‘gramps’ and insisted on getting him a chair.
But now, and it was obvious that this was what was going on, now he lay dieing. And there was no family surrounding him to see him off. That nameless builder who called him gramps and insisted on fetching him a chair was no relation, and probably very long gone. No, now there was no one.
No one but Amuro and Hunter.
“I’ve brought him,” Amuro repeated as he got closer to the bed. “I’ve brought him, and he won’t fail you.”
“You should,” the old man began to speak, then stopped as if winded by the exertion. “You should do it yourself. I promise you’ll be better.”
“No, he’s the best,” Amuro replied. “Trust me. Have I ever failed you?”
“I thought… I thought you might fail me, tonight,” the old man coughed. “So… long.”
“It’s all right,” Amuro replied tenderly. “I knew your time was short, but I also knew you wanted to cherish it.” He looked up at Hunter and motioned him over, indicating for him to sit on a stool at the man’s bedside.
Now that he was closer, Hunter could see that under the blanket, the man was dressed in the clothes of a farmer. One eye was covered with a simple patch, and the other looked up at Hunter, sizing him up, weighing his heart.
“This is him?” the man asked as he looked at Hunter through his one dieing eye. “This is who you’ve brought me?”
“He won’t let you down,” Amuro promised.
“It’s not… it’s not me that I’m worried about,” the old man coughed.
“He won’t let you down,” Amuro insisted.
The old man looked to Hunter, then back to Amuro, and then at Hunter again. His arm went about the laborious task of extracting itself from under the blanket, and he brought it up to hover before Hunter.
“Give me your hand,” he whispered.
Hunter pressed his palm against the old man’s, and wrapped his fingers around the hand. The old man did the same, then twisted his arm so it was interlocked with Hunter’s.
“For years, I’ve lived out here, alone,” he whispered quietly. “Not daring to… use what I had, for fear of…” he trailed off and for a moment, Hunter was sure he had died.
But the old man’s mouth started working again, and words came out.
“Every night,” he was saying. “Every night at exactly eight o’clock, I’d shut the generator down, turn all the lights out. Whether I was ready or not, whether the days work was done. Didn’t want to waste the fuel, didn’t want to use the power… don’t be like me.”
This time it had definitely happened. But his grip tightened, as if spasming in death, and Hunter saw something. There was plenty of light, it wasn’t a shadow, but something seemed to slither up the man’s arm, along his skin, and then onto Hunter!
Hunter tried to yank his arm away, but the old man’s death-grip was too tight. He felt the thing pass between them, felt it slithering along his skin for just a moment.
And then… a warm, sort of calm feeling; familiar, almost…
The old man’s arm went limp, and fell, lifeless. Amuro reached out and took it, placing the appendage over the man’s chest with two fingers, he gingerly closed the elderly gentleman’s eyes, and then rose to leave.
“What… just happened?” Hunter gulped.
“A dear friend has left us,” Amuro replied. “Come on, I should probably get you home before dawn, or something.”
“What happened?!” Hunter demanded.
“Old dude,” Amuro pointed to the bed, then mimed death. “Let’s go.”
Hunter stood and started to follow Amuro.
“Wh—what about the lights?” Hunter asked quickly.
“I’m sure the generator will run out of gas eventually,” Amuro shrugged. “Come on.”
“No,” Hunter finally stopped.
“What?” Amuro turned around.
“I’m not taking another step, not until you explain to me what the heck just happened,” Hunter stamped his foot.
“Fine,” Amuro rolled his eyes. “All right, the short version: you’re now the host to a rising dragon. Enjoy.”
“WHAT?!” Hunter blurted.
Amuro took a few steps closer to Hunter and unfolded his arms, relaxing a bit as he leaned against a wall.
“Dragons… they aren’t like you and me,” Amuro explained. “They’re born with salvation, they don’t have to choose it. But they can loose it, like this one did. In death, he has two choices: eternal oblivion, or the chance to rise again.
“What passed between you and Corpsie-McCgregor over there is called a Rising Dragon. It’s a dragon spirit that is seeking redemption; and by your righteous acts, it will find it.”
“So… I’ve got a dragon living inside of me, now?” Hunter gulped.
“Kinda, sorta, yeah,” Amuro nodded.
“And you didn’t think it was worthwhile to WARN me that this would happen?!” Hunter demanded.
“You might have said no’,” Amuro shrugged. “See, here’s how it works: the host, being now you, has to willfully pass the rising dragon to another before he dies, or it gets to play host-roulette. It’s chances of ascension grow exponentially when the host chooses a worthy successor, like Deady-McDeaderson the Third back there did. If it has to wander the plane and fine a host by chance, well at this hour odds are it’ll wind up in a trucker. And the dragon can’t leave on its own, see. Whoever hosts it has to know its there, and use it’s power, in order for the dragon to… well, I guess you could say it’s trying to earn back its soul.
“And you’re going to help it. See, when it suits you, you can call on the dragon for aide. And it will help you. If you offer up a token of your life force, it may even let you claim it’s power as your own, for one act. But it had darn well better be a brave and selfless act, something that saves a lot of people. Or, if not people, at least a whole bunch of kittens. Something worthy, something righteous. And try to keep this in mind: if you abuse the rising dragon, you’ll loose it.”
“I thought you said it couldn’t leave me?” Hunter questioned.
“Not willfully,” Amuro replied. “Only if you use it improperly. Then it can leave you, but it has to start the ascension process all over again. I should say then it has to, it has no other choice. Yeah, it’s tough being a rising dragon. That’s why I chose you.”
“I thought the old man—”
“Has been living alone on this mountain for thirty years,” Amuro interrupted. “He doesn’t know anybody, least of all anyone worthy. But with you, with you commanding it, I’m sure that rising dragon will find it’s redemption, and then some.”
“Then how do I—” Hunter began.
“You’re going to have to figure that part out for yourself,” Amuro interrupted again. “Come on, let’s get you home.”
* * *
“A chocolate doughnut with sprinkles, and a can of grape soda,” Hunter said quietly to no one in particular. “Breakfast of champions.”
Some weeks had passed, and despite Amuro’s words, Hunter hadn’t managed to figure anything out about this ‘rising dragon’. He was starting to forget the whole thing had ever happened.
The unnamed old man, who died alone on the mountain, obviously knew what he had. He knew, but was too afraid to use it, or so Hunter had begun to theorize. And while Hunter wasn’t afraid, he didn’t actually have the slightest clue where to begin.
So he took a big bite of his doughnut.
“Ah, there you are!”
Hunter glanced up and pointed to himself uncertainly. One of the teachers, a Mrs. Kaskade, was currently weaving her way through the crowd and looking right at Hunter. With all the grace of the average teenager, Hunter quickly finished chewing the large bite of food and washed it down with a dong draft of grape soda, so that by the time the teacher arrived he was able to smile pleasantly and feign politeness.
“Hunter, I wanted to talk to you about that standardized test you took last week,” she explained breathlessly.
“I didn’t cheat, I swear!” Hunter coughed, still choking on a few sprinkles. He had cheated, but there was no reason to admit it.
“Well no, that’s the thing,” Mrs. Kaskade replied. “You scored the highest in the whole school—the district, actually.”
“Neat,” Hunter forced a smile. It wasn’t so much that the test was difficult, or that there was any studying to be done that Hunter didn’t do. He just figured that since it didn’t count towards his grade, why not utterly crush it?
Each test was both generated and graded by computer, ensuring that no two students had the same test to prevent copying, but giving each student the same number and difficulty of questions. It was an ingenious system with one major weakness: it was made by people.
Using some impressive telephone skills, Hunter had managed to get a hold of the company that made the tests. They told him that one complex algorithm selected the questions from a pool and generated the answer key. Another call to the mathmetician, this time claiming to be a research scientist studying probability, and Hunter had learned the name of the journal in which the algorithm had been published. A trip to the local library and some very confused librarians and a vandalized photocopier later, and Hunter had the algorithm in his hot little hands.