“Wait.” Kaidus whispered, stopping his father and pointing toward a large tree.
Directly ahead of them, obscured by vines and foliage and camouflaged against the trunk of a tree, was a striped rakkau. The large cat had found itself a nice sunspot that penetrated the forest canopy and was lazing comfortably at the base of the tree.
“Ooh. It looks like a big one.” Troyle grinned, seeing the beast. “You spotted it. What do you want to do?”
“I’ll circle around to see if I can get a clear shot. If I can’t take it down, it’s all up to you, father.” Kaidus replied.
With a short bow in hand, he kept his stance low and moved stealthily through the dense undergrowth. Getting as close as he could without alerting the prey, he nocked an arrow and drew. Stabilizing his breathing to steady himself, he aimed for the neck. *Zwoosh!* the arrow pierced through the air, flying toward its mark.
With a loud growl, the cat instantly sprung up and began running opposite his direction. His arrow had missed and instead of the neck, had hit the beast’s shoulder. Kaidus quickly let loose another arrow.
The cat growled again as the second arrowed hit its leg from behind, sending it tumbling to the ground. It quickly got up and was about to pounce away but before it could vanish into the forest thicket, Troyle was already upon it.
With a single smooth motion, Troyle cleanly sliced off the cat’s head. “Good work!” Troyle called out with a smile.
“I need more practice…” Kaidus made a disappointed reply, looking at the arrow that was lodged into the cat’s shoulder. If he hadn’t missed, there would have been no need for the second shot nor Troyle’s assist.
He could have used magic to control the arrow or immobilize the creature, but such was against the teachings of the person who trained him in the bow.
‘Hunting is a sacred relationship between a man, his bow, and his next meal. Work hard, and you will always be rewarded. The convenience of magic has no business in such a delicate balance.’ He recalled the 8th chair of the Droxxon Mercenary, his archery teacher nagging him about it. It was meant more as a joke because the man could not use magic, but the words had stuck with him.
The rakkau’s gray and black fur around its neck was dyed red with blood, and a head filled with long sharp teeth sat gaping on the forest floor. Looking at the headless beast, it was larger than he had thought. With its legs out and not curled up, the cat was almost as big as he is.
“A good hunt for the morning. Grab the head and the other game I left over there and let’s head back for some lunch.” Troyle instructed, tying the beast’s legs together.
Kaidus picked up the rakkau head and walked to where they had split up. A morning of hunting had acquired them a bundle of foraging critters and a few frost birds, barely enough for him to carry with one hand.
Their campsite was in a small clearing within the forest that had been used by hunters for years. The camp consisted of three tents accommodating four people each, a fire pit at the center, and a wagon to close off the square perimeter. The materials for the tents had been brought from home, along with their weapons, and two troughs with plenty of feed for the horses that were currently tied to the trees.
“Looks like a good haul.” The three guards who opted to stay and watch the camp happily greeted them.
“Sure was. Didn’t think we’d be returning so early.” Troyle replied, revealing the large rakkau he was lugging on his shoulder before setting it on the ground.
“See! This is exactly why I’d rather sit here and tend to the fire.” One of the guard’s exclaimed excitedly after seeing the large cat.
“Fortunately for us, we got the jump on it. Took two arrows from Kaidus and a swing from my sword.” Troyle cracked a triumphant smile.
“Better the two of you than the others.” Another of the guards added with a wide grin.
Troyle took out a knife and began gutting the rakkau. “Any words from the lord’s group or the others?”
“Not yet. You two are the first to return.” The guards replied.
One of them moved to help Troyle with the rakkau while the other two helped Kaidus with preparing the smaller animals.
Their group of eleven had split into four smaller groups. The three who were watching the camp, Troyle and Kaidus, Lord Varath and his son Larant along with a guard, and the last three guards to make up the final group.
Each team had left the camp in a different direction after breakfast to go looking for game.
With most of their bounty skinned then frozen with magic and stashed away in the wagon, the five of them were enjoying an early lunch while they waited for the other two groups to return.
“I wonder if the others are having any luck.” One of the guards voiced as they were sitting around the fire.
“We didn’t see any, but there were quite a few oriv tracks. If they can bring back something big like that, we should be set for the day.” Troyle replied as he bit into a roasted bird.
“That, and a couple of tranil rats.” Another of the guards chimed in.
“I’d rather they brought back a few foxes or wolves instead of deer or rats. Can’t remember the last time I ate a wolf.” The guard who was cooking added.
As the five of them ate, ‘Massssterrrr Sssomething Comessss.’
Kaidus sat up as a hissing voice suddenly alerted him. ‘What?’ he questioned back.
‘A Beasssst.’ Zion replied as the sound of triumphant laughter came through the forest.
A group of six came out of the forest and into the clearing. Lord Varath and Larant were at the front and each had a handful of critters while the guards in the back were all carrying something between the four of them.
“We’ve got a big one!” Lord Varath cheerfully yelled out to them.
As the four guards entered the camp, every pair of eyes fell on the large bloody snake they were carrying. Even with the guards spread apart by a good stride, the serpent’s length extended past the four of them with its two tails almost touching the ground.
“A golden twin tail constrictor? What is it doing out of its burrow already?” One of the guards looked at the serpent warily.
Although green in coloration, the serpent’s green scales were reflecting the afternoon sun, giving it an almost golden shimmer as the four guards set it down.
“Beats me. Damned thing ate my bird that I shot down and nearly got me too. Thank the four gods Kalien was within earshot and the young lord’s group heard us.” The man grimaced, pulling back his sleeves to reveal a bandaged arm where the serpent had sunk its fangs into him. “If not, I doubt I’d still be here.”
‘That?’ Kaidus thought back, questioning the wind spirit.
The serpent was not venomous, but one of such a size could have easily swallowed a man whole. It could easily pass for being the beast.
‘Nay. There Is Something Else. A Winged One. In The Sky.’ With a soft booming voice, Vishan replied instead.
Kaidus looked up and sure enough, there was something in the sky. A snake-like silhouette with three sets of wings was circling above them silently. ‘It can’t be.’ He thought as the silhouette started growing bigger. “Everyone! Cover your ears!” He shouted and they all looked at him. A few of them quickly followed his command while the rest gave him a look of confusion.
“KRAUOOOOA!” A piercing roar assaulted them as the beast descended.
The shockwave from the roar blasted their camp, shaking the surrounding trees and blowing their tents and wagon out of position. The surprise attack had instantly paralyzed the horses and stunned those who failed to cover their ears, throwing them to the ground. Those that promptly followed his directions were merely shocked and stunned by the powerful pressure.
The winged beast circled the clearing twice before it gracefully landed. Its three pairs of wings folded tightly along its side and back, and without arms or legs, the beast’s elongated body coiled together like a snake: poised to strike.
With his feet sunken into the earth up to his knees and a coat of mana protecting him, Kaidus stared at the giant serpent. It was a Hvaral, and its size made the golden twin tailed constrictor look insignificant. He had seen many drawings of Hvarals while researching drakalls, but being in front of such a creature, he could only stare in awe. Two golden eyes with red elliptical pupils gazed back at him as if it was surprised to see him still standing.
Two pointed horns protruded from the hvaral’s forehead, and a majestic black mane went from its head all the way to its first set of wings. Large translucent wings were folded and appeared black against a body of reddish yellow scales with a silver underbelly. The Hvaral’s three-pronged tail was swaying hypnotically as a gem glittered radiantly in the middle of it. Comparing its size to the golden twin tailed constrictor, the Hvaral towered over its ground dwelling cousin.
Opening its mouth, the giant serpent angrily hissed at Kaidus.
‘What’s a drakall doing this close to the capital? Surely the knights would have known if something like this was nesting around here.’ Kaidus pondered to himself. The snake-like drakalls were not known to hunt and kill men but in such a dire situation, he dared not let his guard down. “What is it you want?” He questioned, staring at the beast calmly. Drakalls were intelligent creatures, and it was the perfect chance to see if it could understand him.
“HISSS!” The Hvaral hissed again, jerking its head forward and snapping its jaws as if to test him. Kaidus stood his ground and quietly watched the giant serpent’s display.
“Ugh…” The sound of groaning and the movement of people broke the silence.
The drakall quickly twisted its head and looked at those who were standing up. Opening its mouth, it screeched and sent another shockwave through the atmosphere.
“Enough!” Kaidus commanded, and a tempest coiled itself around the Hvaral’s mouth, closing it before slamming the beast’s head to the ground.
The serpent hissed in surprise, lifting and shaking its head as if fighting to regain its posture.
“What in the…” A dazed Troyle got up to a frightening scene.
His son was quietly staring up against a monster. He knew his son was a formidable mage, but he also knew that Hvarals were extremely powerful drakalls, especially one as large as the current one. Taking a quick glance around, he saw a few of the men also getting up off the ground. Those who had failed to heed Kaidus’ warning were still unconscious.
Seeing the predicament they were in, he did not dare to move or make a sound.
Although the lord, Larant, and a few of the men were still on the ground having been too slow to react to his warning, Kaidus noticed his father and a couple people getting back up. One of the guards stumbled as he tried to stand and collapsed to the ground, breaking twigs and squashing leaves.
The Hvaral instantly turned its head toward the man’s direction before swerving its head back to focus on Kaidus. As if knowing who to be wary of, the creature quickly changed target and with a powerful beat of its wings, it easily propelled itself forward.
Kaidus quickly dashed to the side, putting himself between the giant serpent and whatever it was after. He hastily pulled off his hunting glove and with a thought, a deluge of dark liquid burst forth from a small metal ring on his finger.
Feziel obeyed. Instantly molding itself into two large arms of pure black metal, it grabbed the beast’s horns and wings before the beast could move past its master. With a powerful swing, it threw the serpent back against the trees before promptly returning to the ring.
The Hvaral quickly got up again and hissed angrily. Lifting itself off the ground with its powerful wings, it rose over the trees and glared down at Kaidus. “KRAUOOA!” It roared once more and dove.
As the Hvaral’s large body came hurling down at them with its mouth wide open, Kaidus quickly commanded Zion to pick up everyone and move them out of the way.
Standing his ground, ‘Gauntlet’ he willed, and Feziel obeyed. Once again, a dark liquid surged forth from his ring, encircling his right arm and transforming into a pitch-black gauntlet. Launching himself off the ground with earth magic, he flew straight at the diving drakall then used wind magic to push himself aside to evade the mouth. Focusing his mana, he enhanced his strength and with another aerial boost using wind magic, smashed his armored fist into the beast’s body.
The Hvaral roared in pain as its body convulsed from the force of the attack. Yet instead of falling down or recoiling and running away, it managed to keep itself airborne and bite at something on the ground. With powerful strokes of its wings, it took to the sky once more, flying away with the golden twin tailed constrictor.
“… Don’t tell me…” Dumbfounded, Kaidus couldn’t help but just watch.
Taking a moment to look at their ruined camp site, their tents were uprooted and thrown across the area. The wagon had fallen on its side but looked to be intact, and the horses were still out cold. Their lunch they had been eating were also strewn across the camp.
Something caught his eyes as he was scanning the area.
Near where the constrictor had been, something was shining on the ground. Walking over to it, he found three large glistening red scales, each the size of his palm. Two were cracked, but the last one was in perfect condition. They seem to have fallen off the Hvaral after his attack.
Although he was not trying to kill it, for his strengthened blow to only crack the hvaral’s scales, the beast was quite sturdy.
“Kaidus! Are you okay?!” Troyle shouted from the edge of the clearing.
“I’m fine!” He yelled back, picking up the three scales and pocketing them before running over to where Zion had deposited the group.
A cluster of unsteady and bruised men were looking at him with incredulity while a few others were sitting up with no idea about what had transpired.
“What in the world happened?” Lord Varath question, waking up in the middle of the devastated camp.
“We were robbed, my lord.” One off the guards answered with a sullen tone.
“Robbed? What happened? Is everyone alright?” The Lord quickly looked around to see the disheveled campsite before noticing. “What happened to the snake?!” He exclaimed, seeing that their prized catch was gone.
Going through the men to see if any of them had incurred any serious injury, Kaidus couldn’t help but laugh at the lord’s reaction.
After the Hvaral made its escape, a thought occurred to him. He realized that it wasn’t after him or their group at all but their snake, and the reason why it snapped at him was probably because he was in its way. The Hvaral had probably landed to feast on the snake, but had to change its plans once it saw resistance. He chuckled to himself, glad that he didn’t have to kill such a magnificent creature.
Those who saw the latter half of the encounter filled in the others who were unconscious during the ordeal. They all knew that Kaidus was a powerful mage, and none of them dared to doubt that the young boy was capable of repelling a drakall. Many of the guards could still recall an incident years ago of the boy obliterating a pack of korgas, and his victory during the Arms competition was still fresh in their minds.
“That damned creature could have left us half!” The man who was bitten by the snake exclaimed gloomily after hearing about what happened.
“Be thankful it left us with our lives.” Another of the guards reminded them of their precarious situation.
“Well, it did leave something.” Kaidus grinned, taking out the three red scales from his pocket. Handing the scales to the disheartened man, he saw the man’s eyes light up.
“This… This is…”
“Scales from the Hvaral. How much do you reckon they’re worth?”
“I don’t know much about appraising exotic goods, but,” *Urgh!* the man tried to bend it to no avail. He tried biting it, but nothing happened. “This toughness and size… I’d say at least 100erns for the cracked ones and 150 for the flawless scale if sold to the blacksmith. I’m willing to bet he can forge something good out of this.” The man looked at Kaidus. “Are there any more?”
“No. I only found those three. Take it. Think of it as the beast’s compensation for taking the snake that bit you.” Kaidus replied with a grin.
The man looked around to the other guards before handing it back to Kaidus. “I can’t. You drove it off. It is rightfully yours. Not to mention, you healed my bite already.” The man smiled.
“Would you all mind if I took it?” Lord Varath interrupted. “Don’t worry. It won’t be sold for my own gains or anything.” He reassured.
“Of course not, my lord. If not for Larant and your assistance, we probably wouldn’t have been able to bring the snake down in the first place.”
All the guards who had a hand in the serpent’s subjugation unanimously agreed to the decision and the scales were given to the Lord.
“Thank you.” Taking the scales, Alzin Varath stowed them away in his coat. “Well then, how about we clean this place up and get back to hunting? Hahaha…”
With only birds and small animals, they decided to divide the group into two: one to go back and hunt for the duration of the evening while the other half stayed behind to reconstruct their camp.
The next morning, a weary but content band of hunters saddled their horses and began the grueling journey back to Ferrent. Within the wagon were two large wooden crates filled with large chunks of frozen meat and animals.