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Chapter 1 – Scars

 

I inhaled sharply as I sprinted through the woods trying to put as much distance as possible between myself and the other hunters. Dead leaves that had spent weeks covered in snow crunched below my feet. It was not hard to smile as I smelled the fresh air which was cool, but not cold as it had been.

Our tribe held a yearly hunt to separate the boys from the men. Each aspiring warrior would go out into the forest to kill an animal. If my father, the chieftain, deemed the kill worthy, then the boy who brought it to him would be accepted into the ranks.

I wasn’t worried about whether or not I would be accepted. I was Chimera, the son of the chieftain, as my friends liked to point out. Surely the chieftain would accept his own son’s offering. But I was determined to earn my way to success like everyone else. There were rumors of a karcharios in our area, a shark man, as my little brother called them. Anyone who brought down this creature would surely be accepted and any rumors of special treatment for the chieftain’s son would be put to rest.

It was a difficult decision, going after such a beast. I was risking either death by the ferocious creature, or if I survived but couldn’t kill it, there was no way I would pass the trials. However, it’d been years since a karcharios had been spotted in our neck of the woods. This was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

The wind began to pick up as I arrived at the clearing that I had scouted earlier. I slung my bow over my shoulder and began to climb the nearest tree. The hunters that spotted the karcharios said he was in this clearing, and it was a popular hunting trail for predators. Little did he know, he wouldn’t be the only predator tonight.

I reached my perch just in time because shortly afterward another hunter entered the clearing. The rules of the hunt stated that we could not harm or sabotage another hunter, but I did not want to give my position away and risk someone else getting my kill.

I recognized the hunter to be Apistos, my close friend since I was a boy. We had trained together in the weeks leading up to this but we had kept our plans secret from each other. He was wearing the plain leather armor of our tribe and his short black hair was a mess from his long run through the woods.

I grabbed a rock and threw it farther down the path hoping to lead him away. Not because I wanted him to lose the hunt, but if he spooked my prey then I had no chance at passing the test.

Unfortunately, the rock had the opposite effect. Apistos drew his sword but then didn’t move anymore, almost as if he was still working up the courage to go after the noise. My mind was racing trying to come up with ways to make him run off but I couldn’t think of anything.

Just then, I heard a petrifying roar beneath me and into the clearing stomped the karcharios I was hunting. Standing at what must have been nearly two feet taller than me, the brute who was half man and half shark had deep blue skin with a fin protruding from the back of his neck.

He was an absolute giant of a creature with enormous muscles from head to toe. The humanoid beast could survive on land or in the water and legends spoke of a time where thousands of karcharios inhabited all of Aragath, though I wasn’t sure how much I believed them.

The karcharios charged at Apistos who could do nothing as the beast knocked away his weapon and threw him to the ground. I nocked an arrow on my bow and prepared to shoot my prey in an attempt to save my friend’s life. I cursed under my breath when I realized that Apistos had led the creature unintentionally to a place where branches blocked my line of sight. I panicked and hurriedly began climbing back down forgetting all about winning the hunt and more about the danger my friend was in. Apistos cried out for help as the predator moved in on his prey.

Knowing that the creature could rip Apistos in half effortlessly, I stopped descending as soon as I saw an opening through the branches and leaned against the trunk of the tree to steady myself. I nocked an arrow on my bow and carefully measured the wind. I would likely only have one shot at this.

I pulled back on the string and aimed for the back of the karcharios head. I exhaled and then hesitated for just a moment before I released the bowstring and let the arrow fly. I attempted to account for the wind with my aim. My heart sunk when the arrow landed just below the beast’s shoulder blade.

The karcharios let out a tremendous roar of pain and turned to face me. I lowered myself the rest of the way down the tree to face the great beast. I brandished my archer’s short sword and started shouting at my enemy, drawing him away from Apistos. He began to charge forward in a fit of rage. I waited until he was almost upon me to gracefully sidestep his uncontrolled attack. The karcharios slammed into the tree behind me sending large splinters flying, one of which buried itself in my thigh.

Ignoring the pain I limped over to Apistos who was on his feet and had recovered his weapon. I felt the warm blood running down my leg. It was an injury that could not be ignored for long.

“He can’t catch you if you keep moving,” I said, taking a stance next to my friend.

Apistos eyed the karcharios who had recovered and was preparing for another attack. “We should return to camp and get help.”

I shook my head. “No, we can do this ourselves.”

The karcharios stomped toward us again but we used our speed to keep out of range, swiping at him with our swords but only scratching the beast. We continued to circle our prey waiting for an opportunity to strike but the creature’s size made it difficult to get too close. I wiped the sweat from my forehead. It was clear that I should have stayed in the tree.

Realizing the glancing blows were doing nothing against the beast, I sheathed my sword and nocked an arrow on my bow. The karcharios, seeing this, threw himself at Apistos and managed to grab him by the arm and use him as a shield. Apistos wasn’t nearly strong enough to resist. I drew back on the bow and aimed but I could not get a clear shot with Apistos flailing about in a futile attempt to free himself.

The battle had come to a standstill, with myself and the beast both weighing our options while Apistos gave up on his escape attempts. As much as I cared about winning the hunt, this was about saving my friend’s life now. I held my breath and aimed more carefully than I ever had before. I exhaled and began to let my fingers slip off the bowstring.

Just as I decided to risk the shot, the karcharios hurled Apistos at me and charged. I, however, spun out of the way and loosed my arrow in its direction. I feared the off-balance shot would miss badly, but my fears were erased when the arrow hit its target landing deep in the creature’s shoulder and bringing him down to one knee.

I helped Apistos to his feet and then looked at the karcharios who moaned loudly and met my gaze from his place on the ground, clearly struggling to breathe. Blood began to seep both from the arrow in his chest and the one in his back. I could see the pained look in his eyes and I pitied the wounded animal in front of me. I sighed and readied one more arrow to put it out of its misery.

“I surrender,” said the karcharios.

His words caught me completely off guard. Everything I had ever heard about the karcharios up to this point was that they were just wild animals. Was it a secret the elders of our tribe were keeping from me? Or perhaps even they didn’t know the truth. I kept my bow aimed at his chest wondering if I was imagining things.

“We fought and you bested me,” he spoke again. “So I surrender.”

I glanced at Apistos still dumbfounded.

“W-what do you want us to do?” I asked lowering my bow.

There was a long pause before he spoke again. I wasn’t sure if he was succumbing to his wounds or simply pondering carefully what to say next.

“I would like you to take me back to your village and tend to my wounds,” he said still speaking my language fluently.

I hesitated not knowing whether to listen to him. My goal had been to kill a karcharios and bring it back to my father, but would taking one prisoner be enough? I stood there for some time however I could not bring myself to execute an unarmed prisoner.

Apistos spoke up, “If you bring him back alive you risk not passing the trial.”

“And you risk not passing if I tell my father you had no part in capturing him,” I said sharply. “We’re bringing him back alive.”

Apistos sighed and I tied the hands of our new prisoner with the rope I carried. I was no doctor but I knew enough to help remove the arrows from the body of the karcharios. No one spoke as we bandaged them with the little bit of emergency supplies we carried. I waited to remove the splinter from my leg until we had more bandages.

“Don’t make me regret this,” I said to him.

As we made our way back, the clouds broke and released the first rain of the season marking the official end of winter. The rain quickly turned the dirt path to mud. The karcharios slogged through and we actually had to struggle to get up.

We finally made back it to the village just before dark. The torchlight from the many houses became visible. Our tribe numbered just over two thousand.

I was surprised to see that most of the hunters had already finished. They’d all formed a line in front of my father to present their offerings. Some of them had exotic birds and ferocious wild boar. One student even brought forward a wolf. Meanwhile, others had harmless squirrels, rats, or even nothing at all. The latter would all have to wait until next year to try again.

All eyes turned towards us as we marched our prisoner to the back of the line. Most would be impressed by the capture of the rare karcharios. Others, disappointed by the failure to kill it. When it was our turn, Apistos and I made our way to the front of the line and pushed our prisoner to his knees in front of my father. I knew he could have easily resisted falling if he had wished. Still, I tried to appear confident as I met my father’s gaze. On one hand, to offer a karcharios was far greater than anything anyone else had brought. Unfortunately, not only was our gift alive but between the two of us, we only had one offering.

My father was a tall, thin man who had long black hair. His brown skin was wrinkled. He wore elaborate red and brown chieftain’s robes. At this moment he appeared quite composed despite the fact that even he had probably never seen a karcharios before.

“Tell me,” he said raising an eyebrow, “Why did you fail to kill your prey?”

I swallowed nervously. For the first time, the possibility of failing this test felt real.

“Because he is not an animal,” I blurted out. “He speaks the same language we do.”

This made my father raise his eyebrows. He beckoned for the captive to stand and he obeyed.

“Is this true?” My father asked with the kind of excitement that I had rarely seen in the years since my mother passed. “Can you speak?”

The karcharios held his head high and spoke.

“I can,” he said holding my father’s stare. Despite his state, muddy, wounded, and tied up, the karcharios spoke with authority. He did not break eye contact with my father as if in an act of defiance. His confidence was intimidating, to say the least. Even on his knees, our prisoner was taller than my father. Now, standing, he towered over him. I got the idea that he could have escaped if he really wanted.

“Your warrior bested me,” the karcharios said gesturing to me. “I respect that.”

My father held his stare and a slight smile crept across his face.

“Very well done, Chimera,” he said finally looking away from the magnificent creature before him. “You and Apistos both pass the trials. You are now officially Storm Hunters.”

Relief washed over me as the pressure of the last few weeks lifted.

“This karcharios is no longer a prisoner,” he said to anyone who could hear him. “He is our guest.”

A few of my father’s senior officers stepped forward and my father ordered them to have the karcharios’ wounds looked at by a professional.

“Congratulations, Chimera,” one of the older ones said.

“Thank you, Syvos,” I said, “But I couldn’t have done it without Apistos.”

Apistos gave me a sideways glance knowing that I was lying through my teeth. Syvos only smiled and continued escorting the karcharios away.

Another of my father’s officers, Terros, approached me.

“I won’t be impressed until you bring back a dragon,” Terros said with mock seriousness in his voice.

Terros was widely known as one of my father’s best hunters. He was in his early thirties. He had long black hair that was pulled back into a knot. His arms and face were covered in black paint to conceal him in the dark. To earn his respect was a tall order but one I knew I’d just accomplished. Even a hunter as skilled at Terros had never bested a karcharios.

“Are you going on another hunt?” I asked, ignoring his joke.

He nodded somberly. “Food’s low Chimera. Someone’s got to do something or we’ll all starve. I may be gone for a while on this one.”

“Good luck,” I said.

“It’s the beginning of another storm season,” he said moving down the path to rejoin his group. “I don’t need luck!”

“Chimera, go have that wound looked at,” said my father. The excitement from moments ago was almost completely gone. “You have an hour until the feast.”

I nodded and went to do what he said. These feasts were usually more like tribal meetings but maybe now that I passed the trials they would hold a little more interest.

* * *

Thunder boomed loudly as a bolt of lightning ripped across the night sky. The storm continued to intensify and most people had returned to their homes. I wondered how Terros and his men felt out hunting in this weather. Surely with the darkness and the rain, they couldn’t see or track anything.

I hustled down the road passing the many straw huts that housed our people. I stopped when I came to the only stone building. It was an old structure built long ago and meant to be a meeting place for the tribe’s leadership. I ducked inside through the small wooden door.

In the middle of the room sat a long dinner table that ran the length of the room. The table seated twenty. The back of the room held the kitchen. My stomach growled once I smelled the food. At the head of the table stood my father who was having a quiet conversation with Syvos. No one took notice as I walked up and took my seat beside him.

Most of the table was filled with advisors, military or otherwise, to my father who was the chieftain of the Storm Hunters tribe. Several small round tables surrounded the main one and seated the remainder of the hunters. Though there were a lot fewer hunters present than in past years. Most were out scrounging any bit of food they could find and I hoped to join them soon. If it weren’t for their countless hours of scavenging this tribe would have starved long ago.

Next to me sat my twin sister, Rhea, who did notice me and shot a dirty look in my direction for being tardy. And next to her was our younger brother, Anthos, who was barely nine years old and who looked severely out of place in the room full of adults. I smiled for a moment realizing that I could consider myself an adult now that I had passed the trials.

I looked at my bowl of stew and frowned. The beginning of Storm season was the greatest celebration of the year and was usually marked by a great feast. Instead, simply a bowl of stew made from the most meager of rations. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful but it was hard not to be disappointed.

No doubt the subject of my father’s conversation would be the unexpected famine our tribe was going through. Usually, we survived the post-winter food shortage by doing more hunting, but a recent earthquake scared most of the wildlife away. The other hunters who passed the trials today and I had gotten lucky. Now we had people foraging for mushrooms and berries, but that was hardly enough to feed our entire tribe.

I looked at the last painting my mother had made before she passed that hung at the end of the room. It depicted the rose oak tree by the river. Underneath the tree was the tombstone for my grandfather whom I’d never met.

The noise made by the rain striking the roof forced everyone to speak very loudly making the entire dining area a very noisy place as we ate. I could smell everyone else’s food once I finished which made me wish I had more.

“Did I miss anything important?” I asked my sister as I set about eating the rations in front of me.

“No,” she said. “But I hear you got to see something rather special today.”

“You heard?” I said excitedly. “Do you know what father plans to do with him?”

“He told me he wanted to recruit the beast to fight for us,” said Rhea.

My eyes widened as I recognized the possibility of fighting alongside the magnificent warrior.

“Do you really think he would agree to that?” Rhea asked.

“I don’t know, I haven’t spoken to him since I captured him. He did surrender so who knows.”

Rhea finally started to share some of my excitement and looked like she was about to say something when my father rose to his feet and started to address the room.

“As you all know, our tribe is going through a severe famine. And it’s not the usual post winter food shortage,” he paused. “This is due to the unexplained shaking of the earth that caused so much of the wildlife to flee far from our lands.”

I remembered the horror of a few weeks ago huddled in this very building with my family and many of my tribemates as the ground beneath us shook violently. What felt like hours couldn’t have been more than a minute. And though surprisingly little damage could be seen with our eyes, we began to feels the effects as our hunters brought in less and less food.

A wildfire that we attributed to this earthquake destroyed the habitats of many species. Our village was not touched by the fires but animals were leaving in an attempt to find new forests.

“There is a plot of land some distance from here that was discovered by Trofi and his crew,” my father pointed towards the proud hunter and many people started to cheer and pound on the tables.

When things quieted down my father continued. “The land there is soil rich,” The people around the table began to look hopeful. “And just as importantly, the area was not affected by the earthquake, so it is teeming with wildlife for us to hunt. I believe this is the prime opportunity for us to settle this land, and start a new village.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” A man named Caste shouted and many others began cheering again.

My father held up a hand motioning for them to be silent.

“Unfortunately, as soon as we made this discovery, the Blood Hawks also found out and decided to steal the land out from under us,” my father said.

At the mention of our bitter rival tribe, many of the men around the table scowled but began listening more intently. My father had expertly navigated the conflict for years avoiding war with the Blood Hawks the whole way. But always tensions were rising and eventually words would fail to solve things.

“Tomorrow, we ride for Sylvannor to meet with the Sylvan council. They will decide who the land belongs to.”

Many of the men at the table groaned and a scrawny young man, who I recognized as one of the hunters who passed the trials last year, stood to speak.

“Why should we bow down to the Sylvan Council when they give us no aide through this famine?” The young man shouted angrily. “We run around aimlessly trying to please their every desire when we should stand and fight to free ourselves from their rule!”

Syvos stood quickly to defend my father. “And what would you have your chieftain do?” he asked, his face growing red from anger. “March our little army of hunters to the great walls of Sylvannor and demand they surrender? Or would you rather meet them on the battlefield, with our wooden shields and spears, against their army of horse riders and ironwood weapons?”

I glanced at my father who didn’t say anything and waited for the situation to play out.

“You know nothing of war, Syvos,” said the scrawny man sitting across me. “But how could you?” he asked mockingly. “You’re just the medicine man. You look like you’ve never held a sword in your life!”

The insults were ironic coming from a man of his stature. But tensions were high and I was willing to let things like that go. My father, however, was a different story.

“That’s enough!” My father’s booming voice startled me. “I will not allow this celebration to be spoiled by trading insults,” he said. “We’re going to Sylvannor tomorrow. That’s my decision.”

The room fell silent aside from the howling wind outside. Though they argued, the respect everyone in the room held for my father was clear. He’d never led them blindly into war before. We trusted he would find a way to make peace yet again.

“Chimera, take your siblings back to our home and rest. You will travel with me to Sylvannor in the morning.”

For a moment, I felt enthusiasm at the prospect of walking through the great halls of Sylvannor for the first time. But the feeling quickly faded at the bleak mood of the room. I nodded and stood to leave the meeting hall with Rhea and Anthos following behind me.

When we came outside, we noticed that the rain had slowed and the clouds had parted to reveal a full moon. We sloshed through the muddy pathways on the way back to our lodging when I turned off the main road.

“Where are you going?” Rhea asked.

“You wanted to see the karcharios didn’t you?”

She raised her eyebrows, surprised I had anticipated her unspoken request, and started after me. We continued down the path for only a short while, with our little brother Anthos tagging along behind us. Before long we came to a straw hut that was guarded by two hunters. Despite my father’s declaration that the karcharios was our guest, he still didn’t trust the creature alone in our village.

I told the guards my father had sent me and we stepped inside. The hut was the same as any other we built. One room structures with makeshift cots, they were mostly for sleeping.

The karcharios sat on the floor knowing he was too big for the cot. He was backlit by a torch. I could see that Syvos had tended to his wounds far better than Apistos and I ever could. He wore perhaps the largest pair of leather pants our tailors had ever made but still no shirt as there hadn’t been time to make anything that big.

My awestruck siblings came in right behind me. The karcharios opened his eyes and looked at me but didn’t say anything. We stared at each other for a long time, neither one of us really knowing what to say. I hoped he did not hold a grudge over our fight but could not tell one way or the other.

Anthos broke the ice for us. “Are you the shark man?” It was obvious he was asking with no ill intent and the look on his face showed genuine curiosity.

The karcharios held a solemn expression for a moment before he allowed what I interpreted as a faint smile.

“Yes,” he said in his deep voice. “I am.”

I was still amazed by seeing the otherworldly creature speak. The karcharios moved to sit up straighter and winced. His wounds clearly still pained him.

“Sorry about that,” I apologized, knowing I had caused his pain. “Do you have a name?”

“Dynam,” he said. “It means strength.”

I introduced myself and my siblings to him. As I did, my sister grabbed her flask of water and handed it to him. He took it and drank from it greedily but he stopped himself before finishing it.

“Thank you,” he said and tried to hand it back to her.

“Keep it,” said Rhea.

Dynam nodded gratefully and reached into his shallow pocket to grab a small, silver coin. He gave it to me and I examined it. The coin was clearly ancient and the image had nearly worn off. On one side was the image of a karcharios warrior standing proudly. On the other, a depiction of a majestic bird fanning its wings.

“Is that a phoenix?” I asked raising my eyebrows.

Dynam nodded, “The karcharios and the phoenix were some of the first creatures in Aragath, but far from the last.”

Still surprised, I rolled up the sleeve on my left arm to reveal a long scar that glowed orange and yellow and ran across my forearm.

Now it was Dynam’s turn to look surprised.

“You were scarred by a phoenix?”

“My father was teaching me how to hunt,” I replied. “We came across a phoenix that attacked me and left this mark.”

Dynam carefully reached out with a large hand and laid a finger on the scar only to pull back quickly at the burning sensation he felt.

“There are many secrets to the magic of the phoenix that you and I have yet to learn,” Dynam said. “Very few individuals have ever received this scar but some believe it is a gift.”

“A gift from whom exactly?” Rhea asked.

Dynam shrugged his massive shoulders. “I don’t know.”

“Do you know anyone else that has this scar?” I asked hopefully.

Dynam grimaced and shook his head. “Yes, I mean… I used to, I think,” it was the first time I heard him trip over his words. “But I… well, I can’t remember.”

I frowned. “How could you forget?”

Dynam continued. “My people’s empire was wiped out long before I was born, I spent most of my life living off the land with just myself and my parents, the last of the karcharios. When they were killed by minotaurs…”

He stopped and closed his eyes, he struggled to hold back tears. He paused for a moment before starting again.

“When they were killed, I lost who I was. I became more like the animal you believed me to be. For years of my life, I lived without speaking to anybody. I was surrounded by my anger and grief. My hatred for everything continued to grow, and nothing was strong enough to stop me from killing what I wanted. Your arrow striking me caused me to return to reality. But during that period of animalistic rage, I lost many of my memories of my people, my culture, and even my parents.”

I stood there feeling tremendous guilt. Though it did help that perhaps I had unintentionally helped Dynam through my own misguided assumptions.

“Regardless of my story,” Dynam said. “I can’t imagine you’re the only one with that scar. You would do well to seek them out and learn the secrets of the scar.”

I realized how tremendously late it was and decided it was time to go. He thanked Rhea for the water and I apologized again for causing his wounds. We returned to the straw hut that we lived in and Anthos fell asleep as soon as he lay on his cot.

My sister and I struggled sometimes to connect with our much younger brother. He was kind and rarely bothered us but we didn’t have a lot in common. I made up my mind to spend more time with him when I returned from my trip to Sylvannor.

Rhea went straight to her harp-like instrument and began strumming a soft tune. Her music was well known throughout the tribe and she loved playing for people whenever she got the chance. I used to tease her when we were young about how music was a pointless hobby. But secretly, I was proud of her talent.

I lay in my cot and listened to the low tune as I thought about the journey to Sylvannor. I had never been to the city before and was thrilled to see something so architecturally advanced. My father had told me stories of all the times he’d visited. He said the walls were impenetrable and the city had never fallen to an invader.

“You really should try singing along with the music,” I said to Rhea.

“No,” she said looking offended.

“Why not?”

“I have a terrible voice. Besides it sounds better without singing.”

“Nonsense, you sound exactly like mother.”

The mock argument came to an end at the mention of our mother, Chromia Storm Hunter, who’d died nearly eight years ago to a sickness shortly after giving birth to Anthos. I had finally gotten to a point where I was okay with talking about it. Usually Rhea was, too, but some nights she still couldn’t handle it. We both knew, however, that Rhea inherited her love of music from our mother even if it was too painful to think about.

“Why do you think father wants to recruit the karcharios to our side?” I asked.

Rhea shrugged. “Maybe he’s anticipating a war with the Blood Hawks.”

“But we’ve never actually had an all out war with the Blood Hawks.”

“No,” she admitted. “But we’ve always hated each other and the famine has only made things worse. Don’t forget that’s the real reason you’re going tomorrow. Not only is father negotiating for that new piece of land, but he’s also trying to put a stop to anything that could lead to war.”

Just as she finished talking my father entered the room and sighed heavily. I could tell from the crease in his brow that he was thinking hard about something. Without a word, he lay down on his cot and seemed to start snoring immediately. Knowing that I had a long day tomorrow I tried to do the same but I was kept awake long after he was by the dreadful thought of war with the Blood Hawks.

Do you want to read the rest of the book?

Chapter 1 – Scars

The rest is available on Amazon

Chapter 2 – Battlefields
Chapter 3 – Cowards
Chapter 4 – Anger
Chapter 5 – Dust
Chapter 6 – Cursed
Chapter 7 – Prisoners
Chapter 8 – Monsters
Chapter 9 – Chieftains
Chapter 10 – Brothers

Do you want to read the rest of the book?

Do you want to read the rest of the book?