Welcome to the Wet Tankard. The waitress over there, Tirilee, said you just arrived in town and were looking to get the lay of the land. Now, if you don’t mind buying a seasoned prospector a few tankards of Yellow Ciderberry, I’ve got a story for you that should get you up to speed with current events.
-Arghus Fletcher, Prospector and Exonid Hunter Trainer
I could see the prospector apprentices’ approach by the glow of their lightstones before they rounded the bend.
Truthsayer greeted me, “Fair tidings, Master Arghus Fletcher. How has your shift been this day?” He spoke with the slightly overemphasized common dialect all odari from the White-Gold Collective used. Like many in the White-Gold Collective, they had chosen a few clothing pieces to wear over their chassis. Most notable was their hat. Which looked like something an admiral would wear.
Truthsayer removed their hat, indicating to me this was something official, and said, “I am to place three apprentices into your care. Any news about the broodlings?”
“Aye,” I said, “although it's just a single one.”
We were interrupted by a cacophony of noise which ripped around the corner as two gnomish children and a human girl emerged behind them.
None of the kids were much older than eighteen, and were all dressed in the blue shirts and green trousered uniforms of apprentices.
“They seem to get younger every year,” I said.
“I don’t believe that is how the aging process works, my friend,” said Truthsayer.
I recognized them: Pictith, one of the local leatherworker’s kids; Grimf, a scribe’s son said to have dragon’s blood coursing through his family's veins; and the Miller girl.
“Got a new broodling last night,” I announced over my shoulder. “Left it locked up for our protection.”
You could have heard a pin drop; the kids went all wide-eyed at the prospect of seeing a newly-hatched hunter.
I unlocked the door leading into the exonid hunter kennels, sliding it open to reveal a large dome-shaped room. The walls of the chamber arched up and met seamlessly at the ceiling. It was a gray, imposing stone polished in many places but not in others, as if a work crew had suddenly stopped mid shift, never returning. Three additional passages led off from the dome, with each ending in three hunter kennels, for a total of nine.
“Can they really sense sordalite better than siphits?” asked Grimf.
“Yeah,” I said as we walked, “they can sense sordalite even as they fly over it, as far as a mile away.”
We walked to kennel 8. My new apprentices had been briefed by their parents what to expect for this next part.
Kennel 8 resembled the rest of the kennels. A barred door with an extra heavy lock opened into a circular room thirty feet across. Each kennel was essentially a silo, and in the ceiling some fifty feet above us, in the center of the room was a hole secured with a metal grate allowing the hunter to exit its enclosure and emerge on the surface ready to prospect. The walls, bars, floor, and grate had all been doused with a herbal concoction which was used to prevent the hunters from chewing their way out of their cells.
In front of the kennel door lay three sets of leather armor, dyed blue and green to denote the wearers as apprentices. Two gnome-sized and one for a human, along with boots, gauntlets, and close faced helms.
The apprentices looked like a trio of giddy puppies as they donned the armor. They were laughing, rolling around, and when they finished they stood waiting. The mood turned strangely quiet as they glanced between the bars.
The three-foot-long broodling had positioned itself in the center of the kennel. Light glinted off its iridescent carapace as it stared back at us with its black, beady eyes. I think that’s when it finally dawned on them this might be dangerous.
“Alright, first lesson,” I said to my new apprentices. “The care and training of exonid broodlings is pretty straightforward. Their brains are not that complex but they are large. Their queen is able to give them a huge list of commands. Without a queen, though, and no training, it's only the ‘three S’s’: survival, shelter, and sleep. What we’re going to do here is break its will. I’m sure your parents told you this can get you hurt if you make a mistake or don’t work together, and they’re right. The broodling is hungry. It’s only eaten a single time since its birth. Hunger makes hunters both weaker and more unpredictable. The largest threat,” I told them, “is the mouth. So stay away from that bit, or get bit. Hurts like the void and can result in the amputation of one or more of your fingers. Be like me.” I said as I raised up all ten of my fingers and wiggled them.
I handed them the muzzle and a saddle with three leads which led off in three different directions. I knew as soon as the broodling was broken in, the muzzle wouldn’t be needed. But without a seasoned trainer it was probably going to take the kids some time.
I approached the kennel and pulled out its key.
“Jump on top of the broodling first, immobilize it, then slip on the muzzle. Once you get that far, then put the training saddle on and cinch it up tight. And last but not least, grab a lead and move away from the broodling to hold it in place between the three of you. Understood?”
Each of them nodded. I opened up the kennel door and the kids rushed the broodling. The human used her size to her advantage and ran headlong into the room like a trained animal handler might, looking for a quick takedown. In seconds she had immobilized the broodling while the boys slipped the muzzle and saddle on the beast.
Each of the boys pulled on their leads, and the girl quickly broke away with her lead in hand, pulling it taut. The broodling chittered loudly, and thrashed in confusion at finding itself immobilized at the center of the leather leads each anchored by an apprentice.
“Ah, Truthsayer? Could you excuse us? I’d walk you to the entrance but it looks like we’ll be occupied here for a while.” I shrugged toward the cell.
“Congratulations on putting your new apprentices to work so quickly.”
Was that sarcasm in their odari voice? I was pretty sure it was sarcasm.
I looked at the girl and just asked: “I’m sorry, but no one ever told me, they just said—”
“—The Miller Girl,” she said with a frown. “Yeah… that’s been my name since I got here two months ago.”
I said, chagrined, “Alas, no one told me either.”
“I’m Yurden. Yurden Miller,” she said. Long strands of brown hair hung down in front of her face. “I’m Troyn and Casindra Miller’s eldest daughter. We relocated to Baron Crovefalt’s lands a few months ago. It’s been lonely here for me. My mom’s a ranger, she’s been teaching me how to train animals for years. I’ve really been looking forward to becoming a trainer.”
Pictith and Grimf looked at one another in a mix of shock, shame, and admiration for Yurden.
“A ranger?” Pictith asked. “I’ve been learning leatherworking from my father. By the time I get an animal it's already dead.”
Grimf said, “I worked as a scribe for my father.”
I nodded and said, “Down here we all work for the Baron. Speaking of Baron Crovefalt, he comes down here and names all the hunters.”
“How about we move to the training dome?” I asked. “Keep the lines taut and take small steps. Go slow now, no one lost a finger today, let's make sure that continues to be the case.” I opened the kennel door and we walked to the training dome together while they guided the agitated broodling through the tunnels.
“Baron Crovefalt owns these lands. His money was used to build most of this outpost. His helper drones hollowed out the kennels long ago, and part of this training dome,” I said. I gestured toward the wide subterranean space around us. It was lit with quartz imbued with an arcane flame rather than a sordalite crystal, to dissuade the hunters from gathering them.
“Most of the sordalite refined here in the village is his. The mill is his; he even paid for the hunter broodling you’re holding.”
I walked over near the wall and returned to the group with a short metal rod, about half a foot long.
“What’s that?” asked Pictith.
I held a metal tube that was covered in arcane engravings, and was about as long as a dagger. It was about as thick as my finger and liquid could be heard within. One end of the bronze barrel had an opening which was sealed with a leather-like material. The other end featured a button.
“It’s called a brood spike,” I said. “Housed inside is a tail spike from a vitrunid, which has been marinating in a mixture of vitrunid poison and the cerebral fluid of an exonid queen. We’ll press the end against the back of the broodling’s head and press the button, causing the spike to launch forward, injecting its contents into the beast’s brain.”
I looked at each of the kids and said, “pull on your leashes tight, and don’t let go until I tell you to.”
They did as asked. Even so, I approached the broodling from the back with an abundance of caution. The creature attempted to attack me, twisting this way and that and grunted as I sat on its back. I placed the open end of the brood spike against the back of the broodling’s head and pressed the button. As I did I felt an abrupt pulse of force as I heard a thump like my missus’ knuckle tapping a melon to check for ripeness. Yurden was pulling the leash directly in front of the broodling, studying every move I made intensely.
As I pulled the brood spike away, the broodling stopped struggling and began to make a purring sound by vibrating the carapace on its back.
A trickle of green ichor leaked out the back of the broodling’s head, sealing almost as soon as it began.
“Her eyes, they’ve changed. They turned from black to gold.” said Yurden.
I knew then the broodling had been broken in. I was also confident Yurden had acquired her mother’s talents with animals.
The Baron’s voice drifted into the kennel with a heavy, sibilant growl. “Ka’resht, you will wait here for me unless called. Do you understand? It is highly unlikely violence will be needed here.” His words almost sounded more like a threat than an order.
“Are you certain?” said a slow drawl. The voice was low and dark; it reminded me of someone grinding sordalite.
Silence. If I knew the Baron, he was staring him down.
Ka’resht growled a response in the affirmative. I had met Ka’resht, the Baron’s kanaru bodyguard and personal skycoach pilot. His canine features had been marred during the Crovefalt Mine Uprising years ago when the mine went bust. Which was long before I came to Crovefalt Outpost. From what I’d been told at the Wet Tankard, Ka’resht had been the only survivor of the uprising.
I heard the iron chains swaying from the Baron’s sordalite hover chair—or as he preferred to call it, his throne—and saw the blue glow of sordalite far before he emerged from around the corner. The Baron floated toward us, his form draped in swaths of heavy red fabric with gold-threaded trim. The uncovered gluttonous mound of pasty flesh that remained exposed was adorned in rings and jewelry.
I didn’t know the story behind their substitution and wasn’t foolish enough to ask, but his left arm and eye had been replaced with bionics years ago. I had seen the Baron crush ironwood acorns without so much as an errant thought with his bionic hand and felt more than slightly relieved the appendage was engaged, holding a glass of a thin, creamy green wine. I suspected he had been in the drink as he and his personal guard traveled here by skycoach.
He attempted a smile, but it came off as more of a sneer with strands of saliva sticking to both his top and bottom lips. “Master Prospector,” he slurred as he addressed me.
I bowed my head, “Baron Zhul Crovefalt, we welcome you to your noble kennels.”
“Am I to understand we have a reason to celebrate?” he asked slowly, drawing each one of the words out with his wine-thickened tongue. “A new hunter to add to my collection? Well, where is it? Present it to me so the ceremony may begin.”
I gestured to Yurden, who helped me pick up the broodling and place it precariously on the distended belly of Baron Crovefalt before returning to stand next to the boys.
The broodling was too large to sit comfortably, and it froze momentarily deciding what to do next.
The Baron smiled excitedly as he stroked the gleaming blue carapace of the hunter with his right hand and cooed to it, “Yes, my pet, let's see who you are so you may be named.”
The baron had a soft spot for hunters. They were the only thing aside from food and sordalite I’d ever witnessed bring true joy to the Baron.
The exonid found itself in a new environment to explore, namely the Baron’s prodigious midsection and his floating chair. The creature began to climb all over him. “Oh, my beautiful pet,” he laughed in adoration as it turned toward his left hand.
It began to snuffle in the fabric swaddled about him, and he winced as if ticklish. “Haha! Yes, my pet.” He cooed “Yessss. Yesss,” stroking the beast's carapace as she faced away from him moving with curiosity toward the wrist of his metal extremity.
The blue broodling scuttled up his metal arm toward the goblet of wine, driven by instinct to gather sordalite for its queen. The goblet—more a cup, really—had been carved from a single piece of sordalite. It shattered with a loud, crushing pop that echoed off the stone of the training dome; its jagged remnants raining onto the floor below.
The Baron jerked in surprise and brought his hand closer to his face to see what had happened.
As he lifted his arm up, the hunter began to slip backwards down his forearm toward his elbow finding little purchase on the metal plating. The young hunter flexed its immature wings instinctively, turning toward the Baron’s head, mandibles first, ready to attack.
I hadn’t seen the Baron panic before, and watched as he reflexively rotated his mechanical appendage to the left, attempting to knock the broodling away from his body, inadvertently pinching one of its wings in his augmented elbow joint as it fell.
The hunter twisted and fell toward the floor of the training dome hanging by one of its undeveloped wings for an instant. There was a soft cracking sound and she awkwardly fell to the ground and scuttled away writhing and keening in pain.
“No!” bellowed the Baron, as he gaped dumbstruck at the hunter across the room from him. He was reaching out to it as if to try to help it, but remained imprisoned in his chair.
Yurden screamed, and sprinted to help her hunter.
Summoned by screams, Ka’resht pounced deftly from around a corner with a double-barreled zap gun in his hands.
With his zap gun pointed directly at Yurden, Ka’resht quickly assessed the situation.
The kanaru’s coat was a deep brown, and he was wearing the Baron’s red and gold-trimmed livery over his light armor. It made him look even more menacing.
“Baron?” he asked. “Your arm?” Ka’resht’s weapon stayed trained on Yurden who had started raising her hands in surrender.
The Baron followed his bodyguard’s line of sight and noticed a thin diaphanous wing, which hung piteously, still pinched in his left arm’s joint like a discarded silk table napkin. The Baron used his belly as a shelf and placed his zap gun atop it. With his right hand he reached over and plucked the wing from the impinging metalworks and rubbed it up against the side of his jowls, caressing it.
Shifting his focus to the broodling the Baron twisted his wrist at an odd angle and a vicious looking zap gun thrust out from his forearm.
“Child, I have broken it. I must put it down. Out of the way, this is my responsibility.” he more muttered than spoke.
Yurden, now weeping, did not move. She stood firmly in between her hunter and the Baron.
“No!” she said, choking through tears, “You named her. She’s part of me. I won’t let you kill her.”
“Baron?” asked the mercenary. “Your orders?”
The Baron ignored him. He looked at Yurden and commanded her to answer him; his voice a whisper of what it once was, “What is the beast’s name? You said I named it. What is its name?”
Tears trickled down her face. “Pet. You said its name was ‘Pet’. Three times.”
The Baron scowled at the boys and me. “Very well,” a calm coldness replaced his rage. “But no one will regenerate the beast’s wing. The blessings of the gods shall not be wasted on beasts. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes m’lord.” I said without hesitation, attempting to defuse the situation.
“I will have need of this one, yes.” the Baron said, as if coming to some conclusion, “Make sure…’Pet’” he half slurred, half spat the hunter’s name, “is fully trained,” he said with a snort “-in a month’s time.”
He looked over at his mercenary and scowled, “Ready the skycoach, my business here is concluded.”
We were left with the mewling calls of pain from both Pet and Yurden echoing in the confines of the training dome, as the jangle of chains receded out the hallway finally, mercifully, dragging over the lip of the kennel entrance far above.
A day later, when I came in for my morning shift I went straight to kennel 8. Before I even got close to the kennel I smelled a sour oily smell in the air. I rushed ahead.
Yurden sat underneath a cocoon, looking up with her back to the door.
She heard me walk across the room and turned toward me and lamented, “Pet started making a cocoon.”
“Pet is resting,” I said softly, “but continuing to grow. It'll emerge in a week or so. It’s okay. The broodling is in the safest place it will ever be. After all, a cocoon is a sanctuary of its own making, and being watched over by us; there’s nowhere safer.”
Yurden went back to watching the cocoon, turning away from me.
“You know this doesn’t get you out of mucking the kennels or training time with the other hunters.”
“I’ll be there, I need a few minutes though.”
Sure enough, she emerged a few minutes later and jumped into the routine.
Seven days later as I was showing the boys how to feed Widowmaker, we heard a squeal of delight coming from kennel 8.
The three of us ran as fast as we could and got there just in time to see the hunter emerge from its chrysalis, the blue of its carapace scintillating in the light.
Although one of Pet’s back wings was still missing, the creature looked healthy, and still had those amazing golden eyes. With its wings unfurled and stretched out they reached over five feet to each side. Where Pet once had a pair of mandibles they had now morphed into jaws similar, at least in appearance, to those of cloud sharks. More intimidating than the hunter’s bite were its claws. Both were wicked, chitinous scythes inset with bony spurs like an additional set of teeth.
Pet was the most gentle hunter I had ever seen unless someone accidentally touched the stump where its wing had been broken off. Even then the creature would only snap at its assailant in warning.
The kids took turns taking Pet out for training runs, this time using a hunter saddle, which could accommodate its wings, rather than a broodling saddle. The hunter never seemed to tire and soon the kids were going out in pairs with Pet, on a near constant basis. They kept their schedule in the journal. I felt their training plan was aggressive, but I also knew Pet was more than a match in energy level for the three of them, so I gave my blessing.
A few days later the kids told me Baron Crovefalt’s henchman had stopped and talked with them near the woods. Yurden said it was Ka’resht and a few drones. The kanaru claimed he was hobby prospecting, but I doubted he would find anything with just a skycoach and a couple of drones with shovels. It was more likely he was running errands for the Baron, or perhaps he just wanted to get away for a while, or bury a body.
I encouraged the kids to keep their distance.
The kids and Pet were inseparable over the next few weeks. The kids focused on getting Pet to signal when it sensed sordalite nearby. One of the pair would hide food next to containers holding sordalite, that were staked to the ground. Then, as a pair, they would both bring Pet to the hidden caches. The hunter caught on so fast, three days later the creature was leading them to all the sordalite samples the apprentices had hidden, in the order they had stashed them.
I knew what that meant. Pet had been watching them, or the sordalite rather, from the kennel as they tucked it in hidden places in the nearby woods.
The exonid no longer needed the food as a reward; the creature was more than happy to tromp through the nearby woods, in search of the pre-hidden sordalite. Once the deposits had been collected Pet happily led the kids back to the kennels for a well deserved feast and a good night’s rest.
One day Grimf came up to me, journal in hand, and said, “Arghus? I noticed something that’s confusing me.”
“Yes? What seems to be the matter?”
“Well,” he said,”Pictith and I took Pet out for detection training and I noticed something peculiar.”
“Oh?” I asked as I looked for Pictith, who was returning to the training dome. “We wandered away from the kennels and found ourselves near the Baron’s old mine. That used to have sordalite in it, right? We went near it and Pet hit on a scent. Seemed pretty strong, under a pond, though still above the mine.”
I mulled it over and replied, “It’s been a few years since anyone has been in the mines. If the earth shifted, from the rains or the like…” I trailed off, thinking about the possible implications.
The boys were both holding their breath.
“Tomorrow,” I said, “we’ll go out with Pet, all of us including Yurden, and see what we find, okay?”
They practically nodded their heads off with excitement.
Early the next morning, they were there at the top of the kennel waiting. I met them with a nod.
As I unlocked the grate at the top of kennel 8, Pet climbed up and out.
We walked along a footpath crowded on both sides with ironwood, parchment pine, and helmleaf. Pet clicked its mandibles together. Pictith’s grin was insatiable as Pet pulled him forward, the rest of us in tow.
We walked for several minutes until we came over a hill and saw the pond below. The pond had similar traits to others of its ilk in the area: A lot of bushes surrounding a roughly square body of water littered with lily pads.
Pictith had gotten ahead of us, already almost to the pond, being led by a very excited Pet near the water’s edge.
Grimf walked halfway down the hill and sat down, taking notes.
Pictith gave a string of cues and began to lead Pet on a circuit around the pond. The hunter would walk a few feet and then waggle its abdomen like a dog wagging its tail, the signal she’d hit on a scent. In comparison, a hunter who had all four wings would briefly make its back wings buzz by rubbing them together mid-flight, but this seemed like a good enough approximation.
Yurden, who had been largely quiet, asked, “What do you think, Arghus?”
I said, “You passed this part, you know? Now only field work and flight training.”
She straightened up a bit.
Yurden asked, “What happens next with us and with this find?”
“We report it to the Baron, and then, with any luck, there’ll be a finder’s fee,” I said.
Yurden looked over my shoulder and said, “I don’t think you’ll need to do that.” She stood quickly, dusting herself off as she did.
It was then I heard the familiar hum of the Baron’s skycoach behind me.
I saw Ka’resht piloting the small airship carrying the Baron. It skimmed just above the field of grass and came to rest, hovering a few feet from us. The Baron and two helper drones were just visible above the railing of the vessel.
The Baron glanced at the pond and a predatory grin spread across his face. “Is the lame hunter doing what I think it is?” he asked as he looked down toward the pond.
The kanaru pilot slid the gangplank down, and I paused waiting for permission before I stepped onto the ship. The Baron nodded, and I stepped aboard. Yurden stayed where she was keeping a wary eye on our patron and the other three figures aboard the skycoach.
I bowed and said, “Yes m’lord. We appear to have hit on a newly exposed sordalite vein in the mine below.”
He seemed to consider this and said, “I think I’ll use this as a test of talent, inviting independent miners to prospect and asking the most successful of them to join my organization. I’ll even let in shardforged, ah, odari. Like that, ah, Truthsayer? Is that its name? The one from the White-Gold Collective.”
I looked at the two helper drones in the back of his skycoach. They were motionless; it looked like they had not been cleaned in days. There were a pair of shovels caked in mud with dried-out vegetation hanging from them. Evidence of the kanaru’s hobby prospecting no doubt.
“Yes m’lord,” I said.
“What do you think, four hundred, a hundred for each of you? And you must try prospecting in this mine yourselves, of course, once I open it up. You have opened a new chapter in this mine’s history. I’m certain I can attract some outstanding potential employees,” he said, brusquely waving his hand to dismiss me.
I walked down the gangplank and by the time both my feet touched the ground, Ka’resht was already pulling the gangplank in.
Moments later Yurden and I watched the skycoach disappear into the tree line just above the surface of the road.
“That was abrupt?” Yurden more asked than stated.
“I agree. It felt almost perfunctory. Maybe he hired a diviner, I dunno. Regardless, you’re one hundred thirty three gold pieces wealthier than when you woke up this morning as are the two of you. These are good times.”
Pet looked tired when we reached home, and climbed into the top entrance of kennel 8 as I locked the grate behind her.
I took Mauve, the oldest of the other hunters, out just before dusk after the children left for the tavern. When we neared the pond, Mauve signaled sordalite by making its back wings go a bit faster, creating a buzzing noise. As the hunter descended, I directed it to the east side of the pond. We landed some twenty feet away.
I dismounted, kneeling at the shoreline, and found what I knew I would. A pair of kanaru tracks leading in and back out of the pond.