“Okay, class. Pop quiz.” The professor clapped his hands as silently as he could, speaking the words barely over a whisper as he turned to face us. There were only ten of us here, in the small hunting platform affixed in the canopy. The platform was octagonal in shape, leaving an opening in the center for us to peer down to the bottom of the forest. There were windows along the side as well, for us to keep a steady watch of the goings on in the forest around us. “Who can tell me what the Balthra feeds on?”
I peered through the hole in the floor as my classmates twittered anxiously around me. Below us, the beast prowled. It was far above our current rank- it had the body of a panther coated with a smooth, black pelt, but it’s neck sprouted three cobras that constantly peered around at attention. It had two tails, each sprouting bluebonnet-like flowers that I knew could shake loose a paralyzing cloud of spores if need be.
When the Balthra had passed, out of view but far from gone, I returned my attention to the class. Everyone knew it, but no one wanted to say it out loud.
I cursed. Cowards, the lot of them.
“Fear,” I said, careful to keep my voice low so the creature wouldn’t hear.
“Brilliant, Ora,” the professor said, zeroing in on me. “Now, I know the Balthra is a little above your current rank, but we could give you a lot of extra credit if you were to handle this situation. It would certainly be taken into consideration on your next hunter’s exam.”
I swallowed, looking around the class. Not a single person met my eye.
“I do need extra credit,” I replied, perhaps with less resistance than they expected. The tension in the room seemed to unravel.
I took my time preparing myself. From my bag, I grabbed my fingerless gloves and slipped them on. I took off my uniform jacket and left it in the stand. I tied my boots tighter, then did some stretching before taking my weapon of choice- a large scythe. I poised myself on the edge of the opening when a small voice caught my attention.
“Ora,” a girl said, wringing her hands. We’d been friends since grade school. We had declared together that we would be the best hunters to come out of our small village. To be fair, we would be among only a handful that did come from there. Her eyes were the only ones that would meet mine, but even that only lasted a second before she looked down. “Your hair.”
I scoffed but threw my hair over my face and wrangled it into a high ponytail. It wouldn’t do to restrict my vision. My odds of survival were low enough without that particular distraction. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said, trying to force my usual bravado into my tone. “Just make sure you grab my things, Petra. I’ll see you back at school.”
The silence that followed was comparable to those lingering around funerals.
With my hair secured, I positioned my boots so the tips were hanging over the edge. There was probably fifteen feet between me and the ground, but if I wanted to give my classmates the head start they were looking for, climbing down wasn’t an option.
How embarrassing would it be to die before my feet hit the ground.
So, I jumped.
I held my scythe across my body horizontally and made sure to bend my knees, making no attempt to land on my feet. Rather, I rolled until I could get them under myself, and righted myself immediately, sticking my scythe out between me and the Balthra. I wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
To my surprise, the beast was sitting there, ears perked at attention, all three snake heads focused on me. I swallowed, forcing myself to look at its paws.
They say that to look into the eyes of the Balthra is to see your worst fears.
“Amusing, young one,” it said, pushing itself to its feet. “You’re putting on a brave face, but I can taste your fear. Even from here.”
“You’re wrong,” I said, lying.
It began to prowl. I shuffled my feet, not allowing myself to turn my back on it, scythe remaining at the ready. “Your heart rate is accelerated.”
“Yes,” I replied. “Humans have a hormone called adrenaline. When facing danger, it accelerates the heart rate. Because of it, I can move faster. Strike harder.” I swallowed as the snakes around its throat struck the air, as if they couldn’t wait to get closer. To snap at my flesh.
“It is fear,” the beast said.
“Then I could argue that you are experiencing the same,” I replied, forcing my voice to remain even. “I can see it in your muscles, how they are tensed, and ready to pounce. Your claws are extended. You’re prowling- moving constantly so when the time comes, you’ll be ready to pounce.”
“That is not fear. That is being prepared,” he said.
“And so is the adrenaline,” I replied. “Which, might I add, means I am more than prepared to fight you.”
“An amusing one, indeed,” the Balthra said, slowing until he was standing.
I lowered my weapon ever so slightly- this was not their usual pattern, but Balthra were known to be tricky beasts. Perhaps he was only trying to get me to lower my guard.
“I can smell the fear rolling out of your treehouse. Can I assume your kin have chosen to sacrifice you while they escape to freedom?”
“No,” I replied. “I have chosen to honor them by bringing home your pelt.”
“Oh-ho,” he purred. “Such confidence. Let’s see it in action, then, shall we?”
Instead of replying, I launched myself at it.
Monster Hunting 101: when facing down a monster, try to goad it into making the first move- but if it doesn’t, don’t miss.
I swung my scythe, fully intending not to miss. Intentions do not a true strike make- I swung wide, and the beast slinked to the side and pounced at me. Its claws tore open my shirt, narrowly missing my side. I jerked back the handle of the scythe, hitting the beast with its end.
I swung around so I was facing it again.
Also from Monster Hunting 101: Never turn your back on a monster.
“So, I see they haven’t sent their best,” the monster said. It had backed itself to the far side of the clearing- it was impossibly fast- and was grooming its paws.
“Perhaps not,” I replied. “But can you say you are the best among Balthra?”
He stopped grooming for a moment, tossing his eyes back up at me. “Fair point.” He rolled to his feet, then stretched. “I see you are not going to make a suitable meal, nor will you leave me to feast on your kinsfolk, so how about we settle this in another manner?”
I didn’t relax my stance. Balthra were tricky beasts. If I had convinced it I wasn’t afraid, which would be a miracle in and of itself, it would do everything in its power to inspire fear in me until I became the delectable morsel it wanted me to be.
And then it would torture me, drawing out its meal and prolonging my life in the most horrendous way imaginable.
Yeah, no thanks.
“How about not?” I asked, throwing myself at it again. This time, my blade was stopped by its paw- which had to be the size of my face- landing on the handle of it and tossing it aside. He pounced on me, those large dinner-plate sized paws pressing into my shoulders, the claws just inches from my bare flesh. The snakes around its neck struck at me but didn’t hit. The venom dripped from their mouths, sizzling through my shirt, and burning my flesh.
I winced at the pain, but forced myself to keep my breathing even, staring into its chest, even when its head lowered to meet my gaze.
“You maintain you are unafraid?” the beast asked, an air of amusement and a hint of growl coloring his tone.
I only nodded once.
“Very well, then.” The Balthra stepped away from me, and I sat up immediately, scrambling for my scythe. “Walk with me. If you can make it to the edge of the forest and maintain that you are unafraid, I will release you. Your friends will be home by then. It would be a win-win for you.”
“Which makes me wonder what you’re getting out of it.”
“Obviously, a meal,” the Balthra replied, as if it were the simplest answer in the world. And perhaps it was.
“Fine,” I replied. It was an easy enough task. I just had to stay calm far enough into the forest to give my classmates a chance at escape. I rolled my shoulders back and lay the scythe across my shoulders, indicating to the tree line with my head. “Alright then. Lead the way.”
The Balthra laughed. “Alright.”
The forest was alive with nature. Mana crystals sprung up around the bases of trees, formed by the natural mana given off by the foliage. If I were here to harvest it, I would have been happier for it, but we were in section A31, where monsters ranked E through B prowled. The Balthra was a B-ranked monster. Because of them, people did not often come to harvest those crystals.
I had memorized the map of the forest, and kept strict count of my steps, ensuring that I wasn’t going to end this little wager by getting lost. Besides, there was a familiarity in the numbers. It calmed me more than I’d expected.
“Here we are,” the beast said, perching at the edge of a huge cavern, a straight drop down into the earth. On the map, it was marked as The Maw. In its depths, monsters ranked C through S lived. I could hear the rustling of wind beneath feathered wings, a strange clicking- too many signs of life came from below.
It was unsettling, but I kept my wits about me.
“Is that adrenaline kicking in again?” Balthra asked.
“Sure is,” I replied, keeping my voice even. “Let’s keep moving.”
He continued leading, I continued counting. We made it to another kind of tree line- this wasn’t a natural clearing, like the one our watchtower was built in, but rather a clearing made by a fire. I recognized it as the borders of section A32. I swallowed. A32 housed monsters ranked A-S++. It was rumored that this section, which extended up the face of a mountain, held the cave to a terrible dragon, centuries old, that absolutely hated humans more than anything.
“How often do Balthra wander into this section?” I asked. “A32 is marked for beasts A through S++. Either Balthra don’t run here, or the monsters here make you look inconsequential.”
“Your sections mean nothing to us, human. We roam where we please here,” the Balthra said. “Your reactions are quite amusing indeed, though. I can smell the sweat on you.”
“It’s humid and we’ve been doing a lot of hiking,” I replied. “Adrenaline can activate the nervous system as well, which can make the body produce sweat.”
The Balthra huffed. “Fine then. Let us stroll on.”
And on we strolled, into the burned and barren lands that marked the beginning of section A32. For a hunter of my rank, an area like this meant death.
I continued counting my steps as we went, controlling my breathing, slowing my heart. I was calming down more and more. I just had to maintain.
We began to pass charms in the trees- sticks tied together with dried grass in intricate patterns. When I saw the rope bridges in the trees, I knew exactly where we were headed. “The Raaulas Village,” I said, when we were in sight of the gates. The Balthra stopped, and I kept walking a few paces before turning to look at him, raising my eyebrows. “You’ve stopped? Are you… dare I say… afraid?”
“I am impressed to see that you are not,” the Balthra replied. “Very amusing indeed.”
“The Raaulas people are human. Why should I fear them?”
The Balthra did not respond.
“Shall I hazard a guess?” I replied. “Because they are cannibals. Because they employ human sacrifice to keep up a tentative peace with the beasts of the forest. Because they’ve been known to eat their young when times are particularly tough. From your perspective, perhaps, you only know that humans fear the Raaulas people.”
The Balthra made a noise in the back of its throat- he was becoming more agitated, I could tell. “That is the gist of it, yes.”
“Next, then,” I replied.
The Balthra continued on, and I continued my count. My mouth ran dry when I heard rustling in the canopy- a firebird erupted into the sky, and I do mean erupted. The flames ate away the leaves and left branches charred.
“If you comment on my physiological responses to danger one more time, I think I will decide to fight you rather than walk with you,” I said. “It’s just adrenaline.”
“Adrenaline it is, then.”
The forest was actually beautiful, the further in we got. Past the Raaulas settlement, it was mostly untouched. Only seasoned monster hunters would go into the woods this far. It was too risky for gatherers, or for food hunters. I felt a sense of relief as our trail began to loop. We hit another landmark- a waterfall shaped in a crescent, with a large stone at its base. It marked the entry to section A30, which was only three sections away from home. Monsters here were rated E-C. Even hunters and gatherers would come this far.
“You are calming down. It seems you’ve recognized your own territory,” the Balthra said. “But allow me to show you something you may not have known about.”
“Show away,” I replied.
The Balthra leapt down the falls onto a branch, then looked at me expectantly. I looked at the ground- it was at least a thirty-foot drop. Fatal. And I didn’t have claws to help me latch onto the branches either.
I could feel my heart rate kicking in again.
“Ah. I am excited to see this adrenaline in action.” The Balthra said.
I cursed under my breath. I really would like to see him as a pelt, or taxidermy for the academy halls. I leapt and crashed through the leaves, my weight pulling me down. I threw my scythe out and tried to use it to catch a tree branch- stupid mistake. It fell to the forest floor.
Disarmed, I was able to catch a branch with a sickening crunch of my joints. As much as it pained me, I was able to pull myself up and drape myself over the branch.
“This… adrenaline… you speak of doesn’t impress me, human.”
“Shut up,” I groaned. “Give me a minute.”
“I can feel your fear-”
“That is literal physical pain,” I snapped. Catching my breath, I pulled myself onto the branch and sat, stretching out my arms and shaking off the pain. “Okay. I’m going to climb down the tree. You do whatever fancy jumping you want- leave me out of it.”
The Balthra laughed- damn beast- and bounced off of three more branches before its paws touched earth. I began the slow and careful descent, acutely aware all the while that I was disarmed, and that climbing left my back vulnerable. It was why I had avoided the rope ladder in the first place. At the bottom, I snatched up my scythe and checked it for damage.
Pleased to find it undamaged, when the Balthra stalked off, I followed.
We reached an innocuous clearing. There were some cobwebs in the trees that looked a little suspect, but otherwise, I would have marched into the middle if the Balthra hadn’t placed its body in front of me. He tossed a stick into the clearing, and the leaves began to fall to the center as the ground rose, clamping shut in a matter of seconds. A series of roots and things started convulsing as… whatever the thing was did… whatever it was doing.
I swallowed again. “Uh. Wow.”
“Your kind do not often witness this,” the Balthra said, somewhat smugly. “You could very well be the first.”
“Lucky me, I suppose.”
“This does not inspire fear in you?”
I shook my head, then tapped my wrists, indicating to my veins. “Only adrenaline.”
The following sections were much safer territory, and when the sun gave way to night, I found myself on the small cliff that overlooked the gates of my city. I wondered if Petra truly brought my belongings, or if she had left them there, secure in her belief that I would be dead.
“I honor my agreements, human. You have made it to the edge of the forest without showing any signs of fear,” the Balthra said, taking a seat.
My relief was tenfold. I could not believe after all I had seen, passed, experienced in the forest that the Balthra thought I was unafraid the whole time. “Well then,” I said. “I won’t hold you up. I’d wish you happy hunting, but…” the words fell away, my meaning clear. I wasn’t about to wish a monster well.
“No worries, my amusing little human, our little walk has left me quite… satisfied.” the Balthra said, standing and stretching. He turned and paused before disappearing completely. “Thanks for the meal.”