Shadow of the Hunter Complete

byThistlethorn©

However, Chad could pick out the dragon underneath the facade. The way Qiang turned just so, looking like the twist of scales. The way he moved his hips that suggested the great length of tail. The way a sense of fire surrounded him. Chad suspected he was allowed to see as much as he did. He was also certain he would still see something even if he wasn't.

"May I?" Qiang indicated the bench seat across from Chad.

Chad nodded and gestured to the seat with his fork. Qiang sat down and twisted himself sideways, with his back was against the wall and his long legs stretched out along the seat. Even this suggested a dragon lounging in his lair.

"Yeah, it's this song I heard today," Chad explained.

"Oh, really?"

"Yeah." Chad rolled his eyes. "The blasted Snow Miser showed up."

"The what?"

"Snow Miser. He was a character from this old animated Christmas special."

Qiang regarded Chad with uncertainty. "So a character from a children's show accosted you?"

"Not the actual character, just someone who reminded me of him."

"Oh. Well, that's good."

Chad looked at Qiang. "I haven't lost it that badly. Yet."

"So who was this person?"

"Person is playing lose with the definition," Chad responded, then described the encounter.

Qiang rested one elbow on the table and the other on the booth, his fingers interlaced. "It sounds like a weather elemental of some form."

"And what did it want with me?"

"I couldn't say for certain, but my guess is it has something to tell you."

"So why didn't it tell me then?"

"You told it you were busy."

"So I should expect it back?"

Qiang shrugged elegantly. "I would. It did say it would be back, didn't it?"

Chad sighed. "Yeah, it did. Oh, joy, can't wait."

There was something in his mannerism that suggested to Qiang that this was perhaps not all that had happened. "So was this visitor the whole of your day?"

Chad gave him a level look. "You don't think so."

"What I think is immaterial to the situation. If you have something to say, you have something to say. But if you simply came to eat, that is acceptable."

Chad studied his food before answering. "I had a dream."

"Yes?"

Haltingly, Chad described the dream. Qiang listened, his fingers interlaced except for his index fingers pressed against his lips.

"Interesting," he said when Chad finished. "Though not altogether surprising. When you engage the spiritual aspects of this world, they will engage you back."

Chad looked up. "What do you mean 'engage'. I'm not engaging anything."

"Oh?" he said with a cocked eyebrow. "So it's some other young man who is apparently aware out there hunting?"

Chad sighed. "Why do you ask questions you know the answers to?"

"To see what answers I get. And the answer is?"

"Yes, it's me."

Qiang nodded. "I thought as much."

"You mean 'knew'," Chad muttered.

Qiang shrugged. "If you like. If you're finished, please follow me."

Chad looked down at his empty plates. He nodded, then followed where Qiang led.

Their path went through the kitchen and into his office. Once there, he shut and locked the door. He turned to an ornate wall hanging that covered most of the back wall of the office. It was an abstract piece, done in vibrant colors that evoked images of flames. Chad could sense power emanating from it. He could almost feel the heat and see the colors move.

Qiang laid his hand on the tapestry and the flames sprang to life, then parted allowing access. Qiang indicated for Chad to enter and he did so. Qiang followed and the flames fell closed.

They were in the cavernous room Chad remembered from their previous meeting. Flaming braziers dominated the room, five all together. A large brazier was in the center with four smaller ones in the corners. Pillows of every conceivable style, size and shape were strewn over the floor. Along a wall was a table and chairs, book cases, and a bed. These seemed to be the only nods to Qiang's human side. The rest of the room was set up to house something much larger.

Qiang gestured and the brazier and pillows slide aside, exposing the tile floor and leaving an open space. Qiang strode to the center and gestured for Chad to join him.

Chad walked over. "If you could do that, why did you have me moving the brazier that night I was here? The damn thing is heavy."

"If you'll recall, I had been poisoned. I wasn't in the position to use power I didn't have. Fortunately, that is not currently the case. Now, then," he said, turning to face Chad. "How are you initiating these hunts?"

Chad looked away. He shifted uncomfortably, a behavior Qiang had come to recognize whenever Chad was asked to discuss the particulars of his talents. He was new to the situation and it was to be expected. It also needed to be corrected quickly. He was hunting and didn't have the luxury of being evasive.

"Since you're going to be doing this, I need an idea of what and how you're doing it."

"Since I'm going to be doing it? It's already a foregone conclusion?"

Qiang recognized the dodge and met it head on. "Had I said 'if you're going to do this' you would have argued you don't have a choice. I haven't time to waste on semantics."

"Fine," Chad conceded with a glare. "It's like I can feel them when I'm close by. I can feel their darkness, their...evil isn't quite right. But I can feel that there's something not good, not...safe. And I follow that. It's like the feeling spikes when whatever they are about to do something bad. Or something predatory. They go after the street people. A lot."

"Not surprising, they're easy targets. And what do you do when you attack. Show me."

Chad looked uncertain. "Come again?"

Qiang gestured with his hand for Chad to come at him. "I know what I'm doing, just have at me. I want to see your style."

"Well, I don't know that I have a style, exactly," Chad answered as he approached. Everything in his mannerisms was relaxed. "I just kind of fly casual until," Chad was now next to Qiang and about to pass when he swung his elbow for Qiang's temple.

Qiang moved smoothly out of the way, but was impressed with suddenness of the attack. "So you strike from surprise. How do you get that close?"

"They don't know I can see them."

"Play against their ignorance." Qiang nodded. "That's good as far as it goes, but they'll figure it out. That won't work for much longer."

Chad nodded. "I know. That's why I also carry an automatic rifle. I prefer not to use it because it makes a God-awful amount of noise. Though some neighborhoods seriously don't care. And those get frequented—a lot."

"An automatic rifle?" Qiang said with some disdain. "You have no finesse. And where did you get one, anyway?"

Chad looked incredulous. "I know some people. And finesse? I'm just trying to kill the fuckers, not get points for style."

Qiang looked thoughtful. "And you're just going after the predatory ones? You're leaving the rest alone?"

The image of the strange creature from the night before rose up. Still, he hadn't hurt the little thing, just scared the shit out of him.

"Yeah, just the predatory ones."

"Good. The same as every other aspect of the world, there are lines that should not be crossed. I shouldn't need to remind you of the consequences you experienced when you crossed them in the human realm. The price for crossing them here will be staggeringly higher, I promise you."

Chad repressed a shudder. His time as a goldfinch had not been enjoyable, but he'd now seen enough to understand he'd gotten off lightly.

"I know."

********************

Chad made his way from the restaurant. He tried to keep his attention focused on his surroundings, but it kept drifting back to the Snow Miser and the dream. They seemed far too disparate to be related, yet the timing seemed too coincidental for them to be unrelated. Chad had no idea how to get his questions answered; he doubted the Snow Miser would be inclined to give a straight answer and he hadn't a clue how to find a giant talking stag.

As Chad crossed back into the city, he felt something sidle against his perceptions. He stopped and looked around. Nothing stood out. The feeling started again when he resumed walking, but it was too faint for him to determine what to do about it.

Chad approached his hotel in a spiral, trying without success to uncover the source or reason for his feelings. After making a thorough search of the area and turning up nothing, Chad gave up and returned to his room to wait for nightfall.

Edgewalker watched with some satisfaction as the hunter returned to his lair without having spotted him. He was the best runner amongst his pack and took great pride in that fact. The goblin pulled his hat down lower and tightened his jacket around himself. He needed to get back and report that he'd found the hunter's base. He smiled as he contemplated his reward.

*******************

Qiang sat alone in his office for some time after Chad left. He was concerned. He believed the boy's intentions were good, but there existed in Chad disturbing tendencies. Qiang feared hunting could exacerbate them. He was still trying to resolve Chad's legal troubles from attacking Dakota, a woman he'd been in a limited relationship with. Not that that had entirely been his fault. Largely his fault, certainly enough of his fault that he had to bear the responsibility for it. But part of the driving force had been out of his control.

Qiang turned to his computer. He typed in "Snow Miser" and found a clip of the odd little character singing a song. He recognized the tune as the one Chad had been humming.

He started to replay the clip when there was a knock on his door. He knew who the visitor was and was neither surprised nor pleased. "Come in, Sebastian."

A young man entered the office and closed the door behind him. He wasn't an imposing figure, five foot eight with a slim build, brown hair worn a bit long. His blue eyes made one think of water, and his movements were easy and graceful like a river. He stopped in front of the desk.

"If you have a second, I'd like to ask you something."

At least he remembered his manners, not always a given when dealing with Sebastian. "I do. Please." Qiang motioned to a chair. "Have a seat." .

Sebastian grabbed a chair and pulled it up. Qiang looked over his clothes. Jeans and a casual button down shirt. It was the same outfit he had seen Sebastian in when they first met in the fall.

Qiang looked Sebastian over. "You know, when you go out in the cold you should at least attempt to dress properly."

Sebastian looked down as though he'd just realized what he was wearing, or appeared to be wearing as the case was.

"Oh." Sebastian reddened slightly. "I hadn't thought of that. Every time I shift, it's just the same clothes I was in that night."

Qiang shrugged. "It's not a huge concern, as you don't have that much contact with people. But it's something you should consider."

Sebastian nodded as he filed away the information. "What are you listening to?" he asked.

"Something about Miser Brothers."

"The Year Without a Santa Claus? Didn't figure that to be your thing."

"It's a reference Chad made when I was speaking with him earlier today. He compared an elemental he ran into to the Snow Miser and I was curious what it meant." Qiang paused and watched the clip some more. "The Snow Miser has some peculiar mannerisms."

"Yeah, he's gay as a three dollar bill."

"Oh. Well. I wasn't aware a children's animated Christmas special would detail the sexual orientation of its characters. How very forward-thinking of them."

Sebastian's blush deepened. "No, I mean they never said that, it's just...OK, never mind that."

Qiang smiled. He was amused by how easily Sebastian could be flustered. Still, he had asked to enter and Qiang had allowed him. He should be treated with courtesy. "I'm sorry. You had a question."

"Yeah. And coincidently it's about Chad."

Qiang sighed. He'd thought as much, though he didn't put it off to coincidence. While they did happen, he was completely aware that this wasn't one.

"Yes, what of him?"

Sebastian looked down and fidgeted. It was such a human mannerism it reminded Qiang that unlike himself, Sebastian had not been born a dragon. It had only been a few months since Sebastian had come into possession of a dragon's pearl and consequently became a dragon. That a Caucasian had been chosen for such an honor still rankled Qiang. He didn't have a particular problem with Sebastian as a person. He seemed on the whole not a bad sort. But in Qiang's estimation, that didn't mean he deserved to be a dragon. He'd largely been forced to come to a sort of peace with the arrangement. Heaven had chosen, and he was in no position to undo that choice. He gathered all the patience he could.

"Sebastian, I'm aware of your feelings in regards to Chad. What do you think you're going to ask that's going to upset me?"

A look of uncertainty ran across Sebastian's face as he considered his words. "Well, I mean after what he'd done, how can everything be fine and forgiven?" Sebastian looked up at Qiang as anger eclipsed his uncertainty. "I mean he beat Dakota. And would have done it again if Chang hadn't been there. That's not all right."

"No. It's not."

"So why is he out there wandering around?"

Qiang sighed. Chang was the dragon in charge of Sebastian, why wasn't he covering this? "We've gone over this before. Chang laid out the parameters. He set the punishment and when it would end. It ended. It's not that the past doesn't matter, it's that that portion is finished and now we go forward. And it's not that he's out there not being monitored."

"A few weeks as a goldfinch doesn't seem enough of a punishment to me for what he did," Sebastian said hotly. "Minimally a few years, preferably the rest of his life."

"Perhaps I misspoke when I said punishment." Qiang sat back in his seat and interlaced his fingers as he considered his next words. "I don't believe your definition of punishment is what Chang had in mind. I can't say for certain, as I'm not Chang. But from what I can guess, the point of the goldfinch wasn't punitive. It was to give him a new perspective on himself. And in that respect, it succeeded."

"But why are you sticking up for him? What if he just goes back to what he was doing before?"

"Then it will need to be addressed. You have my word, I will do so."

"Why are you even giving him the chance?" Sebastian's voice rose.

"Because it's a chance worth taking." Qiang folded his arms on the desk and leaned forward, closing the distance between him and Sebastian. "And since you want to play the what if game, what if he backslides, like you fear, for want of somebody looking out for him? That the difference between him living up to my expectations or down to yours is there being higher expectations to begin with?"

Sebastian gripped the arms of his chair and glowered. Qiang gave a bitter laugh as he began to discern a subtext to the conversation that he hadn't previously considered.

"What?" Sebastian asked, a little sharper then he intended.

"Do you know what irony is?"

"The opposite of wrinklely?" Even now, Sebastian couldn't resist a joke.

"Sebastian..."

"Sorry. Yes I know what irony is. So?"

"So, here is someone I've said doesn't deserve to be a dragon telling me someone else doesn't deserve to be human. I was just reflecting on how easily our ideas can get turned inside out and shown back to us."

Sebastian felt his anger recede in wake of the statement. They were both being told to trust the judgment of others against their own instincts. Sebastian felt he had more of a right to his opinion.

"Yeah, I can see that. But I'd never done anything like Chad has."

"True." Qiang paused to determine the best way to broach his next point. "But he was half-mad when he did it. And you know that." After a pause he added, "And you know why."

Sebastian's angered deflated further. "Yes, I know. Is that done now? Is he all better?"

Qiang shook his head as he sat back in the chair. "I doubt he'll ever be 'all better'. I'm not even sure how long it's been since he'd been whole to begin with. The roots of this situation extend much farther back then you realize. But he is in better control. He's seen another view of the world."

"But how do I trust that?"

"Do you even want to?"

Sebastian looked down. Qiang had as clever a way of cutting to the bone as Chang.

Qiang watched his guest while he debated what to offer next. He knew a way. But he had to decide if he was betraying a trust between himself and Chad. He decided peace may be worth a small inconsideration.

"If you want to get to the bottom, meet him at the river. It's your place of power and you will know it if he's lying. However, you have to live with what you see there. I will tell you now, you won't find a monster."

"What will I find?"

"I can't say for certain what you might find. What I've found is a terribly damaged young man trying to mend."

Sebastian paused for a long moment, then said, "Please have him come to the river when he gets a chance."

"I will do so."

Sebastian vanished from his office, going directly back to the river. Qiang sighed. Doesn't he realize this is a place of business, too? People will wonder why they never saw him leave. Oh, well, guess I can't expect some twenty something boy-turned-dragon to remember all his manners. Qiang returned his attention back to the finished video clip and hit replay. It was a catchy little tune, at any rate.

***************

Night had fallen. Chad gathered his weapon, its bag, and ammunition. He looked over the map he marked with areas of activity. He made a mental note of where he was going, layered his clothing in deference to the cold, and left his room through the fire escape.

Chad shivered as he made his way out into the night. It was clear and cold. Not just bone-chilling cold, it was bone-crushing cold. He thought back to the first time he met Ambrose, the rat he left food out for. Or the rat spirit, at any rate. He had been defending a homeless guy and had had Chad help him move the poor old bastard to a shelter. He wondered what Ambrose did for them when the weather turned so bitter.

He wandered the streets, waiting for something to guide him. Nothing was coming. Perhaps it was too cold for even the goblins to be out.

The lights of the city were pretty. Chad remembered how much fuss his mother used to make out of Christmas when he was little. He smiled at the memories of huge Christmas trees draped with lights and ornaments and little presents. Of home made-Christmas characters, Santas and snowmen and reindeer and teddy bears scattered about the house. It almost made all the other things that happened in the house bearable. Then she was gone, and instead of just being shitty most of the time, things went to complete shit. He felt his anger rising, the need to hurt something beginning to crest.

NO! He cut off memories. I am not going there again.

He stood on the empty sidewalk and waited for his feelings to cease. Then the sense came to him. He went on alert. He followed it to a single individual with a terrified woman pushed against the wall. The hem line of her fire engine red leather mini dress almost touched the tops of her matching high leather stiletto boots. Her short fur jacket didn't look substantial enough to keep out the cold. Chad was pretty sure she was a member of the oldest profession.

The figure reacted to Chad's presence. Qiang had warned Chad about that, and he'd been right. Chad pulled out his gun only to have it yanked out of his hands by a second individual. A trap he realized as the butt of the rifle struck him in the face and he saw stars.

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