Good luck getting this smile off my face. I grin as air currents flock to my front and push me backwards, away from the giant claw bearing down on me. Dust and stones fly into the air as the tribe behind me opens fire, a little girl who couldn't be older than twelve holding a handgun that looks more like a cannon. The bullets don't do a whole lot to hurt the scaly bastard, but that's a lot of momentum stopping it from taking off again.

My landing's far from gentle. The hard stone slices my knee open, leaving a lovely little smear of blood along my path. Katie would want to measure that, see how far I went. That's what I get for wearing a skirt to a Hunt. By the time I get up again, the tribe is reloading, and the barrage of bullets has turned into a trickle. Scaly's gone and looked at them now. Easier target. No magic to protect them. It lowers its head, deceptively fragile looking wings spread wide. It screams; a warning call. A demand everyone leave. After all, we started this. A few of the little ones waver, but all stand firm, A tribe does not flee from nature. It helps that an Elementalist stands among them.

Taking a few steps back, it begins to charge, but I'm already prepared. Legs give out as the earth cracks, disintegrating into stones, pebbles, and finally dust. It slips back under the force of my spell, plummeting into the pit. Its scream becomes a squeal of surprise, and twenty foot of scaled earth drake tumbles back into the pit I've made. It pushes down in a desperate attempt at traction, but the tribe has finished reloading by now. The bang-crack of bullets is music to my ears. What I wouldn't give for a cigarette right now. I extend my palm as the drake falls again. Heat blisters the air, the pit erupts in flames. The bullets don't let up as the drake shrieks in pain. It's protective scales crack under inferno and lead, and finally split in a dozen different places. Shotguns and assault rifles flash, and the drake's great form convulses under the assault. The fire fades as quickly as I started it, but another second and it's back, stronger and taller than ever. They can probably see this from the Academy. I hope they're watching. I hope they're worshipping this Hunt. I hope they're learning from the best.

The drake is still now. Silent. But not dead. That's the thing about drakes and their bigger cousins. Cut them to pieces, eat the pieces, burn the rest to ash, it'll just pull itself together again in an hour or two, even if it needs to rip its way out of the stomach of whoever ate it. When magic factors in, it can take months, even years. There's no harm in leaving this one be really. Until it Reconstitutes a few miles out and turns this tribe into a bloody stain on the canyon. These things have long memories.

The tribe waits quietly; still tense, still clutching their guns in case it rears up again. They're waiting for me to do what I promised and finish the job.

The dagger I pull out took hours to make. A silvery sheen glimmers over the surface, and that sheen only grows brighter as I approach the blade's quarry. White runes wrap around the simple bronze hilt and swirl up towards the surface of the blade. Air, as an opposite of wind, opposes and neutralizes earth just as earth would oppose and neutralize air.

Carefully moving down the pit, I feel a pang of pity for the creature I'm about to put an end to. It could be centuries, even millennia old. I won't feel guilty. It's killed its fair share of humans over that time, but I respect it like I'd respect anything ancient and imposing.

I finally reach the bottom. Anywhere fatal will do, but its throat is the most easily accessible; the scales are all but non-existent from the flames and bullets, and the flesh is blistered and soft. "Better luck next time, doll," I say for what little its worth, and plunge the knife into its flesh.

There's no explosion, no final scream, no theatrics, only a faint hiss as silvery gas wisps from the wound and into the air. Some say its the soul leaving the remains. I say it's just the knife losing its power, becoming a dull blade again as air and earth are neutralized.

There is only silence when I get back to the top. I can tell they're feeling everything I felt. The end of an ancient life. The gravitas that everything, no matter how it may seem, is mortal. The-

"Woooo! Yeah!"

That breaks the silence and suddenly a hundred people are clapping, whooping, and cheering along with the first. I snort, sheathe the useless dagger at my belt, and jerk my head at the drake so the butchers waiting a safe distance away can get to work.

"Let's eat!"

#

Nothing in this world tastes quite as good as something you killed yourself, and for all intents and purposes I've cooked it myself as well. A third of the dragon- the juiciest, most tender cuts- is for tonight's feast, and the rest will be rationed out through the rest of the month. Bonfires add light to the stars, lovers dance, musicians play the cheeriest tunes they know. Little ones gather around me, asking questions with bright eyes, wondering if they can do what I can do. I give them the answers that will keep them happy and safe, and tell them they will find out when they're older.

The sad truth is none of them have the talent, or it would have emerged by now. I see a few low grade Psys and one potential Cryo avoiding the fires, but all in all this tribe's bloodline doesn't seem inclined to anything at all. No wonder they needed to look to the city for a C Grade hunt like this.

"You're going back to the city after this?" I look behind me, trying to hide my surprise. I was so lost in thought I didn't even notice the Cryo sneak up on me. I lift my legs and rotate around to the other side of the log, digging into a chunk of meat on a stick. Giving a muffled sound in the affirmative, I nod my head and rip off a generous hunk of flesh, then finish if off before I elaborate it. He looks away. He's already developed the antisocial nature of most Cryos, and he's ordered dye from the cities. I can see where some patches of hair are a darker brown than the rest.

"What's your name?" I ask.

"Ben," he says.

"Wanna come back with me, Benny?" I ask, raising both brows. He scoffs, which only makes them go higher. "What's wrong? I've seen how you look at these people. You don't feel like you're one of them, do you? Been there, done that. You'll get over it. But only if you learn how to control yourself."

"At your precious Academy?" he asks. He's not surprised that I know, or he doesn't act like it. He's been a Cryo for a while. It's a warm spring night, but he's got thick gloves around both hands. He froze something by accident. Not someone, or they would have called the Cavalry out.

"You might not like them, hell, nobody does, but they'll teach you how to control your shit, even if they won't teach you how to get better at using it." He scoffs again. That's getting old real fast.

"I think I'll pass. This is my home."

"Until you screw up," I reply without thinking twice, taking another bite of earth drake. God, I'm so glad I killed this thing. "Hurt someone, maybe kill em. I'm giving you a choice between staying here and going to the Academy. The Cavalry will give you a choice between going to the Academy and the Reapers."

Oh yeah. That gets his attention. He tenses, glares, then turns on his heels and walks away. Tonight he gets the luxury of doing that. Lot of my fellow mercs would have hit him with a shot of Null and dragged his ass to the Academy. Don't see the point in that myself. Most of em get mad, lose control at the Academy, kill a couple of people and get mopped up by a Reaper. The fear catches and it repeats a couple of times. Doesn't help shit except the merc's rep as an obedient little arm of the Sanctum.

These days, more and more mercs are happy to be just that. And when fucked up is normal, then it's just normal. I'd get more questions on letting him slip through the cracks than someone dragging half a dozen unconscious kids to the gates.

Sometimes normal can be scarier than not.