"Hail, traveler," he shouted. The woman in leathers at the well looked up, eyes narrowing as he approached. Marko was built like a barn, head and shoulders above most people, and he'd learned to try his best not to startle people.
"Hail, Hunter," she replied, stepping away from the water. Her accent was thick, but understandable. Marko kept his hands away from his various weapons, maintaining his distance. He noted her wariness; like a wild animal, standing on the balls of her feet as she backed farther away.
"What news?" he asked, casually reaching for his water skins. Her eyes never left the pike head looming above him, and he acted as normal as possible. Even those who needed his services regarded him with a mixture of fear and awe. This was nothing new.
Approaching the well, he examined the woman. She wore no weapons, only reinforced traveler's cloths. Black hair was cropped short, and her skin was strikingly pale. Marko wondered if she'd been on the road long, but returned his eyes to the water bucket.
"Are you hunting the dragon?" she asked after a moment.
The Hunter met her eyes, pausing. "Has it come so far west?"
Hands on her hips, she stared at her backtrail. "The last village I passed through were taking their livestock to the caves. The elder swore they'd seen the dragon, but hadn't been attacked yet."
Marko grimaced, quickly refilling his skins. "When was this?"
"Two days now." She crossed her arms, gaze falling heavily on him. "I've not seen any dragon sign."
He swore to himself. On open plains like this, a dragon would have a difficult time hiding. Anyone would have noticed the big beast. Scanning the horizon, he figured it was following the mountains inland. If it wasn't digging the cattle out of the caves.
This was the wiliest creature he'd ever hunted. Even the face stealer of the Black Forest hadn't been so elusive. Three months the dragon had been terrorizing the republic, and not a single Hunter had gotten near it. Even the army legions sent out had found nothing more than corpses and temporary lairs. It stayed in place long enough to wreak havoc, then moved on.
"Do you really think you have a chance?"
Marko sighed heavily, adjusting his pack. Even foreigners knew of their troubles. Trade suffered, and the surrounding countries watched with greedy eyes. The entire sea board had been ravaged, with many ports shutting down. "I have to try." Nodding his head, the Hunter proceeded east.
"Trying just won't be good enough." Her words slurred, and the air hummed with magic. Hot air gusted around him as Marko turned.
In place of the traveling women was an inky black dragon, large than a church, wings spread and blocking the sun. Silver eyes narrowed, spittle flying from curved teeth as the beast hissed.
Adrenalin dumped into his veins, heart rate trebling. Marko gained his killing clarity, weighing his odds in an blink. Staying close would put him in range of her claws, but backing up left him open to fire breath. Hand axes wouldn't get through scales, but his enchanted pike would take too long to get off his back.
The dragon laughed, flames dripping from her muzzle. "Fooolssss," came a sibilant taunt. Claws dug furrows in the hard ground, and she drew a breath.
Marko charged. Leaning forward at the waist, he angled his pike for the dragon's belly. He wouldn't be able to get it deep, but it should distract her from spraying fire.
She rose on massive hind legs, belly now out of reach. She didn't release the gout of fire, beating her wings to maintain balance as Mark changed his target to her feet. Dust and debris rose, and he narrowed his eyes.
The dragon leapt, taking to the air. The Hunter barely dodged the whip crack of her tail, rolling to one side. Following the arc of her flight, he drew his pike, magic tingling through his hands.
She was doubling back, not fleeing. Marko laughed to himself. The dragon couldn't leave him alive, not now that he knew how she was avoiding everyone. She would have to stay and kill him.
Marko set the pike, speaking its command word. Power flared under his touch, magic unleashed to reshape the weapon. The haft doubled in length, thickening, bracing itself against the ground. The head widened, grew barbs, and gleamed brightly in the sunlight. Marko had only used it once before, on a dumb brute dragon ten years ago.
Weapon readied, the Hunter watched the dragon dive, waiting for her to impale herself as the other had. Then he could go home a hero.
The dragon roared, wind shrieking around her horns and wings. Her shadow fell over him, and his heart chilled. The magic in the pike would protect him, but still he feared the massive body descending so quickly.
She unleashed flame over him. The pike launched itself like a ballista, aiming for the dragon's heart. A curtain of fire surrounded him, cutting off his escape. The dragon rushed past, the wind of her passage spreading the fire.
Dry grass was quickly engulfed in high-reaching flames. Heat sucked the air from his lungs, and Marko struggled to breathe as he looked for a way out. Finding one area with slightly less flame, he leapt for freedom.
Sweat evaporated from his skin as he passed through. Marko landed on the very edge of the fire, and his leather boots immediately began to smolder. Cursing the heat of dragon fire, he rolled away.
Laughed, cold and menacing, filled the air. "Did you really expect your magic to work against me?" Marko looked up, insides turning to ice. The dragon stood in human form again, holding the pike, not a drop of blood on her. "Silly Hunter."