Jonah shuffled his feet nervously as he looked up at the Hunter’s Society main office. The single large window seemed to glare at him, a predatorial gaze silently threatening him should he cross the threshold. Its plain brick walls strongly resembled dragon scales. He could almost swear the walls were undulating, its breathing in sync with his.
The moment I open that door, I’m going to be greeted with a mouth of fangs, he thought. It was a ridiculous thought. The Hunter’s Society was known as dragon hunters. Of course there would be none inside. And the building wasn’t alive regardless of how rapacious it seemed. He chuckled to himself at the irony of his analogy. It helped him relax a little.
Taking a deep breath, he reached for the handle of the door.
Before he could grasp the knob, the door opened and a large ebony figure filled the newly exposed void. Jonah let out a frightened squeak before he could stop himself. The man’s arms alone were as thick as Jonah’s head and covered in tattoos. The parts of him that hadn’t been inked were covered in scars and wrinkled with age.
Jonah lifted his head and looked the man in the eyes. He immediately wished he hadn’t. The man had a predator’s eyes. Observing for weakness, watching for an opening.
“Well,” the man said in a strong voice. A smile began to spread across his face and Jonah prepared to run. “You gonna stand there or you gonna give your grandfather a hug?”
“I’m sorry?” was all Jonah had time to say before being swept into a crushing bear hug. The action was so far from what he expected that he couldn’t even acknowledge the air being squeezed out of him.
This is my grandfather? He wondered. He had heard stories about his grandfather, Omar Shroud, but had never met the man. They said he was a large person, imposing, and always serious. But Jonah assumed that was him during his younger years. Now approaching 80, he would be smaller, grumpier, but no less imposing. But the human standing before him could easily pass for someone less than half his age.
He suddenly felt self-conscious thinking about how small he was in comparison to the person he was supposedly related to.
Omar released him and looked him over again as if he were still convincing himself it wasn’t a dream. “You really grew up from when you were a baby. I didn’t think I’d see you again, but when I saw your name on the application, I couldn’t believe it. I remember Zack said he’d never let his son join.”
Jonah wasn’t sure what to say to that. His father said something along those lines which was why he didn’t know about this.
Omar steered him inside. “So how is he?”
“He’s okay. He keeps busy a lot.”
The inside was nothing like what Jonah had expected. The way his father described it, the Hunter’s Society was filled with a bunch of gun-happy nuts who lived in squalor. Looking around the lobby, the place felt downright cozy and inviting. No guns lining the walls, framed with decapitated heads. No pelts hanging from the ceiling and covering the floor.
The same couldn’t be said about its residents, however. It was like seeing the poor inside a mansion. Something about the grizzled faces and rough clothing felt out of place amongst the neat furniture and bright colors.
So this is the place my grandfather lived most of his life. I expected different from the place that drove my family apart.
“Like the place?” Omar asked. “It ain’t much, but we make do.”
“This isn’t much?” Jonah asked. The sofa by the window was nicer than the one he had at home!
His grandfather chuckled and steered him through the door at the far end. It was like stepping through a portal. Where everything was once new and bright and polished, they stood in a hall empty and cold. They passed doors, sagging with age and repeated use. The painted walls showed obvious signs of wear and lacked decoration.
Neither of them spoke as they entered first the door in the hall. Despite the large openness of the office, Omar looked like a giant moving through a dollhouse in it. The seriousness of the situation kept it from being comical. He sat behind the only desk and motioned for Jonah to take the remaining seat on the other side.
Once Jonah sat down, Omar said, “I need to ask you a few questions before you officially join us. It’s policy.”
“First, why do you want to join the Hunter’s Society?”
Jonah squirmed in his seat. He joined because it was his family’s legacy. Every generation of Shroud joined and served for a time, even his father with all his griping about it. But his father tried his hardest to keep Jonah out of the organization. He had all but forbade him from joining.
He had to know why. He had to know why he was being denied the same experience as everyone else in their family. His father wouldn’t tell him so he had to know for himself.
“I wanted to make a difference,” he lied. Somehow he didn’t think wanting to resolve some family drama would fly as a proper response. “I hear the Hunter’s Society does good work.”
“That we do. Do you have a record of any crimes? Are you wanted anywhere?”
Jonah shook his head. It had to be a trick question. They had to have confirmed it already and were only checking if he would lie or not. Thankfully, he didn’t have to.
“Good.” He leaned forward on his elbows, the desk groaning slightly under his weight. “And how do you feel about dragons?”
Something about that question was different from the others. It was in Omar’s eyes. He scanned Jonah’s face carefully, looking for some kind of unconscious reaction. It was no secret the Hunter’s Society used to be famous for dragon hunting, but he also knew they hadn’t practiced that in over a century. Which made him wonder why it was so important.
He decided honesty was the best policy in this case. With a small shrug, he said, “I don’t really have an opinion of them.”
Omar leaned back in his, seemingly satisfied with the response. “Have you ever killed before?”
“Um, I’ve swatted a few bugs and killed rats before. Does that count?”
“Close enough. And how did you feel about it?”
The question caught him off-guard. He never thought about it. “Well, I don’t really know. I never thought about it. I can’t say I enjoyed it but I never felt bad either.”
“Then why’d you do it?”
“Because…” he realized he didn’t have an answer. It wasn’t as if he had to. The creatures weren’t necessarily a threat.
He looked up and saw his grandfather still looking at him expectantly for a response. “I…I guess because I didn’t think of an alternative.”
“So you would have done something different if you had known?”
“I guess. Yeah.”
“All right. Congratulations. You’re in.”
“Wait, that’s all?” It was the weirdest interview he had ever participated in. He wasn’t even sure what his grandfather learned from it.
“The Hunter Society isn’t about killing. We’re about survival and protecting ourselves. I needed to know life matters to you and it’s not something you just throw away for fun.”
“But isn’t the point of hunting to kill?”
Omar’s expression turned grim. “True hunters aren’t killing machines. And not every hunt has to end in death.” He reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a pair of metal tags on a silvery chain. “I had them made the day you were born. And now I can pass them on to you.” He gave the tags to Jonah. “Never take it off. You signed up for a desk job, but every hunter wears these. Sometimes they’re the only piece of you that makes it back.”
Jonah nodded and slipped the chain around his neck. Suddenly they felt a lot heavier.
Omar blinked away the tears in his eyes and stood up, his massive form blocking all light from the window. “I wish we could talk more but I got a lot to take care of today. Time to introduce you to your partner.”
Jonah’s father’s words echoed in his mind. “He was always too busy to bother with his only child.” He forced the thought away and focused on the present. “I get a partner?”
“Everyone gets a partner. No hunter goes alone; not even the desk riders.”
It made sense at least. Even desk work could go more smoothly with an extra pair of hands.
They left the office and headed through the door at the far end of the hall. The large lounge was filled with people. They all turned to the door the instant it opened. The room felt just like the hallway. A place that had seen much and wore it on its face. The floors, the walls, and even the ceiling seemed to sag under the weight of the past lives of every hunter that passed through it. Music playing softly from the jukebox in the corner did nothing to offset the grim atmosphere.
I wonder if my grandfather feels the same way about this place.
They stopped in front of one of the tables. A single man sat at it. He was nowhere near Omar’s impressive size, but he had a noticeably well-toned physique. A toothpick stuck out of the corner of his crooked lips. Beneath the man’s thick leathery skin was a younger face, one that had been aged by tough experiences well beyond its physical years. Jonah placed him somewhere around his father’s age.
The man leaned back in his chair and looked at Jonah. “So this is the infamous grandson, huh?” He had a gravelly voice like someone who had been smoking for years. “He certainly didn’t get your height.”
Omar gave Jonah a light push but he still stumbled forward into the nearest chair. “Jonah, this your new partner, Graham Stewart. Stewart, this is my grandson, Jonah Shroud. The two of you are now partners. Look after each other and treat each other with respect.” It didn’t escape Jonah’s notice how the second statement seemed more aimed at Stewart. “Stay sharp, hunter.”
Jonah felt a strange sense of unease as he watched his grandfather walk away. For the first time since applying to the Hunter’s Society, he wondered if he made a mistake in coming here.
“A’ight, Little Shroud, sit down,” Stewart said.
Jonah did as he was told. It was hard to look his partner in the eye with his judging gaze, so he stared at the table.
“So you’re the big man’s grandson. Seed of the legendary Shroud. Y’know, you got some big shoes to fill.”
“I know,” Jonah mumbled.
“Well, if you’re expecting me to treat you different because of your family name, you’ll be disappointed. Every hunter earns their place here, and we’ll be expecting you to do the same.”
“I don’t expect any special treatment, sir.”
Stewart snorted. “Don’t call me ‘sir’. This ain’t the military, and I ain’t your commanding officer. I have seniority, but I’m still your partner. Got it?”
“Good. Now lift your head and wipe the snot off your nose. Hunters don’t look away from their targets.”
It was difficult to meet the man’s gaze, but Jonah did as he was told. For a while, Stewart just stared, the toothpick wiggling in the corner of his mouth. Eventually, the man stood and motioned for Jonah to follow.
“You’re fresh, but you got the same look Omar had. More than your father did at least.”
“You knew my dad? Did you work with him?” He could barely contain his excitement. His father rarely talked about his days in the Hunter’s Society. When he did it was always to complain about how he hated it and was glad to leave.
“I wasn’t his partner, but I did a few joint missions with him,” Steward replied. “He wasn’t cut out for this kind of work. You could see it in his eyes. I’m just glad Shroud finally got the hint and kicked him out when he did.”
That was different from the story he had been told. His father always said he left on his own. He wanted to ask more but it didn’t feel right getting the story from a stranger. It would be better coming from his grandfather though he didn’t look forward to the conversation.
“Anyway, that’s all I’ll say about it,” Stewart said. “You want the family gossip, talke to your grandfather. C’mon. I wanna show you around the place.”
Jonah quickly followed behind his partner through another door across the room.
“A’ight, so the far end of the hall is where everyone else sleeps when they’re too tired to go home. Just pick a bed and fall in it. The door on the left is the mess hall where we can grab something to eat. That one on the right leads to the shooting range downstairs. The door we’re passing now is the locker room. That’s where you’ll keep all your gear and get your stuff fixed.” He stopped in front of a metal door and pulled it open. Inside was a staircase leading down. “And this leads to the archives where we’ll be spending most of our time. C’mon, I’ll show you how it’s organized.”
“Okay. I got it,” Jonah said. “Are there any special rules I should know about?”
Stewart shrugged. “Not really. Like I said, this ain’t the military. Just be respectful of the other hunters and don’t touch anyone’s shit. Some people are real protective about their stuff.”
“That won’t be a problem.”
“Good. Because you do anything to ruin your grandfather’s name and I’ll kick your ass myself, got it?”
It wasn’t until they reached the bottom of the stairs that Jonah asked his next question: “You really respect my grandfather, don’t you?”
“He’s the oldest one here and still our top hunter so yeah, I fucking respect him. I’m sure you heard enough war stories of his past hunts to know why.”
Jonah didn’t respond. His grandfather wasn’t a popular topic back home and Omar never visited. When asked, his father always became deaf until the subject was changed.
Stewart seemed to get the hint because his only response was “Fair enough,” and he left the subject alone. He flicked the light switch, revealing rows upon rows of shelves, each one full of boxes no doubt stuffed papers.
“Welcome to the Tombs, or as some call it, the Memorial.”
“It’s where we keep every record of every hunter and every contract we’ve ever taken, going all the way back to the charter’s start.”
I wonder if I can find my father’s old hunt records.
Stewart tapped him on the shoulder and led him into the maze of shelves. Jonah noticed arrows drawn on them, all pointing towards the stairs.
“Honestly, you must like punishment if you chose a desk job,” Stewart said. “No one likes coming down here.”
“Why? I thought people would want to get away from the constant travel and certain death.”
Stewart laughed, the sound echoing through the large room. “But it still beats doing paperwork. And this is probably the most important job in the Hunter’s Society. Every job, every contract, every little thing that has to be written down passes through here. It has to be done right and put in the right place. We don’t want shit getting lost. We lose a contract, we don’t get paid. We give someone bad intel, and people die. We don’t keep track of orders and hunters don’t get new gear. Down here is what’s holding the place up.”
Jonah swallowed. He hadn’t considered how stressful it would be when he applied for the position. He just wanted the job with the least risk so his parents wouldn’t worry. He suddenly felt guilty, wondering if Stewart wanted to be stuck doing desk work with him or if he drew the short straw.
As if sensing his unease, his partner responded, “Don’t worry about it, Little Shroud. Taking on the job that has to be done but no one else wants is how hunters do things. You have my respect for it. Now pay attention because we got a lot to cover.”
For the next several hours, Stewart walked Jonah through the archives, explaining what each section was and how to identify it. Each section was color-coded based on subject and even sorted further into subcategories and alphabetized. It was a pretty impressive system. Jonah knew it would likely take weeks just to understand it all but it was still impressive.
Before leaving, they took a test run of finding and placing some fake documents so Jonah could get a feel of what the work would be like. There was a lot of running around and he saw many papercuts in his future, but it seemed doable.
Just as they were finishing up the tour, Jonah noticed a large black door tucked away in the corner.
“Hey, Stewart, what’s through that door over there?”
“That one? Officially, it’s where we keep the forbidden records. Unofficially, it’s the quickie room.”
“The what? Quickie?”
Stewart raised a brow, giving him a you-know look. It took a moment before it dawned on him what the man was getting at.
Stewart laughed. “Yeah, like I said, we don’t have many rules here. And it’s not like we use that room anyway. Just remember not to go in if there’s something on the doorknob, and if you go in, don’t make a mess.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. So why do we have forbidden records?”
The smile slid off his face. “It’s where keep our old contracts on dragons.”
“Wait, what? I thought we didn’t do that!”
“We don’t. It’s old records from long ago. Some of us think they should be burned, but Shroud says it’s an important part of our history and we shouldn’t try to bury it. He’s been pretty fierce about it, too. Says, we’ve forgotten enough history—whatever that means.”
“What do you think?”
He was silent for a moment before responding. “I think we should own up to our mistakes. C’mon. It’s late. We should get out of here.”
Jonah wanted to ask what his partner’s response meant but assumed the shift in subject was meant to deflect from it. Better not to make things awkward on their first day together.
It felt different to return to the upper levels. The air seemed lighter as if a great pressure had been removed, making it much easier to breathe. They went to the mess hall to grab a bite to eat.
Stewart said surprisingly little while they ate. Not wanting to seem like a chatterbox himself, Jonah followed suit. Eating in the awkward silence reminded him quite a bit of dinner with his family. Everyone’s eyes on their plates, no one daring to speak, just the sound of clinking utensils to fill the void.
To occupy himself, he checked the time. It was only a little after one. It felt much later than that. He tapped his foot and played with his fork. What should he do? Should he say something? Make conversation? There were other questions about things on his mind, but his brain still felt full from absorbing all the other knowledge. Should he wait?
“Hey, Stewart!” someone called.
Jonah lifted his head to see a man and a woman standing at their table.
Stewart rolled his eyes. “What do you want?”
“First, you can introduce us to your new partner,” the woman said. She held out her hand to Jonah. “Jessie Marriette. The guy next to me is my partner, Bacon.”
“It’s Gerard,” the man said, nettled.
“And yet everyone calls you, Bacon,” Jessie shot back.
Jonah figured he would regret it, but he had to ask, “Why do they call him Bacon?”
“It’s a long story that involves a burning farmhouse and an exploding pig. Maybe I’ll tell you when you get your first belt notch. I don’t you want you getting any bright ideas that hunting is all fun and games.”
“Actually, Jess, if he’s really Shroud’s grandkid, his head is full of glory stories already,” Bacon added.
“Wait, you know who I am?” Jonah asked.
“It’s all Shroud talked about when he saw your application,” Stewart said. “Everyone knows you.”
Jessie pulled up a chair and sat down. “So did you take the fresh meat on his initiation yet?”
“Not yet. Shroud wants to wait until tonight before putting him through the trial.”
“Waiting, huh? That’s not like him.”
“It is his grandson.”
“I can see that. Anyway, kid, you’re in good hands with Stewart. Do what he says and watch your ass and you’ll be fine. But feel free to come to me if you have questions.”
“Actually, go to her if you have questions,” Stewart said. “She’ll answer them better than I can.”
“Which is exactly why everyone calls her, Nana,” Bacon mumbled. He shot a fearful glance Jessie’s way.
The way her jaw was set, she heard him. “Anyway, Jonah, we take safety seriously around here,” she said. “There’s nothing deadlier than ignorance, and right behind it is pride. Keep both in check and you’ll be fine.”
Jonah nodded as they walked away, but something else nagged at him. What did she mean by his initiation and what was going to happen tonight? He thought he had already been accepted.
Finally, he decided the best way to get answers would simply be to ask for them. “Uh, Stewart, what’s going to happen tonight?”
Stewart paused long enough to pop another toothpick in his mouth. “You’re gonna earn the right to call yourself a hunter.”
Oh, Omar. It's been a while since we've seen that name, hasn't it? It seems from what we've seen in the Lyndria story he would know something about too much history being lost already wouldn't he? A very well crafted beginning that hints at much more to come.
Yes, it has been a while. I've also been experimenting with creating families and continuing legacies. That's why there's another family name introduced here. ;)