Author: Scott Newman
Co-Author: April Gardner
Pain stricken screams and gasps for air echoed in a small dimly lit shack. Standing around the source of the commotion was a middle aged rancher and his eighteen year old daughter. The rancher, who was sweating with anxiety, placed a damp washcloth over the person's forehead as flinched and struggled with his ailments.
"Father, he's not going to die, is he?" The daughter asked.
"Tara," The rancher said, "Please, go fetch more water from the well."
Hearing the seriousness in her father's voice, Tara obeyed and went outside to the well. With much haste she put up her long black hair into a bun and began pulling up a pail of water from the dark hole. As she poured the water the person inside let out brief yet loud and unnerving shout. The noise only broke her concentration for only a moment however.
Soon she was back in the shack, swapping out an old bucket with the new one. Her father, after wiping the sweat from his receding hair-line, moistened the washcloth with the fresh water before returning it to the forehead of their gust.
"He seems to be calming down now." The father said. "Hopefully that Brownie will return soon."
Just then there was a small explosion of sparks in the center of the room which gave way to reveal the Brownie, Quint with a small flask.
"Here I have the antidote." Quint said as he rushed between the father and daughter to the person on the bedding; Ken Khan. "Here Ken, drink this."
Quint put the flask to Ken's lips and began pouring a green fluid into his mouth. Ken was barely conscious but he had little difficulty drinking the antidote down. The Recruit was sweating profusely and his breath was both heavy and dry. Every nerve ending in his body was firing signals of pain to his brain, none more so than from a puncture wound on his left calf. It was relatively small but the area around it was terribly inflamed. A toxin was coursing through his body.
Four twelve hours Ken had been suffering from the effects of this poison. Had Quint not arrived with the antidote, he would not have lived for much longer.
"It seems as though I was just in time," Quint said while observing that Ken's breathing was starting to steady. "He still has a few hours of suffering to go through but he will recover. As for the Monster which plagues your ranch, we will send for another Ranger."
"Shouldn't that be his decision?" The father asked.
"Ken will not be flunked out of the academy for this." Quint said. "His instructor felt that it was a risky task for Ken to accomplish but in light of recent news he received about this young man's heritage; it was believed that he could handle a Manticore. It is thanks to the odds though that we will have him return to the academy to retake the final ordeal. Is the man who found him still here?"
"No," The daughter said. "He left not long after bringing him here."
"That's a shame," Quint said, "I had instructions to reward him for his heroism."
"He seemed like an odd fellow," The father said, "But that was good of him to bring Ken here."
"Indeed," Quint agreed, "The instructor's viewing mirror could not see inside the beast's lair so had that man not found Ken, he surely would have been a goner. Well I best return to the academy. I will return when he awakens."
Quint made his exit while Tara and her Father stood watching as Ken began to flinch and clench his teeth in pain.
"Father?" Tara asked.
"It's alright." Her father replied. "He's just healing now. Stay and watch over him, I'll go tend to the flock."
"What if the monster returns?" Tara asked in concern.
"I'll bring the flock into the pens and put the last of the Willow Extract around the area; that'll give us a day and a half." Her father replied. "Watch over him, if I'm not back in an hour; change the washcloth on his head."
"Yes father." Tara answered.
As Ken began to settle, his memories were plagued by a menacing yet tough voice.
"I don't know who you are." The voice said. "Leaving would be wise before my temper gets the best of me."
"It is you who should be leaving." Ken's voice replied. "I am a Ranger."
"You are no Ranger," The voice replied. "This is not your place. Go now."
"Nor is this your place, monster." Ken's voice said defiantly.
"You clearly don't know much about my kind." The voice replied. "One swing of my tail and you'll wish you'd have listened to me, boy."
Ken remembered a brief blur of a reptilian tail, lined with sharp spines, whipping back and forth in the air like that of an agitated feline. Then there came the strike in his calf; like a red hot nail being hammered into his flesh. The memory of the event seemed to reignite the pain, causing Ken to wake up once more in a state of agony.
Tara quickly replaced the washcloth with a fresh one as her father had instructed. Upon resting the new one on Ken's forehead, he settled and became unconscious once again.
Later on that night, Ken finally awoke from his long rest. His muscles ached and there was still a pulsating pain emanating from the wound on his leg, but it was a lot more tolerable; partially thanks to the bandages which were now wrapped around it. There was a lot of tightness in his core muscles as he sat up from the bed. After rubbing his eyes for a moment he found multiple cups of water on a stool next to the bedding. Desperately thirst he immediately began gulping down every cup.
It was then that Quint reappeared in the room.
"Seems that you're finally feeling better, lad." Quint said.
"How long was I out?" Ken asked after finishing another cup of water.
"Since midday." Quint answered. "You were lucky that someone pulled you out of the beast's lair. Should you have remained in there, we would not have been able to reach you in time."
"This is true." Ken agreed.
"What happened in there?" Quint asked. "Besides the obvious of course."
"I was caught off guard." Ken explained. "While I was busy holding him off, he swung his tail around and stung me. Come tomorrow I will return to finish the job though."
"No you won't." Quint said.
"But I am better now Quint." Ken replied.
"Unfortunately, Ken it has been decided that this task was too much for a recruit, even one of your caliber to take on." Quint said somberly. "Master Ares selects every Recruit's first hunt based off of his or her attributes. In your case he believed that a Manticore would be something you were qualified to handle. It appears as though this monster was more dangerous for you than we previously believed."
"Are you saying I've failed the course?" Ken asked with much concern.
"No, lad, we're not failing you. However we are going to hand this task to a certified Ranger and have you recycled for another session."
Ken's anxiety suddenly turned to frustration.
"So I have to start the final course all over again?" Ken asked with his temper barely being contained. "I was supposed to graduate with my friends. Please Quint, you must let me try again."
"Unfortunately Ken the order has already been sent to the Ranger Stations in Akaso, Robinsburg, and Dunkirk." Quint said with regret. "I know it’s tough to comprehend. Even though Recruits have died during their first hunt we do everything in our power to prevent that from happening. You are to return to the Academy so that we may process you onto the next graduating class."
Ken felt morbid at the news and remained silent. Quint, sensing the Recruits displeasure felt there was no more that could be said from either party.
"Until we meet again, Ken Khan." The brownie said. "May the Gods be with you."
Ken stared down at the floor contemplating deeply on what to do. His morale had taken a serious blow. The damage dealt to the Recruit's spirit was far worse than the pain caused by the Manticore's sting.
"I give you credit boy." The monster's voice echoed in his memories once more. "You've lasted longer than I gave you credit for. Perhaps you are close to becoming a Ranger."
Ken looked at his shield propped up in the corner. A large claw mark was scratched across the front.
"Consider yourself lucky." The monster's voice said. "My kind does not feast on human flesh. Run back along home. That farmer's flock is mine as is everything else on this mountain."
Later on as Ken sat on his bedding mulling over everything that transpired through the day. A candle's flame danced back in forth on the opposing side of the room; making head disappear and reappear in the darkness as it flickered. Ken seemed lost in an unbroken trance.
The door to the shack suddenly creaked open. Ken did not bother to look in its direction to see who it was.
"Oh I'm sorry, I should have knocked." Tara's voice said.
"It's quite alright." Ken said. "This is your home after all."
Tara proceeded to enter the room and noticed Ken's upset demeanor.
"Is everything alright?" She asked.
Ken did not want to answer but felt manners must be maintained, "This has just been a most unfortunate day. Not only was I humiliatingly defeated but now I won't graduate from the academy with my friends."
"That brownie said that you were to do your first hunt over again." Tara said as she sat down at the foot of the bedding. "At least you're not being removed from the academy completely."
"Yes." Ken replied. "That is true just it still isn't very thrilling having to go through this test again. Especially after my friends and I made a pact to graduate together."
"Perhaps it is for the best though." Tara said. "That monster is rather fierce, it wouldn't be worth dying just to graduate with you friends would it?"
Ken did not want to agree with her but replied, "I suppose so."
"It's surprisingly straight forward as well." Tara remarked, "My father and I were just discussing how odd it is for a predatory beast to be so direct with its words."
"Well Manticores don't eat humans so it does not need to rely on deception." Ken said. "So instead it..."
Ken halted in his words and then his eyes widened in revelation.
"Mr. Ken?" Tara said noticing this new state. "Is everything alright?"
"Yes, just a thought occurred to me." Ken replied. "I need to get some rest though."
"Oh well alright then, I'll let you sleep then." Tara said before making her way to the door.
"Tara." Ken called out, stopping her exit. "Thank you, and give thanks to your father for taking care of me."
Tara smiled and bowed her head slightly, "You're most welcome Mr. Ken. Rest well."
Ken readjusted himself in the bedding and began to drift off to sleep.
Outside, Tara began walking back to her house when suddenly she saw the shadow of something pacing on an opposing mountainside. It was as big as a bear, but had the body shape of a lion with a dragon-like tail; it was the Manticore. The monster was on the hunt for a meal now that her and her father's flock was protected by the security measures her father had put in place. It was both a startling yet fascinating view to see this monster from a far. Once it was out of sight she continued back to the house.
The next morning, Tara and her father returned to the shack.
"Are you ready to make your journey home, Ken?" The father asked as they stepped into the shack.
However they discovered that their guest was gone. The bedding was neatly remade. All of the cups of water were emptied but stacked up. Everything was perfectly organized, even more than it was before Ken arrived.
"Perhaps he left early?" Tara asked.
"I don't think so..." Her father answered.
At the base of the mountain, Ken stood before a cave's entrance. His leg still ached slightly but it was more than bearable at this point.
Back at the academy the Elvan instructor, Ares Senso stood before his magical looking glass with eyes wide.
"Quint, you gave Recruit Khan the message, yes?" Ares asked as the Brownie entered the room with a small stack of parchments.
"Yes, sir I did." Quint said while setting the parchments on the table. "Ken Khan was to begin making his way back to the academy at first light."
"Clearly he didn't get the message as clearly." Ares said with slight frustration.
Quint looked up at the looking glass. The sight of Ken back at the monster's lair made his small heart beat with fear.
"Sir, I'll go stop him, immediately!" Quint said frantically.
"No, it's too late." Ares said. "He's written his own fate. We'll have to fail him from the course at this point though for disobeying orders."
"Belay that." A voice suddenly said from the entry way.
The two of them turned around to find Overseer Corvin Risho looking on with curious eyes.
"Overseer Risho." Ares greeted. "Overseer we gave Recruit Khan an order to return to the Academy as you instructed though sir."
"Yes this is true." Risho said. "But it was not a legitimate order."
"I don't follow Overseer." Quint said in confusion.
Ares seemed to catch onto the Overseer's method and replied, "You wanted to see if it would spur him on."
"Somewhat so." The Overseer said. "I've noticed that in desperate situations, Ken tends to rebound with stellar results. The Manticore letting him live in their first encounter would have given Ken a false sense of security. He would die in this encounter."
"So you made him believe we'd recycle him," Quint said in realization, "So that he would either choose to follow through with the recycle, or motivate him to do his absolute best. Making him feel his life was on the line in more ways than one."
"It was more than just that." Risho explained. "Ken does not fear death. It's his dedication to his causes where his true strength lies. He would rather die trying than forfeit his goals, and ironically that is what improves his odds of survival."
The three of them looked on; wondering what Ken would do now.
Standing defiantly before the entrance he suddenly yelled into the cave, "Come out, beast! I'm ready for another bout!"
Ken's defiant voice echoed throughout the cave. There was a very deep unnerving silence that befell the whole area; no birds singing or insects chirping or rattling. From the cave there then came the echoing gentle sounds of footsteps against the stones and dirt. Calm yet heavy, the steps grew louder as their source drew closer towards Ken. He stepped back from the cave's entrance with his sword and shield at the read. He knew and yet did not know what was coming.
Soon, the glints of two eyes began to emerge from the darkness. The eyes were joined by a large yet human face with a light brown beard and wild hair. The human aspect soon gave way as the rest of the monster came into view. It possessed the body and mane of a lion but the feet and tail were reptilian in nature. A row of spines lined the top of the tail with one much longer spine near the tip.
The Manticore came to a stop just outside the cave's entrance not more several meters away from Ken. Both of them stared each other down; their eyes glaring intensely in their stand-off.
After a sigh with a deep sounding voice, the Manticore then spoke, "You truly are foolish, boy."
"Some would say so." Ken replied. "But the bravery of a fool always trumps a coward's surrender."
"Maybe so." The monster said. "Death trumps all though, Boy. I would have thought you'd have learned in our previous encounter."
"You had a major stroke of luck. Now I'm back and ready to settle the score."
The monster's tail began to whip back and forth in the air. Ken tightened his posture.
"You're score is as annoying as a fly." The Manticore said. "And you shall be dealt with just as easily!"
The monster suddenly pounced, with Ken quickly ducking to the right. Its tail then swung around and attempted to sting him once more with its toxin spine. Once again Ken was able to move out of the way. Ken then began moving back towards a clearing amidst the shrubs that grew alongside the mountain.
"So after all your talk, you run away!?" The monster taunted.
"I'm not running, you ass." Ken said. "I'm merely changing the battlefield."
"You will pay for that insult!" The monster shouted charging after him.
The monster made a series of attempts to pounce on Ken once again with no success. Its temper began to lose control. At one point it began flailing its tail wildly, to which it nearly was successful in catching Ken with its venomous sting again. One of the times he was almost struck in the face but luckily he ducked; the tail grazing the tips of his hair as it swung by.
The Manticore's attacks were starting to back Ken into a corner. With the Recruit seemingly trapped, the monster made one more charge. Ken stood his ground though, watching the angry beast galloping towards him; the ground rumbling as it came at him.
Then just as it looked like the monster was about to finish the fight, the ground beneath it suddenly caved in. A large dust cloud stirred up as the beast crashed downward; landing face first into the wall of the pit's wall. The hole wasn't deep but it was enough that the force of the Manticore's fall left it briefly disoriented.
Seeing its tail briefly waving in the air, Ken raced forth and swung his sword. His weapon sliced clean through the scales and flesh. The Manticore roared in pain as its severed tail flipped through the air flopped onto the ground. It briefly whipped and twitched back and forth before finally coming still.
Spurred by the pain and fury of losing its tail, the Manticore came to its senses and climbed out of the ditch.
"You..." It said with a quivering growl. "How dare you!"
"Should have left when you had the chance, monster." Ken said. "Now the playing field has been evened out."
"Foolish and overconfident as ever." The beast said. "You didn't improve your odds of victory, you only guaranteed a more gruesome demise. If I can't kill you with my sting, then you will die by dismemberment!"
The Manticore furiously charged at Ken once more. Ken dove and rolled under, as it attempted to pounce on him again. The monster then tried to crush the Recruit under its weight by flopping itself over. He moved just in time; feeling the ground shake from the monster's body slam.
Ken stabbed at the monster's side which made it flinch back up to its feet; thereby giving Ken a moment to stand as well. The Ranger-to-be stood his ground and waited for the monster to make its next move. By now the Monster's ferocious assault was taking its toll on its stamina. Every breath was heavier than the last. Ken, however, was still ready for more.
"What's the matter you over sized slug?" Ken taunted, "Growing tired?"
The Manticore did not reply with words, only a blood thirsty roar. Ken began shifting to his left. Sensing he was about to run off again, the monster did not want to give him the chance. It quickly attempted to pounce on him once more. It was another trap.
Ken ducked aside once again, causing the monster to fall into another pitfall trap. This time the trap had a long stake waiting at the bottom of it which pierced right side of the Manticore's sternum; causing it to let out another pain stricken roar. Though severely wounded it was able to pull itself up from the trap, only to fall on its side.
As it lied on the ground gasping for air, it was able to speak, "You... you deceived me..."
Ken stood a few feet away from the monster and said, "When one must complete a task, one must at times resort to more deceptive measures."
Blood ran down from the Manticore's mouth, "Bravo, Ranger..."
After saying its last two words the monster breathe its last few breaths before finally succumbing to its wound. Ken stood looking over the Manticore feeling both relieved and at the same time sorry. It was a mighty beast and a worthy opponent in Ken's eyes, but with his life on the line, he knew what had to be done.
Just as he sat down to catch his breath, Quint appeared on the scene.
"Marvelously done!" Quint said with a cheery voice. "You've done it!"
Ken looked confused, "Not the reaction I was expecting."
"Believe me lad, had we'd learned otherwise, you would have been in big trouble." Quint said, "But as it turns out, this was all a plan by Overseer Risho."
"What's that?" Ken asked.
"Yes, the Overseer had me and Master Ares deceived as well." Quint explained, "He thought with a bit more motivation you would be sure to conquer the Manticore. The Overseer may have some strange methods at times but his wisdom truly great."
"I suppose the proof is lying before us." Ken said.
"Now that you've slayed the Manticore I will take it back to Ranger station in Akaso for ya. In the meantime you have another assignment to complete before you return to the Academy."
Quint handed Ken a rolled up piece of parchment.
"What's this?" Ken asked.
"That there is a list of ingredients which you must gather." Quint answered. "Part of the graduation ceremony is a special potion which you and the other Recruits must drink. Once you have all the ingredients you may make your way back to the Academy, which if you start right away you'll be back in time for summer’s eve."
"Thank you Quint, I shall see you then." Ken said in farewell.
Quint grabbed the Manticore by the paw and replied, "May the Gods be with you Ken Khan." before the pair of them disappeared.
As Ken sat on the ground catching his breath, he suddenly felt a brief sharp pain in his leg.
"Perhaps it’s time I change this bandage." He said to himself before going into one of his side pouches.
He pulled out a tightly wound up roll of bandage and moved into the shade of the rocks.
Upon unraveling the old bindings, he took a moment to look at the wound which was well into the healing process. Before he began to wrap the new bandage around it however he suddenly noticed something he hadn't before. Not far from the puncture wound from the Manticore's spine there was another very small mark as well. It was barely visible, in fact had he not put his finger there to begin wrapping his leg, Ken may not have noticed it at all.
There was a little bruising and swelling around a tiny scab; slightly larger than a pin-prick. This previously undiscovered wound was puzzling to Ken for it suggested that he had been stabbed by something like a needle but he did not know how. There were no Cacti in that area of Shogun.
As bizarre as it was Ken could not afford to waste time dwelling on it if there was nothing serious about it. He shrugged it off and proceeded to wrap up his leg. Once completed he set off to tell Tara and her father the good news before beginning his next task.
Elsewhere in the Rokai Mountains, another traveler was making his exit as well. It was a man with his face and head wrapped in a turban. It was the same man who rescued Ken from the Manticore after his first altercation with the monster. The man had been traveling for a day before finally coming to a stop at the base of one of the mountains. Waiting for him at the base was a campsite where six hooded figures waited for him around a fire.
Now that he was well clear of Ken and the Ranch, he felt safe enough to remove his turban. It was none other than the Warlock, Hades. Reaching into a bag at his side he pulled out a vile. With the shadow of dusk growing he slowly changed from his human form to his more grotesque image. Looking down at the vile in his hands he cracked a devious grin and a slight cackle.
"Looks like we have all that we need now." Hades said. "Soon the Titans shall rise again."
He held the vile up, revealing its red color; red for it was full of Ken's blood.