It was time for the hunt. Well, what the tengu consider a hunt, anyway. Young Qaariko, still only eight summers old, was excited to finally join the men on the prestigious mission to supply the enclave with meat. His father Vabuuro, seeing little Qaariko’s eagerness, entrusted him with a field dressing knife and sent him off to where the hunting party was gathering.
As he set off, he turned his eyes upward, as he did most every day, looking to the sky for raptors. He admired the grace with which the falcons would drop into their prey, the patience of the hawk as it slowly circled the air, the majesty of the eagle as it took to the skies with a well-earned prize. Like the raptors, today Qaariko would bring home a meal he won with his own skill and cunning.
Soon after Qaariko met up with the other hunters, they set off into the woods. Qaariko was surprised how lively and carefree the other hunters were – after all, this mission was about life and death, and it seemed strange to see the others drinking, laughing, and making a ruckus. Qaariko had watched the owls of the nearby forest searching for game, and they perched completely still, not moving a single feather until they were ready to swoop down and strike. So why were his tribemates making so much noise?
As he followed the pack through the woods, his question was soon answered with an unforgettable scene. A wolf, with its leg stuck in a metal trap, savagely biting at its own blood-soaked haunch. The metal teeth of the trap were clasped firm around the trapped animal, and its only hope was to try and sever its own limb. It may even have succeeded, given a bit more time. Qaariko retched at the sight. His compatriots whooped and hollered as they sunk arrows into the animal, but Qaariko was stunned.
This is what the men did on their heroic hunts? Snare animals so they can’t move, and loose their arrows from a couple yards into immobilized prey? He had always looked up to the older men as glorious raptors, using their skill and daring to supply the tribe. Instead, he found himself suddenly realizing he was raised by a den of vultures. His stomach churned.
From that point on, Qaariko resolved that his own sustenance would come from honorable means. Like the raptor, he would fight his own battles, win his own food. Not prey on powerless creatures with no means of combat or escape.
In order to learn the skills of the hunt, Qaariko set off to leave his tribe and apprentice himself to a local human hunter. This man would teach him the way of a gun. Qaariko spent three years under his tutelage, learning how to track, shoot, and dress the local game, and also how to properly clean and care for a firearm and other, less lethal, weapons. At the end of the third season, the hunter gifted to Qaariko an old musket. It was worn, battered, finicky, and constantly required maintenance, but to Qaariko, it was independence. It was Freedom.
Now on his own, Qaariko started to make a business of his hunting. First he sold the furs from the animals he ate, and in time moved onto acting as a hunting guide for wealthy amateurs. While he enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, he tired of hunting the same animals over and over again – while his clients delighted in taking down the occasional elk or boar, Qaariko was beginning to crave something more interesting.
Thus, when he found a client in the market for ivory, his ears perked up. The clergy of Avatrunei had banned all elephant hunting in Mernè, so Qaariko had never felled one of the magnificent beasts. But he wanted to. With their gargantuan size, fierce tusks, and rugged hides, the elephant represented a true challenge, and a worthy prize. So Qaariko took on the poacher, and led him to where the elephants roamed.
After travelling for two days, the pair reached an oasis where a bull elephant was filling up on water. As Qaariko leveled the sight of his musket at the beast, his companion made a sudden move. Before Qaariko knew what was happening, the man pulled out a figure of a wheel spoked with six gavels, and began to cast a spell. A cleric of Avatrunei! Qaariko had been tricked. He felt a wrenching force surround his body, trying to stiffen his limbs and harden his muscles. Summoning all his mental energies, he forced his limbs free. He heard a loud bang, and looked down to see his musket barrel smoking, then looked up to see the shattered face of the cleric. Instinct had kicked in, and Qaariko had killed the man without even thinking. Even had he had time to think, he wasn’t sure if he would have done differently.
His head still spinning, Qaariko looked back at the elephant. The colossal creature, alerted by the gunshot, began to trumpet. Qaariko had come this far, and wasn’t to be robbed of his prize. He reloaded quickly, took careful aim, and fired.
The first shot struck the monster in its jaw. The elephant, now seeing exactly where Qaariko stood, began to charge. The huntsman, summoning all his calm, leveled his barrel again, and fired. This shot tore open the beast’s left eye, further enraging it as it bellowed cacophonously.
But the mammoth didn’t retreat. Instead, it reared once more and continued its charge, now closing in on Qaariko. His feathers shaking, his mind racing, Qaariko nearly dropped his bullet on the ground while trying to slip it into the musket barrel. He knew he’d only get one more shot before the creature reached him. Time to make it count.
Qaariko stared right into the brute’s second eye, and pulled the trigger. His bullet ripped through the creature’s good eye, and lodged deeply into its skull. The enormous body, just yards away and still moving closer, slumped to the ground. The hunt was over.
Qaariko had never felt so alive. The thrill of felling a hulk of such magnitude, the fear of not knowing whether he would kill or be killed. His body coursed with energy he had never known. He knew this must be his calling, to conquer the monsters that made normal men quake.
But after the long moment of elation, practical concerns needed tending to. He had just killed a cleric of Avatrunei, and one of that god’s favored creatures. The townsmen had seen them leave together. Once this became known, there’d certainly be a hefty price on Qaariko’s head. So, working quickly, he cut the ivory from his conquest, saving a small piece from the tip to hang around his neck.
Over the next weeks, Qaariko set south towards the coast. He knew they’d be looking for him in Mernè, and besides, he needed to sell the ivory, and rumor told the black market was always easier to find on the coastal cities. By now, moving stealthily through the woods was second nature to him, and he had no trouble avoiding unwelcome attention along his way.
Upon reaching the Port of Songs on the Deauxian coast, Qaariko found the seediest tavern he could, pulled out his necklace to display the bit of elephant trunk, and started looking for a buyer for his illicit stash. Sure enough, he soon noticed a heavily tattooed man with gold bracelets eyeing his pendant. As they started talking, the discussion of selling illegal goods soon revealed this new business associate to be a pirate, and one that was leaving port soon. Qaariko was fascinated. Piracy seemed just to be hunting on a grander scale. The thought of seizing such a rich prize sent shivers of excitement down his spine.
So, Qaariko offered up his services. Exiled from his homeland, he had nowhere else to go anyway. To demonstrate his marksmanship to the pirate, he bought an apple from a nearby fruit vendor, and had the sailor toss it into the air. As the apple reached the apex of its arc, Qaariko’s shot rang out and splattered the fruit, causing chunks of apple to rain down onto the ground. Impressed, the pirate agreed to talk to his captain and arrange a meeting.
Within the week, Qaariko had been hired as a crewman on the Shrieking Drake, and was off to sea. There was plenty to learn on deck, and although the pace of their skirmishes was slow, Qaariko passed the time on board by playing games with the other crewman, preferring darts and the occasional game of netball. Two years passed in this fashion, with the drudgery of sailing interspersed with the occasional clang of battle. Qaariko developed quite a reputation as a deadeye, and the crew learned that keeping him in a strategic position always made boarding enemy ships go that much smoother. They also learned that whenever Qaariko made a kill, nobody touched the body until Qaariko took his choice of prize from the foe.
In time, Qaariko learned that the emperor of Gard had declared amnesty for pirates, and was looking to recruit them to help establish colonies on the Bocan islands. While he had gained much respect aboard the Shrieking Drake, his restlessness had only increased with time. While piracy brought him glory, he fondly recalled his days in the forest, with an abundance of game and the freedom to hunt whenever he wanted. Indeed, he’d heard the Bocans contained a huge variety of exotic game, and large, unexplored swaths of forest to hunt in. The opportunity was too good to pass up, so Qaariko gathered up his ill-gotten gains, said his goodbyes, and disembarked in the port of Morgan, on the Hell’s Bells Island.
With that, Qaariko started looking for new employment, the kind that would lead to some truly worthy trophies…