When the group of men led the way to Astera, me and Jaina kept holding hands. I could feel that despite her strength, she was still anxious and maybe even scared of the new environment.
I followed the men, many of which were murmuring between each other, though I had no idea if it was about me and Jaina, or something entirely different.
We would only take one more turn past some coastal rock formations before we finally saw it: Astera.
When we got our first view of it, our eyes widened in speechlessness. From the steep bay up to a high mountaintop stretched a huge assortment of wooden mechanisms and walkways. It was a lot to take in at once, but there were a few landmarks that stuck out like a sore thumb even in a sea of things to be amazed by.
An enormous water mill was built underneath a rushing waterfall that kept long chains in motion which were used to transport wares as well as people. The very peak of the mountain this headquarters was built at was an airship, not unlike the one I arrived on. But as I looked closer, I could see that it was donning the sail of the Second Fleet. In fact, the whole camp was made out of broken ships and stranded hulls. The research commission must’ve scrapped whatever they could make use of and it oddly seemed to work like a well-oiled machine. Even from a distance I could see that the camp was bustling with people.
And even though I’ve never been here…
…I could tell that it was more hectic than usual.
We approached a huge arch of rib bones that must have belonged to a huge monster. Though whether it was here before or the commission constructed it, I couldn’t tell. Past the arch of bones was a sturdy rope bridge. The last thing that separated us from the camp of Astera.
“Here we are. I’d recommend you talk to the commander once you’re inside. He’ll… have a lot to discuss with you.” His eyes intriguingly wandered to Jaina who was still holding my hand but quickly hid her claw in her poncho when the man looked our way.
“Does the commander usually greet newcomers in person?” I asked worriedly.
His brows furrowed and he crossed his arms as he looked at me. “Only the curious ones. If you have nothing to hide, everything will be fine and you can join the hunters just like everyone else who arrives here. You’ll be given a task and if you deliver good work, you’ll go far here. There’s no shortage of work to be done. Especially after…” He looked at the ground, visibly troubled and disturbed.
He looked back up at me with a serious and saddened look. “Remember when I told you, you would see why we were so confused when we picked you up and you were unhurt?”
“Now you will.” He said as he signaled me to follow him over the bridge. The ropes and wood were strong but I still couldn’t shake the weird fear of falling down with the drop below leading to a deep drop and the waves crashing into the rocky shoreline.
But that fear was a thing of the past when a horror much greater was laid out before me. After crossing the bridge and entering Astera, there were rows and rows of makeshift beds. All filled with men and women from the fourth fleet. I even recognized some of their faces. Several of them were the recruits from my old ship.
The color drained from my face as I heard their cries of pain. My eyes hastily darted around the isles of wounded that were being tended to by researchers and medics that were way too understaffed and underequipped to handle this many people.
Their wounds reached from crippled limbs to large gashes but all of them had something in common: their wounds were steaming and their bodies were feverishly red.
“This is what I meant.” The man who guided us explained. “We’ve been getting newcomers nonstop since yesterday. A big chunk of them came in as a group at first, but even they told us that the rest of the crew from the Fourth Fleet was scattered and nowhere to be found. One after another we got new cases of arrivals with all sorts of injuries to treat. The wounds themselves are one thing… but they all also suffer from fire blight. Usually it would only last a few moments but theirs doesn’t seem to end. They’re burning up inside and every bit of movement gives them excruciating pain. And here you came along. Not even as much as a scar on you. Do you understand now why we need to question you?” He said as he presented us the extend of the aftermath that the attack on our ship had.
Sweat was running down my forehead and even Jaina seemed to be distraught by the sight of the trembling victims.
I ran up to one of the beds, falling onto my knees next to one of the wounded. “You! I’ve seen you on the ship before! Do you remember our mentor? Sullivan? Where is he? What happened?!”
“GAAAGGHHH! You…you’re that rookie that came with us, aren’t you? Brrghghhh! I was one of the other mentors. I saw you training before. Man, it went downhill so fast! After you fell from the ship, all hell broke loose. We kept getting bombarded by this… thing! A mountain of a monster. A walking fucking volcano! The ship caught fire and everything went up in flames! But that was no ordinary fire! I didn’t just cinch your clothes or burned your hair off, it was like it burned right through your soul. It carried fire blight at a strength that I’ve never seen before. Many of us jumped overboard to safe themselves from the barrage. I don’t know how many of them died. But me and the other mentors stayed on board until the sails could no longer keep us airborne. We crashed somewhere deep in the forest. The only survivors were me… and Sullivan. YAAAAHHAGGGGGH!” He held his sides, enduring who knows how much pain. His body was dripping with sweat and even just talking seemed to hurt like getting a hot iron pressed to his skin.
“Sullivan! Where is he? Please! Tell me!”
“He’s crazy I tell you. Said he’d walk the pain off and just visited the commander. You’ll find him there. Now leave me alone before it really starts to… AAARGHHH!” A nurse quickly came to his side, replacing my spot next to the bed.
I ran back to Jaina, shaking her out of her petrified daze. “Jaina!”
“Kalaydus? What’s going on? I don’t know what’s happening here.” Jaina hugged herself underneath the poncho and I could tell that all this panic was making her nervous.
“I know, I know! Look at me. Keep breathing. We need to stay calm. I have to find Sullivan. He’s the only man I know who can help us right now. I’ve been on a ship with him before and he trained me for a while before we were attacked. He’s with the commander, so we might have a chance to explain everything to him.”
“*breathes in and out* Alright. Where to?”
“Every hunter’s guild has a conference table to plan out strategies. It shouldn’t be too hard to find.” I frantically looked around, scanning the ground floor of Astera for any signs of a present leader. Standing on my tiptoes, I could make out a grizzled old man with a stoic face and short grey hair. He slammed his hand on a large, heavy table and I could see his mouth move as he bellowed out commands for his subordinates. That had to be the man I was looking for.
“This can’t be! We prepared for every possible situation. How the hell can we be out of blight medicine?” He bellowed out as his fist slammed onto the table. Several lists and maps were scattered across it and crumpled underneath his hand.
“Sir! When we said we were prepared for every situation, I don’t think any of us had in mind that there could be a walking volcano that could wipe out an entire fleet. We used everything we had and the Fifth Fleet isn’t coming for another few months!” A strategist trembled in her boots, as she tried to explain the problematic situation. She had long, black hair that was bound together underneath a feathered, green cap that went with her overall green strategist outfit with a brown vest and brown knee-high boots. Her face, behind a pair of rimmed glasses, lacked any color and sweat dripped from the side of her forehead.
“Then we have to make do with what we have around us! When can we send out a scout team to scavenge for more medicine? There has to be something we can scrounge up!”
“I’m afraid we can’t, sir. Several hunter teams are already out hunting or scouting the land and almost every member of staff that is left is either useless in battle, inflicted with fire blight or a palico. And we can’t send out palicoes on their own without a hunter to defend them from the bigger threats.”
“Goddammit!” The commander gritted his teeth and threw several pieces of paper off the table. “We can’t wait for the hunters to get back, let alone wait for the A-list hunters in the Fifth Fleet. If this keeps up, we might lose even more men to the blight.” His subordinates were at a loss for words. They must’ve never seen him this defeated before. When he faced the table, he spotted me out of the corner of his eyes and lifted his gaze. “Wait… who are you?”
I stood at attention as I heard his demanding voice while Jaina hid behind me and tried to not divert any attention to herself. “I’m Kalaydus, sir. Crew member of the Fourth Fleet reporting for duty. A man at the gate said that you would want to see me personally.”
His mouth slackened in disbelief. “If you really were with the Fourth like you claim, I understand why they would think I’d want to see you. Everyone, I’d like to have a word with our new arrival. Privately.”
“Very well, commander. I shall see the subordinates to their quarters.” The strategist bowed and politely signaled the other people around the table to follow her. When she moved to resign to the quarters, she stopped before me as I unintentionally blocked her path.
“Oh, my apologies miss.” I raised my arms and stepped aside.
“No need for apologies. You can refer to me as Guild Marm. Most in this camp refer to me with this name. It makes it much simpler to remember than a usual name.” She smiled benevolently and once again bowed slightly before guiding the group of advisors to their rooms.
I stepped closer to the table, facing the commander across from me. His posture was strong and unwavering as he held his hands behind his back and inspected me. “You seem unhurt.”
“I’ve noticed that that’s pretty uncommon around here, I know. I’ve been knocked off my ship during the attack and through a string of lucky events survived the fall mostly unharmed.”
“That is indeed a rare commodity right now. Most men from the Fourth weren’t that lucky as you can see. Don’t you think that’s a little odd? You are the only one in your group that survived the crash and didn’t sustain any major injuries. Is it really just coincidence?” His eyes were sharp and full of distrust.
“I swear to you, sir. Whatever you think right now, I’ve had nothing to do with it! What are you accusing me of? That I’m working and scheming with the elder dragons?” I plant my hands on the table and stare at the commander but he was as unmoving as a rock.
“Settle down, hunter. I’m not accusing you of anything as of now. I will however keep my eyes on you. Sullivan has claimed you were quite an odd one and I’m taking his word for it.”
My eyes widened. “Sullivan? Where is he? I’ve trained under him!”
“So I’ve heard. And he told me not to trust you. There are just too many strange phenomena surrounding you. Like the effect you had on monster skin.”
I stepped away from the table and took on a more submissive tone. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you that it all happened by chance, would you?”
He calmly shook his head. “No. I’ve gotten enough scars from trusting ‘chance’. Anyways, Sullivan is placed in intensive care. That fool thought he could take over hunting errands while half of his body got charred. He’s one of the worst cases of fire blight around here.”
“Then we need to help him! He needs to know that I’m not a deserter!”
The commander nodded in agreement as a sigh left his lips. “You want to help him? You’ll get a chance. Luckily for you, I’m in need of a hunter. We’re out of blight medicine and it will keep wearing down more and more of our hunters if we don’t get new stock. We’re cut off from all supply lines and the land surrounding us is unexplored and uncharted. We have no idea where to look for ingredients. We require something called nulberries. Their juices negate any kind of blight one could imagine.”
“So we need to find out if any of them grow in the forest, right? Do you have maps? A guide?”
“We only have one thing. We’ve had cartographers map out the surrounding area when we built Astera.” He slipped me a large piece of paper which pictured the overlay of the area around the huge tree out in the forest. I could make out a few locations like the deeper thickets and the beach. But this tree reached even farther than even I suspected. It was like it was the centerpiece of the forest and the rest of the trees were just greenery that grew on its roots.
When I looked it over, I suddenly felt something tug at my arm. “I know where they are.” It was Jaina.
Me and the commander turned our attention towards her, with him being made even more suspicious when I started talking to her. “What are you talking about?”
She hesitantly approached the table, keeping her appearance hidden underneath her poncho.
“A friend of yours?” He asked with crossed arms.
“You could say that.” I vaguely answered him. “What did you say, Jaina?”
“Those berries you’re looking for… they’re blue, right?”
The commander raised an eyebrow in confusion. “They… are. Why are you asking.”
“I know where they grow!” She asserted herself, trying not to show her anxiousness.
He was clearly taken aback by that statement and planted his hand on the table with full attention. “I don’t know who you are… Jaina. But we’re desperate and don’t have much time. What do you know?”
“These ‘nulberries grow in a clearing deep within the forest. A lot of monsters go there when they got into a fight and got sick. If those are the ones you’re talking about, I know how to get there.”
“That’s an awful lot of knowledge of the wildlife you got there. How did you learn that? We’ve been here for only a couple of weeks, so you’re clearly not one of our team.”
I trembled nervously as Jaina was once again forced to explain herself. I was prepared for the worst, but apparently she must’ve learned to be vague from listening to me talk my way out of these situations. “It’s mostly instinct. I kind of see the connections in the ecosystem. I guess…” She stuttered uncertainly and I honestly couldn’t blame her. I wouldn’t have had a better excuse.
“Instinct, huh? Well, and all those years, I thought I had that myself. Either way, I’ll let you have your secrets. Gods know I’ve got plenty enough of my own. Well, since you two seem to be pretty compatible already and in on something I’m apparently not supposed to know, I suppose I should send you two out together. You there, just point on the map where this clearing is so we can assemble a supply package depending on how long it’s going to take you.”
Jaina nodded underneath her hood and watched as the commander shoved the map towards her. It went better than I expected, except… she’s supposed to point at it.
My eyes shot open as I watched Jaina step close to the table.
It seemed like time froze. I was standing there stiffly, and the commander wasn’t much better.
Right on the table, just like she was ordered to do, was Jaina’s heavy claw… pointing out a spot on the map.
The commander’s mouth hung open in speechlessness and his eyes slowly wandered from the yellow claw up the arm of its owner.
It took Jaina a second, but as she noticed our silence, and most of all our reaction, she perked up. She bit her lip, noticing that she messed up massively, and rapidly pulled back her claw to stuff it into her poncho.
For several moments none of us said anything, but I could see in the eyes of the commander that he was wrecking his brain over what he just saw. “So…” And he was the first one of us to speak up.
“…you will need the average care package then. A few rations and potions should do it.”
“You’re not going to…” I wanted to speak up, but he signaled me to shut up immediately.
“Nobody else has seen… this yet. Right?” He cocked his head, pointing at Jaina as he asked me.
“We’ve made sure that nobody did.”
“Good… Make sure it stays that way. Now everything makes a lot more sense.” He rubbed his chin as he circled the table.
“I do. I knew that I’ve heard of that effect you had before. For now, you’ve got your task. You and your… friend go and find the nulberries. I’ll ask you to hurry and once you’re done… come and see me. Both of you. You’ll get your supplies at the resource center. Go!”
“I said go!” He once again yelled before he turned his back to us. “We’ll discuss this when you get back. Let the resource team assign each of you one of the Mernos on my order. They’re strong wingdrakes that can carry you and Jaina in and out of camp effortlessly.”
Me and Jaina looked at each other with neither of us knowing what to say other than: “Yes, sir.”
“You have your secrets, I have mine. Now for fucks sake. Get going!” He once hammered it in and blurted his order as we hastily scrambled to get to the resource center.
We kept a low profile as we once again passed the wounded people and the bustling camp center. Once we were sure that there was nobody who wasn’t too busy to listen.
“We… what was that?” Jaina finally cracked and threw herself against me with a frightened expression.
I grabbed her shoulders to calm her down but I could hardly keep calm myself as I scratched the back of my head. “I wish I knew, Jaina! I… I don’t know. Listen, we can make this right. The commander didn’t seem to mean harm to you, he won’t hurt us… I think. We’ll figure this out. You really know where these berries grow, right?”
She nodded vehemently. “I do. I’ve been there before when I got burned or shocked and felt better every time.”
“Great.” I took a deep, relaxed breath as I pulled Jaina into a soft hug. I thought me and her could really use that right now. “If we get this right, we’ll gain their trust here and maybe when they learn about who you are, they’ll remember what we did for them.”
“I sure hope so.” She sighed as she carefully looked around before wrapping her arms around me. “I’m glad you’re with me.”
I snickered and smiled down at her. “Same here, Jaina. So… ready to go on our first quest?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
We took a few moments as we stood there in each other’s arms. We could really use a moment of rest. It was only reluctantly that we finally managed to part and head for the resource team.
Since Jaina didn’t have one, I filled my pouch with our supplies and ordered two Mernos for us.
We both stood at the poles that they were tied to and got a rope wrapped around us. We looked at each other uncertainly and I encouragingly showed Jaina a thumbs-up. She nodded and relaxed while I couldn’t feel my knees anymore.
The Mernos took off into the air with us tied to their talons. First one of them lifted up Jaina, causing her to yelp in surprise as she clung to the rope and then the other took off, carrying me along with it.
We took off into the air, with a sudden ecstatic adrenaline rush hitting us. We were flying!”
The midday sun was burning from the sky as we glided through the air. We could see each other as we started to laugh from the excitement.
I grabbed the rope with one hand while pumping the other towards the skies. “WOOOHHOOOOOOO!”
And subsequently, I could hear a roaring yell from Jaina. “RAAAHHAAAAAA!”
I couldn’t help but smile as we soared through the air. It was one of these moments that nobody could take from us and we were making our first steps as hunters. Our first assignment. Maybe not a flashy one, but everyone has to start somewhere. At least there’s not much that could go wrong.