“Is this supposed to be a joke?!”
“You better just be wearing Jagras armor right now!”
“Does the commander allow monsters to roam free in Astera now?”
“They can’t be monsters! They hardly look like them!”
“We demand an explanation!”
Where there was roaring cheer before, now there was scrutiny and hostility. Jaina was trembling on her feet as the angry shouts were directed at her. I moved up and got in front of her to divert the attention to me, raising my arms to calm down the crowd. “Listen everyone, we can tell you what’s going on, but you need to listen!”
“Isn’t that the guy from the Fourth Fleet?”
“Yeah, you’re right! I was on the same ship as him. It’s the guy that nailed his training session. I knew there had to be something off with him!”
“He’s the first one who got off the airship too! That’s doubly suspicious. You’re… you’re trying to sabotage us!”
Panicked whispers went through the masses as some even defensively went for their weapons.
I hastily rush in to clear up the situation. “I swear! We’re not here to harm you. I just found out that I am part monster myself, people! I’m just as, if not more confused about all this! Lower your weapons!” None of them listened. Instead I was met with more distrust, thinking that I was about to get violent after raising my voice. People kept their distance from us and watched every move me and Jaina made. Even though Jaina was only shaking and full of fear. In a rush, she clung to my arm and began to cry.
It broke my heart to see her so distressed. I gently combed her hair to calm her down while the crowd even went quiet from them hearing her painful sobs.
“Is she… is she crying?” A woman in the crowd asked, making the few that hadn’t already, notice it.
I held Jaina in my arms and let her press her face into my chest. “All I wanted was a home! All I wanted… was a home.” She repeated herself with the second time sounding more like a whimper than actual words.
I gently rubbed her arm to get her to relax. Upon seeing this, the crowd went silent but still visibly undecided on how they should feel about us.
To my surprise though, it was the commander who stepped in front of us. “Dear hunters, I know this is a very peculiar situation and the way we… exposed you to this was rather brash. But I’ve made the decision to allow these two to stay in Astera. It will probably take quite a while before we all get used to this but I will ask you to try and see them just like you see your fellow Wyverians and Palicoes. Another species working for the same side. Kalaydus and Jaina are semi humans and can learn to be our allies and earn our trust just like any other newcomers get the chance to. Now everyone, get back to your posts. We have ACTUAL monsters to hunt and investigate.”
The hunters were clearly not convinced but hesitantly dispersed again to return to their respective posts. With a salute to the commander they parted ways and the camp was bustling with activity again.
Jaina was slowly calming down in my arms as her claws tightly held on to my chest. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…”
“No… I pushed you to reveal yourself. You have nothing to apologize for.” I sighed as I felt the weight of guilt crushing down on me. I expected a backlash, but I didn’t consider if Jaina could handle it.
I was ripped out of my thoughts as the commander approached us. “And you two… come with me! Now!” He visibly held back his anger as he walked past us and ripped open the curtain to his office before going inside.
I could already imagine what was going to await us inside, but we’d have to get through this. I tapped Jaina’s shoulder and carefully spoke to her. “We need to get inside now. Come on, we’ll manage.”
“Okay… just one more second.” Her voice was still trembly and her claws dug even deeper into my chest to the point where I worried she might tear holes in it. Then again, with this shredded and burnt leather that might not have made too much of a difference.
“Sure… take your time.”
After Jaina had finally calmed her nerves, we entered the commander’s office to be greeted with a furious rant.
“What were you thinking! How did you get the idea that this was a good moment to reveal your identity?!”
I protectively stood in front of Jaina so she didn’t have to get the full force of his anger. “We were frustrated, sir! We couldn’t just keep a straight face and lie to these people like everything was business as usual!”
“Couldn’t you…” He clenched his fist and slammed it against a wooden pillar to let out his frustration. “Couldn’t you have at least waited until you got a better reputation around here? We would have revealed who you were, but only after you established yourself as valuable allies. You may have resolved the fire blight problem but that is still only one mission successfully executed. And now all of that goodwill is gone. We’ll have to start from square one!”
I could hear Jaina gulp before she took a deep breath and stepped out from behind me. She held her left arm and didn’t dare to look the commander in the eyes. “We understand that now. Maybe… maybe we can still fix this, right?”
Even the commander softened up when he saw Jaina bravely step out of the shadow. He ran a hand through his short, grey hair and walked up and down. “There’s a possibility. We need to send you out on more missions. Maybe with other hunters so they see that you’re useful and willing to take action. Actually, there is one thing I think you could do, Jaina.”
“Anything!” She clenched her fists enthusiastically as she anticipated the orders.
“Alright. While the hunters have more of a grudge against you, I think the research team can see a lot of value in having you around. I’d ask you to report to the field research team and give them as much information about your species and the forest as you can think of. It’s a small step but if you prove that you’re valuable to have around, they might put in a good word for you.”
“I’ll… I’ll do my best! I’ll tell them everything I know! That’ll make them accept me, right?”
The commander was clearly taken aback by her enthusiasm and even he couldn’t bring himself to crush it. “I think so, yes. It’ll definitely not hurt to build trust with at least one group around here.”
When she turned around to head out, Jaina stopped next to me and hesitated for a minute.
“Will… you be alright out there?” I asked worriedly but put up an encouraging smile.
She beamed up at me and smiled through her anxiousness. “I told you I had to challenge myself from time to time, right? I’ll prove that I have value! No matter what it takes!”
I couldn’t hold back a chuckle at her proud, beaming face. “Knock yourself out.”
She cocked her head in confusion. “That doesn’t sound like it’d do us a lot of good? I wouldn’t even know how to do that.” She said as she scratched her hair.
I was baffled and chuckled at little at her misunderstanding. “N…not literally. I meant you should give it your best.”
“Oh… W…WILL DO!” She cutely saluted me with blissfully closed eyes and headed out.
And now… I was left alone with the commander.
“Finally… I thought she would cling to you like this forever.”
“What, Jaina? I’m the only one she has around here. Of course she keeps close to me.”
“Maybe, but she needs to learn to get by on her own. She’s with more people than just you now. It’s one of the reasons I sent her to the research team.” The commander leaned against the pillar that he had previously knocked a significant dent into.
“So, what would be the other reasons then?” I asked as I leaned against the wall myself and folded my arms.
“We need to talk, Kalaydus. I can’t have resistance like yours around here, and I don’t mean that in a threatening way. This operation is built on trust and community and you willingly went against my orders. Before we continue our partnership, I need to know that I have your loyalty and that you’ll have faith in my decisions. I didn’t get to the position I’m in by being careless.”
I took a second to respond but gave him my honest answer. “What if you’re wrong? What if you make a mistake and make assumptions about something that you have no knowledge of?”
“Then you are free to question my orders. Not go straight against them.” He answered in a calm and reserved manner. “A commander is nothing without men that are willing to follow him. My decisions will be firm but only after I take everything into careful consideration. Including the doubts of my men. You are a valuable asset and you clearly have a good head on your shoulders, even if it’s a stubborn one. So… do I have your loyalty?”
I ran it over in my head. His point of view seemed to make sense, but there was something that was nagging me. “Under one condition.”
“You’re making conditions?” The commander asked provokingly.
“It’s not as you think. It’s more of a request. If anything goes wrong. If shit goes down… I want to be the one who receives the repercussions.”
“Even if it was Jaina who messed up?” He asked blankly.
“Especially then. All of this. It all started with me. Jaina doesn’t deserve to be punished for being thrust into a world she doesn’t understand.” I said with a trembling voice. “You and I can both see that she doesn’t know very much about human customs. If she messes something up… it’s not on her.”
He smiled and shook his head as if what I was saying was pretty stupid. “You really know how to set yourself up for trouble. Understood. All future infringements on Astera will be leveled against you.”
“Thank you, commander.” I smiled in relief.
“Listen to yourself. Thanking me for making you responsible for someone else’s mess-ups. You really are an unusual one. Welcome to the hunter’s guild.” He gave me a strong handshake along with a proud smirk.
“Well, that would be one issue settled. But I think you know that there is another one that needs your attention now.”
I had a dawning feeling of what he was talking about. “The Anjanath girl, huh?”
He nodded firmly. “She woke up a few hours ago.”
I closed my eyes and spoke through my teeth. “Commander? That thing about me being allowed to question your decisions…”
I put my hand to the bridge of my nose and gestured at him in frustration. “Why wouldn’t you think of telling me that earlier!?”
But despite my visible disbelief, he barely showed any reaction at all. “We had more urgent matters at hand. It wasn’t like she could give us any trouble anyways.”
“Wait… what do you mean by that?”
“She is very much harmless right now. She won’t be able to move or harm anyone.”
“How did you… when did you… ahhh doesn’t matter. Where is she?”
The commander stepped away from the pillar, holding his hands behind his back and his gaze thoughtfully aimed at the floor. “It would probably be better if you saw her for yourself. We’re not making any progress with her anyways. Follow me, and keep your eyes on the ground while we’re in public. We don’t want to attract even more attention than there will inevitably be on you.”
Those were his last words before we headed out. While we crossed over the public area where store vendors, hunters and scientists threw me suspicious sideway glances, me and him didn’t exchange a single word. Just like he said, we tried to be as inconspicuous as possible and avoided running into anyone on the way further up into Astera. Winding stairways led further up the mountain that this camp was built around. We passed an empty smithy with hot running hearths. It was probably not manned yet after every member of staff was required on deck during the fire blight epidemic.
From said smithy though, we would only go further and further up the mountain. Up to the ship of the second fleet that was stranded on the very peak of the mountain. While we walked the last couple of rackety stairs, nobody else was around. It didn’t seem like anyone else ever went up here.
Suddenly, the commander spoke up again. “I think we’re in the clear now, Kalaydus.”
“Good. I wanted to ask where we’re going anyways.”
“You see the ship up there on the mountain? The second Fleet one?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“After it got stranded up there, we dubbed it the gathering hub. Pretty ironic since it has been abandoned for the most part. It was supposed to hold an entire fleet’s worth of hunters but our numbers were way lower than expected. Many hunters didn’t make the crossing here and even in general we were comparatively few in numbers. Our Anjanath ‘friend’ is held up there to keep her as far away from the public eye as possible.”
“So, what was she like? What did she say and most importantly… how did she take the transformation.”
The commander sighed in an annoyed and frustrated tone. “I couldn’t tell you.”
“You can’t tell? You were there when she woke up, right?”
“I was… and she did look very confused. But after seeing me and the Guild Marm she didn’t give us anything. She kept glaring at us and no matter how many questions we asked her, she wouldn’t say a word.”
I looked at the stairs while I walked. What the commander told me, didn’t sound like a good omen. I wrecked my head, thinking of how to approach this situation, but I guess there really wasn’t anything to go on to make a plan. I would have to wing it and see where things went. “I think I should try talking to her myself. Maybe you should stay out of the room while I do that.”
“And why would you want that?”
“I’m the last human she was in contact with before she transformed. If there is anyone she would talk to, even if it’s in spite, it would be me.”
“What if things go wrong?”
“I thought you said she’d be completely harmless?”
He was clearly reluctant to leave me alone with a prisoner but I could see on his face that he was giving in. “Trust has to go both ways, I suppose. Fine. I’ll lead you to her and afterwards, I’ll leave the room to you two. But don’t start making out with her, Casanova.” He smirked smugly and gave me a light punch on the shoulder.
It didn’t really hurt, but out of reflex I started rubbing my arm while smiling back at him. “Hey, I didn’t think you’d have a sense of humor. Well, I guess the times here don’t really call for that either.”
“Comedy is born from tragedy sometimes. You gotta pick your times to ease up a little. If I give in to that urge in front of my men, they won’t take me serious enough to follow orders. Not that that stopped you.”
“Yeah, I get it. Won’t ignore your orders again, sir.”
“If only I could believe that. I have a feeling this won’t be the last time we’ll run into each other. You’re not the type to sit still and just accept things as they are. Which could be a good thing or… not. I’m sure we’ll figure that out soon enough.”
“I’m trying my best, commander. Me and Jaina will do our part around here.”
He gave me a sideway glance and nodded approvingly. “I’m sure you will.”
After talking the whole way up the massive amounts of stairs, I didn’t even notice how high up we got. A rickety rope bridge we crossed to get to the deck of the broken ship led right over the top of the waterfall that powered the huge water wheel which in turn powered the conveyor system that transported goods from A to B.
While the commander kept walking I couldn’t bring myself to not at least stop and appreciate the view.
The sight over the camp was breathtaking and after falling off an airship and surviving it, the fear of heights kind of takes a backseat. A couple of Mernos closely flew past the ship and into unknown territory beyond the ancient forest. Hunters were bustling around down there and either helped the shopkeepers setting up or handed in field research results to the scientists. And among all that chaos, I could see Jaina.
She sat on top of a scientist’s desk, with a wyverian doctor excitedly dancing around her, admiring her from all angles and investigating every part of her body, human or monster parts equally.
Even from up here, I could see Jaina jerking up and cringing when he pulled on her tail, practically hearing her shrill squeaks as if she was right in front of me. I didn’t know why, but seeing her like this made me crack a small, soft smile. Maybe it was because I felt proud of her putting herself through this so bravely, or maybe I just found it funny. I didn’t know, but maybe it’s one of these things you’re not supposed to understand.
“Ahem! Kalaydus? We have other things to attend to?”
I heard the commander call out to me from behind as he went on ahead towards a large door in the bow of the ship. I looked over my shoulder and reluctantly stepped away from the rope. “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry, I’ll be right with you.”
I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t hesitant to step through the large door after it opened. The ship was not furnished yet and all of the cargo that must’ve been inside once had been transferred to the lower camp. With that being the case, the room I was led into was dark and barren with only a few small slits that the daylight shone in from. While said slits kept the center of the room lit, the far back was shrouded in darkness.
And from there, I could hear something… breathing and clanking.
The commander looked tense and stopped right in the middle of the lit area, holding his arm in front of me to keep me from going further.
He looked over to me and shook his head, telling me that going any further than this would be a bad idea. I kept looking into the darkness to see if I could make anything out, but before I managed to get a clear view, something moved in the far end of the room and was heading for us. Suddenly, out of the darkness, lunged the Anjanath girl. She looked exactly the way I found her, with the exception that she was covered with simple robes and that I could now see her wine red, glaring eyes as she tried to strike us with her claws.
An attack that backfired due to shackles on her wrists and around her throat, connected to the wooden wall in the back. She was quickly stopped in mid-air and plummeted onto the ground, knocked onto her back. She quickly returned back onto her feet though and got into a defensive stance with her leg claws digging into the floor boards and her arms held in front of her like she used to do in her monster form
I jumped back in surprise while the commander seemed like he had witnessed this before. When I realized that she wasn’t doing anything more and she just kept breathing heavily and flicking her eyes between the two of us, I got a little closer to her.
Her long, black hair had fallen over one of her eyes and her shackled neck already had imprints from the tight iron. When she laid eyes on me in the light where she could get a clear view of me, her angry, bitter face loosened up at least a little bit.
I tried to keep as composed as I could manage to let her know I meant no harm. “Hey, you remember me, right? I’m the hunter from the forest. I… did this to you. I promise I can explain all of this. We have a lot to discuss in general, actually.”
She kept breathing heavily and looked at me with a lot of distrust. But even more than by me, she was bothered by the man she saw behind me. The commander. Her eyes often glanced in his direction and if looks could kill, hers would.
I turned around to the commander and asked him about her behavior. “Has she been that way ever since she woke up?”
“At least as soon as she saw me and the Guild Marm watching over her. She immediately fell into a furious rage and tried to attack us every chance she got.”
“Why hasn’t she used her fire breath then? She could’ve easily freed herself with it.”
“She would have. But as we figured out, her fire sac has been damaged. I’m sure you know more about that, than I do.”
I turned around to her and approached her. She reeled back a little as I reached out to her with her shackles clattering and her mouth forming into a spiteful scowl.
My movements became even slower and I spoke as unthreateningly as I could. “I’m just checking your neck, it won’t hurt you.”
To my surprise, she listened and stopped retreating away from me. Instead, she sunk onto the floor and knelt on it. She dejectedly looked away from me as she let me pull her neck collar down a little to reveal a crossed scar in the shape of an X that went right over her esophagus.
“Oh… I remember now. I hit you there, didn’t I? Must’ve gone deeper than I thought it did if it destroyed your flame sac. Do these ever grow back?”
She answered simply with a shrug and still didn’t dare to look my way.
“I suppose you wouldn’t know that, huh? You’ve never been defeated like this before, have you?”
My words seemed to sting more than the wound did, seeing as she gritted her teeth and her clearly biting her tongue to keep herself from answering.
“If you want to say something, go ahead. Even if it’s hatred, I’ll take it. I’ll take anything just please, talk to m…” In the middle of the sentence, something dawned on me. “You… you CAN still talk, right?”
At these words, she turned to me with a little bit of surprise on her face. She was apparently taken aback that I would even care to ask about her condition. For a few seconds, I was worried, but suddenly, she alleviated my fear and nodded.
“So, you CAN talk?”
Once more, she nodded and looked at the floor while clenching her fists on her lap.
“Do you not WANT to talk to me then?”
That appeared to be the right question and it seemed like she was willing to cooperate. She looked up at me and got back up to her feet. She raised her claw, not to attack, but to point at me. When she did so, she nodded. But then, she moved her pointed claw and aimed it at the commander behind me. And when she did that, she shook her head in defiance.
I understood what she was saying with that gesture and addressed the commander. “I think this is your que to leave, commander.”
He begrudgingly scowled and turned around. “I don’t like it, but I suppose I promised as much. I’ll leave. We will talk later.”
With a heavy creak, the large door opened, leaving a ray of light into the room that fully lit it up. But just as fast as it brightened up, the doors slammed shut and left the room in mostly darkness again.
I turned around to face the Anjanath girl once again only to be greeted by a pose that commanded respect.
Standing in the dim light of the room with crossed arms and a sinister look on her face, she sneered and blew a waft of steam out of her nostrils. “This ought to be interesting.”