The tension within the spacious room was so thick you could’ve cut it with a knife. Both me and the Anjanath knelt across from each other, not breaking eye contact for even a second. Neither of us knew what to expect from the other and according to that, our trust was very fickle.
To my surprise it was the Anjanath who spoke first after all this silence from before. “I require a name.” She stated, blankly.
I hesitated, but decided that giving away my name would not give her any advantage over me. “You can call me Kalay…”
“I know who YOU are.” She interrupted me almost immediately. “The commander had spoken of you a few times and I would never forget the name of the man who defeated me. What I was referring to was that it’s ME who requires a name so we can converse on the same level.” Her eyes were sharply staring at me and her words were harsh and demanding. She had the aura of a warchief around her.
“What would YOU call yourself.”
“Tsk, you humans are impossible. Put in at least some effort and bestow a name of your own onto your subordinate.”
She clenched her robes in frustration, tearing small holes into them with her tiny clawed hands that could almost be mistake for those of a human were they not covered in pink scales. “You are not familiar with the rules of the wild, are you?”
I gulped, fearing that she would break out in anger. But I was willing to sort this out in a civil manner and cooperated. “I’m afraid I’m not. But if you explain them to me, maybe I can follow them better.”
She seemed content with that and spoke in a meaningful and respectful tone. “In the wild you are to submit yourself to the higher-ranking monsters or die. Unless you can prove yourself to be stronger, you are to always be subservient. You’ve defeated me, and thus I am at your service. I am your vessel and you shall be my superior. So, I will ask once again, please give me a name to call myself by.”
I thought about it for a moment, I was still uncertain about her. She had a demeanor as dignified and restrained as I’d never seen before. I studied her mannerisms but just couldn’t bring myself to imagine her as a regular bully who could’ve terrorized Jaina for such a long time. There had to be a reason behind it. “We should stick to something familiar. The hunters here call your kind the Anjanath so it would make the most sense to call you… Anja. Are you satisfied with that name?”
“It is not my place to judge.”
“I am still asking you. I don’t want you to be stuck with a name that you don’t approve of.” I said sternly, making her recognize that it was an order to answer genuinely.
She averted her eyes as she bit her lip and her cheeks flushed with frustration. It must’ve been embarrassing for her to be bossed around by a human. “I like the name. It sounds lovely.” She finally wrung out.
I smirked slightly, glad that she approved and moved on to another matter. “You are aware that I was not alone in defeating you, right?”
“Ksk!” Anja clenched her teeth and even flinched at the mention of it. It was clearly a sore point for her.
“So, you should show Jaina the same respect then, right?” I pushed further, knowing that I could tickle something out of her.
And surely enough, I did. “Don’t even mention this waste of air! You and I both know that the victory against me didn’t rest on her shoulders! If she were on her own, she would do what she always does.”
I held back any of my comments about her insulting Jaina like that, having to clench my fists hard to resist the urge. “And what would that be?”
She leaned in and tapped onto the floorboards to enforce her point. “I’ll tell you exactly what! One of two things. Either she would’ve frozen up, or she would’ve run away for good. But one thing she wouldn’t have had, would be a plan, or at least enough strength to justify not having one. She attacks out of nowhere when she thinks she has an advantage, before running away and hiding until she can feed on the prey that others left behind which she does NOT deserve!”
I gulped. Her harsh and matter-of-fact statement was imposing even to me and even though she was chained down, I had a feeling she could rip herself free if she was really willing enough. “Well, not like that matters now. You’re here and you are… one of us.”
“One of you? Phahaha!” She burst out into a bellowing laugh. “Aww, you humans are priceless! I’m a lot of things, but certainly not human. I respect you, but no matter how much you transform me or try to convince me of your ways, I’ll always be a monster at heart. I will not bow to you, human.”
“If you respect me, then you will learn to respect humans too! They have defeated many of you before and some have even slain elder dragons!” I finally snapped at her, losing my anger. Even she froze up the moment I raised my voice and there seemed to be a certain submissiveness to her attitude. “Many humans have fallen to monsters weaker than you, but many of your kind have been hunted down by them as well. Put yourself as high up on your horse as you will, but remember this: Your kind and theirs are equally strong opponents.” I was breathing heavily and once again I could feel my breath grow hot. I coughed, clearing my throat from the sore feeling that suddenly emerged.
Anja finally dared to speak up again. “You… talk as if you weren’t one of them.”
After my short coughing fit ended, I raised my head once more and looked her straight in the eyes. “That’s because I’m not. I am the same thing that you are. I’m only a half human. The blood of a Rathian flows through my veins. I haven’t yet figured out what that means for me, but I will try to use it to build a bridge between our kinds. However I’m going to do THAT.”
Anja sat there in silence, looking at the ground and nodding to herself. “Now everything falls into place. You are both human and monster and you want to fight for both sides. No wonder that your vision is so skewed and senseless.”
“It’s not senseless! We could be a new link. Something that either side can benefit from. The guild learns everything it needs to know about the wildlife and you get to experience the ways of how humans hunt. There are more rules out there than just the laws of nature, and eventually you’re going to learn them too. So, I’ll offer you this choice now. Submit yourself to our rules and live among us willingly, or hurt us as soon as you’re freed and experience the raw strength of a whole guild of hunters.”
Anja pondered over this choice as her claw wandered to the chain that was wrapped around her neck. It lightly rattled when she did and the shear sound of it, symbolizing her restrictions, irked her. “How free will I be if I do?”
“As free as any other in this camp.”
“And you’ve got the authority to determine that?” She questioned me with a doubtful look in her eyes.
“I have direct contact with the commander. If I convince him that you’re harmless, we can get you the same arrangement as Jaina’s.”
“Pff, on one level with this…”
I interrupted her quickly, leaving her no chance to further insult her. “Shut it. I don’t want to hear any of it. You’ve been given your choice, now choose.”
She grumbled to herself, blowing a load of hot air from her nostrils which made her reach for her throat. It must’ve been painful to create heat with her flame sac being broken. “Heh, I wouldn’t be able to do much damage if I wanted to anyways.” She chuckled through her soreness. “If you wish so… master. I will oblige and live with your kind.”
I was relieved to hear it, yet… there was this itching feeling inside me that I shouldn’t let her loose without supervision. A tricky situation if I wanted to convince her that she would actually be free. “I’m glad we could sort this out and… Anja?”
“Yes, master?” She asked as she combed back her hair which had covered one of her eyes before, flashing both of her wine-red irises that pierced through the dim darkness. Somewhere underneath all the hostility, I could almost see a sort of mysterious beauty. But I could not let myself be swayed by that.
I put my statement as blankly as possible to not appear softened. “Don’t. Hurt. Jaina.” I spoke slowly with immense emphasis on every word.
Anja smirked and closed her eyes as she lowered her head as if what I said was preposterous. “Contrary to her, master, I follow the rules I’m given. Maybe you want to try and convince her not to lose her temper and attack ME the moment she sees me.” Anja slowly rose up and moved back into the shadows to sit on a bunk that was apparently put there for her to sleep on.
I followed up by getting back onto my feet and dusting myself off. “I will tell the commander of our conversation, I’ll do my best to put in a good word for you.”
She lazily waved at me as she rested her head on her hand. “Sure, go to your master, master. Let me know when I’m to be released. And bring some steak next time. I’m starving.” She said with an almost haughty kind of tone like she was toying with me. And she was clearly having fun doing it. But suddenly her face turned stone cold serious. “One more thing though.”
I turned around before I was ready to leave. “And what would that be?”
“I will follow the rules as promised, but my respect belongs only to you. If anyone wants to order me around, they will have to go through you, master. It’s called chain of command for a reason after all.” Her former expressionless face turned into a smug smile once more. “I’m looking forward to seeing you again. Bye bye.” And once again, she waved me off by only opening and closing her small, clawed hand before lying down on her bunk with her arms behind her head and closing her eyes.
I put my hands onto the heavy door while I looked over my shoulder to watch her. But it appeared like she was truly done and just wanted to relax now. It was almost devious how confident and unperturbed she was.
I had no idea to what extent I could trust her words, but I had to go with what I got and figure out where to go from here, though I had an idea forming in the back of my head already. I had to tell the commander about it.
The gate swung shut with a creaking slam. The moment I stepped outside I immediately saw the commander at the head of the ship, tending to a Mernos that perched on a sitting pole. He petted its beak to calm it while he tied something around its neck. As I got closer, I realized what it was: A letter scroll, secured within a cylindrical container and linked onto the harness the Mernos was wearing.
He scratched its neck once he was done, and the Mernos flapped its wings before flying away, off the island and over the ocean.
I approached the commander. “What was that about? Where is he going?”
He stoically followed the Mernos with his gaze. “I’m sending message to the Guild on the mainland. After all of this development I have to inform them about the situation. The guild will create records for Semi humans and probably want to learn everything they can about yours and Jaina’s kind. Actually, I meant to confer with you anyways. I have an assignment for you. A long term one as a matter of fact. But before we get to that, how did the talk with our prisoner go?”
I rubbed my neck uncomfortably and sighed. “Don’t call her a prisoner, commander.”
“What else would I call a person that we hold in a secluded room, who’s restrained with chains?”
“Okay, I get your point. I just don’t like treating her like this.”
“You seem to be conflicted.” The commander noticed immediately.
I chuckled awkwardly, trying and failing to hide my insecurity. “Heh, that’s putting it lightly. I wanted to request something actually.”
“Out with it, no sense in keeping it to yourself.”
“…we need to set her free.”
A moment of silence followed before the commander fully grasped what I was saying. “You mean… setting her free inside of Astera!? Are you mad?!”
“I know! I know! I can’t really wrap my head around it either! But after talking to her, I’m having doubts. I don’t think we’re getting anywhere if we keep her restrained. She seems like she respects regulations and honor but she made it abundantly clear that the only one she trusts with anything is me. She is cool headed but on the other hand clearly has a deep love for strength and superiority. It’s all over the place but I believe that if we want to get on her good side and get her to be of use to us, we have to show her that we respect her.” I was exasperated after explaining all that and I had a headache thinking about how to best convey my thoughts. I leaned onto the railing of the ship and held my head.
To my surprise, the commander came up to my side and padded my shoulder before leaning on the railing as well. “I can relate to that feeling, Kalaydus.”
I rolled over my head to look at him. “What do you mean?”
“She wouldn’t be the first loose cannon in this camp, you know?” He smirked.
I blushed and cringed as I looked away in shame but I also managed to laugh about it. “So you’d be okay with it?”
He suddenly turned serious again and thoughtfully looked towards the horizon. “Not immediately, no. But I have a counter offer that ties in with the assignment I have for you.”
“What is it?” I said readily as I moved my hand away from my forehead and folded my arms on the railing.
“The message I sent to the guild won’t only mean that they know about semi humans. It’ll also mean that the fifth fleet will arrive sooner than expected to deliver materials and of course the selected A-list hunters. The materials will be used to expand and furnish the gathering hub… which is where you and your monster companions will live.”
My eyes widened as I heard that. “You’re… going to hand the gathering hub over to us?”
“It is far enough away from the main camp to not cause immediate trouble if things act up and you and your companions will be condensed into one place that you can call home. That is not the only part of the assignment though…” He reached into his pockets and pulled out a notebook. He handed it to me and I flipped through the pages. There were dozens upon dozens of notes about known monsters, some of which I already met, and some that were completely alien to me. “Pukei-pukei? Tobi Kadachi? Kulu Ya Ku?”
“Yes, those are the ones that live in the Ancient Forest. As far as we know at least. We’re still looking to expand to the rest of the New World and that’s where your assignment comes in. I want you to complete this notebook. Anything noteworthy, you will write down in this book. Whether it’s knowledge you’ve acquired on your own by watching and fighting them, or by tracking their traces and the knowledge that the research commission gives you. Maybe your future companions will even give you some intel on their own. Whatever way you can figure out.”
“That’s… an enormous task, commander.”
“I’m aware of that, but I think that you have the bite and commitment to stick to it. Am I wrong in putting that trust in you?” He asked in an almost challenging way.
“N…no sir! Definitely not, but…”
“But I am only a newbie. I have not have had enough training to fight some of the mightier monsters. Jaina was more of a luck based affair and with the Anjanath I would’ve almost been burned to a crisp.”
He nodded understandingly. “I’ve already made arrangements for that. Once the 5th Fleet arrives, you will be assigned a hunting partner. They will show you the ropes and everything you need to know to fight even the worst of monsters.”
My heart sunk for a moment in shock. “I will… I will be working with a hunter from the A-list?!”
“Indeed, one with skill beyond compare. You should look forward to it.”
“I will, commander! I will. Holy shit! I’ve heard of the A-list hunters back in my village. They’re heroes where I come from! Slaying elder dragons left and right, wearing their skins like trophies and their weapons like the fists of gods!”
“You’re drooling, Kalaydus.” The commander said as he let out a deep chuckle.
“What? Oh!” I wiped my mouth embarrassedly. “Sorry, I’m just… I’m just so excited about this opportunity.”
“I have no doubt that you are. On the topic of gear though, you might want to upgrade yours the next time you get the chance. You want to make a good first impression, right?” He pointed at my armor, with burnt holes and chipped scratches all over it. “Your weapons as well. At some point, pure iron blades are not going to cut it. Literally. Your amulet should work with other weapons as well I think. The effect carries over to whatever it is attached to after all. It still amazes me after all this time. We can infuse a weapon with every element and buff in the book but this… this is something else.” He said as he admired the Rathian amulet that dangled from the blade on my back.
“Well, I’m going to get going now. You can stay here and keep watch over the Anjanath girl.”
“Anja, her name is Anja.” I threw in casually.
“Anja then. Keep an eye on Anja, she’ll be free to roam around up here, but no further. I will let Jaina know that she will find you up here. I’ll send her up here along with some makeshift beds so you can start to get comfortable here. Later on, I’ll make arrangements to link the gathering hub to the chain lift network so you don’t have to take the stairs all the time. I think that should be all for now, rest until the 5th fleet arrives and make yourself useful around camp. Best to make as good an impression as you can.”
He was about to step down the stairs, heading back to the camp but I had one more thing I had to tell him. “Hey… commander?”
“Is there still something the matter?”
“Yeah… thank you.”
“For what?” He chuckled.
“Do you really need to ask? Not casting me and Jaina out. Giving us a home. Giving us a second chance to prove ourselves and now…” I waved around the notebook. “…you’re giving me an opportunity like this.”
He smiled kindly and nodded. “I wouldn’t do all these things if I didn’t see future potential in you, Kalaydus. Just make sure to repay this trust with results that I can be proud of.” Those were his last words before he parted and finally disappeared down the mountain.
It’s been a long time since I felt this content with everything. It would be a lot of work for sure. Straightening out Anja, gathering these notes and constantly upgrading my gear… I loved it. The more I thought about it, the more I was looking forward to my future, more than I ever thought I would. I was finally a real hunter.
With those thoughts, rumbling in my head, I watched the sun slowly set as the hours melted away. When it touched the water on the horizon, I heard someone approach the gathering hub from the stairs and I knew that it could only be one person.
And indeed, as I looked towards the rope bridge that led to the ship, I saw Jaina with fluffy sleeping bags in her arms. She was slumped over a little, seeming like she had been traumatized. Her eyes were watery and empty as she desperately looked around.
Finally, after reaching the end of the rope bridge, she saw me. I waved at her with a smile and the moment I did, she threw the sleeping bags onto the deck and ran at me full force and broke into tears. “KALAYDUUHUUUUUUS!”
I coughed as she rammed into me and almost knocked the wind out of me. She threw her arms around me and full on started wailing painfully. “I missed you so, so much! I…I…the… doctor… bwaaahhh!”
She was completely choked up when she rubbed her face into my chest. I smiled softly and gently hugged her while I rubbed her back until she was calmer. “I missed you too, Jaina. I’m glad you’re with me again. What’s with the doctor though?”
She looked up at me with shaky eyes and a frowny pout on her lips. “He… he touched me in bad places, Kalaydus! He touched my tail! I swear I didn’t want him too! You’re the only one I want to touch my tail, I promise!”
I almost broke down laughing but saw that she was entirely serious about it. “You… tsk!… you really don’t need to feel bad about it. I don’t blame you for that. He probably didn’t know that it was sensitive.”
She choked up even more and embraced me tighter. “Hic! Oooooo, I feel violated!”
I was so happy to feel her close to me again and ran my hand through her hair to get a feel for it again. “There, there. You know what? We can stay close like this for as long as we want today. There will be no one stopping us up here. Knock yourself out.”
She smiled through her tears and looked up at me with that same, innocent smile. “That meant I should give it my all, right?”
“You remembered that, huh?” I patted her head, making her smile even more.
“Don’t mind if I do.” She sighed almost as if in relief that she could hold me as tight as she wanted and not having to let go anytime soon. “I know these things I brought are separate beds but… can we at least sleep close to each other tonight?”
“Obviously. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” I held her cheeks with both of my hands and wiped away her slowly drying tears with my thumbs. I leaned down and pressed my lips onto hers, holding her almost as close as she was holding me.
There was a lot ahead of us to deal with. But tomorrow would be another day too.