The morning sun can be cruel sometimes. I’ve never been an early bird kind of guy, but nowadays I have to force myself to be one. If I wanted to get a head start and impress people, I kind of had to. And it would have been a lot easier to get used to this if there wasn’t this temptation to just stay in bed and cuddle some more with a cute Great Jagras that during the night snuggled up so close to you that your two sleeping bags might as well had been one.
Yes, Jaina and I had stayed close together the entire night, and while I could hardly complain about that, now that I had to get going it was really hard to get away from her.
Her arms were slung around my neck like a vice, reaching over from her own sleeping bag into mine.
I chuckled as I carefully weaseled myself out of my ensnarement and peeled myself out of the sleeping bag. In her sleep, Jaina clawed at my empty bed, having an annoyed frown on her face before she once again relaxed and continued to snore peacefully.
A soft smile crept over my lips as I watched her. Right now though, there were more pressing things on the agenda. I strapped on my hole-filled leather armor as I laid out an organized to do list in my head.
The armor obviously made me aware of the first point that I should get sorted out: Visiting the smithy and getting a new armor fixed up.
After that, I need to visit the cook and have him prepare a few slices of freshly roasted steak to send up to the gathering hub for lunch.
Then there was the so far last point on my list and I already dreaded that one.
Releasing Anja and getting her and Jaina to get along. Even just saying those words out loud in my mind sounded like it would be a disaster. Anja had decided to stay and even said she would behave herself but how far that good behavior would go once she met Jaina… I was unable to tell.
“Nothing’s for sure I guess. And winging it so far hasn’t killed me. I suppose I’ll cross those bridges once I get to them. How bad could it turn out, right?” My gaze turned towards Jaina as I tried to console myself.
In lieu of me, she was now clutching the furry pillow in her sleeping bag and held it so tightly that you could almost worry about the seams coming apart. She mumbled something in her sleep which I couldn’t make out, but even without that knowledge, the simple innocent image was enough to put my mind at ease.
“I’m sure she’ll be alright. We’ll figure out a way to work together somehow. I crouched next to her bed and caringly ran my fingers through her hair. Her formerly slightly twitching eyes settled down a bit and even a soft smile crossed her lips. “Be back soon.” I spoke to her in a quiet tone as I got up and made my way into camp to cross off my to-do list.
When I descended the stairs, I could already hear Astera bustling with activity. It was to be expected now that the fire blight plague was cleared and the smithy was back in full action. Now people could finally turn in the spoils of their hunts and get some new armor and weapons forged. I’ve always been amazed back home when I saw the gear some hunters had gotten during their hunts.
Some of the weapons I saw were even bigger than a person. I mean I’m not that much to compare to since I’m average height and anything but a heavyweight but I’m still talking about MASSIVE weapons here.
The blacksmiths of the guild had always been really creative when bending parts of gigantic monsters into gear. Just slayed a ginormous, world-eating monster? Give them a few scales here, a membrane there and they’re going to fashion you the best, form-fitting, hard-hitting stuff you’ve ever put your hands on. And I was about to put my very own hands of some of that stuff myself. Needless to say, I was excited.
Conveniently enough, the stairs ended right next to the smithy and right as I arrived, I could smell the hot waft of glowing hot steel burning in my nose. The water-powered machines were hammering away, crushing different pieces of different monsters into usable materials before smelting them in a massive furnace.
A small group of experienced hunters just exited out of the bustling building as they admired the new armors that they were wearing. You could feel the heat radiating from them, meaning they were freshly forged.
One guy in particular was wearing noticeably fortified red armor built out of plates and spikes from a monster. His head was hidden by a sturdy helmet with a black mask and a steel visor.
“Wohohoh man! You look absolutely badass. What is this armor?!” One of the guys, who was with him, yelled in excitement.
“It’s Rathalos armor. There was one roaming around in the Ancient Forest. Once I saw it on the notice board, I knew I had to slay that thing!”
“Damn! You look like you could withstand a meteor falling onto you!” A third guy awed as he knocked on the thick plates.
I chimed in as I approached the group, “They’re right, that’s an awesome piece of armor. Must’ve been a really tough fight. Good on you!”
Almost instantly, I could feel the atmosphere freeze up and the chatter died down. The three of them gave me sideways glances and none of them pleasant. “Urgh, it’s the monster lover.”
I raised an eyebrow as I questioned the nasty stares I got. “What’s the problem? Did I do anything?”
“Don’t play dumb, half blood. You should know just as well as anyone around here why you’re not welcome.”
I groaned and let out an annoyed breath. “I’m a hunter just like you are. Just because I happen to have monster blood in me, doesn’t mean that that changes.”
“You say that now. How long until it gets to you, this thing that you sleep with? Yeah, we know that you’re already in bed with it. Can’t be that long until you take their side and start fighting alongside them against us!” The man in the Rathalos armor mocked me, looming over me to look imposing.
“Monsters hunt other monsters too, you moron! There isn’t a SIDE for me to be on!” I emphasized my words as I tried to maintain my composure. I could already feel my fist twitching. Even though I would’ve been at a complete disadvantage with him wearing that armor, there was an urge to fight him brewing inside me.
He looked back at his friends as if to see if they could believe what they were seeing. Like I was a peasant talking to royalty. He turned back to me and got up so close to me that his armored chest bumped into me. “You would be better off shutting that mouth, buddy. You’re walking on extremely thin ice as it is.”
I was just about to pull out my blades as an unexpected voice called out from inside the smithy. “S’cuse me, big shot! Would ya turn it down a notch out there?! Ye might wanna piss off and stop loiterin’ in front of ma forge if ya don’t want me ta tell ’em about the care packages yer mum always sends for ya.”
The man grunted, unexpectedly reeling back away from me. I could see that he was affected by the unknown person’s words. He turned to look towards the smithy, speaking to the man who apparently ran it. “Dammit old man, can’t you fucking keep to yourself for once? This isn’t your damn business!”
“Keep talkin’ kid and I’ll show ’em the cute little notes she puts into ’em too. Now scram and stop botherin’ me customers!”
“Krrk…” The man froze up and even despite the armor, you could tell that he was breaking into a nervous sweat. “You don’t… actually have some of those, do you?”
“What is he talking about, dude?”
“Nothing! We’re leaving! You got lucky, half-blood!” He grunted, angrily stomping away as his confused companions reluctantly followed him down the stairs into the main area of Astera. I had to admit, it was pretty damn ironic to see such a well-armored man be so vulnerable.
I turned around the corner to see who the man was who got him to stop. When I did, there was an older man sitting at the side of a long conveyor belt that transported materials in front of him. Despite his visible age, his body was anything but saggy. In fact, he was in much better shape than I was with massive muscles and strong, bulging arms. His body was riddled with scars and sweat was pouring all over it, making it glisten with the light of the flames behind him. His chin was completely covered in curled hair from his full, black beard while his head was completely bald and an eyepatch covered up his right eye.
He was only sparsely clothed with a throw-over vest, leather coils around his waist and iron gauntlets for smithing. His face was gruff and with his one good eye, he looked up to see me.
I was quick to get inside and rubbed my neck in embarrassment. “Hey umm… thanks for intervening there. I’m sorry you had to be bothered by something that unnecessary.”
He didn’t answer, instead he squinted. His eyes were apparently a bit cloudy from the constant heat. Once he apparently saw what he wanted to, his face lit up with a realization. “That was YOU out there boy? Ye just can’t stay outta trouble can ya?”
“Wait, what?” I wondered how he could possibly know me. I’ve never been to the smithy when it was open. When I came closer though and the waves of heat eased up a little, I finally noticed it. “No way! Sullivan?!”
“As he lives and breathes, kid!” He proudly proclaimed as he stomped the ground with a smithing hammer he rested his right hand on.
I chuckled in disbelief. “What the hell? I haven’t seen you ever since the Fourth Fleet accident. The commander told me you were almost burnt to death. How did you end up in the smithy?”
“Old man’s a lot tougher than ya give ‘im credit for. Shrapnel hit me and got me legs lamin’, my hair’s burned off, my beard’s singed and my right eye’s… pretty much useless now, but thankfully this old geezer can do more than slice up a monster. Got sum strong arms and I’m gunna use ’em as long as I can swing a hammer.”
As he so proudly said that, I felt an immense guilt rush through me. “Shit man, I’m really… sorry. I mean you can’t hunt like that anymore, can you?”
He sunk his head for a second as he sorrowfully looked at his numb legs but shook it soon after. “Nay, boy. But I’ve had enough sympathies. Would’ve been a matter of time before age got ta me instead of a monster. Makes for hell of a more interestin’ story as well.”
I smiled weakly and got some relief from his optimism, but I could tell from the shift in his expression that the friendly conversation was over. “So… about what happened outside there. I wanna talk to ya about that and give ya some advice. Back down from stuff like that.”
I was taken aback by the sudden suggestion and immediately went on the defense. “What? I’m supposed to just take stuff like that? If I let guys like him step all over me, how am I supposed to ever get someone to take me serious here?”
“He’s a fresh high ranker, them guys are always cocky like that an’ think they’re tough shit. There’s nothin’ fer ya to gain from fightin’ a guy like that.”
I crossed my arms and complained in frustration. “I didn’t want to gain anything. I just… haaa… I just wanted to get a little bit of respect.”
“And how much respect do ya think ya get when you’re put down or thrown out the gates? Things’re tense right now, kid. They’re only looking for a reason ta get ya in trouble.”
I sighed scrunched my face in disappointment. I knew he was right, but the constant suppression and distrust was starting to get to me.
And then, Sullivan served me yet another kernel to the pile. “I wanna make this perfectly clear to ya as well. I don’t trust ya…”
“You and half of Astera, Sullivan.” I muttered, seeing that it was pointless to try and convince him otherwise. It would take a lot more than just saying that we’re not going to do anything to actually convince people of that.
“But I don’t think yer bad folk.” I raised my head at his surprising words. “I might think that ye and yer monster friends are weird moods of nature.”
“And you have sum really bad attitude.”
“And yer way too confrontive.”
“Yup, just keep piling.”
“And I don’t ‘ave that much trust in yer ta even lift sumthin heavier than ole Poogie.”
“Alright, alright I get it!” I chuckled uncomfortably as I stopped him from listing anything more.
He bellowed a short laugh as well and smirked. “I’m not gunna treat ya any worse than that Rathalos fella, that’s fer certain.” He joked as he wiped some soot from underneath his nose.
My mood lifted a little bit at that moment and I shot him a small, genuine smile. “I… really appreciate that.”
He gave me a firm nod before he went back to talking brass tax. “Now enough of the sentimentalities, ya didn’t come ‘ere fer a nice chit chat, ye want somethin’ made?”
I hastily fumbled to grab my pouch and approached the conveyor belt. “Actually, I need a new set of armor.”
“A full one? Well, I can see that yers ain’t fairin’ too well. What can I make ya? Leather? Chainmail?”
“Well… Anjanath actually.”
“…” His face went completely blank. “Anjanath armor?”
“Yer jokin’, right?”
I wordlessly flipped my pouch and let the flood of Anjanath materials pour out onto the conveyor belt. Sullivan’s mouth hung open as he slowly inspected the huge pile from bottom to top. It was an entire Anjanath body’s worth of materials after all and even in its cut-up form, it spilled over the edges. “Afraid not. Think you can make something sturdy out of this?”
He was still in disbelief and had to shake his head to come back to his senses. “Yer kidding! I can make ya ten armors outta this. How the hell did ya get yer hands on this.”
I shrugged, “I guess luck?”
I half expected him to throw the stuff back in my face but instead: “Bahahaha! Boy, ye either ‘ave the biggest luck under the sapphire star or yer secretly a master hunter. Ye killed an Anjanath with yer weak-ass little blades and a bog-standard armor?”
“Suppose so, maybe I’m tougher than you give me credit for as well.” I said as I joined in on his laughter by chuckling along.
He slapped the surface of the conveyor so hard that even more of my materials slid onto the floor as he burst out into another fit of laughter. “Ahhh, maybe yer ain’t that bad after all. Knew ya could hit an unmovin’ pole… barely. Never even dreamed that ya could slay an Anjanath. Ye know what, I’m gunna make ya that armor and if it ain’t a fluke, I’ll even give ya some new blades on top ‘o that fer free. Now how much do ya have? Let’s haggle.”
I checked my money pouch to see what reserves I had left. “Well, I’ve got 10000 Zenny on me that I took from back home.”
“I don’t wanna make ya broke, kid. Let’s make it 5000 fer the armor and once ya get slayin’, with ma gear, ye’ll be rolling in cash ta make it up ta me with.”
“Seriously? Thanks, Sullivan.”
“At least one favor can’t hurt! Thanks ta ya, I’ve gotten away with my life from that fire blight after all. Some folks ’round ‘ere don’t recognize that, but I ain’t a man that slacks on his debts.” After saying that and giving me yet another hearty, confident smirk, he turned around to the back of the forge and yelled out with a commanding tone. “Horace! Barnes! Get yer asses in ‘ere!”
Quickly, two men with smithing aprons and headbands emerged from behind the massive forge and stood at attention. “Yes sir?!”
“We’ve got a new order comin’ in. Full set o’ Anjanath armor! Get workin’ mates!”
“Hraaah!” They yelled alongside him with excitement as they each grabbed a pile of material and sent it along the production line. Some of it went into the smelter, some was worked on the anvils and other parts were cut into shape to be attached to the armor.
So many processes were happening in front of me that I couldn’t possibly follow it all.
Sullivan got up from his stool at the conveyor belt and limped over to the anvil as he used his hammer as a crutch. Once he was there though, he showed no sign of weakness and worked the glowing steel and hardened scales with his hammer to bang them into shape. He was obviously the man who put the perfect finishing touches on the pieces.
The glowing hot parts were thrown into a pool of water before finally being placed on the conveyor belt where they rolled along and ended up in front of me.
The three men wiped their sweat from their foreheads but apparently Sullivan wasn’t quite done. He pulled an array of levers and a metal grappling arm shot down to pick up a pile of bones which it swiftly threw into a large melding pot. I could hear grinding and hammering from the enormous apparatus. Sullivan went back behind the machinery and his hammering emanated throughout the echoing room.
When he returned, while he leaned on his hammer, in his other hand he held a pair of rectangular bone blades, one edge of them deftly sharpened and the other edge dull but tipped with spikes. The handle was wrapped in a mix of Anjanath scales and black, bristly fur.
My mouth hung open as I watched Sullivan put those gorgeous looking blades next to my armor and shot me a satisfied smile as he gruntingly sat back down on his stool. “Haaaa… I reckon this should serve ya a lot better than that flimsy stuff yer usin’.”
I had to smack my lower jaw to put it back into place. “I… I think you’re right there!” I slid my hand over the amazing, smooth chest plate and the neck fur that decorated it. The pink scales blended incredibly well with the hardened, polished steel. “You sure know what you’re doing old man.”
“I don’t do half assed jobs, kid. By the way though, ye should know that there’s a lot of leftover materials lyin’ around now. Whatcha wanna do with that?”
I looked over his shoulder and saw a still plentiful pile of fur and scales. Though at least the bones and fangs seemed to have been used up. “You don’t happen to know something about making regular clothes, right?”
His eyebrows raised up a bit in surprise. “What?”
“You know, something that doesn’t hinder movement too much that you can wear at any time other than battle but still sturdy enough to keep your body tense. You know… something like a corset?”
“Yer not going drag, kid are ya?”
I immediately waved my hands in front of me. “NO! No! It’s not for me! I just need it for a… well I don’t really know if I could call her a friend now, but… I need it for her.”
Sullivan looked over his shoulder and I could guess from his expression that he was piecing the puzzle together in his mind. “So… that’s how ye got so much stuff at once. Ye didn’t kill the Anjanath, eh? Ya made her one of yer kind, didn’t ya?”
I reluctantly gave up on coming up with an excuse and just told him. “Yeah, she’s up in the Gathering Hub with me and Jaina. We’ve got her locked up right now, but I can’t keep her trapped forever. I think she won’t cause trouble and if I’m going to set her free, I just… don’t want her to have to walk around in rags.”
I prepared myself for being berated for bringing an Anjanath into Astera. Lord knows it was a huge risk to take. But instead, Sullivan just leaned back and nodded before he stiffly sat back up again. “Well, I’m not a tailor, kid. These hands are made fer smithin’ not sowin’. If ya want though, I can give ya some tools an’ some adhesive to make sum yerself.”
I cocked my head in honest surprise. “You’re… you’re not angry about me taking an Anjanath into Astera? Why?”
“Boy I’ve been through a Volcano shootin’ balls of lava at me. As long as ya keep that shit away from me, ye won’t hear me complainin’. I have a warnin’ fer ya though.” He said ominously as he leaned on his legs. “If I ever learnt anythin’ from huntin’ beasts like those brute wyverns, it’s that ye don’t get in the way of ’em when they’re angry. So if she is anythin’ like that, don’t stand between ‘er and what she’s angry about. If yer the thing she’s angry about… run.”
As his words rang through my head, I defensively dismissed them, although a certain sense of preemptive dread remained. “I… I think she can change that attitude. She is half human now, she can learn to control herself.”
Sullivan leaned back with an almost wise smile. “That’s the part that got me worried too, boy. How does the saying go? Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” He chuckled to himself as I packed up my remaining material as well as the tools he promised me. Admittedly his words left a dreadful feeling in my stomach, even more so than before. I constantly kept pushing away the thought that Anja could turn out violent, but I became more and more doubtful of my conviction.
I shook my head and tried to put my mind to something else. “Anyways, again thanks for everything, Sullivan. Pleasure doing business with you.” I reached over the conveyor to extend my hands to Sullivan.
Which he promptly welcomed with a hearty handshake. “Pleasure’s all mine, boy. Look out fer yer rear in the future, alright?”
“I’ll sure try, can’t make promises on that though.”
“Hehehe, see ya later, kid. I have a feelin’ I’ll see ya plenty a times.”
And with that, I grabbed my blades and armor, heading out of the forge, mentally making a tick behind the first order of the day.
Coming out of the forge, I now wore my Anjanath armor. It fit perfectly and even had a slinger attached to it. I guess that it’s the standard for armors in the New World. I decided to not wear the helmet for now and placed it in my pouch which apparently contained a portal to infinity by now.
I already knew that the second order wouldn’t take nearly long and then there was only one thing left to do.
As I left the forge, I looked for a quiet, cool place to refresh myself after the hot air in the forge and found one on a bridge that led towards the Palico kitchen. Even from here I could smell the sweet stew, roasted steaks and steamed fish. Even just being near this place and without seeing the food, my mouth was already watering.
A massive stone plate roasted over a crackling fire on top of which a posse of cute tiny palicoes prepared meals for the hungry hunters and they were led by what could only be described as a bodybuilder of a Palico. He wore a red bandana, a cooking apron and one of his eyes had a deep scratch running over it. I looked down at my own body and almost had to laugh at myself. “If even the palicoes around here are that buff, maybe I have to start working out.”
I wandered over to the stone plate, settling down on one of the seats surrounding the platter.
The muscular… excuse me, meowscular chef focused his surprisingly intense eye on me and yelled, sorry again, meowed at me. “Nyan nyan, nyanyan nyan! (Welcome to the kitchen, what are you having today!?)”
“I’m not eating, not here at least. I wanted to make an order though.”
“NYANYAN NYAN! NYAN NYAN NYAN? (Meowscular chef is here to satisfy all of our customer’s needs! What can I do for you?)” He meowed with startling enthusiasm.
“I need 3 steaks, delivered up to the Gathering Hub. Should be around lunch time now, right?”
“NYANYANNYANYAN! NYAN! (With Meowscular chef it is always lunchtime! We will make it just purrfect!)” Upon hearing this, his smaller friends raised their wooden spoons and spatula’s as if they were heading into battle and scrambled around looking for oils, spices and big chunks of meat.
It was amazing to watch them, but as time passed and I noticed that the cooking would take a little bit longer, I used the time to flip through the pages of my notebook.
Most of the pages were still empty, space left for monsters that we haven’t yet discovered. There were plenty of entries before that as well though. All the monsters known from the mainland that have been spotted in the New World mixed in among some of the new ones.
“Mernos, Great Jagras, Rathalos, Anja…nath…” I stopped reading as I got to this page because there was a small key stuck to it. I peeled it off and laid it out in the palm of my hand. It had to be something the commander left in there for me, and I could already guess what the key was for.
I raised my head towards the Gathering Hub on top of the mountain and decisively slammed my hand onto the stone table as I got up. “Right! I’ve put this off for long enough.”
I heard the chef call out to me from behind with a confused look on his face and his arms crossed. “Nyanyan? Nyanyan nyan?” (You’re leaving? Did we get something wrong?)”
“No, but there’s something that needs to finally be done. I’ll be around another time!” I paced away from the kitchen, full of energy and determination, before I stopped in my tracks and turned heel. I came back to the table and signaled the chef with an OK sign. “It already smells delicious though.” I reassured him and once again turned away, feeling all the confused eyes of the patrons on my back.
And with that awkwardness probably bearing on my mind for eternity, I ascended the stairs up to the Gathering Hub. The long, long stairs. God did I hope that they would soon install those chainlifts.
After another long, arduous climb up to the Hub, I reached the deck and found Jaina still in her sleeping bag. Even though it was around noon, she seemed to still not have slept enough. I didn’t know if it was exhaustion from the stress in the new environment or if she was just having a really nice dream that she just didn’t want to get out of yet.
Either way, I decided to try and wake her up as gently as I could. I lied down next to her, right across of her lax, cute sleeping face.
I reached over to her, cupping her cheek in my hand as I softly leaned in to place a waking kiss on her lips.
Upon feeling my lips on hers, Jaina sleepily opened her eyes and cracked a smile as soon as she noticed me.
I smiled back and combed a lock of hair that was hanging over her eye out of her face. “Morning, Jaina. Slept well?” I spoke softly.
She dreamily answered… “Yeah…” before she put on a pouty little frown. “…but then you left!” And swiftly she playfully nudged my chest with a weak fist punch.
“Hehe, ow! How did you even notice that?” I laughed through the not very effective attack.
“Don’t think that I’d ever not notice when you’re gone! Don’t do that again! I feel all lonely when I wake up.” She sulked as she curled her tired, warm body up next to me.
I cuddled with her and cradled her head which she nuzzled underneath my chin. “Yeah, I know. Sorry. I’ll make sure to tell you next time. Maybe you’ll hear me in your dreams.” I chuckled.
“I already do.” She cooed so cutely that I was worried about my heart actually melting.
I tried to ignore my incoming diabetes as I heard a chain rattling near us. It was the small transportation lift for Palicoes that led up to the center of the ship’s deck. When I heard it, I looked down at Jaina. “Hey, you hungry?”
She wiped the sand out of her eyes. “Sure, I’m always ready for breakfast.”
I laughed. “It’s around noon by now. It’s time for lunch.”
She smiled contently and rolled onto her back as she stretched her arms. “Ahhhh! Even better! That means we get to eat even more!” With newfound energy, she jumped onto her feet and excitedly threw over her poncho.
When the rattling of the chains became slower and creaked to a halt, a small hatch opened in the center of the ship and a tiny Palico, carrying a huge, covered up platter of food, emerged from it. It waddled over to one of the many tables that surrounded the center and placed its heavy load on it.
The Palico exhaustedly wiped its forehead before flashily popping off the cover, revealing three steaming plates of bubbling, sharply roasted steaks. Me and Jaina were lured towards it as a waft of the tastiest meat we’ve ever smelled drifted over to us.
The Palico presented it to us with an enthusiastic meow and looked quite proud of what he brought us. I walked up to the table and reached over it to scratch the adorable palico’s little head. He blissfully leaned into it and purred in satisfaction. “Hey, good job little guy. Give the meowscular chef my compliments. If it tastes anywhere near as good as it smells, I don’t even have to take a bite to know it’s amazing.”
The palico once again meowed and put its paw up to its forehead as a proud salute. With a smile on its face, the palico jumped back into the hatch and headed back towards Astera again.
Me and Jaina took seats next to each other on this large round of tables. Seeing as this was once supposed to hold way more than just two people it made sense for there to be so many of them.
“Feels kind of weird, doesn’t it?” Jaina spoke up.
“You know… it feels kind of empty with just the two of us here. I mean, I don’t mind being alone with you, but can you imagine how bustling it would be if these tables were full of people?”
“Yeah, I can see that. Maybe, with the kind of mission we have, one day it’ll be like that. Heh, imagine that. A full round of tables filled with half monsters. It’d be crazy.”
Jaina gazed over all the empty seats, visibly visualizing how it would be if they were all filled with people. “I think it might be… nice. Almost like… a family.” Looking at her from the side, I could catch a glimpse of an almost hopeful smile. She wanted this to be a reality. Although I knew it might not end up being as peaceful as she might think it’d be, I would never have had the nerve to take that fantasy away from her.
“I think that’d be nice too.” I spoke softly as I fantasized along with her. I knocked on the table to get us back on track. “Well, we better eat now before our steaks get cold.”
Jaina took one of the steaks in between her claws and shrugged. “I don’t mind cold meat. I’ve always eaten cold meat out in the wild. When meat lies out in the sun for too long and grows warm, it gets all yucky. Bbrrghhh!” She shuddered a little bit at the thought.
I chuckled. “Well, there’s a big difference between meat that’s lying out in the sun for too long and meat that’s cooked.”
“Different how?” Jaina cocked her head.
“Well,…” I pointed at the slab of meat in her hands with a knowing smirk. “…try it.”
Jaina looked at me suspiciously before her eyes turned to the steak. “Well, I guess it doesn’t SMELL too bad.” Slowly and carefully, Jaina opened her mouth but instead of biting into it, she stuck out her tongue and gave the steak a precautious lick.
Her eyes widened. Her claws buried themselves in the meat and her whole body tensed up like she’d just been struck by lightning. She squeaked in ecstasy. “OH MY GOD!”
“What have I been missing!? What is this? How does it taste THIS good!?”
“Herbs, spices, oils, you can get a lot more out of meat when you cook it right. Remember how you told about how good it tasted when the juicy fat of the meat dissolved in your belly? Well, when you cook meat, it boils to the surface and makes everything taste 10 times better. You see that moisture that’s crackling on the surface, that’s what I’m talking about. And it mixes with all the delicious spices you put on there.”
Jaina looked at me with panting breath and saliva literally running from the side of her mouth. “I NEED to eat this RIGHT NOW!” She set off to, apparently, make the first bite. But as she tried to approach this, she hesitated. “How do I…” She opened her mouth and tried to dislodge her jaw as she pressed her lips against the edge of the steak, but that would obviously not work.
I held back my laughter as I called out to her. “Jaina!”
“Yreash?” She answered with as much of the steak in her mouth as it would allow.
When I was sure that she was looking, I took the steak into my mouth and tore off a more reasonably sized piece of the meat and wordlessly instructed her to mimic what I was doing.
She looked unsure and bewildered by doing that, but nonetheless trusted me enough to try it out. And despite that, she still managed to rip a massive piece from the steak, certainly larger than any human could swallow… and she swallowed it whole.
She kicked her feet underneath the table as a rush of flavors flooded her senses. You visibly see the meat chunks grinding down her throat in their entirety and with every piece that reached her stomach, Jaina’s face became more and more dreamy. I could even see her belly bulge out underneath her poncho. Some things just don’t change even after you transform apparently.
Seeing her eat it so enthusiastically made me all the more excited to continue eating my own. Of course, I already knew that it tasted amazing, but somehow sharing this enjoyment with her, made it taste all the more incredible.
In between bites, I could see Jaina’s eyes flick over to the third steak and uncomfortableness growing within them.
“It’s for… her… isn’t it?”
I took a deep breath. “Yeah, it is. She hasn’t eaten anything since we’ve captured her and even though she’s not showing it, she must be really hungry.”
“And you’re gonna let her free after that?”
I pulled the small key out of my pocket, it on the table and nodded. “We have to. We can’t keep her locked up in there. She at least deserves a chance to prove herself useful. Who knows, maybe now that you can talk, you can finally set aside your problems.”
Jaina sunk her head and even stopped eating. “I guess so…” Finally, she lifted her head and put on a smile, and as weak as it may have been, it had determination behind it. “Well, I can try to get along, I’ll knock myself out!”
I cocked my head at the weird choice of words. “What?”
She shrugged. “You know, I’ll give my best.”
I broke down into a chuckle as I got up from my chair. “That’s not how you use tha…” I stopped myself “Nevermind. I’m glad you will.” I gave her a soft smile and softly caressed her cheek, making her smile back proudly.
After grabbing the steak plate, I turned to leave, faced the large holding cell door and pushed open the massive gate.
Entering the shadowy room, I was met with a familiar sight. Anja laid on the bunk in the far back her legs crossed and her arms behind her head. I could hear scratching sounds coming from her direction and once I came closer, I saw what it was. Anja was dragging her tiny claws over the wall, leaving marks all over it. She had a woodchip sticking out of her mouth which she chewed on as she lazily looked at her scratching hand.
I knew that she already noticed me entering the room, after all nobody could miss the loud sounds the doors made, but she seemed pretty unfazed by that. I approached her, this time daring to come right up to her bed.
When I reached her, the scratching stopped, but instead of looking at me, Anja checked on her claws. “This should do.” She spoke to herself before finally acknowledging me. She pretended to be surprised by it. “Oh! You’ve come to visit me. How nice of you.” She put on a smug smile and continued to half-heartedly scratch the wall.
“What are you doing that for? It’s not like you’re going to break through the hull of the ship.”
“Perhaps not, but believe it or not, it’s to take care of my claws. They need to be dulled from time to time or they just become… itchy. It’s a real bother sometimes.” She sighed in annoyance before giving me a cocky smile. Her chains clattered as she turned her head. “Anyways, did you bring the steak I ordered? I’m positively starving.”
I sat down on the ground in front of her bed and placed the plate on the ground. “Right here. Eat up. The chef put a lot of effort into it.” I said, shoving the plate towards her.
Her face looked entirely bewildered. She was visibly surprised and confused as she reluctantly knelt down on the ground. “This… this isn’t poisoned, right? That’s… not how you’re going to kill me?”
“Kill you? What?” I rebutted. “You asked for a juicy steak, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but that was… I didn’t think you’d ACTUALLY bring me one. It’s just… not what I expected.”
“Well, what DID you expect?”
Anja shrugged as she cautiously picked up the steak but hesitated to actually take bites out of it. “I don’t know. But I expected SOMETHING… maybe that you’d let me starve, maybe that you’d eat me at some point or that you’d torture me at the very least.”
I opened my pouch as she talked and sighed. “Some people might’ve preferred that too. But they’re not the ones making the call on that. You’re under my protection. As long as I am, that’s not gonna happen.” I poured out the tools that Sullivan gave me alongside the rest of the scales and fur that was left over and arranged it on the floor to start working on it.
Anja watched me with shifty, curious eyes while she ripped slices of meat from the steak. “I don’t undershtand you.”
“Welcome to the club. Neither do I.”
“Why are you doing all this?”
“Many reasons… none of them really make sense. Maybe I’m trying to see good where there is none. But I’ve taken it on myself to make this work and make a new branch for the guild here. Just for demi humans like you and me. And if I want to lead this group…” I snapped a string with my teeth as I started stitching. “… I need to keep everyone happy. You might not like this. I don’t know how you’re feeling about what I’ve turned you into after all, but I hope I can make it worthwhile for you too.”
Anja seemed bewildered by my sentiment, but somewhere behind the confused expression I could see a hint of appreciation and maybe even admiration. Anja though, shook those thoughts out of her mind and put her guard up again. “I don’t understand you at all.”
“Like I said…” I finished up my sowing and put the finishing touches on it as I added the adhesive to make everything hold tight and add some details to make it more representative of herself. “…welcome to the club.”
“What ARE you doing down there anyways?” Her eyes focused on the stuff on the ground which to her must’ve seemed like just a pile of fabric, but then she looked closer. “Is… isn’t this my skin? What are you doing with that?”
“Well, I was the one who took it from you and I already got myself some armor made out of the tougher parts, so I thought it would only be fair if you got the other half of it. Judging by how much Jaina likes to wear her poncho, I assume you might like it too to wear your old skin again. Actually, I could use your help with this, but I need to do something else first.”
Anja cocked her head as I stood up and signaled her to do the same.
“Show me your hands.”
“Why?” She asked cautiously.
“Just do it, you’ll see.”
Anja showed me her clawed arms and the shackles rustled as she stretched them out in front of herself.
I carefully took one of her hands in my own and gently turned it around. Anja was visibly a little bit flustered as I, the way she must’ve seen it, caressed her clawed hand. I stuck my hand into my pocket and pulled out the small key I found in the notebook earlier and just like I expected it to, it fit into the lock perfectly.
“W…what are you doing now? Why are you releasing my chains?” She asked with a quivering voice.
“I’m letting you go free. You won’t be of much use hanging out in here, scratching the walls, will you?” I joked with a genuine smile as one after another, her shackles fell to the floor with a loud clank. Now the only thing left was the one around her neck.
“You know that you might regret this, right? That I could use any opportunity to betray you.”
“I trust that you won’t. You said you were bound by honor to listen to me, didn’t you?” I said with a nonchalant, overly confident tone.
“What if I lied about that?”
“I don’t think that you did.”
“What makes you so sure about that? You are so careless, master!” She rebelled, making it seem like I was stupid to put my trust in her like that, but I didn’t let it deter me.
“You know why I think that you were serious about your honor?”
She crossed her arms “I would be really curious to hear your reasons.”
“Because if you wanted to seriously kill me…” I started my sentence as I unlocked the last chain around her neck. It plonked to the ground and Anja was completely free. “…your hands would already be around my neck by now.”
Anja clenched her fists and hissed dejectedly. She knew I was right and she was sulky about it. With a pouting, almost adorable face, she turned towards the ground and grit her teeth. “It’s almost annoying how much you’re manipulating me.”
“I’m not manipulating anyone. It’s your own pride keeping you from doing it. It’s one of the things that you apparently have in common with some humans. You should hold onto that. It’s one of the things that define you.”
“Tsk, with all due respect master, what do YOU know about monsters?”
I approached her, undeterred by her defensive stance. Anja, with no way to fight back, backed away from me until her back was against her bunk. “Not much, but I don’t get humans sometimes either. Neither of those facts keep me from being able to read certain things. For example, I know that pride isn’t the only reason you’re not acting up, isn’t it?”
“I h… have no idea what you mean, master!” She blurted out with a voice that wasn’t the least bit convincing.
“You’re curious. You’re curious about humans. How they manage to keep up with monsters like you. And you want to prove that you can hunt just as well if not even better than them. Tell me, how right am I on this?”
She quivered, being backed into a corner and put on the spot. But she would not admit anything, instead she punched the bunk, making it almost break out of the hinges to look intimidating. “I… you know nothing, master. I don’t take an interest in worms like… Mphh…” She stopped herself and looked away.
“Oh? Were you just about to say: ‘worms like me’? That’s not right, now is it? You and me…” I leaned up to her ear and whispered into it “…we’re the same.” I leaned back, enjoying her flustered reaction and reddening cheeks for a bit before I turned serious. “I’m messing with you. But still, I want you to remember this: If we’re going to be a team, no one is superior to anyone.”
“But how are you the leader then if you’re not superior? I don’t get this.”
“I’ll help you understand once you need it. For now, turn around.”
“These clothes I made for you still need to be adjusted to your figure so you need to turn around and… take your robes off.” I hesitantly gave her the command.
Anja seemed confused at my face growing a little more red than usual, but she complied. With her back turned to me, she undid her robes, letting them fall to the floor and presenting her slender, yet curvy back to me.
It was the first time that her tail came into my focus. It was way thicker than Jaina’s and much more tense with muscly fiber. In general her upper body seemed to be much more feeble than her lower body, with her legs being immensely strong while her arms are comparatively weak.
Somehow though, this figure really worked for her. Her shoulders were very feminine and even from behind I could catch the outer edges of her breasts.
I tried not to stare too much as I knelt down to let her step into her new outfit. It had to be fitted from bottom to top, so I started with the lowest part: a skirt made from her old membrane. It was white with a light hinge of pink and due to how thin it was, it made for a perfect replacement to fabric. It was wavy and with a stretchy tendon, I was able to tighten it to her waist. I was right at the height of her butt where her tail emerged just above it. I had to cut a round gap into the top of the skirt to get it around her tail, but otherwise it fit perfectly.
“So…” Anja suddenly spoke up sheepishly. “…you made this for me?”
I nodded, even though she could probably not see it. “Mhm, with everything I had left from the forge. I may not be an armorer but I can at least stitch some clothes together.”
“But why would you make clothes for me in the first place? I had the robes already, didn’t I.”
I chuckled “Maybe. But rags aren’t really worthy of a warrior wanting to show everyone that they’re to be taken serious, right?”
She blushed a little as I scooted up her body to continue dressing her.
“Listen, I want you to look presentable and honorable. You deserve at least that much respect. And with your old skin, you can show your true colors to everyone out there and remember them of the fierce monster that you are inside.” I smiled at her as she curiously looked over her shoulder. My smile was met with a rash retreat of Anja turning around and trying her hardest to strictly stare at the wall.
“Why must you toy with me like this?”
“Huh? I don’t remember toying with you.”
“You’re not doing it on purpose then?”
“Doing what on purpose?” I put on the next piece of clothing, a continuation of the membrane that I shaped into a shoulder-less shirt that was just as wavy as the skirt was, it was a bit looser than the skirt though, which I already had a solution for.
Anja quietly protested, insisting that there was something I was doing to her. “Y…you’re teasing me one minute and then you say such nice things to me. You speak gibberish at one point and then you say something that I can perfectly understand. You’re having fun at my expense, don’t you? You think it’s funny that I’m getting confused at all these foreign concepts.”
I smirked a little, maybe I hadn’t intended it the whole time, but I did find her befuddled reactions incredibly cute. Maybe I did tease her before, but now I somehow wanted to do it even more. “You know what some people tend to say? You only tease those who you’ve taken a liking to. You DID turn into a pretty girl after all, I’ll give you that.”
Anja jerked tensed up and threw me an angry glare. “Th…there you go again, saying things that throw me for a loop! Stop that… please.” The last part was barely audible as she started to fidget about a little.
I carried on, fitting her clothes and there was only one other thing to do “Now, for the next part I need you to lift your arms.”
“F…fine.” Anja complied without asking this time, timidly raising her arms over her head.
I reached my arms around her, getting close to her looking over her shoulder. Despite her compliance, this took her by surprise. “Wh…what do you need to do now?”
I put on a professional face and pretended like I wasn’t fazed. “Just need to get your clothes straightened out. I can’t let it stay too loose or it’s going to chafe your skin. Just need to mark out the contours here…” I spoke, hitting the back of her ear with my breath. She shivered a little as I tracked the front of her body. First, I tightened her shirt around her waist so it would stick to the shape of her curves. With my thumbs and index fingers, I drew an equator line around the thinnest part of her sides, crossing her belly button and her wide hips.
Anja seemed to be anxious, watching my fingers as they trailed her body.
“It won’t take long. Just stay still for a few more seconds.” I whispered calmly, knowing that the low vibration of my voice scrambled her mind once more.
I heard her hissing as she took a sharp inhale. I could tell why. I had to trace out the underside of her breasts so the corset I’m going to give her later, doesn’t tighten them too much.
Even I could barely maintain a straight face, let alone a calm heartbeat as I rubbed the skin underneath her round, voluptuous breasts. I lifted them a little bit and even snuck in a few squeezes as the shirt more and more clung to her body. I couldn’t quite tell, but I assumed that she was building up a slight sweat. Her breath sure seemed unsteady enough to support that.
Shaky exhales escaped her lips as I circled the outline of her bust. “Is th…this really all part of the fitting process?”
“It is… and it’s really important that I’m thorough. I leave one fold unadjusted and it’s going to bother you forever. Now…”
“Hyerrghh!” Anja yelped when I finally took a full grip of both of her moldable orbs. I grabbed them tightly, even scraping over her nipples with my fingers, but stealthily enough for her not to notice that I was doing it on purpose.
Anja squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lip as I leaned in to whisper yet another order, through her wallowing black hair straight into her ear. “…I need you to hold on to your breasts just like I’m doing it. You can feel how I’m gripping you, right?”
She gulped and nodded reluctantly.
“Good, do it just like I am. Just put your hands right on top of mine and then replace them.”
Anja slowly lowered her arms and just as I ordered her, intertwined her claws with my hands. She was way too delirious at this moment to rebel, and consecutively let a smile slip through as she touched my hands.
She almost seemed disappointed when I pulled them out from underneath hers but it was quickly replaced with a little chirp of surprise when her very own claws took a firm grip of her breasts. The feeling of my hands must’ve still lingered, and the second grab must’ve felt like it still came from me for her to have such a surprised reaction.
I grabbed something from the floor and instead of from behind, I turned around to her front.
Through her slightly slanted eyes, she could stare right into mine and for some reason that seemed to make her anxiousness even worse. But that would not be all there was to this confrontation.
I slowly walked up to her and almost like an embrace in a dance, I put my arms around her sides.
Our faces were barely apart and her hands were too busy for her to shove me away. I met her dazed expression with a smile of my own and my eyes grew a little hooded as I gave her the next order.
“And now for the last part. Take a deeeeep breath and hold it in until I tell you to let it out again.”
I don’t know what Anja expected, but her lips trembled a little before she decisively did as I told her. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.
And just in that moment, I wrapped a corset made from a patch of her old pink scales around her belly and tied up the front with the rest of the leftover tendons. I pulled the string tight, leaving little room between my body and hers as I did so.
With her black hair covering one of them, it was so unbearably cute and satisfying to see her other eyes twitching under her eyelids.
I leaned forward a little, facing her directly. She reeled back a little when she opened her eye and saw me right in front of her.
I smirked and whispered in a teasing tone. “You can breathe now.”
“Baaaahhhh!” Anja took several cautious steps backwards as her chest heaved in exasperation. With her finished outfit, she looked almost like the captain of a pirate ship. Given the circumstances, that was actually very fitting. “I’m pretty proud of my work to be honest. It looks really good on you.”
Anja blushed deeply as her breath was still uneven. “You’re doing something to me! I don’t know what, but you better explain yourself!” She barked out in an accusatory tone.
“That again?” I approached her once more, giving her no chance to retreat this time. “I was just fitting your clothes and you’re looking damn fine inside of them. I don’t know what YOU thought we were doing back there.”
“I…um… I… you…” She fidgeted about, trying to think of something to accuse me of but her head must’ve been a quirled mess.
Before she could continue her rambling, I interrupted her. “Good. That settles that then.”
“A…alright.” She said, giving up and leaving it at that.
I took on a serious tone, making her understand that there were more important matters at hand. “I wasn’t joking before. From today on you are free. I know that you will keep your honor, but before we head out of this room, I need to reemphasize this again. You will behave while we’re in Astera. I don’t want to hear anything about you hating or hurting Jaina and we will work together as equals. Do you understand that much?”
Anja seemed to still be struggling with that thought inside, but she had no grounds to refuse me anymore. “Alright, master.”
“You know, you don’t have to call me master, right?”
“I know… but it feels right to call you that to me. I’ve kind of grown attached to it.” She admitted, facing the ground and holding back any further rebuttals.
“Hey…” I called out to her as I knocked my finger against the underside of her chin to make her look up at me. When I was sure that she did, I extended that same hand to her. “…let’s make this work, alright?”
She lifted her hand, but seemed unsure whether or not to actually entrust it to me. She repeatedly reached out to me before pulling back and looking at me with mistrusting, uncertain eyes.
“I’m not going to do anything, Anja. There’s no trick behind this.”
“So you DID trick me before…” She sulked a little but, with a little scowl and an annoyed glare from her one uncovered, wine red eye, she finally laid her dainty little claw into my hand and accepted the handshake.
In the end though, I couldn’t hold back from giving her one final tease. “You know clothes need to be readjusted from time to time, so… if anything stings in places where it shouldn’t be…”
Before I could even finish my sentence, Anja’s face grew red and she ripped her hand out of mine. “N…NO!” And with those words she stormed past me and basically punched the doors open, leaving me behind in the darkness.
I chuckled to myself. “Well, this could turn out to be either horribly bad, or incredibly fun.”
When I stepped outside, I didn’t know what I expected. Maybe I was being too optimistic that things might get worked out because the first thing I saw when I left the bow of the ship… were Anja and Jaina standing apart from each other and wordlessly glaring at each other.
Anja stood by the door that I just came out of and Jaina stood by the set of tables that we’ve been eating on before. It might’ve been only a few feet between them but there might as well have been a canyon dividing them judging by their resistance to get any closer.
Apparently, Anja had been waiting on me, and judging by her expression she was not very pleased.
“What’s with you two? Have you… talked already?”
Anja turned her head towards me, intentionally talking loudly so Jaina could hear. “Well I was willing to talk, but it is tradition amongst monsters that as a sign of respect, the monster that seeks to be forgiven has to step forward first and present a peace offering. I can overlook that offering, but she is being quite rude and doesn’t seem to be willing to apologize!”
“I’M supposed to be apologetic?!” Jaina yelled from across the deck. Oh boy. “Over the last few years, you’ve almost KILLED me 3 times!”
“That’s what you get for encroaching on someone else’s turf. If you’re not prepared for a fight then don’t provoke one!”
“What was I supposed to do? You just spat your disgusting snot everywhere and claimed the places with the most food as ‘your turf’!”
“It’s called marking territory, you fat freeloader! You didn’t earn the food, so you don’t get any! It’s that simple!”
“Other monsters were starving! If I didn’t steal from you and shared it with the other smaller monsters who couldn’t fight for themselves, they would’ve died! You stupid, ignorant, selfish bi…”
“GIRLS!” I screamed my lungs out to make sure both of them could even hear me over their yelling. I got in between them and interchangeably glared at each of them. “Jaina, come here. Same goes for you, Anja.”
“But we were…” “But we were…” They rebutted in unison only to be quickly interrupted.
“Come… here… now!” I pointed at the floor left and right to me as I said each word with a strict, serious tone.
Like children preparing to be scolded, they reluctantly approached me, occasionally throwing blaming glances at each other.
Once the two of them were at my sides and faced each other, I could feel the unrelenting hostility between them even stronger.
“Now each of you, I don’t care who starts. Apologize to each other.”
“BUT…” “BUT…” They once again said in tandem. They could almost be like two sulking sisters.
“You’ve both done something wrong and until you both get this sorted out, we can’t leave the past in the past. You’ve both promised to me that you would give it your all to make this work. Now make good on that promise.”
I looked to my left. “Anja?”
No response. She basically gave Jaina the cold shoulder and ignored my call to action.
I looked to my right. “Jaina?” I kind of expected the resistance by Anja and turned to Jaina with a little more hope.
Jaina reacted in a way that I didn’t expect though. Usually she was so cheerful and open but right there, I saw her struggling to compose herself and not lunge at Anja. Her claws were almost digging into her palm and she took deep breaths. She looked up at me, looking for help, but this was nothing I could help her with.
Her eyes sunk to the ground and she visibly had some sort of turmoil in her mind. Finally though, she lifted her head and, to my surprise, figuratively and literally swallowed her pride.
“Maybe I did okay?!”
Anja looked over her shoulder with at least the slightest bit of interest.
“Maybe I did something wrong. I had no right to take the food that you’ve earned yourself. I disrespected your space and your claim and I took something from you that I didn’t earn. I’m sorry, okay! I was hungry and wasn’t thinking straight. So were many other monsters in the forest. But just because we were hungry, doesn’t make it right that we were stealing from you. I can’t undo it, but I would if I could.” She basically prostrated herself in front of her, only garnering a minimal reaction. Jain had genuine shame and guilt in her expression and I could see tears of strain in her eyes. “Please… believe me, I’m sorry. I don’t want us to hate each other anymore.”
When Jaina was pretty much crying, Anja finally turned around and looked her straight in the eyes. Jaina almost shrunk under her gaze but still managed to stand strong. She really had pushed herself to wring out this apology.
Looking down on her, Anja took a stance and nodded with a satisfied grin. “Good. I forgive you, Jaina.”
Jaina looked a bit perplexed by the silence that followed after that brief acknowledgement. “A…and?”
“What do you mean? What are you expecting to hear?” Anja responded with no sign of remorse or intent to admit to doing anything wrong.
“Good?! That’s all you have to say!?” Jaina almost screamed through her tears, making even Anja reel back in shock.
She returned to an unmoving stance and sternly spoke back. “Now listen here. This is where I stand: I’ve claimed a territory for myself, hunted for food on my own and fought off the PESKY intruders who tried to steal from me. Now I’m INTERESTED to hear you tell me, where I did anything wrong.” Anja spoke through her teeth, grinding them in frustration and anger.
Jaina started choking, swallowing the tears that were inevitable to come. She shut her eyes and threw herself against me. She sobbed and her tears dripped down over the breast plate of my armor.
While Jaina couldn’t utter another word in her defense, Anja looked on with an expression of contempt and… jealousy? She was visibly grinding her teeth and it took her immense effort to maintain her composure as she spoke up again. “And you… you’re catering to her weakness and unruliness. If you keep pampering her and giving in to her childish behavior, she’s not going to make it once we head back out there. She couldn’t handle it before and if you don’t train her right she won’t be able to handle it now. She’s…”
“Enough, Anja.” I said in a calm yet resolute tone. She jerked back a bit at my response and reluctantly stopped another tirade of hers. “Maybe we need to solve this over time. Jaina, you okay?” I asked her as she wiped the last of her tears from underneath her eyes.
She hung her head a little, clinging to my chest as she answered with a stern, resolute tone. “I’m fine.” Her gaze turned towards Anja in an angry yet somehow regretful glare. Anja looked back with almost just as much dislike, but somehow there was something beneath her anger. Maybe doubt or sadness but from her stoic expressions I couldn’t tell.
I sighed and rubbed the back of my neck, unknowing what to do about this situation. “Anyways, you two know what we are planning to do soon. We’re collecting data on the various monsters that live out in the Ancient Forest and beyond. For missions like those, since we don’t know what to expect out there, it’s usually the case that a whole squad of people heads out, meaning 4 people. An A-list hunter is going to join us soon and you two will complete the squad along with me. I need to know now, because as a team we need to at least trust each other on the most basic level. Will you be able to get through this without jumping at each other’s throat?”
Anja and Jaina threw each other some mean glares but after a few seconds passed, they reluctantly nodded.
“You already know that I’m ready to do anything you say, Kalaydus!” Jaina exclaimed cheerily with a cute little salute which garnered an annoyed sigh from Anja who stepped forward as well.
“I have sworn an oath to you that my respect belongs to you. As long as you are my master, I will follow.” Anja proclaimed proudly as she took a slight bow in front of me.
It seemed like the two girls were at least on board for now. Maybe over time things would cool down between them and they could at least get along.
A slight smile crossed my face although it was not entirely without doubt. Luckily, I wouldn’t have to linger on this for too long, as I picked up a loud shriek heading towards the Gathering Hub.
Me, Jaina and Anja walked to the ledge of the deck, looking over the edge as a Mernos coming from Astera flew toward us.
It flapped its wings wildly to gain some altitude and I saw a bound scroll dangling around its neck. It was delivering us a message.
I knew that Mernos were trained to return to their place of origin as soon as possible, so I held up my hand, waiting for it to come closer.
It zoomed over my head as I gripped the paper, snapping the thin thread that tied it to the Mernos’ harness. As soon as the wingdrake knew I had received its delivery, it headed right back down to the main camp.
The two girls looked at me expectantly as I unrolled the note.
“What does it say? Who sent this?” Jaina asked curiously as she peeked over my shoulder and even Anja seemed to have a peaked interest in it as she poked her head my way.
After reading it through, I let it roll back into its original form. “It’s from the Commander. He says the 5th fleet will be arriving even sooner than we had expected. Supposedly, the ships had already been loaded and they set off as soon as they got the message from us. The note says that the hunters will probably want to use an arena for practice after their long journey. Apparently, we do have one, but it has barely been used by the hunters since most of them were out scouting the island and the recruits didn’t have time for it yet. We’re supposed to check it out and see if everything works as it should be or if anything needs to be replaced or repaired in preparation for the extensive use that it’s gonna get soon.”
“Well, we’ve got our orders. Think you can stay serious enough to do that?” Anja shot a glare towards Jaina, clearly trying to probe for a reaction.
“How about you? Think you can actually do some work instead of just badmouthing others for once?”
My god, they really were like feuding sisters. “Hey, hey! It’s our first job as a team. It’s a minor one, but please pull yourself together. The note said that the wingdrakes that are perched on the front of the ship should get us to this arena in no time. So, each of you, hold onto them and let’s get going!”
Anja and Jaina sighed, letting go of their bickering for now. I knew it wouldn’t last but at least for a few minutes they’d be far enough apart from each other to not cause a fight.
During the flight down into a valley that laid somewhere between the Ancient Forest and a desert region that I had no knowledge of, I took cautious glances at the other two flying passengers hanging from their drakes. Even though the drakes were in no rush to get to the arena, the two of them apparently constantly checked on each other to see who would be there faster.
It was crazy for me to think how they are so similar and competitive yet so hateful and opposed to each other. There had to be some way to get them to get along but I felt like there was something that held them back from that. At least one of them.
The drakes flew us towards a wooden platform at the edge of a wide open, spacious field of sand. This must’ve been it: The arena.
Palisades surrounded the field, keeping monsters as well as humans from escaping the battling grounds. And I wasn’t the only one astonished by the sheer size of it.
“Woah, this is it? It’s massive! So much space!”
“Well, some monsters are pretty big after all.” I explained as I leaned over the ledge that led down into the pit. Nothing seemed to be out of place from up there, so I instead turned around and inspected a small hut that was on the back of the platform.
“So… you’re fighting monsters here? Not against each other?” Anja asked with vested interest.
“Yes, the guild on occasion puts out missions to catch monsters alive and pits them against one to up to 4 hunters against them. It’s all matched up though. We have something like High rank and Low rank to judge the danger of a monster depending on the skill of the hunter or hunters. There used to be another level called G-rank back where I came from but apparently, we haven’t discovered monsters of that danger level here. At least as of now. It’s actually kind of exciting to think about it.”
“I see…” Anja seemed genuinely amazed by what I was saying. Her gaze wandered over the large field, her arms crossed and looking at every detail with a critical eye.
I curiously turned around to her. “You’re interested in it?”
She nodded in deep thought. “I suppose I’m just still surprised you manage to even put a dent in a monster like me. Even with 4 people at once, you’re so small and so vulnerable. One strong hit and you could be crushed.”
I walked up to her and chuckled. “Heh, the trick is not to get hit. But not only that. Exactly because of that vulnerability, we have to use all the tools that are available to us. Aerial advantage, blind spots, bombs, our weapons but the most important factor in fighting a monster… is skill and caution. You need to know when to strike and when to back away because if one of your attacks back then had hit me… well… it’d have been over for me. Even armor like the one I made out of your scales only gives me a slightly bigger window for errors.”
Anja nodded along with my speech, deeply taking in what I’m saying. A little bit of guilt seemed to form on her face. “Aren’t you angry?”
“Me almost killing you back then? Jaina sure doesn’t seem to be able to forgive me.”
“It’s just what monsters and hunters have always done. Trying to kill each other. It’s just the way things are…” I took a small glance over at Jaina who was dangling her feet over the edge of the sandpit, humming to herself. Anja followed my gaze and frowned a little bit as I started smiling. But I interrupted her sour expression as I continued speaking. “…but you know… now that we have this new option. To turn a monster into what you, me and Jaina are… it opens a lot more doors than we might be able to imagine. We don’t have to kill each other or steal food anymore. Maybe we can learn, live together… become friends.” I halted a bit before I ended my sentence with an almost solemn tone as Anja’s eyes met mine. Her eyes turned from looking at me, towards Jaina and slowly back to me. Her mouth was hanging slightly agape as I quietly gave her a small, inviting smile.
I could see the pink rising in her cheeks as she forcefully pulled her gaze away from me. It might have been because she thought that I was going to… mess with her again or that she was still reluctant to let any of this sink in but nevertheless she seemed hesitant to let me get close to her.
We stood there for a few seconds without uttering a word, looking at each other mostly with sideways glances as either of us seemed to have a lot on our minds.
I rubbed my neck and announced loudly enough for Jaina to hear it as well. “Umm… since we’re already on the topic of fighting, there’s actually something I wanted to show you both. I found something in the little hut back here that I needed to introduce you to anyways.” I waved them closer as I disappeared in the darker backside of the hut. The walls were lined with racks filled with all types of weaponry. They were the standard steel variety of every type, from gunlance to insect glaive.
The girls’ eyes were glistening over the impressive display and closely examined the fine craftsmanship.
I looked over them and announced “I can hardly expect you to fight bare-handed now, can I? These weapons are free for the taking. Pick out whichever one appeals to you the most.”
“Why are we allowed to take these without paying for them?” Jaina inquired.
I chuckled a little. “Well, everyone gets their first weapon without charge because they count on you wanting to upgrade them more and more to make them better and better. These are the standard versions, but over time people figure out that they’re still not doing enough damage, so they pay the smithy to make them stronger and stronger.”
Jaina’s eyes sparkled and she was like a child in a toy store looking over all these options she had. Anja examined the weapons too but with a way more skeptical eye than Jaina was. Then again, I think Jaina didn’t much care for effectiveness or fighting styles. She seemingly went by which one would look the most amazing.
Jaina was suddenly in an uproar as she apparently found what she was looking for. “This one!”
I was a bit flabbergasted as I saw her stomping towards me with a massive freaking hammer in her hand. It was basically a steel boulder attached to a long handle. “Woah…”
I chuckled a bit. “Well, I kind of didn’t expect you to choose something to heavy. I mean I don’t think I can even lift that, let alone swing it.”
“Ohhh… so what is this? How do you use it?”
I approached her and pointed out the parts of her chosen weapon. “This is called a Hammer. It should be obvious, but the reason why this thing is so heavy, is the end of it. It’s your center of gravity and if you build up enough speed, you’re gonna get a hell of a hit in on your target.” I laid my hands over her claws on the handle as I adjusted them to be further apart.
But this little touch actually made her blush and smile instead of getting her to pay attention. It actually made me smiled myself and with the hammer between us, there wasn’t much distance between our faces either.
I cleared my throat as I sheepishly backed away from her. “I’m… still surprised you would choose this one. It’s the second heaviest weapon type in the hunter’s arsenal.”
“Is that… a bad thing?” She asked cautiously with a cute little pout.
I laughed at her and affectionately ruffled her hair a little, eliciting a great beaming smile from her. “You can choose whatever weapon you want, Jaina. If you like this one, you can keep it.” My hand glided over her slightly coarse hair as she released little, cheerful squeaks.
“AHEM!” My hand jerked away from Jaina as I heard a loud rattling behind me. Turning around, I saw Anja by the racks, her fist slammed into the top of one of them and a grimace of annoyance on her face.
The moment I looked at her though and got away from Jaina, she straightened herself up and asked earnestly. “So, if this is the second heaviest type… what’s the heaviest weapon you humans use?” I could see her throwing a competitive, challenging glare towards Jaina which she returned by dejectedly holding her hammer close to her body and sulking.
I sighed in slight annoyance that they just couldn’t let go of their rivalry but I decided to still instruct Anja without saying anything. “There is only one weapon heavier than the hammer. It would be this one.” I reached for the weapon I was motioning towards: a steel greatsword and pulled it from the rack. I couldn’t fully lift it up and had to drag it across the floor to hand it to Anja. “Nghhaaa…” I groaned as I set it down only for Anja to pick it up with both of her claws. Although it seemed to require some effort, she managed to lift it and hold it in front of her without much of a problem. Her slender arms certainly betrayed the strength that was behind them.
“This one’s a greatsword. Not only does it weigh the most, but it also packs even more of a punch than any other weapon in the arsenal. You have to be very deliberate and well-timed in your attacks if you want to use this weapon, but if you learn how to do it, you can slice anything with that thing.”
Anja grinned proudly as she dragged her claw along the massive blade. It was like a flattened bar of steel with one sharpened and one dull edge. Effectively a buster sword.
I clapped my hands, ready to get stuff done. “Well, that’s weapons taken care of. We still need to check the inside of the arena and…”
“Hey…” To my surprise, it was Anja who interrupted me.
“Uhh… yeah, Anja?”
She stood there with her sword still in hand, fidgeting a little and avoiding eye contact. “Is… am I gripping this weapon the right way?”
“Are you holding…” I checked on her and upon coming closer, I could see no reason to correct anything. Her grip was firm and at the right distance between her hands. “…yes, as far as I can see you’ve figured it out already. Nice and tight.”
“So… you don’t have anything to adjust?” She looked like she was expecting something, facing me and reluctantly looking me in the eyes before blushing, shutting her eyes and shaking her head. “G…good.” She said with dejected, suppressed disappointment.
“I’m fine!” She spoke through her teeth as she put her sword on her back and brushed past me. Her face was red as a tomato which I could see despite all of her attempts to hide it. “You said we still had to go inside, right? Let’s get going then.” Without turning back, she jumped off the ledge into the sandpit and left me and Jaina behind.
I didn’t know how I should feel about her reaction but I brushed it off for now. There was work to be done. “Jaina, are you coming?” I signaled her to follow me but she waved me off.
“Hehe, I don’t think I’d be much use down there. I don’t really have a good eye for details like cracks or anything. I’ll stay up here and enjoy the view a little. Is that… okay?” She asked with a sheepish, adorable smile looking for permission.
I gave a short chuckle “Alright, keep an eye on the Mernos then. We’re gonna need them to pull us out of the pit later. Shouldn’t take longer than a few minutes.”
Jaina gave a devoted smile and returned to sitting on the ledge and dangling her feet as I entered the pit.
As my feet hit the sand, I noticed for the first time how high these palisades actually are. They loomed over me like towers, preventing anything from leaving the fight zone.
Anja stood in the middle of the large field, her back turned towards me. She didn’t seem to inspect anything or having her focus set on anything either. She was just standing there.
I approached her from behind and tried to call out to her. “Hey, everything alright with you? You’re looking a bit… lost.” My words slowed down as I came closer. Her fists were clenched and she seemed to struggle with something. She was shaking and I could see tears glistening on the side of her face.
I carefully walked up to her, talking as softly as I could. “If… if something was the matter, you could’ve told me, you know.”
“Told you?… You wouldn’t even begin to understand, master.”
“I could if you’d just let me. You’re not alone anymore. I can help you.”
“I’ve noticed that I’m not alone anymore. I’ve also noticed that I’m not on top anymore. I have no control over things. Everything is strange to me. This camp, this team… these feelings. I don’t know anything anymore. And then there’s you making me feel these strange things.” She started sobbing, clutching her fist to her heart. The stream of tears was getting stronger and stronger.
I solemnly walked up to her, making her twitch as I laid my warm hand on her shoulder. The sobbing stopped as she looked over her shoulder. Words didn’t mean anything at this point. I just stood by her side and carefully moved my hand from her shoulder to her cheek to rub her tears with my flat thumb.
I shot her a gentle smile to which she reacted with a quivering lip and flushed cheeks. “I won’t leave you in the confusion, Anja. I’ll be there for you every step of the way.”
Her breath quickened and her expression softened a little. Our eyes met as I combed the hair from her covered one and they were still as pretty as ever.
Anja laid her hand upon mine and gently cupped it with her claw. “It feels so warm.” She whispered to herself.
Her eyes wandered over my shoulder, looking at Jaina. The second she laid eyes on her, her breathing quickened even more, to threatening levels.
“But it’s not real. You’re just toying with me!” My hand, which she held so gently before, was suddenly ripped from her face and she used it to throw me away from her with unexpected force. I managed to land on my feet a short length away from her and grinded to a halt.
I was face to face with Anja as she pulled the greatsword from her back and her tears started to well up once more.
In the distance, I could hear Jaina call out in shock from the platform. “Kalaydus!”
“You don’t really care for me. No one ever does.” Anja said weakly as she readied her sword.
“Even you don’t… master.”