After Anja had completely disappeared from the horizon, Jaina and I used our own Mernos to take flight back to Astera ourselves.
The second we landed on the deck of the Gathering Hub, we were confused at first. Anja was nowhere to be seen, but neither did we notice any disorder or anything that was out of place. She didn’t destroy anything in anger and judging by how calm it was in the lower camp, she didn’t seem to have taken it out on the other hunters.
That was a relief and a cause of worry at the same time. She could’ve gone anywhere from here on.
Then finally though, after looking around a bit more, I found the most likely place for her to be at. Seeing as the gate that led into the bow of the ship, where she had been locked up, was slightly ajar.
The sound of muffled clanking rang out from inside and when I caught a glimpse, I saw Anja sitting on the floor with crossed legs and her back turned to the door. She didn’t seem angry, enraged or even combative. Just sorrowful and sad.
I stepped back from the door and sighed.
“Is she alright?” Jaina asked carefully as she approached me.
I shook my head. “I can’t tell from here. I just… I never know what she’s thinking. But you know our plan, right?”
“Right!” She clenched both her fists in a mix of determination and preparedness.
“Good, get the things here, but… give me a minute to talk to her first. I’ll give you a signal when you can come in.”
Jaina held on to the back of my shoulder before I could turn around and looked at me with a face filled with concern. “Are you sure you can talk to her just like that?”
“She’s part of the team as far as I’m concerned. If I start getting paranoid and cautious around her, she’s never going to feel like she is. I need to give her the same trust and care as I do with you, Jaina. That’s why we’re doing this, right?” I smirked a little as I reached out and playfully cupped Jaina’s cheek and tickled her behind the ear.
“Hehe, okay. Still, just… be careful around her, alright?”
“You don’t need to tell me that twice.” I took a deep breath before I reassuringly nodded at Jaina and turned towards the gate. I heard Jaina reluctantly leaving behind me as the hinges of the gate creaked loud enough to obviously announce my entrance.
When I came inside, there was no reaction on Anja’s part. No twitch, no gasp, nothing. In fact, as the door swung shut, there were no noises in the wide open, dark room. Just like before, the only light came from the narrow slits in the bow of the ship which spread a slight orange glow from the evening sun inside.
Actually, there was one sound I heard over and over. The sound of clanking metal.
I knew Anja couldn’t have been armed with any weapons. At least I was pretty sure about that, since she left her sword back at the arena. But even if she was, I couldn’t step back now. I needed to talk to her and she was already aware of my presence anyways. She had to be.
“Anja… I think we need to talk.”
The clanking stopped. “Why? It’s not going to change what I did. And no matter what I say, it wouldn’t be what you want to hear.”
“That’s where you’re wrong! I want to hear what you have to say. You weren’t yourself down there, we both know that.”
“OF COURSE THAT WAS ME!” Anja shouted, slamming one of her fists onto the wooden floor as she turned around to face me halfway. Her eyes were tear-stained and her voice cracking. “That’s what’s so scary about this. That’s who I was before I came here. You’d think being able to think and understand more would help me control all this anger, but I can’t! I almost killed you. You who I promised loyalty to. Just because… because…” Her voice trailed off and there was no answer coming out of her afterwards.
The clanking sound returned and echoed in the room. I cautiously approached her, taking a peek over her shoulder. She was holding her neck shackle. Opening and closing it over and over.
I sighed to myself as I quietly took a seat next to her. “I haven’t told you about the things that happened before you woke up, have I?”
She weakly looked over at me, momentarily stopping her fidgeting.
“After me and Jaina arrived in Astera, we both had no clue what we were yet. We were just as confused then as you probably are now. When we discovered what we were, Jaina might’ve been puzzled, but me? I was furious. My whole life I believed that I was one of their kind. That I was a human. And then they told me that I wasn’t. Suddenly I knew the reason why me and my father lived in isolation, why I never met my mother… And I flew off the handle.”
Anja perked up a little as I said that and put the shackle aside to listen.
I turned to her and continued my explanation with heavy regret weighing down my words. “I could’ve killed the commander back then. Even though he was the least responsible in this situation I was about to vent my anger on him. My mind went blank and I felt nothing but aggression. Had Jaina not held me back… I put both of us in danger. I even pushed her to reveal what we were to everyone in Astera, throwing all the progress we made so far down the drain.”
Anja’s eyes narrowed as if she was trying to comprehend my words. “Why are you telling me that?”
“Because I wanted to give you a prime example of someone who isn’t any different than you. Me. It’s easy for anyone to fall victim to anger. It happens. We both had reasons, but we both know that what we did wasn’t right. So now, you and me both have a choice.”
“And that choice is?”
“Repeat it or learn from it.” I answered, holding each of my hands up to represent the options before I planted them left and right behind me to lean on them. “Look, I made dumb… dumb mistakes back then for reasons that weren’t worth putting myself and others at risk for. But neither you or me intended to do it out of genuine hatred.”
Anja looked confused. From her face, I could clearly tell that she was thinking hard about what I was saying and while it seemed to register with her, it didn’t seem to make sense to her. “You DID notice that I could’ve actually killed you, right?”
I shrugged with a little chuckle as even I could see how ridiculously callous I was. “True. But again, I don’t think that was because you genuinely hated me. The changes you went through might’ve been severe, but I could tell that you quickly adjusted to that. so…” I looked over at her with a serious gaze as I tried to assure her that she could talk to me. “…what was the actual reason?”
Her head sunk a bit, her black, flowing hair covering her eyes from my sight as she began to weakly explain herself. “Jaina isn’t the only one who has scars she would rather forget about, master.”
Anja wordlessly opened her corset and lifted up her hide shirt to reveal the area between her breasts and her groin. From her lower rib cage down to her belly button, she was riddled with cuts and lacerations. Some older, but some so dark that they must’ve happened more recently.
My mouth hung open silently as only weak words escaped my lips. “Oh… I… I didn’t see those when I changed your clothes earlier.”
“You couldn’t have. You were behind me when you did.” She slid her shirt back down and continued talking as she retied her corset. “Out there… despite what Jaina probably thinks of me, I had to fight for every bit of land that I wanted to own for myself. I had to fight battles with bigger and stronger monsters to stake my claim. They showed no mercy to me either. Everything I earned, I won by the skin of my teeth. But I was proud. Every challenge I overcome just bolstered my confidence. Maybe too much so. I realize now… that I became greedy.” Anja clenched her fists. Whether in frustration or guilt, I couldn’t tell.
“I took as much land as I could get my claws on. Took it from smaller monsters who wouldn’t put up too much of a fight. They weren’t strong enough to match my power, so I felt like they didn’t deserve the land they had if they were to weak to defend it. I never wanted to risk losing what I had. Wanted to have my own massive territory to make everyone know that I was in charge. But no matter how much I tried to intimidate them. No matter how often I warded them off, they came in and stole my prey, my food and my water over and over. They did it behind my back when I wasn’t looking. I earned my right to have all this food; they didn’t. At least that’s what I thought. And even if I caught them, they wouldn’t own up to it and fight with me to the end to prove themselves. They hurt me. Scratched me. Bit me. And then they always ran away with my food. And Jaina… Jaina was one of them.”
I sunk down a little as I watched a few droplets of tears fall from behind the curtain of her hair and down onto the floor. I could hear her sobbing lightly, clearly trying to hold it back as best as she could. “I suffered for the things I had! Why shouldn’t they? It wasn’t fair!”
I carefully reached out to her and pulled her close to me. Shoulder to shoulder, she wiped her tears away and regained her composure as she took a deep breath.
“I see now. But you need to understand that Jaina, just like you, just did what she had to do to survive. Monsters have certain limits. They can only grow so strong before they reach that limit. There was no chance that they could ever grow stronger than you to defend themselves.”
Anja looked up at me with trembling, curious eyes. “But… but you did. And you are way smaller and arguably weaker than a monster.”
It stung a little to hear those words, but I took it in stride. “Well, that’s one of the things that’s special about humans. We learn, adapt and grow strong or smart enough to survive and defeat basically anything. Just like you and Jaina can now. You both can overcome things that you never could before.”
Anja smiled at me briefly, her tears finally drying up, but then a guilt riddled grimace formed on her face and she rubbed her neck. “Well… I failed at that already. I don’t seem to have changed much.”
“What do you mean?”
“You want to know what the real reason was that I got so furious at the arena?”
I nodded reassuringly.
She hesitated and even blushed a little. It must’ve been something she really didn’t want me to know. “When I woke up… when I realized that I didn’t have anything anymore. I didn’t mind it too much. I didn’t have to fear about my territory anymore. But what was still on my mind the whole time… was you.”
“Me?” I asked confused.
She nodded embarrassed. “Finally there was someone who could measure up to me. Someone who was strong and who I could respect. I pestered the commander over and over to let me speak to the one who defeated me and when you came… not only were you an honorable man, you treated me… like an equal. You teased me and you said things that confused me, but it was never in spite. Here I was, a monster that almost killed you and you were more concerned about me than about revenge. At that moment I thought… even if I didn’t have any territory anymore… at the very least I wanted to have you.” We faced each other. Her sudden confession making my heart skip a beat in surprise.
Her claw, as gently as Anja could, touched the side of my face. “You saw things in me that even I didn’t. You trusted me enough to have me around you and the things you said to me made me feel weaker than I ever felt before that.” All of the sudden, she reluctantly took her hand away and retreated back to her former position and averted my gaze. “But then when we reached the arena, I saw you with her. Jaina already had you. It hurt to see that the one thing I still wanted, I couldn’t get. So I shut down and… well… you know the rest.”
I solemnly listened to her as she distanced herself further to pick up the shackle she put aside. She presented it to me like a submissive servant. “If this is how I react over something so stupid, I can’t be trusted. Put this on me. I assume… you have the key still with you.”
I turned to look down at my pouch as I ruffle around in it. And indeed, I found it. The small, flat key that could lock her up again. I sighed. “Yeah… I still have it. And this… is what you want?”
“I don’t see any other way. This way I can be contained and you no longer have to worry about me attacking you. This is better than embarrassing myself any more.” Anja responded, placing the shackle around her neck, ready to be locked shut.
I flipped the key over in my hand several times in thought before I leaned over towards her, gently putting my free hand on her neck to keep the shackle from shuffling around. The key slides into the lock and Anja closes her eyes to wait for the incoming clicking sound.
As her eyes closed, my grip tightened on the key and instead of turning the key around… I snap it off.
Taken aback by the sound that she was not prepared to hear, Anja’s eyes slowly opened in confusion. That daze would stay on her face even longer as I took the now unusable shackle and tossed it aside. Anja touched her slightly irritated neck and could only stutter incomplete sentences. “I… what? Why, I… You… Huh?”
I gave her an admittedly pretty unfitting smirk, but her reaction was pretty amusing to me. “You don’t need this. WE don’t need this.”
Anja raised her head to face me and almost immediately averted my sight. “But I… but I did something that put you in danger.”
I shrugged and even let out a sympathetic chuckle. “Welcome to the club. I think we’ve established by now that I don’t make the best judgment calls either. We’re both not as on top of things as we would like to be sometimes, huh?.” I reached out to her to place my hand on her shoulder and once she faced me again, I finally got a smile out of her. “Maybe we can learn to be better together. So what do you say? Partners?”
Anja chuckled lightly as she, for one last time, wiped at her eyes before her former confidence brimmed in her face again. She copied me and put her claw on my shoulder on the other side.
When our smiles met, Anja leaned her head forwards, presenting her forehead to me so that I could meet it with mine. We symbolically sealed our partnership as our foreheads touched and our eyes locked with overflowing confidence.
“Partners.” She answered me after a short moment of silence as she seemed to want to keep closer for a while longer.
Her smile faded a little as something seemed to spring into her mind. “But…”
“But?” I asked curiously.
“What about Jaina? Will she be okay with all of this? I almost did things to her that were just as bad. There are so many things I need to tell her.” She ashamedly noted, hesitantly distancing herself from me.
I smirked knowingly. “Oh, I think she’s okay with this. Otherwise you would’ve already heard her protesting against it.”
Anja cocked her head. “H…Heard her?”
I looked over my shoulder towards the entrance gate as I called out. “Come on, you can come in now, Jaina!”
And the moment I said that, the door swung open with surprising force as Jaina literally dropped in. “WOAH! OOF!” She fell through the door and immediately plopped onto the ground, losing the 3 sleeping bags she was carrying on top of her hammer as well as Anja’s massive buster sword that she wore on her back. Sometimes I seriously need to remind myself of how strong she really is.
Jaina quickly fumbled to get herself back up again to look as inconspicuous as possible. “It’s alright! I’m fine! Nothing suspicious here. I was JUST about to knock and ask if you were done. Hehe.”
While Anja froze dead in place, embarrassment rushing to her face, I grinned back at Jaina who hastily tried to pick up the sleeping bags she dropped. “Sure you were. I kinda had a feeling you would listen in on us. Because you were concerned about my safety of course, right?”
Jaina was about to sheepishly chuckle, but it got stuck in her throat as her and Anja’s eyes met. “Yeah… safety. Heh.” Her laugh was forced and she quickly touched her cheek in aversion. Both Anja and Jaina didn’t dare to face each other.
I took a deep breath and softly called out to Jaina one more time as I signaled her to come closer. “Come on. It’s okay now.”
Dropping all of her sleeping bags as well as both weapons next to us, Jaina sat down on the right of me, causing me to sit right in between the two girls. Despite that barrier still being there though, Jaina was fast to be the first one to open her mouth. “I forgive you! And I’m super, super sorry!” She barked out.
Anja reeled back for a second before almost competitively retorting. “You’re sorry? I’M sorry! I nearly killed you today! Let alone all the other times!”
“Y…yeah, but I stole your food and I hurt you so many times too! Pain is still pain no matter how much it was!”
“I was being too greedy! I took up way too much!”
“But…” “But…” They both immediately barked out before finishing and apologizing with:
“…I’m sorry.” “…I’m sorry.” And they both shot each other a small, yet genuine grin followed by a reserved giggle.
Jaina followed up on it. “I really didn’t know you went through a lot too. I always thought you were just an egoistic, uncaring monster.”
Anja scratched her cheek. “I was, to be fair. And I thought you were an egotistical, greedy leech myself. So I think we’re even.”
Jaina and Anja shared an appreciative smile and I even saw a slight hint of tears welling up in their eyes.
Even with me in between them, they leaned over my knees and embraced each other. I shuffled back a bit to give them a little more space and smiled to myself.
Once they slightly parted from each other, I reached out to pet both of their heads, tickling a happy smile out of them. “I’m proud of you two.” It was cute to see the difference between their reaction. While Jaina wholeheartedly enjoyed my caresses, Anja reservedly blushed and avoided eye contact.
“Hey, Jaina, do you want to tell Anja what we planned before?” I brought up, signaling Jaina towards the pile of things she brought with her.
Her face perked up when I sprung her memory again. “Oh yeah! I got everything you asked, Kalaydus! I got Anja’s sword back and I brought an extra sleeping bag and our ones too! Was that right?”
I grinned in satisfaction. “Yeah, that’s all I asked for. Good job, Jaina.”
Anja looked over the pile, pulling her sword out of it and touching the side of the blade which was slightly worn after she used it. Her gaze slowly moved up to face me.”Why did you get the sword for me?”
I reached over and closed her claw around the handle. “Well, you’re gonna need it if you go hunting with us obviously.”
“A…And the sleeping bags?”
Before I could answer, Jaina cut in enthusiastically. “Well, Kalaydus said that he didn’t want you to sleep alone in this huge, lonely room. So he suggested that we could all sleep together in here. As a team… you know?”
After taking in what we were saying to her, she gave a slight, disbelieving chuckle and looked over at me. “So on top of handing me the weapon that I used to attack you with, you are willing to sleep in the same room as me, knowing full well that I have said weapon in reach?”
I leaned back a little and shrugged. “Yeah, I am. Because I trust you to not do it again. Plus, it might be a bit cold to sleep outside sooner or later so… works out for all of us, right?” I hid my concern for her behind a bit of sarcasm but still tried to show what I meant by doing it. That I really didn’t want her to feel isolated any more.
Anja clearly tried to hide how happy hearing me say that made her at first, but more so than that, she returned an almost snickering laugh.
She shook her head in disbelief and sighed after her short laughing fit. “After all the many different kinds of monsters that I’ve seen out there, you are the weirdest creature I’ve ever met.”
I chuckled and joked back. “I guess it comes with the field.” We shared a good laugh and slowly got ready to prepare the sleeping bags, placing them right next to each other to make a sort of large, soft carpet. The three of us huddled together, for the first time sitting together like a real group and enjoying the now more relaxed atmosphere.
The soft sunlight slowly dimmed and set the room in a moody, violet color.
With all of us this close together, me and Jaina exchanged glances and nodded to each other. Shortly after, I got closer to Anja who jerked up in surprise for a second before blushing deeply as I put my hand on her thigh. “You know, Anja, even after all that talking, I think there is still one problem we haven’t addressed yet.”
“W…We have? What do you mean?”
“You remember when we fitted your clothes earlier?”
Her eyes widened and her face flushed red as her eyes flicked between me and Jaina who slowly snuggled up to Anja’s other side. “M…Master, do you really want to talk about that…now?”
I gently let my fingers glide over her scaly legs until I reached the smooth, human half of them, which made Anja slightly tremble.
Jaina, coming from the other side, copied my moves on Anja’s other leg, which left her utterly confused and unable to speak. “Don’t worry about it, Kalaydus told me about everything you did. I was a bit jealous at first, but then he had a really, really good idea.” Jaina muttered into Anja’s ear, playfully kissing her earlobe after she finished her sentence.
Anja gasped in shock. “Jaina?!” But shortly after, I came in whispering into her other ear, which distracted her once more.
“You know, when I did those things to tease you back then, it wasn’t because I wanted to mess with you. I wouldn’t go that far if I didn’t like you in that way. You said that you felt left out and that I already belonged to Jaina. But if I want to call myself a fair team leader, I can’t play favorites.”
Both me and Jaina started to caress Anja more and more, equally leaving her to melt more and more from the sensations. Heavy, involuntary sighs escaped her lips as Jaina continued to stroke the inside of her thighs underneath her skirt while I got into a position that was fairly familiar to her: Behind her back, outlining the underside of her breasts with my fingers.
Anja faced me halfway, looking over her shoulder as I continued to explain and fondle her. “I wasn’t blind to how much you liked it when I touched you like this earlier, you know? So I got to talking with Jaina. And we decided that if we wanted to make you feel part of the team, we should have something like a rite of passage.”
Anja could hardly respond as our hands did lewder and lewder things to her but she still muttered the words. “What… nhaaa… did you have in mind?”
I looked over at Jaina, sharing a conspiring smirk with her. “Well, we’ll call it a little…”
“…team exercise.” “…team exercise.”