Prologue: One Fateful Meeting
The rock seemed to go on forever, infinitely up and infinitely down. Artemis rested on the small ledge, pressing his body against the mountainside. It was fortunate he had found this piece of respite. His arms were shaking from the difficulty of the climb by the time he had pulled himself up. As usual, he had overexerted himself. He made a mental note to be more careful, rubbing his arms as the wind picked up again. The gale felt nearly strong enough to pull him off the ledge, and he pushed himself against the rock face even more, shivering. But only bad things would happen if he simply sat there, so he looked back up along the mountainside. The summit was close, he could feel it…even if he couldn’t quite see it. His gaze fell back towards the bay far below. Oedia, his small fishing town, sat perched on the edge of the glittering water, like a cat staring at a trout just out of reach. Small fishing boats crawled like ants along its surface, and even further, little more than a speck, he could see a trading ship coming from beyond the horizon. Artemis smiled. They were sure to have many stories to tell at the tavern. But, he mused, it was time for him to make his own story. And that was where the mountain came in. Plenty had climbed it, but no one as young as him. The sailors would be amazed, and then they’d take him across the sea to the mainland! Artemis shook himself. No no, focus on what’s in front of you. No daydreaming!
He took a deep breath, and reached upwards, for the next handhold. It felt firm, secure, and he pulled himself into a standing position. There, the next was rather close. He didn’t even have to stretch to reach it. And another, even closer. The rock face sloped inwards now, starting to slowly level out. He dug his fingers into the turf, and tugged himself upward, slowly crawling his way towards safety. Artemis kept up his snail’s pace until he was sure it was safe to stand, then stretched and clambered to his feet. He gazed around and frowned. This wasn’t quite the summit. In fact, this was very much not the summit. This small plateau was covered in pine trees, a stream breaking through the center of the copse. The soft sound of moving water, mixed with the breeze ruffling the trees gave the place a storybook feel. As the scene sank in, he realized he was parched. One hand went to rattle the water skin at his belt, but no noise came back. Well, at least there was a stream up here.
He walked forward, wondering how much further he had to go. Looking up, it didn’t seem too bad, but it didn’t seem too bad to get up here either and look where that got him. He knew his arms would be aching for a few days after this. Oh well, perhaps he could attempt the climb later. Once he reached the stream he leaned over the water and started to cup his hands, but something gave him pause. The face in the water…wasn’t his face. He turned his cheek one way, then the other, but the face didn’t move with his. What was going on? The face moved, receding deeper into the water, and his eyes widened. That isn’t your face, dummy! Danger!
Artemis tried to get away, but his boots slipped on the pebbles and he landed flat on his face. Stars danced across his blurred vision, but he could still hear something sail over him. He kept low and shook his head, trying to regain his senses. There was something behind him, whimpering as it held its head, leaning against a tree. It slowly came into more focus. It looked like…a girl? A girl with no legs, and instead had four feet of white fur attached to its hips. Not a girl. A monster.
He leapt to his feet, and waded through the stream to the other side. The only thing you could do about a monster was run, and fast. He wasn’t sure how he’d get down, with the girl – no, monster – blocking the way, but he couldn’t worry about that. He wasn’-
The voice froze Artemis in his tracks. Why did he listen? It was obviously the monster…but something about it sounded so pitiful. Slowly, slowly, he turned around. The monster was looking at him with teary eyes, rubbing her head. He inspected her. Her upper half did look much like a girl, not much older than he was, but loosely coiled about her was a snake’s tail…covered in fur. But didn’t snakes have scales, not fur? No! Now was not the time to think! Now was a time to act! She was coming towards him now, slowly.
“S-Stop right there!” Artemis pointed a finger at her, and puffed out his chest. She did just as he commanded, shivering a bit and staring up at him.
“I-I…just…wanna talk…” Her voice trailed off, and he could barely hear what she was saying over the water.
“Well…you stay on that side, and I’ll stay on this side…and we’ll talk!” He smiled a bit. He felt quite proud of his diplomatic solution. The odd maybe-snake maybe-not-snake monster came right up to the edge of the water. Likewise, Artemis approached, until he was near the brook’s edge. The monster stared at him, chewing on the tip of her tail. She didn’t seem inclined to say anything, he realized, so…what did Father say about manners?
“What’s your name?” He called while lowering his finger, which he realized he was still pointing with. That certainly wasn’t good manners.
“Kuuma.” Her voice had steadied, and she drew away her tail as she called back. Artemis frowned. Kuuma? Kuuma wasn’t a name. People had names like Elise or Jack or Erik or Elizabeth…but then again, she wasn’t a normal person. Maybe monsters had different names?
“M-My name is Artemis. Artemis Grey!” He responded, pushing his swirling thoughts to the side. Apparently, Kuuma didn’t like this name, because she frowned.
“Why do you have two names?” She asked.
“Why do you have two names?” She asked again, more insistently.
“Er…doesn’t everyone have two names?” He was thoroughly confused now.
“I-I only have one name…” Kuuma crossed her arms, and looked away. Artemis bit his lip. Don’t make her sad! That’s not good manners either!
“I-I meant, all humans have two names…but you’re not human. What are you?” He tried his best to steer the conversation towards a more happy topic.
“I’m a Bunyip.” She said, instantly forgetting the slight. Artemis smiled. Mission successful. Although he still had no idea quite what a Bunyip…was. They, or at least, she looked like a fluffy snake, so that’s what he’d have to assume. “What’s a human? Are you a human?”
“Yeah, I’m a human.” Obviously Kuuma knew nothing, so Artemis would just have to fix that. He came up to the very edge of the water, and stuck his hand out. Kuuma jerked away a bit, staring at his hand.
“Uh…what’s that for?”
“It’s for a handshake. That’s how humans meet each other. Just put out your hand like this!” He smiled reassuringly as Kuuma’s hand tentatively ventured towards his. Once she had extended her hand all the way out, he grabbed it, and shook once. He wanted to shake it a few more times, but Kuuma jerked away again, looking more startled than before.
Artemis offered her a smile…and after a few seconds, she smiled back.