Emilia Baines had the worst of luck in the forests. How she managed to stumble into someone every time she went out here, when all she wanted was to remain unseen, was beyond her. But here she was again, not so alone in the woods any longer when she looked up.
One would think after having just survived an encounter with a very angry, very powerful dragon, she would not be so utterly terrified by the man into whose arms she had stumbled. But she was honestly at this moment not entirely sure if he was a man.
The one who had caught her was taller than any man she had ever seen, even her own father. He was just muscle, wrapped in black leather and metal, pistols at his belt, a large electric rifle strapped to his back, and one of the arms that had caught her closed around her like cold metal. It was a prosthetic arm, she could tell, intricately designed under metal skin, she could see glimpses of many delicate gears of dwarven design. His face was hidden behind a breathing mask and goggles, and long, dark hair was pulled back into a thick ponytail.
The light that fell on the both of them was carried by someone who approached them now, with graceful steps and swishing coattails. As the figure came closer, Emilia could distinguish her as a woman. She was wearing tight leather trousers, a red brocade corset over her blouse (scandalous!) and a long, black leather coat over it, decorated with numerous gold medals and cords. Her hands were in fingerless leather gloves with metal knuckles, her nails long and sharp and painted like blood. Long, auburn curls spilled over her shoulders under a large tricorn hat with an impressively pretentious feather stuck into it. Her features were noble, with full red lips and her eyes hidden under goggles that seemed to allow her and the man who had caught Emilia to navigate in the dark. She had a musket on her belt and a collection of throwing knives strapped around her right thigh.
The woman raised the lantern to get a closer look at Emilia, who was still too perplexed for words. She shook her head.
“It’s just a girl,” she said in a posh, nasal accent. Nothing like the provincial way they spoke inher hometown. Par’fost?
“Well there is something in these woods. That fire we saw didn’t come from nowhere,” another voice answered. A third figure appeared. Goggles and top hat the first distinguishing features, then a well-tailored coat, leather trousers and heavy, metal-tipped boots. He had a crossbow in hands, a beautifully designed piece, and a case of bolts on his belt. And while the insignia the woman wore on her coat were obscure in design, the brand on this man’s coat was unmistakeable. It was the white star of the Inquisition.
The blood froze in Emilia’s veins. The hunters. They had to have arrived earlier that night and gone to the woods without hesitation.
“Goddess, Jurij, put the girl down. What did I tell you about playing nice with the locals?” the man said as he was close enough to inspect the scene.
The giant holding Emilia so firmly that her boots had lost all contact with the ground grunted something and lowered her back down until she stood securely. He then put his hand – the real one – on her shoulder and… patted? The only thing missing was a ‘there, there’ but he did not seem to speak. Emilia had her arms crossed, clinging to herself to suppress her shivering. The man in the top hat came closer, circled around her once, then grinned as he pushed his goggles up and let them snap around his top hat. Under the googles lay bright blue eyes in a freckled face.
“Sorry about that, love. Didn’t mean to frighten you,” he said, then clicked his heels together and bowed. “Yustir Rova, at your service. My brother Jurij, and Dame Regine Valaente. Or, the charming one, the quiet one, and the grumpy one, if you wish,” he introduced the trio.
“E-Emilia Baines. Librarian,” she introduced herself, though her tongue felt like a fuzzy, dead mouse in her mouth.
“And what would a sweet thing like you do in these woods at this hour when there is a monster about? Alone?” Yustir Rova inquired without any more pleasantries. He was smiling, Regine Valaente was not. Emilia glanced past him and saw the woman was loading shells into her musket, barely looking up from her work to inspect the girls face before she could even reply.
“I…” Emilia began, her tongue twisting into a knotty lump she could not move. She was out of excuses. There was no conceivable reason why she should be here right now, and nothing she could say would distract of the fact that she was in the most suspicious place at the most suspicious time, and the Inquisition had killed for less than that. Nothing she could say or do right now would stop Regine Valaente from putting that musket right between her eyes and blowing her brains to scrambles. She had no doubt the woman had it in her. None. Maybe that was blood on her nails.
A low rumble in the darkness pulled all attention from the girl in interrogation so quickly, it was as if she was not there at all. Instantly, the three hunters had stepped together, forming a shield between the unarmed, innocent-until-proven-guilty girl and the creature lurking in the shadows. Weapons were pointed, and Yustir Rova pulled down his goggles again and a toothy grin split his face open.
“Well well well… so there really is something in these woods,” he said.
Emilia could not see, but she did not need to. She knew he was there, she felt his presence pressing down on her. Only when his golden eyes appeared did she get a sense of where he was, and just how easily he melted into the darkness. The hunters had come here with no concept of what they were going up against. They did not stand a chance, and they knew it when they realised they were no longer alone here.
Regine Valaente lowered her musket and whistled.
“They’re not paying us enough for that,” she admitted.
The dragon moved closer elegantly. It was the first time she noticed the soft sound his scales made when he moved, and the way he could just blend into the landscape, like the trees bent around him and he did not even make a sound on the ground, as if he never even touched it. Not a branch or twig or root cracked under his heavy paws. What a supreme predator he was, to have snuck up on them so easily and only reveal himself now.
She saw his claws dig into the moist earth, his eyes fixed on her, as if he was asking. Asking what? If she was safe? If she felt threatened? By him, or by them? She could not respond to even that simple look, too terrified still, even though he showed no sign of wanting to attack again.
It was a bolt that buzzed through the air first. It hit the black scales and bounced off them like a water droplet off leather. The dragon’s head snapped around, his golden eyes pierced through Yustir Rova and his jaws opened to release a violent roar. It made them step backwards.
“Marvolaet’s marvellous tits… look at that monster. Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” Yustir asked, awestruck.
The Archdragon moved past the trees and forward, growling, flames seeping through his teeth. He would attack, she could feel it. He would burn these hunters to nothing but crisps and she should be relieved by that because it would mean they could not cause trouble for Par’bain. But the thought of having three dead hunters on their hands may well cause an even bigger problem.
She looked up, met his golden gaze and found him looking at her, as if asking permission. She shook her head, a motion barely visible, but she knew he saw. Or did not even need to see, because he probably was in her head right now, looking for something. His claws relaxed, teeth closed again and in one powerful move, he was in the air. The three hunters stepped away, looking after the creature as he disappeared in the night sky.
“Well… that was something, wasn’t it?” Yustir asked, more to himself than to anyone in particular.
Emilia was not even entirely sure what happened before she had a hand around her throat, her back pressed against a tree, and she stared down the barrel of the musket, Regine Valaente’s finger steady on the trigger, just ready to pull it.
“What did you do?” she growled, sounding like a dragon herself. Yustir Rova flew around and yelped.
“Woah Regine!!” he called out, grabbed the woman’s wrist and redirected the musket away from Emilia’s face. “We talked about this. No shooting the locals.”
“That was a dragon, Yustir. A dragon. His kind has killed on sight for thousands of years. This one did not. Why?!” she asked, then pulled Emilia around to quite literally shove her into Yustir’s face. He seemed unimpressed, just patted Emilia’s shoulders as if to calm her. His gaze was fixed on his companion however.
“A dragon clearly cares whether she lives or dies. Does that make threatening her really seem like a good idea?”
Regine Valaente hesitated. Emilia could see the considerations go through her mind for several heartbeats, before the hunter slowly released her from her grasp. “That’s better. Besides, look at the lass. She’s mortified. You really think she’s a threat?”
“I don’t know what she is and that means she is automatically a threat.”
“Fear of the unknown?” Emilia asked. The very same instance, she wanted to bite her own tongue out for her glibness. These people literally held her here at gunpoint and she was trying to get smart with them?! Even her timing was sarcastic!
Regine Valaente very nearly jumped at her throat, had not Yustir blocked her access by stepping right between the two. He laughed and shook his head, then closed his crossbow and shoved it into a sheath on his back.
“Scout the perimeter, but do not engage. If this thing is still out there, we do not want to go after it unprepared. I will escort young Miss Baines back home to her library.”
As he spoke, Yustir’s hand closed on her arm so firmly she would probably break it if she tried to run. Regine Valaente nodded in approval, then turned towards Jurij. The two of them signed something between them, no words exchanged, and then they made their way into the darkness of the woods. Emilia and Yustir Rova in turn made their way back towards the road.
She stumbled around next to him, his steps so much larger than hers, her skirts getting caught on roots and little branches, and her gaze never down to watch where she was walking, but always up. At the sky. Looking for that dark silhouette.
She tried to find it again. The feeling, the connection. She was not even sure what it was, or how it was possible, and she realised she should be severely disturbed by it. But she was not.
It felt right. Like having this connection to the dragon was the first time she actually saw completely clear who and what she was supposed to be. And now it was all gone again, leaving her confused and strangely… empty. Was this what she had been missing all her life? This understanding of a creature that should by all rights not exist? She caught herself with the silly thought of it being ‘destiny’ or some romanticised magical bond they would write stories about in the future. She was probably reading way too much into it, the stories of great adventures she had read getting to her head when the more likely outcome of this ordeal was that of her being exiled from her home for caring about a dragon – and that was the best possible outcome. The worst case scenario? Regine Valaente put a bullet through her skull.
When they reached the road and the terrain became steadier, the hunter finally let go of her arm.
“Tell me, Emilia Baines. Why are you really out here tonight? Because I doubt the guild would send one lonely libriarian to investigate a beast of legend.”
“They didn’t send me. I came out here on my own… I foolishly believed I could… learn more about the dragon, thought I would get closer while I was alone…”
“Well, congratulations, you clearly did.”
“I nearly got burned alive, so I ran.”
“Right, right… but how did you escape, really? How did you escape with your life, I wonder…”
“Maybe I am just that good.”
Yustir Rova laughed.
“Blimey, if you are, you might make a finer hunter than me and my crew,” he said.
“Maybe you are not as good as you think,” she noted with a shrug.
He laughed again
“Well aren’t you a spitfire, Emilia Baine? I like that. I like you. Didn’t expect that kind of fire in a small town girl.”
“People tend to underestimate us, yes.”
He looked over at her with his wide grin.
“You know, that is exactly what Regine said to me when we first met. You two would get along splendid. Always the girls with fire in their eyes and war written on their faces…” he mused.
“How poetic,” she mocked, although the fact that he compared her to Regine Valaente was both preposterous and exhilarating.
“That’s me. Monster hunter, gentleman, and, occasional, poet. Living the dream,” he replied with a wide grin. He then squared his shoulders and nodded. “I believe this is your stop?”
She looked up, surprised to find they had reached the gates of the library premises.
“Ah… thank you for the… um… escort, I guess.”
“Anytime, love. I’d bring you to your door, but if your Head Librarian is anything like the Head Librarians I know, he will be scary and I don’t need more monsters tonight.”
“She is,” Emilia corrected.
Again, he laughed.
“In that case, she is probably even scarier,” he admitted. He then took her hand, bowed ever so slightly and breathed a kiss on the back of her hand. “It was a most unexpected pleasure meeting you, Emilia Baines.”
With these words, he turned on his flat heels and wandered down the road, leaving Emilia by the gates. She stood there for a moment longer, then turned and made her way to the dorm. It had been an exhausting night and she was not sure if any amount of sleep would be enough to catch up with this.