I sat alone in the darkness of the night. The sound of the violent waves echoed in my eardrums as I looked upon the sea before me.
The dim moon and star light was shadowed by the thick layer of clouds gathering toward the heavens; a strong breeze threatened to throw my hood back, but it barely stayed on as the cloth stuck to the mask on my face.
I wore my Hunter’s outfit. There was something dissuading about prancing around the empty city streets past midnight while dressed in colorful, semi-rich clothing. Generally speaking, going out in the middle of the night was never a good idea unless it was necessary, but I needed this moment. There was something relaxing about this, despite the thundering waves and the roaring wind filling in the background noise.
I did not move. My eyes did not wander off this portrait, but stayed glued onto it. I was almost fixated to this sight.
“This is nice,” I sighed wistfully to myself.
“It really is, isn’t it?”
I jumped at the unexpected response; I whirled around, reaching down for my dagger and gripped the hilt of the blade, but did not pull it out just yet.
I saw a figure standing behind me. He was a man with pale blue skin that was lighter than the sky at day, with long ears poking out of the side of his head. My eyes widened at his onyx black hair that almost seemed to become one with the shadows of the night, but his deep green eyes were focused straight at the ocean ahead. An Elf? I thought, surprised at seeing one for the first time.
“Who are you? Where did you come from?” I asked, not masking the wariness in my voice.
The man did not answer my question immediately. Instead, he leisurely lowered himself down, and sat on the natural gravel floor of the beach before replying.
“That’s an odd question to ask someone, isn’t it?”
“It is,” I said, feeling slightly embarrassed by how jumpy I might have come across. Still, I doubled down. “But it’s an appropriate one for a stranger sneaking up on me by the sea in the middle of the night.”
He finally turned to face me, and he gave me an almost dismissive look. “If I wanted to harm you, I would have done so without alerting you of my presence.”
True, but that did not mean I shouldn’t be cautious of you. I did not relax as the man continued.
“However, since you’re curious, I am a Half Elf from Ghab-Ha, the last remaining Elven country, and the only other nation in Soli than the Holy Xan Empire. Well, that’s true in theory, but the reality of the situation is that our country lacks sovereignty in various different ways. I came to this continent decades ago to find help—”
I didn’t ask for your full backstory! I tuned the strange man out as he began to tell me all about himself; he was talking about his seaborne voyage past Drake Island and how dangerous the waters got there. I didn’t even know why he was telling me this.
I simply rested my chin on the palm of my hand and stared at the waves crashing into the beach. I stayed there for a minute, and some time during that minute, the man stopped talking and I didn’t notice.
“A lovely sight,” he finally said, breaking the silence.
“Tell me, why exactly are you here, young Miss?” he asked, ignoring my detached demeanor towards him. “I don’t believe a child such as you should be out in the middle of the night, let alone where a large wave could sweep you into the sea where you’d be lost forever.”
“I just like beaches, that’s all,” I gave him a straightforward answer.
“And you couldn’t go in the day?”
“Was busy,” I said curtly.
“You’re a peculiar girl,” he remarked, standing up.
And I think you’re a weirdo, but you don’t hear me saying it, I quipped mentally; I was not going to say it out loud, but I was getting rather annoyed that my relaxation period was being ruined by some stranger.
“Personally,” he started, “I find the ocean fascinating because of how vast it is. I know that somewhere, out there, is where my homeland lies. I will return to it, and they will hail me as a hero.”
With that said, the man took a step back, and left me alone on the beach. I turned around to watch him go— making sure he truly left and wasn’t about to grab me from behind to kidnap me and sell me into slavery, before settling back down.
What a weird man, I thought for one last time.
I continued to stare into the undulating blue lines ahead as it shifted up and down accompanied by the howling wind, before something caught my eye. The Half Elf (or Elf?) was gone, yet I could have sworn I saw a figure hiding in the alleyways, watching me.
I eyed the small alcoves and side streets surrounding the beachfront, but there was no one there. I carefully made my way further into the city, casting my gaze toward every possible hiding spot, but saw nothing. And yet, I still felt like someone was watching me.
I started for the inn, but felt my pace getting faster and faster as the feeling never went away. My brisk walk turned into a jog, and my jog into a mad dash. I ran through the empty streets of Luke, trying to flee from this invisible stalker.
My footsteps attracted the attention of gang members, thugs, and other criminals coming to poke their heads out of their alleys to see what was going on; many of them just gave me a weird look, yet that only exacerbated my unease and I felt my heart pounding faster and faster in my chest
I needed to get inside. I wanted to get indoors. The calm serenity of watching the sea vanished as I screamed internally to flee. Where were the guards? Why were the streets so empty of life?
I saw a dim light illuminating a building in the distance and decided to make a break for it. I almost felt like I was back in Bys, running for my life from the Abominations that were chasing me. My life was not in danger— it could not have been in danger— but a panic came over me like I had rarely ever felt before.
Someone was following me. I knew they were.
I threw the doors of the building open, and slammed it shut behind me. I waited with bated breath for a moment, taking a step back away from the entryway to the room, but nothing came after me. The overwhelming feeling of fear subsided, and I slumped to the floor, panting.
I lay there for just a moment, not even taking in my surroundings, before I noticed the people staring at me. There were not a lot of people there, but those that were were seated on tables and others waiting behind a… desk?
A… receptionist cocked her head at me.
Blinking, I realized where I had escaped to: it was the Hunter’s Guild of Luke.
“Um, hi?” the receptionist said. “Was there something you needed, little Miss?”
I tried to ignore the other Hunters in the guild lobby staring at me, and quickly got myself up and dusted myself off.
“Yes,” I said, walking up to the receptionist and pulling out my ID card. “I’m a Hunter, and I was hoping to take a look at the jobs around, and maybe collect any additional rewards for a previous job I completed.”
May as well cross out a few items in my to-do list while I’m here.
The Hunter’s Guild offered little jobs in the city of Luke. I would have expected there to be plenty of escort jobs available for the taking, but it seemed that most ships found it more efficient and cost-effective to simply hire Mercenaries to protect them from both sea Monsters and pirates.
After taking a look at the also bare amount of bounties in place, I returned to the receptionist to inquire on my previous job with the Abominations; Gennady had told me the truth when he said I would receive extra payment once the Hunter’s Guild confirmed that we were not lying about the number of Abominations there were.
Unfortunately, the Hunter’s Guild must not have done a thorough job of excavating the cave of bodies, since I was only given an extra hundred gold coins. It was a lot of gold— despite having seen a similar amount of money just the other day, I still found myself gawking when the receptionist handed over the small bag of coins to me.
And yet, it was hardly the amount which I had expected to receive: the original job description suspected there to have been a few hundred Abominations at most. I ended up killing thousands of them, including an Atrocity, and yet my payment was merely doubled. It was not a fair compensation, but when I tried pressing the issue, I realized it would not have gone anywhere and gave up.
I was certain this underpayment was a result of both neglect by the scouts the Hunter’s Guild sent, as well as the fact that they were probably going to revise the reward for exterminating Abominations if they really were more commonplace than was thought.
Regardless, I stayed in the Hunter’s Guild until just before sunrise, when the streets of the city began to fill up with regular people going about their days, before daring to go out and return to my inn. The sense of unease was gone, and I found myself questioning whether I had suffered from a momentary panic attack due to whatever reason.
I was back at the inn before I knew it and changed back to my other clothes; Gennady was still asleep, snoring loudly in his bed. I took a peek at the clock, and deciding that it would not have been an issue if I took a quick wink, I went to bed.
The Dwarf woke me up just after noon, having come back from shopping for mana crystals and other tools he needed. He did not find what he wanted, but he managed to get away with two ‘high quality’ Superior mana crystals for a good price— that meant it had a good cut for its size, which made it far easier to inscribe on when tinkering with it.
“Slept late last night, huh?” he asked, as he handed me a small bag of food; it had grilled fish skewered on thin wooden sticks. “You hungry?”
My stomach growled in response, and he chuckled.
“Hah, I knew it.” He winked at me as my face grew red.
“I had a long night, ok?” I meekly defended myself. That was technically true, but I knew for a fact that my stomach would have reacted the same way even if I had gone to bed early last night. The scent of good food was enough to make me hungry most of the time.
“I saw,” he said, glancing at the desk in the corner of the room. “You used up all your paper, huh?”
“Mhm,” I made a noise in reply, as I chewed on my food.
“We’ll get you some more later. First, we’ll be heading to the harbor— speak to the sailors and find if any are willing to bring us to Taw.”
I nodded my head, and finished up the short meal before I spoke; “Well then, let’s not waste any time.” I hopped out of bed, and grabbed my staff while donning my pointed hat. “Let’s go, shall we?”
The Dwarf snorted. “Don’t act like ye were tha one waiting for me, lass. I was the one waiting for ya!”
I grinned, then we were off. We exited the inn and started for the harbor; it was in a different direction to the beach I had my weird surge of paranoia, or… ‘episode’… last night. That beach episode did not go the way I expected to, and I was glad that I was completely normal now.
Could that Half Elf have done something to me? I thought, wondering if that was the result of some gaseous alchemical concoction. But that would not have made sense; if he was trying to attack me, why did he just up and leave? Plus, it only happened once he had been gone for a few minutes.
I shook my head and shook away those thoughts for now. I focused on the task at hand: finding a ship.
I strutted behind Gennady alongside the wooden pier of Luke’s harbor. He was stroking his bushy beard while carefully inspecting each boat we passed.
“What kind of ship are you looking for?” I asked. He was probably finding one that looked sturdy enough to be able to last the voyage all the way up to Taw rather than any old dinghy, but I did not know what were the specifics he had in mind.
“Well, I’d prefer a mana powered boat to bring us there since those are far better suited for the rough oceans, but I’m willing to settle for just a fully rigged ship with three or four masts.”
I drew my lips to a thin line. “I have no idea what any of that means.”
The Dwarf sighed. “It means I want a big boat,” He paused, glancing around, before pointing at something in the distance. “Like that.”
I looked in the direction he was pointing and saw a large, thin ship with a single mast; I had expected it to be made of metal, but it was designed with wood just like any other boat with its name ‘The Lightbringer’s Vessel’ inscribed on its side. Its one distinguishing feature was the extra section protruding out of its quarterdeck and attached to a paddlewheel.
“Whew,” I whistled. “That’s a nice boat. Probably expensive to ride on, huh?”
“It would be, but we could get on it for free.”
I paused, taking a moment to figure out what he meant. “You want us to offer them our services as Hunters?” I asked, snapping my fingers.
“‘Course,” he said, grinning. “Why shouldn’t we? We’re Hunters. We’d probably have to fight any sea Monsters anyway even if we pay to ride on a boat. Might as well take advantage of our roles and hitch a free ride— or, well, voyage.”
“But I’m not wearing my mask,” I pointed out, and instinctively pulled my shoulders and arms in as if protecting myself.
Gennady shrugged. “You can just sit back for a bit. I’ll say me and a companion would like to offer our services to them. I’ll ‘introduce ‘Aria’ to them on another day if they say yes.”
I slowly relaxed, and agreed to his terms, “Alright, that makes sense I guess.”
We reached the ship he had pointed out, and found a group of sailors milling around on its deck. I stayed back, as he approached them.
“Hoy there!” the Dwarf called out, raising a hand. “Is your Captain around?”
The sailors gave him an odd look, and after a moment, one of them shouted back, “Go away, little man. We don’t like your kind here!”
I frowned, hearing the insult; Gennady however, seemed unaffected by it.
“Come now, lads. I’d just like to offer my services to your crew,” he said casually.
“Hah,” one of the sailors laughed. “As if we’d let a Dwarf tinker with our ship. You wouldn’t even be able to work with its mana crystal! We don’t carve on the crystals unlike you fools!”
“I meant it as a Hunter,” Gennady said, his brows suddenly arching darkly over his eyes. I narrowed my eyes at the sudden change in his demeanour, but he was not finished. “But since ye lads dinna wan it, how ‘bout I teach ya a lesson instead?!”
I blinked. The sailors blinked. We did not understand a single word he had just said.
Despite that, one of the sailors still decided to taunt him. “Speak up, little man, we can’t hear you from down there—”
The man was cut off when a hammer came flying through the air and smashed him in the face. Gennady lowered his hand, reaching into his backpack for something else. “Wanna go ya lassies?”
“Hey, Gennady, I think we shouldn’t—” I started, but was immediately cut off.
“He just hurt John!”
“No one hurts John and gets away with it!”
“Get him, boys!”
I cursed as more than half a dozen sailors ran down the gangway and onto the pier, charging at my companion; the Dwarf just smirked, and continued throwing objects at them.
Two sailors fell off the wooden plank and into the sea before the rest reached him. They swarmed him one by one, punching and kicking at him.
Gennady was not an agile individual, and he simply took their hits, instead focusing on taking them out one by one. They struck him on the side, back, front—
But he was not affected by any of it. He shoved a man, and he was thrown back nearly ten feet off the pier, joining his two buddies in the water.
Another man charged, but the Dwarf whirled around and elbowed him in the gut. He collapsed, and puked in an instant.
“That all ya got?” Gennady raised his arms to his sides, seemingly unimpeded in combat by the heavy bag on his back. “Ya fight like a bunch of kids!”
The last two men shouted an insult back, and one of them pulled out a knife. “Die in Hell!” he yelled.
The weaponless man dashed forward at Gennady, going to grapple him and hold him in place. He held on for just a moment, before the Dwarf pried him off and threw him off the pier as well. Gennady turned back just in time to see the other man swing his knife at him—
And I swung my staff at the back of his head, knocking him out.
I stared at the Dwarf, as he looked down at the unconscious man.
“I had that just fine,” he said.
“I don’t care,” I retorted, and pointed past him. “I care about that.”
A bunch of angry sailors from other ships were staring at us with fury in their eyes; I could practically feel their hate burning from all the way where I stood. They were amassing into one big group of 20, and they were still growing.
I looked blankly at Gennady as he turned back to me.
“That’s a bit of a problem,” he said.
“We should run.”
I rolled my eyes, then ran.
I heard shouts and screams coming from the sailors charging after us; they were not happy about how we— two random individuals coming to this harbor for the first time— seemingly picked a fight with a prominent crew.
“Wait…for…me!” Gennady called out from behind me, each of his thudding footsteps creaking the wooden floor below.
I slowed a little, craning my neck slightly to check the distance between us and the angry sailors. They were getting closer!
“Does this usually happen with you?” I asked, trying to keep my voice calm despite the rush of the moment.
“No—” he panted, catching up to me slightly. “Never!”
I narrowed my eyes but did not question him further since we were still running. We finally reached the start of the pier, back to the city area, with my feet finding itself on solid ground. I glanced around at the hundreds of people going about their business at this busy time of day.
“We’ve got to escape into a crowd,” Gennady said, about to dash into a group of passersby.
I grabbed his hand, and yanked him back; I shook my head.
I cut him off by shouting at the top of my lungs.
“Help, guards! Help!”
“What are you doing?” The Dwarf cocked a brow, but I ignored him.
Immediately, at my screaming, a handful of individuals stopped what they were doing and started for me.
“What’s going on?” a man asked.
“Get the guards! Please.”
A susurration ran through the crowd and the message quickly found its way to a small patrol of guards. They pushed their way through gathering bystanders as I quickly ran up to them.
“You have to help me,” I begged in a pleading voice. I looked up at them with my eyes, and gave them my best puppy-dog eyes. “That group of men— they attacked my dad! And they’re trying to attack me now!” I spoke hurriedly.
“Calm down, little Miss. What’s going on?” the patrol leader asked. “Explain slowly.”
I took a deep breath, and sniffed. “My dad brought me to his ship, The Lightbringer’s Vessel, like he usually does once a week. But then that group of bad men came and got mad at us. They attacked dad’s friends, and threw him off the ship. Now they’re chasing after me. Please, you’ve got to stop them and help my dad!”
I buried my head in my hands, pretending to sob as I did; the guards exchanged a look, and the patrol leader spoke reassuringly.
“We’ll speak to them and try to resolve this, ok?” he said. “Just wait right here.”
“Ok,” I said softly.
Then the group of guards walked past me, and intercepted the angry sailors right as they reached the end of the wooden wharf. I immediately shot a look to Gennady, and he nodded.
We made a dash out of the dockside area of the city as the guards distracted the angry sailors; we did not duck into any side streets, choosing to stay in the main roads despite the fact that we could get caught. I doubted it would happen, plus I did not want to get into any more trouble in some dark alleyway.
The Dwarf and I finally reached our inn, and it was only in our room did we breathe a sigh of relief.
“That couldn’t have gone any worse,” I commented.
“I mean, that was the first crew we talked to. And now we’re probably blacklisted by every ship on the harbor.”
“We definitely are.”
I glanced down at my companion who was still trying to catch his breath; he did not have the best stamina, probably due to his bodyweight and his age. He was in his 60’s, which was considered middle aged for a Dwarf.
“What happened there?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. “You were so calm one second, and the next…”
Gennady shook his head. “Nobody insults a Dwarf’s craft,” he said, straightening. “You may think us to be short, ugly, and maybe even too hairy— that makes no sense to me, but apparently Elves hate facial hair.
“However, you never denigrate their tinkering abilities. Especially not mine. I was one of the best, if not the best, in all of Taw. I would never take such offense lightly. Sorry, lass, I know it made things much more complicated, but I had to defend my honor.”
I eyed the Dwarf for a moment, realizing that the sailors genuinely hurt the man with their comments. I rested a hand on his shoulder.
“Ignore them,” I said. “They’re just idiots.”
“I know,” he snorted, and I smiled.
I added, “Plus, you may be short and excessively hairy, but I don’t think you’re ugly.”
“Now you’re just patronizing me.”
“‘Course,” I imitated him and grinned.
Gennady laughed and slapped me across the back. “Lass, you really are a fun one.” He paused, before quickly continuing. “And an interesting one too! I can’t believe you fake cried to get some guards and bystanders to help us! I’m glad I decided to stick with ya.”
I shrugged. “You’d be surprised how often children lie to get what they want.” Even though I’m not a kid, I thought.
“Well, good thinking anyways,” he said, laughing again.
“So,” I started, finally deciding to discuss the elephant in the room, “what happens now?”
Gennady grabbed a chair and slumped over onto it, wiping sweat off his forehead. “What do you mean?” he asked. “And before you respond, it’s a rhetorical question.”
“Right.” I clamped my mouth shut.
He continued, “We already had a plan if going to the harbor failed, didn’t we? Plan B if no ship was willing to take us.”
“Ah,” I said, not surprised, but let down that he did not have some sort of super secret plan he didn’t tell me; instead, it was just the backup illegal plan we had in mind. “Hire some smugglers.”
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