Chapter One: The Beauty, the Beast, and the Boy
A dark streak cut across the forest floor, parting the undergrowth. Shallow gasps rasped between parted lips, which were moistened furtively every so often by the tip of a pink tongue. Firm steps pounded the earth in a continuous drum roll. A streamer of long, flowing hair flickered through the lower branches like a wayward ribbon.
A girl was running, sprinting with all her might. She followed no distinct path, she merely duck and wove through the brush, making her way wherever she could, continuing her determined, if haphazard, headlong dash. The girl was remarkably athletic – long, limber legs carried her far with each stride, stout boots kicking off the ground. Yet she panted heavily, clawing frantically at the foliage before her. Now she made a wild leap around a thorn bush that had unexpectedly loomed in her path, not caring that her trousers caught and tore, leaving shallow gashes in the fair skin underneath. Any gap in the press of trees, any space not filled with a dark trunk or mass of branches, was desperately sought and transversed in a split second. Her rasping breaths and wide eyes belied not physical exertion, but fear.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
A young man trod calmly along a wooded trail. His step was measured, casual, tapped out methodically with the tip of the cane he carried. He paid no heed to the wind that plucked at the strands of dark hair that poked out from beneath his hat, nor to the branches that whispered conspiratively together at his back, dark leaves fluttering fitfully. Step by step he made his seemingly languid, but steady progress.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The word flew from the girl's lips in the midst of a dry, raking breath as she plunged recklessly onward, shielding herself from jagged boughs that loomed up suddenly in her path. She crashed past a prickly bush, rounded a stout tree trunk, and burst out onto a primitive road, little more than a faint track running through a gap in the trees. On the other side of this rough thoroughfare stood a large, dead stump, overgrown and teeming with parasitic vines. The second her eyes lit on it, she made for it, sliding on the loose plant debris underfoot. She darted behind it and pressed her back against it, letting it shield her from the road. Every muscle in her firm, young body was taut, her senses straining to scour the wall of trees from which she had just emerged. There was a soft clink as she moved her right arm; a metal bolt was notched in the apparatus on the back of her leather gauntlet.
A cruel tip mounted on a cold steel shaft.
Four short barrels – one over each knuckle – were loaded with an identical missile. She stood rigidly still, arm upraised, weapon pointing to the dark canopy above her. Waiting for something. Something that was expected from the opposite side of the road, from the direction she had come.
It was deathly still. The forest itself seemed to be holding its breath in expectation. The sun beat down relentlessly on the upper branches. The girl blinked rivulets of sweat from her eyes and clenched her fist tighter, the tips of the silver arrows quivering slightly. Her breathing was quite heavy still; it stopped almost altogether when a furtive sound reached her ears. It was a soft rustling, like a snake slithering through the undergrowth.
Long talons rasped on the leaf-littered forest floor. A skeletal claw shoved a branch aside. A blunt, ugly snout emerged from the trees, hesitantly entering the open space. A long tail flicked behind it, leaving a faint trail in the dirt in its wake. Three sets of nostrils that were mounted atop its head, where eyes should have been on any logical creature, dilated as it sniffed the air questioningly, searching for something.
With its own sense, it scoured the surrounding woods. So much life in this forest, so much life; a mass of teeming, intersecting life strains, organisms growing all in a jumble. There, the life was thickest; there, the most strains criss-crossed; there, an unusual shape in the landscape, behind a wall of quivering vines…prey…
The creature snuffled through its six nostrils with interest. It opened its vast mouth, lined with row upon row of pin-like teeth, and made a noise of satisfaction, a noise of triumph.
"Graaa! Graaa!" it rasped in its thickset throat, turning its head towards the tree stump.
The girl tensed. It was only a matter of time. She waited in a feverish silence, waiting for it to come…
On spindly legs, with a gangly, awkward gait, it stalked across the road. The girl prepared herself, counting the sound of its paces…
…three, four… get it before it's too close, or you're a goner…eight, nine… make the shot count, you may not live to get another…eleven, twelve…go on, just do it, do it soon…
She half-turned, ready to spring from her hiding place, her senses humming, heart pounding in her ears…
Tap. Tap. Tap.
A new sound reached her, faint at first. The creature heard it too. She listened as its approach halted halfway to her hiding spot, curious, cautious. It snuffled again, investigating, waiting to see what was coming. The girl strained her ears towards the approaching sound as well. It was gradually coming down the road, coming from the west. It was a methodical, even sound, out of place here in the wilderness.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The creature took a step towards it and rasped interrogatively. The girl dared to peep around the stump. The creature's nostrils were whiffing frantically towards a bend in the road, ten feet from where it stood. That was where the sound came from. Someone was coming, obscured from her sight by a stand of trees. It sounded like they were almost here, whoever they were.
Tap. Tap. Tk.
A man emerged from the trees and halted, the tip of the cane he carried resonating off a stray pebble as he came to a standstill. He was rather well-dressed for a wayward traveler; a voluminous cloak in a rich, deep black swayed around his shoulders, and a hat in a similar hue was perched upon his head. The cane he held, to stylish effect, was of an elegant design. Yet the hem of his cloak was clearly frayed, the hat's felt worn thin in places, the silver on the fastenings of his scuffed boots and on the battered head of the cane almost completely tarnished black. He stood nonchalantly, his face partially hidden by his windborne hair and high collar. There was no trace of fear in his stance, his feet planted firmly apart, shoulders square, hands poised on the cane before him with a gentlemanly air. His eyes were likewise unexpressive, and he seemed to be merely contemplating the fearsome apparition that stood directly in his path.
The creature took a step towards him, nostrils dilating and contracting fiercely, apparently in a state of utmost agitation. Still somewhat cautious, but rather intrigued by this new presence, it took one step, then another towards the dark figure in the road, who stayed utterly still, as though mesmerized, perhaps frozen in fear…
The creature emitted a fearsome yelp that resounded like a hurricane tearing through the trees. Four glistening shafts protruded from its shoulder. It whirled to face the direction they had come from and swiped ferociously at the tree stump. Curiously, its claw passed right through the stump, leaving it completely intact; yet the vines that covered it swept wildly sideways, as though blown by a violent gale. Green tendrils tore and crumpled, the tree carcass now standing bare, still erect and completely free of vegetation. There was no sign of the girl, through surely if she had stood there, the claw's fearsome swipe would've gone straight through her, shredding her like a tender young leaf in its path…
Another volley of bolts exploded from the treetops above the stump and slightly to the right. They caught the creature right in the tip of its blunt nose. It let loose a blood-curdling shriek of agony. Three of its six nostrils were pinioned by silver arrows. It snuffled deeply, desperately, flailing around as though it had been suddenly rendered blind. It faltered towards the man who still stood, motionless, in the way of its frantic writhing…
Something burst from the branches above – a pair of stout rawhide boots, followed by a figure in flight.
"Move, shithead, or you're draaken feed!"
The girl growled this rough statement over her shoulder as she launched herself out of the tree; the words flew at him as fiercely as a barrage of her arrows, but for all their ferocity they seemed to fall on deaf ears. The man not so much as blinked.
Ignoring this seeming fear-paralyzed fool, the girl flew at the creature – the draaken – like a bird of prey. Her arms were outstretched; in each hand, she held a short, scythe-like weapon, each tipped with a cruelly-curving silver blade. The creature turned towards her at the last moment; its tail lashed viciously, its deadly maw opened in protest, but dazed by its injuries it could not defend itself in time. The two blades swung downwards and impaled the creature, one blade over the other, in the centre of its chest.
It flailed weakly on the spot. It made a guttural sound in its throat; a death rattle. Its edges were becoming indistinct, its entire form slowly turning translucent. Rivulets of a strangely glowing, sap-like substance intersecting its entire form like veins. They became densest at the creature's core, where a roughly orb-like object, like a dark, faintly-glowing crystal, hovered in its breast. The tip of one of the scythe-blades had cracked this 'heart' of sorts with an unerring precision; now it shattered, the destruction rippling through the whole creature, its molecules gradually separating until it was merely a roughly draaken-shaped cloud of particles. This miasma slowly condensed, drawn to a spot at the girl's throat; a crystal, similar in colour to that at the draaken's core, hung around her neck. The cloud was pulled toward it; it sparkled with a flashing, violet light for a few moments as the particles filtered into it. Then, with no traces of the creature left, the glow dimmed and died away; it became merely a black stone. The girl, who had been standing with arms spread as the cloud of molecules was drawn to her pendant, now let them fall by her sides, the twins scythes still clutched in them. Her head dropped forward and she sighed deeply, as though in exhaustion. She remained like that for a moment, her breath rising and falling tumultuously, recovering from the fight.
She turned around and gave the man a hostile glare. Her eyes were narrowed and her brow furrowed in a vicious look, perhaps as ferocious as that she had given the draaken. The man returned her gaze impassively.
"What were you playin' at, you fuckin' prick!" Her voice was brazen, yet it wavered at the edges, trembling slightly. "If a draaken is five paces away from tearing your soul from your body, and you don't stand there like a frickin' dummy! You shoulda moved! You were inches away from death, and you just stared at it! Are you deaf and dumb, or just dense?!"
The man didn't reply, but just looked steadily back at her smoldering gaze. Perhaps he was stunned by this coarse tirade coming from such a young and pretty girl. A girl who had just single-handedly slaughtered a draaken and absorbed its life energy.
Gradually, under the unwavering, emotionless gaze directed at her by this strange man, her anger softened. She passed one scythe blade to her other hand and sheepishly rubbed the back of her neck.
"Sorry. It was a bit tense just then. It nearly got me earlier, gave me quite a chase, in fact. I got a bit freaked out. It's dead now, that's the main thing, and I've got its 'escentia' right here." As she said these last words she tapped the pendant lightly with one finger. It looked rather nondescript now, just an artfully cut and polished black stone, neither beautiful nor valuable. A few violet-hued highlights glistened on its surface as the light caught it, but otherwise it looked quite commonplace. "Another bit of energy, another step closer to tradin' this one in. Don't even think of stealing it off me, by the way, or I'll do to you what I did to the draaken." The two scythe blades were brandished threateningly at him, adding promise to her words.
"Why would I do such a thing? You just preserved my life."
His lips were hidden by his high collar; his words seemed to float from some remote point, like a disembodied voice drifting from the forest's shadows. It was deep, yet sounded quite youthful. It was as expressionless as the man himself.
"Oh, so you can hear and speak, eh, arsehole? Are you stupid, cowardly, crazy? Or a combination of all three?"
He didn't answer this query either, which was just as well, as it was offensive enough to be considered a rhetoric insult. He merely looked at the girl without the slightest change in his face or pose. She stared at him, somewhat bewildered. Then she ran a hand over her glistening face and heaved a frustrated sigh.
"Sorry again, that was pretty rude of me. I get like that straight after a fight, I'm a bit on edge still. You sound young, you're probably not much older than me. What're you doing out here alone? It's not much of a place, this, for wandering around."
"I could say the same to you."
"Hmph! So you have an attitude under the fancy coat and pretentious get-up. I'm not the one who stood in the path of a draaken, frozen like a gibbering idiot, and I'm not the one gallivanting around in a swarmy costume. Who carries a fancy cane like that out here? Can you bludgeon things with it? Nah, if you could, you probably would've done to save yourself back there." She gave him a wry smile and tilted her head to one side, considering him anew. "Well, you're either foolhardy or suicidal, wandering around alone without a weapon. You wanna stay with me for a while? I'll take you safely on to the next town. As you can see, I'm quite capable of defending us both from draaken-attacks. I'll have to charge you for the protection, of course, but given your fancy clothing, I'd say you can afford it. And don't get any funny ideas, it's protection only. Try anything on me, and you'll wind up same as that draaken."
"I appreciate the offer, but your protection is not needed."
"The hell it isn't!" she shot back instantly, giving him another look of withering disdain. "You'll go another fifty paces, meet another draaken, and get yourself killed without me around. Those things travel in pairs, you know. I'm a traider, I know what I'm talking about. Now I don't know you, but I don't like the idea of draakens feedin' off us humans like we're a living smorgasbord. I'm staying with you until you safely get to another town, soul intact. I'm not making my job harder by having them draakens get your soul and become stronger, and harder for me to fight off, so you can get any thought 'bout the embarrassment of letting a girl protect you right outta your mind. I may be a girl, but I do my job properly, just as good as any man, and if anyone tries to tell you otherwise, he's a bleedin' liar, or will be bleedin' once I'm through with him. Well, now that that's settled, let's get outta here, there's too much residual energy here and I wanna set up a camp before sundown."
Folding back the scythes' retractable blades and slipping them into a holster on each hip, she turned and tramped away from the youth down the road, not bothering to give him a backward glance. He stood for a moment, as though he would defy the arrangement she had so hastily and forcefully made; then, perhaps after a second's deliberation, the tap-tap of his cane followed obediently after her.