Jiaying knew the monster was coming before anybody else did.
Up on the crest of the grey Yueli mountains, she sat, legs kicking in the air, persimmon half-eaten in hand. The spot she was so comfortably situated in provided an almost aerial view of the town she had been sent to. Its name was Xujin; tiny, comfortable, a village that was more of a rest stop than a place to live. Most unfortunately for the people, Xujin was about to be destroyed.
She watched the village carefully, eyes raking over the people. The houses with sloping roofs and stone walls lined a frozen stream from the mountains. A thick layer of snow had fallen over the town, coating the buildings and cobblestone streets. Small children kicked sleet around the meek town center. Old women with thick petticoats hobbled around. People of all sorts milled about beneath her. It was truly an awful day to have the monthly open market.
The scent of the food wafted over to even where she was. Oh, how the roast lamb made her mouth water. Jiaying closed her eyes and savored the aroma. Ever since she crossed into the mountains, fresh food was as scarce as warm weather. But she needed to pay attention—she was here for a reason. That reason being tracking a monster. And not just your run-of-the-mill goblin, no, much more than that.
There were a multitude of reports and sightings claiming that a taotie was charging towards the Eastern tips of Lanhua. A mythological creature with a goat’s body, a human face, tiger’s teeth, the voice of a baby, and eyes beneath its arms. Jiaying scoffed when she heard this. It seemed that on a daily basis some estranged farmer would see a goat and immediately cry that the Gods were delivering their wrath. She expected that the supposed beast here in Xujin would be the same as every other report—a falsehood.
But she still scanned the land beneath her, warily anticipating the arrival of a mighty beast. The number of reports was rather unnerving. It was likely the reason why she was here instead of anyone else in the guild.
After taking a huge bite from her gleaming persimmon, the snow crunched behind her. She whipped around, anticipating an ambush. She relaxed when she saw who it was.
“Bao, where did you go?” she said through a mouthful of fruit. The blue dragon let out a little huff and flapped its wings at her.
Bao was Jiaying’s dragon. Not the fire-breathing, menacing, jaw-snapping, and roaring kind of dragon, but more like one that was the size of your forearm and cried whenever it saw cows. She had picked him up when he was still an egg; abandoned at the foot of a tree. Only the Gods knew what a baby dragon was doing abandoned in Khyargal. Naturally, she took the egg, initially intending to sell it once it hatched, but that evidently didn’t go as planned.
Bao proved to be useless. He could not breathe fire. He could not attack monsters. He certainly could not grow larger than Jiaying’s arm, but he stuck to her like glue. For the past few months, no matter how hard she tried or how far she went, Bao would not leave her side. It was as if he was magically attached to her. Even on the most dangerous missions, the little dragon would brave the harshest ice storms and hottest deserts to stay with Jiaying.
“You scare me when you leave,” said Jiaying, stretching in her spot. “I’ve found that I really do appreciate your help. Well, rather, your company. You don’t do much, but I love you.”
She waved her persimmon over to the village. “Anywho...do you see that? That village is about to be ravaged. But not if I step in! I shall save the day. How does that sound?”
Bao did not reply once again.
She grunted. Her vision shifted over to the eastern corners of the village. The Yueli mountain range provided protection for the western part of the village, but the southeastern end was completely bare. If the beast would come, it would likely be from there. As well as that, where she stood now would be a good spot for a waypoint.
With a swift stroke of a brush that materialized from practically nowhere, she marked a thick X on the location of the village on her crumpled map. “This should be it,” she muttered to herself.
She kept a map of all the places she had visited not for the fun of it, but to access the world’s linked teleportation system. It was by no means perfect—at least once a week the magical systems would shut down—but it did the job. Jiaying herself wasn’t quite sure how it worked. It was never explained to her. Only members of the Guild were allowed access to it, and even then it was strictly for commissions and quests. Other than that, no one would be teleporting around. The links would likely implode if that happened.
Lately, the waypoints had been unpredictable. Shut down on some days, open on others. Only a few days ago she was trapped in a desert town in Samlat. This was likely due to the influx of traffic in Athesan, where the ever-popular Trial of the Gods would be hosted.
Jiaying swore she got a headache whenever she was reminded of it. The Trial of the Gods was a glorified fighting tournament, yet for some reason, everybody loved it and their favorite contenders. She suspected the trials weren't going anywhere. It was a long tradition of the Viscaria Republic. Quite a shame because to her it was nothing but an annoyance. But she had to admit, the reward for the winners was rather attractive.
Today, luckily, she could take the waypoint back to central Lanhua. A quick trip of about twenty seconds. If not for this, Jiaying would have never become a traveler. She shoved the map back into her infinite pocket, stitched onto her pants by the guildmaster, a very essential component of her travels.
Then, the most blood-curdling roar Jiaying had ever heard rang out through the mountain. She jumped.
“Gods!” said Jiaying. “That’s horrifying.”
Bao raised his hackles and squeaked. The two exchanged glances, the unspoken words shared between them. We’ve got to go.
Taking the mountainside ledge by ledge, the two of them slipped down to the icy ground. Except, Bao flew the way down, so it was really Jiaying climbing down. No help from the tiny dragon there.
They hurried towards the closest opening in the village. It appeared that there were two main entrances and exits. The beast would come either way, but now it appeared that it was going to the one furthest from Jiaying.
The best way to approach this would be first, going to the village to relay evacuation orders, and second, pushing through to get to the back exit. And contrary to popular beliefs, guild members weren’t money-thirsty savages who neglected the well-being of others. It was in the code to put the safety of civilians above the quest.
Back to the plan: going the long way around would take too much time—time that she did not have. Upon arrival, she would fight the beast and kill it. That was if everything went right and her opponent wasn’t a mythological beast with eyes in its armpits.
Jiaying tapped her sides, checking for her daggers. They were there as always. And with a glance behind her shoulder, she was assured that her precious sword had not fallen out of its clasp.
She landed on the path leading to the village. As she turned into the first street, civilians were pouring through the exit. There was some sort of evacuation happening. A few people wearing considerably nicer clothes shouted instructions in the local dialect, ushering civilians out. People shuffled past her in messy lines. She sighed with relief. That was a task off of Jiaying’s endless list.
She slipped through and scaled one of the more manageable buildings. She gritted her teeth, hands aching with the amount of force she had to use. The smooth stone walls made it hard to maintain a grip. Nevertheless, she made it.
She scanned the area. Everything seemed fine, besides the suddenly missing monster. That was actually a massive problem. Where had it gone?
And then she heard the second bellow. The previous calm that smothered the village shattered. People below her began to shriek and panic, shoving through the lines. Fear had taken hold of the people.
She crept across the curled roof, trying her best to not slip and fall. Damn, she thought. Closer than I thought. A stampede of people shouted and pushed past where she crouched. They swarmed around everywhere, stumbling. She heard a baby wailing in the distance. No, multiple babies.
But not that many people live here, she reasoned. Xujin wasn’t large enough to mandate a proper evacuation order. The village chiefs already figured it out, mostly. The higher-ups wouldn’t get involved, no. Her quest, commission, whatever you called it—would go fine. She just needed to get to the other end of town. But she still swallowed nervously, unsheathing her sword from behind her back. A lot could go wrong.
Bao let out a little huff. She glanced at him and understood what he meant. Hopefully. Get a move on, is what she got from that. So that was what she did.
She made her way to the main square, barely managing to leap from roof to roof. The area was jarringly deserted. Nearby houses had their doors flung wide open, belongings in a trail. A singular boot lay in the thick white snow. Items and goods from the market were left out. The stores were empty. What other monsters must these people have seen?
Jiaying leapt down to creep over to an alley. It was barely a small crack wedged between two shops, but it would have to do. Her teeth chattered from the icy temperatures and her anxiety.
Bao still fluttered behind her, bouncing up and down, nervous in his movement. It was beyond her why the little dragon had stuck around this long.
“Be quiet,” whispered Jiaying. Bao whimpered in his fright. “Or, as quiet as you can.”
Her breath caught in her throat as she heard a crack. Bao also went quiet. They stood, neither daring to move, listening for any other sounds.
There was nothing. All Jiaying could hear was the beat of her heart and the soft flap of Bao next to her. It was eerily quiet—too quiet. The monster must have gotten to the village already. So where the hell was it?
He did not to be told twice. Bao flew away, perching atop a nearby roof. Jiaying made sure he was safe before peeking out once again. Hands pressed against the cool stone, heart accelerating, she looked.
That was when she heard the boom.
A crash resounded through the village, followed by a menacing snarl. Jiaying nearly yelped in her shock. Screams erupted from the far end. She began to tremble, adrenaline pumping through her veins.
At the crash, she had raised her hand to cover her eyes. But as she now warily lowered it, she saw that something was wrong. There, by the opposite gate of the village, hovered a large cloud of dust. It was too thick, too dark. Although her vision was obscured by the rubble of the crash, she saw a moving form beneath the dust. Something large. Something that was definitely not a human or an animal—a monster.
She let out a shaky breath. Maybe monster hunting wasn’t her forte after all.
The first gate had been broken down. That was bad news. To make it worse, some villagers were still going through the other gate. These people weren’t safe any longer. This was no longer about her. Others were endangered.
The beast staggered to its hooves. Or feet. Or, anything, really. Jiaying could barely see. Her eyes stung from the dust. Her ears were fine, so the beast’s next roar was as loud as ever. Spittle flew everywhere. Some of it splattered not too far from where she was.
Saliva wasn’t the worst problem here. It was far from it. Because, as the dust faded and her eyes cleared up, she got a better idea of what she was grappling with. It was definitely not a taotie.
The monster stood at a menacing height, at least the same as the buildings around her. Black sinew jutted out from its rigid muscular body, a cropped layer of dark tuft over it, yellow eyes slits through the jungle of its thick grey mane. Two twisting horns bulged out of its boar-like head. Dried dark blood was splattered on its mouth. Its entire body seemed to pulse with pure evil. And perhaps worst of all, it gripped a glowing axe in its right hand. The axe burned a monstrous dark red even from afar. She did not want to think about what enchantments or curses had been put onto it.
She took a deep breath, gripping her sword tightly. If the right time to attack this monster would ever come up, it would be now. Jiaying wished she could turn back and flee like the rest of the people. However, she knew that this was her duty—sworn.
“Let’s get this over with, shall we?”