“Let’s get this over with, shall we?”
She leapt from her safety. She aimed for the monster’s neck, slicing it with her sword. Black blood spurted from the wound. Jiaying hissed as it met her skin. Monster blood—it always stung. That would have been a killing strike by normal circumstances, but she reckoned this monster would take a few hits before dying.
The beast let out a howl. It came charging at her, fangs bared, axe gleaming. She swiftly dodged. The familiar euphoria of a fight spread through Jiaying. Not too rusty, she thought, grinning.
She then rolled around the blundering beast. The beast seemed to be as slow as it was tall. With all of her might, she struck the beast’s side. She thrust the Bringer of Dusk into its stomach, twisting. Lame name, right?
The beast bellowed in its rage and pain. It swung its massive axe in retaliation. She watched as the axe barely missed her, slamming into the ground. Her sword clattered to her right, blood dripping down its length.
The monster tried to yank the axe out of the ground. Jiaying gasped as she realized the axe was stuck. She knew that this was her chance.
If this didn’t kill it, then she wouldn’t know what would. She snatched her sword again. Then, putting all of her force into the attack, she raised her arms.
“Take this, you—” Jiaying spewed a vast amount of highly inappropriate swear words.
But the sword skewed the monster’s chest instead of its neck.
How? She jumped back, looking down at her sword. It gleamed, as sharp as ever. She had made the mistake. There was no other factor to blame this time.
The monster let out a manic cry, perhaps with glee, perhaps with fury. It tugged on the axe and it finally exploded out of the ground. Jiaying was knocked backward.
That didn’t work, thought Jiaying as she smashed into the stone. I think I just made the thing really mad.
And mad, it was.
The beast had its chance now. It thundered towards Jiaying, eyes blazing. All she was now was an insignificant insect to be swatted away. A rat. Easy game for a monster. Jiaying screamed in defiance and fear. No, she would not be an ant. Not so soon.
The monster lunged for her. She yelped and dove. Her body slammed into the ground once again, such a force that made her slump to the ground. She barely missed the strike.
What she saw when she got to her feet made her stomach drop. The beast tore down the street, the road cracking beneath its stomps. It had forgotten about her—it did not want one measly human, no, it wanted the whole village.
She cursed, running after the beast. “Get back here!”
The beast paid her no attention. It was focused on the big fish now. Jiaying’s mind raced as it closed in on the evacuating villagers, raising its red axe. There was nothing in its way now. It would feast. Was this truly the end?
She shook her head. No. It wouldn’t be.
“You son of a—” Jiaying fumbled with her pocket, hastily grabbing a smoking green dagger and chucking it. The dagger sunk into its back. A perfect throw.
But the monster did not turn and come charging in Jiaying’s direction. It kept advancing onto the villagers.
Jiaying waited. Please work. Please don’t be faulty, she thought.
Then the beast stumbled. It swayed, swiveling around. Jiaying sighed with relief. The dagger was poisoned—she had done it herself. She applied it many months ago but didn’t deem any situations drastic enough to put to use. This event certainly classified as an emergency.
The beast clenched its stomach, axe clattering to the ground. The people were too terrified to cheer, from what Jiaying could see. She wouldn’t be cheering either. Sooner than later the poison would spread through its body, shutting down every organ, leading it to a quick death.
Jiaying could crumple to the ground right then and there. Thank the Gods. Just in time for the last waves of people to leave. She approached the monster as it collapsed with a grunt.
“I haven’t quite fought a monster like you,” she mused, peering down at the now feeble creature.
It began to convulse on the ground, foam forming on its lips. Jiaying grimaced. “But you stink. Gods, maybe it’s your stench that makes you so resilient.”
The beast twitched, a variety of movements coursing through its body. Had she used too much poison? A bit of sympathy twinged through her. It was meant to be painless enough. Minus the whole fighting and killing situation.
A frown fell on her face. A part of her felt like she was made for this. That she was meant to be an adventurer, a traveler, a fighter. She felt like she was helping people; protecting the civilians of Lanhua. But who did she end up hurting?
Why do you feel remorse for a monster? she snapped at herself. The thing is born to bring pain.
She got up from her squat. Maybe that was the exact problem. Monsters were born to maim. How could they know anything else? Was it cruel to taunt them?
“That’s never what you say when you’re in battle,” she said to the empty village.
The familiar end of a commission came to her. These next few steps would be easy. Sever the head or take an important part of the monster to sell. Return to the guild. Report the death. Receive the quest reward. Continue onto the next one. Always the same.
She curiously studied the monster before choosing what to take. “I wonder how much you go for,” she said, walking around the beast’s crumpled body.
At this point, the monster was dead. There was no way any creature could have survived a dose of poison like that. The lack of breath and the fact that the monster had stopped convulsing was more than enough to tell her of that. But she had the barest feeling that something was wrong. Perhaps it was just her mind playing tricks on her, but the corpse of the monster radiated life. Humanity.
She shook her head. You’re going crazy, she thought. Just take its head and get to Nanyang.
So that was what she did. She grabbed a dagger and began to go at it. Gods, it stank. She grimaced all the way through. Whatever this thing was made of—it was tough. She hacked at the corpse’s neck, gritting her teeth and looking away. And it seemed like the more that she cut, the more of whatever rotten stench filled the air. She felt like she was choking on it. Finally, with a last slice, the head rolled onto the ground.
“There,” she said, breathless. She sat back for a moment, inhaling the cool mountain air. This was the one part that she hated the most of monster hunting. Although it wasn’t exactly mandatory, it was a large part of the profit.
When she looked down at the beast again, she gasped. A large cloud of dark particles flowed out from the beast’s body, thick black and purple specks fluttering all around. As if they were pieces of the beast, floating away.
What is that? She coughed, pushing herself backward.
She squinted at it and realized that the corpse was melting. Or unraveling. But it was falling apart, nevertheless, everything wilting except for the head. Goosebumps prickled up her skin. What kind of corpse just melted?
A state of horrid curiosity took over her as she watched the flesh peel off. She didn’t want to look, she really didn't, yet she just kept staring. The same bits of the corpse swirled into the air, growing the dark mass emitting from the body.
Nausea then rose up in her throat. Perhaps watching a monster rot wasn’t the best pastime. Jiaying doubled over and nearly puked. What kind of monster...?
Then all of the alarms in her head began to go off. Something deep inside her told her that this was wrong. Very, dangerously wrong. Sudden paranoia made her feel trapped, throat tightening. She glanced behind her back. There was nothing, no one there. Her panicked feelings would not subside despite being in broad daylight. It was as if her mind was going haywire. So why did she feel like she wasn’t alone?
After a great deal of deliberation, she shot a glance at the corpse again. It had changed. Flesh tendrils were wrapped around a small object inside the beast’s body. Jiaying squinted at it, trying to figure out what it was.
And then it clicked. Because as she stared at the peeling corpse, as her eyes widened, and as the corpse opened to reveal the insides, she realized that the beast was no beast.
He was a little boy, and there he lay, as dead as the monster she had just slain.
No. Her stomach dropped. Had she just killed a human? A child?
She clapped her hand over her mouth. His cracked lips blended in with his sickly pale skin, wearing a brown tunic covered in flesh and blood. Jiaying couldn't see the wrapped away bottom half of his body, as if he were a part of it, one with the monster.
No, no. This is a hallucination. Jiaying pressed her hand to her forehead, but there was no sign of fever. There was nothing to comfort her, nothing to tell her that this was a delusion. She could only stare at the reality that was in front of her.
“This is a mistake,” she whispered, horror-stricken. No one replied. No one comforted her.
Her mind began to reel, a number of outcomes and possibilities rolling out before her. Would she be arrested? Would she even be associated with it if she left now? Gods, would anyone even know? She took a deep breath. She had never heard of monsters growing out of children, or children being born from monsters.
No, she bit back firmly. No. Calm down. Be reasonable. This cannot be your fault.
Jiaying’s lip quivered as she wildly looked around for the comfort of her dragon. Upon hearing his name, he crept out of the shadows. He whimpered.
“Bao,” said Jiaying again, head pounding. “What do I do?”
Bao nudged her with his head. She gently stroked his scaly head, but this was not the time for cuddling. He nudged her again, this time letting out a trill. He was beckoning her to the exit—to leave. Perhaps he was wiser than her at times.
She exhaled. Panic will get you nowhere. That was one thing her aunt always liked to say, and as much as Jiaying still panicked, her aunt was right.
In her fear, she struggled to her legs. They shook beneath her. If she had slain a child, then she had no place being here anymore. A stream of violent and degrading thoughts ripped through her head. She took another deep breath. Through the guilt and the fear, a plan began to unravel in her head. She wouldn't take the reward. She would act as if she had never come. She would be no fugitive—no criminal. Until this died down, she needed somewhere to hide. Somewhere to blend in.
In her delirium, she realized that there was one place to go. Athesan.