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Great [Monster] Journey 17

RSanon Jan 18th, 2014 1,950 Never
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  1. “Is that a person?”
  2.  
  3. “Huh?” Galen’s head turned at Seira’s words. She was pointing out across the distance toward a thin cropping of trees, the first break they’d seen in the plains since leaving the small forest that morning. The afternoon sun shone bright in his eyes as they followed her direction. He squinted but couldn’t make anything out. Sometimes he felt envious of the sharpness of monster vision. “I don’t see anything.”
  4.  
  5. “It’s moving unlike any animal.” She unfurled a wing to block the wind from her eyes, taking a more concentrated stare. “Too small for most monsters.” She glanced over to Sybyll. “You see it?”
  6.  
  7. “Hmm.” Protecting her eyes like Seira, she took a good look at the mystery object. “I’m afraid my eyes aren’t much better than your own, but I suspect you are correct.”
  8.  
  9. Who could possibly be out here and why? Taking a deep breath of the dry air, Galen crossed his arms. “I think we should go talk to whoever it is. I want to know what they’re doing out here.” He laid a hand on his stomach. “And if they have any meat. It’s been forever since I’ve had a good cooked meal. I should have gotten one back in the city,” he moped.
  10.  
  11. “You didn’t have any money, idiot. You still don’t,” said Seira, glaring at him.
  12.  
  13. “Hey! It’s nice to think about at least!”
  14.  
  15. Mino tugged at his sleeve. She’d taken up a spot next to him ever since they’d departed that morning, mimicking his every move. That had included his morning routine, though he hadn’t minded in the slightest. “Let’s go! I want to meet him, too!”
  16.  
  17. He heard Seira sigh at that. Still wasn’t giving it a rest, huh? Her trouble with Mino nagged at him every time it came up, but he didn’t know what to do about it. Mino was trying to be nice, but no amount of kindness seemed to sway Seira. Whenever he thought about confronting Seira about it, he just saw that glare from her the morning they’d found Mino. Thinking back, he had no idea where the strength to hold Seira back came from. The mere thought of being the one to aggravate her made him squeamish. Even now, he was breaking out in a sweat.
  18.  
  19. “Galen, c’mon!” said Mino. She pulled at his arm until he started walking toward the far-off figure.
  20.  
  21. “Some caution would be advised,” said Sybyll, catching up to Galen. “We know not what this person is out here for or what sort of character he or she may be. I will approach first.”
  22.  
  23. Galen looked to Seira for her opinion. She shrugged. Taking that as approval to proceed, Sybyll made her way toward the figure at a jog, the rest of the party not far behind.
  24.  
  25. Seira made a point of staying on the side of Galen opposite Mino.
  26.  
  27. A smile crawled onto Galen’s face. It’d only been a day and a half since they left Fullsburg, but the plains were boring beyond belief. The tall grass had scratched at his legs with each step even through his pants. The same scenery for miles and miles with no buffer from the cold wind dulled his appreciation for the scale of it. He’d probably walked the length of Nox by now, just in these plains alone.
  28.  
  29. Finally, they had come across something interesting. Hopefully it wasn’t dangerous, too. He kept his eyes forward as he jogged, eager to find whatever figure Sybyll and Seira had been looking at before. Mino apparently could see it as well, since her eyes were focused. He frowned. How did slime eyes work, anyways? Did the goo somehow catch light the right way and channel it to the core? Or were they for show and she actually got information some other way? Shaking his head, he set his attentions forward again. Some other time.
  30.  
  31. It turned out Seira was right: it was a person. A middle-aged man, to be exact, a couple of leaves tangled in with the mess of short black hair atop his head. He stood a decent height, perhaps a bit taller than average, with a sturdy build Galen was instantly envious of. The man definitely noticed them, but only watched for the moment. When the group got within speaking distance, the man raised a bow at them, stopping them in their tracks.
  32.  
  33. “Who are you? What do you want?” His voice came out deep and booming.
  34.  
  35. “We’re travelers!” Mino blurted out before anyone else could give a greeting. She opened her mouth to say more, but Galen stuffed his hand in it.
  36.  
  37. He cringed when she started sucking.
  38.  
  39. “We are indeed traveling,” said Sybyll. “We head north, and were curious about you. We’ve not seen another soul for many miles.”
  40.  
  41. “North?” The bow wavered from Seira to Sybyll. “From Fullsburg, I take it? But why head north here? No one takes the beach passage when the east is open to them.”
  42.  
  43. “Perhaps you can lower the bow before we discuss our travel plans.”
  44.  
  45. He narrowed his eyes. “Or I could release. Why head north?”
  46.  
  47. Seira stepped in. “We’re not taking the beach passage. We’re bound for Mallus.”
  48.  
  49. “So you’re just crazy. Fair enough.” The bow lowered, but the man kept an arrow nocked. “As for your curiosity, there’s not much for me to tell. I live out here, and I was hunting.” He gestured with his head. Not far off, a buck lay on the ground, an arrow sticking out of it. “Just had some success, in fact. Ran straight into me for some reason. I’m guessing it must’ve caught your scent. Lucky for me, I suppose.”
  50.  
  51. “Buck?” Galen couldn’t help himself. He was already salivating. “As in, meat?”
  52.  
  53. The man smirked. “No need to make your hunger so obvious.” He looked over the group, eyes scanning for more than the obvious. He lingered on Seira a moment before turning back to Sybyll. “I was just thinking about how to get this thing back home on my own without leaving it for some other predator. Thing’s bigger than I can carry alone. If you help with the carrying and the cooking, I think I can spare some. Probably couldn’t eat the whole thing before it went bad, anyways.”
  54.  
  55. “Yes!” Galen blurted, freeing his hand-turned-pacifier from Mino’s mouth and raising it. “I will definitely help!”
  56.  
  57. Seira sighted, a paw in her face, but didn’t offer objection. Sybyll merely nodded in acceptance and Mino joined Galen in his enthusiasm, raising her own hand and jumping.
  58.  
  59. “I will definitely help!”
  60.  
  61. “You’ll get slime all over the buck,” Seira grumbled.
  62.  
  63. Mino moped to Galen, eyes begging for his approval. He shifted his feet in place, looking between Seira and Mino and biting his lower lip in thought. “Mino, Seira’s right. Sorry. You’ll have to just watch for now.”
  64.  
  65. Mino literally deflated, but at the same time Galen saw Seira’s chest jut out a bit. He shot her a glare. Just because she was right didn’t mean she should be so haughty about it.
  66.  
  67. The man was busy removing his arrow from the buck’s carcass when Seira and Galen stepped up to help. Wiping the blood off the tip, he slid the arrow back in his quiver and put his hands his hips.
  68.  
  69. “Been a while since I’ve landed such a nice shot on a moving target. Good thing I’ve got someone to show it off to, huh?” He blasted out a cheery grin, then gestured to the carcass. “I’ll get the head. Keep those antlers from doing any damage while we haul this thing back in. The stronger one of you two can get the belly and the other can grab it ‘round the rear.”
  70.  
  71. Galen and Seira both went for the belly, bumping into each other when they bent down. Glare met glare. With what leverage he had, Galen pushed at Seira with his body. She pushed back. Their faces came closer and closer, eyes growing darker, strength pumping into their little war, until Galen lost his balance and flopped over onto the ground. His glare soured at the sight of Seira’s victory smile. Fine. She could take the brunt of the work. He brushed himself off then grabbed the carcass just in front of the hind legs. On a short count from the man, they lifted with grunts, Seira’s paws having no trouble gripping the meat of the beast. The buck looked even larger held up, making Galen’s mouth water to the point he almost drooled. The man lead the small group forward.
  72.  
  73. “Name’s Roy, by the way. How about all of you?”
  74.  
  75. “I’m Galen, the head of our group.” He nodded to everyone as he introduced them. “This is Seira, she’s a bit stuffy, but she grows on--ow, hey, tail’s cheating! Then there’s Sybyll and finally Mino.”
  76.  
  77. “Pleasure. You got quite an interesting group together. Never imagined I’d see so many monsters with just one guy. How’d that happen?”
  78.  
  79. “It’s a bit of a story. I can tell you over our meal, actually, when we’re all gathered and ready.”
  80.  
  81. Roy adjusted the buck’s head on his shoulder. “I look forward to it!”
  82.  
  83. “What about you? How did you come to live out here?” asked Seira.
  84.  
  85. “Me? Well, I was something of a wandering merchant for most of my life. Most of my time was spent between cities. Gave that all up when I ran into my wife.”
  86.  
  87. Seira’s ears perked up. “Your wife?”
  88.  
  89. “Yeah. Decided to take the beach passage up north and I bumped into her. Was hunting in the very place we’re walking through now! Game sometimes wanders here from the forest up north, and here where the trees are very thin, it’s much easier to land a good shot according to her. She’s a much better hunter than I am. I mean, she caught me!” He slapped a hand to his belly, chuckling along with his own joke. “Anyways, it turned out we were both hunting. Scared me half to death when I noticed her, too. Didn’t have the wits back then that I do now. She knew I was there before I showed myself, but didn’t approach or make any threatening movements. Not a bad idea when the man behind the bow is shaking with fear. After I got a hold of myself, I approached her and we got to chatting. Neither one of us caught anything by the time the sun went down, but I offered some food and supplies in exchange for shelter in her home.” He shot a knowing look over his shoulder. “She made a very convincing argument for me to stay, so I did. Fell in love not long after and been together since.”
  90.  
  91. One of Seira’s ears was now twitching like mad. It made Galen want to squeeze it. “How long has it been?”
  92.  
  93. “’Bout fifteen years, now. Looking back, I don’t know how I ever lived without her. Funny that fifteen years isn’t much to her, but in a good few years I’ll be aged more than she.”
  94.  
  95. “’Aged more’?”
  96.  
  97. He scratched his head. “Ah, yeah. Little confusing said like that. She’s a ushi-oni, right around six hundred years old--but don’t tell her I told you. Sensitive about the whole age thing. I’ll be fifty in the spring.”
  98.  
  99. “Wow,” said Galen. He had gotten lost Roy’s talking about his wife and almost dropped his end of the buck. He re-gripped it just in time. “So how old do Ushi-onis get? And what are they like? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of one.”
  100.  
  101. “Ushi-onis are a type of arachne, so they live a little longer than most monsters. Usually between six and eight hundred years. Instead of hard chitin, though, they’re covered in fur, have two horns, and their skin is green on the human part. She also wears a seal over one of her eyes.” Roy gave Galen a wink and a grin. “We take that off when we wanna have a little fun.”
  102.  
  103. Seira groaned and rolled her eyes while Galen “ooh”ed in amazement. Mino echoed him from behind.
  104.  
  105. “But words won’t do her justice. You’ll just have to see for yourself.” He pointed outward. “Our place is less than two hours that way at our current pace. Let me know if your arms are getting tired and we’ll rest a bit.” He slapped the buck’s cheek. “I can’t wait to see the look on her face when I bring home this baby.”
  106.  
  107. “Excuse me,” said Sybyll. “But could you tell me her name?”
  108.  
  109. “Cea. No last name or nothin’ like that. I think it’s cute.”
  110.  
  111. “Thank you.”
  112.  
  113. Galen glanced back to Sybyll. What did she ask that for?
  114.  
  115. They made their way through the forest, occupying themselves with idle chatter as they walked. Roy had plenty of brags about his wife, though every time he started getting into it, he’d cut himself off and say, “Ah, you’ll just have to see for yourself.” Galen’s appetite for stories was gorging itself on his every word but reeled back every time Roy stopped himself like that. A couple times Galen forgot he still had a buck to carry, almost losing his grip before realizing his inattentiveness. Even with two people and a monster carrying the thing, it was awkward and heavy to move. Galen kept wiping the sweat from his brow with his elbow, but it never seemed to help. His feet dragged in the dead leaves and brush. At least the breeze kept him cool.
  116.  
  117. Seira never complained, but Galen noticed the strain in her voice becoming more and more apparent. Her stalwart façade along with the way her ears twitched as Roy talked about himself kept making Galen want to tickle them. He eventually decided against it, as he didn’t want to deal with dropping the buck and his stomach’s growling was only growing louder.
  118.  
  119. It took the better part of two hours like Roy had said, but just as the light began its inevitable shift to the deep orange of evening, they broke free of the trees and into a clearing. Near the middle of the clearing, a small, cozy cabin jutted out of the tall grass. It wasn’t any larger than the houses Galen remembered from back home, but he felt it was just as well lived-in. There wasn’t anything specific he noticed about it, just that a feeling that it was a true home. More than a building. Maybe it was the way Roy’s eyes lit up and he just about lost hold of the buck’s head.
  120.  
  121. “Wait here. I don’t want to ambush Cea with a bunch of guests without warning. I’ll just be a moment.”
  122.  
  123. He took off the moment he finished, running like the wind across the clearing, his steps light and energetic. Galen felt a pang in his heart. How long had it been since he left, running through town just like that? When would he see home again?
  124.  
  125. “It’s not going anywhere,” said Seira, adjusting her grip on the buck.
  126.  
  127. “What?”
  128.  
  129. “Your home. It’s not going anywhere.”
  130.  
  131. Galen scrunched up his mouth, his cheeks heating up as he spoke. “What does that mean?”
  132.  
  133. She rolled her eyes. “I can smell the homesick from you and your eyes are basically screaming it, too. Your home’s fine.”
  134.  
  135. His face shifted to a sour frown, glancing at Mino and Sybyll before replying, “Are you sure?”
  136.  
  137. “Galen, from what I know about you, Nox must be one of the most boring, isolated places in the world. Nothing has happened to it. There’s no reason for anything to. Stop moping.”
  138.  
  139. He looked at the ground, then back to Seira. “I’m not moping.”
  140.  
  141. “And I’m not a manticore.”
  142.  
  143. She cricked her neck, saying nothing more. Sighing, Galen gave himself a slight nod. She was probably right. There was no reason for anything bad to happen back home. Everyone knew each other. They had no enemies. A day of sea travel separated them from the rest of the world. They’d be fine.
  144.  
  145. But curse the spirits if the air didn’t smell exactly like home.
  146.  
  147. Something tugged at his sleeve. He looked down.
  148.  
  149. “Don’t be sad,” said Mino.
  150.  
  151. He offered what he could of a smile. “I’m not sad. Just thinking.”
  152.  
  153. “I don’t like the look on your face when you’re thinking like that.” She hugged his arm. “Besides, I’m from home, too, and I’m right here.”
  154.  
  155. Huh. He cocked his head. Technically, she was right, even if he had no memories of encountering her back on Nox. It wasn’t the same, though. He hadn’t practiced swordplay in his yard with her, or sat down at a table next to her, or spent a long day harvesting together. Her sloughing frown wouldn’t let him voice that, though, so he nodded instead.
  156.  
  157. “Hey!” Roy ran up to them, pushing a two-wheel flatbed cart. His eyes and grin showed energy like he’d just gotten a good night’s rest, but he was panting like a dog. “Throw the buck down on here. I’ll wheel it the rest of the way.”
  158.  
  159. Seira and Galen complied, heaving the buck onto the cart with a grunt and simultaneously wiping a hand across their brows. Roy chuckled at it, but didn’t say anything to the inquisitive glances he got for it. He simply waved for the group to follow him and started toward the house.
  160.  
  161. “Now, she may not act excited at all, but I’m sure she’ll be happy for some company. Much as we enjoy ourselves out here, it’s nice to bump into people and monsters from time to time.” He raised a finger. “If you’re not careful, she’ll have you running your mouth till your jaw hurts, talking about everything going on with the rest of the world.”
  162.  
  163. “As long as she’s got stories too and we get that buck cooked, I’m fine with that,” said Galen. He slapped a hand to his stomach.
  164.  
  165. “No need to worry about that! I’m just as hungry as you are,” said Roy.
  166.  
  167. “I dunno about that…”
  168.  
  169. Roy threw his head back in a throaty laugh. “My wife calls my stomach a bottomless pit sometimes. I’ll take that as a challenge.”
  170.  
  171. Galen was about to shoot back an acceptance of his challenge when his eyes landed on what could only be Roy’s wife. The first thing he noticed was her height. She stood a head taller than Sybyll, easily the tallest of their group. Her long, fuzzy legs ended in hard tips, likely sharp enough to pierce armor with a little force behind it. They moved back and forth in tiny steps to keep her upper body still and facing the group. Her arms were similar to her legs; fur covering the elbow and forearm and ending in harder tips, each hand with three digits and a thumb. Two twisted horns grew from her head, grey-green against the black of her hair and fur. A red band of cloth with writing on it, likely the seal Roy mentioned, covered her left eye while the right one practically glowed. It wasn’t colored like a typical human eye, but a striking purple where Galen expected white and an enlarged yellow iris.
  172.  
  173. “Everyone, this is Cea, my wife. Cea, this is…”
  174.  
  175. His introductions faded from Galen’s hearing. He couldn’t snap his attention away from Cea. From the way she had her arms crossed over her chest and an inspecting gaze in her one uncovered eye, Galen suspected she wasn’t as happy as Roy said she would be. When her eye drifted over him, he shivered. This was a true monster, the kind he heard of in the darkest parts of his father’s stories. The kind that could paralyze you with a stare and steal your soul with a kiss.
  176.  
  177. Her inspection was quick but thorough. Galen could feel that gaze crawl over him, soaking in every last detail. She lingered on his swords a moment, that single eye narrowing before moving on. Galen’s chest rose and fell as he gasped for air. For some reason he felt like he was suffocating. Each member of the group received the same inspection in-kind. Mino was glued to Galen’s side, looking out across the clearing in an attempt to ignore the stare, and Seira did tried to shrug it off by watching the cabin. Only Sybyll met the ushi-oni’s gaze, and she met it with a challenge. Their eyes clashed as if fighting, trying to pierce the other as if to divine something beyond the surface. On each inhalation, Galen could smell the tension strung between the two. His nose twitched with how thick it laid on the air. When finished with Sybyll, Cea took another look at Galen, but this time her purpose was much more specific. Toneruth.
  178.  
  179. “Honey, please. It’s like you’re trying to scare them off,” said Roy.
  180.  
  181. She turned to Roy, all smiles. “Of course not. But I do know how trusting you are of anyone that seems to come by this way.”
  182.  
  183. He slapped a hand to the bed of his cart. “They helped me bring our dinner in! I’d have been stuck out there with too much buck if not for them. Besides, I know you like the company.”
  184.  
  185. “You shouldn’t chase such large game in the first place.” She shook her head, but couldn’t wipe the smile from her face. “But it’s just like you to do it anyways, isn’t it? And you’re right.” Turning around, she stepped inside the house and waved everyone in. “There’s room enough for all of you to sit. Please come in.” She jabbed a finger at Roy. “You bring the beast around to the oven and get it prepared. By yourself. That way, next time you’ll think about the size of the animal you’re hunting.”
  186.  
  187. Roy withered at her scolding, gripping his chest. “Such cruelty! Your mercilessness strikes at my heart!”
  188.  
  189. “Please ignore the whining man-child and come inside.” She disappeared into the house.
  190.  
  191. Mino rushed over to Roy, asking if he was alright, touching his chest where he’d gripped it. Shaking his head, he chuckled and waved her away. “I was just acting. Go on into the house before she shifts her ire to you. I’ll get this thing ready to cook.”
  192.  
  193. Punching his fists together, Galen stepped forward, cautiously crossing the threshold into Roy and Cea’s house, trying to absorb as much as the atmosphere as he could. Just as he suspected, it was quite homely. Shelves, little more than a small ledge jutting outward, lined the walls a bit above his head. Carvings, rocks, and other small ornaments covered the shelves. Beyond the short entry hall, however, the house was almost completely open. A living area, kitchen, and dining table all occupied an open space. Behind him and to his left was one of the few inside walls, and through a rather wide doorway on it he could make out a single massive bed. It wasn’t exactly what he thought of for a house like this, but to be honest, he had pretty much nothing to compare it to outside the houses back on Nox. It would make sense for a wide and tall monster like a ushi-oni to have few doorways and lots of open space.
  194.  
  195. Cea herself was bent over, attending a small but growing fire in the fireplace. The wood creaking under Galen’s traveling boots grabbed her attention, and she gestured to a few chairs set out around the fireplace. None looked large enough for her, though.
  196.  
  197. “Where will you sit?” he asked, taking the cushiest-looking chair.
  198.  
  199. She dismissed his questions with a wave. “I don’t sit on chairs. Would be rather awkward for my body. If I want to rest my legs, I either spread them out and lay flat on my abdomen, or curl them beneath me and sit atop them.”
  200.  
  201. “Wow. So you’ve always got a chair with you.”
  202.  
  203. “That’s one way to see it.”
  204.  
  205. Seira was the next to enter, her gaze wandering all over the house much like Galen’s had. He couldn’t help but notice those ears of hers still hadn’t stopped that distracting twitch. Had he the courage of a stronger man, he might venture to call them cute to her face.
  206.  
  207. Taking a chair next to Galen, she said, “This is a nice place. How long did it take to build?”
  208.  
  209. “Ten years or so, not counting the later adjustments. A bit longer than I expected, even without any help.”
  210.  
  211. Seira’s brow creased. “Roy didn’t help?”
  212.  
  213. Cea shook her head, standing up straight away from the fire now that it was blazing healthily on its own. “I built this place long before I met him. Once he started living with me, we opened it up a bit.”
  214.  
  215. “If you built it before meeting him, how long have you been out here on your own?”
  216.  
  217. Smiling, she took up a spot opposite Galen and Seira, choosing to stay standing. “This house is about fifty years old, but I’ve been living about the area for about four hundred years.” She gave Galen a moment to gape in surprise before adding, “Not entirely, though. I wander from time to time, building a new house when the old cannot stand or taking trips to cities around the continent.” She clasped her hands together. “I’ve had a lot of time to myself.”
  218.  
  219. Mino entered next, watching the floor of all places as she walked in. Something about it caught her attention. Seira looked only to confirm who it was before turning and slumping into her chair.
  220.  
  221. “Please--Mino, was it?--take a seat,” said Cea.
  222.  
  223. Her eyes snapped up from the floor, looking to Cea, then the chairs laid out. She happily bounded to the last remaining chair, plopping herself down with a squishy thud. Shooting Cea a smile, she clasped her hands together in her lap like she was sitting down for a lesson.
  224.  
  225. Excitement fading from his face, Galen turned to the entrance, expecting to see Sybyll. She never left him alone for long--in fact, he’d expected her to insist on being the first inside to investigate. Yet he neither heard nor saw her.
  226.  
  227. Cea spoke up, regaining his attention. Her stare was directed at him in particular, catching him mid-swallow. “My husband tells me the four of you are from down south, headed north to Mallus. I admit to an insatiable curiosity, so I must ask: what is your story?”
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