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Chapter 19 Humble Start

 

It was done. The Omniguards were real.

Funny that Jakyra found herself so jubilant about a ranger team she joined on a whim.

She came back in the early afternoon, informing Ismat of the day’s events. Currently in his gemstone form, the construct gave his approval, though he expressed some irritation at a fey messenger meeting him to make a deal with her lord. Like I needed pesky governments to interfere, he grumbled. But if this does give us an advantage, it would be stupid not to take it. Not like I wouldn’t be bothered at some point anyway.

“So now what?” Jakyra asked.

A snort. What do you mean, now what? Do those jobs the elf gathered up, of course. And the dwarves, have they given their response yet?

Jakyra gave a negative response. Slackers, he said. What do they do all day, loiter and loaf around like lazy drunkards?

Ismat’s nastiness crawled over Jakyra like a swarm of cockroaches, the talon on his red-pink icosahedron reeling for a moment. If not for her own good mood, she would have done more than reprimand him. Instead she hummed in disapproval.

That hum was drowned out by a strange mix of whirring, hissing noises coming from Ismat’s bejeweled heart. The presence in her mind seemed to ebb in and out. P-please ignore that, t-that was not something I should have said.

The stutter was even more off-putting. A grumpy Ismat made sense, but him acting in such a nervous way? Huh.

In any case the moment passed, and Ismat returned to his calmer self. Silly of me to deride them anyway, the decision they have to make does take a toll on you creatures of flesh and bone. Just in case, I best ready myself for teaching little Gunnar a little something.

“Was that a little wordplay I heard?”

This conversation is over. Ismat’s heart rolled away in a clunky fashion over stone, Jakyra tittering at the sight.

The next few days came and passed, Jakyra engaging herself in a few tasks with Sauda. As expected, they were simple and kind of boring, almost menial. Finding an elf’s lost cat was definitely the worst of them all. Why was that even considered a job for a ranger?

There was one task that fitted within her expectations: accompanying a caravan of trolls on the last leg of their journey back to the mountains. They were hired as a precautionary measure against stray bandits, and considering that Sauda actually managed to point out one watching them from afar, it turned out to be a good investment. A few arrows scared the figure away into densely-packed woods where he vanished, and after that nothing much happened.

For a task that took a day and a half, Jakyra was pretty satisfied with it. It was a monotonous trip, but there was something about it that was enjoyable. It certainly beat going around to look for someone’s missing pet.

After that Sauda got a few new jobs. One of them caught her eye, for better or worse.

The sun shone glamorously at its zenith the day after, ripping through the gatherings of evergreen trees and basking the rugged lowlands of the mountains in a glory of pre-summer warmth. A gentle wind stirred at intervals, perfecting the climate. Wherever one’s head turned, the chirps and warbles of birds filled the cool air.

Jakyra’s face crashed into foliage as the laugh of a weasel cried out.

“A kamaitachi,” she muttered as leaves scattered to her feet. A talon touched the skin around her cheeks where a painless, blood-free cut formed before turning back to her foe.

Her claw moved to defend herself as the kamaitachi came back in a blur, darting to the side when it saw the incoming counter. Jakyra’s swipe came too slow, catching only receding blades of wind as the cryptid jumped into the air.

The creature cackled profusely, each jeer a taunt to the coairse dragon as it bore its weight on the sagging tip of a tree and stared her down in mockery. Kamaitachi, weasel-like monsters with huge claws shaped like sickles. Each of their attacks left painless wounds — not until much later would the intense throbbing begin. Add that to how they were as swift as the wind and you had a cryptid fit to be an assassin.

Well, at least they were simply as swift as the wind. Before the Purge of Anima that happened so long ago, they were the wind. Or rather, they could ride them and fly, yikes. One good thing about cryptids being not so magical as before.

Jakyra stopped ruminating the moment she saw the thing rip through the distance between her and it, grinning like the reaper’s son going hunting alone for the first time. Rip me, a thought rushed through her head as she instinctively twisted about, her hindleg blurring into a midair kick.

Maybe if it could manipulate the winds it could have dodged altogether, but here the airborne cryptid did no more than plant its claws into a trunk. The kick barely connected, pointed toes ripping into flesh, and from the corner of her eye Jakyra chuckled at how the kamaitachi flinched for the briefest moment. Good.

Just the amount of time she needed that pest to stay still so her tail could curl around its neck.

With a snap Jakyra flung the kamaitachi against a tree. No wait, rip you, she thought, the taste of victory throttling her mass forward to finish it off. To her annoyance, however, the cryptid somehow pushed itself to the side and tried to dart away with its uncanny speed.

Sauda’s dagger came as quickly, the elf emerging from behind a tree and slashing into its shoulder. The weasel howled but kept going, drops of blood and disturbed patches of leaves in its wake the only sign of its whereabouts. Gone.

The stinking coward, running away like that. And at such a critical point of the battle! Fun spoiled.

“You should’ve helped more,” Jakyra lamented, staring in the direction the creature took flight in. She slinked over to a spot where the trees weren’t so tightly clustered, sprawling her body and throwing Sauda a friendly smirk.

“You were handling it fine,” Sauda said with pleasant indifference, healing ointment already in hand. She looked for markings, dabbing wherever the death weasel had struck with its blades.

“Yeah, yeah.” Jakyra shifted her face, showing where her cheek had been scratched, and Sauda applied a little there. It was weird having to feel that glossy ointment patching together body markings that didn’t hurt, but she knew better than to ignore the sneaky cuts of a kamaitachi. Once the pain settled in, it was horrendous.

It was a shame that the kamitachi escaped. When they arrived at the nearby goblin village that had asked for help, they were given clear orders to hunt down the conniving cryptid. It kept attacking game in this forest and occasionally caused mischief in the village itself, and the goblins couldn’t corner the cursed thing.

Now they would have to spread out and find that thing again. “Scythe,” Jakyra said in such a manner that it sounded like a sigh.

A stab jolted her forward, wings rising. The coairse dragon twisted her neck about, jaws agape. Sauda readjusted her grip on her dagger and blinked.
“I hit you with the handle,” she calmly said.

“Excuse me, but I don’t recall bad puns being punishable,” Jakyra shot back.

Sauda approached with the dagger, and she stumbled back. “No, wait, I didn’t mean to make a pun that time! Pretend I didn’t say that!” Her claw waved in front to ward off the moon elf, yet still she approached.

Jakyra yelped and distanced herself further. “Sauda, you have the worst sense of humor!”

The elf cocked her head to the side, and Jakyra facepalmed. Did she really walk straight into that one? Bad humor was her thing, not Sauda’s.

With a sigh she put forward her claw. Sauda looked at it with emotionless eyes, then at her, then at the claw again. Gripping the dagger by the blade, she let the handle bop the center of the outstretched palm.

The ridiculousness of it all made them both chuckle, and then it was back to finding that goblin-terrorizing kamaitachi.

Unfortunately, whatever luck they had when they first stumbled into it was gone this time. By the time afternoon came it was clear the speed demon of a weasel was gone, being shrewd enough to know it couldn’t handle another fight. The goblins seemed satisfied with it being wounded, though, offering full payment on the condition that they would return if it still caused more trouble.

A condition Jakyra had no problem accepting. It’s the least we can do, she considered. And I don’t mind being the one to finish off that pest.

Kamaitachi were pretty nasty creatures to fight, and she knew firsthand. Native to the mountains, she once ran into a hostile one while looking for a cave she wanted to inhabit for a short while. For the next few days, her clawed body was howling like it had bathed in a sea of the thorniest, prickliest poison ivy.

Jakyra told this to Sauda as they flew back home, and the elf shrugged. “People once hunted them to near-extinction, I heard.”

“I mean, they are devils of the wind,” Jakyra commented. “Who wouldn’t want them dead?”

“Cryptid tamers and wildlife protectors. In their defense, most keep to themselves and won’t fight except to survive. Sadly they’re valued as high-grade materials for refining magic with aspects of ‘speed.’”

Jakyra lingered on that for a moment, looking over her shoulder at the little elf gently holding on to her scales. “Like that stupid bird’s pendant?”

“Could’ve been.”

Interesting. Maybe Jakyra should hunt down a kamaitachi for Gunnar to use in making some pendants of their own. Then they could match that artifact-nabbing phoenix thief in speed.

But Sauda had a point. Was it fair for her to hunt down a creature that wasn’t trying to cause trouble? Not including the one they fought today, of course.

The sun was slowly setting behind Jakyra, its glow waning as darkness crept up on the world. Night followed on its heels, the moon and stars coming alongside. The sun let itself sink away, vestiges of a red halo the only sign that it had not yet left.

It was in this twilight that Jakyra looked down and nearly froze.

Her eyes swept over the bizarre, lustrous specks dotted all over the bumpy landscape below. More of them appeared wherever she looked, and at one spot could’ve even sworn that a similarly colored tear split open a tiny portion of the ground before her eyes, more of the dots coming out of it.

Oh. Woah. This wasn’t happening.

For a few seconds her body betrayed her, her tail curling up and her breath becoming forced. Something in her stomach churned. At last she made herself look away and checked on Sauda, whose frantic gaze showed alarm.

“Them?” The elf asked, her voice coming out airy and light. It almost sounded, well, ethereal.

Jakyra grimly nodded, ready for a quick getaway as she observed the dots again. Being high up in the air, it was hard to make out the details, but those were the ethereals for sure. They had the floaty hands and feet, along with that pastel luster that made them seem to overflow with color and yet be devoid of it. Wherever she looked she found some manically floating about, driven by some kind of frenzy. There were so many, way more than when they came to save Iye!

One would mistake them for the most unorganized war party known in all of history. Every once in a while their raspy voices would crawl into Jakyra’s horns, each whisper of their strange language fraying her nerves. What were they doing here? Was that scum Iye here too? Were they here because of him?

Or maybe, this was something different.

How she and Sauda were never spotted, she didn’t know. More rifts appeared, gateways of pastel spreading out like a plague. How many of these things are there?! Jakyra exclaimed to herself.

Her immense terror turned to relief as she realized that nothing was coming out of those rifts — in fact, the ethereals, content with their business here, floated down into the tears and returned from wherever they came from. One by one, the warped hues littering the earth went away, ethereals departing and their rifts resealing themselves. Soon the spectacle was over, the lights gone, and the night went on peacefully.

Jakyra and Sauda stared at each other, dumbfounded. “Worse than I thought,” she muttered. “The resources you’d need to make so many of those, it’s unfathomable.”

Her grip on Jakyra’s back felt dangerously loose. “I’m not a roc, Sauda,” she joked as she gave her a warning glance. “They at least can catch you if you fall off without much trouble. Easier to ride too.”

Sauda made a tsk, refusing the thought as she clutched her scales harder. “Though I appreciate the humor,” she said. “I don’t think they’re looking for Iye.”

“And what makes you say that, oh smart one?”

It wasn’t that Jakyra didn’t believe her friend — she had some suspicions herself. “Because if they wanted him, they could have dragged him into their portals after your fight with him.”

And that tipped it for her. This was something else. It would be silly to think the ethereals were here just to scare her and Sauda, so their purpose here must be something different.

“Remember what I said about the elven tribe that encountered them?” Sauda brought up. “The ethereals are looking for something or someone.”

“But not Iye, hmph.” It was a perplexing moment for the dragon. If a group had an army of those things at their beck and call, what more could they need? How difficult could it be for them to get what they wanted anyway? If Iye was their target, they would get him easily enough.

This was really, really weird. Whatever the thing they were looking for was, it was good at hiding from them, and it seemed to be a step ahead.

And Jakyra knew Sauda had stumbled upon the same conclusion. “They were quite agitated down there. You think this was part of a search for that something or someone?”

A faint ripping sound reached her horn. Jakyra turned on instinct, staring wide-eyed.

A literal pastel-hued rip in the sky greeted her, a lone ethereal’s hand extended toward her tail. The floating horror didn’t move a muscle, the white pupils of its eyes watching her. Jakyra felt Sauda shift ever so slightly.

YOU ARE NOT THE TARGET.

Jakyra shook her head as a voice matching the horror numbed her mind. It was so cold, so stormy, so fiery and gravelly. It was many things, but one thing in particular: empty. Void. Vacant, unnatural space in her head.

YOU ARE NOT THE TARGET.

“Who is, then?” Sauda said, first to snap out of it.

The ethereal retracted its hand, its two feet dangling in the air. Tentacles on the stubs of its torso pulsed.

NOT YOU, came the hollow yet powerful voice. THE TARGET WAS HERE. THE TARGET WAS LOST. THE TARGET MOVES ON. I MISTOOK YOU FOR THE TARGET.

The ethereal squinted at Jakyra. YOU ARE FAMILIAR.

Dread went down Jakyra’s spine. “Was Iye your target?” she blurted, already knowing the answer.

A soulless laugh slapped her mind, though the thing itself did not move. YOU DO NOT KNOW OF THE TARGET. PRAY YOU DO NOT MEET THE TARGET. A pause. DEATH IS NOT A LIGHT MATTER.

With that the specter drifted back into its rift. The pastel tear closed up.

Jakyra and Sauda gave each other unnerved looks. “Apparently they were looking for someone,” was all Jakyra felt like saying.

Sauda took a deep breath. Her eyes blinked once, then twice.

It was a little much to take in. Just when Jakyra thought she was in the clear, an ethereal appeared from behind her under the belief that she was its ‘target’ and nearly attacked. It must have seen her from when it was on the ground. The fact that it could speak like that too, that was so messed up. Ethereals were so messed up.

What did they have to do with Iye then? Why did they go to the trouble of saving him? Surely not out of spite of the Dragon Crown. But then, what was the connection?

“Oh, this is making my head spin,” she said. “I’m not sure if I want to deal with them anymore. Like I don’t know if we’re ready to fight those freaks.”

A hand patted her scales. “Some day,” Sauda said with confidence.

Jakyra nodded solemnly. Yeah, some day.

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About the author

SaadTheConjurer

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Bio: Peace be upon you.

You've met a madman with a fondness for ducks, striving to write high-quality stories.

Currently writing a Pokemon Mystery Dungeon fanfic on fanfiction.net and AO3 (not posting it on Royal Road just yet). Needs to write more original work sooner or later.

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