Luna leapt down into the gully, landing on a pile of human bones. In the sparse moonlight piercing the treetops, she advanced toward the nest ahead of her. Within a cradle of gnawed skeletons lay four malformed eggs.
She pulled a sheet of parchment from beneath her brigandine, comparing the eggs before her to the ones drawn on the bounty note. Luna smiled to herself. Four demon lizard eggs at one thousand gold coins each will get me to the other side of the continent.
The bones of the nest crunched beneath her boots as she removed her backpack. After she used her dagger to scrape the slime off the eggs, she placed them into the soft cloth she had prepared within her sack.
Luna cleared her chocolate brown hair from her face, fixed the backpack on her back and retreated to the wall of the ravine. She jumped to grab the root of a decaying stump and pulled herself up.
A snarl accompanied by the sound of rustling bushes echoed from her left, and a hoarse voice whispered into her mind. ‘You will have to fight them.’
Running away is easier and I won’t risk damaging the eggs since they are worth enough to let me stop destroying Jean Pierre’s life, she thought, knowing the beast within her soul would hear.
She rushed forward, blasting through the cursed forest. When she darted by a dead tree, a fissure opened before her. Luna leapt to grab a gnarled branch, springing her body to swing over the crevice. She shifted her weight as she landed so she slid sideways beneath a twisted root.
A clawed hand lashed out of the darkness, aiming at her face. Luna ducked into a spin to stop her momentum, bolting to her left. A demon passed inches behind her before it crashed into a thick oak.
Luna glanced over her shoulder to glimpse the creature before trees blocked her sight. The moonlight glinted from the beast’s scales, revealing jagged claws, a long tail, and a mouth full of fangs.
Heavy footsteps rustled through the bushes to her right. Luna sped up and another of those lizard-like demons flashed behind her, missing her by a hair.
She gritted her teeth and continued her sprint. Her eyes noticed an orange light from between the trees ahead and her heart froze. I’m not supposed to be anywhere near the town!
The end of the forest approached, revealing a field with a lone, wooden house straight in front of her. Smoke danced above the chimney while firelight shone from the windows, projecting the shadows of a family of four sitting by the dining table. Luna dashed through the barley-covered field and jumped over the small stone fence that surrounded the house’s garden. A quick spurt through the rows of hyssops got her to a tall chestnut tree. She slid past its trunk, disappearing in its shadow.
She sniffed. The foul scent of the demons oozed from the eggs, spilling over her surroundings. Luna sighed, put down her backpack, forced herself to calm down and unsealed her strength. Like a river from a broken damn, her aether filled her muscles, her brigandine, and her short sword.
The fastest of her pursuers reached her. The monster whirled around the tree and leapt at her. Luna ducked and swung her blade above her head, aiming at the abdomen. Its vicious fangs passed above her. Luna’s sword pierced the scales and ripped apart the flesh, gutting the demon.
Foul-smelling blood and intestines sprayed on Luna, covering her in dark crimson. The lizard collapsed onto the ground, grabbing its gut as it tried to close the gaping wound. In vain.
Thudding steps of another pursuer echoed from behind the tree. When she heard it passing the trunk, she glided past it, circling toward the creature’s rear. The view of the scaly back opened before her. Luna stepped in and slashed open the monster’s nape, severing the spine. The demon collapsed to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.
Luna glimpsed that her backpack was unharmed. That was easy.
A heavy body crashed into her from the side. The impact blew the air out of Luna’s lungs, smashing her into the tree while making her scream with pain. Vicious claws dug deep into her flesh, crushing organs and bones alike. The creature ripped apart her stomach and roared out its victory. With a hungry look, the demon threw itself at her with its jaws wide open.
Through the blinding pain, Luna gritted her teeth and stepped in to shove her left hand into the mouth. The jagged fangs dug into her shoulder, piercing her armor, skin, flesh, and bone, her mind blanking with the outburst of pain. She stabbed her blade into the lizard’s eye, all the way to the brain, making its body go limp.
In her gut, she could feel new intestines reforming where the old had been ripped out of her. She felt her bones finding their severed fragments, her sinews and skin stretching over the wounds to seal them shut. I need to get this thing off me. Luna tried to push the corpse’s jaws open to free herself. While her regeneration had already healed the wound in her stomach, the fangs digging into her shoulder pinned her in place.
From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed the fourth creature charging at her. Luna swayed to hide her sword arm behind her back. The demon charged forward and bit into her side. Its jagged teeth pierced her brigandine, reaching her liver. Luna swallowed the pain, shifted her weight and rammed her blade into the monster’s temple. The steel blade passed through the skull, freeing the owner from life.
She glanced around and saw her backpack crushed beneath a tail with egg yolk spilling out. Her heart sunk into her stomach. There goes my new life… ah well, at least nobody innocent died, and I will heal out of this. Now I need to go eat something. Luna tried to release herself from the jaws of the demons but wobbled. What? She focused on the jaw biting into her, noticing a shade of purple in the creature’s saliva. Poison! Shit!
She attempted to push the corpses off her, but their jaws were locked tight. I must run before people get here, which is now!
Yet the poison had already been draining the last bits of her strength, making her body feel heavy, her senses dull and her mind clouded. She crumbled to the ground. All became a blur afterward. Screaming people running around… stumbling toward her… the mother of the family fainting when she saw her, her husband catching her mid-fall, careful not to drop the child at the same time. Luna wanted to speak when they realized she was still breathing, but failed.
Then she wanted to scream when the stout farmer and his son wrestled her from the demon’s jaws. They carried her to their house before sending for a healer.
No! No! No! Get away from me! Luna could not speak. All that came out of her mouth was an incoherent noise.
Don’t! Please, don’t! Throw me into the sewer! Bury me in the garden! Don’t take me in! Please… She kept trying to struggle the whole time the healer spent cleaning her wounds before he realized there were none. She fought in vain, for the healer wrapped her with bandages soaked in ointments. In a desperate last attempt, Luna tried to play dead when the healer brewed her a healing elixir. The farmer’s son forced her mouth open with an iron poker to pour the potion down her throat.
No! No! No! Please stop this! Throw me from the window! Lock me in a cage! Just don’t put me in the bed! Please… I beg you. No words left her mouth. The poison clouded her vision and mind. Luna sobbed herself to sleep.
When she came to her senses, dried blood covered her entirely. She looked around the wood-clad hallway. The blood was everywhere, smeared on the walls, spilled over the floor, splashed over the ceiling. Luna’s heart sank into her stomach. Tears filled her eyes as she noticed the torn foot lying on the ground, the last remnant of the farmer owning this house.
She roamed through the empty dwelling, its deafening silence a testament to the slaughter that left no survivors. Luna descended into the cellar full of bags of grain. She sat down by the wall, caught herself by her knees and burst out into tears. I’m sorry… so… so sorry.
Mere hours later, heavy steps echoed from beyond the door. A fully armored man entered, staring at her. “Are you…?” He did not finish the sentence.
Luna sighed. “I need to speak to your captain.”
His eyes widened and his skin turned pale. He nodded and left.
The captain came soon, a young man wearing a well-arranged green-yellow uniform centered on a steel breastplate polished to perfection. He carried a wide shield on his back and a mace by his waist. “Don’t worry, for it will be all right. I’m Commander Arthur Wesley.”
Luna raised her head, showing her throat. “It’s not.”
Arthur froze as he saw the thick layer of dried blood covering all beneath her mouth.
She huddled against her knees. “See?”
His eyes turned wide. “What should we do with you?”
“Do you have a cage, commander?”
“Strong enough to hold a monster like the ones from yesterday?”
“I will let you lock me into it if you tell Jean Pierre you never saw me.”
Arthur narrowed his eyes. “Who is Jean Pierre?”
“The man who will look for me.”
“I do not lie.”
Luna shook her head. “Then I cannot help you.”
Before Arthur could reply, a shout of one of his men, followed by a vivid sound of vomiting, interrupted him. His face hardened. “I will be back and you stay here.”
Arthur left the room, closing the door behind him. Luna heard him ordering the guardsmen waiting on the stairs. “Do not stop her if she tries to escape.”
His footsteps disappeared upstairs.
Arthur returned soon, pale as death, his shoes stained by his own vomit. His knees were shaking while his gritted teeth suggested his stomach was ready for the second round. The glare he gave Luna upon entering the cellar was downright murderous.
Luna raised her eyebrow. “So?”
“All right, monster girl, I will get you your cage.”
Luna tightened her grip over her legs. “Thank you.”
“Why? Why would you kill the people who helped you?”
“I was hungry.”
“So what? Couldn’t you eat a cow? A sheep? Why the child?”
“Hunger doesn’t ask.”
“Give me one reason not to kill you.”
Luna sighed. “You can’t. Attack me and I will end up murdering every single man you have brought.”
He stopped with his mouth gaping.
She knew his men weren’t capable of killing the demons she killed last night, much less her, and judging by how Arthur’s eyes became empty, he now realized.
Luna knew this emptiness, for she had seen it more times than she had wished. She could have slain him, all his men and then walk off into the woods. He could do nothing to stop her and they both knew it.
His men brought a cage with inch-thick, steel bars all the way into the house. Luna entered the prison by her own will. Arthur’s men covered the cage with black cloth, stealing away her view. They wrapped it with chains, moved it into their barracks and threw the cage with her into the darkest cell they had.
Luna sat inside the cage. The air carried neither sound nor smell, nothing other than what she made. Her thoughts stayed as her only company.
‘Are you done pitying yourself?’ the monster within whispered into her mind.
Shut up. This is your fault!
‘Jean Pierre has been planning to spend a month in this city. He’s not going anywhere, so sitting here is pointless.’
I don’t care.
‘Tired of working at the smithy?’
I’ve had enough of being a kid.
‘And so you got yourself locked in a cage. How adult of you.’
I hate you.
‘You do realize I will take over and have a feast the minute I go hungry, right?’
You ate a family of four yesterday, so you will be fine for at least two weeks. I will figure something out in the meantime.
‘Sure. In case you don’t, I saw this sorority school by the road. We could pop in for a quick meal.’
‘But really, what’s your plan? We are through the first step of getting locked inside a cage. I can’t wait for what the second step will be.’
I don’t know!
‘If you want a change of air, there’s nothing stopping you from leaving.’
I don’t have enough money to repay Jean Pierre for the broken brigandine, much less to start a new life somewhere else.
‘You can steal stuff and it’s not like sitting in a cage will solve that.’
I don’t want to! Here, I at least have time to think.
‘Thinking is easier on a full stomach.’
Luna spent days waiting in the cage, undecided on what to do.
“Greetings, Lady Luna,” a low, but confident voice interrupted her thoughts.
She sniffed and recognized the sharp smell of sweat of a young man she remembered as Commander Wesley. Yet blended with his stench were the dampness of an old man and the strong scent of a lilac fragrance. “Lady? This is the first time someone has ever called me that.” Luna stretched, filling her muscles with blood. “You smell like an old man but wear the perfume of a young woman. How would you taste, I wonder?”
“While I find myself unqualified to answer such a question, I would dare to state I am present to acquire your services, Lady Luna.”
She paused. “My… services?”
“The Union shall host a continent-wide tournament, the first of such size since The Upheaval. If you would please excuse my straightforwardness, I would like you to join my champion, and win this tournament as a member of my team.”
Luna laughed. “You do realize I will eat your champion before we get anywhere, right?”
“While that is a risk I have considered, I hold on to the belief you would be unable to do so.”
Luna frowned. The tip of her index finger prolonged and twisted, turning into a vicious claw. She pierced the cloth wrapping her cage and ripped apart the fabric to see through the bars. Commander Wesley stood next to an old man dressed in green-gold robes. “Who are you?”
The old man smiled. “I am Prince Jonathan Stallington, the ruler of Illysaeas and all its holdings.”
‘I think he’s full of shit.’
Shut up, Wolfie! His perfume smells expensive enough for a prince, so this could be our way out of here! “Suppose I’m interested, what would this tournament thing entail?”
The prince’s face remained unreadable. “You would become a member of my team, compete in all five rounds of the tournament, and win.”
“What’s in it for you? Why me? Don’t princes have entire armies?”
The prince turned to Arthur. “Commander, please spare us but a moment of privacy.”
Commander Wesley did his best to keep a neutral expression, without success. Beads of sweat rolled down his face as he spoke. “I strongly advise against that, your highness, for she might escape the cage.”
The prince did not as much as raise an eyebrow. “I insist.”
“Your Highness.” Arthur bowed and left.
Luna grabbed the bars of her cage and pulled. She bent the steel bars to create a hole. Her lean body squeezed through the opening with ease, bringing her before the prince.
He did not wince. “I can still hear Commander Wesley’s footsteps, please be so kind and wait for but a moment.”
Luna walked back to the cage to sit on its top, peering down at the prince. He’s not even sweating. Yet he is here because I killed the four demons by myself. How hasn’t he soiled himself?
They stared at each other as awkwardness filled the air.
The prince’s gaze remained cold and analytical. “Thank you for your patience. Now, we should have a sufficient amount of privacy, given I do not hear Commander Wesley’s footsteps anymore. I shall be straightforward. The combination of the Union and the rulers of the most influential city-states have organized this tournament. Since I am both a ruler of a city-state and a longstanding member of the Union, I find myself in a position where I need my team to reach the finals, else I embarrass myself. Toward this goal, I am open to non-standard approaches.”
Luna narrowed her eyes. “Sounds like you should have had a team prepared before you organized the tournament.”
“The format I had proposed was a set of duels, one which my champion would dominate with ease. Yet the city lords pushed through ten-man teams with five more in reserves. Among the fifteen men, there can be three monsters, which is where your expertise comes. Beside you, I have my champion and I will have the third monster by the time the competition is to start while I shall hold qualifiers for the positions of the human competitors.”
That sounds like an excellent way to make a name for myself, so I can join an adventuring group later or maybe even get employed somewhere good.
The beast within her huffed. ‘Don’t forget to ask for a payment.’
Right! I still need to repay Jean Pierre. Luna rubbed her chin. “I suppose this is the point where we negotiate my salary.”
Prince Stallington smiled. “Yes.”
“I want a room straight next to your champion, a comfortable bed, freedom to move around, three times the pay the other combatants get, and a full service of food and drinks.”
“What manner of food?”
“Raw lamb and beef are enough, though I cannot guarantee the safety of my opponents.”
Luna clicked her tongue. “I could have asked for five times the salary, couldn’t I?”
“Yes, and I will give you that if you desire.”
Luna shrugged. “Okay, thanks. Could you please arrange for me to be taken out of the city with no one seeing? I have a few people looking for me.”
The prince nodded. “I shall organize your extraction for tonight. If there would be no problem from your side, I believe the commander would be calmer if he found you in your cage.”
Luna grinned, slid back into her cage and straightened the bars behind her.
Prince Stallington left.
Under the supervision of Commander Wesley, his men covered her cage with a new cloth and put her on a wagon among supplies destined for an outpost. Once the city lay beyond the horizon, the guardsmen left her cage by the side of the road.
Luna ripped a hole into the bars and sat onto the cage. Prince Stallington’s men arrived soon. She scanned them with a careful look. Their armor is mostly made of steel, so the prince is rich. I should have asked for way more gold!
They led her to an unremarkable carriage hidden by a patch of trees. The prince sat inside while piles of parchments occupied the rest of the carriage’s bowels.
Luna greeted the prince and seated herself on the roof. Nobody seemed to be interested in talking to her, so she was left with her thoughts once more.
I’m sorry, Jean Pierre, but I refuse to destroy any more of your life. And I’ve had enough of working in your smithy. Her eyes were watery and ached whenever she thought of the famous blacksmith she worked for until a few days ago. She knew she would miss Jean Pierre every day for eternity. Yet she couldn’t bear to watch his life being ruined because he kept covering her accidents.
You are too kind, Jean Pierre, but your life will be better without me. Luna knew she did not deserve his kindness, not even in the slightest. And so she headed out into the world, alone.