It's so easy to hide behind the mask. It's a comfort zone, a boundary that clearly states, "Nothing will come in or out." But it can't keep everything out. And sometimes, it won't even hide you anymore.
Thunder roared and lightning flashed across the heavens. The beautiful brown falcon streaked through the angry sky, dodging fat, heavy raindrops gracefully as it went to the aid of the man who'd called it. The hunter saw it coming and pointed at an anolian that stood unmoving, caught in an ankle snare by the hunter's doing.
"Stick around, Misha!" Jameth called. "I'm going to be needing you a lot." Some of the green, scaly creatures were starting to notice his presence in their marsh and were advancing on his position. Fortunately, Jameth used his traps skillfully, and he and Misha worked together flawlessly. The anolians carried short swords with wide, sharp blades, which Jameth was happy to be far away from. The twenty-year-old hunter was not particularly cocky, but he knew his strengths and weaknesses, and knew that anolians were well-suited for his current training.
A deafening roar erupted behind him, and he turned to see a towering creature, skin the color of the anolians he was fighting, but definitely not of the same species. Its long, dark hair covered its face in a wet, tangled mess. A large wing was raised high above it, from which protruded a long, sharp, deadly-looking claw. One arm was longer than the other, and appeared to be hideously deformed. It brought that arm up, and Jameth realized too late that at the end of that arm was a reptilian mouth, that was open, revealing razor-sharp teeth. Just as that mouth released a stream of fire, Jameth was knocked down to the ground.
Hearing the sound of clashing weapons, he looked up to see a knight exchanging rapid blows with the creature. Jameth scrambled to his feet and picked up his bow. He motioned for Misha to attack this new enemy, and armed his bow quickly. Before he could fire an arrow, the creature turned and half-flew, half-ran, faster than any human could conceivably run.
Jameth breathed a sigh of relief. He turned to the knight, whose head was almost completely covered by a bone helm and opera masque. "Thank you," Jameth said, offering his hand in greeting. The knight ignored the gesture, and indicated that Jameth should follow him. They walked west for almost an hour in the pouring rain. Jameth tried to ask the knight where they were going, but was only met with silence. They trudged on through a wet, dark cave, and were met with bright, colorful lights and dry ground on the other side. Jameth could hear music and cheering coming from somewhere. He knew that this was Comodo, though he'd never been here. The knight kept moving, so Jameth did as well.
Soon, they were on the north side of town, and Jameth followed the knight up a set of wooden steps and onto a platform. A few dozen people were up on that platform; some were talking, some were laughing, all were eating. Jameth could see at least two pigs roasting on spits.
When he and the knight were spotted, someone in the crowd called, "Looks like Al got another one today!" This brought laughter from those around him. Most of the folks were staring at him now, which he took to mean that the comment had been about him.
Not knowing specifically which tan-skinned, well-fed local had made the comment, he asked anyone who would answer, "I'm sorry, one what?"
A woman next to him replied, "Oh, Al now an' then brings us a tourist what was near 'bouts made dinner by the mutant beast." As the woman spoke, Jameth watched Al take a piece of ham someone offered him and walk into a nearby building. The woman continued, "Trust me, you're lucky Al was there. That dragon woulda fried ya crispy."
"Well," Jameth mused, "I guess I should be sure to thank Al then."
The woman snickered. "Good luck wit' that."
Jameth went through the same door the knight had gone through. It appeared to be a pub, though there were definitely more people outside than in here. There was a knight at a table in the far corner of the room, but it certainly wasn't Al. This knight was a woman, with long, black hair. The side of her face that Jameth could see was scarred, a long mark that went from her left earlobe, down her jaw line.
Jameth scanned the room, but didn't see Al, and didn't see a door he could have left through. As he was about to leave in confusion, he noticed something that made him stop. One the table next to that knight sat a bone helm. He'd found Al after all. Somehow he didn't feel like bothering the knight anymore.
"So tell me." Jameth was back outside, sitting next to the local woman he'd talked to earlier. She said her name was Nayla. "What do you know about Al?"
Nayla shrugged. "Ain't much to know. Year or so now she's been livin' here. Out there near every day huntin' that mutant dragon. She only comes back to drag in another of you foreigners what she saved from the beast, or to get her wounds mended. By that point, she's usually near dead."
"But why? I mean, why is she hunting this thing?"
Nayla laughed. "Oh, you know, the usual. Killed her parents, killed her brother, killed her boyfriend."
The next day, Jameth returned to the Zenhai Marsh to hunt anolians, using Comodo as his home base. He kept a sharp eye out for the mutant dragon, and a teleport clip handy. It rained non-stop on this side of the cave that day, and the next few after that. Heading back to town one day, he was cold, wet, hungry, and absolutely fatigued. As he hurried through the eastern Comodo cave, eager to get to the barbeque that appeared to be a nightly event, he came up behind a slow-moving, obviously wounded knight wearing a bone helm and opera masque. It was Al.
"Excuse me, is there anything I can do to help?" Jameth offered. The knight ignored him and kept trudging, limping, without acknowledging his presence. "Look, you don't seem to be in very good shape, and after you rescued me the other day and all--"
He was silenced by a sharp look. Though she still wore the masque, Jameth could see swollen eyes behind it, and deep gashes covering what skin was exposed. Still she said nothing, but it was clear that Al wanted nothing from him. He backed off a bit, but stayed close behind her. She seemed ready to topple over at any moment. As he followed her out of the cave and west through Comodo, she glanced back at him occasionally. She looked livid at his persistence, but he wasn't going to leave until she'd made it wherever she was going.
She stumbled up to a hut and knocked on the door. A man opened it and sighed. "Come on in, Al." She went inside, and the man looked at Jameth expectantly.
"Uh, I just wanted to make sure she got here okay," Jameth stammered.
"Well, come on in, boy," the physician waved him in.
Jameth hesitated. "I doubt she'd appreciate that too much."
"Nonsense, boy! You're the first person I've ever seen to try to help Al. You might as well see it through." Jameth could hear the festive music coming from the north, and was quite sure he could smell the meat that was no doubt roasting on the fires. "Come on," the doctor repeated insistently. Jameth finally conceded and went through the door.
Luckily, Al didn't even know he was there. She was behind a curtain, and he was silent as he sat in a chair on the other side. For forty minutes the physician tended to Al's wounds. Jameth thought it odd that she'd choose this method over a fast and simple priest healing, but perhaps priests were not easy to come by way out here. When the physician pulled the curtain back and walked out, he nodded at Jameth on the way by. He left the curtain open, and Jameth could see Al on a bed inside. She was facing away from him, which he was relieved to see. He felt like he was invading her privacy by sitting so close to her laying there without her armor on, and he was famished anyway. But as he stood up to leave, she stirred, and he stopped. Her arm moved up to touch her neck, and obviously found something to be missing, as she felt around frantically. Even without seeing her face, he was struck with the rage and sorrow she must have felt as she hit the bed angrily with her fist, and then grasped the sheet tightly in pain from her slight outburst.
Jameth left quickly and quietly, wanting desperately to get out unnoticed. At the barbecue, he ate quickly, and went to bed. He was right back to training the next day, and after a few hours, Misha brought him an interesting item. She swooped in and deposited it in his hand, and he examined it closely. It was a silver ring hanging on a thin strip of some sort of fabric. The cloth was stained with dirt and blood, and ripped. He was fairly positive that it belonged to Al, especially after seeing her reaction earlier. It certainly agreed with Nayla's suggestion that Al had lost someone important to the creature, which was why she now hunted it vengefully.
On his way back to the physician's house, Jameth contemplated how to return the ring to Al. Lacking any brilliant ideas when he reached his destination, he knocked on the door and hoped the man would deliver it for him.
"You're back," the physician answered the door with a surprised face.
"Yeah, uh…I was hoping you could do something for me," Jameth said, still trying to decide how to make his request. The physician waited. "I found this, and I think it belongs to Al. I wonder if you could return it to her." The look on the man's face told Jameth that he was correct, that it did belong to Al, and it seemed to be very important.
"I think you should take it to her yourself, boy. She'll be happy to see it, and you deserve the credit for finding it, after all." He was not giving Jameth a choice. If he wanted her to have it, he'd have to take it himself. He did not anticipate it to be a pleasant reunion. He was ushered to her side, and she looked at him without any recognition in her eyes. At least it was better than the anger and hatred he'd expected to see. The surprising thing was that she still had her masque on. The physician must've told her he was coming.
He showed her the ring, explaining quickly where he'd found it. Without a word, Al reached her hand out, and he placed the crude necklace in it. She closed her hand tightly around it, and said stiffly, "Thank you." Jameth bowed his head and walked toward the door. As he stepped past the curtain and pulled it closed, he was pretty sure he heard her stifle a sob. He shut the door behind him quietly.
Jameth was beginning to tire of anolians, which was normal for him. He couldn't stand to stay in the same place long, especially fighting the same creatures. In a couple of days, he was definitely going to be ready to find a new training ground. At least it had stopped raining out there. A full week had gone by uneventfully and Jameth was heading out for more mindless smashing early in the morning. As he emerged from the cave on the east side, he was less than surprised to see the knight, leaning against a tree at the edge of the Papuchicha Forest. Al looked a little pale and weak, certainly not ready to be hunting that beast just yet. She saw him coming and stood up quickly, turning and heading into the trees swiftly. She wasn't moving all that fast, so Jameth caught up with her easily.
"You know, I think I get it," he told her. She ignored him, which he'd expected. "You don't care about your own welfare at all. You're so intent on killing this thing, that somehow took your happiness away, that you don't care if you live or die." He was mocking her, and he knew it. But he couldn't stop. "Is that why you 'save' people from it? You have to be the one that kills it, no matter the consequence?"
She'd finally had enough and stopped walking. Her jaw was firmly set below the opera masque as she turned to face him. "What is it you want from me?"
Good question. He shrugged in response. "If you're so intent on killing the mutant dragon, let me come with you."
Al sighed heavily. "You know what? I'm going to start thinking twice about saving people from that beast in the future." She started to walk again. There was a rustle in some tall grass nearby, and a lone poison spore pounced on the knight. She drew her sword automatically and swung at the spore, but it took her a few hits to down it. She was obviously not at her full strength, and appeared to be in a little pain even after what should have been an easy fight. She stuck her sword in the ground and leaned on the hilt.
"I think that poporing is laughing at you," Jameth gestured to a peaceful green blob hopping nearby.
Al straightened up, pulled her sword out of the dirt, and took a step toward the hunter. In a sudden motion, she swung the weapon around, aimed at his head. He ducked. The two stared at each other for a moment before Al resheathed her sword and started walking again.
"Don't get in my way," she said, which Jameth took as a concession. He bit his lip to prevent a sarcastic remark from slipping out at her comment.
"I'm Jameth, by the way," he said instead.
"Great," she muttered.
As they headed to the marsh, Jameth pulled something out of his pouch and tossed it to her. "And drink a damn potion, for crying out loud."
Jameth soon had a full understanding of just how dedicated Al was to this hunt of hers. When Nayla said that Al only came back to town to heal up or to bring back someone she'd rescued, she wasn't kidding. They spent day and night out here, only stopping to sleep for a few hours, usually high in a tree to stay out of reach of the anolians. For the first few days, Jameth could barely sleep. It was near impossible to find somewhere to lay his head, the bark made for lousy bedding, and he was terrified that he would fall to his death in his sleep. There did come a time though, that he slept easily, sheerly because he was so exhausted. The food they ate for every meal came from the forest surrounding the Zenhai Marsh. Roast savage and grapes and apples from the generous poporings.
They hacked their way through endless waves of anolians with barely a pause. Al, of course, fought in silence, but Jameth couldn't stand hearing nothing but the sound of his bow string twanging and Al's sword singing as it flew through the air. When he trained alone, he tended to talk to his falcon. Misha was a wonderful listener. As it turned out, so was Al.
"We fashioned this rope swing in the loft out in the barn and took turns climbing the hay to launch ourselves into a swing that took us out over the loft floor below. Of course, I eventually grew tired of just swinging and decided to jump. Unfortunately, the barn was old, and the spot I landed on was too weak for the force it was presented with." Jameth had been carrying on one-sided conversations off and on for a few days now. Since Al never told him to shut up, he kept talking. "So I'm kneeling there, one leg broken through the loft floor, completely stuck. My brother comes running over, and I figure he's going to help me out. Only he's laughing so hard, he can barely stand!" Oh, what was that? Was that a smile? Al actually smiled! Jameth most enjoyed telling stories about growing up with his parents and two brothers, and perhaps Al didn't mind it much herself. And so, on he talked.
Five days later, it was in the evening, cooking their supper over the fire, that he got his first glimpse at Al behind the mask. He told her about his younger brother, the sage. When they were both fresh out of their novice clothes, Jameth a young archer, and his brother a mage, his brother tagged along as Jameth went to the Archer Village near Payon for a little beginner training. He practiced shooting his bow and arrows at the inanimate targets. When he finally managed to land two arrows solidly in the "bullseye" zone, his instructor proclaimed that it was a clean kill. As he glanced with pride at his younger brother, the mage turned and fired a spell at the same target, engulfing it in flames and incinerating it completely, claiming the pile of ashes to be proof of magic's superiority over his older brother's pitiful ranged attacks.
"I'm glad our parents gave us free choice when it came to our jobs, but why he ever became a mage is beyond me. Magic just seems so…abstract to me. There's barely any skill involved."
Al spoke to that, the first time she'd spoken at all in many hours. "I have five older brothers and sisters, all of whom chose a path of magic. Two wizards, a sage, and two priests."
Uh oh. "I didn't mean anything by that," Jameth apologized quickly. "I'm sure it's just a case of sibling rivalry."
Al gave him a small, shy smile. "Why do you think I became a knight?" Jameth chuckled.
As they went back to their food, Jameth felt like something had changed here. She'd shared a little with him for once, very little, but it was still something. Then, as if noticing the difference herself, Al reached up and removed the opera masque. He glanced over at her, consciously forcing himself to look away quickly, so as not to stare. Her face was pale, having seen little sunlight for a time now, and besides the one long scar he'd already seen, a large portion of her face was covered by what looked like a burn scar. She was blushing lightly, and he was sure she must have felt absolutely naked without it on after all this time. She was not attractive by any superficial standards, but Jameth did not take note of her pale, blemished face. She'd opened herself up to him, and he found her to be absolutely beautiful.
He wanted to ask her all sorts of questions about herself, but refrained from doing so. He waited a considerable amount of time, until they were heading for tonight's tree top inn, before asking her one question that he felt was harmless enough. "The locals only knew you as Al, but I wonder, is that short for anything?"
"Yes." She left the word hanging in the air between them for a few seconds, long enough for Jameth to wonder if she really would just leave it at that. But finally she said, "My name's Alorinna."
Things were a little different after that. Alorinna still let Jameth ramble on, but now and then she'd ask a question or comment on a story. And she only wore the opera masque while fighting, removing it whenever they took a break. It had now been almost two full weeks since Jameth joined Alorinna's hunt, and he so badly wanted to leave this marsh. But he knew without a doubt that even if he left, she would continue on alone. He also knew she couldn't defeat the dragon herself, or she would've before now. So he stuck it out, only hoping he wouldn't run out of things to talk about before they found their quarry.
As it turned out though, they would never find the mutant beast. They came upon the first humans they'd seen in the Zenhai Marsh in two weeks, a trio consisting of a priest, a rogue, and a blacksmith. Jameth greeted them warmly, and they returned the gesture.
"Have you folks by any chance seen the mutant dragon that lives here in the marsh?" he asked, fully expecting an answer to the negative. They certainly surprised him.
"Oh yeah, sure," the blacksmith answered him, without offering anything further. Jameth looked at Al and could see the anticipation on her face, despite the masque.
"Do you mind showing us the direction in which you saw it?" he questioned hopefully.
The priest spoke this time. "Sorry, mate. It's dead now, no match for us."
That he had not expected at all, and Al obviously hadn't either. "No," she said quietly. Then louder, "No, that's not possible."
"Trust me, it is," retorted the blacksmith. Al just shook her head, then turned abruptly to walk away.
"Uh, Al," Jameth called after her. He took a step to follow her, but was stopped by the priest.
"Here. Maybe this will convince her." He handed Jameth a broken claw, that Jameth recognized from the beast's wing, even from the one time he'd seen it. By now he had to jog to catch up to the knight who had managed to attract a large amount of anolians. Laying his traps and commanding Misha to aid him, he didn't have much chance to question Alorinna's reaction to the news, nor to show her the claw. For some reason, she was being particularly aggressive, ignoring his ankle snares, and moving past the trapped monsters to draw more and more to their location.
He would have thought she'd be relieved that her search was over, that her enemy was dead, but she only seemed angry. And she wasn't slowing down. He struggled to keep up with her. When there were only two anolians left in the area, and both were snared, she was already moving on to find more.
"Al!" he called. His energy was dwindling, but he had enough for a Double Strafe to finish one, and Misha helped with the last. "Alorinna!" he yelled. Finally she stopped moving. He hurried over to her. "What are you doing? It's over, let's go back to town."
Still she refused to accept it. "You can't believe them, they--" She stopped talking when Jameth held up the claw. She recognized it immediately. Without a word, and with barely a motion, she disappeared in a flash of light. A butterfly wing. Jameth sighed and repeated her action.
Back in the cheerful town of Comodo, she was already on her way back to the inn. He called after her, but this time, she didn't stop. He ran to catch up with her, and grabbed her arm. When she stopped and turned to face him, she wasn't angry like he expected her to be. She just stared at him blankly through that masque. "I don't understand. It's dead, aren't you happy?"
She immediately scoffed at his question. "Happy? You think I should be happy?" She reached up to her neck and pulled the silver ring hanging on the dirty cloth from under her armor, where it had been hidden since he'd returned it to her. "You think you know all about me, don't you? 'Oh, poor Al, she lost her man to the beast, so now she has to have her revenge.'" She dropped her arm back down, leaving the ring exposed. Pointing toward wooden platform where the locals were starting their evening tradition, she said, "I'll be their cliché, I don't care. But you," now she pointed at him, "you at least should know." She looked at him as if awaiting a response.
He simply said, "Tell me."
She took her time in responding. "We'd only been married for two months. We were coming to Comodo for a delayed honeymoon. The beast had only recently made that marsh its home, and we didn't even know about it. We were both young, inexperienced knights, we had no chance. Even still, my husband fought bravely. Me, I hesitated…I shouldn't even have been fighting in the first place, but when I saw him go down, what else could I do? I guess I was lucky…it left me for dead, and some passing travelers brought me to town." She stopped talking, but he had a feeling there was more. Something she'd left unexplained.
"You said you shouldn't have been fighting?" he prompted her gently.
She smiled a sad, heartbreaking smile. "I was going to surprise him with the news when we reached the town. I had only just found out myself, and bought the blanket… That monster not only killed my husband, it killed our baby, and this is all I have left of either of them." She gestured to the make-shift necklace. That masque made it far too easy for her to avoid his eyes. He longed to see her face right now. "I did come back to hunt it, but I knew I couldn't kill it, not yet. I just needed to keep it from killing anyone else until I was strong enough to destroy it. So now what…?"
"You move on with the life you still have," he said softly.
She went to her room, and he let her go. There was nothing else he could say.
For the next three days, Jameth stayed in Comodo. He was asking himself the same question, So now what? The hunt was over, and he'd been wanting to leave for a while now anyway. But he wasn't leaving, and it was pretty obvious what was keeping him here. As far as he could tell, Alorinna hadn't come out of her room for three days, and none of the locals recalled seeing her either. When he finally spotted that bone helm, it was at the Kafra employee near the center of town. She was leaving.
"Alorinna," he said gently, standing behind her. She turned slowly, avoiding eye contact.
She spoke in a monotone voice. "I suppose you gave me my life back, and for that I thank you. I'm going home now." She looked at him now, and her eyes were full of tears. "Good bye, Jameth."
"Wait," he insisted as she turned away from him. He caught her arm and pulled her back. Stepping closer to her, he reached up and grasped the masque. By now her tears were spilling over, and when he pulled the masque away, they flowed freely down her face. "I know you weren't looking for this, but I won't apologize. You can't leave without at least knowing that I love you."
"No…" she whispered, her voice breaking as she spoke.
His heart sank. "No?"
Now she was smiling as she repeated, "No. Don't apologize." He felt her touch the hand in which he still held the masque, and he dropped it, taking her hand in place of it. The masque fell to the sand between them as he kissed her deeply, and told her again that he loved her.