A/N: It just wouldn't be right if I let a year pass without writing at least one Alys Brangwin story.
The ocean was still. The air was hot and heavy, unmoving, and the surface of the water matched it with a stillness that turned the sea into a glass mirror for the bright sun and wispy white clouds above, an eerie, unnatural stillness, not a peaceful one. It made the back of Alys Brangwin's neck prickle. A hunter's instincts could tell when something was off. Her attention focused, her nerves on edge, ready to act.
It exploded from the water a hundred feet away from her, bursting from beneath the surface with such force that the waves displaced by its appearance rocked her boat nearly sixty degrees off the horizontal. She was sure she was about to capsize, but through some miracle the boat rocked back the other way and crashed down onto the surface right-side up.
The monster was titanic, well living up to its name, leviathan. More massive even than its land-going cousins the sand worms, the enormous blue worm reared at least sixty feet above the surface. The three crawler carcasses Alys had lashed together as bait were caught up in the tentacles surrounding its toothless maw, and in the next instant were stuffed down its rapacious gullet.
The huge beast was the reason for Alys's presence. The creatures were not numerous, thankfully, but some whim of its instinct had made this one establish a permanent presence in the Straits of Uzo, threatening the island village's fishing boats and sea trade. Twelve lives had been lost in the past eighteen days, and with both trade and food supply in danger the villagers had sent to Aiedo for help from the Hunter's Guild. Alys was only twenty, but she had been trained as a hunter by Galf the Thunder Sword, one of the legends of the Guild, and she'd figured that she was up to the challenge. Success would mean a good payday and the added reputation that could bring in more work.
As for failure? Well, she'd never liked the idea of being buried in the Aiedo cemetery anyway.
Alys had already had a slasher drawn, its blades in their open and locked position, and she hadn't dropped it even as she clung to the gunwale with her free hand while the beast had danced on the waves. She summoned up power from within herself, driving it into the slasher, and hurled the boomerang-like weapon. The instant it left her hand it exploded into a life of its own, coming alight with orange sparks and streaking like a shot towards the rearing leviathan. When it reached the base of the creature the blade started to spiral upwards around its massive body, the glowing blades slashing into it as it traveled, gouging the thick hide, before snapping off its flight to sail back towards Alys's head.
She'd already sent a second slasher after the first, drawing, opening, and hurling it in a single motion. This one was not charged with her Vortex skill, but merely slashed in a single arc against the creature's skin before sailing back. She deftly caught one blade, then the second as they returned to her. The second slasher's grip had just slapped into Alys's white-gloved hand when the leviathan dropped, its huge body slamming down into the water, another surging wave erupting. She dropped one weapon into the bottom of the boat, holding on for dear life as for the second time she was nearly swamped. If she ended up in the water, she was a dead woman; there was no way she could fight the massive worm in its own element.
She'd just become convinced that the boat was not going to go down when the leviathan lashed at her with its feeding tentacles. Alys only realized at the last second that they were coming and flung herself back, kicking herself away from the edge. The tentacles smashed through the small boat's side in a shower of splinters, but came up empty in their search for the hunter.
Unable to get a good throw off from her sprawled position, Alys used her Foi technique instead, drawing power in from around herself and hurling it at the leviathan in a bolt of fire. The blast burst against the creature's lip. But to no avail. It wasn't entirely unexpected—most creatures on the desert planet were resistant to fire and heat techniques—but she'd hoped a sea monster would be a bit more vulnerable to flame than it had proved to be.
"All right; I guess we stick with Plan A," she muttered aloud, then pulled herself to her feet and flung her remaining slasher at the creature while taking a cylinder about nine inches long from a belt pouch. She'd picked the item up in the Native Motavian village of Molcum but really hadn't wanted to use it if she could help it. Dynamite, after all, was touchy stuff.
She scooped up the dropped slasher and darted to the bow of the boat, then waited for the leviathan to attack again. Sure enough, the monster lashed out at her, this time tearing apart the prow. Alys hurled the slasher at the tentacles while she snapped the cap off the dynamite charge with her thumb, igniting the hissing, sparking fuse. The spinning blade slashed into the ropy extrusions and blood flew; two were severed. The leviathan thrashed and roared, retracting its tentacles and at the same time opening its maw in a deafening howl.
Alys planted her foot, braced herself, and hurled the tube in a spinning, tumbling arc into the leviathan's gullet.
The detonation was muffled by the leviathan's thick body, but the damage it did was shown at once by the shuddering convulsions that immediately consumed it. The thrashings churned up the water, but much less fiercely than the swells it had created before. A little water slopped into the boat through the battle-damaged sides, but not enough to threaten its stability. It was easy enough for Alys to ride out the wait until the leviathan's death throes ceased and the giant worm merely lay floating on the ocean's surface, still and quiescent in death.
If the fisherfolk of Uzo were lucky, they would be able to bring the beast's carcass back to the island. It would mean meat, blubber for oil, hide for leather, nothing that could replace the lives lost but a silver lining of sorts for the survivors. Even the weather seemed to be in the mood to celebrate Alys's victory, for with the leviathan's passing the air began to move again, a breeze rising to drive away the eerie stillness. The triangular sails began to flutter, then filled with the wind and began to take Alys back towards land.
An hour later, Alys found herself in one of Uzo's two taverns, sharing a mug of the local beer with the village chief. The brew was thick, almost like a mead in consistency, and flavored with berries to give it a sweetness that cut the impact of its weight. She liked the taste, but had a feeling that more than a couple of mugs would leave her with an ugly head to start the next day.
"You're entitled to it," Nils Lawson repeated for the third time. "It's the custom here. Anyone who helps land a sea creature is entitled to a share of the profit from the catch. It's a point of honor among the fisherfolk."
Alys sighed and sipped at her beer.
"I'm not fisherfolk," she pointed out. If she'd wanted to catch fish for a living she could have stayed in the orphanage in Tiria instead of apprenticing with Galf. "As a hunter from the Guild, such customs don't apply." She took another drink. "Besides, I didn't do anything to land it. The villagers are out doing that right now."
"You killed the leviathan, Alys."
"For which your village is paying me a very fat fee. Ten thousand meseta, and believe you me, I'm going to expect payment in full."
"It's already been arranged. We had the money ready in advance."
"Then I don't see the problem. I go home, I report in, I collect the payment from the Guild, and everybody's happy."
"But the leviathan! You didn't just kill it, you did so in a way that we'll get the benefit from it as well! That monster will mean seventy or eighty thousand meseta by the time we're through." The worry line that wrinkled his forehead was the only thing that kept the village chief's eyebrows from blending together into one. Huh. This stuff must have more of a kick than I thought if I'm noticing things like that.
"Good for you. Money coming in means you won't have any reason to welch on my fee."
"That isn't the point!"
Alys polished off the mug. Lawson's intransigence was rapidly taking away the glow of satisfaction she felt from a job well done.
"Look, Nils, I'm going to put this as simply as I can. I. Don't. Want. It. Can I be more clear?"
"But why? You deserve it."
"I'm a hunter. I do jobs in exchange for a listed commission fee. Sure, if I happen across cash in a monster's den I'm not going to turn it down, but I'm not a waitress or a street musician. I don't take tips. That the people of Uzo get a windfall from my success has nothing to do with me; it's just dumb luck. If your villagers' pride as fishermen won't be content without somehow acknowledging me, then they can give my share to the families of the people the leviathan killed. There's some justice there, at least, more than paying me extra for something I'm already getting paid for."
She looked him square in the eyes.
"Now do we understand each other or is this going to turn into a bar brawl?"
He held her gaze for a couple of seconds, then grinned and hoisted his mug.
"No way I'm gonna pick that fight," Lawson declared. "The last thing that took you on is gonna get rendered, and I'm a lot smaller than it was." He took a substantial pull on his beer. "I guess you hunters have your pride in your work, too."
"Some of us do, at least." Alys was well aware that there were a number of hunters who'd have taken the offer. Of course, most of them would have been worm food at this point, so their greed would have been moot.
I'm turning maudlin, she thought. I hope it's not the beer. I hate maudlin drunks.
"Either way, we still can't thank you enough. It's not just the cost in human lives; a leviathan plays hell with the fishing grounds whenever one comes in towards coastal waters. The whole food chain gets turned on its head."
"I didn't know that. Sand worms tend to migrate through a region, so they don't cause the same kind of issues, more like a passing disaster than a permanent problem."
"Leviathans generally stay out in deep ocean, but when they come in nearer to shore they get territorial. Don't know why; maybe it's mating season for them or something."
"Who knows? Maybe those professors up in Piata could tell us."
"Oh, yeah. Maybe they could." Lawson glanced at Alys's mug. "Did you want a refill?"
Alys pondered the issue.
"Sure, why not?" she finally decided. "I won't be doing any fighting tomorrow, so who cares if I have to sleep off a hangover?"
"Hah! That's the spirit!" Lawson crowed. He waved a hand towards the waitress. "Another round for Miss Brangwin, Molly!"
"You got it, Nils!"
Alys grinned at him.
"Informal bunch you've got here, Chief Lawson."
He chuckled at her use of his title.
"We don't get too caught up in that kind of thing. Start thinking that being chief makes you special and you won't be chief ten seconds later. I mean, the whole reason chiefs get the job in a place Uzo's size is because the people trust us to make good decisions for everybody's benefit. Sure, there's some politics and factionalism over local issues, but it's a lot more like being a dad than one of your mayor-types you've got in places like Aiedo."
"Do you have kids?"
Lawson grinned again.
"You mean, other than the villagers? Two girls, age six and seven. Let me tell you, they're a handful! I swear, my wife and I can barely keep up with them."
"Wait 'til they get to be teenagers."
The waitress came by with a big earthenware pitcher and filled Alys's beer mug to the brim.
"You want another, Nils?"
"I don't think so, Molly. Can't have Janell thinking I spent the evening out drinking with a pretty girl!"
Alys snickered. While she knew she was attractive (lack of self-esteem never having been one of her problems), she had to laugh at the idea of her being a femme fatale.
"Well, I figure that since you've been trying to push extra money on me, you're not going to try and seduce me out of my fee," she joked. Lawson smirked.
"At my age, Janell's the only one I can seduce into anything, and that's because we love each other, so that's an unfair advantage."
Alys grinned back.
"Then you'd better go home and get a head start on that."
"Works for me. Thanks to you, we've got something to celebrate tonight. But at the least, let me pay for your inn room and dinner."
Alys shook her head.
"There's no need. I brought a telepipe with me, so I'll be sleeping in my own bed tonight."
"All right, then." He got up, then dug into his pocket and tossed some meseta down on the table to pay for the drinks. "Seriously, thanks again, Alys."
The batwing doors of the tavern swung open as someone entered the room.
"Excuse me, is Chief Lawson here?" the man called. He caught Alys's attention largely because of how he was dressed; he wore his pale yellow hair long so that it spilled across the shoulders of his dull gray robe. His hood was up, but pushed back so that his square, sturdy face could be plainly seen, and the only other things he wore or carried were the sandals on his feet and the braided rope belt which cinched his rope around his waist, and from which a leather scrip hung.
"Right here," Lawson said, lifting a hand. "It's...Brother Huard, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is."
"So what brings you into town, Brother? Usually, we only see you folks when we make the regular deliveries."
A dreadful eagerness came into Brother Huard's face.
"I know, but we desperately need your help! And they said at the docks that you were here with a hunter from the Guild? One who'd just killed a leviathan?"
"This is Alys Brangwin," he said, indicating the young woman.
"Thanks be to Heaven!"
"What's wrong, Brother?" Lawson asked.
"What is not wrong?" the robed man babbled. "There have been savage murders, while others of our brethren have disappeared! There is a devil haunting the Hermitage!"
Alys pushed her still-nearly-full mug away.
"I guess I won't be going home as early as I'd thought."