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Raven black hair over dark brown eyes. Covering his chest was hard leather armor. On his arms, matching bracers. Hanging on his belt, in a leather sheath, his trusty fighter blade. The sky was grey. In front of him and behind him, as well as right and left of him for the matter, were the green fields of Aisenfield. And it was raining. It was really more dripping than raining. Not enough to get you wet to the bone. But just enough to get you profoundly irritated. That his feet were sore from a solid day's walk didn't help matters either.
Alongside him strode his companion, a viera with a bow hung over her shoulder. Her skin was tan and her hair a pale grey, for most vieras tended to have hair in some shade of white or grey. Hers was a bright contrast to her darker skin. Her facial features were delicate, but at the same time holding that wild... something that was own to the vieras. She was well built, both in the sense you use to describe a fighter as well as in the other sense, the sense which you might apply to a member of the female sex.
On their entire trip, they had barely exchanged a handful of words. He knew that her name was Mel, and she knew his name, Crow, but that was about it.
He didn't know why their clans were cooperating in the first place. Marche seemed to think it a good idea to ''maintain some healthy contact with our fellow clans''. Crow hadn't thought highly of the idea. However, Marche had been something like the clan's leader for some time now, and Crow saw no reason to disobey him. Still, it bugged him that he was stuck in a rainy field with a viera who wouldn't talk to him for more than was absolutely necessary.
It was then he noticed that Nubswood was already in sight. He must have been lost in thought for quite some time, he figured. Of course, there wasn't much else to do. It was still maybe an hour of walking to the forest, but once there, the trees would at least provide some shelter from the rain.
''I'd like to reach Nubs before it gets too dark to see,'' he stated, gesturing towards the forest ahead. Looking at his companion, he saw her nodding. Not a single word came over her lips. Well, he that was to be expected. He noted once again he hadn't been exaggerating when he said she didn't talk any more than necessary. Therefore, they kept on walking in silence.
The fading light was the only hint to the setting sun, as there was no sun to be seen on the clouded sky. When they arrived at the sheltering trees of Nubswood, it had gotten almost entirely dark already. Though it was indeed mostly dry, an animal rushing through the trees every now and then sent down a shover of heavy raindrops that had been able to accumulate through the day.
''It's gonna be hard to find any dry wood,'' Crow said, looking around. The rain had been going for a while and so the wood as well as the leaves under their feet had gotten damp. He turned his head towards the viera, expecting another agreeing nod, or a shrug, or some other kind of impassive gesture. However, what his comment got him was a patronizing glare. He also imagined to make out a small, pitying smile tucking at the corners of her lips. She started to walk around, picking up twigs and branches of wood that had been spared from the dampness. There proved to be plenty of it, provided one knew where to look. She soon returned to him with an armload of wood and brushed aside the leaves beneath her with her foot, revealing the surprisingly dry ground. She then droppen the wood and started to light some twigs.
Suffice to say Crow felt slightly like an idiot. On one side, he knew he wasn't to be blamed he for not possessing the forest knowledge of a viera. On the other hand, he felt like he had revealed himself, in Mel's eyes, as a completely clueless city dandy.
Normally, he would have stretched by the fire, saying how he had longed for some warmth and how his feet needed to dry up and complaining about the weather. Talking about small things. Such campfire chat was quite normal after a day of walking when he was with his fellow clan members. But he wasn't with his clan, and so he put the complaining aside while cooking some dried meat.
He leaned back against the trunk of a huge tree, eating his meal.
''Don't you think this mission is kinda strange?'' he asked at some point. She looked up at him, but didn't answer. ''I mean, the client claims to have seen a water fairy at a spring, but the mentioned spring couldn't be found on a single map. Isn't that fishy?''
''If it weren't fishy, we wouldn't be here.''
Well... There was nothing to add to that. She was completely right. With that topic having fallen flat, Crow tried different approaches. He tried to talk about the food. The forest. Forests in general, as he hoped that would get a viera talking. He wanted to break the ice. If they were really looking for a nonexistant spring, they'd be looking for a while, some days or maybe weeks, and he wasn't planning to spend such a span of time in utter silence. But he didn't seem to get anywhere. Resigning, he fell silent and concentrated on his meal.
After they had finished eating, they spread out their bedrolls, looking for a dry spot. Expectably, Mel had a fair bit more success than Crow, but he didn't really care. ''Good night,'' he said. ''Good night,'' she doubled. Wow, he thought sarcastically, two words. Most of his conversation attempts hadn't been rewarded with more than a single sentence. He lay back and closed his eyes. Falling asleep wasn't hard. Crow, having seen his share of missions, had gotten used to sleeping in the wild. Should a monster's need for a late night snack arise, his senses would wake him up in time. Hopefully.
However, it weren't the steps of a bladebiter that woke him up that night, nor was it the howl of a coerl. At first, it didn't know what was the cause at all. There was nothing but the chilly night air which had surrounded him after the fire, left unattended, had died down. But then, his eyes fell on an empty bedroll, not too far from his own. He tensed halfways in standing up when he heard a sound. A voice. It was close, and seemed to originate from above him, like it was coming from one of the trees. It was singing. It was singing a slow, beautiful song in a foreign language. Crow relaxed when he recognized the voice from the few words he had heard the past day. Even though he didn't understand a single word, the melody brought a smile to his lips. The melody was strange and hard to grasp, but it sounded sweet, like honey and sweet cherries. Now that was ridiculous, he thought, but if cherries could sing... He crawled back into his bedroll and closed his eyes, still smiling. He kept listening until sleep got hold of him once more.
The next morning came too quickly. The first thing Crow registered was that the air and the ground were still damp, but that the rain had stopped and that the sky had cleared a bit. The second thing was that the other bedroll was still, or again, empty. Not far away, he spotted Mel sitting with her back against a trunk, nibbling on a loaf of bread. Suddenly becoming aware of his own stomach's demands, he went over to his backpack and produced some of his own provisions. He nodded in her direction as a form of greeting. ''Morning,'' she replied absentmindedly in between two bites. He considered asking her about the song, but quickly decided against it. She had thrown flat his every attempt at conversation so far. Hence he effectively knew nothing about her, and so he didn't want to accidentally tread on unstable ground. A silent companion wasn't the best he could have hoped for, but it was still many times better than an angry companion. So they sat there and ate, neither saying another word until they both got up and packed their stuff.
''So, I'll guess we just have to scour the forest until we find something,'' the fighter mused.
''The client mentioned being quite deep into the forest when he saw the spirit.'' The sniper started walking towards the heart of the forest. As good a clue as any, Crow thought and hurried after her.
The morning and the first part of the afternoon went by completely eventlessly. From time to time, they could hear raindrops falling onto the roof of leaves when the clouds decided they had some more rain to share. At some point late in the afternoon – it was hard to judge the exact time with the sun hidden by clouds – they decided to take a break.
Crow sat down with his back against the tree, quickly joined by Mel. He produced a loaf of bread from his backpack. It must have gotten late, for he was quite hungry. However, he had barely taken a bite when he heard something rustling in the bushes. He tensed, trying to locate the origin of the sound, but failing. He looked over to his companion. She had her bow readied, her viera ears tensed. Crow moved his hand to his belt. He had barely gripped the hilt of his blade, however, when two panthers stormed out of the undergrowth. Crow jumped to the side, and so did Mel, at the same time releasing an arrow at one of the panthers. It missed by mere inches, but caused the beast to turn to the sniper. The other closed in on Crow, who pointed his blade at the cat-like. It howled, trying to intimidate its foe. But the fighter wasn't a timid one. He yelled back at the panther. Always try to return intimidation attempts. He just hoped it would work for monsters as well. He kept his blade pointed at the beast, until he noticed some movement in the corner of his eye. He turned around just in time to see a coerl leap at him. He ducked under its fangs, then extended his blade, slicing the soft belly of the creature. However, that had left his side wide open for the first panther to attack. He saw the beast storming at him already. However, before it could reach him, an arrow pierced through its neck. It went limp immediately and collapsed a few inches in front of Crow. He looked over to the origin of the arrow. The other panther, too, had been ornamented with a well-placed arrow.
''Do you really need me to save your ass?'' she asked, sounding perfectly serious. He looked at her in surprise. He wouldn't have expected such a comment from her.
''Air render!'' he shouted, swiping his blade in her direction. The shockwave tightly soared past her. Instead, it hit another panther who had tried to sneak up at her. The panther was thrown against a tree and fell unconscious immediately. ''Who saved whose ass now?'' The fighter grinned. Then, he had to turn around at the sound of more rustling leaves. He readied his blade once more, expecting more panthers. However, the monster closing in on him was definitely not a panther. The body was that of an overdimensioned snake, but with the head of a young female human. It grinned wickedly at him. A lamia, Crow stated. Seemed like he was on the menu of more than one species today. He checked his memory. The blue color meant he was dealing with a lilith, an especially strong and poisonous species. He had to avoid being bitten at all cost. The scales of the tail were hard as steel, he remembered, but the belly was unprotected.
By now, the creature had come into fighting range. Crow had to duck to avoid a swipe from its tail. Instead, it hit into the nearest tree with a hellish noise that sounded a lot like breaking wood. Probably because it was breaking wood. But the human didn't have the time to think that far. He jumped backwards, pointed his blade at the monster's white belly and released an air render. The creature moved its tail into the path of the shockwave, so the impact struck the hard scales. However, that was what Crow had been expecting. He ducked under the beast's tail and raised his blade to the highth of what looked a lot like a human torso. The Lilith leaned over, and for a second, Crow felt its mouth dangerously close to his ear, but then the blade ran through the creature, who collapsed onto him. He was brought to the ground by its weight. When he got up again, however, he did not have much time to catch his breath as he heard a scream from behind him.
He whirled around to see another lilith, facing away from him. Entwined in the steel grip of its tail was Mel. Her greatbow was lying on the leaf-covered soil. The lilith had gripped her around the torso, her feet dangled above the ground. Her lips were frighteningly passive, lacking the small movement that indicated breathing. The grip of the snake tail was pressing all the air out of the viera's lungs. He had to save her before she'd suffocate. Without hesitation, he stormed forward, roaring. Then he leapt. The lilith turned around, extended its arm... And closely missed Crow's sword arm. As his momentum threw him at the monster, the edge of his blade drove through its windpipe. He heard a soft thud as the tail's grip loosened and the viera it was holding fell to the ground. A moment later the lilith collapsed. The human removed his blade from the beast's throat, then looked around for the next threat. However, there were no more monsters. As suddenly as the attack had started, everything was quiet again.
Then two arms wrapped around him. Surprised, he stated Mel had engaged him in a tight embrace. They both held still for a second, then another one, and another. Then, she rashly pulled away. She coughed awkwardly, but didn't hide the grateful look on her face. And was that a flash of red he saw? Or was it just his imagination? He responded with a warm smile. They stood still for another couple of seconds, neither knowing what should come next, then it was her who broke the silence.
''It's getting late already. I should get some dry wood.''
When she came back with an armload of wood, he was sitting on a piece of ground where he had removed the damp leaves. The monster corpeses had been moved and lay piled up a few yards away. In front of him burned a small fire, made up of a few twigs and small branches. When he noticed her, he smiled.
''I'm a quick study,'' he said. She smiled too and sat down next to him. She started to extend the fire until it was usable to heat a half-decent meal. And while doing so, they talked. They talked about the strange mission they'd been assigned to, about the food, and about forests. That topic did not miss its expected effect this time, and so he learned a lot about how she had lived with the viera. And from there, they drifted off to sharing childhood stories. How he had been chased by his neighbor's dog. How she'd fallen in a pond and though she'd drown. How he had to run after stealing a bangaa's apples at market square and calling him a lizard. The talked even after the meal had been finished. The rain had increased and heavy drops were constantly falling from the leaves which couldn't support the amount of water, so the fire had already died down, but they kept on talking. They were finally... Getting to know each other. At some point, Crow said:
''You have a very beautiful voice.'' She looked at him, surprised and, though the dark of the night hid it well, flustered. ''I heard you sing last night,'' he explained.
''You... You heard...?'' She stammered, obviously embarassed.
''You needn't be embarassed,'' he reassured her. ''You sing very well.''
''Th-Thanks... And also... Thank you again for saving me.''
''I just did what everyone would have done.''
She shook her head. ''Not everyone. That was very brave of you.''
''Hey, now I'm embarassed.''
''You needn't be. Really.''
The sat there in comfortable silence for some time. Then, loud enough to make the trees shake, thunder roared above them. Mel gave of a frightened yelp and moved close to Crow until her back was pressed against him. For a second, it seemed as if she would back away again, like before in the embrace, but then he put an arm around her, holding her close. She tensed, but relaxed again after a second and rested her head on his chest. Now look at that, he mused in his head, Our tough sniper is afraid of thunder. They remained in the same position, and soon, he felt her breath steady. She had fallen asleep. He remained awake for another few minutes, smiling and enjoying how things had ended up at the end of the day. This mission seems to turn out more pleasant than I thought. Maybe this clan cooperation isn't so bad after all.
Well there we are. Looking at the clock, I think I'm gonna reread this tomorrow. It always ends up this late when I'm writing. This story took me longer than I had expected. No, now that I'm thinking of it, I'll be watching soccer tomorrow. Netherlands vs. Germany's gonna be a big deal. Guys will be guys. Well, if you're still following me, then thank you for reading and please give me your honest opinion in a review. Thanks!
P.S. Well darn, we lost, but it was still a fun event. Anyway, I finally finished rereading.