Beauty & The Beasts
The sea, so calm and still, like a vast glittering mirror to the blue sky above. But, what lay beneath…
A young priestess stood on the prow of the ship, eyes closed and her nose slightly raised, breathing in the salty air as her dark hair fluttered in the cooling breeze. She felt the ebb and flow of the currents below as if it were the blood in her own veins, its creatures like the corpuscles and, thankfully before the analogy could be stretched too far, there was a sudden shift, a change in direction… the girl's dark eyes flashed as her head tilted toward the waters. Shoals of fish passing by, and a bright colourful squid near the surface, its huge black pupil staring up into hers… and then it was caught.
"Now, where are you all going in such a hurry, hmmm?" Tenya asked it. Behind her, on the deck, Imoen and Aerie discussed all the issues of the day.
"Vampire, or werewolf?" The redhead asked, dipping her sponge into a bucket.
The blonde elf looked up, squinting, even as she continued to scrub. "E-excuse me?"
"I mean, if you had to be one, which?"
"Er, w-well…" Aerie mulled it over for a second, "werewolf, I suppose…"
"Really? I mean, they're kinda smelly…"
"You know what vampires smell like," the elf shrugged, "l-like they're dead, because, well, they are dead. Besides, I-I think as a werewolf, you would have to kill every full moon, but otherwise you can still go out in the day and lead a quite normal life."
"Y'make a good case," Imoen conceded. She gazed across the deck, and sighed; she hadn't realised just how much of it there was before. But there was always hope… heavy spangled boots with huge flaps started shaking the planks. "Psst," the redhead whispered, "the captain's coming… just let me do the talking, okay…"
"Imoen," Aerie looked like she was going to be sick, "t-the last time you talked to him he almost made us walk the plank…"
"Don't worry; I'm gonna get us out of this," the redhead assured her friend, who snapped on a glare and started to speak in a hiss.
"Just apologise to him… t-that's how you'll get us out of this."
Imoen shook her head, "can't do that, Aerrers."
"Because," the redhead explained, putting a hand on her heart and puffing out her chest, "I am a woman of principle."
Now Aerie shook her head, "no you're not; you stole his medallion."
"Fair and square!" Imoen insisted. "Anyway… it was his fault for flaunting it out in the open like that. Just, wearing it there on his chest, all big and round, and shiny like that… he was just inviting someone to pick the lock to his cabin, dispel all the magical protections around the case and take it off him while he slept..."
"Please just say you're sorry," Aerie seemed ready to cry.
"No, look, told'ya, don't worry," the redhead, chest still puffed, started to loosen some of the strings on her shirt, "I'll use my feminine wiles on him…"
"I… I-I really don't think that's wise…"
"Shhh! Down, girl… here he comes…"
"Baervar, help us… please…"
If Baervar did answer, then it was far too late. Imoen was up on her knees, chin raised, eyelashes fluttering as she fanned herself. A shadow fell over her and she looked up, her grey eyes wide and her lips pouty and pursed. "Why, hello there, captain," she suddenly had a different accent; less cocky and more coquette, rather reminiscent of another redhead whom Aerie had met only briefly.
Captain Hawk (he called himself that), was a tall, bald man with dark skin, a goatee, and a wide grin that showed off a fine display of pristine dentistry; not the norm at all for sailors.
"Y'know girls," he boomed, "you might finish faster, with less chatter."
Imoen giggled as she leapt up, catching and hanging on his arm, "Listen, my dear captain… I think there's been a terrible misunderstanding here."
"There has?" He grinned.
"See," she pursed her lips even more, making her mouth perfectly round as she spoke, "the real reason I was in your cabin was that… I wanted to get closer to you. And with you being such a busy, busy, man…"
"Ahh," the captain nodded, "that makes sense."
"It's just," her fingers started crawling down his chest, "you're so irresistible… so strong, and big… I just had to be near you."
"You're right," he laughed, "this is all my fault. I'm just too damn irresistible."
"So how about it, captain? Think you could let a couple of poor, lovesick kids off the hook?"
"Hm," his face contorted in contemplation, then shook. "No. And what's more," Imoen suddenly switched impressions to a very good one of a chimpanzee as the captain took her hand in his. "If you want to keep these fingers, then from now on, you'll keep them to yourself."
"B-but… but," the redhead wailed, "I was being all smouldering and sultry and stuff!"
"You need a lot more practice," he informed her, before dropping her back next to the bucket.
The redhead scrambled quickly to her knees, meeting Aerie's icy cold stare. "Well," Immy gasped, trying to shake the pins and needles from her hand, "the captain's clearly a man of impeccable moral character."
The elf blinked. Once, twice, three times… she said nothing, but by the fourth blink another voice gave rise to her thoughts.
"Well," Tenya crowed, "that was shameful and pathetic, even for you."
"Aww, shut your bally brain-box, ya biter," Imoen snapped back at her.
"Enough," Hawk barked, then knelt low, "you got a lot of deck left to scrub."
"Yeah," Imoen glared as she roughly pulled out the sponge and let it splash down in front of her. "You… you like that, dontcha? Having us women scrub your floors for ya?" Clearly, she had decided to change tack. Clearly not wisely. "Not surprised; sexisms a long standing maritime tradition, right? I mean, why is a ship always a 'she', anyway?"
"B-because… she carries you inside her?" Aerie offered.
"Aye," the captain held his palms up, "she gets it."
"I… suppose that is pretty obvious when you think about it…" the redhead conceded.
"See… t-that's the problem," the elf continued, "Imoen often speaks b-before she thinks."
"I figured," the captain nodded along understandingly.
"She's not really an imbecile."
"Hey!" The redhead glared at her friend. "That's it; I want you to stop standing up for me right now!"
Hawk looked at them both, utterly bemused. "Why are you two friends? You're both so… different," of course, he realised he may have answered his own question.
"Well, I guess we both have traits the other one lacks," Imoen explained, "like, maybe, sometimes… very rarely… I really don't do enough thinking. But Aerie; she thinks about things way too much."
"W-we complement each other," the fair haired elf nodded.
"Exactly. Hey Aerrers; your skin looks really nice today."
"Thank you. I-I like your haircut."
"Thank you!" Beaming, Imoen raised her arm, slapping Aerie's palm as the elf mirrored the gesture exactly. "Now, that's teamwork."
"They're both imbeciles," Tenya rolled her eyes, folding her arms across her chest. "Imoen, just because she is, and Aerie for always following her around and believing that she isn't."
"Oh?" Imoen arched an eyebrow toward the teenage priestess, "and what does make you, Ten? You followed me, all the way from Baldur's Gate."
The redhead snorted. "Shouldn't you be up front, watching the waves, or something?"
"Well," the priestess yawned, "I thought you might be interested in knowing that there's a big storm heading this way. Really big. Real nasty, too; tear this rackety old boat up like it were matchsticks if we got caught up in it."
"Can't you do something about it?" Aerie asked.
"I just did," the Umberlant shrugged. "Now," she said with a theatrical humongous yawn and stretch, "I'm going to take a nap. All this hard work has worn me out," her eyes suddenly clamped onto a young sailor trying to sneak around her. "You! Boy!" Tenya growled, thrusting her ceremonial staff into his hands. "Carry this for me."
"Yes, um… holy one," he said, bowing with fear and reverence to the representative of the Queen of the seas.
"And then, I shall bless you, by allowing you to rub my feet."
"Er… t-thank you, holy one…"
"I know, I know," Tenya's nose wrinkled, as she made some grandiose royal gestures with her hands, "I am far too nice, really. I've got to be careful not to let people just walk all over me…" Imoen yelped suddenly, as the priestess put all her weight down on the thief's calf. "Now, come along…"
"At least someone's enjoying their holiday," Aerie sighed.
"One of these days," Immy hissed, "I'm gonna slap her so hard…"
"Today is not the day," the elf leapt up, trying to restrain her friend, "c-considering where we are…"
"Right," the redhead settled, "soon as we're back on land though, she's in for it. I mean it this time; we have got to discipline that girl, even if it kills her."
"More likely, yeah" Imoen sighed, "gotta try though, for all our goods."
"Heh… she's a charming girl," the captain said, still grinning; he didn't seem to have any other facial expression. "Must have learnt her manners in a school of piranha."
"Well… you're not far wrong," Imoen nodded, "unfortunately, she's not a liar; if she says there'll be a storm, there will be."
The captain took a long deep breath, and an equally long exhale… that seemed all the time needed to formulate a plan. "Not to worry; I know an island nearby. We can anchor in the harbour there and wait for this storm to pass. We can also take on some fresh supplies from the town. And, speaking of discipline… make sure you don't miss any spots."
Tenya wasn't lying; the storm hit with all the ferocity of a herd of very ferocious wild buffalo. Or squirrels; they could be ferocious too. The key point is that it was fierce. Maybe there had been fiercer storms, but to the couple of land lubbing passengers on board, the crashing and smashing of waves twice as tall as the tallest they knew against the rocks was more than a little unsettling. They and the crew made it to shore just in time.
The town the captain had mentioned was almost invisible; it wasn't they arrived on the pier that Imoen noticed all the buildings dotted up the steep incline amongst a dense canopy of vegetation.
"Where is everyone?" Imoen tried to make herself heard over the whipping wind, as the captain tried to securely tie all the boats. No one from the town had come out to help.
"Inside?" Hawk offered. "Who in their right mind would come out in this?"
"Seems like the usual greeting I get," the redhead muttered, "what do you think, Aerie?"
As an avariel, Aerie's eyes were incredibly sharp, even compared to other elves. She peered from one end of the isle to the other. "N-no lights, no fires burning… s-something's definitely wrong here."
"What I thought; the usual," the two nodded and sighed resignedly.
"That's the jail," Hawk pointed to a building on the corner of a street and the beach front. "Maybe we'll find the sheriff inside…"
It was a pleasant relief to get out of the howling, biting wind… less pleasant to find the jail completely empty, although perhaps that depended on how you looked at it.
"When was the last time you were here?" Imoen asked, just making conversation as a spark on the end of her wand illuminated the room, a carousel of shadow surrounding them as she slowly turned.
"Years," the captain answered, "don't stop here often. No one does. Still, it was a lot more lively, last time I was here."
"You find something, Aerie?" Imoen asked. The elf was leaning over a logbook, lighting the pages with the end of her finger and shaking her head.
"I-it just stops, about a month ago…" Nature added some dramatic emphasis in the form of several flashes of lightning and the sky roaring.
"Ideas?" The captain asked.
"Maybe they had to evacuate," Imoen offered, "contaminated water, some kind of outbreak…"
"Nice thought," Hawk nodded throughtfully, "but, all the boats are still tied up out there, and, why wouldn't they have left a sign?"
"Well, then, something really bad might have happened…"
Creaking, squeaking, the whole building shook. The spirit of the wind passed them by, howling in anguish. A door slammed shut, another opened… the captain reached for his sword.
"Whoa!" Imoen stopped him at the hilt. "It's alright; it's one of us. Kinda…" sighing, she turned to face the opened portal. "Ten, what're you doing here?"
"Keeping an eye on you," the priestess shrugged.
"Well… nice you care, I suppose…"
"I mean," Tenya's dark eyes twinkled as she skipped across the room, "if some monster were to grab you, spill your guts and entrails out and leave you writhing in agony, begging and cursing til your last breath, then I want to see it."
She skipped past Aerie. Or rather, she skipped on Aerie, landing on her foot seemingly accidentally. The elf pursed her lips, sucking in breath until Tenya had moved on. The priestess spun around, catching the elf's weak little smile and tilting her own head curiously. "Nothing makes you mad, does it?"
Aerie didn't answer; just returned a bemused and worried look as she proceeded to place the logbook back where she'd found it.
"Really, Ten," Imoen sighed, "you'd be safer staying with the rest of the crew."
"Safer?" The priestess growled disdainfully. "You think I am some ordinary weak girl who can't take care of herself?"
"Y-you're not so special Tenya," Aerie said, "when… w-when I was younger, I didn't think anything could touch me, either."
"Oh?" The priestess fixed her with a stare and a small, wicked smile as she slowly stepped under the elf. "And then, let me guess… did something happen to bring the sweet, perfect little angel down to earth?" Tenya peered upwards, scrutinizing the elf carefully like she was looking for some sign of something. Aerie sighed, rolling her eyes and her head away; a mistake. Not meeting the child's eyes gave her the impression that she was winning. "You're not going to cry about it again, are you? Like you do to Imoen?"
"Imoen is my friend, a-and those are actually private conversations…"
"Well, maybe if the two of you learnt to keep the door closed… listening to you… its pathetic."
"So, I-I suppose you think I'd be better off like you?" This time, Aerie rectified the mistake; stopped shifting furtively and met Tenya's stare head on. "Pretending to everyone that pain doesn't hurt me, s-so that it festers and grows until it's consumed absolutely everything else inside?"
The teenage priestess backed up, a little. She steeled and composed herself. "Them is fighting words, missy," she growled.
"Tenya," Aerie laughed, a little nervously, "I… I-I am not going to fight you…"
"Wimp," the priestess spat, "you're afraid of me!"
"I… we, really don't have time for this…"
"She's right," Imoen took hold of Tenya's arm, shoving her into a chair near the door, "sit down and shut up."
The priestess, her jaw hanging open in disbelief as she gazed to the redhead. "Well," she eventually huffed, "of course, you'll take her side…"
"Uh-huh… it's called experience."
"Did it ever occur to you, rat face, that maybe your friend isn't really that good?"
"Tenya… no-one is that good. Keep winding her up; but don't expect me to care if you get you want and she turns you into a twig and snaps."
"stupidbloodyimbeciles," Tenya muttered, that and various other expletives. Imoen was never sure what the priestess wanted from her, but whenever she did something it seemed to work, temporarily at least.
"Hey," the red haired thief turned her attention to her friend, "don't let her get to you," she said, putting an arm across Aerie's shoulders. "It's just a really dumb game. She'll get bored, eventually…"
"I'm… I-I'm trying not to," the fair haired elf bowed her head, her shoulders heaving as she deeply sighed. "I-it's… its really not that easy… being perfect," they both smiled.
Captain Hawk was still watching and listening out for any sign of life in the town. He shushed them suddenly. "I hear something," he explained.
"Sure it's not just the wind?" Imoen asked.
"I-I hear it too," Aerie said, her pointed ears seeming to lengthen. "O-out back…"
The four of them (Imoen allowed Tenya out of her seat) hurried out into a yard. Lot of garbage and refuse, old furniture and other items that presumably had been confiscated by the sheriff and just left out here to rot. And a large snout rustling and shuffling and picking its way through it all.
"It's just a pig," Imoen sighed. A very large pig; as big as a man. But nevertheless, clearly it was a pig.
"Why's it wearing pants?" Tenya asked.
"Look, it's a small town… just… don't question it."
"W-what about the tattoo on its shoulder?" Aerie nodded her head.
"I've… seen it before," the captain peered, stepping slowly forward, "last time I was here. Its…"
The pig stood up, squealing loudly as it rushed at them. They jumped out the way, and it continued on through the back door and out the front, moving awkwardly, since running on two legs was clearly not the natural way for a pig, but with amazing and surprising speed. By the time the four had made it out after it, the man-pig had already disappeared into the trees and shrubs. Most of the rest of the crew who had landed ran up the pier to see what was going on.
"Oh-kay," Imoen panted and nodded her head slowly. "So… the Sheriff's a pig. Sure. Why should that surprise me?" It shouldn't have, but it did.
"That was Turnbull, the Sheriff's deputy," the captain said, staring in disgust and disbelief at the place where the pig had disappeared. "At least, he was last time I was here. He was a good… man…"
The howling wind couldn't quite muffle a scream; a woman's scream. There were only two women and one girl who had come by boat, and were all being quiet, for a change.
"This way!" The captain started to break into a run, signalling for his crew to follow him. The went round the back of the first row of buildings, into a wooded area. There was another young woman on the island; long ruffled auburn hair and a green dress, all slashed at and torn. A group of varying kinds of man beast surrounded her, acting like a pack of wild dogs; darting in, slashing, darting out, gradually wearing her down while she tried to hold them off with a stick, but it was only a matter of time.
The captain was the first to reach them, retaining enough composure not to reach for his sword, having seen what had happened to the deputy. He picked up a heavy branch and beat the townsfolk back with that, his well-disciplined men following his example. In the face of so many, the beasts retreated, scurrying and leaping into the trees.
"Are you okay?" Hawk panted, reaching out a hand to help the obviously beleaguered woman to her feet. She was very young; seventeen or eighteen, maybe. Very pretty, beneath all the grazes and dirt. She looked at them, seeming confused for a moment.
"Who… who are you?" She asked, her body still shaken.
"Hawk… Captain Hawk. What's happened here?"
"Y'know," Imoen interjected, "I really think we should get inside some place before starting with all the questions…"
"Yes," the woman nodded very affirmatively, "she's right…" she turned her head, her green eyes widening and shimmering with fear at all the howling and barking that surrounded them. "They're calling others…" she uttered breathlessly, "follow me… hurry!"
A much larger group of beast men fell and burst out of the vegetation, giving chase as the crew were led up a winding path. There was a terrified scream as one of the men were caught; it didn't last long. Another scream, and Aerie stopped suddenly, since that one wasn't a man or a beast. Looking back, she saw Tenya trying to stifle her own tears, and trying and failing to stand up on a twisted ankle. The beast men were only seconds away…
Aerie did think about things too much, forcing herself to worry about all manner of thing that was probably better off forgotten. But, sometimes, an instinct came over her so strong that she acted without thinking at all. It had brought her a lot of grief in the past, and there was no reason to think it wouldn't now. But she wasn't thinking. She ran and dived at the priestess, sending them both rolling into a ditch. When they settled, all the elf could do was hold the girl close and try to cover her from the claws of the beasts… after several seconds, she opened her eyes. Turning her head, looking back over her shoulder, she saw several beast men rushing by, one even leapt right over the ditch. But they weren't interested in the girl or the priestess; they seemed completely intent on going after the main group. Aerie would think about that later, but for now, she decided it would be wiser to try and find shelter deeper in the woods.
In all the confusion, Imoen didn't notice that her companions were missing until she reached the cottage. There were several posts set out in a wide circle around.
"Light the lamps! Quickly!" The auburn haired woman insisted. The crew had two remaining torches; the woman handed them others to be passed around.
The red haired thief kept turning round, blood racing, eyes starting to show panic. "Wh-where… where are Aerie and Tenya?" She gasped.
"Worry about yourself, first!" The captain growled, thrusting a torch into her hands.
She looked at it strangely for a moment, blinking several times… he… he was right, of course. There was no chance to find them if she died. She ran to the nearest unlit lamp post. It smelled like sulphur when she lit it, but its light was a pale, silvery blue, like the moon. Whatever was in it, the beasts didn't like it. As soon as it touched them they yelped and squealed and retreated. It wasn't long before all the lamps were lit and things started to settle. The crew all collapsed and bent over, catching their breaths, while most of the beast men fell back into the forest. Most of them.
One, a large wolf-man, kept pacing up and down just at the edge of the light a while longer. The captain held up a torch, noting the reflection on the creature's eyes as he stared into them.
"What happened to you?" Hawk asked. The creature stared at him, it's lips moving, bearing it's teeth, but then it spoke.
"H-hunger…" it said, its voice cracked and broken, the effort clearly great. "Crazy … hunger…"
"You want food?"
The creature screamed, slashing at the captain even though he was too far away. It raised a claw, "want… witch," it said, pointing at the green woman. "Give witch! Not kill! Morning… decide…" The beast-man's jaw snapped, before it turned and vanished into the night.