When he’d volunteered to leave his regiment—leave the pack—and search for a Heterodyne, Maxim had been prepared for loneliness. And indeed, the first few months had been marked by little food and less sleep, snatched where he could in forests and swamps and the occasional mountain cave. He’d quickly learned to avoid towns as much as possible. It might not have been so bad if he’d had any company at all, but he’d even had to leave his mount behind—a Jaegermonster was conspicuous enough without a Jaegerhorse.* Eventually, he’d developed a habit of grumbling to himself just to hear words.
But then he discovered that Oggie had been detached, and then they met Jenka (Lieutenant, 2nd Heavy Jaegercavalry; Maxim had fought beside her at Salzburg), and then they’d run into Dimo (Sergeant, 5th Jaeger Infantry; he knew they’d met somewhere before but it stubbornly refused to come to mind**) and it had been almost like having a pack again. It helped that Dimo seemed to naturally fit into any open niches in the dynamic, especially when that open niche was “the guy in charge.”
Maxim had been the guy in charge. It was awful. If Dimo was willing to fill that role, he could damn well have it, and Maxim would focus on the fun stuff.
Like the full-grown manticore sunning itself on a rock below him. Maxim inched forward on his stomach, holding his breath. Manticores were notoriously light sleepers, and he’d seen their quills impale a full-grown war mammoth, but if he could just get onto its back, where it couldn’t sting…
He smelled Dimo before he heard him, so the low growl behind him didn’t make him flinch. “Vot iz hyu doink?”
“Hy am goink to ride dot.”
The manticore twitched. He froze until it settled, then edged closer to the cliff edge and prepared to spring.
He jumped; behind him Dimo groaned out loud, but it didn’t matter because the manticore woke up as soon as he landed on its back (mercifully avoiding any of its quills) and then it was all he could do to hang on as it rolled and bucked and tried to spin around to bite him. He dug his claws into its back until he drew blood; it bellowed, but couldn’t shake him.
For a moment, it stood still, and he took the chance to catch his breath and adjust his seat. It wasn’t very different from riding a horse bareback, really. If the horse was the size of a small elephant. He could do this.
And then it broke into a dead run, barreling through the forest, and he flattened himself against its neck and absolutely did not yelp in anything resembling instinctual terror the first time a branch scythed through where his head had been. The manticore sprinted through groundcover, leapt over ponds, splashed through bogs that splattered both of them with muck, and Maxim clung to it. It would tire eventually, and he would be ready. He was vaguely aware that Oggie and Dimo had started chasing after him.
By the time it ran out of energy, they’d left the forest for the very edge of some well-tended farm or other. Maxim grinned triumphantly down at his friends and adjusted his hat. “Hy tink Hy vill call him Vanko. Vot hyu tink?”
Oggie grinned back, leaning on his poleaxe. “Hy dunno, he looks more like an Andrei to me.”
“Hyu iz both eediots—“
And then the manticore tried to rip Dimo’s head off, and there was a fight which was almost as much fun as the ride had been, plus they got to eat the manticore when it was over!
Yeah, Maxim decided. Dimo could have the responsibility.
* The rumors held that they were actual horses that had been given the Jaegerdraught. Maxim doubted this; you couldn’t be a real Jaeger without swearing the oath, and horses weren’t that smart.
** It was eventually determined that their vague memories of each other had involved Dimo offering “helpful suggestions” regarding Maxim’s attempts to play the piano until Maxim had hit him with the bench. The resulting fight had set off Mamma’s evening bar brawl five minutes early, but just because Dimo’s mother had written the piece didn’t give him the right to say Maxim was doing it wrong.