Monster aren't all bad
Being a messanger in such a large city was one of the best jobs Solstice had. She knew the streets and alleyways like the back of her hand. Getting messeges all across the stone city on foot alone just let her soul free. The adrenaline rush, the feeling of solid stone under her feet, the weightlessness of leaping across buildings. She felt free.
But...it was that day.
Sitting on top of a large tower, munching on an apple, she watched as the townspeople pooled and hurried about. Tributes. Shaking her head, why did they keep this stupid tradition when so many of their townspeople were taken and killed.
All her life; at home, in school, training and amongst friends, everyone talked about the realm of monsters beyond their city. Villages between them had it hard, having to deal with frequent attacks and monster sightings. She watched the city guards march in and out of the walls every day just to deal with the menaces. Monsters in the wilds were not to be trust nor were they safe to be around.
She knew more than most.
So many of her friends were lost to that mythical world.
Thornstriker, her oldest friend, had one of the best book stores the city had. She could make anything look new again and always had the most thrilling tales to share. She travelled between the city and neighbouring settlements with her wares. Often times, Solstice would go out with her, acting as a scout for the small caravan of merchants heading out of the city. But that one time she couldn't, that one time she covered for a lazy knat of a courier - she lost her friend.
A road messenger arrived, reporting the news of a monster claiming her as tribute. Solstice pleaded to the guard to find her. That is wasn't right for a monster to take a person. It was unheard of. But the elders and chroniclers stated it didn't break nor bent any laws within the treaty all beasts and men knew. The creature had done no wrong...at least to everyone else.
But Thornstriker wasn't her only friend lost to those monsters. Blurr, the fastest and best road courier in the guild. He was even training her to be a road messenger too. It was an honor to learn from the best, from a legend among the Messengers Guild. But he too was taken. He had been late on a drop, and when others went out to find him...they only found the tattered remains of a scarf he always wore.
Remembering those times, it kept affirming the lessons and warnings her teachers and trainers drilled into her. It was dangerous outside of the city. No one is safe.
Then...why even have the city open? Why not close the gates? There was plenty of farmland within the walls, plenty of water and food to go around, and trade was significant without the outside sources. Sometimes politicians really had no idea what they were doing.
"Pondering life's puzzle's are we?" Looking down from her perch, she should've known where she was. Rung, a newly appointed elder and therapist, offered his warmest smile, standing by his balcony while Solstice sat on his roof. "Will you be attending the Tribute festival?" he asked, though he knew full well what her answer was.
"Can't. Busy," she mused, looking about rather than at the crafty elder.
He had a way about him, one that made her wonder if he was more than what he seemed. Unfortunately, his gaze began to bore into the side of her head, her only reaction was to look. His face was straight, lips in a thin line as his gaze spoke for him: "Not really."
"Fine...I'll be out having drinks with some of the City couriers. I...I don't want to see any of them."
"Yet you must realise there are some beings beyond the walls whom are not bad," Rung mused, looking down as some of the first creatures arrived through the gates.
"But...they are. You are aware the city messengers are losing more couriers each day. They found one in an arachne nest, another lost his arm to an ogre," Solstice continued to ramble off injuries and deaths, yet she wasn't getting what she wanted from the Elder - affirmation.
"These things do happen. Such is life. But your bitterness towards them will only hold you down," Rung offered his hand, asking her to come down. She hesitated, not sure where he might take this since once he got a hold of someone, issues become greater. Sighing, Solstice took his hand and slipped down to his balcony. "You must move on."
"Thanks for the talk Rung, but I need to go," she knew it was too good to be true. Leaping from the balcony and scaling the wall down to the streets. The light was waning while the streets were becoming full of humans and creatures. Keeping away from the main streets, Solstice made it to the small bar where her friends were waiting.
Entering the bar wasn't what she expected. Monsters crowded the building as well as humans. So much for keeping away from them. With no way of fighting it, Solstice slipped through the crowds and rowdy drunks to her friends. However, the crowds were rowdier than usual with the added mythical presence. A unicorn had exchanged words with a Garuda, leading to a small scuffle. Pushed and battered by the crowd, Solstice fell as she pushed through. Instead of meeting the floor or a table as she thought, a pair of arms looped around her.
"Thanks, that was clo..." her words fell short, looking up into the strangest eyes she had ever seen. Red sclera contrasting bright azure slitted irises. Long silver hair tied in a high ponytail, two pairs of long black horns protuding from his head, long fangs poking out from thin lips. His body was lithe but held a strange strength, wrapped in armor and fine soft silkes. The way he held her seemed...off to her. The way he seemed to...cradle her, not hold.
"Are you alright?" he asked. His voice was deep, a tinge of an accent clining to his words as they seemed to slide over his tongue.
"Um...uh...y-yes, yes I'm fine, thank you," Solstice stammered, getting back to her feet as fast as she could. Straightening herself, she moved to her friends only to find her path blocked. The demon blocked her path, his hand offered in greeting. Solstice was confused and, dare she admit, a little scared. What did it want?
"Pardon my forwardness, but would you care to have a drink with me?" he asked, his deep rolling voice pulling warmth up her spine.
"I...uh...Sorry, but my friends are waiting for me," slipping past him, dodging any attempts to hold her back, and rushing to her group. Sparing a glance back, Solstice watched as the demon remained in place before moving aside. Something told her this wasn't the last she would see of him. And yet...why was he so familiar?
Come the next morning, Solstice relaxed to see most of the monsters leaving the city. Some carried only small bobbles and wares while others trailed out with large carts. She was gladdened to see no one was being dragged away, making this one of the better years. As she got changed, she spoted the demon from last night. She watched as he left the City but, whether he noticed her presence or not, his strange yet alluring eyes turned and locked with hers. How? She was on the other side of the square.
The contact pushed her to the floor, disappearing from his sight. Her heart raced, much like it did last night. Adrenaline mixed with fear and...excitement? Smaking her cheeks, snapping herself out of it, Solstice peeked out again to see the demon was gone. Good, a little relief.
Once ready, she rushed out of her home toward the guild headquarters for her runs. But as she entered the furnished building, she was surprised to see no one around. Walking through, she came up to the main bar to find the Guildmaster.
"Um...Boss, where is everyone?" Solstice asked, watching the master moving and shifting about behind the bar.
"Most are already out on jobs, half are still out cold from the festival and the rest are injured," the middle-aged man warbled, handing over a package and some scrolls...and a day pack? "You need to take this to the next city over. It'll take you a good day to get there."
"But...But boss! That would mean...leaving the city! I-I can't! The monsters out there wil!...Will!" Solstice cried, getting only a stern glare from the man.
"Look, you were trained to do this and I have no one else. What happened to Blurr was bad but get over it!" Slamming a fist onto the bar caused Solstice to jump. "We don't get paid to not deliver and I don't pay you to get picky. Now take the packages and get moving!"
There was no way around it, she had to go. Growling, she would've fought back if this wasn't her only job. Collecting her parcels and her pack, she turned back to the city square. Staring at the City gates; she mused over the many times she promised and stated she would never leave nor pass the gates...and yet here she was. It must be some sort of sick joke or some cosmic jinx. But she couln't risk this job.
Passing the armorer, she intended to make sure she could fight back. Using what coin she had, she was able to buy a strong and well-crafted bow and dagger. All Road Couriers had some form of protection, and she intended to ensure nothing would think twice. Quiver strapped to her back, resting against her bow while her dagger rested on her hips, she took her first step out of the city.
Using her map, she found the next city was easy to get to...if you counted a thick forest known to have taken many souls as easy. All she needed to do was follow the main road to get there, but even though she could journey around the forest, it would take her longer to get to the city. Stepping up to the wooden mouth, she removed her bow and notched an arrow, she had to remain alert.
As she walked through the darkening foliage - the sun being blocked by the large leafy canopy above her - she recalled all the tales and rumors she knew about it. Many merchants and couriers say it was home to many Arachne; most would capture and eat any traveller but some would capture travellers for mates or nesting for their babies. Others say the woods were perfect for ambushes, succubi and inccubi would swoop from all sides to snag a meal, or orcs and ogres would charge in for a little sport.
The more she mused and thoughts on these tales, she never noticed the growing number of webs around her. The moment she noticed them, several threads clung to her. Panicked, Solstice struggled against the webs, managing to break some but her futile efforts only wrapped her tighter.
"No! Nonono!" she cried, her eyes turned to the trees in the attempt to catch the arachne before they could catch the element of surprise. One hand, trapped in the webs, clung to her side while she tried to use the other to grab her dagger.
"Well well, what have we here?" Solstice froze, an accented voice slithered from shadows. Shifting steps and soft clicks grew her terror as a large red arachne slipped into view. "Oo~ New prey~" large legs made short work of the distance between them, large hands grabbed her and wrapped more webs around her. Her shrieks were ignored, but not the dagger swinging about in her free hand. Where Solstice managed to slash the arachne, she only won a reprieve when another slender hand snatched her blade.
"Oh dear Chop Shop. You know I don't like it when you try to steal my prey~ " It was a female voice now. Looking up, ignoring the webbing in her hair, she couldn't manage a scream at the sight of a large black widow arachne.
"Your prey, Airachnid? Seems like you've got your strings crossed love, this little morsal is in my web," Chop Shop, the large spider, snapped. Solstice gasped as Airachnid crawled over her to confront the larger spider. While they seemed more interested in arguing and throwing threats than claiming her, Solstice took her chance to try and escape. But as she moved to slice the webbing, she paled as the dagger she once had was missing. Spotting it several feet away from her, Airachnid no doubt was the culprit.
This was it, she was doomed to be food or a breeder. Tears welled up, no one would find her. Not alive. She was going to die here, whether it was now or later was up to her captor. She didn't want to die, she didn't want it all to end, losing everything in this webwood. She begged, she prayed, someone would find her and save her. She didn't want to end up like Blurr or Thornstriker...maybe she would see them again. That was a comforting thought. She wouldn't be alone. But what of her other friends? Rung, Riot, Feedback, Speedzone, Turbocharge. She wanted to see them again, she didn't want to be the reason they were sad.
Weight shifted behind her. Chills ran through her. A third?! A third Arachne?! Her tears increased, how could this get any worse?!
"Please, stay quiet," refined and smooth, her fear almost flipped to warmth, straining back to see a red, black, white and teal Arachne working on the webs. She could feel the pressure release, Solstice fell back into the arachne's waiting arms. But before she could stand up and leave, the Arachne held firm and rushed into the trees. Solstice, for fear of falling, resigned to clinging to the arachne. She had no other choice, and she had a feeling she would regret it later.
But once again, something about this creature was familiar. His voice certainly stood out but...she couldn't place it.
The Arachne came to a slow stop, allowing her to see where they had arrived. Holding her close, the arachne approached a small shrine house. What should've been wreaked and left abandoned, was repaired and well lived. Of course, webs stretched from the wood to the surrounding trees while decorating the house itself. Her sense came back as she began to struggle against the arachne. Despite him saving her, there was no way she was going to be trapped in the same room as this creature.
"No please, please you're safe," he struggled to keep her still and calm, but the closer the shrine became the more she became dertermined to escape him. In one strong tug, Solstice toppled from the arachne's grasp, stumbling to a safe enough distance. "I want to help you."
"Please...just leave me alone," Solstice pleaded, wanting nothing more than to run. She reached for anything to protect herself when she felt something was missing. The package! Her very reason for being out here! It was gone from her pack. Did she lose it in the webbing? Did it drop from the escape? Turning back to the arachne, she froze at the sight of her pack in his hand.
"It's getting late, my dear," his charming smile turned to the door, sliding it open. "Please, come inside. You will be safe here." Retreating inside, Solstice was left at a disadvantage. She couldn't leave without her pack nor did she want to risk danger by entering the shrine. Either way, she couldn't risk stepping back out into the wilds with those other arachne and Primus knows what else lurking in the shadows. Frustrated with everything, she could only turn to something she hated others seeing; throwing a tantrum.
Angry beyond her own restraint, Solstice screamed into the woods. She kicked and punched thin air to work out her anger before her fist met something solid. Pain shot from her knuckles up her wrist and into her arm and elbow. Hissing, she pulled back to find she had unwittingly punched a thick tree. Grumbling, anger turning to annoyance, she had simmered down enough to turn to the shrine. In defeat, she resigned to her fate...but not without a fight. She spied a rock, large enough to hold with a distinct point. She grabbed and stashed it before entering the building.
Within was not what she was expecting. The shrine from the outside looked old and consumed by webs, but within was something completely different. Fine furniture, silk and woolen rugs, mastercraft drapes and the opening of what looked like an alchemical lab. Another door seemed to lead to a training area or a meditation space. Whatever they seemed to be, Solstice stood shocked at how this decrepit corpse of a shrine was brought back to life from within.
"Please, sit." Attention returned to the arachne, Solstice stood weary as he offered her a seat. Careful to approach and ensuring nothing blocked any escape, she inspected the chair for traps or snares. To her constant surprise, she found none. The chair, carved by hand from thick mahogany, was a welcomed sight as she noticed the screaming in her legs. Slow, she sat on the plush cushion, her upper body relaxing onto the cushion. Movement again snapped her frame tense as the arachne...placed a small cup and plate of sweets before her. One of his many legs then offered a teapot, sugar and milky cream. She sat transfixed as the arachne simply poured the warm broth, followed by two sweet lumps and a single dolop of milk into the cup.
Why was all of this happening? Why was this beast being so...hospitible? Was he luring her in? Making her feel warm and welcomed before snatching her up in his web? She had heard tales of some being lured by good deeds and treats before their doom. Maybe it was poisoned, or drugged. Something to weaken her. But the arachne took a place opposite her and poured himself a drink from the same pot...maybe he was immune to whatever plot he held for her...maybe...
Turning to the sweets, one in particular stood out. It looked like a soft pink ball of wool. Curiousity overrode caution as she reached for the sweet. Small childhood memories came back as the ball passed her lips. Web floss! Light like a spider's web but melted into a chewy goo once it hit the tongue! She loved eating these as a kid!
"Oh dear," moving again, Solstice finched as the creature skittered away and returned with a small box. Sensing her dread was true, she swallowed her sweet and almost bolted from her seat before seeing the box held...bandages? The arachne was swift, leaving her unable to stop him or resist as he plucked her injured hand, now bleeding lightly, and treated the wound. "Really, I understand some humans can be immature, but was injuring yourself necessary?"
Her thoughts turned distracted by something catching her eyes. A single piece of cloth, held by the arachne. It seemed to function as a kerchief but...the designs hand-stitched; small flowers and vines.
"Thats..." hearing her voice since their exchange, he turned to see her staring at the cloth.
"Perhaps now you recognise you are safe here?" he tone was filled with mirth, spelling out a small riddle in the hopes she would solve it. He removed the cloth and held it to her. The designs became more apparent, revealing an old memory: Before she had become a courier, found and cared for in a foster home, their carer ensured they all paid for their home through lace, weaving and textiles. The year before she was recruited...the last Tribute Festival she participated it...a warm smile and a trade of sweet web floss candy for her last work. A hand-stitched cloth, weaved from scratched and hours spent cross-stitching a flowerbed and vines lining the border, trimmed with soft lace.
"I...made this..." her mind reeled at the discovery, looking to the arachne. His voice finally clicked in her mind, his warming smile in the summer sun. Almost lost to young age but haunting like a ghost. "You're the arachne who..." before he could answer, the shrine door slide open and welcomed another inside.
Solstice gasped at the sight of the Oni from yesterday. His robes and underclothes were torn and dirtied in some places, some even spotting blood, but his smile remained in place before he entered the room.
"Percy! I managed to..." the Oni paused as his eyes fell on Solstice. Recognition flashed through his eyes, dropping his pack and starting his rapid approach. An approach she saw as an advance. A shrill shriek spilled from her lips as she tried to scamper away from them both. The Oni seemed shocked and confused, watching as she hugged the wall to support herself.
"Oh Drift, I was just getting her to relax," the arachne hissed, one of his legs lightly slapping the Oni's head.
"I didn't mean...miss I'm sorry if I..." Drift froze again as Solstice raised her rock, tears spilling from her angry glare.
"I knew you were up to something," she hissed, her rock weapon raised high. "I knew you were just trying to lull me into a false security, make me think you were just trying to help me. But you only want to...to do something horrible to me!" her anger clouded her perception, failing to see their reactions to her harsh words. "Monsters always want to take from us! Take everything and everyone, no care to anything but their agendas...well, you may have taken them, but you won't take me!"
The air was tense, time stilling as the three stared each other down. She should've known, it was too good to be true. The stories, accounts from others in the village, everything she had just witnessed and experienced, all of them were true; monsters! They were all monsters and humans were only to be eaten, raped and used for whatever fantasies they had.
White flew by her, a blurr of motion before claws snapped around her wrist, slight pressure uncurled her fingers and let the rock fall from her grasp. Her senses caught up, forcing herself to fight against the grip. Turning her body, she intended to strike her attacker - the Oni - fist closed to any vital points she could recall. But where she thought she would find his defence or even offensive, arms wrapped around her. Pulled into not a fighter's hold, but a warming embrace.
"Drift..." Perceptor paused, watching his companion embrace the human. Drift himself refused to lay another hand on her, arms enclosing and holding the woman close to him. He certainly hoped the Oni had some plan for the distraught woman.
Low whispers. Gibberish to one not versed in the ancient tongue. Perceptor recalled the many times Drift would whisper such words but these...were different to the lines he often quoted.
Solstice, however, seemed to recall the words. Her heart stilled and her eyes widened. She had heard those words only once...so long ago her mind should've forgotten them...and yet they clung to her memories.
She recalled being a child, very young, trying to make friends and finding none. Too rough playing some would say, not social enough others would say. She even recalled some of the other foster children claim she had a split personality given the times she wished to be alone contradicted the times she wanted to join and play. Harmful words, she could recall, left her in angry tears and feeling more alone than ever. Then a pained gasp, her hate forgotten as concern billowed. Whispering scents of jasmine, sandalwood, musk and cedar. Mixed with copper and blood.
She remembered finding someone, ruby and azure eyes clouded and breath stinking of alcohol and a sickening sweet allure. Dreamers Mist. She knew the drug from her caretaker. She could remember ripping her cardigan, parts used to clean and bandage bleeding wounds, other scraps dampened with clean water to sooth throbbing and bruising flesh.
Then the whispers, a hand catching her shoulder. Light and shadows dancing in the side street, making an otherwise frightful sight seem...soft and warm. Long horns from the head, mattered and dirty white hair. A smile, weak fanged smile.
She gasped. This...he was the same creature she find behind a drug den, beaten to a pulp and left for dead. She recalled his strange words, their meaning lost but their tone warming to thanks and encouragement. Holding a moment, her once tense frame weakened. She had met these beings before, but it wasn't until now that she remembered them. Once the teachings and warnings were brushed aside to allow them through. Clouding the memories as chances of luck.
Drift released her, moving back to watch as realisation crossed her shocked expression. Solstice felt...so low. She had judged them so harshly, all because of what was taught and drilled into her. From experiences she only had second-hand reports from. Maybe...maybe not all creatures were cruel and deadly.
"Come." Drift's voice pulled her from her thoughts, his clawed fingers reaching for her face. She hadn't even realised the tears rolling down her cheeks. "Let's share a meal, after I will guide you out of the forest,"offering his hand, Solstice was at a loss. Moving just on instinct, she accepted his hand, allowing to be guided back to the table. She was still tense, if only because she was embarrassed and still very confused, she was left to sit with tea and treats until the main meal was placed before.
Staring at the plate, she was served fluffy white rice, an assortment of red meat, seafood and vegetables. She hadn't seen this much seafood before, often times since there was so little to fish in the rivers most of the year. But here there were fish she had never seen before. She picked at the red meat, unsure of what it was and, again, her mind jumped to a grizly conclusion.
"It's beef," looking up, Drift sat to her left while Perceptor settled to her right, both with the same platter. Solstice felt silly for being told this, she shouldn't be still tense after realising who they were, but habits seem to struggle when dying.
"Um..." she picked at one of the seafood she had never seen before. Long tentacles with small suckers. Almost looked like a Kraken except tiny. She recalled Oracle telling her about a Kraken once, the description fitting this strange food too.
"It's octopus," Perceptor pulled her attention, holding up the same tentacle from his plate but offering it to her. "Taste." A calming coo over the supposed order she had first thought, Solstice hesitated as the piece was held to her lips but, curiousity winning over, she opened her mouth and sampled the piece.
A spring of flavours hit her palate. It broke apart in her mouth, juicy yet well cooked. The sauce it had been slathered in rang with salt, tartness and a strange sweetness. Turning to her own dish, she plucked more and savoured the delightful taste. Looking up, she paused at the sight of the pair smiling and watching her. Blushing, embarrassed, they continued to eat in silence.
After eating and packing a few more supplies for her, Drift kept his promise and showed Solstice the way to the village. She would be on time for her delivery...and yet, would this be the only time she would see them?
As she and Drift walked through the thinning woods, she had reminised on her time with them. Bypassing her own prejudice and really taking in their conversations and interactions, they were truely kind and interested in her...something not many in her city did. Sure she had her friends and loved them dearly but...they had there own relations and lovers where she was alone. But each time her mind conjured such a possibility, her prejudice would chase it away.
Could she love these...men?
"Would you like me to wait for you?" turning to Drift, confused by his question. "I assume you will return to the city, would you like me to wait for you and guide you back?" he asked again.
"Um...I might take the long way. Hitch a ride on one of the merchant caravans," Solstice replied, noting her answer wasn't what he had hoped for but seemed gladened she wouldn't be alone. Giving a farewell, she moved toward her destination when a question burned. She was unsure of it and what might happen if she asked. But the farther she walked the brighter it burned. Turning back, spying Drift just out of the treeline, there was nothing to stop the words.
"Will I see you again?"
Drift paused, looking back to her.
"I mean...you and Perceptor? Will I...see you both again?" there was tension. Her curiousity tightening like a knot as she waited for an answer. A rush of white and a cool peck on her cheek made her answer, noticing Drift had crossed the distance and stole a kiss on her cheek.
"We would love that."