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Misty

Wanderlust

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“We do work well together. If you’re up for it, that is.”

Eleri didn't think it possible to endure such a roller-coaster of emotion as she felt at that moment. Her eyes narrowed at the elf contemptuously as he turned for the stream, souring her face and mimicking--with great exaggeration--the haughtiness he displayed in the denial of their partnership. 

The bastard is toying with me, she thought irritability, though a twinkle of amusement in her eyes hinted otherwise. 

A croaking roar drew her attention back to the chimera, the hovering pup unconvinced of what to think of the strangers below it. Eleri hadn't been serious about keeping the thing; it seemed a kindness to just kill it now than to let it struggle in the wild on its own. But as she crossed her arms and inspected the beast no larger than a newly born foal, she weighed the pros and cons of nurturing it into adulthood. It would be a formidable ally if they could tame it, and if they could manage to train it to carry them on its back, they'd practically half their travel time by taking to the air.

She paused, taken aback by her own introspection. Was she really considering pairing up with the ranger? Up until now, she worked alone and strictly alone. It was too much work, too much drama dealing with others. 

You're the one who mentioned it, idiot. 

Wrinkling her nose, she turned her head to study the man she unwittingly allied herself with. What she found, however, was a trail of leather armaments leading to what was undeniably the most disconcerting yet impressive image she'd witness today. Immediately, she shied away from the naked figure donned before her, half-turning and throwing up her arms as if to guard his striking vestige from her eyes. 

"Whoa, whoa, whoa there cowboy!" Eleri exclaimed sharply, startling the chimera above her as it responded with an involuntary jerk further up in the air. "That's a bit unnecessary, don't you think?! Seriously, what is with you and your impulsive whims! I'll say it again, a little warning would be nice!" 

With a heavy yielding sigh, she lowered her arms reluctantly, still keeping her head turned but with enough peripheral vision on him to know he were still there. Once he submerged himself deep enough to bar her from his salacious exhibition, Eleri turned to regard him with badgering disapproval. 

"First off, if we are going to work together, I think we need to talk about setting some boundaries." Leaving the chimera pup to its own musings as she had nothing to offer it, she approached the river bank to stand by its edge, arms crossed and hip jutting to the side. "If I had wanted to see a naked elf, I'd have gone to one of those fancy whorehouses in Umbra where at least they're clean and pretty to look at." 

Edited by Phaedara

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“Consider yourself warned,” Ashelewyn replied with a curious, smug grin. While not a particular fan of all his people’s customs, a considerable time amongst humans – and other smaller-minded folks – made him long for the understanding of au naturel. “You act as though you’ve never seen a naked man before, Eleri,” he continued with a suggestive flick of his blue eyes over her figure. “And, not to sound too egotistical, but even if you hadn’t, I’m sure you could have done a lot worse for your first time. Human men, well, they tend to. . .” Unable to find the words he desired most, Ashelewyn settled for lifting both hands in a curving motion in front of his half-submerged body as if stroking a portly belly that was not there.

Then he gathered several handfuls of water and splashed them over his face, over his hair, darkening the chocolate locks and slicking them back along his scalp. The chimera’s blood was thicker than most, as tough and defiant as the creature had been. Ashelewyn had to scrub with his palms to get it all the way off. “Anyway, I didn’t mean to offend your sense of modest, m’lady,” he crooned after another handful of water to the face, the silkiness of his accent unable to hide his teasing. “But, it has nothing to do with being impulsive. I told you before I was going to wash. I was covered in blood and sweat; what were you expecting?”

But then the laughter vanished from his voice, and those blue elven eyes took on a critical sharpness. “If you’re going to be my partner, Eleri, you need to get used to me. I don’t mean just who I am, but what I am – a man.” Making his way closer to the stream’s edge, to a shallow right before her, the elf paused just as the water dipped beneath his waist, its bubbling and shifting surface enough to keep his nethers obscured. “This isn’t some fairy tale where everything goes right and we don’t find ourselves in ‘awkward’ positions. How are you going to save my life if you hesitate just because you see that I’m naked, or afraid my cock might touch you?”

Despite the clear rhetoric of the statement, something in Ashelewyn’s voice suggested the example hadn’t been chosen at random. The sudden, albeit brief, flicker of a shadow across his eyes only punctuated it.

“Alternatively, how, exactly, am I going to save you if the roles are reversed? We’re in the wilds, Eleri. The most savage place in all of Valucre,” he said, gesturing to the dense forest around them. “Partnership isn’t just about making money and collecting loot. It’s about survival, and if I’m going to put my life in your hands, I need you to work past whatever social norms have been engrained up here.” Ashelewyn tapped the side of his head in emphasis of his point. “Because I don’t care if we’re both as naked as the day we were born, I won’t hesitate.”

Of course, Eleri had options. If the level of candidness the ranger expected was too much for her, she was free to terminate their partnership in its infancy. Ashelewyn didn’t mind the prospect of going it alone (much as he suspected she didn’t, either), or raising the chimera pup. A great many years of his life, longer than Eleri had been alive, had been spent taming the beasts of Ceyana, creatures far more troublesome and lethal than a mere chimera. But she had proven herself, and he was not above admitting her skills would be useful in the future.

Ashelewyn stepped from the stream, his bronzed skin shimmering now, and made his way past Eleri still without the slightest inclination of concealing himself. Crysta made her way over to him from the pup, having escaped the chimera’s best attempts to devour her no less than three times, and hummed with magic and heat. As her light burned brighter, hotter, she circled Ashelewyn’s figure as he raised his arms and raked his fingers through a wet mat of hair, wringing the tresses of water. “A little hotter, Tink,” he murmured. The fae’s light intensified. “Right there.”

He half-turned, looking back at Eleri. “You really should bathe, Eleri.” The long slope of his nose wrinkled in accusation. "Then we can figure out what to do with this fellow."

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As Ashelewyn cast aside his gaiety, the flippant resonance of his voice now drawn taut, Eleri responded to the abrupt severity with a subtle frown of her own. Cresting waves rippled around him as he neared her on the stream's bank, barely obscuring the suggestive silhouette of his figure just below the surface. Their eyes locked, baring upon one another as if engaging in a game of willpower, each daring the other to turn away first. Or perhaps it were only Eleri who'd seen it that way, her tenuous pride bloated enough to even recognize the challenge. 

The edge of his words stung her more than she'd care to admit, propagated by the icy bite of his spectral gaze. But with easy indifference he emerged from the water, prompting Eleri to shun her head away and bite her lower lip, cross with his carefree deposition. She remained at the stream's edge, unmoved from her original position as she mulled over the bitter advice he felt inclined to share. 

This kind of thing was exactly why she avoided working in groups. Borders were often crossed, bristling with tension and eventually leading to hapless bickering. It seemed easier to just call it quits and resign herself to a lifetime of bleak solitude than to deal with such frivolity. In fact, she began to consider how long it would take to make the trek back to town, where her horse and packs were waiting at the stables, paid by what little coin she had left to spare. The path back was fairly straightforward now that she'd recovered her bearings, and even with the relentless thrashing of her aching head, she'd make it back with plenty of time to spare. It's not like she had committed a grievous amount of time to this endeavor anyway; Eleri happened to be in the area and blithe curiosity was the only motivator that had encouraged her to seek him out. There was absolutely nothing obligating her to stay. 

But gods, only if his poignant prejudice hadn't irked her so.

Pivoting around with a less than graceful twirl, she circled to his anterior with no visible cognizance to his revealing visage. "Why yes, master," she mocked with a swooping bow, "I'll do as you bid as it offends you so, but not before we set the record straight." She pulled up with barely half of an arm's reach away, her armored and much shorter frame a comical contrast to his tall and nude one. 

"First off, you're not the first, nor will you ever be remotely close to being the last naked man I'll ever set my eyes upon. I'm not some dewy eyed virgin getting her first whiff of a cock waggled before her nose. But I thank you for the fine demonstration, anyway," she quipped, gesturing with a pointed hand to his manhood without a glance. "But there are some things I'd prefer to not overly familiarize myself with." Accentuating the gravity of her words with the expressive quirk of her brows, Eleri licked her drying lips before continuing. "And no, don't get me wrong. Just because I'd rather not set my eyes on your cock doesn't mean I won't be there to cup your balls to staunch the bleeding when a goblin gnaws one of your precious ornaments off. Hell, I'd pull your own dick out of your arse if it came down to it. But the way I see it, this," she said, mimicking the same gesture he had made in regard to their surroundings. "This isn't a state of emergency. Not anymore, not now." 

With a pause, Eleri sighed to ease her taxed lungs, consciously honing the rough edge of her tone. "That brings me to my second point," she began, her eyes flicking down at his bare chest and realizing for the first time their dangerous proximity. But there was no backing down now. With a soft flutter of her eyelashes, she peered up at him once more, making an attempt to seem more brazen than she actually felt. 

"I think it's only fair, as potential partners, to define some boundaries to be respected outside of the more... dire situations. It's about..." She she bit her lower lip, eyes shifting up to the side just as Crysta flitted into view, searching for the right word to say. "Communication." She returned her gaze to him, nodding as if to affirm the choice. "Communication and give and take. Cooperation. If we're going to work with one another, we need to be on the same page... Right?"

The last line of her lecture seemed more directed at herself, uncertainty crinkling the corner of her eyes as her nostrils flared. This whole ordeal was beyond her. There had been a perfectly good reason she worked alone.

"Bah! Hell if I know!" In a whirl of frustration, she snapped away and returned to the stream's edge, struggling to unbuckle the straps that secured her armor as frustration magnified the difficulty of what was otherwise a fairly simple task. "Look, do what you want, okay? After all, what do I know? I'm just some greenhorn wannabe-adventurer who obviously has no idea how to survive in wilderness by myself, let alone work with someone else who I'll just drag down with me."

With the final plate of metal falling away with a heavy clatter, Eleri practically tore her clothes free and tossed them aside into the same haphazard pile as her armor, donning only the gauzy ivory camisole she wore beneath, with a pair of dark mismatched knickers to veil her virtue. If the stream had been any deeper, she might've dived right into its chilly depths with a poised lunge, anything to escape the elf's gaze. But, with one head-injury more than sufficient to endure for the day, she plodded in, an involuntary squeak escaping her lips as the cold breached her threshold. Yet, she pressed on and ventured as deep as she could, the water peaking just below her breasts.

Eleri inhaled sharply to fill her lungs before ducking below the surface her loose ash-brunette waves resisting against the water's tension before finally succumbing to the depths below with the rest of her. She didn't realize how flustered her outburst had made her until that moment, hot cheeks prickling against the cold of the stream. Although the woman seriously contemplated remaining below the surface as long as possible to avoid the ranger, the wound to her head threatened to lapse the longer she held her breath.

A short lived escape, she bubbled to the surface and gasped lightly, black spots flickering in her vision briefly before dissipating. Gingerly, she stroked her hair and ear clean, soaking the side of her head to wash away the grime though it were stubborn and resisted her careful method. Pain flared from the wound as she skimmed the tender skin a touch too rough, and she hissed in response with a visible wince. 

"Fuck, that hurts."

Edited by Phaedara

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Ashelewyn mulled over Eleri’s outburst as he finished drying, nodding his thanks to Crysta, who had already flitted over to the stream’s edge to make herself useful to the woman once she emerged from the water. The small fae hummed a delightful sound that keened over the gargling of the stream, though whether it was in approval of the verbal lashing she’d given the elf, or contempt, none but the elf could say.

“I like you, Eleri,” the ranger said abruptly. “You might think that I don’t, or that I don’t respect you, but that isn’t it. This,” he continued while gesturing to his nudity, and more obviously, his nature, “is who I am. The boundaries you speak of, they don’t exist for me. That’s just how I’ve always lived, and if you humans with your short lifetimes can be stuck in your ways, can you begin to think what that might be like for me?”

Letting her chew on the thought for a moment, Ashelewyn crossed over to his bundle of cloth and armor. He rummaged about for a moment before drawing out his slacks, wrinkled and stained with chimera blood. “But, you aren’t wrong. Communication and compromise are important to any relationship – plutonic, business, romantic.” Stepping into the legs and pulling the course fabric up over his lower half, he tightened the draw-string and secured them comfortably at his waist. “That being said, you don’t want to see me naked?” The ranger shrugged. “I can do that. I’ll be more thoughtful next time, or go further downstream or something.”

Far from an apology, it was, at the very least, his attempt at a gesture of goodwill. “You have become a talented woman. I could use your skills, and I’d like for you to keep working with me.”

Turning his attention back to the heap of fabric and steel, Ashelewyn fished around his satchel until he procured a long strip of jerky. At the sight of it, and likely the sweet, spicy aroma, the two of the chimera’s heads snapped toward him. With a quick flurry of its wings, the creature lowered itself to the ground, and half walked, half-hopped, over to him. “Thought you might like this,” the elf murmured, pleased with himself until the chimera tried to paw his shins (the claws were a bit too sharp to enjoy), and the dragon head snapped at his toes, likely mistaking them for worms.

But the elf was much quicker, and deft steps brought him well out of harm’s way. Dropping into a low crouch, he held the jerky between them, hoping to focus the beast’s attention. It lunged at the strip of meat, but again, Ashelewyn proved elusive, and the chimera tasted nothing but air. Again and again, the small creature thrust itself forward, leaped, and even fluttered with its wings in an attempt to sample the meal, but to no avail. The dragon whined, the lion hissed, but ram bleated with a notable intelligence.

Ashelewyn eyed the creature pensively, his focus on the ram, before he extended his left hand forward, keeping the chimera at bay. The ram bleated, and for the first time, the chimera ceased its antics, albeit begrudgingly. Then he snapped his fingers and pointed down. The goat tilted its head, curious. Ashelewyn repeated the maneuver, but this time, lowered his hand until his palm touched the ground. It took some repetition, just a few moments, but then the goat bleated again.

The dragon and lion wrinkled their expressions, but the creature lowered itself, slowly, hesitantly, until it was flat on its stomach. The ranger smiled, and with a flick of the wrist, sent the strip of jerky soaring toward it. The chimera pinned the meat to the floor and bit into at both ends, snapping, biting, and tearing away large chunks as if it had been starving.  The ram, however, kept its eyes fixated on Ashelewyn, studying him as he studied it.

“Do you have any other boundaries I should know about, Eleri?” the ranger asked, though his attention seemed entirely set on the chimera. His lips pursed to lob a barb her way, some wisecrack about her sensitivity or something along the lines. But as his gaze flickered her way for just a moment, and he saw her there, a gash down her brow, beautiful in her undergarments that clung to her, heavy with stream water and leaving little to the imagination, Ashelewyn thought better of it and held his tongue. “After all, we’re parents now, and I hear it’s bad parenting to argue in front of children.”

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And chew on the thought she did. Already sorry for the eruption, Eleri bit the inside of her cheek as he attempted to defuse the tension between them by doing what she couldn't--apologize, or at least what she could gather was even an attempt. In her defense, it was unlike her to snap and fight back. Usually, she would just shrug her shoulders and move on, finding little value in trying to make peace with others. But as the woman passed a glance over Ashelewyn, eyeing him as he partially dressed, she wondered what else of the man she would have to learn to cope with.

After all, she had been the one to say working together was about 'give and take'. Today, she took and he gave, a small victory on her part. Eleri almost felt sorry for it as she mulled on the thought, understanding dawning that her she had insulted him and the very nature of who he was, something he could not change no matter how he might try just as she could not help herself. They were both holding on tight to their differing views, much like young marsupials that clung to their mothers, dependent on them for their very survival. It was innate. But, just as much as she was afraid of letting go, she was also looking forward to the challenge.

Skimming curious eyes over the elf, she soaked in the sight of him. Burnished locks of deep browns, still damp but no longer dripping with run off, were returning to their shaggy appearance as they dried, his tapered ears peeking out from beneath with pointed contrast. With his head turned from her, she admired his picturesque profile, gaze tracing the long bridge of his nose down to the sharp angle of his jaw, prickled with rough stubble. He posed a prominent figure, the toned lean muscles inviting her eyes now that his pants had been restored, his overexposure no longer a reason to turn away out of pious habit.

Oh, what a challenge it would be.

Eleri climbed out of the stream and was confronted by Crysta, the fairy almost chirping at her with what she could barely surmise to be either a greeting or command. Not sure of which, and not wanting to offend her new companion, she halted in place. 

"Uh, yes? Do you need something from me?" She tried to steal a closer inspection of the fae, but too much light diffused any traces of the tiny silhouette. Instead, a hum replied.

Warmth permeated the closing space between them as the circling mote whirred around the woman, kissing her supple skin with traces of heat. Eleri nearly melted with unbridled contentment, shutting her eyes to relish in the fairy's pampering as the magical heat not only evaporated beads of stream water away, but also relaxed the tender muscles of her bruised body. 

"He doesn't deserve you," Eleri breathed, peeking an eye open as the mote passed over her. "You're spoiling him rotten, you know that? I hope he's treating you well at least." Crysta's humming pitched with brief inflection as if to reply. Without the ability to comprehend its meaning, she could only imagine a response made in acquiescence to fit her current musings. 

As she stood there, accepting Crysta's shower of magic while she wrung the hair draped over one shoulder dry, Eleri observed the amusing ritual between Ashelewyn and the chimera pup with an endearing grin. Well, he's done that before, she thought, watching him skirt the creature until it realized the game, the ram's head showing a surprising disposition for intelligence. A chuckle tickled her throat as the chimera pounced the jerky with hungry fervor, and returned her attention to Crysta to thank her for the unexpected, but gratifying service. 

"Do you have any other boundaries I should know about, Eleri?" the elf asked. "After all, we're parents now, and I hear it's bad parenting to argue in front of children."

At that, her head snapped back to him and an involuntary, incredulous gasp escaped her lungs at the suggestion.

"Parents?" she exclaimed with more ardor than anticipated. "That is not the term I would've used. Just so you're aware, I was serious about letting you do all the work," she said flatly, though a twinkle in her eye hinted she intended otherwise. Feeling mostly dry and relaxed now thanks to Crysta, but with her skin still too dewy to comfortably slip clothes on without tacking, she approached Ashelewyn and crouched beside him to examine the chimera. The ram's gaze skewered her with keen shrewdness, the slotted amber eyes sending a shiver up her spine. With its portion of the meal finished, the cub turned its scrutiny to the humanoid pair, a low rumble quaking from its throat as a soft purr.

"But as far as boundaries go," she pondered, eyes pinned on the creature, "I think we'll have to wait and see what those are as we come across them. This is a first for me. Working with someone, that is. And I mean really working with someone--not just a one-off mission." She flicked her eyes in his direction and curled her lips in a smile. "But I promise not to bite so hard next time you accidentally cross one. I guess I was just a bit surprised is all."

An irritated croak from the chimera's dragon head drew her attention, a fiery burp signalling its mild satisfaction with the small snack, but its penetrating eyes searched for more. Thinking back on his previous question, she turned back to the elf with a toothy grin.

"I know what we should name it. Rage. Sounds badass, doesn't it?" But before he could muster a reply, she slapped his arm excitedly with an expression to match. "Wait! No! We should name it Mittens. Mittens is just the right kind of name that strikes fear into the hearts of your enemies!" With a cat-like smirk, she beamed at him as her toes wriggled in the grassy dirt. Still hunched beside him, she folded one arm over the tops of her thighs and propped the other to rest the base of her chin in an open palm. 

"But, no, seriously. You should name it. You're the one who found him... or her... whatever. You're the one who found it. This was your quest, after all, and I just happened to be strolling by. Which, by the way, I left the rest of my things in town, along with my horse. Let's not forget those." 

Edited by Phaedara

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Ashelewyn posed his lips in a contemplative curve as he studied the chimera for a moment longer, listening to the suggestions Eleri meant to be humorous. “I should, shouldn’t I?” Pressing both palms to his knees, the ranger rose with all the grace and fluidity of an elderly man, practically wobbling apart at the joints. He circled the feasting chimera at his leisure, studious eyes looking it over in search of something, though he did not say what. “Rhast Maweyn, it is.”

Crouching down behind the chimera, still too preoccupied with the strip of tough jerky, Ashelewyn pinched the end of its tapered tail and lifted it gently. “That’s Rage Mittens in your tongue,” he explained with a raised eyebrow and the hint of an amused smirk tugging at the corner of his lips. “And, I’d have to say this pup is a boy.” The ranger laughed as he lowered the beast’s tail and stood, wandering away from their little troupe in search of something to appease the ram. “You’re going to make some lady chimera very happy one day, Rhast.”

The ranger picked at several tufts of grass sprouting up through the crags in gorge’s floor. Crysta made her way over to him, her light dim enough to see the flicker of her outline in at the heart of the radiance. She bobbed over the elf’s shoulder for a moment before setting down on the muscled skin. Ashelewyn glanced over at her. “She’s right, you know,” he murmured in his native tongue. “You’re better than I deserve.

Crysta’s light flickered in response.

No, she is,” he insisted softly. “You could have been paired with any other elf in the tribe and been better off. You can’t even use your magic fully because of--"

The fae’s light burned bright, angrily.

I know you don’t care,” Ashelewyn sighed, having gathered a handful of damp grass. “But sometimes, I do.

While the dragon and lion finished tearing into the jerky, the ram caught sight of the ranger and the bounty in his hands. They remained piercing, calculating, but there was a shimmer of something else. Hunger, no doubt, as it felt sensation in its brother heads. The ram bleated a demand as the ranger walked backward, rather than crouch beside Eleri. With his unburdened hand, he gestured the creature closer toward him. The ram bleated once more, to no effect.

Ashelewyn halted ten feet away, still waving the chimera forward. The third bleat, more demanding and angry than the first, saw the dragon and lion snap from the remnants of their meal. They shared a brief look, and then with a smoky shriek and low purr, seemed to nod. The chimera rose and rushed toward the ranger in its half-run, half-hopping way. When it was an arm’s length away, Ashelewyn turned his palm, gesturing it to halt. The beast skidded to a stop.

He pointed down, and the ram bleated the order. The chimera laid flat against the earth once again.

“The trick with any multi-headed beast is figuring out which one is in charge,” the ranger cooed, crouching and extended the grass-covered palm to the ram’s mouth. “You get that head’s attention, get them on board, and the others will fall in line. We’re lucky it’s the ram.” Not only were they the more passive of the three, but likewise the most intelligent. “And what’s the best way to get anyone on board? Food. Hunger is a powerful motivator. You control the food, show them that their meals are only received when they obey, and they quickly begin to understand your role and their relationship to you.”

His blue eyes cut to Eleri. “Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to do all the work. This might have been my mission, but you helped complete it. You were here when I found Rhast. Hells, you’re the one who named him.” The ram finished the heap of grass with all the eagerness of a starving animal, even licked the sweet dew from his palm. “It’s just as critical that he respect and obey you, as well. So, you might not have been expecting it, but we are both very much parents now.” At this, the ranger smiled. “At least you didn’t have to give birth to him, right?”

Lifting his head, Ashelewyn pointed at the heap of his clothes and armor. “There’s some more jerky in there. Grab another strip, and some grass-- make sure it’s damp --and try your hand at getting him to sit, and then come to you, and sit again.”

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Eleri experimented with the chosen name, 'Rhast Maweyn', toying with the syllables as they rolled off her tongue and stretched her lips. Quietly, she repeated it until it settled naturally with her speech and decided that despite its translation, it was a good name. Of course, the elvish language--or what she assumed was elvish--had a way of making anything sound mystical and refined. It would, however, give native speakers some pause. Amused with the thought, Eleri chuckled inwardly as possible scenarios reeled through her mind.

Deviating away from such musings, she watched Ashelewyn's attempts to tame the chimera pup with mild interest, introspectively comparing the tactic with those used to tame and train a horse--something she knew how to do well. There were considerable differences. Equine were skittish creatures and although food might be a motivator as reward for advanced maneuvers, there was little chance of taming a wild horse on hunger alone. Yet the elf was making definite progress in such short time, so even she had to concede to his approach. So despite some reservation, Eleri actively studied the demonstration, attentive to the budding relationship that blossomed between the two.

However, at the mention of Eleri's role in their 'parentage', she wrinkled her up-turned nose to express her distaste with the analogy, her lips puckering to match. She thought to dagger him with a quip, retaliating against his order to participate in the lesson, but a soft rumbling disrupted her thoughts. With a brief glance down at her belly, the freelance almost looked embarrassed as she pressed her folded arms against it, as if somehow that would silence the hunger pangs from vocalizing their arrival. It would seem the mention of food had reminded her of her own standing malnutrition. 

With a resigned sigh, Eleri rose languidly to her feet before reluctantly making headway for Asheleywn's gear. She knelt down to shuffle through his things, pausing briefly as her eyes took in the condition of his bloodied cloak. She reached for it and rolled a thumb over the fabric, inspecting its quality and heft. It wasn't in terrible shape even though the chimera hadn't been necessarily kind to it. There was no doubt she could sew it into repair--if he'd even let her--but she reserved the thought for later, setting the cloak aside to continue the search.

Spotting the satchel, she probed through it until she found the dried strips, the spicy aroma triggering her lips to moisten with eager anticipation. She ripped free a small piece and hurriedly shoved it into her mouth, rising to return to the group as she chewed. But as she turned, Eleri found an furry-scaled surprise charging at her.

With an undignified, startled squeak, Eleri reflexively jerked her arms and outward leg upwards, bracing for impact as the chimera pup rushed at her with hungry intent. Fortunately, an irritable procession of bleating from the ram's head demanded discipline and the pup skidded to a stop. Warily, she relaxed enough to lower her limbs but continued to watch the chimera as it paced back and forth, eyeing her hungrily. 

"Fucking hell! You are starving aren't you? I'm guessing you didn't get the chance to eat before we...well...yeah." The cub's head kept its penetrating gaze fixated on her, wide eyes flicking to the tasty morsel in her hand as the dragon squealed with ravenous vehemence. The ram, however, seemed entirely disinterested in her, focus pointed in the direction of the elf with whom it had already built its rapport. 

"Okay, okay. I get it," she assuaged, gesturing for the chimera to calm. "I'm hungry too you know. But, according to grandpa long-ears over there, I'm supposed to make you work for--"

In hindsight, if Eleri had paid even the smallest bit of attention to the chimera's swishing tail and rigid, lowered stance, she might have seen the lunge coming. But as she lurched back to avoid its leap, she instead found herself toppling backwards, tripping over the piled gear behind her. Before she knew it, the cub had snatched the jerky from her fingertips, excitedly tossing its head from side to side as if tearing flesh from a fresh corpse and then dropped it to the ground where it gorged on the meat with its carnivorous sibling. 

Instantly deflated, Eleri lay strewn over Ashelewyn's gear, eyes regarding the sky with subdued deference. 

"Well, that went great," she muttered crossly. "I guess this must be a sign from the universe that I should never try to have kids unless I enjoy getting walked all over--which I don't." With a pained groan, she picked herself up from the pile and rubbed her back where she was sure an axe hilt had bruised her. Defeated, she wobbled back to her own equipment, sparing a sidelong glance at the elf.

"I think I'll skip on the rest of today's training session," she said, prying her trousers free from the mound and slipping into them, wriggling as they stretched tight over her thighs and backside. "After all, isn't there a 'momma' chimera we need to skin and gut?" Suddenly she clasped a hand over her mouth to stifle a satirical, alarmed gasp and shot a glance at the distracted chimera pup. "Oops! Should I have not said that in front of junior?"

With the roll of her eyes as if unimpressed by her own joke, she located her blouse and inspected it for tears or stains as she continued the line of questioning. "That is what you plan to do, right? As noble as your mission's original intent may have been, I can't just stand idly by and let a good pelt go to waste, especially when there's money to be made. A starving girl has to eat. And, more importantly, drink."

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Ashelewyn frowned as he looked the woman over, quite dissatisfied with her excessive sarcasm. You have your own quirks, he reminded himself. If you want this partnership to work, you’ll find a way to compromise. “There’s no need to be like that,” the ranger said. “Animals tend to be more sensitive to certain things than us. For instance, your reluctance and sarcasm? They don’t understand those as we do, so to him, you might as well be playing around-- hence your result, as opposed to mine.”

For a moment, he reflected on her response to his previous wording. “Since you seem rather adverse to my phrasing of our current situation, how about this? You don’t have to look at the pup like a child-- but he is a member of this team. Treat him with the same respect you expect from me, and I promise that this will go much better in the future.” Rising, he meandered over to the toppled over pile of his armor and clothing, ready to dress. “You didn’t do too bad, though. You’ll get the hang of it.”

Ashelewyn was careful putting on his clothing, which bared the evidence of long-term use. The cloak was threadbare, the hardened leather notched and split at certain places. It told a grim story of life in the Genesarian wilds, one that was quite near its end. The battle with the Chimera had taken more out of the armor than he’d been expecting.

“Yes, that is what I intend to do,” he agreed. “I know an Artificer in Mageside that can fashion rather spectacular armor from it. I won’t need much. You’re free to take as much as you can carry to do with what you wish.” Ashelewyn shrugged, fully dressed, and made his way over to Rhast. Crysta followed close behind, bobbing over his left shoulder. “Return to it as many times as you’d like, for all I care. I’ll handle the pup. Wouldn’t want to have him walking all over you again, would we?”

Curling a finger, he beckoned the fae closer. He whispered something in his native tongue, and the mote of light sparkled as she loomed over the chimera pup. Swaying back and forth, a trail of stardust began sprinkling over the beast’s three heads. The effect was nearly immediate, as the dragon, lion, and ram began to loll their heads about, their body staggering. With a tired yawn from all three heads, the chimera slumped, and then settled into a deep sleep. “There we have it,” Ashelewyn chirped. “He’ll be out for the rest of the day.”

Gathering the pup up beneath his right arm, the ranger stood and tugged hood up, covering his eyes once again. “Off we go.”

 

Butchering the elder chimera’s carcass proved almost as difficult as slaying it had been. The pelt had all the makings of fine, exotic leather, and so cutting it was a delicate process. The scales on the dragon’s neck and tail were the toughest-- you didn’t want them to fleck of snap apart, but rather, needed a full, single sheet. Even for Ashelewyn, it was a slower-than-average process. But, he managed.

As promised, the materials he required were considerably meek when compared to the size of the beast. He’d focused most of his efforts around the creature’s lion aspect, including its thick, luxurious mane. He removed a single tooth from each head and put them into a pouch fastened at his waist, which looked quite heavy with weight.

“The good thing about Chimeras,” Ashelewyn grunted as he thrust his arm shoulder-deep into an opening in its chest, “Is that they tend to have two of almost every organ. And since their innards tend to fetch a hefty price on the spell market, that’s good news for us.” With a few more hacks from his hatchet, and firm tug, the ranger freed an enormous mass of muscle and fleshy tubes-- the heart. “Speaking of, you do have a way to preserve all your stuff, right? It gets a bit muggy out here, and we’re a ways from town.”

Setting his blade down in the earth, the ranger made off toward his largest satchel. Crysta sped ahead, circling its tightly-cinched opening, glowing as she did so. The fabric glowed, an intricate inscription becoming visible around the single entrance. Opening it, he dumped the heart in, and then closed it. Crysta circled the opening as she had before, sealing it. “I learned the hard way that even witches in the mire won’t buy rotten entrails.” He gave an incredulous look at his companion. “I mean, they’re witches – warts on the nose, blood, guts, the whole nine. But they’re picky?”

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As Ashelewyn dressed, Eleri turned away to slip on her own garment, retreating within the menial task to keep her vexation at bay. For a man who relished in the freedom of his bare visage, he was rather stiff principally. She wasn't fond of being lectured--even if she could reluctantly admit he may have been right--but she held her tongue to avoid devolving into another argument. After all, considering how quick Crysta enchanted the pup to sleep, she determined it was best to remain on their good side lest she ended up losing a day herself.

Taking the signal the leave, she went to gather her things and follow. When they returned to the fighting grounds, Eleri was almost surprised to see the chimera's limp carcass still unsullied. Their chance escapade that lead to the pup's discovery seemed to take a majority of the daylight, enough time for a scavenger to catch wind of the fresh kill and mutilate the corpse. Perhaps even in death the chimera's vicious reputation superseded itself, sowing hesitation even in the most starved creatures. Or perhaps it had just felt like an eternity passed with the elf to banter and bicker with incessantly. She couldn't quite decide if that were a good thing or not.

With the impression she would just be in the way if she tried to help with the skinning process, Eleri found a place to settle her gear and got to work inspecting the armor for dents and abrasions. The light-weight metalwork had cost her a pretty penny to afford, but it had already proven its worth on multiple occasions, to include today's battle. Granted, denser armor might have saved her from the bruising of her ribs where the chimera had struck her, it was still enough protection to keep them from fracturing or breaking entirely. Aside from some scuffs and superficial scratches, it remained in good form. Satisfied, the fighter began to arm herself with the bulk of it since she did lacked a steed to carry it for her. 

Reminded of her mount back in town, Eleri cast her eyes on the chimera pup. She half expected it to wake up, but instead the pup slept soundly nearby with only a twitch of its ear or flare of its scaly nostrils to indicate it still lived. 

Well shit. I'm not sure how well Brie and Rhast will get along, she mused, disconcerted by the prospect. Last thing I need is that little daredevil nipping at her heels.

But as she inspected the pup from afar, curiosity beckoned her closer. With Ashelewyn busy with his work--though she doubted he were completely unaware of her dealings--Eleri slowly crept up to the slumbering beast. Carefully, as she didn't quite know the full potency of Crysta's magic and fearing it might fail if she disturbed the chimera, she knelt beside Rhast. With her gloves still piled with the rest of her gear she had yet to fasten, Eleri reached forward with bare hands to touch the lion cub's head. For a brief moment, she hesitated. She wasn't frightened, not at least in the usual sense, so she couldn't quite understand what it was that held her back. Upon realization the elf could at any time peer up, notice her hesitation, and deign her a coward, Eleri forced her hand forward with pride as motivation. 

It was softer than she had imagined it to be. With all three heads still locked in twilight, she contentedly streamed her fingers through the cub's fur, relishing in a particularly soft spot on the top of its head. Its ear twitched in sleepy response, spurring a grin on her lips. Feeling bolder now, Eleri danced her fingertips across the kid's coarse curls, working them upwards to inspect the pair of ivory buds protruding from its forehead. She wondered if its horns might one day become as formidable as those of its parent's, and suddenly an anchor dropped in the pit of her stomach. 

The chimera had only been trying to protect its young, yet they killed it. She knew it was ridiculous to feel sorry for the beast and she was sure the pup would come to care less as time pressed on, yet she still felt remorseful. Eleri tried not to let that bother her as she turned to the whelp's head, ready to explore its scaly hide when a voice drew her concentration. Finding Ashelewyn shoulder-deep within the chimera's open chest cavity didn't help assuage her guilty conscious, but it did remind her there was still plenty of work to be done. 

"Was I...supposed to?" Curious if she even had brought anything remotely useful for organ preservation purposes, she left the pup to rummage about the rest of her gear but couldn't find a thing aside from the salt she brought to preserve the hide she hoped to bring back. With nothing else to contribute, she took the bags of salt to him, kneeling beside the sealed jars. "I honestly have never dealt with witches, so I never found much use in taking organs unless a client specifically asks for it. Even then, I just use whatever container they give me or a waxed hide since it's easier to carry around...Wait. Mire?" There was no hiding the displeasure in Eleri's warped expression, her eyebrows furrowed inward. "Is that...where you intend to go next? Please say no. I hate mud. I especially hate getting stuck in mud. And it stinks."

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“It’s close by,” Ashe replied nonchalantly, returning to the Chimera to gather more of its organs. “I’m surprised you haven’t done it before. Sure, it isn’t the nicest place, and it smells like a sick dragon’s arse, but witches are surprisingly well-off. I imagine it’s all those poor fools that come paying for poisons or love potions, or spells.” In a similarly uncouth manner as the first, the ranger tore another of the slain beast’s heart free. “I could use the extra money, and I’m sure you could to.”

Talented though she was, there were still things Eleri didn’t know. This is a good opportunity to build some trust, Ashelewyn thought to himself as he looked his partner over. Show her that you’re interested in this partnership, in seeing her succeed. She’ll work harder, he reasoned. And she’ll be more favorable with you. Partnerships are about more than just working together. It’s about improving each other, being the best versions of yourselves. Looking up from the bleeding heart in his hand to the woman across from him, the ranger nodded.

“I’ll store your portions for you this time,” he said without grief or judgment in his voice. “Just make sure to use some of the coin to get proper containers. I’ll show you what you need.” The elf’s thoughts turned to her distaste for the mire. “Also, you don’t have to come along with me to the mire. I’ll head out after we’ve made our way back to town. I’ll handle the exchange and make sure I fetch us a fair price.”

Ashelewyn’s bright blue eyes narrowed knowingly. “But, you’ll have to take care of Rhaast while I’m away.” It was as fair a deal as she would ever find, and Ashelewyn was certain she’d take it.

#

Their return to town was met with revelry and praise, and a crowd of at least twenty folks eager to see the ranger’s trophy. From the ram, he took a horn; from the lion, a massive paw; and from the dragon, an eye, which had crystallized the moment it left the creature’s skull. They hooted and cheered, and talks of a celebration – all expenses paid for – circulated quickly.

It wasn’t until some started snooping around another large satchel dangling from his saddle that Ashelewyn’s demeanor soured.

“What’s in this one?” a man asked.

“I bet it’s the brains,” another answered.

“Yes,” the ranger replied. “Chimera brain soup is good for the mind. At any rate, as you’ll be having none of it, off with you.”

Confused, but not willing to risk testing the patience of a man that had just killed a chimera, the two scampered off.

The void of their presence was filled by Duncan, the town’s governor. He was a tall man, with broad shoulders, and muscled from a life spent on the farm. A real man of the people, Ashelewyn remembered some describing him, with more knowledge than he cared to put out.

“You’ve done good work,” Duncan said gruffly. “Again.”

“I’m not a fan of leaving messes,” Ashelewyn replied. “Plus, I had excellent help,” he continued, thumbing over his shoulder at Eleri. “So, it wasn’t as difficult as it might have been.”

Duncan turned his attention to Eleri and nodded. “Thank you kindly, ma’am.”

“Is there any chance I might be able to use your stable for the night?” Ashelewyn gestured at the satchels strapped to his horse. “I’ve got some other valuables here and, while I don’t mean any offense, I’m not of the mind to leave them in public view.”

Duncan nodded. “Nothing wrong with a man looking after what’s his. You’re more than welcome to.”

Ashelewyn nodded. “I’ll see you later tonight, then?”

“At the celebration.”

The ranger set his horse into a light trot toward the farmer’s abode, waiting until both he and his partner were out of earshot. “I’ll stay with Rhaast tonight,” he explained. “You should go and enjoy the celebration. Make sure to drink enough for the both of us, yeah?”

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The fanfare upon their return to town was unexpected to say the least. Eleri, despite the decent repertoire of fulfilled missions under her belt, had never before experienced this degree of ostentation for a job well done. Regardless, she relished in the temporary stardom from such simple town folk, even if at the same time, she became increasingly self-conscious, making futile attempts to pin the dusty brown flyaways that strayed from her head. 

With all the noise and commotion that swarmed them, Eleri almost hadn't caught sight of the two men prying about Ashelewyn's saddle bags. Instinct jolted her nerves and she reached for one of the longswords pinned to her left hip. However, it hardly made a handspan's breadth free from the scabbard before softly clinking back into place after the men had been shooed away. She sighed with relief but remained unsettled with how acute she had been willing to act. He's is carrying precious cargo, she thought in attempt to excuse herself. There's no telling what this town would do if they discovered what else we had brought back. 

Eleri snapped from her introspection at the mention of her presence. She nodded solemnly to town governor and then raised an eyebrow at Ashelewyn. Excellent help? She decided not to argue the point and accepted the compliment. After all, Eleri had still yet to determine the full nature of their working relationship. 

The governor soon left them to their designs, and she eyed the elf suspiciously as they made their way free of the crowd, walking beside his steed. There was something about the tone of his voice in that last sentence to the town leader, and she didn't have to wait long to find out why.

"I'll stay with Rhaast tonight. You should go and enjoy the celebration." Eleri scarcely heard the rest before coming to her own opinion.

"Yeah, that doesn't work for me," she objected flatly. "As much as I'd love free reign on your share of whatever rotgut delicacy they pass as booze around these parts, I... I'm not the one who they should be celebrating." 

Eleri knew she was passing on an opportunity for not only free drink and dine but for recognition. This was her chance to weave the story into a fine tapestry that might later be appreciated by others, specifically those who could open doors to other avenues that she long sought to explore. But, as she skirted her gaze away from Ashelewyn's penetrating scrutiny, she thought, perhaps, that wasn't so important right now.

A cough cleared her throat. "I mean, you know. You're the one who struck the final blow. And, this originally your mission alone. I just happened to get in the way and be of some use." Her cheeks and neck felt hot, but she tried to conceal her embarrassment with an inflated smile and shrug. 

"Plus," she trailed, her voice taking on a different tone. "I have a feeling you might find more than one kind of banquet awaiting your arrival. This might be your opportunity to show off that," she paused and waved an open palm exaggeratedly in his direction. "Natural visage of yours." 

Eleri didn't care for the suggestion, but she was not about the admit her disdain especially when she couldn't think of what else to say to convince him to go. By no means was she willing to confess that she was merely anxious in attending the celebration all by herself. 

"Gauging by the number of young, bright-eyed maidens looking your direction, I'd say you have quite the selection to chose from. I might even seen a few eager lads, if that's your thing. So, you go. I'll stay and and keep Rhaasty company. Hopefully when I see in the morning, I'll still have all my fingers!"

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Had things gone a bit differently that day, it would have been easy for the ranger to take Eleri’s offer without hesitation. The celebrations of mortal folk were something the elf had come to enjoy during his stay in the east, from the various ales and meats to the equally various types of people. A handful of those young, bright-eyed maidens his partner spoke of had already been introduced to him in a more intimate state, and yes, even a handful of the handsome gentlemen. But at that moment, he couldn’t have cared less for their company; something far more pressing weighted his conscious.

Ashelewyn looked at her with solemnness in his bright blue eyes. “I suppose we’ll both just stay in tonight, then.”

Music already filled the air by the time they reached the stable, along with the strong aroma of smoked meats, fresh bread, and bubbling stews. The ranger took his time shuttling all of their spoils from the hunt into the barn, and when he was finished, he let his horse roam freely about the grounds. His birthright may have severed his connection to the magic of the land, but as with all their kind, he possessed a unique relationship with the creatures that inhabited it. He and the horse were bonded, more friends than rider and mount, and that bred a certain trust between them.

“It isn’t the most luxurious,” Ashelewyn said as he carried the heaviest satchel toward the back of the barn, setting it down carefully at his feet. “But, it will give us some privacy. Close the door when you’re in?”

Loosening the satchel’s neck, he let the fabric slump to the side. It burped out the small chimera pup, still fast asleep from the starguide’s magic. She winked into view in a soft glow of white light, looming over the creature’s three heads.

The light pulsed.

“You can wake him up, sure,” Ashe replied. “But keep him relaxed.”

The mote of light circled around the creature, letting stardust fall in its trail. As it touched the chimera pup, sluggish wakefulness worked its way back into it. The first head to awaken was the dragon’s, with a roar more akin to a soft yelp; then the ram’s, bleating mercifully; and then finally came the lion, purring and droopy-eyed. It took the pup a moment to find its balance, and it fell onto its collective faces and side several times, but then it was steady, moving with a slow, curious pace.

Ashelewyn intercepted the creature’s path and crouched down to stroke a finger beneath its chins, one after the other, and to his surprise, the creature relished the affection. You probably miss your mother, the ranger thought, a displeased frown pulling at his mouth. That is my fault, and my fault alone. I’ve spent too much time on this quest; I’ve started losing sight of the big picture, of what is truly important. How different things might have played out if only he’d taken the time to notice the signs, to piece things together.

“I’m sorry, little one,” he murmured.

Standing, he crossed over to a bale of hay and plucked a handful from its flank. The goat bleated tiredly, and the chimera slowly meandered over to him. He set the hay on the ground, along with a scrap of meat for both the lion and dragon. With the chimera taken care of, the ranger finally sat, gazing up at the sky through a large slot in the barn’s roof. He said nothing for a long, long while.

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