Chapter Thirty-Two: Bounty
Francesca turned the stone over in her hand. Its surface reflected no light and sucked her in. She felt a chill run up her spine.
“It’s creepy...” she said.
Seon sat up and off of Baudouin’s side. He held out his hand in a silent question to see it. Baudouin also peered curiously at the gem.
Once Francesca placed the gem in his palm, Seon felt his strength drain away from his limbs. He started to feel more how he looked. He dropped it onto the floor and cradled his hand against his chest. His body slowly started to fade back into normalcy.
“I-I’m...” He cleared his throat and covered the embarrassed look on his face. “I’m not holding that thing.”
Baudouin frowned and brushed his snout against Seon’s shoulder in concern. Francesca furrowed her brow and looked at the stone. It was merely there, no different than before.
"What did it do?” she asked. “I mean, it’s creepy but it didn’t actually do anything...”
“Kroc said that a fairy wouldn’t be able to use magic when they’re touching it, right?” Seon put a hand through his hair. “It must’ve blocked that strength spell I put on myself ages ago.”
Francesca’s eyebrows went up. So that explained why such an emaciated elf was able to lift her...
Baudouin, who was staring intensely at the Stone of Void since Seon dropped it, slowly reached a single claw toward it. He briefly held his trembling paw over it. With a deep inhale, he pressed his claw onto the stone.
Francesca and Seon jumped with fear when they suddenly heard a roar. Francesca’s heart pounded in her throat as she instinctively drew her sword. Seon whipped around and paused as he saw Baudouin. He was writhing in agony and smoke poured from his mouth. His body curled in on itself.
Baudouin finally tore his paw away from the gem. His form exploded outward again. His chest heaved up and down as he caught his breath back. Teary eyes flicked from Seon to Francesca. His shaking paw retreated to his side.
The two ran to his side. Baudouin inched away from them with his eyes to the ground. His expression was filled with confusion.
“Baudy, what happened?” Seon put his hands on either side of the prince’s face.
When Baudouin hesitantly pointed to the Stone of Void, his expression shifted. The gears in his mind started turning. Finally, he realized something. His face opened up in undisguised shock.
“OH!” he exclaimed. He squeezed Baudouin’s head between his hands and bounced on his feet. “OHHHHH! BAAAAUDYYYY!” The dragon’s eyes widened as the realization hit him as well. “I’m sooo happy for you!”
“Uh... What’s going on?” Francesca asked.
Seon twisted his neck around to look at her, a manic smile stretched across his face. It was nearly frightening.
“We can remove Baudouin’s curse with this.”
It was then that Francesca’s face mirrored theirs. It hadn’t occured to her that Baudouin could ever not be a dragon. She was just so accustomed to it and from the look on Baudouin’s face, so was he.
“We can fix this right here and now,” Seon said with a bright smile. “Here! Take it!”
Seon pivoted on his heel and scooped up the Stone of Void. Baudouin flinched back with a quiet whine.
“Seon, wait-” Francesca called out.
It was about a second too late. Seon pressed the black hole of a gem into Baudouin’s shoulder. Baudouin shrieked out in pain and knocked Seon back. The instant that Seon’s back hit the ground, he covered his face with his paws.
Francesca ran to Seon’s side. She helped him up until he was sitting. He was relatively unharmed, if not just a bit shaken.
“I...” Seon swallowed before speaking again. “I’m sorry... I... I didn’t realize it... I won’t do that again.”
Francesca picked up the Stone of Void. “I think I should be the one to hold this.”
She tossed the gem into her bag. However, the second that it disappeared into it, the bag burst open in a shower of tools, vials, clothes, and sandwiches. The gem smugly rolled up to her feet while the rest of her things still fell to the muddy grass.
“Don’t laugh. Either of you.”
The ground beneath them changed back to its green with speckles of houses the further west they flew. Francesca had her legs tightly wrapped around Baudouin as she held the map of Meria in front of her. Seon, who was steering, was rather loosely laying down near Baudouin’s head.
“So should we fly to Valhall in a straight line northwest or follow the west coast?” Francesca asked. “I think following the coast would be the best idea because we could hide in the mountains then.”
“I say we should fly northwest,” Seon answered. “So we can get this over with sooner.”
“We still need to hide, Seon.”
“We won’t have to hide as much if we just get there sooner.”
Baudouin suddenly swerved upward into the clouds. His passengers readjusted their grips and kept their heads ducked low. Francesca quickly stuffed her map back into her recently repaired bag.
“Baudy, what is it?”
They were suddenly yanked down from the clouds and locked in something’s hold. Baudouin yelped and struggled against its grasp but a leathery, scaly trap was wrapped around him. Before he could open up his jaws and shoot flames, a figure clapped a muzzle over his mouth.
“Hey!” Francesca shouted out.
The figure headlocked her and Seon. She slammed to two of them against Baudouin’s back. The only thing Francesca could see of their assailant were the leather straps that tightly attached her to the black scaled mass.
They plummeted into the trees. Francesca, Seon, and their attacker piled onto the ground. Before either of them could coordinate themselves, vines pinned them down. A few meters away they could feel the impact of Baudouin hitting the ground.
Standing over them was a woman with a sleek leather outfit with a multi-headed beast sewn into the front. The lower half of her face was covered with a deep purple mask. Her steel eyes were framed by dark hair that fell like snake coils. A single earlobe was split down the middle. She dropped a pair of scrolls that were emitting purple smoke. She reached into her pocket. In her gloved hands was a sheet of paper.
“Hey! What the fuck?!” Francesca demanded.
“Are you a knight?” she asked. Her voice was quiet with a touch of a rasp in it.
“Why should that matter?”
She turned the paper toward them. On it were incredibly rough drawings of Francesca and Baudouin’s faces. The two of them were described as “A knight and a red dragon who were captured by a bandit.” Beneath their faces was a bold “50,000 GOLD REWARD” with “MUST BE CAUGHT ALIVE” written above.
Seon sighed deeply. “That fucking idiot...”
The black mass that attacked them approached its master while dragging Baudouin over by the tail. It was a black wyvern with a plethora of scars carved throughout its body. Now that they had a clear view of it, they could see that it was much smaller than they expected.
The bounty hunter reached up and scratched the wyvern beneath its chin. “Good boy, Derrick,” she said gently. “We’re almost done.”
“Wait!” Francesca blurted out.
The bounty hunter didn’t pause as she bent down to pick Francesca up. She grabbed the topmost vine that was rubbing the base of her captive’s neck.
“Do you even know why we have a bounty?” Francesca barked as she struggled.
“Don’t care,” she answered coldly.
“You’re not even going to question why the dragon has a bounty?”
Francesca glanced from Seon struggling on the ground to Baudouin barely clinging on to consciousness. Then her eyes landed on the wyvern and the creature sewn into the bounty hunter’s clothes. She shot Seon a look asking him to follow her lead.
“Do you like dragons?” Francesca asked.
The bounty hunter was about to throw her onto the back of the wyvern when she paused. Her eyes scanned Francesca’s face over before they narrowed.
“I mean, you have that cool dragon-like design on your chest and a wyvern so-”
“It’s a hydra,” she said sharply, “the design on my chest. It’s what I’m called.”
“I’ll be honest, that sounds badass,” Seon said from the ground.
"Silence,” Hydra hissed at them.
“So someone who would even name herself after a dragon must feel some sympathy for this poor imprisoned dragon,” Francesca said.
Francesca could hear a sharp intake of breath. Hydra’s eyes darted to Baudouin’s unconscious form. The gloved hand near the base of Francesca’s neck tightened its grip.
“This dragon,” Francesca said as she tried to sell it, “had been locked away in a cellar since it was just a hatchling. It had never even seen the sky before we freed it.”
Hydra’s fingertips went up to her mouth only to be blocked by her mask. She tried to return herself to the stoic demeanor she had before; however, her eyes gave herself away. She only needed another little push.
“His name is Baudouin,” Seon said, “and I used to be his caretaker. I told him stori-”
“Okay, I get it!” Hydra snapped.
She drew a dagger and cut Francesca’s vines. She swiftly did the same to Seon’s. Without a word, she hoisted herself onto her wyvern’s back. The leather straps on her legs, they found out, were to keep her attached to the leather saddle.
“Could you tell the, uh, others like you not to capture us?” Francesca asked.
Hydra’s face hardened into a glare before she yanked her mask down. She had much too honest a face to belong to a bounty hunter.
“That’s not my problem.” The rasp in her voice was gone. “I’m just saying, you better not get that dragon imprisoned again. That’s the only reason why I’m letting you go.” Her expression softened a bit. “Don’t go to Xandria. That’s where most of us are. Be careful.”
She took off. She seemed to disappear as quickly as she came. Francesca and Seon exchanged a glance.
“That was...” Francesca said. She rubbed the back of her neck.
“Yeah...” After a pause, he said rather meekly, “that was a good idea. Not bad.”
Francesca smiled. “Thanks, stalker.”
“I’m trying to be nice here, and you’re calling me a stalker.” Then he grinned. “But you know what? Now we have to go with my plan. Xandria’s a coastal city, isn’t it?”
Francesca finally registered it too. “Dammit...”