It was a standard hunting quest, but that simple objective would be much more difficult to accomplish: the hunter for hire was to kill a monster threatening a town. However, even at the outset, something was off. The forest were unnaturally quiet, with no ambient sounds from woodland creatures or even weather. He very soon found himself on a path where the brush and foliage were forcefully pushed away to make it clear. As he proceeded onward, he went over all the knowledge he had about his target: It was described as a 'serpent'; a few described it as a 'dragon'; it reportedly had a hypnotic voice and was 'tens of feet long'; anyone who ventured against the monster returned battered and thrashed, some missing limbs, one particular grizzled man had his tongue removed and his jaw misaligned.
One person caught sight of a maiden in its lair, obviously a hostage. As he recounted, he had ventured into the area, to get a glimpse of the creature. However, the surrounding area damage and the suggestion of the creature's size, he could not calm himself enough to stay for very long. He only went into the lair a little ways before running back out again, but he managed to spot a young woman residing inside. Having lost his paramour to abduction in time just long enough to haunt him, the hunter was immediately struck by the maiden's situation. If for no other reason, he had to get that woman free at the very least.
Finally, the path brought him to a field of flowers with a cave on the other side: clusters of red Rhododendrons, downward sloping purple Monkshood flowers, and red-and-white Checkered Fritillary flowers right at the entrance. It was a disarmingly beautiful setting, made ironic by the encounter that was about to occur. Taking a deep breath, he drew his sword and buckler shield, and headed inside. The cave air hung damp and heavy, while the sound and smell of fresh water could be sensed from the entrance. Adding to the uncomfortable feeling, he noted that the cave was neatly formed and circular as if it were shaped that way.
He did not have to wait long to see his 'quarry'; he came to a lively underground stream on either side of him … with a huge serpentine tail with pale yellow scales sliding into it. Before it disappeared under the surface, he noticed that the muscular tail had noticeable cuts, burns, and bruises over it. He froze at the sight of the monster he would soon face, steeled himself again, and continued forward. Following the stream, he came to the source of the sound and smell of the cave, a pristine and enticing underground waterfall under an opening to let in the sky above. Then, he saw her, wading in the pool under the waterfall, manually dampening her thick, vine-like locks of hair. It was the maiden, and she had obviously been through an ordeal: her back was compromised with several long scratches, a slit on her side he recognized as a stab wound, and several dark marks on her shoulders that plainly came from arrows. Against his knowledge, he lightly splashed the water and called to her.
"Miss… Miss, we have to get you out of here. There's a monster nearby."
The young woman whipped around with incredible speed to face him, and stared at him with piercing golden eyes…
"Why have you come here?" she asked hostilely, her voice tinging in his ears.
"I heard there was a young woman held captive here. The beast will surely show itself soon."
She made her way toward him, and only then he noticed that while her figure was toned and alluring, her size relative to him was quite large, scaled to about one-and-a-half times his proportion. As she came to the shore, he quickly became aware of his situation: she exited the water and rose up to reveal her lower body was that of large snake, the height of her tail making her easily tower over him! The maiden and the monster were one and the same, a woman whose body at the abdomen transitioned into the tail of a yellow python.
"I'll ask you again…" the lamia asked angrily, "Why have you come here?"
"I was lost in the woods and came in this cave for shelter." He lied, trying not to enrage her further.
"Then, put away your sword. It's only polite to relinquish your weapons when you enter someone's home, and you are in my home." She paused as he held fast to his weapons, knowing he was caught, and continued, "As I thought…"
"Y-you … are the monster I was sent here to fight? But you're not… I mean, you're very…"
"What were you expecting? Fangs? A lisp? A forked tongue, perhapssssssss?" She replied, teasingly drawing out the s sound, "Sorry to disappoint you, but I am simply a woman … mostly."
"They paid me because you were menacing them. They're terrified. You brutalized them…"
"Is that all you know?" She fired back, indignant and upset, "Am I not allowed to defend myself? I've done nothing to them yet they try to take my life. I've not stolen, antagonized, or even interacted with them. I even made sure that every one of them left my home alive, if not whole… I hear the stories: I entice young men away from home; I steal livestock during the night; I steal away bad little children. I am a plot device to get children to behave…"
He grew silent as he realized that no one had actually said she did anything against them. He looked on her again, seeing past the reptilian nature of her eyes and seeing the desperation and pain. He remembered and looked again on all the scars and wounds from undeserved battles, some still fresh. She started to speak again but stopped as she sharply inhaled, holding her side.
"You're hurt. I can help you." He offered.
She darted away from his touch, her tail allowing her to whip with great speed, "No. You're not the only one to try that."
"I'm sorry this happened you. I'm sorry for all of this."
"I've heard that one as well…" She began to entreat him, "Despite what you've heard, in spite of what I am, I don't want any trouble and I don't want to fight. I've had horrible things done to me out of fear, and I've have to do horrible things just to survive. So, whether you believe me or not, I beg you: just leave me be. You know what I can do if you go through with this, but I would gladly allow you to walk away. So please, just go…"
He was again frozen. He did not know what to believe or how to react to any of these revelations. She stared back at him with as much anxiety as hostility. He clutched his weapons to his side, and she coiled her tail underneath of her, ready to spring in response. He racked his brain for how to proceed, and she stared intently back, preparing to react in any way. Finally, he raised his shield in front of him and slowly began to back away. She lowered herself in relief, and mouthed her thanks to him, a small smile emerging.
Three days was all it took. His encounter with the lamia and the circumstances leading to it had shaken him. Was she lying? Were the villagers lying? Had she managed to trick him into leaving? Was this really a case of persecution born of fear? Unable to relax without the whole truth, he stayed in the town and investigated further. Three days of questions uncovered the unfortunately common circumstance: all the villagers had fears and rumors about the lamia and sought to have her driven away or vanquished, but in all of the panic, they neglected to see if she were a threat or even let her do anything. She was judged and sentenced for the crime of simply existing. Deducing this, the hunter returned their money and departed, needing to make one more visit before he went on his way.
As he returned to the cave, the prospect of a second encounter did not settle his nerves in the slightest; the danger remained and thus his anxiety did as well. The hunter continued onward through the woods and into the cave, but this time, the lamia was not so close, the path and her wading pool sitting empty. Though the idea frightened him and plainly lacked in common sense, the hunter steeled himself and ventured even deeper. After a few moments, he came to the unexpected sight of sunlight, the day peering down through multiple breeches in the cave ceiling. And just beyond them, she sat; the lamia was perched atop a large smooth rock under the biggest ceiling opening, obviously basking the warm sun.
With this natural spotlight on her, the hunter froze for fearing of alerting her, and eventually found himself simply staring at her, especially her tail. Incredibly long and sinuous, it was obvious from just its movements that it was made of powerful muscle. It was also visibly sleek and moved with silken grace and ease. Its golden scales were pristine and even seemed to shimmer at times under the light. With the moment to observe, the hunter found that not just this part but the woman herself was at once intimidating and naturally beautiful. Suddenly, she stirred and with whip-like speed, turned in his direction.
"Well, count me surprised…" The lamia said, bemused, "It is very rare indeed that I get a repeat visitor. Why have you come back, traveler?"
The hunter slowly removed his pack along with his sword and shield, causing the lamia to tense up, and extracted a collection of supplies from inside.
"I saw that you were hurt, and I figured you couldn't exactly go for medicine, so I thought I could help tend to your wounds."
The lamia slowly slithered down to him, and upon seeing the package of poultices, bandages, and salves, expressed, "Well … now, I'm doubly surprised. I am really not used to this; thank you."
As he said, the hunter began patching up and dressing her wounds, and the lamia could only smile at this act of kindness. "I apologize," he eventually said as he tended the wounds on her back.
"About what? You never actually attacked me." The lamia replied teasingly.
"I apologize for everything, for all the attacks and scorn. And that man with jaw; he was truly vile for what he tried to do. It's awful that you have suffered so much just because of their fear."
"What can I say? I am around 17 feet tall from end to end. I hunt wild game with my bare hands. Fear is understandable." She said, her tone turning somber, "I'm used to fear by now."
"You don't deserve to be hunted for it. You're not a monster; you're a charming, lovely woman…" the hunter said before pausing at what he let slip, "That wasn't inappropriate to say, was it?"
The lamia giggled, briefly flashing her teeth including the viperous fangs instead of canines, and replied, "It was a little, but it's nice to hear. No one has ever said that to me before."
"I do have one question: your persecution has been going on for months I hear. Why have you stayed?" The hunter asked as he wrapped the stab wound on her side.
The lamia paused for a moment before admitting, "I've been running a long time. Everything that happened has been happening for most of my life. I was just tired of being forced out. Then, I found this place: it's just the right size, the right temperature, I have fresh water, there's plenty of food, and I… Actually, hold on a moment."
A faint sound had interrupted them overhead, the fluttering of wings. They both looked around and noticed a large bat flying around. Instantly, the lamia's posture changed, and the hunter recognized her quick transition into predator. She sat up and coiled back onto her tail, took aim, and with staggering quickness, sprung forward to snatch the flying animal out of the air. A crunching sound later, and the prey was no more. The hunter stood frozen again from her speed and execution, reminded of the power this woman had. The lamia lowered herself back down, quarry in hand.
"My apologies. I rarely get a chance to have these. You have to snag them when you have the chance…" The lamia offered as she set her catch aside, before continuing, "In any case, I just didn't want to be scared away again. This place … could be a home."
The hunter fell silent as he finished treating her before nodding in agreement. Finally, he started to leave, but the lamia stopped him before he could even stand up.
"We talked about me this whole time. What about you?" she asked, "You ventured in here alone and got away, only to come back. Is there no one who cares enough to talk you out of these kinds of choices?"
The hunter replied solemnly, "No. There was … someone, but she didn't need as much as I need her. I have to nowhere to go, and no one to go."
The lamia looked into his eyes and sincerely offered, "You could stay here."
The hunter slightly chuckled and replied, "I don't think you need a sword for hire, my lady."
"Of course I don't," she replied with a smile, "But a friend would be nice… If you don't have anywhere to go as you say. Why not here?"
The hunter considered before saying, "Well, the company will be enjoyable. But first… my name is Gideon."
The lamia shook his hand and replied, "Thank you, my name is Atrese."