"Thank you for coming."
"You attacked me and dragged me here."
"Are you comfortable?"
"I'm tied to a chair."
"But are you comfortable?"
Jee Yoonmi squinted her eyes in disbelief. The man who stood before her in white snow gear looked serious. Eyebrows lowered in concern, back bent to study her carefully, asking dumb questions like 'are you comfortable?' Like it wasn't his fault in the first place.
"Uh..." To be perfectly honest, she wasn't comfortable. The chair was frozen, chilling her already cold body. The ropes dig into her flesh, cutting off her blood supply. She'd had better days.
She was also feeling somewhat peckish.
A frown line creased the dirty skin between the man's eyebrows. "Would you like a blanket? You look cold. Something to drink?"
*What is this, a five star resort?*
Despite all of her years in the field, that day was completely unlike any other.
She'd never been kidnapped before, but she'd imagined it would be more terrifying. "What...in the name of all that is wonderful...is going on?" Maybe it was a prank. *Doug set this up, didn't he?*
The man looked her up and down, his blue eyes darkening with worry. "You look really cold." In the evening light, the sunset orange reflecting off the snow, he looked like a kindly ahjussi.
Of course she looked cold. Her pants were thin and too short, her shirt was torn, her cloak was shredded at one corner, and there were twelve arrow holes in her left boot.
In fact, she couldn't tell if there was a lump of snow in her boot or if that was just her toe.
With snow on the ground, frozen by the negative temperature, the young Korean woman didn't look well-dressed. She didn't look amused either.
"Look, buddy, you seem like a nice guy. But I have a job to do and this delay..." she gazed around at the snow covered trees and mountainside. "It's going to get me into a lot of trouble. Can we hurry this up?" There was fear hidden behind her bitter arrogance and annoyance - a true nervousness that betrayed her appearance of control.
He wasn't a collector - the collectors didn't go anywhere without their ugly brown uniforms. He didn't look like a Titan, but those idiots came in all forms so they could be somewhat difficult to distinguish. He was probably just a demented cannibal.
The guy's eyes widened. "Oh!" He squealed. "Right! Here, just let me..." he turned around, shuffling towards his sputtering transport. The machine sounded sick.
Yoonmi was halfway through an eye roll when suddenly he whipped around, striking her harshly across the face. The hand was cold and bony, like the gnarled appendage of a dead man.
The shock was worse than the slap.
Head still turned to the side, she worked her aching jaw experimentally. "You...bipolar psycho!"
The man's attitude had changed completely. He looked over her, glaring like a demon. "I have a deal for you." His breath smelled like rot.
*Oh please no I was kidding about the cannibal thing.*
She cringed away, feeling her chair creak. "Do you mind—" the close proximity was giving her anxiety.
"Shut up." He murmured lowly, pressing two fingers to her throat. "You've found yourself in a tight spot, haven't you?"
"And whose fault is that?" She squeaked.
The psychotic mountain dweller pinched her throat again. "You're a single woman, aren't you? Old enough to be conscripted. And yet...here you are." He smirked, crooked teeth appearing. "Tell you what - I'll keep you safe if you help me. I need someone with your skill set. I understand you're good with computers."
Her eyes widened, surprised by his knowledge of her specialty. "Who are you? How do you know me?" He was a slimy, maggot-infested, dirty rat.
He leaned back and crossed his arms arrogantly. The yellow film over his teeth gleamed when he smiled.
It was the last thing he ever did.
Like a charging bull, an enormous reptilian creature slammed into him at full force. The earth shook and a tree was knocked over, but the girl's chair remained firmly planted.
Yoonmi didn't watch what became of her kidnapper. She knew the risks of living in a forest so densely inhabited by predators. She'd seen many humans fall prey to them. And yet she didn't have the stomach for what the beast clearly had a craving for.
She didn't plan on being eaten.
Still tied to her chair, Yoonmi set her feet on the ground and stood. Merely feet away, a worryingly sizable dragon distracted himself with his catch.
He wouldn't be occupied for long.
Tired boots crunching in the snow, Yoonmi awkwardly waddled as quickly as she could to the closest tree. The wind picked up, blowing snowflakes that struck her face with the force of sprayed gravel, carrying her scent to the scaled beast behind her.
*Not good, not good, not good.* Yoonmi twisted at the last second, smashing the chair as hard as she could into the tree. Most of the pieces shattered on impact, leaving her with the arms still roped to her wrists. *I don't want to be dinner!*
A series of minor earthquakes behind her alerted her to the dragon's advancements. He was big - big enough to make the ground roll beneath her feet with his weight. Trees cracked as his enormous body squeezed between them.
She turned just in time to see the broad expanse of his tongue as his jaws parted to seize her.
Squeaking like a frightened mouse, Yoonmi lunged haphazardly to the side, thanking God for her quick reflexes. Her heart caught when her foot hit a root wrong. Ankle snapping violently as the earth shook again, she dropped to the ground as though she'd been shot.
"It's Christmas, for crying out loud, give me a break!" She shrieked, Palma sinking into the snow that covered the frozen ground. The ice crystals cut into her skin like thorns.
The dragon was not deterred.
Yoonmi dolled over, soft gasps of pain escaping her chapped lips. No longer calm and focused, she crawled to her knees, her movements jerky and fueled by terror. *I taste like bitterness and social anxiety. I'm not gonna die just to be a disappointing dinner.*
The moment she planted her feet beneath her, her ankle emitted a nauseating crunching sound and her leg buckled. Her scream of pain echoed off the snow, but if a girl dies in a forest and no one is around to hear her...
Hot breath practically boiled the nape of her neck.
*Gotta move, gotta move, gotta move!* She scrambled away on her knees. It had been a long time since she'd had a dragon on her tail. The absence of the chase had turned her slothful.
A meaty foot slammed into her calf, pinning her to the ground.
*Lord, if I die, please make it quick.* She prayed, trembling at the feeling of the creature's scaly nose scraping her back. She pushed her cloak away from her hip to give herself access to her belt.
If the ankle wasn't broken before, it definitely was after that. She wasn't holding out much hope for her shin either.
"Thanks a lot you rotten-breathed gecko." She growled under her breath, twisting slightly to see his huge amber eyes staring her down.
A terrifying growl vibrated the very trees around them.
Her hand grasped the hilt of her sword, pulling it from her belt. *I am a highly trained operative...*
The dragon's head lifted, teeth parting in anticipation. His foot lifted from her leg and came to rest by her side, keeping her trapped.
*I don't lose to cold-blooded clowns.*
"You big ugly lizard, why can't you leave me alone?" Yoonmi pulled her good foot under her, crouching on one knee. *Doug's gonna kill me.* She placed one hand in the snow, her other hand absently rubbing her sword.
It was merely a hilt of gunmetal, with no visible blade, and it had saved her life more times than she could count.
She returned her attention to the unusually large homicidal reptile that was horrifyingly close. She could feel his hot breath on her skin, could smell the flesh on his tongue when she suddenly threw the hand that had been in the snow up into the air.
A rush of cold air buffeted her cloak, sensing chills across her skin.
Before the dragon could comprehend what just happened, an explosion shook the earth and water burst from the ground with all the force of a canon.
It launched Yoonmi into the air, far above the creature's head. She released the flow of water and felt it disappear beneath her feet, gravity pulling her straight towards the jaws of the dragon.
*Say cheese, snake-face.* She brought both hands to her hilt and hit a button. A blade shot out from the handle, piecing together into a deadly weapon. Using gravity to draw her closer to the animal that wanted to eat her, she plunged the sword through his temple.
The beast died instantly, crumpling to the ground with a mighty crash that shook the mountain. Yoonmi landed on his head, a help of pain tearing from her throat. Her worn winter clothes were soaked, her ankle was broken, and she was sure she'd bruised her ribs in the fall. *I'm just a kid. Why do I have to deal with this?*
Everyone always picked on her.
*The world is against me.* Even her hands had struck the creature's head and were cut open by the shape scales that covered his body.
A growl that would have challenged the very dragon she had felled broke from deep within her chest. She sat back, retracting the bloody blade with her fingertips. *I hate this job.* The wind blew softly, caressing her face like some form of cold comfort.
Her whole entire body hurt.
*So much for my paycheck.* Upon leaving the hut she called home that morning, Yoonmi's assignment had been to retrieve a number of papers from the professor's cabin at the top of the hill.
There was no way she could get up there before dark thanks to the episode with the mountain man and the dragon. If she tried, she'd undoubtedly run into every animal on the mountainside.
One dragon was enough for one day.
Doug would not be happy. He'd have to settle for the dragon - she hoped that would hold him over.
She twisted around on her perch to give the reptile a cursory glance. It was easily the largest one Seattle had seen in at least eight months. She should be able to get a sizable amount of points from the meat alone.
Doug would want the hide, but she would buy back a portion for a new pair of boots.
With her fingernails, Yoonmi pulled her med kit from her bag and began cleaning her hands. *Stupid dragon. I was minding my own business. I was the victim. Why attack me?* She could only thank God she'd acquired the ability to decimate a beast that bested her in size and strength a thousand times over.
The contractors would pay her well for the bones. That should appease Doug well enough.
All things considered, her day could have gone worse.
She eyed her ankle, cringed at the angle that her foot was hanging at, and wondered how she was going to get her boot off. Snowflakes landed on her foot and melted into the leather.
Her breath fogged in front of her face, swirling like smoke before disappearing into nothing. Yoonmi pulled her cloak tightly around herself and grumbled quietly, wondering why she couldn't have been attacked by a Fenrir instead. Then at least she could have gotten a new cloak out of the deal.
The control screen on her wrist beeped and she sighed in relief. *It's about time.* She could feel herself going lightheaded and she wasn't sure if it was from pain or hunger but it wasn't good.
A minute later, a dark object flew from the trees and stopped six feet from her, humming warmly at her.
She propped her hands on her hips and flared at the aerial ATV. "It took you long enough."
"Battery fully replenished." A robotic voice responded innocently.
Yoonmi lifted her wrist and touched her fingers to the control screen, steering the ATV closer. "I could have died, you stupid rust bucket."
"Apologies, Yoonmi. Allow me to express my relief at your survival." The ATV responded.
"Go ahead." Yoonmi mumbled absently, lining the ATV up alongside her.
"I am relieved." The ATV expressed.
Yoonmi leaned over and gripped the handlebars, stretching her body over the distance between the dragon and her aerial. *My ATV is a dork. How does this happen?*
At the unidentifiable voice, Yoonmi drew back and reached for her sword. It was drawn and extended in an instant, just as her beloved - and very expensive - ATV exploded in a million flaming pieces.
As did Yoonmi's heart.
"Hey!" She snapped, throwing herself off of the dragon to keep from being ripped apart by debris. *Someone killed my ATV. Someone murdered my dork.*
She fell eight feet and hit the ground heavily. Air rushed out of her lungs like a deflated balloon. She'd thought her body hurt before but after that she re-evaluated her perspective of pain.
Snow fell delicately around her, gentle and fragile, as though it was setting the scene for a sweet romance rather than an ambush.
"It's a girl, boss." Some slack-jawed voice observed.
"I can see that, you idiot." A deep, tight growl responds. Footsteps sounded. "This is quite a catch. I'd be impressed if I weren't so sorry."
Yoonmi twisted her body to gain some kind of stance, any position from which to defend herself. Her fists clenched in frustration, longing to call upon the waters of the deep to swallow the intruders up, but she did nothing.
*Don't freeze, don't freeze, don't freeze.*
The second man who had spoken came around the head of the dragon and smiled at her. "You're no girl." He seemed completely unbothered by the cold even though his lips were blue.
*Well excuse you, sir.* Yoonmi sneered at him, hobbling to her feet. She'd managed to hide from collectors for longer than she'd ever expected to. *I deserve what I get. I deserve this.*
Even so, it didn't feel right to fall into their trap just like that.
Her heart hammered against her ribs.
The man's black, piercing eyes observed the way she settled every ounce of weight on her left leg. "You're already a spinster."
He didn't have to be so judgmental about it.
*As if you tricked a victim into marrying you, baldy.* She narrowed her eyes, fingers twitching for her sword. "I am under employment." She reported. It was true, but it was insufficient. She knew it wouldn't be enough to escape execution.
He'd better get on with it before she died of exposure.
"Unless you're employed by the academy, you'll be charged with evading the law. And by the looks of it," he gave the dragon a sideways glance.
The beast's downfall was her own, it would seem.
Employment by the academy usually left the women dead and the animals alive, not the other way around.
"Cav," The man hollered out of the side of his mouth like a tobacco-chewing redneck. "Get the name of this spinster's employer." His lips turned up in a sadistic smile. "And go apologize to him."
*This guy gets uglier as the day goes on.*
Yoonmi retreated step for step as the man advanced. Her mind raced frantically as his hand went to his hip, reaching for his gun.
Her thoughts slipped to her ankle and she knew that if she wasn't dead by the end of the encounter, she would come out of it in far more pain than she was already in.
*I want to go to bed. I'm so done with today. This is ridiculous.*
The glint of the collector's old-fashioned pistol entered Yoonmi's line of sight, and she hopped forward on her good foot, praying she wouldn't black out. *Ow, ow, ow—oh, just do it.*
The collector's eyes widened in shock as her bad leg swung up with all the mobility of a staff swung from the hand. Yoonmi's leg caught his throat, punched in the crook of her knee. *Oh sweet Christmas this hurts.*
As she feared, her vision went black from the spiked fire in her ankle.
But it only lasted for a second.
She drove her fist into his face and threw her other leg over his shoulder, landing behind him. She gave the leg that was still around his throat a jerk, dropping him to the ground.
When she was back on her own two feet, her body gave out, leaving her in the snow.
*This is not ideal.*
Sword in hand once again, she held it to the collector's throat. "I'm wet, tired, hungry, and hurt. I'm not going to the academy. This is your last chance to walk away."
*What am I saying? It's my chance. I can go. I have to go.* Her heart clenched.
*He'll never let it happen peacefully.*
The collector's teeth flashed. His eyes were cold, determined to carry out his mission to the very end. "You've forced my hand."
Her gaze cut to his hand and her heart jumped as she found hers of staring down the barrel of his .45.
The slightest smirk crossed his lips and he knew he had her.
*Sloppy, Yoonmi!* She made ready to finish him - to jerk her sword cleanly against his skin in a desperate attempt to beat him. Before she could take a breath, the collector gasped, paling.
Air clouded in front of his mouth as though someone had poked a hole in his lung.
A light breeze whispered through Yoonmi's hair, indicating someone's arrival.
*Sloppier and sloppier.*
Quick to defend herself, she propped herself up on one knee, spinning in the snow. With her blade still firmly pressed to the collector's throat, she whipped a compact .9 from her belt and let it do her welcoming for her.
Instead of another collector as she expected, the newcomer looked more like a private mercenary. He was fully garbed in gray, dark as a storm cloud, from his hood and face mask to his tall boots.
As her eyes traveled from his efficiently hidden face to his heavy cloak to his boots, she found that he was standing firmly on the Collector's wrist, pinning the gun to the forest floor.
*What...is happening? Who are these people? Why are there so many people popping out of my forest?*
His very presence confused Yoonmi. He was so silent that that even she hadn't heard him approach.
And she'd never seen anyone so boldly interfere with the work of a collector before.
*Lemme guess - another sicko who wants to blackmail me into hunting down predators for him to black market.* Her finger tickled the trigger, but she remained undecided.
The figure shrouded in gray beheld her pistol for a second before grinding his icy heel into the collector's wrist.
Yoonmi flinched at the agonized cry erupting from the man on the ground.
*Try getting your leg smashed by a dragon, you baby.*
The newcomer didn't hesitate. He knelt, pressing his knee into the collector's chest. He dropped his hand to the blade that still rested against the collector's throat.
With a single finger he lifted the sword and flicked it away, leading Yoonmi to retract the blade before it could lop off her nose.
*Okay, rude; who is his guy?*
He spared her yet another cursory glance but then turned back to the collector as though she wasn't even there.
Suddenly his eyes crackled and transformed into something like blue fire, seemingly consumed by electricity.
*Sweet mother of Abraham Lincoln—* Yoonmi fell back on her haunches in shock, watching through widened eyes as the stranger's fingers began to glow with the same blue energy.
The collector began to scream, his face contorted in agony.
Yoonmi's eyes fell to his chest, seeing a black hand print appear on the canvas uniform. A second later the collector blacked out and the newcomer straightened to his full height, kicking the .45 away.
*If I don't move...maybe he won't notice me* Yoonmi considered as he glanced first at the enormous fallen dragon and then turned to her.
"Jee Yoonmi." He spoke in a clear, deep voice.
She blinked at the Korean formation of her name and detected an accent in his voice. *Okay, he knows my name. That's not creepy.*
"I'm here to take you home."
"Let me put it this way - you have three days."
"Please, sir, I'm doing my best."
A few seconds of silence passed.
The phone seemed unusually hot against Aisha's war. She wondered for a minute if maybe she'd overstepped. In a moment of fear she comforted herself with the reminder that she couldn't be killed over the phone.
"For your sake, I'm hoping that's not the case." The voice on the other line was robotic, modulated by a scrambler. It belonged to a nameless, gender less, country-less individual who couldn't be more intimidating if he wore a lightsaber.
Aisha's demeanor shifted. The tall girl suddenly looked meek. "Yes Scarab. I'll have it ready in three days." Her short nails dug into her leg through her long skirt. A cold, anxious sweat made her hands slick.
"I have faith in you, Aisha. Don't let me down."
The line clicked. Static rustled softly in her ear, but did nothing to ease the terror of his implication.
Swallowing past the lump in her throat, Aisha dropped her phone into the pouch that hung from her hip. Determined to succeed, she rolled her shoulders and sniffed nonchalantly.
The cold air bit at her nose and scraped her throat.
*Why am I so worried? This is my job. I'm the best there is.*
She turned on her heel. "Let's go, Jack." Aisha slipped her foot into the awaiting stirrup and climbed onto the back of her winged dragon.
The majestic beast took flight, buffeting cold air back on his rider. Strong wings carried them above the hills into the thin air. He puffed smoke from his nostrils, exhilarated by the chill that tickled his vulnerable underside.
"So glad you're enjoying yourself." Miffed, Aisha tightened her hands around the reins. Her words were lost to the wind, left behind and unheard. As the air current whipped the fabric of her clothes back and forth, she pulled her trench coat snugly around herself and zipped it up to her chin.
"General, do you copy?" A distorted voice crackled in her ear.
Aisha pressed numb fingers to her comms unit, activating a two-way. "I'm here. What's the problem?" She had to shout against the wind to be heard; the strain did nothing to soothe her cold features.
The voice belonged to Sergeant Brandy Koda who was stationed four klicks away at their camp. It had been three hours since she'd made contact - Aisha had begun to wonder if maybe she'd become pterodactyl chow.
"I've picked up another signal. It's not far from here. Should I wait for you to get back or investigate alone?"
Aisha urged Jack faster. "We're almost there. Wait for us."
"Yeah, well, hurry; it's cold out here."