Jayce Wellspring watched from his position on the ragged cliffside of Mount Tabby as a mounted courier dismounted and made his way to Jayce’s side.
“Are you Master Jayce Wellspring, the infamous rogue and monster hunter?”
“I am a monster hunter, and Jayce Wellspring as well. What do you want?”
“His Most Excellence Lord Taber, famed Economist to Queen Elva Greymane, request your presence at his manor, posthaste.”
“To what do I owe the honor, given that I am a mere human?”
“He wishes to hire you on a matter of importance. There is a festival celebrating a successful venture the Lord Taber pulled together. We should head back. Shall we?”
“Sure, let’s go see what he wants.”
The party was in full swing by the time Jayce Wellspring entered Lord Taber’s mansion. Elven and Dwarven eyes were upon him. Somewhere in the foyer, someone smacked their lips. Jayce cut his eyes to the source. A plump Dwarven male, or female, who could tell since both had beards, glared at him. Jayce smiled and gave a small wave.
Three guardsmen, all Elves, waited for him. Their plate armor glinted in the dim light of the solar lanterns that hung from the ceiling.
“Greetings,” the leader of the Elven trio grunted. Jayce nodded.
“Greetings. You rang?”
“Follow your betters, human.”
“Okay. Let me know when they show up. I’ll be at the table getting some grub.”
The trio glared at him and motioned for him to follow. Jayce complied, although his stomach growled in defiance at being made to wait before partaking of the massive spread laid out on the tables.
Jayce was led to a small garden, where Lord Taber waited with his daughter, Tabitha. The maiden sobbed as her father stood with his arms folded. He stared off in the distance but looked toward the trio when he heard their steps.
“Quit your crying, sow. You succumbed to his evil eye. Shush your blabbing.” Tabitha cried even more now. Jayce, hidden from view by the taller elves, rolled his eyes. ‘It’s always the same with nobles.’
“Lord Taber, may we present Jayce Wellspring, monster hunter.”
“It’s about time. What took so long?”
Jayce stepped out from behind the guardsmen and nodded. Lord Taber glared at him in return.
“Sorry, milord. I was on Mount Tabby searching for a lost human child. It took a while to get back.”
“A human child took precedence over my child? All you scum are the same.”
“I value all life equally, milord. What can I help you with?”
Lord Taber turned to Tabitha. “Tell the monster hunter who bewitched you and leave out none of the details.” She sobbed and covered her face. Taber shook his head in frustration and started the tale.
“I was headed to the privy, and I heard a commotion coming from the broom closet. I opened the door, and Tabitha was being, uh, groped by an unknown guest.” Taber paused and took a breath. “There I stood with the door wide open, and all eyes on the closet. In a flash, the unknown subject/guest shed his flesh and took on the flesh of another. He was a blutbaden.”
“What do you mean, okay? You daft human, my name is ruined. My daughter was defiled. I want this, this thing found and killed. Bring me his head.”
“Okay, but to be honest, your daughter has a pretty crappy reputation to begin with.” The guard captain pulled his sword and laid it upon Jayce’s throat.
“What did you say, human?” Taber drew near and glared at Jayce. He dragged a chair over to where Jayce stood, and stepped up on it as to look him in the eyes. Jayce grinned.
“Milord, your daughter has a dark reputation and a fondness for broom closets. I’m sure this isn’t the first one she’s been caught in. However, I should be on my way to hunt down this dastardly blutbaden.”
“Give a care how you speak to me, scum. You’re not the only monster hunter in this province.”
Taber motioned for the guard captain to remove his blade from Jayce’s throat. He walked back to his daughter and sat down beside her. Jayce pulled the chair to him and sat down. After a moment, Taber decided to continue.
“Let us discuss your payment, monster slayer. I shall heap coin upon you in the sum of fifty gold, what say you?”
“The shapeshifter will be hard to track, milord. I think 100 gold is more to my liking. Plus, I shall need a swift steed, which I will return upon completion.”
“No need. 100 gold, plus the steed shall be your payment. What say you?”
“Agreed. I will need a description of the changeling. Specifically, what you saw when you opened the closet door. That would be his true form.”
“Aye. He was tall, about your height. Dark haired, average build but soft. He had a scar over his right eye. His skin was light colored as if he had not been in the sun for some time. “
“And on his back,” Tabitha interjected. “He appeared to have been lashed.”
“What is interesting, slayer?”
“He was a prisoner. What did he speak of Tabitha?”
“Of dark days, of revenge, of Rianna’s Tearful Chalice.”
“Okay. I have enough to get started. I will get started in the morning at first light.”
“Find him, monster slayer. Do not let him live to ruin the lives of other people.”
Jayce stood to his feet to depart. The trio of Elven guards waited by the door for his approach. The guard captain kept his hand upon the hilt of his sword.
“One last thing, slayer.”
“I had the kitchen prepare you an assortment of vittles for your journey. The guard captain will see that you get it. Your steed, a Vasken racing stud, awaits in the stables. The stablemaster, Janice, will set you up. I expect daily updates, do you understand?”
“Yes, I understand.”
I was escorted out to the stables by the two guards. The guard captain departed from us when we reached the kitchen. Janice, a dirty-faced, human waif had the stud saddled. She gave me a grim smile that had zero warmth in it. Her belongings were cast upon the straw that was spread around on the cold ground.
Clearly this was not only her job, but home as well. It was always the same. We humans were one of the Lesser Species. As such, we were forced to accept whatever fate we were handed.
“That’s what you get for losing the war…”
Janice handed me the reins. She turned to walk away, but I touched her shoulder. She turned to face me. I had in my sack a loaf of crusty bread that I was saving for later. Janice appeared to need it more than I did.
“Here,” I said as I handed her the bread. She took it and went to the corner. Janice nibbled on the bread like a rat ate cheese. It hurt me to my core.
“Here, human.” I turned and faced the guard captain. He handed me a knapsack. It was full of provisions.
“I don’t appreciate your remarks of Lord Taber’s daughter. Scum such as yourself should be chastised to the fullest extent of the law.”
I tied the knapsack to my saddle. The captain moved closer to me still.
“Gee man, you’re making it awfully personal. Should I apologize?”
“You should be put to death, human. Find this…thing and end it. Then, disappear into the ether of your abysmal future. Your kind does not belong here among your betters.”
I gave him a two-finger salute and clicked my tongue. The racing stud started forward. Outside of the stables I turned and looked back at Janice. The three Elves had crowded around her. I didn’t need a fortune teller to tell me what would happen next.
It was the plight of all Lower Species. You either served a purpose on New Earth, or you were killed and tossed into a mass grave. I clicked my tongue and the stud started down the road. I guided it toward the House of Wolves, and my mentor, Hekla the Brave.
I suppose this is where I should bring you up to speed as to how humanity ended up on ‘New Earth.’ It began on a fateful day in October. The sky had a pinkish-green tint to it. An ill omen some people claimed. I thought it was pretty. Still, life went on, and I was late for work.
My memory doesn’t recall exactly what happened next. There was a loud crack and time seemed to pause. I think. Then, it felt as if we were shot through space. My insides felt like Jell-O. There was another loud pop, and I was on my knees vomiting. On what is now known as ‘Old Earth’ humankind was the only known species of humanoids. Somehow, we had traveled into the future. I was surrounded by things I had never seen before. They appeared as startled as I felt.
The experts now claim that our timeline had collided with their timeline. The ensuing explosion shot us forward 20,000 years into the future. Of course, our government did what it had done time and time again.
We started a war.
And we lost.
Humanity wasted no time in unleashing the full might of its military upon those who were different from us. Who were those different from us? On this ‘New Earth’ there were two races of Dwarves, the Righteous and the Shunned. There were also the Elves. They were golden skinned, magic wielding, walking towers of destruction. Some were healers. All three races used Lesser Species as ‘meat shields.’
The Elves cast destruction magic, while the Dwarves closed with the enemy and smashed it with massive warhammers.
We never stood a chance.
Every human was conscripted to fight. Even me. I was trained as a Hunter. My specialty was reconnaissance. The last, and most fierce battle of this short war was the Battle of Sentient. It was there that we made our last stand.
For all the good it did, we closed with the enemy and took the fight to them. It was over before I knew it. The elves rained magic down upon us. We drew near to the Dwarves, and the elves killed us and their allies.
The carnage was so great that the ground was forever altered. Every step upon it caused the ground to cough up blood. Humanity surrendered four months, seven hours, and eighteen minutes on what would be known February 15th, 20,021.
My racing stud had carried me to the grand Elven city of Eilor. The House of Wolves sat in the middle of town. A cyclops named Festus watched the door. He nodded at me when I tied my prized stallion at the hitching post.
“Nice ride you’ve got there, human.”
“Thanks, Festus. Don’t eat him, okay?”
“I’m a vegetarian, human. What’s its name?”
“You called your ride Leroy.”
“Yeah, man. Is Hekla in?”
“Yeah. She showed up and threw her weight around. Medical services were called shortly after her arrival. They’re still in there. She must have had a problem with some of the new guys.”
“Hekla has a problem with everybody,” I said as I pushed through the door. Bodies were lying everywhere. Hekla sat on the barstool and drinking from a mug shaped like a human skull. Or maybe it was an actual skull. I walked over and sat beside her.
“What’s new, Jayce?”
I looked around at the carnage and shook my head.
“Not much. I see you have got acquainted with the new guys.”
“A bunch of disrespectable curs is what they are. They thought they could get the jump on me. Now, they know different. A few blows from Menace here and they were crying for Mommy.” She lovingly patted her warhammer and took another swig from her tankard.
“I’ve come into work. You want in?”
“Look at you,” Hekla said. “You’ve come a long way from the scrawny, starving, human I met on the docks that day.”
“Yeah. That was a long time ago.”
“Seems like yesterday. I’m in. What’s the prey?”
“A shapeshifter, blutbaden, whatever, took advantage of the good Lord Taber’s daughter. In a broom closet. Daddy opened the door in front of his guests.”
Hekla snorted and alcohol shot out of her nose. She bent over with laughter.
“Oh, that’s rich. Rumor is the girl loves broom closets.”
“Yeah, well, Daddy wants this particular vagrant killed.”
“Of course, he does. He was embarrassed.”
“We can leave at first light and try to track him through the Bloodless Ravine.”
“You figure he’s running for the hills, eh?”
“Are you thinking different?”
“No. That’s where the blutbadens’ congregate. It’s on the run, and there is some safety in numbers.”
Hekla tugged on her beard and finished her drink. She took me in when no one else cared. That day on the docks seemed like a lifetime ago, but I remembered it as if it happened only yesterday.
As I said earlier, humanity surrendered. I was discharged from the service and left to fend for myself. A throng of Dwarves and Elves gathered on the docks to celebrate their victory over the ragtag humans.
I pushed my way through. My stomach growled reminding me that it had been days since my last meal. “I know. Let me get out of here, and I’ll steal something.” I slipped through the crowd mostly unnoticed. Mostly.
A rough hand grabbed me by the arm and spun me around. I turned to face my opponent.
“Where are you going, human?”
I looked down. A black-haired Dwarf stared back at me from its one good eye. An eyepatch covered its left eye. Various scars covered its face, and it held a tankard in its left hand.
“Anywhere but here.”
“You don’t like it here, human, leave.”
“Trust me, if it was that easy, I’d leave today.”
“I know who you are, human. You’re that Hunter from the Battle of Sentient.”
“Oh crap,” I thought. “This freight train wants my head. I must have killed one of his friends or his family…”
“I have a proposition for you. Follow me.”
“I appreciate it, really, I do. It’s been days since I last ate, I need food.”
The dwarf handed me something that resembled a sandwich. I nibbled on it and followed the dwarf to the last table, well away from the other tables.
“Listen, human. You have three choices, two don’t count. You can either be a criminal, or a meat shield for the ‘superior races.’ Or you can be a monster-hunter. I do not recommend the first two, but it’s your choice.”
“So, you recommend monster-hunting?”
“No, but it’s better than the other two choices. Here’s how it works. I will train you for a fee. To start with, you earn 15% of our gross. The greater an asset you become, the higher your percentage goes up. It caps out at 45%. Once you hit that, you can take on contracts yourself.”
“Is there a time limit to hit max percentage? Where do we get contracts?”
Hekla waved down a servant and handed him the empty tankard. The servant rushed away and brought back the tankard full.
“There’s no limit for you to max out the percentage. Contracts are issued by the House of Wolves, which also doubles as the payee. They issue the contracts and pay you for completing the hunts. You can also store gear, money, or trophies at the House.”
“Why are you doing this for me, Hekla? What am I going to be to you? An indentured servant? A slave?”
“Slavery is legal here, human. However, you won’t be none of that to me. You’re your own person. I detest slavers and slavery. You were a hellion at the Battle of Sentient. It would be a shame to see you wind up working for some noble that wasted your God-given talents.”
“You were at Sentient?”
“I was. Is that going to be a problem?”
“No. It’s over.”
“Okay,” Hekla said. “Let’s go get you suited up. It’s time to work.”
She took me in, and we had been partners ever since. I worked my way up to 45% and split the contracts with her. I protected her, and she protected me. In the sudden leap forward in time, I had lost my family and way of life.
Hekla helped me forge a new one on New Earth.