Jayce and Hekla left the House of Wolves before daybreak. In the night’s quiet, they started for the Bloodless Ravine. Their horses snickered as they rode quietly through the town. Hekla, as usual, had a severe case of grumpiness.
“It’s too early to be up and chasing after a shapeshifter.”
“Drink your coffee and hush, Hekla.”
“Chasing after some damsel defiler before sunup is worthy of death. I swear, it’s enough to sour my cheerful disposition.”
Jayce laughed and shook his head. He and Leroy took lead, Hekla trailed behind them. To reach the Bloodless Ravine, they had to cross the plains. Blutbadens congregated in the foothills, to better keep their numbers hidden. Of all the things blutbadens are, they’re cowards.
By noon, Jayce and Hekla were closing in on the foothills. Jayce led Leroy toward a small tree line that offered a view of the foothills. He dismounted and knelt next to a shrub and pulled out his scope.
“What do you see?” Hekla asked. She pulled out her flask and took a sip.
“Nothing. There are no footprints, no scuff marks.”
“They’ll be out tonight.”
“How do you want to handle it?”
“I don’t know. According to the damsel, the shapeshifter was my height, and had scars on his back.”
“So, we’re looking for a prisoner.”
“Well, I’m gonna nap. Wake me when they show up.”
Blood stained Jayce’s knee where he had kneeled in the soft dirt. He wiped at his knee. Hekla had stretched out on a makeshift pad. She snored softly.
Jayce watched the foothills for any movement. Besides the flittering of fowls, nothing moved. The sun descended behind the hills when Jayce heard voices.
“Tomak desecrated Lord Taber’s daughter last night. I wonder what dear old dad has to say about that?”
The moon sat high in the night sky. Its silvery rays drifted toward the ground. The moon framed the two silhouettes in light. Jayce watched.
“You know he sent a hunter out to find and kill Tomak, right?”
“Pfft. If the hunter’s not from the House of Wolves, then there’s nothing for Tomak to worry about.”
“He should not have returned here. Trouble follows Tomak like a foul scent. He may put us all in danger.”
“I will leave come first light, Rager.”
The shapeshifter called Rager turned toward the unseen voice. His face, from what Jayce could see, showed fear. Jayce tapped Hekla’s foot. Her light snoring ceased.
“Is it him?” She asked. Jayce gave her a thumbs up.
Tomak emerged from the shadows. Hekla, who knelt beside Jayce, gazed intently at the shapeshifter. Without a word, she crept through the shadows until she had flanked the blutbadens.
Jayce pulled a hooded garment over his shirt and pulled the hood up. Then, he walked toward the blutbadens. Rager saw him close the distance. Tomak nodded at Rager, and Rager stepped away from the other two.
“Who goes there?”
Jayce held up his hands and stopped. His eyes remained on the other blutbadens. Hekla, still unseen, had crept within twenty meters of the pair.
“I’m just a lowly human wanderer. My feet are sore from walking. May I use your camp?”
“No, human. Take your tired feet on and leave this place.”
“I have no food, no water. Please, I beg you, please help me. If I should have a run of good luck, I’ll repay your kindness with kindness.”
Tomak signaled for Rager to draw near to him. The blutbaden drew near. The damsel defiler whispered instructions into Rager’s ear. He gave a small grin and nodded enthusiastically.
“Come on in, human. We will share food and water with you. Our doctor can look over your feet.”
“Thank you kindly. I feared the worst.”
Jayce made his way into the camp, followed by Rager and Tomak. Hekla stayed hidden in the shadows. Rager motioned for Jayce to sit at a small fire and remove his shoes. Jayce complied. He slid the boots off and sighed. Rager seemed to have no interest in his human guest. Tomak, on the other hand, locked eyes with Jayce and studied him.
“You’re a hunter, aren’t you human?”
“Lord Taber sent you to kill me for defiling his daughter, right?”
“What is life worth on this over-populated rock, hmm?”
“100 gold pieces and a Vasken steed.”
“That’s not a whole lot for the taking of another’s life.”
“No, it isn’t. But…it puts food in my belly and clothes on my back.”
“And ammo in your weapon.”
“I wouldn’t run, Tomak. You’ll just die exhausted, and whatever awaits you on the other side may have a long line for admittance.”
“Do I strike you as one who runs from trouble?”
“You did last night,” Hekla said as she entered the camp.
“Hekla the Brave, how long has it been?”
“Since the war at least. You just can’t help yourself, can you?”
Jayce turned to Hekla and scowled. Tomak laughed.
“You didn’t know that Hekla and I are old friends? I see she hasn’t changed that much. I am Tomak of the 3rd Platoon of Shadows.”
Hekla met Jayce’s glare and winked at him. She scratched her beard and sighed.
“It’s complicated, Jayce.”
“What’s complicated? The fact that we rode all the way out here to kill someone you know. Or that you didn’t tell me you knew the target?”
“Lord Taber is a blight in our society. Tomak went there to scout…”
“…and fell into Tabitha, right? He accidentally ended up in the broom closet with her…”
“You are upset. Do not question my motives, Jayce.”
“That’s great, Hekla. You want me to trust you, even though you have lied to me since the House of Wolves.”
“I want you to trust our friendship.”
Tomak gave a small wave of his hand, and Jayce’s eyes swept to him. He gave Jayce a small smile.
“Do you know the prophecy concerning Rhianna’s Tearful Chalice, human?”
“No, and I don’t care to.”
“Where does the pain of the universe go? Have you ever wondered?”
“No. I worry about my stomach and clothing. That’s it. I’m a simple guy.”
“Jayce, shut up and listen,” Hekla snarled. Jayce glared at her. “I want to carve a mug out of her freaking skull.”
“The prophecy says that when the chalice is filled with tears of sorrow it will overflow. This outpouring of anguish will bring about cataclysmic events that can’t be stopped. However, the chosen one is allowed to set the world right.”
“Un-huh. Sounds like a prophecy alright. And?”
“The chosen must travel to the Cliffs of Fate and there the chosen will choose to either save life or end it.”
“What does any of that have to do with you messing with Lord Taber’s daughter? Were you searching her for more pieces of this prophecy? Because I can think of some ways that don’t require your head to find them.”
He turned to face Hekla when her boot crashed into his jaw. The last thing he saw was the face of Tomak. His prey shook his head in disappointment. Then, Jayce lost consciousness.
Jayce came too in a pig pen. “Ouch,” he muttered as he touched his jaw gingerly. Hekla stood next to the fence and watched him.
“Morning,” she said in way of greeting.
Jayce didn’t respond. He remembered being kicked in the jaw by none other than Hekla. “Danged if I talk to her.”
“Tomak is gone, Jayce. He left last night.”
Jayce glared at her. His eyes narrowed and his breathing grew shallow. He bit down on his tongue. Hekla walked close to Jayce and sat down beside him.
“Don’t pout, Jayce. There is always another contract. I couldn’t let you kill my oldest friend.”
“No, you just kicked this one in the face. You should have gone with him.”
“Are you going to pout all the way home?”
“I took the man’s money, you do understand that, right?”
“So, return it. Let someone else hunt Tomak. We have other things to worry about.”
“Like what,” Jayce shouted. His voice carried over the plains. Frustration crept into his voice. “I was so close to completing this contract, but no, my friend had to turn on me.”
Hekla stared at Jayce and put a hand on his shoulder. Jayce refused to look at her.
“Tomak is a priest. Since the war he has traveled the breadth of this planet, searching for any inclination of Rhianna’s Tearful Chalice. Lord Taber fits into it somehow. The mess with Tabitha isn’t important. What is important is that Tomak believes you’re the chosen one to stop it.”
Jayce put his hand up and shook his head.
“I don’t want to hear that crap. I’m not chosen. If I run into your priest again, I’m taking his head.”
“Don’t be dense, Jayce. You could save the world.”
“I don’t want to save the world, Hekla. I don’t like it; I want nothing to do with it. Let it burn to the ground, I’m not interested in saving it.”
Hekla stood to her feet and walked to her horse. She eyeballed Jayce, her lips tightened into a small scowl, and she waved goodbye.
“Good luck with Taber. I hope you change your mind. We could use someone like you.”
Jayce said nothing and watched his friend ride toward the foothills. “Not likely,” Jayce thought as he mounted his horse. He nudged the horse back toward town and Lord Taber’s manor.
Jayce’s bad day was only beginning.