Chapter One – The Master Hunter
There’s a fortress at the very edge of Lyr, south of the T’jr Province, known as the House of Hunters. It is said to breed only the most dangerous, the most disciplined of soldiers. Skilled in steel and masters of magic, the House of Hunters set their soldiers free into the land of Lyr to battle only the fiercest of monsters, the most voracious demons of Evil. The Hunters are the harbingers of death and blood, a legendary line of defense between the good people of Lyr and the monsters that threaten day-to-day civilization. It is along the blood channels of their blades that Lyr has travelled into centuries of uneasy peace.
It is a clear and feverishly hot day in June when our story starts. The great fortress of the House of Hunters dozes lazily in the sun, breathing in deep gulps of hot, wet morning air; the promise of another blistering day. Students and teachers alike find refuge in what little shade they can find, chores abandoned in favor of cooler pursuits. Inside the fortress is comparable to the outside, the stone walls retaining heat and incubating the inner rooms almost oven-like. Fresh -albeit heavy – air, is more welcoming.
There is a group of students, however, that are not escaping the fortress for air or escaping the sun for shade. They linger instead in a chamber down in the depths of the fortress, where it is cool and dry, and there is nothing in this chamber save a few benches. This room is known as the Holding Cell and it is here where students wait their turn to be called into a larger room where they will undergo their Rank Trial.
The level of silent tension in the room is thick, yet disguised by the light whispering of chatter between the students. They’ve all undergone several Trials in the past; this one is their last, the Master Trial. Completion of this Trial denotes them as fully trained Hunters and permits them the title of Master Hunter. They are nervous, excited, relieved, and it cumulates in their whispered discussions of plans after the Trial, plans for life after the Hunter House, whether they will teach, or pursue Contracts, or slide into the military or Royal Guard.
There is one student, however, that is not participating in the mindless, nerve-quelling talk. He stands in the back corner, arms crossed over his chest, eyes locked on a spot on the floor. No one speaks to him and he speaks to no one. He has seen twenty summers – like everyone else in the room has and is tall and broad, average for a male of Lyrian descent. His platinum hair is buzzed short to his skull, and large champagne gold eyes are set into a strong expression. An expression softened slightly by freckles that dapple over his nose and cheeks.
He does not miss the furtive looks his classmates give him, but he is numb to their behavior now. They regard him in turns of respect and fear, with underlying tones of disgust. He is, after all, different than they. Weird, freak. These names mean nothing to him anymore, nor have they been spoken to him in quite some years. All dozen or so of the students in the room know that he is the best in their class and after having kicked their asses in fight games for years, they show their disgust for him in subtler ways.
The door to their small anti-chamber opens. A woman stands framed in the doorway. Her long dark hair is flecked with gray and braided tightly over one shoulder. Interwoven in the plait is one thick piece of hair so brightly white it appears to glow. Her sharp face frames her dark green eyes. This is not a woman to cross lightly. Her name is House Master Delaney Kade, and she is an Earth Spirit.
“Waverly and Astor,” Delaney gestures to two students sitting on a bench, “You’re up.”
They stand. At first glance, one might think they are identical twins. But identical twins do not exist in Lyrian genealogy. No, they are a Pair. An Anchor and a Spirit. One existence, two forms. Waverly and Astor are, more specifically, a Snowy Owl Pair. Each with sharp yellow eyes and dusty gray and black hair. Waverly – being the Spirit – has more distinct markings, such as a feather-like texture on the backs of her arms, legs, and spine, and an odd ability to look rather ruffled at times.
The Pair disappears amidst a few whispers of ‘good luck’ and the door shuts. Tense silence reigns in the room once more. It has begun.
An hour passes. Waverly and Astor do not return. No one expects them to. Once they finish a Trial, for better or for worse, they do not return to the Holding Cell.
The door opens again. Master Delaney appears once more. She ushers another student out; Emma, a non-Lyrian woman. Another hour passes. Sullivan and Hank are next – a Fire Pair. The quiet chatter turns into speculative talk about failing. The young man in the back corner listens, but does not participate and no one invites him to. He has not ever failed a Trial; he does not plan to fail this one.
Once more, Master Delaney appears. Her green eyes search the room and settle on the young man in the back.
He shifts, pushing himself off the wall. He walks past the remainder of his classmates. No wishes of luck follow him out.
He is in a large room now, much bigger than the small anti-chamber he’d been waiting in. This room is empty and dark, lit only by a few torches affixed to the walls. In the center of this room stands a man. Though the lighting of the room is hardly conducive to see by, he does have dark hair and green eyes, identical to Master Delaney.
This man is House Master Silas Kade, an Earth Anchor.
He is also Jhase’s adoptive father.
“Are you ready?” Silas asks him.
Jhase nods once.
Silas gestures. In front of him is a large rune circle, glowing slightly with advanced and complex magic. At the very center of the circle is a section of blank space. Jhase steps into this space.
“Welcome to the Master Trial,” Silas says, “This course is the final hurdle in your journey to become a Hunter. It will test and push you in ways you have not been tested or pushed before. Once you begin the trial, it is either pass or fail. You can stop the trial at any time, but it will result in automatic failure. Each trial is different for each participant, every goal is different. You will be informed what the goal is upon entering. The rules are simple – you must survive. Are you ready to proceed?”
Once more, Jhase nods curtly. He has heard the rehearsed protocol many times.
Master Silas waves his hand and the rune circle under Jhase’s boots begins to glow, “Good luck, Jhase Kade,” Silas says, “And Goddess Blessing.”
There’s a knock on his door. Jhase doesn’t even need to answer it to know who’s on the other side. It was a yearly pattern for them.
“I’m not going,” he drawled loudly, not moving from his desk.
“Jhase Kade,” came a sassy female voice through the thick wooden panels, “You only become a Master Hunter one time,” there was a rattling as she tried the handle, “Open this door right now.”
He considered ignoring her, hoping that maybe this was the year she would actually give up and leave him alone.
He flipped a page in his book.
There was a sigh, and a click, and his bedroom door swung open. A young woman strode in. She was Lyrian, with waves of shining dark hair punctuated by one strip of bright, glowing white, and slightly hooded, violent neon green eyes. She was wearing a slinky black dress with a slit up the side, quite different than her normal Hunter’s attire. Her name was Ember and she was a newly promoted Second-Black.
“Come on,” she said, hands on her hips.
“Come on,” her tone changed to something closer to coercion than demanding, “It’s the last year where you get to attend a year-end party that’s actually celebrating you.”
“It’s not celebrating me,” he replied evenly, “It’s celebrating everyone who passed a Trial this year, including you and Cerys.”
“Yes, well…” she paused, then plowed on. She was determined to not be thwarted, “Really, these parties are meant for the Master Hunters, with the ceremony and everything. You aren’t really gonna skip the ceremony, right?”
“I’d considered it,” he answered. The idea of all the attention on him made his insides jangle. Every year, he tried to skip as much of the year-end party as he could. Sometimes he’d sneak in a side door and watch the Master promotion ceremony and then slip back out. Too many years of subtle harassment coupled with his introverted personality made big events like these simply murder.
“Silas will be disappointed.”
“Silas won’t care. He’ll promote me on the down low.”
“Fine. Xandria will care.”
That gave Jhase pause. Xandria was Silas’ wife and for all intents and purposes, she was Jhase’s mother. She was soft and kind and compassionate and too good for this world and certainly the last person that anyone would’ve expected to become an accomplished Hunter. And she was Jhase’s biggest believer.
As if she sensed his resolve waning, Ember flounced over to his closet and began rifling through his clothes, “And besides, what better way to rub it in everyone’s face that you became a Hunter despite…” she gave him a glance, “… everything – ”
“ – despite my strange genetics,” he grumbled.
“ – you know? Kill the rest of the rumors and the chatter,” she plowed on like she hadn’t heard him and pulled out some clothes and tossed them on his bed, “You have people who care about your success here, Jhase. So forget the haters, get over yourself, and get dressed.”
With that, she left the room in as much of a storm as she’d come into it, shutting the door behind her. Jhase went back to his book.
In truth, he was torn. He wanted to go to the ceremony. He’d been here at the house for the better part of sixteen years and all those years, his sole purpose had been to become a Master Hunter. To be, in short, the best. Part of the legendary elite.
Yet, during most of those years, he’d been bullied and harassed, teased and pushed around. Bullying wasn’t tolerated in the House whatsoever, but the students had found ways to get around it. No one ever sat at his table during meal times. Students would shove and push each other in order to not be his partner for drills. They wouldn’t talk to him or play with him during free periods. Older students would show him very rough affection; rubbing his head too hard, fist-bumping him hard enough to bruise his hands. They whisper jeers at him when they knew the teachers were out of ear shot, call him half-cast, or soul eater, purposely knock into him so his books would topple, or hit him too hard during lessons with the wooden whips. All because he was different, because he was pure Lyrian, yet he didn’t seem to have a Spirit companion.
Certainly, other races and other children did not have a companion, but that was expected. They were not Lyrian. Lyrians were different, a race of people created by the Goddess herself, designed by Divine Law to exist as two forms – an Anchor, and a Spirit. And Lyrians would be recognized by others by the bright white stripe in their hair; the Goddess Kiss, thought to be the very spot where the Goddess blessed them before they were born.
Jhase rubbed the spot on his head, just to the left of his hairline, where he had his very own Goddess Kiss. Though, with his hair cut so short to his skull, it was hardly distinguishable from his platinum blonde hair. That was the point. As the years went on, the harassment waned. He cut his hair short and threw himself into his studies. Once he’d gained a reputation of being the best in his class – and a few classes above him – people became too afraid of him to talk about him, and the lower ranking students had little but rumors about who and what he was. Ember and her Spirit companion Cerys had been his first friends. A class below him, they’d been the first to pluck up the courage to sit themselves at his table. Soon after, a few of her classmates joined and life at the House became more bearable when he had several people he could count as friends.
Which circled back around to the problem at hand; whether or not he wanted to attend his own promotion ceremony.
Truthfully, it was a knee-jerk reaction to say that he didn’t want to go. He’d adapted to become a loner. The attention from the promotion ceremony was unnerving. Jhase held up his left wrist. Twelve thin ropes adorned it, one for each of his ranks, from White to Black. He remembered getting the first rope, and remembered thinking about the day he’d get them all cut off and be branded a Master Hunter.
Resolved, he pushed himself away from the desk and started pulling on the clothes Ember land out on his bed. Observant and thoughtful woman that she was, she picked out a crisp white tunic he was certain he’d never worn before, and a pair of black cotton pants. Easy, but presentable. Nothing flashy. Right to the point.
Dressed now, he pulled open his bedroom door and stopped dead.
“Oh!” Ember was waiting right on the other side, “You’re ready then!”
She’d brought reinforcements this time. Cerys peered over her shoulder. Identical to Ember, the most distinct difference between them was that Cerys preferred her waves to be no longer than her ears, and she had leopard tri-spots framing the right side of her face, not unlike tattoos. Ember and Cerys were a Panther Pair.
“Hey! There he is!” someone called from behind the ladies.
“The man of the hour!”
Jhase pushed out into the hall and shut his bedroom door behind him. The females were joined by several young men from their class. Leo and his crocodile Spirit Dominic; a wiry young man with hair the color of fire named Lukas; a Jayanti boy named Hamza. All people Jhase counted in his close circle of friends.
The back of his neck burned from all the attention, but he smirked slightly despite himself. Dom popped a bottle of champagne right there in the hallway.
“Nicked it from the kitchens,” he winked and passed the bottle to Jhase.
“You’ll be had, you know,” Hamza took a swig of the light colored bubbles.
“Hey now, this is worth celebrating!” Dom clapped Jhase around his shoulders, “Master promotion! Doesn’t happen every day!”
“What was it like?” Leo asked.
Jhase shrugged, “Not so bad, I suppose,” he admitted, “Oh!” he drew a rune in his palm and with a little flash, a large tawny feather nearly 12 inches in length appeared in his palm.
There was gasping all around and Cerys whispered, “Is that…?”
He nodded, “A griffin feather. I stole it during the Trial.”
This news was met with cheers and reverent praise, for a griffin feather is considered excellent luck and incredibly rare.
The group hushed instantly. They had finally made it down to the entrance hall and Master Delaney was there, waiting at the door of the dining hall. Beyond it, he could hear the swell of noise as every student in the House gathered for the party and the promotion. Another small flash and the griffin feather was gone. Dom swiftly tucked the champagne bottle behind his back and he heard Ember whisper “Master Jhase” with hushed excitement.
“The promotion is about to begin,” Delaney said, “We were worried we’d have to continue without you. Hurry, now.” and she strode into the dining hall, but not before she gave Dom a knowing glance.
They hastened to finish the bottle and Dom hid it away before the entered the hall. Normally filled with tables of all sizes, those had been cleared away and the dining hall look spectacular, decorated with banners and magical lights. There was a small stage set up in the corner of the room, where the House Masters had ordered musicians to come in and play music during the celebration. Food lined one table along the back wall. One of the Plant Spirits had done some very handy magic and made trees and vines creep out of the corners of the room, exotic and bright flowers draping over the walls, with little fairies flitting in and out of the foliage. Someone had created some beautiful ice sculptures and it was doing wonders in keeping the room cool.
Moments after Jhase had entered, a sharp whistle rent the air and everyone in the hall turned towards the source of the sound. Silas and Delaney stood on the raised platform at the far end of the room and they gestured for quiet.
“Another school term has ended,” Silas began, his voice low but had the ability to carry itself and command attention, “And another congratulations is in order for everyone who passed a Rank Trial this year!” there was thunderous applause and he waited until everyone had died down, “And better luck to those that still need more time. There is no shame in failure; only growth. As always, with the exception of the White Trial, if you wish to retake your Trial, you can attempt it the week before Gathering Day.”
Jhase didn’t fail to notice the mix of feelings around the room. Several young children were crying; no doubt they’d failed the White Trial and were being dismissed from the House. Thus was the culture of the Hunters, though. One year to prove they could hack it. Not everyone had the mental and physical faculties to become a Hunter. Other faces were resolved with determination to pass their Trial before the new term began or else remain the rank they were for another year.
“How many Whites are moving on?” he whispered to Cerys.
“23,” she replied.
Jhase couldn’t hide his surprise. That was a lot.
She nodded to his reaction, “Lots of Lyrian children this time.”
“Before we continue in our celebrations,” Master Silas continued, “I’d like to get on with the Promotion Ceremony. New Master Hunters, please,” he gestured for them to come forward.
Jhase’s back was barraged with hands and pats and slight pushes as his friends nudged him towards the front of the room. He mustered a deep breath, lifted his chin, and walked. Students moved out of his way and he could hear their coy whispers behind their hands. The back of his neck heated. He was used to the secretive chatter.
He joined the dozen or so other young men and women on the raised platform. A quick head count told him that everyone had passed first try this year.
“This promotion marks a significant turning point in a Hunter’s career,” Silas told the students, more for the benefit of the new students than anyone else, “They move from Hunter apprentice to Master Hunter. Their rank ropes are cut, and we give them their Hunter’s Brand. From this point forth, they no longer need to reside within these walls, but are free to pursue whatever path they wish.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Jhase saw Silas and Delaney begin to move down the line of students. Silas said a little piece about each of them as he cut their rank ropes and Delaney drew runes on their left arm. The Hunter Brand burned into their skin, black as ink, smooth as a tattoo.
That’s when he heard it. A whisper of a sound, the impression of someone attempting to get his attention. He gaze shot up and scanned the crowd. But there was nothing unusual among them. Jhase rubbed his hand over his head and down over the back of his neck. It was still there, a whisper, an itch on the inside of his head.
Silas was in front of him and Jhase shook himself out of his little reverie. Nerves settled right into the pit of his stomach. It was his turn. He willed Silas not to make a big spectacle of him. True to form, the Master was quick.
“Jhase was always a quiet child,” he told the students as he took Jhase’s left forearm and began cutting the rank ropes, “And it’s through his training here that he has discovered community and strength, and has grown into one of the finest young men this House has ever seen,” he cut the last rope, the Black one, “I’m proud to call him my son.”
Jhase could only nod, feeling like he had cotton in his throat.
Delaney stood before him next and drew runes onto his left forearm. The magic glowed against his golden skin.
“Ready?” she whispered.
He nodded once.
She touched his arm again and he forced himself to keep a straight face as his arm burned; intricate, curling runes and designs crept over his skin, the deepest black, until it covered the whole belly of his arm with the unique signature declaring him a Master Hunter of House Tiger.
Jhase was dimly aware of Silas and Delaney finishing the Hunter’s Brand, hardly recognized his own voice as he recited the Hunter’s Oath, as he was declared a Master Hunter. All his mental energy seemed to be focused right in on the itch in his mind, that subtle but undeniable feeling that someone was knocking on the inside of his brain, trying to get his attention.
Truth be told, it happened occasionally. Never more than a brush of a whisper in his head and no matter how hard he concentrated on it, it never seemed to lead anywhere. He’d dismissed it long ago as just… something that happened. He hadn’t ever confined in anyone about it; he was already seen as different and weird enough without having people think he was mad too.
The thunderous applause drew him back to reality. He jumped down from the platform and edged his way around the hall as students clambered to congratulate the new Master Hunters. He didn’t get quite as far as he would’ve liked before he was closed in by his small circle of friends, and congratulations rained down on him once more and Ember was pulling up his sleeve to see his new tattoo. The back of his neck heated, but the positive energy around him was infectious.
“Amazing!” Ember breathed, tracing a slender finger over the raw, fresh tattoo, “I’ve never actually seen one up close before…”
“Ya, because none of us have the guts to actually ask a Master Hunter ‘gee, can I see your tat?’,” Dom chuckled, though he too, was clustered close to see the new mark.
“I have,” Cerys remarked simply.
“Course you have,” Dom replied, “Everyone in their right mind is terrified of you.”
The Panther Spirit grinned and her canines lengthened threateningly. It was met with laughter.
The energy in the room was wild and light. Everyone was in a fit of high spirits, even the children who would not be coming back. That was the wonderful thing about the end of the year parties, Jhase supposed. It left everyone feeling wonderful and invigorated.
They found a small spot in the corner. Dominic disappeared again and appeared a few minutes later with another bottle of champagne, and while they watched the other students dancing to the music from the band. Jhase – with a little bit a champagne to loosen his nerves – was coerced into reliving his Master Trial to the group. How he had to get by a riddling Sphinx, and steal a feather from a fierce mother Griffin. They were roaring with laughter at his tales and trials, and he found himself laughing too, the high filling him – as well as the bubbles – that this was it. He was done. Graduated.
The evening wore into the night and as the night wore into the dawn, Jhase found himself perched on a high stone wall that separated the courtyards, sharing more champagne with Ember. Hamza, Lukas, and Leo had gone back to their dorms on the seventh floor west wing, and Cerys and Dom had disappeared together.
“They on again?” Jhase asked Ember.
She shrugged, “Sometimes. She thinks he’s an idiot and a troublemaker.”
“Both true points,” Jhase allowed.
“And smarmy,” she continued. She lifted the bottle to her lips, “But he does adore her,” she took a sip.
Also true, he supposed. He took the proffered bottle and they sat in silence for a little while, gazing over the courtyards, the gardens, the gates and high stone walls around them. The place glowed white from the light given by the Little Moon.
“What will you do now?” Ember finally broke the silence. He glanced at her, saw her looking at him, her cheeks flushed and eyes a little too bright from the champagne, “You’re done. Graduated. You can leave the House, pursue Contracts, do… anything.”
Jhase took another swig of the bubbles, more for something to do to fill the silence. He honestly hadn’t really considered what he wanted to do after he graduated. He’d started this journey so long ago – at a mere 6 years old, two years younger than his fellow classmates – and had thus completed his official training two years too early to take the Master Trial. While he’d waited, he taught classes, had some private lessons with higher level Masters, refined his skills, things that Master Hunters normally did if they stayed at the House.
The only difference was now, with the brand on his arm, he had the authority to leave the House whenever he felt like it.
“Silas would hook you up,” Ember continued, “Slide you into the military, or the Royal Guard, you know, set you up with some cozy job somewhere…” she paused because he was shaking his head and she chuckled, “Well, ya, okay, I guess that’s not really your style, huh?”
“Nope,” he answered. He’d prefer to earn his own way.
“We want to travel,” she said, changing the subject a little, “Take odd jobs, see the country a little. Never been more north than Fay Lake,” she gave him a little glance, “Dom’s already talking about coming with us. There’s room for one more, if you wanted to wait around a little longer,” she paused, then said rather quickly, “Or go run around solo for a little while. I know how you like to operate,” she took a long draw off the bottle.
Silence fell between them once more.
“I could travel,” he said finally, taking the bottle from her.
She smirked, but her eyes were brighter, “Ya? What will you do until then?”
He shrugged, “Guess I’ll just do what I’ve been doing. Take Contracts, teach,” he liked the routine involved with the House. Truthfully, he didn’t know any different. He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know any different. But traveling with his best friends seemed like a viable option.
“So… just do what you’ve always done?”
Ember stretched her arms up above her head and he heard her neck crack as she stretched it back and forth, “On that note, I’m going to bed,” she took the now-empty champagne bottle and stood, “Hey,” she said, “Thanks for staying for the whole party. It wasn’t so bad, right?”
He shrugged, but a smile tugged the edges of his mouth, “I guess not.”
“I’ll see you in the morning,” she said, “Or not, depends on how hung-over I am,” she jumped off the 12-foot wall, as easily as a cat jumps from a countertop, “Night, Master Hunter!”
He watched as she gracefully stumbled her way up the stone walkway and disappeared around the corner, no doubt headed for a side-door that made less noise than the big wooden doors in the front of the fortress.
Jhase touched the tattoo on his left arm, tracing the intricate lines. Master Hunter. How long he’d wanted it and now, faced with the reality of it, it seemed so surreal. He remembered his first day at the House. He honestly didn’t remember his life before the House, before that first day. Remembered Silas walking with him up the mountain from the village, remembered stubbornly not wanting to be carried. Remembered ending up being carried anyways; he had been hardly four-years old at the time. A baby with nothing. No parents, no Spirit, nothing but the clothes on his back. All he knew were the facts; he’d been found on the steps of the orphanage hardly days old. Years passed, no one had wanted a strange, Spiritless Lyrian child. The matron of the orphanage had called upon Silas and asked if the Hunter House was open to taking a child, since he was becoming too old to be considered adoptable. Silas had, of course, refused at first, because Jhase had been far too young to be a Hunter in Training. The matron had insisted – come see the child, he’s strong and fierce. Jhase thought he might vaguely remember that first meeting, but after all these years, he wasn’t positive if he remembered because he actually remembered, or if he remembered because his mind took the story he’d heard so many times and turned them into dreams and memories.
In the end, Silas had been convinced and had taken him.
Two years later, Silas and Delaney had given him a White Rank Rope and he started his training, a full two years younger than his peers. The rest is history.
All he’d ever wanted was to be strong, be accepted, to belong somewhere. He was used to being alone, even preferred it sometimes. But he’d always wanted to belong and be accepted and feel like he wasn’t alone. He saw the camaraderie in the Hunter community and he desperately wanted it.
He thought about his conversation with Ember, about traveling the country after she and Cerys made Master Hunter. It’d taken a while, but he supposed he’d found it. No one could ever say he hadn’t worked his ass off for it. No one could say he skated by because he was “the House Master’s kid”.
Jhase decided to call it a night as well and jumped off the stone wall. As he crawled into his bed, his head swimming a little with the bubbles, he could’ve sworn something whispered in his mind, at the very edges of sleep.
You are not alone.