Chapter Two – The Master Contract
“Look there, sweetheart, that’s a Master Hunter!”
“Mummy, look! A Master Hunter!”
“Dude, you’re practically famous!” Dom laughed as he and Jhase stood at the entrance gate.
It was Gathering Day, a bright, clear day in September, a day where the gates to the House were thrown open and people from miles and miles around could come and sign their children up at the Hunter House. Every year, dozens of hopefuls walked through the gates, got a White Rank Rope, and were given a full year to prove they could hack the life. If they didn’t pass the White Trial in the early summer, they had to say goodbye to the House. Certainly they could come back and try again the following year, but most didn’t.
“Work hard, little runts, and you could be strong like this guy!” Dom called jovially as more eager, whispered comments reached them about Jhase.
“Don’t call them that, you dolt,” Jhase drawled. The parents hustled their children up the path, away from Dom and his crocodile grin.
“What? Runts? They are, though! They’re so… tiny!”
“And you wonder why Silas doesn’t let you teach.”
“Me? Teach? Why, when he has people like you and Ember to do all the teaching!”
Jhase rolled his eyes and dropped his sunglasses over them again, watching the children get signed in at the gate entrance. They looked excited, terrified, both clinging to their parents and craning their necks to see through the gate to the fortress proper. Some of the Lyrian children had a glow in the center of their chest, their Spirits too nervous to come out, choosing to hide inside their Anchors instead.
A faraway look crossed Dom’s face for a second, before he said “Leo wants to know if there’s anyone who can speak Calliopian?”
Jhase gave him a look, “Calliopian? We have a Calliopian family?” Calliope was a small island country to the west of Lyr, across the ocean. Usually, if they signed up for a Hunter House, they signed up at House Eagle in the islands.
The Master Hunter wracked his brain, “Brendan and Julie might know some Calliopian. They spent some time there on a Contract last year.”
“Julie? That pretty little First Black?”
“Don’t let Brendan hear you talk like that,” Brendan and Julie were a Chameleon pair and interestingly enough, they weren’t exactly identical. Their facial structures remained alike, but Julie – being the Spirit – seemed to always blend into her environment or change her appearance based on emotions. It was collectively assumed that this strange tendency made her the most beautiful girl in the House currently. And Brendan had no qualms about getting in anyone’s face over it.
“What? It’s fact. Seriously, even Cerys says that she’d – “
Jhase and Dom glanced around to see that Cerys herself was perched on the high stone wall behind them.
“Speak of the devil…” Dom muttered.
“The House Master wants a word with you in his office,” Cerys continued, speaking as though she hadn’t heard Dom. Then she gave the Croc Spirit a deliberate once-over and she was gone.
“That woman…” Dom practically sighed.
Jhase rolled his eyes, “Try to behave, will you?”
“Yes, Master Hunter, sir!”
He shook his head and made his way up to the fortress.
The House Masters office was on the top floor of the fortress – the 8th floor. Jhase knocked on the door and opened it after he heard a muffled, “Enter.”
House Master Silas Kade stood near the window, overlooking the bustling courtyard as the children of varying ages and races were brought in through the main gate. The window was nearly as large as the wall and offered a strategic viewing point of almost the entire grounds. Rarely did anything slip by his watchful and experienced eyes. Nothing slipped past his sharp hearing and his even sharper discipline. He and Spirit Master Delaney commanded a tight fort here.
“Ah. Master Jhase!” Silas greeted him, turning his dark green eyes away from the window, “How is Gathering Day treating you?”
“Fine, sir,” just because Silas was his father didn’t mean that Jhase could forgo any of the etiquette drilled into him since practically infancy. Even Jhase’s siblings – Silas and Xandria’s biological children – were subject to the same expectations, “Everything seems to be going smoothly.”
Silas nodded, “Excellent. Now, Jhase…,” the House Master moved over to his large desk, “This arrived this morning by hawk messenger,” he handed a letter to Jhase.
Jhase took it and scanned the front, “From Lyr City?” he asked, brows furrowed. He flipped the letter over and opened it. His eyes tracked back and forth, reading and widening at every word, “From Her Majesty herself?”
“An honor,” Silas told him, “Her Majesty has invited a Master Hunter to teach a brief monster identification and hunting course.”
Jhase gaped slightly, then shut his mouth and processed, “Surely…” he hedged, “Surely there is another Master Hunter more qualified? Her Majesty is going to expect the highest quality. Surely Master Lexi or Master Avery have more experience…”
“I’d like you to go,” Silas said, “Unless, of course, you don’t want to…”
“That’s not…” Jhase recovered himself, “I’d be honored, sir.”
“The Castle will be honored to have you. You are a fine Hunter, Jhase, and I believe this will make a most excellent first Master Hunter contract for you,” Silas shuffled some papers on his desk and handed Jhase another sealed letter, “A letter of your introduction for her Majesty. Please give it to her with my regards.”
The young Master Hunter tucked the letter into his pocket, “When should I leave?”
“Tomorrow morning. You can take a horse to Lorwynne and catch a train there.” Silas shrugged, “In any which case, pack accordingly. The weather is colder up north,” the Master chuckled, “Listen to me, I sound like my wife! You’ll have fun. The Capital… it’s something else. Nothing like you’ve ever seen before…”
He held out his left forearm for Jhase. Jhase clasped it in a show of respect, then Silas dismissed him.
The next morning dawned cool and crisp, with a light fog clinging to the fortress walls and creeping down the mountain cliffs. Within the stone walls was silence; not many were up this early. Many of the students were still snug in their beds, sleeping off the excitement of another invigorating Gathering Day. Only those with kitchen chores and some out for a morning run were awake. And maybe some new Whites, too excited to sleep.
Among those awake was Jhase, putting the final touches on his packing. He’d always been told to pack light and that’s exactly what he did – one saddlebag with his personal belonging and one with his Hunter gear, both easily maneuverable. He was dressed comfortably but practically for the long ride on horseback today; black cotton pants with reinforced leather outside the thighs and at the knees, sturdy leather boots with metal toes and an extra knife in the top of the boot. Dark cotton shirt under a thick leather jacket reinforced with fine steel weaving in the chest and back. Not heavy enough to be chain mail, but strong enough to deter a wayward slash from claws or teeth. He had on his soft leather Hunter’s gloves – they made great riding gloves – and the last thing he put on were his two Hunter’s swords. Finely crafted by some of the best smiths in the country and magically infused by House Master himself, one was silver for fighting monsters and the other was steel, for anything or anyone else that decided to bother him. Jhase strapped them across his back, grabbed his two bags, and headed for the stables.
Tul was a fine horse, good and strong to make the journey to Lorwynne in a day. He was laid back and calm, which was helpful if the way was riddled with monsters. Jhase settled the bags on the stallion’s hide and set about tightening the saddle, checking hooves, feeding and watering. The monotony of the task helped distract him. He could feel the tendrils of excitement curling and swirling in his stomach.
His first Master Hunter Contract. He’d had other Contracts before, had accompanied some of the Masters on their Contracts as a Red and Black, and he’d even gone on a few local ones by himself as a Black. But it was a different feeling altogether, to set out by himself as a Master in his own right. He couldn’t explain it; a cocktail of nerves and excitement mixed with a pinch of slight self-righteousness that he tried to squelch. It was a Hunter’s bane to be arrogant.
He was filling the water bucket for Tul when he felt it. That whisper, like a breeze tickling the back of his neck. All the short hairs on his head stood up straight and he whirled around, his champagne eyes darting back and forth, surveying. It felt as though someone had called to him, tried to capture his attention. But there was nothing. Always nothing. Just he and and horses.
Jhase took a deep breath and guided Tul over to the water bucket. He took off his glove and rubbed his face and eyes, ran his hand over his buzzed head. Then he reached out and patted the stallion’s neck.
“Just us,” he whispered to the horse, “Don’t worry. Didn’t mean to startle you, big guy. Just us here.”
Tul’s ears turned back, listening to Jhase’s voice, and naturally, the horse looked anything but startled. He even stopped drinking long enough to give Jhase a look with his dark eyes, as if to say ‘you’re the one freaking out, man, hearing things that aren’t there.’
“Ya, ya,” Jhase replied, “Just drink your water, don’t look at me in that tone of voice.”
He centered himself with a deep breath and pulled his glove back over his hand. His sharp hearing picked up the sound of voices in the cool morning and he guided Tul out of the stable to see a group of Blues out for a morning run. They were counting to keep in rhythm.
“Hold up!” a young woman led them and called out the command. The group stopped and like a unit, they all put their hands on top of the heads, taking in deep breaths.
The woman pulled off her knit cap and shook out her dark hair, a single strip of bright white behind her right ear, “Don’t tell me,” Ember called out to Jhase, “A Contract?”
He smirked, “My first Master Contract.”
“Damn right!” she laughed, then turned to her group of students, “Excuse me, Blues, but you are in the presence of a Master Hunter! Show some respect, please.”
“Master Hunter, sir!” they said in unison, bowing to him. He inclined his head back at them in return.
“Go stretch for a moment. Keep your muscles warm,” she told them, waving them off.
“Yes, ma’am!” they shouted and scattered a bit to stretch.
She crossed her arms under her chest, “Tell me you’re excited,” she smiled, neon green eyes alight.
Jhase shrugged, “A little, I guess.”
“Liar,” she laughed, “How can you not be excited? I’m excited for you! First Master Contract. Where’re you going?”
A sly smirk slide across his features, adding some softness to the normally serious and stoic facade he carried, “Lyr City.”
She gasped, “You got the instructor Contract? At the castle?”
“Cerys,” she confirmed. Cerys was predatory to her bones, no matter what form she took. Anything that went on in the House, she knew about it.
Jhase nodded, unsurprised by this knowledge. Cerys knew everything.
“When will you be back?” Ember continued, deftly braiding all her dark locks with and exception of her Goddess Kiss, which she left tucked behind her ear.
“Not sure,” he swung himself up into Tul’s saddle, “Could be a couple of weeks. The Contract details didn’t say.”
“Well,” she tossed the braid over her shoulder and covered her head with her knit cap once more, “Good luck to you, Master Jhase. Try to have a bit of fun, won’t you? I’ve heard the Capital is crazy.”
“People seem to think I don’t like to have fun or something,” Jhase frowned, but his eyes were teasing.
“You’re boring and serious,” Ember stated, “And scary. That makes you no fun. And it makes you a damn good Hunter,” she reached up to him with her left arm, “Safe travels, Master Hunter.”
He grasped her forearm, his hand covering the thin ropes that determined her rank. She had all twelve of them, “Thank you.”
“Say good-bye to the Master Hunter,” Ember shouted at her group of Blues.
“Good-bye, Master Hunter!” they called.
Jhase spent the night in an inn in Lorwynne and caught an early train the next morning to Central City. It wasn’t until he was transferring trains to one that would take him into the Capital Lyr City that excitement started to lick the inside of his stomach.
His first Master Contract. His first visit to the Capital. He’d admit that he wasn’t very worldly traveled – his whole life resolved around the House and the life of a Hunter. He ate, slept, breathed his training. There hadn’t been time to travel, outside of a few local Contracts around the T’jr Province and Lights Haven Province, where House Tiger resided along the border.
He showed his ticket to the uniformed man standing at the compartment door and it hit him. This was where it began. His life as a Hunter. Traveling the length and breadth of the country, fulfilling Contracts, serving the community, ridding the world of monsters.
Many Hunters pursued life in the Royal Guard or the military after graduating and becoming a Master Hunter. He couldn’t rule out the possibility of that.
Then again, he didn’t exactly suffer from wanderlust either. He loved the House, he loved teaching and training. Truthfully, he used to dream of becoming the House Master, but as he wasn’t a biological child of Silas and Xandria, he wasn’t sure if that was a possibility or not. And he didn’t dare ask.
Jhase chose a seat on the train carefully; in the back, near an exit, where he could see everyone and all the entrances and exits to the compartment. Mid-day travel was calmer than the mornings or the evenings, so the compartment didn’t have many people. An older Jayanti couple, distinguishable by their bright clothing and dark skin. A chattering group of young people – possibly University students. A Lyrian Pair two seats away. Jhase couldn’t tell exactly, but they looked like some class of Animal Pair, maybe a reptile of some kind. The Spirit clearly had some scale-like markings on his face and very bright eyes.
The Hunter rubbed the back of his neck again, not sure if he was feeling a new itch or simply the residual of that whisper he’d had in the stables yesterday morning. He’d been raised around Spirits and Anchors all his life. Silas and Delaney were an Earth Pair, Xandria and Quinn a Lynx Pair. Ember and Cerys were a Panther Pair. Legend told that the Goddess Lyria of Light had been given the gift of life by her parents and because she was lonely, she used one piece of her heart, two pieces of her hair, and three drops of blood and she created the first Spirit, a piece of her own self. And when her parents had granted her permission to create a race of people, she created the Lyrians, a race of people separated into Pairs, two halves of the same whole, the body and the soul separated into the Anchor and the Spirit. Neither could survive without the other, for the Anchor kept the Spirit grounded to this world and the Spirit breathed life and character into the Anchor. It was Divine Law that neither could survive without the other. They were one and the same, existing in two separate forms.
Yet, here he was. Pure Lyrian, by definition, but Spiritless.
The circumstances of his birth or his heritage were all too strange for him. Hence why he shaved his platinum hair close to his skull and never really talked about it. It was easier than trying to explain himself, than seeing the subtle disgust in people’s face when he told them he was Spiritless, but Lyrian. He’d dealt with that subtle harassment his whole life. That’s why he was the best Hunter in his class, bar none. To prove to anyone who doubted him that his heritage wasn’t a determining factor in how badly he could kick their ass.
Maybe he simply didn’t have a Spirit. Maybe, like every other race of people, his Spirit was inside him, with no form of its own. Yet, those distinct times where he felt something, like a whisper or an itch, often enough to not be crazy, but not enough to go on…
Once more he glanced at the Spirit Pair nearby, pouring over a book together. He preferred to be alone, anyway. He’d been hacking it by himself for his whole life.
It was a few hours before he could see the Capital through his window. It rose out of the horizon, the Cliffs of Lyr at its back, the Castle balanced precariously at the edge, overlooking the city like a large white mother dragon observing her treasures. Tendrils of excitement raced through his bloodstream. It was still another hour before the conductor announced that they would be pulling into the station shortly. The city just went on and on, larger than anything Jhase could’ve ever imagined. To think, this is where the country originated, where the Goddess had resided and created her land and led her people from this very city. From that very castle.
Jhase lost his view as the train pulled into a tunnel that would take them into the station. Soon, the locomotive had come to a stop and the doors opened. He shrugged his two meager bags over his shoulders and disembarked. Immediately, his blood pressure skyrocketed as he was hustled by a crowd of people, everyone trying to leave the station at the same time. After a few seconds though, the crowd around him began to recognize who and what he was, their eyes on his two swords and sweeping over his outfit. They began to back off, trying to give him some space. It was relieving.
He found himself quite quickly outside. His first-hand look at the city. Buildings after buildings, cars, people, everyone bustling and hustling, everyone with somewhere to go.
He had no idea where he was in relation to, well, anything. He pulled his Contract paperwork out of his inside pocket. He was supposed to report to the Spirits Inn in the North District and take a car from there. A car? He didn’t know the first thing about cars, except that they were metal contraptions that people got around in. He’d never actually been inside one before.
“Excuse me, Master Hunter.”
Jhase turned. A young man addressed him. Jhase recognized him immediately as a member of the Order of the Goddess, because of the flag pinned to his lapel. There was a white border around the flag and like the Hunter Ranks, in the Order, white symbolized a beginner. An Orderly.
“You look lost, Master Hunter,” the Orderly continued, “Might I offer you some assistance?”
“Ya, that’d be great,” Jhase replied. He showed the Orderly his paper, “I’m supposed to report to the Spirits Inn…”
“Ah, of course!” the young man said, “Yes, it’s a common place for Hunters like yourself to meet. The matron is a Hunter from House Fox, I believe. You can just take a car there if you’d like…”
Jhase must’ve made some kind of expression at the idea, because the Orderly quickly added, “… or you can head down this street here, take a left on B street and keep on going until you hit 24th street. Spirits Inn is down towards the end. You can’t miss it. It’s about a half hour walk.”
“Thank you,” Jhase said.
“Happy to help, Master Hunter, and Goddess Bless.”
He headed down the street. In the big cities, the Order of the Goddess was more prevalent. It was in the big cities that there were the big temples, each one headed by an Elder. Like the Hunters, the Order had a structure too, not that he was terribly familiar with the details other than what basics he learned through his academics. Many of the people of Lyr – himself included – believed and worshipped the Goddess and followed the legends and her ancient decrees. But the Order pledged their lives in service of the Goddess and served in her stead. Stories said that the Order was founded on the premise that they would be the ones to protect the mythical Book of Truth that the Goddess had left behind for the land, but it was Divine Law that the protection of the Book was to be left to the Royal Family only.
If the Book existed, that is.
Being kind of secluded in the House, he didn’t exactly see any members of the Order very often. He remembered when his siblings, Nolita and Houston were born, someone from the Order came to bless their births. Order Code was complex, not unlike Hunter Code.
His head was on a swivel as he moved through the streets. The city was overwhelming; people everywhere. Lyrians – Spirits and Anchors, Jayanti with their dark hair and eyes, and bright colors, Calliopians, Sunnivians from the north with their light complexions, and of course, all kinds of combinations of races. Cars barreling down the streets, people shopping, yelling. At the moment, the city seemed too much for him, too busy. He was too much of an introvert to thrive on the energy of the city.
He passed by restaurants and cafes, clothing stores and herb shops. Tourist stands, selling all kinds of Lyrian trinkets, from little statues of the Goddess, and ceramic mugs with “I Heart Lyr” to ‘replica’ pages of the coveted and mythical Book of Truth. Jhase paused and admired the neat script and rune circles, the heavy thickness of the parchment. Stories told that the Book was a gift left to the land by the King and Queen of Order, the Goddess’s parents. Pleased with her work in creating the Lyrians and establishing life and peace, they left the Book of Truth, the supreme knowledge of the world. To read it was to possess all the magic and knowledge of the world. It was ingrained in Lyrian history; the Book was, after all, thought to be the catalyst for the Great War of Evil.
“Interested inna Truth Page, Hunter sir? Good price, they is.”
He glanced up at the mousey little man selling the trinkets, “No, thanks.”
Jhase spotted the Spirits Inn right away. The Orderly was right; it was easy to spot. It was a large stone building that had the distinct style and feel of a Hunter House. He glanced up and down the street, wary of cars, and jogged across and headed inside. What greeted him was a foyer, not a desk or a bar like most inns or taverns or even fancy hotels had. Nope, this had a foyer, very much like the House. A few tables and chairs, a signboard covered in Contracts, a set of stairs in front of him and doors to rooms.
“Welcome, Hunter,” Jhase turned. An older woman came out from one of the adjacent rooms. She was dressed casually, but still very characteristic of a Hunter, with the leather-lined breeches, heavy leather boots and a dark cotton shirt. Her dark, gray-streaked hair was pulled back in a functional ponytail. The sound that escalated briefly whilst the door was open reminded him of the dining hall. Perhaps that’s where the kitchen was.
“Hello,” Jhase replied. He held out his left arm and she grasped it with her left hand.
“Ah,” she released him and tugged up his left sleeve, “A Master Hunter. House Tiger,” she lifted her own left sleeve, “Anne Crossley, Master of House Fox.”
“Jhase Kade, Master of House Tiger.”
“Kade!” she exclaimed, “Relation to Silas and Delaney Kade?”
“Wonderful!” Anne nodded, “Welcome, Master Jhase, welcome. Here, let’s get you a room and everything all squared away. You on Contract or looking for one?”
“On a Contract, up at the Castle,” he followed her as she led him through a door and into a somewhat disorderly office.
“A Castle Contract? Lucky ducky,” she rummaged in a drawer and grabbed a key and handed it to him, “Here ya go. How long you staying?”
“I think just tonight.”
“Okay,” she wrote something down on a piece of paper, “Great, great. I assume it’s just you?”
“Perfect. There’s only one key per room anyways!” she chuckled, “Alright, Master Hunter, up the stairs, to the left, third door on the right. Listen for the meal bell, dining hall to the left of the entrance hall, clean up after yourself… you know the drill.”
They left the office and paused in the foyer, “You’ll need a car to take you up to the castle…” Anne said, “I’ll send a messenger to schedule one for you. When do you wanna head up there?”
“Tomorrow morning? Would that be alright?” Jhase asked.
Anne waved, “Sure thing. Tomorrow morning, after breakfast. Don’t be late.”
She nodded, “Come and go as you please. If you find yourself needing to stay more nights, just ask. We always have beds for Hunters here,” she extended her left arm to him once more and they shook. Then she headed back through the door in which she had originally come through, the sound rising and falling with the door opening and closing.
Check out some maps of the country of Lyr here.