The Headhunter - Part 1: The Contract

Part 1: The Contract

The Kafner countryside had started to subtly change in appearance. Its green and luscious fields were yellowing, signaling his journey was nearly at an end. The grass of the valley ahead flowed unnaturally into a dying, dry pale brown. The magic in the air of the Occultech Mages guild made Haz uneasy, if it was doing this to the plant life, who knows what it's doing to those who find themselves in the vicinity of the guild. It was a stark reminder of Inverzia and the consequences of Mages dabbling in power beyond their control that caused an entire empire to implode.

Haz’s distrust of mages ran deep but he’d accepted that spending his days performing heists, and capturing beasts had become much more challenging while dodging the other head hunter's trying to claim his considerable bounty. These contracts were much easier even if he did miss the thrill at times.

As he came to the top of the hill he'd been trekking up, he spotted the now, unfortunately, all too familiar sight of the Occultech Mages Guild. It, was a large spire of white stone gleaming even in the hazy light, and taller than anything for miles around, that is when you were inside the veil the mages had erected to keep intruders from finding it, if he didn’t have his guild coin, he’d have to spend a few weeks tracking it down.

The spire was topped with a blue dome etched with a gold scaled pattern, that pointed toward the sky as if to reach out and grab it, at the base of the spire was a smooth ringed wall made of the same white stone as the spire with no visible doors.

The mages had many ways to influence the world that Haz disliked about them, but he could at least appreciate the need for a way to tell people to get lost; he'd prefer a sign to the magical alternative.

The entrance was visible only if one of two conditions were met: you had an invitation to the guild, or a guild coin like Haz’s, which are forged by a metalsmith who also practices magic, they were gold with a drop of your blood held inside of a glass bead in it’s center, they were popular with guilds that only appreciated select members.

He approached the wall and held the coin against it at arm's length in front of him before saying a short passphrase, an uneasy amount of time passed before a gap appeared in the wall just large enough for him to fit snugly through.

Inside the wall was a small town much bigger than the area outside would indicate but still only big enough for a dozen or so buildings, which were all the same white stone with some having lavishly painted roofs to indicate they were stores or services.

The ground was made of smooth flagstone chiseled with blue pathways that twisted like the coils of an octopus every which way leading to a store or library which had various small groups of people, mages, scholars, merchants and craftsmen of various races littered the paths and grassy patches that dotted the sides of the road, never more than a handful of people were outside at the same time, another reason Haz at least tolerated the place.

He headed towards the contracts house, a small building which had a silver colored roof located at the base of the spire. It served as a place for mages, guild members and merchants to post contracts and the clerks would then order them by difficulty on the notice boards. These contracts could be anything from gathering herbs to testing new magical equipment. Haz was more keen to take the ones that involved hunting down animals for reagents as he had been a Hunter for the majority of his life, the silver he was paid wasn’t as good as the old contracts he used to take, but becoming one of the most wanted men in Divadlo meant he could no longer visit the old guilds he used to frequent.

The inside was dimly lit from a few floating candles scattered in the air, very few other furnishings decorated the room of which the clerk stood at the counter toward the back as most of the walls were taken up by contract boards, difficulty was arranged top to bottom with the most difficult contracts at the top of the board, some of which stayed on the boards for multiple seasons, the clerk was a lithe bald man who had blue markings around his eyes by the name of Brindlos, Haz tossed a large pack onto the counter and placed a bundle of small papers next to it with a deliberate thud. "Got a few contracts to close, Brindlos"

Brindlos glanced from the pack to the stack of papers and back to Haz, "you are always one of our best contractors Haz, how were they this time?" He said in an almost whimsical tone, "not too difficult I hope?"

"Easy, as always but I'd rather have it easy than be dead" Haz replied with a gruff voice weary from having to travel so far and masque his distrust for these people to survive, without these out of the way type of guilds he'd probably be a fat sack of coins in someone's purse by now; not that he didn’t deserve it but he had something to do before turning himself over to a lucky rookie.

Brindlos checked the last of the papers and disappeared through the wall behind him. Haz was slouched against the counter sharpening his favorite knife as the clerk returned with a pouch of coins and with a mirthless smile he placed it onto the counter, "there is one more reward the guild would like to bestow on you, for being an exemplary contractor." The clerk's eyes rested on Haz, and then moved to the door as it opened softly, a figure wearing a white mage's robe threaded with blue accents entered the building which cast a new shadow crowned with cat-like ears into the room.

"What kind of reward..?" Haz replied, taking the coin purse while keeping his knife in his hand, relaxed but ready should they have finally decided to sell him out, he stepped back to keep an eye on the both of them.

"No need for hostilities, this is Magus Selana Travi” motioning with his hands to sheathe his knife “she has a special contract for you to undertake" she stepped towards Haz, she had long hair coloured vibrant hues of blue that framed a pale face inset with emerald eyes that lacked pupils, cat-like ears facing forwards.

"Greetings Haz Darwiiz, I've heard of your accomplishments past and present, the contract I offer you is perilous but I'm sure a man of your caliber should be up for the task, considering the rewards." she said as she produced a white scroll from her robe sealed with dark blue wax stamped with the sigil of this Mages Guild, she offered it to Haz.

Sheathing his knife took the scroll carefully while looking Selana in the eyes, an old custom from Hinca to show your client they had your attention, he noticed her eyes flowed from one shade of green to another, perhaps this was a spell that gave her sight in other ways.

Haz opened the scroll, it read.

"High Arcanist Jalin Traun humbly requests Hunter Haz Darwiiz to track down the monstrous entity colloquially known as The Relentless One, it has been a plague anywhere it travels, attacking anyone and anything in sight, leaving behind a corruption that twists any beings it infects into bloodthirsty abominations.

You must obtain a sample of said corruption, as well as The Relentless One's blood to complete the contract, no time frame is required provided you give valuable and consistent updates on your status.

Along with ample monetary reward, you will have your previous considerable bounty cleared from all regions of Divadlo."

Haz rolled the scroll back up and looked at Brindlos and then Selana. Scratching his beard for a moment before speaking in a half-interested tone. 

"A perilous undertaking you say, The Relentless One has been running amok for months without anyone so much as getting close to stopping him, I won’t lie, a cleared bounty is very tempting, but what makes you think I’d be able to actually accomplish this feat?"

Selana bowed her head slightly "You are being offered this contract because your reputation tells us that you can handle it given the right circumstances and tools, which you will be able to keep even after a successful completion as an additional reward.” she then waved a hand and muttered an incantation which made Haz's hair stand on end with static.

From a flickering arcane circle that washed an indigo light over the room came forth a long black wooden case etched blue runes, which Selana gently lowered onto the counter before gesturing to Haz to open it to which he replied “why should I trust this thing won’t somehow blow up in my face when I finally complete the contract, only for you to collect my bounty yourselves?”

“If we wanted you to perish Haz, we would’ve informed the Assassins Guilds of your whereabouts already, but that would require us to spend far more, find another capable and trustworthy contractor all within a timely manner. Far more convenient to keep you in our good graces” Selana said with a flicker of her cat-like ears.

Haz hesitated for a moment, and thought about finally having his bounty cleared, as well as finding some clues that he wanted regarding the Relentless One himself was too good to pass up. As he undid the clasps, Selana spoke with an official voice

"We the Mages Guild Cantergilom by request of High Arcanist Jalin Traun, bequeath unto you one of our crowning achievements of Occultech. The Barrelcaster"

Inside the box was a long rifle, with a bulky magazine and blue runes etched along its brown wooden stock, several small canisters of different colors were arranged around it like jewels. "This weapon, when handled correctly, will be able to absorb ambient magic over time and convert it into the different elements with the catalyst canisters." Selana explained.

Haz reached into the box and lifted the weapon, it was as light as his old bow, which broke last contract in a particularly desperate struggle to trap a bear in which he unfortunately had to use it to strangle the beast.

Selana continued "I'm sure you'll be able to figure out how best to operate the weapon, but should you require maintenance or additional canisters, you can take it to our contacts in the main cities, look for the symbols on the side of the Barrelcaster'' She paused to look at Haz and the weapon. “Do you accept the contract?”

Haz inspected the weapon more and found nothing odd on the weapon aside from the signature runes of Occultech, the tech used in this weapon was different to the normal kind, usually it was used for things like self heating bathtubs, or ovens, and while it unnerved him to think of the direction this application could go, he had to admit it was a good way to improve his success rate for completing the contract given his target. “I accept, '' he finally said.

Selana smiled "We wish you well, Haz. I'm told the Relentless One was last seen near the Quagsalar region in the west, I suggest you start there, may the magic flow and guide you" she said as she bowed and left the building.

Haz strapped the weapon and stowed each canister in the bandolier included in the box, it felt good to have a decent and powerful weapon again other than his trusty broad knife.

Haz turned to Brindlos and asked, in a tired voice “it's quite a long journey from here, and seeing as its nearly dusk, I’ll be needing a room I suppose." 

Brindlos reached under the counter and presented a small bronze key “enjoy your stay, free of charge” as he smiled briefly and went back to organizing his various new contracts into small piles.

Haz thought to himself that a comfy bed and a decent meal would help him get ready for the long journey, he also still stunk of bear and sweat and most rooms had a bath.

The orange roof of the inn was visible as he left the contract house, as he made his way he noticed a few of the residents look his way and admire or gawk at the weapon on his back, probably a good idea to wear a cloak.

The inn was a large building named The Bookend, an inside joke for the mages he supposed, as he entered the building the sound of clinking plates and idle chatter filled his ears as much as the smell of freshly baked bread and ale filled his nose. 

Inside the inn was decorated dark brown with wood panels, silver chandeliers affixed with many candles hung from the ceilings and cast a warm light about the large room. It was filled with round tables with various chairs, with a roaring fireplace dominating the space at the back of the room, above which was a coat of arms belonging to the mages guild.

The innkeeper was a portly man with a brown beard that stood at a stone counter that was littered with all kinds of glasses and plates “Evening contractor, I take it you’ve decided not to camp out tonight then?” he said to Haz in a half joking tone.

“Not tonight, thought a good soak and some fresh ale would be a better option” Haz replied with a slight smirk, he liked the innkeeper as he was one of the few folk who didn’t scheme or plot inside the guild, but to anyone besides Brindlos he was known simply as a contractor, better for everyone that way.

“Haytte!” Yelled the Innkeeper “get this fella some ale and a nice bowl of stew will you” a young girl with brown hair nodded agreement before scampering off to the kitchens. Haz found an empty table near the back of the building and sat facing the open room, people quietly looked up from their books or meals to check Haz over before trying to be as subtle as they could about acting like they didn’t notice the bulky rifle stowed over his shoulder.

“One of our finest ales, and a hot bowl of stew as requested” Haytte said in a hurried voice to Haz as she placed them down in front of him, Haz gave a few words of thanks and the waitress had only just begun to bring out some more food to another patron before he had devoured his food and drained his mug of ale. 

Leaving a coin on the table as he got up and gesturing to the waitress, Haz started to make his way up the stone steps to the third floor and toward his room which was plainly decorated with a few chairs, a desk, a metal bathtub and a bed just long enough for Haz to stretch if he rested his feet over the end of it, he carefully placed the barrelcaster and his pack down on the desk before undressing and walking over to the bathtub which had a blue and a red crystal which would allow for cold and hot water respectively.

He began to fiddle with the controls and somehow managed to get an almost too hot bath running, he gently lowered himself into the water and allowed his muscles to relax for a moment before beginning to drift off and before he knew it, sleep was upon him.

The burbling sound of the river soothed Haz, since he'd ‘retired’ from bounty hunting after becoming quite notorious, he found he enjoyed the slower things of life and would always come to fish and gather fresh water for his family, the air was brisk and the fish fat on bountiful weeds and insects, although this was just a tributary of the great river Ybtia it still carried the same vigor.

Sat on a smooth rock he cast his wooden fishing rod into the river and waited, thinking about how his daughter would cook whatever fish he caught and how he’d skin and butcher whatever kind of animal his wife caught on the steppes with her hawk.

He began dozing off while waiting for his rod to twitch, he would never be caught half asleep on a river before during his hectic years of fleeing and hunting bounty hunters like a game of cat and mouse with fluid roles, how lax he'd become in these early twilight years of his.

A familiar scream broke him from his reverie, piercing his ears, it was then he noticed and smelt smoke, he whipped around and looked for the source, it was coming from the hut, his heart sank. He dropped the rod and unslung his shortbow and readied a few arrows against the handle, hoping it was just his daughter accidentally leaving the fire unattended, but his mind raced to thoughts of his past finally catching up to him.

As he approached the hut, swift and quiet he could see this wasn't any normal fire, it was blood red and trying to lash out at him like a snake, he couldn't hear or see his family anywhere , walking through the hut and out the back is when his stomach dropped to the sole of his boots.

There stood a cloaked, hunched, cackling creature with the same blood red fire snaking around its arms as it stared transfixed on what looked like a pyre, embers crying into the air.

Before it could notice him and react Haz had his bow drawn and he loosed the three arrows he held one after another into the creature, arm, knee, collar each arrow soared heavy and true knocking it to the floor as it began to cast a spell to call forth more fire but Haz fired a few more arrows into his foe straight through the mouth and out the back staking it into the ground.

He looked at the creature and saw it was human, but its face was twisted, its mouth was seared open, and seething flames snaked up toward, around and into its eyes turning them into crimson glass orbs. Haz dropped his bow to the ground and peering into the flames, he saw a small hand wrapped around a burnt knife…

Haz shook awake in his now cold bath, new aches in his muscles and old ones in his heart told him now was the time to get up, after he dried and dressed, he took a long look at his knife, her knife, and vowed to find the Relentless One, and maybe finally some answers with it, the same red flames that uprooted his peace were often seen where it wandered.

After gathering his things and donning a makeshift cloak out of his sleeping blanket from his pack to hide his new rifle while in town, he went downstairs to return the room key and enjoyed a hearty breakfast of sausage, bread and cheese. 

Haz visited a few stores around the guild, to purchase rations and other supplies to last him until he reached the port town of Brima in the northeast, from there he could charter passage on a ship bound for Grifton in Quagsalar. He’d be sailing across the blank sea from the eastern side of the continent of Rom, to the western side of Anze on the opposite side of the world, the quickest way but certainly not the safest. 

He left the guild by holding his coin up to the wall and having it open just enough for him to leave, and began walking north east towards Brima.

Written By Luke Hauser