"On the surface, the huntsman’s guild is the home of lost and abandoned souls who seek to find a family and become heroes. However, it’s impossible to refute that most of the guild’s success stems from a single type of recruit: the rejected who doesn’t mind dying."
Excerpt from ‘History of the Huntsman’s Guild.’
After learning all she could from the underground archives, Esther stumbled up the stairs in a daze. Tirakneas were synonymous with blood and death in every myth and legend they appeared in. But blood could also symbolise life and death also symbolised change. Which meaning would the tiraknea take in Esther’s foretelling of Edyta’s future? Blood and death? Or life and change?
Neither interpretation made any sense. It burned Esther with frustration, so she decided to cool off in the typical huntsman way: drinking.
Her usual crowd was absent from the Drunken Huntsman, so Esther assessed the few day drinkers for potential drinking buddies. A lone woman sat at the bar while three small groups sat amongst the booths and tables. The groups were poor options, so Esther headed towards the woman at the bar.
Atta was her name, and she had a lop of blonde hair that she wore in a braid on the top of her head with the sides shorn off. Her arms were thick and covered in hard-won scars and scratches. She was almost as tall as Esvian. Unlike Esvian, she was the type of person with whom laughter came easily.
Esther all but collapsed onto the stool beside her. “Atta. It’s been a while.”
Atta grinned and jumped to her feet in excitement. “Esther, you scallywag!” Atta wrapped her into a tight hug, pulling Esther’s face against her chest. “Skys above, it’s nice to see a friendly face.”
Breathless from the intensity of her embrace, Esther patted one arm that encircled her head. “Likewise, although I don’t think I actually can see you. You’ve put your hand over my eyes.” Atta released her with a breathy laugh. “Where have you been, you elusive harvel? I haven’t seen you in weeks. I missed you.” She’d missed female company who wasn’t Edyta or Kessi.
“Your purse definitely didn’t,” Atta barked, laughing and pummelling the bar top with the side of her fist. “Ah, but we’ll have to drink and catch up later. But alas, Hurley broke his damn rib last week and had to rotate out of guard duty. They sent me to guard his deadlander farm in his place, alongside Onder of all scathing people.” She pretended to gag. Esther had worked with Onder several times when she was still a journeyman. Atta's assessment of his skill and character was accurate. “I can’t believe I missed the announcement for the trials, nor the piss up afterwards! Word ‘round here is it was a rager to end all ragers. Do the rumours tell it true?”
Esther pursed her lips and tried not to scowl. “It depends on who you ask,” she settled on. “Edyta’s back, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of her.” Atta shook her head. “Eh, it’s for the best. Stay away from her, is all I can say. She brought an open bar, and while it was nice getting sloshed on her money, I don’t think she had good intentions. I woke up the next day and found her trying to poach on my territory.”
“Pah, what a squick.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
Atta flagged down Jorin and brought her a flagon of ale. When Atta tried to pay, he handed the coins back.
“Tis on the house,” he said. “Consider it a homecoming gift. Missed seeing ya face ‘round here.”
Atta playfully furrowed her eyebrows. “Some homecoming gift, considering it’s not even for me!” She laughed again. “Eh, thanks anyway, Jorin. Good to know you’ve always got my back.”
“Anytime, Atta,” he said, giving her a warm smile. “Any time.”
Atta pushed the flagon towards Esther. “ ‘ere, get that down your gullet. There’s no reason to be so glum when we could celebrate hosting the trials!” She said it while jittering in her seat. “It’s incredible, ain’t it?”
Esther took a long draught from her flagon. “Isn’t it just?” It came out flatter than she’d intended. “Are you planning on entering?”
Atta covered her mouth to hide the gigantic smile that spread across her face as uncontrolled as wildfire. “There’s no ‘planning’ about it,” she said. “I’ve already got a sponsor.”
Esther’s eyebrows rose. “You work fast,” she said. Seniors typically held out on sponsoring someone until the last minute, either to milk the attention and favours such a power brought, or to ensure they picked someone with a high chance of winning. There was much bragging to be found if they sponsored a grand champion.
“Hardly.” She raised her flagon at Jorin, who’d moved down the bar to attend to a rowdy white-haired man. “Last year, Jorin promised me that no matter who petitions him, he’s going to sponsor me.”
It didn’t surprise Esther. Despite their age gap, Atta and Jorin had been close since she’d met them. A lot of huntsmen didn’t join their line of work voluntarily, which often meant people came to them with no family. Jorin and Atta’s father-daughter relationship wasn’t a rare occurrence.
“That’s fantastic news, Atta. I know it doesn’t guarantee you’ll get chosen, but it must feel good to know you’re definitely in the running.”
Atta tapped her flagon against the table a few times. “Here, here. I’ve always been able to count on Jorin. Now I have to pin my hopes on Lord Nazari falling for my charms and choosing me.” Esther’s fingers curled at the mention of Lord Nazari’s name.
The rowdy patron Jorin had been serving overheard her and sauntered over. Esther’s spirits fell when she realised it was Onder. While his thin nose, monolid icy grey eyes, delicate jaw, and pure white hair made him look like a snow prince, the boy was anything but. Esther wasn’t the only one of the opinion that Onder was a colossal pain in the ass.
“So that’s the future of this guildhall, eh? Our ‘best’ huntsmen are to be determined through favouritism.” He ran his thin fingers through his hair. Although it stood up at all angles, Onder somehow pulled it off.
“Trap it shut,” Esther barked. The other patrons looked over at the sound of her raised voice. She was at her wits’ end after hearing Edyta’s hymn, and it felt good to release some of the tension. “Atta is twice the hunter you are, and everyone here knows it. Calm down and leave us in peace.”
Onder’s lip twitched and then twisted into an animalistic snarl. “I’ll have you know that Reeve once told me I was an excellent huntsman!”
Esther did nothing to suppress the bout of laughter that rose from the depth of her stomach. “So it's Reeve’s approval that makes people good huntsmen? Isn’t that another form of favouritism?”
Onder’s jaw dropped open in disbelief. “Have you been living under a rock? Of course his approval matters! He’s the single best huntsman here. He runs the hunts in the Dark Woods, for Dealth’s sake. His judgement means everything to me.”
Esther sighed and rubbed her forehead. She was used to the way a few of the less experienced huntsmen worshipped Reeve as an idol. In terms of skill, he was on equal footing with the senior huntsmen. But unlike them, his lack of rank made him approachable. He was an easy target for reverence, but that didn’t mean Esther liked it.
“His judgement must have been impaired that day,” Esther said. “Can I ask: Was he drunk when he said it? I bet he was drunk.”
Atta chuckled darkly. “He was. I was there. Reeve only said it to shut you up.”
Onde’s hands curled into fists. “You’re both so disrespectful, undeserving of the respect people throw at you. For example, Esther, didn’t I hear that the other day that you couldn’t even kill a felklein? That Edyta killed it for you, yet you and Esvian cashed in the kill even though it wasn’t yours to cash in? You two will do well to learn not to disrespect your betters.”
Esther fought very hard to keep her voice level. “And who might that be?”
“Why, me, of course! I’ve been here longer than both of you. I have much more experience. It’s only a matter of time before people like Syr Yarvier and Reeve notice it. My good friend Edyta certainly has.”
Even though Esther burned inside, she laughed harshly. “So that’s why I’m a Junior Huntsman, while you’re still a journeyman? Edyta too, incidentally. It’s almost like you two are blinded by confirmation bias. Tell me, when Reeve’s finished with her, do you two get into bed and fall asleep while telling each other how great you are?”
The huntsmen listening to their conversation laughed at him, louder than they had at Esther. She basked in the change of mood, happier than she expected to end up back on top.
Onder cheeks flushed with pink and his eyes pinched at the corners. “You take that back,” he snapped, placing one hand on his hip, close to where his knife was. It had a hilt decorated with gemstones and a sheath with golden inlay.
“Or what?” Esther said with a goading smile. After Edyta’s blow to her reputation, she was itching to make up for it. She rose, pushing her stool back in such a way that it scratched against the floorboards. “You’ll try to shut me up with your bedazzled bread knife?”
Onder’s jaw tensed as she took a casual step forward. She was smaller than him and had a finer build, but he still looked worried. His fingers touched the hilt of his knife.
“Go on, Onder,” Esther said while showing him her teeth. “I’m itching for a fight.”
Atta stood up and rose her flagon. “Ey, we’ve not had a good brawl in here for a week,” she chimed. She reached into her pocket and slapped a few coins on the table. “Five cereks says Esther draws first blood in thirty seconds!”
“You’re underestimating her,” someone yelled. “Ten cereks says she’ll do it in ten!”
Soon enough, the other patrons were all murmuring bets and watching Onder. He looked around with a panicked expression on his face until Jorin spat on the floor and slammed a dirty rag on the bar top. The wet splat startled Onder.
“Onder, either fight the lass or go home. All this pussyfooting around is disrupting the grizzled ambience I like in my pub.”
After glancing around at the crowd and realising they were all on Esther’s side, Onder slammed a fist onto the bar in furious concession. He strode towards the door, followed by bouts of laughter and jeering.
“You’re backing out, Onder? What would Reeve think?” Esther goaded.
He spun around and glared at her. “I’ll make you pay for this! Edyta is a powerful friend. With her help, I’ll prove you all wrong.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jorin said. “Jus’ close the door on your way out. You’re letting in a draft. It’ll make the beer go cold.” A few people laughed at his joke, but it did nothing to ease the other huntsmen’s disappointment at the lack of a brawl. But huntsmen were fickle beasts, and they soon drank to Onder’s humiliation instead.
Still standing, Esther drained the rest of her flagon.
“Atta, skys above, I’m sorry I took that so far.” She rubbed the back of her neck, which was hot from anger, humiliation—and even though she didn’t like to admit it—victory. She’d made Onder back down. It was satisfying and reassuring to be back in control again, to be back on top again. “I’ve not been myself lately. My apologies if I’ve upset your drinking.”
“Don’t even think of apologising,” Atta said. “You saved me from having to deal with that little churl. He’s always had something against me since I refused to snog him behind the crematorium. Can you believe it? Not the snogging bit, because I’m a total catch, but behind the crematorium? Romance is dead, let me tell you.” She brushed her hair back. “For that, I owe you the next round, even though I brought you the last one.”
“I’m sorry Atta, but I need to find Yarvier.” Onder’s mention of Edyta had reshuffled Esther’s priorities.
“What for? Oh!” Excitement sparkled in her eyes. “You’re wanting to compete too! Say no more, my friend. Jorin, save my seat. I’ll be escorting my friend here to the Main Hall.”
“You’re too kind, Atta.” Esther meant it. Having Atta’s support lifted her spirits and made her feel warm inside.
There was a commotion in the Main Hall.
Esther and Atta went there first because it was the most sensible place to begin their search. But before they could check his office, they ran into a crowd gathered in the common area by the eastern wall. One of the senior huntsmen was writing on a sheet of paper pinned to a wooden notice board. A sign above it said, ‘The Huntsman’s Trials Finalists.’
Atta and Esther exchanged uneasy glances and rushed over.
Atta was taller than Esther, so she saw it before Esther did. She immediately spat on the floor, narrowly missing Esther’s boot.
“What’s wrong?” Esther asked.
“Can you believe it?” she said. “Yarvier announced the trials yesterday and the seniors are locking in their choices already!”
“What!” Esther exploded, rushing closer. “But they have a week until they’re supposed to do that. Shouldn’t they be keeping their options open until the very end?”
“That’s what I thought, too. I’m telling you, Esther, something ain’t right. I’ve felt it in the air ever since I got back. It feels like the blood-curse’s miasma, except twice as foul and nought as fun.”
Esther browsed the names on the list. Ignacy, Reeve’s hunting partner, was at the top. It made sense. He’d led Koryn’s team to victory during the previous trials. But the next four didn’t. None were known for their skills as huntsmen, and two of them Esther had barely heard anything about. Her suspicion rose even higher when she read the fifth name.
“Onder?” she spat. “Who in their right mind would sponsor him?”
Atta jutted her jaw to the side. “Honey, that ain’t even the worst of it. Read the last name.”
Written at the bottom in fresh ink was a name that turned Esther’s world upside down.
“Ain’t that the chick you said was trying to poach your territory?”
“Yes.” Esther’s jaw tensed. “Atta, I need to go.”
“Ay. That you do.”
Gritting her teeth, Esther checked Yarvier’s office first. It was empty, so she jogged to his hut in the southwestern quarter of the Shack. There was a grand manor house on the premises reserved for the Guildmaster, but Yarvier had never used it. Instead, he built a two-roomed hut behind a copse of trees north of the Manor he could have lived in. With the animal skins in the windows and the mud reinforcing the brick walls, Esther liked to imagine it was like the hut Yarvier and Esvian would have stayed in when they lived beyond the Paravian Wall.
Knocking wasn’t customary for Yarvier, so she entered without a word. The primary room was round, with a high ceiling and exposed wooden beams. There was a blazing hearth against one wall, a door at the back leading to his sleeping quarters, and a large table in the middle of the room.
Yarvier wasn’t alone. He sat at the table with Reeve and Ignacy, with dozens of maps spread on the table before them. Ramzi, Reeve’s gigantic tortoiseshell cat, perched on a shelf, overseeing the entire operation with her sceptical feline gaze.
“The pack has got larger,” Reeve said, not noticing Esther was there. “They’re hording, that’s for sure, and now we won’t be able to take them down on our own. We need extra help.” He was going to say more, but he left it hanging as Esther burst deeper into the room.
“Yarvier, I need to ask you something!”
Yarvier, who was engrossed in this conversation, winced at her volume. “Calm down, woman, or you’ll make me deafer than I already am.” A kettle over the fire in the corner started hissing. Yarvier assessed the panicked and desperate expression on Esther’s face, then said: “Alright, let me pour us some brew before we discuss business.”
Reeve rose immediately and tried to help but Yarvier brushed him off. “I can walk fine,” he grumbled. Reeve reluctantly sat back down.
“Huh,” Esther said. “I never took you for the caring type.” She sat down as Ignacy chuckled, although it sounded more like a deep and gravelly growl.
“Real soft of heart, this one,” he said. The firelight of the hearth danced against his skin and the fascinating combination of sun-faded tattoos and scarification that decorated his neck, arms, and chest. All of Ignacy’s body art depicted flora and fauna that wasn’t native to the Natyran archipelago, or ones that belonged to legend. Esther paid particular attention to the growling tiraknea on his right forearm.
Blood and death? Or life and change?
Esther mentally pushed the conundrum aside.
“I owe Yarvier a lot, that’s all,” Reeve said with a scowl.
“So when I’m his age, you’ll laugh at me when I fall over?” Esther said.
Reeve snorted. “I’m ten years your senior. When you’re his age, you’ll be picking me up when I fall over.”
Ignacy chuckled, and it made his entire body move with glee. “You’ll be long dead by then, Reeve,” he said. “You’ll either die in the deadlands like Former Master Sudarmir, or it’ll be a knife in the heart when one of your many lovers catches you fucking someone else.”
Such dark humour was common enough amongst the huntsmen, but Esther noticed Yarvier go rigid when Ignacy mentioned his predecessor. As far as she understood it, Former Master Sudarmir trained Yarvier and they’d been very close before he died.
To give him privacy, Esther admired the maps strewn across the table. She didn't recognise the area at first. The terrain was densely forested and hilly, but that wasn’t what caught her attention.
The maps used by the huntsmen differed from the maps used by travellers and rangers. As well as showing the lay of the land, huntsman maps used red zones to show areas where blood-cursed creatures liked to hide.
The blood-curse was extraordinarily adaptable and had a high drive to survive and propagate. Regardless of the host that became infected, the curse altered their instincts, giving them the behavioural patterns of both predator and prey. The curse drove its host to hide in places humans didn’t dare to tread, emerging only to feed, infect others, or to be eaten so they could infect their predator.
The areas they preferred to hide in were often those with the highest bioconsciousness - the unnatural awareness Gardara’s wilderness achieved after the Tears of Dealth. These were the areas that huntsmen marked in red on their maps. Whenever a sighting was reported, a hunting party would travel to the nearest red zone to investigate.
Despite how dangerous the ruins of Al Karesh were, the Kareshian Plateau was moderately warped. Esther’s maps looked like they’d been splattered with blood, with each zone only an eighth of a mile apart. But the maps Reeve, Yarvier, and Ignacy had been studying were almost entirely red. To compensate, they had darker red patches where the blood-curse was more common.
“Weeping skies,” Esther muttered as she realised the area the maps covered. “That’s the Dark Woods…” A shudder crawled up her spine, alike the lure she’d felt when closing in on the ruins of Al Karesh.
“The one and only,” Reeve said, bridging his hands and looking over them with revered respect. The Dark Woods were severely distorted, the highest rating awardable. They had earned a reputation for swallowing unschooled huntsmen alive. It was so feared that some didn’t dare utter its name in more than a whisper.
As Junior Huntsmen for the Kareshian Plateau, Esther had to approve of every hunt that occurred in the area. However, she didn’t need to be on the hunt. That wasn’t how it worked for the Dark Woods. You needed a license to lead hunting parties there, and the Guild handed them out as freely as a starving man hands over food. To date, only two people were permitted to lead hunting parties here. One was Yarvier, although he was well past his prime. The other was Reeve.
“There’s so much red.” Esther ran a finger over a deep red spot by the ocean.
Ignacy whistled a low tune. Then he chanted: “ ‘Red be the colour of death, the devourer of souls, and the mark of the damned.’ ” It was an old proverb about the huntsman’s famous maps, though many appropriated it and used it against conservators.
Reeve and Esther stared at the maps and didn't respond. It hardly seemed appropriate to joke about it.
Yarvier returned, holding a tray of mugs, each one piping hot. Reeve shot up and stole the tray from Yarvier’s hands.
“You should have asked me to carry it,” he fussed. “You could’ve burned yourself.”
“Do you take me for an invalid, boy? I’m in my fifties, not my five-hundreds. I can handle myself.” Esther found it comforting that Yarvier called Reeve ‘boy’ as he often called her ‘girl.’
Reeve ignored him and placed the tray on the only bit of the table not covered in maps. He passed a mug to Ignacy and Esther, and she peered over the rim. Yarvier called it a ‘brew,’ but no one knew exactly what he put in it, and it tasted different every time.
Reeve laughed at her suspicion, so she took a stubborn sip and gagged. “So… bitter…” she spluttered.
“Now, let’s get down to it,” Yarvier said, ignoring Esther’s reaction. “What was it yer needed ter ask?”
Esther took a deep breath. “I want you to sponsor me to enter the huntsman trials.”
He didn’t respond at first. He sank deep into his chair and took a deep sip of his brew without breaking eye contact. Esther squirmed under the scrutiny until, at last, he spoke the only word in the universe she didn’t want to hear.
Yarvier said no.
Yarvier has rejected Esther’s request. Why, and what will she do now?