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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2152585-The-Bounty
Rated: 18+ · Novella · Dark · #2152585
A monster slayer for hire takes on a special contract. Awarded a DD on DeviantArt.
         


The Bounty

The shovel rises, specks of its edge glinting in the moonlight.  The man, our hero, scoops the fine dry earth into the boy's grave.  Overhead the parched leaves rustle before autumn's discontent winds.  Crickets chirp all about, stubborn to recede against the cold.  The digging was hard, but the burial is easy.  If only this body would stay covered.  He wipes his brow, glances about the wood, and pitches earth like coffee grounds upon the child's still blue face.  All of a sudden he becomes quite certain it was he who slew the boy, but he can't remember how.  The notion passes as quickly as it came, and he pours more dirt.  The innocent dead face stares up at him, repelling every bit of earth.

Gadren Amon opens his eyes slowly, with intention.  Dispelling this old dream has become as routine as shaving.  No longer holding the adolescent charm it once did when one could brag of it, it has become a mundane chore far beyond the haunting it once was.  He shifts his weight in the rented bed, its springs lamenting his muscular frame, and he turns his attention to the barren side.  His female companion, whose name now eludes him, has vanished.  He wonders if this one has taken it upon herself to lighten his satchels.  Sometimes they do this, seeing the mortal in him.  While others ride the fantasy of his legends and carry too much fear to betray him.

Coin or no, he rises from the bed, vaguely aware that little bites plague his skin, and dresses himself.

Pants equipped and shirt left behind he ventures into the privy. He draws water from the sink (bless these machines) and combs out his beard.  Salt and pepper, he thinks as he applies oil to his cheeks in the mirror and rinses off a disposable razor.  He can hear his mother's voice, a voice now younger than his own, drifting into his ears like a bedtime whisper. "When are you going to settle down?" She asks, "I've waited long enough for grandchildren, and your father's leaking at the seams with stories and cheap magic tricks." He goes to work on the cheeks, revealing the leather hide below.  His features, once smooth and handsomely angular, have hardened into a rough cover.  Gadren is tall and fit, able to snap to in any circumstance, but he wears his years like a cowl, and his age can be clearly seen in his dusky grey eyes.

"When it's safe." He washes away the excess.

It's winter now, about the time the mountain harpies descend to pillage storehouses.  The northern winds drive ice up the shore, from time to time causing frost sprites to wander up toward coastal farms and freeze the simple folk in their sleep.  The dragons and scalekin are thankfully hibernating, but the werewolves are always out this time of year, and in the short days one must be wary of his own shadow.  For the liches and their necromancers play with the dark the way a child plays kraken with the bath water, toying with the ebb and flow with reckless disregard.

Gadren journeys up the Verain coast, responding to a letter from a prominent client.  His plethora of armaments in tow upon the back of a burro.  In his unnaturally long life he has only ever responded to two such employers, this one a renowned alchemist, the other a crestfallen prince.  Typically his travels take him from one burdened burg to the next, for his words to his long dead mother are more than mantra; they are a promise.

The months pass, the ice thaws, and spring's green tide washes in.  The continent, once again, offer him no surprises this year.  On his way to the alchemist's manor he'd slain a dozen winter hounds, twice that number in harpies, a stygian troll, a black cult (that is a cadre of necromancers), and two deer for clothing and meat.  The rest of the supplies he'd needed were given mostly with glad hearts from those he helped.

The name of the manor is Green Bastion.  When Gadren approaches from the south on what has become a well-kept highway, he notices the turrets and iron fence about the place.  It had once been a fortress. In his youth, his real youth, it had been called Fort Constant, a place where men had used machines and weapons the likes of which Gadren wishes could still be made.  The concrete had all been blasted away, and these days it had a homely air to it, what with its trimmed animal hedges, flower gardens, and mild mannered servants about. There is a statue outside of a robed man holding the sun in one hand and a lightning bolt in the other.  An enamel plaque is pitted into the base below, and Gadren takes a moment to read.

The stars, for our part did align

By our hands wrought wonders divine

Until God, our mortality, did He remind

And cursed this soil for all humankind



  • Samuel the Starbreaker                              



"Master Kellar hopes mankind will hold the stars again someday." A man's voice reports. "I wasn't aware the Grey Guardian was interested in the academics."

The servant's approach hadn't startled Gadren in the least. He continued getting a feel for the symbolism of the statue and replied, "I wasn't aware people still called me that, and you know I'm quite perceptive." He sighed. "We used to call these people astronomers."

"Ah, forgive me.  Your appearance deceives your age, Master Amon." He bowed.  A simple yet dignified man, his manner was practiced and sterling.  He wore plain work clothes like those of the coastal farmers, but he looked better suited for something austere. "I am Phil Hopsis, head caretaker of Green Bastion.  Master Kellar has been eager for your arrival."

The world had changed so much in so many areas, but when it came to the aristocrats and their layers of formality, Gadren decided little if anything had been lost. "Call me Gad.  I may be old enough to be your grandsire, but I won't be having everyone waste their time with all those syllables.  Kellar, he's in his lab, yes?"

"Yes, sir.  I can take you to him if you'd like, though I'd recommend a moment of respite.  I can have someone fetch you--"

"No need, friend.  I was here before you were born, and it doesn't seem to have changed a wink.  If you want to help me, take my packer." he hitched his thumb over his shoulder, "To the stable.  Just be careful with the gear."

Gad had been hoping this excursion would prove lively, refreshing, but so far it was pacing along beaten down paths.  Victor Kellar had summoned him here before to quell an infestation of imps at a nearby cave.  The alchemist wanted the cave's unique moss, had said it would be pivotal in developing a serum to save sufferers of bloatface.  Based on how many staff now roamed, Gad assumed the serum has been a success.

He enters a tower on the north side of the manor and begins to ascend a spiral staircase.  His boots, thick leather workers, thud against each of the stone steps.  The echo carries up and down either way but only a short distance, giving the effect that he's gone nowhere and is making no progress.

         Gad reaches the top, an open area filled by bottle covered tables and hundreds of research notes and diagrams.  A low wall goes around the circular space, and a dome shaped glass covers it, not without windows marking the circumference every couple feet.  Despite having reverted to a previous title, Victor understands the importance of ventilation.  A hunched over old man sits at one of the tables, his spotted hands clasped together behind his head over the last white tuft.  His back is turned to Gad, and the reflection of his eyes darting back and forth can be seen off the corner of his substantial spectacles as he studies his own notes.

After seeing the old chemist absorbed utterly, Gad releases a short reverberating cough.

The old man's eyes quit their feverish endeavor, his hands unclasp, and he turns with his whole body, being no longer able to simply crane the neck, to inspect the interruption.  His rheumy eyes alight, and the familiar creases on his face thicken where ten thousand smiles were made. "How's it feel, young man?  Those steps give you any trouble?"

"Walked on my hands the whole way up.  Think I'll do cartwheels next time."

"Still a wisenheimer, yeah.  Good.  There are too few constants, if you ask me.  I've got plans drawn up for a simple lift.  I want it in by next spring prospectively.  That's the hope and dream, anyway.  Takes too long getting up here, and I'm liable to have the old ticker freeze up on one of these climbs."

"Why not move the lab to the ground?  I know you've got an answer for that, and I want to hear it."

"Gad, you know how we hang onto things." Victor raised a sagging arm and swept it across the room. "I can't give up that view, and at night . . . indescribable.  At my age, were I to move to the ground or heaven forbid a basement like those huffers, why, I'd speed up my coming senility thrice.  Lack of stimulation."

Gad nods, "That's what I wanted to hear.  So, I take it you're not batty just yet.  Then you remember sending me the summons.  Last time around the pay was ample, and it helped the sick.  What is it this time?"

Victor releases a breathy laugh, almost wheeze. "Hasty youth. You're a decade my elder, it took you a season to get here, and you're down to business straightaway?  Humor me, please.  Let's set you up in a room, get you fed something hardy, and then we'll get down to brass, yeah." A dry sigh escaped him in perfect concert with a yawn. "The problem at hand can wait that long."

A spacious second floor room within the manor proper was assigned to Gad.  Inside were the comforts of finer men, foreign seeming things to the old hunter of beasts.  A goliath bed trimmed with frills and pillows like clouds, an oaken armoire with gleaming silver fixtures, carpeting softer than rabbit's fur, and the gentle scent of lavender.  The accommodations were gaudy and overdone to him, giving him the strange urge to rip the sheets from the bed and sleep upon the floor.  The whole of it was far too comfortable, and he felt raw within it.

Gad goes to the armoire, his things having been brought up, and opens the heavy doors on their smooth hinges.  He takes inventory of his tools, his knives and swords, his potions and poisons, and his bows and arbalest.  Simple armaments.  He reaches in and takes out his oldest knife.  The years had not been kind to it, and he's careful not to snap the worn blade and all its patina.  It is no more a useful tool, though he maintained it well, such a thing can only last so long.  This knife, a relic no longer than the span of his hand, is a gift of his father's.  In its prime it locked back and could retract into the handle.  The lettering and logos, once a marking of a great corporation, have receded into nothing but a few cryptic symbols.

He places the old trinket back with his more efficient stock and closes the doors to a flush.

Victor and Gadren sit across from each other at a grand dining table adorned with all the eccentricities.  There are goblets and empty platters between them, waiting for use in some extravagant banquet.  Servants stand at the ready, tasked with such arduous feats as refilling the wine cups and whisking away plates.  Gad finishes his meal, a gambit of seafood, before Victor is halfway through his own.  The servants carry his soiled plates and cups off, and he props his stubbly chin upon one of those rugged hands, humoring the old man.

Victor, not quite done but apparently full, raises an index finger in a pausing gesture, wipes his face on a cloth worth more than a village house, and takes another sip of wine to wash the meal down. "I see you're impatient.  With such a hard life, I was hoping this would be more relaxing for you."

"Break.  Work." Gad replies. "We cycle those because we tire and age.  We play a pacing game."

"I could swear there was more spark the last time.  Perhaps you don't even know you're tired."

Gad considers and shrugs. "Maybe I am, but I'm not willing to break this momentum just yet."

Victor waved his hand. "Leave us.  I'll call you when we're done."

The servants wordlessly bowed and exited, and the room, large as it was, became cavernous.

Gad raised his brows.

"Family is precious, yeah." This was not a question, but Victor had a habit of affirming himself. "You'd go miles for them when you might go only feet for others."

Gad nods. "I recall the feeling."

Victor dropped his gaze to his shallow cup. "My great-niece Eva will inherit this manor when I'm gone.  She is a brilliant young woman who used to come here often to study with me.  She has her own estate, my brother's.  It's a fine plot of land three days east of here on the edge of the Morwin woods.  I suspect she'll stay there and move my lab over once it is hers.  She's always been fascinated by the flora, you know."

"But something's wrong."

"Yes, yes, I know.  To the point." Victor finished the splash of wine. "A year ago she married a prestigious cartographer.  One Elliot Gemming.  He's charted nearly all the lost areas, a pioneer for us all to go back to where our civilization once was.  Well, after the honeymoon he set out to better detail the woods."

"And he never came back, right?  Victor, that's a long time to be missing.  I kill monsters.  I'm not a bloodhound."

"He came back just fine, or so it seemed at first.  Eva used to write to me regularly, especially since the traveling has become harder at my age.  She said she knew those woods, and he came back much too soon to have covered the whole area.  I mustered up the old bones and paid them a visit.  Everything seemed fine on the surface, but it didn't sit right with me, yeah.  Eva was always so lively, but she was reserved when I visited.  Said she was just a little under the weather, but I wonder."

"Sounds to me like he was all charming until after he had her locked in marriage.  He goes out into the woods, decides he's lord of the land, and comes back to put her under his thumb.  I'm not a marriage counselor or a lawyer." Gad furrows those brows. "Did he go into the woods with a party?"

Victor frowned. "I don't know.  I would assume he did.  It would be very dangerous to go into the woods alone, even for an experienced traveler like himself.  Wouldn't it?  He had to go with some muscle." He held a hand against his temple in a "what else?" gesture.  "Listen, it may not be anything at all.  I've just got a bad feeling.  Eva doesn't write me like she used to, and her hand has changed.  It's shaky, stressed."

"What do you suggest I do?"

"Go out to their estate and investigate.  You'll have to keep your distance, perhaps disguise yourself.  I can have someone provide a story for you.  They've never seen you before, but your paintings are around, Grey Guardian.  See what you can see.  If it's something you can help with, I'll pay you grossly.  If it isn't something you can do, tell me, and I'll pay you the same."

"You'd pay me just for peace of mind?"

"I have no one else, Gad.  I have no one else."

"Fine.  But first I want as many details as you can give.  Need to rule things out."

Victor gave him as much information as he could.

His name was Cedric Amst, a land surveyor contracted by the Crown to appraise property value.  His hair was cut short and colored black as raven's wings, and he wore ice blue contact lenses, which were only noticeable up close.  Gad was entirely against the alterations, but Victor reminded him that he'd be compensated beyond the weight of this sham.  His new clothes, while comfortable, would provide little protection, and his gear would be transported to a grove at the woods edge.

He was provided with the names of the men who had gone with Elliot to chart the forest, though Victor would not divulge how this information was obtained.  They were hired out of the mercenary's guild in Varana and were said to be reputable amongst their clientele.  Gad was an acquaintance of the guildmaster, Arthur Doffen.  He was an intelligent but crude man who believed the simplest solution was usually the best, and being built more like a bear than a man, he could often choose the simple paths.

Before investigating the estate proper, Gad decided to travel south to Verana and inquire after the men in Elliot's party.  At the very least it would give him time to prepare for his acting career, precious time he'd not have to wear those infernal lenses. On his way he noticed a distinct lack of threats on the old backroads.  Even on sunny days, when monsters tended to stay denned up, one could expect to see a cockatrice or gryphon in the direction of foothills.  The trip would be short, but he knew ogres and trolls liked to maraud such highways and byways.  However, he was beginning to wonder if he'd even happen upon a rabid raccoon, and the peace unsettled him.  It was as if something was trying to lure him into a false sense of security, an ignorance he'd be thrice damned to fall into now.

The trek was smooth and uneventful, borderline boring, and foreign in essence.  He wondered if that was what journeys on Earth had been like, that fabled mother planet where man was the greatest threat. He supposed his life efforts were to recreate one such world here, where one's reflection might leap from a mirror and devour entire families, where country children were often led into deep forests to be hunted by some lumbering abomination.  The idea of a world devoid of such horrors appealing on the surface, but he considered what dark things might arise in man's heart when spoiled by comfort.  Then also, perhaps selfishly, he pondered his own role in such a place.

Verana was an old fortified city and once served as the capitol of Verain before the reign of King Xandur a hundred years past.  Its buildings were an odd mix of clay, wood, stone, and rare cement. Like all the old cities, it had a wall, and this wall happened to still be intact.  The streets were cobblestone, the lampposts oil, and the people sleepless.

Gadren enters the city through the least traveled gate, the two standing guards eying him warily but without much conviction.  Once inside he takes in all the familiar traits of population hubs.  The white noise of inaudible distant arguments, the sharp barks of undersized dogs, the faint stench of sewage.

The guild hall hadn't seemed to change since his last visit, except for the subtle signs of age.  Its size and ornamentation were the same.  A simple wooden building with a distinguished iron plaque sign over the door and a spacious training yard out back.  He detected the aroma of blade oil and burning coals.  No doubt the guild had a resident smith.

Inside is the same oak wood which composes the exterior, but it's been cleanly varnished, though rough where members tread often.  The porter asks if he needs anything, and Gad shakes his head.  There are armor and weapon racks about, and heads of various beasts mount the walls. 

This first room is something of a lounge, an area for clients to take in the deeds of the guild, but the next room is where business takes place.  This second room is smaller with a walled off desk in the back and closed doors to either side of it.  A stout aged woman sits behind the desk, her hands clasped together like dragon talons and waiting patiently for this next patron.  An array of pens sit in a jar upon her desk, and a stack of papers lie neatly on another behind her in her own room.

"Hello." Her tone is formal and serious. "Looking to hire or looking for work?"

He looks down at the sword on his hip, smiles, and replies, "Neither.  Meredith?  You've aged as little as I have." This is a lie.

Recognition goes off on her face like a wave.  She tilts back in her chair, a smile forming. "Trying to fight off the years with that shoeshine?  You really shouldn't have.  You look so handsome with the grey."

He can't help but play along. "Now, now miss, you know you're too young for me.  I don't want to take up cradle robbing."

"Hmph.  That's the sort of thing an old man with a bad hip would say." She sighs and reins herself in. "I take it you didn't come here to reminisce about us."

The way she cut off the subject struck him strangely in a place where he reserved his guilt. "Yes," He replied, "I've a peculiar contract.  Not the usual go here and kill that business.  I have to do an investigation first, and there are men from this guild I need to speak with."

"I'll help.  You know you're privileged, right?  Tell me more."

He drew out a paper and slid it across her desk. "These men went with Elliot Gemming about a year ago to chart the Morwin woods. Their trip was shorter than it should've been, and I want to ask them why."

She pushed the paper back and shook her head, frowning.  The lines on her face left, and she appeared ten years younger. "These men, Hax, Gavin, Martin, Corund."

"I don't like what you're about to say."

"All died since then.  Natural deaths mostly of old men, which you'd agree is odd for men who've not seen their fourth decade. Hax's heart went, Gavin and Martin took to a bad flu, and Corund . . . the story is he drank too much and got poison, but everyone knows he took some pills."

He tapped his fingers on her desk. "Anyone who might know what happened in Morwin, maybe some relatives?"

"Close ones, no.  We sent condolences to the families, but there're no families.  Either didn't have them or went with them."

"Don't you think that's a bit strange?"

"Our members live dangerous lives.  Yes, it's odd to have them taken by disease and heartbreak and not a giant's club, but a bug passed through this past season, and it took some hardy with it. Even the young carry their father's weak hearts."

"Did they turn in reports, mention the details to anyone here?"

"Typically, they all love to boast about missions.  I handle a lot of paperwork here, and I can't be certain to recall anything specific, but I think I remember them being oddly tightlipped about the details.  Of course, that's second hand at best.  The young blood does not chat with me." She leans forward, the floor under her chair creaking. "You could try asking Doffen.  He had a way of exciting the boys into storytelling."

"Had?" Gad looks at the door to the left of the desk. "Is he in his office?"

"Retired a few months back.  Spends most of his time at his home outside of town, fishing and hunting.  If you've a map, I'll mark the spot."

"Yeah, hold on." He took a map from an inner pocket and laid it before her. "I'm getting so old, Meri."

It was about dusk when the old hunter reached Arthur Doffen's plot of land.  It was a nice piece, well-kept and simple.  A sturdy looking cottage stood centered in a field surround by short timothy. The bent sunrays offered the place a serene amber tone, and it exuded a warmth Gadren thought unfitting for the towering warrior.  He supposed it could be the wrong place but treaded up to the door and knocked to find out.

An iron slide on the thick mahogany door slid open, revealing a pair of eyes.  A woman's voice asked, "What business ya have here?"

"Looking for Arthur Doffen.  I'm an old friend."

"Does this old friend have a name?"

"Gadren.  We fought the wyrms together at Gran Ante"

The door unlocked. "I know ya.  You coulda just said so.  Always have to pry basic information from him and his old pals.  Come on in. We just ate, and he's not passed out yet." The door swung open, showing off the cozy interior.  The woman stood off to one side, ready to close the door behind Gad.  She was hunched and her skin sagging, easily as old as Victor but her manner suggested a great deal of vitality.

She led him into another room, one with a plain beige couch and chairs surrounding a squat table covered in coasters and books.  In the largest chair, smoking a pipe, was a broad shouldered but thin old man without a hair on his head, though he boasted a great white beard.  He sat back, puffing out little rings of smoke which smelled sweetly like molasses.  On his nose was a thick set of glasses resting.  His hands were gnarled, the knuckles bulbous.  His arms, covered in loose leathery skin, were unimpressive but did not look frail.  His brows were bushy white rabbits, and his eyes socketed muddy topaz.  He coughed, seeing his guest, and chuckled.

"Look at this!" He said, releasing the pent up smoke. "Someone's finally decided I was too ugly to keep around, and they hired the best monster slayer to do me in.  Well, I'll have you know I've felled wyrms when they still roamed this world, sonny.  I'm sure I can still muster up a good swing."

Everyone I ever knew is getting old before me. He thought then said, "Yeah, huge bounty on your head.  Ought to be enough for me to retire for a couple hundred years at least.  Forever if I invest right and build interest."

Arthur emptied his pipe in a clay basin beside his chair. "I remember wondering if what they did to you would really work, keep you young.  We all heard how painful the procedure was, and it got mulled over ironically. 'What if he goes through all that only to age all at once in a day or so and be no better off than the rest of us?' That ever go through your head?"

"That and a lot of other things."

"They say aging is a curse, but we've got it easy now.  Oh sure, the bones ache, and my old scars have their flares.  I took a leisurely stroll today and caught a nice couple of hares.  Did only what I felt like doing.  When I come back, Leah and I take it easy and doze.  But I'm guessing you covered a bit more ground than I did today, and when does your rest come?"

"Listen Arthur, I need to ask you about some of the members of your guild.  It's for a contract."

"He's a windbag." The woman, who must be Leah said. "I'll get us something to drink.  It's getting dark, so if you'd like to stay the night you're welcome to.  I can heat you something up and get the good drinks."

"I'd rather not impose.  Just need a few questions." Gadren replied, but his will was shaken.

"Standing offer." She said and left the room.

"Ask away." Arthur said.

Gadren asked his questions, got fewer answers than he'd have liked, but did get something good to eat and drink.  The men in Elliot's party were indeed reserved about the mission.  Each said the client requested discretion, and their contracts upheld such vows rigidly.  If a merc from the guild said a client wanted things hush hush, unless it was illegal, it stayed under wraps.  The whole thing puzzled Gad.  What needed to be discreet about charting a forest? The whole point was to publish a detailed map.  It sat wrong with him, and he was becoming increasingly certain something was afoot that warranted Victor's concern.

He ended up staying the remainder of the evening, catching up with Arthur and his wife.  In the morning Arthur had him come to his den for a parting gift.

"You really don't need to give me anything else.  You two have been kind enough."

"You can cram the grace, Gad.  We've no one to leave things to.  Leah and I got together in our silver years, past the time to be raising little ones.  Don't be surprised if the treasury sends you a few more things when we're gone."

The hunter rolls his eyes.

Arthur unlocks a safe in the back of the room, gently opens the door, and cocks his head with a grin at Gad. "There's an island off the coast of Geline.  They've been able to recreate something there I think will get your attention."

"And what's that?"

"This." Arthur pulls something from the safe, turns around, and holds the handle to Gad. "Take a look."

The artifact he sees is unmistakable.  He takes it and holds it up, inspecting the finely crafted parts. "Arthur, I thought this planet didn't have the minerals for--"

"For these?" Arthur takes a box from the safe and opens it. "Guess we were wrong."

"I can't take this.  This is too important."

"I had strong ties, Gad.  I've got another one and another box of munitions.  You have that one.  I'm sure you of all people will put them to good use."

The hunter opens the revolver, spins the cylinder, and closes it up.  The gun is weighty, real. "My father had a .44 like this.  His was made on Earth and it was given to him by my grandfather.  He was an antique collector."

"A little piece of history, am I right?  Well, this is more than that.  It's fully functional.  Tested it myself.  And here, this'll be convenient." He reaches into the safe once more and gives Gad a belt holster.

"Thank you."

"Put it to good use and stop by again sometime."

"I'll do both."

He returned north, remembering to put in those uncomfortable lenses.  He didn't want to ask Elliot directly, especially with him being disguised as he was, but it was coming down to directness.  If it was a curse, then he had to wonder why the cartographer hadn't succumbed to it.  There was also the obvious question of what he was hiding about the journey.  The hunter considered this aspect heavily. A trip to map out the woods would be mostly uneventful.  With trained professionals as guards, there'd be little to worry about even come night.  The whole excursion would be dull, not in the least bit worth keeping secret.  Of course, the mapping taking so little time had to also be taken into consideration.  Perhaps something, this curse, spooked them early.

He reached the estate in the morning's first light, not confident in the least with his ability to impersonate a surveyor. He wondered if the sword would give him away or not and decided it safer to hide it with the rest of his gear.  With none of that on his person, he felt rather naked and defenseless.

The place, while quite nice, was not as lavish as Green Bastion. There was a single gardener, a healthy looking and tan man in his twenties, tending to patches of flowers about the perimeter of the main house.  There was a greenhouse around back and pump room for the modest irrigation system.  All in all it was an inviting property, and he supposed much of the surrounding land was also owned by not developed.

Gad walks up the step, admiring the stern white trim and orderly fashion which coated the house like a veil.  The windows and their shutters are all perfectly aligned, each sill having a small pot of yellow flowers resting within, and all of these from a distance appeared expertly maintained.  The front door is dark and ornamented with iron lion head knockers.  To the right is a silver flame encrusted doorbell.  He rings the bell, hearing the faint response of a chiming tune proceed behind the walls.

Moments later the door opens, a mountainous servant standing in the frame.  His voice is like an earthquake, and his clothes strain against the bulk of his chest and arms. "May I help you?"

"Yes, I am Cedric Amst." He bows. "I am a land surveyor charged with property appraisals.  I was wondering if I could speak with the Gemmings.  Mr. or Mrs."

"Mr. Gemming is in his study and does not wish to be disturbed. The Madam is in her greenhouse.  Follow me, and I will see if she'll allow audience." The servant locks the door, shuts it, and steps past Gad, dwarfing him.

Gad follows, the sense of being watched on him the whole walk.

The towering figure squeezes through the door of the greenhouse, emerging minutes later with sour expression. "The Lady said she'll see you.  But be brief.  I am to keep watch."

Gad enters the steamy building and sees Eva at a distance tending to a flower he does not in the least recognize.  She's in sunlight.  Good, then she's not a vampire's thrall.  Though, that'd be simple.  He waves to her and she quits primping the petals. "Mrs. Gemming?"

She nods. "You are a land surveyor?  I'll have you know we've not acquired new land, nor have we built new structures.  Previous records are up to date."

"I noted as much.  However, until last year you were an unmarried woman.  There are certain tax breaks made for such." He looks about, his heightened senses detecting no eavesdroppers. Already he is sick of the pretentious air. "Your husband, his occupation is in cartography?"

"That's correct."

"Your servant told me he was in his study.  While I'd expect him here on occasion, doesn't his work demand he be away often?"

"I'm sorry." She leaned on one hip. "I don't see how this is relevant."

"His income will be weighed with the land.  For occupations that require distant traveling, a break is made under the assumption the landowner will not be present to attend his property."

"I see.  Can't the government discover this without me telling them so?" She looked down and to the left, revealing a bruise on her neck before quickly turning back. "Yes, he's not done a thing constructive since we wed.  He locks himself in that study weeks at a time, and I don't even know if he eats while he's in there.  He isn't like the man I married at all, but why I am telling you this?"

"Why are you?"

"Because I'm tired, because he hangs over me like a shadow. Tell me, are you really here to look at the land, or are you more interested in Elliot's job?"

Gad looks over his shoulder, seeing the broad outline of the servant standing at the door.

"He can't hear us." She said. "This is my sanctum.  My husband used to come here with me.  Said it reminded him of the wilds of Orogro.  He's said no such things since coming from Morwin, and he's not set foot in here either."

"Can you be discreet about our conversation?"

"All you've come in here about is to ask if the pump house is new."

"I want to know what happened when your husband mapped Morwin. I tried after his party, mercs from a guild to the south.  All died tragically young.  What I do know is that they were sworn to keep silent about the trek, and it ended more quickly than it should've. Seems odd for a simple mapping."

"I think I know who really sent you, but I'll keep it to myself.  You're a terrible actor." She waits for his response, receives none, and goes on. "I grew up here with my grandfather.  I was quite the tomboy.  I spent a lot of time in those woods and, yes, it was plenty dangerous at times.  I never could draw a map, but I know how long it takes to see that whole place."

The greenhouse door opens, and the giant man sticks his head in. "Wish me to escort him out?"

"Still tending to legalities, Godwin.  I'll send him when we're done."

The man nods and returns to his post.  Gad realizes the only reason Godwin isn't standing in here with them is because the man overheats easily, as evidenced by his glistening forehead.

"I can tell you where they entered the woods.  You look too rugged to be a land surveyor anyway, even with those lenses.  Yes, I can tell you're wearing them.  Also the stubble of your beard is grey, and I wouldn't doubt that to be your true hair color, so drop it when you're around me.  I'll play along, and you'll find out what happened.  Deal?"

Warily he nods.

"Good.  The forest is just east of here beyond a lone apple tree.  If you stand at that tree and walk directly east from there, you'll find where they went in.  Wild grapes grow there.  Used to get myself sick eating them as a child."

Gad leaves the greenhouse, becoming Cedric once again.  Godwin passes him a hard look but says nothing, ducking his head in and checking with Eva.

He goes to the tree she mentioned and walks east to the where the grape vines are.  There are no grapes on them now, but the vines hang freely around the trees, a pathway cut into them and beaten trail to boot.  Gad retrieves his gear before returning to enter the forest. In all this time he had yet to see a monster, and he wasn't about to be caught unawares.

The woods are thick and mixed with deciduous and evergreens.  This trail he walks is littered with fallen branches but has yet to grow in, meaning someone has made a point to come here often enough.  Or something.

The forest closes in on him as he walks, growing denser and darker.  Still he sees no trace of monsters.  There is plenty of deer and bear sign, and he hears numerous chirping birds and chipmunks, but no raspy breathing, no curdling screeches.  Even so, his hand never leaves the pommel of his sword.  That, his ever reliable blade, along with the weight of the revolver give him an added bit of confidence.

Night comes but with it is not the familiar sound of a fledgling werewolf, the braying of a demonically spawned hell horse, the trembling thuds of vigilant treants, whispers from wind sprites urging one to hang from a tree or leap from a ledge.  There are no death cries as some deer is torn asunder by a ravenous minotaur, no crackling boughs from the charge of an ogre, and no alluring singing from some cliffside siren.  In the bizarre quiet, the hunter checks his area and sets up camp.  Sleep comes easy.

He wakes up to a pain in his side.  Eyes open he sees Godwin with his knees planted on his kidneys, and the gargantuan man's thick hands wrapped around his neck with frightening strength.  A natural response takes over Gad, and he reacts without hesitation.  His hand slides down his unrestrained hip, wraps around the handle of his gun, pulls it out and aims it square with the man's chest, and he pulls the trigger.  There is a magnificent bang, and the white of Godwin's eyes wax.  The hulking man rolls off of the old hunter and staggers to his feet, lumbering off into the brush.

Moments pass, and Gadren reclaims his breath.  Rising to his feet he observes the trail of blood leading farther into the woods.  He follows it.

Though he'd only ever used a firearm a few times in his life previously, he knows from his father just how potent such a caliber was, especially at such close range.  He wonders if it was loaded properly, for even a man like Godwin wouldn't go far with a chest wound such as that.  Don't be nae. He draws his sword and continues.

The blood path goes seemingly forever.  He becomes quite certain at this point it isn't even blood but some twisted candy trail meant to lure him, but he can't help but go on.  This whole contract had been nothing but dead ends, and now he's finally onto something.  He follows it over fallen logs, through brambles, and up and down slopes.  Finally there is a clearing, and the blood lightens.

In the clearing by the light of the moon is a long short mound of dirt beside an open ditch.  He breathes heavy, trying to perform the old exercise of waking from this dream.  He does not wake and so walks to the ditch, peering in he sees no body.  With relief he looks up and hears labored breathing.  He creeps along, silent and steady. There is a hollow behind an oak, and he enters it.

He knows one illumination spell which summons a phantom torch, and he uses it.  This cave, hardly more than a burrow, is just big enough for him to walk in crouch.  He doesn't hear the breathing anymore, but what he sees catches his attention.

There are two human skeletons lying against the wall.  One is smaller.  Upon inspection the hunter determines both are men.  The smaller is clutching some weathered yellow parchment with the nonexistent grip of how the bones settled.  Sitting at the tip of the left ring finger is a gold band, tarnished but still immediately recognizable.  Aside from that, the skeleton lies naked.  The other skeleton is hilariously enveloped by clothes which must have once fit well but now flow tattered and tent like around the white frame.

I'm an idiot. "Doppelganger." He whispers.  He bends down, gently removing the gold band. "Sorry your name's been smeared, Elliot." And to the larger. "Sorry Godwin."  Then he leaves the burrow.

Every fiber in his being tells him to check the grave again.  He knows there'll be a trap, but knowing defeats the purpose, doesn't it?  He walks over to glance in, and sure enough there lies the corpse of his long dead brother.  He kicks dirt in, openly trying to provoke the creature.

The eyes open, brimming with tears. "Gaddie." It says just as his brother once did. "I'm cold.  I want to go home."

He plays along with this ancient memory, not caring for the moment how the doppelganger learned it. "Home is in the stars far away."

"Will you take me there?"

"No.  You're going somewhere better."

"Brother, I didn't get to tell you this last time."

This is not part of the memory.  It is a lure to get Gad bent over, and he decides not to play the fool.  He holds up his sword and plunges it into the grave, into the false boy's already bleeding chest.  The dagger reveals itself.  It had been under the boy's leg.

"And what is that?" Gad asks, not feeling any triumph whatsoever.

"Bastard!" Its voice becomes that of a thousand men and women. "They know you did it!  You buried me alive!"

Gad removes his blade from the creature's chest. "You are a monster born of this world's wild energies, not my brother."

"I was born more naturally than you!" This proves too much, and it coughs a chunk of bloody lung up. Its voice lowers. "You killed him so that you might live forever.  Isn't that right?  What will you do when all the monsters are dead, and you're the last one?"

Gad reaches down and grabs the doppelganger by the hair, not bothering to answer it or be careful.  He drags it onto the dirt mound, its breathing now quick and choking.  He raises his sword overhead, gracefully making an executioner's chop.  The creature's head rolls into the grave, and its body takes true form.  Slightly bigger than the boy's, built like a tawny man, and skin dark not with human colored pigment but stony like a shadow.  He pushes the body in, leaves to get his shovel, and repeats a task he'd done some couple hundred years past.

In the morning he reports to Eva.  After this he returns to Victor for his bounty.





Afterword

The Bounty was written in 2016 by Levi Shipley as a contest entry on an art website.  In January 2017 it received a community award and has been regarded as one of the author's best stories.

         

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