Chapter 1

He crept quietly, through the pitch black darkness, pausing only to raise his cowl over the lower half of his face, effectively muffling the sound of his breath. Proceeding, he tread carefully over the moist, uneven ground, his figure hugging the damp walls of the dank cave. The path was illuminated dimly by a distant light source further in the cave, presumably the giveaway marking the presence of his unsuspecting target.

The cave was located on the face of a snowcapped mountain range just northeast of Fjellreach. Access to the cave required a strong grip and sure footing for a steep climb up the cliff face; but not before trekking along several kilometers of mountain passes on the mountainous border that separated Alfengor from the Elven country of Konoha, and fending against several forms of aggressive wildlife. The alternative is to take a low mountain pass from the south straight into the open arms of the recently inhabited but heavily fortified stronghold.

He didn't need to think twice before he made his choice. He was built for stealth. He'd picked the cliff.

It was barely four in the morning when a messenger arrived for Logan, the deputy watch of Hellington, with a theft report. He grumbled in distaste, not wanting to leave the comfort of his warm office and surrender himself to the frigid October winds that blew and howled like a pack of wolves. But the messenger had braved it so with a half-hearted and self-pitying mood Logan took his men out to find the house of the man who had made the report.

The sender was a local farmer by the name of Shane, a musclebound, middle-aged man who was well known for his overprotective, territorial attitude over his land as well as his violent (though empty) threats to flay the flesh off of any man who walked uninvited upon his territory—which only served to further emphasize his brutish demeanor. He was a man of brawn over brains. Logan was very reluctant to have to deal with such an adamant man, but it had to be done.

A short distance away from the farm, the distinct shadows of two struggling silhouettes could be seen, contrasted sharply against the light from the house that pooled before the threshold. In closer proximity, Shane's flushed, snarling face could be seen as he wrestled with the thief in attempt to drag forward the resisting man. Logan almost felt sorry for this man whose ear Shane clutched with such a tight vehement grip. If only Shane hadn't immediately sprayed his face with his spit, braying about how the man had stolen onto his land and tried to take some of his property which currently lay in a sack now on his dining table. He was about to boast about how he had bravely sole-handedly caught the man before Logan cut him off asking him to release his hold on the thief, wiping the spit from his face, his mood soured.

"You take this son of a bitch, and make sure he never sets foot on my land again!"

Logan took a look at the silent captive, instantly recognizing the irritated sulking expression that glowered back. "Rest assured, sir, this man won't be making the same mistake again."

"Yeah? Well he'd better not or I'll flay—"

"—the flesh right off of him. Yeah, yeah. You'll want that sack off of your table too, and give the surface a good clean scrub, alright?"

"Wuh? That's my stuff on the table there. What're you thinking, calling it dirty? You damned guard—"

"Is it? Wasn't aware you'd turned bounty hunter. Does your wife know?" Shane stared dumbstruck as his captive reached around him to pluck his claim.

"Hey! Get your hands off, you bastard!" Shane wrenched the bag away from the other man and began to tug on the opening. "The hell were you trying to steal anyways...tying this damned sack so tightly." As the strings finally came loose and the opening loosened, a foul stench became noticeable resembling that of rotted flesh. He could feel the blood draining from his face as it slowly dawned on him the exact contents of the bag. "By the gods...get out." It was said so quietly that no one heard it at first. Not even he was sure that he'd said it. But then whatever was clouding his mind had disappeared and Shane returned at full power, red-faced and furious. "GET OUT!" he bellowed. "Get the fucking hell out of my house!" And everyone who hadn't heard it the first time heard it now and began to retreat out of the door.

Shane's wife appeared at the staircase instantly, her eyes wide and hands clutched at her chest. "Shane, is everything alright?" "Go back upstairs, Yeulla," was the strained reply. The woman dutifully dashed back up and out of sight. Humiliated, Shane turned upon the bounty hunter, "and you, I don't want to see your face. Ever."

"I'd be happy to oblige," snarled the wrongly accused just before the door was slammed in his face, leaving him and the watchmen to the biting winds outside. "In a muscle-bound brute who's nothing but talk, there hides a coward," a watchman remarked.

"Oh, drop it," Logan sighed.

The moon was low in the sky and there were the slightest hints of daybreak on the edge of the wide starry expanse of sky. It was out in rural lands away from the towns and cities that the stars really came out from the dark ebony sky. The lights from towns and cities scare stars into hiding, some say; and Hellington was three days walk away from the nearest town of Cathlafore.

"So, Sei, who's the unlucky man," Logan asked as his team and the bounty hunter began to make their way back.

"Morgan. Morgan Bale."

Logan let out a low whistle. He was impressed. He had heard of Sei, from gossip in taverns and data record on papers. Apparently the man had only begun bounty hunting two years back, but had quickly assumed the lead with the highest number of successful bounties turned in. Damn straight, Logan was impressed. And now he was looking at the real deal and gods, he was impressed by this quiet brooding man with his sack over a shoulder. A sack that contained the head of a man with a bounty of over ten thousand gold. Donned in dark leather, everything about Sei screamed lone wolf. A light build. Archery equipment for stealth. What he lacked in durability, he likely made up for in stealthy speed and accuracy. Yet Logan couldn't help but to wonder just that man had successfully managed to take down a criminal mastermind—not to mention Morgan Bale—alone. The notorious human trafficking, child kidnapping murderer was not an easy man to take down. He had men, men who were not to be messed with, men who were large, powerful, frightening and just the sight of them made children cry, wet their pants, and fly into the arms of their parents who were likely just as incapable and helpless as they were.

"Yeah, I know who he is," Logan said, mostly to himself.

They returned to Hellington's guard post to find the guard captain waiting for them in the doorway. Harthlow was a stocky man a head shorter than his deputy, but where he lacked in height, he made up for with a muscular build. He leaned against the frame, scratching his auburn beard as he watched the team approach. "Well what have we here, 'ey? Sei, the legendary bounty hunter." Harthlow descended the steps. "Who the hell named you that anyways? Horrible naming skills on their part."

Logan blinked. "Sorry, sir, what?"

"The word 'Sei' means 'who' in one of the local dialects of the Elven. In other words, the man's like a ghost. A nobody."(*)

Sei said nothing. "Well anyways, c'mon in and let's have a look at that head."

Most of the men returned to their posts as the captain took his deputy and Sei aside to examine and identify the head. "Routine, y'know, not that we doubt the legendary bounty hunter." Sei thought the captain talked too much.

They opened the sack. Harthlow reached in and pulled out the head. "Yeah, that's Bale alright," he growled out. He surveyed the damage. "Face unmarred, clean cut to the throat." He paused. "A bit too clean. You'd done it another way, eh? Dark veins... poison. And then you hacked off his head. Damn impressive. And you took care of every other man in that ol' garrison? Had a bit of help or something of the sort?"

Nonchalantly, Sei replied, "I was alone."

"You sure were," Harthlow whistled. "Can't imagine you getting along with any other human being anyways. You wait here while I get you your letter. You can collect your pay at the capital. Gotta notify the officials. Paperwork. Yada, yada, you know the details."

As he exited the room, Sei turned his back on the deputy to survey the tabletop covered with names and pictures of people with counties on their heads. Bale's was not yet removed, one in the sea of papers. One came to Sei's notice, and it wasn't because of the incredibly large bounty, but the person.

"What had this child done to incur such a high bounty?" he questioned. Children committing crimes of theft, aggression, deception, and/or accomplice was common; it happened all the time. But the crimes were never so serious as to incur a bounty. Even when caught, only children ages twelve or older could be at worst sentenced to hanging. This one didn't even seem to be above ten. Below 12, a child could be cost a right hand or a tongue, but rarely, very rarely, their head. Even more so, one of a little girl.

He turned around to find the deputy staring at the same sheet, wearing an expression of frustration. Maybe because of the extremely lacking details they could provide on the child. Maybe because they couldn't even get a depiction of her image for her poster. "I know what you're thinking, Sei," Logan answered, "but this isn't some mischievous human child here. It's a moon god."

"Moon god," Sei repeated slowly. "And since when did we stop worshipping deities and start hunting them instead?"

"These aren't the deities we worship," Logan replied. "They are powerful beings that aren't to be taken lightly. You see, this one's got the appearance of an eight-year-old, but I'm willing to bet it's at least fifty. These things are shape shifters, which is why they've got such high adaptive ability. And that makes them dangerous, you see? Between them and us, they're stronger. They're the dominating species. We could get wiped out. They're a threat, completely different from elves. Elves—"

"I know elves," Sei snapped, suddenly feeling very irritated. Like humans, elves were very dependent on a stable environment and had relatively low reproduction rate. The key difference, besides appearance, was in their aging process. The average elf lives about two hundred years, spending most of its lengthy life as an adult. Because of their many biological similarities, elves and humans have managed to live in peaceful coexistence and in some cities, intermingle with one another. They can generally be found anywhere, even in the desert country of Aqesor that bordered the south-west of Alfengor and is extremely different from the elves' natural biome.

"So why call them gods? Why not demons?"

"It's not as if I came up with term," Logan sighed. "And they're not exactly demons, since they've done to us no harm so far."

"Then there's no reason to hunt them."

He left Logan to plant himself into a chair on the other side of the room and proceeded to observe the banners that draped over the stone walls.

"It's not that simple," the guard deputy commented exasperatedly. Sei snorted. Logan couldn't be more obvious with his remark. The need to get a point across while still holding back the important information. He was hiding something big, something a person without the credentials and authority shouldn't know.

"Right, I get it. Politics, conquest, greed... who hasn't heard that story before? Just leave me out of it."

Logan had fallen silent and resigned to brooding quietly by the window. Heavy footsteps sounded, signaling Harthrow's return as he strode into the room, scroll in hand. Completely oblivious to the tense atmosphere that had built up in his absence, he tossed the scroll to Sei. "Here. Take that to the earl of Hjentrum. He'll give you your payment." Sei nodded and took the scroll. Giving the poster of the moon god one last glance, he left the post as wordlessly as he had come.

It was already six in the morning. The sun was peeking over the eastern horizon and he could hear the sounds of the village coming to life as he passed by. The early risers were up. Farmers rose to tend to their crops and animals and women swept their thresholds or performed other chores.

There was one tavern in the village, The Dancing Boar, and it was still closed in the early hour. There would probably still be another two hours before the tavern would open, but Sei wanted to gain as much ground as possible while there was still daylight. He rapped loudly on the door, only to be greeted by a beaming face rather than the beyond-pissed expression he had been expecting. Perhaps Shane's baying from a few hours before had awaken the entire village. Seeing his embarrassment probably set them in a good mood.

"Welcome! Lucky for you, we've opened early today. What would you like? A drink? A meal? Or perhaps a room to rest yourself from your weary travels? You look like the travelling type—"

"Just beef stew and bread will do," Sei said quickly. The tavern keeper's bubbly mood was setting him on edge. He took a seat at one of the tables farthest from the counter, preferring to as far away from the animated man.

"Beef stew and bread it is!"

"And ale."

"But of course!"

The sounds of their morning business grew softer and softer and gradually disappeared as he gained distance from the village boundaries, walking down the dirt road that he knew headed for the merchant town of Ivorsfel. It would be a good place to gather some information, as well as a good rest. From there he would continue travelling north up to Brimford, and finally to Hjentrum. Fortunately there were no mountain routes in this trip. It would take approximately six days in total, he estimated. May as well do some minor hunting en route.

The tavern keeper had charged him nine coins for the meal, and he mentally berated himself for the amount of the expense. It would be a little under a week's time before he would receive the reward payment of three hundred, and he had little more than forty coins to sustain him during that time. While he had wolfed down the beef stew while it was hot, he had packed the bread and ale to save for the road. He would hunt most of his meals for the week, intending to preserve his small stash. Luckily, he had also managed to barter off a great deal of the valuables he had found in the garrison, therefore bringing his total to a little over seventy coins. Fortune seemed to be on his side.

Keeping the forest on his left, Sei moved north-east, stopping only once to shoot a small fowl to save for later. By noon, he had moved into the forest, staying close to the edge. Half the bread was gone by evening, and he was halfway to Ivorsfel, but he was weary and hadn't slept the night before thanks to a certain muscle-bound farmer. Tonight he would have his rest.

There was a small stream within the forest, which he used to wash his retrieved arrow. And perhaps he could wash his face a little too, grimy as it was from his last escapade. By the time he was done plucking and gutting his kill, there was a good fire sizzling and crackling in the center of his little camp. It was time for dinner. He took out a little bronze pan from his satchel, and hung it over the fire, then stabbed a green alder stick through the small bird and hung it over the pan. He settled back to watch it cook, turning the stick occasionally, watching the juices drip into the pan below.

Tomorrow he would wake early and continue down the trail. By tomorrow nightfall he would reach Ivorsfel. But that wasn't today's concern. Today was just getting a good night's sleep. And his dinner was ready. The meat was tough and stringy, but he devoured most of the fowl and drank the broth from the pot. After a whole day of dried preserves, the bird, however old it was, provided a good meal. The rest, was tomorrow's.

Sei leaned back against the tree. It was only five in the evening but he could feel the two nights of lost sleep catching up on him. Most of it probably came from his meal. He closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of the forest, allowing himself to be lulled to sleep.

A/N: (*) – Sei is the Chinese pronunciation for 「誰」which means "who".

In this fanfic that takes place in AU, Elven is essentially Japanese (generally Oriental). While I originally planned to have different ethnic races for both humans and elves, it didn't really make sense for the ethnicities of two different species to be the same. So I had to divide the two in order to accommodate the plot.

To help with all the names and locations, I've also come up with a map that I will upload onto my DeviantArt account, as well as some illustrations every now and then. I'm really very into this new project you see :)

The link to my gallery will be on my profile.

The name of the title "Of Gods and Vagabonds" is inspired by the book "Of Mice and Men," for those of you who didn't get the reference.