The sign read, “Volunteers Needed! Do you want to make a difference for the entire Fae race? Notify your commander to be part of this amazing opportunity today!”
Espero read the sign and snorted. Aware that things like this cropped up when some poor grunt was needed to do dirty work no one else wanted to do, he typically did not give them a second thought. However, something about it called to him and his mind raced as he read the notice a second time.
They’re awful scarce with the details, he thought, but my gut is telling me I should do it. The question is, why? I’m a centaur—a warrior—and a damn good one! Why should I walk away from that?
He scratched his chin and thought, maybe with this I could make a difference without cutting down enemies. Blood has paid the bills for ages, but perhaps it’s time for a change. Besides, when I fight, I always win, and where is the excitement in that?
He continued to rub his chin pensively for a moment, then cursed and called out in a singsong baritone, “Oh, General Onorren!”
He swaggered through the barracks and out into camp in search of him. When he found him, the general was less than pleased. Despite their size difference, the Chupacabra practically dragged Espero to his office.
The door slammed behind them and General Onorren’s thin lips exposed long fangs as he snarled, “You’re one of my best soldiers and you expect me to just turn you over to the Queen as some plaything?”
Espero shrugged, “The sign says they need volunteers. I’m volunteering.”
Onorren’s lean, muscled stature and sharp snout were characteristic of the Chupacabras. But his affinity for cruelty was more extreme than others of his race. Normally the only blood they shed was what they drank. Onorren preferred the earth to be paved with it; able to bathe in sanguine glory wherever he went.
Normally Espero was only too happy to oblige, but today he wanted something different and refused to back down, afraid the desire and opportunity would pass him by.
Crossing his arms, he stared down at the tiny general who blustered on about Espero’s loss of sense and motivation as the words flew in one ear and out the other. When he finally paused to breathe, Espero retorted, “Finished?”
General Onorren cursed under his breath and called, “Juniper! In here, now!”
The Spriggan burst through the door and brought twiggy fingers to gnarled, leafy brow in a salute. Onorren barked, “I’m leaving on official business. You are in charge. Make sure everyone runs their drills, and don’t screw up!”
Juniper saluted again as Onorren shoved past him and stormed out the door. Espero shrugged at the Spriggan and followed his general into the sunlight.
Outside, the general whistled for a ride and an earthen horse crowned with a mane of knotted grass and vines trotted gracefully to them with its head held high. It regarded Espero with a look of camaraderie.
He tilted his head a fraction and said, “It’s nice to meet you, too.”
The horse tossed its head in reply as General Onorren scowled at him. The Chupacabra leapt onto its earthen back and snarled, “To the palace, horse.”
It high-stepped and danced eagerly, flipping a flowered tail to and fro.
Onorren’s eyes bored into Espero as he bit out, “You’ll obviously have to travel on foot, and you better keep up.”
He nudged his horse into a canter, and Espero grinned as his well-trained muscular legs ate up the ground between him and the earth horse. Freedom, he thought, as he savored the feel of the air whipping by him. He and the horse ran side by side the entire distance; the horse occasionally making playful nips and dodges at him.
He chuckled, “I like you, horse! You don’t take life too seriously the way war horses do.” It gave a soft snort of approval and he laughed again.
Too soon they arrived at the palace gates and were escorted inside. The Unseelie Queen, Lonomia, sat upon her woven throne of thorns regarding them with oil-slick eyes that seemed to swallow every drop of light in the room. As they approached her throne, Onorren swept into a low bow. Espero cringed as the general’s voice came out low and groveling.
“Your Majesty, I have brought you a fine specimen to volunteer for your special project. He has proven himself time and again in battle, as well as being strong, resilient, and clever.”
Face still low to the floor, Onorren straightened quickly when the Queen’s smoky voice snarked, “You may rise. But tell me, General, why does your volunteer not bend the knee? Does he not serve the Unseelie Court?”
Turning his glare on Espero, Onorren said, “He can occasionally be a bit headstrong.”
Espero shrugged and felt his legs buckle as the backs of his knees were hit by one of the spear-wielding minotaur guards. He dropped heavily to the floor, knees crunching when they hit stone. The minotaur chuckled as Espero cursed under his breath.
I should have seen that one coming, he chided himself.
Rising, the Queen reached a black-clawed hand back toward her throne. An ink-spot spider the size of a cat crawled out from behind it and skittered up her arm to perch parrot-like on her shoulder. It stared menacingly at Espero as its fangs clacked together, its carapace shining eerily in the low light.
Lonomia prowled to where Espero had been forced to kneel, her massive grey and white moth wings trailing behind her. Standing over him, silver cheekbones gaunt in the flickering candlelight, she said, “We have ways of dealing with that. I can tell he’s going to be perfect for this assignment.”
Espero’s mind whirled. I might have made the wrong choice today. Maybe I should have stuck with beheadings and evisceration? Not like I have a choice now.
A sharp jab to his left hindquarter forced him to stand again. He turned and showed his teeth to the guard who had now stabbed him twice. The guard grinned, then faltered as Espero blew him a kiss.
The Queen’s voice echoed through the room, snapping the guard back to attention as she ordered, “Take him to his new room.” She gave Espero a mock salute and sneered, “Thank you for your service, soldier.”
The Minotaur’s spear jabbed Espero whenever he was supposed to turn in the damp, dark hallways until their foray ended at a large wooden door. The minotaur stepped forward, unlocked it with a heavy key, and waited, spear at the ready in case Espero decided to bolt.
But Espero calmly entered the room and began taking in his surroundings, searching—as he had been trained—for any potential escape routes. His heart sank as he studied the small barred window up near the ceiling he would never fit through. He had seen the thick, reinforced door on the way in; and there were no vents, grates, or noticeable trap doors. He was stuck until they let him out again. It was all he could do to keep from jumping as the heavy door clanged shut behind him.
He checked his bleeding chestnut flanks and found they were not bad enough to worry about. A day or two and it would be as though nothing happened.
A gravelly voice from outside the door said, “The Queen will speak with you soon.”
The minotaur, Espero mused.
He continued, “Then you’ll learn what you’ve signed on for.” The Minotaur snickered to himself and Espero rolled his eyes. Really? This guy hasn’t had his fill of torturing me yet?
Unable to bite his tongue Espero said, “Aww, you mean the assignment isn’t to be your new best friend? I thought we hit it off really well!”
The minotaur jabbed his spear under the small space at the bottom of the door, eliciting a laugh from Espero.
In one corner of the room lay a large, shabby purple cushion. There was also a small stand with a tin cup and pitcher of water, as well as a bucket—presumably for relieving himself.
Exhausted, he flopped on the stale smelling cushion and dropped off to sleep.
A while later, he bolted awake as a soft caress crossed his cheek. He leapt off the cushion.
Hissing laughter skittered through the room as his eyes focused on the face of Queen Lonomia. She rose to match his stance, running her eyes over him, and her hand down his back and flank. His guts squirmed at her touch.
“Yes, you’ll do just fine.” She returned to his front, lifting her chin to look him in the eyes. “Espero, is it?”
He nodded curtly and she continued, laughing, “Oh, you are something different.”
He was not sure that was in his favor, so he said nothing. Even the smallest statement could betray a person in situations like this.
She smirked and steepled her fingers. “You will be the core of a special project to help our kind with our fertility issues. Some of my mages believe they’ve uncovered a way to better our chances of procreating, but I needed someone who could break the mold to carry it out, and I’m certain that’s you.”
Espero held his tongue and Lonomia grinned openly at him, full of excitement.
“As we speak, my mages are preparing your enhancements. Once that is finished, I will give you the full details of your assignment and you will begin your work to help save our kind.”
She left in a flourish of silks, and he could not help but wonder if it was spider silk as the ink blot with legs stared at him from her shoulder.