Marcus walked stiffly through the Ranger's quarters that had been built on the mansion's grounds. The three-story building sat back in the forest, out of the view of prying eyes. Here, the Rangers could train and rest undisturbed by the normal bustle of the city. Although the place had been designed to house close to a hundred Rangers, it currently served the need of only twenty, plus the newcomers, and the halls were therefore largely empty as Marcus passed.
Most Rangers never saw this place, the majority of them serving as clerks, inspectors, tax collectors, judges, and the other fuctionaries of the city's government. Only a few served as true 'Rangers', the last line of defense against unknown dangers and threats. The newcomers were learning of some of these dangers and the city's history now, and Marcus stopped to lean heavily against the door frame and listen to old Sneed, the instructor, as he prattled on.
Though it had been nearly a week since that night with Jaysa, Marcus still had not fully recovered, and Calo had ordered him off duty until that time. His outward injuries had been tended to by several of the retained healers, but something prevented him from completely recovering. The healers suspected that some part of the magic energy released by Jaysa remained within him, but were unable to suggest any cure other than time.
Tired of waiting, Marcus had argued Calo's orders, but the high justice refused to budge, and so Marcus was resigned to rest and wander the halls of the Rangers' quarters, learning what he could while his body slowly purged itself of the residual energy. He had learned of the confrontation with the demon at the Raven, and had even had a fair amount of company thanks to that event as it had left a third of the Rangers bedridden for the better part of a week. He didn't know what had happened to the demon afterwards, Calo's orders again, but was aware that a cloud of gloom hung heavily over the mansion. From what he could piece together, he knew that Giacomo was alive and still in the city, and that something had happened with the Lady Eowyn.
Without warning, Sneed rapped his staff on the floor forcefully, snapping Marcus out of his daydreaming and bringing the class to order. "Attention 'students', and I use the term loosely." The old man began, staring hard at the assembly before him with his one good eye. "Today we will begin a discussion of the histories of the three kingdoms we are..........."
"Why?" asked a lone voice from the back of the room. Sneed looked in the direction of the question, and his gaze finally settled on Kress Lyntalin. Kress was leaning back in her chair looking utterly bored, and rather than wisely choosing to remain silent in the face of Sneed's expression, she continued to press the instructor. "You heard me. Why?" Kress grown had up with six brothers, affording her a rough and tumble exterior, and her jibes were often matched by a profound lack of restraint. Today was no exception. "Why learn useless histories and not their weapons tactics, strengths, abilities, and what we need to do to counter them?"
Marcus smirked, noting the look on Sneed's face, and winced with the thud of the instructor's staff hitting home. He smiled silently as he remembered that not long ago he had asked a similar question and received a similar answer. "Brings back memories, eh?" a familiar voice asked from behind. Marcus turned to face the voice, pleased to see an old friend standing in a small alcove a few yards from the classroom. Marcus left the door to the class and walked towards the other, "Soren, I must be worse than I thought, I didn't hear you. And, yes it does bring back memories--should with you too, you were in the same class."
Soren, enjoying his position as second-in-command with Marcus' absence, rested his lean frame against the wall and smiled a bit too widely. "True you were always a little too brash. How goes your convalesce?" Marcus frowned at the question. "Slowly. And Calo won't let me do anything, no matter how minor, until the healers give me the all clear." Sighing, Marcus slumped down onto a bench. "I know he means well, but it's driving me crazy."
Soren chuckled at his superior's annoyance, thinking that there might be some advantage to be gained. "Well, if it's any consolation my assignment isn't exactly thrilling." Marcus, looked up, excited by the prospect of someone actually discussing business with him. "Trust me, compared to sitting around here watching the new recruits anything is thrilling. What are you working on?"
Soren shrugged and began walking down the corridor again, forcing Marcus to rise and follow him. "Not much to tell, really. It looked promising to begin with." He paused and turned to do a small imitation of Calo. "Soren, I want you to look in to this Ravenclaws guild." Pleased with his mimicry and Marcus' responding chuckle, Soren smiled before returning to his own voice. "It was interesting for a while, but Calo was too worried about this demon, Giacomo, to pay attention to my reports. So I watched and gathered information on them until he was ready to move against them, a moot point now as it seems that their leaders have abandoned them and the group has, for the most part, self-destructed. But, with them out of the way I've discovered hints of another guild--one much quieter than the Claws, using them to cover their actions. I'd like to try to get inside, but without backup Calo would never allow............." Soren paused as Marcus raised a hand, interrupting him and smiling conspiratorially. "Don't worry about Calo, I think I know a way to get us into the guild."
Soren and Marcus' actions continue in The Darksome Road.
Sneed watch Kress as she rubbed the growing lump on her head. "We study the kingdoms histories because those histories are our signposts to their actions in the future." He looked at Kress, then the rest of the assembled, long enough to make certain that they understood, and when he was confident that they had, he continued.
"Fighting is only a small part of what we are. We are here to protect the weak and further just causes. We work toward the careful preservation of history, crafts, and knowledge. We work against, and must often fight those of evil mind--those who would overturn peace and unleash fire and sword across the land to raise their own ambitions. Strong words, eh? Well, I feel strongly. If you come to do so too, you will truly be Rangers. If one falls out of such belief, he or she should leave both the struggle and our ranks. Working for good and maintaining balance are often matters of small degrees. If you wish to shape a bush you must prune it gently, not take a scythe to it. Fight not always with blade or spell. The slower ways are surer. Aid freely given, friendships and trust built--these things evil cannot abide, for it shrinks away from what it cannot destroy with fire and blade." His lecture given, his heart spoken, Sneed fell silent, allowing the students a chance to consider his words, and his message.
Looking over their faces, Sneed searched for hints of doubt and found none. Instead, his survey was met with a look of resolution from each of the students, and he nodded silently to himself, pleased with the group Calo had assembled.
Crossing back to the front of the room, Sneed touched a crystal on his desk and a map of the three kingdoms surrounding Stormpoint sprang to life in the air. "Let us begin with the oldest of the three kingdoms, Darkendale." The map's focus changed as Sneed spoke, and the smallest of the three kingdoms, laying to the east of Stormpoint, came to the forefront. "The land is mostly made of moors, and dark-forested hills. It is bordered on the east by Dominia and on the west by all-but-impassible swamps. Made of mostly small farms, hamlets, and villages, Darkendale boasts only one city of size, and Darkendale Keep dominates this capital as Sable's seat of power before his 'accession'. Its creation heralds back into Dominia's golden age........Yes, Elask?" Sneed paused as Elask Shambryn raised a hand in question.
"You said we were beginning with the oldest kingdom, and isn't Dominia the Lady Samantha's realm?" Elask's handsome, innocent face belied a sharp wit and shrewd mind.
Sneed smiled. "Your are correct, but that's Dominia of our day. The original empire fell nearly 8,000 years ago. A usurper succeeded in killing the royal family and seizing control for the most part. Sable and his brother eventuality lead a rebellion. They were victorious on the field, but the kingdom was shattered as the various Princedoms laid claim to the throne and Dominia fell into years of constant war. Sable lead his Princedom, Darkendale, into isolation, not wanting to be dragged into the chaos. By protecting his own boarder and ignoring invitations of alliances made towards him, he kept Darkendale untouched. Darkendale stands today much as it did thousands of years ago, unchanging as its vampiric Prince--a culture trapped in yesterday, but that is changing."
"With his self-proclaimed godhood, Sable has been inattentive to the mortal world. With his neighbors at peace and united under his wife, and with the alliance with Ogrek, however, Darkendale is slowly coming out from its shell. Its people are very formal in their customs and proud of their heritage. Militarily, Darkendale is very formidable with a highly-trained, well-equipped, if somewhat small force, quite capable of defeating foes of a much larger size. While not of a great enough size to be a truly aggressive power, on their home ground they are nigh invulnerable. As to recent events they are still recovering form a plague they were given to keep Darkendale from Dominia's side during the Undead War, but Sable and Darkendale were still able to play an instrumental part in Samantha's victory. Which now brings us to Dominia........."
"Which now brings us to Dominia." The map changed with his topic, hifting focus to a much larger kingdom. Darkendale faded into a gray color as Dominia became two colors, a smaller section of dark blue surrounded on the East by a light blue section The Realm is just now raising itself out from the ashes of the ruined dream of old. The countless years of constant warfare between the multitude of would-be emperors and tyrants all but destroyed the last vestiges of the civilization. And, it may have very well continued to this day if fate had not interfered. One of the Warlords stood at the verge of changing the balance of power and bringing the lands together under his rule. Only one small thing eluded him to bring his dreams to fruition--Darkendale, either he had to get it to stand with him or he had to bring it to heel. Not looking forward to an honest fight with the Princedom, he resorted to treachery in its place. He sent his two best assassins to kill Sable, two women chosen for their appeal to the Lord's known tastes. He made one fatal mistake, however. He assumed that the name "Sable" was a title passed from father to son instead of an immortal creature of darkness. The assassins attacked the moment Lord Hastar armies crossed the border, and failed. Sable killed one and enslaved the other who now serves the Lady Samantha as her personal handmaiden as punishment for her act of betrayal. Like a terrible creature roused to anger, Darkendale set upon the invaders with a vengeance. Sweeping them from their homeland was not enough for the army of Darkendale, and they took the battle to the foe and crushed Hastar's petty rule. Many of the warlords watched for Darkendale's next move, wondering if it would finally enter the wars of accession that had all but consumed its neighbors. But it didn't. Instead Sable stopped at Hastar's destruction and held the new border, venturing no further. Not taking the new throne, he instead made it an engagement gift to his lady. The Lady Samantha took the throne and her husband and the first year of her rule was, for the most part, uneventful until the Undead War and............................."
"And that will be covered tomorrow," Chun said a voice with a heavy eastern accent from the back of the room, interrupting Sneed's lecture.
An ancient oriental man stood in the doorway, his arms crossed in front of him. When Sneed turned to face him, a look of irritation on the old ranger's face, the man bowed respectfully. "Master Sneed, it is time for their martial training, per Emperor Calo's instructions."
Sneed rolled his eyes and took a deep and purposeful breath. In Sneed's mind, Calo had a high enough opinion of himself already, and his ego needed no further inflating. "Chun, how many times do I have to tell you? Calo is not an Emperor." Sneed sighed heavily, his irritation obvious, for he knew Chun would never listen, and his students were already fidgeting in their seats, eager to start what they thought to be the more exciting part of their training. "Oh, very well, you're dismissed." The last part of his words were lost in the resulting din as the young rangers rushed from the room in what Sneed likened to a group of lemmings.
"Humph, youth." Sneed snorted to himself, gathering a few things from his desk and grabbing his walking stick before leaving the classroom. It was now midday. He had been lectured the morning away. He would have to stop by the mansion for breakfast. Calo would be asleep, of course, but perhaps he would have a chance to finally meet Lady Juleana. Passing by the sparring rings, he at chuckled at Chun's shouts of encouragement, "You move like a baboon with two club feet!" and chuckled louder at the thuds which followed.
Leaving the rings behind, the old sage continued out of the newly built rangers' halls and towards the mansion a short distance away. The sun high overhead made him squint, has his many hours spent pouring over dusty tomes having left him unaccustomed to the bright light. It also told that him would have to hurry a bit if he wanted to visit Eowyn today as he had planned.
Leaving the rings behind, the old sage continued out of the newly built rangers' halls and towards the mansion a short distance away. The sun high overhead made him squint, his many hours spent pouring over dusty tomes having left him unaccustomed to the bright light. It also told that him would have to hurry a bit if he wanted to visit Eowyn that day as he had planned.
Winding his way through greenery of the newly constructed garden Calo had requisitioned for Lady Juleana, Sneed was struck once again by the fact that he had yet to meet the future Lady Digerian. She tended to be rather reclusive when Calo was not about, and the mansion was certainly large enough that she could wander about without being seen if that was her wish. Having decided that a "chance" encounter was thus unlikely to occur, Sneed decided just as he cleared the garden and approached the kitchen entrance that he would have to 'arrange' a meeting.
It was after midday and Sneed doubted that any kitchen staff had remained beyond the noon repast as they more than likely had errands to attend to before dinner preparation began. Still, the kitchen would be well stocked and Sneed, having spent a large portion of his life traveling and living off what the land chose to provide, was certain that he could scrounge up a sufficient breakfast from the pantries of the High Justice's kitchen.
Juleana slid quietly out of bed, not that she could actually disturb Calo's sleep. Still being a newborn vampire, the daylight sleep struck him more heavily than the city's older vampires.
Nevertheless, she tiptoed to the corner of their room where she kept her things. The dagger was hidden in the top drawer and it still glowed with the energy that swirled within it. Wrapping her slender fingers about the hilt, she could feel its strength, and she silently prayed it would do its job. Looking back to Calo only once, she slid the dagger back into its sheath, happy nothing had gone wrong before its return.
Her clothes laid in a pile on he floor where she had discarded them and she stepped over them as she went through her day in her head. It was to be nothing special, and so she pulled on her leather pants and her favorite little white T-shirt. Barefoot and yawning, she left the room, pausing only to scry the ward on the door before she left.
Her feet made little slapping noises on the black and white tile as she entered the kitchen. Had anyone been watching her, she would have looked like any other twenty-eight-year-old woman in need of a cup of coffee. Sniffing the air, she new that Josephine had made the coffee before she left for the shopping. A smile crossed her face as she remembered the day she had tried to show her how to use the Mr. Coffee she brought form New Orleans. The poor woman had actually thought it was evil. The coffee steamed as she poured a cup and placed the pot back on the counter.
Piling her hair up in a twist, she looked outside and took her first careful sip from the piping hot cup. The Rangers had been up and practicing for hours already. They trained and fought in mock battles, making ready for both the more mundane dangers of the city and the possibility of yet another battle with the demon.
Pancakes! The thought slammed into her mind from nowhere, darting past the sounds of the rangers as the practices and the worries of the city. Someone was coming.
Pulling her ingredients from the refrigerator and mixing them with a skillful hand, she was quickly in the throngs of flipping old fashioned pancakes.
Company. The thought hit her again. Pancakes wasn't going to cut it with this one. She needed real food. Reaching into the refrigerator, she grabbed a thick steak and three large eggs, frying them both in the same pan like they did in the old greasy spoons. Without looking up from her work she smiled as her visitor entered, "Master Sneed, Please join me for brunch?"
Sneed reconized her instantly form the pictures about. He had to chuckle to himself 'Be careful what you ask for." But ,this was not an unwelcome happening no quite the contrarey it was most welcomed event. Taking a seat that a small table he looked to see her hurring about the kitchen parparing lunch. "Milady Juleana, you should not be doing this. A woman of your position should not be running after an old sage."
Juleana placed the plate in front of him along with clean cutlery. Self-consciously, she pulled her T-shirt down over her pierced navel, a look of exasperation on her face. "My position, my dear Master Sneed? My position is to make sure all My Lord's men are taken care of as he would ..."
Before she could finish Sneed rapped his cane on the floor, causing her to slowly slide into her chair and not meet his gaze. "Yes, a woman of your position. Milady, you are about to take on a position of both power and respect, and yes you are mistress of the house, but you can have others serve at your command so as to free your time to aid Lord Calo in his duties."
Juleana slowly raised her eyes, peering through her fringed bangs. She blushed starting to say something about aiding her Love plenty but thought better of it. "Master Sneed, I am sure I don't need to remind you that I have more than 12 hours a day of free time. I think I can spare the time for a simple breakfast for someone my Lord considers so valuable."
But his words stuck in her thoughts--"a woman of your position." That was something she was never going to get used to. She was used to serving others not being served.
Sneed sighed while he ate, prompting a small smile from Juleana. He might have objected to her actions, but apparently not enough to refuse a warm-cooked meal.
"At the moment, yes you have the time. But that will change. People will come to speak with you on important matters that cannot wait for Calo to rise in the evening. You will have important guests seeking your favor, and your word in the High Justice's ear. Knowing Calo as I do, I would not be surprised if he made your word equal to his own amoung the Rangers. Remember the Vistani are a matriarchal society."
With that last statement, Juleana's interest was peeked. Calo had never spoken much about the Vistani, or his life before being turned. In fact, she knew only that there had been a falling out and he no longer spoke with anyone. She pushed her plate away and slid back the chair. Drawing her legs up into the chair, she hugged them tight against her chest.
"Master Sneed, Are you aware I too come from a matriarchal society?"
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