"Kaden, how many times have I told you?" Crystal McPherson sighed,
pulling a wet rag out of the water bucket. She looked up at her
daughter, blood running from her nose and a small bruise forming
under her right eye.
"Mother please." Kaden drew out the last word, crossing her arms. "It's not my fault. They were asking for it."
"Kaden!" Crystal raised the rag to her daughter's nose, gently dabbing at the blood that was beginning to dry on her face.
Kaden scowled, dropping into a chair and glaring at her mother. Crystal raised her chin and eyed her daughter. It had been the same ever since her father had died. Kaden had so loved her father, dreaming of being a ranger like him, alongside him. Crystal frowned and sighing, she tossed the rag back into the water to cross her arms. Kaden was too young when he was taken. She was in the early stages of learning how to handle herself. She had never forgiven the world for the death of her father.
Kaden dropped her eyes, folding her hands in her lap. She had heard the same lecture a hundred times. It never changed. Kaden grumbled. "If they'd stop mocking me, I wouldn't have to do anything."
"Kaden." Crystal dropped her arms and looked at her daughter. She knew it was all that pent up emotion that caused it, and the boys in town did nothing to ease the anger that was bottled up inside her daughter. "I think it's time."
"Mama?" Kaden looked up at her curiously, arching a brow.
Crystal McPherson shook her head, more to fight back the tears than to silence her daughter. She turned, leaving Kaden alone in the kitchen. Without a moment's hesitation, Kaden's bootfalls resounded as she nearly ran into the sitting room. Crystal stood, holding a bow, quiver of arrows and a satchel.
"The rangers are recruiting again Kaden, and your name is on the roster."
Kaden nearly lunged at her mother as she threw her arms around her. The quick reaction caused Crystal to drop everything she was holding and return the embrace. "I don't see how you're going to get in with those bruises."
"Mama!" Kaden stepped back, grinning from ear to ear. She bent down, sliding the bow and quiver over her shoulders and picking up her satchel in her hands.
"You behave, Kaden McPherson, and mind your manners out there."
"I will mama." Kaden smiled, placing a kiss on her mother's cheek as she turned towards the door.
Crystal nodded. "I know you will." She gently patted her daughter's arm. "Now get going. You don't want to be late."
Kaden turned, waving one more time before she slung the pack over her shoulder and began the walk towards the Ranger camp.
The sun had not yet reached the top of its arc across the sky when a lone figure passed through the city's northern gates. Both small and lithe, she was utterly dwarfed by the towering structure of rock and metal; and her eyes scanned the ever watchful stone gargoyles as she hurried nervously beneath their gaze. They paid her no heed, however, as she passed, their mouths seemingly frozen in a perpetual snarl of either warning or welcome. Once safely through their portal, the figure glanced back at them as if to determine which expression they actually wore. Her own features changed as she did so; her pale white face tilting, perplexed, to one side while her deep blue eyes grew both wider and distant. She stared at them for some time, joining them in their statuary stillness until at last she blinked, straightened her black-tressed head, and continued on her way. Whether she had reached a decision or had simply abandoned the question was impossible to tell. She did, however, begin to rub a fragile shoulder with pale, spindly fingers.
She kept largely to herself as she passed though the city, skirting what crowds she could as she gazed, wide-eyed at one commonplace sight or another. With her slight frame and haunting expression she might have seemed sylphine or even elven; but she was, in fact, human. She was not, however of the city. This much was clear, for within its myriad streets and people she looked rather like a wildflower lost within a rose garden, if Stormpoint could ever be compared to anything so tame and simple as a rose garden. A few people looked her way as they went about their affairs, not having seen her before, but most paid her no mind. She was but a tiny slip of a creature and though her dress was a pure and rich blue, its cut was of simple design and bespoke of one of modest means. She therefore wound her way though the spokes of the city largely unmolested, pausing only now and again to get her bearings from an unknown source and to rub her shoulder as if it were injured. It wasn't.
Her features changed little as she continued on, save perhaps to show a greater degree of confusion at her course. No less that three times she reversed her direction and headed back the way she had come, her blue eyes wide with uncertainty as she turned her head from side to side. Her long dark hair followed her movements like a curtain, shutting out one sight to let another in. Neither seemed to be what she was looking for, and she rubbed her shoulder again; this time with a look of pain. There was nothing wrong with it.
Time passed by with all the trappings of daily life while the woman, who looked little more than a girl, stood still within its flow. She was looking for someone or something, it seemed, but who or whatever it was, wasn't there. She closed her eyes and rubbed her shoulder once more. For a moment, she looked as if she might return from whence she had come, but when her foot took step again a sudden jolt of pain said otherwise. She hadn't been looking, and instead of avoiding passers by, she crossed the path of one, running into a young woman with a bruised eye and determined stare. The woman carried both a bow and quiver, and it was this latter that the blue clad stranger had struck hard with her shoulder, causing her hand to once again grip the bone and muscle as if hurt. This time, it was. She knew the young woman instantly as the one she must find. She didn't know why. She didn't know what the woman could, or would do. She didn't even know that her name was Kaden McPherson.
Kaden slowed once she got into the main square. She had been here
every day of her life but it just felt different today. She was
passing through the square as Kaden. Tomorrow she would pass through
as Kaden the Ranger ... in training but still. One day she would pass
through as a full fledged Ranger. It was that thought that had her
head in the clouds as she wove unsteadily through the throng of
people populating the town.
Kaden slowly slid her eyes towards the streets leading off the other side of the square, noting the one she had to take and mentally plotting her course. Another step forward had her bumping directly into someone and causing her to stumble back a step.
The hopeful ranger shifted her quiver back onto her shoulder properly and lowered her duffle bag towards the ground. Immediately the anger began to rise in her veins and both brows drew together. Cheeks flushed, Kaden was about to let loose a string of words when she focused on the one who hit her. A tinier woman, with amazingly dark hair who was rubbing her shoulder and looking rather....lost. "Honestly, Kaden. I don't know what I'm going to do with you." - Her mothers words rang in her ears as she slowly inhaled.
"Better watch where yer going next time... some people don't have good manners." The look of anger slid away from her face, though she was still flushed. Half from the rush of adrenaline and half from the excitement of almost being where she wanted to be.
"Do you need directions?" Eager to be on her way, Kaden picked up her satchel once more and glanced towards the other side of the market.
The waif-like woman blinked as if momentarily confused, as if she
had expected a different response. In truth, she had no such
expectation, but rather had something more akin to a hope -- frail
and fleeting -- that the other would know why she was here. Sadly,
the young woman's words suggested that such was not the case,
leaving her to struggle with an explanation she couldn't yet offer.
A mental sigh dusted her brow.
"I'm sorry," she said at last, hoping to further placate the anger she'd clearly caused. Her timbre rang sincere, accompanied, as it was, by a pair of deep blue eyes that though clouded in thought, contained no guile. "Yes, you're right. I do need to watch where I'm going. You see I . . . ." She trailed off in an odd tone, a curious expression settling on her face. It suggested that she was considering her own words and perhaps searching therein for additional meaning. When it seemed that she'd found nothing, or perhaps had simply come to her senses, she shook her head and offered a timid smile.
"No . . . no, I don't need directions. But I do need your help."
She extended her hand to the woman. The gesture had an unnatural appearance, as of one who'd seen it performed and vaguely understood its purpose, but had had scarce opportunity for its use.
"My name is Briar and . . . . ."
The following pause was quite clearly used to assemble some set of words that didn't sound as strange as they otherwise might. It met with only marginal success.
. . . . I need to come with you."
"Confused isn't even the word..." Kaden thought to herself as she
watched the young woman try to gather her thoughts. What was up with
this girl? Curious, Kaden drew her brows together and hesitantly gave
up her longing look towards the Ranger camp and stared back at Briar.
Kaden noticed her incessant rubbing of the shoulder and wondered if that was her fault. The girl was also awkward with her gestures. Shifting her pack again, Kaden stuck out her hand to grip the one of the other woman. "Kaden."
That said and simply done, she hefted her pack again to be comfortably carried and was about to offer whatever help she could - in the form of helping her find someone, or a place... until she heard: " . . . . I need to come with you."
"Excuse me?" The last word of Briar's phrase was barely out of her mouth when Kaden was blurting out her question. This woman needed to go with her? For what reason? There was NO way she was showing up at the Ranger camp on her first day with some confused and dazed woman claiming she needed to be with Kaden.
"You dont exactly look like a Ranger, Miss. Sorry but I dont think you're going the same way...."
With her head tilted to one side and her eyes wide with innocence,
Briar looked truly taken aback by Kaden's response. It wasn't so
much the would-be ranger's words that surprised her as the
expression she wore and the message it so clearly conveyed. She
didn't want Briar coming with her. She didn't want to help.
This wasn't going well.
Briar rung her hands as her own expression changed from surprise, to confusion, and finally to determination.
"No, I'm not a ranger," she said finally in a slow and even tone, "but we are going the same way. Wherever you go, I need to follow. I've . . ."
And here she paused and hazarded a nervous look at the street about them. Truth be told, it had been a long time since Briar had visited this, or indeed any city, and she wasn't sure if things had changed. But whatever force had driven her from her home and through the city gates instilled her with sufficient confidence to continue despite the presence of passing strangers.
"I've seen it," she finished, and seemed to draw strength from the admission. "I've seen you," she continued, with greater confidence, "here ..... and elsewhere. It may have been the camp. I don't know. I've never been there, but I know that wherever you go, I must follow."
Her voice rang with both a sense of urgency and resolution that testified more plainly than any words that she would follow Kaden whether permitted or not. Too much, she felt, might be at stake.
"Besides," she added breathlessly, surprised by her own sudden resolve, "Aren't rangers supposed to help people?"
Kaden groaned. She watched Briar's expressions, the nervous gestures
and then finally her words. "Aye, they are," she sighed. The woman
had a point. The rangers were here to help, but in these strange
circumstances, especially when she wasn't a ranger yet.
Well, what the hell was she supposed to do?
Kaden glanced towards the sky, then towards the road she needed to take and then finally to Briar. "All right fine. I am not going to ask about this hocus pocus seer nonsense ... at least not yet. I don't know if I want to know." She shifted her pack back over her shoulder. "You can come along I suppose. But please, I'm asking that you dont interfere with me trying to become a ranger." Kaden earnestly looked to Briar for a minute before composing herself once again. "There is a lot I need to accomplish here."
Kaden began the strides towards the road that lead to the Rangers. "I guess you're coming along." She dug her hand into her pocket and turned her determined gaze down the road. "Where did you say you were from?"
With a commingled expression of relief and surprise, Briar hurried
along after the would-be ranger, running the first few steps in order
to keep up with her. She certainly was a determined young woman, and
one Briar thought would make a fine ranger. She was forced to admit,
however, that she knew little of such things, having only heard of
the rangers and never actually having met or even seen one. Still,
there was something about Kaden that she thought would serve her well
on her chosen . . . path.
The last word echoed in her mind, calling forth silent musings and a correspondingly unfocused expression. It was from this sudden reverie, that Kaden's unexpected question called her to another.
"Where did you say you were from?"
A small frown formed on Briar's lips. She didn't recall having said where she was from, but given Kaden's reluctant acceptance of company, she didn't want to be rude. Besides, having already told the young woman of her vision, she had precious little to hide.
"Not far from here," she responded without further thought. "In Tanglewood."
Her answer given, she went to return to her prior musings only to discover that she was now unable to find them. Unbothered, she began humming quietly. It was a simple tune of nonspecific origin, and in truth Briar couldn't recall where she he had learned it. She rarely allowed such things to trouble her, however, and so continued humming with a soft yet pleasant voice as she followed Kaden toward the camp.
Many things caught her eye as they moved steadily onward. So many people. Did they all live in the city, she wondered. So many stores as well. She glanced with curious longing and timidity in several of the windows as they passed. Maybe she'd stop in one afterwards . . . . . just to look. Looking couldn't hurt, could it? But which one to visit? There were far too many choices. Already they'd passed a bakery, a sundries shop, a millinery, and even a library. The choices were endless and clearly threatened to overwhelm the waif-like visitor, whose eye had then landed upon an anvil shaped sign hanging above a weaponsmithy. The sight sent her mind flittering once again until it at last arrived, via a circuitous stream of consciousness, at the woman who now served as her begrudging guide.
She opened her mouth, pausing neither for thought or reflection, and forth flew the question that had just formed in her head.
"Why do you want to be ranger?"
She realized only after the last word had escaped that Kaden might not be interested in sharing such information with a perfect stranger, but it was too late to recall the query. Embarrassed at her possible gaff and simplicity, Briar added somewhat clumsily, "If you . . . don't mind my curiosity, that is. If you do, that's . . . that's fine. I'll just keep quiet." She bit her lip before adding in an apologetic tone, "I promise, I . . . I won't interfere when we get there. I can tell it's important to you."
Kaden's eyes flickered sideways at Briar as she mentioned where she
was from. "Tanglewood..." It was more of a question that wasn't to be
answered than a statement. Well, that explained a bit about the
unusual qualities Kaden found in her newly found companion.
She shook her head and continued onward, winding through the streets past the shops and keeping her gaze straight ahead. She could see the wisps of smoke curling into the sky from the Ranger site that was growing closer with each step.
Kaden chewed the inside of her cheek out of habit. Her father was a great ranger in his time. He would be so proud if she became one... if.... Kaden had been "too young" last time but she knew she was way too emotional and headstrong. Not much had changed except her ability to keep her mouth shut when she absolutely had to. She was determined to follow in his steps.
She could almost feel his fingers tousling her hair as his mustache twitched when the corners of his mouth turned upwards into that smile...the one that held a secret that only she and he shared.
"Why do you want to be a ranger?"
The image of her father was erased as she focused once more on the street and turned to the woman next to her. "If you . . . don't mind my curiosity, that is. If you do, that's . . .that's fine. I'll just keep quiet. I promise, I . . . I won't interfere when we get there. I can tell it's important to you." Briar's words poured from her mouth.
Kaden shrugged a shoulder. "My father was a Ranger." And that was all the response she offered. It was enough if one got the gist of the tone she used for that could explain it all.
Kaden glanced back at Briar, more of a silent apology for her snapping. She didn't mind Briar so much, in fact she almost begrudgingly enjoyed having the company. It eased her nerves somewhat to have something else to focus on besides the journey to the Rangers, which, as Kaden took another turn, was almost in front of them.
Kaden shrugged a shoulder. "My father was a Ranger." And that was
all the response she offered.
"Oh," Briar said, realizing what lay unspoken in Kaden's words. Her brow furrowed for a moment as she tried to think of another suitable response. Unable to find one, she gave an understanding, if somewhat awkward, smile.
They continued on in silence.
Briar could tell they weren't far from their destination. The expectancy in her companion's step had quickened with a new rise of anticipation, and the whisper thin puffs of smoke they had seen in the distance had grown considerably thicker. They could hear sounds now as well...... voices, metal clanging against metal, and other sounds Briar couldn't identify. It did little to set her mind at ease, and by the time they reached their goal, her recently found confidence was ebbing.
The camp was abuzz with activity. Several rangers and recruits littered the grounds in groups of various size. One group was training or testing with melee weapons .... staffs, swords, and some the that the wide-eyed denizen from Tanglewood didn't recognize. Further off, another group was busy at an archery range. The largest group, however, stood gathered near a central fire, apparently waiting for someone or something. Briar had never before seen so many people in one place, and she moved instinctively closer to her hopefully less reluctant guide. Many of those milling about near the camp's center looked slightly older than Kaden, and all wore similar garb, but few bore the same grim look of determination on their faces. She hadn't thought it possible, but within the humming mix of rangers and would-be rangers, Briar felt even more out of place than before. She looked down at her small frame clad in her plain blue dress, knowing that she couldn't have stood out more if she'd tried and wishing that she'd worn something else. Of course, she hadn't known her destination when she'd dressed. She only knew that she'd find Kaden in town and that she needed to go with her. Still, she now felt doubly uncomfortable and she let her hair fall about her face in an attempt to hide both her features and her embarrassment. For the first time, she understood Kaden's reluctance for her presence, and a ripple of guilt washed through stomach. If she could have, she would have slunk quietly away, but the force of the vision that had driven her from her home and into the city was too strong to ignore.
And so she followed on, trailing quietly in Kaden's footsteps, her eyes downcast and her hair draping her face. She hoped thereby to attract less attention and give Kaden less concern. With any luck, Kaden was too full of excitement to be either concerned or angered, but Briar dared not look at her, and instead only mouthed two silent words.
Kaden's heartbeat grew faster with each step as they approached the
camp. Habitually, she chewed the inside of her cheek and tried to
silently force the nerves out of her stomach. She had been here
before, she had already seen what testing was like.
And she had not made it.
Kaden would have groaned out loud if she had not had the restraint and such determination this time around to become a Ranger. Her father's stories rang through her head and his words, which he always told Kaden on a daily basis, "If your heart is in the right place, and your mind is ready to work, everything is possible, Kade."
She raised her head and turned her eyes to the camp with a refound eagerness to prove herself. Already numerous recruits had arrived and gathered around the central fire. Kaden's eyes scanned the weapons group, the archery group (Kaden's favorite), and those milling about in their every day tasks.
Kaden's steps hesitantly carried her towards the group gathered at the fire. She slid a sideways glance at Briar, and noted just how much the strange woman stuck out. With a smile of encouragement, Kaden turned back towards the group and made her way into the circle gathered. She dropped her pack on the ground and slid her bow off her shoulder to rest it at her side, fingers curled around its tip and looked at those gathered.
Alone, atop one of the sentry towers that loomed over the training
field, a dark-clad figure stood ..... watching. She watched as
arrows drove deep into targets, and she watched as they flew wide,
plowing into the vine-covered wall behind. She watched as staff
struck woodenly against staff, and she watched as staff struck
instead against flesh, producing a decidedly different sound. She
watched as would-be rangers fell upon one another in matched bouts,
and she watched as they fell also to the ground, defeated.
Through it all, she watched; and through it all, her expression never changed. It was one of keen intent; but an intent born of duty rather than personal interest. If it were up to her, she wouldn't be there; but for good or for ill, it wasn't up to her. The decision instead had rested with the High Justice, and he had called her to serve. She knew that it was an honor to be chosen to oversee recruitment and the commencement of training, and she knew that Calo had passed over his "first-in-command," to give the responsibility to her instead. Still, she felt her skills could be better used elsewhere, even if the process would take only a handful of days. She sighed and leaned on the roughhewn ledge of the sentry tower, continuing to watch the events below.
She took some comfort in the fact that Soren, the titular leader of the rangers, had sorely wanted the task, and the left corner of her mouth turned upward in a small smirk as she remembered his attempt to conceal his disappointment and rage. The fact that she'd been given the duty instead had stung him deeply. Her smirk grew. She had little love and even less respect for the man who currently served as her direct superior; and the feeling was plainly mutual. But even the fact the that her current assignment galled him to the core did little to change the fact that she'd rather be elsewhere.
A handful of those who performed below stood out among the rest. There was a young man, somewhere in his mid-twenties if she judged accurately, who was quite skillful with the mock blades. He looked vaguely familiar, and after some time she determined that he was the younger son of one of the town's weaponsmith's. Another candidate had proven himself adept with the bo staffs used for recruitment and initial training, and she found herself hoping that he would be equally proficient with the quarterstaff. To her disappointment, however, no one had yet demonstrated any great skill with either long or short bow. Many had proved themselves adequate at the stationary targets, but none had demonstrated any consistent ability to hit a moving target. In fact, the latest candidate's attempt had nearly prompted her to beat her head against the wall in an effort to erase the memory. At least no one had been injured ......... yet.
Newly embittered with her assignment, she turned her head from the archery trials, and sought to focus instead on the unarmed combat. But her was drawn to the gates, through which two new figures had just entered. They were unlikely pair. One was athletically slim and dressed practically for the occasion, wearing a plain light shirt and doeskin pants. A dagger sat at her hip and bow hung across her back. The other was waifish, hiding behind a dark curtain of hair and wearing a long blue dress.
Atop the sentry tower, Sherrill groaned, thinking momentarily that someone had brought along their kid sister or their best friend for support. What the hell did people think this was? As she looked, however, her opinion shifted and her curiosity grew. The pair looked neither familial nor familiar. Her brow furrowed. The two women looked to be together, and the first was clearly here for the trials. But the other? She shook her head, but it was too late. Her curiosity had gotten the better of her and she was already moving to sate it by determining the nature of the other's visit.
She took the spiral stairs in sets of two, skimming down them with the smooth appearance of a bird in flight. Her boots landed on the bottom step without sound, and propelled her forward into the yard in similar manner. The two women she had seen from above now stood by the central fire pit, waiting for assignment. One was leaning on her bow and scanning the camp with interest. The other was staring at the grass, matted brown with the coming of winter. Through the murmuring group of candidates, Sherrill could see Reyes Hadaker taking stock of their number before he would call their attention and take them to their first trial. He was several years her in junior in both age and rank, but her mixed heritage gave her a far younger appearance to human eyes. A few of the candidates standing nearby thus seemed surprised when she drew by his side and quietly informed him that she'd take this group. He nodded in deference and departed without comment. He'd been testing groups for the better part of three hours, and was likely grateful for the break.
Those nearest to her now stood quiet, wondering what, if anything, the change meant.
She didn't give them time to think about it.
"You lot," she began, calling loud enough to be heard by all around the fire pit and making that sure her words were heard by the two who'd drawn her attention, "you're with me! We're off to archery!"
Kaden shifted her stance and cast a sidelong glance at Briar. Her
interest was beginning to wear off after surveying those around her.
She had watched the group gathered for the better part of ten minutes
before her attention shifted towards those practicing combat.
She watched those in hand to hand combat, mentally noting their moves and tactics. Hopefully, she could tuck it away for later use when her turn came. Kaden watched as blows were blocked, and a few landed home in the wary opponent's stomach. When that began to grow blurry, Kaden's gaze shifted again to combatants with staffs.
The camp was awash with noise, but the noise was like music to her ears. She had often snuck off to peek through the open gates at her father, whenever she had the chance. Once, she had even been allowed to visit, though that was many years ago and she was too young to understand. Kaden bit the inside of her cheek and turned back to the recruits.
A woman, long and lean, and obviously pulling rank, strode up to the group to apparently take over. Her voice was sharp and clear as she barked out her orders, and the group began to pick up their belongings and rapidly drop into order behind the Ranger.
Finally! Kaden half nervously, half excitedly, slung her pack over her shoulder and joined the group on the way to the archery grounds. This was definitely beneficial to her trials to start off on something she was good at. Kaden had taken out much of her frustration on the town big-mouths, but the other half she had taken out on the archery fields of her backyard.
She looked at those practicing, watching as the last arrow struck just high of the target. Nodding to the Ranger who had led them over, those practicing left, and the fields were bare save for the recruits. Kaden dropped her back and gave Briar a slight smile. She slid her bow off her shoulder and placed the tip on the dirt packed ground.
With her chin slightly tilted, Kaden sized up the distance between her and the target before setting her eyes on the woman who had called them over.
Amidst the leaves of a tall pillar of wood, the tiniest, most
insignificant flash of green light came forth. Despite the dozens of
people rushing around to get wherever they were going, no one seemed
to see it. That was the way it always happened. No average character
ever noticed it, even if the light flashed before their very eyes.
Just the way Kaize liked it. Brought to this new world by the mysterious and unexpectedly dim light, the nineteen-year-old dropped through the foliage and onto the street of an average Roleplaying community. It was a far cry from the futuristic metropolis of his previous location, but then most were.
Kaize was immediately conscious of how little was he fitting in already. His blue, slightly ripped, jeans; white t-shirt; and black, fingerless gloves -- not to mention his wild mess of bushy brown hair -- made it clear that he was far from a local in this backwater city. He began to move, and every step he took drew an accusing glance from one person or another. He glared at them all with disgust.
'They think they're better than me; think I'm an outsider in their precious little town. Little do they know I'm a god to them. This is The Matrix and I'm Neo.' Of course, he spoke none of this aloud. He may not have cared what the mindless NPC's thought of him, but it was best to avoid being known as insane.
Kaize stopped in the middle of the street, causing much annoyance among those behind him. He closed his eyes and searched for the ones he had come for. The few, special characters who held a connection to the real world, through their Players. It did not take him long. His senses told him that three Player characters stood beyond the gate to his left.
Without hesitation, he broke into a run. He often found his future allies in some kind of danger, no matter how peaceful the environment. He eventually caught up with the group of would-be archers and halted a few metres behind them. He was pleased to find them all standing to attention, making it unlikely that any of them would turn to look at him, other than the one for whose attention they were standing; and that person would likely be too busy talking and sizing up to notice him before he found some place to hide.
Unfortunately, they were standing in a relatively open area which held no viable hiding places. There was only one way to find the characters he was looking for. He took a quick look around and, once satisfied that he was not being watched, put his hands behind his back and summoned a full quiver and bow used by Legolas in "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King". This caused another weak flash of green to issue from his hands.
With a smile of anticipation on his tanned face, Kaize took his place at the back of the group and slung the quiver over his shoulder. As he awaited his turn, his bright blue eyes caught the sight of an even brighter blue dress -- a very distinguishing feature among the young people here. Kaize's smile widened.
When she finally managed to stop staring at her feet, Briar was relieved to see that her reluctant escort now seemed unperturbed by either her presence or appearance. She breathed a small sigh of relief and lifted her eyes further, turning her gaze in the direction of Kaden's. The would-be ranger was watching other hopeful recruits as they underwent various trials about the grounds. No, Briar corrected herself. She wasn't just watching them. Her stare was sharper than that. She was studying them. She was looking for weaknesses and taking note of strengths. Briar smiled with timid and strangely proprietary regard. Apart from the vision, which she'd yet to fully reveal, she had no connection to Kaden; but she'd found that beneath the young woman's gruff demeanor was a kindness to her soul, and she desperately wanted her to succeed.
Kaden had just finished her scrutiny of a wiry fellow at trial with the staff when a man, clad in the black and silver of the rangers, appeared ready to take the group assembled around the fire to their first test. Butterflies erupted in Briar's stomach and she began to look down at her feet once more. But then, something strange happened. Another ranger, this one a woman, slid quickly and quietly beside the first. She spoke something to him, Briar couldn't hear what, and he left with a deferential nod and a quizzical gaze. Kaden didn't evince any concern with the exchange, but Briar noted a few puzzled expressions on the faces of those nearest the new ranger.
The woman looked familiar, for reasons Briar couldn't pinpoint. She was tall and slim, and her dark hair framed a face with undeniably elven features. Maybe it was this last fact, Briar thought. Few humans ventured into the fens and glades of the forest she called home, but elves were known to tread quietly amongst the trees when occasion led them from Elindessylar. Somewhat satisfied with this explanation, Briar was about to resume looking down at her feet when the woman spoke with a clear ring of authority.
"You lot, you're with me! We're off to archery."
Packs and weapons were rehoisted with her words and the group of hopefuls walked with eager anticipation to their first trial. Briar was pleased to note that Kaden looked more excited than most and that a gleam of confidence had found its way into her eyes. Was she particularly good at archery, Briar wondered. She hoped so. It would certainly give her a good start if she was.
Certain now that she was far more nervous than her presently less reluctant escort, Briar wrung her hands and unconsciously bit her lip as she watched candidate after candidate approach the targets and let arrows fly. Some were quite good ..... at least Briar thought they were; but the again, she had very little experience in such things. She'd never held a bow in her life and seriously doubted that she had the strength to even pull back the string. She looked down at her frail hands, now a bright pink color from her wringing, and studied them momentarily, wishing they held some skill. A cold feeling of solitude and isolation washed over her, and not for the first time of the day. Her gaze slipped from her hands and her arms wrapped tight about her small frame, acutely aware once again of the fact that she didn't belong there. But she did, she reminded herself. She had to be there. She didn't know why, but she knew that much. Thankfully, that knowledge was sufficient to calm her enough to adopt a more "normal" posture and resume watching the candidates. It was nearly Kaden's turn.
The ranger who'd escorted them over was keeping an extraordinarily keen eye on the archers, and Briar knew that she was seeing many things that she herself couldn't fathom; but as her eyes drifted between examinees and examiner, Briar became aware that the ranger was also watching her and Kaden. Her heart skipped a beat and she turned quickly away. Why was she watching them? The answer required no great aim to hit. It was her. Of course the woman wondered what she was doing there. Kaden had said it all when they'd met ...... "You don't exactly look like a ranger, miss." She wished fervently that she had the ability to turn invisible, but as wishing was very much unlikely to make it so, she struggled to regain what little composure was available to her and managed not to fidget too nervously.
Then, it was Kaden's turn. She smiled at Briar before she stepped to her mark. Briar, mustering as much calm as she could, smiled in return and whispered, "Good luck."
Kaden began set her stance and bow without flourish of form, but with clean resolution. Briar noted that it drew a gleam of approval from the examiner's eye as she waited for Kaden to finish. Before she did, however, a cool breeze brushed Briar's face and she was suddenly aware that she was once again being watched. This time, however, it was not by the ranger.
Turning her head, she cast her eyes about until at last they fell on a young man in the back of the group. He looked to be human and in his late teens, or perhaps early twenties. His hair was badly tousled, giving him the appearance of having just awoken, but it was his attire that was most peculiar. His pants were of a material Briar had never before seen, as was his shirt. The latter were slightly tattered and suggested one of limited means; but the former was startlingly white, of the sort worn only by those of wealth or import. Her brow furrowed as she tried to put the two together, noticing also that he'd worn the fingertips off his gloves. It was then that she realized that he was smiling. Was he smiling at her? She blushed furiously, but managed to return a timid smile before turning back to watch Kaden's trial.
Sherrill watched as the last arrow from a young male potential drove soundly into the target. She raised a brow. The shot was off center, but extremely clean and deep. He'd have good range, she wagered, if he could hit accurately at a greater distance. She nodded at him and sent him towards the group that had finished. As he approached, another candidate grinned widely slapped him on the back.
"Good job, Jarret!"
Jarret grinned sheepishly, but looked pleased. "Thanks. Wish I'd gotten closer though."
"You're the closest so far, mate. Relax, why don't ya?"
Jarret didn't respond. He appeared too tightly wound too relax, but he accepted the compliment with a gracious and wordless nod.
His friend was right. He had been the best of the group, but as she waved the next candidate forward, Sherrill had a feeling that was about to change. The candidate, one of the two women who'd drawn the ranger's curiosity, exchanged quick smiles with her blue-clad friend, then stepped sharply to her mark. She wasted little time in finding her stance and distance. Sherrill suppressed a nod of approval. While taking the time to make a shot might be prudent in some cases, more often than, not targets within a ranger's aim offered little in the way of stationary assistance. Getting to the ready in short time could, quite literally, be the difference between life and death. The candidates had received no instruction on this point. It was one of the many unspoken tests that were employed to judge their mettle.
Pleased as she was to see that at least one of the potentials had good instincts in this regard, the ranger began to wonder why this was so. She considered it as she gave the young woman the nod to begin.
Her first arrow flew with unswerving speed and landed dead center of target. It drew a hushed response from her fellow contenders, but no response from her judge, who simply nodded to her to loose another. The second arrow flew with equal speed, landing just above and to the right of its predecessor and still well within the target's eye. The more sporting of her competitors shouted words of encouragement. Others merely grumbled. Silent, the ranger took note of both and wondered again about the young woman's instincts and position.
She'd chosen an oblique stance and was holding it well. She was the first recruit of the day to do so. In fact, she was the first recruit Sherrill had ever seen to use such a stance. Most tended to use either some form of an even or an open stance, for obvious reasons, and a few used a closed stance. The oblique tended to be beyond them, and even if they could manage it, they couldn't consistently maintain it. As three more arrows flew soundly towards the prior two, however, Sherrill could see that such was not the case with this candidate.
Her brow raised despite her best efforts to keep it under control. Finally, a strong contender on the bow. Sherrill only hoped that she could do as well with moving targets. Her last two arrows hit slightly higher than the rest, and again to the right, landing just outside the eye. Still, it was the cleanest shoot of the day and Sherrill had a pretty good idea what sent the last two off course. She also had a pretty good idea about this candidate's background, and she nearly kicked herself for not realizing . . . or rather . . . recognizing it sooner. So sure was she, that confirmation was unnecessary, but still she needed the woman's name to record her marks.
"A good showing," she began as the potential accepted her arrows from the ranger who'd retrieved them from the target, "best of the day. Name?"
As she awaited the young woman's response, her eyes flickered to the rear of the group where a late-comer had slipped into the ranks. His hair was in shambles and his dress in disarray, but Sherrill placed little stock in appearances, concerning herself far more with skill and wit. His bow, however, was another matter. It was clearly of elven design and seemed somewhat out of place in his oddly-gloved human hands. She highly suspected that it bore an enchantment of some sort. Over the years she'd seen countless recruits come to trial with enchanted weapons. Most took efforts to conceal their nature, with the result that they looked far less impressive than this one, and some even spent a year's wages to have a standard weapon temporarily enchanted. None of them, however, had succeeded in their attempts. If a ranger even suspected an enchanted weapon, it wasn't used .......end of debate. And in this particular case, the bow looked to be of such craft that she'd rule it out on that point alone.
Resolved in her decision, she was already choosing her words when she noticed a familiar figure heading unevenly in the young man's direction. She smiled, close-lipped, and turned her attention back to the young woman before her.
Kaden watched the male competitor shoot. She frowned, running her fingers lightly over the wood of her bow. He was good. She watched as his last arrow hit right in the center of the target with a thud. Kaden's lips turned into a thin line as she quietly judged the distance and methodically counted in her head as the arrow was released to the time it took to hit the target.
'Father be with me now,' Kaden silently thought, watching the camaraderie between the boy before her, Jarrett, and his friend. Quickly, she glanced at Briar before approaching the woman who was in charge.
Quickly she took her stance and judged the target. She slid an arrow from the quiver on her back and feeling a gentle brush of air on her cheek, narrowed her gaze as she slid the arrow onto her bow.
Beside her, he was there. She felt the gentle air of his breath on her skin, the warmth tingling down her spine as her father's fingers gently came to lie over her own. "Mark like your breathing, Kaden. Breath in, pull back, exhale, release..."
She saw the nod out of the corner of her eye and just as he had said, she inhaled, and then sharply released the arrow. Unswerving, it landed dead center. She wasted no time in drawing another arrow and feeling the familiar feel of his fingers brushing up her arm, she released a second. Her father's fingers trailed up to rest gently on her shoulders, his words still ringing in her ears as she released two more. Kaden's motions were like water, fluidly moving from quiver to bow and back again.
As the last arrow struck, the tunnel that kept her gaze on the target drifted to allow her vision to settle on her surroundings once more. With a determined set to her jaw, she frowned slightly to note the last two arrows were slightly above the rest. Kaden bit back her words as the Ranger praised her shots. She wasn't pleased with the last two but that would make her just work all the harder.
Kaden's gaze followed the Ranger's as she looked at another contender for the bow and arrow.
Kaden quickly turned her eyes back as the arrows she had fired were handed back to her. With a nod, she slid them back into her quiver and set the tip of her bow at her toe, raising her gaze back to Sherrill.
Kaize's smiled dropped the moment his eyes sensed movement. A middle-
aged man, dressed in a similar fashion to the woman in charge, was
dodging in between archers. Due to the lack of order among the crowd,
the man's path was in constant need of refinement, but his
destination was clear. Kaize doubted that he was about to be given an
award for Most Original Attire, but he nonetheless waited patiently,
as though he had not even noticed the approaching authority figure.
"Give me the bow," he said when he finally found his way through the maze of archers.
Kaize was reluctant. "What seems to be problem, sir?" He asked with a convincing brown-noser smile.
The man sighed. "Give me the bow or leave."
Kaize dropped the suck-up facade and handed over his marvelous piece of weaponry. The man placed it in a large sack he had, until now, been holding over his shoulder and produced a far less adequate bow. He handed the monstrosity to Kaize, who made no attempt to hide his disgust for the slightly curved log. He gave the man a pleading look, but the man simply turned back the way he had come with an infuriating smirk on his face.
Kaize's blue eyes burned with indignation. To think that a mere character, a hollow, mindless puppet, would dare to take anything from his hands. It took him a few minutes to calm down, but he made no obvious show of his anger at any time. It was of even greater aggravation to Kaize that he had plenty of experience in this area. Calmer now, he casually look down to his quiver and nearly jumped. He had not specified in his mind what kind of arrows he wanted, so the gods of fate decided to give him Mithril Arrows -- powerful fire- enchanted arrows. If he fired one of these arrows, he would make ash of the targets in seconds. He discreetly cast a hand over his quiver and the dull green light was emitted once again. When he removed his hand, he was left with regular bronze-tipped arrows from "Drakan: The Ancients Gates". He could only hope that no one would notice the change.
Sherrill nodded wordlessly. McPherson. She'd been right. The girl was Connor's daughter. She should have seen it before, but she'd been too busy trying to figure out the connection with her curious blue-clad companion. Connor had been a ranger, and a damned good one too. It had been a few decades ago, but in the timeless now of memory Sherrill could clearly see him standing on the same training ground, taking the same trials for entry. She could remember the excitement on his face when he'd made the cut, and his even greater excitement the day Kaden was born. She could also remember the day he died, and she swallowed back the grief of the memory. It was what she hated most about being a ranger. It was what she hated most about her blood. She'd lost too many people ... to many friends ... and she hated the thought of losing more.
Kaden's father wasn't a close friend ... they'd worked largely in separate spheres ... but he was a friend, and she had mourned his passing as such. Now, his daughter stood before her, ready to follow the same path that had led to his death. In the eyes of another, a sentiment of protectiveness might have weighed against Kaden; but Sherrill had long ago learned that trying to protect anyone from their future served little purpose other than frustration. That didn't mean, however, that she had to like it. She thus fought back the grimace that threatened to grip her mouth and nodded again, her tight-lipped expression speaking volumes.
"Good job, Kaden, go stand with the others."
Her head tilted briefly in the direction of the recruits who'd finished the current trials, giving Kaden her dismissal, then turned back to those who'd yet to be tried. Instinctively, her eyes latched upon two.
The first of the pair stood far to the back of the group. He wore a dour expression and held a decidedly less artful bow than he had moments before. She'd have to remember to thank Darsen for his intervention later. There was still something "off" about the youth though ... something in his eyes ... something .... One corner of her mouth tightened in vexed dismissal. She'd have to figure out what it was later. Right now, he was too far to the back and she had no reason to call him forward. Her eyes thus moved to the foremost of the pair ..... Kaden's mysterious companion. The blue-clad sylph carried no bow and was hardly dressed the part, but she was on the proving ground and standing amongst the candidates. Calling her forward seemed as good an excuse as any to find out why she was there.
Resolved, Sherrill plucked a bow and quiver from the rack, fixed her gaze on the young woman, and called her out.
"You, in the blue dress! Take these. You're up."
She didn't know why she reached for the bow. She hadn't meant to.
In fact, she was so sure that she hadn't moved her hand that her face
took on pale look of alarm when she realized that the frail white
fingers stretching to wrap themselves around the frame of the bow
were hers. Disoriented with the discovery, she tried to pull them
back, only to find that they no longer obeyed her will, but moved
with a purpose of their own. A bystander to her own actions, she
thus watched in wordless confusion as her fingers moved ever closer
to the bow. But they never reached their aim, for before they could
reach the shaft of the weapon, they brushed first against the gloved
hand of the ranger who held it; and in that instant the world went
All assembled on the grounds, both ranger and candidate alike, fell silent and stationary. The wind that had previously tousled their hair and cooled theirs brows ceased blowing. The ever-present and oft-ignored song of the birds died, and the sun burned in only in a cold and steady light that knew nothing of nature.
Briar, however, saw none of it, for she was no longer there.
She was instead inside a cloistering room lit only by the feeble light of a dying sun and curious scarlet-smeared runes that hung thick on a far wall. Moving closer to those runes, she felt her stomach churn. They couldn't be written in . . . no . . . she must be mistaken. She had to be mistaken. She closed tight her eyes and prayed that she was mistaken.
Her self-constructed darkness wrapped tight about her, turning her too quickly in first one direction, and then another. Caught within its dry-formed eddy, she reeled, and was forced to open her eyes to regain her failing balance.
Thankfully, when she did so, she was no longer in the rune-scripted room. A tiny sigh of relief shivered past still-quaking lips. That vision, whatever it had been, hadn't been for her. The current one, however, was.
It took a few moments, a few measures of white-bleached sand spilling from one orb to the next, before she could take it in. And even then, she wasn't sure what it meant.
"Six fingers . . . . six fingers on a palm unseen."
The words echoed without explanation, hanging on the ink-black air with ripened purpose. Had she spoken them aloud? Her brow furrowed in strained recollection. She didn't think so. But the voice, though not hers alone, was hers nonetheless; and the words had indeed fallen from her mouth.
Recognized by its viewer, and having received sufficient appellation, the image faded into the hunger of darkness that surrounded it until only an ebony curtain of silken nothingness draped Briar's maze-weary mind. The curtain might have hung there, undisturbed for hours, had its cooly-numbing veil not been pierced by a voice from without.
Somewhere . . . outside the darkness . . . someone was speaking.
Kaize's eyes brightened when he caught sight of the young girl on whom
his attention had been focused stepping forward to be given a bow. He
pleasantly imagined the young girl stunning all around her with a very
much unexpected level of accuracy and skill with the weapon she was
about to receive. The reluctance with which she reached for the bow,
however, suggested that their low expectations were probably well
founded. Kaize blinked, and during that blink something truly
An immense power had reached the blue-clad girl, ripping through the fabric of time itself, from an indefinable origin. To those whose senses were so attuned, the disturbance could not be mistaken. The girl had received a vision, clear and strong. Kaize had just been slapped in the face by the event he had been waiting for.
Unfortunately, the slap occurred somewhere under Kaize's nose, for his senses were in fact not so attuned. What he did notice was something slightly more obvious: the girl seemed to have passed out. The brown-haired, casually-dressed Londoner broke into a run, piercing a beeline through the mass of people blocking his path to the girl.
He leaped forward as he burst out from the throng of archers and skidded to a halt, timing his deceleration so as to put himself, on one knee, between the girl and the female instructor. He carefully supported her fragile neck, assuming that this would inevitably turn into a clichéd scene in which the damsel in distress just happened to awaken when in the arms of a handsome young hero...
"Six fingers... six fingers on a palm unseen." The words trickled from her mouth in no more than a faint, almost breathless whisper.
Kaize's furrowed brow conveyed his confusion at the enigma of her words, but he shook it off and leaned slightly closer to the girl. He spoke calmly but firmly with a moderate volume, as though he was issuing an order to the unconscious girl he held in his arms.
Was that what the voice was saying? Wake up. Had she been asleep? She didn't think so, but then again, she did seem to be lying somewhat prone, and the darkness that surrounded her might have been result of twin lidded eyes. She ached. Her whole body ached with fast-born exhaustion, but the voice that called from somewhere beyond the scope of her 'unsight' was so insistent that she tried to comply.
Opening first one eye and then the other, Briar was startled to find herself staring up at a young face framed by dark tousled hair. She blinked. The face looked familiar. Had she seen it before? And who were all the other people standing about with varying expressions of concern and amusement? She blinked again, hoping without any real thought that the action might clear her mind.
It was partially successful, and she managed to string enough of her memory back together to understand that she was still at the ranger's base with Kaden. It was only after this understanding that she realized that the face that hovered closest belonged to the curiously attired boy she'd seen near the back of the group of hopeful candidates . . . . and that he was kneeling next to her and lifting her slightly from the ground. Her checks burned red with chagrin.
Collecting herself as best she could, she mumbled an embarrassed 'thank you,' as she clambered back to her feet and brushed bits of grass and dirt from her dress with trembling hands. She was painfully aware that she'd drawn a good amount of attention, and her still crimson face gave clear testimony to a growing desire to disappear in an invisible puff of smoke. As this was unlikely to happen, however, she managed to piece together a short and somewhat clumsy apology to the likely perplexed ranger in charge of the trials.
"I'm sorry . . . I didn't mean . . . I don't know why . . . I'll just wait over there, out of the way."
Her gaze was riveted on her feet as she walked quietly and quickly away, hoping that the ranger would call another candidate and thereby lessen the number of eyes she still felt upon her tightly-drawn frame. She didn't look back to see if it happened, but instead pressed forward, uncertain where to go. She wanted to walk to where Kaden was standing. No, that wasn't entirely true. She wanted to leave, but barring that, she wanted to speak to the young woman who'd tolerated her company thus far, for she felt that at least part of what she'd seen had been meant for her . . . for her, and possibly for both the ranger and the strangely-clad stranger she'd left so precipitously. She wasn't sure. She also wasn't sure whether Kaden would want to be seen with her again after the unfavorable attention she'd just garnered, and so she chose a spot some yards away from the young woman and tried to catch her eye with a surreptitiously pleading glance.
Sherrill hadn't known what to expect from the willow-like young woman
when she had handed her the bow, but she certainly hadn't expected
the girl to go into a blank stare, mutter something that made no
sense, and then pass away into a dead faint. She also hadn't
expected the strange new arrival in the back of the group to rush
forward in an attempt to rouse the young woman to wakefulness.
Sherrill had known enough seers, however, to realize what had
happened and to know that trying to rouse one too quickly could lead
to disastrous results. She was thus about to move the young man away
when the seer's eyes opened and a quick flush rose to her cheeks.
"I'm sorry," the young woman sputtered timidly. "I didn't mean . . . I don't know why . . . I'll just wait over there, out of the way."
The ranger nodded silently as she left, mulling over the six words she had spoken during her vision. 'Six fingers on a palm unseen.' She'd no clue as to what it meant, but decided that pressing the young woman for a meaning at this point was unlikely to prove helpful. Judging by her still crimson face and shrinking demeanor, the seer was experiencing a profound degree of embarrassment that the ranger didn't wish to presently compound with further attention and pointed questions. Those, she could save for later. For now, there remained the rest of the candidates, most of whom were still watching the seer, some craning their necks for a better view, others trying to appear disinterested as they risked furtive glances from the corners of otherwise directed eyes. One corner of the ranger's mouth turned upward in a barely visible half-smile at the latter, pleased that at least a few showed some appreciation for surreptitiousness. For her part, she had to satisfy herself with simply keeping an ear honed on the seer as she watched the rest of the candidates perform.
The choice of her next victim was an obvious one. Indeed, he was still crouching on the ground where the seer had lain. Some might have considered his selection a cruel one; but in truth the ranger was exercising more kindness that her usual wont, for she very much doubted that the young man wished to simply mill about at loss for what to do now that the seer had left. Besides, while she questioned the wisdom of his actions, she was impressed with his speed and agility. She was also curious. He'd appeared late, almost out of nowhere, with a finely-wrought bow -- now confiscated -- and he was dressed in attired that numbered amongst the most unusual Sherrill had ever seen.
His pants, torn in a few place, were of a heavy, worn fabric, suggesting a working background of some sort. Normally, Sherrill would have looked to his hands to narrow the possibilities, but they were currently curled and covered with black, fingerless gloves, making observation largely impossible. She wasn't sure, however, that seeing his hands would have been of much use, for his shirt threw normal avenues of conjecture into confusion. It was tightly- woven, too tightly woven, in fact, for the ranger to discern any weave at first glance; and though it fit closely, it bore no buttons, suggesting a remarkable ability to stretch. To top it off, it was of a purer white than Sherrill ever seen outside of Kuriousity Shoppe, suggesting that the young man had greater means than his tousled coif suggested. He was, perhaps, as great a puzzle as the seer; and the ranger didn't like leaving puzzles untried or unsolved.
Not knowing his name, she cleared her throat to draw his attention back from the seer, and when she had it she gave him a small nod of acknowledgement as she gestured toward the targets.
Kaize smiled affectionately as the girl in his arms began to open her
eyes. Due to the great distance between himself and the girl only
moments ago, he had not previously noticed how very attractive her
delicate appearance made her. Kaize felt an irrational longing to
touch the smooth, pale skin of her cheeks, but settled for gazing into
her deep blue eyes instead as they opened fully and conveyed that her
mind had just caught up with recent events. Kaize's smile broadened as
her cheeks went from white to scarlet in the blink of an eye.
The girl rose to her feet swiftly and seemed to quietly mumble her thanks, to which Kaize nodded politely. Moments later, the girl was briskly walking away from the group of archers, leaving Kaize staring after the blue-clad figure with wonder in his eyes. He sighed as logic overcame his feelings once again.
'If only she were real,' he thought to himself.
A loud cough from behind brought Kaize back from his self pity and he turned to face the instructor. She motioned to the targets and simply said, "You're up." That very short phrase placed a very large grin on the young man's face as he counted his blessings that he was finally able to get this silly test over and done with.
He retrieved his pathetic excuse for a bow from where he had dropped it near his crouching location and stepped in line with the appropriate target.
He had been to many worlds and used countless forms of weaponry in his time. Archery was not his forte but he was confident that he had skill enough to pass this test.
Once in position, he adopted a somewhat comfortable side-on stance, swiftly readied the bow with an arrow and took careful aim -- perhaps too careful, but he had to take his time if he wished to have a hope of compensating for the embarrassingly poor quality of his implement. He let the arrow loose and cursed before it had even hit the target. A previously unnoticed lump in the wood had caused his left hand to slip slightly upon firing. Sheer luck, however, took the arrow into the outer ring of the target; it was a bad shot, but at least he had not missed.
Unperturbed by the laughter which ensued at his expense -- though making a point not to lock eyes with the instructor -- the young man proceeded to fire arrows in increasingly rapid succession, and with quickly improving accuracy, until he had learned how to make up for the bow's flaws almost exactly and without excessive hesitation. Nearer the end of his volley, his arrows never failed to land near the centre of the target and a confident smirk spread across Kaize's young face.
The ranger watched quietly as the young man took his turn at the
target, turning her gaze from him only once to shoot her own
proverbial arrows at those who found his first attempt amusing. The
lad had a unique approach, but as his aim drew closer and closer to
mark, it became increasingly clear that it was working for him. The
ranger nodded silently as the last arrow hit dead center, pleased to
see a candidate who could compensate for a poorly-crafted
instrument. Darsen really shouldn't have given him such a bow, but
given Darsen's temperament in general and his patience for perceived
skirters in particular, it wasn't that great of a surprise.
Having pulled the young man's arrows free from the target, another ranger ran them forward and handed them to Sherrill rather than to their owner. Sherrill raised a brow at the decision, but wrapped her gloved fingers about them and gave them a quick appraisal. Her brow raised further as she did so. They were bronze-tipped. It was an unusual choice for arrowheads these days, bronze arrowheads being stronger, but heavier and therefore shorter in range than those made from other materials. They were, therefore, not often cast. There was also something else about them . . . something she couldn't put a name to. Her mouth twisted slightly to one side as she considered it. The young man certainly was a curious one.
In the end, she said nothing about the arrows, but handed them back to the ranger, indicating that he should return them to their owner. While the ranger complied, Sherrill turned and traversed the handful of steps that lay between her and a rack of bows that rested on the half-dried grass behind her. Stopping before it, her eyes scanned the weapons that stood straight and fixed at attention, ready for use. After a few seconds, she plucked one from its place, running her fingers and gaze over the frame before taking a quick stance and pulling back its string. Apparently satisfied with the result, she turned back to the young man and closed the distance between them.
"Good showing, but I think you'll find this one more to your taste," she began, handing him the bow. "Name?"
Having watched the routine of 'retrieve and return' that the arrow
collectors had gotten into so many times that it had begun to feel
like counting sheep, Kaize was quite surprised to see his arrows being
handed to the instructor. He silently congratulated himself for
ridding his quiver of Mithril arrows before it was too late; but
feverishly hoped that he had not overlooked something else with the
Although he was not standing particularly close to the instructor, and could therefore not see her face clearly, he could tell that her suspicions were growing. Since he could think of nothing unusual about the arrows themselves, he could only surmise that her Player (assuming she had one) was one who was in the habit of giving her characters more information than they ought to have. These people often caused Kaize a great deal of trouble, but nothing serious had ever come of their efforts... yet.
He was relieved when his arrows were returned to him and complied when the ranger told him to wait a moment. A few seconds later, Kaize was pleased to be in possession of a wonderful new bow. He was about to express his thanks, for both the bow and the compliment on his archery, when his name was asked of him.
Exasperation swept through him in one swift wave. He knew this was going to increase suspicions and there was nothing he could do about it. He had much earlier realised that this was a society which used surnames. Originally to add to his mystique, Kaize had invented only a single name when he decided to give himself over to his fate of entrapment in this universe until such times as he could do something about it. This decision had, on occasion, led to some confusion among characters on worlds such as this. Since these occurrences were few and far between, Kaize felt no need to change his name. Besides that, he had already imprinted the name in his mind as if it were the one given to him by his parents, and he could think of no last name which rung well with 'Kaize'.
Having shown none of his irritation, he spoke his name as though he thought it to be sufficient: "Kaize."
There was an expectant pause. When Kaize was not forthcoming, the instructor raised a single eyebrow. Kaize expertly feigned surprise and shook his head slightly as he spoke, as if in some confusion himself. "That's it."
It took some effort, but Sherrill managed to keep her brow from raising further with his response. 'That's it,' he had said? That was his response? That was his name? Just Kaize? Was he trying to be suspicious? If so, he was off to a damn good start.
While some of the races in the surrounding regions employed singular names, the ranger knew of few humans who did so; and those who did generally had something to hide. Then again, the boy might be one of those wealthy, dissolute whelps with more gold and leisure than restraint or intellect, for though they generally enjoyed the "thrill" of slumming in some of the city's seedier taverns and brothels, they weren't "above" having a go at the local constabulary. Such "goes" usually ended poorly; and after the way the high justice had dealt with the last incident, Sherrill rather thought that the cadre of puerility would confine themselves to . . . safer antics. She hoped that she'd not been mistaken on that point, and that the tousle-headed youth didn't number among their ilk . . . for several reasons, not the least of which was that he possessed some skill with a bow and she was keen to learn what he could do with the one she'd just given him.
"All right . . . Kaize," she intoned with a measure of tolerance, "wait with the rest, over there." She inclined her head towards the candidates who'd taken their turn at the targets, then waited until he had gone before she called the next potential, a human male somewhere in his early twenties.
"You! You're up!"
As the young man's first arrow hit far wide of the mark and his second fared no better, Sherrill found herself groaning inwardly and wondering again why she was supervising the recruitment trials. She had more than enough work to keep her otherwise occupied, and generally not enough patience to deal with the well-intentioned, but often ill-prepared candidates who turned up for such calls. To her mind, she was therefore a poor choice for the task and she was puzzled both as to why she'd been selected and why she'd accepted the appointment. An answer to the latter came more readily. It was, admittedly, difficult to say "no" to the high justice, particularly when his request came in person and when one owed him as great a debt as Sherrill did. Still . . . . She closed her eyes as a tiny sigh threatened to escape her lips. There were only four more candidates to go. Then they could move on to the next trial.
Two of remaining four were mediocre at best, but the third, a young man whose features suggested a trace amount of elven blood, gave a good showing. His shots, though too rapid for his ability, were well- struck and placed him on par with the current leaders, giving Sherrill some degree of hope. Sadly, the last candidate was a disaster.
A young human male, somewhere in his late teens or early twenties, he had entered the testing grounds with a powerful, yet easy gait that suggested at least confidence, if not skill. When it came his turn, however, his prior demeanor vanished behind an ill-blown cloud of trepidation and awkwardness. Having come with no bow of his own, he was given one from the rack--a serviceable, if unadorned, instrument that fit his height and likely pull. His hand shook as he reached for it, an action which roughly corresponded to a sudden uneasiness in the pit of Sherrill's stomach. She could tell that his wasn't going to be good.
His first shot missed the target entirely, prompting him to look down at his feet whilst shifting his weight between them in the suggestive hope of finding a better stance. Taking a deep, unsteady breath, he raised his head, drew back his bow, and took aim once again. This time, he did hit the target. Unfortunately, it wasn't his own. He'd managed instead to hit an unused target some six feet to the left of his mark, resulting in a few snickers from the watching candidates a genuine look of alarm from the ranger standing a few feet away from the still vibrating arrow. Sherrill quieted the former with a head- snapped glare of disapproval, and noted, when she returned her attention to the targets, that the latter had moved several steps away from his previous post. She closed her eyes in the empty hope that it might all go away, but was greeted with only the same sights when she opened them once more.
Tight-lipped determination now filled the frame of the candidate, and he drew back the bow a third time, this time keeping a finger notched across the shaft of the arrow to steady his aim. He was rewarded with a somewhat better shot -- in that it actually hit the target he was aiming for -- and a deep slice through the flesh of his index finger as the fletching passed beneath its crook. He winced in surprise, but was clearly pleased with the improvement the wound had bought, and looked as if was prepared to likewise purchase another on- target hit when the ranger cut him off with a curt query.
Lowering the bow with a commingled sigh of relief and disappointment, he answered, "Jaret Calsworth."
The ranger continued speaking as she penned his name on the roster. "All right, Jaret. Go ahead and join the rest of the group. And you might want to bandage that," she added, nodding at his hand.
The youth nodded wordlessly in response, and took a strip of offered cloth from the ranger who'd returned his three wide-flung arrows before staring down at his hand and wrapping it with sharp twists of self-reproach.
Most of the potential recruits had stopped watching him at this point, their attention instead focused on the ranger as they awaited her next instructions. But a handful of others were watching the group of candidates at trial on staffs, critiquing their performances in varying tones of admiration or dismissal. Sherrill drew the latter's attention with a shout.
"We're pressing on! Follow me!"
The rangers' compound was very large, and its current configuration was such that the recruits had to walk a good two hundred yards to reach their next trial. On the way, they passed groups in trial at both blades and unarmed combat, as well as a large area of field shielded from sight by vast swathes of canvas tenting. Its location and appearance was designed to elicit curiosity, and when several of the candidates began to whisper hushed speculations, it was clear that the goal had been achieved. The intermittent thuds, whirrs, and clanks that issued from the other side served only to increase the fervor of their conjectures and give rise to the barest glimmer of a smile in Sherrill's otherwise stern expression.
Many of the candidates were still whispering amongst themselves and staring back at the shrouded expanse when the ranger finally drew them to a halt before another archery range. Unlike the previous station, this one had been fitted not with stationary targets, but with a cross-lacing of ropes and pulleys from which hung targets of roughly human size. The targets themselves were bound with lead- lines that allowed them to be pulled across the range at varying speeds and directions. It was a feat of engineering that had taken considerable time in design and construction, but in the rangers' experience, it had proven more than worthwhile in light of the fact that relatively few dangerous fugitives were cooperative enough to remain still while their apprehendors took aim.
As the first of the targets was pulled into position, Sherrill was mildly amused to note that someone had taken the time to sketch a familiar set of features onto its "face." She really should have ordered their removal; but given her disposition towards the owner of the mimicked features and the unlikeliness that he would wander by, she bit her tongue and tried hard to keep the corners of her mouth from crinkling upward into a wry smile as she turned to face the recruits.
"From my mark," she started, "you'll have three minutes to land as many arrows as you can. Questions?"
The young woman named Kaden raised a quick hand. "Are we trying for lethal or non-lethal shots?"
"It doesn't matter at present," Sherrill answered. "So long as your arrow stays in the target, you've scored. Anything else?"
"Will they follow the same pattern each time?" a sun-freckled youth towards the back of the group asked sheepishly.
This time the ranger did smile as the answer slid roguishly from her lips. "No. Anything else?"
No one spoke.
"All right then," she finished, pointing at the first victim. "You're up."
© 2002 Stormpoint Writers Guild
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