In the perpetual dimness of the northern Trader’s Fold, a young female Bessan Shifter, clad in the armor and black cloak of a Ranger, stood motionless. The Ranger’s eyes were closed fast yet she seemed to stare off at something distant. A fierce breeze whipped through the tall grass all around her as she began to lower herself slightly. Slowly, silently, she unpacked her bow and smoothly collected an arrow from her quiver. In her guiding hand, she also held the Stream. The eternal twilight of the Fold made the glinting heartbeat of the Stream in her clutches seem even more alive, and it told her the time to rest would be upon her soon. The young Ranger channeled her thoughts through it, and abruptly, released the arrow into the sky. Her eyes remained closed as the projectile vanished on a trajectory taking it a great distance away.
Motionless, as if carved in stone, she was poised and continued to listen. The Stream flickered and sparked as she suddenly released it, and, without hesitation, jumped to her feet and was on the move. She accelerated in the general direction that she had, shortly before, sent her arrow into the sky. The Shifter sprinted through the landscape for several minutes, paused to tap the Stream briefly, then charged off much in the same direction she had been going. The Ranger’s leather armor was well maintained, as was her attire; practical and effective like a trained Ranger of the Academy would wear. She ran swiftly and uninhibited through the hilly savannah with her short sword and daggers tucked away efficiently. Though she was fair, everything about the way she carried herself spoke that she was a hardened warrior.
The Bessan Shifter paused and surveyed the clearing she had come upon, seeming to recognize the place. She looked down and dabbed at some blood on the ground, which she knew right where to find instinctually. Crouching low to the dirt again, the Shifter snapped the sparkling green and orange Stream back into her hand and closed her eyes. As she had a few moments earlier, she delicately unsheathed her bow, notched an arrow and aimed high into the sky. Motionlessly, she waited several minutes before taking her shot. The projectile vanished, again, on a deep arc into the distant wilderness.
Coming back to life quickly this time, the Bessan raced forward, releasing the Stream. Her short, raven-black hair frolicked about her shoulders lightly as she sprinted. Climbing up over a hill and back down the other side, the huntress closed in on her prey. She slid quietly through the tall grass and could feel the thick stalks tugging at her cloak and sword scabbard.
She broke into an open area and came upon a truly miserable creature nursing two wounds in each calf from two very well-placed arrows. He was dragging his legs along the ground and the Shifter was displeased that he had snapped one of her shafts in his attempt to liberate himself from it. This Human was now hers, and by the looks of it, the multiple and crippling wounds he’d received had left him surly and defiant despite his new predicament.
“Well,” he said, hands in the dirt. “Now you have me.”
“Indeed.” She said flatly. “Running was not the choice you should have made. It’s a shame you don’t understand the Stream. There was a better way.” She jerked the broken shaft free of his calf, rendering a great shout of agony from her captive.
“Spare me your prophetic nonsense, there’s always a better way,” he mocked painfully. “I knew exactly what I was doing. I don’t fear you, or the Academy. You filthy, condescending Shifters are all the same.”
“I don’t want you to be afraid,” she said flatly. “I want you to tell the Instructors what you know and die in agony in the catacombs of Naruna.” With a smile, she jerked her second arrow free and enlarged the Human’s wound significantly. He screamed in pain, but quickly it turned to a kind of laughter.
“Quiet.” She muttered. There was a line of trees not far ahead, which seemed a much better place to camp. She didn’t fear making a fire in this countryside, she knew these lands, and there was little chance of raiders this close to the cities, or no wild animals to be worried about in this part of the Fold. Nevertheless, she needed to risk fire to cauterize her captive’s wounds before he bled to death.
“Don’t you want to know why I did it?” He said, almost boastfully through his gnashed teeth.
“No.” The Ranger replied, dragging him along, towards the trees, as though he were a sack of useless meat incapable of moving himself.
“Of course you do,” he continued. “Those were your friends. Your precious fellow Rangers and Shifter scum all died in the fire as the citadel burned and fell in upon itself. I helped the Anten. I helped them get inside and I helped them get the bridge down. I watched all your precious Last Knights and Rangers burn in the streets and be eaten alive by the Anten.” He had a sort of twisted smile at his recollection.
“I don’t need you to tell me what I already know, Human.” She quipped, clearly uninterested in the invitation to be outraged. “The Academy will extract everything you know about this betrayal, whether you want to give it to them or not. They will enter your mind and rip it away from you, so maybe the information you have can still save many others who have yet to be killed. Then, when the Instructors are satisfied they have deprived you of your usefulness, you will die in agony as I have said.”
When she reached a favorable campsite, she tied her prisoner’s hands and feet down to a stake in the earth, so he couldn’t wiggle away. The Bessan Shifter used her elemental mastery to take a flint spark and quickly create a small campfire by enlarging the spark into flame, with the help of the Stream. She heated her dagger and cauterized the moaning Human’s wounds as his screams echoed loudly into the forest lowlands. He had been weakened to a degree that made him largely dependent on her for everything, which, she mused, much better than him getting away. It’s unneeded trouble to lose him and then spend time finding him again. Our business is to the South, not the East.
Her instincts were to put out the fire as quickly as possible after it had served its usefulness, but it had still taken time and been visible. She surveyed the clearing in the low brush near the edge of a deeper wood where she had set up camp. It was a place of scattered trees, softly-rolling hills and tall grass. She did notice that there were no birds or animals nearby, and the Stream confirmed this scouting observation.
Shadows crept in from all sides, and the Bessan looked to the faint orange glow on the distant Southern horizon, growing to a blood red at the edge. That’s where Siegecrest was. She would only be able to remember the place, for it would never look the way it had, ever again.
The Academy must grow to understand how this happened, and what it means for the security of the Fold. How far does this treachery go? Have other cities been affected? It was not helpful, she lamented, to use her Shifting ability to see the places she feared to look at through the Stream. It could show her, if she asked, but she truly did not want to see the carnage of it. She felt it, however, the bleeding wound events had left upon the natural order, and her accumulating sorrow of not one but many catastrophes. There are many who have died, and their screams are all I can hear when I open myself to the Stream. She knew in her heart that the great city founded by the true Last Knights of Realm would be sacked and burn to ash, to then be ruled by creatures that eat the flesh of all those they kill, leaving no Humans or Shifters alive.
Her captive rolled over in his restraints and put his belly on the ground, forcing his head into the dirt. He closed his eyes briefly, pausing, but then opened them suddenly. “You know,” he began casually. “You’re going to die here.”
“Really? Are you going to get out of those bonds and sneak up on me Human? You can’t even walk.” She snapped.
He lifted his head from the ground suddenly, looked around the perimeter of the clearing, and raised his voice. “As a matter of fact,” he said boldly, twisting around to face his captor and seeming encouraged, “I don’t think we’ll be going to Naruna at all. No, I have decided I am going to escape right now.”
Alerted by his unusual behavior, she continued to banter as she began to look around, “and just how did you plan on doing that?”
“Not me,” he said. “Those Anten behind you might help me, though.”
Several Anten entered the clearing, spotting the Ranger right away. The leader of the group leapt at the Shifter and tried to flatten her. The agile Ranger was able to act quickly and crouch away, popping up beside her captive. He was writhing on the ground while shouting something in the Anten tongue, she supposed. If that utterance is what he had his hopes of survival staked on, he’s in trouble. She thought as she quickly cut his bonds, so he could attempt to flee.
Gathering herself, the Ranger kicked the Anten who had jumped at her away while it tried to get up; with several other Anten closing in on her. As she darted into the tall grass to avoid the open, trying to drag her prisoner with her, the Anten she kicked then lunged forward and grabbed her leg. In an instinctual reaction, the Shifter snapped the Stream to her hand and used her mastery of the ethereal elements to blast the Anten in the face with a wave of black, tainted fire from the tips of her pointed fingers. When the black fire snapped into existence, a thunderous boom of sound and force of energy was created, which terrified the other Anten in the patrol. The explosive shock that radiated from the Bessan’s hand blew the ashes of the fire skyward in a plume, pushed her and her prisoner apart while flattening the grass all around. The scalding flames ripped through the Anten’s skull and turned yellow-orange again as it caught on to the surrounding grass, spreading rapidly.
Two of the Anten who had moved in for the kill were ensnared by the engorging flames and they flailed about in agony as they burned. Yet, the Anten’s dead grip held her foot even as his body incinerated, and the flesh of his face melted away to the bone. The Anten in the patrol began to run about wildly having just collected themselves after the concussive blast. The flames grew brighter and larger, basking the area in radiant light, bordered hungrily by the darkness. The Ranger severed the dead Anten’s arm with her sword, grabbed her prisoner and carried him into the contrasting area beyond the illumination of the fire. “If you run from me, I will find you.” The Shifter whispered to him, clearly in agony herself from some unseen wound. He paid her no mind, pushed away from her and limped off into the rolling grasslands to the East.
By conjuring fire from nothing, she suffered the poisonous, tainted effects of violating the natural order. The Shifter grabbed her stomach and limped away, reeling, through the grass. She lurched forward, light headed and disoriented, she was unable to snap the Stream or Shift. She wobbled about looking for something to hold onto, reaching out with her hands desperately to avoid falling. She gripped the trunk of a tree and the Bessan remembered her training. Breathe. Let it pass through. Breathe! The Shifter took several minutes to regain composure as the poison relinquished control.
Things became clearer in the dim sky as she gained greater distance from the fire. Just above the Western horizon, the Blood Moon was rising. The skilled Ranger crouched and slid through the brush as the Anten darted about, searching. Then, the screams of her prisoner cut through the night air. He seemed to have been captured and was very likely being eaten alive. Damn. She knew the mission was over.
The Bessan came to a clearing and headed towards the deepening darkness of the wood when an Anten attacked from the seemingly empty shadow of the high, tall grass. The Shifter whirled about and dodged the fierce swing of its axe instinctually as it cleaved the air where she had been standing. She spun away and created some distance between herself and the Anten with her agility. It spat and hissed at her angrily, then charged, great axe in its clutches.
Snapping the Stream back to her palm again, she thrust him away with a mighty gust of air following her outstretched, clenched fist. The wind was already blowing, and her acceleration was empowered by that alignment, harnessing the power of order rather than the poison of violating it. The Anten was shoved away hard as he reeled against the torrent, displacing him some distance and keeping him from melee range.
The feral savage was swift, strong, and did not lose its footing when the wind knocked him away. Instead the warrior recoiled and leapt vertically into the air with astounding might. The vicious, savage Anten raised his axe high above his head and released a chilling, guttural scream; hurling himself into ferocious combat.
The Bessan Shifter looked at him for a moment as she communed with the Stream. She used the Stream to locate the other Anten, noting that they were far enough away to have this combat go immediately unnoticed. She felt the power of the moving air around her; the twisting, churning energy that was easy to feel but impossible to see. Using the Stream as her guide, she brought into focus what would be the most efficient way to resolve her current situation.
Decisively, the Shifter held out her flattened hand as her brutal enemy reached the peak of his leap. Then, with authority, the Bessan clenched her fist and brought the elemental force of the wind in behind the Anten, smashing him violently against the ground. His body impacted at extreme speed and was split into indiscernible fleshy bits which scattered outward in all directions and into the grass at the perimeter of the clearing. Little more than a smudge of blood and some disturbed grass remained as the Shifter released the Stream and sprinted for the cover of the trees. Once she had some distance from the scene of her battle, she looked for a place to avoid the Anten in the area, which would surely investigate that scream. The Anten are patrolling in the Trader’s Fold. She thought fearfully. We are at war, and the Last Knights are not going to save us now.
Waiting high in a tree for a few hours, the Shifter remained motionless until the Anten patrols had moved on. She went back to her prisoner’s remains and searched through what was left of him. Within his saturated garments, she found some handwritten notes in a language she didn’t understand. It was an item she would have to bring to the Instructors at the Academy of Naruna. “It’s something,” she sighed. “It’s better than nothing.”
“I may have lost the mission, but I have not lost hope.” The Ranger stared back at the land set ablaze by her defensive fire as they spread into the deep woods. “This land is burning.” With that, she took to foot again, heading back Southeast across the Fold to the city of Naruna and the Academy. The road home would take a few more days, and the weight of her failed mission wore heavy on her already. As she made her way through the thinning savannah, the Ranger’s bones ached, and she needed to find another safe place to rest soon. The Stream told her the time of resting had passed, yet she found no time to recharge herself for the long journey back to Naruna. The mounting pressure of the days ahead weighed on her, while feeling a great sense of pity for those who would be caught up in these perilous times. My part to play isn’t over yet. She thought confidently and stealthily headed South, avoiding further detection.