In the perpetual dimness of the northern Trader’s Fold, a young Bessan Shifter, clad in the armor and black cloak of an Academy Ranger, was crouched motionless. The Ranger’s eyes were closed, yet she seemed to stare off at something distant. Without sound, she unpacked her bow and collected an arrow from the quiver draped over her shoulder. In her guiding hand, she also held a sparkling vein of Stream. The eternal twilight of the Fold made the glinting heartbeat of the pulsing ribbon of light in her clutches seem even more alive, and it told her the time to rest was approaching. The young Ranger used her shifting and focused her thoughts through it, then, 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 listened. The Stream flickered as she released it quickly, and, without hesitation, sprang to her feet and was on the move. Accelerating in the general direction that her arrow had been fired, she followed the course of her projectile precisely. The Shifter sprinted through the landscape for several minutes, paused to snap the Stream briefly, then charged off much in the same direction she had been going. The Ranger’s leather armor was well maintained, oiled, and fastened; practical and effective like a trained scout of the Academy would wear. She ran swiftly and uninhibited through the hilly savannah with her short sword and daggers tucked away efficiently at her sides. Though she was fair, everything about the way she carried herself told a story that she was a hardened warrior.
Stopping, the Bessan Shifter paused and surveyed the clearing she had come upon, seeming to recognize the place. As if from memory, the Ranger reached down and dabbed at some blood on the ground. Crouching low between the bent stalks of grass, she snapped the sparkling green and orange Stream back into her hand and closed her eyes once more. Like a few moments earlier, she delicately unsheathed her bow, notched an arrow and aimed into the distant sky. Several long seconds passed before the Ranger took her shot. The projectile, again, was launched on a high, deep arc into the wilderness, vanishing from sight quickly.
Coming back to life without much pause this time, the Bessan raced forward, releasing the Stream and achieving a full sprint rapidly. Her short, raven-black hair frolicked about her shoulders lightly as she ran fiercely through the dimly-lit landscape. 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 short cloak and sword scabbard.
Breaking into an open area she came upon a truly miserable creature, reduced to dragging himself along the ground with his arms. 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. “Humans are not difficult to catch when they flee from justice. There is much you don’t understand about the Stream.” She jerked the broken shaft free of his calf, rendering a great shout of agony from her captive.
“Would you have stayed? I doubt you would have. You know what fate awaits me. I’d like to prolong my life, or, what’s left of it,” 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 mind your indignant nature, Humans often resist out of instinct, even when there is no escape,” she said flatly. “I want you to tell the Instructors what you know, and then, 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 stop for a time. She did have reservations about starting a fire in this area, as there could be bandits or mercenaries nearby which roamed and pillaged the smaller townships of the Northern 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.
“I don’t care.” The Ranger replied, dragging him along, towards the trees, as though he were a sack of useless meat incapable of self-driven movement.
“Of course you do,” he continued. “Those were your friends. Your precious fellow Rangers and Shifter scum all died in the fire of the ruined city as it fell in upon itself. I helped the Anten. I helped them get inside and I helped them get the bridge down. Though, they hardly needed my assistance. I watched it all. I saw them come up right from under your noses and there was nothing you could do.” He had a sort of twisted smile at his recollection. “I did it so that your world would burn, and theirs would prevail. The time of the Shifters is ending.”
“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 victimized by this heinous scheme. Then, when the Instructors are satisfied that 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. 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 her smoke had been visible. Once the dim had returned, she surveyed the clearing in the low brush near the edge of a deeper wood. It was a place of scattered trees, softly-rolling hills and tall grass. The forest ahead was quiet, almost noiseless, but the sound of the hissing wind continued to churn and roil the grass and send leaves flying about haphazardly.
Looking South, the faint orange glow on the horizon had a tint of red to it. That’s where the city was. Somewhere across that vast plain, many hundreds of thousands of innocents were dead; a smoldering ruin is all that remained of a once proud bastion.
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 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 these 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 had been sacked and burned to ash, to then be ruled by creatures that eat the flesh of all those they slaughter, leaving no Humans or Shifters alive in their wake.
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 with sudden attentiveness. “You know,” he began casually. “You’re going to die here.”
“Really? Are you going to get out of those bonds and kill me, Human? I doubt you can even walk very far on your own.” 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 while looking around the perimeter of the clearing, “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 patrol leapt at the Shifter and tried to flatten her. The agile Ranger was able to act quickly and dart away, popping up beside her captive. He was writhing on the ground while shouting something in the Anten tongue, she guessed. If that utterance is what he had his hopes of survival staked on, he’s in trouble, she thought, quickly slicing his bonds.
While trying to drag her prisoner with her, the Anten she escaped from initially then lunged forward and grabbed her leg. In an impulsive 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 jet of black, tainted fire from the tips of her two, pointed fingers. When the black fire crackled into existence, a thunderous boom of sound and force resonated outward, terrifying 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 and flattened the grass all around. The scalding flames ripped through the Anten’s skull but turned back to a yellow-orange again as it ignited the surrounding grass quickly.
Two of the Anten who had moved in for the kill were ensnared by the engorging flames and they flailed about and rolled in the dirt to extinguish themselves. 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, still recovering 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 lurched away, reeling, through the grass. She stumbled forward, light headed and disoriented, unable to snap the Stream or shift. Wobbling about, looking for something to hold onto, she reached out with her hands desperately to avoid falling. Finding the trunk of a tree, the Bessan remembered her training: Breathe. Let it pass through. Breathe! The Shifter took several minutes to regain composure as the symptoms 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 entered a small 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 the Anten’s axe instinctually as it cleaved the air where she had been standing. Spinning away, she created some distance between herself and her foe 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 shifted and thrust him backward with a mighty gust of air following her outstretched, clenched fist. The wind was already blowing all around, and her acceleration was empowered by that alignment, harnessing the energy of order rather than the corruption 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 skyward with deadly intent.
The Bessan Shifter looked at him for a moment as she communed with the Stream. She used it to locate the other Anten, noting that they were far enough away to have this fight go immediately undetected. The power of the moving air all around coursed through 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 the combat.
Decisively, the Shifter held out her flattened hand as her brutal enemy reached the peak of his leap. Then, with authority, The Shifter clenched her fist and brought the elemental force of the wind in behind the Anten, flattening him violently against the ground. His body impacted at fatal speed and was ripped into chunks, which disappeared into the tall grass at the perimeter of the clearing. Little more than a stain of fresh blood and some disturbed plants 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 downwind to avoid the Anten in the area, which would surely investigate the scream of their tribesman. 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 muttered to herself as she stared back at the land set ablaze by her defensive fire. It was aggressively spreading 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.