Another warm Hazel Valley morning was ushered in by the familiar sounds of the daily drills; the gentle clatter of wood as bows met their arrows, followed soon after by the faint zip of the arrowhead slicing through the still air, and ending its journey with a soothing thud in the heart of a leather target dummy. Accompanying this orchestra of archers came the low rumble of friendly chatter, occasionally drowned by the boom of a command here and there, underscored by the soft padding of feet moving to and fro through the rich soil of the encampment. Daeron was gradually awoken by the peaceful hum of all the sounds slurring together, forming a masterpiece more beautiful than any maiden's song he had ever heard.
For a moment, in the haze of his waking thoughts, he was a child again. He was at home, in the courtyard, where his father was always waiting with his great oak longbow that had been taller than Daeron was. Everything about that bow - the intricate carvings and curves, the flex of the string, the amber sheen of the polish - had fascinated Daeron to no end. He had longed for his own bow just like it, and his father had always said that one day it would belong to him. For a moment, he was back there, staring up into his father's face, and Daeron could almost hear him... What was he saying?
"Feredir..." The voice echoed, unusually loud. It did not sound like his father at all. "Hey, Daeron, wake up! Long day ahead of us." Daeron opened his eyes and ears and all of his other senses at once, to meet an invasion of sunlight that blinded him, and a harsh, gritty voice flooding his ears. He was not at home anymore, but at the encampment, he remembered. As his eyes adjusted to the sudden blast of white, the last remnants of his dream faded, leaving nothing but Ranger Eldir in place of his father. Eldir was his superior, one of the high-ranking Ranger Captains. A stern man, but an excellent leader, and he knew this end of the Valley better than anyone else. He offered a gloved hand down to pull Daeron to his feet.
"Some of our bread went missing last night." He began as soon as Daeron had his balance. He was not a man who wasted time. "Scouts managed to take down one of the bastards who took it. Tree Goblins, it seems. Nasty little thieves, they are, and I'd go out there and give them a new home on the heel of my boot if I didn't have a hundred other things to manage. We need all of our rations if this expedition is to fulfill its purpose. If the reports are true, and the Blackmass have infiltrated this part of the Valley, we'll be dealing with them soon enough. But first, the Tree Goblins." He looked Daeron up and down, his face remaining indifferent. "Gear up. I'm sending you and a few other novices out to deal with it. Moving targets will make for better practice. You'll find the others waiting by the weapons tent. Get that bread, Daeron." With that, he turned and left quietly, leaving Daeron to prepare himself for his first real task of the expedition.
"Scram, you little weasel!" The fat, balding man who was accompanying Roland spat at the heels of the beggar boy as he ran away on blistered feet. Truth be told, Roland might have preferred to take this patrol shift alone; no doubt the swine to his left would do nothing more than become a heaping, bloody meal if the Blackmass happened to attack. But they wouldn't, Roland knew, not this far west in such an insignificant village. The Blackmass were much further east, likely still impaling themselves against the swords of his true brothers, the brave knights who were sent straight to the frontlines. Roland, unfortunately, was instead given guard duty here in Wellstone, alongside a few other prize specimens such as Mullwyk, the sweating blob of mailed flesh walking beside him.
To make matters worse, Roland had to stand idle and watch as Elvish refugees poured in from the east, fleeing from their unprotected Valley homes, searching for safety in the great empire of the Pyran Arc. He would sooner have Mullwyk spit on them rather than little beggar boys; at least that one was a true-blooded human. Alas, there was nothing he could do to stop it. The Elves passed through, day in and day out, with their families and horses and wagons trudging along toward Pyrus. The thought of his beautiful city, his home, being littered with such scared and weak creatures disgusted him. It almost disgusted him as much as the stench that radiated off of Mullwyk.
The village folk went about their daily business as he passed through the market, Mullwyk straining himself to keep up. To his relief, the scent of fresh meats and spices managed to contest his companion's fumes for control of the air, creating a mixture that was at least tolerable. He did have some coin, and could maybe see if there were any weapon vendors; a new knife perhaps, or a cudgel, it never hurt to carry a backup. As he quietly considered the thought, he was startled to hear someone cry out a few feet ahead of him. A young woman ran up to him, pointing back to a stall that had been knocked over, scattering bolts of cloth everywhere.
"Help! Stop him!" She shrieked, wrapping her thin fingers around Roland's armored wrist. "He stole my best silks! One of those blasted Elves! Go get them back, please!" She pleaded, ushering him forward as Mullwyk drew his sword and began the chase. Roland followed suit, darting around the corner where the stall had fell. Just as he did, he caught a glimpse of a slender figure jumping over a fence and dashing out into an alley. An Elf, it was true, an Elf who had stolen from Roland's own good people.
"Work?" The innkeeper asked in a tone that sounded more like a warning than a question. "You're lookin' for work, is that it?" His eyes were cautious, barely looking up at Craig from the mug he was shining. "Well, s'pose that depends on what kind'a work you're lookin' for, lad." Craig thought it was strange seeing a Dwarf here, in Goldenreach, so far from his northern home. Still, the Freelands were home to everyone, including Dwarves; he knew that well. "If it happens you're lookin' for the kind'a work involves you takin' a pretty knife an' openin' some pretty nobleman's throat up, well, it happens you've come to the wrong place, boy." He froze solid for a moment, glaring up at Craig, then resumed cleaning the mug.
"Oi! That's not true, boy! The keeper's tellin' fibs, I say!" A skinny, black-haired man seated back at one of the tables called out. Craig turned to look at him, and immediately realized that the man was incredibly drunk. "No, no, I got some use for a pretty, pretty knife, if you've got one! I'll give you seven - no, TEN! - ten copper pieces if you'll do us all a great, big favor, and CHOP," The man made a hacking motion with the side of his hand, "ole' Robar's manhood off!" The punchline of his mock proposal sent a ripple of roaring laughter through the entire tavern. It wasn't exactly what Craig was hoping for.
"You'd do anything ta' catch a glimpse o' my manhood!" The Dwarf yelled back at him, refreshing the great fit of laughter just as it had begun to quiet down. A few moments later, after he'd caught his breath, Robar the Dwarf looked back at Craig. "Alright, boy, you fancy yourself a sellsword? Happens I know some kind folks who own a little caravan, an' they use it to bring supplies from here to Westcliffe, a ways north. Problem is, roads around here aren't always so friendly. You can find 'em in the market. This little town's not so big, you should have no problem locatin' a big ole' wagon in the square." He nodded at Craig before walking down to the end of the bar to take the empty mug of an old man, passed out on the counter.
The sword flew upward in a dark brown blur, catching Daeris' arm and throwing it aside, nearly disarming her. It was almost frustrating to see how effortlessly her mentor was defeating her each time, without fail. Every stab was dodged and countered with a swipe to Daeris' exposed flank; every low kick was caught with precision reflexes, and punished with a leg sweep that brought Daeris crashing down onto her back; every strike was met and matched so perfectly that it just seemed impossible to win.
"Again." Vez would say every time, always waiting for Daeris to attack first, then turning her defensive maneuver into a counterattack. Granted, Daeris was wielding a blunt wooden dagger, while her mentor held a wooden sword that was much longer. "Out there, men will wield swords, not daggers. You will show them why they are wrong." Vez had told her when she had asked why she didn't get a sword. The lesson continued as Vez circled around her, sword held firmly in her unbreakable grip. "Now, you must use everything at your disposal in a fight." She said slowly, never taking her eyes from Daeris' face. "You have a free hand you do not use. One day you may carry another blade in it. First you must train this hand. Men use their free hands to hold big shields. You will show them why they are wrong."
Suddenly, Vez leapt at her, slashing downward. Reflexively, Daeris pushed the blow aside with her dagger, readying herself to pull back and strike again, when she remembered the advice she had just been given. Instead, she curled her left hand into a fist and struck Vez in the ribcage, causing her mentor to loose a quiet gasp. Taking a step back, Vez smiled down at her, nodding with approval. "That will be all for today, daughter of Blood. There is work for us to do. Come, we must go find a task." The two of them put their weapons back on the racks and began the walk through the dark, glossy halls of the guild. As they moved along, Vez glanced over and asked, "So, child, why is it you are here? You are an orphan, I presume? Most of the children here are. Tell me, what is it about the art of subtlety that interests you so?"
"He's a pretty one, inn'he?" The man's breath stank of sour, cheap wine and garlic. "Lookit, he's one o' them fancy types, thinks himself prettier'n a lady!" He cackled madly, shoving Izarin back against the wall, knife held tightly against his throat. The man's accomplice, shorter and seemingly unarmed, stood a few feet back, smiling quietly at Izarin. "Y'think the lady-boy's got any good coin on 'im, eh boss? Or maybe a nice fancy wineskin, could use me a drink, heh!" It was all Izarin could do not to faint from the putrid smell. This man seemed to be the exact opposite of him in every conceivable way, intelligence included; he could feel the man's grip on the dagger faltering as he distracted himself with his own jokes.
"Yes, Ross. Perhaps he does." The man behind him chimed in, his voice snide, his eyes filled with condescending pride in his lackey's work. "Listen to me now, boy, or girl, whatever you are. We don't want to hurt you; well, at least I don't. I'm afraid I can't say as much for my friend here." He gestured at Ross, who flashed a crooked, shattered grin that looked like a handful of gold coins more than a mouthful of teeth. "But he'll stay his blade, unless I tell him to do otherwise. I won't tell him to do otherwise if you do what I say. If you have any weapons on you, I want you to tell Ross where they are so he can relieve you of them. That way, we'll all be much safer here. Safe is good, isn't that right, Ross?" He asked slowly, as if Ross wouldn't have understood if he'd asked any faster.
Suddenly, Ross lurched away, turning around to nod vigorously at his boss, bearing a striking resemblance to a horse nodding for food. "Yeah, boss! That's right!" He hollered, sounding every bit as stupid as he looked. The expression on the other man's face was a priceless mix of disgust as a wave of sour breath hit him, and dismay as he realized that Ross had just taken the knife from Izarin's throat. Before either could react, Izarin delivered a swift kick to the big oaf's rear end, knocking him face-first into the dirt. The other man reached into the back of his belt and drew a knife of his own as Izarin took a deep breath, preparing himself for combat.
Find... the weakness... The voice pierced through his mind like a shrill wind. He will... surrender soon... It was the voice of the Prophet, who spoke to him the most of the Forgotten Ones. Crantil knew that despite the fact that all of his masters were as powerful as gods to this realm, the Prophet was the most intelligent of all. He knew everything, saw everything at once through the eyes of his servants. Crantil admired him for that; the Reaver could slaughter a battlefield full of men, the Lunatic could withstand an infinite amount of pain, but the Prophet... He was a strategist, he had his own form of cunning.
The bloodied Dwarf lay before him, each breath causing his entire body to tremble with pain. Crantil had caught the man on the Prophet's orders, driven his razor-sharp nails into the man's gut, tasted the blood, revelled in the thrill of the hunt. Do not use your weapons, blood of the Void Gods. We want this mortal alive to breathe his secrets out before you consume his life. The Prophet had whispered to him before Crantil had pounced, catching the stray Dwarf from his flank. Such weaklings, these creatures were; their senses were dull, half of their body a blind spot, ripe for ambush.
I will speak through you now, hunter. Do not resist. A blinding rush took hold of Crantil, and he could not control his body any longer. Instinctively, he tried to struggle, but the presence of the Prophet kept him calm. He felt his mouth forming strange words in a tongue he did not know, saw his own spittle drip into the Dwarf's open wounds, but he had no will of his own. "Where are your brethren hiding?" The Prophet said through Crantil's mouth, but he did not understand what was being said. "Tell us where they come from and we will cause you no more agony." It was a strange feeling, but Crantil had a sense of pride; he could almost feel the eyes of Paragon, the leader of the Forgotten Ones and father of the Blackmass, upon him.
"N...never..." The Dwarf managed to cough out a word through all of the blood in his mouth. Crantil felt the Prophet's displeasure in whatever he said. He suddenly regained control of his body. Son of the Void, the voice boomed angrily in his head, Make him suffer. Make him speak. I will listen.