Her left arm was held straight out into the air, grasping the longbow firm and on a bold arc. A fierce breeze whipped through the tall grass all around as the ranger crouched. An arrow was notched and a glistening greenish yellow vein of Stream coiled around the hand that held the string taught. Her eyes were shut tight and she appeared to be in deep concentration. Abruptly, the skilled huntress released the arrow into the sky. It was unclear what she might be firing at as it quickly vanished on a trajectory that took it high and far.
Motionless, like a stone gargoyle, she was poised and continued to listen. The Bessan’s eyes were still shut tight as her arm slowly lowered. Without hesitation, she sprung to her feet and was on the move. The darkly clad Shifter launched out of hiding into the open field running full speed, pursuing something in the general direction her projectile had been fired. The thick but short black cloak on her shoulders snapped behind her as she raced through the grass.
The ranger ran forward a few hundred yards, paused to tap the Stream briefly, then charged off much in the same direction she had been going. The accuracy of her chase improved as she repeated this process. If this Bessan huntress had someone marked, there was almost certainly no escape. Her prey, in this case, had the courtesy to never stray too far from the Stream to be completely hidden from sight.
The Bessan paused and surveyed the clearing she had come upon, seeming to recognize the place. The huntress looked down and dabbed at some blood on the ground. Crouching low to the earth again, the Shifter snapped the sparkling green and orange Stream back into her hand and closed her eyes. Without opening them, she delicately unsheathed her bow, notched an arrow and aimed high into the gathering night. The motionless ranger waited several minutes before taking her shot and the arrow vanished 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 perforated human in studded leather armor and a tattered, bloody cloak. He was crawling along the ground and the Shifter was displeased that he had snapped one of her arrows. The human was not able to run anymore and had, essentially, given up. It became apparent that the multiple wounds he had received were weighing on him.
“Well,” he said, hands in the dirt. “You have me.”
“Indeed.” She said flatly. “Why did you run? Running doesn’t solve anything. Running makes people come chase after you, and, well, now here we are.”
“I know,” he mumbled painfully. “But if I had betrayed them, they would have treated me much worse than you ever will. You see, they have no problem eating your eyeball right out of it’s socket even if they suspect they’ve been wronged. You probably wouldn’t ever be that hungry or angry. I think I’ll take my chances with you.”
“You seem well aware of how brutal they are, and yet you turned them on a helpless city, unable to defend itself from a most gruesome foe.” The ranger seemed a bit outraged at his casualness, while she sheathed her bow back beside the quiver.
“Yes.” He was solemn, but resolved.
“Why?” She pleaded. “Those were your people, your brothers, your sisters. What do you have left? What are you hoping to be the King of now? What could they have offered you to make you do this to your own kind?” Her tone elevating as the Ranger grabbed hold of him by the shoulder buckle of his armor. She marched off towards the deepening wood some distance away, dragging her kill behind her like he was a slaughtered animal. The grizzled man smiled and winced as the arrow in his leg collided with objects on the ground. His lifeless limbs rolled over rocks and logs, leaving a thin trail of blood behind.
“You would never understand.” He said almost to himself, looking down at the world going by. Grunting occasionally in displeasure.
“Honestly, I’d really like to know what it took to convince you that THIS was what you needed to do. That your part in a scheme could enable such death and pain must have some explanation.”
There was a moment of silence that seemed to carry on for a agonizingly long time.
“I just wanted to see it burn.” He started laughing, first slow, then higher and sharper, until he was cackling. “I remember their screams. So many. Children. Screaming…” The flames were still roaring in his eyes.
The Bessan Shifter backhanded him with her chain gauntlet across his face. “Enough!”
When dusk came, she tied his hands and feet down to the earth so he couldn’t wiggle away and made no fire. The ranger settled down in a clearing in the low brush many miles from the road, but not quite to the protection of the trees, to set camp for the night. It would be another few days journey hauling this traitor back to Naruna for further questioning. The ranger thought as she healed him, treated and bandaged his wounds. Sadly, she realized he had left an alarmingly long trail of blood to her location, which was of concern to her. There is nothing I can do about this now. The ranger conceded to herself.
As the sun went down and darkness crept in from all sides, there was a deep red glow on the horizon, growing thicker and darker the lower it went. “Smoke. So much smoke.” She said aloud, and to no one in particular. Smoke had been billowing from her city when she left, but that was two days ago. The air of the Fold was still thick with it. Even if the city the Bessan Shifter had been born in was gone, she would not stand for that to be the fate of other people’s homes across the Kingdom.
Gaining what they can from this traitor is of paramount concern, she thought, as the plan to destroy the city had clearly been waged in secret, on multiple fronts and with the assistance of many. Unraveling this sordid catastrophe is going to take time. Did we even have time? Was it already too late? Things were moving so rapidly now… To her, a great deal had changed in a short time; the stakes had been raised to a new and perilous level.
“I know what you’re thinking,” her prisoner began with his back to her and his ear close to the ground. Perturbed by his noisiness, she glowered at him sternly. “You’re thinking, ‘I wonder if I torture him, what information I could get long before I reach Naruna. Then wouldn’t I be just such a good little ranger, so very praiseworthy, having learned so much from the traitor beforehand?” He scoffed in outrage to his own spun reality. “I’ll never talk to you, no matter what you do to me.”
“Won’t you?” She jested. “It would make my job so much easier, and then I wouldn’t need to take any of my tools out or get them dirty.” the Shifter composed herself and snapped back. “I’m not wasting my time discussing anything with you. You’ll talk when we get to Naruna, or you’ll show them what they need to see.”
He lifted his head from the ground suddenly and raised his voice. “As a matter of fact,” he said boldly, snapping 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 now.”
She chuckled dryly, and leaned in towards him, “and just how did you plan on doing that?”
“Not me,” he said. “Those Anten behind you might help, though.”
Several Anten entered the clearing, spotting the ranger right away. The leader of the group leapt at the Shifter and tried to push her down. The nimble huntress used the momentum of her fall to glide over her prisoner and land a short distance away from the Anten. While tied to the ground, he was shouting something in the Anten tongue. His way of telling them he is an ally, that is, if they speak the dialect he’s using. She thought.
Gathering herself, the ranger kicked the Anten who had jumped on her away while it tried to get up; its balance being compromised. Using that momentum, she sprung for the safety of the tall grass behind her. The Anten wasn’t deterred by her attack and also quite dexterous; it lunged forward and grabbed her leg as she tried to flee. 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. The scalding flames turned pure again as it caught on to the surrounding grass and began to spread. Two of the Anten who had moved in for the kill were also set ablaze and they fled screaming madly. When the black fire snapped into existence a thunderous boom of sound and energy was created, which terrified the other Anten. The warrior held onto her foot even as his body burned, and the flesh of his face melted away to the bone. The remaining Anten in the patrol began to run about wildly as the flames grew brighter and larger. The ranger severed the burning Anten’s arm with her sword and cut the bonds of her prisoner. “If you run from me, I will find you.” The stern huntress whispered to him. He paid her no mind, and ran off by himself into the night.
The poisoned Shifter grabbed her stomach and limped away through the grass. The ranger stumbled forward, light headed and sick. She wobbled about looking for something to hold onto, reaching out with her hands. She gripped the trunk of a tree and the Bessan remembered her training. Breathe. The Shifter took several minutes to regain composure as the poison of violating the natural order was flushed from her body.
As she gained greater distance from the fire, things became clearer in the darkness. The 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 empty shadow of the tall grass. The Shifter whirled about and dodged the fierce swing of its axe. She spun away and created some distance between herself and the Anten. It spat and hissed at her angrily, then charged. Snapping the Stream back to her hand again, she thrust him away with a mighty breath of wind following her outstretched, clenched fist. The Anten was shoved as he reeled against the force of it and was moved back a dozen feet or so.
The feral savage was swift, strong, and did not lose its footing when the wind blew him away. Instead the warrior recoiled and leapt vertically into the air. The vicious warrior raised his axe high above his head and released a chilling, guttural scream; hurling himself into combat. The Bessan Shifter looked at him for a moment as she communed with the Stream. To the Shifter, time slowed down and her keen senses were greatly heightened. She made sure no other Anten were nearby and brought into focus what would be the most efficient way to resolve this 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 ripped into fleshy chunks which scattered out in all directions into the grass at the perimeter of the clearing. The Shifter released the Stream and sprinted for the cover of the trees. Once she had some distance from the scene of her battle, the ranger looked for a place to avoid the Anten patrol which would surely investigate that scream.
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 Maesters in 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 the flames 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 woods. The ranger’s bones ached and she needed to find another safe place to rest soon. 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.