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Spring was always a welcome time of year, the clear nights were cooler than the summer, and yet more hospitable than the winter. Spring was seen by many as a return to life and easier times, but for the woman standing on the beach, it was only another incentive to keep training. She held a twin pair of blades lightly in her hands, twirling them expertly around her lithe form. She continued her elegant movements practicing defensive forms, and continuing her usual exercises. While she spun and practiced, her pale blue shawl billowed out behind her like a cloud against the night sky. Her bare feet collected sand as she continued on into the late night, pressing on even as the tide rose.

Brackshore village was a small settlement on the west coast, that had recently seen a blight take most of its crops. This forced the villagers to fish for the majority of their food, but unfortunately, the only reliable fishing grounds were nearly a mile off the coast. It was so rare for a fishing boat to return unaccosted that the woman and nearly all of the children in Brackshore had been trained in combat from youth. Raids were a constant threat from all sides, raiders from the sea, and bandits from land. The woman paused her practice for a moment brushing back her auburn hair, she then turned her gaze to the ocean causing her expression to sour as the waves rolled up onto the beach.

Her attentions were pulled from the ocean, as she heard the soft sound of sand giving way before heavy footsteps behind her. She turned to see an elderly man approaching her, carrying what looked like a metal training dummy. “Dad!” She exclaimed, her sour expression vanishing into a warm smile. “What’s this?”

    “Just something I had my friend whip up for me.” He smiled back, looking into her emerald eyes. “He did say that there was and I quote, ‘like a ten percent chance it would explode,’ so don’t push it too hard, okay Val?”

    The woman warily took the device from her adopted father and looked it over. It seemed like most ordinary training dummies she’d seen in the past, but the metal adornments gave it a sturdier look than she was used to. She grabbed the torso more firmly and rammed the post into the soft sand of the beach.

    “There’s a switch right by the neck.” Her father pointed out, “Give it a shot.” As she went to oblige, Val transitioned both swords into her left hand and searched for the toggle her father had indicated. When she found the switch and flipped it, the device gave off an eerie hum, and a light blue glow surrounded it. Val took a step back and watched hoping intently that the device wouldn’t blow up in her face.

    Her hope was rewarded as six metal arms rose up from the side of the dummy, and began to spin and twirl in an attacking motion. “This is awesome! I don’t even think they have these at the palace!” She smiled and returned a sword to each hand. She then stepped towards the whirlwind of a device and resumed her training routine, this time using her blades to block and deflect the attacks of the dummy, rather than practicing stances and forms.

   Since she was only wearing simple clothing, she continued only blocking for a short time until she was comfortable with the pace of the attacks, and once she was ready she began to weave her own attacks back towards the dummy. She did her best to push herself fast enough, so she wouldn’t be caught by one of the arms during her own attack. She then decided that it was a good time to attempt something a little more flashy. She parried the next attack and then ducked down under another, before leaping over the dummy striking it in the back, as she completed the jump. She smiled broadly at her success before turning around, to see that the dummy’s arms had caught on each other and that it couldn’t move anymore. It gave off a high pitched whine, which continued until the arms flew off the dummy and it crumpled into a pile of parts.

    With a heavy sigh, Val looked towards her father, who simply gave an apologetic shrug. Val chuckled and returned to the form practice she had started with. Her father sat down on the beach and watched as she continued, practicing until the moon was high above them. He didn’t interrupt her motions until he heard a heavy bell ringing sharply in the distance. “Val. I think there might be an attack.”

    Val lowered her swords and slowed her breathing, so she could listen as well. For a moment, the only sounds they could hear were the ocean waves as the tide approached them, and the insects that chirped quietly in the night. Val was nearly ready to resume her practice when the bell rang again this time accompanied by two other chimes. “It’s the dock!” She exclaimed with worry. “The attack is coming from the ocean!” The urgency in her voice mounted, as she wanted to go aid the others who might be in trouble.

    She turned back towards her father, planning on escorting him home before going to aid the fight, but he gestured for her to run. “They need your strength, Val. I’ll be fine, there’s an outpost on the way. I’ll make sure to stay with the guards until the fighting is over. Just don’t get hurt.”

    Val gave a swift nod and then began to run up the beach towards the opposite end of town. Soon the soft sand turned into a harsher gravel beneath her feet, and she winced. Had her boots been on the beach with her, she would have donned them before running off to join the fray, but she had left them behind expecting to be home before any trouble stirred up. With a grimace, she pushed herself faster, knowing that her feet were beginning to develop calluses from her frequent lack of footwear. Soon she stepped off of the gravel, and onto the wooden planks of the wharf, where she could see the commotion of figures clashing in the night. From the looks of it, the villagers were outnumbered, which only made Val run faster.

    She soon reached an intersection of the wooden planks beneath her feet, where both paths before her circled around before meeting on the other side, creating a small pool of water that was fenced off from the wider ocean. Since the attack had come from the ocean, going to the left would be safer, but the right path was much shorter. Seeing the others in danger meant she had only one possible choice.

    Val darted to the right, her feet slamming against the well cared for wooden planks soaking up water, which washed off the sand and gravel. She had nearly cleared the halfway point when the water around her erupted upwards in a massive fountain of mist, as a creature jumped onto the dock to meet her. Much to her horror the creature before her was a chondricthian. It hunched forward as it adjusted to being on land, stretching out a long grey tail behind it. Even in it’s hunched over state it towered over her. That paired with its gnashing teeth and powerful legs would have made it horrifying enough to deal with, but even worse the grey creature had six bulky arms sprouting from its torso with a membrane flowing between them that gave it a supreme physical prowess.

    Val staggered back a moment and readied her blades, which elicited a smile with far too many teeth from the beastly figure before her. “Duelist Frohk will gladly fight this little one.” The chondricthian then drew six curved swords, as if to mock the fact Val only had two arms. Val immediately took a step backward, going on the defensive. Perhaps perceiving her small retreat as weakness, her foe lunged forward and swung three swords her direction. Val used both of her blades to parry the attack giving herself just enough time to leap backward out of the strike that followed from the other three blades.

    Val had been training from the day she could hold a sword to fend off a chondricthian, but even that couldn’t prepare her for the ferocity that came every time she encountered one. This was only further emphasized as the behemoth in front of her grew frustrated with her successful defense, and lunged forward attempting to bite into Val’s arm. Sharp pointed teeth slammed against each other, as Val used her right blade to catch the side of her target’s mouth. Blood sprayed outward as her cut came clean, and the chondricthian staggered backward caught off guard by the force of her blow.

    While he reeled she pressed her attack and brought her swords down overhead slashing in opposite directions. Metal rang out in the night as her own attack was deflected forcing her once again to leap back from the creature. A large wave crashed up against the dock spraying the combatants with a cool mist and forcing Val to cover her eyes for a moment. That moment offered up an opening in her defenses and she felt a blinding pain as metal lacerated her left shoulder. Val cried out causing the chondricthian to laugh, “Defender human is too weak. Chondricthians win today.”

    Val wanted nothing more to come up with a scathing retort, but the pain of the cut and her desire to stay alive preoccupied the majority of her mental capacity. If perhaps, she knew any of her father’s healing spells she could repair the damage but seeing as she was still untrained in any magical practices she would have to rely on her pure physical prowess. It was then that an idea struck her. Chondricthians were notoriously top heavy due to their excess limbs and were only able to balance as well as they did because of their lengthy tail. She stepped back trying to gain ground, deflecting attacks where necessary and dodging the rest. Once she had created a small opening between the pair she stepped forward and launched herself skyward over the next assault. She nimbly twisted as she flew through the air, rotating to give her still functioning sword hand extra momentum, and aimed carefully for the tail of her foe. Her attack fell true and her blade cleanly sliced through the beast’s appendage setting him off balance and tumbling forward.

    “Don’t count me out just yet.” She smirked kicking the remnants of the tail into the water. Her enemy turned snarling and began to lumber towards her with far less grace and precision than she had seen previously. He brought all six swords crashing towards her, but she was easily able to step back and watch as he crashed into the dock splintering boards around him. Val moved to strike again but winced as her wounded shoulder gave out forcing her to drop one of her swords.

    Val prepared to retreat backward again as soon as her enemy charged, but the charge never came. Instead, an arrow embedded itself in the creature’s forehead, forcing him to fall forward with a heavy thud upon the wooden dock. “Sorry, I’m late!” A cheery voice called out, “Gotta say though, I never knew you were so acrobatic. I’m impressed with that flip.”

    “Kyron! You saw that, and it took you that long to help out?” She grumbled spinning to face her friend. He was covered in blood and grime, indicating he had been at the site of the main battle. He was a mousy young man with dark brown hair and grey-blue eyes, but Val had always commended his perfectionist attitude with a bow.

    “What?” He exclaimed, “Don’t judge me, I was aiming.” He then held up a quiver to point out that he was out of ammo, “Had to make that shot count.” He gave a playful smirk and then gestured for Val to come towards him, “Come on, let’s get you patched up quick. We caught one this time. She surrendered.”

    Val was speechless for a moment. Every chondricthian, she had ever seen, was intent on fighting to the death. Never had she ever heard of one being captured or even less so surrendering. “Why?” She asked, finally finding her thoughts on the matter, “What’s different about her?”

    “Well apparently, her name starts with Speaker. Sounds like she’s supposed to negotiate with us or something.” He again gestured for Val to follow. “We should get your dad too. Quite a few scrapes among us, but they didn’t even kill anyone today. We held like never before”

    Kyron offered for Val to put her arm around him for support, but she declined instead preferring to hold it and walk at her own pace. The two ran back to town, making the first stop at her father’s house. It was a bit run down on the backside, but he made sure that the front where he kept his clinic was in perfect shape.

    Val leaned up against the wall on the stoop, while Kryon pounded on the door. She grimaced, not from the pain in her shoulder, but from the lecture, she was sure to receive. Her father had always been strict when it came to her martial practices, and always scolded her when she was injured. “You have to learn to fight properly. That’s the best way to make sure you don’t die.” It was clear that he wanted her form and style to be perfect so that he wouldn’t lose her, but it certainly didn’t help her feel any better when he made her parade around town in bandages, while she healed with mundane methods instead of applying his magic to her wounds.

    The door opened moments later, and Val’s father appeared carrying a medical bag and a notebook. He looked her up and down, held out his hand and said a few incomprehensible words, causing Val’s shoulder to immediately heal itself. “You’re lucky something important is happening tonight.” He said breathing a little heavily. “Normally you’d be in a sling for months with that kind of gouge. Don’t let it happen again” He finished sounding more desperately concerned than commanding, but Val understood his meaning.

    “Yes, sir.” She said firmly as she leaned over to grab her boots off the stoop. She was determined to make sure she didn’t get hurt again, but she knew that no matter how well practiced she was there was always the chance for her to misread a situation. “I’ll do my best.”

    The group of three immediately began to head back towards the dock with Kryon leading the way. “Come on you guys, we gotta hurry. They’re gonna start without us.”

    Kyron ran forward ahead of Val and her father, and when he was out of earshot Val’s father spoke, “That boy is one of the least disciplined militia members I’ve ever seen. And even still he’s the best shot I’ve ever seen.”

    “He’s only a year older than me. And I know I could keep up with him. Why won’t they let me join the militia yet?” Val said with a small whine in her voice. She was practically an honorary member of the town’s defenses, but she longed to officially join so that she could be given missions and tasks rather than just butting in whenever a raid targeted the village.

    “Because you have to follow the rules. When you’re eighteen you get to join the militia if you want. That’s the rule. They aren’t going to treat you as a special case just because you’re stronger than a lot of people are.” Her father said scolding her. “If they did, then they’d have to break all kinds of rules for your bloodline. It runs in the family, or so I’m told.”

    “I still have to laugh that you brought me here of all places. A stranger hands you a baby, tells you to keep her safe, and you take her to a village right next door to the chondricthians.” Val laughed heartily. She had heard the story of her adoption several times before, and she always liked to tease her father since he couldn’t give her all of the details.

    “Well it was my home, and they have a pretty excellent set of defenses if I do say so myself. Now if I hadn’t facilitated your training that might have been a different story.” he laughed along with her joking

    “Still no clue who my real parents were though?” Val frowned. She had always been curious about her origins, but there were never any satisfying answers when she looked. “All you ever say about them is that the man who gave me to you said that ‘Even with all their strength they didn’t think they could keep her safe. That falls to you now’” Val recited the words she’d heard a dozen times before. It was obvious she wasn’t from Brackshore due to her high cheekbones, regal stature, and even her fair complexion being incompatible with the hardened visage of the coastal population.

    “I don’t even know where I’d begin. Asking about strong families that live in the capital maybe? Probably family lines that have ended, and inquiring about that might bring unnecessary attention to you.”

    “Hey, guys hurry up!” Kyron called from a building just ahead of them. “She wants to speak to me, and I want you to be there!” He ducked inside the building prompting Val and her father to speed up their pace catching up to the congregation inside soon after her sprightly friend.

    As they approached, Val’s father split off from her to join the impromptu infirmary that had been set up in the building. He was going to assist the other doctors in attending to the wounded, meanwhile, Val watched the center of the room where the captured chondricthian was tied up in a wooden cage. She looked very similar to the figure Val had fought, but her skin had a light blue hue to it and a softer form. Yet somehow her posture and poise made her seem even more aggressive than other Chondricthians Val had encountered.

When the prisoner saw Kyron approach she straightened up to her full imposing height and looked down at him, “Defender. I am speaker Srough. I wish to know the name of the one I am making a deal with.”

    “I’m Kyron, but why do you wanna negotiate with me?” He smirked, “I’m just some kid who fights you lot off for a living.”

    “Defender Kyron is strong. Defender Kyron is worthy of chondricthian respect.” She bowed her head to him

    “I’ll be honest, I’m not sure this is what I expected out of chondricthian diplomacy.” Kyron tapped his head thinking for a moment, “Wait I take that back, it started with a fight. Makes perfect sense.”

    “Defender Kyron mocks us, but he isn’t wrong. If the opposition is too weak to survive an attack from us how can they be strong enough to uphold our terms.”

“That…” He smirked keeping his playful approach much to the displeasure of his elders around the room. “Actually makes a lot of sense.” His tone then took a more serious tone, “You mention terms. What terms do you bring us today?”

    “Speaker Srough comes offering a chance at peace. We will allow your village to use the fishing grounds and,” She paused trying to muster up the will to say something, “Share our food.” She practically gagged at the notion, “So long as you escort me to meet with your king and he agrees to help us with our problem.”

    “What problem are you talking about?” Kryon asked with a raised eyebrow. “If it’s down in the ocean there isn’t much we’re gonna be able to do to help.”

    “Chondricthians are vanishing. By the dozens. Your kingdom has strong mages. They may be able to find the ones responsible”

    The group began to dissolve into hushed whispers deliberating whether or not to trust what the chondricthian had said. And even if they did trust her, they couldn’t agree whether or not it was in their best interests to help. The chondricthians had been their enemies for as long as Brackshore had existed, and neither side seemed to have even the slightest care for the other. Eventually, Kyron spoke up silencing the squabble, “While we might not have any reason to trust you, it is nonetheless in our best interests to trust you because it will solve two of our village’s biggest problems if we are able to cooperate.” He then turned to face the crowd, “I volunteer to take the chondricthian to the capital. But I’d like to take a few others with me. It’ll make the trip safer. Especially if this is some kind of trap they’ve set up.”

    “Unless the trap was to lure your best defenders away from the city.” Srough hissed from inside the cage, “Foolish humans underestimate how clever we are capable of being.”

    Kyron turned to face her, “And if you were trying to gain any trust from me you already lost it by bringing that up.”

    “A risk that was worth taking. I can’t promise that any other raiders won’t attack your village, but by bringing up the possibility I can ensure you’ll not be surprised by the assault. A token of aid in our young alliance.” Srough answered back with a guttural tone that almost sounded like her attempt at compassion

    “Fine, we’ll leave immediately. The remaining cover of night should be enough to get us through the open plains. By the time the sun rises, we should be into the hills as we approach Caildor Castle which will make it easier to move unnoticed.”

    Val watched as a few members of the militia stepped forward to volunteer to help Kyron, and he graciously accepted each and every one. When the village leaders gave their blessing, and the route was decided in depth they began the final preparations and loaded the chondricthian’s cage onto a carriage so they could transport her while still imprisoned. Val followed the convoy around as they prepared, wishing that she could go with them.

    Kyron eventually pulled her aside when he was ready to go. “Val, I wish you could go with me. But it’s okay when you officially turn eighteen, we’ll be able to have all kinds of assignments together. Right?”

    “Yeah, that’s true. I’m just so eager to prove myself.” Val said a little dejectedly. “I’ve gotta show I can hold my own.”

    “Everyone already knows you can. You’re only trying to prove it to yourself. Doubt doesn’t suit you.” Kyron laughed softly in an attempt to cheer her up. Then with a wave, he turned and jumped up onto his horse and ushered for the convoy to depart.

    Val kept her eyes fixed upon her friend as he left with the chondricthian woman in tow. She ran to the edge of the town to watch them on the horizon but her attention was torn as she heard a horse nickering. She turned to search for the source of the noise only to see a hooded man lurking against the buildings and a horse charging out of town parallel to the path the convoy was taking. Val’s curiosity urged her to investigate the scene, and she soon found herself within a few paces of the hooded figure. “Hey, stranger! Don’t think we’ve met!” She called out eager to see his response.

Val had hoped the man would greet her in kind but instead, he turned abruptly to look at her in shock. Val kept a cheery look on her face, but the hooded figure turned and sprinted away from her. She began to run after him and Val couldn’t help but find the man slow as she instantly began to close the distance between them.

Within a few seconds she was an arm’s length behind him, and within a moment more she had latched onto his collar bringing him to a sudden introduction with the dirt. “Please don’t hurt me” the man whimpered, “I’m just following orders.”

“What?” Val gave a devilish grin, “Why would I hurt you? What orders?” She didn’t have any real intentions of harming the fellow, but he had information about something she found suspicious, so she had no qualms about being intimidating.

“The chondricthian. She can’t be allowed to reach the capital. She’s to be slain.” the man quivered in fear, “And anyone who stands in their way of killing her will also be cut down.”

Val wrung the man’s collar a little tighter, “They’re gonna kill the escorts! Why?”

“There can’t be any evidence. No one can know about their attack.” Val wanted to question why he was so freely giving her this information, but the man coughed and blood began to bubble from inside his mouth. He went limp in Val’s arms and before her very eyes, his body began to disintegrate. Within seconds not even a shred of clothing remained; only a pile of ash.

Biomancers like Val’s father were adept at postponing death and using their magic to heal wounds and cure illnesses, but the man Val had been interrogating had fallen victim to a magic that was the antithesis of medicine. Prestigious assassins in Telemera had developed a technique that would cause any attack they made to leave their victim unharmed. After this technique wore off all of the wounds would inflict themselves at once, which usually instantly killed the victim causing them to fade to nothing leaving no evidence.

If the man on the horse was capable of that kind of magic she needed to warn Kyron of the grave danger he was in. Val spun on her heels and sprinted back to the village gate looking for any of the remaining militia members. After a quick search, it seemed that they had all returned to their homes for the night. She then ran back to find the quartermaster. He was always up early to tend to the stables so he was easy to find. When she approached him she began shouting, “Sir! I need a horse. The escort is in danger!”

He jumped and turned her way exclaiming wildly, “Val! Child, you know you’re too young to be taking part in any official business. People are allowed to have adventures without you!”

When she was younger Val had often made up excuses that allowed her to tag along with any trips that the militia took out of the city, but she had already wasted too much time looking for militia members, so she simply dashed past the quartermaster to the stable entrance and untied the first horse she saw. The quartermaster yelled for her to stop but it was already too late. Val was seated in the saddle and spurring the horse to ride. She would have to move at top speed if she had any hope of catching up to the convoy before the pending attack. They may have only had a thirty-minute head start on her, but every second counted and the clock was ticking.

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