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Dragon Hero: Chapter 4 The Teachers


Raspan’s eyes flashed open, the echoing roar leaving his mind at last.  It was then he felt the incredible pain in his head.  Lifting a hand to place on his buzzing forehead, he realized that he was now on his back, and no longer on the wet grass of the clearing but on a soft bed mattress.  His eyes blurrily surveyed his surroundings, taking in what was clearly supposed to be a bedroom, but felt more like a prison cell.  The claustrophobic walls, gray and stony, held up a lightless vaulted ceiling.  A flickering candle on a nearby bed stand was the only reason Raspan could see anything. 

He sat up on the bed, suddenly feeling cold and hungry.  How long had it been since he touched the sword?  There was a window, shutters closed and rattling with the wind, which blocked his view of the outside.  He stood from the bed, landing his bare feet on a freezing stone floor.  He made his way weakly to the window, unlatching the shutters and flinging them open.

The view made him shiver more than the cold.  He was up high, in a tower of some kind.  Below him stretched vast plains, sparse and stony.  Tall spires of rock pierced the blanket of grass in some places, giving the landscape a treacherous feel, as though these protruding rocks could spring up at any time.  The forest was but a scratch on the horizon, slashing out to his left from beyond the window.  To his distant right, he could make out the wavy mass of hills, stark and barren.  That put him north of the tree line, a dangerous part of the valley where the orc tribes held, and where the mysterious beastmen of Lyrakan kept their halls. The sky remained cloudy, as it had been earlier, but it still seemed to be daytime.  The mist that had choked the valley earlier seemed to have burned off, making it sometime in the late afternoon.

Something brushed against his legs, and the poor elf nearly jumped a foot off the ground.  Looking down around his ankles, he spied a sleek black cat whose curious blue gaze locked on to Raspan’s eyes, giving him the feeling the cat wanted something from him.    He leaned over to pet the cat’s shiny coat, and it leaped up on to the bed.  There it sat, watching him intently with sly blue eyes.  Raspan tentatively reached out for the animal again, slowly this time, and it watched his hand as it closed in.  As his hand just reached its fur, the wily feline turned away and bounded over to the open door on the other side of the room.  There it meowed plaintively, its tail flicking back and forth.

Keen to the cat’s game, Raspan walked over to the doorway, his hands at his side.  The cat’s eyes remained on him the whole time and when Raspan was close, the cat began to trot away down the hall outside the room.  Quick as he could, he snapped down toward the cat, trying to scoop it up off the floor.  He was just a moment too late, and the spry beast slithered out of his grasp, casting a smarmy glance back at the elf as it sashayed away.

“You win this round, cat,” Raspan grudgingly admitted.  “You shall not always be so lucky.”

Raspan followed the cat down the hall, trailing a scant few feet behind it.  The hall was lit every few feet by candles in sconces, set in pairs down the hall.   Every other candle marked a plain wooden door below it, in a staggered pattern, left and right.  The arched ceiling kept shadows at its peak, mysterious and forbidding.  The elf found himself wary of the darkness above, as though something dreadful lurked on the ceiling, waiting for him to misstep but once to drop down and devour him.  He realized soon that the shadows were made by the design of the torch sconces; they blocked the light from reaching the ceiling and directed the light to a more angle.  Regardless, the inky darkness above him made his mind restless.

At the end of the hall stood a door of darkwood bound in iron, a light flickering behind it menacingly.  No knob or handle could be found, adding to the feeling of foreboding already at the door.  Unsure of what to do, Raspan looked expectantly at the cat, which blinked lazily at him.  Steeling his mind for what might lie beyond, he knocked twice, in trepidation, and once more with a little more confidence.

Raspan heard a click.  He had heard the tales of adventurers before, and clicks were never the sign of anything good.  He did not think he was actually in any danger, but nonetheless took a step back as the door swung inward.

Beyond the door was row after row of meticulously stocked shelves, brimming with books.  Some were old and weathered, showing age and wear, while some were eerily immaculate, as though they had never been opened.  Raspan walked slowly through the forest of pages and bindings, his curiosity rising with every step.  He would have loved dearly to read through these shelves of tomes, but not even an elf could possibly read all of the books in this place, even with an extra two hundred years.

The source of the flickering light came from a pedestal with two candles burning upon it, positioned on either side of a strange tome.  It seemed to call his name, and the elven prince was helpless against its tug.  As he came to stand beside it, he examined the book that held his attention so utterly.  The leather of the covers held a swirled pattern that shifted with each flicker of the candles.  The corners of the book were capped with triangular pieces of silver, cold blue gems set on their centers.  A white crest shaped like a dragon was inlaid on the center of the cover, and that was where Raspan’s hand fell first. 

A tremor came from within the book.  Raspan took his hand away, a feeling of dread and awe overcoming him.  The book opened itself, and from its pages seeped an icy mist, glowing with magical ire.  The unnatural cold sliced through him, prompting his hands and feet to lose almost all their feeling.  Raspan started to back away, feeling as though he never should have come in here.

The mist grew in size, and soon Raspan could make out a shape emerging from formless ether, something almost like a demon of ice.  It began to look more solid and more dangerous, until a leering face began to appear in the cloud above, its eyes centered on the poor elf. 

Thinking quickly, Raspan turned to the door, but it had long since shut without him hearing it.  He spun back to the book, sticking his senseless hands into the chilling miasma.  He tried to close the book, but it refused his efforts, as though the covers were nailed to the pedestal.  His arms were beginning to lose their feeling when he noticed that the candles were untouched by the cold.  Rapidly losing control of his fingers, he desperately knocked one of the candles into the pages of the book.

Almost instantly, the pages were alight, and the mist lost much of its form.  The frozen face glared at him before its source was melted away.  Fire burned brightly, and the mist dissolved with an angry hiss.  Soon all that was left was a burnt out cover, the candlestick resting on top of it. 

From across the room Raspan could hear the purring of the cat as the door opened back up.  It trotted up to him, seemingly pleased as could be.  The elf dropped down and let his still numb hands rest on the cat’s back, the warm fur easing the warmth back into them. 

After the cat, Raspan noticed another figure.  Janus stood in the doorway, applauding slowly and solemnly.  His eyes were as piercing and unreadable as always, but a slight smile curved his lips.

“Lesson one,” the mage said to the elf on the floor as he approached, “Curiosity can be dangerous, but without it, nothing can be learned.”

“That was a test?” Raspan gasped, standing up and rubbing his arms to get feeling back to them.

Janus waved a warding hand.  “Testing implies I would judge you on your actions.  This was less a test than a demonstration.”

“Oh, I see,” Raspan said dryly.  “You just wanted to show me that you don’t have to kill me, you can make your books kill me instead.”

The mage raised an eyebrow.  “That, dear boy, is but a fragment of the dangers you will face under my tutelage.  You will need to acclimate yourself to such thoughts if we are to succeed here.” 

Raspan looked back over to the book, digesting that bit of information.  “So that was a simple lesson?  I don’t think it had the results you were hoping for.”

“No, you performed quite as I had expected,” Janus said as he walked over to the pedestal and collected the book’s cover.  “Indeed, your reaction time was most exceptional.  However, I didn’t think you would plunge your unprotected hand into raw elemental ice.  But now, you know not to do that, don’t you?”

Raspan nodded, flexing his fingers and feeling how cold they still were.  “I guess you learn quickly when your life is at stake.”

Janus grinned.  “There was no true danger this time; the simple elemental the book summoned was under my direction and would not have permanently harmed you.  In the future, such lessons will be just as unexpected, but much less … controlled.”

Raspan felt the weight of his next few months on his back.  This would not be the magic he expected to learn.


After his lesson, Raspan was told to return to his room, where his studying could begin.  He returned to the room to find a tome on a desk near the window that had not been there before, entitled “Theories of Arcane Forms and Their Practical Applications.”  A marker had been in it denoting the beginning of a section on elven practices.  Despite the stodgy title, Raspan found the text to be descriptive and intuitive, using examples and comparisons for many of the ideas presented.

So engrossed was he in the book that he did not realize how hungry he had grown until much later when his stomach growled angrily.  He was about to place the marker on his page to seek out sustenance when he heard a knock at the door.  He figured it was his new teacher; he promptly hurried to the door and pulled it open. 

His greeting was caught in his throat as he realized his guest was only four feet tall.

Standing at the door to Raspan’s room was a young human boy who looked to be barely past his tenth winter.  He was dressed in simple, loose clothing of bright blue, a joyful look that was completely at odds with his surroundings.  The top of his head was wrapped in a red bandana in the style of street children, but his eyes held an innocent cheerfulness that only the young seem to have.  In his hands he held a platter laden with food.

“Hello!” the young lad said with a smile that could have disarmed a chained gauntlet.  “You must be the new student!  I bet you’re hungry, right?  This is for you.”

Raspan looked down at the contents of the platter.  It contained a bowl of rich, fragrant stew, a small loaf of fresh bread, and a crystal pitcher of clear water with a small clay cup.  He nodded his affirmation, he was still stunned by the surprising guest.  The boy lifted the platter toward him, and Raspan took it from him gently and placed it on his desk.

“If that’s not enough for you, I’ll show you where to get some more,” the boy said.  “I’m not sure how much elves eat, so I brought a fair helping.”

“That’s very generous,” Raspan said, finally finding his tongue.  “I wasn’t aware of any other students in Janus’ care.”

“Oh, I’m not a student anymore, really,” the boy said.  “I’m more of an assistant.”

“I see,” Raspan answered, unsure of why anyone would willingly expose themselves to Janus for longer than was needed. 

“By the way, my name’s Merrin,” the boy said.  “I’ve been here for a while, so if you have any questions, I’ll be glad to help.”

Raspan nodded appreciatively.  It was good to know that there was a friendly face sharing the tower with him.

A thought occurred to the elf as he poured from the water pitcher into the cup.  “You say you’re Janus’ assistant, and no longer a student,”

Merrin nodded.  “For at least a year.”

Raspan arched an eyebrow.  “You seem awfully young for a journeyman wizard.”

The boy grinned taking a seat at the foot of the bed.  “Janus doesn’t normally take pupils.  I was an exception, he made that very clear.  You’re lucky too, in that regard.”  He leaned forward, a curious wonder in his eyes.  “What kind of practice do you have with spells?  Illusion?  Enchantment?  Or do you have a connection to the fey?”

Raspan cleared his throat.  “I … don’t actually know any spells,” he admitted sheepishly.

Merrin’s expression started to sour with disappointment.  Raspan actually felt bad about saying as much; the young mage was clearly excited to meet another magically gifted person.  However, a moment later Merrin’s features became quizzical and introspective, a look that was completely foreign to the beaming bright face he had on not a minute ago.

“Are you cursed, or maybe under some other spell?” the boy asked suddenly.

Taken aback, Raspan merely shook his head.

“Did you display any kind of tendency toward innate sorcery?”

“No, I’m just …”

Merrin’s face lit up.  “Then you’re here to study forgotten magic!”

Raspan nearly fell out of his chair.  How perceptive could a child be?

“What is it you’re here for?  Time magic?  A warlock pact?”  Raspan was about to answer when the boy threw up his hand.  “No wait!  You must be here to learn sword magic!”

“… Yes.  That’s exactly right,” Raspan said, a smile born of the ludicrous situation tugging at his lips. 

“That’s amazing!” Merrin beamed.  “Sword magic has almost disappeared from magical practice in the past hundred years, it’s rare that even elves choose that path nowadays.”

“Just a second,” Raspan said, still smiling in disbelief.  “How in the name of the court of Latherean did you guess that?”

Merrin folded his arms.  “Well, you said you didn’t know any spells.  There’s more than one way to use magic, right?  Some curses indirectly bestow magical talent, and many sorcerers manifest there talents without knowing what it is.  But you still might have recognized that as magic.  I asked those just to be sure.”

“However, there are still lost and rare magic schools to be accounted for, you might have shown interest or promise in those.  These are really the only things I thought Janus would take someone in for.  That’s when I realized that before a hundred years ago, elves were talented in the blending of martial and magical combat.  I just put two and two together.”

It seemed to Raspan that this boy’s version of simple was more complex than what most other people would call complex. 

“But a real swordmage!” Merrin continued.  “That’s far more interesting than just having another wizard around.  I’d like to see what it’s like when your practice begins; I’ve heard it’s quite a sight and no mistake!”

Raspan chuckled.  “As long as Janus doesn’t mind, I would like that, if you don’t mind showing me a bit of what you’ve picked up.  I’ve read a lot of magical theory, and I wouldn’t mind having some of the theses I’ve read up on backed up by a real mage.”

“You have a deal, then,” Merrin smiled.  He slid off the bed, and waved over to the door.  “Why don’t I show you around?  Despite appearances, this place isn’t that big, and you’ll have plenty of time to study later.”

Raspan nodded, but remained seated.  “That sounds good,” he said, tearing off a hunk of the bread on the tray and dipping it in the stew, “but I’d rather not waste this food you brought me.”

“Oh, right,” Merrin said sheepishly.  “Forgot about that.”


Photass stared lazily past the target across the yard that he was supposed to be aiming at.  For some reason the wall behind the target was far more interesting to him.  His eyes drifted along, taking in its details, dimensions, and particulars in idle thought.  He had never noticed before how tall it was.  As he drew back on his bow, he wondered how many arrows it would take to break through the stone.  He never considered how insurmountable that wall was, and he never knew how he would feel if that wall stood between him and his brother.

He had watched as the cloaked man had taken his brother away.  He did not know why, he did not even feel angry or confused.  His mother and father had explained very little, and only assured him that Raspan would be fine. 

Of course he would be fine!  Photass clenched his teeth and snapped his gaze on the target, imagining his brother's captor.  There was nothing Raspan couldn't handle, and there was certainly nothing that could keep Photass from finding him!

He released the shaft, and it sailed through the air and plonked down into the ground beside the target.  His first shot of the day was his worst shot all week.

A moment later he felt a stinging slap to the back of his head, delivered by his trainer. 

"Awful!" Fynder exclaimed.  "I've seen one-eyed orcs with three fingers throw rocks with more accuracy!"

"Sorry," Photass mumbled half-heartedly.  He began nocking and drawing another arrow, trying to clear his head of thoughts of his brother.  Instead, he remembered their conversation several days ago over breakfast.  The very words he had spoken on his brother's dream echoed in his skull.

I wish I could help you.

Photass' fingers slipped and his arrow soared into the sky, past the wall and into the trees.  He cringed, expecting another rattling slap from his teacher.  After a moment of tense anticipation, all he heard was an exasperated sigh. 

"If you're going to lose arrows, boy, at least have the decency to lose your own," Finder said, shaking his head disgracefully.  "If rumors are to be true, we'll need every last flint arrow and wooden sword at our disposal in the coming months."

"I'm really sorry," Photass said.

Fynder's backhanded slap caught him squarely in the face, knocking him to the ground.  "You don't even know what's coming, do you?"  he shouted.  "If you've got time to apologize, there's time to put ten arrows in someone's knee!"

"Ten arrows?" Photass asked dumbly.  "In one knee?"

"Not all in one, featherbrain!" Fynder snapped.  "You're a long ways off from that trick anyhow.  Just keep shooting until you can hit five in a row, and then we'll see about knees and arrows in many numbers."

"Right."  Photass picked himself up off the ground and restrung an arrow.  However, he lost his grip before the bow was fully tensed, and the shaft drifted lightly into the air before gliding to the ground in front of the target.

"Okay, something seems wrong," Fynder said, the harshness in his tone dwindling.  "Normally you respond well to a good smack first thing in the morning.  Something really is bothering you today."

Photass nodded, lowering his bow.  "I keep thinking about Ras."

Fynder's eyes became sympathetic.  "You two are very close.  I'm sorry that he is gone, but you must focus on your training.  The valley will need both it's princes in the coming days."

"But what if he's not ready?  What if Ras is still gone when this war or whatever comes?"

Fynder waggled a finger at the younger elf.  "You need to have more faith in him than that.  He'll do fine, just worry about yourself."

"It's not Ras I'm worried about," Photass said, remembering the cloaked man.  "Who was it that took him, really?"

Fynder crossed his arms sternly.  "Is that what you're worried about, princeling?  The scary human?"

"Mother said he's a mage," Photass retorted.  "I know Ras was studying magic, but I never thought he'd wanna learn from such a bad lookin' guy."

"Looks can be decieving ..." Fynder started, but was interrupted as a dagger lanced through the air and struck the target Photass had been trying feebly to hit.  Teacher and student turned to see who had thrown it, and were greeted by the sight of a tall human wearing green leathers and a tricorn hat.  Every inch of him spoke of life in the wild, from his worn and ragged boots to his scruffy blonde beard.

"In this case," the man said, flipping another dagger up in the air before snatching it back and flinging it into the target right next to the first, "There ain't nothin' deceiving about that sick bastard."

"Who the hell are you?" Photass asked angrilly. Not only had he been evesdropping, but he had just shown him up.

The man's grin flared, showing perfect pearly teath that seemed out of place on his rugged face.  "You mad, kiddo?  Tell me why you mad."

"I'm mad because you're butting into my business," Photass said, though Fynder appeared to be trying to dissuade him.  He would rather it came to a fight at this point, he had a lot of pent up aggravation looking for a way out.  Maybe once he got his face beaten in he could finally shoot straight ... after he regained consciousness, at least.

"You're talking about Janus," the man stated simply.  "That makes it my business."

"Doesn't mean you gotta be rude," Photass said.  "Throwing stuff at me didn't help either."

The man spread his hands wide.  "Didn't hit you, did I?  In fact, I hit the target.  You improve your mood, I'll give you some pointers."

"Photass, back down," Fynder said in a low tone.  "You have no idea who you're dealing with."

"I'm pretty sure I don't care," Photass said, already leaning forward into a run.  His focus never wavered from the insolent man in front of him, who still stood with his arms wide.

At the very last moment, just as he was upon the strange man, he dove to the left, rolling past the upstart.  He sprang back up, turning as he leapt up from the ground, his left fist leading.

Photass was first surprised to find that his hand found only air.  The elf's gut was pushed up to where his lungs should be as the man's elbow ghosted out from below him and came up with full force.

That had gone completely wrong, was all Photass could think as he dropped to his knees searching for the air that had beed forced out.  He found it again, but was soon on his back with a boot print on his jaw.

"You're not as dumb as you seem, kiddo," the man said in between the ringing in the elf's head.  "That was a clever move, well done.  You think of it all by yourself, or your brother hand you that piece of genius?"

Photass tried to curse, but his words came out in a cough.

"This the best you can do, Fynder?" The man said.  "You've got to be kidding me."

"He's an exceptional student, actually," Fynder said, seeming so far from the grounded elf.  "He just needs motivation."

"Motivation, you say?"  The man knelt down next to Photass as he struggled to make the sky stop spinning.  His face was clear to him, dire and dark. 

"Your brother is going to die because of you."

Photass' heart stopped for a moment, and pain of a different kind lingered in his chest.  It was all he could do to not pass out then and there.

"Master Thorn!" Fynder shouted.  "What is the meaning of such a threat?"

"Look at me, kid," he forced Photass' face to align with his, albeit more gently than he was a moment ago.  "You got a name?"

"Photass," he said.  "How do you know my brother?"

The man grinned again.  "I got my sources.  I know he's with Janus now.  But that's not the point.  You can handle a bow, and judging from your maneauvers I'd say you're not bad in a stand up brawl.  But we're talking about war coming, to all the valley."

"Why?" Photass asked, as if no one had ever thought to ask it.

The man's eyes narrowed.  "There's a guy out there who thinks this place is his by right.  He wants this land and will do anything to make it his.  He has dangerous allies, and some pretty nasty power at his command.  He's already started to move, and we don't have time to figure out how long we have."

"What about my brother?" Photass said, getting some clarity back.  "Why am I going to kill him?"

"He's chosen to take up a difficult path, but it might save us all."  The man leaned in closer, and spoke with lower tones.  "This is not the kind of thing that anyone can do.  Even if he survives it, he ain't gonna come out smellin' like roses at the other end.  When he gets there, he's gonna need every last bit of support even to stand up.  Dragonheroes are nothing without those who stand with them."

Photass had not heard that word before, but it sounded like something his brother would do.  The man stood back up, placing his hands on his sides, saying in a much louder tone, "You wanna just lie there, or can you stand?"

Photass turned over onto his chest and pushed up off the ground, getting his legs underneath him even as the ground seemed to wobble below him.  Slowly he forced himself to stand, and soon he stood upright before the man, wobbling back and forth as the world tilted to and fro.

"I'm up," he stated wearily, "What now?"

"You go and fire an arrow into that target," the man said pointing at the target with two daggers sticking out of the bullseye. 

Photass stumbled over to his bow, next to Fynder who watched wordlessly as the young elf picked it up, nocked an arrow and drew back. 

"This one's for you, bro," he whispered as he took aim.  "I won't let you down." 

His fingers let go of the arrow just as a wave of nausea came over him and he doubled over.  He tumbled to the ground dizzy and sick.  Fynder was over him immediately, checking to see if he was alright. 

He could make out the voice of the man through his world melting away.

"Hot damn, nice shot."

The last thing Photass saw as he passed out was the target, and his arrow sticking out from between the man's daggers.


Photass awoke to the sound of trickling water.  It must have started raining, he reasoned.  He already hated mornings as they were, rain just made things worse.  The only thing that could salvage a morning like this was more sleep.  He kept his eyes shut as he fumbled around him for his covers, which he must have kicked off in his sleep. 

Strangely, his hands found no covers, or bed.  Had he fell out of bed and not noticed?  Warily he cracked open his eyes to spy his situation.  The moment light touched his eyes he felt the pain in his head flood to the forefront of his consciousness.  He must have fallen harder than he thought. 

Wait, where did he fall from?  His bed was nowhere to be found.  Glancing around painfully, he realized that he was not even in his room.  The small room around him was made of wood, not stone, and the trickle of water he heard was not from the rain outside the room's tiny window, but from a tiny leak in the ceiling, under which a clay bowl had been placed.  At least he had been right about one thing. 

Underneath him was a pile of furs, stacked to create the illusion of bedding.  He would have grumbled about that but as it turned out they were oddly relaxing.  He would have laid himself back down to sleep away the pain in his head, when the door to the room was flung open.  The shadow in the doorway was familiar, but distantly so.  He could not place it until he finally noticed the tricorn hat, and the whole scene flooded back into his memory.

"Hey, you're awake.  That's a shocker." The mysterious man entered the room with a bowl in his hands much like the one on the floor gathering rainwater.  "I thought you'd be out for another few hours."

"You did hit me pretty hard," Photass said.  "I'm not sure I've ever had a headache from being hit in the stomach."

"You're just dehydrated," the man said, scooping the bowl off the floor and replacing it withe the one in his hands.  He offered it to the elf, who gladly took it and sat up.  He took a refreshing gulp from the bowl, then leaned forward and dumped the bowl over his head.  He leaned back feeling the icy cold water drip down his shirt, cooling his body. 

The man laughed, a great and stirring sound that came up from his feet.  "Not what I would have done, but alright."

"That felt pretty good," Photass said as he pushed his dripping bangs out of his eyes.

"I'm so glad that was worth it," the man chuckled.  "Do you actually want a drink now?"  Photass nodded, and the man offered his hand.  "You're lucky I keep jugs fresh from the stream everyday.  Come with me, I'll give you the tour."

"Where am I, anyway?" Photass asked, grabbing the man's hand and hoisting himself to his feet.

"My home, not too far from R'mass Castle."  The man flashed a grin, once again displaying his excellent teeth.  "You'll be here for a while, while you train."

Photass looked at him incredulously.  "I already have a teacher."

"Sadly, The captain of the Stormcutters has his hands full with preparing his soldiers for war.  I was called in -- albeit reluctantly -- by your father to handle your training.  Since all my preparations are made, I was free to do as my king asked." 

He lead Photass into the next room, a combination of kitchen, sitting room, and shrine.  On his right, a small, square table and pair of chairs sat beside a large window that let in a good deal of light.  Across the room from that was a smaller preparatory area with a cooking fire and a large set shelves stocked with all manner of meats and vegetables, along with several clay jugs of varying size.  Opposite the door was the door to the outside, and next to it was a stone sculpture set on the floor flanked by candles, with a sitting mat in front of it. The room smelled faintly of spice mixed with a curious incense that reminded the elf of summer.

"Cozy," Photass remarked.  "I kinda like it."

"This isn't everything really," the man said.  "The rest of the rooms are on other branches."

The phrase gave Photass pause for thought.  Wordlessly, he walked over to the window, peering outside.  He could see the forest, but it was as though he peered out from a tall tower.

Looking down, the elf nearly lost his breath.  Beneath him were the branches of a great tree, the forest floor sitting frighteningly far away.  Looking out to the horizon he could see the Sprite Forest displayed before him.  He could vaguely make out the silhouette of the castle in the distance, looking so much smaller than he always thought.

"We're up in a tree," Photass said, sitting down at the table.

"You catch on quickly," the man said dryly moving over to the shelves and selecting a jug. 

"Why do you live in a tree?" Photass asked.

"Why don't you, Bowslinger McPointyears?" the man jested.  "It's nice and quiet up here.  No predators, plenty of fresh air, and no unwanted visitors."

 "How did you get me up here?" Photass asked.

"I just jumped up," the man said.  Photass' eyes went wide, and the man grinned.  "There's a rope ladder and a lift, dipshit.  Do you know what the word 'gullibility' means?"

Photass frowned.  "Hey, you never know, alright?"

The man laughed again.  "I'm gonna have so much fun with you, kid."

"You can call me Photass," he said sharply.  "I'm not a kid."

"Well, you can call me Thorn," the man replied.  "I just happen to be the best damn ranger in the valley."

"Is that so?"

"Do you need me to prove it again?"

"No," Photass said, "But I would like to know why you're training me."

Thorn nodded.  "Fair enough.  Your brother is getting a significant amount of special training, because of who he is.  We've discussed this much, right?"

Photass nodded, remembering the whole conversation now.

"Well, some friends and I don't really think we should leave this kind of thing up to chance," Thorn went on.  "We want to have the best chance we can get to defend ourselves.  It takes a lot more than a few above-average soldiers to win a war, but those same soldiers in the right place at the right time can make all the difference."

Photass was not sure he understood, but the man's meaning was clear.

"In order to make sure we live through this -- maybe even win -- those who have talent are going to need to make that talent real ability." Thorn poured some water from the jug into a pair of pewter cups.  He sat down with Photass at the table.  "Your brother was born for this, make no mistake.  But you've got something different, something just as important."

Photass shrugged, at a loss for words.

Thorn placed a hand on his arm.  "You want to help, to make a difference."

"Most people do, I think," Photass responded.

"But most don't have the will or ability to do anything about it," the ranger said.  "They don't think they have what it takes, so they don't even try, like horses penned in by a fence.  But others can see the world outside their pen, and watch as birds fly freely in the fields beyond.  These ones just see the fence as a test, and know if they can make that jump they have a world of possibility just waiting for them.  Even if they don't make it the first time, they keep trying, practicing for that one day when they make it over, and run as freely as birds fly."  Thorn paused to let his words sink in.  "Are you willing to work on jumping that fence your brother just flew over?"

Photass found himself stirred by the analogy.  Raspan had always seemed to take to his practices and study so much easier than Photass.  He never truly cared, because his brother had always encouraged him to do his best.  But now, when he was so far behind, he felt more than a little lost and forgotten.  He remembered his thoughts on the wall back in the training ground, how insurmountable it was.  It stood tall and ominous in his mind still, and he imagined it was the only thing stopping him from helping his brother and helping his people.

He smiled despite himself.  It was just a wall, after all, and it was only in his way if he gave up.  He knew what side his brother was on, and where Raspan went, he would follow one step behind, to the ends of the world or even into the sky.  Raspan was going to need help, and Photass could never live with himself if he was not strong enough to be there for him.

"I'm with you, crazy tree-dwelling man," Photass said.  "I'll learn whatever you can teach me."

"Good to know," Thorn grinned.  "We'll start tomorrow."

"I still don't know why it's you training me," Photass said.

"Because I'm the only other guy in the valley besides Fynder that knows anything about that," he pointed to Photass' bladebow in the corner, next to the shrine.  "When I'm done with you, it won't matter if their near, far, or flying at you, you'll be able to handle anything."

Photass liked the sound of that.  He took a swig of the water in his cup.  "Now if you could teach me how to fly as well, I'd be set for life."

Thorn shook his head, chuckling.  "We'll see, kid."

This story is the property of Tyler Clapp, Author (AKA "Cael") Copyright DarkFireGraphics.com