”Gunununu!” Fimul was making a frustrated sound as he intently stared at the game board, hoping to find some detail he had missed. He was completely focused and wracking his brain, but no answers were coming to him.
“You can stare at the board all you like, that won’t change the situation.” Dee said. While her words were a little harsh, her tone was almost sympathetic.
“You’ve been away for weeks, and this is how you treat your friends?” Fimul asked with slightly accusing tone.
“Would you rather I let you win?” Dee asked innocently, and laughed at the answering glare from the dwarf. “I told you when you started teaching me this game; it won’t be fair to you once I learn to play properly. I can calculate too far ahead of you. You could’ve picked a game with a random element instead to mix things up.”
The dwarves at Fimul’s forge had grown fond of Dee, and she had become something of an unofficial mascot. The boisterous dwarves and the serious girl made an odd but a very functional combination. While Dee didn’t visit that often due to her training, she had some time during her alchemical experiments to spend cheering up the day of the dwarves. They in turn had decided to teach her some of the games they often played, with fairly predictable results.
Qadesh was the most commonly played game in pantheon and was famed for its complexity and stringent balance. Because the game had no luck element at all and required a lot of strategic thinking, it was especially favored among those that fancied themselves as intelligent and sophisticated players. Fimul had thought his experience would give him the chance to gain back some of his dignity over all the losses in the other games, but Dee’s nature as a psion gave her too big of an edge once she got the hang of the rules.
“Dammit!” Fimul grunted and flipped the board in his frustration, clearly conceding his defeat in a rather childish outburst. This outburst was rewarded with another gale of laughter from Dee.
He could do nothing but steam and try to ignore his outburst. “That reminds me, aren’t you going away again for few weeks? Something about going to frolic in the woods with the poncy elf?” Fimul’s referral to Dee’s ranger teacher showed his frustration. Not that the two got along at best of times.
Dee snorted a small laugh at his words. “Frolic indeed. Taeral is taking me to the great forest for training. I’d like to see how you’d manage under his tutelage.” She was still more than a little grumpy that the elf was able to detect her approach despite her best efforts.
“Why is Faylen sending you to the woods anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be pre-training as a templar?” Fimul asked for a third or fourth time.
“I keep telling you that I’m not entirely sure myself. Sarfina doesn’t tell me all the details. If I had to guess though, they plan to train me as a scout. You do know the Radiant Sun actually needs scouts, don’t you?” Dee asked with a voice thick with sarcasm.
“Why’d you need a poncy elf for that training? I’m pretty sure one of the lads could teach you.” Fimul was referring to the other dwarves at the forge. They hadn’t always been smiths and forge workers.
“No offense, but dwarves aren’t exactly known for their scouting abilities. Or sublety. Or their ability to remain undetected. Or travel long distances quickly. Or stay sober.” Dee was now comfortable enough with the dwarves to openly make fun of them, because they all knew it was in good fun.
“Oi, I resent that! Just because we like a swig or two, doesn’t mean we can’t get things done. Now granted, we might not be the best scouts in a forest, but I dare you to find better scouts underground! Not all scouting is done in comfy forests. Most of us are quite happy to leave the woods to the tree-hugger elves. Real men do their scouting in actually dangerous places like the underground tunnels.” Fimul boasted.
“It’s a good thing I’m not a man then.” Dee replied with a chuckle. Truth be told, Dee wouldn’t actually mind some tips on scouting underground, but one thing at a time. Besides, Taeral’s knowledge wasn’t reserved to just forests.
“That reminds me. You’re still calling Faylen by her last name? Haven’t the two of you known long enough for you to call her by her first name by now?” Fimul asked a question that had been bugging him for a while. Dee didn’t have any trouble using his first name.
“It’s not quite that simple.” Dee said with a small sigh. “Firstly she’s in charge of training me, so it would be a bit too much to call her Faylen during that. Secondly I’m already used to calling her Sarfina. Perhaps most importantly though, I’m still sort of her prisoner. Only in name and voluntarily at this point, but the fact remains that I am not entirely free to leave either. She wouldn’t stop me most likely, but she might get in trouble if I did leave.”
“That’s a bit messed up.” Fimul grunted.
“Life isn’t always simple.” Dee couldn’t help cracking up in a small laugh as she was distributing sage advice to the much older dwarf.
“Bah, you’re too young to be that cynical. I suppose it’s about time for you to get back. You said you had a meeting with Mazatl, or something.” Fimul said with a small shooing motion.
“Hah, don’t forget that you owe me a shield now!” Dee said while running off.
The two had made a bet on the result of the game. Dee needed a shield for the next part of her training. She had finally managed to get Sarfina’s reluctant agreement to start her weapons training but the exact date was not yet agreed on. Dee had already been trained in the use of certain weapons and she was unlike the other children trained by Radiant Sun anyway, so there was little point in putting it off any further. As she needed a shield now, she had made a bet with Fimul so that he’d have to make one for her.
Fimul on the other hand had wanted a ride on Dee’s new form. That was mostly for the fun of it, and just to give something he could brag about later on to the other dwarves in the smithy. He could also use that to tease Dee later. Unfortunately for him though, Dee won the bet. Maybe he should try double or nothing with another game?
“So, have you figured something out?” Dee asked Mazatl after the two had exchanged pleasantries.
“Yes, though it will require some sneakiness and trickery on your part, and some hard work for both of us.
Dee didn’t bother replying, just gave a meaningful look. Translation: “so what else is new?” She also prompted Mazatl to continue.
The saurian obliged. “In six months there will be a large ritual in the grand temple of the Holy Orders. Pretty much all the priests that are able to attend will be there, which includes all those in charge of the Ritual of Choosing. As it happens, the large ritual coincides with one of the dates we usually use for the Ritual of Choosing. Not by accident as you will discover later on.”
“Ah, I think I see where this is going. You want me to slip in to perform the ritual in secret while you are all gone.” Dee understood.
“Let’s just say that what you decide to do while no one is looking is none of my business. I might forget to leave the materials required for the ritual lying around somewhere. I would never condone any such behavior, but what I don’t see…” Mazatl shrugged her shoulders feigning innocence, while dropping a small bag on the table.
“Ok, that’s the sneakiness and trickery part, what’s the hard work part?” Dee asked.
“Well you’ll have to learn all about the ritual since you have to perform it by yourself. It’s not a very complex ritual, but you have no training in performing rituals, so we need to work hard to teach you everything involved. Also, our acolytes require quite a bit of knowledge and lessons before they take part in the ritual, and while I don’t mind you taking part early, I’m certainly going to cram all that knowledge into your head in the next six months. I won’t have you embarrass me in front of the deities and their guardians, which you might or might not meet.” Mazatl had a weird grin as she looked at Dee.
Dee decided that it would be a good idea to distract the saurian at this point. “What happens when I’m supposed to take part in the ritual in the future? I’m assuming I can’t just say I already did it? I mean all templar students are supposed to take part as well, right?”
“Oh you just go through with the ritual as usual. Normally when you already serve a deity, you’ll just have a pleasant sleep. Of course you’ll have to hide your blessing until then.” Mazatl waved off Dee’s worries.
“Wait, normally? And what about the other times?” Dee asked. So far her life had been anything but normal.
“Well, it sometimes happens that a single priestess can serve multiple deities. It’s pretty rare since the deities don’t exactly like sharing, but it happens. It’s hardly a bad thing though, as you gain the benefits of both blessings.” Mazatl simply shrugged. The scenario wasn’t very likely and didn’t hurt anyone usually so she didn’t worry.
“I do have a condition for going through with this.” Mazatl continued.
“Alright. What’s the condition?” Dee replied, fairly willing to abide by any remotely decent conditions.
“I want you to perform the ritual in the temple of the light gods.” Mazatl looked at the Dee with a serious gaze. Dee knew she wouldn’t budge on this condition.
“I’m guessing there’s a reason?” Dee asked already suspecting the answer.
“Remember how I mentioned that it was unlikely for the deity to differ too much from the servant in convictions. One of the main reasons is that the temple affects the ritual. If you conduct the ritual in the temple of the light gods, it is likely that you will get one of the light gods as your deity. Same with the dark gods and their temple. Those without strong leanings either way use the neutral shrine, and those interested in the gods of nature and celestial bodies go to the garden shrine.” Mazatl explained.
“And the reasons why you want me to do the ritual in the temple of light gods? You should know by now that I’m neutral at best.” Dee asked with a raised eyebrow.
“That’s exactly why. You have enough darkness in you even without attracting one of the dark gods. Now that isn’t something that can be blamed on you considering your heritage and what you’ve gone through, but a light god would be a positive influence in my opinion. Maybe one of the deities can help you in finding a more positive future.” Mazatl looked at Dee sympathetically.
There wasn’t much Dee could say to that. She suspected that light gods might not fit her, but she wasn’t going to say that outright to Mazatl’s face. Besides, Mazatl’s words suggested that the deity wasn’t decided by the temple, just influenced. There was likely at least a decent chance of getting a neutral deity instead.
“Now all that said, there’s a downside to all this sneaking around.” Mazatl continued. “You won’t be able to do a part of the ritual by yourself. Normally the last part of the ritual is all about finding out all we can about the blessing received. This is done by the high priestess with a specialized holy spell. It would be a bit weird to ask her to perform that spell for you when you’re not even supposed to have a blessing.”
“There’s no other way to find out?” Dee asked with a raised eyebrow. That sounded impractical.
“To a degree you can. The easiest way to find out is to ask the deity that blessed you during the ritual, but you might not get the chance, or the deity might not want to answer. They like to be secretive like that, and have their servants go through the effort of finding out things personally. You will sooner or later figure things out yourself, but some of the effects can be subtle.” Mazatl said looking ponderous.
“What about that test I did in the freelancer’s guild?” Dee suddenly remembered.
“That can give you a good estimate of the amount of holy power you possess, but that test can’t tell you about the additional effects. Finding out the amount of power is something I suppose, but the additional effects can sometimes be even more important. Depends on the deity of course.” Mazatl wasn’t too excited at the prospect. Something told her that Dee’s blessing would be anything but standard. Nothing about the girl was standard.
“That’s a start at least. We’ll have to take what we can.” Dee answered simply. She had learned that sometimes you just had to accept things as they were and make the best of the situation. If life gives you lemons, you damn well learned how to shove those lemons down your enemies’ throats.
The first lesson Taeral gave her on their trip happened immediately, before they even set out. For scouts, selecting your equipment and packing was very important. Scouts had to be able to move quickly and stealthily, so you couldn’t carry that much gear. In a world as large and magically advanced as Pantheon, it was not uncommon to see people with their own dimensional storage. However, it was too much to expect every scout to carry their own storage, and the ones that did carry one usually didn’t have the nigh endless storage capacity that Croestia seemed to have.
Scouts often had to go for weeks or even months without effective re-supply, although forays lasting longer than few weeks were rather rare and only done by very experienced scouts. Dee had gotten used to being provided by the Zabaniya and was spoiled by the storage capacity of Croestia. Thus, her ability to select equipment was rather abysmal. She didn’t even have the chance to mention the existence of dimensional storage, before Taeral started teaching her on the basis that it was something she would have to learn at some point anyway.
Despite her abysmal starting level, Dee was a quick study. Scouts had to hunt and forage for food most of the time, so you only carried enough emergency rations for few days. Unless you went somewhere where game and foraging opportunities were slim that is. Water was more important as the availability of clean water could be an issue. Those skilled with magic could of course make their own water, but that was not a skill Dee possessed. You also needed some essentials like fire making supplies, clothing and much, much more.
Taeral took her through a teleportation gate, and they appeared at an abandoned and overgrown teleportation station in the middle of a grand forest. The trees surrounding them were hundreds of mels tall, and often wide enough to equal houses. The undergrowth was much more sparse than Dee had expected, but not quite what you would call scant. The trees were hundreds if not thousands of years old, and the whole forest had this ancient feeling about it.
All this was soon forgotten by Dee as she knelt on the ground clutching her head due to a sudden spike of pain. The surroundings were suffused with streams of mana, which manifested as this eerie mist that wisped around between the trees. The mana in the surroundings was overloading her senses as everything around them was magical.
Dee had always been good at detecting mana and magic, and now it was something she did unconsciously. This was very handy as it allowed her to detect mana 360-degrees around her, and sometimes even through walls. This was great for awareness. Except now everything was covered in mana and she detected literally everything around her in almost a hundred mel radius. It was pure sensory overload, hence the headache.
“I knew it. You can detect mana in your surroundings, and you rely on that for awareness and detection.” Taeral said quietly. “That’s one of the main reasons I brought you here. You need to learn to deal with heavy mana areas. The only way to do that is to be exposed to such areas and get used to it. So good luck with that. It’s also dangerous to rely too heavily on that ability.”
Still clutching her head, Dee was getting up from her kneeling position. This was one of the places where her increased information processing ability as a psion started to shine. She was getting used to the flood of sensations and information much faster than a non-psion would. Not that the headache was going away. In fact it might be getting worse. This would still take some getting used to.
“I don’t rely on just that. I can also detect ki and holy power. I also have very sharp senses and I pay attention to what they tell me. I’m just getting overwhelmed at the moment.” Dee said a little defensively.
“That’s good. Hopefully by the end of this, you’ll learn to utilize those senses even better. If you haven’t learned to detect things just by the vibrations in the air and instinct by the end of this trip, you won’t be having a good time. Now stop dawdling, we have to get moving. We’re sitting ducks in the open like this, and we didn’t come here to laze about.” Taeral was secretly satisfied by Dee’s answer, but he also knew that Dee had to improve her other senses beyond what they could currently do. There were beings in this world that excelled in hiding from senses like the one used by Dee.
While they were traveling, Taeral explained that they were in the great forest at the east side of the seventh circle in Day city. This great forest housed one of the largest and most long lived empires of Pantheon, the empire of Tuatha Dé Danann. It was inhabited almost exclusively by elves of various kinds and Sidhe. Other races weren’t exactly banned from entering, but neither were they welcome. It was also the homeland of Sarfina’s family.
The two of them were not within the empire, as the great forest was large enough to hold twenty similar sized empires, and on occasion did house one or two others. Many other races often tried to lay claim to portions of the forest, though most were unsuccessful. The forest was filled with beings, some dangerous and some very dangerous. Taeral was clear from the very start that almost every being in this forest was strong enough to kill Dee, and the forest was one of the most dangerous areas below fourth circle.
One of the reasons Taeral had brought Dee here was to teach her to track, stalk, hunt, observe and most importantly avoid beings stronger than her. As a bonus she had to do it in an environment with limited visibility and which was also extremely rich in mana. Scouts had to be able to observe and deal with beings stronger than themselves, preferably without being detected. If push came to shove, you had to be able to escape from them.
Of course Taeral was going to cover for her in case she got into trouble, but only in real distress. That was partially because one of the powerful beings that she had to stalk in this forest was Taeral himself. He also stalked Dee in return, so it was a weird game of tag that the two were playing while not focused on other things.
Of course, most of the time was spent teaching Dee the tradecraft of a ranger and a scout. The skills he taught ranged from herbalism and the ability to detect if there was something wrong with the forest and nature, to finding optimal paths through the forests for themselves and for large groups she might be scouting for as a pathfinder. She learned to detect natural dangers, even those that would not threaten herself but would be a threat to a large groups of people she might be guiding.
She learned to spot anomalies when there seemed to be none and she learned the best patterns to use when scouting or searching for something or someone. She learned that sometimes it was more important to spot what was not there, than it was to see what was. She learned to forage and vastly improved her hunting skills, learned the signs for good camping and resting spots and a lot more. Perhaps most importantly, she learned a thousand things that she shouldn’t do.
She absorbed information like a sponge. She wouldn’t be able to call herself an expert by the time they left, that was only something that came with years of experience, but she was much better off than before. One of the things that became very handy, was her new form which allowed her to move among the trees with blinding speed and agility. She also learned to utilize the improved senses of her other form for various purposes.
She became rather proficient at spotting Taeral, which was easier said than done since the ranger was even better at hiding than her while within the forest. Once she got over the sensory overload, and learned from Taeral’s example and instruction to take her senses to another level, it became impossible for the elven ranger to sneak up on her, especially while she was in her new form. However, one thing kept annoying her to no end.
Perhaps even more than her detection skills, Dee prided herself in her ability to remain hidden and undetected. Yet the bloody ranger kept spotting her no matter what she tried! It was like he could immediately spot her when she entered certain range, and she had no idea how he did that. Finally, noticing Dee’s frustration, Taeral was forced to explain what was going on.
“Beings who have taken the lives of many people develop this faint presence of death. It’s like ambient killing intent that they don’t’ even recognize themselves. Combine that with the fact that you’re a demon and have this faint sense of something unnatural, and the forest around you starts to have the faintest of reactions to your presence. It takes someone who is highly attuned to nature to notice this, but it is there. And once you know what to look for, it shines like a beacon in darkness.” Taeral explained.
Dee struggled with finding a solution to this problem. She couldn’t turn back time and bring back the people she had killed, and she would only kill more in the future. Her demon nature was what it was. Surprisingly, it was the other lessons she received about the nature around her that finally allowed her to stumble on a solution.
Instead of trying to remove her presence, she instead worked to attune her aura to her surroundings. Instead of getting detected, her nature now worked as a camouflage. It took several failed attempts, but the look on Taeral’s face when one of Dee’s throwing knives thudded next to his head on the tree trunk was priceless and well worth the trouble. This experience was especially good because it would help her camouflage her presence in terrain other than forest once she got used to it and attuned to her surroundings.
All in all, their trip was a roaring success.