Chapter 9: Test
Almonihah left the small cluster of cabins, heading roughly south-south-west. Once he was a little ways away, he found a likely tree and nimbly climbed up it. Getting as high as he dared, he could just barely see the tops of the mountains well enough to make out the landmarks he needed. Gauging the position of the sun, he gazed in the direction he needed to go, identified a few land features he could double-check his course with, and climbed back down.
He repeated the process several times over the next several hours as he traveled, making small course corrections each time. He reached what he was fairly certain was the spot he was supposed to be as evening fell and started to look for a good campsite. It only took him a moment to find a spot in a small ravine next to a creek. That found, he strung his bow and went hunting.
He returned to his campsite a little while later with a smallish buck, quickly and efficiently cleaning and preparing it. He would cook enough to eat for today and then do enough to preserve some for the next couple of days. He wasn’t equipped to make real jerky, but he could make something that would last for a week or so, especially since his draconic digestion could handle food that would make a normal human ill. After completing his preparations, he went to bed.
He rolled out of his bedroll before he was fully awake, his hand already pulling his longsword out of its scabbard when he opened his eyes. It was still dark, and he wasn’t quite sure what had awakened him.
There it was again! A soft sound, just at the edge of his perception. He whirled, eyes straining, and just barely caught sight of an arm slipping back behind a tree. It took Almonihah a moment to think through the probable meaning of the sighting. Probably it was a Ranger observer, watching him during his test. It made sense that there would be one. Apparently he had underestimated the acuity of Almonihah’s hearing… and how lightly he slept. Now fairly certain that there was no danger, he went back to his bedroll and slept again.
The next day passed without much incident. Almonihah scouted around the general area he was in, finding some roots and berries to supplement the meat he had. He detected the Ranger observer a couple more times during the day, watching him from concealed locations. For a moment, he considered acknowledging the Ranger’s presence, but decided against it. If he wanted to remain unseen, Almonihah would keep pretending he hadn’t seen him.
The second night, Almonihah woke again, awakened by a sound nearby. He quickly and quietly got out of his bedroll, searching for the source of the noise. This time he could tell it wasn’t a Ranger. Whatever it was, it sounded BIG. The half-bronze dragon quickly rolled up his bedroll and secured it to his pack, then climbed a nearby tree. He was stringing his bow when he saw what had awakened him.
It lumbered into view on all fours, at least as high at the shoulder as Almonihah was tall. Almonihah froze. It was a giant bear. He had known about the existence of giant animals, had even seen a giant hawk once, but this was certainly much bigger than the hawk had been. He watched as it rooted about below the tree in which he hid. The half-dragon didn’t think it wise to alert the bear to his presence. The thing looked like it could knock over the tree he was in with a single swat of its paw.
After a while, it moved along, but Almonihah wasn’t about to get down, just in case it came back. He fell asleep securely wedged in the branches of the tree.
He was a bit sore when he woke up, but dragon scale was tougher than tree bark, so he wasn’t bad off for his night in the tree. He dropped lightly to the ground, listening and looking for more signs of the bear. All he saw were its hours-old tracks. He figured out which way it had went and walked in the other direction.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully, as did the next night. Almonihah was considering again whether or not he should tell his Ranger shadow he knew he was there when the half-dragon heard another big creature crashing through the underbrush. Again Almonihah took to the trees, stringing his bow as he listened to its noisy progress. Whatever it was, it was moving fast, and didn’t care much what it stepped on as it did so.
His bow strung, Almonihah shifted his position in the branches to one from which he could easily fire an arrow or drop to the ground, depending on his needs. Then he waited for the creature to show itself. He didn’t have to wait long.
When the creature came into view, he knew immediately that it wasn’t natural. It looked like a giant leopard in general body shape and coloration, but two crab-like pincers grew asymmetrically from its back, one on each side, and its tail ended in a rather nasty looking stinger. Almonihah knew immediately that it was Javni’Tolkhrah, a Madness-Touched, as they were called in the Common Tongue, a once normal animal that had strayed into the Madlands and been warped by the chaotic powers of Jivenesh. As Almonihah looked more closely, he saw that the monster was wounded, bleeding from a pair of gashes on its side, and that it had blood on its claws, fangs, and pincers.
It started to charge past him, and Almonihah knew there was no time left for thinking and analyzing. He nocked an arrow and fired at the base of the creature’s neck as it ran past him. The arrow struck, but a little to the side of its spine and throat. The Javni’Tolkhrah roared in pain and whirled, looking for the source of the attack. Almonihah nocked and fired another arrow as it looked around, this one sinking into its shoulder. It roared again, and then started charging back towards him. Almonihah had just enough time to put another arrow to his string before it leaped at him. He fired the arrow as he jumped off the branch and to the side. The arrow bounced off the monster’s pincers as it sailed over the branch on which Almonihah had been shortly before.
The half-bronze dragon threw his bow to the side as the Javni’Tolkhrah landed, drawing his two swords, a plain longsword in his right hand, Zithrandrak in his left. The monster turned again, growling as it looked at its foe. Almonihah matched its growl with one of his own, frost collecting on Zithrandrak’s enchanted blade as the Javni’Tolkhrah tensed to spring.
It leaped at Almonihah again. Almonihah started to jump to the side, then, reacting on instinct, suddenly dove to the other side. The Javni’Tolkhrah disappeared, mid-jump, then appeared right where Almonihah would have been had he continued in the first direction he dodged. The monster roared as it saw that its foe had escaped it, then roared again as Almonihah stabbed its flank with Zithrandrak. The magical cold of the rapier bit the creature even as Zithrandrak exited the wound it had made.
The leopard-like monster landed heavily, turning towards the half-dragon with a growl as it prepared for another spring. Then another arrow thudded into its side, piercing its lung. Its growl turned into a cough, and the beast stumbled, but it shook its head as if to deny death and whirled to look for this new threat.
Almonihah turned his head to look as well, and saw another Ranger. The Ranger was a female human, wearing the typical tough, worn leather of a Ranger, though Almonihah could see a hint of chain mail sticking out from under one of her sleeves. Almonihah guessed that she was the observer that had been shadowing him. She loosed her arrow, but the monster moved one of its pincers to block it, and the arrow bounced off harmlessly.
Almonihah saw an opening as it prepared to spring at the Ranger. He darted forward, swords apart to attack from two angles at once. The monster saw him move just fast enough to snap at him with the pincer on that side. It grazed his right arm, pinching off a small piece of flesh and scale. Ignoring the pain, the half-bronze dragon plunged Zithrandrak deep into the Javni’Tolkhrah, piercing its heart.
The beast was dead, but it refused to recognize the fact. Its pincer snapped again, and its stinger flashed. Almonihah dodged them both, though he had to leave Zithrandrak buried in its side to do so. The monster lurched towards him, lifting a forepaw to slash at him, before finally collapsing, the blood leaking from its mortal wound freezing from the magical cold of Almonihah’s rapier.
Almonihah watched the dead Javni’Tolkhrah warily for a moment before striding forwards and retrieving Zithrandrak. Then he turned to the Ranger.
“Thought I was supposed to kill the thing myself,” he growled.
“That thing has already killed another Ranger,” the woman snapped. “It was deemed too dangerous for a Candidate to handle.”
Almonihah snorted. “Had the thing before you shot.” He paused for a moment, then added, a bit grudgingly, “But thanks.”
The Ranger glared at him for a little while, then whirled and started stomping back towards the Ranger Headquarters. “Well, your test’s over. Come on.”
Almonihah retrieved his bow, then followed her in silence for a while. Finally, he had to ask, “I pass?”
The female Ranger didn’t even turn to look at him. “That’s for the Commander to decide.”
They hiked in silence for the remainder of the trip back to the Ranger Headquarters. The female Ranger preceded Almonihah into the Commander’s cabin.
Commander Imlloen stood up as the two entered. He looked at the woman. “How has the Candidate performed, Lieutenant?”
The female Ranger paused for a moment before responding. “The Candidate has shown competence in finding his way through the wilderness. He arrived at his assigned post with no difficulty, and remained there for several days living off of the land. He successfully coped with the dangers of the land.” She glanced at Almonihah and then added, “He also noticed me watching him several times.”
The Ranger Commander nodded. After a moment of silence, he asked, “And the Madness-Touched?”
The Ranger glanced at Almonihah again before responding. “The Madness-Touched the Candidate slew had already slain a Ranger before reaching the Candidate. When the Candidate engaged him, I intervened, thinking the challenge too great for a lone Candidate.” She paused for a moment, then continued, “I fired only two arrows. The Candidate did the rest. I find him more than capable of being a Ranger, Commander.”
Commander Imlloen nodded again, his eyes on Almonihah. “Thank you, Lieutenant. Dismissed.”
The female Ranger left the cabin, closing the door behind her. There was a long moment of silence as Imlloen looked at Almonihah, his steely blue eyes seeming to bore into the half-dragon’s sea-green ones. Finally, the Commander sat back down in his chair, then motioned at the only other chair in the cabin.
“Bring that chair over here, Candidate, and have a seat.”
Almonihah complied. Once he was sitting, Commander Imlloen continued.
“I knew the Ranger who was slain by the Madness-Touched you killed. He was a good man, experienced, competent, and well-equipped. That you were able to slay it with so little help says a lot about your ability.” The Ranger Commander put his elbows on the table, steepleing his fingers, and continued, “I won’t lie to you, Almonihah. We need men like you, and we need them badly. If you and the Lieutenant hadn’t been there, that Madness-Touched could very well have escaped to the north, and who knows what havoc it would have wrought then?
“I can guess. We don’t have enough Rangers to keep all of the Madness-Touched in the Madlands. I’ve seen what they do when they get through. It isn’t pretty.” Commander Imlloen paused, his gaze still fixed on Almonihah. “But I have a feeling you don’t want to help us hold the Line. You’ve lived with Zrathanzon, and it’s been longer than most humans live since he’s been on the Line.”
The Commander sat back up, folding his arms, but his gaze never left Almonihah. “We can use Rangers like Zrathanzon, too. Not only do people in the wilder parts of the world need someone like him to look out for them, sometimes a Ranger who’s not on the line can help with those Madness-Touched who do get through. But I have to make sure that the Rangers who aren’t on the Line really are Rangers.”
Imlloen leaned forwards, putting the palms of his hands on the table. His gaze seemed even more intense. “So I have to ask you, Almonihah. Why is it that you want to become a Ranger?”
There was a long moment of silence. Zrathanzon had mentioned that this question might come up, but now, under the intense gaze of the Ranger Commander, all of Almonihah’s reasons that he had thought of before blew away like smoke. Yes, they contributed, but their contribution was small compared to the true core of his reasoning.
Finally, Almonihah spoke, his voice even harsher than normal, but his speech was clear. “I’ve lost my family. Twice. Both times, it was the wilderness that took me in afterwards. The wilderness where I learned to keep living. The wilderness took care of me. I want to do what I can for it now.” He paused for a long moment, then said, his gaze as intense as Imlloen’s, his voice almost a growl, “And I don’t want another kid to watch his mother get killed by a monster out in the woods.”
There was silence in the cabin for a long time. Then Imlloen nodded in his swift, decisive way and sat back in his chair normally.
“Ranger Candidate Almonihah,” he intoned, his voice falling into the practiced cadences they had when he had presented the test, “You have done all things that are required of you to become a Ranger, save one. You must swear the Ranger’s Oath. Do you now swear to devote your life to the defense of the natural order from the power of Jivenesh?”
Almonihah’s voice was firm and sure. “ Yes.”
“Do you swear to defend it from all else that may threaten it?”
“Do you swear to do these things even should they require your death?”
“Do you swear to defend those who may be harmed by things unnatural, even should your life be endangered in so doing?”
Imlloen’s tone of voice changed slightly, as if what he was now saying was not as practiced as the rest. “Lastly, you must know that the natural world and the Races of Men often come into conflict. If you become, as I suspect you will, a wandering Ranger, you will often be called upon to moderate these conflicts. This will be one of your most difficult duties. You must seek to make peace between the Races of Men and the wilderness as best you can. How you may best do this is something that only you can determine, but you must remember your other duties as you make these decisions. Do you swear to do this, to the best of your ability?”
Imlloen stood. “Then I declare you, Almonihah, a Ranger of the Northern Ranger Order. So long as you keep your oaths, I or my successor will be your Commander, save when you are upon the Southern Continent. So that I may call you when we are in great need, I now require a small item from your body, be it hair…” Imlloen paused, looking at Almonihah’s hairless, scaled head, realizing that the words he had said so many times didn’t quite work in this instance.
Almonihah reached into a small pouch hanging from his belt and withdrew a piece of bronze scale. Zrathanzon had mentioned this, as well, so when a piece of one of his scales had broken off while they were traveling, he had saved it for this purpose.
“This do?” he asked, holding the fragment of scale out.
Commander Imlloen looked at the fragment for a moment, then took it. “Yes, that will be sufficient, Ranger.” He put the scale on his table and turned his attention back to Almonihah. “Now, Ranger, I must determine your initial deployment. I have several places I could use you on the Line, but if you desire to go north and watch the wilds away from the Madlands, you may.”
Almonihah was silent for a moment before saying, “I’ll go north.”
Imlloen sighed. “I thought you would. Very well then, Ranger, you may travel where you wish. Know this, however. I may call to you with magic wherever you are. When I call, you must answer. I will only call in the most dire of circumstances, but when I do, you must come. Beyond that, I ask only that you report to me from time to time on what you have seen.”
Almonihah nodded, then said, “Bit more frequently than every twenty years?”
Commander Imlloen laughed. “I would prefer that, yes.” Then he sobered. “You may leave whenever you wish. However, I believe Zrathanzon would like to see you again before you left, and it is… something of a tradition among Rangers to have a small celebration the night of a new Ranger’s acceptance into our Order.”
Almonihah nodded again. “All right.”
Almonihah spent the rest of that day maintaining his equipment and doing his weapons drills. Zrathanzon returned just as the sun was touching the mountaintops. He smiled upon seeing his former pupil.
“So shall I call you Ranger, now, Almonihah?”
Zrathanzon smiled a bit more broadly. “I guess I’d better get ready for the party tonight, then,” he said, as he strode over and clapped a hand on the younger half-dragon’s shoulder. After a moment, he removed it, his smile smoothing out as he asked, “So, are you planning to go to the Line, or back north?”
“North,” Almonihah replied. “Don’t think I could stay put.”
Zrathanzon chuckled. “No, you’re certainly not the type to stand on a line and wait for something. I, on the other hand…” his expression sobered again, and he sighed a bit, “think it’s time I watched the Line for a while. It’s been a century or so, and I don’t really feel like going back north for a while.”
Almonihah’s gaze was a bit suspicious. He had noted that, ever since… things had happened, Zrathanzon had avoided the North Forest. He wondered if the same thing that kept him from his old route contributed to his desire to stay down at the Line, where the Rangers watched for he Javni’Tolkhrah coming out of the Madlands, and did what they could to keep innocent animals from wandering in to the cursed area.
“Well, I suppose I’ll introduce you to a few of the other Rangers here, if you’d like. You’ll be seeing them plenty tonight,” Zrathanzon offered.
Almonihah nodded. It wasn’t as if he had much else to do.
Zrathanzon introduced him to the handful of other Rangers who manned the Northern Order Headquarters. There was the blacksmith, a heavily built dwarf with a deep, powerful voice named Hrothan, the fletcher, a nimble-fingered elf called Ffalwen who seemed nearly as old as Imlloen, and the quartermaster, a middle-aged female human by the name of Kina. There were also a few other Rangers who stayed in the general area of the Headquarters for the dual purposes of guard duty and messenger services. One of them was the Lieutenant that had shadowed Almonihah, whose name he now learned was Carda.
“There are also a few druids who maintain a shrine to Naishia nearby, and there’s usually a Ranger mage here, too,” Zrathanzon explained. “The druids usually don’t participate in these little gatherings, though, and the mage had to teleport some reinforcements to the west, so he’s not around right now. He’s the one that Imlloen uses to contact Rangers when he needs to.”
A few other Rangers trickled in as the sun disappeared behind the mountains to the west. Apparently, those who watched the part of the Line nearest the headquarters often returned to camp by the cabins. When they heard that a new Ranger had been accepted, they quickly began helping with preparations for the evening’s celebrations.
The celebration was a simple affair, consisting mostly of a large meal around a bonfire accompanied by tales of Rangers gone before. One in particular caught Almonihah’s attention. It concerned Falloen Surebow, an elven Ranger from long ago, the only man ever to cross the Madlands. Apparently doing so had not been his only adventure, but the feat was widely acknowledged among the Rangers as his greatest.
“He became the third Ranger Commander, after he finally gave up his wandering ways,” Commander Imlloen explained when Almonihah inquired about him. “His knowledge of the Madlands was a great asset to the Rangers, and it is said that breakthroughs by Madness-Touched were so rare during his time as Commander that they were nearly forgotten by all but the Rangers.”
Almonihah accepted the explanation with a nod. It sounded a little bit exaggerated, like most tales of former times were, but something about Falloen seemed to ring true to the half-dragon. Perhaps it was the wanderlust he was said to have possessed. Almonihah never enjoyed staying too long in one place.
The celebration continued for a while, but not as late as many parties in civilized lands often would. The Rangers knew they would have to get back to their duties in the morning, and none would suggest that those with night duty extend their watch too far into the day. Almonihah made camp with the other Rangers by the side of one of the cabins, and fell asleep with the speed typical of an experienced traveler.