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Henk

A Light in The Dark
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Aberresai Savannah --- One hour after Midday
Henk was used to sweating; it happened when you fought, when you traveled long distances, when you were extremely nervous or on edge. The Dreadlord Initiate was much less accustomed to sweating while sitting down and doing nothing but driving a one-seated wagon. That was just how blazingly hot the sun was over the savannah though, and he and his partner didn't have much of a choice but to grin and bear it. The wagon had a cover over the back that did offer some protection, but it was small enough that they had to take turns resting in the shade; the back of the damned thing was so full of their belongings already that it could only fit one at a time. Two if you didn't mind snuggling up, he supposed.

The worst part was not knowing exactly long they'd be stuck out here, or what exactly they were looking for; The town of Maraan was a trading hub nestled right on the edge of Amol-Kalit, flanked to the west by the Great Cities, as well as Elbion to the north. It made most of its profit by selling goods from the east, however: Merchant caravans from eastern cities such as Oban, Alliria, and even sometimes Vel Anir would travel to Maraan and sell their goods to the merchants there, rather than taking the even longer trip to make it to a major city. This was easier on the merchants themselves and gave the whole of the Amol-Kalit region a suitable market hub.

The issue was that a caravan hadn't arrived in a distressingly long time. The road into Maraan from the east was devoid of any wheel or hoof-prints, and the stores were running out of things to sell. It wasn't because no goods had been sent, either. Alliria and Oban had both reported multiple trading groups had been sent out, never to be seen again. It wasn't until Vel Anir had a caravan vanish that it was decided something had to be done.

These were no helpless traders either; They were protected by bodyguards, with armored wagons. Bandits could have been stealing everything that crossed through the Savannah, sure, but it was unlikely that they would leave absolutely no trace, or that they could keep it up for this long.

The Guard was convinced that something else was responsible for it all. Something that wasn't so easily explained away. It concerned them enough to send Henk and another Initiate out hunting: They were bait, plain and simple. Whatever was making caravans magically poof into thin air was likely to go after them as well, seemingly a couple of unprotected teenagers with a wagon full of goodies.

When it did find them? Well, ideally they would kill it, Henk supposed. Certainly, they had the firepower on hand, but so far nothing had happened. Not even a hint of anybody else on the savannah. It made Henk nervous.

"It's past midday." Henk turned and called to the other Initiate resting in the back. "If we don't catch any sign of the damned thing soon, I vote we set up camp for the night and get some rest. A hot day like this, it's bound to be chilly once the sun dies out."
 
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Ralene

Magic Battering Ram
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Wasn't often that Ralene had the opportunity to work with Henk. He among the various Initiates in their year had been one she'd spent rather little time with for no reason other than scheduling conflicts. Henk was also one of the few that could hold his own against her in a spar or duel, if only for his sheer bulk and natural strength. Ral had a healthy respect for him and, despite his curious civility in manner and conversation, found him rather bearable in long-term engagements.

Such as now.

It had been her turn to rest in the shade and so she'd taken the opportunity to catch a few winks while the road was quiet. Hunkered in against the crates, Ralene's blue eyes blinked open at the sound of Henk's voice calling back. Training had taught them to get rest when they could, but be able to wake immediately at a moment's notice. You just never knew when it would save your life; the rest and the quick response.

She grunted in response to his words, "Horse needs a break," she agreed, pushing herself to sit up and lean forward with a hand braced against Henk's shoulder to look out at the horizon, "That hillside up ahead looks like it flattens out a bit - give us a good vantage point."
 

Henk

A Light in The Dark
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(If it's too long, don't sweat matching me or anything. I just felt like going for a bit.)

The elder Initiate nodded in agreement, turning his head to meet Ralene's gaze. "Good eye, I thought similarly. Should only take us a few minutes, but feel free to spend the time back in the shade. This heat doesn't wear me down as fast." It wasn't a knock on Ralene; Henk's body ran unusually hot already, giving him the ability to produce light via said heat. He was exhausted, but he didn't have to worry about it just yet.

The crack of the reins against the horse pulling their wagon echoed ominously in the quiet expanse of savannah, and they lurched forward once more. "I just don't understand why we haven't seen anything at all-- not even wreckage." Even some of the Proctors had thought this was a waste of time, but Henk had a pit in his stomach-- just a feeling that something wasn't right.

It made him glad that Ralene had come with him. Henk knew little of the woman, their only interactions had been sparring and idle chatter. What he did know was that among his peers she was both level-headed and extremely powerful. It had actually surprised him just how well they had worked so far as a unit; they thought quite similarly, and unlike some of their other more unstable comrades, Henk had faith in Ralene.

Getting up the hill with an already exhausted horse and the pressure of excessive heat weighing on them was less than simple, but finally, they reached a small plateau where they would be able to look out upon a vast portion of the surrounding land while sheltering themselves if needed. Henk rapped his fist on the side of the wagon, just in case his partner had fallen asleep again before hopping from the wagon and fetching the horse some water from the large container of it hanging on the side of the cart.

In a few hours, they had the small tent pitched with some ragged old bed mats to sleep in, although Henk doubted they would both be in use at once. He watched the horizon as the sunset baked it in an orange glow, searching for any sign of abnormality.

"Not a damned thing. Maybe the others were right." He muttered mostly to himself, but also to Ralene. The fire they had going was a nice reprieve from the quickly cooling air. Out of the fire and into the freeze, as they said. "I guess I should try and sleep. Wake me in a few hours, or if you need me."

Ralene
 
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Ralene

Magic Battering Ram
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Upon arriving at the hilltop Ralene quickly set to work on the tent while Henk tended to the carthorse and fire. In no time at all they had their small campsite glowing atop the hill under the waning light and warmth of the day. She settled in by the fire, chewing on the remnants of the evening's rations while watching the western horizon, breaking only to glance to Henk and his mutterings.

He seemed on edge ... at least, she thought he did. Ral wasn't familiar enough with him to know if this was normal paranoia or if he truly felt nervous about the silence of their journey thus far. Ral wasn't about to question the peace, but had no intention of letting her guard down until they'd determined the entire trip a bust.

And they had some time yet before that would be permissible.

"Don't let your worry keep you up, eh?" she said over her shoulder to him in a tone that suggested she might be making light of the situation.

Leaving her to nothing but the sound of the night sky and the crackle of the fire, Ral positioned herself on the ground by the fire so that she had an easy view of the west, south, and east. The tent, cart, and horse were positioned to the north so at the very least, if the horse alerted to something from that direction hey would know.

For the first two hours she endulged in one of her various books she'd brought along: a journal from a traveling mercenary that detailed the portion of his life spent on the road in the region. She'd reached an entry where he spoke of orc tribes that tamed a regional wild cat of gargantuan proportions when out of the corner of her eye she saw movement to the south. Nothing terribly alarming - something small, a shadow skittering across the landscape below the hillside - but she couldn't tell exactly what it was.
 
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Henk

A Light in The Dark
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There was plenty of time before they could justify heading back to the Academy, and Henk wasn't worried about staying out in the heat. Really, there wasn't anything for him to worry about, but the uneasy feeling in his gut rarely lied to him. There wasn't anything to be done about it though, and he would be useless to Ralene half asleep if something did happen.

He turned back at her quip, smirking at the remark with the unmarred side of his face. "I'm going to be tossing and turning wondering if you're alright out here, of course." He countered. "But if anything does show up, at least let me get a few hits in, friend." There was very little out here that he would bet against Ralene on, and her words eased him a bit if nothing else. Entering the tent, Henk removed his shirt and folded it aside before sliding into his bed mat.

Ralene must have jinxed him; he slept like garbage. Nothing truly restful came, only the fickle dozing in and out of consciousness of a child before a festival, too wired to truly relax. His skin itched against the shoddy material of the mat, and he had to move to keep from scratching.

After what seemed like an hour, he finally felt himself drifting off to a pale imitation of sleep.

----

Breath caught in Henk's lungs as he felt pressure on his hip, his eyes sliding open slowly. "Mmh. That you?" He thought for a moment Ralene had come to wake him, but sitting himself up to look around there was no sign of her. A quick inspection of his side came back empty, but just as he was about to stand to go check on things outside, he felt it again; something running slowly up his spine, like the tip of a knife dragging lazily across his skin.

Groggily he rose to his feet, pushing the flaps of the tent open to rejoin his fellow Initiate, who seemed engrossed in a book. Why hadn't he thought of that?

"Morning. Any trouble?" He groaned, walking past her to sit at the fire, a hand rubbing sleep from his eyes. "Fresh eggs for breakfast?" A weary smile crossed his lips as he pointed his palms towards the flames, offering a small dose of light to bolster them. There was no grand breakfast in the cards for them, but he was rather curious...

"You didn't go in the tent, did you? I swore I could feel something touching me right before I woke up..."

Ralene
 
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Ralene

Magic Battering Ram
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Chivalrous one, wasn't he?

Ralene was exactly where he'd left her a few hours prior, if a bit more stretched out and relaxed than before. Her watch had been completely uneventful aside from the small shadow moving across the horizon to the south. After watching it for some time, she'd determined it to be a local oversized hare foraging through the savannah shrubs.

She'd subsequently shot it dead with her crossbow, skinned and roasted it, then gladly eaten half and left the other half for Henk nestled near the fire to stay warm without getting further cooked.

"Nope," Ral replied from where she lounged on her side, glancing up at the larger initiate and failing to smile at his attempt at humor, if only for the late hour and lack of good sleep, "no eggs, got a hare though. Pretty good, too - left you half just there."

Turning the page, she'd intended to finish out this entry before turning in for her own shot at some sleep, but then Henk dropped his rather odd question. It garnered a blink from Ral, who slowly closed her book and turned both a raised brow and a smug look upwards at him, "Henk, if I'm ever touching you in bed, you're going to be awake for it."

Hate to waste such an effort on the unconscious, after all.

"Haven't gone anywhere near the tent. You probably just dreamt it. Or maybe there was a weedmouse..."
 

Henk

A Light in The Dark
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A roasted hare was far from feast-worthy food, but Henk wasn't about to turn down a meal and Ralene had prepared it expertly. So, he wasn't the only one who paid attention in field-survival classes. "Oh, thank you Ralene. It looks quite good, actually." Perhaps some food would ease his mind, and stop him from worrying so much.

Taking such a large bite of the modest breakfast proved to be a poor desicion when Ralene answered his question and he nearly choked on it, cheeks bluging for a moment before he was able to choke it down. "Very funny..." he coughed out, wiping his mouth. "I would hope so, though. Elsewise it would speak rather poorly towards your performance, wouldn't it?" Henk cracked a smile as he retorted. "I'd hate for you to be embarrased, so I'll take your word."

He didn't have much in the way of personal relationships with the others. There had been an undeniable spark between him and Noel at the ball a while back, but she'd ended up pushing him away ever since then. "I thought maybe you were trying to be gentle about waking me, the poor sack of shit I felt like. I don't know if it's the shoddy mats or my overactive imagination, but I barely got a wink."

It bugged him still, he could've sworn... Taking another bite of the hare, Henk uses one hand to form a small ball of light in his palm, holding it out to Ralene.

"Hey, you've been up a while. Why don't you take this light into the tent? Should last you long enough to finish your reading while you lie down. What are you reading, anyways?" Really he hadn't been out long, and her turn wasn't supposed to come for another couple hours, but if she could catch some extra time and be well-rested that was all the better. Henk was so on edge he'd make a good lookout anyways.

Ralene
 
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Ralene

Magic Battering Ram
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"I would hope so, though. Elsewise it would speak rather poorly towards your performance, wouldn't it?" Henk cracked a smile as he retorted. "I'd hate for you to be embarrased, so I'll take your word."

"Never had that problem," she replied casually, speaking from the experience of a person at the opposite end of the spectrum from Henk where relations with others were concerned. Ralene's travels for missions had taken her far and wide and she, being the opportunist with spare time and coin on her hands after securing mission assets and completing necessary tasks, spent them well in many a bar, tavern, inn, and brothel. Which was nothing to speak of the relations she kept with other initiates in the Academy - not that such things were generally spoken of in normal conversations.

As for Henk's lack of sleep, well, wasn't much she could do about that. She didn't have herbs and tonics in her back pocket like Chasmine, who likely would have rattled off a list of things Henk could use or take to calm his nerves and help him relax. So far as Ralene was concerned, Henk needed to go have a wank on the north side of the hill and call it a night. She'd offer to help but they hadn't exactly reached that level of relations.

Keeping these thoughts to herself, her blue gaze continued to watch him in a laguid manner as he spoke. Focusing in on the ball of light that hovered over his palm and then slowly glided toward her.

"Thanks," she said, watching the glowing orb with a level of intensity that she might've given a live bomb, "think I'll stay by the fire. Pretty comfy here, it's warm, and I have my light for reading." Though a yawn did escape her and that was the only outward indication she'd give of her fatigue, "It's a journal written by an Anirian mercenary named Ser Heron Blare. He's traveled all over Arethil, kept journals of each of the areas. This was was about his time in northern Liadain about fifty years ago. Just got to an entry where he talks about meeting a tribe of orcs that tamed giant savannah lions..."
 

Henk

A Light in The Dark
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Henk only offered a light chuckle at her reply. "I believe you." Not like he could argue with her, being one of the most introverted Initiates of the class. The others would probably find him strange if they knew anything about him beyond the surface level anyway, so it wasn't something he was too torn up about. Still, one did grow lonely at times.

With a shrug, Henk tosses the ball of light up into the air as Ral refuses it. He was more than happy for her company, and four eyes were better than two. "Fair enough. It actually is quite relaxing when the sun isn't baking you alive." Light conversation was doing well enough for his nerves, and a full stomach didn't hurt either. "I thought I was the only one who brought books on missions. Last one I had got scorched to a crisp by Zael. He didn't mean to, I don't think, but you can see why I stopped."

It sounded interesting though, enough that Henk's body tilted forward as Ralene spoke. He'd heard the name Ser Heron Blare in other books, but only passing mentions. The way she spoke of him now made him rather nostalgic. Those heroic tales about incredible feats by travelling souls looking for their next adventure... it was the kind of romantic odyssey that Henk wished Dreadlord missions were.

The mention of Orcs in particular made him laugh. "Last assignment I went on with Edric, he wound up tied to the ceiling by an angry orc." The stick he'd skewered his meat on fed the fire, and Henk stared at the flames for a moment. "Taming something like a Savannah Lion, that's incredible though. For people as notorious for their brute strength and violence as they are, they're capable of incredible things." A brow raised toward her, "Ever been to Bhathairk? I went there once for a mission. It's absolutely beautiful."

Taking a moment to actually do his job, Henk stands up and takes a quick survey of the landscape, before turning to look back at his partner. "Tell me more about him. I love that stuff. My mother used to read those kind of stories to me before... well, you know how it goes in Vel Anir." Taking a seat beside her, Henk cranes his head to look at the pages as well. "She didn't know. About my powers I mean. Then my uncle put his hands on her, I snapped and..."

The ball of light that he'd tossed into the air extinguished with a loud crack. Small sparks rained down into the fire. Henk's attention snapped to the sound.

"That's odd... should have lasted a lot longer..."

Ralene
 
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Ralene

Magic Battering Ram
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"I thought I was the only one who brought books on missions. Last one I had got scorched to a crisp by Zael. He didn't mean to, I don't think, but you can see why I stopped."

Ralene snorted, "Clearly you haven't gone on a mission with Alistair then..." Krixus had no shortage of books with him at all times and Ral sometimes had to wonder where he kept them all. "I don't like having idle time," she continued, opening her book again to find her dog-eared page.

"Last assignment I went on with Edric, he wound up tied to the ceiling by an angry orc."

"You don't say..." that got a slight smirk out of her. Edric seemed to have a thing for orcs...

"Ever been to Bhathairk? I went there once for a mission. It's absolutely beautiful."

No, she'd never been there, but damn, Henk was chattier than she ever knew. Boy went from zero to one-hundred pretty quick on the gab-o-meter. Ral turned a patient look up at him as he moved to find a seat near her and listened in silence as he continued to rattle on, shifting from orcs to Bhathairk to his mother and then uncle and then, rather suddenly, his attention was back on the ball of light. Or lack thereof.

The Initiate blinked at him, calmly overwhelmed by this rollercoaster of dialogue, and decided to forgo all of it for the opportunity to snipe him with innuendo.

"Let's hope that's not what the first lady you bed has to say..." a half smirk tugged at her lips, pressing tightly as a deep and tired breath escaped through her nose. She closed the book once more and offered it to him, "Here, you can do some light reading on your watch while I get some sleep." Henk didn't seem like he was going to try and sleep again and it didn't make any sense for both of them to be tired. Shifting on to her back, Ral gave a big stretch, yawned, and folded her arms under her head for some fireside shut-eye.
 
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Henk

A Light in The Dark
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Henk had caught himself a little late, the bemused look from Ralene tipping him off to the fact that he was rambling a tad. Honestly, he must have been going too long without having a decent conversation, as even he'd surprised himself with how much had come out.

"Sorry, I guess I've been too long without a decent conversation." Henk mused softly, still looking up at where his light had been. "It's nice to just... talk. Every mission I've been on in the last few months has been so hectic, so chaotic. I feel better now though, thank you." He smiled softly, looking at her once more for a moment as she adds another little suggestive quip, his brow raising.

"Is it that obvious I've never...?" His voice trailed off, before interrupting himself with a throaty laugh, shaking his head insistently. "No, please don't answer that."

She certainly seemed to zero in on his lack of intimacy with others. It stung, just a little. Not the fact that he hadn't slept with anybody, Henk didn't care too much about that; Rather it was that so close to graduation, most of the other Initiate's had forged meaningful bonds with one another. Some romantic, some unbreakable friendship. Henk had friends; Kristen, Zael, Everleigh... even Edric had once confided in him that he held respect for Henk, which meant a lot to the light-bender.

But when it came to the kind of bond that would last beyond the Academy, Henk had no such relationships. It was... bittersweet.

The book would be a welcome distraction from the silence of the night, and Henk accepted it without hesitation, eager to read more of the escapades of Ser Blare. "Thank you, Ral. Get some rest, and I'll wake you should something come up." He assured her, opening the book to the beginning as she situated herself comfortably. Well, as comfortable as one could get here.

Henk didn't even feel himself dozing as well-- the words on the paper taking his mind off of his concerns, lulling him under the darkness of sleep alongside her, the book falling into his lap.

----------------------------------------------------

The sound of shifting dirt woke him, soft at first, then growing louder. Henk's eyes slid open slowly, an unintelligible murmur bubbling up from his throat as the fog cleared from his vision. The sun was rising, just barely peeking out over the horizon, but he was so warm. Why was he so warm from the waist down?

All the grogginess shot from his mind as Henk looked down. There was no imagination this time; he felt the tight grip of something he couldn't see, thick tendrils gripping him by his waist, and where he should have seen his midsection there was only the ground-- ground that he was being pulled under.

Quickly he swung his arm to Ralene, gripping her by the arm and shaking it.

"Something's got me! Give me a hand!"

Ralene
 
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Ralene

Magic Battering Ram
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Usually the first to wake in most given situations, Ralene managed to sleep through the gentle rousing of Henk. So when his hand latched on to her arm and his yelp rang out through the silent morning air, the internalize instinctual response of pulling her dagger from her thigh sheath and rounding it threateningly on Henk wasn't something she had a whole lot of control over.

She was sitting up, teeth bared, dark blue eyes blazed open like a tiger caught in a trap, blade held to Henk's throat for just the few moments it took for her situational awareness to fully catch up with that defense mechanism. Henk wasn't trying to pull one over on her out in the middle of nowhere, he was quite literally holding on to her for what appeared to be dear life. Ralene's eyes bugged at the lack of nothing and Henk's lack of lower body.

What the actual fuck?

But her feet moved in split moment reaction, getting beneath her so she could find a way to get control of her quickly disappearing companion. The backside of her blade went to her teeth where she pinched it in place to give her freedom of both hands, and as she scrambled to position herself behind Henk her hands took hold of the arm he currently gripped her with.

Ralene pulled with all her inhumanly substantial might. The same might that had bested nearly a dozen opponents at arm-wrestling, including a full grown minotaur, that one drunken day at the beach. The same strength that frequently put her larger fellow initiates on their asses in sparring matches. That which hammered away in the forge and smithy for hours on end to create her dastardly alchemized armor and weapons.

Like hell was she going to let whatever the fuck had ahold of Henk win against her in this.
 

Henk

A Light in The Dark
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Teeth ground against teeth as Ralene wrapped his arm in her iron grip, pulling against the force that sought to drag him under. He'd gotten careless, dozing off reading that book of hers-- Damn it! With his other arm, Henk gathers his light into his finger tips, flexing his knuckles taut before bringing his scalding hot grasp to the invisible tendril he felt squeezing his gut.

An inhuman shriek rose from the ground, muffled and yet still nearly deafening. Henk's face twisted in pain as he felt his shoulder struggle to withstand the sheer amount of tension Ralene was leveraging against it, but the pressure at his gut lessened as the searing heat caused whatever was pulling him to loosen in retreat. "Keep it up!" Henk seethed through the pressure as he paddled his legs, at least, as much as he could with them submerged in the ground.

With his efforts coupled with Ral's strength, Henk at last began to dislodge and finally came uprooted. He would have been thrown across the plateau by the powerful woman's strength if he didn't immediately put his hands out to catch himself and spring back to his feet, ready to face whatever it was that had just attacked him.

Just as before though, he couldn't see it. There was a hole in the ground, beneath where he'd been sleeping where something had reached out to ensnare him, and Henk blasted it with a scorching beam just to be sure. There was no reaction to his beam, however. Once again it was gone, like some phantom. The only sound in the air a distant rumbling, traveling away from them, to the East.

Henk let out the breath he'd been holding and dropped to his knees, his legs turning to jelly.

"You saved my life, Ralene. You have my thanks." He was beyond certain that Ral wouldn't want him to go on about how grateful he was. "I'll endeavor to make that the last time such a thing is necessary Do you have any idea what that thing was?"

Ralene
 

Ralene

Magic Battering Ram
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Once Henk was free of his unseen captor she'd loosed her grip on his arm to take up her blade once again. Blue eyes flaring and pinned in the low light of the morning, Ralene stood hunched and ready for another invisible attack ... but nothing came. Boots carefully stepped forward towards the pit of disturbed soil where Henk's lower body had once been and her gaze followed the rumbling trail into the distanced. Ralene narrowed her eyes, ignoring Henk's thanks and pressing into the more important issue, "Yes," she replied curtly, "that's our target..."

Without any further ado she kicked dirt over the campfire to sputter the remaining coals, took up her sword to buckle it back around her waist, then moved to the cart horse, "Henk get the site packed up, I'm going to follow its trail and see where it's headed. Be ready to leave by the time I get back."

Pulling the lead rope over the horse's neck, Ral swung herself up onto its bare back and kicked it around in a circle before taking off down the hill in the direction the creature had vanished.
 

Henk

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Henk couldn't hold back the smile that came from Ralene's response. Yes, it all made sense now; The missing caravans weren't disappearing into thin air, they were being sucked below the surface. It was no wonder they could see no remnant, no sign of anything-- it lie beneath their feet. "I agree. It looks like the hunt is on." Maybe this trip wouldn't be so dreadfully awkward after all.

Quickly, Henk sat out to pack what little they'd set up. They'd only intended to stay on the plateau for the night, so much of their provisions were still in the wagon. A few important things had been left in the tent, however; Henk's arm covers and spyglass chief among them. So when he entered the tent to clear it out before taking it down and packing it back into the cart it was rather distressing to see the interior in dissaray.

Henk's bag was open and emptied, one of the sleeping mats, the one that wasn't quite as ragged and torn, had vanished as well. The Initiate's pale eyes narrowed as he quickly knelt to inspect his empty bag, but it was picked clean. Either this monster was more intelligent than Henk thought, or somebody else had been through their things as they slept.

Slinging the bag over his shoulder and tearing down the tent, Henk finished the packing just as Ralene would return from her scouting. "We were ransacked." He growled, giving the horse she hadn't taken a drink of water, looking over at her. "Took my arm covers and the rest of my gear. I don't know who or what though." Putting the water back in it's spot, his fist quickly finds the side of the cart in a quick flare of frustration. "It was my job to be on watch..."

There was no time to feel angry with himself, They needed to move. "If we have any hope of catching up to it, we need to move fast. It went east, didn't it? You don't think Maraan is in danger, do you?" If the beast sought to attack the trade city, it didn't make sense why it wouldn't have done it by now, but heading east would be good, as they could stop and rest in town if they didn't find it right off. "I have a contact there, so to speak. If we need to, we can stop by and resupply for cheap. Either way, I'd say we're going home with a big trophy."

Henk followed her lead, and before long they'd be in pursuit of the unknown monster, of unknown size and intelligence, who was also invisible.

What could possibly go wrong?

Ralene
 
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Ralene

Magic Battering Ram
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We were ransacked.

Not exactly what one wanted to hear upon returning to camp. Ralene's expression shifted from focused and serious to furious disbelief in the span of a few moments. She quickly swung off the horse and pulled it forward by the lead to its companion to get a drink from what remained in the bucket. Her brows furrowed, she listened to Henk lose his temper in a stoic silence.

The coincidence of a creature's attack and their campsite being pilfered was a bit too much to overlook. To Ralene, the two fell in line with one another. Tandem, orchestrated attacks. It would make sense if whatever that beast was also happened to be under the control or command of a second party.

"East, yes," she replied as she began to throw the wagon harness pieces onto her horse, "I stopped when I spotted a caravan in the distance. Lost track of the beast's trail, must have gone deeper under ground."

But as for Maran, she had no idea if it was in danger and she said as much. Ralene knew that Maran was not unprotected - as part of the Empire, it likely was outfitted with Imperial ranks and soldiers. "It's not our job to protect Maran," she reminded Henk as she hitched up the horses and pulled herself up onto the driver's bench, "it's our job to hunt the beast. If it's been causing problems locally, your contact there may know something and we can resupply."

This made Maran a logical stop for them. She waited for Henk to load up before clacking the driving reins and sending the horses forward. Down the hill they went, following the path she'd rode off along before. After an hour of hastened pull, Ral slowed up the horses when the caravan she spoke of appeared once again on the horizon.

"We'll catch up to that caravan. Looks like they're on the move in the right direction - when we get to them I'll find their leader but I want you to ask the followers if they've had any of the same troubles we did."
 

Henk

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Henk was of the same mind. Something about the timing of the attempt on his life and the stealing of his items didn't add up. Or perhaps the problem was that it added up all too well. It wasn't unheard of for powerful beings to hold control over horrifying beasts, though if that was the sort of situation they were dealing with, this would not be as simple as hunting the burrowing monstrosity down.

Ralene wasn't particularly concerned about Maraan's well-being, but Henk's experience with the area did loan them a sufficient starting point, and they could no doubt find an inn there should they be unable to finish this mission today. Henk felt strongly against letting harm come to such an important trading hub as Maraan, but he held his tongue for now; it was not the time to argue with her.

The hour-long ride was as silent as it had been the day before, with not even echoes of life in the air. The only sign that anything had crossed this path before them were the fresh prints embedded in the ground of both wheel and hoove. It wasn't terribly long before they could see the caravan in the distance. "Right direction indeed... We aren't far from town at all."

Henk couldn't help but wonder if the attack against the two of them had distracted their target long enough to allow this caravan to make it so close to Maraan, especially since there hadn't been a reported arrival to the town in months, according to their briefing. "Alright, I'll ask around while you find the one in charge. Be careful, Ral. I don't need to tell you this, but there's a remote chance one of them has something to do with the target. Would explain how they made it this far out."

Kicking down on his mount, Henk heads towards the Caravan. There it was, that pit in his stomach again, that sense of dread. He had ignored it last time and that had cost him. This go-around, there would be no mistakes.

Matching pace with the line of wagons and carts, Henk went about asking everyone he could find about what they knew about attacks in the area. The group consisted mostly of Elves, traveling up from Falwood to fetch the slightly higher price they would net for selling to Maraan rather than selling locally to Fal'Addas or the other smaller elven settlements.

The point was, none of them seemed to know anything. Not yet, anyways.

Hopefully Ralene was having better luck.

Ralene
 
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Ralene

Magic Battering Ram
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While many would have driven toward the front of the caravan line, Ralene reined the wagon horse to the back. Caravan leaders didn't often lead in the sense - those at the front were the trusted guides. The eyes and navigators. The ones truly in charge stayed at the back where they could ensure no one was left behind, and keep a sharp eye on the caravan at all times, including from behind.

It was there she drew upon a small group of riders, three on horse and one on a curious desert creature she was not yet familiar with that looked like a giant iguana. Ral slowed the wagon as she approached, seeing that Henk's arrival forward had drawn attention. Reaching behind her into the cart, she pulled out a single arrow and held it above her head in both hands, snapping it in the middle; a common gesture of peace among many elven tribes and kingdoms.

"Hail," she called as she pulled closer, "do you speak common?"

"I speak," said a female riding on the near side of the male astride the reptile, "what news, stranger?"

"We come from the east and make way for Maraan. We wish to join you, if you'll have us."

The she-elf translated to the leader, who spoke in reply, giving Ralene an expectant look.

"He says all are welcome to join that can pay a tribute to the good of the whole."

"Tribute?" Ral frowned, "Fraid we've nothing to offer of value. We were set upon in the morning hours, my partner there was nearly killed. They took everything we had."

"They?" asked the she-elf after translating to her leader.

"We did not see anyone, they set some strange beast upon my partner. It tried to pull him underground, I only just managed to free him and stab it before it fled." A small lie, but it hardly mattered. Henk had done something to the beast ...whatever it had been, to let him go. It must have been wounded.

There was some back and forth between the elf and her leader for several moments, and a few curiously suspicious looks from the group. She and Henk were a bit far west to be recognized for their transgressions against the elves of the eastern Falwood, but certainly word against the Dreadlords had spread among the elvish kingdoms regardless. It was good neither of them were not so distinguishable.

"I swear to you we mean no harm," Ralene insisted, "we only wish to make it to Maraan safely. I fear we may not on our own."

More deliberation.

"He says if you will offer your wagon for the caravan once we reach Maraan, you may join us."

"My wagon?" Ral raised a brow and looked back at it. The wagon wasn't especially essential, more a cover if anything. It had eased their travels but they could do without. She nodded, "It is yours then. But I have to tell you," she smirked, "that back left wheel squeaks terribly."

The she-elf smiled, sharing the words with her leader who gave a bark of laughter and gestured for her to join the line ahead of them. With a chuckle, Ralene clacked the reins at the horse and drove it forward. Now they could at least move freely among the others with the leader's blessing. That might help loosen some lips.
 

Henk

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The heat was beginning to swelter again, the morning sun baking the savannah just as it had finally cooled and settled. The first beads of sweat were dotting Henk's forehead as he slowed to turn his head and look back at Ralene as she seemed to have a conversation between a translator and another of the elves. Plenty of smiles around, that was a good sign.

Progress or otherwise, Henk had more work to do: There were still people in this caravan he hadn't spoken with, and if even one of them had any clue as to what had been happening under the sands as of late, it would be worth it. If he waited until they arrived in town to finish prodding for information, it would be far too easy for somebody to slip away from him.

Unfortunately, he still didn't have too much luck. The only thing he got out of most of the elves were curious stares and shrugged shoulders. Henk's elven wasn't flawless, but he was rather certain one of the children said that he resembled the backend of a horse as well. How lovely.

He'd been about to return to Ralene when a strained and throaty voice called to him from the wagon he'd just checked off.

"Allita..."

Henk turned his head back to the group of elves quickly, locking eyes with the one who'd spoken. She was old, even for an Elf, with sagging skin and white hair that fell down her forehead in ragged strings. The smile she was wearing proudly displayed how few teeth she had, and yet somehow her presence held firmly to Henk's attention all the same.

"Madame Orsola, please. You aren't well." The taller, much younger male beside her pleaded in hushed elven, attempting to pull the small blanket that had concealed the elderly woman from Henk before back over her head to shield her from the sun, but she batted his hands away with her own bony fingers, repeating herself louder. "He seeks an Allita!"

Perhaps Henk was finally hitting a bit of luck.

"An Allita?" Henk quickly responded before Orsola's caretaker had a chance to interject again. "Is that what the beast I spoke of is called?"

Orsola leaned closer to him, over the lap of her guardian, who now leaned back with a sneer on his lips, seemingly having given up on controlling her. "Not a beast, human. An Allita is a conjuration!" The woman cackles, slapping her hand against the side of the wagon in amusement. "Old magic. Powerful magic. Only the mightiest of mages can hope to bring one to existence, and only through sheer hatred can they be sustained."

A conjuration? That would certainly confirm the theory that there was somebody behind these attacks rather than it being a predatory beast. It also created even more questions, however; What powerful spellweaver was living out here in the Savannah, preying on caravans that passed with an ancient summoning spell when much more conventional destruction magic would likely do just as well? And why had they taken interest in attacking Ralene and himself, when he could have easily hid until the Academy saw fit to withdraw the two Initiates?

Too many questions. He'd bounce his thoughts off of Ralene when next they were alone. For now, he'd uncovered an important fact, if this 'Orsola' could be believed.

She seemed confident enough, reaching out to smack Henk's shoulder with another cackle. "Someone is very angry with you, young human. Allita can only attack those who the caster truly despises."

Henk pulled away from her arm, only somewhat understanding the weight of her words before bowing his head low to the wizened elf. "I thank you for sharing your wisdom, Madame Orsola."

Quickly he returned to Ralene, a new weight on his shoulders and a frown on his scarred lips. This was no longer a simple monster hunting mission.

If Orsola was to be believed, they were the ones being hunted now.

Ralene

 
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Ralene

Magic Battering Ram
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They moved with the caravan through the heat of the day, stopping at a small oasis to tend the pack animals and break for lunch. As outsiders, Ralene and Henk sat at the back of the line, patiently awaiting their turn to water the horses and find some small relief from the sun. Sitting on the wagon bench while she waited, Ral felt the sweat of her brow slowly run down into the kohl surrounding her eyes and smudged along her nose and cheeks. Her clothing slicked through, the material clung to her skin in the most uncomfortable of ways, but the Initiate said not a single word of complaint.

These were the things they had been conditioned for in training. Sweltering heat, frigid temperatures, starvation, dehydration, torture. Regardless of how much she wished to drain the remaining water from her waterskin, she would wait until the horses had quenched their own thirst. Then, and only then, if clean enough water remained, would she give in to hers.

Without the horses, they were sunk, even if the caravan elves might offer aid they couldn't rely on it as outsiders.

"How's it work for you," Ral spoke up to Henk who was resting in the shade of the covered wagon. She'd not looked back to see if he was sleeping, which was a shortcoming of her own churning thoughts, "with the daylight..." her eyes winced out into the gleam of the sands as ever so slowly the line to the oasis spring moved up, "not quite the same as Elias..."

Elias would have been an absolute nightmare on this mission. All this sunlight would have gone straight to his head.
 
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Henk

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Thank goodness Ralene had managed to convince the caravan leader to let them tag along. Even if they did have to give up their wagon, they would have never known about this little oasis hidden off the beaten savannah path. It wasn't until the idea of a quick drink was presented to him that realized how dry his lips and tongue felt.

Normally it would have taken a bit longer for him to get this exhausted, but without the coverings for his arms, Henk didn't have any way of regulating how much light he was taking in; he had to slowly let it out as it came in to keep from overloading, and that took a lot out of the Inititate.

He would manage. Both of them had been through worse, and for far longer than this. They'd be at Maraan soon enough, and then they could get a half-decent meal and a bed that didn't have sword gashes in it. That Orsola woman's words were still bugging him just a little, but there wasn't any point dwelling on them until they were in town. Ralene was sharp, and knowledgeable. Together, they'd be able to come up with a plan of action, he was certain.

Like she'd been waiting for her cue, the raven-haired woman sitting on the bench of the wagon turned towards him, her face covered in a fresh layer of sweat. The sound of elven voices up ahead of them signaled the slow moving of the wagon as the leader called for the next group. Henk raised an eyebrow at her question. Nobody had ever asked him about the nature of his power before. Why would they? In their line of work, the why didn't matter. It only mattered that you could do it.

"You've used a sponge before, I imagine." Henk reached behind him and took his jacket, long since discarded in the heat, and a knife. "Think of me as a sponge, but with light rather than water." It was a simple way to put it, but even Henk didn't fully understand why he was able to accomplish such things. Cutting long strips from his jacket, he lies the ribbons of cloth to the side until he finishes cutting the jacket to shreds. He hated to lose another one, but this would help him keep cool until they reached town.

"I take it in through bare skin, and I channel it back out in whatever amount, shape, and form I need." Henk had begun to wrap the sliced strips over his exposed arms, tying them tightly to ensure the makeshift sleeves wouldn't slide off. "I have to be careful not to take too much though. Organs burn easy, I've learned..."

Once his arms were covered, Henk watched Ral for a moment before waving her up into the shade of the Wagon. "Come on, you must be melting out there. I can squeeze myself to the side."

He slid himself as far as possible to offer her room.

"What about you? Most of us are one-trick ponies, but you've got such a multitude of talents: Rune-work, weapon smithing, and you're definitely one of the wisest of us. How do you juggle it all?"

Ralene
 

Ralene

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The question about the sponge got an odd look at him. Ral narrowed her eyes but kept silent to hear him out, finding her temper and tolerance for slights, however unintended, to have been shortened substantially by the heat beating down on her. Generally her curiosity to learn new things far exceeded her desire to expend energy on anger. As much as she had played the aggressor to her fellow Initiates over the years, going so far as to maim and kill without remorse, she wasn't the horrible monster many believed her to be.

Mostly she just liked her solitude in those rare moments of freedom between training, education, and missions.

Turning her gaze back to the fore while Henk spoke, she opted to let him waste time and effort on slicing strips from his jacket when he could have easily clipped the sleeves with a section along the shoulders to keep them attached, and worn them as cut-offs. Wasn't her job to tell the other Initiates to work smarter, not harder. Instead she simply listened to his words and soaked them in like a sponge. Her brows knit in thought, raking through the mental database of memories she'd filed away from her sparring and duals against Henk.

She quietly waved off his offer of refuge in the wagon.

Physically he was a better match than most against her heightened strength when it came to pure bodily effort. Him, Elias, Sable, Edric, and even Percy had proven formidable sparring opponents. Most others broke and shattered under Ral's fist. When it came to magic though...

"What about you? Most of us are one-trick ponies, but you've got such a multitude of talents: Rune-work, weapon smithing, and you're definitely one of the wisest of us. How do you juggle it all?"

Her jaw rolled and then set at the question.

"Jack of all trades, master of none," she replied after a moment, focusing on the line ahead of them with a frown, "while everyone else specialized in some fancy magic, my specialty was taking a beating and growing stronger from it. The Proctor's made me start learning to forge so I wouldn't bash everyone's skulls in."
 
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Henk

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Henk shrugged at Ralene's refusal of shelter. He certainly wouldn't have thought less of her; it would be some time before it was their turn. Perhaps it was more his presence that she was uncomfortable with? Shrugging, he allowed himself to slide back towards the center of the wagon.

Ralene had always marched to the beat of her own drum, so to speak. Henk was much the same in that he tended to shy away from the social groups that had formed within their class, but Ralene was still very different. Henk still knew a good deal about most of the other Initiates. He could tell you what made them tick, how they would likely react in certain situations. It was a byproduct of all the time he'd spent watching them, and a helpful one at that.

Ralene though, was a mystery.

Before the revolution, he'd seen her as many others did. Ruthless, without a shred of mercy or remorse. Her brutality knew no bounds when it was called upon, and her strength was unmatched except for the strongest of Initiates. But while others still held her in the view of a living weapon of war, Henk's view of her had shifted considerably over the last couple of years.

Henk had seen how reliable she was. He'd watched her put her life on the line for all of them, time and time again. When she wanted to be, she was a natural leader, perhaps more than any of them. Henk didn't know what it was that she believed in, what she fought for or cared most about. Surprisingly though, he had long ago decided that those details weren't important. He saw the good in her. He knew she was no monster.

She was a human. One of the few remaining in a world increasingly full of monsters wearing the faces of people.

"I would say that makes you more of a Master than any of us.

Henk leaned back as the wagon lurched forward again.

"We were all beaten to a pulp, Ralene. I'm sure even the two of us have tasted the Academy's dirt more times than we can count, but..." He tried to think about how he wanted to word his thoughts... "You've never relied on magic like the rest of us do. Many of the Initiates would be no more than stronger than average teenagers if you stripped them of their powers."

Henk had never felt particularly mighty. Even his own power he'd seen as more of a mutation. It wasn't something he had full control over, or could stop when he wanted to. The curtains in his room at the Academy had to remain closed overnight, or the morning sun would leak into his skin and kill him before he could wake. All of them were weak, in one way or another.

"You have magic, but even without it you have smithing skill, book knowledge, and you're one of the most physically impressive people I've ever met. I've always seen you as a goalpost, not an outlier. Something I'd aspire to be."

Ralene
 
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Ralene

Magic Battering Ram
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That was probably one of the first times another Initiate had spoken so highly of her to her face. Ralene wasn't entirely sure what to think of it. Her gut response took it at face value; that Henk was being earnest for all the reasons she'd never come to think of him as a conniving, lying wretch. But the broader ingrained instinct was to shrug it off and take it only as flattery to appease her. Ral had never had a gang of peons or goons that followed her around and hung on her every word. Not like Liliana. Not like some of the other Initiates that seemed to garner false dedication from those lesser than them.

Those kinds of things never appealed to her. For Ralene, it had always been about self dedication and preservation. Be smarter, stronger, more powerful than the others. Learn their weaknesses and their strengths, play them to her advantage, gain the upper hand, survive. But several missions lately had seen a shift in the way of things. She'd formed a kinship of sorts with Edric, and even found herself officially named a friend to Alistair. Even Elias seemed to be coming around to something other than adversaries.

Chewing on his words in silence, brow furrowing over these thoughts that someone - anyone - aspired to be like her. He likely wouldn't if he had the whole story, but wasn't that just the way it went with them all? Not like she had much of any clue about Henk. Hell, maybe if she knew more she'd aspire to be more like him.

"Unless your aspirations are to be a lifelong tool of the Anirian Guard, you've got the wrong goalpost. There's nothing special about what I do, Henk. That's the whole point."
 
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Henk

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Maybe he was far more like Ralene than either of them had realized. For all of her strength, all that she was capable of, she still did not see herself as anything beyond the ordinary. The revelation brought his eyes to linger on her for a silent moment. Was this what it had felt like? A month prior, he'd said the same thing to Kristen Pirian, who had looked up to him for as long as they'd known each other. Henk said those words... 'nothing special.'

And Kristen hadn't looked at him the same since.

"There's... nothing special about what any of us do, Ralene. We're all tools to Vel Anir: The Reserve, the Guard, Dreadlords, Proctors... The only thing we do is further the agenda of the city we were born in. Sometimes, that means doing good, Sometimes it means doing bad. But it's never been 'special.'"

Henk didn't admire Ralene for her ability as a Dreadlord, or as an Initiate even. Henk looked up to her because of her capacity as a human being. Independent from Vel Anir. That was what Henk wished to be when his time at the Academy concluded. Human, regardless of his position or affiliation.

"I still don't know what my aspirations are, but..." Henk bit down on the inside of his cheek, in thought for a moment. "You and the others are all I've ever had. That's why become whatever I have to be, if it means supporting the people I care about."

It was an unrealistic sentiment, and likely one any Dreadlord worth their salt would call soft. Hell, it was soft. Henk would never change who he was though. They could take his freedom, but they would not have his soul.

"I think maybe if we all stopped worrying about being Dreadlords all the damned time we could focus on being people. We don't have to be tools. I certainly never saw any of you that way."

Henk rather hoped that someday, Ralene would see herself in the way that Henk did. The boy had come to the conclusion that she deserved that.

Ralene
 
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