Fable - Ask Shedding Skin

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Samantha Black

Magic Battering Ram
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The morning following What Happens After.

Dreadlord Academy Stables
Daybreak


Following the events of their graduation, the stillness and quiet lingered throughout the academy like a bad sickness. There was yet any real closure to anything for most, but Ralene had the answers she needed to confidently leave this place and never return. A short talk with Proctor Mars gave Ral the assurance she'd not be carted away in irons for the murder of Charon and that, for all intents and purposes, she was now a fully fledged Dreadlord. Rank 3.

The 3 stung less than she thought, but Mars had also assured her the only one in their class that might have ranked higher was no longer among them. He didn't say who, but he didn't need to. Everyone knew who it was. Elsewise, just like every other graduate, she'd have to work her way up the ranks in time. Aside from the facts, Mars offered no warm wishes in departure and that was just fine by her. Ralene didn't envy him the mess he and the other remaining Proctors would be expected to clean up.

The palest light had only just touched the sky on this dreary, overcast dawn when she arrived to the stables. Ral made her way to the horse she'd ridden the most on her missions and greeted it with a slice of apple from her pocket. A large, stocky brown mare who had likely been broken to pull a plow if only her pernicious attitude would have allowed for such a dull life. She could be a bit flighty and opinionated at times, but after a few years they'd come to more or less understand one another.

As much as an unfeeling, uncaring, heartless Dreadlord could be expected to.

"You're comin with me," Ral muttered quietly to the mare as she ran a hand over her forelock and down her nose, "sound good to you?"

No answer. Not even the romanticized snort or whinny the media would have served you. Horses were quiet creatures, but they weren't above nose-shoving for more snacks when they could smell them on you. Ral oof'd, smirked, and gave the mare what she was after. While the horse munched, she tacked her up. She wouldn't be waiting up for Davi - he'd either be here or he wouldn't.
 
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Everything Davi owned or cared about in the world fit into a depressingly small bag. He stared at it from his perch on the narrow windows ledge and debated unpacking it all again; it was not too late. The bet he had made with Ralene had been made under duress of fever, exhaustion, and some sense of gratitude towards her for having saved his life - and doomed her soul in the same instance if someone like Kristen were to be believed. But he knew that if he decided not to go she would not hold it against him or harbour resentment. She'd merely think him an idiot then cast him from her mind.

Somehow that thought stung more.

And what actually remained for him here? The Marshall badge would have been a comforting weight, and a town that he could have called his own would have been nice, but would the dream he had concocted for himself in that future have actually come to pass? What was to say the people there did not resent or spit at him to? And if it was everything he had dreamt of, would he be content or would he - like Ral predicted - grow bored and forever wonder what if?

* * *
Several horses put their heads over their stalls as Davi entered. A few turned back to their hay when they saw it was not their rider whilst others waited in the hopes of a treat which he sometimes gave out on his days there. In his right hand he held the reins of his own horse - a young blue roan gelding who stood on the smaller, stockier side - and who paused to unwisely put his head into the stall of a mare who squealed her irritation then attempted to take a chunk of his black mane as tribute.

Davi paid no mind to the warring horses.

"Where exactly are we going?" No greetings or niceties; Davi was always a man of little words.
 
Her mare's opinions were flying free this morning. A bloated belly responded to the girthing, pinned ears to the gelding next door, a flash of whites when asked to leave her hay. She was in a smart state and Ralene took it all in humored stride. Best not to react sharply unless teeth or hooves made contact. Sometimes you just needed to get the piss and vinegar out.

By the time Davi arrived to saddle up, Ralene was just about ready to pull her mare out of her stall. She lifted a brow to him in passing, offering a silent morning nod of recognition as though this were simply a routine mission departure, and lead her mare out to the sound of rousing nickers for breakfast and iron shoes on stone.

"Vel Draza," she answered while she walked, "Captain Holstag works under General Blackforge in the Western Army and headquarters his team there. It's about a three day ride northwest from here."

Three days of distance between herself and the Academy wasn't far enough, if you asked her, but it was a start. The route they would travel was one she knew like the back of her hand by now. Ral and her mare could have taken it blind, what with all the missions and training she'd done with Holstag for the last half of her life.

"There's a ruin about halfway we'll stop at to rest, otherwise we don't stop. You can piss with your pants down at the gallop, needs be." She threw him a smirk over her shoulder at that one before bringing her mare in a circle and mounting up, "Good?"
 
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Davi fell into step behind her as she led the way out of the stables, the mare in the stall giving his gelding a final flat-eared glare before returning to her hay. He listened quietly to her description and tried to place it on the memorised maps of the Anirian territory he kept tucked in the recesses of his mind. Most of his missions had been focused in the East and South and so he had not paid much heed to what lay to the West. Even her comment about pissing his breeches earned a stoic nod of agreement.

"So, you've had missions with this General before?" Davi asked as he put a foot in the stirrup and eased himself onto the horse with great care. The roan's ears pricked forward and he lengthened his stride with eagerness to be on the road with a pretty mare, whom he sniffed at when they were shoulder to shoulder. Davi wisely reined his head back before he got a chunk bitten out of it. "How... He just offered you a position there?"

The exact ins and outs of how Ralene had been given this position before graduation was what piqued his interest.
 
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Ralene set off at a clipped walk, not intending to wind the horses before dawn had properly set in. A brow curved upward at the roan sniffing her mount, who in turned replied with a most horrid mare stare and show of teeth. She nudged her forward to keep her mind on the road.

"Captain," she corrected Davi with a sidelong glance. A fair question. Some knew how she'd come to be recruited into the Knights, most didn't. "Proctor Mars' doing, actually. Commander Bailiir of the Western Army wanted to try something new with the Initiates at the Academy and came to scope out recruits for the Knights. Proctor Mars put a group from our year in front of him because of the nature of our..." she frowned, nosed scrunching in a brief facial grimace that pinched the fresh scar over the bridge, "gifts. The Commander chose me and three others to groom to become Knights upon graduation. I was eight at the time and I was the only one that survived."

"Bailiir died in battle when I was 10 and his project would have been abandoned if Captain Holstag hadn't picked it up. So the majority of the missions I was assigned to since then have been with him and his crew in some capacity. I've probably spent as much time with them over the last eight years as I have at the Academy. I'm as much a fully trained Knight as I am a Dreadlord."
 
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"I see."

Ralene's explanation alleviated no small amount of the doubt he had had in her abilities to convince this... Captain to let him join. He had thought their relationship a passing thing or some residual friendship between her family and the man, and as such he hadn't fully trusted in her being able to sway the man to letting Davi stay too. Proving oneself, training and fighting, earning loyalty. Well, that was another position altogether from which to barter. A little more calm spread over him and relaxed his hunched shoulders. The gelding felt it too and eased into the walk instead of jogging every few seconds with his riders impatience.

"I have to admit, the Western army was never one I had looked at much. It sounded like an army for those who wanted to be close to home," his eyes flickered towards her. "For someone so eager to put as many miles between her and the capital, it doesn't seem like the... obvious choice."
 
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"I didn't have a choice in the matter," Ralene responded flatly, "my life has been decided for me since Mars put me in front of that Commander."

Though she supposed maybe the Revolution had changed some things. Maybe she did have a choice now, but backing out after all those years spent training and working with Holstag didn't feel right. Felt like a betrayal to the only adult in her life that had given her any ounce of respect or care.

"Vel Draza isn't as far away as I'd like... but the missions will keep me farther afield. It works out."
 
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Wasn't that the story of every Dreadlord? Until now. He envied the next generation, or even more, the generations who would enter those doors only knowing choice and nothing more. So he sympathised with Ralene, but he envied her too. Davi would have preferred to have had a sense of direction even if it was one forced upon him.

"From what I hear about the Empire and Cortos, we must be putting more forces along our boarder out that way," that would put them weeks - maybe even a month or more - between them and Vel Anir. The thought was comforting. "Are you... sure he will take me on?" It was one thing risking the ire of the Academy for a initiate you already saw as your own, but a stranger? His brows furrowed, casting his eyes into shadows.
 
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Ralene made a sound of thought at the mention of the Empire. She hadn't dealt too much with that region, even in her missions with Holstag. Mostly they kept to the northwest and the Cortosi Coast. Likely to keep a young Initiate from fucking anything up with the Empire - delicate as that peace was right now.

"The Captain trusts my judgement," she replied, waited a beat, then turned a playful look his way, "and he likes dogs."

"And if he doesn't, you're getting a small fortune out of it from me. You can go get your Marshall badge and settle down in some sleepy little village no one has heard about. What have you got to lose."
 
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Davi gave a huff that some might have kindly called a bark of a laugh.

"Several layers of skin on my arse?"
he half muttered beneath his breath with a crooked attempt at a smile. Several days in the saddle was no bother to most Dreadlords, certainly not one who took as many missions away from the Academy as he could. A little louder he continued with, "You know I don't just turn into wolves, right?" he raised a brow. He wasn't entirely sure if many initiates were sure about what exactly he could do. Hells, he wasn't. It had only been this past year that they had let him try anything beyond human.

"Wolf was just the easiest to learn first,"
he admitted softly.
 
That bark grew a smug grin on his companion's face and that comment got a short cackle out of her too. They'd have to work on his ass-callous.

"I figured you could probably do more," Ral admitted once her humor had settled, "just never seen it."

Which begged the question and curiosity out of her. She wasn't usually one to needle or poke but ... "So what else can you?"
 
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Nobody had ever wanted to talk about his magic, not even the Proctors who shifted uncomfortably and tried not to look at him when he shifted. He'd given up attending lessons and they'd seemed relieved. Everything he had learnt had been self taught from books or pure instinct. The roan beneath him took his life into his hooves once more and chanced a sly sniff of the mare again.

"I can do most... normal animals you'd see around here. Bears, elks, I tried copying a tiger shark I saw once in Vel Luin," he sounded amused at the memory though it didn't show on his face. "I've been experimenting more with the more unusual things, the ones that could be... helpful in battle. Like the Sabre tiger the other day."
 
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There came an abrupt and calamitous sound out of the mare that could be described as nothing less than an ornery, hellish squeal as she tossed her broad head and bared teeth at the gelding. Ralene caught her by the reins at the last moment and managed to spare the roan a nasty bite.

"That so?" Ral eyed her mare, "Mind turning into a horse and telling these two to chill the fuck out?"

A joke, of course. She had no idea if he was able to communicate with animals when he turned into one, or even really understand them.

"Oi! Enough-"
a sharp nudge to the mare's side to push more distance between them and that matter was settled. For now.

"Proctors never did care for your animal forms did they," Ral remarked, "always thought they were missing opportunities for that. Too shortsighted to see an answer when it's right in front of them half the time."
 
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The gelding's ears never seemed to change, the mor-roan, and Davi shook his head as he put his leg on enough to make the horse take a wise few steps away from the mare.

"Sometimes I wonder if they didn't cut his brain off when they castrated him," the Dreadlord muttered and shook his head. From the way the mare's ears were still pinned his horse was in for more than a good kicking when they stopped. Perhaps it would do him some good. Still, it was a welcome distraction from the discomfort of the conversation. In many ways Davi had accepted what he was and in many other ways he still struggled.

To her - correct - point he shrugged.

"It was too... not human," he could understand. He resented it for what it had caused in him mentally, but he understood. "It took a long time for me to realise that that was ok too, for them... well, they've got even more years of hate to work through."
 
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"Not sure he had one to begin with..." Ral muttered with a side-eye at the roan.

She listened with a stalwart half-frown to Davi's words, only knowing a fraction of his story to reflect upon. She'd witnessed his struggles with the Proctors from the sidelines and never done a thing about it. Why? They all had their own struggles, and if you couldn't deal with your own then you weren't worthy of the Dreadlord title. At least, that's how they'd been raised. The Revolution changed a lot of things, but it came far too late to save them from their upbringing.

"You can forget about them and their problems," Ral replied, referring to the Proctors, "and all the shit that defined you at the Academy. None of it matters anymore."

And, she'd argue, it never mattered anyway. But when you're just 8 years old at the Academy you learn to pick your battles or you die trying to prove a moot point.

"And if anyone in the guard gives you shit for your powers, I'll feed them their own teeth."
 
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A tiny smile curved his lips upwards.

"Thanks," he cleared his throat before his cheeks did that annoying thing where they turned a shade of rose. There were no doubt some who would bristle at the idea of another fighting such small battles but Davi was... touched. Nobody had fought for him during his time at the Academy. Now... he had someone who would watch his back.

"Shall we pick up the pace?" he raised a brow, suddenly eager to put as much distance between him and his past as he could. His horse seemed to sense his intention and began to jog rather than walk.
 
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She didn't see the smile but the gratitude struck a chord somewhere deep down beneath the solid steel shell that apparently surrounded her emotions.

"Shall we pick up the pace?"

Ral's smirk returned, "There it is." Found the right spark to light the fire under his enthusiasm for a new start. With a glance to her companion she clucked to the mare and pressed her into a fresh and frisky canter, complete with a bucking kick at the roan to remind him where his place was. They set off along the road away from the Academy, following the route north through the forested hills and valleys.

The day aged briskly at their pace and they moved with the sun tracking their progress north. From blazing through the gentle rolls of country farmlands to carefully traversing steep and narrow trails along mountainsides. They passed through hamlet and village, stopping briefly to assist a broken-down wagon on the way, and rode well into the darkness of the evening before Ralene slowed their pace.

After pointing out the jagged silhouette of the ruin ahead on their path, they turned off the main road to take a smaller trail through the wood to their rest stop. It wasn't until they drew nearer that Ralene noticed the flickering of campfire in the ruin. It wasn't so unusual that others might use the location to rest as well, but she'd never come across it in her own travels. The ruin was well off the beaten path and aside from some sketchy shelter, it didn't offer much.

"We can take the horses down to the stream below first," she said quietly as she dismounted, "then we'll scope out our company."
 
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Davi dismounted shortly after Ralene and instantly began to walk his sweat-slick horse. The roan wasn't exhausted, not yet, but both horses had been pushed to cover as many leagues as they could. He'd be damned if the horse got him all that way and tore a ligament because he hadn't been properly cooled down.

"Perhaps it's some other Dreadlords," he speculated as he began to pick his way down towards the stream. His eyes had shifted from their usual blue to a golden hue enabling him to pick out the shadows from the roots and rocks to avoid any trips. "Mind your foot," he warned softly when it looked as though Ralene were about to put her foot into a hidden burrow hole.

Then, continuing on. "Or some Guards. Vel Draza gets quite a bit of traffic."
 
"Shit-" a warning given just a breath too late. Ralene stumbled as her boot sunk fully into a hole. Grabbing after her horse who snorted and spooked forward down the trail, she toppled over gracelessly trying to hold on. "You fucking donkey!" Ral hissed after the mare, who promptly shoved off down the trail, tearing the reins from her fingers.

Laying there on her back, one leg wedged uncomfortably deep into the hole in the ground, Ralene emitted a loud sigh. At least the horse knew the area, they'd stopped here en route to Vel Draza often enough, but there was no way their unexpected company wouldn't have heard some of that.

"My boot's wedged," she admitted after a short attempt to extricate herself, "give me a hand."
 
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"Don't, even," Davi warned as the roan half reared in a pathetic attempt to get himself free to join his new found love tearing down the path. The last thing he needed was for the brainless animal to go put his hoof through another hole. Keeping a firm hold on the animal with one hand he stepped towards Raelene and grabbed her by the forearm to give her a sharp tug. It took a few more swear words directed at the boot, and the Roan who attempted another bolt for freedom, before the foot finally came free.

"Are you hurt at all?" he asked, his eyes skimming down to her boot. Davi's vision might have been good but it was not see-through-leather good. The roan quietly began to lip his ponytail as though he hadn't been an arse the entire time.
 
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"Fine," Ral muttered as she assessed her ankle from the ground, "boot's seen better days though." It became apparent as she reached for it that her sole had parted ways with the base of the boot and was hanging half-off from the heel forward. No wonder she'd been stuck.

"Fuck."

Would take her an hour or so to fix it given normal circumstances. But that was with nowhere to go and time to spare - two things they weren't currently operating with.

"Who goes?" came a voice from the ridge above and a pale face peered over within the shadow of a hood, "State your name and intent."

Ral looked up, peering through the darkness and the leaves of the trees overhead, "We're Dreadlords," she stated and realized that was the first time she'd ever said the new acclaim aloud, "just passing through. Here to camp for the night. We mean you no harm."

"Is that right?" said the voice, a male by her judgement, "Do I have your word on that?"
 
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Davi's hand gravitated to the curved blade at his hip at the voice called out in the darkness. Trust had not been something instilled in him at the Academy and it was in its early stages with Ralene. There was an overwhelming instinct to protect that though he damned well knew she could fight her own battles. It was a jumble of emotions he didn't have experience in handling which left him irritated above all else. Perhaps that was why he still eased an inch of the blade free from its sheath. Just in case.

"If we have your word on the same," Davi called back. There was a momentary pause and the newly titled Dreadlord got the sense they were conferring with someone else out of earshot.

"We'd be happy to share our fire."
 
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Despite the state of her boot, Ralene was on her feet quickly enough. She'd be damned if she was caught unawares twice in one night. After exchanging a glance with Davi and a nod to at least give their unexpected guests a chance.

"Thanks much," she replied, "we'll join you once we water the horses."

Taking care to make her way down the trail to the water, Ral found her mare waded halfway out and heaved a dejected sigh as she trudged, fully clothed, out into the water after her. Dragging the horse back round to the pebbled bank, she looked to Davi, "Supposed this is how it's always going to be..." Ral voiced quietly, "never really certain if you're respected, hated, or feared for your title..."
 
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Perhaps Davi was just a naturally mistrusting individual, but it made a spot between his shoulders itch that neither of them had formally agreed not to stick the other with the sharp end of a dagger. He was eager to be going but riding in the dark was a fools way to get a horses leg broken or worse. In response to Ralene's observation the young Dreadlord merely grunted.

"No matter how many pink ribbons they tie on the Academy will change that. Our purpose has and always will be to kill, and that makes most normal folk uncomfortable. Hopefully it just means they'll be as eager for us to be on our way as I am."
 
Living the rest of her life always looking over her shoulder didn't sound very appealing to her. Especially not while acting within the lands of her own people. Dreadlords were frightening and powerful, for certain, but she didn't want the people she was meant to protect to fear her.

"You so eager to make new enemies you've forgotten there's an alternative?" Ral asked her wolfish friend with a dry quip and a raise of a brow. Friends. Still a bit of a foreign concept for most graduates, but she'd much rather share a friendly campfire than a suspicious one.

A short, rueful chuckle followed as she clamped a hand over Davi's shoulder with a squeeze, "Maybe just this once we can have a pleasant camp."

"C'mon ya nag,"
a yank on the reins and she led the mare back up the trail, swearing at her flopping boot along the way. Ral tied the mare off within a copse of trees and fixed a feed bag over her bridle before grabbing a saddle pack and making her way up the stone steps toward the light of the campfire. As she neared the top she looked up to see two people quickly stand, one with a bow and arrow at the ready and the other with a hand hovering over a sword pommel at their side.

"Peace," Ralene offered with her hands out to show she carried no weapon, "we come unarmed."

"There's a laugh," remarked one of them, a young woman, "a Dreadlord, unarmed? Next you'll tell me a dragon without claws is as well."

"That's ... a fair assessment," Ral replied easily, "but we've no quarrel with you. As we said, just here to holdover for the night. Food and drink to share - take a look." She tossed her saddlepack toward the fire as she cleared the last few stairs and paused at the top, watching as the male carefully inspected it while the female held her at bow-point.

When the male righted himself, he brushed back his hood to reveal his pointed ears. Elves. But not quite as fair as the ones she'd become accustomed to seeing from the Falwood.

"It's only food, as she said," the male said to his companion, "put your bow down Aithwen."

"Your partner, the scruffy one," Aithwen insisted, "where is he?"

Ral smirked, scruffy indeed, "Putting his horse up for the night. They need to eat, too."

"He best come up and show his hands," the elf replied, reaffirming her aim, "I see them clean, I'll put it down."

"'Fraid I can't speak to how clean his hands are," Ral raised her brows and casually strolled forward, "but if it's all the same to you, I'm gonna sit down over here while we wait and work on mending my boot."
 
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