Chapter 9: Training

Chapter 9: Training

 “What’s the deal with Ruprecht?” Boudreaux asked gruffly as he and Arden clomped along the boardwalk toward the forest at the edge of Westwood.

The training grounds were not far from their lodgings. Just as soon as Boudreaux woke up each morning and doused his face in cold water, the pair set out together for long days of physical conditioning, target practice, and swordplay.

“Ruprecht,” Arden paused. This was a difficult subject for him. “It’s hard to explain, Boudreaux, you never knew him when he was… normal.”

Since their arrival in Rockmoor, Ruprecht had been largely uncommunicative. For two days he had not gone outside at all. That was worrisome. Then on the third day they had come home to find Gnome and X’andria wondering aloud where Ruprecht could have gone. He had not returned for two full days. That was even more worrisome.

“The thing is,” Arden continued earnestly, “Ruprecht used to be such an amazing man. He was so strong and yet so kind at the same time. And he had an incredible gift. Do you remember that dwarf pool that restored you and Ohlen and that poor guy Geoffrey? Somehow Ruprecht, with the help of the gods, was able to fix people like that with just his hands. It’s just so terrible what happened.” Arden trailed off. “I wish you could have known him before.”

“Me, too,” sighed Boudreaux heavily, “because the guy I see now scares the hell out of me.”

Arden looked at Boudreaux quizzically. Scared was not a word he had heard pass Boudreaux’s lips before.

“I know, I know,” Boudreaux hastened. “I just don’t trust him, and yet here we are, all sleeping in the same room together each night.” He took a few more heavy steps and then added stonily, “Usually when I don’t trust something, I kill it.”

Arden liked Rockmoor. They had found their lodgings in Westwood quickly, and immediately set about following Ohlen’s advice to improve their skills and strengths. Westwood was particularly perfect for Arden because not only were the training grounds nearby, but so, too, was the Westwood Forest.

Gnome was gone each morning before anyone else even woke up. He snuck out at odd times in the evenings as well. He did not talk about where he was going or what he was doing, but otherwise he acted just like the same old Gnome. On the third day Arden pressed him about how he was spending his time. Gnome got a very serious look on his face, said something about “The Code,” and changed the subject.

X’andria was generally the last to rise, the last to leave, and the last to come home at night. When the rest of them fell asleep, her candle was still flickering, her nose buried deep in one of her books. Her mouth would move as she silently shaped the words she was reading.

The boardwalk ended at the forest. Arden and Boudreaux jumped to the ground, hardware jangling as they landed heavily on the earth. Boudreaux felt the familiar and welcome pulse of adrenaline at the mere thought of the exertion in store for them. He lived for this.

On the edge of the forest, the training grounds consisted of a lodge, a field, a sand pit, a shallow pond, and an archery range. By day’s end, Arden and Boudreaux would have spent ample time in each.

Fast, precise, intuitive, and deadly, Arden was lethal with one blade or two. These days he concentrated mostly on his skill with two. Defending against his relentless spinning steel, times two, was fantastic practice for Boudreaux. Arden was also a superior shot with a bow. Generally disdainful of missile weapons, Boudreaux had now been on the receiving end enough times to be convinced of their utility, and agreed to learn some of the tricks of the trade.

Boudreaux was impossibly strong. Arden felt himself almost constantly kept off balance, because if Boudreaux landed even one direct hit, the day was over. While Arden’s speed greatly exceeded Boudreaux’s, Boudreaux’s sheer power allowed him to defend adequately even when his footwork was not always completely synchronized. On the field they were well-matched, but in sand or in water, Boudreaux’s phenomenal power gave him an advantage that almost always ended with Arden lying face down, gasping for breath, his friend laughing and offering a hand to help him back up.

Both of them enjoyed the training immensely. With each passing day, their tactics improved, their speed grew, their endurance increased, and the number of people watching them doubled.

“Want a drink?” Boudreaux asked hopefully, once they had finished their last grueling practice in the pond. They had taken to ending in the water, to rinse off some of the sweat and blood, and to help cool down a bit.

Boudreaux already knew the answer, though.

“No, I think I’ll walk in the trees tonight, my friend.” Arden already had the far away look in his eyes that took over whenever he was preparing for his sojourns in the woods. “You feel like a walk?” he asked politely, though they both knew he really wished to be alone with nature for a while.

“Honestly? I feel like a bottomless horn of ale and the warm company of whichever lass serves it to me.” Boudreaux laughed heartily as he stood and walked in the direction of town.

The forest was alive. Whenever Arden entered, his senses were instantly overloaded with the abundant vibrancy of the natural world. It was like he could see with his nose and ears as well as his eyes. Everything around him told a story: the slight rustling in the underbrush as a rabbit sought shelter; the faintest trails in the leaves and needles betraying a squirrel’s comings and goings; even bird droppings hinted at dwellings, vantage points, safety, peril.

On Arden walked, smelling and listening, experiencing the story of another glorious day in the miraculous forest. Then he came upon something for which he had no explanation.

Animals in nature did not ruin things. Even bears would not break limbs off small trees just to pass through. No creature, not even a wounded one, would scrape along the earth leaving divots in its wake. And no normal being would, by its passing alone, create a dead zone through which none other dared tread.

But that is precisely what Arden found.

For anyone else, the scene may have been overlooked or merely puzzling. Another might have noticed the destruction and assumed, perhaps, big animals had fought and caused some damage that nature would repair in time.

But not Arden—his blood ran cold. The senselessly veering path. The total disregard for life. The monstrous power, the recklessness, and the lifeless void left behind. Arden stepped warily backward, his pulse pounding in his ears.This night, the forest had told a deeply troubling tale.


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