Ghost raced along the stream bank, then plunged through the waterfall, emerging in front of the rock face on the other side. Faster! Leaping to the first hold, she began clambering up, mentally placing the two goblins that awaited her at the top. Climb and hope that Tilly or Tristan take them out! In seconds she was at the top, whipping her longswords out in a flash and racing past both goblins towards a third. Take the hit! Keep moving! She slashed savagely, cutting the third out of her way as she sprinted to the stairs. Up! Up!
Once again, Brom’s voice shouted down ahead of her, “The big one’s mine!” Another instant and she was in the chamber, marking the positions of the bugbear, the other goblins and the blue one with his globe-topped staff. Take the blue one out! She’d tried going against Brom’s shout a few times and found it only made things worse. Take him out now! Ignoring everything else, she attacked the blue, this time feinting to duck past him even as she slashed at the arm holding the staff. Was he down? No. Again! Both blades!
In her mind, the others were in the chamber now. Kidalis joining her against the blue, Tilly coming to aid Brom against the bugbear, Eustace and Tristan handling the goblins. Could they do it? This time? If Brom managed to dodge? If she silenced the blue before he unleashed his accursed spell? If the green crystals acted just a handful of moments earlier? Screaming, she slashed with all her might, attacking, attacking, attacking…
Afterwards, the young shifter squatted on her haunches, breathing heavily, staring intently at where the fallen crystals remained fused to the chamber floor, glowing green, Brom’s old tabbard still fixed among them. She stared, listening, waiting, for a long time. But as always, the crystals had nothing to say.
Returning through the waterfall, Ghost quickly checked to make sure she was not observed before heading back towards the town. She was always careful – she watched and listened as she made her way, never taking the same route twice, and so she nearly leaped out of her skin when a voice from above suddenly asked “So, did you save him this time?”
Her swords were already drawn and up even as she recognized the speaker – Arun, despite the fact that he was almost invisible in the thick green foliage high over her head. A moment later he dropped neatly and silently to the ground in front of her, regardinging her expectantly. “Well, did you?”
Ghost hesitated, fighting her impulse to say “What do you mean?” or “Save who?” But bluffing wasn’t one of her better skills, particularly not against Arun, whose dark eyes could always seem to see right into her heart. Going on the offensive, however, was second nature. “You followed me?” she growled as she slipped her swords back into their sheaths.
“Yes,” Arun said simply. At her look, the elf ranger held up a hand, quickly cutting off her adolescent outrage. “But only this far.” He paused a moment, letting her take that in, then went on. “Ghost, we’ve known for a long time that you and the Fire Wasps have a secret place around here, a place that’s important to you all. But out of respect for you and your friends, we have never sought to find it.”
“How… how did you know?” the young shifter girl asked, her ears twitching back defensively. She’d always been so careful. Had one of the others slipped up?
“When you have a group of young ones always careful to not talk about something, it’s hard not to notice.” The elf ranger’s mouth quirked wryly as he added “Particularly when one of the group is always glaring at or punching anyone who comes close to mentioning it.”
“Oh,” Ghost mumbled, her ears drooping down a bit.
“It was also rather obvious that the fight you had with the goblins wasn’t where you and the others said it was,” Arun said, giving the young shifter a knowing look. “You did a good enough job to fool town folk. But not Jariel, and certainly not me.”
“I was going to tell you,” Ghost said, her clawed toes digging awkwardly at the ground. “I just—”
“It wasn’t hard to guess why you and the others wouldn’t want people to know where the battle really took place,” Arun went on, motioning for Ghost to walk along with him. “A battle in which you lost a chosen comrade. And now, it seems every time we come to the Crossing, you disappear for a while, and when you return it’s usually in a lather of frustration. After which, Jariel tells me, you’re distracted during training.” The ranger leader shrugged, his cloak moving easily with the gesture. “It really wasn’t that hard to figure out what you were doing.”
Ghost glanced up at Arun as they walked, but the elf seemed lost in thought. Their footsteps, even walking casually as they were, were silent by long habit, so that the only sound was the occasional gusting of leaves in the trees around them.
“So,” Arun said finally, his quiet voice parting the silence between them, “did you save Brom this time? Or any of the other times you’ve re-fought the battle, on the very ground where it took place?”
“I… I don’t know,” Ghost confessed. “Sometimes, I think we have, but…” The shifter girl frowned, the striped markings around her face seeming to darken with the frown. “But it’s never in any way I could be sure of it. Never in any way where I can say, yes, if we had done this or maybe that, then Brom would have survived.”
“Is there anything you can point to and say, yes, this is what I did wrong?” Arun asked.
“No,” the young shifter said after a moment. “But there has to be. Brom died!”
“No, Ghost,” Arun said softly. The ranger leader turned to her, his dark eyes meeting hers. “Sometimes you can do everything right and still lose. Sometimes you can make no mistakes and people still die. It is a hard thing, but it one we have to live with.”
“But… it can’t just be luck or chance,” Ghost said stubbornly.
“It isn’t.” Arun drew his sword and studied it, turning it from side to side, eyeing the fineness of the blade line, testing the balance. “But neither is it just skill. Come.”
Ghost followed as the ranger led her to a small clearing where the ground was level and the grass was only shin high. He motioned for her to draw her own weapons and took a ready position.
“Who is more skilled?” Arun asked, touching their blades and then stepping back as they began to circle each other. “You or Jariel?”
“Jariel,” Ghost said without hesitation, her eyes on Arun as he moved, trying to anticipate his attack even as she watched for an opening for one of her own. Even so, the young shifter couldn’t help adding “But she’s got decades of experience. And I’m only—”
“And yet when I’ve seen you spar with her,” Arun said, abruptly changing direction “you throw everything you have into the effort. Everything, every time.” The ranger did a quick double-feint and then jumped back before she could counter. “Why bother, if she’s by far the more skilled?”
“Because…” Ghost blinked, then lunged, slashing at the elf who deftly parried the first attack but only narroly avoided the follow-up backslash. “Because I’m always hoping I’ll beat her!” she said, whirling around into a ready position, her eyes bright with challenge.
“And why hope…” Arun smiled slightly and stepped back, favoring his young charge with a questioning look “…unless you believe there’s a chance?” The ranger leader then re-engaged, circling her once again. “We can’t change the past, Ghost. And refighting the same fight over and over again won’t change it either. The only thing any of us can do is to honor the dead, learn what we can, and be ready for the next one.”