A lithe, quick, impulsive and curious 20 year old shifter girl found and raised by elven rangers after her family was killed by goblin raiders when she was 10.
(Note: temporary image of Ghost was taken from a sketch by J. Rinaldi. Just wanted to give him/her credit.)
At 20 years old, Ghost is a lithe but surprisingly strong young shifter who stands about 5’10" tall. Her hair is light brown and long, and she usually has most of it tied up behind her but some of it hangs free, framing her face in front and the rest falling to her shoulders in the back. Her skin is unusually light, almost snow white in color, though her brown hair and eyes make it clear she’s not an albino. Her face is graced by a rather flat nose… wide, open eyes… a mouth that protrudes just a bit, revealing very sharp teeth when she grins or grimaces… and large, long ears that express her many moods: straight up when she’s attentive or interested in something, pointing down and back when she’s aggravated, flat back against the sides of her head when she’s angry or wary. She also has faint stripes around the edges of her face, along with stripes across her back and sides, that grow more visible and pronounced when her shifter nature is called up.
Having reached adulthood (well, physically at least, concede her elven mentors), Ghost has developed some definite curves (which she’s very happy about) to smooth out her rather lean build, but her physical appearance is deceptive as most of her is hard trained muscle, making her not only heavier than she looks but far stronger than she looks as well.
Because of her being taken in at age 10 by a band of elven rangers, Ghost dresses in the style of Faerinwold elves, her tunic, trousers and cloak colored green and brown to blend in with a forest terrain, as is the hide armor she wears underneath. The two exceptions are that instead of wearing boots, Ghost wears specially-made spats to leave her clawed feet open and free for running and climbing, and she wears a bone necklace about her neck with shifter symbols worked into the beads. She also has a single earring with a reddish stone that she wears in her right ear. Now fully trained in the two-weapon fighting style, Ghost goes about with a pair of longswords crossed over her back and a dagger prominent on her belt.
Can’t Miss I – Hit at least once in three consecutive rounds of combat.
Damage Magnet I – Take at least 50 points of damage in a session.
I Will Smite Thee with My Mighty Blade I – Deal at least 15 hp of damage to a single target with an attack.
I Will Smite Thee with My Mighty Blade II – Deal at least 25 hp of damage to a single target with an attack.
I Will Smite Thee with My Mighty Blade III – Deal at least 35 hp of damage to a single target with an attack.
I’m Just Resting My Eyes – Fall unconscious due to damage during combat.
Arun Longstrider could tell something was up even before he entered the camp. The usual sounds that accompanied the evening meal were missing; instead, a curious stillness was in the air, broken now and then by hushed but heated exchanges between Jariel Bladestorm, his fellow ranger, and Vondyr Spirittongue, the young shaman of their group, though nothing in their tones hinted of threat or danger.
The two were crouched near the fire where skewers of venison were slow-roasting over the low flames. Between them, a small figure lay on a blanket, pale and still.
“But her people will be looking for her,” Jariel was saying stubbornly, leaning on her spear, her long and slender face drawn into a sharp scowl.
“Unlikely,” Vondyr shot back with equal stubbornness. “We cannot risk moving her. We have to wait for Arun to return.” The younger elf paused, cocking his head to the side for a moment before turning to look in Arun’s direction. “Which he has, thank the Totems.”
“Returned to what?” Arun asked, setting his pack down.
“To trouble, I warrant,” Jariel said, nodding down at the small form that lay between them.
Arun knelt beside the others and frowned. A child, badly wounded and half-drowned from the look of her, lay unconscious on the blanket. At first glance, she appeared to be human, a girl child of perhaps nine or ten. The crudely-sewn animal-skin garment and belt hinted at barbarian. But long pointed ears – distinctly non-elven – poked through the wet tangle of her hair, and her pale features were graced by a flattish nose, a slightly protruding mouth that hinted of prominent sharp teeth, and faint striped colorations around the edges of her face. A glance at her hands and feet revealed fingers and toes tipped by claws, confirming Arun’s assessment.
“A shifter child,” he sighed.
“Yes.” Jariel glared accusingly at Vondyr. “And they’re going to be looking for her.”
“Unlikely,” Vondyr said again, ignoring the older ranger’s glare. “Firstly, we know all of the shifter tribes that claim these lands as territory. Does she look like she belongs to any of them? Secondly…” he pointed to where a string of seven carved bone beads hung around her neck “…the tribal sigil on these beads doesn’t match that of any of the local shifters.”
“Where did you find her?” Arun asked. Removing his gloves, he touched a hand to her forehead. No fever, but her face was pale and looked thinner than it should be.
“In the Silver Rush, clinging to a floating branch that’d washed up in the shallows near Bolder’s Ford. Thought she was dead at first, what with these sticking out of her.” Vondyr held up the remains of two vicious-looking arrows, the shafts broken off close to the heads. ”One in the shoulder, one in the side. She also had a nasty slash across her chest when I turned her over.”
“Any sign of how she got this way?” Arun asked as Vondyr handed him the fragments for inspection.
“I checked the area,” Jariel said, “but there was no sign of a fight or even of anyone passing. Whatever happened must’ve happened far upriver. She may have been clinging to that branch for days.” The older ranger regarded the unconscious child with grudging approval. “I’ve seen grown men succumb to less.”
“I don’t recognize the make,” Arun said, studying the nastily-barbed arrowheads and the bits of remaining shaft.
“This might help.” Vondyr passed the ranger leader what looked at first like a piece of wet bark with something red and shiny stuck in it. Arun grimaced when he recognized it as being an ear with a red-stone earring still attached. “She had it clenched in her hand when I found her.”
“Goblin?” the ranger leader asked, eyeing the thing with distaste.
“Looks like it.”
“A lost shifter youngling and goblins,” Jariel grumbled. “Trouble and more trouble. And trouble we don’t need if we’re to meet up with Calthis at the winter camp by new moon.”
“We’ll make it in time,” Vondyr insisted. “And if we’re late, Calthis will still be there. This girl child needs our help now.”
“Perhaps she can tell us what happened,” Arun said, looking back to the unconscious girl. “Can you wake her?”
“Her wounds stopped bleeding as soon as I bandaged her. Even began to heal up some on their own. A common gift among certain shifters. But she needs more. I have a restoring ritual prepared, but Jariel wanted me to wait for you to return so you could talk to her.”
“More so you could help catch her when she runs,” Jariel said, her eyes narrowing at Vondyr as she added “which she will.”
“What would you have me do?” the young shaman shot back. “Bind her hands and feet first? Perhaps tie her to a tree?”
“It’s worth considering.”
“We want her to talk to us, Jariel,” Arun said firmly. “Which she’s unlikely to if she wakes up and finds herself a prisoner.” He nodded towards Vondyr. “Proceed with your restoring ritual.”
Vondyr drew the parchment from his sleeve and began chanting the ritual over the unconscious child. As he did, the girl’s breathing gradually deepened and her face began to regain color. When the ritual was done, the girl’s eyelids flickered briefly but did not open. Her flattish nose, however, twitched, instinctively sniffing the air. Her eyes opened the barest crack as she looked cautiously about her, then widened slightly when she saw the ear in Arun’s hand. A heartbeat later she was up in a flash, hissing as she snatched the grisly thing from his hand and then leaped away.
The girl landed in a crouch, eyeing the three rangers warily and sniffing the air. Another leap and she was by the fire, grabbing the nearest skewer of meat and glaring back at the elves as if expecting them to try to snatch it from her. When they didn’t, she stuffed the goblin ear into her belt, squatted down on her haunches and began ripping into the venison hungrily, wincing as the hot chunks of roasted meat burned her fingers and mouth but wolfing the pieces down anyway.
“You’re welcome,” Jariel muttered sourly.
“What’s your name, child?” Arun asked, careful to keep his tone calm and low.
The shifter girl regarded Arun with wary narrowed eyes but said nothing, continuing instead to tear into the meat from the skewer she held in her claw-tipped fingers.
“Where are your people?” Vondyr asked. If he could find out where her people were, one of the local tribes might be able to return her to them.
The girl swallowed, clearing her mouth just long enough to mutter “dead” then continued her furious eating, all the while looking ready to dart away if any of the elves made a move in her direction.
“What happened to them?” Arun asked. “And to you?”
“Goblin raiders attacked,” she said as she grabbed a second skewer from the fire, once again glaring a challenge at the elves. “They killed everyone.” The girl looked down at the skewer in her hands, frowning. “Everyone but me,” she growled, tearing into the meat fiercely as she spat out the last word. In the light from the fire, bright tears glistened at the corners of her eyes, threatening to run down her striped cheeks, but she wiped them away furiously on her arm.
“Where did this happen?” Arun asked, his voice quiet but urgent. “And how long ago?”
For a time the shifter child did not answer, continuing instead to attack the venison with focused intensity. “In the high marches,” she said finally, when the skewer was at last picked clean. “Where the three rivers become one. The first night of the new moon.”
“Where the three…?” Vondyr’s eyes went wide. “She means the Triple Ford above Drundil’s Pass. That’s-” The young shaman stopped at a sharp look from Arun.
The girl frowned at the exchange, then looked at her surroundings for the first time. “What is this place?” Her flattish nose sniffed at the air, her young face clouding with uncertainty. “I’ve… never been here before.”
“You are in the Mistwood,” Arun replied. At the girl’s blank look, he added “In the northwestern reaches of the kingdom of Summerlund.” The girl still looked blank. “You are far from where you were attacked, child. Very far. And it’s the fourth night of the new moon.”
The girl looked around again, but this time with growing realization and anxiety, shrinking in on herself, suddenly seeming very small and alone amid in the growing shadows of dusk. But only for a moment. “I thank you for the rescue,” the young shifter said awkwardly “and for the hospitality of your camp. But I have to go.” She then rose and began walking towards the dark of the woods.
“Where are you going, little one?” Vondyr said, quickly moving in front of her but not trying to grab her.
“Back to where the three rivers become one,” the girl said, ducking neatly around him, only to find Jariel now blocking her way.
“To find the goblins who killed your family, no doubt.” The tall female ranger towered before the girl, her elven gaze dubious and questioning. “Alone. With no food or weapons.”
“I can catch rabbits and birds,” the girl said stubbornly. “And I have a knife, see?” she added, drawing a small blade from her belt and brandishing it before the tall elf.
Jariel raised an eyebrow, then in a single smooth one-armed move brought her spear down and up, the flat of the blade tip lodged under the girl’s chin, lifting it up until the girl was forced to stand on tiptoes and their eyes met. “And…?”
The girl glanced down cautiously at the nudging spear blade under her chin, at the long shaft behind it and at the arm that held it out steady, all between her and the ranger woman. “And… you wanna trade, right?” Looking back up, the girl met Jariel’s gaze defiantly. “Throw in that sword you got and some more of that venison and it’s a deal.”
Unable to repress a smirk at the girl’s cheek, Jariel lowered her spear, then brought it back to her side. “I think not.”
“Then lemme go.” The girl tucked the knife back in its sheath even as she turned to walk in the other direction, only to run into Arun.
“Stop and listen, child. It’s too far—“
“It’s only three days.”
“That was three days by river, half of which is rapids and all of which is downhill. Just getting to Grundil’s Pass would take a month by itself, and another ten days to get to the Triple Ford. And that’s if you know the way, which I’ll wager you don’t.”
“I just gotta follow the river,” the girl muttered, her eyes darting about as she looked for a way around the rangers enclosing her.
“And if you did somehow find your way back,” Arun went on, staying in her way, “you’d be getting there just as the first snows of winter fall.” “You’d be alone, with no provisions, no way of making shelter, and no way of protecting yourself if you did manage to find the ones you seek.”
“I’d find a way,” the girl insisted. “Somehow. I would!”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you try.” The ranger leader knelt down so that his eyes met hers. “We didn’t know your people, but elves and shifters have often helped each other when in need. I’m sure your family would want us to look after you until we can find some other shifters who’ll take you in.”
“I don’t need looking after!” the young shifter growled, planting her bare feet stubbornly on the ground and crossing her arms defiantly. “And nobody’s taking me in!”
“Look, you need time to recover more,” Vondyr said, adding his voice to Arun’s. “At least wait until morning. You can at least eat with us before setting out.”
The girl glowered sullenly at the three elves about her but saw no way to evade them. Stamping her foot in frustration, she stalked back to where she’d been lying, grabbed the blanket and then curled up against a nearby log, pulling the blanket over herself and shutting them all out.
“She’ll take off,” Jariel said softly to the others. “Soon as we’re asleep. Count on it.”
“Then we’ll just have to keep an eye on her, won’t we?” Vondyr countered. The young shaman looked to Arun. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t run off during the night. We can try talking to her again in the morning.”
“Very well.” Arun eyed the small bundled up figure curled against the log. “But remember, we’ve a long way to go and we need to make an early start.”
It was shortly after the moon had sunk below the horizon that Vondyr heard something suddenly running through the underbrush, heading away from the camp. His eyes darted to the blanket, but the girl was still wrapped up in it, a small figure curled up against the log. A look around the camp told him that Arun and Jariel had heard the noise too, both looking up from where they’d been sleeping. A moment later, the sound of splashes came from the river, as if someone had just run into it. Vondyr looked again to the blanket but Jariel was already there, pulling it back…
As the three of them spread out and ran towards the river, Jariel growled, just loud enough for the others’ benefit, “Sometimes I really hate being right.”
. . .
“I still can’t believe she did that,” Vondyr muttered despondently a day later as they resumed their journey towards the winter lodge.
“Which part?” Jariel asked, her voice dripping sarcasm as she eyed the young shaman darkly. “The part where she got away from you by slowly digging the dirt out from under the log and stuffing the blanket with it, then waited until the moon was down to slip under the log and crawl away on the other side? The part where she faked us out, deliberately making sounds to wake us and make us think she’d run to the river? Or my personal favorite, the part where she waited until we moved past her, then went back to the camp and stole your blanket, the rest of Arun’s venison and my sword!”
“She didn’t steal them,” Vondyr protested. “It was a shifter trade. She left each of us one of her bone beads from that necklace she wears.”
“What kind of trade is a bone bead for a sword?” Jariel shot back, her piercing blue eyes fixing him where he stood. “That sword cost me a hundred and twenty gold. I could buy every bead in the blessed kingdom for a hundred and twenty gold!”
“Not a shifter bead, you couldn’t.” Vondyr held up his wrist, where his bead now dangled from a leather thong. “It’s a shifter custom. If they need to borrow something and the owner isn’t in the camp, they leave a bead behind as their pledge to come back and either return what they borrowed or else make it good in some other way. It pledges their honor, and that of their family, their pack, even their tribe. It’s not stealing.”
“Keep it down, you two,” Arun said, his voice low but firm. The ranger leader turned to regard his squabbling teammates with, if not exasperation, something as close to it as the unflappable elf’s dark eyes ever came. “It’s enough that we’re going to have to report this to Calthis when we meet up with him. And that he’s not likely to ever let us live it down. We don’t have to tell the entire forest about it.”
“Easy for you to say,” Jariel grumbled. “All she took from you was some venison. And the forest is full of that. I lost—”
“—a sword I’ve never once seen you wear?” Arun interposed, arching an eyebrow at the taller elf. “A sword that last saw use when you bet it in a game of poleax? Three dragons and two wands won the hand, as I recall.”
“That’s beside the point. And it was three dragons and two stars.”
“If you had just let us search a little longer,” Vondyr began, “we—”
“I gave you a day, which was all we could spare. And even that we’re going to have to make up.”
“But she’s a child, Arun. And she’s all by herself.”
“Vondyr,” Arun said quietly, placing his hand on the young shaman’s shoulder, “that ‘child’ survived a goblin attack when everyone else in her family died. She then survived three days floating down the Silver Rush with two arrows sticking in her, over at least one waterfall and two stretches of rapids. She then outwitted the three of us, escaping from our good intentions and making off with enough supplies to give her a chance, however slim, at getting back to where she came from.” The ranger leader hesitated, looking back up the trail at the thick forest behind them for a moment. “She’s in the hands of the Totems now, and we can only pray they will continue to watch over her.”
. . .
It was almost a week later when Arun noticed Jariel starting to watch the trail behind them. Not openly and not obviously – she was too good a ranger for that – but with increasing frequency, finding all manner of reasons to pause or turn so that she could regularly scan the forest behind them. And every now and then she would suddenly slip off the trail without a word and disappear into the woods, only to later return with a scowl that didn’t invite questions as to where she’d gone. Arun waited patiently until their mid-day break, when Vondyr went off in search of some fresh astringent leaves he knew to grow in the area.
“Arun,” Jariel said, squatting down across from him casually, her voice lower than normal, “look past my shoulder and tell me what you see.”
“I don’t have to look,” Arun said, cutting a piece of jerky and offering it to her. “She’s been following us for the last three days.”
“So I’m not imagining it?” Jariel’s long face twisted with a mix of annoyance and relief. “I was sure I was spotting something, every now and then, just out of the corner of my eye, a little flicker of something pale moving between the trees, but every time I looked it was gone.” She took the piece of jerky and began chewing it. “Is she there now?”
Without looking up, Arun discreetly let his gaze drift past Jariel’s shoulder. Sure enough, in the fork of a large elder tree off the trail a good sixty paces back, a small whitish face was peering between the branches. “Yes, she’s there.” But as soon as Jariel turned her head, the face vanished, disappearing like the flick of a lizard’s tongue.
“It’s like trying to catch a ghost,” the tall ranger muttered, her long face glowering at the unseen presence.
(to be continued)
Part II – A glimpse from age 13
Ghost circled Jariel, shortsword in hand, watching for an opening, but the tall ranger wasn’t giving her one. Frustrated, she leapt forward, slashing hard, but Jariel easily batted it aside with her spear. The young shifter however rolled with it, tumbling to the side and coming up ready to attack anew from a different angle. A short but safe distance away, Arun, Vondyr, and Shale – Arun’s cousin who had recently joined them – looked on.
“Is she always like that?” Shale asked in bemusement. Though the younger elf did bear a passing resemblence to Arun, he was distinctly different not only because of his odd bluish-grey hair and distant eyes but because of his frequently aloof – even arrogant-seeming – detachment from everyone and everything around him.
“Like what?” Arun kept his eyes on the sparring. He had hoped that having Shale spend time with him and the others would mature the lad, or at least give him some empathy and understanding, but he was beginning to feel it was a faint hope.
“I mean, clearly she has no real chance of getting past Jariel’s guard. Jariel’s got the longer weapon, longer reach, and vastly longer experience,” Shale said, snorting as Jariel this time not only parried Ghost’s new attack but knocked her back with a hard blow from the butt of her spear. “Why does she keep throwing herself into it the way she does? Like she actually has a chance of getting through?”
Arun pondered the question. “Because she doesn’t give up,” he said finally, opting for the simplest answer. “Not ever.” The ranger leader smiled slightly. “It’s the reason Jariel works her so hard. They’re a lot alike in that.”
“She keeps wanting to spar with me.” Shale frowned. “It’s very annoying. I mean, what would be the point? A shortsword against a longsword? Wielded by an elf? I’d beat her easily.”
“She doesn’t know that. Though even if she did know it, I doubt it would make a difference.” Arun glanced at his cousin. “Especially when it comes to you.”
“I don’t understand her. Everything’s a competition with her. I can’t hunt without her trying to bring down something bigger or faster. I can’t scout ahead without her getting there first and lying in wait for me. And I never know if she’s going to drop down on me from where she’s hiding in some tree. She doesn’t do that to the rest of you.”
“Vondyr’s the expert on shifters,” Arun said, rising to his feet. “Perhaps he can explain it to you.”
Vondyr sighed, giving the departing ranger leader a thanks-a-lot glare. He turned to Shale, who was waiting expectantly. “Where to begin.” The young shaman looked back to where Ghost was darting back and forth, an ambitious rat trying to catch a wolf off guard. “You have to understand that we’re Ghost’s family now. Arun, she regards as her father. He’s the only one she’ll listen to without question or argument. Jariel is somewhere between aunt and older sister. And I’m like her older brother.” Vondyr’s mouth quirked into a rueful smile. “Though a somewhat helpless older brother in her eyes, I fear, because I lack Jariel’s relentless aggressiveness.”
“And I fit into this strange child’s imaginary family how?” Shale asked, clearly puzzled as to how any of what Vondyr was telling him was of any real importance.
“Of all of us, you’re the closest to her in age. Or more importantly, in physical development even though you’re years older than she,” Vondyr explained with practiced patience. He could see why Jariel and even Arun were finding Shale a difficult companion to adapt to. “So to some degree, it creates a sibling rivalry in her mind, which is part of the reason why she’s always competing with you. But the real problem is that you’re Arun’s cousin.”
“What difference does that make?” Shale asked.
“You’re a blood relation. It makes you closer to Arun than she can ever be. So she’s even more driven to prove herself. And at the same time, in her own way, she’s trying to prove herself to you.” The young shaman nodded out to where Ghost was still valiantly trying to get past Jariel’s guard. “She wants you to like her.”
“I neither like nor dislike her.” Shale shrugged his indifference, his oddly colored hair brushing along his shoulders. “Beyond finding her annoying, that is.” The younger elf forwned slightly. “I do wish she’d quit trying to pounce on me all the time.”
“Well, that I fear may be a different problem,” Vondyr sighed. “Your being Arun’s cousin has other.. aspects for her.” At the younger elf’s blank look, it was now Vondyr’s turn to shift uncomfortably.
“You’ve only been with us a few weeks. Ghost has been with us for some three years now,” Vondyr began. “She’s reaching that age where she’s starting to… develop.”
“So?” Shale waved a hand dismissively.
“In shifter culture,” Vondyr went on, trying to sound casual although he felt far from it, “given their history and somewhat tribal heritage, it is common for cousins to mate.” At Shale’s widening eyes, the young shaman hurried on. “It’s not a conscious thing. And I doubt if she’s even really aware of it. But she’s acting the way she does because… she wants you to notice her.”
“If this is an attempt at humor, it’s not amusing.” Shale looked up to discover that Ghost had been stealing a glance at him, turning away quickly once his eyes met hers. “It’s… it’s unthinkable.”
Vondyr was quiet for a long moment. “It is what it is. And you will show some wisdom in this matter,” the young shaman said, his voice low but firm. “Cousin or not, Arun will not take it kindly if you hurt her feelings. And neither will I. And Jariel…” Vondyr grimaced at the thought as he rose to go. “Jariel will hand you your young head without a thought.”
Part III – A glimpse from age 16
At first glance, it seemed a furious duel was taking place between two deadly enemies, each out for the other’s blood, wielding weapons in both hands. The first, a tall determined elf woman, was armed with spear and longsword; the other, a young shifter girl looking equally determined, faced her with a pair of longswords. It was clear that the elf woman was by far the more experienced, letting the girl come at her, deflecting the attacks with skill and then counter-attacking whenever the girl left her an opening. In most fights, this would have given her the advantage, wearing down her opponent over time. But the young shifter was not wearing down; she was in fact starting to wear the elf woman down with her constant circling and relentless attacks, each strike delivered with a force that belied the girl’s seeming lack of obvious muscle.
In time, the young shifter might’ve worn her more experienced adversary down, but the elf woman abruptly shifted to the offensive, first leading the girl into overreaching with a double slash that left her off-balance, then swooping down to parry both swords aside, kick the girl’s legs out from under her and finish with her spear blade pressed against the girl’s neck as she lay flat on her back.
Ghost blinked, stunned by the speed and power of Jariel’s counter-attack, then looked up at Jariel in wide-eyed eagerness, blurting “You’ve got to teach me that!”
“No, what I’ve got to teach you is the counter to that,” Jariel said, stepping back to let the young shifter regain her feet. “Much as I understand the feeling,” the older ranger said, her mouth quirking with a knowing smile, “the attack isn’t everything. The attack is how you bring down your enemies. But it’s the counters and good basic defense that keep you alive. And sometimes your companions as well. That, my girl, is what you really need to learn.”
Part IV – Childhood’s End
It was nothing Ghost could put her finger on. On the surface, things seemed to be the way they always were, the way they had always been during her years in the Mistwood with Arun’s band. And yet the young shifter could tell something was up. Something was in the air, in the way Vondyr seemed to be spending more time going off in search of medicinal plants, only to apparently come back empty-handed. The way the usually silent and solitary Calthis would seem on the verge of asking her something, only to let the moment vanish and turn away, leaving her wondering if she’d imagined it. The way Jariel seemed to spend more time stressing the importance of looking after her weapons and equipment, personally inspecting and re-checking each piece. And the way Arun was behaving as if absolutely nothing the others were doing was in any way different from the way they’d always been.
The trail opened into a sunlit clearing, and the warmth of the open day fell upon her face and shoulders. As she walked along ahead of the others, pondering the strangeness of the last few days, it suddenly came to her that this was the way they had been three years earlier, back when Shale had been with them, just before he…
Ghost stopped, the world suddenly too big around her. Her ears flicked, listening, and she realized that the others had stopped walking, were not following behind her, were in fact nowhere near her. Alarmed, she whirled about, to find that Arun, Jariel and Calthis had halted at the edge of the wood, from whose sheltering shadows they now regarded her, as if across a great impassable river. Vondyr was nowhere to be seen.
Her first impulse was to run back to them but she fought it, forcing herself to remain still and stay where she was. They worked hard to bring you to this point, she told herself, willing herself to stand up straight. Don’t embarrass them now that it’s finally come to pass. And don’t cry!.
It was Jariel who came first, out into the clearing, stopping a few feet away. The older ranger still still towered over the young shifter by a head, but her eyes met hers as an equal. “You know… I’ve always been proud of you, Ghost. I know you’ll remind us all of why.”
“I will,” Ghost said, managing to keep her voice steady even though her throat felt painfully tight. “I promise.”
Jariel didn’t speak or even nod, but a hint of a smile crept into the corners of her eyes, and even though she made no move at a parting gesture, Ghost felt as if somehow the older ranger had chucked her affectionately under the chin one last time. And with that, her mentor turned, spear in hand, and walked back to the others and then on beyond, disappearing into the trees.
It was Arun who came out to her next. Calthis remained where he was, watching in silence from the edge of the woods.
“Vondyr… couldn’t bear to be there,” Arun began when he stood in front of her. “He has always felt things more keenly than the rest of us. I told him you would understand.”
“I… understand,” Ghost said reluctantly, trying to ignore the pang she felt at the knowledge that the young shaman would not be there to say goodbye.
“You are no longer a child, Ghost," Arun went on, his tone becoming distinctly more formal, "and you cannot remain amongst us as a child. Your Rite of Passage has begun.”
“But… what do I do?” Ghost asked, her voice betraying her uncertainty in spite of herself. The elves had told her that all their kind went through a Rite of Passage, but they’d never divulged exactly what that meant. The only thing Ghost knew was from when Shale underwent his – it meant leaving.
“That is not for us to say,” the ranger leader said. “You must find your own way now, and trust that the Totems will guide you to where you need to go.”
“When you feel that your Rite is done, you may return to us, if you wish, but…" Arun hesitated, as if the words were difficult for him to say, even to himself "…I do not think that your destiny lies among us.”
“It could,” Ghost insisted, almost desperately. “I mean, it’s possible. Isn’t it?”
“Anything is possible,” Arun said gently, understanding what the young shifter was feeling, “but you have to understand that you are different from most people. You have the gift of pneuma, what some call the Breath of Heroes. You have it. Your fellow Fire Wasps almost certainly have it. Except for Brom; for all that you regarded him as a comrade, he did not have it.”
“We suspected it lay within you, from the moment you came to us. Most would have died from what you experienced. You not only survived, you thrived. And now the time has come for you to find your destiny. Whatever it may be.” The ranger leader embraced her suddenly, all formality done with. “I never had a daughter, Ghost. But if I had…”
“…she wouldn’t have been anything like me!” Ghost managed, making her sniffle sound like a snicker as she hugged the elf back tightly.
“No,” Arun admitted with a gentle smile, “she wouldn’t. But I could not have loved her more – or been any prouder – than I am of you.”
“((You… all of you… you’re my family,))” Ghost said, switching to elven, fighting to overcome the catch in her throat.
“((And we always will be))” Arun replied in kind. “((And we’ll always be here, whenever you feel the need to come home.))”
The young shifter quickly turned away, not wanting the ranger leader to see even the hint of tears in her eyes. It was only for a moment, but when she turned back, he was gone, and she was truly alone in the sunlit clearing, the only sound that of the wind moving over the grass and through the trees.
As she looked around, her eyes fell on a small leather pouch on the ground where Jariel had stood. Inside, she found two arrowheads. It took her a moment to realize that they were the same ones Vondyr had removed from her after he had found her clinging to a branch in the Silver Rush ten years ago.
“Vondyr!” Ghost shouted to the surrounding forest, suddenly angry that the young shaman had not come to say goodbye himself. “You… you…” she readied a string of her choicest elven invectives, only to see Vondyr’s Don’t-you-dare! look in her head “…scaredy-cat!” she finished lamely. The young shifter sighed, then laughed. Even though she was on her own now, they were still with her. It was a comforting thought.
“They’re gonna miss me more than Shale,” she muttered to herself as she began walking. She didn’t even have to think about the direction; her feet were taking her to Seowyn’s Crossing. She was a Fire Wasp, after all. It was time to make that mean something.