Originally written on 01/28/2015. Revised on 03/26/2020.
6th of Exibra, 1113AP
Kaleen gripped the damp rope tightly as she slipped off the rock face. She swung about, trying to regain her footing, her back smacking with a wet, painful slap on the mossy wall. She was drenched, frustrated, and throbbing with pain. The rest of the company had made it to the top already. The water fell in buckets over her shawl and tunic. Kaleen pushed back to where she needed to be, and found a route up the slick stone that offered some semblance of footing. She wrapped the rope around her hand, and took a quick glance down the cliff face behind her. The water crashed into the rocks and foaming lake below her, which flowed downstream in rapids, in turn feeding River Atlúm.
She placed her left foot on a promising perch, tested the hold, and lifted herself up. She repeated with her right foot, and so on. All the while she made sure to keep a firm hold on the moldy, moss slick rope.
Kaleen reached up to the top of Riverdrop, finding the rock where the old rope had been tied taught. She grabbed the girth of the knot and used the last of her depleted strength to lift her torso over the edge. A strong hand gripped her forearm and aided her to her feet. It belonged to a man she’d not met before, but Kaleen knew who he was.
“Hello, my dear,” Master Crayn greeted her with a wide grin under a full beard. He wore tattered rags of brown and red tied together with a rope at the waist, yet his feet were bare. “The others have already introduced themselves. My name is Crayn Akar, but if you succeed today you’ll refer to me as Master.” He kept his joviality genuine, but Kaleen saw there was no jape in his words. She was still panting and he patted her shoulder. “Good work. I was watching you. You had a nasty slip near the top there, but you pulled through.”
He allowed Kaleen to compose herself, and in that short time she racked her brain for a response. By her nature she was a shy girl, only fifteen, but wary of most men. She couldn’t present herself as a shy teenager. That wasn’t becoming. Nor was her blunt attitude towards members of the opposite sex appropriate. Kaleen had never known her father, as he had died in battle when she was too young to remember. Since then her mother, bitter with diminishing age and loneliness, taught her not to trust in men, or their promises. No, she couldn’t be rude to the old man, as her mother might have. ‘He compliments me, but I refuse to toot his horn either.’ She chose what came simplest. “Thank you, Master.” She dipped into a reverent bow. She flinched as she felt the pain in her back rear up. ‘From when I slipped,’ she grimaced. “I am Kaleen Wood.”
Perhaps Crayn was aware of her apprehension, but he seemed pleased by her response. If he noticed her flinch from the pain he didn’t make it apparent. He ushered her over with the others, standing by the shore of the river. She’d met them all at the bottom of the rapids earlier that day, and thought it best to follow them up. Each weekend, Crayn Akar welcomed any who wished to make the pilgrimage out to Riverdrop to test their skill – but very few were accepted as pupils underneath him.
“I have to admit, I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to interview five in one day!” He looked at them, arms crossed, feet in the water. “Best get started, I guess.” He waded through the current, which grew stronger as he went deeper, heading for the boulder that sat in the center of Riverdrop and split the waterfall in half. He climbed up its mass with nimble, practiced ease. Atop it he yelled, “I will call you up one at a time and you are to cross the stream, climb atop, and ask me a single question, thus beginning our…” He paused to look for the right word. “Dance.” He grinned again and made a welcoming gesture. “We’ll hold our interviews in the order you climbed up. Use any tricks, weapons or skills you feel will aid you. But please note I do not allow the use of anomalurgy during interviews, experienced or not.”
Kaleen took a seat behind the rest of them, shivering as a gust of wind seeped into her wet shawl. The rock she sat on was warmed in the sunlight, and this brought some small comfort to her. Despite the cold weather, she shook her tunic off her shoulders, wincing at the pain emanating from her back. She reached her fingers behind her and felt rigid muscles, stiffened and knotted from their impact on the side of the cliff. She worked at them, massaging them free, breathing heavily at the sharp pain.
“Wakeer Bajoor. Please come forward.” Master Crayn’s voice boomed over the river. The tall, muscular man slipped his pack off and walked into the river. He was rather stoic against the bitter cold of the water, pulling him toward’s the cliff’s edge, but he pushed back at it. Wakeer’s skin was dark, like charred meat, his dark hair long and smooth, a gold ring in each ear. The water reached his waist, and it was difficult for him to keep on his path without getting pulled downstream. But eventually he made it to the rock. It took Wakeer a while longer to clamber up it than it had Master Crayn.
Wakeer Bajoor stood before Crayn, and for a brief moment all was quiet, except for the howl of the wind. Master Crayn’s hair and beard whipped about, and his smile fell. When Wakeer finally spoke, his voice was deep and accented. “Master Crayn, thank you for allowing me to show you I am worthy. My question is this: where are you from?” Before letting him respond, Wakeer pulled the longsword on his back from its sheath and swung down at the man.
Master Crayn simply walked out of its path, the blade clanging on the stone where he had been standing. The sword came back around and he ducked as it swooped above his head. “I was born in a small town,” he paused, jumping back from another swipe, “that is called … Candlelit.” The large blade glinted in the sunlight and came down frighteningly close to his face. The Master’s unperturbed demeanor clearly annoyed Wakeer and he yelled. As the sword swung down again, Crayn pushed one of his fists quickly into Wakeer’s forearm and the other pushed into flesh just above the opposite elbow. The sword dropped from his grasp, steel ringing as it clattered to the rock.
“Less than a hundred people in Candlelit back then.” Crayn looked past the sky and into his memory. Wakeer began throwing punches, putting his full weight into each blow. “I moved at the age of ten to Westriff, just south of Velundane. At age 15 I was accepted into the Akarian Scholaria.” As Master Crayn said this he continued to dodge and push away Wakeer’s heavy punches. “You’re a trained brawler, I see. Why do you wish to train under me?”
Wakeer’s punches, now quite labored, halted, as he realized it was all for naught. He stopped to pick up his sword, breathing heavily through his flared nostrils. “I want to be stronger.”
“I’m sorry. Strength you have in plenty. You will not train under me.” He gestured for Wakeer to leave. The look on the man’s dark face showed astonished embarrassment. He left without comment, crossing the stream, and exiting into the trees behind Kaleen, where a path took him back down the waterfall.
‘Wow.’ Kaleen didn’t know what to make of the old man. Or what to ask him when her interview began.
“Harry Smithson!” The fat man in front of her could have been 15 or 30. She couldn’t tell. He wore a large green leather outfit, richly made. He had a hard time sifting through the current, but he made it after some stumbling and splashing. After he found his way atop the rock, he didn’t even bother standing. Still on his knees, he asked loudly, “How many pupils do you take on?”
Master Crayn waited for his attack, but it didn’t come. He said, “five to six pupils a year usually,” he replied conversationally, but before he could finish, fat Harry tried to tackle into his legs. He scampered quickly across the rock, a motion that looked quite painful for his shins. Master Crayn jumped over him, and Kaleen snorted a laugh. “Why do you wish to train under me?” He wasn’t as amused as she was.
Again, Harry spun about on his knees, bull-like, and leapt to headbutt Master Crayn in the stomach. Crayn easily jerked out of his reach, while slapping his face. Harry lifted a hand to his reddening cheek and told him, “I need to learn how to become a better fighter!”
“First lesson.” Excitement lit Harry’s face. “And also last lesson,” Master Crayn corrected himself. “Get off your knees, boy!” Master Crayn kicked him hard into the water, and the fat man paddled about. Eventually he made his way to shore and took the same path Wakeer had, tears in his eyes.
Kaleen thought it was all quite funny. She had finished massaging the knots out of her back and she moved up to her shoulders. Gripping the rope as tightly as she had on her way up Riverdrop, her shoulders had become rippled in knots. A wet mist rolled over Riverdrop as the wind shifted directions and blew the falling water back upon Crayn Akar. The sight had a strange majesty to it.
The freckled woman before Kaleen had red hair, tied into a braid. She was next and she knew it, removing her boots and gloves. “Moira Redly,” Master Crayn yelled joyously, stretching his arms about and catching the mist full on. She was already wading through the strong water towards the boulder. She was a tall woman, with a pretty face, and her gate was graceful, almost prideful.
Atop the rock Moira met Master Crayn’s eyes. “I wish to perfect my martial dance. I spar regularly in tournaments and it is my livelihood,” she said, bowing. And then she swung her arm quickly at the old man’s head. He caught her wrist, as well as her other wrist which snuck up from the other direction. He twisted her arms together, taught.
“I’m sorry, maybe you heard me wrong. You’re supposed to ask me a question first, and then I ask you why you wish to train under me.” He let her arms free. “Let’s start again.”
Moira Redly’s face grew even redder in embarrassment, and then flashed with anger. “Why do you use Akar instead of your true name,” she asked in distaste.
“Ahh, good question!” He smiled as Moira removed a knife and held it upside down. She threw a right hook, both the punch and the slice cutting only air and mist. She let her momentum twist her about and she kicked high. He caught and pushed the ankle aside hard, and she let that momentum pull her into another punch – this time with her left fist – and Master Crayn blocked that as well. She was ridiculously fast. But he was faster. And so it went. “I’m not ashamed of my title as an Akarian. In fact, I learned much of my technique at the Scholaria. Not all of us were trained in the art of martial dancing, but …” He caught a blow in the rib and allowed it to roll off him, unfazed. “Oh, good one. Not all of us were trained in the arts, but all of us are proud of the knowledge and skills we obtained there. I am well aware of the stigmas people hold against the academy and Akarians like myself. Trust me when I say they are unfounded.”
Moira tried slicing him again, missing, and spat in his face. “Akarians are paradox meddling fools! Do you realize how many lives are ruined by you people?”
Master Crayn backhanded her hard, and she staggered back. “Please leave. You will learn nothing from me.” He was fuming with anger. Before she descended the rock he had already called out the next name. “Lexander Sunflood!”
Kaleen looked at the strange man, shrouded in a black cloak. Since she had met him earlier that day, he had not said a single word. He strode through the water, passing the dejected Moira, and climbed the wet rock as easily as he had climbed up the cliff. “I am not here to be interviewed.”
This didn’t seem to surprise Master Crayn in the slightest. “No?” His tone was quiet, but piercing. “Then why do you waste my time?”
Lexander removed his hood, revealing bright yellow hair. “You killed my brother. And I am here for vengeance.” With that he clapped his hands together once and pulled them apart slowly, as if through pudding, a distortion appearing between them. A space that couldn’t exist, but did. It coalesced into a sphere of unknowable, interchangeable, anomalogical power. Paradox magic.
Random pockets of water and rock from the river about them forgot their purpose, spilling into the air. It whipped about, funneling, and forgot itself again as Lexander Sunflood shot his hand, which cradled the sphere, towards Master Crayn. Water and rock knocked into him, pushing him backward. Slapping him hard against the hard ground below him.
Kaleen was standing now, terrified, and she yelled out for him to stop, for all the good it did. Lexander was going to kill the man that could teach her to defend herself. Around the boulder it became like night, pulsing darkness, water churning about endlessly, stars shining through the black. A great orb that was painful to look at – as though it were both very near and very far.
“NO!” A booming voice erupted through the chaos, ripping it apart. Master Crayn and Lexander came back into vision, the last of the anomalous substance seeping into Crayn’s outstretched fingers. The water and the rock fell back into the river. “You dare attack me with abilities you know nothing of? Idiot boy. It’s untrained fools like your brother and yourself that give Akarians a bad name.” Master Crayn kicked him in the center of his torso with an impossible strength and he fell off the rock, tumbling off the waterfall, his limbs flailing for purchase as he dropped. His screams were terrible, but they were eventually drowned out by the sound of crashing water on rock.
Master Crayn didn’t watch him fall. He sat on the rock, drenched, anger permeating each pore. Neither did he look at Kaleen when he called her name. Kaleen hadn’t even realized she had already made her way to the boulder. She climbed up and, surprising both herself and her Master, she too sat down, crossing her legs beneath her. Crayn did not smile, all joy lost from him. He merely raised a scraggly eyebrow, waiting.
Kaleen waited there awhile, waiting for the right time. Waiting for the right question. ‘Should I ask if he is alright?’ She removed the shawl from around her head, releasing thick brown hair. “Master Crayn. Can you help me?” She spoke it aloud before she knew what it meant. ‘Great. What am I asking help for?’ Master Crayn was silent for a time. Perhaps he wasn’t sure about what to make of the request. Perhaps he was still reeling from the anomalurgy battle he’d just fought against Lexander. Perhaps he was awaiting her own attack.
Crayn said, “Will you not spar with me?”
“I don’t really see the point. Even if I land a blow, that didn’t help Moira. And I’m not nearly as good as her. I might give you a better fight than Harry or Wakeer, but I don’t think you’re looking for skill in dance.” Master Crayn looked at her blankly. She continued. “So no, I will not spar with you.” She didn’t know where she found the courage to speak so candidly. “Will you help me protect my people?”
The two sat there, looking at each other for a long while. And finally a smile cracked over his wrinkly face, pushing his beard ever so slightly. “Yes, Kaleen. Yes, I will help you.”