Through the narrow tunnel, the door to which shut behind them, the cave was that from Aeris’ dreams. Half of Corwick could fit comfortably within these walls! Spread before her in rows were bunks and occasionally cots or mats where some were stirring into wakefulness and others were turning in for the night. How anyone could sleep over the merry voices or the clanks of practicing swordplay or the thump! of arrows hitting targets, Aeris hoped she would come to know.
“I’m Eydan, by the way, Eydan Frye.” She glanced at the man leading her to the mats. He seemed to be expecting something from her.
“Nice to meet you, Master Frye.”
He continued to stare; she stared back. Finally, he sighed and asked, “And you are?”
She hesitated another few steps before replying, “Aeris Faulkner.”
“Aeris. . . Nice to meet you, Aeris.” He grinned widely, and she responded with a small smirk. “Here’s your mat, don’t go anywhere, and we’ll talk in the morning.” And then he was gone, so suddenly she jumped a little, eliciting chuckles from the few around her.
She shifted and blushed slightly before asking, “Does he do that a lot?”
“We all do,” laughed a bare chested man a few cots down in the adjacent row. “We’re thieves, after all. It’s our business to disappear.”
“Right. . .” She slowly sat on her borrowed mat and took in her surroundings some more before lying down.
After failing for what felt like several hours to convince herself to fall asleep, Aeris quietly sat back up and surveyed the scene once more. The activities were much the same, only the participants changing, but all those in her near vicinity somehow slept. Incredulous but restless, she cautiously stood up, checking for any deviation that might indicate awareness of her movements. No change. Taking in a deep breath and affixing on her face a determined, confident expression, she stepped lightly further back into the cave.
No one challenged her as she made her way to the back nor as she began to walk through a narrow corridor. She checked behind her as she entered, feeling as if she got away with something. Satisfied that either no one had noticed or they didn’t care, she continued through the tunnel.
The corridor seemed deceptively long, twisting this way and that like a snake. At its end was another cave, much smaller than the first yet still the size of a mansion. This space was empty save a metal door at its back and a large, metal circle embedded in the floor. Engraved on this circle was what looked like a symbol of some sort, depicting a dark cloaked figure running through a dark mask with naught but a star as its left eye. Carved into the cloak were two small, rough Ss like lightning bolts.
“Our emblem. The Ss stand for Shadowstriders.”
Aeris jumped and whirled around. Eydan chuckled as he walked beside her, smirking at her fight-or-flight posture. “The mask is that of Norgorber, the Reaper of Reputation, Blackfingers, The Gray Master. . . I wondered there for a bit if you’d make it. I almost thought you were going to be boring.”
“What do you mean?” she asked and let down her guard, feeling foolish.
He squatted next to the emblem, gazing at it as he spoke, “Oh, nothing important now. Just a simple test. You had me nearly concerned when you just sat there for so long. . .” He stopped talking, glancing over his shoulder at the tunnel before continuing to contemplate the circle.
A couple of minutes passed, and finally Aeris broke the silence to ask, “What happens now?”
“Now,” the commander’s voice came from right behind her, “we determine what to do with you.”
Eydan grinned widely as he stood and said, “See? She’s learning. She hardly even jumped that time.” She gave him a small glare, which only made him give a short bark of laughter.
The commander glided between them to stand in the middle of the circle and turned to face them, looking first at Eydan then meeting her eyes. Two others, the figures from the cave’s entrance, similarly walked to stand on the commander’s left and right. The first was slim and tall and the second short. . . a child, perhaps?
Eydan’s smile dropped to a serious, solemn expression, though he remained in place.
“Who will advocate the Visitor?” the commander asked the air. Aeris glanced at all four and noticed they all seemed to be staring straight ahead.
“I will,” Eydan replied.
“She cannot follow basic orders, as evidenced by her presence in this sacred chamber.”
What? She had received no orders. . .
“A Shadowstrider obeys no man; a Shadowstrider only answers to him –or her –self ultimately.”
“A Shadowstrider must respect her fellow members,” the figure to the commander’s left replied. Aeris then focused on these two. The one who spoke was female with slightly pointed ear tips. . . an elf? And the other much shorter one she had thought a child, but now that she looked at him, she noticed mature sharpness in his cheeks, eyes, and chin. That would make him. . . a halfling. She could not be sure as she had only heard rumors.
“By what qualities do you think her viable?” the Halfling asked, and Aeris realized she had missed something in the exchange.
“The Visitor is quick and dexterous in her current state with much room for improvement, yet she can learn our ways, I’m sure of it. She embraces the darkness as a Shadowstrider must. Most of all, she sought us out and extracted our location from hearsay.”
“Do you, the Visitor, have anything to add? Do you desire to join our guild?” the commander asked, now looking at her, through her eyes and into her soul.
Aeris swallowed and wet her lips. “Yes. I cannot advocate myself for I have much to learn, but I very much desire to join you.” Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw Eydan smile and look down; the commander’s eyes seemed to soften.
“Very well, let it be so.”
“Let it be so.”
“Let it be so.”
And so it was that Aeris Faulkner joined the Shadowstriders. She would live with them for several years, experiencing her first sensation of happiness. Aeris, so accustomed to prejudice and exclusion, did not know how to respond to acceptance let alone fondness. But her time there would prove to be short-lived.