After a year of training in the art of stealth and thievery, Aeris Faulkner was declared ready for jobs. She fulfilled each contract satisfactorily and quickly rose through the ranks, gaining reputation among the Shadowstriders’ clients as well as the Shadowstriders themselves. She, in turn, learned about them and came to love them. Corvus Redfall, their human commander, led them with a guiding hand, acting as their face more than anything else. There were no real rules within the guild, merely suggestions with certain promises attached. She learned Eydan Frye acted as second in command, the one who would lead them should something befall the commander.
This group introduced many new races to Aeris. The two who observed in her induction ceremony were Luciana, a half-elf, and Fathis Forestryker, a halfling. These two were high ranking members, although rank mattered little in the guild, as did ceremony. Most of the Shadowstriders were an impudent lot. However, rank did mean one’s choice of contracts among other perks. Some other “officers” were Delvin the dwarf, Ravyn the gnome, Gallus the tiefling, Armand the elf, Orrin the half-orc, and Cynric another halfling.
There were many other members of the Shadowstriders whom she came to know, people of lower rank as herself with the potential of becoming officers. There were also many candidates for membership; she learned a few weeks into her training that many of those in the main big cavern were simply waiting for admittance as they had not passed their initial test. Many of these sent her envious, spiteful gazes as she passed by.
But her best friend in the world was the second in command.
“Aeris, we’re going to town for a client visit and a pint. We leave in 5, and you’re coming with,” Eydan said as he rushed past her to the entrance. He paused long enough to give her one of his shit-eating grins and a wink; then he was out of sight through the door.
Some things never change, she thought with a shake of her head as she followed.
Waiting for her on the “patio,” what they called the smaller, grassy cave, Fathis and Delvin were horsing around playing a thief’s training game where one tried to steal the other’s coinpurse while avoiding the opponent’s dagger. In practice, one would normally use wooden sticks, though these two, like many of the veterans, had a thirst for danger and so used real blades.
“A-ha! Almost got you there, you slow dwarf! You cannot best Fathis Forestryker!”
Aeris rolled between them, narrowly dodging one blade, her leather armor blocking a nick to the shoulder by the other, and snatched both purses. “Oh, really, Fathis? And which fore do you strike?” She smirked holding the purses up daintily. The halfling and the dwarf first looked dumbstruck then puzzled. She waited for their laughter, and when it didn’t come gave them annoyed looks.
“Sorry, was that supposed to be a joke?” Fathis asked.
“Yeeesss, as in foreskin.”
“So, dick joke, huh?” asked Delvin. “I got it; I just didn’t think it was all that clever.”
She sighed and tossed them their bags.
Eydan, who had been watching from his perch on the boulder, laughed as he said, “You need to get better with your one-liners if you’re ever going to be a master rogue.”
“Or, perhaps, here’s a thought: you could all learn to emphasize stealth over hubris,” Corvus interrupted as he emerged from the entrance.
“Says the one who always has to make a dramatic entry,” Eydan replied, hopping off the rock. With a small grin, Corvus sent him a glance and a shrug.
With that, they headed off to Westspring, a nearby city where they often visited for business and pleasure. If Aeris had known more about the local geography when she first came to the cave, she would have likely never joined the guild because she would have gone to Westspring; the city was only an hour’s trek from the cave. As it was, she did not regret her previous ignorance.
They arrived late in the night, near the time when decent folk went home. They stopped at their usual haunt, a tavern near the edge of town, while Corvus slipped off with Fathis to meet their client. The tavern was still bustling, though it wouldn’t be for very much longer. After an hour of music, listening to and spreading rumors, and a fair share of alcohol, Corvus and Fathis joined them for a drink. By that time, only a sleepy drunk and a few stubborn patrons remained. Corvus stood and prepared to leave, and the rest followed suit.
“Good. Those thugs will fin’ly leave. Been wishin’ they’d leave since they snuck in,” one of the men in a corner table grumbled, a bit too loudly. Aeris tensed at the insult, but Eydan’s eyes locked with hers and he gave a slight shake of the head. Corvus continued up to the bar to pay the tab, seemingly ignorant to the man’s comment though Aeris knew better.
One of the man’s companions gave a small snort and went back to drinking, which was encouragement enough, apparently, for he continued, “They ainn’even that good a thieves. I don’ know why the guards put up with ‘em. We all know they’re criminals. Why ain’ they locked up? They deserve no be’er than stale bread. And look at their leader! What a right bandit chief he es, like sum highwaymun robbin’ li’l girls!” He cackled.
“Um, Aeris?” Eydan asked, gently touching her shoulder. She angrily pulled it away, turning fully to the man. She heard some muttering behind her, but she tuned it out.
The man met her eyes and laughed. “Does that upset you, missy? Well, you’s the one ‘at joined ‘em, ain’ ya. Cowardly lot, all ya.”
She flew toward him quickly, leaving clattering chairs and upended tables in her wake. She pressed a knife to his throat and yelled, “Say that again! Let’s see which one of us is more the coward!”
A gentle hand touched her wrist and firmly pulled it away from the man. “Aeris,” Eydan whispered, “calm down.” The man’s eyes were wide in fear. A small trickle of blood ran down his neck. “These people are not our enemies.”
She backed away, shaking from the adrenaline and rage that still had its hold on her. A gasp behind her forced her to look away from the man, and all rage fled.
The scene behind her was of destruction. . . and death. Scattered across the room were broken tables and chairs. The sleepy drunk lay still on the floor, the back of his head a bloody mess where he had been struck quite forcibly by a table. She was suddenly aware of the wind whipping around her, slowly dying as wrath turned to horror.
“What have I done?” she whispered. She saw the shock on the faces of Corvus, Fathis, and Delvin.
“Aeris, look at me,” she heard Eydan say. Numbly, she turned her head. He was trying to calm her down. He thinks I’m a monster!
She ran. Only one followed.
She almost made it to the gate when Eydan caught up to her and grabbed her wrist. “Aeris! Wait! What are you doing?” he cried as he stopped her. So close. . .
“Leaving. I can’t stay.” Tears started to form, but she stubbornly held them back.
“Of course not, but we should at least try to hide the body or something. Not that many people saw what happened. A few threats, a little coin, and you should be fine.”
She narrowed her eyes and shook her head in confusion. “What? No. I mean leaving. Not just Westspring. The Shadowstriders.”
He let go of her wrist. “Why? Because of what you did? That was an accident. Everyone will understand. You don’t need to do this.”
“I can’t. . . I can’t stay after seeing that look on their faces. They’ve seen what I am.”
“What you-? Aeris, please. Don’t be ridiculous. I suspected you were a sylph since the day I met you.”
It felt like the world was spinning; his words seemed muddled. I have to get out of here. What is he talking about? I. . . I need to breathe! He’s just trying to calm me so they can lock me away. Need to get out. She took a half step back.
“Can’t you see I’m like you?” he continued, his expression pleading yet his eyes hard.
I’m a monster. . .
She ran and jumped over the city wall into the dark embrace of the night.