Sunday, 15 September 2013

Anabyl's Choice

Princess Anabyl Spireshine was not always as dedicated to the cause of the Dragon Warriors as she became in later life. The dragon epitomises the polarity between chaos and order encapsulated in a single entity. Dragons formed mischief into majesty, this transformation was accomplished through understanding, clarity and wisdom.

The Dracopolis Academy was never that concerned about taking on students in possession of large amounts of understanding, clarity or wisdom from the start. Chaos is hard to cultivate, like a fire burned out of control it tends to eat itself eventually. Natural chaos, on the other hand, can, potentially be moulded into the stuff of a great Dragon Warrior. It was on this basis that Warden Razath first accepted Anabyl into the Academy under the patronage of Prince Avan Weatherstrong.

Anabyl would tell anyone who asked that when she stepped into the Academy she was attracted by the availability of many martial devices essential to the creation of serious amounts of chaos. The concept of training, discipline and achievement were the furthest thing from her mind. It took Anabyl about seven hours to become thoroughly bored of the Dracopolis Academy and wishing she could go home to Spireshine. Nine hours after her arrival someone let all the criminals out of the Dracopolis Jailhouse.

Never one to miss an opportunity Anabyl took advantage of the skeleton staff left to look after academy attendees, stole a sword from the armoury and found a way into the Dracopolis Sewer System. Twenty minutes into her new subterranean adventure thoughts about what she might do if actually confronted by a perilous situation began to occur to her.

The Princess did not, as many young people alone in the dark, wet tunnels of a major metropolitan sewer system, surrounded by potential hazards, feel any fear. For Anabyl fear was a thing to be inspired in others, not to be experienced by oneself. Wariness and caution were not things that Anabyl had previously had much use for but with fear off the table she decided that these would do in their place.

As it turned out watchfulness and sneaking, two vital components in any worthwhile and serious mischief-making enterprise, were also handy when trying to navigate through an unfamiliar underground environment without bumping into troublesome escaped convicts. She got into the swing of this so quickly that it came to a point where the business of skulking through the shadows not making any noise was only occupying a tiny part of her attention.

She made her way in the direction of the city walls (Anabyl had never questioned her uncanny sense of direction, it was always a given and, hence, taken for granted); as she did Anabyl thought about the sword.

The sword was a training sword, being an ideal size and weight for a smaller person. It wasn't a short sword, or an elaborate dagger, it also wasn't one of the fine balanced fencing swords that Anabyl had seen in grand cities like Bellespire. The weapon would have appeared a little odd in the hands of an adult because it wasn't built to an adult scale. For someone Anabyl's size it was just about perfect.

Anabyl had never used a sword for much before, mischief was one thing, violence was something else altogether. Anabyl was no stranger to fire, concussion, humiliation, itching or other types of general unpleasantness associated with bringing self-important people down a peg or seven.

When she had been a very young child Anabyl had never needed anything more than pig-jousting, rotten vegetables and an unlimited supply of mud. Swords were fascinating, of course, anything that could destroy other things was interesting. Anabyl came to realise that she had honed the art of inflicting pain and discomfort on people she considered boring to such a fine point that real weapons had just naturally never figured into her schemes.

Anabyl knew that if you picked up a weapon then you were either an idiot or you intended to really hurt someone, and not in a fun way, or both. So why had she picked up the sword on her way into the sewers?

A few months ago she would never have done that, no matter what the circumstance. It didn't matter that she was in a fabled land in a far off time, cut off from everything she knew with no way home. It didn't matter that she was moving through a series of dark tunnels and could hear the screams and hoots of a riot going on above her head as she stepped under the grating covers for street level. Not so long ago Anabyl wouldn't have cared about any of that, she would have naturally assumed it had nothing to do with her.

Then an owl of wisdom had told her about dragon warriors, shortly after Peregrine Pagebinder had made it plain there was one person in the universe that she couldn't get the better of. The facts of these things had combined in her head to form the potential that one day Anabyl could be...

Anabyl had always assumed that she could just dodge the business of growing up. The world didn't work like that. She had met sprites who never grew up and she liked to humiliate those foolish creatures as much as any other idiot she met in the course of daily life. She remembered distinctly the feeling of not wanting to be like some idiot adult-child. She had been to the world of humans once and seen one of their picture box shows about old women (to Anabyl anyone over 20 years of age was old) who tried to act in a childish manner.

The whole concept brought Anabyl as close to fear as she had ever been.

No. Anabyl was determined not to be that. The only way to avoid it, unfortunately, was to grow up. That was unpalatable for a number of other reasons, chief among which was the idea of being married to some boy-prince and living out your life in a castle coping with the fallout from the actions of her children. Sons, she could probably handly discipline for a bunch of snot nosed little boys, no problem. What put a little ice into Anabyl's heart was the concept of the kind of daughter she might produce.

No. Altogether not something to be countenanced. She had decided to grow up in her own way, on her own terms. She had never known what they were. Then she had heard about dragon warriors.

A woman could be a soldier, or a knight, she had read the stories. Surely the dragon warrior was the best kind of knight. That had to be a contender for one of the best ways to grow up.

The discipline did not appeal, there was the problem.

Still, even in her escape she had taken a sword. This meant there was a new seriousness in Anabyl's heart, one that could not be denied.

This rather troubling notion was the last thing to play through Anabyl's mind as she exited from a drainage pipe outside of Dracopolis's city walls. Close to the drainage opening were a few small stone huts, locked up with rust-tinged metal doors, along the path away from the sewer tunnels was an old house. The house appeared as if it was abandoned, probably for some time. The question was: had the house been left empty long enough to attract ghosts?

Anabyl had a keen interest in ghosts, it was almost a hobby of hers. Her fascination with the spirits of the dead was unique in her personality as being the only thing she could be preoccupied with that didn't ultimately lead to someone ending up covered in some kind of wet slime. She had enquired of one spirit she had met about the possibility of obtaining some ectoplasm but found that the ghostly substance was a myth.

Still, she found the dead had a simple view of the world that she appreciated. They tended not to be judgemental and they didn't often have any agenda with which she might disagree. When she was a little older Anbyl would articulate that she appreciated the clarity that death appeared to bring to people (most people). At that moment all she knew was that if there were ghosts in the house she wanted to say hello.

Anabyl climbed the steps and crossed the porch area to find the front door locked, or at least jammed shut by something. A little further investigation revealed an open window that she wriggled through without any problems.

Before the final occupants of this house had moved on they had done a pretty thorough job of emptying it of anything that they might have formed a sentimental attachment to. There wasn't a stick of furniture, a picture hook or a scrap of textiles anywhere on the ground floor.

Of course, Anabyl wasn't really interested in those things, she was more interested in the possible inhabitants of the house.  If there were ghosts here they were shy ghosts. The trick with a shy ghost was to not look directly at where they might be, because they could hide more easily if they knew you were looking. You had to catch a glimpse of them out of the corner of your eye.

The ghost of one of her great uncles had told her that, with a little concentration and effort, dimming a ghost's natural glow was an easy thing to achieve. However it did take some concentration and effort, and it became hellishly uncomfortable after a while, a bit like a live person holding their breath. What a ghost needed to do if it didn't want to be seen was move out of the way and then relax their concentration when they believed they were out of view.

So the way to get a glimpse of a shy ghost was to enter rooms suddenly, turn around unexpectedly and other wise try to look in places you hadn't been looking moments previously. Somewhere in the remains of the kitchen Anabyl believed she had got a glimpse of something, but the ghost in question was extremely shy because she couldn't catch it out a second time.

On the upper floor of the house Anabyl noticed a new smell accompanying the damp odour that permeated the lower floor, a smell of burned dry hair. Anabyl knew the aroma from somewhere but she couldn't quite place the exact memory. Irritated by this small mystery Anabyl stopped trying to catch out the local ghosts and searched the upstairs for the source of the smell.

In one of the upstairs rooms Anabyl found a small locker chest and a basic cot bed. Someone was using this place as a home.

This prospect made Anabyl feel a little awkward about being here. If there was someone alive using this property Anabyl felt it was her duty to soak them in something as soon as possible. She hadn't seen a well, or a mud patch or any other source of the necessary sogginess nearby. The prospect of not springing an unpleasant and hilarious surprise on a stranger due to a lack of materials made Anabyl uncomfortable.

She didn't want to stay in the mouldy house with the reclusive ghosts anyway. She reasoned she had best be on her way directly. She went down the stairs and through the front room to the door. She opened the door to find herself looking into the softly glowing orange-yellow eyes of an enormous wolf dressed in a fine crimson jacket, a light-yellow silk tunic and breeches of the same crimson as the jacket.

Anabyl knew a bit about wolves, it being the kind of distressing subject that her parents believed she should be shielded from. There were, of course, a full range of completely normal wolves ranging from smaller dog-like varieties to enormous dire-wolves. Then there were the spectrum of talking wolves. Unlike cats, dogs, mice and sundry other animals there were no talking wolves that appeared to be normal every day wolves until they asked you if you might not mind getting them some food.

Every variety of talking wolf wore clothes of some fashion. Previous to this Anabyl had only ever encountered the slim and erudite kind of wolf that was common in the Hundred Kingdoms. There were legends of vastly powerful talking dire wolves, or Royal Wolves, a war-like, aggressive species; Anabyl had only ever encountered them in stories because they had died out long ago.

Of course, now Anabyl was long ago, so the presence of  a Royal Wolf shouldn't have been as much of a surprise as it was. The problem with slipping through a hole in time was that sometimes you forgot that you had done so. For this reason Anabyl found herself surprised and without a response to the enraged predator whose dwelling place Anabyl had disturbed.

"What are you doing in my house?" the wolf demanded reaching out to push Anabyl backwards. Anabyl's long developed instinct for avoiding any grabbing hand kept her out of the reach of the gigantic creature.

"I was just passing through," Anabyl said. "I was a bit lost and I just wanted to ask for directions."

"Well, I'd say you'd taken a wrong turn," the wolf snarled. He flailed forward meaning to grab at Anabyl a second time. "Because when I catch you then you won't live long enough to regret coming here."

Anabyl considered ducking past the wolf at this point and running back towards the sewers. The only problem was that she wasn't terribly sure of her way and she was pretty confident that the wolf would turn out to be faster than her.

For the first time in her young life Anabyl realised that something was actually trying to seriously kill her. This annoyed her intensely, she considered it doubly rude seeing as she hadn't done so much as let a stink bomb off near this wolf and here he was acting like she'd left him for three days in a tree-snare. When she'd left one of the groundskeepers in such a precarious position all she'd got was gruel and a grounding. On that scale the wolf's unjustified anger seemed a bit of an overreaction.

More out of practicality than any intention to strike back Anabyl pulled out her sword and waved it at the wolf.

"You think a little girl would come out to such a scary part of the woods and walk around a creepy house if she didn't know how to stab a monster with a sword?" she asked. As bluffs went it relied heavily on the passion of the delivery, thankfully this wasn't a problem to Anabyl.

"I don't know," the wolf sneered. "Let's find out!"

It lunged for her again and she dodged away, swinging the sword in a manner that clearly owed more to enthusiasm than skill. Anabyl reminded herself that she had either better think of a good plan or get instantly a lot better with her sword if she wanted to see sunrise.

Anabyl backed away from the wolf trying to spot an escape route and babbling on about how jolly sorry the wolf would be if he came any closer. Spotting a doorway to her left Anabyl ducked through it and found herself at the top of a set of steps leading into a cellar. The growling noise behind her indicated that if she was in for this particular groat then she was most certainly in for the whole bronze mark. So she hurried down the steps three at a time.

It was at about this moment that Anabyl had a momentary pang of regret regarding her disdain for plans and strategising. She knew she was belting down stone steps into a dark basement. She knew she was being pursued by a seriously angry, powerful and inherently nasty royal wolf. Somehow the thoughts in her brain wouldn't allow her to do anything else.

She wasn't under any illusion that she was being manipulated or controlled. She was just acting, like she always did, the only difference being that this time her stream-of-consciousness approach to life might very well get her killed.

She found the basement to be a long corridor giving access to three rooms. She hadn't seen a ground level exit from beneath out at the front of the house so she vaulted over the bannister and headed for the room at the back. As she approached the door at the end of the passage she made great efforts not to think about what might happen if the door was locked or if it just lead into another boxy room with no exits.

Her relief at seeing a ground level window in the ceiling of the basement room was immense and all consuming. She lost no time in running towards the opening, scrambling up the wall, grabbing and pulling at the latch. The latch sprung and the window opened inwards. Surprised Anabyl fell back to the floor, stumbled but remained upright. She could only have bare seconds before the wolf was on top of her. She scrambled once more at the wall.

"Help me," said an unexpected voice behind her.

Anabyl didn't have much time to react, she turned her head to see a bird that looked very much like an owl of wisdom sitting in a cage. Next to the cage was a writing desk and a chair, the only proper furniture she'd seen in the whole house.

She didn't even think about it. She took the writing chair across the room and jammed it under the door handle just as the wolf tried to open the door. The door swung about an inch open on its hinges before jamming as the chair legs scraped against the bare stone floor. The royal wolf bellowed in rage and began rattling the door. Anabyl had only bought herself a few seconds.

She didn't waste those seconds. She worked the lock on the cage eventually prising it open with a letter opener she spotted on the writing desk. The owl thanked Anabyl and had just flapped out of the window when the door burst inward and the royal wolf charged into the room.

"My owwwwwwl!" it screamed, its already boiling fury seeming to kick up another few notches. "You will pay."

Anabyl realised that there was really nowhere else to run. She could try to get through the window but then she would just be dragged back into the room. If she was going to die then she decided that she had pretty much better look it in the eye and see if she could distract it into a staring contest.

"You!" she shouted at the wolf, "are about the meanest and most awful creature I have ever met in my entire life! How dare you keep an owl of wisdom in a stinky cage? I'm glad I let it out, I hope they come back and poop all over you!"

The tirade momentarily caused the wolf to pause, wondering why this strange little girl was not crying and screaming and pleading for her life and, further, why she felt she had the right to tell him off. After a moment he plainly concluded that it was all bravado and bluff so he snarled at her preparatory to eating her right up.

But by then it was too late.

The enormous royal wolf that had been ready to swallow Anabyl whole a second before now found itself in the body of an embarrassingly small and rat-like dog. It's snarl sounded like a large rat trying to clear its throat. The wolf brought itself up short, throwing a second confused and awestruck look in the direction of Princess Anabyl.

"Don't look at me," she shrugged. "It wasn't my doing."

"Not directly, anyway," said another voice emerging from the darkest corner of the basement room. "I can't very well have the children in my care getting eaten by royal wolves on a field excursion now, can I?"

Peregrine Pagebinder emerged from the shadows and picked up the little dog from the floor. The former royal wolf now looked irritated beyond all reason not to mention absolutely disconsolate.

"I did wonder where you were hiding," Anabyl said peevishly, determined not to show Peregrine any gratitude whatsoever. If the annoying sprite hadn't sent her on this field trip then she would never have ended up in this situation anyway, that was her reasoning.

"I have not been hiding," Peregrine said. "I have been looking at the possibilities for the continued unfolding of your educational curriculum. It's time for options, young lady."

"Options?" Anabyl asked. "What are they? No. Don't answer. Anything to do with you has to be stupid and boring."

"Not so antagonistic please, Anabyl," Peregrine said. "The path we are engaged upon is for the betterment of us all. Now, the question of how much better is entirely in your hands. You must choose your next step carefully. That is the option you will be given, how to proceed with your education, understood?"

"Unless going home and having you move out permanently is one of the choices I don't think I'm going to be interested," Anabyl said.

"I'm afraid not," Peregrine replied coolly. The calmer he was about Anabyl's volley of vitriolic insults the more obnoxious she was determined to become. "There are two options, option one is that we now return to Caer Spireshine and you embark upon a programme of extensive social education with the aim of turning you into a master stateswoman."

Anabyl felt the only response to that was to stick her tongue out and make puking noises.

"Option two," Peregrine continued, ever unruffled, "is to combine the advanced discplinary, tactical and spiritual educative methods of the Dracopolis Academy with some more focused sessions on history, natural science and other useful academics with the aim of turning you into the finest dragon warrior the lands of Faerie has ever or will ever know. I should tell you that this latter option is the more difficult of the two, however it does give you the potential to fulfil one of the grandest destinies that the world has ever known, if you can stick to it."

Anabyl tried to muster up some enthusiasm for puking at that option too. She was surprised to find that she couldn't. After today's near miss she reasoned that if someone could teach her not to fight her way into a corner that would be a very good thing indeed. The Dracopolis Academy appeared to be a place of rules and discipline, neither of which were Anabyl's favourite things. In a contest between martial discipline and political protocol though the discipline won every day.

Then there was the thing about the destiny.

"What do you mean 'the grandest destiny the world has ever known'?" she asked.

"One of the grandest destinies the world has ever known," Peregrine said. "Choose that path and you will come to find out in time."

So she did, and she did, but all of that will be told at another time, in another place, for the hour is too late now.

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