Athmane was walking through his quadrant where the hunters trained and lived. This sector was always the busiest, as the elders always placed the greatest emphasis on gathering food. There always had to be a minimum number of hunters, the city could get by with fewer medics, crafters and soldiers but it would soon collapse without the hunters bringing in the food. The elders knew exactly the population of their city and the minimum amount of food and water required to sustain them.
New trainees were busy in the archery range, setting traps in the training ground and studiously listening to all the Masters had to say within the school buildings. Athmane smiled, he was glad those days were behind him. Unfortunately, this quadrant was so busy because it also had the highest turnaround rate. Nearly 30% of new hunters died in their first few months outside the city – snakebites, exposure, dehydration, golem attacks, climbing accidents – it was a tough and merciless world outside the walls. It all seemed easy to the trainees when they went on field trips with the Masters, but out on their own, it was a different matter.
Currently, there were seventy-two active hunters in the field, ten in the medical quadrant recovering from various injuries and twenty-four Masters. Athmane proceeded to his Master’s quarters, whose name was Master Doma. Athmane walked into his Master’s quarters, on the stone wall was a giant chalk drawn map of the area Master Doma was responsible for. Slates covered his stone desk, each one was a tablet with the symbol of a hunter under his command and, below each symbol, a chalk tally of supplies gathered. During his active days Master Doma was always glad to have company in the field – unlike Athmane – he loved the sound of his own voice more than anything.
“Welcome back, Athmane. Unless my tally is wrong, you’re nearly half way to meeting your monthly quota already. Not bad, you clearly learned from the best,” said Master Doma, smiling and laughing.
Master Doma had always been an optimistic person, he believed in motivation through constantly expressing a positive and joyous outlook on life. There were much grumpier Masters out there and Athmane appreciated his good fortune. Master Doma was tanned, with a tuft of blonde hair sticking up above the forehead, although the rest of his hair was receding. He also sported a patch of black facial hair below his lips.
“The Erevas Outcrop has been very good to me this month and it’s pretty safe. Life stocks are high at the moment, I feel it could even accommodate more hunters if you so desired,” said Athmane.
“Maybe I’ll rotate a few newbies into there then. Now, on to business. I’ve selected you for a mission of the highest importance. Grandmaster Hawk consulted all the Masters and asked us to call in the best hunter. Gryth was the best, but he died yesterday. You’re now number one.”
“What happened to him?” Athmane had been good friends with Gryth all through training and they regularly bumped into each other in the field and swapped news, his death came as a sad shock.
“He was bitten by a sand viper and panicked, running back to Nimar instead of staying calm. He collapsed outside the walls before the medics could revive him. I’m choosing you to replace him on a mission organised by the elders. You are to assist a craftsman as he, or maybe she if you get lucky, explores the Helven region.”
“I’m essentially on babysitting duty then?”
“Yes, and you’ll be the best babysitter this world has ever seen. Keep the crafter alive, that’s your assignment. Grandmaster Prisa will meet you at the gate in the morning to give you your instructions.”
“I hope I’m not stuck with some old grumpy crafter who can’t keep up.”
“I doubt it. Grandmaster Hawk said urgency was paramount and fitness was essential. They won’t send someone who can’t handle the field.”
Athmane thought of Faria, it had to be reason she was called to the Sanctum and he smiled.
“I suggest you get yourself off to medical for a quick check-up and a little clean-up wouldn’t go amiss either. You might be the best, but you stink. Good luck.”
Athmane smelled his armpits, perhaps Master Doma had a point. On the way out Athmane stopped by the archery range, where he deposited the five arrows in his quill and replaced them with repaired ones. Even emptied of nearly all its soldiers, the city was still too cramped for Athmane’s liking. After watching the trainees firing at targets in the archery range for a while, Athmane went to his dorm to pick up a satchel and a spare wolf-skin cloak before leaving to the morgue. The hustle and bustle of the noise reverberated off the stone buildings, while the sun’s heat remained trapped within the narrow gaps and streets. The breeze did little to quash the heavy and punishing air.
The morgue was a small, grim, grey stone building on the outskirts of the hunters’ quadrant nestled up against the wall. The dead were kept as far away from the rest of the city and their bodies disposed of within hours. As Athmane entered he saw that a body was already in the fire and smouldering down into ashes. A hole in the wall channelled the smoke through a wooden pipe out of the city. The smoke was then carried by the prevailing wind away from the city (on a good day).
“That’s Gryth, I assume?” said Athmane.
“Yes. Been a busy two days unfortunately, only just got round to burning him,” said Teoth, a trainee hunter in his early teens assigned morgue duty for the week.
“I want his ashes. You can use my satchel to put them in.”
“Very well, you can collect the ashes by sunrise.”
Athmane wanted his friend’s ashes so he could scatter them in the wilderness, not here in the city where his soul didn’t belong and would never find peace. Gryth was a true hunter, his passion for the wilderness and the hold it had on him was obvious to anyone. Athmane left his satchel and then went to the hunters’ dorm to try and rest. He’d decided to skip the medical check-up – there was nothing wrong with his body. The dorm was empty most of the time, but today Athmane found two other hunters fast asleep already.
Using some of his water, he wiped his body and then crushed some juslen herbs, their fragrance masking his body in a sweet and pleasant odour. Feeling tired all of a sudden, Athmane planned to lie down and collect his thoughts for a few minutes before heading to find Faria. But under the shelter of a roof and the protection of the soldiers on the wall, a deep sleep consumed him. This part of Nimar Athmane did miss.
Athmane and Faria,
JD 59, Evening
Faria had finished her day shift. It had been a long afternoon but fortunately being a supervisor carried with it the power to tell her workers to stop asking questions and to concentrate on their work. She’d discussed for five minutes with her co-workers, with Master Hamed eavesdropping, that Prisa wanted to know more about the new toilet system design. Yet she could sense their suspicions and unease.
Faria hurried off to find Athmane in the hunters’ dorm, having expected him visit her. She had, after all, been in the Sanctum – a hugely rare event. Faria gingerly opened the door. The last rays of the setting sun shone through the roof and dimly illuminated the room, she saw Athmane fast asleep on the bed. The room smelled nice, if a little heavy on the sweet side with a touch of spice. It nearly made Faria sneeze but she repressed it, not wanting to wake the others.
“Athmane,” said Faria, touching him dotingly on his shoulder.
Forgetting where he was, Athmane woke with a jolt and instinctively sprang upright, reaching for his knife.
“It’s me!” shouted Faria.
“Faria! I thought a golem’s tongue was licking me.”
Faria hit Athmane softly on his arm and said, “My hands aren’t like one of those beast’s tongues!”
“They are quite rough, no offence.”
“Any crafter without rough hands isn’t a true crafter.”
“I didn’t mean to fall asleep. You’re finished with the Sanctum?”
“Hours ago, I had to go back to my shift but now I’m free to prepare. I’ve been tasked to go to Helven and evaluate the land for access, with a hunter to guide me. Are you my hunter? Is that why you came back?”
“Yes. It wasn’t due to be me, but Gryth died yesterday.”
“It’s a shame about Gryth; I know you two were good friends. Did your Master tell you about the mission?”
“Only that I had to guide you and keep you safe. Helven is a forbidden area for us to go, truth be told I’m a little anxious.”
“Prisa said she will double-check the map Grandmaster Hawk drew tonight and hand it to us tomorrow, supposedly with a safe route through to the centre.”
“I hope she gets the map right, one wrong step and we’re dead if the stories are true.”
“Is that all your Master told you, to guide me?”
“Yes. Why? What else is going on?”
Faria whispered into Athmane’s ear everything about the dried-up water pool, Dunein and relocating. It dawned on Athmane that this was suddenly a lot more than just accompanying a craftswoman.
“Come, let’s go to your dorm and I’ll help you prepare your things. I shouldn’t have fallen asleep, everything just got a whole lot more serious.”
“Maybe you were more tired than you realised?”
“I think it was the herbs, perhaps I used too much and the scent knocked me out.”
“It is pretty strong in here, nice though. You don’t smell bad if that’s any help.”
“Should we tell Mary and Bayoud?” said Athmane.
“Bayoud is on nights, he’s already up on the wall. He doesn’t like being distracted; you know how he is with duty. I couldn’t find Mary either, she must be working extra hours and visiting dorms. We’ll tell them when we return from Helven.”
This would be the first time since graduation that they would spend more than two days together, and the two friends looked forward to each other’s company.