Palm. Palm. Heel. Palm. Heel. Toe. Palm.
Narcerena chanted to herself as the small, smooth geode she carried with her bounced from point to point. There were several chants that fighter candidates used for these games meant to exercise their dexterity, though usually they were played with sharpened blades instead of geodes or stones. When traveling however, a stone was quieter and worked just as well. Though the Darklighter saw combat often enough, it was just as well to practice when she could.These practices kept her sharp to defend herself when she returned home. It was common, after all, for apprentice Fighters to attempt to overwhelm proven Fighters at the borders of Darklighter territory as they returned from their various missions away. The smart ones banded together, but those exceedingly rare individuals who could succeed alone reaped the prestige along with the right to demand to participate in the next Culling.
A quiet yawn broke Narcerena's forward stare and she paused to stretch, quickly tucking the little geode she had found out of sight. It looked like a plain, muddy fawn-coloured stone. Once it was broken open, however, she wondered what crystals lurked inside. Regardless, it would make an excellent addition to her collections. Blue, that's what she hoped for the colour. She had various shades, purple her favourite of all, but not a blue amongst the lot she had hoarded away in her secret troves. This one had been partially exposed in a tunnel composed of volcanic rock, though the volcano itself had been extinct for as long as she had known of the passages. Some, like the one that had the little geode embedded in the floor, were composed of chalky and porous black stone that had a distinctly sulfurous smell lingering about them. Some were marvelous black glass-like halls of the kind that would make any monarch jealous. Or, perhaps, places like that were perfection for temples with candlelight illuminating the sanctuaries. In any event, for someone on a mission of stealth they could be nerve-wracking for all the subtle reflections cast back that could fool you into thinking your shadow was an enemy chasing you along the paths.
She would bring back pieces of that stone to her little grotto someday, she told herself, but that sort of thing required planning and equipment. Perhaps some day when she retired from service to the Darklighter Church she told herself, full well knowing that the life of a Fighter tended to be notoriously short. Ah, well. No harm in the thought. Perhaps she would venture above Nyx and bring back treasures from the overworld. If such a place had anything left to retrieve, that is. For now, objects like her little geode would have to keep her satisfied.
Having spent nearly a fortnight skulking through Lightbringer territory, avoiding patrols and collecting information on their movements and watches, she was excited to bring her newest treasure to her closest treasure cache. It was not her favourite, but there were none so dangerously close to the MagInk bastards's domain as this one, so it often contained the best of her finds not yet stowed in safer places. Perhaps she would even stay a day or two at this one before returning back to the Darklighter stronghold that housed the Darklighter Church's Clergy seat. There would be the usual debriefing and the usual arguments over her absence. That particular rope had become tighter and tighter about her throat - so much so that she wondered when it would become impossible to venture out on these missions without either an apprentice tagging along or a direct order from the Clergy.
A quiet, defiant voice that was still quite small asked again what the Clergy would be willing to do to bring a Nightstrider into line. Of all their strict rule of the Darklighters, the Fighters were more powerful when there were no tattooed Inkkin from which to draw power for the Channelers. What would they do, if the Fighters ever refused to obey? Burying the heretical questions deeply, Narcerena refocused on the details of her own situation, and recent shifts in the Fighter clan.
Not only had her own situation become more restrictive, the candidate training had taken a more urgent tone in recent days. Those candidates who had the mettle to both survive the initial lessons and pass The Trials to become a proper Fighter's apprentice were the only ones trained up and given the opportunity to distinguish themselves from the pack. The rest usually retired into tradecraft and learned a valuable skill set to support the Darklighter community. It was vital to maintaining their community, but the transition was difficult for many who had been part of the Fighter lifestyle since childhood.
Some time between her last several scouting missions, Narcerena noted that the apprentice pool had become unusually large - and many of the Darklighter youths who comprised their numbers were unfit to learn. How was it possible that they had even survived The Trials?
After a few discussions with one or two of those tasked to train the candidates full-time, she had discovered that The Trials had become more of a suggestion than a necessity. Furious, she had nearly come to blows with one of the Nightcallers that served as the Clergy's representative with the Fighters clan. As a result of the outrage of the Nighstriders, The Trials had resumed, but the candidates who had been admitted into apprenticeship during the lapse were allowed to remain. As punishment for her outspoken position on the matter, Narcerena had been called upon to spend even more time dedicated to shaping up their fighting force. There was to be a time when all would be needed, were the cryptic Nightcaller to be believed, but it would be a warm day in the darkest corner of Nyx before a Nightcaller made any obvious sense.
Frustrated, Narcerena had taken out her irritation on the younger Darklighter Fighters who had passed The Culling. Those newest to the Fighter's ranks after that final testing would spend at least a year serving as a trainer for the next group of apprentices. In the same way some candidates did not pass The Trials, some apprentices did not pass The Culling. Those who were unsuccessful but managed to survive their failure and return would follow in the footsteps of candidate wash-outs before them, retiring into civilian life among the general populace. More than a few who survived their failure never returned home. If they were not caught and killed by Lightbringers, most quickly became corpses to litter the byways of Nyx, forgotten in the dark. Occasionally Narcerena would stumble upon one and find a nearby place to build a little burial mound of stone. The skulls, along with the medallion worn by apprentices undertaking The Culling she would return to be interred in The Ossuary in the catacombs below the Darklighter Church. There was little peace to be had in the life of a Fighter, but it was a small way to honour their efforts and assuage the grief of their family.
What even many candidates did not know, however, was that the Darklighter Church's apprentices with Channeling abilities ultimately had to participate in The Culling as well. It was generally held that the end result was the only piece of that test that mattered. How one achieved the object of the test was entirely up to them. For Channelers, it was a test of their MagInk abilities - or rather, how well they could use their natural gifts to siphon and exploit MagInk through Inkkin able to cast of their own tattoos and volition. For Fighters, it was a test of whether their skills had been honed to the level that they could compete with their magical counterparts. Easy enough to understand why the survival rate was considerably lower for Fighters.
It was also why the uptick in apprentices concerned Narcerena. Even with the best training, those who were incapable of developing to the equal of the traditional Fighter force would be a liability. At best, most of them would die anyway in The Culling. At worst, they would be a blight on Darklighter defenses if and when there were ever a time they needed to defend their primary stronghold and the outlying Darklighter settlements in the part of Nyx known by outsiders sometimes as the Blighted Caverns. Unless, that is, the Clergy planned to vest them as true Fighters without that very important testing. In any case, that the Clergy would meddle in the affairs of the Fighter clan to inflate their numbers, and that apprentices would listen to their sometimes nearly fanatical babblings, sat poorly with the Nightstrider. Loyalty to the Darklighters and to the Clergy were sacrosanct, but equally so was the obligation to clan. To fight alongside and die with your brothers and sisters in the effort to stem the violence and cruelty of the Lightbringer tide was honourable. To let the manipulations of the Channelers govern those relationships was a slippery slope to chaos.
Pausing, half-balanced on a rock, the Darklighter woman pulled herself out of her thoughts. Something felt wrong. Surveying the tunnel through which she was passing after a quick glance over her shoulder, Narcerena realised that the rocks she arranged near her caches to serve as warnings of tampering had been adjusted. Some were in place, but a few of the smaller ones on the floor of the cave were shifted and fanned out as if someone had recently passed through the tunnel. Narrowing her eyes, she flattened herself against the wall, using the shadows in the uneven surface to slink towards the end of the tunnel. One more left turn and she should find herself at one of the entrances to her nearest little hiding spot.
Hopefully it was nothing but a small wandering creature. Even better if it were edible. A rest sounded delightful, and a warm fire with a bit of meat would be welcome. A delay because of some would-be thief would not only make her more irritable, her next nearest cache was a good five kilometers away and she had little patience with the idea of wandering all that way tired and hungry. Fingers brushing the dagger hilt protruding slightly from her greave, she slipped the oil flask she kept for sharpening her weapons out of its belt pouch and carefully edged it around the final bend in the tunnel, hoping that whatever might have ventured into her haunt would reflect to her from its mirrored metal surface.