"Welcome all, to The White Stag Trials!" The man that addressed the hunters stood above them on a decorated balcony. He wore a robe of red silk and golden thread, a golden crown with red stones of various shades adorned his head. “Hunters of Emberden, it is my great pleasure to have you all here today,” the royal lowered his arms to the balcony and leaned out over it. “Hunters,” he paused and frowned, “Please remain calm.”
Fin turned his gaze from the figure above to the ones around him, none of the hunters looked calm. Many gripped weapons, others various types of hunting beasts, but all of them - including Fin - held a throbbing heart in their hands.
“What have you done to us?” Snarled a hunter to Fins right. Fin noticed the hunters form becoming smaller, shifting from whatever it had been to a more human state. Next to him was another going through a similar reversion, both had arms covered in gore and over sized canine teeth shifting back into place in their jaws.
“Watch your mouth dog-man,”A hunter in bone white armor turned and struck the speaker in the face, “This man is our King, Aiden Pyrekin of Emberden.”
“Ain’t ours,” spat the hunter who had not spoken at first. The hulking man raised his now bloodied gauntlet to strike again, “Touch me or my brother again and I’ll give you the bite too, see how much our king cares for you then.” He bore his teeth and glared.
“That’s enough of that!” The king announced, “Lycankind you are welcome to stay and hear my offer, or you can leave at any time. The choice is yours.”
After a few moments of no one moving, the man in white armor spoke up, “Why are we here my king?”
“Each of you hold the answer in your hand. When you held the heart of the White Stag, you accepted an invitation to the trials.” He motioned to a young man behind him, who responded by coming to stand by the king’s side. “This is my son, Ashen Pyrekin. He wishes to learn the art of hunting, and being the father I am I wish for him to have the best instructor.”
“I have no interest in babysitting.” One of the hunters spoke up, many agreeing in grunts and cheers.
“There will be a reward of course,” The king said silencing the crowd, “the winner will become Master Hunter of Emberden, earning them a place in the court with all the riches and privileges that come with the title and responsibility.” He smiled as the crowd quietened, “I will be upfront, the trials will become increasingly difficult, each with their own set of rules. The possibility of some - if not many - of you dying is quite real. Please evaluate the risk before you decide.” He turned and disappeared through the archway behind the place he had been standing.
A tearing sound pulled Fins attention behind the group. A bright light tore open in an empty part of the courtyard. Another rift had opened and a girl in purple robes with a white stag by her side appeared. The stag bleated but quietened when the girl placed her hand on the flank of the stags neck. Fin found himself standing by the late comers.
“You have not killed the stag.”
The girl looked at him with violet eyes, and then around at the other hunters. “No, how could I kill such a noble creature?” again she brushed it’s neck. “By the looks of things you had no trouble doing just that.”
“The heart was how we got here, and yet you are here without one.”
“She has captured the heart of the stag without killing it.” The king had come back to the balcony, “Looks like there was a work around to the parameters you set Magesmith.”
“Indeed there was.” Another robed man appeared, unlike the king his robes were not in the royal colours. They were blue and green, not silk but some kind of leather. “I sent out twenty white stags, each with an invitation in it.” He squinted as he looked around the courtyard, “No matter, those who wish to participate in the White Stag Trials come and place your invitation in the basin in the centre of the courtyard.”
Fin watched the hunters, many already moving to the marble basin. The Lycankind brothers moved against the crowd, bumping shoulders with many of the other hunters that got too close. When they reached the end of the courtyard one of them turned back and locked eyes with Fin. Fins blood surged in his veins as he met the challenge, glaring back at the man. The Lycankind grinned and nodded, mouthing something to his brother before turning to leave.
It was only then that he noticed the girl leaving with the stag, head held high and shoulders straight. He doubled her pace and caught up to her. “Excuse me,”
“I don’t have time for people that kill peaceful creatures.”
Fin smiled, “I understand, but I must ask how you managed to tame such a wild creature.”
She rolled her eyes, “I find most creatures are easier to approach when you aren’t trying to kill them.”
“White Stags scatter as soon as they even think another living being is anywhere near them, that’s what makes them so prized to us hunters.”
She picked up her pace.
“Where are you going?” Fin asked matching her strides.
“Back to the Arcanemy, provided I haven’t been expelled due to vanishing from reality. I don’t even know how much time I’ve lost.”
“You… arrived, later than everyone else.”
She slowed frowning, “If that is so, I may not have lost any time at all. The Magesmithed heart would have several parameters - requirements that need to be met - before actualizing it’s function. In this case the function is a rift through space and time to this location in a single moment in time. If I came after that moment that means something didn’t go as planned.”
Her eyes snapped back into focus, as if she had forgotten Fin was there, “Only the Magesmith that made the heart would know that detail, not that it matters to me.”
Fin nodded, “How long have you been at the Arcanemy?”
“Most of my life, my father is the Headmancer.”
“So you’re an Obsidian then.”
She stopped in her tracks, the stag grunting at the sudden change. “Irillan Obsidian.”
“Finch Wulfkin.” He said with a bow.
“Your form is awful, but seeing as it was also unnecessary I can forgive you.” She smiled, “Perhaps we will meet again Finch Wulfkin, I hope under more favorable circumstances.” She said looking at the heart still in Fins hand. She turned to the White Stag, “We must be getting home, would you let me sit upon your back and rely on your speed?” The Stag lowered its strong neck, allowing Irillan to grab at the antlers and pull herself onto its back.
Irillan pulled her thick hooded robe tighter around her and leaned closer to the stags twitching ears and whispered something. After a nod to Fin she and the stag took off down the streets of the capital, the speed pulled back Irillans hood, allowing long pitch black hair whip about behind her.
Fin waited until he could no longer see her before making his way over to the basin in the center of the courtyard. Many hearts were already in there, some cleaned like the one Fin had, others were bloody, staining the marble with crimson streaks. Other hunters stood by the basin weighing up the offer, pitting the reward against the potential of losing their lives.
“It’s a tough choice to make isn’t it lad?” The stranger was about as old as Fins father and wore a tan apron with a rag tucked into a pocket. To Fin it seemed he had more of a likeness to a server than a hunter, save for the large knife strapped to his waist and a quiver of arrows on his back.
“Yes.” Fin noticed that he wasn’t holding a heart, “You’ve made your choice though.”
He chuckled, “Yes, I imagine it will be dangerous, but you see I can’t imagine telling the boys I turned down an opportunity like this.”
“You have children?”
“Makers no! I run a hunters lodge out in Pinerust, a glorified tavern in the woods mostly. The boys - my patrons - share their hunting stories all through the night. To tell them that I caught a White Stag, but then declined the greatest opportunity a hunter could ask for, well it would be bad for business you see.”
Fin smiled, “I’m sure you’ve thought about it a bit more than that.”
“Of course. It’ll be good fun!” He said with a wink.
Fin moved closer to the basin, his thoughts turning to home and family. A place in the court and the riches that came with it would be beneficial to his family as well as the entire village. He thought of his brother Terrin, his dreams of joining the Arcanemy and learning about magic and how to use it, a dream that without Fin winning the White Stag Trials may never be realized. His family would not object, except of course if they knew the danger it may place him in
He thought of the risk, there was no way of knowing what type of beasts he would have to hunt or exactly how dangerous they would be, where he would be going, whether he was better than the other hunters who could very well be dangerous in their own right.
Fin felt his blood burning. He held the heart over the basin, and dropped it in.