☙ Since his grandmother's death, Apocamus Dradius was displaying a gloomy look. Eyebrows always furrowed, he often let out signs of annoyance and had lost the lightness that formerly used to be his charm. Of course, he was still conscientious about his duties, but you guessed he was filled with a lot of pent-up anger. There were even rumors in the Ranger camp that tempers had flared between him and Melga Folgore.
Anyway, on that day of Thermis 2614, Apocamus went around the camp, enjoining the volunteer Rangers he met to follow him. When he had gathered a few dozen of them, they used a pact to transport themselves to the Cities of Intuition, before marching together towards Hoï-Cho. Since I was fortunate enough to be part of this small party, I began to take these notes so that my comrades could preserve the memory of the expedition.
“Keep your ears open!”, Apocamus ordered as we entered the city.
“Today you will accompany me on a visit to one of the oldest still alive Rangers, the veteran Han Kiou. I will converse with him at length while you observe and listen, period! I want respect, silence and even absolute discretion from you, worthy of the elite of undercover Rangers. If any of you opens your beak, I will have your tongues cut out and fed to the kipucka guarding the entrance to the Kitins' lair. Have I made myself clear?”
We nodded, then exchanged brief glances: the instructor was not joking, but his tone was so unusual that we wondered if it was a joke or not. None of us dared to check, so we silently continued on our way to the apartment of the antique Ranger.
“Woren Siloy venerable Han!” greeted Apocamus as we entered.
“Here I am. I hope I'm not disturbing you... I took the liberty of coming with some scouts."
"Kami li'ata!” replied the zorai sitting in front of a low table.
“Come on in! Come in, all of you!” he corrected as the rest of our party exited the elevator.
He began to stand up to greet us, but Apocamus asked him to sit down again, before waving us over to a corner of the room to do the same. He himself sat down facing the elder, on the other side of the table on which a chai set was already placed.
“Melga informed me that you would honor me with a visit."
"The honor is ours, venerable Han! How are you?"
"Oh, I'm doing as well as a centenarian can! But I worry about you. These are troubled times for the Rangers. And I remain grieved by the brutal loss of Orphie.”
Apocamus sighed briefly, then replied through clenched teeth:
“Brutal, yes. And unexplained! You don't know how hard I try to contain my anger. But with a sense of duty and discipline being the most important things to me, I manage.”
Han Kiou nodded slowly, then after a silence, remembered his duties as host.
“I've made chai, but I need more cups!” he exclaimed, looking toward us, before turning to a nearby chest of drawers to search through them.
“No! Disregard their presence. Consider them in the middle of a discipline exercise,” said our instructor.
“But? Do you allow me to welcome all my guests!?"
“No, no, I beg you! I will share a chai with you on behalf of the whole group. I tell you, they are on an observation mission. And believe me, I know them well: if you give them chai, they will take cookies out of their pockets, and, with their chewing noises, we won't hear each other talk. And on top of that, you'll have crumbs all over your tatami mats.”
“Oh oh.... Well, as you wish then.” said the zorai while filling their two cups with chai.
“So, Melga sends you to see me so I could tell you about the organization's past?”
“Right…. Well, he sends me, supposedly to help me understand the situation which... exasperates me! At first, I just couldn't accept the fact that the investigation of Orphie's death was getting nowhere. But now, with no disrespect to her memory, I'm starting to be impatient for a new Guide to be appointed! Honestly, I don't understand how talking about the past - which I already know - is going to shed some light for me. But I do follow orders. On the other hand, since I am not the only one who has questions, I took the initiative to visit you accompanied by young recruits. I am sure that hearing the word of the oldest Ranger will be beneficial to them. At least this way, I am assured that visiting you will be useful for something.”
The old Zorai remained silent for a moment, sipping his chai. Then he put down his cup, still in silence. The sight of the steaming chai, the fact of being packed with my comrades in the corner of the room, made me hot and thirsty. But I was more in the mood for a good byhr.
“I don't know what Melga's idea is either,” he said at last,
“but in any case I will answer you as best I can, and unfiltered.”
“Thank you, comrade.”
Unfiltered? I wondered what Han Kiou implied by that...
“So,” asked the instructor,
“you joined the Rangers as soon as they were created, didn't you? How did it go?”
“It has been simple, as if obvious to me. Just in the continuation of my previous job, as if only the name of the contingent to which I belonged then had changed. Cause I was at that time one of the volunteers assigned by the Theocracy to the armed forces set up under the Pact of Mutual Assistance. I served under the command of Sai-Shun from 2490, three years before the Rangers were created. I was 16 years old.”
“That's a long time ago,” our instructor teased, laughing.
“So you were a member of the legendary Force of Fraternity?”
“Of the extended Force of Fraternity, I would say. Because the FoF in the strict sense is first of all four heroes, who came back from the Old Lands in 2489 by the Oflovak Road. They were the ones who lobbied the governments of the Nations to raise troops and exterminate the kitins that were starting to appear on the New Lands. The leaders followed them and Sai-Shun and Svaldi Bucci coordinated the Western and Eastern forces respectively.”
“Humpf! You mean the kamists on one side and the karavaneers on the other?”
“Né, I assure you, on the ground, it was not that kind of atmosphere. The four heroes were in charge of the general training and motivation of the troops. It was incredible, they were everywhere! It was a truly amazing and exhilarating campaign. ‘Force of Fraternity’ was the rallying cry of the four for us to galvanize the troops we were.”
“I heard that not a single kitin was left alive after this campaign?”
“That's true, except for a few pockets, but they were costly. Namely, the deaths of Cheng-Ho, Bremmen and Roqvini. And then, finally, the kitins returned. Then they were chased away again, then they came back again. We didn't let go until 2515, from memory. It was the wrong approach.”
“But then, just after the heroes died, you formed the Rangers?”
“That's about the time. The anti-kitins campaign was over. I had been home for just under a year when the recruitment ads for the new Ranger Corps were posted.”
“And so, out of the spirit of Force of Fraternity came the Rangers. A coalition across borders and religions, for the survival of hominity!”
Apocamus raised his cup and drank it in one gulp.
“Yui, but we must not forget the other influence, especially among the officers, that of the Trail Blazers.”
Apocamus could not contain a puzzled look, one eyebrow furrowed and the other raised.
“Who then?” he questioned.
“The Trail Blazers, followers of Oflovak Rydon.”
“You mean... the Guild of Elias!?”
“Né! Not the detractors of religion, but their cousins, the Trail Blazers guild. They were obsessed with the Trail.”
“What do you mean by that? Scouting skills? The fact of opening tracks?”
“Yui, but with a mystical dimension. And using the Oflovak Road as a model. Beyond the technical aspect, the process of opening a physical path gives the Trail Blazer the keys to a successful spiritual route.”
“Toub! I always thought that the reference to Oflovak in the wording of our Precept of Memory, paid tribute to the devotion and exemplarity of this homin, as a benefactor of a hominity under the permanent threat of the kitins. But I didn't think there was a real filiation from Master to Disciple.”
“Do we really need to know? Even back then, it was mostly the officers' thing. I know this because after I rose in rank, I met people and talked to them. I was told: ‘do your job, the Trail get made’. I was warned against intellectualizing the concept, because that's the best way to block it. ‘Oh well! Better not tell me about it, then!’ I replied.”
Han Kiou laughed softly.
“But, do these Trail Blazers still exist?” asked Apocamus, still intrigued.
“Oh, né! They all left on an expedition with no return long ago. But we inherited some of their knowledge, they trained the first undercover Rangers. But that's not all: if you think about it, by extension, blazing a trail means adapting to the unknown, making decisions without having all the parameters, and above all, taking your comrades along. It is in this tradition that we call our leader ‘The Guide’ . He leads the way but not alone, all his companions leave their mark too. Each of you.”
“Oh, very interesting, toub! I learned a new thing.”
“Hey hey, you did well to come,” commented the zorai as he filled their cups again.
They still made me thirsty, those two, but I was glad to be with them.
“So,” Apocamus continued,
“that's why Svaldi Bucci was chosen as the first Guide? Because he was a commander during the 90-92 eradication campaign, and he was also a disciple of the Trail Blazers?"
"Yui, probably, but I did not attend! Svaldi was a commander but also a scholar, who was interested in all kinds of knowledge and philosophies. The influence of the Trail Blazers, yui, they were in our ranks. We hadn't explored every corner of the New Lands yet! Let alone the Prime Roots. But according to the rumors, Svaldi had also been influenced by the others."
"Yui, the ‘cousins’...."
"... The Guild of Elias?”
The Zorai did not answer, but began to nod again. There was a sense of embarrassment in our instructor. I swallowed.
“Svaldi Bucci was in league with the Trytonists?” Apocamus asked, for confirmation.
The Zorai made small motions with his hand, a sign that seemed to say,
“You can say that again, boy.”
Apocamus stayed silent for a while, then felt the need to drink his cup of chai.
“But that's not so surprising in the context of the times,” the Zorai said.
“There was an intellectual effervescence, circles of exchange of ideas, even the most twisted. In fact the trytonist movement was taking a great extent, in particular among the Matis, even of the nobility.”
There was a shudder of murmurs in our group, but we restrained ourselves.
“But wait! Do you know that Stevano pressed Melga for the choice of a new Guide? By praising the merits of Svaldi? A trytonist, then!"
said Apocamus, hitting his thigh.
“Né.” simply answered the zoraï while shrugging his shoulders.
Apocamus remained silent, plunged in his reflections, eyes closed, thumb and index finger pinched at the root of his nose. Then he began to shake his shoulders, before being completely shaken by a nervous giggle which quickly went into high notes. Seeing this, the old zoraï also started to laugh softly, with a hoarse laugh.
That was too communicative and we laughed together. It would have been all right if my neighbor on the left – a Fyros, of course – had not laughed loudly with a big, fat, mocking laugh! I elbowed him, but a little late: Apocamus turned towards us to shoot us with a furious look that froze our blood.
“Then,” continued the elder, “and Stevano may know it, Svaldi nevertheless saved his father from the madness of his uncle Jinovitch. For we helped young Yrkanis escape by guiding him through the Prime Roots to the Lakes, where Guild of Try then took over. But the tyrant found out, and it went very badly for us: we were accused of having broken our neutrality, and Svaldi of having incited us to that."
“Yes, hence his resignation in 2508.”
“His resignation? He had no choice but to disappear, yui! Also, the organization had to show a clean slate, and the other governments didn't defend us much. All Rangers had to make a choice: either become stateless or leave the organization. A cruel dilemma for many of us! We lost two thirds of our numbers in the process.”
“So much so! But then, at that time, you each kept your national allegiance?”
“Yui, that was normal, and has been since the creation of the PMA contingents. It was the only cult neutrality that was requested when the Rangers were created afterwards.”
“What? But that was not a problem in everyday life!?”
“Né.... If, however, we exclude the fact that Svaldi could not bear to see the drift of his country and to see several of his friends burned alive... Né, we were then as united as you are today behind the cause.”
“I get the feeling you regret? Was it a difficult choice for you?”
“Né, the choice was obvious to me. However, over time, yui, I found that a certain flavor had disappeared.”
“What do you mean? Explain, please?” insisted Apocamus, taken aback.
“The homeland, you see, is our roots, our landmarks. It was these roots that each of us was defending, that gave us strength and courage, and it was touching to have at our side companions fighting together, though coming from different countries. This solidarity in the struggle was of great value to us. Besides, among us, the most proud of their homeland were often also the most daring and enterprising.”
“What do you mean? You mean that in your eyes the Rangers of today are not as brave! Nor as deserving and fraternal!” our instructor reacted in a scandalized voice.
“Né, né! That's not what I meant,” Han protested.
“It was just different. Less smooth probably. And then I notice a shift: the more the years go by, the more the Rangers are seen as foreigners everywhere, in every country. That's my impression. But I'm not going to complain, I'm old and now on the fringe, living peacefully in Hoi Cho and enjoying its blessings, like an ordinary old Initiate. It is difficult for you.”
“No, venerable one. There is no such difficulty. We are entirely devoted to our mission, and we devote our whole lives
to it.”, replied Apocamus, with a half-hearted reproach.
I would have liked to say a word, but it was not the moment…
“Your grandmother,” the venerable man resumed,
“was the first Ranger of the ‘new generation’ completely stateless."
“Yes, Orphie grew up in camp.”
"That's right. Aekidon and Pleperin raised her in our ranks, taking turns keeping her at camp, and sometimes even carrying her on their backs on missions. The leaders were not happy at first, but then she became our mascot!”
“Yes, I know her parents benefited of a favor. If all the Rangers did the same, we'd be fettered by having to run a crèche,” confirmed Apocamus with a smile.
“But Orphie proved to be incredibly talented. And then the tragic death of her parents gave her even more drive to fight the kitins.”
“So you can see that motivation and self-sacrifice are not the prerogative of patriotism. Frankly, I wonder what would have happened, with your way of working, during the Temples War and then during the one that saw the Fyros come to blows with the Matis!”
“Ahhh! The Temples War, that was a sad episode that made your grandmother mad with indignation. So at the time, she, too, got closer to the trytonists.”
“Orphie!? No!” barked her grandson curtly, his face suddenly emptied of any friendly expression, his gaze hard.
“Hm.... It seems incredible to you, young homin, but I can assure you that it's the truth... even if I wasn't delighted of that. Imagine the context: we have spent two years in a vacuum, without any support from the Nations nor from the Powers, with Orphie constantly upset to see her appeals to reason ignored. So she signed an alliance pact with the Guild of Elias.”
“An alliance pact!? Never heard of it!”
“Nowadays, this is not the kind of information that is conducive to good diplomatic relations.... And this alliance was very short-lived: it ended as early as 2532.”
“Oh, that one has been a baleful year. The assassination of the Governor of the Lakes already.... But, as for the Guild of Elias, when they formed the project of a deep expedition under the Bark gathering most of their members, we helped with the preparations. Unfortunately, none of them came back, and their movement took a big hit. For us, however, times were better: just before Wyler's death, Melga pulled off a stroke of genius that year by negotiating a huge budget with the leaders of each of the Nations. This allowed us to open the Silan camp, which fulfilled one of Orphie's dreams: to educate the homins about the Kitin threat and train them to fight it. From then on, our relations with the governments were ‘back to normal’ if I may say so, until now.”
As for me, I was not seeing all. Or rather I refused to see. I was a little disappointed with these politics stuff. Fighting the Kitin threat together should be a no brainer! Period. I would have liked to have been served a large mug of byrh to mix my bitterness with that of the beverage.
Apocamus looked at us out of the corner of his eye. It was as if he was hesitating, given our listening presence, to broach a certain subject. But he soon made up his mind.
“Who is this Ranger prodigy who is supposed to come to us from the Old Lands to be our
new Guide? Do you know him?"
"Né, not at all. I'm glad I don't, by the way, otherwise that would mean he is an old bastard like me!"
"I'm a little worried about following a complete stranger, who doesn't know anything about our countries..."
"But it is not decided yet! It's premature to talk about it. Tell yourself that, at least, it will be exciting to hear what he has to say about the situation in the Old Lands."
"Hmm... You are right, but I would rather see our expectations fulfilled, that we can bounce back. Anyway.... With your words you have given us something to meditate on at length, which we will certainly do with the help of the Cube of Precepts, as Wuaoi taught us. Thank you very much Han Kiou, venerable Ranger!"
"It is I who thank you, young instructor! Lao... will you allow me now?"
"To serve chai to everyone?"
our instructor temporized, turning to us to gauge us.
“Yes, it's all right. Approach, all of you!”
Yeah! We didn't need to be prayed to spread out around the table: encirclement tactics! At first, we were wise, but very quickly, we took out the gear: cookies, byrhs, shooki liquor and marquisette. Off the blow the ancestor took out his psykopinthe to us. We made beautiful mixtures!
O'Dardan Ricken, Pathfinder,
- in Ranger Bulletin #17 of 2615-1-12-26