become like the Unthings themselves,
devouring the lives of others
until Fate intervenes.
The quest for the Swan Queen had clearly unraveled. The elven rangers were tired. The darkness had begun to toy with their minds. They were a strong people but the unexpected loss of men to the Unthings discouraged them. They pressed forward, however, with the hope of finding friendly faces at the elven settlement at the Silver River.
Finding the settlement, however, was not a simple task. Elves were a cautious sort and often used their considerable talents to hide themselves.
The men in the troupe made their way along the riverbank in the light of morning. It was not wise to move openly but they had no desire to walk through the more shadowed parts of the woods.
And so they fell into a trap quite easily.
A thousand arrows pointed at this small band of rangers. If it weren’t for Toryn’s unflinching poise, the other men might have drawn their bows at those who surrounded them. But Toryn knew it would be futile. He nodded to the circle of elves and spoke calmly. “I am Ranger Toryn. We’re from the Two Forks village. We’ve been journeying west to the Mirror Lake. Our men are injured, thanks to the Unthings a day or so north of here.”
“The human cub,” the apparent leader spoke from a tree above them. “Is he your prisoner?”
“No,” Toryn frowned. “He’s one of us.”
The elves murmured, before their leader answered. “No outsiders are allowed to see the way in. He’ll have to be blindfolded. Will you accept these conditions?”
Maximilian could see the others frown but knew there would be no other way. When Toryn turned his head in his direction, the young man nodded.
“We shall,” Toryn answered.
At that, two elves lightly leaped from the trees. Maximilian tensed slightly as they approached but did not move as a sack was placed over his head.
“Our apologies,” the leader’s voice floated from somewhere else near him. “But our clan chief has warned of outsiders. Our men will escort your human companion. The rest of you are asked to please put your weapons away. We will guide you from here.”
* * *
Maximilian would not have been able to do them much harm regardless of whether or not he was blindfolded or not. The path the Silver River elves took twisted and turned, went up and down, and was impossible to commit to memory.
He could hear the sound of water babbling faintly in the background as their path gradually sloped upward. He could feel the wind start to move more keenly. And then the air stilled and he was forced to kneel.
When his blindfold was removed, he found himself seated alongside several others in his party. His eyes drifted around, studying the wooden hut. He realized then they were up in the trees.
His troupe members removed his restraints, explaining the reasons for the peculiar arrangement of Silver River elves’ settlement. They had not always lived up in the sky. However, they were forced to build above the ground, beyond the reach of the floods that came whenever the two moons in the sky aligned in orbit.
Maximilian realized that Toryn was not with them. And so the rangers sat patiently, using the time to mend their bows, hew some arrows, and repack supplies with the materials provided by the River elves. They waited. Not only for Toryn but for news of Eldnar and how he fared.
The younger ones could not help amusing themselves during this idle time. They openly discussed what they had observed about the village with the young Wolfram.
“There are more womenfolk than menfolk,” a ranger noted. “Rather odd.”
Delmarin seemed almost excited as he recounted how many young women he had seen so far.
His twin brother Delmari laughed at his brother’s apparent fascination with the subject matter. “Delmarin is the sort to notice. He has always had such an eye for the ladies.”
Delmarin glared. “You know you were looking just as much as I was. But while the womenfolk here are quite fair, I don’t know that they much care for Wood Elf life. The River here has too many offerings that we could never manage to provide, I’m afraid.”
“Except a good stout elf,” someone added with a thump to his chest – a gesture that set the men grinning.
It was almost safe here to speak of such light matters. But Maximilian was not like them. He did not have their temperament or capacity for lightness. “And what of Eldnar?”
“He’s with the prettiest of them all,” Delmarin said a bit more somberly. “A healer. He actually cracked a smile when she started to talk to him. But who wouldn’t?”
“Indeed, brother,” Delmari grinned. “I was worried for him for a bit. Thought Eldnar had lost more than his arm to that thing but one can see some glimmer of the old boy there.”
Delmari’s words cheered them immensely. When Toryn stuck his head in through the door, they were almost like their old selves again.
“Been productively engaged, men?” Toryn looked about with a discerning eye. “Surprised to find you all still here. I was sure some of you would be down there chatting up the lasses.”
“And face your wrath?” The twins grinned. “We’re still too green behind the years to be thinking about putting down roots with the River folk.”
“Absolutely,” Toryn glared. “Now,” he softened. “Maximilian, the River Clan Elder wants to see you.”
The elves tensed slightly.
Wolfram himself felt uneasy. “More trouble sir?”
“I don’t think so,” Toryn shook his head. “I’ll be with him. But as for the rest of you, you’re permitted to go socialize with the local young folk. However, please do not leave your wits and knives untended. I’d post two men here at all times. Use a rotation if you must, and be cautious. I’m not concerned about the folk here, per se, but the River Folk are clearly on watch for something.”
“No,” Toryn frowned. “Something far different.”
* * *
Toryn kept close to him as they were escorted through the treetop walkway. With his leader’s words in mind, Maximilian paid heightened attention to surroundings. He noticed the guards posted here and there – a somewhat unusual sight in his opinion given that they were well inside the village.
They arrived at a large hut in the approximate center of this apparent maze of walkways. As he was guided inside the room, he noted the two guards posted at the sides of the doors outside and inside the room. There was a large audience today but his attention was drawn to the far wall where there were three figures seated above the others. Toryn had told him one would be the Elder, the other the village healer, and one the chieftain of the clan.
Not knowing exactly what to do as far as elven protocol, Wolfram followed Toryn’s lead. He bowed (somewhat clumsily) in the same fashion that the troupe leader did before sitting on a woven mat on the ground.
The old man seated furthest to his right turned milky eyes in his general direction. “Is this the boy? I’d like to see him.”
Maximilian glanced at Toryn, confused. The man was clearly blind.
The young woman on the left intervened. “Elder Murro would like to touch your hands.”
Wolfram looked at her — plain and so pale that she was almost all white as if she were a ghost. But her words changed that impression greatly. He stared at her eyes — as blue as the sky on a crisp autumn day. Her voice tinkled, light and lyrical.
“It’s alright, just hold out your hands.” Her voice held so much power that Maximilian could only but obey.
The old man’s grip was so unexpectedly strong that Maximilian’s fit of distraction was broken. The young man opened his eyes in surprise and stared at the elder.
“Hmm,” the elder sounded out while running his fingers over the palms of Maximilian’s hands. “You’re still a youngling. Callouses are still fresh.” Murro cackled to himself, clearly amused by his own observation. “Bit of elf in you, I think,” he continued observing to the two other seated persons. “A bit of Wolf. And a bit of the human I would guess or maybe some of the Old blood. That might explain the story the Ranger Toryn tells, yes.”
Maximilian glanced Toryn’s way, for an explanation.
“I have told them about the light that dispelled the Unthings,” Toryn explained. “They asked how we were able to free Eldnar. He should not have escaped once caught.”
The woman in the middle finally spoke, startling the entire room. “Yes. That is so. Healer L’lea,” she seemed almost impatient as she called to other woman. “Place the moonstones in his palm.”
The pale healer looked troubled at the request but quietly stood to obey. “If you will allow me, human ranger.”
Maximilian complied and opened his hand to her.
“This will not hurt,” she assured him as she took out several dark blue stones. “Does this look familiar to you?”
He looked at the stones in her hand and nodded.
There was an expectant air in the room as she reached out for him. He could tell that they did not trust him, did not believe him.
When the stones dropped onto his palm and did nothing, he felt the troupe leader beside him flinch.
The healer sighed when nothing happened. “It seems like the reaction is weak.”
He frowned, wondering why. But then he shook his head “Not like that,” he stated as he clamped his fingers shut.
As if to be contrary, the stone heated then — filling the room with a huge sharp light. A flicker of something came to him then. Knowledge. Ghosts. Words?
He could not hear it amidst the shouts and movement.
When the light faded, he found the healer standing at his side and the guards pointing the tips of their spears at him. They did not relent until she had pried his fingers open to reclaim the rocks.
The healer passed the stones back and forth between her hands — finding the stones still warm. Her gaze was full of wonder and disbelief.
The calm voice of the leader cut through the confusion. “Sit, healer. The rest of you,” she said sternly. “Leave.”
As all others had departed the room, save for the healer, the Elder, and their leader, and Toryn – Maximilian’s face settled into a grim expression.
“So the stories have been proven true,” the leader spoke– her face flat and hard to read. “You boy, can manipulate the stones of moon. You possess one, obviously. That was how you summoned the light to dispel those soul suckers.”
At this last bit, he tensed.
“You need not fear that we will take it from you,” the Healer spoke gently.
“There are many of these stones found in the extremes of this world,” the Elder spoke. “How you came across the one in your possession, I do not know, nor does it matter. But whoever gave it to you likely believed you would be able to use it.” Murro smiled vaguely. “In this world are many races and creatures, some of whose lineages go back to the beginning of this world. It is according to many legends that the blood of the original families that settled our world rendered them able to use the stones that were given to them by their ancestors. This magic weakened over time – except amongst certain dynastic lines.”
Maximilian for some reason, tensed. “Then there are others who use them?”
“There must be,” the leader shook her head. “If there were not, these stones mined by us would have no value on the market. They are not precious or all that pretty. They’re not useful to most of us. But something drives their prices. There are rumored users out there — the Swan Queen is one such entity.”
The mention of the fabled woman drew all of their interest. “She is not elf, then?”
“Absolutely not,” the Elder chuckled. “She looks somewhat like your kind, but she has lived longer than any elf or human known to our existence.”
Toryn interjected before the topic could wander too far from the matter at hand. “What does this mean for Wolfram?”
The Elder hesitated. “Be on your guard, human ranger. The light attracts the dark. The Unthings are one danger, but as odd as they appear they have no real intent other than to feed their emptiness. The others are evil. In time, they will seek you out. You need to prepare accordingly. We shall help.”