The pools of darkness moved quietly. They were not quick but, unlike the shadow thing they had spotted earlier in the day, were also not inert things content with rolling around collecting leaves.
They were hungry.
A stone’s throw from Maximilian, the poor lad Llywyn disappeared in a bloated mass, screaming as the blackness enveloped him. Both the creature and Llywyn struggled for a moment before the mass disappeared altogether.
Once the lad was gone, the pool surged forward, crawling and creeping towards the next young elf in his way.
Maximilian waved the torch in front of him, thwarting the movement of a slowly lengthening tendril and yanking the next apparent victim out of the way.
“All he did was step in it,” the young elf called Barran choked out, still looking at the spot where Llywyn had stood. Maximilian was forced to drag him back to the fires, thrusting him at Delmari and Delmarin before turning back to scan the area again for the brothers Ridnar and Eldnar. A few others took the lights in hand to try to do something about those caught unawares by the “water.” He decided to step out and join them, this time with two torches in hand.
“Wolfram!” Toryn scowled at him as he discovered the young man following them towards the black mass of creatures. “You have no experience with these things—“
He gritted his teeth, ignoring the weight of the chain around his neck. “There’s no time to wait.” He pushed past Toryn to clear a path towards the sound of cries for help. Ridnar was screaming, trapped between a rock and the rolling blackness. Between the cries for help came the sounds of Eldnar wheezing in pain. He rushed forward, vanquishing the inky tendrils with flames; he did not allow himself to worry that behind him, the dark things had closed off the path he had forged.
As he joined the brothers, he felt his insides constrict. Eldnar, his face ashen, was going into shock as the Unthing ate his arm slowly and Ridnar was clutching him, despairing at being able to do nothing to save his brother. The look of terror on their faces made Wolfram furious.
“Ridnar,” Maximilian thrust a torch at him. “Help me try to fight this thing off him.”
The man complied, joining him in trying to bring the torchlight as close as they could to the base of the creature. Try as they might, though, the thing would creep away just out of their reach, lengthening as needed to do so, while keeping its hold on Eldnar.
The stone around his neck burned even hotter. Maximilian, unable to think clearly, pulled the chain off him, intent on shoving the thing into a pouch on his side. But in that moment, the moon came out from behind the clouds.
The sudden faint light caused a minute pause in the movement of those creatures. In the moonlight, the stone in his hand began to glow faintly, causing the things near him to tremble slightly and to curl up.
“Wolfram,” Ridnar stared.
Without warning it flashed strongly, turning night into day. Maximilian was caught up in a bright hot light that blasted the retreating creatures, scattering them like black sands in the wind.
The light expanded on a continuum; at its epicenter, Maximilian did not know until later that it was a light that was viewable for hundreds of leagues around. When it faded, Delmari and Delmarin pounced upon him, pestering him with questions to make sure that he hadn’t sustained some sort of hidden injuries. He blinked confusedly at them, trying to understand their muffled voices. He looked down once at his hands, noting dispassionately that they were burned, before looking at the sight of Eldnar kneeling beyond him, with Ridnar clinging to him in relief.
Reassured that Eldnar was still there, and the Unthings were gone, he tried to look about at the chaotic scene of elves running about him. He stared up at the trees swaying in the wind. In his hand, the silver chain swung gently, and he too, swayed before he passed out.
His friends kept watch over him while he drifted in and out of consciousness. Next to him sat Eldnar, cradling what was left of his arm. Ridnar watched over him, his eyes bleary from the lack of sleep.
The younger elves sat silent, huddled around the fire while their elders furiously discussed what to do. Their misstep as a troupe had shredded their morale and raised other, more pressing, questions as to whether to continue forward with their journey.
They had lost six elves in total – the young ones that had gone too quickly towards the pool of water, and two older rangers who had gone to help them. Eldnar was the only one who had tangled with the creatures and survived, but while alive, his demeanor worried them immensely. They wanted to return him home, but he could not go back alone with only Ridnar to fend for them both. Splitting the troupe to do so would be unwise given the now clear increasing danger in the region.
So they headed south along the river towards another settlement that had taken up on the edges of the Silver River. It would be another journey of a day and a half, but they needed to rest and seek out additional care for Eldnar. Grimly they pressed forward.
Maximilian brooded as he followed his companions and friends on the narrow dirt paths that ran along the cliffs of the river. While he walked alone in the long line, he fingered the object his grandfather had given him within his wrapped hand. He was quiet, for the others were giving him a wide berth. They now called him a magic user and stayed respectfully away, even though he insisted that he had not intentionally caused that light that destroyed the shadowy creatures.
He had never studied magic, as his parents had a particular disinterest in it. However, he would not have put it past his grandfather to have handed him something odd from his dusty study. It was with that thought in mind that he showed the suspect item to Toryn.
Toryn looked at it closely for a few minutes, turning it in his hand, scratching, and even smelling the object. With a chuckle, he had handed it back. “Your grandfather dabbles in a lot of things — elven, human, even pirate technology. I don’t know that he’s much of a magic believer, but that isn’t to say he probably hasn’t tried something from time to time. You’ll just have to keep that with you and see how things play out again.”
It was frustrating to him to simply be left alone wondering exactly what power he held in his hands and how to use it. It was lonely being treated like a magician. He wanted so much for things to be returned to the way they had been, but what had passed could not be undone.
Behind him, Eldnar trailed at a distance. Even if he was responsible for saving Eldnar, he had not done enough. If he were a magician, he would undo the damage so they could all merrily advance. But now they would have to borrow a boat downstream to send the two brothers south to catch a traveling party that would take them home via a safer route.
That was, of course, if Eldnar could be convinced to permit this arrangement. Ridnar’s dream was to see the Swan Queen and their friends knew well enough that Eldnar would not deprive his older brother of it.
And yet Eldnar did not appear to be in sound enough mental shape to continue. He would stare vacuously at the scenery. He would pace, often bringing himself to stand at the edge of camp to glare at the water for reasons that were unknown to the others. Ridnar would follow him, often with a puzzled look upon his own face. He — who used to understand his brother so well — could only guess at what preoccupied Eldnar’s mind.
“It’s not an Unthing,” Ridnar said gently to his brother. “You can see the proper reflection of objects on its surface.”
Eldnar shut his eyes tightly for a moment before allowing his brother to guide him back to the camp.
Delmari and Delmarin kept the conversation going as best as they could, while the remainder of their friends sat staring at the fire. It was idle chatter, Maximilian noted, mostly about the female elves to be found once they arrived at the village. Still, the foolish banter between the twins was entertaining enough to distract Eldnar’s attention for a short while and give Ridnar a chance to relax for a bit.
Wolfram sat with them, fingering the chain hanging around his neck. He held the stone aloft in the moonlight, watching to see if it would glow like it did as it did once before.
Eldnar’s eyes turned to watch, riveted by the familiar sight of the stone. Slowly he seemed to sit up straighter and regain some of his composure. Finally, he let go of his misshapen arm, his fingers reaching out towards Maximilian.
They all tensed, but did not dare move, waiting to see what the previously unresponsive man would do.
As his fingers grasped the blue rock reflecting that soft light of the moon, Eldnar closed his eyes.
From him, came the sound of weeping.
* * *
Ninety years later, Maximilian hunched over a table, the silver chain folded in his hands.
He brooded over these memories – these and others that had been stirred up by the appearance of the girl and the creature at the bridge. Recalling these now, he wished he had the gift of foresight, the gift to see that everything others had attributed to his luck or talent was, in fact, a sign of what he really was.
He clutched his head between his hands, lost in his thoughts while the afternoon passed him by. He sat frozen, until the sound of a knock came at the door.
Wearily, he looked up at his butler.
“Yes?” The present-day Count veiled all of his thoughts deep behind a blank, expressionless face. “Has Giles returned?”
“No, sir.” In hushed tones the man spoke. “But there is someone at the bridge.”