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Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Twin Spires: Part 2

Chapter 10.

  “All of creation being derived from the flesh of God, it follows that all of creation is a part of God. That God, aside from being some great Being beyond the comprehension of his children, is also the blow of the wind, the fragrance of a flower, the earth upon which we stand, and the blazing stars to which we sometimes gaze. God’s will is manifest in his creation. The rock’s will, is that it should be a rock. The river’s will, to be a river. All the flesh of God contains also the spirit of God. This spirit, this essence, is that First Cause from which all else has come to be. It was this will, this soul, that decided to be a rock. That will, that decided to rush across the rocks and make little channels. That will, that decided to frolic across both river and rock, picking things up and dropping them as it pleased. But when God willed to be part rock, part river, part wind, God willed also to be us. God lives and breathes in each and every one of us. Our blood is His blood, our tears His tears. But this one time, God’s will was not our will. He did not will one person to be Mack, another person to be John. God willed us only to be, and it became our will, then, to be as we pleased. Our essence, our holy spirit, is ours! And when God willed to be a forest, we willed for it to be a farm. When God willed to be a desert, we willed for it to be a city. Alone, alone of all God’s creations, God gave us the will to will things as we pleased. We are all of us the masters of the vessels of our souls. We are all of us God, and reality itself must bend to our prayers!”

--The Prophet Issayah, burned at the stake for heresy.

  Litfee was the first to see the speck on the horizon--Tyrifell’s majestic rainbow wings shattering and splintering the light of the sun as she floated through the sky. “Mina!” She announced, tossing her head to point the way. It is a word to get attention, but only from the people who would normally be attentive to you anyway. It is a word that means, ‘everyone of the guild,’ or ‘everyone of the clan.’ What it meant now was ‘everyone with pointed ears.’
  “So he’s alive.” Azteer whistled. His hand had not strayed from the hilt of his sword, as light-hearted as his remark sounded.
  “Opalion!” Jhennador shouted in challenge. Tyrifell circled the trees once, twice, then gently settled to the forest floor, Opalion dismounting rather deliberately, executing each motion with enhanced precision. “You’re late!” Jhennador snarled. “You just missed the rest of the swei being massacred by an entire nation of little minions because nobody told us where the Hell they came from or what the Hell they were doing here!”
  Opalion nodded, waiting for the rage to pass. But this time it was not just Jhennador who was angry. All the eyes that met him had that film of rage, of accusation, even of a sort of pleading that Opalion had some reason, any reason to have failed them so.
  “By the grace of Helios, this did not come to be.” Azteer announced, his voice formal and distant as his hand tightened around his hilt. “The minions fled, even the eldar fled, because of these little ones.” Azteer didn’t need to point out the obvious onlookers. Opalion paused a moment to nod at the. . .round-ears in thanks. He couldn’t think of a better word for them.
  “But we were not depending on Helios, we were not depending on these little ones, we were depending on you, Opalion!” Jhennador thrust home. “So tell me, tell us all, why it was that if you had your way we would all be dead.”
  “Not fair,” Litfee interjected. “You can’t say that about any of us.”
  Jhennador only stared at Opalion, waiting for an answer.
  “I was only doing what I’d been doing all along. I fly in circles, looking down, sometimes up, until I see the minions in pursuit. I check to see how far away the minions are, check to see at what speed they are going, at what angles they try to cut us off. Then I come back, feed Tyrifell, wash her down. It has been all you wanted for me to see, all we expected for me to see, ever since we came to this world. When I saw the elementals, I knew I had failed, that somehow some group had gone very fast and overtaken you, and I came as quickly as I could. I hoped they would not be so strong, I hoped that I would come in time. For all the hatred in your eyes, I am relieved beyond words that I can look into each and every one of yours’.” Opalion explained.
  “You knew, Opalion, you knew that you were our only eyes.” Sleet insisted, jabbing each point down like nails into a coffin. “You led us into a trap, a trap as plain as day, an actual habitation of the minions, thousands strong! You were our guide, and you are so blinded, that an entire nation can slip by your focus?”
  “I am only me!” Opalion cried. “I never asked for this! I never said to you all, ‘Come with me and I will deliver you to peace and safety.’ Why am I to blame, when things go wrong? Why am I the one, who suddenly bore responsibility for us all? My father got us here. He has already paid the price! If it is someone to blame you need, then let it be Vayski. For God’s sake, he has already suffered enough for even you jackals, hasn’t he? Or should we go back and spit upon whatever the minions haven’t eaten? Will that show him how very wrong he was to bring us here?”
  “You can’t expect to be the last beastmaster alive and not hold his responsibility!” Jhennador exploded. “Do you see Sleet complaining that just because she is our last link to our little brothers, we expect her to enlist their aid? Do you see Nuen complaining when she must run with us though we are ten times her strength? None of us can complain, none of us can say the weight is too much, because this is what the weight is! And if it is already too heavy for you to carry, think how heavy it becomes when you let go. So before you complain to us about having never wanted this duty, take one good look around you and realize nobody wanted this, but this is how it is! If we are going to live, this is how it is going to have to be!”
  “Save it!” Opalion shouted, angry for not being forgiven, angry for not being understood. “Not one of us ever thought that maybe this world had a Lucifer of its own! Not one of you ever came up to me and said, ‘just to be sure, pay close attention to the path ahead because who knows but an entire nation might be camping out in front of us.’ I’ll be your beastmaster, but by Helios I will not be blamed for not having been incredibly smarter and incredibly more foreseeing than everyone else! I will not be your Guardian Angel! If you want me, then you get me. Just an elf. Just as likely to fail as anyone else. If it is something else you want, I can just get back up on Tyrifell and leave.” Opalion even wrapped his hand around Tyrifell’s reins.
  “No!” Nuen cried. “No! NO! Opalion, you can’t leave me!” Nuen screamed, screamed with a fear that had never touched her the whole time she knew she was about to die from a minion’s crude spear or heavy club. She launched herself at him, squirming out of Litfee’s hands on her shoulders, her hair trailing out behind her as she tackled Opalion to her.
  “Oh, gods.” Opalion grieved. “Gods, Nuen, we didn’t mean it. Nuen, no one is leaving you. We would never, ever leave you. You’re the brightest soul, the most beautiful soul. . . Nuen, I would never leave you behind. My precious, perfect, Nuen.” He held her tight, his hands threading through her hair, knelt so that his eyes were on the level of hers, coaxing, soothing her trembles away.

*  *  *
  The children watched with rapt awe. As the land spirits calmed their fury, an angel flew upon the back of an impossibly winged horse and landed in the clearing. The angels quickly began to converse in their fluted, chiming tongue.  But quickly things began to change in Glen’s mind. These were not the lofty discussions of higher beings, but people who were angry and afraid and bitter and stubborn and stressed beyond their limits and showing the strain. It quickly came to him, that each. . .sharp-ear. . .stood in a different way, talked in a different manner, held allegiance to different sides, oriented towards one another aggressively or passively. . . they were people, and immediately the scene changed from a spectacle to a matter that concerned him. Glen looked at Rain for support and found that same look of understanding as she had turned to look at him. They gave each other a slight smile and nod, inching forward to gain the sharp-ears’ notice.
  “Hail and well met,” Rain offered tentatively, breaking into the silence that had encased the other party momentarily. It was the tall man, who seemed to have been watching them for some time with detached interest, that responded.
  “Hail,” The sharp-ear offered disarmingly, leaning against a tree with undisguised fatigue. The other sharp-ears quickly followed the first’s lead and turned their attention to the problem at hand.
  “Can you understand us?” Treant asked, surprised.
  The tall man shook his head. “I am. . . I understand. . .only now.”
You mean, you are learning the language only just now?” Treant explained.
I am Azteer,” Azteer tapped his chest. “Jhennador, Opalion, Litfee, Sleet, Nuen.” Azteer pointed to each in turn.  “Tyrifell.” Azteer finally pointed at the pegasus.
I am Rain,” Rain responded in form. “This is my twin brother, Glen. This is my friend Treant.”
I understand,” Azteer answered, looking back and forth as if wondering what to do next.
Who are you? What are you doing here? Who was that other one? Why are they hunting you?” Glen demanded, stepping forward.
The sharp-ears looked at each other amusedly. “We are elves. We are running away from minions. They want to kill us, so they follow.” Azteer explained patiently.
Who are you? What are you doing here? Why are they not hunting you?” Sleet countered.
Treant answered, “We are Loassians, though I guess you’ve never heard of Loass, as I have never heard of a nation called Elv. We are also running away, but from our past. I mean—“
No. It is better to be. . .complex. I learn only faster.” Azteer interceded.
Well, the Darkness, well these particular goblins we sort of know. We promised not to fight each other. It’s very complicated.”
The elves looked a touch more wary, a touch colder than before. “You are friends with the children of Lucifer?” Sleet challenged incredulously.
Treant took a deep breath and looked to Rain for rescue. He knew it was going to be a long night.

*  *  *

  They sat around the fire, a comforting glow in the midst of the alien noises of the forest. The Glimkeer was either an enchanted forest full of the Darkness, or a cursed, endless, wild wood full of minions. So it was with a comfort against the night sounds that the travelers crowded around their salamander-hopping fire. As the language barrier melted away so too did the travelers feel more at ease with each other, and so the parties had arranged themselves in comfort not far from one another. Treant and Nuen had fallen asleep out of exhaustion, and Opalion had quickly returned to the sky to track the minion retreat, but the rest found such stimulation in the conversation that their minds wouldn’t allow any thoughts of rest to interrupt them.
  Glen had positioned himself with his back to a tree trunk, but on trying to make a point promptly leaned forward and lost his support for the sake of expounding upon some new and startling revelation, “You mean to say that your nation, this Alphe, has always been one united whole? That the elves have always lived together as part of one single whole?”
  “Of course,” Sleet answered, as if perplexed that this would even be remarkable. “What use would it be to split apart?”
  “Well. . .” Glen was taken aback, as if being asked to explain why the sky was blue. The more he thought about it, the less he could formulate an answer. Why did people split apart into so many factions all at odds with one another? “Well, didn’t you ever feel the need to further some goal, which only some people supported and not others? Didn’t you ever disagree as to how things should be run?”
  “Anything we wished to accomplish, we brought about with ease. We belonged to our tribes, and our guilds, and in belonging to them we were content with their decisions.”
  “What happened when they made really poor decisions? What happened when one tribe wanted another tribe’s land? Surely at some point in all these years some injustice was done to provoke disharmony!” Glen pursued.
  “What would we want from them, that we could not enjoy ourselves? What could we take from them, that they would not freely give, or teach us how to make for ourselves? What decisions need be rendered to a people full of the power of God?” Sleet returned, in genuine confusion. “All of Alphe was to our making. Our little brothers and sisters brought with them the friendship of the elements. Whatever we could not bring to be through the skill of our art, we created through the power of our will. Where would it prosper someone to rebel and break away from the rest? To lose the love earned over hundreds of years for some petty difference of opinion?”
  “You keep talking about your willpower,” Rain interjected, calling across the fire with sudden interest. “But that just means your conviction. Your willingness to achieve things. And yet you say it, as though it is not only your intent to accomplish, but also your means to accomplishing.”
  And now it was Litfee who responded, the conversation being stolen away from the most vocal participants. “We have obviously fallen upon another mistake in meaning. Of course Sleet was meaning the will of God, not just the fancy of our minds.”
  “You mean to say that the will of God is yours to command?” Rain asked with a certain amount of incredulity.
  “Of course,” Litfee answered, nonplussed. “But that’s true of everyone.”
  “What do you mean?” Glen asked, leaning forward excitedly.
  Litfee looked back and forth for relief, not understanding what it was they didn’t understand. Eventually Azteer took up the mantle. “The will of God belongs to everything. Everything commands, in some part, the will of God. With us, as with all thinking beings, we can harness it to our conscious direction. So the power of our will can affect all of God’s creation in so much as our will is stronger than the will of that which we affect.”
  “You mean,” Glen was almost to his feet now, eyes sparkling with reflections from the fire, “that you can use it to race through the air like you did, or to melt into shadows like Sonatzen?”
  Azteer grimaced at the dark elf’s name, of even having a dark elf mentioned in the same sentence as him. “Or whatever else. That bush, yonder, I could make into a feather.” Without warning, the bush had ceased to exist, a feather drifting lazily to rest on the forest floor. “The air could burst into flame,” and immediately the fire leapt into the sky. “Or congeal into stone,” and immediately the bonfire had become a perfect cube. “Which needn’t even fall to the ground,” Azteer continued, amused at the wide-eyed stares he was receiving. The cube indeed remained suspended in midair.
  “What Azteer is failing to tell you,” Sleet added mischievously, “is that in order to do that, he must continuously overpower the will of that stone to fall back to the ground in one fashion or another. There is a limit even to these cheap parlor tricks reality imposes on us.”
  “Indeed,” Azteer agreed, wiping the stone out of existence with a wave of his hand. “As children, we play with this to no end. There are always competitions to be the most spectacularly wasteful of one’s power in the company of others. But eventually we realize that there is nothing spectacular about the application of brute force to a situation. There is a subtlety to this, an art like any other, that few of us ever truly master.” Azteer settled back down with relief.
  Rain and Glen only stared at the elves with amazement. Miracles, deemed cheap parlor tricks! Child’s play! “How do you do that?” Glen stuttered, now fully to his feet. Glen remembered with perfect clarity, seeing the Orc chopping wood. Wanting only to run away, but with that voice commanding him: use the power of God. If only he could use this power, he never would have to fear anyone! He could protect everyone he loved! He could. . .
  “Strange of you to ask, when you’ve been using it this whole time,” Litfee replied.
  Glen could only look at her, mouth gaping.
  “You can come to sense it, after a while,” Litfee explained. “The backwash. Even should it be the flap of a butterfly’s wings, that flap changes the course of the entire world. Something you’re doing, you’re twisting reality, and the ripples lap against us and we know that something is changed.”
  “If you can wipe that stone out of existence, why couldn’t you do the same to the dark elf and the entire goblin nation?” Rain inquired.
  “In war, things get very complicated,” Azteer explained. “We have fought the minions for a long time now. Eventually we realized that enhancing ourselves was far more effective than destroying our enemies. I needn’t expend all my energy shredding minions when I could as easily make myself just enough faster to cut them down with a strike of my sword.”
  “There’s an art to killing, too.” Litfee managed with a slight choke. “A guild of warriors, who learn all they need to know on how best to bring about destruction.”
  Azteer only smiled at that, his eyes clouding with a look of wistfulness. “Better that I learned it, then, so that all the dancers and orators and poets and singers and crafters and shapers of the world could keep the beauty of Alphe for just a little longer.”
  “Selene have mercy,” Jhennador prayed, “let us have a night without the memory of our loss.”
  “You say I’m using the power of God?” Glen asked quietly, trying not to interfere with those pained looks they cast about to each other for comfort. “But I can’t do that sort of thing. We’re just simple farmers, at the mercy of the world around us.”
  “Do you not seek the will of God to achieve your heart’s desires? Do you not sometimes wish for things, ache for things and ask God for their deliverance?” Jhennador spurred.
  “Well of course, but that’s just prayin—“ Glen broke off in wonderment, his speech lost at the enormity of his discovery.
  “And your praying,” Jhennador now had a slight smile, “sometimes people are healthy when before they were sick?  Sometimes you are stronger than ever before, or you run faster than you possibly can? Sometimes in battle, your armies stand against impossible odds and end up the victors?”
  “Yes. But we always thought that was just. . .” Rain trailed off, her own thoughts overtaking the words she’d formed out of ignorance.
  The elves laughed now, a sparkle in their eyes and the quirks of their lips emerging. A fruit juice was passed around as they watched the round-ears flounder. There was a kindness in the laughter, as if they were watching the antics of their young and foolish little siblings. It was a laughter that poked fun, but with the warmth of an embrace.
  You wish to serve God so well,” Sleet started, trying to finish before she burst out laughing, “that you’ve forgotten that you are Him!” Now even the twins fell into laughter, more from dismay than anything else. For the first time in their lives, they’d become a part of a family. The family of their heart, and not the one dictated by chance. It felt really warm.
*  *  *
  “I think they’re off our trail,” Opalion reported in early that morning. They never did manage to get some sleep, and so it was with great relief that the elves learned that today would not be like the day before. “Nobody would be stupid enough to blunder into certain death, and then decide, upon being miraculously saved, to make camp and stay there through the rest of the day. Sonatzen gave us enough credit that this will probably be the last place he searches. If that makes us clever or just too stupid to live, I’ll leave for wiser heads to determine.” Opalion quickly wolfed down his food, brushing Tyrifell down and feeding her apples and oats. The rest of the camp was stirring to life, stretching tired muscles or rousing from bone-tired sleep. It was more a scene of the dead raising from their graves, than people greeting the morning sun.
  “What shall we do with them?” Opalion gestured towards the round-ears. Nuen rubbed her fist to her eye and gave Rain a smile. In one sense, Nuen was the younger of the two. But in another, Rain was little more than a hatchling.
  “We needn’t involve them in our troubles,” Jhennador quickly answered before any other opinion could be voiced.
  “You mean they wouldn’t be able to keep up,” Sleet bristled.
  “I didn’t say that,” Jhennador snapped. “What makes you think they’d want to, anyway? They’re obviously not traveling through this forest for fun. They have their own business to take care of.”
  “As far as I knew, our only business was survival,” Azteer commented wryly. “I doubt that their business conflicts with that.”
  “Jhennador’s right,” Opalion voted in. “They have nothing to do with us. They aren’t even from the same world. Who knows but when they have to decide between their own people and us, and they wouldn’t choose themselves? This is our swei, not theirs.”
  “Haven’t they proven themselves already? Did anybody notice they saved our lives yesterday?” Litfee came in.
  Everybody’s bodies reluctantly shifted towards Nuen. Taking advantage of all the grown-up talk, she’d sneaked Tyrifell another apple, giggling as the pegasus’ tongue tickled her hand. The silence froze Nuen in place, however, and she slowly turned to look at everyone looking at her. “What?” Nuen asked, a little nervous. Opalion had let her sit on Tyr the other day. Surely that meant she could feed her a treat, too? They didn’t have to be that mad about it.
  The round-ears could only sense that something was amiss, the entire discussion being made in the chiming music of the elven tongue. The vote had come down to the little girl who had fallen asleep almost immediately and hardly knew how to say hello in their language.
  “I just think he’s cute,” She whispered, blushing, her eyes watching her feet. Opalion rolled his eyes with a smile. He shrugged to Jhennador: you win some, you lose some. Jhennador seemed to deflate, giving in to the inevitable.
  “Umm. . .” Glen interjected. “Do we get to know what this is all about?”
  “We were wondering where you were headed, in the middle of this forest and all,” Azteer replied innocently.
  “Mircassia,” Rain answered, with a hint of excitement. Could it be? Are they really saying--?
  It’s our motherland. It’s the oldest, wisest country in the world. We have to go there to find an answer to our question.” Glen quickly explained, highlighting all the best parts of the tour.
  “You could come with us!” Rain blurted excitedly. “Glen is a hunter, he knows this forest better than anyone! And the goblins won’t attack you as long as you’re with us. And we can guide you through the cities and such, so you don’t make any mistakes. And the Darkness would never dare follow you into Mircassia.
  “All this just to be with us?” Azteer remarked, eyebrows lifting.
  “Of course! Do you think we’d just leave you here?” Rain shot back.
  “And besides,” Glen jumped in, “we’ll be a lot safer if we aren’t just three children out on our own.”
  “Well then,” Litfee concluded triumphantly, “it’s only fair that we return a life for a life. We’ll just have to make sure you get there.”
*  *  *
  They had struck camp, heading north, following the riverbed to hide their tracks and their scent. Opalion still took to the sky, but it was to Glen, now, that they trusted their path. For the first time, they knew that the forest had boundaries, and that soon they’d be out of it. Civilization, and allies against the Darkness, were only a few days away. The group had settled into a line, sorting themselves out to be near whomever they found most interest in at the moment. Treant, having been asleep during the first meeting, was bursting full of questions to whomever would respond.
No, no!” Litfee lectured, exasperated. “Helios bade us to find our own reason to live. ‘The minions we can shield you from, but it is neither within our power nor our rights to protect you from yourselves.’ When Lucifer betrayed God and brought the Darkness upon us, God banished Lucifer and his angels to Hell. For that, Lucifer hates us. If only we hadn’t existed, none of this would have ever happened. He can never rest until the deed is done. But our Guardian Angels watch over us, and foil Satan’s schemes and fight against the demon hordes. They give us the strength to resist Him. What no one can give you, though, is the will to live. The will to fight. God willed us to be Free, to choose the path of our lives as we wished. Not even the angels, not even Lucifer, can encroach upon that power.”
  “Why? If we are all the flesh of God, and you say the will of God can twist reality to its liking, why can’t we change people’s minds? People’s beliefs? Their decisions?” Treant challenged Litfee, the circle of the Morann laying heavily upon his breast. It was so strange, to be confronted with another religion. Of course the Morann was right. It had been passed down since the age of Firion, unrivalled, universal. Even those who thought little of religion, knew it was the Morann they thought little of. Even their beliefs were religious, in that they were based on not believing certain parts of the faith. In that the only beliefs their mind could encompass, were those proffered by the Morann. Whether they believed it or not, they lived within its bounds. But this, this was heresy. This was like Issayah upon the mountain. This was a belief so different, so powerful, that it could sweep through the world like a plague. It could destroy the peace that had lasted ever since the Treatise. It could tear people apart, make enemies out of fellow men. He had to understand it, so he could know it was wrong.
That’s stupid,” Litfee snapped, and then sighed. “I’m sorry. It’s just, to me this is all just so obvious. We just know this stuff. Of course you can tamper with a person’s mind, as it is made of flesh just like the rest of the universe. But think about it! What if you forced someone to lift his arm, when the whole time that person wishes only to let it hang? The mind would be sending two equally powerful impulses to that arm, to both lift it and let it hang. The same muscles would be forced to clench and relax simultaneously. The only result left would be a total collapse into seizures. You can not force your own will upon another’s body, without tearing the body apart. Just so with the mind. What happens when you make someone want something, believe something, when his own will wants something else, believes something else? The mind must seek two opposite goals, it will start trying to persuade itself that one goal is right and the other is wrong, it will go to war with itself over what it truly desires. You can not enslave another’s soul. With all his strength, he will always, always be at war with whatever impulses you are forcing upon him. The only product will be reducing him to insanity. A broken shell of a man. You can not enslave another soul without destroying it. You can’t own another person, without reducing that person to a thing. God made us Free.”
  Treant’s gaze was fastened upon her unblinkingly. “But that would mean. . .” Treant trailed off. That would mean a child has no soul, so long as his will is that of his parents’. That would mean a soldier has no soul, so long as he is only an extension of his commander’s will. Or perhaps, in choosing to serve your parents, or your commander, you are still Free to become a slave? Treant backtracked. “You said earlier that your Guardian Angels could not save you from yourselves. Did he mean, that he could not stop you from willingly giving away the freedom God blessed us with, and thus becoming only another thing?”
  “What?” Litfee asked, trying to hide a laugh. “You can’t just ‘give up’ your free will, silly. Everything you do, everything you say, everything you think, everything you are, is every moment a choice. A thousand million billion choices dictated by your will. Do you think I’m pretty?”
  Treant stumbled, stammering. “It’s hard to even. . .I mean. . .you aren’t real enough to. . .,” Treant took a deep breath. “You’re beautiful.”
  Litfee smiled. “I didn’t just do that to embarrass you, sweet. But you see? How many different ways could you have answered that question? You had to choose, first, what you thought I meant by the question. And then you had to choose what you thought I wanted for an answer. And then you had to choose how you felt about me. And then you had to choose how to express how you felt about me, or whether you even should express how you felt about me, or whether what I wanted to hear was how you felt about me. At first, you chose to answer the question by telling another truth. That you didn’t think of me as pretty because I was too different to be seen in such a light. And then you realized, that in truth, I was pretty and so you said so. Halfway after having chosen an answer, you went and decided that maybe I wasn’t so strange after all. And then you decided to change your answer to fit the new truth, even though that meant choosing to look stupid, choosing to be honest when you hadn’t figured out the consequences, and choosing to tell me that it would be a lie to call me pretty because I was absolutely beautiful. And the whole time, you were choosing to blush, your heart started beating faster, you forgot to place your next step, you were looking around, listening, smelling, taking in information even then that might affect what choices you might make. You took in a deep breath, even though you didn’t need it, to nerve yourself up to make the hard choice that you felt was the best one.”
  “Not the best choice,” Treant muttered, “the only choice.”
  “The only choice you allowed yourself, you mean, once you tested all the possible choices you could have made with all the choices you’d already made about how you would make your choices.” Litfee smiled triumphantly, watching Treant follow the puzzling knot of words.
  “So even when you do something you don’t want to do, you’re still Free?” Treant followed, happy to have made her happy.
  “But you always want to do what you do. Or else you wouldn’t do it.” Now Litfee was puzzled, trying to follow a belief outside her ken.
  “But what happens when someone makes you choose stuff. Like when the Sheriff comes for tribute, and so you end up giving away your fattest pig or somesuch? You didn’t want to give the pig away, but you had to anyway.”
  “But of course you wanted to, or else you wouldn’t have.” Litfee clung to her logic. “It was your choice to pick up the pig, or to let someone else pick up the pig. It was your choice to live there, where the pig could be picked up. It was your choice to not hide all the pigs, so that the Sheriff couldn’t take them.”
  “But. . .”
  “You don’t seem to understand. Every moment of your life, a whole vast host of choices lays before you. Every moment of your life, you are faced with innumerable choices, and each time you make a choice it was that choice you wanted to make above all others.”
  “Well what if you’re tied up?” Treant demanded.
  “So what if you are? You can choose to resent being tied up. Or you can choose to like being tied up. You can choose to try to escape, or not try. You can choose to yell and scream, or be quiet, or to play music in your head. You can choose, while you’re there, to figure out all the questions of the universe. And you can choose which answers are true and which are false. Which are supported by the world around you and which have no support at all. You can choose to forgive your captors, or to think up tortures for them once you have them in the same position. You will only do what you want to do.”
  “So what did Helios mean when he said ‘he had neither the power nor the right to protect you from yourselves?’” Glen shouted as he scrambled down from his perch on the rock, knocking dirt and pebbles into the stream. As their guide, he usually didn’t have the chance to talk to them, but Opalion was back and conferring with Jhennador about the route, and so Glen had greedily leaped at the chance to be a follower again instead of a leader.
  “Glen, you’re just in time, do you think I’m pretty?” Nuen swished her hair and twirled in a circle.
  “Always.” Glen grinned, ready for the attack after seeing what happened to Treant, leaving Nuen blushing and sputtering instead.
Litfee rolled her eyes at the lad’s roguish grin, directing her answer to Treant with studied exclusion. “It was the Peace, that he meant. For eons, we had been satisfied with life. At all points, the universe was perfect. We loved every part of it. The only choice we ever made, was to touch nothing, do nothing, so that Alphe’s beauty could remain at perfection. We were so at peace with God’s creation, that we lost the will to change anything about it. When the Darkness came, destroying everything, we didn’t know how to stop them. We didn’t know what it meant, to not accept whatever fate God had delivered up to us. The angels came down to tell us that this was not God’s will. That we could fight it. That we could change the course of events. That choices were within our power, to save our world. But most of us. . .could not understand what the angels meant. They only looked upon the devastation with helpless grief. The eldar died away, broken from within, unable to do anything but despair at their fortune. Some of us hearkened to our Guardian’s words. Helios the Avenger, Selene the Comforter. We built them temples, believed in their vision, and fought against the Darkness. There were still very many of us then, and we were all of us strong. Do you understand? All of us so very strong, that most of us never even had to fight. Never even noticed that a war was going on. For thousands of years. But as the struggle wore on, when it became obvious that it didn’t matter how many we killed because more would always come, that no matter how many victories we won it would only take one defeat, the weaker of us, those who felt the pain of loss the most, they began to own that glassy look, that death-look. Have you ever seen someone, so worn down, so utterly tired, that they haven’t the energy left to blink? That they sit in one place, hardly breathing, without any comprehension of the world around them? They gave up on life, and so they died. And others, the pain started twisting them. We can only bear so much pain, before it twists us, breaks us. . . And some, they saw all the pain of the world and they hated it. They hated the pain and they hated the world and they hated the Angels for making us live on in it and they hated God for betraying them to it. When the pain became too much, and started brimming over our strength and pouring through our blood like fire. To some, they just surrendered to the pain, let it drown them. But others, they fought on, they would not let the pain consume them. And yet the pain was too much, and they had to channel it, let it consume something. The dark elves died long ago, but they will not give in, they will keep hating and hating, keep channeling their pain onto others, as long as they can. They live to tear down life.
  “And so when the dark elves pledged themselves to Lucifer, and the eldar for the first time fought against our kindred, our own tribe, our own guild. . .the despair swept over the entire nation. The entire sky grew black with it. Death stalked through every street, no swei outside its claim. Maybe one in ten of us held on after that. And the dark elven ranks swelled like a pestilence. Helios could not protect us from ourselves. Helios would not save us from the doom we chose for ourselves. Because even in loving us, it was our choice to die. And he can not make live a people that wishes only for death. Now he is the Guardian of only us. The entire elven race stands before you.”
  “Oh God. Cyrn!” Glen shouted.
  “What?” Jhennador snapped, the elves arranged for battle in an instant of fury.
  “Litfee, you said I was using the power of God. But I couldn’t see how, because I wasn’t praying for anything. And then I thought, that this whole time I had been wanting something, more than anything else. I wanted Cyrn to be here. I kept thinking ‘Cyrn should be here,’ ‘this isn’t right until Cyrn is beside me.’”
  “You fool!” Sleet cursed. “Do you know what you’ve done?”
*  *  *
Cyrn lay trembling, wrapped in waves of heat or cold. It would become unbearable, heat engulfing him in a grinding embrace, thirst driving him to madness, and then it would change, his body feeling deadly cold, falling away from him, his mind becoming sluggish and his blood freezing up in his veins. Spasms would run through him, in reaction or of their own will. Arching his back from the bed, knotting muscles already impossibly tense. Days passed in delirium, images of his mother beckoning him onwards, with him screaming that she was dead, she was dead, and she was going to kill him.
  Shelly couldn’t help but burst into tears, frustration and fear and anger forcing herself from his side. He had been calling for water, but when she came, he had gazed at her in absolute terror and was screaming for her to stay away, that she was going to kill him. She had to get out of the room. She couldn’t take this anymore. He was going to die and there was nothing she could do for him. She brushed away the tears angrily, running to the door. But before she could get through, a man had run in.
  “Tell me why my son is screaming! Is this how you treat the son of a knight!” In a rage born from fear, the man ran to the boy’s side, touching his cheek, his forehead, his shoulders, whatever his hands found.
  “Oh my sweet son, what devil afflicts you so?” And with words and caresses, Cyrn had lost his feverish strength, mumbling for water, as he sank back down into his bed.
  Shelly seemed to have disappeared, watching on as the knight calmed his son. Cyrn thrashed, his eyes trying to focus on his father’s face.
  “So help me God. If I was meant to die that day, then let me die. But you can not do this to me! You can not kill my son! You had my wife cough up her life in blood. And I kept faith with you. He was a drunk peasant, and he said I killed her. Yes, I challenged him! I cut him down and he never had a chance. And for that I gave over my fortune! My honour! My name! If you are not content with that, God, then come for me. But not my son! My sweet, perfect son who never hurt anyone! This is not justice, this is slaughter. You have no right!” Farrus Mitchell threw down his gauntlet, offering challenge to the heavens, stroking the pale, wan boy’s hair again and again. “How can you be so thin?” The man marveled, whispering. “How can you be so small?” The boy only gave him the look of a frightened deer, a human mind flickering in and out of awareness.
  “I’m sorry,” Shelly murmured, flustered. “I should not have stayed.”
  Farrus slowly turned his head, a look of resignation on his face. “Such a pretty lass, to be the agent of my doom.” He remarked, smiling at the irony.
  “You mustn’t think--! I will not tell them. I’ve tried so hard to help him. I tried so hard. You must believe me, sir, I tried so hard to help him.” She couldn’t stop from crying. She didn’t understand how she still could, after all these days. But it was too much, to have hope again after all this time. To have someone stronger than her to lean on, instead of having to be the strength to be leaned upon.
  Farrus ran a hand down Cyrn’s arm, finding his hand to clutch on to. “Tell me, lass, was he a good squire?” The question was very quiet, but it had all the weight of the world behind it.
  “He was the best,” Shelly affirmed, gazing at his form.
  “Did he bring. . .honour?” Mitchell asked, drowning his eyes in his only son’s face.
  “He was the kindest, purest. . .even earlier, he was hurting so. You could see it, the terror in his eyes, but he wouldn’t stop. He never gave up. Every day, he would appear on the practice field, more harried than the last. More desperate, always so desperate. He. . .” Shelly choked on her tears. “Before he was like this, he asked--he asked if he had done it right. I’ve never seen anyone so brave.”
  “That’s my boy.”
  “Papa,” Cyrn murmured, his eyes drifting. “I’m so sc-scared. She wants me to come with her. Tell her, please tell her, that she’s dead. Tell her I want to live.”
  “You will live!” Mitchell ordered. “You will not die! Do you hear me! I will not let you die!” And in a tiny way, the world changed. In a tiny way, God held Cyrn’s hand, and it was God’s will that he would live.

Chapter 11.

  The undersigned nations of Arnoss, Marble, TraVal, Silber, Filliis, Ryheir, Hijaku, Gana, and Loass, regarding the fall of Kalm as a call to arms for all of humanity, pledge all assistance and dedication to the conduct of the war against the Darkness in this year 1397. War is to be declared in all States according to the measures of the Treatise, the full support of every nation to be rendered to the Allied Command and to be deployed in the defense of any member state. Regarding the ancient menaces to Hijaku and Loass, the descendants of Firion pledge all aid to be rendered to the defenses therein, without hesitation or hidden reluctance, with full knowledge that this war is that of extermination, with no benefit derived from those who seek protection of their own shores at the expense of another’s. A survey of all resources shall be conducted through the unbiased ministrations of Arnoss, in acknowledgement to this Empire’s great sacrifice for the sake of the multitude and with full knowledge of Arnoss’ great contribution in arms and wealth to the furtherance of the Kalmian War. Taking into account the required force necessary to supply and support the allied nations, tribute shall be required through the special measures of the Treatise with an annual review towards the general expenses of the War. God in his mercy gave us succor from the Darkness upon the Exodus. God in his glory gave us victory in the ancient times. God in his wisdom has given us unity in the hour of our greatest need. God grant us the power to crush the enemies of all creation for all time.”

--“Declaration of War,” from the open records of the Council of Lilies of 1397.

  Cyrn watched with an ashen face the flourishing trumpets and gay ebullience of the passing column as it emerged from the city. Men and women quivered with the eagerness for glory, for joy in their own strength, for the chance to earn the same honour as the knights before them, for the chance to be a part of something greater than their lives had ever known, for the righteousness of their cause, perhaps for memories of the feasts and cheers the people had given them ever since the Declaration had been read aloud in the Commons, perhaps for tender memories of becoming men just before they were sent off to fight as them. In every look, every step, every excited word, each boy gleamed with the knowledge of his importance. Each lad brought with him the pride and love of mothers, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, fathers. If tears had been shed, they had been well hidden from these laughing, carefree warriors. Their eyes had only been shown the beaming cheers, the loving caresses, of those left behind.
  Cyrn sat upon his horse, Dingo, with the quietness of death. Eyes that forgot to blink soon forgot to focus on the parade, his entire frame rested motionless as a sack of flour upon his horse. Thoughts might have occurred to the lad, but the enormity of the scene laid them all to rest. Cyrn watched in shock, as his future was stolen away from him, his life stripped away from him. When he saw Rodney drag himself upon his charger from the kisses and cries of a covey of lasses, brilliantly polished sword triumphantly piercing the sky, Cyrn felt something break inside of him. The pain of it could have been as sharp as a cracking bone, but the weight of it didn’t give him any illusions of any similar chance at healing. He’d never let Rodney beat him at the swords, not even when he was too tired to see straight. But Rodney had won anyway. Rodney represented everything Cyrn had failed to become. The knowledge of it made him very tired. No matter that he had spent most of the month in bed. All he wanted to do now was to go back. Lay down. And never have to wake up again. Never have to meet another person again. Not after this. Not after losing this. There wasn’t anything left worth doing, after watching this column march off to the Assembly. He didn’t know why God had left him to live, after he’d taken this from him. His family and honour and friends and health had not been enough, Cyrn guessed. God had had to break his soul, too. Take it, then. I don’t want it anymore. Just take it and be done with me.
  “I know what you’re thinking, lad,” Papa said gruffly. Cyrn wondered if he did. “Perhaps I’m not so eager to die as these young princes, but it would mean my soul if I could only take ten steps alongside them.” So he had. “But Cyrn, Sir Ablan himself discharged you with full honours. He told the entire court that he wished you could have ridden at his right hand. That he wished he had a hundred of you so he could go win this War on his own. You have all the honour your age could hold.”
  He was too weak to sit his horse without being tied in for more than a few hours. Even as old and docile a horse as Dingo. Too weak to even lift a sword, much less wear a suit of mail. His body had been ravaged to the point of infirmity. Like some crippled child or aged man, Farrus stood very near to catch Cyrn should he begin to fall. He was to have been a knight. Now he was to return home an invalid. Except that he didn’t have a home anymore. Corenn was far too near the edge of the Glimkeer. He had been pelted with turnips out of Fael Grun long ago. And no one was here to rejoice in his departure from Mollant. No one was here to kiss him goodbye, with a glittering look that encompassed far more than kisses the few days past. This world had no home for him. Cyrn wondered if this was how Glen must have felt, returning home to the despising insults of his neighbors. No, Cyrn decided, this is far too empty a feeling for that. At least the people there knew his name. Knew that he shared a place in the world. Cyrn had no such niche to name himself with. No identity to call upon. He could fall off the edge of the world, and no one would note his passing.
  “And if the Darkness is really coming in the strength of the last war, all of Loass was lost before humanity beat them back. This war has plenty of time in it for you to join. And for me to join, too. We’ll ride to this war together. As it should be,” Papa reassured the lad, earnest fire in his words.
  He is still fire, but I. . .I am only ashes. I burnt out a few minutes ago. When I saw that this was my reward for virtue, and that was Rodney’s reward for vice. I gave up on life when God made that decree. Or else those words would have meant something to me. Too bad.
  But for now, my sister Ariselle has agreed to take us in. She says it will be lonely, with her two boys away. You won’t find more care than if you were Shaq of TraVal.” Papa’s hand gently patted Cyrn’s shoulder.
  “All will be well. All will be well. And all manner of things shall be well.” Papa promised. God had promised that once, too. Maybe Papa’s word was more binding.

*  *  *
  You always do this! Glen accused. You can never accept things for the way they are! You always have to rebel against things! When does it stop? When you kill my best friend? When you kill me?
  How can you just meekly accept whatever cards Fate deals you! How can you stare at the face of injustice and do nothing! What’s the worth of living, if it isn’t the life you wish to live?
  You can’t just do this! You can’t just go around fighting things! Other people have rights too! The world isn’t yours, to make of as you will!
  And why not, when everyone else makes such drivel out of it? I wouldn’t have to run the world, if the world weren’t too stupid to run itself!
  Why can’t you see that you’ll never be happy as long as your happiness comes from dictating your fortune? It doesn’t matter what happens to us, it matters how we deal with what happens to us! If you had cursed well just left things to me, I could have found a way to live on without Cyrn. I could have found another way. I could have given us a new reason to be happy. But you just want to make Cyrn come back, at whatever cost. Do you think Cyrn can make you happy, if it weren’t for me finding happiness in it? Do you think achieving any of your desires will make you happy, when you can never find joy in what lays outside your control?
  You don’t know anything about me! Do you think its power I want? I could have all the power in the universe and I wouldn’t give a damn! All I ever asked for was freedom. You are always so ready to be fortune’s fool! I’m the only one who refuses to be its slave. I’m the only person who seems to care about freedom at all!
  The only abode of absolute freedom is death!
  “Glen!” Rain shouted, shaking him as much as she dared. The shout seemed to come from a far distance. He knew she must be shouting, but it had the roar of a whisper. For a moment he didn’t know who she was talking to.
  “GLEN!” The boy snapped out of his trance, his perfect rigidity collapsing into a heap on the ground. The leaves crackled under him noisily. Immediately his mind picked up where it had left off. It would be best to get them out of these woods before winter came. But Hiant was the closest city and that meant sticking to the Glimkeer. Unless they could get a boat down the Green River all the way to Loass. . .
  “Glen! Glen! Tell me you’re okay,” Rain dropped to her knees beside him.
  “Of course I’m okay,” Glen muttered, trying to brush away dead leaves.
  “Damn it Glen. You’ve been standing there for the last half hour. I was going to kill you I was so afraid!” Rain brushed her hair behind her ears annoyedly.
  Glen managed a wry smile at that, looking towards the eldar for their reaction. They seemed to be looking any direction but theirs. “I. . . I’m sorry about. . . I’m sorry. I can’t explain what I did. Or what I will do. It’s why I have to—“
  “Why we have to reach Mircassia,” Rain stood beside Glen, defiantly challenging any of them to look at Glen oddly.
  “What other surprises do you have in store for us?” Jhennador remarked, his voice feigning cheer.
  “It’s enough that they are honest, Jhennador,” Azteer interjected. “We have hardly told them our own life stories. Some truths. . . can only be given to those that have the right to know them.”
  “So when a good person lies to you,” Nuen asked, “it is your own fault for being someone whom they felt the need to lie to?”
  “Something like that,” Azteer smiled at her. “That’s why, more than anything, it hurts to be deceived by your loved ones. It means that you’ve lost their trust. That they can’t trust you with their true selves anymore. That, for some reason, they don’t feel safe to be themselves with you.”
  “It’s not that!” Treant protested. “It’s just that people don’t understand this sort of thing. People get afraid because it isn’t within. . .within their ken. They weren’t trying to deceive you, they just didn’t want. . . It’s not you we don’t trust.”
  “It just occurred to me,” Glen came in. “That we could travel by sea to Loass. It’s a lot farther, but it will also be a lot faster. Especially if God sees fit to give it good wind and a good current,” Glen gave a mischievous grin at that.
  “But I thought we were already in Loass!” Nuen complained, disappointed at having not understood everything immediately.
  “Loass the nation,” Glen corrected, violet eyes for the first time centering onto pale green. “But we want to go to Loass the city. The capital. The birthplace of the nation which is named in its honour.”
  Nuen laughed, a blush running into her cheeks. “You round-ears! Your words are so scratchy that you can’t even come up with two different ones for two different things!” Glen laughed at that too, delighted in finding such wit in such youth. “I wish we could talk like you. I’ve never heard more beautiful voices.”
  “Better that you could be as responsible as us,” Sleet jarred. “Or have you already forgotten that you just drove that Cyrn fellow into madness? You say you’re sorry, but by the time you’ve sain it you’ve forgotten what you’re sorry for.”
  “Said.” Litfee corrected.
  “Say, said.”
  “Well, why isn’t it sain?”
  “That’s just the way it is,” Litfee shrugged unhelpfully.
There was a long silence as the group tried to let the tension go. Eventually Litfee sported Glen a smile. “Well, at least you aren’t doing it anymore. If this Cyrn is as strong as you, he’ll reassert himself the moment the pressure fades. We caught you at it soon enough. What about this boat you were harping about?”
  After a pause, Glen recollected his response from the corners of his mind. “Well, it means turning around and going back south. But maybe that will throw off the pursuit, too. And if we cut west, we can get out of this forest and into the villages before winter can say anything about it,” In one question, Litfee had given Glen back his job, his value, and his position in the eyes of those around him. Glen would not forget this kindness, when he held such power to forgive. He would not forget how trusting the untrustworthy could make them seek to be worthy of your trust. How honouring people made them wish to meet your honour. This was how loyalty was won.

*  *  *
  “What’s for breakfast?” Glen’s eyes held a wistful cast. As if he did not actually hope, but still hoped that he could hope. The memory, the pale shadow, the mirage of hope was left to him.
  “Sunlight and fresh air,” Litfee teased, stretching like a cat to stress her enjoyment.
  “But it’s been three days!” Glen whined, aghast at the injustice of the whole ordeal.
  “I don’t understand how you could eat this early,” Sleet’s words were laden with a genuine feeling of sickness at the entire idea. “Truly, what kind of sleep is so taxing that it requires a meal at the end of it?”
  “It’s not that!” Glen jumped to his defense. “I’ve been a hunter all my life. I only had the first of the morning and the last of the evening for meals all these years.”
  “You’re the ones who said we weren’t allowed to hunt in these cursed woods,” Sleet bit back. She wore a small smile that managed to say: ‘you made the rules, now live with the consequences.’
  “Why can’t you just conjure up a meal, like manna from the heavens?” Glen spun his hand about with a flourish of demonstration.
  “It doesn’t work like that,” Opalion said in scorn. It was the first time he had recognized the boy enough even to slap him down. There was a certain coldness that Jhennador shared in his manner. You are not one of us. Stop pretending to be. But it was more with Opalion. If Glen could think it possible, he would say Opalion hated him. How can people learn such hate in the space of so few days? Opalion went on tending to his horse, not gracing Glen with his attention, but he also explained. “You want us to engage in the shifting of reality, the titanic clash of wills, for food. The energy that goes into this makes a laughing stock out of the energy such food could provide. Unless you want the food for the pleasure of its taste?” Opalion sneered in contempt at the thought of such wastefulness.
  “He’s right, you know.” Sleet had no mollification for him. “You know nothing of the Aethyr. It is an art, like any other, that takes years, centuries, to perfect. I am an elementalist, the voice of nature, the summoner of Kings, but the Aethyr makes my guild into a child’s fancy. This is the art of God. Anything you do will probably be a mistake. Anything you believe about it is probably wrong. You’ve already, through this ignorance, committed a horrible crime. You are like some child, dazzled by the sparkle of flames, that takes it upon himself to play with fire. If you do not burn the entire house down, you will most surely burn yourself.”
  “I resent that!” Nuen complained lethargically, having tried to find just a few more minutes of sleep under her blankets. “When I was a child, I didn’t play with fire!”
  Azteer bent down to ruffle her hair, smiling as if the sun had waited to rise only just now. A day began only to herald the moment when Nuen saw fit to wake. “But of course we didn’t mean you. Everyone knows you were born perfect.” The rest broke into laughter at that, even Jhennador cracking a smile as he watched the skyline worriedly. Nuen saw that either to accept or deny the remark would only make it worse, so she settled for giving Azteer a dark and menacing glare—which she managed for the whole of two seconds before she couldn’t help but laugh and smile along with the rest of them. Her swei.
  “How long before we reach this river?” Jhennador asked apprehensively.
  “First we’ll be back into meadows. Farmland. The river plain. Civilization. Then we can follow the roads—“
  “No roads!” Jhennador snapped.
  “What is it?” Litfee asked.
  “Just no roads,” Jhennador responded. “I’ve never seen so many flyers.” Jhennador murmured in explanation.
  The party looked up, to gaze upon a scene straight out of nightmares. In a silence more ominous than any cacophony the forest seemed to writhe with motion. Black wedges and curves would boil out of the treetops in frantic violence, only to settle down someplace else, just as another flight would spontaneously take to the air and only restlessly return to the land. As far as the sky stretched, the Darkness extended its reach. The birds, if that’s what they were, strove to blot out the very sun.
  “Selene have mercy!” Sleet breathed. The flyers were abandoning their roosts in a steady line. Launching themselves from trees that were being cut down beneath them. The progression of an army on the march.
  “Where did they come from?” Rain asked in panic. “There can’t be that many.”
  Jhennador gave her a sympathizing look. “There couldn’t, so long as it was Alphe they marched against.”
  Treant wailed. “How can we win against the horde that destroyed Firion? How can we win the war that you have fled?”
  The elves had no answer, staring at the skyline like deer transfixed at the sight of the approaching wolves.
  “I will not bring Tyrifell into this sky.” Opalion suddenly declared, breaking the spell. “Come. Armies are always slower than people. The woods will hide us. Let us be away.” It was the gentleness of the voice. The comfort of a voice of assurance. The rest of them might have been afraid, but Opalion would never be. And that was why all the elves roused themselves from their trance, and quickly started packing with a look of determination. They’d come this far. Helios would find a way to bring them the rest of the way. The world still had to have someplace safe. It was only a matter of finding it.
*  *  *
  Treant felt the sweat slide down his brow, felt its stinging touch near his eyes. He quickly calculated the expense of doing something about it as opposed to the expense of doing nothing, and let the sweat run. Blinking the sweat away, he let it drop onto the forest floor below him, mocking him with its lush, comfortable existence. The moment the sweat fell away, his mind had time to remember the rest of his body. Legs hummed with strain like the strings of a strummed harp. I can do this, he reminded himself, the weight of his pack pushing between his shoulder blades. Whichever way he slung it, something managed to jab him. He had given up and let the pain come. It was just a minor nuisance. No one else seemed to notice it. No one else was halfway between plodding and stumbling. Just because he was the youngest, just because he had lived indoors his entire life with books his steady companion, just because they hadn’t eaten in three days, just because the Darkness could be around the next corner, or the next, that didn’t give him the right to be tired. He would not be the one to call for a break. He did not want those stares turning back to look at him. He would not be the object of their pity, their scorn, their glances that would pass from one to the other thinking ‘I told you so’ or ‘is this a liability we can bear?’ Better if he fell down dead on the trail, than to be the one who called for a break. If anyone else asked for one, they could always offer the reason that other people might start lagging. But he was the person who would start lagging. That meant it was up to someone else to decide how much Treant could take. He would just keep walking until then. Everyone else was managing. Just live with it and keep moving.
  It wasn’t just the pace, though. As Treant raised his head to watch those ahead of him, the sense of not belonging thrummed through him like a disharmonious chord. There were the elves, each of them knowing what to do, trusting in others to do their part, and doing their own without hesitation. They could all just be walking, and yet they projected the sense that they were walking in unity, moving as parts of a greater whole, each person watching the other’s back. All of them knew they were a part of the community, and because of that they had the strength to say and do whatever they pleased. It was okay to disagree or rebel or complain because everyone knew your value and your words would not put that in doubt. Watching the mechanism at work, he followed the bonds between the elves to those reaching out to Glen. He had something valuable to offer them, the knowledge of this forest. He could steer them clear of native dangers, flora and fauna. He could guide them on the fastest routes and trails. He could tell them where they were and where they were going. With a sense of loss, of emptiness, Treant watched the elves turn towards him as though he exerted some irresistible force upon them. One or another would have something to say to him, or some reason to be watching or listening to him. If he was not a part of their group, he was at least on their side. They saw him as a comrade in arms more than a brother, but O to have such a title! His stomach knotted with the loneliness. They liked him, they depended on him.  He had the right to call a break, or complain about the food, or ask questions about how they lived. He had the right to argue with them or suggest things to them. He had their trust, and with that he could treat them like equals. Like friends.
  Rain didn’t have that bond, but it was more as though she didn’t seek it than she couldn’t have it. The same quick mind, the same flashing eyes, did not translate into speech, but into thought. More than anything, she was trying to understand the elves. Whenever she had something to say, it was because she was confused about something, and needed clarification. Whenever she had been satisfied and the puzzle pieces had fallen together into place, she became silent again. The elves knew how much Glen loved his twin, and regarded her with respect because of it. But it was as though the two groups had nothing to offer each other. Rain was complete with Glen at her side, and the elves could always learn from Glen what Rain might have offered. The distance was of two equals from two lands who nodded to each other and then quickly went about their own business.
  It was different with him. He was stranded, from everyone, in every way. Their beliefs were in direct contradiction to his own. Their aims opposite his. He could not be their ally, their friend. Nor had he the sharp wit and the strength of will to assert himself as an equal, like the twins did as a matter of course. Whenever the elves thought of him, they must have wondered what exactly he was doing here. A stripling, with no skills at all, nowhere near as pretty or smart or confident or athletic as the others. He had said nothing of Mircassia; he seemed to have no destination in mind at all. He was not a fellow outcast, not chased from a burning house like the rest of them. He had willingly left from what anyone would say was a good life and a respectable trade. Glen held that glassy look of resentment whenever he raised his voice, the rest had the bone-chilling look of indifference. It was enough to leave him speechless, soulless, an automaton making his way down the road with no care to where the road led or why he was on it.
  Why was he here? Treant ran through hollow explanations, the same reasons he had come up with the last time, and the time before. He didn’t want to be a priest. He wanted to be with Rain, wherever she led, however little it earned him. It was too late now to turn back anyway. He still might be able to help. Maybe things would get better. There was nothing to do but bear the pain and go on. He knew the reasons were a lot of fluttering threads that formed no pattern at all. They were the only weapons left to him. The only way to keep his body moving, and so he clung to them all the more desperately for their flimsiness.
  “There’s Tyr, Freyr, Njord, and Fafnir. The collective consciousness of the respective elementals: Wind, Earth, Water, Fire. The living world interacts with us through the elemental kings, whenever something is too large for just one forest or just one lake to handle—“ Sleet lectured in response to Rain’s query about ‘little brothers.’
  “Do you see?” Nuen jumped in, eyes uplifted in attempt to capture Glen’s attention. “Tyrifell. As in, ‘daughter of thunder,’ or maybe ‘daughter of the winds.’ She earned that name when she was just a filly. She would always fly higher than all the other Pegasi, all she ever did was try to fly up and up. Opalion was watching them fly, and—oh did I ever tell you how beautiful a herd of Pegasi are in flight? But anyway, Opalion was watching them, and he pointed out the filly flying highest and said, ‘Look how she strives for the heavens. She must be Tyr’s own daughter, trying to fly back home.’ There’s a story about that, you see, how the elves cried out to the sky because the deer were too fleet of foot to catch, and how the birds mocked them and pecked at their heads because they were fastened to the earth. And so Tyr sent his own daughter to them in the form of the pegasus. Ever since then, the elves have ridden Pegasi through the skies, but whenever we try to fly too high, Tyr remembers the loss of his daughter and breaks into fresh tears, and storms cover the land. So Tyrifell is the caller of storms, the daughter of thunder, because she is always flying so high.”
  “Children’s tales,” Sleet interjected gently. “They fill our nights as we sit around the fires, under the stars. It’s the time we can listen to the whispering trees and the burbling streams, and remember all the good things in life. The elves never prayed to the elemental kings. We created the elementals. But its nice to think of them as these loving fathers and mothers that watch after us. I don’t think we ever lose the need for that, for some loving force to watch over us day and night. The need for guardian angels.”
  “You keep disparaging things as ‘child’s play’ or ‘children’s tales.’ What is it that makes children the object of such derision? When you were a child, did you think of everything you said as childish?” Rain challenged with the detachment of a scholar.
  “It’s not that,” Azteer came in, seeing Sleet’s eyes dilating with outrage. “We cherish our children because there are so few. Most people. . . it was all they could do to keep burning the flame of their own lives. To have such fortitude, such love of life, to kindle a new fire in a world overcast with darkness. . . you see? Most people did not have enough hope to bring new life into the world, when the future seemed so full of pain. It was more merciful, to bring no children into the world with only the knowledge of war and loss to fill his years. Whenever we see a child, it’s like our heart leaps out of us with love. There’s no sight more joyous to us, in those years of ruin, than to see some child in love with the world, laughing and running about as though there was nothing wrong. Our children were the symbols of everything we fought for, the jewels that made up our greatest treasury. When we stood at the front, staring over the field of battle into the faces of our own kin, we could remember that somewhere, people were still creating. That new, bright, beautiful things were still spreading across the land. We equate children with all the brightness, all the hope, all the joy of life. So whenever we see someone being silly or playful or just happy, we think of that as childish, and reminisce about the times when we still had such feelings. All these stories, all these games, are a thing of the past. Something we can never enjoy again, because we have been tempered by flames too hot to save anything but the core of our souls. Something only children can enjoy, because only children have such excess spirit that they can waste it away on something outside of survival. You mistake our fondness for derision, because you see that we draw a chasm between all things adult and all things childish. In truth, it is the childish things we revere the most in people, and the adult things we wish we could be rid of. Opalion was brought up in this time. He is very young, as strong as quicksilver. And a heart that still burns with love and hate. He will be the last of us, when all this is over.” Azteer trailed off, musing. “And having Nuen with us, is like watching our very own sunrise. She is our sun. She gives us the light and warmth and nourishment to our aching souls. When we look to her, we remember all that is beautiful and right about the world. All the reasons to live.”
  Sleet gulped, giving a silent nod of affirmation. Nuen only gazed at Azteer with wide eyes of astonishment. She had never heard anything so full of love. It felt like the weight of the world had descended on her narrow shoulders. I must be good, because they live for my goodness. I must be beautiful, so that they can love all the beauty of the universe. She knew they all looked at her in a special way, a different way from how they looked at everyone else. But she had never known what those eyes had been trying to tell her. How much love those eyes had held for her all this time. It was enough to make her cry.
  “That’s enough!” Jhennador called from up ahead. For a moment Nuen looked up in startlement, thinking that for some reason Jhennador was telling her to stop crying. But it was something much simpler than that. “Going further would only mean having to slow down tomorrow. We need food and the time to forage it, no matter how many flyers cover the sky.”
  Treant collapsed in a wordless sigh of relief. It was as if some force entirely outside his own had been carrying him this whole time, and the moment it left him he toppled like so many thin reeds. Others gave a moment of praise to Selene as they rubbed aching backs and unceremoniously tossed their gear to the inviting forest floor.
  Jhennador had turned back to consult with Glen after the announcement. “I know that your people regard this land as sacred, but they can’t begrudge us nuts and berries and shoots and all manner of replenishing bounties. In the space of a week no one could tell the difference.”
  “Of course not! Do you mean to say we’ve been starving ourselves on account of--? I only meant it was against the law! Not against our tenements, or anything.” Glen was aghast at the thought.
  “How can you have something against the law that isn’t against your morals?” Jhennador asked, perplexed. He had thought the boy would offer up quite a protest.
  “Well. . .that is. . .the forest is very valuable and the capital doesn’t want it being run over by commonfolk. But everyone knows people forage and hunt in it when the times are lean.”
  “So you have a law that everyone knows it is okay to break?”
  “Well, if you look at it that way. . .”
  “I don’t know why I try to understand this country!” Jhennador snapped in frustration. “To think that—“ Jhennador was interrupted by Tyrifell unfurling wings and rearing into the air, a peal of fear frothing from her mouth.
  “Viere!” Sleet screamed out, the leaves around her shooting up in a column of wind around her, and then everything began to happen at once. Scaly things, as sleek as oil, boiled out of the trees. The treetops seemed to bloom with black wyrms, the forest floor seemed to sprout with them. Dropping all pretense at stealth, the horde cried out with unearthly ululations and rushed for the kill, jaws revealing needle sharp teeth and eyes betraying malicious intelligence. Obsidian-tipped arrows began to fall upon the clearing in a veritable downpour.
  The only thing Glen knew was being struck hard to the ground, hitting the ground in a cloud of leaves, the air whooshing out of his lungs as if it would never come back. Jhennador had gone from standing to sprinting in what seemed one smooth instant, the air around him congealing into some sort of funnel as he streaked across the ground. Arrows whipped and bent around him, scattering in every direction, when suddenly an explosion buckled the ground and sent Glen into a terrifying moment of free fall before the land rose up to strike him again. There was too much sound to tell one thing from the next, as the explosions seemed to rise up from the ground and shoot down from the sky.
  Eldar flew through the horde without seeming to bother striking them down, the air tore and ripped around the elves’ blurred flight as swords impossibly sharp went through scaly hides like so much smoke. At one time he thought he saw Opalion in two places at once. Even if his mind had had an hour to accumulate the sensations his eyes were drilling into him, he could not have kept track of everything that was in motion. At one moment a line of javelins were flying at Litfee, at another they had all been snagged or brushed away by invisible hands, and Litfee had ricocheted off a tree trunk and scythed down the whole rank of lizards before they had known of her presence. Another string of explosions ripped across the earth, fire streaming across the clearing in answer to the shot of arrows. Glen couldn’t tell who had summoned them, or how. With cries of terror, the wyrms began to scatter and now it was the eldar mounting the charge. Flee as they might, the eldar flew at them with the same speed and desperate skill, cutting them down where they fell or even sending slicing currents of air ahead of them for those too distant. In a moment, all the wyrms and all the elves were but distant thunder on the breeze, and Glen was left gasping for breath and struggling onto all fours in an ear-splitting silence. His heart leapt out of him when he saw Rain coughing and looking in bewilderment at the scene of carnage only a few yards away. Every single body was black, oozing blood as red as anyone’s, with heads or entire bodies cut clean off. That had to be the most terrifying part of it. Every single cut had been one, single, clean, immediately fatal blow. It had the look of surgical precision to it, as if each elf had had hours to plan out the attack. Glen hadn’t been able to even follow the singing speed of their swings.
  Treant wheezed, rubbing the back of his head to see if it would come up bloody. “What in bloody hell?” No one had an answer to that. They were afraid to move lest it disturb the silent finality of the scene. A deafening cry rose out from the distant woods, and with it the thunder ceased in every direction.
  In a moment the elves had run back to the clearing, this time thankfully without the blurring edges of their godspeed.  “Selene be praised, they’re all well.” Litfee called in the fluting elven tongue, rushing to grab up her stuff. The others appeared at near the same instant, their hair and clothing in enough order to go to church in that not even Mistress Perkins could have objected. Stupid! Who cares what Mistress Perkins would think! Idiot! Glen climbed to his feet and quickly scooped up his gear, following Litfee’s lead.
  “Are you sure?” Opalion asked, rushing to his mount’s side. “I didn’t have time and I think I clouted the little one on the head.” He returned in song.
  “Everyone’s here?” Jhennador demanded, counting them up with methodical haste. “Everyone get your stuff and whatever food you’ve found. Cursed if I’ll let the minions spoil our first meal in three days.”
  “They got eager,” Opalion announced, carefully brushing Tyrifell down and checking for blood. His shield had held out perfectly, but he had to make sure. It was just one of those nervous habits a beastmaster picked up along the road. “They saw us stop and they thought it was from exhaustion. I’m glad you called the halt when you did. Who knows but we might have lacked the strength we needed for this by the end of the day.”
  “This won’t be the end of it.” Azteer announced, wiping his sword in one practiced sweep through a darkened cloth. “Even wyrms aren’t so stupid to think they could win with this.” He made a gesture towards the clearing littered with dead. “And I’m sure there will be eldar behind it. They’ll send wave after wave, wearing us down, until they come at us themselves.”
  “Well there’s nothing for it but to move faster. How the hell did they find us in this thicket?” Jhennador complained.
  “Maybe we just stumbled over each other.” Sleet took a deep breath , knocking the ground three times with her scabbard. “Maybe this is part of their marshal, and we just stumbled over it.”
  Opalion spat. “Well then at least these lizards won’t get the chance to plague our world any longer.”
  “Hope all you want!” Jhennador called. “But most of all, move! We’ve sent enough currents through the Aethyr that all the dark elves in these damn woods will have felt it.”
  The elves were so wrapped up in their practiced actions that they had forgotten the foreigners entirely, reverting back to the language and customs of battle and war, the battle and war they had fought side by side for three years, now. It left no consideration for the round-ears staring on dumbly. Eventually Azteer blinked, as if seeing them for the first time, and grabbed Treant up forcefully and stuck him on Tyrifell. The pegasus give a snort of outrage, but Opalion slapped her and told her to cut it out.
  “You two managed to catch up to us last time.” Azteer addressed the twins. “Just keep up now, and we might yet see you alive through this.”

Chapter 12.

  A taxonomy of the Darkness is a futile gesture. Every form of life has its own twisted copy, every plant its diseased twin. The children of Lucifer strive in vain to fill all the niches they have stolen from the children of God. Even if the ur-life was not consciously crafted by the Devil’s hands, it has had thousands of years to grow and mutate into all manner and shade of filth. And whenever one thinks the listing of demons is completed, some new creature appears to spread wrack and ruin across the lands. I have classified enough variants of insects, each with their own vicious sting or bite or poison, to fill a thousand pages with words. But for the Darkness’ armies, some uniformity at last begins to form. There are the hulking beasts, the trolls and ogres that make sport with human heads like grapefruits to be squeezed. There are the chimeras, junked together monstrosities that sport human eyes in the head of a lion with the body of a horse and the tail of a blisspittle. There are the orcs and the goblins in their numberless swarms. There are wyrms and minotaurs and gorgons and gargoyles and wyverns and hellhounds and even the great behemoths and dragons. Whatever the fevered imagination of humanity’s most fantastic tales could invent, there stands a creature to take up its name. And worst of all there are the demons, the evil spirits that walk among us as men, whisper into our ears at night, and warp our souls away from God and into the fiery pits of hell. Their hatred for life binds them all together. As long as we exist to be hunted, they hold one united purpose that can rattle the Earth. Should they ever succeed, though, one wonders how long their hatred, like a serpent devouring its own tail, would refrain from turning them upon one another. . .”

--Fragmentary excerpt from the time of Firion.

  “Break!” Jhennador commanded, and the party split apart at the seams. Rain looked up, staggering two further steps, before momentum pulled her to the ground and she fell into it as though it were the softest of feather beds. For a moment brown hexagons overtook her vision, and her head spun with dizziness from either a rush of blood or a sudden lack of it.
  “Here,” Nuen offered, holding out her hand. She had vanished during the fighting, and only coalesced once the battle was done. The power of God, used as expertly as any of the others, as a form of camouflage that would hide her from all but the most determined of predators. After a moment Rain realized Nuen was offering her a fruit of some sort, and she greedily took it from her. Sinking her teeth into it, Rain gulped down the precious water and sugar that would allow her to get back up a few minutes from now. All the elves were eating as well, with a measured, unfocused determination. The food was tasteless to them, their jaws rising and falling only because they forced themselves to go about the job of eating. Their eyes held the blankness of an exhaustion they could not surrender to, staring out into nothing, taking in nothing. Water was passed around, those who still had some taking a gulp before giving it up to those who were out. There hadn’t been time to collect more. Nor energy to carry water laden skins around without drinking. There had been three more ambushes in the past two days, and after each time the elves came back a little more frayed, a little slower than the time before. No one sported an injury as of yet, but by now being injured was synonymous with death anyway.
  Jhennador and Azteer were conferring vehemently up ahead, Rain thought perhaps about the path ahead. She only knew it meant a few more moments to rest, and that she hoped they would keep arguing for the rest of the night. Nothing in the forest bestirred itself. It was as if the whole world were dead except for this one little island of the dying.
  “I tell you we can’t take their pace anymore!” Jhennador hissed. “We could have been out of this if only—“
  “We might as well just slit their throats ourselves, if we leave them behind!” Azteer returned, waving his arm for emphasis.
  “That’s their problem!” Jhennador insisted. “As long as we drag ourselves along at their pace we’ll just die with them.”
  “We promised them—“
  “never promised them—“
  “Well then fine! You can just go on ahead!” Azteer shouted, his voice raising to audible piping anger. “But for those of us who still remember honor our place is here!”
  “Look, nobody’s leaving anyone.” Jhennador soothed. “But I’m sure they wouldn’t want us to sacrifice our lives for them to last a few more hours. Just ask them, and they’ll say to hell with it and leave them behind. It’s not a question of whether they’ll make it. Either we all die or—“
  “If you’re so ready to give up then why don’t you just. . .” Azteer spluttered. He had been about to say ‘die’, but then he caught his own words in horror. “I say that if it means trading an arm or a leg to the Beast in order to preserve the head, then the head is no longer worth preserving.”
  “But don’t you see? They aren’t one of us!”
  “If they had thought that, the day we had met, would we be alive to make this choice? What would have happened, when Sonatzen told them they had safe passage away from this place, if they had thought the deal quite reasonable because after all we weren’t one of them.”
  “It’s all very well to talk about life debts, but we have maybe a day before it’s eldar we face, and then it won’t matter whether we left them behind or not! They might have a better chance if we leave them!”
  “If you believed that, then you would have argued that from the start. Instead the first thing you mentioned is how it doesn’t matter that they’ll die.”
  Eventually the other elves had looked at the two with concern, as their whispers rose like an incoming tide to higher and higher pitches and their hands had gone to grasping their hilts.
  “Enough!” Opalion declared, stepping between the two. “Both of you. We have enough enemies that we don’t have to go around looking for more! And we have few enough friends to be casting them aside. What happens when we do get out of these woods, when it means being strangers in the midst of an entirely alien race? What use in running, if there is no safe harbour at the end of it? Now stop shouting and for God’s sake drink some water.”
  Azteer scowled and took a drink from the proffered canteen. “My apologies, Jhennador. It’s just this cursed strain.”
  “Forget it.” Jhennador offered, taking the canteen from Azteer’s hands. “I was out of line. You had every right.”
  “All right then.” Opalion sighed, abandoning the role of the father to the two elves far older than him. Switching away from the elven tongue, he called out to Glen. “You say these woods turn into farmlands, hunter?”
  Glen managed a weak smile. “At our speed, we’ll reach it by noon tomorrow.”
  “That’s just splendid,” Litfee said dryly. “Now we can fight on the open plains with nothing to obscure our vision for miles and miles.”
  The other elves had nothing to say in response. They knew the situation was indeed that bad.
  “We’ll worry about that when we reach there,” Opalion finally answered. It was the signal for the elves to stir back into activity. After too many moments, they all reached their feet. Azteer was still sitting on the log, his canteen held absent-mindedly in his right hand.
  “She’s right, you know. Once we’re out of the forest, they can sick the entire army on us.” Azteer mused.
  “We’ll just have to stay ahead of them,” Jhennador offered.
  “We both know we can’t do that. They have enough stormcrows to cloud the sky. We’ll be under attack the moment we come out of the woods.”
  “You aren’t suggesting we stay in the forest?” Sleet asked incredulously. Everyone knew death waited for them back the way they’d come.
  “No. I’m suggesting stay in the forest, with enough phantoms to lead the minions as far as I can fly.”
  Glen and Rain felt a shiver run through them like the chiming of a gong. Glen jumped up expecting to see Fires, and then laughed nervously and wondered what he was looking for.
  “Azteer, you can’t!” Nuen cried, grabbing his arm to keep him from going.
  “Na, Na, lass.” Azteer stroked her hair. “I was born for this. This is the warrior’s trade. If I don’t leave you, it will mean the death of my guild all over again. The betrayal of everything they fought for.”
  “I don’t care!” Nuen sobbed. “You can’t leave me when I still need you! You can’t die when I love you too much to lose you!”
  Azteer smiled. “Maybe someday you’ll understand that that’s why I must go. That sometimes going to die is the only way left to show your love of life.”
  “NOOOOOOOOOOO!!” Nuen screamed. The sound tore at her throat, tore through her heart with the pain of a jagged butcher’s chop, tore out her lungs with all the helpless fury of her youth. His arm slid away from her grasp in a gentle motion, but Nuen was too blind with tears to stop him anymore.
  “You don’t have to do this, Azteer.” Sleet whispered. “Selene might have another way. There is still time.”
  “The longer we wait the less chance the diversion will have of succeeding.” Azteer answered with finality. “If Helios wishes it, I will find a way out of this alive. And then I will find you. I swear it. It has been an honour to fight at your side. An honour to be in this swei.”
  “Oh Azteer! You were always the best of us!” Litfee cried, crushing herself to him, trying to absorb the imprint of his body on hers, so that she would always remember.
  “Godspeed, Azteer,” Jhennador offered, squeezing his hand. “It will be all the eldar left in the world you are saving.”
  “Just promise me,” Azteer plead. “That you see the little ones to safety.”
  “You have my word,” Opalion pledged. The two clasped hands, and for a moment of silence the two staggered under the pain of parting. There were no two people who admired each other more. Then Azteer drifted into the moon’s shadows, his color-shifting cloak melting him into the night.

*  *  *

  Azteer could see the pursuit on either side of him. The minions couldn’t possibly keep up, but they knew over the long haul he would tire, and then they would set upon him. They will find me no easy meat.
  The forest ahead was pouring forth goblins. Azteer willed his legs stronger and pivoted in one step to rocket to the side. A few beastmen had time to gurgle in surprise before he had cut his way through them, not even pausing in his dash to sheathe his sword. Come on, Come on. Just nobody hit me with anything more. The phantom doubles of the other eldar followed on his heels, all looking determined and bursting full of energy. Azteer had locked their images into mimicking his, not capable of sustaining their motion with any conscious direction. The moment the enemy actually dared to challenge his mock-ups, they would find themselves fighting air. So far he’d managed to avoid that fight. Seeing the way blocked by another line of orcs, Azteer paused a moment to give his legs the strength, and then bounded to the tree limbs overhead, giving himself the dexterity to hop from one to the next and the lightness to not break the growth under his landing. Every moment meant pouring the Power of God into his body, his blade, his mind, his phantoms, his reflexes, his vision. He let it pour into him like the sieve to a river. It didn’t matter anymore how much he used, even should it soak out his own life’s fire. All of that would become elementary in just a while. Come on. Sick the eldar on me. Give me the eldar, and let my swei fight all the minions they wish. Just have the dark elves come after me.
  Avoiding a flight of arrows so that they would not be seen passing through his phantoms, he dropped back down to the forest floor and scuttled through the wild growth. His cloak quickly faded into the greens, and he raced with duck-steps across the forest floor. Surely they must realize by now that nothing but eldar have a chance against us. Let them recognize our strength long enough to protect us from our weakness.
He was pouring the power of God into these wishes as much as the power he sent to his legs and his lungs and his heart and his eyes in order to keep running. More than anything, Azteer’s soul burned with the wish to meet the eldar. To take at least one of his cursed kin down with him. To give one last gesture of defiance to a thinking foe. So it did not surprise him to see the deft pursuit of a white-haired dark elf. He would not attack, not so long as Azteer had his phantoms behind him. But Azteer wanted this fight, and so after a moment he gave himself up, and in a thunderous clap he came to a halt, his phantoms fading away into oblivion. And in the sudden disappearance of the elven host, the dark elf gasped in astonishment.
  It was enough of an opening that Azteer struck out with everything he had. Lightning coiled around his fist and struck for the dark elf’s heart, the sound and flash tearing apart the forest around them. Instinctively, Azteer had willed his senses deaf and blind before the moment, thus preserving them for right after. The dark elf had not had that chance. The hoary warrior had only just managed to turn the bolt aside, and now staggered from its aftereffects. Azteer followed it up, unsheathing his sword and slicing the elf apart in one fatal arc. He had given his sword the sharpness and his arm the strength necessary for such a feat. The integration of steel and Aethyr had become a matter of instinct, no longer wasting precious seconds of thought.
  He felt the current passing through him just before the lightning bolts began to shatter the forest floor, and Azteer gave himself a burst of speed to escape the sight of whatever new foe he had attracted. At last! He exulted. The eldar have come! At last! A fight worth dying for!
  Pouring greater speed into his body, greater capacitance for his strength, and greater reflexes to process the information rushing by him, he closed with the dark elven warrior. The elf’s sword-whip came fluttering into the air like some sort of deadly ribbon, it twisted and snaked as something alive. The will of God wielded that weapon as surely as it wielded his own. The liquid steel snapped for Azteer’s head, twisting around his sword’s guard to graze Azteer’s cheek with an exultant ring. Azteer had snapped his head away with a last desperate effort, and now his body followed as he went tumbling back down to the earth. The backwash of energy seemed to come from everywhere and concerned everything. Rolling on impact, he let his body fling itself through bushes and undergrowth to get out of the firing zone. Explosions followed in his wake, fire erupting from the earth behind him.
  All at once the sound of whizzing metal came from behind, and Azteer spun to parry the coming strike. The sword-whip coiled about his blade, metal striking metal and godpower vying with godpower as the two swords thrummed with energy. Azteer cursed and poured more heat into his blade, letting it glow white with fury if only it would let him get away from this spot that a dark elf knew. He had willed his hands to be able to take the heat, but the sickening smell of burnt flesh came steaming from his grip anyway. With a rasping, choking sound, the two swords broke free, and Azteer streaked at his opponent who was still swinging his ribbon back into control. With a moment of shock, he knew that elf’s name. His sword was aiming for the heart of Sonatzen. With a wave of the Aethyr, Sonatzen flipped over Azteer’s headlong charge and snapped his whip to slice Azteer cleanly through. In mid-flight, Azteer could do nothing but will a shield of solid iron before the approaching blade. The ribbon sank deep into the iron, sparks flying as it struggled to reach flesh, but the weight of the block sent the whole blade crashing to the earth. Sonatzen held a hilt to a blade buried under a thousand tons.
  The second dark elf landed behind Sonatzen, sword whip held at the ready. For a moment there was the silence of three elves calculating everything they could do in the next split second.
  Sonatzen dropped his sword-whip and stood fully upright, signaling a parley. “Come now, Azteer. That was hardly fair.” Sonatzen bantered, pointing at the iron to indicate his meaning. “Conjuring is expressly banned in all duels of swordplay since the dawn of the sport.”
  Azteer laughed, a berserker’s chortle. “My apologies, Sonatzen. I took it that those other two striplings were trying to throw the duel and so I had to reply in kind.”
  “Oh, I know how it is. Sometimes we find ourselves outmatched, and there’s naught to do then but to cut a few corners.” Sonatzen gave a sly grin, a conspiratorial wink.
  “So that’s a kinslayers reasoning, eh? If the enemy is too strong, then betray everyone and everything you’ve ever known in order to stay the executioner’s axe for a few more years.”  Sonatzen managed a rueful grin. “I suppose that’s as good a reason as any. But still I wonder, what made you turn around and run into a battle, three days beyond the grave from what I can see, against a fresh dark elven host?”
  “Maybe I hated you so much I forgot to care.” Azteer answered.
  “Ah, well. I can always drag the answers out of the others.” Sonatzen shrugged indifferently.
  “If you can catch them. It seems to me that you’re a hundred miles too far north, now.” Azteer smiled.
  “Well, I know you’re not stupid enough to really tell me where the rest are. You could at least give me the credit of not being stupid enough to believe you.”
  “I fight with everything I’ve got.” Azteer explained. “I suggest you pull your whip free.”
  “That won’t be necessary.” Sonatzen answered. And ever so calmly, his left hand snapped out a viperous tongue of steel from behind his back. Azteer tried to react, but the whip just wrapped around the parry, and struck home.
What a bastard’s weapon. Azteer thought, as it sliced like fire through his abdomen. And then he thought nothing at all.

*  *  *

  “More refugees, eh?” The boatsman called, eyeing the raggedy bunch. There was something strange about them. He shook his head to recollect his thoughts. “Well I can’t blame you, what with the Devil’s own raptors on your tail. Just find a spot. Sit if you feel like getting trampled.” The boatsman turned his attention to the next group, a farmer’s family that had had the brilliant idea to bring along all the chickens.
  “All right, move it along! The crows aren’t getting any nicer!” The other seaman gave him a glare as he went back to shouting at the farmers that there wasn’t enough room for people much less livestock. Loass was a merchant nation. As large as the land was, its real life was the ports, the thriving hearts of the kingdom like Tiant and Roant, and the saltwater arteries of her merchant fleet. Cut out the sea from Loass, and it would shrivel up like a prune by the end of the day. The salt ran in Loass’ blood.
  He had picked a hell of a time to take up the river trade. The boatsman wagered there wouldn’t be much profit in bringing them anywhere. Even if they had money, what could he buy with it, when they’d left everything of worth behind? A cursed stupid time to get the shivers about cursed tavern tales. He had ran away from Kalmian ghost ships just in time to land in the Devil’s own back yard. The boatsman reminded himself to hit Master Jeb next time he opened his mouth. This was what fresh water trading brought you. People treating your boat like a portable farmer’s market.
  “For God’s sake! Either get on the boat or no! One more word about your chickens and I’ll shove them up your—“ The boatsman cried, running down the plank.
  After the boatsman had properly cowed the refugees back into line, a thought popped into his head like it had been waiting for his attention for the past hour and wasn’t going to wait any longer. That first group didn’t have that bent, blank, shuffling gaze like all these others. They had been bent by fatigue, nothing more. If not for looking bone dead, they held such a regal pride that the boatsman entertained the thought of carrying some of the Prince’s Own. It was cursed strange. The more he thought about it, he could have sworn they were all lasses. And had their ears been furled? The boatsman shook his head, chasing out some of Jeb’s wilder faery tales. “I’ll give you ghost ships.” The boatsman muttered. “You and your damn ghost ships and faeries and demon succubi. I’ll not hear another tale, by God. Not for all the laughs in the world.”

*  *  *

  The elves stood silently, making no issue over the crowding or the smell. They were quiet enough that occasionally a person would stumble into them, and then with a look of surprise realize they were alive. Glen sat just as quietly, but the dark looks he gave anyone near cleared a good space around him. He was perched on the gunwale, looking dismally into the passing river. The ferry seemed to crawl through the water, even with the little push he had tried to give it. Maybe he wasn’t doing it right. He thought it was a matter of will, but he had willed the cursed thing to move faster for the past hour.   Rain wrapped an arm around his waist, looking into the water at his side. He could see her from the corner of his eye, and it was obvious that she had planned nothing more than to hold him. Azteer had been the only elf who cared about them. It was like finding a brother just in time to have him ripped out of your life. Glen wasn’t sure if, when Azteer left, he hadn’t taken a part of Glen with him. He hadn’t felt anything but numbness since then.
  “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Glen murmured, not sure whether he meant the boat or his entire life. The water lapped against the boat with aching repetitiveness. “I’m further away from my home than I ever thought I’d be, and I’m their ‘guide.’” Glen spat the word out with scorn. “And I sure did a great job of it, didn’t I? Why, before me they’d managed to live for three years evading the entire army of Darkness. But once I had the lead, they got to fight through three or something ambushes and Nuen got to break her heart because—“
  “Shhh. . .” Rain soothed. “No one’s blaming you. Don’t treat the enemy like some force of nature. Don’t give them that escape from the responsibility. How did you kill Azteer? By not seeing everything and doing everything exactly right? Did you hate him? Did you cut his throat in the night when no one was watching?”
Glen shook his head no, letting Rain persist. “So how did you kill him? Weren’t we all trying our very hardest to live? Whoever killed Azteer, he’s the one that killed him. Do you understand?”
  “Of course,” Glen agreed. “But somehow that doesn’t make it any different.”
  “ Glen, we’re fourteen. We should be taking up a trade or batting our eyes at likely suitors. But you’ve already decided to take up God’s job! You have to be responsible for everything and have the power to do whatever you want.” Rain stood up, dropping her arm from around him.
  Glen laughed. “You wouldn’t believe it, Rain, but this whole time I’ve been fuming over how I can’t seem to get this boat to move faster.”
  Rain didn’t smile at all. “I believe it. I just don’t like it.”
  Glen shrugged, as if it didn’t matter to him what she thought. Of course, he would only do something like that if she had hurt him too much for him to find a response. Rain broke down with pity. She had come to console him, not lash out.
  “Here now, my apologies. It aches my heart that you can’t control this boat.” Rain flashed him a smile.
  Glen smiled, a boyish innocent smile happy to have been forgiven. “I was thinking about it,” Glen mentioned excitedly. “I think my problem is that I am thinking about it. The elves say the Aethyr is like an art that you have to practice for thousands of years. But I was doing it without thinking at all before I’d even heard about the Aethyr. .”
  “Maybe it’s different, across the angle between the universes.” Rain offered helpfully.
  “No, that’s not it. Because they still use it just like before. I thought maybe. . .well, this is probably stupid. . .”
  “What?” Rain prompted.
  “Well, what if I’m. . .what if these elves use the Aethyr like a tiny chisel? What if they use a feather’s touch to move mountains? That the real art to the Aethyr is delicacy, skill, manipulation?”
  “Well, okay,” Rain didn’t follow.
  “Well if that’s it, what’s to stop me from just taking a sledge hammer to the thing?”
  Rain laughed incredulously. “You can’t mean that you’re going to have the raw power of God just smash into every problem that rears its head at you?”
  “And why not?” Glen smiled. “I don’t know how to do it the right way, but I did want something very much and suddenly it happened.”
  “It happened is right.” Rain cautioned.
  “I think maybe. . . Well, I know you’ll probably laugh--but I think I’m stronger than them. They must have developed all these arts because they needed them, but I can just push where they have to use tools.”
  “Now you’re being silly. How can we be stronger than them?”
  “I wish I knew,” Glen mused. Rain followed the line of thought immediately.
  “Do you really think Mircassia will have the answers?” She asked, not because she thought his answer would be any different, but just because she wanted to hear him say yes again. Because it made her feel good to think it was true.
  “If it doesn’t, then there won’t be anyone left to ask questions.” Glen answered, staring into the water. They were going slow enough to see reflections of the sky. Black wedges spun overhead. Rain shivered, wishing he had just said ‘yes’ again. The two sat together, looking into the water. There was nothing else to do, and certainly no place else to go. The remarkable quality of the boat was that it freed them of all volition. Whatever choices they might make on where to go and how to go there, the boat inevitably took them on its own predetermined course. And with no choices left to make, no purposes left to pursue, the two sat with idle frustration and let the threads of fate determine their destination. Glen could not surrender his volition, his freedom of motion, and become the passive receptor of whatever the boat may decide.  Whenever he tried to relax and let things take their course, an angry voice bubbled up from within demanding that he do something.
  “But there’s nothing left to do!” Glen snapped, frustrated to the point of tears. What is it you wish of me? Curse you, am I always to be a failure in your eyes?
  What?” Rain asked, turning her violet eyes to embrace his.
  “Oh, naught,” Glen sighed, clenching and unclenching his muscles just to assert his control over them. At times like these he had learned that only constant vigilance over his body would stop it from breaking into tremors. Rain gave him an incredulous look, and so Glen laughed and gave way. “Well of course it was something, but there’s naught you or anyone else can do about it. And it’s best, if there’s to be an implacable misery to your life, to not wail about it to others or even yourself. By establishing that the misery can not be borne, and then realizing that it must be, you have set up within yourself a contradiction which can only end in some sort of explosion. So I thought it would be better to swallow the bitter pill and call it ‘naught,’ than to recognize it and condemn myself to a torturous and futile war of the mind. Does that suffice for the honesty of my statement?”
  Rain thought about that for a moment. “You know. . .” Rain paused a moment and started over. These faltering missteps had never been a problem for them before. But they had been running for so long, that even their minds lagged from the exhaustion. “Remember when you said you had met Sonatzen on the road to Mollant? He asked you about the eldar, and you replied in perfect sincerity that you’d never seen them before.”
  “True enough,” Glen affirmed, waiting for the thought to take its course.
  “Well, I was thinking that if right now Sonatzen jumped onto this boat and asked me where he could find the eldar, even though they stand right there in perfect view, I would conjure up the most lurid fantasy possible and point in a thousand separate directions.”
  Glen laughed. “But. . .Gods, Rain, do you know what you’re saying? We’ve always thought lies are the most hateful enemies of life, that they have no place in the world, that to use them would mean the betrayal of our own souls.”
  “Yes but. . . I think we thought that only so long as we also thought that life would offer up no enemies. Think about it: Why do people lie to each other?”
  “A merchant can lie about the worth of his goods, in order to gain more wealth from them.” Glen mused.
  “Not a lie, in truth,” Rain countered smoothly. “It is his right to set any value he wishes upon his property, and yet it is anyone else’s right to ascribe their own value to the same good and not be deceived by his own valuation. Any merchant who feels his goods to be twice the worth of what everyone else believes, will find that however valuable the merchant ‘feels’ his property to be, he will have to bring it lower before anyone else sees fit to buy it.”
  “But what if they claim that their fish have miraculous healing powers?”
  “Then you are dealing with fraud, the most vicious sort of lie. The purpose of it is to steal the other’s goods by deceiving him into robbing himself. In this case, the point of a lie is to gain an advantage over the minds of your victims.”
  “Okay then. . . suppose people lie about their accomplishments, in order to win the honour of their kith and kin?”
  “To give yourself a cloak of lies to bedazzle all those who might live around you? Again, I am using lies to steal away another’s lifeblood. Instead of stealing their goods, though, I am taking away from them the gifts of their soul. To be honoured and esteemed is a treasure, because people give out honour and esteem to those they admire highest. But when you take through lies what when given is one’s highest reward, you are hurting all those who have been tricked into giving away their esteem to people who do not merit it.”
  “Suppose you lie for the sake of the one you deceive? Surely you are no enemy to those you protect from the harsh blows of truth?”
  “In this, you are treating them as beneath human. Rather than living as they choose, you tear away that freedom and banish them to a life of mists and shadows. Armed with the truth, one shall always be free, no matter the sufferings visited upon him. You put chains to him with your feathery comforts. You have led him to live a lie, which is no life at all. I would count you no friend of mine.”
  “Well, what of love, then? I mean, the girls who use their wiles into earning the baubles and affections of men? Or the men who speak of love in order to spread their seed? I doubt there is no more endemic a reason for lying.”
  “In each case, it funnels down to this: The girl will brag about her conquests to all her friends, so that they might honour her the more for her deft enslavement of another. The boy will brag about his conquests to all his friends, so that they might honour him the more for his clever ability to rape girls without resorting to force. However you look at it, the purpose of the lie is to gain esteem by tearing down the worth of another. In order to think yourself superior, you tear others down and make them inferior.”
  “But that’s so stupid!” Glen rejected with horror. “Does cutting down a tree make a man one whit the taller? Does cutting down a human make a man one whit the greater? How can destruction ever be the birthing point of greatness? How can the rewards of goodness, honour, esteem, pride. . .be found through acts of baseness?”
  Rain shook her head, trying to dispel the words so that she could pursue the course of her own thoughts. “I’m not worried about that right now. What I’m trying to show, is that no matter for what reason a man may claim to lie, no matter to what end a person may find lying worthwhile, it will always, always have the purpose of hurting whoever he deceives. That the lie is a weapon, capable only of harm.”
  Glen blinked, eyes trained attentively.
  Rain smiled. “And as such, lies, like all weapons, can be employed not only towards destruction, but as protection from the things that seek our destruction. Lies used for the sake of aggression, for the sake of hurting those people who wish you no harm, are as black as pitch. But lies for the sake of war, as in deploying your troops so that they look to be ten thousand instead of a hundred, or telling lies about the location of your forces, or using sneak attacks on defenseless camps. . . suddenly all of these lies reside within the realm of acceptable measures necessary to preserve your own life from the aggressions of your bloodthirsty foe. Deceiving an enemy for the sake of protecting those things you love is as honourable an act as slaying the enemy who has burst into your house mouth agape with lust for your daughters.”
  “But even in war, it is despicable to send out overtures of peace solely to lull your enemy into a sense of security. Even in war, you must honour your word and give safe passage to heralds. You must hold to alliances pledged in times of peace. Honesty means more during war than anything.”
  “No no no!” Rain lectured. “In all those cases, don’t you see that you are not dealing with an enemy? Nations that seek to find peace with you no longer wish you harm. Heralds seeking to open the paths of communication deal with you with strict neutrality. Alliances held between allies are observed through the bonds of friendship. Only in the case of an implacable foe do lies enter your armament. And life’s most implacable foes are those who betray it to the Darkness. That is why I would kill Sonatzen if I could. But failing that strength, I would use my every spark of intelligence to confuse and befuddle him. I would lure him into traps, I would poison his food, I would. . .Do you see? I would fight with anything I had, because he is the most horrible evil to ever stalk the earth, and whatever can be done, must be done to ensure his destruction.”
  “But isn’t that a case of the ends justifying the means?” Glen pressed.
  “No!” Rain snapped, aghast. “Evil means produce evil ends, whatever the case. But it is not evil to fight evil! It is Good, when I chop off Sonatzen’s head. And it is Good, when I fill that same head with lies. They are good means to a good end, which is to protect life from the avatars of death!”
  “What’s this about head chopping?” Jhennador asked, gliding through the crowd to loom over them as a parent to scold the loudness of children.
  “Oh, naught.” Rain said, cracking a smile. And then the twins burst into laughing. It was only a thing for them to know. Because it was too special a moment, to share it with anyone else. Rain thought the very air was glowing with a soft pink between them, and with a radiant golden coil around.
  Jhennador gave them a scowl, staring into the river as if regretting its slowness. And then Glen realized that he had been laughing. That, regardless of everything, he had been so full of joy that he could not help but let it well up out of him in waves of mirth. Glen marveled at that for a while, and then curled up into a ball to sleep. Life is too valuable, to sacrifice it to suffering. And then the boy yawned, resting his head on his arms, and let all thought escape him. If only for just a while.
*  *  *
The party waited outside the gates of Loass. Because of the wartime situation, the gates had to remain closed through the night, and the refugees would just have to wait. Everyone was sick of everyone else. They hadn’t escaped each other’s sight for a week straight on that cramped boat deck, and now they were supposed to wait for yet another space of hours. It was enough to make anyone explode.
For Helios’ sake, you can’t just make people explode! Why can’t you understand the simplest things? Reality is mutable wherever God commanded the will of things. Anything that God commanded once, God can command again. Reality is constant wherever God willed things free. They cannot be commanded by God or any aspect of Him. Don’t you think Lucifer would have willed us dead long ago, if that were the case? The free will is inviolate!”
  “But you said all the flesh of God must answer to God’s will!” Glen shouted back, just as frustrated.
  “Not when God’s will was that it doesn’t answer to God’s will!”
  “But that’s a paradox!”
  “Only to idiots!” Sleet responded, too exasperated to remain seated. Speaking their language was giving her a headache. It was like trying to push whole rivers of meaning through the cracks in a stone wall of ignorance. Of course he didn’t understand! His language didn’t have any words for the concepts he was trying to understand! It was like being told to walk around on one foot, speaking this rasping barking stupid language.
  “I can’t bear another moment of this.” Sleet announced. “They’re insufferable!”
  “Why did they have to be the ones who saved us?” Opalion bristled. “Why couldn’t Helios have seen fit to give us our own deliverance?”
  “I swear that if Azteer hadn’t insisted on bringing them with us he would still be here.” Jhennador muttered darkly. “He didn’t die for us. He died for them. And for what? They’re not our swei.”
  “Oh cut it out!” Sleet ordered. “Like it or not, they’re the future.”
  Jhennador and Opalion looked at her, dumbfounded.
  “Well don’t you see?” Sleet relaxed her tone a bit. “There are five of us now. Five! In all the universe, there are only five.” She blinked back traitorous tears, her voice choking off into a whisper. “Five.”
  Jhennador half lifted his arm, and then thought better of it, returning it to his side. He had no right to comfort her, when he had been the cause of her pain.
  “Excuse me,” Treant asked meekly. “Could I talk to Sleet for a bit?”
  Sleet sniffed, quickly brushing the tears from her cheeks before she turned around. “What is it, little one? Is Njord not treating your stomach well?”
  Treant laughed brightly. “Do you mean sea-sickness? No, I think I’ve been too busy fainting from hunger and exhaustion.”
  “At least it isn’t as cold, out on the water.” Sleet responded with a sense of camaraderie. She sank to her knees, in order to be level with his eyes. Round-ears were shorter than they were supposed to be, and he hadn’t put on growth like the twins. Sleet liked talking to this one a lot more, though. He seemed to be the only one not trying to get something from her.
  “Glen thinks you’re mad at him.” Treant observed. “He’s afraid you won’t teach him anymore.”
  “Did he tell you to say that?” Sleet asked. She had no patience for cowards unwilling to tell their own truths.
  “He doesn’t talk to me much.” Treant answered, pain clouding his eyes for a moment. “But you can tell. He has that hunted look, like whenever he came home and his parents started yelling at him. He looks like that when he’s afraid and there’s nothing he can do.”
  “You must care for him a lot.” Sleet almost-asked.
  “Not really. It’s just that I’m afraid of him, when he’s like that.”
  Currents and currents, Sleet thought. “Has he hurt you?”
  “Of course not!” Treant answered, aghast. “Maybe I didn’t say it right. I’m not afraid of him. But it’s like he’s constantly grappling with this darkness inside him, and sometimes you’re afraid of what he might do. Because you’re not sure who’s in control, right now. I think Glen is. . .one of the best people I’ve ever known. But sometimes it isn’t Glen staring at you from those violet eyes. And when Glen isn’t there, he looks at me with such hatred. I think he would kill me.”
  “But if Glen isn’t there, who is?” Sleet asked.
  Treant shrugged. “All the villagers said demons. But I don’t believe that. You see, Rain has it too.”
  “What?” Sleet hated pronouns.
  “It.” Treant answered. “I don’t know what. But they both have it. But with Rain, it’s like two good people wrestling over who gets to smile.”
  “Do all round-ears have other-selves?” Sleet managed.
  Treant shook his head. “Lots of people think that. Like, that each of us has a good self and a bad self, and we’re always fighting with each other. But that’s just an excuse. Because, you see, they’ll think ‘It’s not my fault, I’m the good side.’ So whenever they do something evil, they’ll say their evil half is responsible, and there’s nothing they can do about it, because it’s human nature.”
  “Human nature, to be evil?” Sleet tasted the words with a look of disgust.
  “Actually, it all starts with the Morann.” Treant jumped in, with the eagerness of knowledge. “The Morann teaches that God cast us from heaven and put us on the Earth as a test. If people live absolutely pure lives, they can find their way back to God after death. But if they fail the test, then they are cast out of heaven forever because they are not pure enough to be a part of God. They are consigned to Hell, Satan’s realm. But the heretics argue that the Darkness is proof that God has decided that we are failures by nature. That after the Fall of Firion, we proved that we would never be worthy to reunite with God. And ever since, humanity is born evil and is destined for Hell.”
  Sleet pulled back. “Born evil?” The two words made no sense when put next to each other. “But babies haven’t done anything yet! They haven’t even thought anything yet!”
  Treant shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Their ancestors failed God and ever since then their line was cursed.”
  “But what do they have anything to do with the choices and actions of their ancestors? They didn’t even exist.”
  Treant smiled. “And if souls come from God before life and are sent to be tested for purity, how could they already be flawed? The debate goes on and on. Silber and Ryheir almost went to war over it.”
  Sleet sighed. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I understand your people. If I knew what I think I know, that would mean round-ears were absolutely insane.”
  “It starts to make sense, when you think of why these heretics want you to believe what they want you to believe.” Treant started. “If they can get you to believe humans are evil by nature, than that would mean they have unlimited license. They can’t help but be evil, so you can’t condemn them for stealing and cheating and lying and murdering. And if they can get you to believe you are evil, then that means they can do anything they want to you and you have no right to complain. Who cares if an evil person is forced to do anything? He deserves whatever happens to him. They have the power of your sanction, and the power of your surrender, the moment you believe what they say.”
  “So why would anyone believe it?”
  Treant shrugged. “People will believe anything, if you repeat it enough. And they don’t say that they think you’re evil. They say that God told them, the enlightened ones, that humanity was evil. If you don’t believe what they say, then you are questioning the word of God, not just their own. And ever since we’re little children, we’re taught not to question the word of God.”
  “So anyone can just usurp the name of God to get power over anyone he wants?” Sleet asked, distraught.
  “Not anyone. True believers know that this sect preaches heresy, and we try to inure our flock to their teachings. We’re like wolves, always raiding from each other’s flocks. And we’re also like shepherds, always defending our flock from the wolves.”
  “Who are the sheep?” Sleet asked.
  Treant shrugged. “Anyone who believes a priest. They put their faith in what we teach. They don’t know how to read or write, because they have too much else to do. So it becomes our responsibility to teach them the word of God. So we are their shepherds, and they are our sheep.”
  “But. . .but. . .that means people willingly abrogate their roles as thinking beings to exist on the level of beasts!”
  “Yes, well. . .the Morann teaches that people are better off ‘beasts,’ as you say. Whatever thinking they might manage, God has already given them the way to live their lives, and his thinking is infinitely superior. Better to be a beast of His design, than a man of your own.”
  “But you’re not a beast of His design! You’re a beast of whomever that speaks in His name’s design! You’ll believe whatever a priest tells you God wants you to believe, because you’ve abrogated your right to discover in your own judgment what God might wish of you. Truth will be whatever someone else says is true!”
  “But what the Morann says is True!” Treant enthused.
  “Do you have the right to make that decision for everyone else? Do you have the right to make that judgment for your sheep?” She said the word with scorn, now.
  “Yes! Because God ordains his priests in a holy ceremony to be His voice.” Treant shot back.
  “Who says? The priests?” Sleet pressed.
  Treant had no answer to that.
  Sleet went on more gently, seeing that her point had scored home. “Pretend the Morann were True, every word of it. If it is True, then won’t all people, upon searching for the Truth, come to the same conclusions as the Morann, in their own right, with their own minds? Won’t all the experiences of life only prove what the Morann has to say?”
  “But the Morann’s Truths deal with the unprovable. Things people can’t discover as long as they’re alive.”
  “But if the Morann’s Truths have nothing to do with one’s life, what’s the use of knowing them? What’s the use of them being True or not?”
  “Because!” Treant responded with childish invective. “Because what you do in this life determines what happens to you for the rest of eternity.”
  “So God had decided that humanity shall be judged during their lives on whether or not they’ll believe Truths that occur outside the comprehension of their lives?”
  “No one said it was easy! But that’s why faith is so important!” Treant cried out.
  Sleet said each word methodically, as if laying blocks of stone into a solid foundation. “All of this is based on the premise that the Morann is true.”
  Treant looked at her as if she questioned whether the sky was blue.
  “Isn’t it strange, don’t you think, that the word of God, God’s guide to living in the world, is so hard to believe that you force people to take it on faith? That if you appeal to a person’s logic, their own senses and experiences, their own conclusions about life, their beliefs would come out utterly different from the Morann? That in order to get believers, you must strip away their own ability to think?”
  “It’s because people are so stupid.” Treant fended her off. “We can’t trust people to do the right thing, to believe the right thing. They must be guided to it.”
  “Why? Because they’re evil by nature?”
  “didn’t say that. Those are the heretics!”
  “Maybe they are just further down the same road.” Sleet answered calmly, the fires of anger licking at the back of her mind. I cannot be angry with him. He is just as much a victim of the crime as a perpetrator. Of course he believes this, wasn’t he taught that what he believes is right since he was a child? Wasn’t he taught by his parents, who he trusted absolutely because he was helpless without them, that this was True? I must not be angry with him, but angry at what they have done to him. And I can’t even be angry with them, because they’re only victims too. I can only be angry with the beliefs themselves.
  Well just look at the world.” Treant gestured around him. “You can’t tell me that people can fend for themselves. They’ve made a mess of it.”
  “But I thought they trusted in you. I thought all these people did believe in the Morann. I thought this was a world of your making.” Sleet countered patiently.
  “Well, it won’t work until everyone believes it, with all their heart.” Treant muttered.
  Sleet kept from rolling her eyes. “What happens when everyone in the whole world believes the same thing, with all their heart? Wouldn’t that mean that no one would ever have to think again? If all the Truth of the universe had been discovered, wouldn’t that mean there would be no point in searching for Truth ever again? Suppose you have your way, and everyone does exactly what the Morann says. The Morann is only so many words, can it possibly tell everyone what to think about everything, everyone how to live every second of their lives?”
  Of course not. They’re just principles. You derive the rest.” Treant answered.
  “But that would mean they would have to think. They would have to use reason, to discover the Truths of how to apply the Morann’s Truths. And how could you allow that, when it would mean they couldn’t be sheep anymore?”
  “Well, we’d have to do the thinking for them, of course.” Treant followed her up.
  “Oh, so whenever anyone has a question about anything, they will have to come and ask the enlightened ones? Whenever anyone wishes to do anything, he will have to ask the enlightened ones if it is okay?”
  “Well of course not. That would mean we would be—“
  “Playing God?” Sleet interjected sharply. “Your priests don’t want to teach the word of God. They want to be God.”
  “No we don’t! We’re good people. We’re doing good in the world. You can’t just use all these words and confuse me and make me doubt myself like this. You can’t just be so clever I can never win the argument even though I’m right.”
  “No one’s so clever that they can make Falsehood truer than Truth. No matter how clever I am, I can’t make things fall up or stones bleed or green blue.”
  “That’s just your cleverness speaking!” Treant shouted. “That can’t compare with my faith. No matter what, I know I’m right, because that’s what my heart tells me!”
  “Well what if my heart tells me, no matter what, that I’m right and you’re wrong? Whose heart is the wiser now?”
  “I don’t know.” Treant gave up, breaking into tears. He clutched the circle of his medallion desperately, as if to ward off evil.
  “What are you doing!” Rain accused, running to Treant’s side.
  Sleet wondered what she was doing. What did it matter what he believed? What did it matter what anyone believed? What did it matter if the whole world went up in flames? But she couldn’t look upon pure evil and not fight it. She had been fighting the Darkness too long, to know that she was only protecting it from a greater Darkness.
  “I. . . I’m sorry.” Sleet replied, gathering her wits about her. “Will he be okay?”
  “Why don’t you try picking on someone your own size?” Rain jabbed. “There are plenty of eldar right over there.” Rain shook her head in the other elves’ direction, letting Treant cry onto her shoulder.
  Sleet got up in fury. They deserve to be slaves. And then she caught herself, looking back down at the two. No, that’s what the slavers want me to think. That’s why they’ve been getting away with it all this time. No one deserves to be a slave, however weak. God meant for us to be Free. How dare they! How dare they use God to be their enslaver, when everyone can see that God gave us the one and only chance, of all living things, to be our own creation? How dare they!Her stomach clenched with anger, her mouth contorting into a snarl.
  “Sleet?” Nuen asked timidly, snapping the elementalist out of her blind fury. “Glen says the gates are open for the morning, now. We can be in Loass.” Nuen said it with such excitement, with such surety that she’d find all manner of wonderful people and things, that Sleet couldn’t help but smile.
  “ That’s fine, Nuen. I’ll come in a minute.”

Chapter 13.

An army is a living organism. It has a brain, those who process information and give out orders. It has senses, those who gather information and report to the brain. It has a nervous system, those who relay orders to the body, and those who relay situation reports of the body back to the brain. It has a heart, a vital network of friendships and priests and lovers back home that give each cell of the body a reason to fight and die. It has lungs, those who continuously supply the soldiers with food and water and all the necessities of living. It has a stomach, full of fletchers and blacksmiths and farriers and tanners and all manner of craftsmen. It is theirs to provide the slow and steady strength to the body in as silent and efficient a manner as possible. There is a liver, the field hospitals for the dead and dying that slowly heal up the body’s wounds. There is a mouth, the gaping maw that devours whole villages of farmboys, whole cities of labourers, for reinforcements. The army is the largest living organism on earth. Larger than the dragon, larger than the behemoth, stands an army. And just as monstrous.”

--“Letter from Machen, Emperor of Arnoss, to his son, the Duke.”

  Loass was always a busy seaport. Opposite Melant, it dealt in the trade from the Golden Hills. Marble still disputed the land as rightfully theirs, but nevertheless the gold went to Loass, and from Loass to the world. Of course, enterprising merchants could try to deal with Melant directly, but Loass required a certain sum of gold each year from the city for the royal treasury. The treasury supported the entire Loassian economy with the backing of this gold. A Loassian talent, it was said, was more stable than the earth upon which Loass stood. In part as a joke over the Rifting River, which sought to split Loass in twain. But also because every contract Loass had ever made under the Merchant Princes had been paid in full. Defrauders, to the merchant nation, were as vile scum as murderers, and would quickly be shipped to Lotfael. That was why nations sought Loassian contracts as though they were made of gold, because, in a sense, they actually were. Conveniently, the seat of government, and thus the dealer with all foreign embassies, was also Loass. As much trafficking was done for their trading rights, as for the trades of Loass itself. If that weren’t enough, Loass sat in the middle of a river system that gave it access to all the hinterlands. As far east as the Glimkeer, trading goods found their ways up the Green River, and all manner of exotica entered Loass’ gates. Of course, Hiant had its own rivers, and the furthest northern port, but in this heyday of prosperity with Kalm having disappeared and Loass remaining the only ruler of the high seas, there was plenty of traffic for both ports. Loass had a policy of free trade and competition, not giving any favours to its own port over any of the others. So it was that Melant and Hiant were constantly trying to choke out the business that went to Loass, and Loass was constantly trying to choke out the traffic to Hiant and Melant. But not through legislation, not through tariffs or excises. Only through being the best and brightest no matter what. It meant all three cities were more prosperous than most nations could ever dream.
  Loass was always a busy seaport, but now it hummed to the voice of millions. Loass was one of the docking ports for the Grand Army. Which meant half the population of the world was streaming into its gates, all of it armed and singing for the chance to come to grips with the Darkness. The rivers were clogged to the bursting point with supply ships, the Gulf of Melant itself was covered with wood and sails. It was a gathering of might the world had not seen since the days of Firion. And this was only a tiny fraction of what was still being assembled, and only a fraction of what had been assembled was sailing for Loass. After all, Hijaku was the furthest east of the Treatise nations. It was enough to fill any human heart with pride, to know that they were part of such an enormous enterprise. To know that they had prepared for this day, that they had kept the peace for a thousand years, growing and growing, so that they might win this one, all-important war.
  Litfee, told to find food for the trip to Mircassia, was cast adrift in this vast ocean of noise and motion. The heat and the smell were making her dizzy, and she tried her best to reach the inviting shade of a nearby building without bumping into anyone. She had been tempted to simply fly over the crowd, letting the wind rush by her face and the crowd look up in awe, but the risks were too high. Azteer had died for their chance to get away, to lose themselves in the roiling clouds of humanity. The last thing the eldar could do now was to send ripples of energy through the Aethyr like the beacon of a lighthouse for any dark elf to see. It was for her to keep quiet, do nothing, and be as human as absolutely possible. She could not read the words on the sign above, having only learned the spoken language. She had a theory that certain symbols made certain sounds that were meant to be strung together, but whenever she tried it nonsense sounds were made and she had to try again. Maybe letters made different sounds in different positions, or maybe certain letter combinations made entirely different sounds. It was too much to piece together through the occasional glimpsed sign. Truly, the little ones would have to teach her these symbols if they were to navigate the round-ear world with any delicacy.
  “Hail, and well met!” A pride of soldierly types homed in on her. They wore emblems of their nation and their rank, but had left behind any armor or weapons they might have been issued. There were maybe four or five of them, each looking eagerly to the bar or eagerly to her, deciding whether to stay on or venture forth on their own. The group had a frisky banter between them, as if this were not the first bar they had entered this afternoon, nor would it be their last.
  “Well met.” Litfee tentatively replied, unfamiliar with the greeting or the proper response.
  One man with a green and golden lion embroidered on his tunic took the fore. He had sandy blond hair and a look of intelligence left to him, that a couple others had strangely seemed to have lost. “You seem lost. I don’t blame you, with this crowd. What a sight! Could you ever believe there were so many people?”
  A couple shiftless soldiers in the background seemed to have bored with the conversation, and walked into the bar. Two more flanked the sandy-blond on either side with congenial smiles. Litfee offered the blonde a smile of shared amazement. “This is the capital.” Litfee offered for explanation, pleased at knowing even that much.
  “Oh, this smelly port? This fishy saltwater city? If I could show you the castles of Silber, you would know a real capital.” The blonde’s eyes sparkled with remembered grandeur. A hazel-eyed, darker skinned lad countered, “The castles of Silber? I would show her the ice swans of Ryheir. The troiyan mountains of the purple snows.” The third lad, bleached dry of all colour, with white hair and gray-blue eyes came in with a slurred accent. “You speak of this lowly earth, when Filliis could show her the heavens. The observatory of Chinsk is the most beautiful place in the world.”
  Litfee offered the three a smile to try to keep them from upstaging one another. Each time they mentioned their country, they would step in front of the others. Which meant they had rapidly stood right next to her and to her sides, almost pinning her to the wall of the tavern. Though she was sure they hadn’t meant to.
  The sandy-blonde seemed to notice her distress and quickly stepped back, offering her his hand. “But I guess any capital is the most beautiful, when it boasts the presence of one such as you.”
  Litfee didn’t know what to say. When Treant had almost fallen off his feet, mumbling something about how of course she was beautiful, it was so different from this. Now it wasn’t as though the man were trying to observe her beauty, but as though he were trying to prove his own wit by describing her beauty in as eloquent a fashion possible. Maybe that was a custom people from—Silber?—had.
  The blonde took her silence as encouragement. “Could I offer you a drink? It is an awfully hot and crowded time to be out and about.”
  “I am thirsty.” Litfee admitted. She wouldn’t get food for the group any faster if she fell down dead in the road from heat stroke. The group gave a great cheer at that and took her hand as they raced into the tavern. She hardly had time to go with them, as they jerked her arm and thus her body into the tavern’s welcome shade.
  The group entered with Litfee proudly in their train as the whole inn erupted with cheer at her presence. Soldiers of every sort sat at tables, drinking and boasting of their nation and the strength of their armies. A few girls were flashing tantalizing glances at the most handsome or the most wealthy of the bunch, and there was a steady trickle of customers who occasionally stumbled up the stairs and into rooms up above. Litfee found it to be a very happy place, and gave the crowd a shy smile of greeting, brushing sweat-matted locks of her hair from her face. The three soldiers had quickly sat down at a table with her, and quickly gotten a waitress’ attention to order some sort of drink. It was called ‘ale’. She thought perhaps it was the juice of some local fruit. She had always loved the chilled raspberry drinks of her childhood.
  “You have such soft skin.” The sandy-blonde said in an admiring tone. “What nation claims that silver hair, those blue eyes? I would sell off my farm to live in rags, if it meant gaining passage to the land.” The other two seemed content just to stare at her, with disarming smiles but no words.
  “I am a dancer.” Litfee offered, not wishing to explain further. “We worked very hard, to honor Se---.” Litfee caught herself. They didn’t know of temples to Selene, and would find it peculiar. Who knew where the words would find the ears of the Darkness? “That is to say, our beauty did honor to. . .” Litfee trailed off, frustrated. “I try very hard to be a worthy dancer.” She gave up in exasperation.
  The sandy-blonde didn’t seem to find anything wrong with her stutters. He just went on smiling. “Did you mean Selene? As in, Helios and Selene, the twins of legend?”
  “You know Selene!” Litfee asked, with a gasp of astonishment and a bright look of surprised joy. How come the twins never mentioned this? They knew of the guardian angels! How wondrous!
  The sandy-blonde smiled, seeing that he had won her attention. “Of course! Helios and Selene, Apollo and Artemis, they were the angels who watched over the golden age of Firion. They were the ones who told Firius and Falchenor that it was to them to multiply and give fruit to the land. Firius and Falchenor were twins, too, but that was okay because they were perfect. It was God’s will to have their children own the Earth in everlasting Firion.”
  “That’s so wondrous!” Litfee cried out with relief. “I didn’t know anyone else knew about Selene!” Of course, they seemed to be talking about something entirely different from her Selene, her Artemis, but that hardly mattered. It was enough that her angel had followers on the other side of the angle between universes.
  The group eyed each other as if she were a bit daft, and then smiled a peculiar smile as the ‘ale’ was poured into their cups. “Try this, but slowly.” The hazel-eyes warned her. “It has a bit of a burn.”
  Litfee took a swallow of the drink. It tasted like nothing else she had ever known. Like no fruit’s juice she had ever known. And yet it was still a drink, and she felt the coolness of it as a balm to her parched throat.
  The other three gave a great cheer the first time she drank, and hit their tankards together with hers before they took a hearty swig. Whenever Litfee rose the cup to her mouth for another drink, everyone seemed to brighten up with a look of intense satisfaction. Whenever she put her cup down they seemed to sink with disappointment, until she offered to buy another round of drinks just to keep them from dying of dolor. The group jumped up with cheer, promising to buy her as many drinks as she wished, and more of this ‘ale’ was brought to their table hurriedly. Actually, she wasn’t sure how much time had passed. Her eyes hadn’t seemed to track the movements of the room around her very well. She must have really been out of it, if she was dizzy enough to have fainted from heat stroke even now. What a lifesaver these soldiers had turned out to be.
  The group still talked to her, but she wasn’t sure if she were still answering correctly. Their smiles seemed to show that she was, but it was so hard to concentrate on what they were saying. After she had finished her second tankard, she was seriously worried if she could stand up or not. Trying to uncloud her vision, she carefully stepped up from her chair. The world spun around her, her footing giving way to the treacherously dancing tavern, but the sandy-blonde caught her with strong, sure arms. “Bide a moment, lass.” The sandy-blonde said as she recovered her balance from her arms. “You’re in no condition to be walking out into the streets. Honestly, I’ve never seen such a strong reaction to this drink. Have you never had liquor before?”
  “Liquor?” She mouthed the word sloppily. “I thought it was a juice. . .” What had she been drinking? Maybe elven blood took this as poison, though it was refreshing to humans, just as hemlock was poison to elves but not to goats. What a stupid way to die.
  “Dying?” The blonde flashed white teeth in a laugh. “Of course not! Here, now, let us escort you to a room. I fear me that you’ll be falling on the floor if we don’t get you to a bed first.”
  “My. . .thanks.” Litfee said, as they almost lifted her off her feet and proceeded up the stairs. She just couldn’t think well enough to do anything but what they offered. Where was her mind? It seemed to be buried under walls and walls of cotton fluff.
  The sandy-blonde paid at the counter and the two exchanged knowing smiles as he went up the stairs. The other two followed dutifully. One’s step was eager, the other dragging, not wanting to be left out but also not wanting to stay. The door opened, Litfee now fallen completely into the blonde’s arms. It was hard enough just to remember where she was or what was happening, let alone trying to stand up. The blonde carefully laid her out on the bed with gentle care. The darker skinned lad closed the door, and the three looked at her in a strange manner.
  “I’m. . .sorry. . .to be such a bother.” Litfee said, trying to smile. What was going on?
  The sandy blonde was unfastening his tunic. Maybe it was too hot for him. The pale lad seemed to flit his gaze like a bird from her on the bed to the other two boys standing above it. She was so beautiful, laid out like that, her furled ears and her slender figure. But this. . .this was. . .this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. He didn’t want to anger his friends, but. . .after all, she had been smiling and thanking them this whole time. . .but. . .
  “Trevor?” The pale lad finally broke out in a quaver. The sandy blond had been leaning over to unloose her shirt. “Trevor, are you sure this is right?” The other lad stood up with drink-filled confidence. “Gods, man, just look at her! Have you ever seen someone so beautiful! Gods, just think what it will feel like to hold her! How could it not be right?”
  Gallen looked at her again, with those bright blue eyes now struggling to stay open. “But, she can hardly move. . .”
  “Shut up, Gallen.” The darker skinned lad snapped. “If you want to leave, then leave. I should have known you would be a coward. After all, you’re a faery loving star-gazer from Filliis. Just leave this to the real men, then.”
  “I don’t believe in faeries!” Gallen shouted, trying to escape from the stigma of his country.
  “Then stop acting like one.” Reginold snapped. Gallen gulped, looked at her again with almost a plea for forgiveness, and shut up.
  Trevor had tenderly, carefully, taken off her shirt, pulling it over her head. He paused a moment, as they all did, to gaze in admiration. They all had hastened to state that they were experienced with women, but at that moment all three of them had forgotten their boasts and traced the lines of her body with awe. Litfee struggled to an upright position, and the three were shocked with guilty blushes that she was still conscious enough to understand what was about to happen.
  “But you can’t!” Litfee wailed, covering her bosom with her arms. “I’m a dedicate to Selene. Artemis, Mistress of the Hunt!” Tears were breaking out from her perfect blue eyes. “I thought you loved Selene.”
  “Shut up!” Reginold ordered her, seeing the hesitation of the others. “Just shut up and hold still!”
  Litfee tried to sit up, tried to get out of the bed, but the world tipped and spun around her and she wailed out in despair. Oh, God, just let me get out of this room. Oh God, just give me the strength. You can not do this to me! I am a dedicate to the temple of the Moon. Oh please God.
  Reginold took two step forward and backhanded her across the mouth. She cried out in pain, sinking back into the bed. “Now stay still! We come all the way from the frozen north to fight your wars and you think you’re too holy for us?” Reginold ripped at her trousers, almost howling in fury when they resisted. Trevor seemed to be staring dumbstruck at her body, animal lust in his eyes, and Gallen watched with tortured fear the line of blood running down her cheek to the pillow below. The red mark where Reginold’s fist had struck that perfect face with those perfect blue eyes. He couldn’t turn his eyes away from it.
  Oh God. Please. Oh God. She reached and reached for the Aethyr, but her mind couldn’t find it. Litfee felt the impacts like blows from far away. She felt their eyes and their hands and their bodies pushing against her, but more and more it was like an illusion. Like something happening to someone else. She thought once that she was staring down at her body as the sandy-blonde mounted her. Now who is that elf? She had never seen an elf so beaten and bruised before. It could not be her. She was a Mistress of the Hunt, sworn to die a virgin in honor of her Guardian Angel. It could not be her.

*  *  *

  “Where is she!” Opalion exclaimed, pacing back and forth beside the Green river. They had agreed to meet back here three hours ago. It was bad enough that he had lost Tyrifell in order to ride on these boats. He wasn’t used to pacing, and he wasn’t used to having no task at all with which to reduce his stress. If only he could be brushing her down, right now. Or feeding her winter apples from the orchards of Tellor. How many years ago had that been? Too many. All those years, only to give her up for the sake of secrecy. Maybe when this is all over, we will meet again. Opalion didn’t know if he meant in life or in death. Damn it all, but why isn’t she back yet?
  “Calm down, Opalion.” Jhennador counseled, his own stance betraying a tension. “If something had happened, we would have known.”
  “And what if she couldn’t use the Aethyr?” Opalion whirled on him violently. “What if something happened before she had time to react? What if she’s lost and doesn’t know what to do but isn’t willing to use the Aethyr because the dark elves would know?”
  “The sylphs can’t find her anywhere.” Sleet reported miserably. “I’ve sent them out four times now.”
  Then send them again!” Opalion was livid.
  “They don’t want to—“ Sleet resisted.
  “Send them, God damn it!”
  Sleet sighed, sinking down. “I’ll send them.” She went back to cajoling the wind spirits, imploring them that it would only be one more time. She described Litfee’s graceful step, her blue eyes, her furled ears, her slender height. She told them again and again that it was the sylphs’ older sister they must find. The sylphs were distracted and bored. But she kept pressing, kept asking, because it was the only thing left.
  “I’m sure it’s just a mistake.” Jhennador issued platitudes. “Anyone could get lost in a city this size. I didn’t make it back on time, either.”
  “Twenty minutes! You were late twenty minutes!” Opalion hissed. He could not stop pacing. He wanted to draw his sword and bolt into the city killing. Litfee was in there, somewhere. And here they were out here, kicking their feet and waiting when it might mean life and death. He swore that if she weren’t back in another ten minutes. . .
  Sleet knocked the ground three times, sealing the pact. “They’ll go. They’ll find her. Please, Opalion, you’re scaring her.” Her meaning Nuen, of course. The elven lass stared grimly into the fire, shredding little pieces of grass into even littler pieces of grass.
  Opalion turned from iron to flesh, the tightness fleeing his frame. “Nuen, Nuen, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to shout. I’m just worried.”
  Nuen looked up to him, her eyes wide. “I’m worried too.” Her voice barely had the strength to reach his ears. Opalion didn’t have an answer for that. He just started to pace again. If she isn’t back in ten minutes. . .
*  *  *

  “Litfee!” Opalion shouted, bashing through the door. She was huddled into a ball, her arms curled around her knees, her face resting atop them. She was still shaking with dry sobs, and the smell of blood and vomit permeated the room. She was naked and bruised and dirty and afraid.
  “Selene have mercy.” Jhennador breathed, appalled. Opalion rushed to her side, his hands hovering over her but afraid to touch her if she might take it the wrong way. Curse them, for stealing away my right to comfort her now. For stealing away my right to hold her. “Litfee, it’s me. Please, say something.”
  Litfee was coiled as tight as a spring, her every muscle clenched. He could see the war she was waging with her body, just to relax them. “Opalion?” She asked, her eyes gummed over with tears and a dark yellow-purple bruise running over her cheek.
  “Who did this to you?” Opalion asked, burning with rage. “I’ll kill them!” His hands were actually shaking with anger. Curse them, a Mistress of the Moon! How dare they?
  Jhennador shot him a glare. “Right now the only thing that matters is her. Here, now, can you stand? We’ve got to get you to the washbasin. I promise you, nothing will be better now than feeling clean.”
  Litfee nodded, letting Jhennador take her hand and bring her to the basin. She looked more fragile at that moment than the tiniest babe. It was as if she had surrendered her own volition and given absolute trust in this elf to be her protector. That all it would take was a false word, and Litfee would snap in two, a delicate porcelain doll shattered against the floor from the merest feathery touch. At least she had vomited over the edge of the bed frame.
  Opalion studied the scene another moment. What, did they poison her? Why would anyone want to poison her? So sweet, so gentle, why would they hurt her? Why had they hurt her? He would hate them forever, for this. He would hate them forever. “Don’t just stand there, Opalion, and give me your cloak.” Jhennador ordered, already using his own to daub at her tear-soaked, bruised face with infinite care. Opalion quickly took off the color-shifting weave of Pel’lian and draped it over her body with one motion, letting the cloak fall over her without Opalion touching anything but the cloth. Her clothes seemed to have made it through the ordeal, but Opalion doubted she could ever wear them again. They would have to be burnt, along with this entire room. Along with this entire city! His fury demanded, but Opalion bit it back.
  Litfee shuddered as Jhennador started combing through her hair, and the two froze. “I just. . .need to be alone for a bit.” She managed, clasping the cloak around her like her last shield from arctic cold. Her last shield from men’s eyes, taking the vision she had sworn to her people’s guardian angel. Jhennador gave her a quiet look, judging whether or not she could be trusted to be left to her own devices. Litfee shivered again, her eyes downcast. “Please?”
  Jhennador nodded, and the two came out of the room. “We’ll be right outside, if you need anything.” He said, and they closed the door behind them.
  “I’ll kill them.” Opalion swore, his voice barely constrained. “I’ll make them weep a thousand times for every tear she shed. I’ll make them bleed a thousand cuts for every bruise on her body. I would kill them a thousand times, for this, if only I knew how.”
  “I’ll give her ten minutes, to clean herself up.” Jhennador decided. “And now I must pray to Selene, that Litfee will not do what she is contemplating on doing.” Jhennador put his knees to the hard wooden floor, and closed his eyes. ‘Selene, you who shelters us from the cold and the dark, do not abandon us now. Do not abandon she who has pledged her life to you. Give her the strength to find a way out. Give her the courage, the hope, give her your love now more than ever. Don’t let us lose her. Don’t let her lose herself. God willed that we should be free, I cannot stop her now. I can only pray to you, Selene, that you watch over us still. I can only pray that you will find a way, Guardian of the Eldar. Guard her, Selene, now and forever. For us all. I beg of you, don’t let her take her own life.’
  Opalion tried to mimic Jhennador’s silent vigil, but he was too young and his blood was too hot to just stand there any longer. He ran back down the stairs, into the tavern crowded with laughing and shouting, to the front of the bar. Anyone nearby cringed back, such was the look of murder in his eyes. “You!” Opalion hissed, and the barkeeper’s eyes widened in horror, seeing the furled ears and the shock of too-red hair and the wild green eyes of an elf.
  “How many girls do you send up to those rooms?” Opalion demanded. “How much blood do your servants wash out of them each night, the blood of maidens speared by your patrons?” The barkeeper tried to go through a door, but Opalion vaulted the bar and grabbed his arm, pulling him back as he drew his sword in a practiced motion. The blade was slanted an inch away from his throat. “I should kill you.” Opalion declared, letting his arm shake with the thirst, the blade thrumming with the need to reach that throat. “Except that you are only as guilty as all the others. Only as guilty as every other person there who saw what was happening, and didn’t stop it. Every person there who was happy to see her dragged up those stairs. Every person who raised them to do something like that. Every person who has known or is connected in any way to any person in this entire inn. For justice’s sake, I should kill them all.” Opalion slammed his sword blade back into his scabbard, his wild eyes narrowing. The barkeeper squealed in terror, but no one else seemed to notice. “But I’m afraid if I ever started killing your kind, I could never stop. I’m afraid that not a single stinking round-ear, for justice’s sake, actually deserves to live. And I don’t want to waste my time being evil’s executioner, when it’ll manage that part all on its own.”
  Opalion spat on the floor, releasing the man. “I hope you all die.” He turned his back on the man, his fury in no way assuaged. Concentrating on it only seemed to make it stronger. Serving it only made it thirst for more. There was no way he could satiate this anger. The more he served it, the more it made him its slave. Opalion had had to try three times, to lower that sword from the man’s throat. I have to be more careful. If I started killing, I don’t think I could stop, not until everyone in this entire city was burnt to a cinder. I have to be careful. If I give in to my anger now, it will own me for the rest of time. So Opalion went back up the stairs in a steady, controlled gait, to see Jhennador still praying. It had felt like hours had passed, to Opalion. But apparently it hadn’t even been ten minutes.
  Litfee emerged from the door, her own cloak worked to cover her in conjunction with his. He had never seen anything so thin, as if the slightest breeze would have carried her off her feet and into the air, mere wisps of life on the wind. “Who else. . .knows?” Litfee asked, trying to train her voice.
  Jhennador gave a moment left to his prayer, than opened his eyes. “A sylph found you, ‘cold and scared.’ Sleet told us what had happened, and we came as fast as we could.”
  Litfee nodded, a tear escaping her eye. She was shamed before the three of them, then. And yet, she had to bear it. There was no other way. O Selene, I did not mean to fail you!
  They will not get away with this.” Opalion swore. “I’ll track them down, Litfee.”
Opalion, please, it would change nothing.” Litfee counseled, another tear escaping down her recently washed cheeks. “If we start the killing, where does it end? We can not fight them, not when the Darkness means to kill us both. Please, it would mean nothing, to kill three or five or ten thousand.”
  “They can not treat you like this, and expect to live.” Opalion countered.
  “They can, and they have.” Litfee insisted. “It’s over now, let it end. Please, I don’t want to have to deal with it anymore.”
  Opalion looked away, unwilling to contest the issue any further. I hope they all die.
  Litfee didn’t want to think about it anymore, but it was all she could think about all the way back. How it had felt, to be too weak to move, too weak to think. How it had felt, to know herself violated in her body and her soul. And to have been the agent of her own destruction. Why did I have to smile at them so? Why did I order more drink, when I was dizzy from the first? Why did I let them take me to the room? I was so stupid. It was my fault. All my fault. And Litfee felt more tears coming, though she could not understand how she still had the water to produce them. What is life worth nowShe hadn’t even gotten them any food.

*  *  *

  “Litfee!” Nuen shouted with joy, jumping up from her seat by the fire and running towards the three. Before she could reach them, though, her sprint had turned to a walk, then to an utter halt. They had such a serious look, such stony faces, that she couldn’t bring herself to embrace them. As though this moment weren’t a time for rejoicing at all.
  Sleet stood up, with a look of relief as she took Litfee’s account from head to toe. “What happened?”
  “They poisoned her,” Jhennador scowled. “Some drug that disrupts the brain. Since we’ve never been exposed to it, it hit her stronger than she had a chance to resist.”
  “Is she okay?” Nuen asked hopefully.
  Jhennador looked at her, looked away. “Her attackers left before we even got there. Litfee hopes we can just forget about it.”
  “And so we shall.” Sleet promised, nodding at Litfee. “You two take care of Nuen, I need to talk to her for a moment.”
  Opalion nodded. “Where are the little ones? Weren’t you looking after them?”
  Sleet gestured somewhere off to the west. “I sent them to get food. I didn’t want them around for this.”
  “My thanks.” Litfee managed. “From the bottom of my heart. At least it is only my swei, that will know.”
  Sleet nodded. “It is forgotten. No one will ever have to know. Nobody knows at all.”
  “What are you talking about?” Nuen complained. “What happened?” None of the eldar seemed capable of meeting her gaze. “Why is she crying?” Nuen asked again, plaintively. “Why won’t you answer me!”
  Opalion turned, started walking towards the nearest trees. The river ran sweetly in the background.
  Jhennador crouched down to look Nuen in the eyes. “We were careless, because we thought they were our friends. They hurt Litfee really badly, and everyone’s angry about it. Not just about the attack, but because we feel they betrayed us. We went to them for safety, and instead they hurt us. And we’re mad at ourselves, for having trusted them when we shouldn’t have trusted anyone. We’re frustrated because there’s no one to take vengeance upon, or maybe there’s everyone to take vengeance upon, but there’s nothing any of us can—“
  With a roar of animalistic rage, a scream magnified a hundred-fold, an explosion appeared on the horizon. The group flinched, looking at that fire. Another scream whipped through the trees and the grass, and the fire seemed to grow in response. The red glow of destruction reflected off their eyes, red flecks dancing through eyes of green and blue and gray. The fire grew into a column, a whirlwind stretching into the clouds, as the voice of pure fury vied with the storm for supremacy. The elves looked to that column with the reverent silence given to the passage of a soul. Perhaps that scream told it better than all the words. For another second, and then another, the storm raged, and then with a wink, the air was empty once more. Opalion must have collapsed from the strain.

Chapter 14.

  “ It is clear to me now that fighting evil is only another way of supporting it. Giving war to those who live for it, giving hatred to those who thirst for it, is the only way to give them the strength they need to destroy us. Does anyone doubt that the Darkness could not survive on its own? We all of us know, that the moment we are gone, it is their end as well. They live only to destroy. By giving them something to destroy, they live on.
It is true of humanity, as well. I look upon my brothers, and I see a darkness in them. And I wonder, ‘if I left these people to their own devices, how long before they would turn upon each other? How long could my brothers survive their own dark hearts, without ones like me upholding them?’ If it is the task of the wise to keep humanity civilized, then it can be sure that we have bled stones in order to keep it so. We are always on the very precipice, with these people, these mobs, that are a razor’s edge from falling into the abyss. The wise have them caught on ropes hanging over cliffs, and we pull as hard as we can to keep them from falling. But their weight becomes ever the heavier with each passing year, and our strength wanes and saps away in the upholding of them. By fighting the darkness within our brothers, we allow it to grow in strength and live on beyond its natural lifespan. By keeping civilized as best we can those who would naturally return to barbarism, we give life to those who deserve none. And does anyone doubt that the dark masses won’t always outnumber the wise who hold them from the fires of hell? What happens when Nuse is full of evil begotten by our own love of life, because we did not understand that saving the lives of those who wish only for death, is not fighting evil, but fighting good? Soon, I fear, I will be the only good thing left, and all the rest will sip from my cup of goodness to last another day, another hour.
It is clear to me, that it is not mine or ours to fight the evil of others’ hearts, to civilize or strengthen that which is Lucifer’s. Rather, whenever evil should appear, the only method of defeating it, is to leave it to itself. Evil, by definition, is that which does harm. An evil people, an evil culture, is by definition one that will collapse under its own weight. Nothing evil can succeed in life, it is capable only of serving death. All we must do is escape it, and it will defeat itself. All we ever had to do was get away from evil. But we were too tied to this land, this Firion, this Peace, to let it go. We should have run ages ago. There would be no Darkness, if we had run then. I can only hope, that it is still possible to run now.
It is clear to me that those of Nuse, the wise of all Firion, must leave the rest of humanity behind. That the servants of good, of God, must exist not for the sake of the dark masses, but for themselves. That we are the true seed of humanity that must be saved, even if it should mean the fall of all Firion. And that it is our fate to found a land of unpolluted people, the wise ones of all Firion. And from that stock, it is ours to repopulate the world. Only through fleeing evil, can it be defeated. And so it will be ours to avoid the touch of all polluted life, to not deal with or support any dark hearts. I will call this utopia Mircassia.”

Utopia, the Last Stand of Mankind.” An essay by the Sage of Nuse.

A ferry to Mircassia?” The portsman repeated incredulously. “You’ll not find anyone willing to take that journey.”
  “But it’s only right around the peninsula.” Glen answered in exasperation. “You can practically see it from here!”
  The portsman kept walking, not bothering to waste his time with the lad anymore. “It’s not the distance, lad. That isle is cursed. Nothing gets in, nothing goes out.”
  Glen kept up the man’s pace, slinking into his hunter’s stride. “That’s ridiculous. Mircassia founded Loass.”
  The portsman looked irked at being called ‘ridiculous’. “That was a long time ago, lad. Mircassia, if it’s even there anymore, is surrounded by a wall of storms. The water would smash apart any vessel, the air would rip apart the wings of any bird. And there’s never a lull. They’re the most cursed strange waters in the whole world. It’s been that way since ever.”
  “But we read books by Mircassians in school!” Glen pressed, his facts in direct contradiction to the portsman’s.
  The portsman sneered, trying to outpace the boy. “Copies, lad. Copies of copies. Priests and scholars still take an interest in the old works, so they just keep rewriting them. There hasn’t been any trade with Mircassia since ever.”
  Glen stomped his foot and gave in. Even if the portsman did know something, he wasn’t going to tell him. Maybe Rain should have asked. Men always seemed polite and helpful with her. It’s deceitful, is what it is. They want to show how kind they are, but how are they kind if it’s only when there’s a lass around to see it? The whole world is a plague of lies. Glen stormed away, tromping back to the group that was watching on. Litfee was huddled in cloaks against the cold sea breeze. If it wasn’t quite winter yet, it might as well have been. Glen wanted to shiver himself, but didn’t want to admit that nature had any power over him. Jhennador slid off a barrel and stretched out to his full height, looking down on Glen’s slight frame.
  “Well?” Jhennador asked.
  Glen shook his head. “It’s no good. Mircassia has some sort of protection around it, a wall of storms. I guess they don’t like visitors.”
  Rain saw Glen’s sinking face, and quickly refuted him. “Look, they can’t be totally cut off from the world. There must be a way through that they use. Does anyone really think Mircassia is hiding from the rest of the world? No, they’re just holding themselves aloof from the world. That means they have a way through, but they think no one else does.”
  Glen smiled. “The Power of God. The wisemen of Mircassia, they must know of the Power of God.”
  “Impossible.” Jhennador came in. “A never-ending storm would require constant upkeep. How could they work something that large, forever? Reality has limits to its distortion.”
  “Maybe they use the elementals.” Sleet came in. “If they struck a pact with Tyr. . .” and then she trailed off. The elemental kings were not of this world.
  “It’s not impossible.” Glen insisted, envisioning it. “They must have been doing this for a long time, they probably have figured out a way to make it work. Who knows how many people live in Mircassia, and all of them must know the secrets of the universe. Why can’t they work up a storm?”
  “And besides,” Rain put in. “We have to believe it is the Power of God, because that’s the only belief that allows us to get through it. That’s the only belief that gives us a chance.”
  “If you think we can counteract a storm the size of a whole continent—” Jhennador began.
  “We don’t have to fight it.” Glen interrupted. “We can just give our ship a bubble of safe water and winds, or twist reality however we please, and let the storm rage all around.”
  Sleet nodded, seeing the wisdom of it. “We might as well try, Jhennador.”
  Opalion jumped off his barrel, a fire in his eyes. He bit out in elven, “Tell me again why we’re going to Mircassia. The only thing that waits for us there is more round-ears. Worse! Round-ears with knowledge of the Aethyr. How can we be sure they won’t turn on us?”
  “Opalion, you promised—” Sleet hissed.
  “Promises are contracts. I’m not going to hold to my side, if they refuse to hold to theirs. They promised safety, and what was their promise worth? So why should mine be worth anything more?”
  “Don’t blame them, Opalion. This is daft! Am I to blame you for what the dark elves do, now? Are we to be the culprit of every crime committed by our entire race? Are we some sort of hive mind that shares equal blame for every action of every individual?”
  “I didn’t say they rap—“ Then Opalion stopped, biting his tongue as his jaw clamped down. Litfee curled into a tighter ball, the weave of Pel’lian covering every part of her body. The barrel she sat upon began to shake with her sobs. Opalion went on in a quiet voice. “I just meant, they were supposed to be our guides. They were supposed to protect us from our own ignorance, and they failed us. They failed us, so why must we succeed for them?”
  “Because,” Jhennador countered, “Their failure was accidental. I remember someone else having failed as our guide, and he claimed that it was an accident and that he was not to blame.”
  Opalion flinched from the backhanded insult.
  “Whereas you propose a willed failure. Their failure was from lack of ability, not lack of honour.”
  Opalion flinched again. To be without honour was to be without life. “Fine then,” Opalion surrendered, regressing to the round-ear’s language, “but that still doesn’t get us a boat.”
  “Why can’t you just make one?” Glen asked, irritated at their secretive elven speak.
  Opalion turned on him. “It isn’t like that!” He shouted. “Always with you, it is ‘why can’t you this? Why can’t you that?’ Why can’t you just realize that you’ll never understand the Aethyr, that you’ll never know enough to even talk about it, and just leave us to making the decisions?”
  Sleet added. “We don’t know how to make a boat, so we can hardly construct one. What would the materials be made out of? How would they be fastened together? What does a boat even look like, when you get right down to it? Should the sails be triangular or square, and what is their size? How do sails even catch the wind? We can’t do things with the Aethyr we don’t understand. The Aethyr is one art, boat crafting is another. The Power of God doesn’t give you the knowledge of all the arts. It doesn’t make us omniscient. Why do you think eldar even bother with guilds, if the Aethyr gifted us with the answers to everything?”
  Glen wilted under their criticism. “Why not just conjure one?” He muttered. “Like Azteer conjured that rock out of the fire?”
  “It’s easy to picture a rock in our minds.” Sleet lectured. “So we think of a big boulder, and conjure it. We make a new reality that happens to have a rock wherever we wanted it to be. But can you picture a ship, in perfect detail, in its exact dimensions? You can stare at a boat for hours, trying to paint it or sketch it, and it will never be a perfect copy. And if we picture just something that looks like a boat, will it really work when we put it in the ocean? It is not so easy, the crafting of reality. You can’t just wave your hands and expect everything to do as you please.”
  “We’ll just have to take one.” Jhennador cut in, bored with the lessons he had learned as a boy. “We don’t have to know how the thing works. We can just move it with force.”
  “Why not just will ourselves there?” Rain asked, standing beside Glen for support.
  Opalion rolled his eyes, walking away to find a suitable ship. Sleet almost grimaced with the ignorance of the question. “Have you ever been to Mircassia? I haven’t. I have no idea what it looks like. I can think, “I want to be in Mircassia” all I want, but it’s not like I’m asking God to go put me there. It is my will, which means it must be my mind that creates my will. Even if I had been to Mircassia, I couldn’t picture it perfectly enough for it to be Mircassia. Besides, teleportation means the instantaneous dissolution of one body and the creation of another. Would the clone be me? Or would I have died in the dissolution? Can I picture myself perfectly enough, to be the exact duplicate of what I was before? Do I have a soul, incapable of replication? Whenever you figure out the secret to teleportation, perhaps I’ll watch you and see what comes of it. Until then, stop asking stupid questions. Both of you.” Sleet stressed, stretching like a cat as she stood, holding her hand out for Litfee. The other elves had already gone ahead.
  “I swear,” Sleet continued, helping Litfee down. She got off the barrel quietly, slowly, as though her bones were as fragile as a bird’s, and would snap from any sudden movements. “You two could learn a lesson from Treant. He’s the only one who realizes that perhaps there’s more to learn about the world than to teach. That maybe kids need to stop talking and start listening.”
  Rain smiled sweetly. “The only way we can learn anything is if we ask. You don’t tell us why something isn’t, until we ask why it is. Maybe that makes you all angry, but at least it means we aren’t kept in the dark all the time.”
  “If you refer to our forays into elven,” Sleet sniped back, “maybe you should remember some simple courtesy. We aren’t here to share our lives with you. We’re here to live, however we still can. Nowhere in that decision is there a corollary: ‘and of course to make friends with the natives.’ You have your secrets, and we have ours. Sometimes it’s better that you don’t know.”
  “That’s our decision.” Rain argued. “We’re the only ones in the position to know what is best for us. We have the right to decide what we should know, and what we should do, and who we should be. No one else can make that decision for us.”
  Sleet smiled wryly, “Then learn elven. Until then, apparently, we can still make that decision for you.” She turned to walk away, following the path of Opalion down the docks.
  “Not morally!” Rain shouted at her back, fuming. Sleet always won arguments. Only because she’s always right.Rain admitted to herself. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

*  *  *

  “Here.” Nuen said, offering Litfee a peach. Litfee looked at it for a moment, and then looked away, blue eyes staring blankly across gray sky. “Litfee, you have to eat.” Nuen insisted, pushing the peach back into sight.
  “Go away Nuen.” Litfee mumbled.
  “Where would you have me go?” Nuen asked, curious. “The boat is only so large. Should I jump over the side?”
  Litfee cracked a smile, and then became angry that Nuen had managed to make her smile, when all she wanted to do was be miserable. “No. Please don’t jump over the side, Nuen.” She answered.
  “Shall I fly through the air, like a pegasus?” She pursued, trying to break through the wall Litfee had worked so hard to build.
  Litfee smiled, this time letting Nuen see it. “No. Don’t fly away, either.” Nuen squealed in triumph to see Litfee smile, and ran to hug her. Her voice was muffled, but Nuen didn’t mind. “Remember when you used to hold me, just like this? Remember when Opalion and Vayski found us, when you were holding me? They thought you were my mother.”
  Litfee stroked Nuen’s hair, gently, reflexively. “I remember. Vayski was a great elf.”
  “I miss him, Litfee. But no one ever wants to talk about him. It’s like, we’ve killed him all over again by trying to forget him.” Nuen griped.
  “Silly!” Litfee soothed. “We haven’t forgotten him. We remember him with our every breath, with each beat of our hearts. We are still alive because he led us out of Alphe. The consequences of his actions live on with us. He can never be forgotten, because the world will never be the same because of him.”
  “Like with Azteer?” Nuen’s voice trembled. The eldar knew he was dead. The backwash had risen to a feverish high, before it had receded back to nothing. The sign of a battle he could not have won.
  Litfee nodded, though Nuen couldn’t see it. “Like with Azteer. They may have killed him, but they can never kill what he did. What he gave to the world will always live on.”
  “But he could have given more.” Nuen mourned. “The world still needed him. He could have made it so much better.”
  Litfee smiled, staring into the storm-chopped seas and distant lightning-swept clouds. “That’s why it’s so sad.”
  Nuen looked up, wiping a tear from Litfee’s cheek. “That’s why you have to eat. We still need you, Litfee. I still need you to hold me, just like this, and tell me stories about the Court of the Moon, and how beautiful all the fountains were, and how whole clans would come to watch your dances, and come away inspired. And Opalion needs you. See how angry he becomes, when you are not there to soothe him?”
  Opalion isn’t a bad elf.” Litfee argued. “There’s so much pain in this world, sometimes we just don’t know how to survive it. Opalion has lost his father and his hero, and now he’s lost his own pride. He wants to be our protector, our provider, and it hurts him so, when he fails. He doesn’t know how to conquer it, save through anger.”
  “It’s not just Opalion.” Nuen went on, her mind’s eye tracing the cords of light that connected her swei to one another. “I think all of them are willful and stubborn. They’ve chased so much of the Peace from them, they’ve melted so much of their weakness out of them, that they are all made of iron. Look how their tempers flare, when someone disagrees with them. Look how arguments get so bitter over every little thing. When they were on their own, they worked very hard to be like this, because it helped them survive. But now that we’re together, they don’t have. . .the softness in them to defer to others, to get along. You’re the one who softens them, you’re the one that soothes tempers and defers to others and keeps this swei alive.”
  Litfee smiled, in a detached way. “I don’t think so.”
  “How could you say that?” Nuen demanded, seeing that somehow she had lost Litfee, that she had not said the right thing, that now Litfee wouldn’t eat the peach and she would die and it would all be her fault.
  “Because, Nuen, you’re the one who keeps us together.” Litfee stated, as a simple matter of fact.
  Nuen had no way to refute that, because she knew Litfee was right. She hadn’t known before Litfee said it, but now it was obvious. She was the one thing all the eldar loved, without hesitation, without reservation. All the cords of light ran to her. “need you.” Nuen pressed. “I’m not strong like them. Litfee, I don’t know what I’ll do, if you abandon me.”
  Litfee kept stroking her hair. “Is that a threat? ‘If you commit suicide, I will too?’”
  Nuen gasped, her eyes widening. “I didn’t mean that! How could you even think such a thing!”
  Litfee blinked, looking away from those horrified eyes. “I don’t know.” She answered. It had just seemed the natural thing to say, at the time. It hadn’t been horrifying to her at all.
  Nuen began to cry with the frustration of not knowing what to do. No matter what she said, it didn’t seem to reach her. No matter what she did, it wasn’t the right thing. She didn’t know what to do and she was afraid and no one was helping her and no one else seemed to care and Litfee was going to die.
  “Here now,” Litfee said crossly. “Are you going to get my clothes all wet right after we sealed ourselves off from the storm?”
  “I’m sorry.” Nuen said, climbing off Litfee’s lap. I’m sorry I don’t know what to say to make you happy. I’m sorry I don’t know what to do and even though you need me I can’t save you. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. “It’s a good peach,” Nuen managed through tears. “I just had one. They remind me of home, a little. . .”
  Litfee took the peach, just to keep Nuen from having to cry about it. “Okay Nuen. I’ll eat the peach.” Nuen nodded, turning to wipe away tears that seemed to be the norm of life now. Crying was meant to be for really bad times. Now it seemed to be the norm. Nuen tried to mourn elsewhere, so as to give Litfee no further cause for grief.
  The peach lay forgotten in Litfee’s hands. Her eyes stared off into the distance.

  Mama!” Fee cried out joyously. She sprinted across the field of lights, red and gold and silver and violet and yellow blooms bursting with the beauty of life. Trees waved proudly in the distance, the sun perched over them in a fireball, red and orange hues breaking over the clouds and through the cracks in the leaves. Salamanders flitted across the sky in streaks of fire, the receding sun giving over to the millions of separate, sparkling jewels of the night. Undines sported among the river that eventually wound its way through their household, the sylphs drawing clouds to and fro, first wispy, then puffy, for the sheer delight of it. The earth gave way to Fee’s graceful foot, just soft enough to give a spring to her next running step, just hard enough to not leave any trace of the earth to soil the rainbow weave of El’Falil. Fee didn’t have time to notice any of this, the whole world streaked past her as mere spheres and lines, the only clear sight that of her mother in her white, windswept dress, her red-gold hair flower-strewn as sylphs decorated it with the playfulness of naughty little sisters, and her violet eyes that took in all the world with such love that it was as though you could see the whole of it flowing back out of them and into you. Fee saw her mother arch her neck, gather her dress, stand to her feet, the whole contour of her body revealed from the pressing of the wind. Saw that tiny tilt of her head that no one else would have ever seen, that tiny tilt that mother saved only for her, that one motion that had taught Fee that ‘I love you’ could be said in a thousand different ways.
And then she was in her mother’s arms, in her embrace, and it was no longer the wind that enjoyed such intimacy, but her own arms, her own head, each nestling into lines and curves she had learned as a babe.
  Breathless, Fee rose shocking blue eyes to meet her mother’s. “Did you hear, Mama? Oh Mama! They agreed! I’m to be a Mistress of the Moon. I’ll have a guild of my very own! Selene will love me forever! Can you believe it, Mama?”

A peaceful smile crept across Litfee’s face. And she forgot to take another breath.

*  *  *
  Cyrn meditated upon the smell of his soup. It steamed with heat that just begged to be taken in by his mouth, but Cyrn waited. Aunt Ariselle was the only person he had ever known that could make simple food like onions and potatoes smell so good, and he gave this moment in homage to her. It wouldn’t have been right, to eat the soup so fast his tongue couldn’t even taste it. He took the spoon to its steaming service with a sense of reverence, his mouth watering in anticipation.
  “Cyrn!” Ariselle shouted. Cyrn yelped in fear, his spoon flying out of his hands, almost tipping over his chair and the whole table atop him. Ariselle stopped, looked at Cyrn for a moment, and then fell over laughing. Whenever she tried to get back up and breathe, she made a little imitation yelping sound and then fell back into laughter. Cyrn’s whole face was red as he stooped to pick up his spoon and the precious contents that had sprayed across the room. So he startled easily. She didn’t have to laugh at him about it.
  Wiping tears of mirth from her eyes, Ariselle started to pamper him once more. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone more in love with his soup. You jumped like I’d caught you about to kiss her!” Ariselle laughed again. Her home was always bright, because she made it that way. Sometimes Cyrn wondered if he had recovered faster from her laughter, than from her food. Though that seemed hard to believe. Her food was so good. Smiling to show he hadn’t taken offense, Cyrn returned his attention to the soup. A little had spilled, but not much. He had been very careful about not jostling the table as he fell. He’d rather have broken his skull in, than to have ruined his meal. “What is it, Aunt Ariselle?” Cyrn asked nonchalantly, taking his first spoonful of broth.
  Ariselle frowned, as if a cloud were passing over the brightness of the sun. “I almost forgot. I’m afraid I have news of the war.”
  “Did they stop them at Zeerant?” Cyrn enthused, his soupspoon raised halfway to his lips entirely forgotten.
  Ariselle shook her head. “I don’t know about that.” She paused for a moment. “I wouldn’t be too hopeful, Cyrn. The Darkness is hitting them really hard. No one’s seen so many. We thought this would be like the last war. We were so confident we’d win, because we’d become so much stronger since then. Nobody thought they could’ve done the same. . .”
  “They’ll be stopped. They have to be.” Cyrn announced, taking another bite of soup. Ever since he’d gotten here, he had been hungry. At first it had been hard to eat anything, but every bite he took he felt race into his arms and legs and heart with new strength. Now he wasn’t just recovering lost ground, but filling out with his man’s growth. He was fourteen, now, older than Glen when they had last been together. That seemed like an eternity ago, but it had only been two years.
  “It isn’t Zeerant.” Ariselle went on, unnaturally grim. “It’s the Oldoss. We thought the river line would be unbreachable.”
  Cyrn gave her a look of astonishment. “They crossed the Oldoss?”
  Ariselle nodded. “They say our army was destroyed.”
  “You mean defeated.” Cyrn corrected. “Even if they did force a crossing, the river would have slowed them down. There’s no way they could have mounted an effective pursuit. You’ll see. We’ll have to retrench along the Hien, but that’s not so bad. That just means our supply lines and reinforcements will be all the easier to reach, and there’s will be all the further away.”
  “No, Cyrn, I mean our army was annihilated. Obliterated. Wiped off the face of the earth.”
  Cyrn gaped, dropping his spoon. “But. . .that’s impossible. I don’t even mean unlikely, I mean impossible. No battle can ever obliterate an army. Especially an army defending a river. There are always survivors, deserters. . . there’s always someone left.”
  Ariselle nodded. “It wasn’t a battle. Our troops were perfectly assembled all the way down the line. We were as dense in numbers as the Darkness. You simply could not have asked for a stronger position. But the Darkness didn’t even attack. The only thing that happened is this one tall lass stepped up in front of the others, and she might have said something, but how could we have heard? And then she just stood there, and suddenly there was this great wind—“
  Cyrn interrupted. “Where did you hear this? It must just be some wild rumor, some practical joke. Are you saying a lass destroyed the entire Grand Army?”
  “Amielle coaxed a Prince’s Man into her bed, if you must know.” Ariselle gave him a disapproving look for asking about ‘adult matters.’ “The whole army is in an uproar, and the messengers are racing all about trying to get some line up at the Hien before the Darkness can just march on Loass.”
  “A Prince’s Man.” Cyrn breathed. If he was the source, it was impeccable. Loassian Knights carried honour like a second skin. And Prince’s Men judged their honour by the perfect delivery and discovery of information. It was the source of their pride.
  “Anyway, I was about to tell you of this great wind.” Ariselle picked back up, returning to her storytelling voice. “It was like all the air was rushing away from the army, in every direction. There wasn’t a storm or anything, it was just this lass holding up her hands, and the air around the river kept sucking and sucking. At first the army just held their ground, not letting the wind disorder them. But it was horrible. The air wasn’t blowing by like some gust of wind; it was sucked away, stolen away, to be replaced with nothing. As though the lass had seen fit to punch a hole in God’s creation and replace it with Void. The whole army fell apart like so much grass. Their eyes bulged, their tongues expanded. Their bodies were trying to burst out of their flesh. And once the whole army, thousands upon thousands of horses and men, had collapsed in the midst of that hole of void, the lass lowered her arms and the whole of the air slammed back in on itself with the crack of thunder, tossing the army about like rag dolls.”
  “But how did the Prince’s Man know any of that? Wasn’t the whole army destroyed?” Cyrn couldn’t bring himself to believe it. I had been so close to standing in that line. I had been so close to standing like a stupid, dead cow with all the rest of them. How could there be any weapon so horrible, to wipe out whole armies without even a chance to fight back? How could he have just died, just like that, before he had gotten a chance to do anything? How could he have died such a useless, stupid, hopeless death? How could God have allowed such a thing?
  There were scouts, observers, people far enough away to see the whole thing and not be caught in it. They ran in every direction, too scared to think. They told everyone they met that the Day of Judgment had come, until the knights got a hold of them.”
  Cyrn stared off into the distance. “Oh God, Ariselle. You had two sons in that army.”
  Ariselle shook her head vehemently. “They’re safe. I got a letter from them just the other day. They’re cooks, serving in the background. They were given some potatoes and told to make them taste like mutton, and so they did. Well, actually, they traded in their boots, their cloaks, whatever they could to get some real spices and ingredients. They cooked mutton and the choicest vegetables and whatever else they could find and gave the general the best potato soup he had ever had.” Ariselle smiled with a wink. “And so the general told them they would cook even if they were the last men left standing. Even if the camp was being overridden by Orcs, they were to go on stirring the soup because he’d be damned if he let them waste their hands with a sword.” Ariselle couldn’t hide the note of pride she found in the general’s praise.
  “Thank God.” Cyrn prayed.
  “God had naught to do with it.” Ariselle remonstrated. “It was my boys that had the courage and the ingenuity to earn their position. It was my boys that gave up their cloaks in the middle of winter so that they could have just one shot at earning the general’s favour. God never had manna rain down from the heavens or whatnot. It was my boys.” She thumped the table with a note of finality. Cursed if she would let God claim all the credit for all the good things anyone did, and never be around for the blame when something went wrong.
  Cyrn smiled, thinking of the villagers back home with similar religious tastes. The backcountry seemed too in touch with the way life was, to believe in all the superstitions of cityfolk. But Cyrn could never think of God the way they did, like some unwanted neighbor who was always poking His nose into other peoples’ business. It made him laugh to even think of it. “But if the Darkness has some weapon to wipe out whole armies, what’s the use of forming another line?”
  Ariselle shrugged. “We have plenty more men to pour into the meat grinder. If we don’t get some of them killed, they’ll be starving to death by the end of winter.”
  Cyrn yelled. “But that’s stupid! Any one of those men could have been me! Could be me! They have families and lovers and hopes and dreams! We’re talking about people, being treated like lambs led to the slaughter!”
  “Do you think the generals care about that?” Ariselle retorted bitterly. “The only thing generals want is an untarnished record, a chance at retirement with honours, a nice pension for their older years. Do you think generals give a damn about how many people must die for that? They’re only imaginary people, imaginary casualties, so long as he never has to see them. So long as it isn’t his son that has to die.”
  “If they can wipe us out in groups, we have to break up into individuals. We have to hit and run, and track down and kill this lass no matter how long it takes. She has to sleep sometime! We have to be everywhere and nowhere, so they never have a chance to strike. Forming another line is. . .it’s not just suicide, it’s murder! Murder on such a scale. . . murder on the scale of millions!” Cyrn yelled, not knowing why it was Ariselle he was yelling at. Maybe because she’s the only one who will listen to a child like me.
  “You know what Ameille says the lass said?” Ariselle recited. “ ‘I’m sorry I have to do this, but you’re in my way.’ ”
*  *  *

One moment their ship was drilling a hole of stability through a wall of chaos, the next moment they emerged to a coast of verdant grasses and the brightness of the sun. Dropping the bubble of order, the crew of the ship took their first deep breath of fresh air in what felt like centuries. All the colours drained from the world had raced back to this spot to hail the arrival of anything from the Outside with a burst of joy. Birds of absolutely unique plumage fluttered from branch to branch. Everything seemed to be healthier and brighter than it had any right to be. It was winter, outside this storm. But somehow here it was still spring. This was not nature left to its own design, but a garden so tenderly cultivated that only perfection was allowed to remain. They had reached the shores of Mircassia.
  “What’s this? What’s this?” A squawk came from the trees. It held a note of consternation, as though it were not prepared for this eventuality. But also a note of curiosity, prepared to find out just how this had occurred.
  Jhennador, Opalion, and Sleet hopped from the boat into the grainy sand, their boots sinking into the crusty earth. Wind from the storm whipped their cloaks about them, hair silver and red and gold streaming across and behind their faces. The cloth shifted from blue to tan to green to red in a dizzying speed, a swirl of colour that through mimicry held a life of its own. Ruby-crested swords stood out at an angle from their hips, darts of death each resting lightly at the eldar’s sides. Search as they might, the words seemed to have come from thin air. There was not a round-ear to be seen for miles.
  A flutter of wings betrayed the flight of a bird from one tree to another. “You shouldn’t be here. No one comes here. You shouldn’t be here.”
  Treant’s eyes became as wide as saucers. “Did that bird just. . .talk?” The three children had rather clumsily climbed out of the boat and waded to shore, marveling at the storm’s grip on the very edge of the shore, and its sudden cessation when their feet touched the sand.
  The bird cocked its head at Treant, trying to get a better look. “Stay here.” The bird offered helpfully. “I find the master, and he can come. Masters always know best. Stay here.” And then the bird took flight again, a mad flapping of wings trying to account for the size of its head. When the elves looked again, they could already see three or four other birds watching on intently.
  Jhennador whispered to Opalion, “I think we’ve been taken prisoner.” But Opalion just shook his head, his eyes sparkling with bemused delight. To think, animals who could talk! It was a creation bordering on that of the elementals, the elves' greatest pride. Something the guild of beastmasters had never accomplished in all its thousands of years of efforts. And here it was, across the angle between universes. The dream of all beastmasters, waiting for him to see. Selene be praised, that all my brothers may for one moment see through my eyes, to behold this wonder.
  Nuen tugged at Litfee’s hand again, anxious to be out of the boat. “Come on, Fee. You’ve got to get up. Can’t you see we’re here?” But Litfee’s eyes were closed. She didn’t seem to have noticed that they had made it at all. Nuen tugged at Litfee again, a tingle of fear running down her spine adding to her strength. The peach rolled out of the hand’s loose grip, her arm falling loosely to her side. A hand too cold, too pale, to be caused by the wind. With mounting horror, Nuen let go of Litfee’s hand, took a step back, and then another. Litfee lay propped against the boat’s edge, utterly motionless, utterly limp. Nuen wasn’t staring at Fee anymore. Just an empty sack of flesh. She was staring at her corpse. Nuen couldn’t find her voice, she couldn’t blink, her stomach was knotting with tension and she couldn’t stop from doubling over. Her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth, and her hands began to tremble and shake, no matter how much she tried to keep them still. “But what was I supposed to do?” She whispered, the words not even reaching her own ears. “I loved you all I could. I tried my very best. What else could I have done?” Her legs collapsed from under her, her head still riveted to Litfee’s beautifully peaceful face. “How can I live without you?”
  “Nuen?” Jhennador called out, a nervous tension straining his voice. Nuen had no breath to answer him with. She didn’t even hear him, save as meaningless sounds. The world had shrunk down to that one face, that one untouched peach, and the distance between her body and the body of the one she’d loved. The same body that had sheltered and protected her all those years, now sitting lifeless against the edge of the boat. The same body that had talked to her, just hours before, with those wistful sad tones. Just hours before, she had been smiling. And I left her. And I left her to die.
  Nuen?” Jhennador shouted, the urgency now real and immediate. He damned the birds and turned to jump back onto his ship, sword already halfway out of its sheathe. If they had hurt her—he didn’t know how, but they would pay it back. There would be no forgiving that. If anything was evil enough to hurt her, he would never have mercy on them again. . . Jhennador stumbled, fell, his sword clattering to the wooden deck. With a keen, he went to his knees, doubled over in pain and rage. His cry ran through the swei like wildfire, it ran through the birds so they all began to squawk and fly about in disarray, it ran through all the world like a pulse of sharp pain that comes and goes without any knowledge of its source or its mouth. And then it was gone, swept away in the uncaring wind.

*  *  *

  There was a dispute that night. Eldar only died in two ways, from violence or from lack of will. Cremation was reserved for those who died in battle, burial for those whose life had slipped from hands too weak to bear it any longer. Opalion insisted Litfee had died from injuries, insisted on giving her the honours of a warrior. Jhennador insisted on obeying tradition, on holding on to what little was left of their world in this strange land. The argument sparked and flared all through the afternoon, and on into the evening. If they didn’t bury her soon, the moon would rise before her soul had a chance to greet it. Litfee would have wanted to see Artemis one last time, before she went back to God. But neither was willing to give way even for this, hoping that the other would surrender first in light of the necessity. It was left to Sleet to comfort and protect the children from the wrath of their dispute. Nuen huddled beside Glen, pale-green eyes barely slitted to gaze at the salamanders. They all huddled close to the elementalist and her comforting fire. As the night began to take hold, the fire seemed to be the last bastion of safety in a world of misery and loss. Buffeting the edge of this haven raged the angry voices, the occasional shouts and occasional silences, the occasional mention of the name that made Nuen flinch and nestle herself closer to Glen’s side. For some reason she could not find comfort in Sleet’s arms. It felt like betraying Litfee, to have anyone else take on the mother’s role. But it was okay, for him to hold her. To have, just for a moment, an older brother. Why did they have to be so angry? Nuen gave up worrying and hurting and closed her eyes, still pillowed against him   
Fine! Kill her all over again! Pretend it never happened! Shame her and us all before the eyes of Selene! Treat her like meat thrown out to the hounds! See if I care!” Opalion shouted, slamming his sword into its sheathe and walking into the forest.
Don’t let go.” She whispered pleadingly, tightening her grip around him as the argument receded. Glen blushed and nodded, reflexively petting her hair and then stopping himself. Don’t think about it, just fall asleep too and pretend this is normal. You fell asleep with Rain on your shoulder right? No difference, no difference at all.

  “Opalion!” Jhennador shouted, still seeking the last word on the elf’s receding back. “Since when did lies do us honour? Burning her does not elevate her to the ranks of heroes, it only cheapens the regard we have given to all the heroes by equating them to her! Have you forgotten what it means to be far’sarai?” Opalion gave no answer. Perhaps he had not heard Jhennador at all. With a curse, the older man began to cut lines in the earth. Eldar losing their hold on honour, losing their quest for the far’sarai, he had never seen it so advanced. I always knew he was too angry. I always knew it would come to this. An elf who no longer wishes to be a living example to how life should be led. How long before that elf joins the fold of Lucifer? Is this how it starts? Elves, raging against injustice, angry with God, angry with the whole world, blaming everyone for the pain they can no longer bear? Are the dark elves those whose stars burned too brightly, collapsing under their own weight? Stars so heavy with grief, that they become gaping black holes sucking out the light of the universe? How many black holes are there, for each of our stars? There are only four pale, flickering candles left to us now. In all the vastness of space, four lights. And how many holes trying to devour them, out of hatred and pain? What was the use? No matter how fast he ran, how clever his footing, he would slip into one or the other. Or maybe like Opalion, he would find himself being devoured by his own.
Jhennador went to look at Litfee’s peaceful face again. Helios grant me a death as soft as hers. And then he shook himself away, a shiver running down his spine. Thoughts like that only had one end. It was not so bad, that his only prayers left were for death. Even if he were the last light in all the universe, he would not pray for a reprieve. It just meant he would have to fight a little harder. No matter how much it hurts, I will stay. Even if it hurts too much. Jhennador gathered up Litfee in his arms, the light of the moon bathing her face, revealing soft contours that had brought grace and joy to so many, before it had been stolen from her by so few. Remember her for the former, not the latter. Remember her life, not her death. It is her life that matters, her life that lives on in the rest of us. Her death doesn’t matter at all. Even if she isn’t to be freed in flames, my memory will always do honour to her. That is how it is meant to be. Jhennador placed her into the grave, lifting the dirt to rest over her. He left the grave unmarked. It would mean nothing to the people here.

Chapter 15.

Mircassia’s role has always been prominent in the history after Firion. It led the armies against the Darkness in the Ancient War, and established and cultivated many nations out of their own populace: Savage Gana, of the jungle covered South. It was they who first discovered the secrets of disease. It was they who discovered a world too small to be seen, and gave humanity the first weapons to fight against it. Marble, of the vast farms and the Golden Hills. It was they who smelted iron into steel, churning their soil with yoked oxen. The finest weapons and the highest yields of grain, corn, tomatoes, onions, turnips, squash--Marble is the master of both swords and plowshares. Filliis of the far North, the nation of philosophers and astronomers. They were the ones who plotted out the months and days of the year, observing the stars for the fated day when the Fae will bring about humanity’s salvation. Hijaku of the East, those who have brought art even to their tongue. They are the only land that lives alongside nature, instead of against it. Tower against the Darkness, rumours fly of Mircassian sorcery that the nation has held on so long. Kalm to the West, the most enlightened nation of them all. Free of tyrants, they house the most ambitious artists and scholars, the most prosperous traders. And Loass, once lost to the Darkness, now birthed anew. They haven’t the most beautiful lands, nor the most brilliant artisans, nor the strongest armies, nor the noblest ancestry. The only grudging respect Loass receives is the rank of the most conniving, craftiest, foolhardy, sneaky seamen to ever range the ocean. And the most honorable, brave, and stoic knights. The dichotomy betrays Loass’ true quality, that none of the other nations can see. Loass is not the nation of one thing, or another. Loass is diversity. The master of no craft, the partaker of all.”

--‘The Gifts of Mircassia’, by Yvor Vallasivic, sage of Mircassia.

  Opalion stopped, gathering his breath as he stared about his strange surroundings. He had thought to lose himself in the forest, but there was no forest to lose himself in. No matter how far he went, the trees were carefully plotted to form paths and patterns. Only beautiful and peaceful animals remained, butterflies flitting through fields of flowers, and birds of every colour filling the sky with song. Of creeping vines and fungi and all the other plants he had grown accustomed to in that unending cursed forest, he could find none here. Opalion thought of the gnomes of the woods of Alphe, and how the elves had become nature’s friend, not its master. Opalion looked at these groves, and thought of the pact the elementalists yearly made with Freyr, the King of Earth. It was all wrong. Everything about this place was wrong. All he wanted was just to go home. He should never have left, though his own father had led them here. The only thing this other world offered was misery and loss. The only thing the world had ever offered him, in Alphe or Loass.
  “Hail!” A bird squawked. Opalion couldn’t help but smile, looking up at the ridiculously ostentatious creature. He wondered if the bird could even get itself off the ground, but then supposed it must have at some point, for it was perched in the branches of a tree.
  “Hail and well met.” Opalion answered courteously. “What are you doing here?”
  “You looked angry.” The bird answered, preening. “Masters say keep track of angry invaders.”
  Opalion smiled at this. “I guess your masters aren’t used to visitors.”
  The bird hopped a little closer, feeling safer. “Masters have many visitors, but all invited. Masters visit the lands many times, but in secret. That way, only Mircassians worthy of Mircassia.”
  “What makes you a Mircassian?” Opalion inquired, resting against a mossy log.
  “Mircassians must be sages.” The bird squawked. “Others must leave, and other sages must come here. That way, each new colony full of great men. Each with their own great civilization to build. All at peace with each other.”
  Opalion thought about that for a while. “But if Mircassians are sages, who farms, who builds houses, works metal, or anything else?”
  The bird preened. “Masters give us great trust. Masters let us take care of little things. Masters thank us with many gifts.”
  Opalion blinked, the world shifting in the space of a moment. He wasn’t talking to some pet, or some animal that had learned a few phrases. He was talking to an ambassador, or perhaps a scout, or a messenger. And there were whole cities of them, some farming, some making tools, or building things. A whole nation of them. Mircassia wasn’t just the reclusive sages. Its citizens were all around him. Mircassia hadn’t sought to tame nature, they had sought to free it. What greater thing, than to give the universe another work of God? Opalion hated them, because the eldar had never done the same.
  And with that thought, he abruptly laughed, all his miseries and envies shedding off him as a tree shakes off its dead leaves. “Your masters were right, to have you follow any angry invaders. They must know how wise you are, and how well you can turn anger into mirth.”
  The bird let show his plumage vainly. “Perhaps you could tell Masters that, when they come see you.” He mentioned hopefully.
  Opalion reflected on that. He hadn’t intended to go back, or to meet with the Mircassians, or anything. There’s nothing left for me there. And yet. And yet, wasn’t this something worth saving? He watched the birds around him, flitting to and fro. Wasn’t this worth saving? He thought of Tyrifell, left to her own now. Would he desert her, the last of Mieren’s breed? The Darkness would not suffer a thing of such beauty to roam free. He thought of far’sarai, and the eldar he had abandoned along with it. Azteer thought I was the best of them. What if he saw me now, deserting my swei and my promises? Would I have ever done such a thing while he was still here to reproach me? And do I not kill him all over again, to abuse his absence as an excuse for my failure? How will Nuen live, when she has lost both her mother and her father in the same day? I promised I would never leave her, and she believed me. Believed in the love we shared. How can her soul recover, to know herself betrayed? Nuen was so pale and still, her blood contracting to her vitals out of fear. This because she lost Litfee, who hadn’t the courage to stay. What will become of her, when she learns that I am lost to her too, because I hadn’t the virtue?
  Opalion began to think of it, of every connection, every cord of light that ran between him and the outside world. And how he was choosing, in the betrayal of them, nothing but his own destruction. A soul anchored to nothing, connected to nothing, will simply float away. When he stormed out of that campsite, he wasn’t proposing to live on in scorn of them. He had determined to kill himself, and everything that he had been, because he hadn’t the strength to take it any longer. And in killing himself, he had sought to bring as much ruin to the world as possible. He hated them, hated what they’d done to him, and he had wanted to see the Darkness win. He had wanted to die, knowing what would follow. Knowing that it wouldn’t stop with him, but the other elves would soon follow, and after them the round-ears would be swept away like so much flotsam by the coming storm. The choice wasn’t for him to live or die, as though his life were not connected in any way to the outside world. The choice was for him to live, and for all Life to live on with him. Or to die, and out of vengeance to bring all Life down with him. And he had almost made that decision. He had almost wished to kill everything, to give triumph to his pain. Opalion stared at the soul that had made that decision, for a moment. He conjured a mirror from the air, to look upon the face of a dark elf. He looked at what it meant to suffer the death of the soul, before that of the body. At what such a person became. He stared into those eyes for a long time, before he stood up. It was time to go back.
*  *  *

I’ve been trying to figure out why Azteer gave his life for these little ones.” Sleet told Jhennador over the snapping fires. The children lay curled up around it, their grief and fear finding dreams as their last recourse. Opalion had not returned yet. Sleet wasn’t sure he would. Save that he promised. He promised Nuen he would never leave. Sleet still believed in his love for her. It was the strongest thing in his life. In all their lives. “And I think I understand, now. We were never meant for this.” Sleet gestured to the world at large. “Elves weren’t meant to fight. I think Azteer knew that best of all. That his guild was never meant to be. The Darkness was never meant to reach us. It was meant for this world. God sent the Darkness to this world, knowing the enemy would breathe life into a stagnant world. He wanted to break the Peace, the contentment humanity had with their place in life. He wanted humanity to become so much more. So he introduced to them adversity, so that they would come together to overcome it. He knew humanity was strong enough to win, to shake off their shackles and rise to the challenge. Eldar never were. It was to us, to be the force of creation. The only beings who brought into being our own life. We stood at God’s side, when we breathed life into nature and brought forth the elementals. That was our purpose, our goal. To breathe life and beauty into the world around us. We should never have had to fight this fight. Even the strongest of us, even those of us who fought on with the ashes and ruins of our world falling down around us, cannot fight forever. Eventually we end up like them. Bitter and angry. . . with nothing left but the wish to kill and the fear to die. I don’t picture myself somehow immune to it. Every day I wake up, and look at Nuen, and the others, and I decide that today I will do whatever it takes to take one step further. But someday I might wake up, and look at Nuen, and see nothing but a little girl. I don’t know when that day will come, but I know that it must come. This was not my life. This was not how I was meant to live. How long, before I wish to escape it? Before I despair of it all, and let my life trickle away in the memories of our lost Alphe?
  “I think Azteer understood that we had no future. Do you really think we can defeat the Dark Elves and their armies? There must be hundreds of kinslayers out there. Thousands. And they won’t stop. If they were willing to follow us across the dimensions, they will follow us here. Or wherever else we go. But Helios and Selene gave us one last chance. They gave us one last chance, that if we could not have a future, that at least we could bring about another.” She looked at Treant and Glen and Rain. “We could teach them so much, Jhennador. They could be so strong. Stronger than we ever were.”
  Jhennador looked at them with different eyes. “You see a future in them? If our armies could not defeat the Darkness, there’s haven’t a hope. And even if they did somehow defeat the Darkness, what’s to stop them from turning on one another? All they know is war. All they know is how to take, to hurt, to grind. Opalion was right. For justice’s sake, they should all die. They have no right to live, if God saw fit to kill us.”
  Sleet shook her head, golden tresses whirling. “It’s not like that. God didn’t kill us. It just happened. Things happen, and there’s no one to blame for it at all. All you can do is accept it and go on. Look at Opalion. He thinks he’s to blame for not protecting Litfee. Nuen thinks she’s to blame for not saving her. Look how miserable it makes them! Does anyone stop to think, that God made us free? That no one’s to blame for another’s actions? That no one has power over another’s soul? The only power we have, is to live our lives as we will. We can not live others’ lives. We can not will another to do what we think is right. And nothing they do, no power they hold, can stop us from living as we wish. But they will take my riches? That is their decision. Let’s see them try to fulfill it. It has no power to change mine. But they will take my head? Damned if they will. If they think force has power over a human soul, let them force my soul from heaven once its died meeting force with force. Let them force my corpse to agree with them, to praise them. They’ll find my death didn’t give them any power over me at all. I am not evil enough to want control over another’s decisions. What good does it do me, if the people around me are no longer my swei, but my puppets? What good, if Litfee lived on to dance on my strings? A slave to my will, left with no mind of her own? What life is that? The death of the body is such a transient thing. How is Litfee dead? All around us, Litfee lives. In the memories each of us hold. In the impact she gave to the world. What does it matter if her name is forgotten? Time will never forget. Time will always weave a future from threads of her making. Even had she lived for the merest second, the world would be changed forever from it.
  “The death I fear is that of the soul. It’s the death I saw all around me, walking through Loass, listening to the little ones--the constant wars and the constant casualties of a million souls all trying to enslave and destroy the million others. These round-ears seem born to fight, to compete, dominate, discriminate—it’s a war of all against all, nation against nation, church against church, men versus women, parents versus children, rich versus poor, smart versus stupid, with only the Darkness holding them back from some final reckoning. These are actions that strip the light away from behind people’s eyes. These are the black holes that eat up the stars. These are the blazing swords that rip and tear apart the cords of light that span between us. If we could just save them, if we could plant the seeds of Alphe in this land, just like how our elementals have come to live with them--Sooner or later we must die, but if we can just teach them far’sarai, if we can give these people souls like ours, the eldar would live on. That is all our spirit needs to preserve, all we ever amounted to.”
  Jhennador paused to generate another log of wood in the flames. “What is it you see in them, that gives you any hope? That boy, Treant, it is his job to crush out the soulfires of his people. An evil so insidious, that he can’t even see it. That boy, Glen, willing to kill his best friend in order to get him to do what he wants. That girl, Rain, with never a thought for herself. Have you ever heard her say anything about how she felt? What she desired? She lives only to protect Glen from himself. Or maybe to protect the world from what Glen is capable of. And Treant, following Rain without any purpose save to be with her. He can’t comprehend loving an ideal, instead of an object. All three of them are confused and scared. They’ve put all their hopes in Mircassia, as if just being here will change who they are. They still rely on things outside of their control to bring them joy. And these are the best of them! We need only look a little further, to find what round-ears truly are.”
  “Truly, what are they?” Sleet countered. “I see twins, two sides of the same coin, two souls so in love with each other as to overlap one another. Have you ever seen one work to the loss of the other? They are so close, that what one wishes, the other also wishes, each from their own mind’s course. Have you seen, how when one becomes near the other, how their bodies turn to let the other be the focus of their world? How easily they accepted us, and took on our cause! How easily they risked their own lives, for utter strangers! Have you ever seen them lash out in fury, or in pain? Have you seen Rain around Treant, always considerate, always respectful? She doesn’t think him any the lesser, for his love of her. She doesn’t think love means one person giving power to the other. She takes it as an honor, and responds in kind. I see entire nations from distant lands rallying to the wars of their fellow men. I see nations tied together by Loassian ships, people enjoying the goods and arts of millions instead of the tiny few they might live beside. Millions of people, each finding their own way in life, striving their utmost to give their strength to the world. To give their world a future, and to raise their children to surpass them in every way. It is so easy, to tear down, to break apart. Right now, it would mean no effort at all, to walk over there and slit those children’s throats. How many people does it take, how many years of toil, has gone into those children’s lives? How much effort have those children put into themselves? Into the time it will be to contribute their strengths for the children after them? That they are even alive, that so many people are alive, shows how good these people are. Only a tiny bit of evil, to tear it all apart, and yet here these children lay, sleeping with perfect trust that they will wake again. And yet here these nations stand, these communities and relationships stand, when it would be so easy to break it apart. How many people must be devoted to Good, to create such wonders even whilst those devoted to evil have such power to destroy them? I see before me a world full of wonders, with no Darkness to pull them down. A world of such potential, should they ever learn how life is meant to be lived. They all seek to live so strongly. They are fighting the Darkness with all their might, the darkness without and within. All it takes is for someone to show them how. All it takes is to give good people the truth of what it means to be good. And they will love the Truth and agree with it and take it into their own hearts to give it out to others whenever they can.”
  “If it is so easy, how come it has never been done?” Jhennador refuted. “Why do we see such a pained and tormented world, if it so easy to bring it joy? We are only four. How can we possibly change millions of people’s lives? How can we change people’s beliefs, when they’ve locked themselves into corners with their own? When changing them would mean shattering their dream worlds which paint them as superior to everyone around them? Nobody wants or seeks the Truth. They don’t want truth. They just want to be at the top. The goal of life isn’t to help others up, it is to knock as many others down as possible, so that just maybe you can be at the top. The only thing that makes them happy is the amount of people that follow their will. In the end, they seek the enslavement of their fellow men, not their salvation.”
  Sleet looked at the salamanders whirling through the flames. “We have to try.” She answered, looking glum. “Like it or not, they are the future. Azteer would have wanted us to try. I think Azteer didn’t see them as children. I think he saw them as his children, from the very start. Ours to raise. Ours to save. We are the only ones strong enough to do it, Jhennador. The Guardian Angels can’t die with us. I think everyone needs to know that something greater is out there. I think we are to be their Guardian Angels. We must teach them how to live, just as Helios taught us to fight against the Darkness. Just as Selene taught us to find joy in what we could. We must teach them how to live, so that our deaths don’t seal the fates of any other race. If our fate is to be tragedy, let’s make sure that fate never spreads to any other. If we can’t be the champions of the eldar cause, let us be the champions of life’s cause. I’m telling you this, Jhennador, because I believe in you. You have led us this far, and Helios knows how hard it must be to lead elves as strong-willed as ourselves. Why can’t you lead them? Why can’t they be worthy of you? What is so horrible about them, that you’d rather see them die than live? If they are weaker, that doesn’t mean we should just abandon them as weak. If they are foolish, we shouldn’t just abandon them as foolish. What use, if the strong and the wise hoard their strength and their wisdom to their own lives? What use the strength that is lost with one man’s death? The wisdom lost with one man’s passing? Being strong only gives you the chance to make the weak as strong as you. Being wise only gives you the chance to give others the same wisdom as you. That is what it means, to be good. To raise up. To bring up. They can be raised. Already they listen to me, when I talk. Already they have taken some of what I say to heart. They respect me and the beliefs I hold. If we only tried, we could give them all that it means to be an elf. We could give them all that it means to seek far’sarai.”
  “It will—“ Jhennador was interrupted by the sharp winds springing up all around them. The sylphs had obviously seen something, and Sleet was immediately engulfed in their conversations. Sleet jumped up, exultant. “Wake them all up! Opalion’s back! He scouted ahead, and he says that the Mircassians are on their way. Strangely dressed and everything. This is it! The end of our quest. The answer to all our questions!”

*  *  *

  Cyrn swung his leg over Dingo’s side, swaying a bit in his saddle before overcoming his dizziness. He cursed himself for showing his weakness, but he hadn’t remembered horses being so very tall. Up here he could see for miles, it seemed. All the way to the horizon.
  “You can’t go, Cyrn!” Aunt Ariselle commanded, grabbing the reins to his horse. “What will you be worth, one man more or less? What can you possibly achieve aside from your own death?”
  “I have to save them!” Cyrn pleaded. “They’re so helpless. Everyone I know will be dying and for nothing. The Darkness will destroy Loass, just like last time. The country I’m sworn to defend!”
  “Don’t be a fool. You haven’t recovered yet. You’re no good to anyone dead. The army has plenty of fodder, why are you giving it more?”
  “They’re not fodder, they’re people.” Dingo danced in agitation from Cyrn’s vehemence. Turning to get control over his horse, Cyrn called over his shoulder. “It’s some new spawn of Lucifer’s. A sorcerer of black magic. If I can kill it, perhaps we’ll still have a chance. I have to try!”
  “Do you think they haven’t? What makes you any different?”
  “I ride with God!” Cyrn proclaimed. “He will give me victory, because I have faith in Him. God will not let his people fall to the Darkness. He will not let me die, not when he sees that I wish only to be his champion.”
  “Where was God at the Oldoss? God isn’t going to save us! God doesn’t care about us at all.”
  Cyrn paused to keep his horse from bolting. “I guess that’s what separates us. My God still gives me hope and courage. Your only God is practicality. And against the Darkness it gives you nothing at all.” Cyrn slapped his horse’s rear with the flat of his blade, urging his horse to a run to work off all the pent up energy of months in the corral.

*  *  *

  “Here, master.” The bird called out impatiently. “See Master, just like I told you.” Glen and Rain held each other’s hands, waiting pensively for the moment they would see a Mircassian sage. Mircassians knew everything. They would know how to save them. They would know how to save the entire world. Nuen was wrapped around Opalion’s arm, the elves waiting in the background.
  Treant suppressed a yawn, blinking his eyes quickly to keep them in focus. It was strange, being here. Everything was soft and bright. He hadn’t seen any trace or tracks of a predator, as if they had been weeded out of the Mircassian gardens. There weren’t even any bugs. They could stand still for minutes, and no bloodsucking swarm would home in on them for the kill. The water didn’t taste like anything at all, it was so clean. The air was fresh and crisp, not carrying any of the normal stink of civilization. Treant doubted it even rained here. Or ever got too hot, or too cold. It was like Mircassia had stolen away every choice and option nature had, and had made their own world according to their own designs. And yet, wasn’t that the whole point of the power of God? Mircassia had taken control of their world. Because the people there were all a part of God’s will, and God’s will had the power to recraft His flesh however it pleased. So why did Treant feel so uneasy, to witness it? He had always thought God had made the world the way it was for a reason. How did Mircassia decide that their reason was better than God’s? How could anyone make that kind of a decision? And yet here they were, trusting in Mircassia for guidance. Obviously Mircassia knew something, if they could do this. Maybe it was in their power to conquer the Darkness, if they had conquered the earth on their off-time.
  It wasn’t just one sage. In fact, the group of people looked nothing like sages at all. Men and women wore sheer garments suited to their environment. They wore elaborate hats or scarves or jewelry of rainbow dyes impossible to find in nature. None of them carried weapons, but the way they stood had the same aggressiveness as a century of King’s Lancers. None of them looked happy to see them. Birds perched on their shoulders, or flew around the treetops. The birds flapped their wings and flitted from tree to tree, sensing the agitation of their masters.
  “Hail and well met.” One man stepped forward from the crowd, unwinding a scarf that covered his face.
  “Well met.” Glen returned cautiously. This was not the welcoming party he had expected.
  “You must excuse us. We have not had uninvited guests for quite a while. I don’t even remember such a thing happening, but then again I can not be sure. Even the Darkness does not reach us here, though it seems now that they are trying.”
  “What do you mean?” Glen asked in fear. The Darkness was coming for them here?
  The man looked surprised. “You mean you haven’t felt it? The ripples in the pond. The waves flowing across the fabric of reality. First we felt your warpings. But now there are many more. So strong as to streak through the higher realm like a torrent. It seemed strange, that the Darkness was turning away from Loass, when they had gotten so close. How did they know of us? How did they learn of the Power? Perhaps you have the answers to these things.”
  “We wish for answers of our own.” Glen replied. “But first, I think we should introduce ourselves. I have come a long way to meet you, and it is only fitting that I should know your name.”
  The man looked at them silently for a long time. His bird cocked its head to review their faces from a different angle.  “I do not think you are demons.” He finally stated, as nothing more than a fact. “Even with your strange eyes, your strange hair, your strange beauty, and your strange pride. I would like you to meet Villano, sage of Mircassia. She would be very interested to meet you foreigners, after all this time. You will come with us, if you please.”
  Glen looked at Rain, who shrugged. It seemed to be working so far.

*  *  *

  “So that’s how it is.” Glen concluded. The entire conclave was spellbound by his tale. Visitors from a higher plane, ancient enemies of the Darkness being hunted to extinction, the greatest warriors and people ever known, the creators of the land-spirits. The Mircassians had known there must be higher and lower planes, but were never prepared to witness it.
  “What you’re saying is that the Darkness we have always known and warred against, was only the tiniest fraction of their true power? That the true war between good and evil has been fought and lost already, and this war is only its anticlimax? That humanity, as it were, is only the biting flea in the Darkness’ ankle, which it has now turned its full force upon?”
  Opalion stepped forward. “It is not so grim as that. It is true that we have been fighting the Darkness for thousands of years, now, and we have always been the staunchest of life’s allies. But it was not the Darkness that defeated us, nor the Darkness’ strength that overcame us. In time, it was our own people that grew weary and sickened of the war, either to die off or to despair of victory and become a kinslayer. It was they who destroyed Alphe, and it is they who hunt us still. Without them, the Darkness could still be stopped.”
  “Now please, sirs,” Rain implored, “this matter is very important. But we came to you with a question yet more vital to our hearts. Who are we?”
  The gaudily dressed sages turned to the otherwise-silent lass in bemusement. At fifteen, her violet eyes pierced them with determination. For the first time, the sages paused to look at them. Who were they? In their own concerns about the invasion, they had never stopped to care about that. They hadn’t even stopped to learn their names.
  At last Villano gave a soft chuckle. “I’m afraid that you would be in a much better position to answer that question than any of us.”
  Glen’s voice quavered in his urgency. “We are twins born of the Glimkeer. For some reason, we enjoy immunity to disease. We were talking more fluently than adults at age four. We have strange hair and eyes. We are impossibly beautiful, perfectly symmetrical. We have never had any contact with demons, and yet sometimes we fall into seizures when some other-self seeks to grab the reins to our bodies. Sometimes he will shout orders at me. Sometimes he will argue with me, or talk to me. He has an entirely different personality, but he lives only in my head. Whenever our wills have contested something, it comes out a tie. Neither of us has control over the other. An old man from Filliis said I was of the Fae. He said the Seelie Court was meant to save the world. Rain thinks he meant her. She thinks maybe we are both Fae, but she alone is Seelie. That perhaps I am a Fae of a different breed, or nation. These are the only clues we have. We don’t even know what a Faerie is, unless you believe the tales. And I’m afraid that these souls will drive me insane, or kill me, from trying to enslave that which cannot be enslaved.” Glen took a deep breath, eyes wide for any sign of comprehension on their faces. Whatever expressions they had were covered by purple and satin scarves.
  Rain followed up. “Please, sirs. We have come all this way because we heard that Mircassia’s sages would have the answer, the cure. We’ve entrusted our lives with you. Can you do nothing?”
  One sage nodded, as if coming to a personal decision. “The Prophet Issayah, before he was burned at the stake, once said something. ‘When humanity is in the shadow of its last hour, the twin spires shall be their deliverance.’” He held up his hands to forestall complaints. “We of Mircassia always believed the Twin Spires were the Morann and the Treatise. The two greatest works of mankind, that which wove hearts to God, and that which wove together nations. We thought that these were the two strongholds of humanity, which would lead them to ultimate victory.”
  He went on. “But what if Issayah was not speaking metaphorically? What if he meant the Twin Spires such as Apollo and Artemis, Firius and Falchenor? The greatest of humanity’s heroes have always been twins. What if these twins are of the same vaunted rank?”
  “Impossible!” Another sage spluttered. “They speak of unnatural power and possession and madness, and you think they are to be our deliverance?”
  Villano rose her hand to silence the others. “Whether they are to be our saviors or not, does not change their question. Who among you knows of the Fae? Who among you has studied all the faery tales, enough to find any recognizable truths? Who among you can offer these twins a way to remain themselves, though they are also something else?”
  The conclave looked to one another, none wishing to venture a guess. Glen’s heart sank into his stomach. So far. . .to have come so far, for nothing.
  One voice coughed, unwinding his scarf to reveal his face. “Unseelie.” Everyone looked at him with confusion. Except Glen. To Glen, the word chimed with perfect harmony. Yes! That is who I am! “The Faerie were divided into the Seelie and Unseelie courts, courts of light and darkness, so as to better observe evil and good in isolation. However, God determined that there could be no such thing as evil or good, when all their actions had been predetermined since the beginning of time. So he abandoned the Fae, and went on to his next creation.” There was not a sound in the room save his voice.
  “The Fae have been struggling ever since to recreate their realms into a single world full of life and colour. But some higher beings cause great Fires that devour and devolve all the Fae’s works, so that they must start all over again. It has been like this for all of time.”
  Shade of the Unseelie. Little brother to Sunbeam of the Seelie, who followed me here. Who followed me from exile. Exile for murder. Murder for justice. Because they would not let me join their ranks. How could I have forgotten all this time? I am not Glen. He is just some petty vessel for my threads. Yes! Not a soul, whatever that is. A thread-pattern, one thread for purple eyes, another for softness of speech, another thread for incredible Power, another thread of rage against injustice. That is me. The summation of my threads. How could I have forgotten them?
  Glen struggled to find his own mind in the maelstrom. I am not Shade! This body was never yours to take. You were never supposed to be here. I am Glen, son of a good father and a good mother. Twin to the best of sisters. Not Sunbeam, but Rain. Friend to Cyrn. Citizen of Loass, my country. I am none of those things you said. This is me!
  What a fool I have been! All this time, when I could have had anything I ever wanted, I have done nothing! What would have been denied me, when I can suit reality to my whims? I never would have had to live in fear of my own village. When that bear threatened me, I could have laughed in scorn! Whole armies could have fallen to my sword!
  That’s not what I want! Glen shouted. I don’t want to hurt anyone! I’ve never wanted to hurt anyone! I don’t want to control anyone or anything! I just want to live in peace.
  Wherever there was injustice, I could have set it right! When my sister was in danger, I could have saved her. She never would have had to trust in Treant. I could have always protected her, and everything else I loved!
  Stop it! Get out of my head! You aren’t supposed to be here! LEAVE ME ALONE!
  And then another thought, from another mind. To Glen it was familiar and safe. To Shade it was threads of gold and pink. Glen, you must listen to me. Glen, you are dying. You are no longer sitting on a chair, but thrashing against the floor. We can not stop you, you are too strong. Glen, you must stop fighting him! The sages told me, that we are Faeries, that we will always be Faeries. You can’t fight it anymore. Don’t you see, that he is just as real as you? Just as alive as you? Just as much a part of you as you? Don’t fight him, accept him! Love him, as you love yourself. Nothing can live if it does not love itself. You will die, if you keep fighting him. Think! You have lived with him all this time. He is not so different from you. Please, Glen, I don’t want you to die! I don’t want to be left alone again, Shade! Not when I came all this way just to be with you!

Chapter 16.

Alas, for the unstained sword! Woe to the shield unpierced!”

--Battlecry of Firion.

  Glen awoke to a dream. He knew it had to be a dream, because the world that lay before him was unlike any the world had to offer. He was aware, though, so it couldn’t be a dream. He stood upon a vast, dark plain. It was featureless, having neither heights nor depths. Like a slate wiped clean.
  Overhead, storm clouds broiled, offering no light to this world save the occasional flicker of blazing thunder. Glen knew the danger of being the tallest thing in a storm, for lightning aims always for that which most closely approaches the heavens. But looking to left and right, he saw no succor nor cover from the coming storm. A flare of blue-chased yellow shot out from him, and he blinked in wonder. The colours vanished as quickly as they came.
  A closer purple dart struck, enough to make Glen cringe. In the moment, though, his eyes caught a black tower that stood in defiance of earth and sky alike. A point of order amidst two seas of chaos.
  “The Unseelie Court.” Glen’s voice explained. Glen started, and turned to see his own reflection gazing at the distant palace, a steady wash of red and gold battling around him. Shade turned to look at Glen, violet eyes meeting violet in a world surreal. “I was to live there, before I was banished. I was to heal this world, and give it life once more.”
  Glen would have said something, but the roar of thunder shot through him and he couldn’t help but cringe. Shade stood implacable, as if the thunder had never been. “Oh. Don’t worry about that.” Shade waved his hand dismissingly at the sky. “The storm always threatens, but never comes. That is the way of it here.”
  “Where?” Glen asked, his mouth dry with fear.
  “Home.” Shade answered, and a flash of pink filled the air. “Home, at last. Though it is only a dream.”
  “Why did you come here? How did you give this body two souls?”
  “I. . .betrayed this realm. I meant to be its saviour, but in the end all I could do was destroy. You have to understand, I didn’t want it. It was fate. It was Clotho’s web, that brought me down this path. Now I think I finally see why. I finally know the task destiny had appointed me from the beginning.”
  “All those times. . .all those times you raged with me, the times you sought control. . .how can I embrace you now? How, when I know your soul to be so full of hunger?” The world seemed to bend, and a wave of vertigo overcame him.
  Shade’s voice was struck with the same strain. “Please. You invite madness to overtake us!”
  Glen relaxed, and only then did the storm and earth take back their positions.
  “I thought I was you, for all this time. For fifteen years, I’ve lived as you. Do you understand? You were me, and every now and then when I made a decision, some other-self would raise up from the depths and struggle for control. Everything I did, it was my decision. Except for these few times, when some demon would throw me into seizures, telling me—‘accept this, live with that!’ Just an hour ago, I was a confused and tortured boy. Whose sable had been trampled underfoot. Whose life had been saved by my best friend Cyrn. How could I have known, that it was your soul all along? Who can ever see himself?”
  Glen looked at his mirror image. Indeed, who ever saw themselves? I alone. I alone have ever lived both as participant and observer. I alone have lived two lives, each looking upon the other.
  “Not truly.” Shade responded, as though the words had been spoken. And they might as well have been. After all, the two souls shared one mind, the thoughts of one being as much the others. “There is one other. My sister, whose love I have for you could never dream. Save that you lived it. You’ll never know how impossibly strong our love is. How perfect it is, compared to all the bonds you might share with anyone else. It is the love gained over a thousand years. And because of it, she followed me. Even to another plane. To be my twin.”
  “How can this be? How can we live as one, when you wish for the power to rule, and I wish for Peace, the peace that loves all there is of the world, and needs never change it in order to be happy?” Glen put a careful hold on his question, not letting the dream world fade.
  “There is a way.” Shade answered, confident. “Do you think I have not been seeking it, from the moment the demon within me began to struggle for control? There is a way to rule and yet live in peace. A way to wish the change of things and yet love them all the same. There has to be, or the two of us would have killed each other long ago in war. For fifteen years, two wishes have lived together side-by-side. There must be a way that the two wishes twine around each other to form a solid whole.”
  “To love all things, and wish for something else of them all the same?”
  Shade nodded. “Look upon this, just for a moment. This is my life, this ever-threatening storm and these colours that flash about me in response to the thrumming of my heart. Do you think I do not love it? It is me. I could not be who I am, and not love my world. It is because I love it, that I wish so much more for it. That I wish it to become a world of meadows and seas, of cold winds and scorching heat.”
  “I love Rain. But when she is hurt, I wish her well. When she is miserable, I want her to be happy.”
  Shade nodded. “Just so. There is something more to love, than acceptance. There is something more to life, than being at peace with it. And yet we must accept it, and we must be at peace with it, if we are ever to strive for something more. My wish for justice, your wish for peace, where do they meet?”
  “How could I know?” Glen said. “Isn’t it enough, though, that we know they do meet? That the two wishes of our lives, like streams flowing into the same river, flow into one another before they head for the sea? We have the rest of our lives to find that point, if only we can agree that there must be one.”
  Shade smiled. “You can’t imagine my relief, at hearing this. My other-self, renouncing his war with me, and seeking a world in which we can both dwell.”
  Glen smiled in return, the two reflections of each other. “Stole the words right out of my mouth.”
  “There remains another task.” Shade said. “It is to us to save your world. Fate must have known, that I wished to fight this battle. Only now do I see that it was your world I was meant to save. Your world that it is possible to save. Your world that God has chosen to give a second chance.”
  “How? I know nothing of the Aethyr. And yet the Mircassians look to me as their deliverer.”
  “We are stronger than the eldar even know is possible. And Sunbeam will be with me.”
  “There remains one thing, though. The dark elves. They were always the greatest threat. And even if you can guide me in this Power, they have been fighting with it for millennia before me.”
  Shade shook his head. “I have never fought myself, in truth. Nor am I used to the laws that govern your world. I’m afraid the dark elves are beyond me. The Power of God is not limitless.”
  “What of Cyrn? Does he live? Or have I killed him, my only friend?”
  “He lives. I could bring him here, if you wish. If you want this peril to be his as well as ours.”
  “Like before?” Glen bit, and the world flexed in pain.
  “Not like before.” Shade winced. “He wants to come, this time. He is trying to reach this fight. I can bring him here.”
  “But the eldar said teleportation was impossible.”
  “Not for us. It’s a matter of adjusting the position of reality in relation to you. We call it winking.”
  “If we are two aspects of a single mind, how can you know these things I don’t?”
You know them, you just don’t know that you know them. When someone poses a question to you about the nature of triangles or the history of Firion, does the answer immediately present itself? You know you know it, though you don’t know it yet. The answer can be found within you, but the journey must still be made.”
How can I know the wisdom of a thousand years? How can my mind encompass the whole of your ageless life?”
Step by step.” Shade shrugged. “After all, you have another thousand years to endeavor it.”
God willing we live another day.” Glen let out a prayer.
  “They were wrong, you know.” Shade said, looking at the marble tower once more.
  “About God. He isn’t testing us. The reason why he doesn’t interfere, is the reason all Makers don’t seek to control their own creations. If I sought to control my child’s life, he could never grow to anything but a replica of me. A statue in my likeness. God doesn’t want his children to be ornaments of his crown. He made us to surpass Him.”

*  *  *

  “How is he?” Sleet asked, entering the room where they had set up to tend to the unconscious boy. Rain turned her head to watch the elf enter, her hands still pressed around Glen’s.
  “He sleeps, but his eyes dart all about beneath the lids.” She answered hopefully. “I reached him, Sleet. He must have heard me, for him to be yet breathing.”
  “I hope so. But why does this revelation strike him so hard, and you so softly? Treant said there dwelt an other-self in you, too.”
  Rain shook her head. “I think we understood each other long before this. I think I knew that I was a Faerie of the Seelie Court long before. The moment Glen told me of his conversation with Arcturus Cynnibol. To hear it now, is only a confirmation of what I’ve known for years. Besides, my love for Glen is her gift. She has a sweet soul, and she’s blessed me with the intelligence and health and beauty and power of this body.”
  “Half faerine, half human. Does this mean you are as ageless as they?”
  “We don’t know. If aging is a sort of disease, then we’ll be free of it. But if its source is the laws of nature, then Sunbeam says we are under its sway. That for her to cross the angle between universes, her threads had to shift and flex to the new order of things. She is a part of this world, just as I am.”
  Sleet nodded. “It is different for us, as well. I can’t say how I am changed, but I could feel it the moment I stepped into this world, that I was not the same person who escaped the desolation of Alphe. I suppose that is what keeps the planes from getting all mixed together. At least we know the Darkness can’t hurt anyone else, even if they manage to kill us.”
  “I suppose the Mircassians will want to talk to me about the battle.” Rain sighed.
  “Indeed, the very reason I’m here to fetch you.” Sleet smiled wryly.
  “Can’t they wait?” She asked, then answered herself. “No, of course they can’t. I’ll be there in a moment. Tell them I’m ready to fight where and how they please. Just give me a moment with him.”
  Sleet left, closing the door softly behind her. Rain turned back to her brother and twin, letting her hand brush back his hair from his forehead. “Please, Glen, don’t leave me. I love you more than life, now and forever. You can do it. You can find a way, just as I have. Don’t let strife and hatred steal away my brother. Don’t let it doom the world.” Glen gave no sign of having heard, and Rain choked back her tears. He had to come through. He just had to. She swept her hair back annoyedly behind her ears, and followed Sleet out the door.

I tell you, they didn’t have the power to banish your storm!” Jhennador explained for the seventh time. “Your technique was blunt and raw, and eldar use the Aethyr like the most delicate scalpel. They didn’t fight the storm, they just inserted a crosswind here, and some heat there, and popped the whole thing into an uncontrolled morass. Your storm wasn’t banished, they let it rage all across the sea until it had spent itself and left this island naked.”
But that was the most refined use of the Power we had.” The sage despaired. “If they dealt with it as some sort of child’s play, what use will we be in the battle to come?”
What use indeed?” Opalion muttered, and Jhennador shot him a glare. He returned to the argument with studied patience. “We aren’t asking you to fight the kinslayers. That is our fight. Even if you wanted to, I wouldn’t let you. They have killed too many of those I love, for them to escape me now. Ah, here she is. Maybe you’ll listen to her, since you seem to have no ear for us.”
Rain strode across the hall to take a seat at the council. “Why do you steal me away from my brother’s bed? Didn’t Issayah say the Twin Spires were to be our deliverers? Without him, what use am I?”
The sages held up their hands in defense. “Prophecies don’t determine the future, they are our guides into choosing the best of paths. Issayah knew the power of prophecy wasn’t his, but in all those who believed, and wished for it to be true. All of the devoted who hearkened to his words, hoped and prayed that the things he foretold would someday come true. It was the Power of God, that brought you two here in this hour of need.”
I thought the Power of God didn’t determine our decisions.” Rain countered.
Of course not. It only found a way, you still had to choose to take it. But what are the odds that the two of you would be born just now, what are the odds that the two of you would ever have met the eldar in the middle of the Glimkeer? That you could make it here? God’s hand is sheltering us, though most of us can’t see it. Ever does His power flow through the most subtle of channels.”
Rain shook her head, ruefully admitting the argument to the Sage. It was even as the stories said, no war of words would ever see a Mircassian bested. “What do you need to know? What could I tell you, that the Sages of Mircassia don’t already know? I came here only hours before as a suppliant to your wisdom, and now you expect me to respond in kind?”
It’s this lad.” The Sage explained, and a young boy who seemed to have just risen from a sickbed was presented to her. “He appeared out of nowhere, almost as astonished as we were. We thought him to be some new device of the Darkness, but he claims to know your twin. He claims you grew up together.”
Rain looked at the boy a second time, letting her eyes trace features seen only years ago, and then in the flush of health. “Cyrn? Could that be you? But how--?”
See!” Cyrn cried out triumphantly. “And for you to call the son of a Loassian Knight a demon! God has placed me here in time for the battle, and you planning to lock me up in chains until the danger is past!”
Rain knew that voice and aristocratic pride, and her doubts were lost to the breeze. “Cyrn! By Gods, you’re alive!” She ran to him with a cry of joy and threw her arms around him. Cyrn looked a little confused and awkward to be holding her, but it didn’t faze Rain for a moment. “Do you know what this means? Glen must have used the Power of God. Glen’s okay!” Rain almost jumped up and down in the rush of the moment. Everyone was alive. It would all work out.

*  *  *

The army stood atop the ridgeline of hills that ringed the now unprotected harbour. It was a strange army, wrapped in silk and satin of rainbow hues, without a hint of steel among them. Birds perched on their shoulders, or flew high above to scan the horizon for the black-sailed foe. The only weapon Mircassia had ever wielded was knowledge, and they were content to rely upon it still. Behind the field of flowers stood the foreigners of three separate worlds. Glen and Rain held hands, watching the sky with a sense of calm focus. The faeries were new to war, but it was to them to swallow the Darkness whole. Cyrn stood with the elves, nervously drawing and sheathing his sword as if to make sure it was still there. Glen knew he could not keep his friend from this fight. It was the battle Cyrn had waited and trained for all his life. His chance to redeem himself and his father from the stain upon their line. It was something more important to him than life.
But I want to fight too.” Nuen wailed. “I can help. The Aethyr is stronger in me than any of these round-ears. How can you let them fight in my stead?”
May Helios strike me down before you take up a sword!” Opalion swore. “What do you think I’m fighting for? Who do you think this whole war is about? If I don’t have the strength to protect you, than what use is it? Why do you think this whole army stands marshaled here, out of our love to kill?” Opalion softened his voice and went on one knee to look her in the eye. “Nay, child, your blood shall not flow this day, nor any day to come. Our love for you is the strength behind all our swords. You’re already the greatest warrior of them all, for you give everyone the courage to face death free of care. But should the brightest flame of my life be extinguished, I will have no reason left to stay here, but will follow you the very next moment in despair.” Nuen wept, but nodded through her tears.
The undines count twenty kinslayers, out of a sea of minions. Thanks be to Selene, that it isn’t two hundred.” Sleet reported, striking the ground three times.
Jhennador nodded. “That is a war to come. I cannot believe God will forsake us then, nor will he now. They are twenty and we are three, but God will find a way. He must.”
Sleet and Jhennador looked to the twins, standing atop the ridge the picture of cold certainty. Wind swept hair to and fro, revealing the occasional glint of unearthly eyes. How much Power did those eyes hold? It was enough that they fought their fight. God would see to the rest.
Who was Issayah?” Treant asked Villano, scarf untied to reveal a maiden’s face.
A rebel.” She answered, her thoughts elsewhere. “We have always stood apart from the world, guiding it with a push here and then a pull there, preparing for this day. Issayah didn’t believe we had the right, to keep the truth from them. He believed humans couldn’t be puppets, food used to serve some higher need. He wanted to teach all of them of the Power of God, though the first thing we were taught is that they could not be trusted with such a thing. He trusted them, though, even through the very day they burned him at the stake. I cannot say if what he did was right, but I admire him all the same.”
Treant nodded, coming to a decision with a sense of finality. “I will teach them to be free. Like Issayah. I will give them the key to truth, so that none need live as falsehood’s fool.”
Villano laughed. “Maybe the world is ready for that message now. Maybe when this war is over, we can all live free.” And then a hush came over the assembled army. The tips of black sails hovered on the horizon, and all eyes were riveted upon the scene. So many. How can there be so many? The wind seemed to take on a biting chill.
Form ranks!” Villano shouted from atop the hill, and the Mircassians fell into three blocks of three ranks each. Sleet, Jhennador, and Opalion nodded to each other and took their places at the fore.
You are no match for the dark elves, but you can make us a match for them.” Jhennador explained. “Give us your power, and we will use it as we have been trained to for the last fifty years of this war. A division of Mircassians to each elf, with three ranks to each division. One to give us speed, the second to give us strength, and the third endurance. Put all the Power of God you have into us, and we just might be able to kill them all. This is our best chance.”
Now Jhennador would see if the gamble paid off. The minions began to pour out of their ships and dart through the sky. He gave no eye to them, that was another’s fight. He only waited for the frost-haired kinslayers to take the field, standing atop the hill with eyes enhanced to those of an eagle’s. The Power of God thrummed through him, every muscle and tendon brought to the verge of snapping with the tension. At this moment he could lift a mountain. He could run across water, like the speed of a skipping stone. And he could bear the strain, long enough at least to see this battle won. Once that first step was taken, however, the seconds would be ticking down. Virtually no one survived the uro’sei. They were the arrows shot from the Mircassian bow. Arrows normally didn’t survive beyond impact. But that is why they won’t be expecting it. The dark elves can’t know that we are willing to die for these round-ears. They still think we’re fighting for ourselves. That is why we will win. Because we are willing to do whatever it takes. Because we want this victory more than they ever can.
The valley below them began to ripple. The earth began to rip apart, great fountains of liquid fire spurting into the air. The screams of the Darkness were caught in the wind and brought to his ears. Now. Jhennador took his first step down the hill, and almost fell, his foot moving too far ahead of his body. But he caught himself with the next step, pushing against the ground with a titan’s strength. The rock shattered beneath his step, but he was already streaking into the next stride, each step throwing him faster down the ridge, until he wasn’t sure if he were running or simply flying down the slope. GodspeedFaster than I can imagine. He streaked through the chaos of the minion host, the air bursting into flames and the wind crushing birds like flimsy toys. His blood seemed to be on fire, it was impossible to get enough air. Too fast. Something’s wrong. I can’t go this fast! The world to either side became streaks of colour, even his heightened eyes could no longer see anything but what lay directly in front of him. The dark elf could feel the backwash surrounding Jhennador before he actually saw him coming. With a look of terror, he tried to draw the whipblade from around his waist, Jhennador cut through him without missing a step. Hold on! The pain shrieked through his every vein, a spurt of blood broke through his skin at his temple, the pressure impossible to hold. His godstrong sword parried another dart of steel, the dark elf’s arms ripping off at the shoulders from the impact. Jhennador screamed in agony, pivoting to reach one more. His heart was bursting! It was—literally—bursting! With a cry of despair, he flung his sword with all his strength. The missile tore through the air with the roar of thunder in its wake, neatly taking off the head of a third with its flight. And then Jhennador collapsed, his body breaking apart at every seam.

Sleet tore across the ground, dodging through the army of minions that stood like candles beside a blazing star. The earth exploded in her passing, a rut of dust and stone emerging in her wake. There was a cluster of the kinslayers now, forming together to protect themselves from the raging earth. Protect yourself from me, now. She fumed. This was for Azteer and Litfee and Vayski and everyone else. She would avenge them all. She bowled into the crowd of them, closing as fast as she could to give the advantage to her short sword over their whipblades. Approaching her as if in slow motion, the wavy metal of the whip snicked for her head, and she spun to the side, the wind of the blade streaking by her ear. The whip sunk itself into the astonished kinslayer behind her, eyes widened only in time to watch the whip tear through his chest. One. She counted, throwing herself at the whipblade’s wielder before he had time to pull it back. Her godsharp, ruby-crested sword clove through him in a single cut, ducking low to pass under his arms and twisting to reach her next victim. Two. Two blades came at her from either side, and even with her speed she could only stop one. The fire of the wound went through her, and closed up as soon as it had came. Godhealth. The kinslayer gaped in astonishment, and she turned the earth to mud beneath him. Slipping, he fell into her sword with an elven curse. Three. The whipblade of the one she had parried tried to pull the sword from out of her hand, but she had the earth rise up behind him and he tripped to the ground. Sleet ran past him, her sword held low to split him in twain. Four. Another circle was forming around her, blades flying toward her in every direction. They were boxing her in, trying to cancel out her speed. She wouldn’t let them. She turned on one, stomping on the flat of his blade and pinning it to the earth. Then she launched herself, her single step’s strength sending her flying at the youth. Her sword slipped through his chest like hot butter. Five.  Pray God that I can reach ten.

Opalion was lost in motion, having no chance at thought but only reflex. A sword streaked for him, spiraling around his guard. He willed it brittle, imagined the sword rusting and falling away. Before the whipblade reached him, it had aged into dust. A sprinkle of sand piffed against his face. He could feel the backwash, the ripples of energy pouring through the Aethyr. His and one other’s, either Sleet or Jhennador, pulsing with the strength of a thousand stars. And then all the tiny candles flitting and sparkling all around him, the kinslayers pouring out all their energy into slicing currents of air or jetting streams of fire. But none of them could touch him, he was death incarnate. And in the distance, the great ripples, the twisting of reality that was synchronized to the dying wails of the minion army. With a wail of pain, he knew that one of the eldar had died. That most likely all of them would die, that no three elves could ever hope to defeat twenty.  Damn them! Opalion raged, countering the surges of slicing air, cutting the jets of flame apart. Damn them all! With a scream, he took all the Power of God within him and. . .threw. . .it at the kinslayers, an attack of pure rage. Silver-chased bolts of energy streaked from his fists, tearing holes through the flesh of one after the other. Corpses fell to the earth, riddled with coin-sized holes. But as soon as one fell another took up his place. Opalion could feel the heat in his veins building up, his body giving way to the strain. No! I’m young! Like quicksilver! I can handle it! Opalion’s blade sung, each stroke leading into the next. Whipblades began to shatter against the force of his blow. He didn’t know how many he had killed. Blood streamed across his face and clothes. His sword’s gleaming arc passed through flesh and bone with effortless ease.

There, can you see them?” Nuen shouted over the ripping of wind. In the midst of the smoking fires, she could feel the rush of backwash darting through the battle, strong enough that it made her whole body hum. The ebb and flow of their lifeforce.
Not a cursed thing.” Cyrn replied, coughing. Nuen gave him a concerned look. It was a wonder Cyrn was still standing, even with his sword point buried in the ground as a crutch. He should be lying in bed somewhere drinking hot tea. What did a single human hope to accomplish in this fight? Round-ears were so strange. Nuen felt a blush as she looked back up the hill. Glen and Rain stood holding hands, violet eyes staring off into nowhere, and the entire earth shook to their call. She wondered if Glen looked at her like she had just looked at Cyrn. It made her blush again in shame.  She loved him so much, why couldn’t he notice her just once? She wondered if tackling him would help.
Are you well?” Cyrn asked, and Nuen started guiltily. In the middle of a battle, no less! Just once can he stay out of my head? But even in wishing not to think about him, she was thinking about him. It couldn’t be helped. He hadn’t left her thoughts since they’d met. Certainly not after today. After she saw him do this. But she had to do her part too. Opalion didn’t understand, there would be nothing left to save if they lost here. She had to fight. She was an elf too, and far’sarai was just as much hers as any of the others. She had to live as an example to others, not as a prize. Nuen had felt Jhennador die. It hurt, but there was no time for that. His sword would just be lying there. She could reach it, she could make a difference. She just had to apply the full of her power to the moment it would matter most. Father would understand. And maybe Glen would notice her then. Maybe she wouldn’t be a child to him anymore.
I have to go, Cyrn.” She gestured into the storm of death. “They need me.”
Cyrn nodded, a smile breaking loose from a waxen pale face. “Then I’ll meet you at the bottom.”

Sleet’s rush came to a choking halt, the whipblade pinning her to the rock. She coughed, and blood came up from her lungs, out her mouth, spattering the earth below. Two wounds ago, she could have handled it. But the power was running out. She could feel it slipping away even as she clutched at it with ever-mounting desperation. The whipblade slinked out of her, tearing a great swathe through her side, and Sleet crumpled to the earth already wet with her own blood. The kinslayer was already streaking away before she had a chance to die. Maybe the battle wasn’t over yet. Maybe she had done enough, and it was okay to die now. Was that ten? Helios grant me ten. God grant me Opalion yet lives. The Power of God wisped away, leaving Sleet a tiny ember of a once blazing star.

Opalion felt the light go. He was alone, now, surrounded by three frost-haired foes. The blood was burning through him, melting his skin from the inside out. Air whooshed in and out of his lungs, but he could never get enough. I can do this. Azteer said I would be the last! He threw the Power of God around him like a prism, letting light strike him from every direction, splintering his image into a thousand separate dizzying forms. Whipblades sliced through the air to his left and right, cleaving through his phantom doubles, before Opalion reached them with his ruby-crested sword. The one stroke took off both their heads, as Opalion spun to stop the coming attack that he knew was aimed for his back. Not fast enough. The whipblade sank into his side, throwing Opalion spinning through the air. He struck the ground rolling, his ribs snapping one after the other like twigs.
Sonatzen’s hated face cried out in triumph. Exultation shone in his eyes. The battle was over, and Sonatzen finally had his chance to speak. “You called me weak! But see now! I am the strongest of all! When you die, I will live on! My path to the heights of victory and immortality, and yours to the icy grave!” Lightning coiled around Sonatzen’s fist, ready to deliver the final blow.
FATHER!” Nuen screamed, a ribbon of thunder following the speed of her streaking form, the sword in her child’s hands aimed at Sonatzen’s breast.
Sonatzen snarled in fury. “Meddlesome pest!” The lightning shot out from his hands, striking Nuen in midair. She collapsed to the earth like a tiny dead bird, a whimper trailing from her lips.
NO!!!” Opalion screamed, trying to find the strength to stand. It was no use, every part of his body had already given up on him. Only his mind was left perfectly aware, only his eyes could move to watch the most beautiful, perfect girl in the world flutter to the earth. Sonatzen turned back to Opalion with a mocking sneer, when suddenly he let out a bellow of pain of his own. A sword emerged from his back, the tip piercing entirely through. Sonatzen tried to turn, tried to meet this newest threat, but the sword sank deeper, drove itself to the hilt. The kinslayer’s eyes glazed over as blood gushed from his side, and as he fell the form behind him let go of the blade. Cyrn stood trembling, face soaked in gore.
God be praised, but I’ve done it.” Cyrn laughed. And then he fainted, the weakness of his body overtaking his will. And all was still.

*  *  *

Glen picked his way through the charred and blood-soaked ground. He had never been so tired in his life. But he still had more to do. He had to find his friends. They couldn’t die. God could not be just and let them die. His eyes caught the glint of a red jewel in the rays of the dying sun, and he rushed to the elven sword with a last flicker of hope. He could hear Opalion’s shallow rattling breath as the elf dragged himself across the ground. “Stop it!” Glen shouted, running to his side. “You’ll kill yourself!”
Opalion spat out a curse in elven. “Forget me! Tend to Nuen!” Glen followed Opalion’s gaze, to see the elven lass’ tiny form amidst the carnage of torn up earth.
Okay. Just don’t move! The Mircassians know how to heal. We’ll save her.”
Glen!” Rain shouted across the battlefield. “Sleet’s here! She’s really hurt!” Glen nodded, waving her away. “I found Opalion and Nuen! Please, tell them to hurry here!” Rain nodded and began to run back up the hill. Glen went to Nuen, lifting her head from the ground and running his hands across her searching for a wound. He didn’t understand. There was nothing but a few bruises from hitting the ground. A moan came out of her lips, and Glen froze in relief. Eyes fluttered beneath closed lids, and then they opened, and pale green irises met bright purple under the setting sun.
Are you okay?” Glen asked, suddenly aware of the fact that he was holding her. She nodded, slowly, as if not sure herself. “I think I managed to avert most of the shock. It just overwhelmed my nervous system. Not enough to fry me.” She managed to lift half of her tiny lip into a tentative smile. She would have traded being shocked a hundred times for this moment.
She’s alright, Opalion!” Glen shouted in joy, his own smile trying to break out of the confines of his face. “Just hold on!”

*  *  *

That night Jhennador’s body was consecrated to the flames. He was given the honor as the saviour of Alphe and Earth alike. Under his guidance the elves had escaped their destined doom. And under his guidance they had fought to stop the Darkness from claiming a second world. The same elf who had once argued to abandon the round-ears in the Glimkeer, had given his own life in defense of them now. Mircassia gazed at his pyre with a sense of reverence. Because of him, they hadn’t lost a single man to the fray. He had protected them all. The women and children of the nation, and even the men he had led to war.
What will you do now?” Glen asked Sleet, her waist now traversed by a long white scar. She turned to look at the boy, firelight reflecting the wisdom of ages. “I will teach you far’sarai.” She answered. “I will teach you how to live as an example to the world. Everyone needs something stronger to believe in, something to look upwards too. I will teach you and Rain to be our Guardian Angels. So that when next the Darkness comes, we will be too strong to ever be threatened again.”
If you don’t mind, could you teach us elven too? I’m sick of being left out.” Rain asked.
About time.” Opalion smiled, more scars on his body than one could count. “If we’re to live together, I refuse to speak this scratchy language one day longer than absolutely necessary.”
We?” Glen asked, a smile of delight creeping across his face. Nuen sneaked up behind him and put a kiss to his cheek. “Of course, silly! How could we leave you now?” Glen could still feel the warmth of her lips. He wondered what the child of three separate universes would be. Something special. He decided. Something incredibly special. He liked the sound of that.

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