Fantasy where heroes don't follow the rules
Image by Idella Cutler
Elven Branch Apprenticeships and sub-specialties:
Glass Maker / Glass Cutter / Glass Painter
Gate Tender / Leaf Carver / Leaf Painter / Trunk Molder
Thaen buckled closed his leather bag. Slung the old leather strap over his shoulder. Looked over his room one last time.
He’d made his bed with tight corners. Straightened his rug. Positioned his temple shoes so the white toes pointed straighter than a compass toward the window. Spaced his hangers three fingers apart. Left his folded note dead-center on his bed.
Clenching the strap on his bag tight enough to remind himself why, he parted his curtain, opened the window, slipped out, and shut it with a soft thump.
Once out of Malandore proper, Night Flock drifted near him as he walked through the dark trees, his night vision adjusting now out of the glaring R’th light of the city. The trees rose in dark stretches, bushes like shapeless ink-blots darker in shade than the ground he walked. Nowhere near a road, he didn’t expect to run into any Dark Elves, but he walked heel-to-toe anyway.
Rangers mapped every Dark Elf door located near the Human Realm. They used to collapse them when they found them, but the Dark Elves either unburied their doors overnight or created a new one the rangers didn’t know about. They realized they would rather have a Dark Elf door they could find than to collapse one and not know if Dark Elves dug more elsewhere.
Not knowing which Dark Elf door they took Neleci through, Thaen surmised — if he were a Dark Elf — he’d come and go through the closest one to Malandore, especially if afraid of attack while the Dark Elf bore away with a political hostage.
Why had he lowered his guard? Thought they were safe? Why didn’t he employ his rangers skills and look, smell, listen instead of power-struggle with two men who tied him to a tree?
Now Neleci would live underground for a year suffering Dark Elf hospitality. No one else was going to rescue her.
So he would.
Not having ever been underground, he called upon a bulleted list of every skill from his ranger apprenticeship and organized them by most effective to least and took instant analysis of tools he would need. He had to. Neleci depended on him. Navigating underground would be its own problem.
He’d figure out how to find Neleci once he got down there.
His eyes adjusted to the dark now, the scant light of the violet moon turned the shapeless bushes into distinct masses of leaves and berries. A new dark mass took shape ahead. The Dark Elves had cut a gradual trench in the ground, deeper and deeper until the end yielded enough earth to cut a Dark-Elf sized doorway that Thaen now stood in front of. Listening. Sniffing.
Neleci is relying on me. Saying it enough times brought the heat back into his heart, and he stepped forward through the dark doorway.
The purple moonlight did not cast far into the dirt tunnel angling downward. Dark Elves had pressed stone into the soft earth for stability on the trail. Putting his right hand out until his fingers brushed the earthen wall, he descended, his racing heart so loud he could hear the thwarm thwarm in his skull. And if he believed Dark Elf rumors, the Dark Elves could too.
If he believed all the Dark Elf rumors, he’d know that they killed kindred in honor of their singular goddess who demanded no other gods should be worshiped but her. He’d know that this goddess freely gave R’th to all Dark Elves and that is why they could imbue objects with R’th. He would know that Dark Elves used to be White Elves once, but standing on the front line during the War of the Fear, they burrowed underground and never came out.
He accepted he may not come back out. He’d already planned to invest his entire energy into finding Neleci and getting her out, leaving himself behind as bait or a distraction, whichever helped Neleci escape.
The tunnel deepened. Thaen couldn’t see his hands anymore. He knelt. By feel alone he opened his bag, pulling out a dwarf-made spark-beam. Its length fitting in his palm, he clenched and unclenched the two pinchers anchored on one end. The opposite end rubbed together, the friction charging an engineered length of wire glowing with enough light to cast out five feet.
R’th generated fantastic, reliable light, so long as you stood in range of the earth veins from where R’th came from. Further away from the vein and the R’th crystals dimmed.
He reached the bottom. The earthen tunnel vomited him out of the oppressive weight of the tunnel into a larger, cooler space. His thin glow of light only illuminated a few feet in front of him, but he understood he now walked in a larger atmosphere because his boot heels scuffing the stone floor echoed back with a warning hush-hush-hush.
R’th light glowed ahead. He angled toward the invitation. His hand constantly squeezing the two pinchers to keep the spark-beam glowing would tire out soon.
His steps quickened, more eager for the light ahead than he would admit. Suddenly, a hand shoved him from behind.
He gasped at the unexpected contact and whirled to look, his spark-beam shaking, but saw nothing beyond the glow except chunks of water-smoothed stone and shallow pockets of moister.
Did a Dark Elf push him? Something else? An intense, overwhelming urge to run back top-side fired along his nerves and filled his stomach with heat. He remained rooted, his determination to complete the mission overriding all other sensory, walking on with more haste, intermittently checking his rear.
The light marked his position, but he couldn’t navigate without seeing his feet, not when stalagmites, boulders, and sinkholes stretched across his path. He’d put his light away once he reached the glow in the distance he aimed for. For now, he’d get there as soon as possible to reduce his exposure.
After half-running and maneuvering around obstructions, he’d reached the outskirts of the glow. He put his light away and hunkered down, close enough to see the glow radiated — unbelievably — from trees. Giant translucent statues of them as if he stood in an underground forest. They looked like the giant genbae trees at the base of the pegasi mountain realm, so wide in circumference a single one could make a bridge wide enough for five wagons to cross abreast of each other.
History lessons in school taught that those giant trees, the ones in the Pegasi Realm, stretch their roots so deep they hold the ground of Eloshonna together. An ancient earthquake broke open a vast sinkhole and sucked a massive portion of the genbae trees underground before the sinkhole collapsed on itself and re-sealed.
What a grand story Thaen would tell about finding those lost genbae trees, transparent as glass and glowing with R’th light, transparent branches supporting Mortal Earth above as well as below. Spiraling in each tree, from the trunk to every limb, burned yellow threads of warming R’th light, spreading a glow to everything within reach. The R’th pulsed, as if from Mortal Earth’s beating heart.
Structures nested within the trees Thaen assumed were houses. Dark Elves must have built them from various sizes of roots loosely weaved together to maintain privacy without concern to wind and weather. Like a basket. The houses weren’t in any recognizable shape, resembling a cube a giant mashed into a misshapen sphere.
The Dark Elves walking among the underground village all wore clothing of some black leather, impossible to guess from what animal. He knew nothing about underground life. What other life could thrive in a place lacking sunlight?
Among the Dark Elves, with matching black skin and white hair, walked droogs — Dark Dwarves — on feet and swollen knuckles, a deformed ancestry changing their bone structure so they now cantered on both hands and feet. Instead of black leather clothing like the Dark Elves, they had instead grown their white hair out so long they wrapped and tied it around their torsos and legs, more for fashion than function because the hair covered nothing.
Something sharp stung his neck. He slapped the bug.
It wasn’t a bug.
He pinched the stinger between two fingers and pulled the barb out of his skin. He rubbed the back of his neck and turned, finding — fear flashed white-cold through his chest — finding three Dark Elves standing behind him.
Where they came from or how he didn’t hear them approach even though he’d kept his ears sharpened for every drip of water, he did not know, but lost the desire to muddle through that puzzle when he realized his entire body was numbing.
He jumped up to fight, or run away, but his legs gave out. He crashed to both knees. The three Dark Elves watched him without movement or expression. He thrashed on the damp stone to regain control of his limbs, but they stopped responding and he laid there, unable to move. He did not lose sensory to touch, temperature, texture, or pressure, but all else remained detached from him.
I’m going to die right here. I’m sorry Father…
He remained awake, still able to breathe, to blink, but his tongue wouldn’t move to speak. The Dark Elves picked him up — one each at his shoulders, hips, and knees — and carried him. Anxiety ripped through numbed muscles, unable to fight it or express it. Tears streamed down both sides of his ivory face while he stared at the glowing glass trees and Mortal Earth far, far overhead.
Please, don’t hurt Neleci. Take me and let her go, he wanted to tell them, but couldn’t speak, could only feel wave after wave of fear, anxiety, and failure taking turns washing through his body.
They set him down on his back at the base of the trees. The three Dark Elves left, drifting away as silently as they ambushed him, returning to the darkness which had birthed them.
Unable to move, he watched R’th light pulse within the forest. An inept young man awaiting the consequence of his choice.