The party convenes at a Company breakfast served up by Annabelle Cirrus, who intimates to Gronk that €œSir Sebastien” is alive, though infirm, and she must tell him about his son’s death. Since the man’s farm is on the way to the Ar’Avariel forest, Gronk informs her that the party will accompany her on the task. She parts, referring to Gronk by some name in Dwarvish that obviously gives him pause.
Lieutenant Stein briefs the party on their next mission, which is to trace down Master Sergeant Sergei Volkov and his rogue unit. Rumor has it that the team passed through the half-elf village of Faye’s Hope late in the fall.
The next day, the party sets off West, and after a day’s travel arrive at a small sustenance farm nestled between the foothills of the Masaan and the edges of the Ar’Avariel forest. The party passes two men in their late thirties who obviously recognize Gronk, and approaches one of the two homesteads on the property. They are invited in for tea by an aging man who seems to be slowly succumbing to infirmity, who greets Gronk and Annabelle warmly. They inform the man of the death of his son (Warder Joseph) and discuss a number of other points. The man and Gronk speak on and off in Dwarvish to one another. When Alton mentions that they sighted a man they believe to be the Emperor Altair, Sebastien becomes immediately agitated, and Annabelle rushes out to speak with the two men tending the farm – who appear by all accounts to be her siblings. Sebastien allows the party to spend the night in his home, and sees them off the next morning. Annabelle and the two men were nowhere to be seen.
The party proceeds to the half-elven trading post of Faye’s Hope, where the party finds an ambush in waiting at the village trading post. Six men were arrayed to ambush the party when they entered, but upon seeing the party contained two Warders and one very similarly and terrifyingly-armored old Dwarf, decided against the ambush and attempted miserably to look like they were going about their business. When interrogated, it was revealed that they were mercenaries from Clearwater hired by Volkov to intercept anyone who may be on the rogue’s trail. The party allowed them to leave. Tanis, the proprietor of the trading post and an old friend of Moriel and Poppy, informs the party that Volkov did pass through in the late Fall – there were ten of them total at the time. Volkov was asking about a fairly renown Elven thinker named Etari’sul – last anyone heard Etari’sul lived in Sidarthe’minwe, deep in the forest – which also houses the Ar’Avarial Elves’ Evarre’tenin – their Trust. The people of the village are ill at ease, most of them have a feeling that something sinister is happening in the forest, but they know not what. They haven’t heard much of anything out of the forest for a while, which isn’t particularly abnormal.
The party heads into the Ar’Avarial to Dorothea, home of Moriel and, briefly, of Poppy. They find the ancient Elven village completely empty, no people, no animals, no insects, and the structures themselves do not look as if they’d ever been lived in. The lifelessness extends in a perfect circle radiating from the center of the village, where the party finds the only sign of life – a scrape on a rock from a steel-shod boot. The next village over, J’sta, is the same. They proceed to Tir’Valar, the largest city in the Ar’Avariel forest and it too, in all its majesty, is deserted. The border of Tir’Valar is patrolled by golems taller than the trees – wardens designed by the elves to be left behind after their passing to keep younger races from their secrets. On a tree at the edge of the Tir’valar circle of lifelessness, the party finds the word “LEITUS” carved into the trunk.
The two figures heading their way were not what she had expected. Or rather, one of them was not.
One was a Warder, mounted on a proper Warder horse. The other was small, but with the same black armour as all Warders wore. And she was mounted on a big, black dog. Moriel stared.
So Mengst had asked, then, and Poppy had agreed. She would lose the halfling earlier than she thought. Warders never lived long. But it was Poppy’s choice. She had to accept that. Moriel had always know that one day, in something that would seem like a very short time, she would lose her friend. If not through injury or illness, then old age would take the halfling. Now, however, it was obvious that her friend would not have a chance to grow old.
Perhaps they had been right. Tamariel, her parents, others. They had warned her, when she took Poppy in. Not that they really minded, but they had warned her not to get too attached. She had not believed them, not really.
Then she blinked and looked at the dog. She fought to hide the smile; the poor dog would probably realise she was smiling at her, and she looked embarrassed enough as it was. Poppy, being Poppy, had braided its fur and decorated her with pink bows. And the poor dog did not even remotely look as if she enjoyed it.
Poppy chattered on, wanting to paint both her armour and her face pink. Moriel wondered, a bit wryly, if Mengst really knew what he had done this time. While the halfling might be a, literally, colourful addition to the Warders, it might not been exactly what he had had in mind. But that was his problem, not hers. Then the halfling headed inside to eat, leaving her miserable mount outside.
Moriel headed for the tent as well, then stopped beside the dog. She doubted the bitch would understand, not the words, anyway, but she might understand her tone. At some point, Poppy would have to leave without Moriel. At least the dog looked dangerous enough. Maybe, just maybe that would be enough.
“You take care of her now.” She could just hope that the dog had more sense than Poppy.
She suspected that she should count the remaining time with Poppy in months, not years. Now, the halfling’s life belonged to Mengst. For the rest of her life. And though she knew that humans and the other shortlived races did not see a life oath the same way as the Elves did, it bothered her. For a moment, she almost hated Mengst for doing this. Then she pushed that away.
She was older than most here. Save the Dwarf, but he was at the end of his lifespan, she had hardly begun hers. When she reached his age, she would still be young, by Elven standards. Now, she was little more than a child to the Elves, and still she was several times older than most of the humans she had been travelling with. But at least she was going home now. She would talk to Tamariel, he was close enough to her own age that he might understand. Perhaps he had been right all along, that her place was with the Elves, not with the humans and their mayfly lives.
She did not talk during breakfast, but sat quietly in a corner, watching. Poppy was all over the place, of course, as usual. She noticed Gronk talking quietly to Annabelle. Then the woman got up and left. The others started asking questions; it seemed they were going to pay a visit to Joseph’s father on their way west.
Then Gronk stood up. “We should git our orders before Anas-Annabelle leaves.” She wondered what he had been about to say. Another name, most likely. She wanted to ask, but since noone else seemed to have noticed anything, and since Gronk, and Annabelle, obviously had a reason for not sharing the name Gronk almost used, she would not press the issue.
As they got their orders, Moriel knew she was paying less attention than she ought to, but it seemed to her that the Calling was growing stronger. Maybe it was just the thought of going home. It sounded like the breeze through treetops, tasted like fresh ripe fruit straight from the bough, smelled like sunlight after rain, on damp earth and wet leaves. Home.
And so they rode, Annabelle with them until they reached the farm. Joseph’s father was here, an older man, one who clearly knew Gronk well. Moriel had wanted to say something to him; after all, his son had protected them with his own life. But what he said chased all those thoughts away.
She had listened to the others talk, not wanting to interrupt, when one of the humans mentioned Faye’s Hope. Mostly half-elves lived there, trading with humans and elves both. She had been there often, before she left the forest, and knew the place well enough.
“The elves, They’ve been awfully quiet this winter.”
His words sent a shiver down her spine. Something was wrong. She tried to convince herself it was nothing, perhaps she had misunderstood him. Maybe he had misunderstood the half-elves. It did not work.
What she wanted to do was to ride to the forest as fast as she could. But whatever it was, it had been going on for months, and another day would hardly matter. So they stayed the night, and rode on the next day. And though they would most likely not be in time to prevent anything from happening, she wanted to scream at the others, tell them to hurry whenever they stopped for a rest.
The village, at least, looked much as it had last time she was here. Outside the inn, that also functioned as trading post, there were several horses in the corral. So, there were other guests here. She knew she was being reckless, but she was so close now to someone who might give her some answers. Dismounting, leaving the horse where it was, she entered the inn, without waiting for the others.
Tanis, the proprietor was standing behind the bar. He looked up, and at that moment, Poppy slipped inside, and headed straight for the bar. She noticed Tanis greet her young friend, giving Poppy a candy; he always used to spoil the halfling when she brought her here. What caught Moriel’s attention, however, were the six or seven men standing around the room, as if ready to ambush whoever came through the door.
Men, humans, who suddenly started looking very nervous, who were suddenly backing away. And Tanis looked tense as well. Under normal circumstances, she would have been more careful, but these were humans, were there should, in her opinion be none, and they looked as if they had planned to attack.
“Hello, Tanis. Trouble?” She actually _wanted_ him to say yes. She _wanted_ this fight, though she knew it was unfair. Whoever they were, they did not look as if they would be able to cause trouble for the Elves, not much, at least.
“Oh, Moriel.” He explained that they had not been bothering him, but rather had been planning to ambush whoever entered. She did not doubt for a moment that they waiting for her and her group. Turning towards the one who appeared to be their leader, she started in his direction, noticing that Gronk was doing the same.
The man looked frightened. Probably the Warders, and a grim-looking Gronk, who was, thankfully, backing her up. Getting the leader to answer their questions was not hard, not hard at all. And she did not at all like what their leader said.
Volkov had paid them to ambush whoever came looking for him, to ‘encourage’ them to stop looking. But these men, at least, were not a threat; she could almost smell their fear. Actually, she _could_ smell it, at least from the leader. He had wet himself, and he reeked.
In the end, they got the answers they were looking for, and let the men go. Moriel watched from the doorway as they got on their horses and rode as fast as they could away from the village. She doubted they would be back.
Then she turned to Tanis. The half-elf was, if nothing else, a familiar sight, and one she welcomed. He had always been friendly whenever she and Tamariel, and later, Poppy as well, came here. He always had some candy for Poppy, always a friendly greeting. Though they were not _that_ close, she _did_ consider him a friend. His news, however, were not good and not at all welcome.
It seemed Volkov had come here in late autumn, on his way to seek out Etari’sul. What he wanted to see him for, Tanis did not know. And even more disturbing, he had seen no elves here for the past several months. Around the time Volkov had been here, they had just stopped coming.
Her questions asked, questions she did not want to know the answer to, she arranged for rooms and dinner, paid Tanis twice the price, because he was a familiar face, and though his news were not good, she was happy to see him.
Then she lapsed back into silence. They had stopped coming here altogether, months ago. No hint of why; it could be disease, but that was not likely. Not all the cities. And they would have sent someone. It had to be something else. She did not want to think about that, did not want to speculate what ‘something else’ might be.
And why the Volkov would want to see Etari’sul, what kind of information was he after? Because that was the only reason she could think of, that he wanted information.
She blinked. The words were spoken in Elven, though mangled, or rather guttural in a way the Elven language was never meant to be spoken. She had not know that the Dwarf understood Elven, far less spoke it, albeit strongly accented. But she was worried abouth other things now, and did not really mind sharing her thoughts. At least not with the Dwarf.
“Something is wrong.” She knew it, in her heart. Though she tried to hold onto the hope that it was something minor, she knew it was not.
“Returning home is never easy. Especially these days. You are strong, though.” He probably would know, better than her. If nothing else, then because he had the experience she lacked.
“I do not think this is a coincidence.” Volkov coming here, right before the Elves stopped visiting, she meant.
“No. It is certainly not. Few things about this are right.” _Nothing_ about this was right. But he was being kind, trying to help. So at least she owed him an answer.
“Returning home is not the problem. The fact that they have not come here during the winter is.” That was, at least, some of the problem. She was worried, now. A lot. Tamariel had not been here since autumn. He usually came in, at least once or twice during winter, to trade. And she had half expected him to come more often, if nothing else, then to hear if there were any news of her.
“It is…difficult…when one’s own people are in peril. None of them, save Poppy, would understand.” So, the Dwarf _did_ understand, then. But Poppy was still young, in a different way than Moriel was, and the halfling had changed. Trying to figure her out was like catching water in your hands. The girl slipped through her fingers with a smile and a giggle.
“We are dying, Gronk. It is only a matter of time. But that he headed to the evarre’tenin…” She did not know what more to say. There was knowledge there, dangerous knowledge. And that information in the hands of a human, it was a scary thought. In the hands of an enemy, that thought was terrifying.
“My people are dying too. All we can do is…well, what we are already doing.” She had not know that. Oh, she knew, like most people, that they had retreated behind their sealed gates, but noone knew why.
There was a bitter taste in her mouth. Here they were, from three races that might all soon cease to exist; though for the Elves, ‘soon’ would most likely be another two millennia; and the humans did not seem to care at all.
The halflings, if they lost the war against the Kisharans, would be hunted to extinction. The Dwarves were dying, she did not know how, or why. And her own people, fading away. No more children were born; as far as she knew, she was the last. That thought terrified her, that she might live to see the last remains of the once great people fade and become little more than legend. That she might, one day, be the only one left. But at least some were close enough to her in age that there would be _someone_, at least, who would understand. Almost all the way to the end.
Gronk spoke again. “If he plans ill, he will not succeed. You have my word.” She thanked him, wondering if he knew what that meant to her. She was not sure how much they could do, but he would try, at least. He understood.
Then she forced herself to continue eating, pretending as if nothing was wrong. She did not want the humans to see how much the news had rattled her, did not want them to know.
The next morning, they rode for Dorothea. Until yesterday, she had been anxious to return to her home. Now, she dreaded it. When she saw the green spires, she breathed a sigh of relief, they seemed whole enough, but the uneasiness was still there. No one had hailed them. There had been no one to meet them on the trail. No sign of scouts or guards. Then they reached the town itself.
There were no one there. None at all. It was quiet, so very very quiet. She felt panic threatening, but forced it back. There had to be an explanation. But it took all her self discipline, every scrap of control, not to rush off, leaving the others behind.
She did ignore the others, though, and headed straight for one specific building. And though she did not want them here, not now, when everything was so very clearly wrong, the quiet houses were screaming at her, still, she was glad she was not alone.
It took only a few minutes, but it felt like forever. She jumped off her horse before it had even come to a full halt, and walked, managed not to run, into the house. Empty. It was empty, and felt as if had been empty for a long time.
She knew it was useless, but could not stop herself. “Mother? Father?” Her voice sounded strange, as the bare walls reflected back her voice. The echo of an empty room. Dimly aware that Gronk was looking at her, there was something in his eyes, she thought maybe pity, but she ignored that, and started searching for something, there had to be _something_ left behind.
The table was gone, where they had eaten so many meals together. Her room was there, but not the bed, not the closets, not the little box with all her childhood treasures that she had not thrown away. All gone. And not just gone. It was as if those things had never been there. It _felt_ as if they had never been there.
Then Poppy pointed at the place where the young halfing had once carved her initials. A foolish, childish thing to do. And now it was gone. Just like that. Every little sign of wear was gone. It looked new, as if time and use had not touched it at all.
She could not bear to stay there. She had grown up in this house, and now every trace of her and her parents were gone, as if they, and she, had never existed.
The next house she visited was her own. She had moved out not too long ago; mostly because she wanted a place of her own, a place for her and Poppy. There had been buildings enough for that, there were so few left living here. But her place, like her parents’ house, was empty, no sign of anyone ever having lived there.
One more house to check, though she knew what she would find. She hoped, though, against all hope, that he might have been away when it had happened, whatever it was. That he would have left her a clue, something. But his house too was empty. No sign of Tamariel, no sign he had ever lived there.
Then she realised that there were no animals, no birds, not even insects. Just a deafening silence. And, eventually she realised, the silence created a perfect circle around the town. She could see clearly where it stopped, where insects and birds and animals still existed, where time still passed. She wondered if trees would continue to grow, or if they too would be stuck as they were now.
They would have to go on, then. She could not stay here, not in this dead town that once had been her home. But there was one last thing she would do. Just in case Tamariel was out there somewhere, she had to leave him something, a sign that she had been there. So she went out in the forest, looking. An acorn, he would know what it meant, she hoped. If their parting had meant anything to him, he would remember.
Though the humans did not seem to mind, neither she nor Gronk were willing to sleep in Dorothea. It was just too empty, too quiet. Not even birds or insects were there. They were the only living things within the circle. There was no way Moriel would be willing to sleep there. And she was not entirely sure it was safe.
And so they continued on for a couple of hours, before they camped. The next day they went on, heading for J’Star. But that town too was empty, quiet, no sign that anyone had ever lived there.
And here she realised another thing, something so disturbing she wanted to scream, to run, to hide. But from this, there was nowhere to hide.
“I cannot feel the forest inside the circle!” She could not feel the Calling, it had been there since she left home, and whenever she left the circle surrounding J’Star, she could feel the forest again. But inside, it was dead, as if it too had never existed. Only then did she notice Gronk’s look, realising that she had spoken aloud. She lapsed back into silence, then, not knowing what else to say. Not wanting to explain.
As they headed towards the capital, she knew what they would find. Just another empty city. The beautiful city, with its green spires and towers. Penshin was impressive in its way, with its university and its crowds. But compared to this, it was nothing at all. Bigger, certainly, but it was like the humans, noisy and cold and dirty.
Tir Valar was anything but. Green, shining towers, reaching towards the sky. It had made her heart ache the first time she came here. Now, she thought it would break. Then they heard the sound.
Someone, or something, was approaching. It was the sound of feet, gigantic feet. She grabbed her bow, wondering if this was the enemy, if this was the cause of her people’s disappearance. Then she saw it. And her world shattered.
The golem was easily 20 feet tall, but the true horror was that she knew it for what it was. A guardian, meant to protect the city from intruders, to guard the treasures of the Elves until the younger races were ready for them. Its task was to prevent looters and others from stealing the Elves’ knowledge and secrets.
And it was not supposed to be activated until the Elves were gone.
Moriel collapsed, wailing, crying, babbling in Elven. She knew the others were looking at her, but she no longer cared. It did not matter, not anymore. She dimly felt Poppy’s arms around her, heard her voice. That, too, no longer mattered. Nothing did.
Her people were gone.
There might be a few scattered around, others who like her had not been in the forest when the end had come. But as a people, the Elves were gone.
Her people were _gone_.
Avoiding the edge:
The Halfling hugs and rocks back and forth with the crumbled elf. The grief is once again drowned by rage. A rage that dates back to her childhood, etched so painfully deep that it poisons the very spirit of the Halfling…
Alone under the briar bush, the pathetic creature, painted from head to toe in ash, black spittle running from its mouth, holding its knees and rocking back and forth . Darkness blends the blackened creature with shadows of night. Nothing disturbs the creature, the wrongness of it all still too fresh with the stench of burning flesh wafting towards the heavens. Nothing left but the black creature and a belly full of ash.
Rage intensifies the gnawing disease which is revenge. Gone is the lightness of heart she shared amongst her family, replaced by a harshness that will cause her to love very few in the coming years.
Not the elf.
This shouldnâ€™t happen to the elf.
She should not have to understand the Halfling.
No one should have to understand the Halfling.
The others search the area. Sympathetic eyes pass over the two figures on the ground. Thereâ€™s nothing they can say or do. Itâ€™s always the same when family, friends, love and life are destroyed. Always the same.
â€œThey will die.â€ breaths the Halfling, in between words that tumble from her mouth to soothe the elf.
The Halfling shakes her head, realizing itâ€™s not her this time. She needs to be here for the elf. She retreats to her safe place of ruffles, frills, and pink. Once again she is consumed by the superficial.
I haveâ€¦.a broken Moriel.