‘This is not exactly what I signed up for.’ Moriel studied the humans in the room. They were all staring, at her and at the dwarf. She felt she should say something wise, something in line with what it seemed they expected of her people. The problem was just that she had absolutely no idea what to say.
In fact, she was having second thoughts about the whole thing. Except there was Poppy, of course. Poppy, who seemed to take to this with the same enthusiasm as she took on everything else. Poppy, who _should_ have been safely at home with Tamariel. But by the time she had found out that Poppy had followed her, it was too late. Either, they would both have to go back, and Moriel would have to break her oath. Since the last was not an option, they both stayed. At least she hoped she could keep Poppy safe by staying close to her.
Moriel still had not quite gotten used to the way humans behaved. All the yelling, for instance. The human, Gareth Stein, har barely gotten into the room before he started yelling, or so it seemed. Was this some weird human thing, that they had to yell at eachother to be effective? But at least she had stopped wanting to slip out the door when someone started shouting. And as long as he was yelling at someone else, she could pretend to ignore it.
She was not going to admit it to anyone, not even Poppy, but she was relieved that their mission was nothing more serious than goblins. To do anything more serious than that, with this new, unknown group, was not exactly a comforting thought. In fact, everything about this new job was less than comforting. The humans were loud, as if they always were angry about something.
It was a wonder they had gotten as far as they had, without losing anyone. Not for lack of trying, but the dwarf had left a very obvious dwarf-sized hole in the underbrush, and had not been hard to track. Still, they moved slowly, and made way too much noise.
When they awoke the next morning, she was almost surprised to find that they were all still alive, and that noone had wandered off during the night.
At least they dropped the silly idea of making her leader. As if she felt like leading anything but herself and Poppy. Instead they seemed to decide she was their scout, but they kept following her close enough that anything she would be able to spot, would hear them long before she could spot an enemy.
‘I wonder what they would say if I told them I don’t even know the way.’ Well, she did have an idea of where to go, but no more. The
map was nothing she was used to, and she did not have a copy. She did not, however, want to ask if anyone else brought a copy. She was an elf, she was supposed to be…well, something. Old, wise, and way too clever to forget something like that.
They had walked for most of the day, when they came across two sets of tracks. One looked like a couple of days old orc tracks, the other set was fresh, and probably a troll. The dwarf, of course, wanted to chase after the troll and kill it. The rest seemed eager to follow. She was not sure if they were ready for a troll, but she doubted it would help any to object.
The tracks were easy to follow; almost as easy as following the tracks the dwarf had made. But they were getting close, and the others were still chattering. Of course, even when they did _not_ talk, they made so much noise the troll would most likely hear them from miles away.
Suddenly, a troll came charging out of the forest. Moriel froze, along with most of the others. The troll was huge, wielding what
looked like a whole tree.
Everyone but the dwarf seemed frozen, Moriel spent several seconds trying to convince herself to actually do something, apart from being terrified. She finally wrenched her nerves under control, and started firing. Her aim was bad, though, and her arrows did not even seem to distract the troll, far less do any damage.
As the troll finally fell, the dwarf having done most of the job, she kept an arrow trained at the body, while one of the others doused it
with alcohol and set it on fire. At least she had gotten off a few arrows, even if she had done little harm to the troll. She had, she
hoped, not looked too much like a fool. Not that many of the others seemed to have done much either, but still.
With the troll dead, they picked up the orc-trail. Those too were fairly easy to follow, it did not seem as if the orcs had tried to
hide their trail. She and Poppy led them straight to a cave, with a couple of goblins outside.
They killed the goblins quickly, then entered the cave. Not far in, a door blocked the corridor. “Is it locked?” Noone answered her.
Instead the dwarf and one of the humans prepared to kick the door in.
They could hear voices from inside the door. At the count to three, the human and the dwarf tried to slam the door open, but the door was more solid than it looked. The voices on the inside stopped, though, and Moriel suspected that it was only a matter of seconds before whoever it was sounded an alarm. She leaned forward, over the dwarf, and pushed at the handle, and the door creaked open.
Three orcs were standing there, staring at them. Moriel got off one shot before the orcs charged; well, two of them anyway. The third ran off, probably to get help, and out of sight before she could get off another shot.
The two remaining orcs died, but they could hear the chattering of voices down the corridor where the last orc had disappeared. They
were not disappointed, all too soon, several snotlings, a couple of goblins, and one orc came running down the tunnel.
The one advantage to this fighting, was that the enemy was pretty much bottled up inside the corridor. The dwarf and two of the humans seemed fully able to keep them inside the tunnel, and Moriel was starting to think they could get through this without anyone getting seriously hurt, when they heard voices from the _other_ tunnel. And suddenly, the dwarf ran off towards the voices.
As the last of the goblins fell, Moriel tried to get a clear shot at one of the … dwarves? fighting their own dwarf, but then decided it
was better to keep an eye on the first corridor, to make sure no other goblins or orcs surprised them. There were enough people down there to deal with the enemy. Still she did keep an eye on Poppy, just in case.
After what seemed like an eternity, the sound of fighting died down, and there were still no sign of anyone else coming down the corridor she was watching.
The dwarf looked badly hurt, but waved away any attempts to help, and since Moriel had no idea what to do anyway, she pretended not to notice, avoiding looking too closely at him as they investigated the area the goblins and snotlings had come from.
They found no more enemies, though they did find the hole they had probably come from. Hopefully, the ones they had killed were scouts, and there would be no more coming through when these did not return.
The other corridor, the one the chaos dwarves had come from, was more interesting, though. They found no more chaos dwarves, but the area itself looked dwarven made.
One of the rooms hid quite a surprise; in the middle of the room, there was a circle, one that was used to contain star metal, or warp
stone. But the symbols used were elven, not dwarven. The dwarf stared at her, clearly expecting her to say something. Her only
problem was, she had no idea who made this, or why elves would be involved with this at all. Not, of course, that she could tell him
_that_. So instead she smiled slightly and walked out of the room.
Against her will, Moriel realised she was starting to, well, _like_ was too strong a word, but at least the dwarf seemed like a decent person. He kept encouraging Poppy, and even threatened one of the humans when he was getting a little bit too uppity. Not that Poppy was unable to take care of that herself, but she appreciated the effort anyway.
The trip back to Hillcrest went without problems, Gronk riding on Moriel’s horse. She headed for the infirmary, the dwarf sleeping on the back of her mount.
As they arrived, one of the humans woke the medic at the infirmary.
He took one look at the dwarf, then telling them they should go to Everwatch. Even at this time of the night, getting a cart was not exactly hard; they quickly found a cart with a driver, loaded Gronk and Poppy into it, and drove off, Moriel riding after them, taking care to look as if she was rested and alert.
As soon as they were out of sight, she stopped the cart for a few moments, tying her horse to the back of it, and told the driver she would ride in the cart, to spare her horse. He looked as if he had no idea what to think of her, nor her request, he just nodded, looking at her with wide eyes as she got into the wagon and settled down beside Poppy to get some rest.
The elf awoke with a start at the sound of thunder. Or at least it sounded like thunder. She quickly realised they were cannons, though.
She grabbed her bow, and got on her horse, half expecting to arrive in the middle of a battle. The driver did not look too worried, though, so she assumed this was usual.
As they arrived at the encampment, they were met by the surgeon and a couple of assistants, who led Gronk to a nearby building. She and Poppy watched for a while, then decided that Gronk was in good hands, and they left.
Poppy spent the next hours, as expected, running around looking at everything, with Moriel following. And before she really knew how it happened, the two of them were standing on the hill above Everwatch, face to face with Mengst.
As usual, Poppy chattered on, but at least Mengst did not seem to take any offense. When the halfling mentioned the dwarf being hurt, though, he did look worried. So before Poppy could confuse him further, Moriel told him that the dwarf would live. The relief on his face was obvious, and she wondered why the dwarf was so important.
After Poppy had asked a couple of questions, they left, and spent some time wandering around the encampment, waiting for the others to arrive, and for the briefing to begin.
Listening to the words of Mengst, Moriel, for the first time, started to realise why her people had chosen not to fight. Had their numbers been greater, it would have been different, perhaps. At least they might have been able to do something about the sorcerer. Or maybe not, there was a cruelty and a will to sacrifice others in what he had done, and she was not sure if any of her people could match that.
And a dark godess on his side? She was not sure what to think of that. It might be rumours, superstition, but then again, it might be true.
Suddenly, she longed for the forest, wanted to smell the damp earth and the sweet smell of grass again. Not the rank smell of unwashed humans and death that surrounded this place.
She turned to look west, towards the forest. She could not see it, but she felt it, keenly. It called to her, pulling at her, summoning her.
She spent the rest of the day fighting the urge to take Poppy and her horse and ride back to her forest.
They had been travelling for three days before they reached the first camp. Poppy and Moriel went out in search for food, but Moriel was distracted, feeling all the while the call of her homeland. At least Poppy was paying attention, and it was her bolt that felled the deer.
Back in the camp, Poppy cooked, as usual, an excellent meal. Moriel had never figured out where the halfling had learned that; it was certainly not from her.
While they were sitting around the fire, they heard the sound of horses. Moriel slid into the shadows of the trees, bow ready. The two black-armoured men who rode into the camp did not seem much of a threat, though. Oh, they looked dangerous enough, but they were Warders, making them allies rather than a threat.
Then she noticed the weapon one of them was carrying. She had never expected to see an etu’sari, and definitely not a human. But she also did not for a moment doubt that he was what he appeared; he was a Warder, and someone who had, somehow, earned that sword.
The rest of the evening, she tried hard not to stare, not to show her interest too openly. The man sharing their campfire was a part of a legend, even to the elves. So few of those swords were made, and though, over the millennia, some of those blades would have ended up on the wrong hands, Moriel was fairly certain this sword was exactly where it belonged.
The etu’sari had noticed her interest, of that, she was certain. He did not say anything, though, for which she was grateful. What she _wanted_ to do, was pester him with questions, about the sword and its history, about himself and the one who gave him the sword. She could not explain why, but she felt drawn to him, a pull that was just as strong, or even stronger, than the calling of her forest. She spent the evening, and quite a lot of the night, watching him, trying not to be too obvious about it. Why, she could not say.
Perhaps just to be able to say she had seen him, to be able to describe him later.
The next morning, the men left, and the group left shortly after, on their first patrol. As they walked along the road, Moriel felt the forest calling for her. She knew where it was; no matter where she was, she was certain she would always know which way the forest lay.
Not for the first time, she wondered what she was doing here. Her own people were dying. There might be elves for a few more millennia, but they were in their twilight days now. They would dwindle, slowly, until they would be nothing more than a memory.
The halfings were almost gone. The quiet, peaceful communities they had built were gone, and those that might still exist knew now that they were not safe. Greed would see to that, if the Kisharan armies did not.
The dwarves were gone, most of them, as well, withdrawing from the world, much like the elves had, but for their own reasons. The world was mostly now left to humans and gnomes. And the Kisharans.
Maybe she should just take Poppy and go home. Back to the forest, untouched by the war, to leave the humans and gnomes and Kisharans to fight their war. The sound of people on the road snatched her out of her train of thoughts. When she saw the source of the sounds, Moriel could hardly believe her eyes. A human woman was leading a group of halfings along the road, and from what she could see, they were fleeing someone.
The halflings were obviously exhausted, and at least two were wounded. One of the humans started questioning them, and Moriel noticed Poppy getting more and more agitated. Not that Moriel blamed her. She too wanted to see those halflings safely away before whoever pursued them arrived.
But finally, the fugitives continued down the road, two of the wounded halflings riding on Moriel’s horse, and they started preparing the ambush.
They heard the enemy before they saw them. Most of the soldiers were walking, with one officer riding. The thought of killing them did not bother Moriel at all. All she could think of were the exhausted, terrified halflings. And as the battle started, and she let the arrows fly, her heart singing in tune with the song from her bowstring.
One of the soldiers charged towards her, swinging wildly at her with her sword. Her arrow hit him in the face, and though a part of her felt guilty, another part of her laughed wildly as the soldier crumpled to the ground, his head half gone. This soldier, at least, would never again kill innocents.
The fight was quickly over. The last soldier standing, one of the archers, turned and ran, and Moriel downed him with two arrows in the back of his head. And while shooting a fleeing man in the back would have bothered her a year ago, now, it meant nothing, except that she knew they could not let even one of them escape.
As the others started looting the soldiers, Moriel went after the horse that had fled, and had stopped further up the road. It did not run as she approached; the horse was not a warhorse, it was willing to let itself be handled, and it seemed happy to follow her back to the others.
Back with the others, one of the humans was waving a string of several severed halfling hands in the air, asking if someone wanted it. Moriel watched in disgust, any remorse she might have felt for killing the humans gone.
Poppy took it, saying she wanted to give them a decent burial, and headed for the forest. Moriel followed. She did not know what to do, but at least she would not let Poppy do this alone. She watched in silence as Poppy gathered what she needed and burned the sad remains. The young halfling prayed, and Moriel watched, wondering if she should do or say something.
They returned to the others, who had, it seemed, stripped the soldiers for anything of value and loaded it onto the horse. The dwarf was hurt, as was one of the humans, but, it seemed, not life threatening. Still, it was close to sunset before they were back at the camp.
Most of the halflings were asleep, but one of them was sitting by the campfire, preparing food, and Annabelle, the human woman, was sitting by a tree, dagger out, and apparently trying hard not to fall asleep. The food was excellent, even better than Poppy’s.
Moriel wondered what could have led anyone to want to exterminate this unassuming, peaceful people. Perhaps the Kisharans’ world had people like them who were different, dangerous. Or maybe they, in some way, posed a threat to the Kisharans. But she knew, then, that no matter the reason, her own decision to leave her forest and join the war was the right one. She just hoped it would be enough to keep her from heeding the Calling. She wanted, more than ever, to stay and fight.
Moriel and Poppy, together with some of the halflings, spent the next few days foraging and hunting, waiting for the rest of the haflings to recover enough for them to travel on to Hillcrest.
During those days, the refugees watched Moriel almost warily. Several times, she noticed them watching her when they thought she did not see it. It bothered her a little, to see them so skittish around her. It was not that they seemed to actively avoid her, they just tended to not be where she was going.
While she would have liked to talk to them, hear their stories, and maybe tell them some stories in return, she did not approach them when she realised she made them edgy. Instead she watched them, quietly enjoying their chatter among themselves, hoping that the army would find a way to keep them safe, to make sure they would not again have to flee for their lives from the Kisharan forces.
After several days at the camp, the halflings were rested enough for them to continue on their journey to Hillcrest. As the group of refugees started down the road, Moriel spoke to Annabelle, offering her a couple of coins. The woman smiled, but declined, saying she and the halflings would be provided for.
As she watched Annabelle and the halflings walk down the road, she heard Gronk ask one of the humans why he had been so suspicious of the refugees. The human said something about being careful about who they trusted. As if the Kisharans would use that many halflings for a trap. And halflings, at least, were definitely not likely to work for the enemy. Oh, maybe, just maby, they could have found some way to convince one or two to help them with a trap, by threatening loved ones or somesuch, but there was no way, as far as Moriel could see, that they would be able to a dozen halflings to cooperate with them.
With the halflings gone, it was time to head for the next camp, further west. As they travelled, Moriel could feel the forest getting closer. They travelled more slowly, the road obviously being one rarely used.
After a couple of days, they arrived at the second camp, this one clearly not having been used for a while. The light was waning as they started setting up camp, but away in the distance, far away and far below, she thought she could see a city.
Though it was little more than a shimmering of green, she knew what city it must be. She had walked through the streets of Tir Valar, the heart of the forest. At that time, she had been overwhelmed by the beauty of it. Now, though she longed to walk the streets of Tir Valar once more, there was a sadness there. It was a dying city, with a dying people. The signs had been there then too, the streets seemed too large, built for far more people than those who lived there now. So many houses vacant. Not that they were allowed to fall apart, but it was so clear now, that the city was built to house ten times its current number or more.
As the dark fell upon the camp, she kept looking out towards the city, long after she could no longer see it, singing softly to herself, old Elven songs, whose lyrics she had to struggle to remember. She wondered, then, if they too would be forgotten when the last of her people died. If the city would crumble and decay, or if someone else would move in, put their own marks upon the brilliant city and make it theirs.
Eventually, she turned away from the north and settled down to get some rest.
A shout woke her. She sprang to her feet, grabbing her bow. It was still early, but something was obviously amiss. Then Banagher awoke, grabbed his sword and raced off. Before she had time to react, they heard the sound of a Warder’s horn calling for help.
She quickly mounted and headed towards the sound. Keeping pace with the others, who were running, was hard. A Warder had called for help, and she was certain that the etu’sari was involved. Her mind told her she might very well be mistaken, that the etu’sari and his partner were not the only Warders in these mountains, and even if it were him, if an etu’sari Warder could not deal with it, what use would this motley crew be? More, at least, than she could do alone.
Suddenly they broke through the forest and looked down on a small dell. The ground was strewn with goblins and orcs; there had to be at least a hundred of them. An armoured figure was standing, weapon raised, above the prone etu’sari.
One of the other humans gasped and said something, clearly recognising the creature. Not that it mattered; the creature, whatever it was, would kill the etu’sari in a moment, unless they could stop it. Moriel called out to distract it while readying her bow for a shot, and then Banagher charged in, followed by some of the others.
“Pull him away!” Moriel was not sure if Banagher heard her, and she was not even aware that she had reverted back to the language of her own people.
The thing was fast, and seemed impossible to damage. Moriel’s arrows kept bouncing off without doing any damage at all, and she watched with growing unease as one of the humans withdrew from the fight, badly wounded.
Then the creature turned towards Banagher and attacked the human. He deflected one, or maybe two, blows, but then the creature’s sword struck home, impaling the man. Moriel watched in horror. Noone could survive that, and Banagher was the only human in the group that she actually liked. He spoke her language, the only one who did. He was polite and knowledgeable, and he had been willing to teach her, without telling the others.
And then the arrow dropped from her bow, as she watched, not the expected blood and gore, but a brilliant light radiate from the wound. Then he struck back, and another brilliant light lit up the dell. The creature collapsed to the ground, while Banagher was still standing, unharmed. Moriel stared in awe at the scene, which might well be something out of a legend.
That thought yanked her back to reality, and at the same instance the creature hit the ground, she drove her horse towards Erik, leaping clear off the horse without bothering to stop it first, to sink to her knees at his side.
The etu’sari was badly wounded, though not yet dead. “Don’t die. Don’t you fucking die! If you do, I’ll kill you!” Nonsense, of course. Not that it mattered. The only one who understood Elven would be Banagher, and she was fairly certain he would not tell the others. She was not sure why the man’s life was so important to her, she only knew that it was.
One of the humans was shouting at her. It was the one with the strange accent, and this time, she did not bother to even try to figure out what he was saying. He stalked towards her, kicking at the etu’sari’s sword. Kicking the sword. And then his words registered.
Moriel rose, bow ready and an arrow nocked in moments, aimed directly at the human. “Step away from him!” The rage inside her was unlike anything she had ever felt. “He is an etu’sari. He would _not_ betray the Society. Step away, or I _will_ fire. And do _not_ touch that sword.” ‘That sword’. She winced mentally. Stupid human language. That was not what she had meant to say.
The human said something. His accent made it hard to understand, but she understood enough of it to know it was a threat. One of the other humans was yelling something, but she noticed Poppy pointing her crossbow at the human too. It was a good feeling to know she was not alone in this.
“Move away, human.” She spit the last word out, anger and contempt seeping into her voice.
The other human was yelling at her. “I SAID STAND DOWN! I’m telling you all to put your weapons away. RIGHT NOW!” She ignored him.
“Lady, you better pot dat bow down.” That was the first human again. “Vee got odder things to worry about den yoo protecting your lover.” She almost let the arrow fly at those words, but did manage to stop herself in time. What did it matter to her if that was what they thought? That was the least of her concerns, what the humans thought of her. Her main concern was Erik and his blade.
Moving slowly, all the while keeping her arrow trained at the human, she placed herself by the sword, to prevent the human from touching it. And if he stepped one single step closer to the etu’sari, she would fire, and damn the consequences.
The other human stepped forward, so he was standing between Moriel and her target. Much as she hated it, she knew the etu’sari needed more help than she could give him. Reluctantly, she lowered her bow, letting the human tend the etu’sari’s wounds.
For lack of anything else to do, she picked up the sword reverently, carefully cleaning the blood and gore from it. Whether there were anything she needed to do with it apart from cleaning it and oiling it, she did not know, but she would do what she could to treat it the way it deserved. When the sword was clean, she took the scabbard from the etu’sari, sheating the blade and strapping it onto her back.
Only now did she notice the other two soldiers; Society soldiers, from the look of them. They were both dead, but it did not look as if the orcs and goblins had killed them.
One of the humans, the second one, told her to get the Warders’ horses. She wanted to refuse, but common sense won. They did need the horses to be able to get the bodies and the wounded etu’sari back, and she was the only one with sufficient experience with horses.
Unlike the horse they had captured earlier, these two were proper warhorses. Massive, black and intimidating, she approached carefully, taking her time, talking calmingly to them in Elven. Fierce and deadly, they were also beautiful, and more intelligent, she suspected, than the two other horses.
As she returned to the others with the two Warder horses, she heard the discussion. It was obvious that at least one or two of the humans were still suspecting the two Warders of having turned on the Society soldiers. That made no sense to her, but perhaps she would understand it after she had spent more time among the humans.
Had the situation been less dire, she would have laughed. Two Warders, one of them an etu’sari, against two Society soldiers; if anyone had betrayed the other here, it would not be the Warders, of that, she was certain. And the Warders, most likely Erik, had, after all, called for help. Erik, who seemed to have taken on the entire army of goblins and orcs by himself. And they thought _he_ was the traitor.
“You have _no_ idea what you are talking about. He is an etu’sari. His blade was forged two thousand years ago. Those who by right carry those swords would never betray their allegiances.” Somewhere along the line, without noticing it, she had switched to Elven again.
Then Banagher spoke. “An old dwarf, an elf, a halfling and some humans on the west road.” He had a note in his hand; Poppy was standing, looking at him eagerly. Vaguely, she thought she remembered Poppy had started searching the corpses, and she assumed the halfling had found the note on one of the orcs.
So, at least someone had betrayed them. One of the humans said something; “The only ones who knew…” she thought.
“Everyone who wanted to know could find out. We were sent on a patrol, I doubt that was much of a secret.” She realised she was still speaking Elven, but she saw Banagher nod, so she did not bother to repeat it in the human language.
She returned her attention to the wounded etu’sari, wondering how she would get him onto his horse. She realised that she would need help with that, though she did not much like it. But with the help of the others, she got the etu’sari onto his horse, the three dead ones were loaded onto the other horses, and the group started on the road back east.
The group returning to their camp was an odd one. Moriel was leading the two Warder horses, one carrying the body of Xander, the other carrying Erik. The others kept their distance, or she did; the horses were skittish enough as it was, and it took all of her skills to keep them from bolting or worse. Considering those were warhorses, there were far worse things they could do than bolting, she supposed. The others led the two other horses, both carrying a dead Society soldier.
The short trip back to the camp convinced Moriel that they had to get Erik out of his armour and find another way to transport him. Getting him out of the armour was not easy, but eventually she figured it out, and with the help of one of the humans, they got the armour off him.
Strangely enough, there were few wounds on him, and the ones they could find were shallow and not at all serious. Except one. It was a small one, looking like little more than a needle puncture, but it was black, with the black spreading from the wound. It was poisoned, and it was clearly the avenger’s dart that had caused the wound.
Not since she and Tamariel had ventured out to look for surviving halfings, several years ago, had she felt this helpless. She knew nothing of healing, nothing of poisons, and definitely nothing about Avengers and the wounds they caused.
One of the humans said something about sucking the poison out. Moriel thought it sounded strange, but the others did not seem to be joking, and she did not think that they would knowingly try to harm the Warder. In spite of all the talk, though, when Gronk tried, it clearly did not go as planned.
‘At least he did not puke all over Erik; one poisoned wound is enough,’ Moriel thought sourly, as she tried to clean the stinking mess off her trousers. Well, at least the dwarf had tried; she could not well blame him for not succeeding. But getting the etu’sari back to Hillcrest was important, and she suspected they did not have much time.
Poppy had started making a travois, and in not too long a time, they had a way of transporting Erik back to Hillcrest, one that would, Moriel hoped, work better than tying him to the saddle.
For the next six days, they did not rest much, they rationed their food strictly, and Moriel felt that they did nothing but walk and sleep. But though he was getting worse, the etu’sari was still alive when they reached Hillcrest.
At the infirmary, the surgeon examined Erik, but left the wound left by the Avenger alone. She made certain she was well out of his way. She was not really sure what to do, but since the others stayed, she did as well.
A man came in; a bearded giant of a man in a Warder armour. The surgeon looked up and greeted him, thanking him for coming. The Warder, Thomas, from what she could tell, walked over to Erik, asked Banagher to help him, and then suddenly it was as if he started to glow.
Moriel did not know for how long she had been watching what was happening; she was dimly aware of the thunder, she could not see much, really, but she still could not tear her eyes away from what was going on.
When it was all over, the man, Thomas, came over to her, asking for the sword. She hesitated, though instinct told her that this human, at least, understood what it meant. Reluctantly, she gave it to him, and watched as he walked over to Erik and laid the sword down beside him, under his arm.
She listened to the others report, but kept mostly quiet herself. It was not as if she had anything to add, after all. Instead, she worried. If they were right, and someone had indeed given information to the enemy, then someone might just as easily slip in here and slit someone’s throat. The others seemed confident enough, but Moriel did not feel reassured. She decided to keep an eye on Erik and his blade, just in case, when she could.
Before that, though, they had other things to do. She and Poppy headed off to get clean; days on the trail in a forced march would take more than one bath to get rid of, but she still felt a lot better after a quick bath.
They knew the others were going to talk to Itchy, and the two of them headed in that direction. As they reached their destination, they did not find Itchy, but the gnome, and the others, were in the workshop. As were a couple of those … things … the gnome had made. In fact, two of them were there, doing… Moriel stared.
The two golems were doing something that looked very much like an attempt of having sex. Moriel was not sure whether she should laugh or tear the workshop apart. She should just turn around and walk out of here, but for some reason, she was unable to turn her back on the two machines.
As the others were rounding off their business here, one of the golems made some strange sounds, then stopped. Moriel sighed and left, shaking her head, half amused, half outraged.
By then, it was getting dark, and close to the funeral. At the pyre, they found Thomas, and now, his face was painted in the Warder way. On his chestplate hung a book, most likely a holy symbol; from what had happened at the infirmary earlier, she supposed he was a priest of sorts.
As the pyre was burning, Thomas was playing the instrument he had been carrying. It was an eerie sound, brittle and wailing at the same time. And out here, with the stars out, the autumn cold creeping up on them, and with the sound of the pyre crackling, it was a fitting tribute, she thought. And in a strange way, a beautiful one.
She wondered what kind of funeral she would get if she got herself killed. ‘With that crowd, probably dumped in the ditch somewhere’, she reflected. But then, noone here would know how to do it properly anyway. Not that it really mattered.
Watching the fire made her aware of the calling from the forest again. It was always there, but sometimes, it was harder to ignore than other times. And, she realised, she missed Tamariel. She closed her eyes, and could almost hear his voice and his laughter. ‘Missing me already, little cousin?’ She did, him and the forest both.
He was not exactly her cousin, but that meant a lot less than it once had. Her homecity Dorotea hardly even deserved to be called a shadow of what it once had been. Suddenly, she wanted to get away from there. The Warder’s pyre reminded her of her own people for some reason. They too were dying, though slower, and hopefully more peacefully, than the Warder.
The next day was the day of the archery competitions. Moriel knew that Poppy, at least, had been looking forward to this for a while. Moriel herself had long since decided not to join in; the attention she was getting just for being an elf was more than enough for her.
As they were standing at the area where Poppy was going to shoot, they noticed Erik heading their way. Moriel felt a touch of panic; she really did not want to face him right now. She was convinced that if he as much as greeted her, she would somehow make a complete ass of herself, right here in the middle of the crowd.
‘At least the crowd is useful for something’, she thought wryly, as she ducked in among the people and tried to find a place out of sight to watch from. Erik seemed to give something to Poppy, what seemed to be a crossbow, and showed her how to use it, then spoke briefly with the others, before he headed back the way he came.
As the competitions started, Moriel wandered around. She had a couple of people she wanted to talk to, but as the day passed, she was starting to realise it was harder than she had expected. Her first attempt was interrupted by an accident on the range. The second just did not go the way she had hoped. And judging from Poppy’s face, neither did the competition. Moriel decided not to ask. She had no idea what to say anyway.
As for the meeting, that broke up leaving Moriel with the feeling they did have nothing even close to a plan; even for a “let’s improvise” it was not much. As they left the room, Banagher grabbed hold of her, wanting to talk, probably to finish the conversation they had had earlier, that had been interrupted.
Not that they got very far this time either. The two of them had hardly exchanged more than a few dozen words, when they heard a loud explosion, coming from the direction of the warehouse. Before they got there, though, there was yet another explosion, this one smaller, but powerful enough to do plenty of damage still.
The sight that met them as they reached the warehouse, was a dreadful one. There were dead and wounded everywhere. Cedric is here, tending to Itchy, who seemed to be unconscious. There was a Warder, guarding them. Not that it would help against another explosion, but she supposed that if someone was willing to blow the warehouse up, killing individuals, especially someone like Cedric, would not be a problem.
She followed the others into the ruins of the warehouse. As they entered the gnome’s workshop, they saw someone kneeling on the floor. Or rather, something. As Moriel got a closer look, she realised it was one of the mechanical elves that the gnome had been working on.
The mechanical elf, a female, from what she could see, looked up at them. A lot of the skin was gone, and where a real elf would have had muscles and tissue, this one had a vast amount of tiny wheels and mechanical bits that Moriel did not even know the names of. There had to be thousands, even tens of thousands, of tiny tiny parts just in the part of the head she could see. Her mind reeled at the thought of how many tiny parts the entire thing was made from. It even appeared as if she was breating, as if a mechanical thing needed air.
And in her lap lay the broken body of the gnome. The mechanical elf was gently stroking his hair, making sounds that sounded almost as if she was crying. She. Looking at the ruined female in the corner, so clearly mourning what was, for all intended purposes, her creator, made it impossible to keep thinking of her as ‘it’. How an inanimate object like this could feel anything at all, Moriel could not even begin to guess, but it was obvious that the female kneeling there, grieving, did.
As they watched, there was a rattling sound from the female, she shuddered, then stopped, the light emitting from her head flickering, before going dark. Moriel had the feeling she had just witnessed the death of the artificial elf. Even if whatever was wrong with her could be fixed, the only person who could do that was lying there dead, in the arms of his creation. For some reason, she felt saddened by the loss.
This was no joke, no stupid whim by someone making fun of her dying people. The gnome, for some reason Moriel could not understand, must have spent thousands of hours building these artificial elves. And while nothing would stop the elves from disappearing, there was no longer any doubt that the gnome had created something magnificent, something that could have become a legend in its own right, had Futz been given the time to finish his work. Instead, his work ended here, on the cluttered, dirty floor of a ruined building, accompanied by the screams and moans of wounded and dying soldiers.
Moriel was not sure for how long they had all been standing there, staring. She wanted to say something, but she had no idea what to say that would not make her look foolish, so instead, she walked over to the mechanical elf. Gingerly touching the remaining arm, not really knowing what to expect. Metal, maybe. Or something leathery. But the skin felt remarkably like real skin.
She hesitated, then, for some reason she could not explain, picked up one of the tiny cogs. It was a small thing, no bigger than the first joint of her little finger. The floor was littered with them, many of them even smaller than the one she had picked up.
Slipping it into a pocket, she was very much aware that some of the others were watching her, clearly puzzled. She ignored them, as she did not much feel like explaining what she had just done. Or rather, explaining that she had no idea why she did what she just did.
Others started arriving, and Poppy wandered off, determined to question anyone she could find about the explosions. Moriel followed after Poppy, trying to ask a few tentative questions herself, but she quickly realised that between most humans’ unease around elves, and her own lack of skills dealing with them, she was far more likely to confuse the issue further. But given the situation, she was not willing to leave Poppy alone either, so she kept trailing after her for the rest of the day.
Dinner was an uncomfortable experience. There were too many people crowded together. She had thought she would get used to it, but it had become harder, not easier, to deal with all the people around her, so she ate quickly, then slipped outside. Breathing a sigh of relief, she headed towards the infirmary. Most likely, Cedric had his hands full, but at least she could offer to help. She suspected he found it odd, but at least she felt useful.
It was late morning when they finally set out. Even with a pack far too heavy and the prospect of several weeks of camping outdoors in the cold, did nothing to dampen her spirit. She was not certain what she felt of Erik and one of the other Warders, Joseph, travelling with them. Not that she did not trust them, but they were, after all, Warders. What it said about their mission, that they had two Warders along to assist them, she preferred not to think about.
After several days, Erik suddenly dumped his gear inside a hollow tree. It seemed they were going some other way, and that all the gear they had carried along was a ruse. For a few moments, she was relieved. Then she started thinking, and realised that this was not necessarily a good thing.
Either it meant they were not going where they had been told. That did not leave many places, however, and she was not entirely certain she was comfortable with the idea of going home right now.
Or it meant going another way to the south, but if they were not going _over_ the mountains, there would have to be a way through it. Moriel did not much enjoy the though of travelling _through_ the mountain either, but she supposed both the alternatives were preferrable to remaining at Hillcrest. Barely. Still, when Erik revealed a small opening in the mountainside, it took her longer than she had expected to gather her courage to enter the dark hole.
It was hard to say down here in the darkness, but Moriel thought they had been journeying for about a day, when they came across two men. One was an old man, and he, too, carried the sword that marked him as an etu’sari.
Erik greeted the man, calling him Lucas. For a moment, Moriel hoped they had met friends, but the exchange of words made it clear that, although Erik and Lucas clearly were old friends, Lucas was here to kill the Warder. The old man confused her; it seemed he regretted being sent here, but she was pretty certain it was not going to change anything between him and Erik. But more surprisingly, the man also warned them of the Kisharan forces awaiting them further down the tunnel. She would have stayed and fought, had Erik allowed it, but he ordered them all to leave, and she reluctantly obeyed.
They walked for hours, and she was starting to wonder if this Lucas had lied for some reason, that there was noone here. When they finally did find the waiting force, however, she did not know what to say, or do. There was absolutely no doubt at all that the enemy knew they were coming, something she found more than a little disturbing, considering they themselves had not know which way they were until a day or two ago. And someone was sufficiently worried, it seemed, that they had sent no less than three avengers to meet them.
The battle itself was a nightmare. Moriel’s arrows seemed to have little impact on the avengers, but the others seemed to do better. One went down at Banagher’s hand; she had to admit she appreciated that, the man, whom she had the impression that at least some of the others dismissed as a ‘mere’ scholar now had killed two avengers.
Then it was as if time itself stopped. She watched as one of the avengers attacked Gronk with a blow that the dwarf could not stop. There was no doubt that the dwarf was dead. But then, somehow, Joseph managed to step between the dwarf and the killing blow, taking the killing blow for Gronk.
Before she had the time to react, the last remaining avenger charged, of all people, Poppy. Moriel watched in horror as the avenger’s attacks slammed into Poppy, throwing her backwards. With a yell, she dropped her bow, drawing her sword, trying to get between the avenger and the halfling. Then Gronk was there, and the avenger collapsed to the ground and crumbled into dust.
Then Gronk spat on Joseph’s corpse and stalked away, as Moriel knelt beside Poppy, begging Banagher to do something.
Poppy was going to live.
That was all that mattered right now. Poppy would survive. Moriel still felt bad about dragging Poppy along, though she was certain that the halfling would never agree to return, and to be honest, she did not think that Poppy would be happy back home. Not that the forest had ever been the right place for the halfling. And she had to admit that Poppy seemed to adapt far better than Moriel did.
Adapting. Tamariel had warned her, and she, of course, had not believed him. She had thought he exaggerated, in more ways than one. To her dismay, it seemed he had not been exaggerating. Everything was alien, and she found she missed her forest in more ways than one.
At least Poppy was alive. She did not know what she would have done had the halfling died. Not that she had many options right now; they were still deep inside the mountains, on their way south. What she _wanted_ to do right now was to go looking for Erik. That, of course, was impossible. They were running out of food and water, Poppy was hurt, and they had a job to do. With the two Warders gone, however, she doubted they had much of a chance to succeed, but she was not about to leave during a mission, and besides, Poppy seemed to thrive.
Still, she needed to get away for a while. This place was too crowded, in more ways than one. She really did not like being underground. The air was stale and full of nothing but dust, and though she knew it was her imagination, she kept having the feeling that the roof was about to collapse on them. So she decided to compromise. While most of the others slept, she left the cave, heading back up the corridor.
It still felt as if the walls were closing in on her, but at least it was quiet. She found a spot to sit that would give her a good view in both directions. She sat there, listening for anyone who might be approaching. After a while, though well within the time limit she had given herself, she got up and went back to the others.
The rest, apart from the guards, were still asleep when she returned, so she settled down just outside the cave, in the shadows. She did not think the guards had noticed her, at least they did not hail her.
For some reason she did not really understand, as she heard the others awaken, she did not immidiately join them. She just sat there, not really knowing what she was waiting for. Only when Poppy awoke did she get up and join the halfing, pretending she had heard nothing of what the others had said.
As they continued on their way, Moriel kept looking back the way they had come from. Not that she really expected anyone. If Erik had survived the fight she was certain had been fought, or at least intended, he was most likely not going to be able to catch up with them. As for the other, Lucas, he had no reason to follow them. He was not working for the Kisharans, of that she was certain. Both the conversation between Erik and him, and the note they had found suggested that. The only reason he would have to follow them would be if he was returning the way he came. That, of course, was a possibility, but she did not detect any sign of anyone following them.
It felt like they had been underground for years before they finally reached the end of the caves. When they finally got out, Moriel closed her eyes, breathing deeply, trying not to think about the return.
They travelled for several days. Moriel and Poppy travelled most of the way apart from the others. Considering the noise they were making, she supposed it was a good thing. Still, they were not detected, though she did worry that someone would do something rash as they watched what was probably reinforcements moving north. There were slaves with them as well, and one of the humans said something about one of the slaves being the emperor. Not that she would be able to tell him from any other human.
She did remember he had sent messengers begging the elves for help, a couple of decades back, when the invasion first started. Maybe Banagher was right, that the elves’ refusal to send aid was why people always looked at her strangely. Why they did not seem to treat the dwarf in the same way made no sense to her, but she had realised by now that most of what the humans did made no sense to her anyway.
Tamariel had tried to explain why they had refused several times back then. It had seemed like a sensible thing to do then. That was before she met Poppy. She probably should have sent the halfling back, but this was, after all, more Poppy’s war than her own. It always came back to Poppy. As long as Poppy wanted to stay, Moriel would remain with the humans.
Somehow, they got to Riverton without problems. A halfling in full plate guided them into the city itself. The rooms were an unexpected luxury. The warm baths even more so. She felt almost ready to the confusion of the human world again. Almost.
Later in the evening, they all gathered in the room of one of the humans. One of the other humans obviously came straight from his bath, wearing nothing but a towel. Several of the others commented on it, but since noone told him to go get dressed, this had to be, if not acceptable, then at least a tolerated behaviour among humans.
Poppy, for some reason, was covered in feathers. But none of the others said anything, so she kept her quiet. There would be time enough to ask her about it later, when they were alone.
The meeting was fairly brief, but completely wasted. One of the humans kept saying they had to be on their guards, and that something seemed wrong somehow. What did they expect? They were in the middle of occupied territory, of course something was amiss.
As they finished, Moriel headed after Poppy to ask about the feathers. Poppy did not return to her room, however, but started asking around if she could get another mattress. Well, that answered that. The halfling seemed to have little luck in her late evening quest for a new mattress, though, so Moriel offered to share her room. Though a soft, clean bed was really tempting, it was not as if she really needed it. Instead, she settled on the floor, against the wall, while Poppy took the bed.
The next morning’s breakfast was a feast. Large, yes, but best of all, there was fresh fruit. Peruppi was there, the halfing in full plate. There were others there as well, among them the halfing hero Harfur Stoutfoot. The other two she had never heard about, but being here, she assumed that they were trusted. Listening to the others, she really hoped they were, since it seemed they were telling the Riverton-people everything, their plans, what had happened in the north, every little detail that seemed irrelevant, or even dangerous, to tell these people.
Granted, the tunnels to the north _were_ relevant, but that was about it. Moriel wanted to mention that Annabelle and her halfings got to Hillcrest safely, but the others were chattering, and before she knew it, the breakfast was over. She made a mental note of mentioning it before they left; since they obviously knew Annabelle, she did not see any harm in letting them know she was alive and well, especially not in the light of all the other information they had shared.
At least the Riverton-people are willing to help them with equipment, among others, a wagon and a team, of horses, ponies, oxes, that never became entirely clear. Not that it mattered, she had no idea how to drive a wagon, and besides, she and Poppy, at least, would have to stay inside the wagon anyway.
Finding clothes and equipment seemed to take most of the day. Poppy joined her in her room again that night, even though someone had by now replaced her mattress. Moriel did not mind, Poppy’s company was always welcome.
The next morning, they were woken by Peruppi banging on the door. There was a sense of urgency to the banging, so Moriel got her bow and sword, and opened the door. Peruppi was walking down the hallway, banging on every door. When she heard the reason, she quickly grabbed the rest of her gear, noticing Poppy doing the same thing.
As they worked their way out of the city, leaving Peruppi and Harfur behind to distract the enemies, she could not help but wonder how the enemy seemed to always be a step ahead of them. When they had met the first Avenger, someone had known they would be coming that way. Granted, a lot of people knew that, but that was only the beginning.
Someone had killed the gnome. It seemed as if he had been the target, at least, and if he was, she doubted it was just a coincidence that he was killed shortly after he talked to them.
Then there was Lucas. He had known that they would take the route through the mountains. Maybe that too was a coincidence. Maybe that was the only known way through the mountains rather than over them. Or someone had told the enemies that they were travelling that way.
And finally, here. It could of course be a coincidence that the enemy showed up just two days after Moriel and the others had arrived, but Moriel did not much believe in coincidences anymore. Someone was feeding the enemy with information, it seemed, and if that was the case, the logical conclusion was that it was someone in the team.
As they turned back to look at the city again, they saw the attacking forces. Two Stranglers, and a red-haired woman who seemed to levitate a few inches off the ground. She was dressed in nothing but a tunic and short trousers. And there was absolutely no doubt in Moriel’s mind that she was the real power here. Her hands flared with green and violet fire, and a ring on her left hand told Moriel that this was far more than a regular commander.
Against them stood one small, lonely figure. Peruppi, looking like something out of a legend. Her armour was shining, her shield and her warhammer seemed to be ablaze in white fire, and the halfing herself was glowing with a brilliant white light, as if the moon had decided to outshine the sun. Bright enough to cast long, strange shadows, making it appear as if she was a star surrounded by long greedy shadows stretching towards her.
Peruppi glanced once in their direction, then skipped down the stairs to meet the force gathered before her. And the moment of unreality ended. There was no way Peruppi could survive that encounter, the forces facing her were too large. All that would remain was the memory. And that alone was a good reason to survive, for even if Peruppi was no elf, this should be remembered, and where better to keep this memory than in the archives of her own people. Even dying, her people would still be around for centuries, and the other races had short memories. She did not much like the thought of the memory of this picture of Peruppi, burned into her mind, being lost, forgotten.
But to be able to do that, she would have to survive. She had to admit that, with the way things were looking right now, that was becoming increasingly unlikely. If someone really _were_ feeding information to the enemy, their chances were slim indeed. Not that she had any plans of giving up, but neither did she have any illusions that they would all survive and return as heroes.
At least they had sufficient rations with them now, or so she hoped. There would be little room for hunting or foraging now, she suspected, and most likely, she would see little but the inside of that wagon for the next several days. Chances were she and Poppy at least, were going to be very tired of those walls.
And then the ambush hit them.
The Peacekeepers seemed to pop out of nowhere. There seemed to be at least ten, several of them archers. Well, at least she would not have to worry about hitting the team, she thought sourly, as she nocked an arrow and picked her first target.
An arrow slammed into her arm. She knew without looking that it was a bad hit, but she was still alive, conscious, and she could still use her arm, so she tried to ignore it.
As she reached for another arrow, she realised it was her last. It should not have been allowed to happen; oh, she would have run out of arrows anyway, but it should not have come as a surprise on her. Most likely, noone had noticed anything. They rarely paid attention to her at all, and they had absolutely no reason to start now. And even should any of them have glanced in her direction at the right time, Moriel doubted they would be any wiser.
She dropped her now useless bow and drew her sword, going after the one that was fighting Banagher. Only then did she realise she could just as well have pulled more arrows from her pack without losing too much time. Too late to think about now, though, and it was not as if she had never used a sword before.
Only after the fight was over, did she realise how much her arm hurt. She looked for a place to sit down. At least she would not embarrass herself further by collapsing. As she sat there, pointedly avoiding to look at her arm, she started going over in her mind how to tell this story when she finally returned home.
It took them quite a while to figure out how to get the horses hitched to the wagon. It seemed to take the dwarf and the human driving even longer to figure out how to make the horses move. Eventually, they got it moving, but Moriel suspected it was going to be a long trip, in more than one way.
They had not gone far when the wagon stopped. A roadblock was set up across the road. It was manned by a couple of Peacekeepers, who seemed to be busy tormenting the half-giant they had met in Riverton.
The wagon stopped, and one of the Peacekeepers opened the door, looking inside. Moriel let her arrow fly. The man did the only sensible thing and slammed the door shut. Moriel opened the door on the other side, but before she got all the way out, the wagon exploded in purple fire.
And just as quick, the fire died. It was as if some force had just blown it out. Probably Banagher or his goddess, she thought. Not that she was complaining. Whoever, or whatever, it was, had probably saved their lives.
The fight was soon over, and they went over the half-giant to free him. Much to Moriel’s surprise, the first thing was to rush over to the fire, desperately beating at what looked like burning remains of books.
Eventually, they sent the half-giant off to the north, telling him to find Jacob and join the other refugees. As she watched him plod off in the rain, his arms clutching the remains of burned book, along with a bag of rice, to his chest, she wondered what would happen if he actually made it across the mountains. She doubted he would be able to use the same way they had used, through the tunnels, but she suspected that if he made it to the mountains, he would manage. And it would probably be a good thing if the refugees reached Hillcrest before the him, at least that way there was a chance the guards would not shoot the moment they saw him.
Despite Moriel’s misgivings, they reached Penshin without trouble. Even getting inside went far easier than she had expected. The city itself, though, was terrifying. There were people everywhere. Everyone was talking, or yelling, probably to be able to hear themselves think.
She had no idea how they were going to find the one they were looking for, nor how to actually find anything here, the place was just too big. And there was Poppy. Most likely, Moriel and Poppy would spend most of the time hiding, since there was no way Poppy could go out without risking being discovered, and leaving Poppy alone here was not an option.
The place looked as if someone had been using it recently. Another thing worrying Moriel was that since they had told the halflings virtually everything, there was a chance that the enemy might learn of the place as well. And their plans. It did not seem to worry the others, though. But since noone else seemed to worry about it, there had to be a reason for it. Maybe it was a human thing, something that she just did not understand about them.
As they ate, they discussed plans on how to get information from the university. Moriel thought she had an idea, one that would allow them to ask plenty of questions, and hopefully get a tour of the university. She and Banagher could simply walk up to the university and claim to be looking for texts concerning the elves. She went over it several times in her head, looking for weaknesses. Though not foolproof, she thought that she and Banagher would be able to pull it off. And any strange or silly questions could be explained by, well, her being elven, and not familiar with human customs. The major flaw, apart from someone actively looking for her, knowing her description, would be that noone would have seen her and Banagher enter the city.
They seemed to ignore her when she suggested it, and decided instead that she and Poppy should go scouting. Moriel tried to tell them she had no idea at all how to remain unnoticed in a city, and Poppy had even less knowledge, most likely. They seemed to think that hiding in a forest was the same as hiding in a city. The mere idea of going out alone with Poppy scared her silly.
Not that her objections mattered any. Not even when she admitted she had never seen a bigger crowd than the tournament back in Hillcrest, until she came here. The thought of going out among all those thousands of people while trying not to be noticed was a terrifying one. She did not really think they were trying to kill her and Poppy off; in that case, they went about it in a very stupid way that could endanger the mission as well. But she did not really understand why sending her out with Banagher, the man whose goddess seemed to be holding her protective hand over him, and even sometimes extend it to the rest of the team, was too dangerous, while sending her out with Poppy, who would most likely get half the city chasing her if anyone saw her, was any safer.
She was about to tell the remaining people that she had no intention of going outside to scout when she noticed Poppy scampering out the door. She felt like screaming in frustration. But the choice between going into the crowded city and leaving Poppy to wander the city on her own was not really a choice at all.
It was even worse than she had feared. The shadows, the smells, the sounds were all wrong. In the forest, she would have know what the sounds, or the lack of them, meant. Here, everything was foreign. The shadows were darker, somehow. And sharper, in more ways than one. The sounds, every time she heard a shout, she cringed, thinking someone had noticed them. There were voices singing, yelling, a constant buzz of sound that threatened to deafen her. And then there were the smells. The city stank. Of garbage, rotting food, vomit, urine, human wastes. How anyone could live in a place like this was beyond her comprehension.
Somehow, more due to luck than skill, they got to the university without being noticed. They found a small hidinghole with a decent view to the gates, but in Moriel’s opinion, that did not help much. She had no idea whatsoever how they were supposed to figure out whether the guards had any routines in just a few hours. A job like that should take weeks, maybe even a month. Sending her and Poppy off for this was a very high risk thing to do, with no real potential of anything vaulable result.
When they headed back a couple of hours later, they had seen nothing at all of value, but Moriel was getting increasingly worried about Poppy. The halfling was acting more and more irrationally, and it seemed to her the humans were not doing anything at all to discourage it, in fact, they sometimes seemed to encourage it.
Safely back in the hideout after a nerve-wrecking return, Moriel retreated to one of the corners. Not that it helped, of course, most of all, she wanted out of the city. But here, she was at least out of the way, and she could see the whole room. Maybe it was the fear that did it, maybe it was the feeling of the city closing in on every side, or maybe it was just the distance, but she could feel the forest calling her, almost as if it was physically tugging at her.
The loud banging on the door jerked them all awake. Moriel stayed in her corner, not bothering to join the others who milled around close to the door. She very much doubted that the enemy would knock first if they came calling, and since noone started yelling outside, she figured it was not the law either. Most likely, this had some connection to whoever had been using this hideout before them.
The dwarf opened the door, and brought inside a box with a note. It was not sealed, and so, of course, they opened it. And then everything seemed to fall apart.
Why were the humans so obsessed with these gems? Pretty, yes. And she supposed the money could come in handy, but not at the cost involved. Whoever had left the gems there for them to deliver would not just leave them. They would keep an eye on the hideout until the job was done. But several of the others, Poppy among them, wanted to keep the diamonds. Chances were keeping them would just antagonise another, until now possibly neutral, group, making their job even harder.
One of the humans called a vote, and though she did not really see the point – the damage was already done – she voted that they hand the diamonds over to whoever was expecting them. The vote was a tie, however, and the human suddenly changed his mind, deciding that the decision would be his. She shrugged mentally; that fake display of working together as a team and listening to the others made about as much sense as anything else the humans did.
Then the others went back to trying to find a way to keep the diamonds, while still pretending to hand them over. Moriel shut them out. She just hoped that the decision, whatever they ended up with, would not ruin everything. It would be too ironic if they got killed because of greed, after actually having made their way all the way to Penshin.
Banagher and Moriel quickly made their way back to the hideout. On the way there, Moriel quickly told Banagher about the woman. When they got to the hideout, she spent some time trying to explain what had happened. She supposed the whole thing sounded strange to anyone who had not been there, but at least they seemed to believe her. She had half expected them not to. Not that they seemed to realise the importance of what the woman had told them, though.
She looked at Banagher. Not sure if she should say anything or not, she spoke in elven. She suspected that he too had realised it already. “And again they miss the point. Someone knows we are here!” They had to see what it meant, it was obvious, after all. So for some reason, they had decided it was not so, that there was another explanation. Or perhaps they suspected _her_. Or maybe it was just a human thing.
Eventually, they decided to try to sneak into the tower. Moriel thought they should wait until the next morning before drawing too much attention to themselves, but the others did not seem to agree. She thought another day with planning, not to mention getting started earlier in the night might have been smart, but since she had no idea what was normal in a city, she saw no reason to argue.
They all got to the tower without being seen, and Poppy swarmed up the tower as if she had done this all her life. She dropped down a rope, and Gronk climbed up, with little trouble. Then one of the humans, the big one, tried to get up the rope, but could not seem to get off the ground. Moriel was starting to get a rather bad feeling about this whole plan, and she tapped Banagher on his shoulder. “We go last. If we are in danger of being noticed, follow my lead.” She had an idea. A dangerous one, but she was fairly certain she could pull it off.
There had been six Peacekeepers. More than just a casual patrol, she thought. They seemed to be expecting something, or at least they were on high alert. And if they were, if they thought they heard something, they would probably not stop looking until they found someone. They might even check the tower, if they were paranoid enough; she would have, were she in their position.
The human was running out of time, something he appeared to have had realised. He turned and ran back towards the rest of the group. Suddenly he stumbled, and yelled out. Not giving herself enough time to actually think about what she was doing, she whispered for the others to hide. As they disappeared back into the alley, she stepped out in the street. The Peacekeepers had not quite come into view yet, and she started yelling in elven to attract their attention. She just hoped they would at least try to ask questions. If not, she might have just killed both herself and Banagher. But they were going to want an explanation for the shout they had heard, and she was going to give them one. She hoped.
The Peacekeepers came into view, and she kept yelling, pointing down the street, away from the others. They approached her carefully, crossbows ready. At least they were not firing just yet. Good, she might actually be able to pull it off.
Five of the Peacekeepers stopped a short distance away, weapons pointed at her. One of them approached, asking her what she was doing outside during curfew. She kept talking rapidly in elven. The Peacekeeper reacted in much the expected way, telling her he did not speak much elven, and asking her if she spoke his language.
At that point, Banagher stepped out from the shadows. A couple of the Peacekeepers turned to keep their weapons trained on him, but they still did not fire. Moriel kept pointing down the street, and repeating “They ran that way,” and Banagher took up his role as translator.
The Peacekeeper questioning her asked about what she was doing outside during curfew. She felt a foolish urge to grin as she answered: “I wanted to see the city. I have never seen a human city before.” Well, that was even true. She had not seen a human city until they came here.
She could not see the Peacekeeper’s face, but she had a feeling he was rolling his eyes. “What are you doing out during the curfew?” She thought she could detect a hint of pain in his voice, the kind people tended to get when they had to deal with fools without being rude. She was almost starting to enjoy this.
“What is a curfew?” She thought she heard a groan from one of the others, and she was certain that she heard one of them mumble something about ‘stupid elves’. The Peacekeeper questioning them sighed and told two of his men to escort them back to their inn. Moriel was relieved that they had actually bothered to set up a cover for the two of them, they had an inn to name, and two of the Peacekeepers started walking down the street with them.
On the way, she kept chattering in elven, trying to treat it as a guided tour rather than two Peacekeepers escorting them back to their inn. They did not speak much, she suspected they did not understand elven, but just in case, she kept playing her role.
The innkeeper did not seem amused when the two Peacekeepers woke him up, hammering on the locked door. She could fairly see him double the cost of their room in his head as he let them in, locking the door behind them and before seeing them to their room. Watching from the window, she was the Peacekeepers head back towards the university. She could not resist; she waved at their disappearing backs.
Then she turned to Banagher. “Sorry about that, Banagher. But if they had found noone, chance are they would have either spread out more, or started looking for people.” She felt bad about dragging him into it with a minimum of warning, but she needed him to play his role, especially considering the cover they had spent the past day to set up.
“No problem. You have the sharper wit, it seems. It worked well enough.” She hoped the others would be as understanding. She had this nagging feeling that at least some of the others would not understand, even if she explained why she did it. That had at least seemed to be the case before. The humans kept confusing her. Either she or the others were very much out of tune with the rest of the world. Most likely, it was her. Nuances she did not catch, details she missed, strange cultural things she just did not understand. The humans kept doing things that made no sense to her. But since most of them did, and noone seemed to find it odd enough to mention, it had to be her.
The two of them decided to stay at the inn. Distracting the guards would work once, but not twice. Moriel suspected that if the guards saw them again, they would be in serious trouble. Hopefully, the others had gotten inside safely. No matter, since there was nothing more they could do. Right now, the guards thought they had found the source of the noise. If she and Banagher were seen again, chances were the guards would get suspicious, that they would realise something was going on. Better not to risk it.
The next morning, they headed to the safehouse. Moriel was worried about Poppy; the halfling did not really seem to understand the danger she was in. Granted, she was not sure if any of the others actually did either. On the other hand, most of them were reckless and rash, maybe it was just the way humans were. As for the dwarf, he was what he was. Not that she had ever met one of the children of the mountains apart from Gronk; none had visited her city in her lifetime, even before they retreated inside their mountain.
As she stepped into the building, she heard Poppy chattering. Then she spotted the gnome. Either, he had surprised them, and they had brought him with them to keep him from telling anyone, or their little excursion had been more successful than she had expected.
It soon became evident that it was indeed Bubblesneezer the others had captured. They were questioning him, but their questions made little sense. They either applied too much, or too little, pressure, and not the right kind. And they seemed to have no real sense of direction; their questions darted this way and that, like small fish in a pond. Moriel tried to ask a couple of questions herself, but soon realised it was futile. Everyone kept pulling in separate directions. She was not sure if it was intentional or not, but it seemed to her they gave the gnome more information than they got themselves.
Then Banagher stepped forward and ripped open the gnome’s shirt. He did something Moriel could not see, then held up a ring, obviously torn from the gnome’s chest. Bubblesneezer, who until now had looked fairly confident, suddenly looked less so. A tracker of some sort, then. Something that would lead searchers to them. But before anyone had time to do anything else, they heard marching feet coming down the alley.
Several ideas ran through Moriel’s head, all of them bad. She glanced at Poppy, trying to figure out how to get the halfing to leave.
Gronk snatched the ring, then grabbed a bottle from the big human, apparently trying to empty the bottle. Then he growled for the rest of them to get up on the roof and run if they heard signs of battle. Moriel hesitated for a moment, but it seemed the dwarf had a plan, and since she herself had absolutely no idea what to do, she was more than happy to follow the dwarf’s directions.
They got onto the roof in the nick of time. As Moriel replaced the cover to hide the hole they had climbed up through, they could all hear the sound of fighting. Somehow, they all got over to the next roof without anyone falling down. It did not look as if that would last, though. She suspected that luck rather than skill was the reason none had fallen. To her relief, most of the humans decided to descend to the streets below as soon as they were out of sight from whoever had come marching up the alley. She and Poppy stayed on the rooftops, following the others, Moriel carrying the gnome.
One of the humans, the only one still on the rooftops, suddenly decided that he was going back to see if he could help the dwarf. And for some stupid reason, Poppy decided to follow. Moriel made a grab for the hafling, but the young halfling dodged her hand, and darted after the human. Moriel wanted to follow, but realised that if she got caught with the gnome, they would lose what little chance they had of succeeding. With a sigh, she continued towards the inn where they had planned to meet.
They got there without being discovered, and one of the humans managed to rent a room facing a narrow alley that did not seem to see much use. The rest of them got in through the window. Then there was little for Moriel to do but to wait.
It felt like an eternity before Poppy and the others, even Gronk, showed up. The dwarf was covered in blood, and she could not say how much of it was his own, and how much of it belonged to others. Poppy looked unharmed, though, and Moriel breathed a quiet sigh of relief. The halfling was, or so the elf thought, old enough to choose her own path, though it was hard to say with the short-lived races.
It struck her then, that in a few short decades, she would lose her friend. In less than a century, everyone in the room, maybe except from the dwarf, would have grown old and died, even should they all survive the war, disease and accidents. For the first time, she truly understood why so many elves, even before the Evare’Nin, chose to avoid close ties with the younger races.
She watched with interest as the dwarf questioned the gnome. He was quite the intimidating sight, and she did not blame the gnome for caving in. Soon enough, they had the information they needed, and they quickly came up with a plan to find the imprisoned halfling.
Moriel had thought the trip through the mountains was bad, but it was nothing compared to this. The whole place stank, of course, which made quite the difference. The only bright side was that she did not expect to be trapped in here for days, though she was not sure if she would ever get rid of the smell.
The hidden doorway was hard to find, and Moriel suspected that without the dwarf, they would never have found it. It opened into a small privy, and the group tumbled through the opening, and then into the next room.
Her hopes that their job here would be done were quickly dashed, though, as the halfling seemed to have a problem understanding that he was a prisoner. It was not that he did not believe them, but rather that he did not seem to truly understand what they were saying. It was as if he was distancing himself from their words, listening as one would listen to a fairytale or a lay, as if what they told him somehow did not apply to him, did not really happen in his world.
“Do you know how I met Poppy?” The words slipped out of her before she could stop them. Too late, she wondered if Poppy would appreciate her telling the story, but Poppy nodded at her, and as it seemed she did have Corky’s attention, she quickly told how the old halfling how the two had met.
She was not sure whether her story had any effect, but soon after, it seemed that the halfling made up his mind to come with them, and together, they started planning how to take out the fleet in the harbour.
The humans kept confusing her. Not that she minded helping … that was not entirely true. She -did- mind. Partly because she wanted to get out of the city; she had had enough of this place to last a lifetime. An elven lifetime. But the main reason was that they were risking everything they had accomplished so far.
Somehow, they had managed to get their hands on, not just Corky, but the gnome as well. They had a plan that might, if not destroy, then at least cripple the enemy fleet. And they even had a plan that might get them out of Penshin alive. How they had achieved it, she had no idea. Maybe it was luck. Maybe Banagher’s goddess was watching out for them. Or maybe it was a human thing, something that made them succeed, in spite of all their bumbling around.
The sane, sensible thing to do would be to split the group in two, send one over land, and one across the sea, with only the seabased group taking part in the attack on the fleet. That would increase the chances of getting word back to Mengst. And only a few should have participated in this rescue. That would give the rest time to carry out the rest of the plan, should something go wrong.
One of the humans went off to start a fire, as a distraction. She hoped the rain was enough to keep the fire contained, at least to no more than a few buildings. Though it might prove an excellent distraction, she did not think that starting a fire that would consume half the city would be a good idea. But since the fire was her suggestion initially, she was not going to voice her reservations.
They headed towards the back of the manor of this human they were going after. It was getting dark, and the rain was pouring down, and the single guard at the kitchen entrance did not seem to notice them, as they watched him from across the street. Poppy took him down with a well-placed crossbow bolt.
Moriel and Poppy headed towards the kitchen door and slipped inside. Then, somehow, Poppy tripped, bumping into Moriel, sending them both stumbling through the kitchen. Whatever luck they had been having for the past several days held, though, and a crossbow bolt through the eye took care of the first guard through the door. Their attention turned to the man, probably the cook who had already been in the room as they entered. He looked terrified, and made no moves to defend himself as the halfling tied him up. As the others entered the kitchen, they dispatched of another guard with no more trouble than the two other guards had given them. It was, she thought as they entered the hallway, altogether too easy. Unless it was a trap, they might actually get away with this.
It was no trap. The human whose sister they were rescuing rushed through one of the doors leading out from the hallway. There were several people inside the room, but Moriel was not able to get a clear shot. Besides, it did not look as if the human needed any aid. In mere moments, he had killed this enemy of his,
Moriel went over to one of the other doors. She did not hear anything, so she cautiously opened it. There were noone there, and she stepped inside and started looking around. There were plenty of papers, but most of them seemed to be about trade. She stuffed some of them in her bag, just in case.
Then she spotted the chest. It was small, but heavy. She put it on the desk and opened it. Moriel was not really sure what she had expected to find. In retrospect, she should have known, she supposed, considering how fond the humans were of gold.
Remembering the arguments after they had found the diamonds, she considered for a moment to hide the box and leave the gold behind. Of course, that would be foolish. But she would also rather not say anything, since the humans would probably spend valuable time trying to split the gold among them. So she stuffed what she could carry into her bag, wondering what to do about the rest, when Poppy slipped inside. Her eyes lit up as she spotted the gold, and the remaining gold disappeared into Poppy’s pack. Moriel sighed. Being out among the humans had definitely not been good for the halfling.
They returned, with the girl they were here to save, through the sewers to their hiding place. They were way ahead of schedule now, and had some time to kill. Moriel showed the gold to the humans, and was more than a little surprised when she was told to keep it. She considered, for a moment, dumping it, but decided to hold on to it for now. If nothing else, it could come in handy if they needed another distraction.
Somehow they got to the meeting place without being noticed, with both Corky, the gnome and the girl they had rescued. It all seemed too easy. Had it not been for Gronk clearly knowing and trusting this man, she would have assumed it was a trap. But the human was waiting for them, with his people, and three large rowboats, clearly intended to take them out to the ship they were stealing.
Though few of the group seemed to have any experience at all with boats, they got out to the stiletto without capsizing, and more impressive, without anyone hearing them. As they approached, Moriel noticed someone, a sailor it seemed, standing close to the rail, at the spot where they had planned to board the ship.
A whispered discussion started on how to take him out, and someone suggested dragging him down with a grappling hook. She told them to wait, then pulled out her lasso, hoping that she looked more confident than she felt. Not that she did not know how to use it, but she had never had to do it from a boat, one that was moving whenever she did. No good letting them see her uncertainty, though.
Taking a deep breath, she handed one end of the rope to Gronk, who nodded. She was going to assume that he knew what to do. Then she threw, and, holding her breath, watched as the loop landed exactly where she wanted it, around the sailor’s neck. She and Gronk yanked, and the sailor plummeted down into the ocean.
As the poor sailor surfaced, Gronk was waiting for him with his flail, sending him back under permanently. For a brief instance, she felt sorry for him. He had been a sailor, not a soldier. But he was also working for the Kisharans, the ones who had invaded these lands, who had all but annihilated the halfling population in the south. So, even if he was not a soldier, he was still a part of the enemy. A pawn, and a small one, most likely, but still an enemy.
Noone seemed to have missed the sailor yet, so they readied their grappling hooks, preparing to board the ship. Moriel threw hers, feeling it catch, giving it a yank to make sure it held, then grabbed another grappling hook from one of the humans, handing him her own rope, before she tossed the second hook. That too caught, and then she was on her way up, trying hard not to think about what she was doing.
All of them, save one, reached the railing without being noticed. The last human seemed to be stuck down in the rowboat, trying to get up. Not that they would have time to wait for him. And then someone, she thought it was Banagher, stumbled and cried out. There was no way the men onboard could _not_ have heard that. They all turned, and chaos broke out.
There were two sailors left on the ship, who both rushed towards the signal lamps, while the Peacekeepers moved towards them. Moriel concentrated on the sailors, hoping the others could take care of the Peacekeepers. People would hear the sounds of battle soon enough, but sound carried oddly across water, and the lack of signal lamps might buy them more time, if people had trouble locating the source of the sound. Also, less light meant that they would not make quite as good targets for anyone within range.
The fight was not long, though it felt like an eternity. When it was over, several of the others were badly hurt, including Poppy, but they had all survived, at least, unlike their enemies. For now. They still had a fleet to destroy, not to mention getting back to the north. But they had Corky. There would be no new cannons. No more new inventions to tear the northern armies apart. The Kisharans still had their magic, but things were looking better.
The other team, the sailors who had boarded with them, seeing that the enemies on the deck had been dealt with, quickly took control over the ship. They clearly knew their job, and soon they were on their way.
Moriel hoped that their leader also knew what he was doing. He seemed confident enough, but another ship, the big one, was heading towards them, clearly preparing to attack. The human was talking casually, saying something about a powder magazine and an elevator, not that she really caught much of it. She did suspect that Gronk’s friend had something planned, though. He seemed far too calm not to. Probably something flashy, something meant to impress.
She was not mistaken. Suddenly he threw back his cloak, revealing a shining plate armour of … mithril? He sprang into the air and started flinging balls of fire towards the approaching warship. Moriel stared for a moment, before realising what she was doing. Hoping noone had noticed, she did her best to look unimpressed.
The great ship exploded.
When the black cloud of smoke settled a little, all that remained of the recently proud man-o-war was a rain of wooden splinters and a burning length of wood that had nothing in common with a ship.
They were drawing closer to the fleet now, and one of the humans set up the small cannon, firing towards the fleet. The cannon was far less noisy than she had expected; barely more than a popping sound. In just a few seconds, it fired twenty or so shots, and above the fleet, the tiny cannonballs exploded, raining fire down on the ships.
Corky let out a scream and grabbed the gnome. Before anyone could react, he grabbed the rope they had bound the gnome with, tying the other end to the cannon. Yanking the small pin he had shown them earlier from the cannon, rendering it useless, he then pushed it overboard. It plunged into the sea, dragging the gnome with it. Obviously, the poor halfling had finally realised at least part of what the gnome had tricked him into doing.
She looked towards the fleet. Though it was clear that they had done some damage, they had probably not damaged more than a tenth of the ships. Though impressive, it was not, by far, enough to stop the coming invasion. And a truly horrifying thought was what cannons, like the one they had used, but in full size could do, loaded with naphta and used against armies of men, rather than ships.
Moriel went over to Corky, trying to figure out what to say. She was never good at this stuff, but she felt she had to say _something_. Before she could think of anything, she noticed Banagher mumbling to himself. Or perhaps to his goddess, though the tiny pieces of … conversation? she could hear sounded more as if he was either discussing with himself, or someone else was talking through him. Suddenly his back arched, and a black cloud started gathering above the fleet.
A memory came to her then, a flash of a conversation, if any of her little talks with Banagher could be considered conversations; they mostly consisted of her asking a question, and him answer with as few words as possible. But this one came back to her now. Her asking him if his goddess could destroy the fleet, and him answering yes. She had half expected he might have been bluffing, or at least exaggerating. It seemed he had not. She could hardly breathe as she stared across the sea towards the fleet. The cloud hung over the fleet, and the fleet only. Whatever was about to happen, it seemed the city would be left alone at least. And then fire started raining down on the ships. She thought she could hear screaming. The rain itself was quiet, though, eerily so. A silent, lethal rain of fire.
Banagher’s back was arched, head thrown back, caught in the spell. Instinct, or perhaps something else, made her step over to him, taking care not to touch him. Just in case. When the spell let go, he would fall. That, she was certain of. She was not entirely sure why it mattered, but he, or his goddess, had just done what the rest of them had not been able to do. The least she could do in return, was to catch him when he fell.
Suddenly he went limp and collapsed straight into her arms. By then, the entire fleet was aflame. She lowered him gently to the deck, then straightened to look back at the burning ships.
A thought had been nagging her for a while, but only now did it start to take proper form. Noone had ever told her the details of the pact with Tahl’Mearis. Only that the elves were not to interfere with Kishara’s invasion, and in return would be let alone in their forests. There had been other elves in the north, other elves who had joined the northern armies. Only a few, though. But how many, she wondered, would it take for the Kisharans to consider the pact broken?
She did not think that she, one single elf, would be sufficient. But the ones hunting them knew, of that she was fairly certain, that one of the group was an elf. And as she stared at the disappearing, burning, ruined fleet, she could not help but wonder how much it _would_ take for the Kisharans to decide that the elves were involved, and whether this would be enough for the Kisharans to attack them.
And as the Kisharan fleet shrank to nothing more than an orange glow, the crew started singing.
Behind them, the orange glow was no longer visible. It was dark, now, as Gronk’s friend had ordered all lights doused, to prevent anyone from seeing them. Moriel was sitting on the deck, Banagher in her lap, watching the people around her when someone caught her attention.
A man was standing by the railing, his back against her. As he removed his cloak, revealing the sword he carried, one she was certain she recognised. Then he placed a hat on his head, and she was certain. She grabbed her bow, getting to her feet as she nocked an arrow.
“Moriel?” It was one of the humans, the fancy one. She ignored him. Thoughts raced through her head. She was not going to shoot him in the back. Not that she really thought she would be able to kill him; he knew she was there, he had to be expecting something. No matter, she was not going to shoot him in the back. But she was not going to call out his name either. If nothing else, it would warn the others, give them a chance to do something. And right now, she did not want their bumbling about, right now she wanted to be in control of the situation. So she would not speak his name.
Instead she let the arrow fly, watching it thud into the deck behind him. That was a claim, of sorts. Probably too subtle for the others, still.
He turned, still rolling his cigarette. Either he had been expecting something like that and had known she would not try to hit him, or he was doing a very good job pretending. Considering what he was, it might very well be the first.
The others had noticed now, of course. They joined her, chattering like magpies. She ignored them, keeping an arrow nocked, but not trained on him. Yet.
That was all she needed. One word. And at the same time, she was not, quite, asking whether Erik was alive or not. They had several weeks of travel ahead of them. More than time enough to get answers. But she had to say _something_, and ‘why’ was a good a question as any.
She kept almost all her focus on Lucas, not daring to look away. She had, after all, issued a challenge of sorts. Looking away now would be a mistake. Instead, she listened to him tell them how he and Erik had talked for a while, Billy had been killed, and then Erik had left.
Billy. She remembered him, the young boy who had been with Lucas when they last had met. She suspected, and Lucas’ words confirmed, that the boy had done something rash, probably tried to attack Erik. Who had left afterwards. There was a lot Lucas did not say, obviously. Such as why he had changed his mind. But that could wait.
She lowered her bow, unstringing it. Then Lucas looked at Banagher, pointing at him. Saying something about being annoyed with the priest for ruining his coffee. It sounded almost like a challenge.
Moriel was not sure why she reacted as she did; Banagher had proven that he was fully capable of taking care of himself. But he still seemed confused and dazzled after sinking the enemy fleet, and he was the only one, apart from Poppy, that she actually liked. So she started stringin her bow again.
“Are you going to do something about it?” Not really a challenge. Mild enough to be a question, though he might not see it that way. But he just grumbled something about not picking fights with everyone.
One of the humans said something about Lucas helping the Kisharans. Where had he gotten _that_ from? It had been fairly obvious that his dispute with Erik had been … no, not personal. Or rather, personal in a different way. They had seemed more like old friends, and Lucas had said something about being sent. Or was that Erik? In any way, the two clearly knew each other well, and that might be why they, whoever ‘they’ were, had sent Lucas in the first place.
There were so many questions she wanted to ask. About Erik, about Lucas, and about other things. It could wait, though. Perhaps she would get the opportunity. Perhaps not. But now was not the time. She watched him walk away, she thought, to smoke in peace. She remained with the others. Lucas obviously wanted to be alone, and she needed to think.
Not that there was much time for that. They soon spotted the signal fire they were expecting. Some of the others seemed to be half expecting a trap, but the human whose cousin they were meeting was certain that it was not. Though she did think caution would be wise, she was fairly certain the human was right. If he _had_ betrayed them, someone would have been waiting at the harbour, or they would have been expected when they saved the girl. If this cousin had been working for the enemy, they would not have been allowed to leave the city with the gnome.
Everything seemed in order. As they loaded the supplies into the rowboat, Moriel had an idea. She searched through what they had brought, and found what she was looking for; a small bag of coffee. She took some of it, since noone answered when she asked if anyone minded.
When they were done, it was obvious that the man was going back to Penshin. She hesitated for a moment, then decided that he probably needed the gold she had in her pack more than she did. She dumped several hands of gold coins into a bag and handed it over. Hearing how grateful he was, how this was enough to ensure he and his family were safe, she regretted not having given him more, but if she added more now, she would just seem whimsical. Besides, he had the horses, the wagon and a good bit of gold, and seemed sincere enough in his thanks, so most likely he would be fine.
Back on the ship, she walked over to Lucas. When he had walked away from them before, she had had no reason to approach him again, but now she had. She gave him the small bag of coffee, trying to find something clever to say. Since she could not, she said nothing instead.
It was a peace offering of sorts. She could not apologise, since she would have done the same again. He looked surprised and pleased, though. Moriel stood there for a moment longer, then decided she still did not have anything to say. Just as she was about to leave, he spoke.
“Erik spoke well of you. Said you were a bit flighty, but that was probably youth.”
She felt her face heat, and quickly turned to look out across the sea, unsure how to react. Part of her was pleased; how could she _not_ be? She did not know what to think of the part about her age, but since it was, after all, true, she could not exactly argue about it. As for ‘flighty’, well, she supposed that too was true, if she had understood the term correctly. Better than ‘stupid’, all things considered. Still.
“You were going to kill him. Or try, at least. What changed your mind?” It was probably too early for that question, but she could not resist it. And it was a fairly natural and innocent question to ask. There were plenty of other questions she wanted to ask him, but they would have to wait.
“Nothing changed my mind. I’m too old, and he’s too fast.” Now _that_ answer she did not believe. There might be some truth to it, but that was not, by far, all. But if he did not want to talk about it, she would not press the issue. After all, he did not have any reason to trust _her_.
She left him there, on the deck, for now, not knowing what else to say. Not that she did not have questions; there were so many things she wanted to know. About him and Erik, the relationship between the two, what had really happened in the mountain, but most of all, she had questions about the Etu’sari. They were just legends to her, or had been, until she had met Erik. And now she had met two. Not that she really _knew_ them, but still.
And she was not at all prepared when he, a few days later, offered to teach her. And though she did ask for some time to think about it, she never really considered turning down his offer. How could she? The Etu’sari were legends.
Most of the journey to Westergarde she spent training with Lucas, though she sometimes got the feeling she spent more time forgetting previous training than learning new things. But she thought she started to get the hang of it, started to understand how to move.
All too soon, she thought, they reached their destination. She bid Lucas farewell, and they headed south-east, towards Hillcrest. At least this time, she did not have to hide inside the wagon.
They reached Hillcrest without any incidents; not that she had really expected anything here in the north, but still, she was glad when she saw Hillcrest before her.
On their way into town, they ran into the half-giant they had met in the south. It seemed he had somehow made it through the mountains on his own, but then, he was a half-giant, so she was not all together surprised.
She watched as the others chatted with the the half-giant for a while, but when she heard them telling him of their experiences in the south, she sighed and headed further into the town, to search for Mengst. While she was certain the half-giant was a friend, she suspected that Mengst would prefer them to make their report to him first, before telling anyone else what had happened.
They found Mengst at Everwatch. Moriel let the others do most of the talking; they were better at it than she was, though she suspected it would have been best if one of them had spoken, rather than all of them at once. Less confusing that way.
When he dismissed them, she could hardly keep the grin off her face. They had been told to report to Stein in the morning, and their new mission would be to go hunting for the traitor. Not that it mattered. She felt the Calling of the forest as keenly as ever, but it did not matter anymore. Because tomorrow, she was going home.
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_.
They were gone.
She knew she was out of control, she knew she had to get a grip on herself, but her mind kept screaming at her. She forced it away, step by struggling step. The time for grief would come, but not here, not now.
Then she heard one of the humans say he would go inside to look for survivors. At first, she wanted to ignore it. If he was too stupid to realise that he had not a chance against the guardians of the city, on his head be it. But she was not sure what they would do, should he attempt to enter Tir’Valar. They might attack the rest of them as well.
“You will not find any. And you will _not_ go inside.” Her voice sounded flat and dead. She got to her feet, slowly. She would tell them once, and not again. “None of you are going inside.”
Then she noticed Poppy.
The halfling was clearly drunk, and seemed to have gotten into her head that she should go in and look for whoever had made the Elves disappear. She wondered, briefly, who would be foolish enough to get Poppy drunk, especially here and now. She turned then, to the large human, bit back the first words that came to her. While it was quiet, the disappearance of the Elves had made this into hostile territory, or at least dangerous territory. And giving the impetuous young woman alcohol now was, at best, irresponsible.
“If she dies because you got her drunk, you die.” She meant it. Poppy was impulsive at any given time, drunk, she would be almost uncontrollable. And if she got it into her head to enter Tir’Valar, she was not sure they could stop her. And then, Poppy would die.
And then, the halfling stumbled, fell, and was suddenly asleep. Moriel breathed a very quiet sigh of relief; while she knew she would sooner or later lose Poppy, she was not prepared to lose her now, not when the halfling might be all she had left of her old life, with her entire people gone.
So in the end, she went in alone. She knew, of course, what she would find. Or not find, as it were. Like in the other towns, she found nothing at all. She returned to the others, not saying much, but thinking all the more. The golems confused her, since other inanimate objects had disappeared, but she thought that in the greater scope, that was not really important. Maybe they had simply been too big. Or maybe there were magics protecting them from whatever had attacked.
“Ye alright, lass?” Gronk. And no, she was not alright. Very much not. But he meant it kindly, and she searched for the words that would not offend.
“I am alive. That will have to do.” For now. What she would do later, she did not yet know.
They continued towards Sidarthe’minwe, though Moriel did not really expect to find anyone there either. If Tir’Valar had fallen, she was not convinced Sidarthe’minwe could survive a similar attack. Of course, being what it was, there was a chance that, if they had realised what was happening, they would have been able to do _something_. Apart from Tir’Valar, she supposed Sidarthe’minwe would have the best chance of standing against an attack of this nature.
As they reached their destination, she felt a surge of hope, but forced it down. How much defense would there be in the fog surrounding Sidarthe’minwe? Oh, conventional armies would have a hard time getting through, but the thing that had been used against her town, and Tir’Valar, would the fog help against that? But at least it meant they knew they were under attack.
Gronk looked at her. “You don’t think…?”
She dared not. Perhaps the traitor’s men had come here, Sidarthe’minwe had raised the fog, and the other attack had come later? Granted, they had found traces of someone at the exact center of Dorothea, but did that mean that the weapon _had_ to be triggered from within the town? She did not have enough information to hope. But the mists surrounding Sidarthe’minwe were defensive, so clearly they had had at least some time to prepare.
They looked around, finding traces that showed someone had been here, seemingly keeping an eye on the place. It was a while ago, though Moriel did not consider that a proof that noone was in the area now.
They camped there for the night. Moriel doubted anyone would let them in. Either there were noone inside, or whoever was inside was unable to see what was going on outside, or they were watching, but chose not to lower the defenses, in which case the enemy might still be close.
She wondered, then, if she, inside the mist would have found another dead circle, and if all the treasures of the Elves had vanished as well; hidden within Sidarthe’minwe were vast treasures. Not silver and gold, though there might be that too, but knowledge and precious art, those things that defined the Elven people.
They left the next morning, heading for Karak’Fel. Leitus might have answers; he might be involved in whatever had happened. Whether they would be able to _get_ that information was a different matter, though. He was old, incredibly old. And she wondered if he would be as much of a mystery to her as the humans were.
It was a sign of how bad things had become, that they had to fight their way through goblins all the way to Karak’Fel. Not that there were much of a real danger; it was, after all, goblins. But still, that there were this many of them meant there was a nest somewhere close.
They reached Karak’Fel in the afternoon. Outside the cave entrance, they could see two people; one dwarf and one elf, obviously playing some sort of game. One very much like the one they had found close to Sidarthe’minwe. Most likely, these were the ones who had been keeping an eye on the place. These, or others working with them.
It seemed they were expected. The dwarf led them inside, through something that was far more than mere caves. Moriel did not know how long they must have been working at this place, but it had to be centuries, at least.
As for Leitus, he was every bit as mad as Moriel feared. He did not try to deny it, in fact, he was bragging about it, justifying using her people, _their_ people, as test subjects for his new device. And although she did agree with him that the Elves should have involved themselves, should not have chosen to stand apart as they had done, she definitely did not approve of what Leitus had done.
It had not been an attack. Leitus, in his madness, or arrogance, or both, had just used the Elven towns, to test his new device. And though they were not dead, that was not much of a consolation, as they were still lost to her, and he did not know, nor care, whether they could be brought back.
She drew her sword, but did not attack. Though she wanted to, it would not help. She _knew_ she could not bring her people back, he, at least, might have a chance. And this device of his might be what they needed to win the war. She knew, though, that when the war was over, if they both were still alive, she would return, and should he refuse to bring them back, she _would_ attempt to kill him.
Standing aside, she watched, and listened, while the others spoke to him. While they treated him more like an ally than a madman he was, one who had just admitted to wiping out her, _his_ own people. Giving him far more information than she would have, but by now, she expected that of them.
As for the humans, they treated this as if it was nothing. And perhaps to them, it was. But it galled her that they met the disappearance of her entire people with a shrug, and seemingly expected her to do the same.
She would do almost anything to bring them back. She would have given her _sword_, to have them back. Her parents, her friends, her home gone, at the hands of one of her own people. And the humans shrugged it of, as if it meant nothing.
She could accept, almost, that it meant nothing to them. But they acted as if they expected it to mean nothing to her as well, and that she could not, and would not, accept. When they retreated outside, she tried to explain what it meant, to be as old as Leitus was, why they could not trust him, why he could not, not really, be reasoned with, knowing it was hopeless. Others, more eloquent than her, had tried, to an audience more willing to listen.
In the end, she walked away, rather than continue arguing. If the humans did not understand, she was not up to explaining it to them, not now, and not something like this.
She walked, heedless of where she was heading. There was little danger here; there were the goblins, but right now, she would have welcomed a run-in with them, if nothing else, then because it would be simple, straight-forward, with no need for words or explanations.
It was over an hour later when she finally returned to the others. Or tried to. When she got back, the others were gone, even Poppy. There were no signs of battle, though, and their tracks were easy to follow, so she was not particularily worried.
The trail led back to the entrance to Karak’Fel. Why, she did not know, but that was where they had gone, and so she followed. And got there just in time to see Poppy running out, shouting for them to run. So she ran for the horses, and rode, with the others, away from Karak’Fel. Explanations would have to wait; she could hear the pursuers close behind them. They were on foot, however, and Moriel and the others were riding, and soon it was quiet behind them; most likely the pursuers had given up.
They stopped, and Moriel finally saw what Poppy had done. Somehow, the wonderful little halfling had managed to get her hands on the device. Somehow, she had managed to get inside and grab the case, and get out again.
Things were looking better. There was a chance, albeit a small one, that they could figure out how the device worked, and that someone, possibly that clever little halfling back in Hillcrest, Corky, could figure out how to modify it to bring her people back.
And there was this, that she knew, or thought she knew, why Poppy had done it. Though she knew it would not last, _could_ not last, sooner or later she would lose her friend, it did help.
For once, she did not give up after one attempt to convince the others to follow her plan. There was too much at stake this time. They wanted, or some of them at least did, to go rushing off to Tir’Valar, to see if they could figure out how to work the device. That, she would not allow. The risk was too high, and she was not willing to let the one chance she had to bring her people back hinge on these blundering humans.
There were many reasons, really, to go to Everwatch first. She did not even have to mention all her arguments; that they needed to warn Mengst in case Leitus decided to attack, that if they had an artifact that might help them win the war, they could not just wander off with it, and the one thing she had planned to use, had they been unwilling to listen to what she said; that they might never find the Elven towns again without her help.
It was a risk, of course. Mengst might decide to not risk the device for a people who had chosen to be neutral during the war, but it was still the best option.
Until they stood there, and she was fumbling for words, trying to tell Mengst how important this was to her. One of the humans spoke up, then, explaining. She was grateful for that; she had not expected it.
Things went better than expected. Not only did Mengst allow it, Corky and Smoot also managed to figure the device out, and showed them how to operate it. Several times, as if Moriel was unable to learn from the first time. It did not bother her; in fact, it pleased her that they took such care to make certain that there were no room for mistakes.
She led them back, first to Dorothea. As they rode, she found, over and over, that her hand went to her sword, taking comfort from it. At least now they were _doing_ something, they might bring them back. It made it, not easier, but different.
She and Poppy made their way to the center of Dorothea, while the others waited outside the circle, just in case. Together, Poppy and Moriel activated the device, and suddenly, the Elves were there, some of them looking in confusion at the two of them.
Everything looked as it should, but she had to _know_. She grabbed the device and ran, Poppy at her heels, towards the home of her parents. They looked surprised as she burst in the door, a look that changed to slightly alarmed when the others, the humans and Gronk, followed shortly after. They stopped, looking uncertain, and Moriel looked at Gronk, asking him to take the others with him outside.
She and Poppy stayed, of course. Her parents stood there, clearly curious, but Moriel was not sure where to start. Then Poppy broke the ice, by holding out her hand, and saying the only Elven word she had learned: “Candy.”
A while later, the two exited the house. Moriel had given her parents a quick summary of what had happened; mostly about Leitus. She was not sure she was ready to explain the rest. And since they did not ask about the sword she carried, she did not volunteer any information about that either.
One more visit to pay, before she was done. She headed towards Tamariel’s house, ignoring the ragtag of humans, dwarf and halfling trailing after her. This time, however, she did not even let Poppy come inside.
She tried to keep the explanations short, but Tamariel kept asking questions, and it took longer than she had planned. It did not bother her, though. As long as there was no sign of trouble outside, they could wait. And as they sat there talking, she realised she did not want to leave. Not, of course, that she would remain here; she owed the humans for helping her bring her people back. But she _wanted_ to stay.
When she finally left, she did feel as if a heavy weight had been lifted from her shoulders, though. No matter what happened, her people were safe, for now. The device had worked like Corky had said it would; she would have to remember to thank him later.
After bringing J’sta back, they continued to Tir’Valar. Because of the guardians, Moriel went in alone into the eerily silent city. She knelt, flipping the switch, and suddenly she was surrounded by people, four of which, four _humans_, were charging towards her, weapons drawn.
She knew then, who they were. And for some reason, that she was perfectly safe. One of them shouted something, and they halted, as she had expected. She was suddenly very glad she was alone; from the way they had moved, it was obvious that they had tried to stop whoever activated the device the first time. And since the Elves did not seem hostile towards the soldiers, they had to be there with permission. And if nothing else, they would not kill her there, with dozens of witnesses. Not even if they _were_ traitors, something she was starting to question.
Then the others came running. She felt a moment of near-panic; she really did not need a fight here. Especially not now. And especially not over something that might, still, be a misunderstanding. Or something else. So she stepped in front of the four men; symbolic more than anything, but at least the others stopped, and did not attack. Perhaps they too saw the wisdom of not starting a fight in the heart of Tir’Valar.
They spent some time explaining to the Elves what had happened, and one of them told her they would contact Sidarthe’minwe, to let them know that they could drop the defenses. And then they went on, her group and the four of Volkov’s men.
She was half expecting trouble between the two groups, but it did not come. Volkov’s men did not much surprise her in that; they seemed well disciplined and seemed eager to get to Sidarthe’minwe, and she did not think they had any form of betrayal in mind. Her own group too kept their peace, and that surprised her somewhat. But they too might be eager to hear the explanation.
When they reached Sidarthe’minwe, the mist was gone, and the door was open. As they entered, they were told to leave their weapons behind. A wise request, she thought, but then, this was, after all, Sidarthe’minwe.
She put down her bow and quiver and dagger, but then hesitated. Had it been a real sword, she would not have even considered it. She would have waited outside rather than leave one of _those_ swords behind. This, however, was a training sword, a wooden one. Still, to leave it behind?
Then one of the guards stepped forward. “You may keep your sword, etu’sari.” She breathed a quiet sigh of relief, nodded an aknowledgement to the guard, before following the others.
Volkov was there, in the room where their guide led them. Who else could it be? He spoke to them, calling them the new ones, mentioning Jacob. She felt cruel, but she wanted to see his reaction. That would confirm her suspicions, or deny them.
“Jacob is dead.”
His shock was real. She was certain of that. And while they spoke, while they explained, she watched him, and became more and more convinced that he was not, in fact, a traitor.
Then it was his turn. When pressed about his betrayal, he rubbed his temples, looked them, and spoke. “You idiots. Stein! Stein is the Kisharan!”
It made perfect sense. Everything fell into place; it did not for a second occur to her that he might be lying. Everything fit.
His men had broken off their attack when they had seen her; they had to know she was of the Society, and they did not want to kill her.
They had tried to stop Leitus, and that made them, if not friends, then at least they might not be enemies.
Whoever the traitor was, and it was easier to believe that it was one single person than an entire troop and more, he had kept feeding the Kisharans information even after Volkov had left, even after Volkov might have been trapped here after Leitus’ attack. She remembered having mentioned that someone knew, to Mengst, after their return from Penshin. Asked him who knew where they were going, and what way. And neither Volkov nor his men had been on _that_ very short list. Stein had, she was certain of that.
And his shock, and regret, when she had mentioned Jacob. That was real. Oh, yes, she could believe that Volkov was not the traitor.
And she wondered if Mengst would believe them, or if they too would be branded traitors now.
It did not take long for Volkov to convince the others. The talks turned to what they were going to do about it. Or rather, how they were going to get the evidence to Mengst.
Etari’sul excused himself and left the room, leaving only the Society to discuss their plans. They had to tell Mengst, and hopefully, he would believe them. And they had to avoid Stein on the way to Mengst.
Then she noticed it. A stinging, bitter smell, and it took her a second to place it. When she did, however, instinct took over. “OUT! GET OUT!” If she was wrong, she would feel very foolish, but if she was not, they might still get out of this alive. She ran for the door, somehow noticing that one of Volkov’s men was missing. The elf. And she knew Stein had not been the only one.
She noticed Gronk come out of the room, dragging Volkov with him. One of the humans, carrying the documents, the evidence, that Volkov had so painstakingly collected. Other humans, both hers and Volkov’s. But not Poppy.
What she _wanted_ to do, was run in and grab the halfling, drag her out. But she knew there was no time. It cost her, that, to stand outside the room and wait, while the humans rushed out, to wait for her friend, rather than try to fight her way back inside.
The room exploded.
She knew, _knew_ that not everyone was out yet. And Poppy, Poppy, who had not passed her, came hurtling out of the room, hitting Gronk with an audible thunk, and they both went down in a pile. But the halfling was alive, and rose, apparently unharmed.
That released Moriel. She turned, then, and ran towards the exit. No time to explain, the traitor, the _real_ one, or one of them, would try to get away, might already have gotten away. Would try to carry word to Stein, to warn him, if it was not already too late.
So she ran, rushing past the guards, pausing to snatch her bow. She might not catch up with him, but she might still be able to stop him. It might already be too late, but even if it was, he would not get away.
At the top of the stairs, she paused, saw him at the edge of the forest. And she heard a sharp crack behind her, a gun being fired. The fleeing elf’s head exploded, the body crumpling to the ground.
Turning, she saw the man, Volkov, with a gun in his hand. She knew what would happen, so she ran, back towards him, but not in time to catch him when he sank to the floor.
She turned away. Did not want to see his eyes, did not want to see what she knew would be there. Not all the men had gotten out of the room in time. She was fairly certain that her own team had managed, so anyone left would be his. Dead, at the hands of one of his own. A terrible betrayal. No, she did not want to see.
Instead, she headed down to the dead elf. She did not, not really, expect to find anything. And it was better, easier, than standing there, trying to find words that would make no difference.
As expected, she found nothing. But when she returned to the entrance to Sidarthe’minwe, she found that the others too had arrived, and that they were now denied entrance.
She was not really surprised. Nor did she blame them. She asked once, and not again, if they would let her in. They refused, just as she had expected. They did not refuse to answer her next question, how bad the damage was. Not too bad, they told her. Nothing important; it had been, after all, a study, rather than a storeroom.
She heard Volkov mutter behind her. “Except my men.” She knew what he meant, but she also knew what the wardens meant. This was what they were here to protect. Their legacy, the final gift from the Elves to the younger races. She did not think they would have answered differently if there had been Elves among the casualties. Unless someone like Etari’sul had been among them.
Not that she would say anything. It was neither the time nor the place. And she was not terribly apt at explaining things anyway. Part of it might be her age. But most of it was that she was simply not good at it.
So she waited. Someone came out with food for them; they were not _that_ angry, then. Or perhaps they understood what had happened. At least the traitor, the one who had done this, had not come here with her.
Eventually, Etari’sul came out to speak with them. He told them about the Ringwielders. And how he knew, at least some of it. She wondered if the others noticed, if they saw the importance in what he had said. But she said nothing; if they had not realised what he had told them, she would not be the one to tell them.
When they left, the left the device behind. It was unexpected; she had thought Mengst would want it back, but the humans said they would not need it for a long while yet, and if any other Elven towns were trapped, it could be used to free them. Not that she did not appreciate it, but they kept confusing her.
They camped outside Sidarthe’minwe for the night. The humans, or most of them, slept. She did not, her kind never did. And Volkov did not. Instead he sat there, staring into the fire. Then he began to talk.
Not to her, though he probably was aware she was listening. He spoke of how he had struggled to keep his men alive. And as she listened, she realised that they had not told him that they had found two of his men dead when they visited Leitus. The two who had fought Xander and Erik; them he knew about. And the ones who had died in the explosion. She had told him about Jacob, and not in a kind way. She would not be the one to tell him about his men.
She wished she knew what to say, what to do. But she was not sure if it would be welcome, even had she known. One of his own, an Elf, had caused the death of three of his men. She was not at all convinced he would welcome comfort from another Elf, even had she known what to say. So she said nothing. Had he approached her, it would have been different, but he did not, so she kept quiet.
The next day, they headed back towards Everwatch, with Volkov and his surviving men. Moriel was, however, growing more and more uneasy. It was vague, not really a feeling at all, but more the fact that this, their return to Everwatch with Volkov, would be the perfect time to strike. Or worse, if Stein had suspected that they would, indeed, find Volkov and speak with him rather than attack him on sight, he might have tried to make it look as if they had joined the traitor’s men.
As they were drawing close to Everwatch, they heard a rumbling, from far far away, and in the distance, towards the east, they could see one of the great peaks of the mountain range east of Hillcrest crumble.
She glanced at Gronk. Wanted to ask, but did not know how. She doubted that goblins were behind it, but she did not see it as entirely impossible that the Dwarves might. Not that she would ask; she did not know him well enough for that. And if it was important, they would find out. If not, it did not matter. And it was not as if they could do anything about it.
As they rode on, she became more and more edgy. It did not help to find that the guards surrounding the camp were nervous, silent and suspicious. None of them would tell the group what was going on. Not a good sign. They were let in, but she could feel eyes watching as they headed towards the command tent.
Poppy and Moriel stayed outside, just in case. Of course, if it was Stein waiting inside, rather than Mengst, it would make no difference. Not really. But they had, at least, one advantage over Volkov’s men, the two who had tried to approach Xander. They had two Warders with them. They would most likely be heard.
At least there were no sounds of battle from inside the tent. Only the quiet murmur of words, words she was too far away to hear.
Gronk came rushing out of the tent, furious. No, that was not a strong enough word. when she asked, he told her in fewer words than she thought possible what had happened, that Mengst was in a coma, and Anabelle, his human friend, the one who had known Joseph, was dead, and Stein had fled, Warders chasing him.
This time, at least, she knew how to respond. Remembering that he had been kind, when she thought her entire people were gone, and other things he had said besides. She simply told him he would need a tracker and headed for her horse. That much, she owed him. Not that she did not want to see Stein dead too; there was little doubt now that he was, in fact, the traitor. But it was not personal, did not burn, not in the way it clearly was to Gronk.
She did not state the obvious. That it was late, that they were all tired, that Stein had had a couple of days to run, that the Warders had gone after him. Simply because he had to know, but right now, it would not matter.
And, heading down towards Hillcrest, they saw the campfires. It looked like thousands of them, burning like large stars, but far more sinister. She wished, not for the first time, but perhaps never so strongly, that her people had been here. Even few as they were, they would have made a difference against _this_ enemy. There was no love, none at all, lost between her people and the goblin-kin.
Had she thought it would have made a difference, she would have asked them to join the war. But they knew that the humans had played a role in bringing them back. Of course, the greatest role had been Poppy’s. Who had done what Moriel knew that she herself could not have done. To be fair, she did not think _anyone_ else could have gotten away with that.
Wondered what they thought of that, her own people. That they owed their existance, now, to the young halfling they had taken in, not so many years ago. She had been a child, then. In Elven eyes, she was still a child. They knew, of course, what Poppy had done. She had made sure of that, but she had not pressed the issue, not in any way tried to rub it in. They would know, and they would make their own decisions.
Not that she could do anything about that now. They would choose to act, or not, but no matter, it was too late to do anything about it, even had she wanted to make the attempt.
The sight of the campfires changed things, though had Gronk still wanted to go after Stein, she would have gone with him. She wondered what the woman had been to him. Family, possibly, in the way that she and Poppy were family. But as she listened to the others talk to some soldier, it became clear that they intended to wait for some meeting the next morning.
They did not spend much time determining who was in charge; Volkov was the obvious one, at least to her. That the question was asked at all would have surprised her, except by now she was starting to get used to how the humans, in particular, tended to ask questions where the answers were obvious, and rarely asked the _important_ ones.
She was, however, pleased. For some reason, she had begun to like this man. Maybe because he had chosen to go to her own people for help; it meant something, that, though she was not entirely sure what. Perhaps because his men had tried to stop Leitus from using the device in Tir’Valar. Or maybe because three of them had died, later, in the explosion, together with one other of his men, and he himself had killed another. And he had mourned them, that night, outside Sidarthe’minwe.
When he told them their next mission, she was not surprised. It was the logical thing to do, to find out what was driving the goblin horde, and to put an end to it. They were, after all, less than ten, all together. What difference could they make in the coming battle? Then she glanced at Gronk and realised that they could, indeed, make a difference. Still, finding and stopping whoever, or whatever, was behind this surge would make more of a difference.
And so they left, heading north to try to circle the goblin army. And that evening, they watched from a distance, as the goblins charged the humans forces. She wished she had been there.
Then they heard it. A scream unlike anything she had heard before. And in the distance, they saw a shape, a giant, winged shape. Though they were too far away to tell for certain, there was little doubt in her mind that this was the creature making that awful sound.
Then one of the humans, the big one, asked one of those very human, very obvious questions.
“Ees dat a dragon?”
They made their way towards the place where they had seen the winged shape. Moriel wondered what it was; it could not be a dragon. Dragons did not, after all, exist. Did they?
Then she heard it. A deep, rumbling voice, not entirely unlike what she imagined the earth itself would have sounded like, had it been given a voice. Signalling for the others to stop, she dismounted and continued forward on foot.
Then the humans made one of their strange decisions again. Not just one, but _all_ of them decided to follow, even the humans no more able to move quietly than, well, the average human. And of course, one of them just _had_ to stumble and fall.
The voice fell silent.
Had the situation been less grave, and the dragon less terrifying, she would have found the chaos that followed entertaining. But it was a real dragon; she could not think of anything else that it could be, though it had some strange, black tendrils surrounding it, seemingly causing it pain.
She wanted to step forward, to talk to the creature. It, and the black mist tendrils surrounding it. Maybe it was the size, or the fact that it looked like a dragon, but it _felt_ ancient, in a way that even Elves did not.
But Gronk stepped forward and started talking to it. And the dragon, well, it sounded as if it _knew_ Gronk, though Gronk did not seem to recognise it. That was curious, she thought, and though there were several explanations she could imagine, some seemed more likely than others. Perhaps the dragon could take another shape. Or perhaps it was mistaken, that it was not Gronk it had seen. Not very likely, she thought.
She kept quiet, listening to them speak. The dragon said something about not being the one who controlled the goblin horde. But for some reason, the logical question was never asked. But by now, she was getting the impression that this had become personal. It had to be something that had happened in Karak ap’ Karak; the dragon was not, after all, responsible for the death of Gronk’s friend. But the dragon’s mention of Karak ap’Karak seemed to have triggered something in Gronk.
When the dragon attacked, she was not too surprised, though she suspected that Gronk had given it little choice. Not that it changed things, of course. Still, its death, when it came, was something she would have avoided, had she been able to. It was, all things considered, a magnificant creature.
She walked over to it, whispering an apology. Not that it mattered, of course; it was dead. And she wondered if it was the last of its kind. There could not be many like it left in any way, still, she did not much like the thought that they might have killed the last of them.
The tentacles were still there, misty and black, so she did not touch it. Instead she sighed, and went to get the horses. Rather that, than watch as the others were working on cutting off the dragon’s head. It felt wrong, somehow, irreverent.
As she was getting close to the horses, she heard sounds of battle. She rushed back, and saw a man, a Strangler, she thought, attacking the others. It might be her imagination, but she thought this fight was harder than the dragon.
When the Strangler finally went down, she noticed his bracelet. The black tendrils that had surrounded the dragon seemed to disappear into the it, and she could not help but wonder if the dragon had been controlled by the Strangler. And if so, had it really been necessary to kill it, or could they have found a way around it? But if Gronk had some issue with it…
She shrugged mentally, then went to get the horses. As she came back, just in case, she took up a position that would let her at least keep some sort of watch, in case there were more around.
And as she watched Banagher trying to heal one of the others, there was an odd sound, Banagher looked … upset? and walked away. She hesitated for a moment, then followed. He was standing not far from the camp, and she stopped a few feet away, not sure if her presence was welcome or not.
“I failed.” She just kept looking at him, expecting him to continue, but he just shook his head. She nodded slowly, trying to figure out what he meant. It had to be more than this, she thought, watching as he walked back to the others.
On the way back to Hillcrest, she found an opportunity to talk to him again. And his words told her a lot.
“Sometimes, I get the feeling that She has turned Her back on me.” So, his goddess, then. There were so many things she could say, but she was not sure what would help.
“I do not know your goddess. But if she did, would you not have _known_? All the time?” That came out clumsy, but she hoped he understood what she meant.
“I have no idea.” There was something in his voice, something that made her think that her own people had the right idea, not to depend on, or trust in, the gods. For while the beings that the humans called gods were powerful, it did not mean they were worthy of the attention and devotion that the humans gave them. Granted, either Banagher or his goddess had destroyed the enemy’s fleet, but she was starting to wonder if it might be Banagher who did that all along.
“Why would she turn away from you?” She had her own thoughts on that, but she was not going to voice them. He did not, definitely not, need to hear what she was thinking.
“Why would I know? Maybe I’m not worthy.” He sounded grumpy. She almost wanted to laugh at the irony. Here she was, trying to advice a human on religion. A _religious_ human, even. She wanted to grab hold of him and shake him. But at least she thought she was beginning to see what the problem was, some of it, anyhow.
She thought carefully, trying to find the right words, the words that might work either way. “Or maybe you did not need her enough.” An ambiguous statement, on purpose. Being human, he would probably find some other, strange way of interpreting it, though.
“That may be as well.” He fell quiet, looking as if he was thinking. “Those words contain more wisdom than perhaps you realize.” It was, she thought, one of the more arrogant things he had said, though she did not think he had meant it that way. Considering the way the humans tended to speak without thinking, she supposed it was understandable.
She wondered which interpretation he had landed on. Hopefully, he would start to realise that he was relying too much upon his goddess, that he was not trying hard enough on his own, not trusting himself enough. It was strange how the humans were willing to cripple themselves in that way.
Hesitating, there was one more thing she wanted to tell him. “Maybe you need to know what parts of you are really _you_. And then maybe she will be there again. But you are becoming too much Her, and too little you.” She left him to his thoughts; she had already said more than she had intended.