Cold fire raced through Diresh’s mind as Rho touched the orb. The connection formed, and powerful energy ran along the invisible lines from her god, slamming into her frame. She screamed, white knuckles clasping the arms of her throne of ice as pain rocked her body and soul.
He is so much stronger than I expected. Never underestimate a god. But my safeguards are holding. Her shielding bled the initial pain from her, subsiding to a dull ache in her bones, and she reached out to the god she loved. Rho fa’shen Tynen, great god of darkness. Do you hear me?
She gasped as the answer flowed back to her from the spaces between worlds. She had expected the cold and pain, but nothing prepared her for the deluge of pure thought, the inhuman strength of her ancient god’s mind. He burned through her synapses with thousands of images, emotions, and concepts beyond her understanding that flashed through her brain faster than she could follow.
Only a fraction made sense. Darkness, night, cold, flames, eating, hunger, pain, worlds without number, life burning on the other side of a veil, darkness, pain. His thoughts moved faster than anything she had seen in her long life, but also slow, cold, and calculating like the darkness Rho embodied.
With the images came sounds, grinding, like the movement of the deep stones of Ealdar, slow and patient. The grinding filled her, vibrating her teeth and bones, building into a deafening roar like the great Falls of Pelin until she thought it would grind her to dust.
Diresh fell to the ground, wrapping her thin arms around her head. She could hear screams from far away. They came soft and quiet, drowned out by the thunderous roaring of her god. A small piece of her took over, the part that remained calm behind the shields she had created. Those are mine. I am the one screaming.
The grinding noise ceased, leaving her in a silence that felt almost as painful. Diresh whimpered as servants helped her back into the crystalline throne. Not one of them spoke to her or even gave her a questioning glance. They know what I have done and the price I may have to pay for my trespass into the mind of our god.
Diresh took a deep breath, forcing a calm veneer over her face as she steadied herself for another onslaught. I do not understand, my Lord, but I will attempt to do all I can to return you to your rightful place as ruler over this world and all those in it.
Rho remained silent for several minutes. Diresh feared that her connection might have been severed. She glanced at her servants who stood with black eyes fixed on her.
“I fear I may not have been worth—”
The rush overwhelmed her once more. She fell to the ground in uncontrolled seizures; images and sounds enveloped her, pulling her down into the darkness she worshipped. Diresh felt herself stripped to her soul as her god pushed his mind into her depths, cold fire licking at her center. The ecstasy of her god’s touch sent shivers through her icy heart. She secretly wished she had not put safeguards in place to protect herself. She longed for oblivion, to seep into the darkness with Rho and never return.
The servants held her twitching body as she screamed her throat raw and speckled the frozen floor with black blood, but she felt nothing physical as she rocked in the icy cradle of her god.
Five days passed while she soaked in the darkness and the grinding sound resolved itself into words in her mind. Triumph flowed through her and around her. She did not know or care if it came from her or Rho.
You will do.
The orb filled Rho with power, burning through thousands of miles of veins and pathways as the god of darkness absorbed every ounce, sucking at the glass shell until even that crumbled to dust and vanished into Rho’s squirming and bloated body.
Rho grew as its body put the energy to use, tentacles and threads twisting out into the void, stretching farther than they had ever gone.
As Rho relished in its strength, a presence entered the god’s mind. Rho’s first reaction was to crush the intrusion, but as the dark god slashed at the soul who had dared touch a god, Rho saw kinship there.
This soul felt old, nothing compared to Rho’s years, but aged, cold burning, and strong. This soul also resisted Rho’s efforts more than any other had. Rho prodded the barriers that kept him from seeping along the connection into her. The god of darkness could still snuff out the female presence with ease, but curiosity at the novelty of her presence intrigued Rho.
Rho sent his desires to this new disciple along the connection she had provided, but soon realized that this female from the worlds of reality could not understand the full power of its mind. Rho cut down the connection until it sent only a tiny fraction of its thoughts while testing her mind and soul for weakness. You will do. Yes, my child, you will do.
Then the gifts began to flow more freely. Food, metal, flesh, blood, or anything the god craved. Even living souls fell through the portal into Rho’s welcoming tentacles, enemies of Rho’s new companion, lover, and instrument.
Aren smiled at Sethkar while keeping her head bowed. I’m not going to lose my hard won humility now. “Yes, your Highness. That’s exactly what I ask. I know it’s unprecedented. I, once again, ask for too much as a human in your court.”
Sethkar paced back and forth on the platform that put him just above her height, Dveldor at her side translating for the Dwaro Keeper. “Not unprecedented, but it’s been decades since a human has asked something like this. To send a human child to any of the Sidra, even the friendlier Keitane, would be dangerous.”
Aren nodded. “Yes, great Keeper, but they already have a human in their company.”
Sethkar stopped his pacing and stood before her. His soft hand lifted her chin and she met his eyes. The soul within him had changed since their last encounter. A part of him still hated humans, but he cared for Aren too. “I’m sorry, Aren. Your friend may already be beyond our help.”
Aren nodded, holding back tears. She’d allowed that fear to enter her heart a thousand times since she’d read the note. “He’s still alive, my Lord. I can feel it.”
He let go of her chin and started pacing once more, silver armor clanking. “You’re the first soul seer we’ve seen in generations and we Dwaro live a long time. How do I just let you go? It is true that a soul seer would be the perfect emissary to the Keitane, but you are also human and would not be welcome.” The Keeper stopped pacing again, the sorrow and pain she saw within bleeding through to the surface. “I don’t wish to send you to your death.”
Aren nodded again. She knew the Keeper’s daughter had died on a similar trip many years before. An accident as she traveled, at the hand of bandits, not the king she meant to meet, but her death had sealed Sethkar’s hatred for all humanity. “It’s my only hope of returning home. I can do my best to repair the strained friendship between your people and the Keitane at the same time.”
Sethkar stepped toward her, embracing her in a fierce bear hug, stronger than his size made him look. He smelled of spiced wine and clay, not unpleasant, but his armor was hard and unyielding against her ribs.
“People? No human has ever called me or my kind a person. You remind me of her, so stubborn and strong willed. Of course you see that.”
Aren squeaked out her words. “Yes, I do. I’m so sorry to dredge your pain up again and again. I’ve played on your emotions for my benefit and I don’t wish to.”
The strong arms squeezed her tighter. “Don’t be sorry. I’m not. You brought a piece of her back to me in many ways.” He let her go, slowly. “The Spirit of Ealdar came to me in a dream last night and told me that a war is coming and I will need allies. I argue against your request only because I like to argue. It is already decided. You and Dveldor will go together. You will carry a petition to the Keitane and the Edane to reopen communication between us and you will save your friend.”
Dveldor spoke up after he’d finished the translation. The Keeper and he argued for several minutes while Aren waited to find out why. Dveldor finally turned to Aren. “I told him I was ill prepared to take you. There are elders who’ve made these journeys before. He thinks my language skills will help and since I’ve already bargained with a Keitane for your life, you are now my responsibility. He is, of course, correct. We leave tomorrow.”
Aren nodded her agreement. “Thank you. Thank you both. How far away is tomorrow? I can never tell down here.”
Kaden felt a slight prickle on his skin as he passed through the barrier once more. He glanced back and could no longer see the city, just the forest swallowing up his vision everywhere he looked. He tilted his head and the silvery streams of light appeared again.
“You will not feel the compulsion to run away now.” Hasla stepped up beside him, mimicking his titled head.
Kaden smiled, determined to win over this beautiful and bizarre woman. “It was never a need to run away so much as be elsewhere. Why is it gone?”
She raised an eyebrow as if he’d asked a silly question. “You have stood upon sacred ground and been accepted in a way as a Light Bringer. The barrier sees you as one of us.”
“That makes sense, I guess.”
Hasla shrugged. “Your guess has little to do with any of it. It simply does make sense.”
Evan chuckled ahead of them. “Be kind to the boy, Hasla.”
Hasla smiled a wide, cruel smile. “I am always kind, dear Evandrel.”
Kaden watched her lope gracefully off into the forest. “Oh crap, are we running again?”
Evandrel didn’t answer, but raced off after Hasla. Kaden growled to himself and sprinted, praying the two elves would take it easier on him this time.
Hours later Kaden coughed up his breakfast while leaning against a tree. “This is getting old.”
“Humans are slow.” But Hasla didn’t sneer it this time, just stated it like a well-known fact.
Kaden nodded his head. “Compared to you two, a cheetah is slow.”
Evandrel chuckled. “I have learned to stop asking.”
Hasla and Evandrel kept giving each other furtive glances. Kaden couldn’t help but laugh when he caught them again.
“That’s at least the tenth time I’ve seen you two try not to look at each other while practically staring. You gonna start dating now or what?”
Hasla snorted. “That is none of your business, human, Prophet or not.”
“That might be true, but I’m stuck with you two on this trip to see the really, really old elves. I might as well be entertained.”
“The Ancients are neither elves nor Sidra. And you should find your entertainment elsewhere.” Hasla flitted off ahead of them while Kaden straightened next to his tree.
Evandrel shook his head as Kaden joined him and they began walking in the general direction Hasla had gone. “Are human women this frustrating?”
Kaden laughed again, louder. “Oh yeah, I think that’s universal across all species.”
Evandrel smiled as he stepped around a bush that Kaden recognized. He remembered wading through one earlier, dark green leaves glistening.
“Universal? I like that word. Throughout all matter. I believe you are correct.”
“So…are you dating?” Kaden flinched at the look Evandrel gave him. “I know. None of my business. I was just thinking of Aren.”
“Are you two dating as you call it? Forgive the intrusion if it is also none of my business.” Evandrel half bowed as he walked. He’d been overly polite since the meeting with the Elders.
“You know I’m not the prophet, right?”
“Ah…I know that you do not believe yourself to be so. Since you also answered my question with another question, I must infer that Aren is none of my business. I apologize.”
“No. She’s just…I don’t know. I just met her. I’d like to date her once we get home. If we get home. But, really, I’m not this prophet. I’m sorry. I’ll be leaving as soon as we find Aren.”
Evandrel reached out a hand, blindingly fast, but gentle as it landed on his shoulder. “I know this is your plan. I must trust the Eldest though and trust that the Ancients may change your mind. Much can happen before we find your girl.”
Hasla slipped back into their company with silent footsteps. “We are getting close.”
Kaden jumped at the sound of her voice. “Holy Hasla! Can you walk a little louder, clomp around a bit, for the sake of my heart?”
“No. That would not be very elf-like.” She enjoyed playing with the term since she’d made Kaden explain it. “An elf is always silent and nimble.” Her laughter echoed through the forest and birds took up mimicry, carrying her laughter out for miles.
Then the birds went silent.
Evandrel held up a hand and they all froze. The Sidra closed his eyes and hummed to himself for a few seconds. When he opened them again, ice formed around Kaden’s heart at the shock and fear that were written on his face.
“What is it?”
“Hush, we are not alone!” He whispered but his voice came out sharp and commanding. “We run.”
Kaden dashed after the elves who had practically disappeared from the space they’d occupied a second earlier. A black arrow slammed into a tree trunk next to him with a crack like thunder. He ran faster.
He could see them now, figures in black twining in and out of the forest faster than any human. Another arrow whistled by his face and shattered a branch where his head had been a moment ago, raining him in shards of sharp, dry wood.
Evandrel chanted in front of him and Kaden felt certain his words might have just saved his life. How long can he keep it up?
A shout came from his left and Kaden almost fell. He caught a glimpse of Hasla with a knife dripping black, but then she slipped behind foliage again.
He almost fell again when she appeared at his side. “Too many. We are going to die.” The matter of fact tone she spoke in did little to comfort Kaden.
The tether came to his mind, glowing escape at his fingertips. He held it as he ran, uncertain whether to run home again. “Aren’t we close to where the Ancients live?”
Evandrel spoke over his shoulder as if he weren’t running for his life at break-neck speeds over uncertain terrain. “Yes. I can smell them on the air, but too far away to save us.”
“Shouldn’t you be chanting?” Kaden yelled back. The elf simply grinned back at him and then kept running.
“I have done what I can to protect us. They will counter my magic soon.”
“Not as soon as you think. Your words are strong, stronger than any I have felt.” There was awe in Hasla’s voice.
Three arrows flew past, missing them by inches before vanishing into the forest.
“You are correct though. Your powers are impressive, but not enough to keep us alive for more than minutes.” She looked at Kaden. “We have failed the Prophet.”
Kaden shook his head. “I’m not the Prophet!” The tether came to his mind again. I could just leave. “How far do we have to go?”
Hasla pointed. Steep peaks and terraced cliffs rose out of the forest like Aztec pyramids. They looked older than time, weighted with years that Kaden couldn’t count. Their craggy gray peaks thrust out of the unending green like they didn’t belong to this world, as though they’d been dropped from the sky by some massive hand or pushed up from below by a great force.
Kaden’s heart sank. It is too far.
An arrow slammed into his shoulder and he rolled through brush and thorns before thudding into a boulder that had been hidden by years of moss. His vision blurred, but he saw the blue-gray face hover over his, an inhuman sneer on the perfect features.
Kaden reached a hand out as yellow flickered around him. His Egg distracted the creature long enough for Hasla’s blade to find its black heart. The dark elf gurgled black blood onto Kaden’s face before collapsing to his side. Hasla took Kaden’s outstretched hand and pulled him to his feet and then they were running again.
The pain tore through his shoulder and raced down his veins in all directions. It felt cold and distant. Poison? Where’s Evandrel? The hand in his felt warm and dry even though his was covered in sweat and some sticky red liquid his brain couldn’t identify. Must have rolled through a berry bush. Hasla’s hand pulled him on, kept him running even when he forgot what they were running from.
“I just want to lie down, Hasla. Let me lie down.”
“Shut up, human! Evandrel did not sacrifice himself so you could give up.” She hissed it, spitting as she spoke, and pulled harder on his hand.
Kaden nodded. “What? No, he can’t do that.”
“It is too late to stop him. Fool.”
Kaden didn’t know who she referred to, but couldn’t ask. Numbness spread through his chest. His tongue felt heavy. He slipped on wet stone, but she caught him, her eyes flashing in the firelight that flickered in the dark cave.
Wait? Firelight? Cave? He slurred it out, “Fur elbs.”
“Yes, the fire elves. The Sidra A’Edane. Here they are now.”
Five Sidra stepped from the darkness. They looked very much like their tree dwelling cousins, long slender limbs and sharp features. Their eyes easily set them apart though, large fiery red irises flecked with gold. Their skin held a scaly iridescent quality, rainbow colors splitting from their amber skin in the torchlight.
They took up defensive positions, eyeing Kaden with obvious malice and giving Hasla suspicious glances, her dark hair and bluish skin tone too similar to their old enemy. The Sidra liquid tongue filled the air.
Kaden, surprised each time by the beauty of the Sidra language, staggered to the cold floor. Hasla let him fall and stepped forward. She spoke in English.
“I am Hasla so’a Hirreem. Evandrel da’a Losel is outside fighting the Tyninian threat that has returned to us once more. We are Light Bringers. Help him.”
The fire elves looked back and forth amongst themselves. Kaden started to think that maybe they didn’t speak English, but Hasla didn’t repeat herself in any other language.
Finally, the tallest of the welcoming party stepped forward. “I am Gelsadim da’a Rashi, a Torch Bearer.” He turned to the other four. “Go.”
They ran from the cave.
Gelsadim nodded at Kaden. “The human will not be welcome here.”
Hasla snarled. “We are all Light Bringers, including the human child, and messengers for the Sidra A’Keitane. We have been sent to consult with the Ancients.”
Gelsadim’s mouth fell open. Kaden would have laughed at the unusual facial expression on a Sidra if he’d been able to feel his mouth.
“Net a schild.”
Hasla scowled down at him. “Yes you are. Be content I did not call you an infant.”
Gelsadim closed his mouth and shrugged. “You have been warned. Do you have a token?”
Hasla handed over a small branch. When the fire elf touched it, the branch burst into flame in his hand and Kaden thought he heard whispers in the Sidra tongue as it crackled and burned. A strong scent of scorched pine filled the air. Gelsadim handed the branch back to Hasla, the fire falling away, leaving the branch untouched.
Gelsadim raised an eyebrow at Kaden. “The Eldest would have us believe this drooling boy is Cathal?”
Evandrel staggered into the cave, trailing three of the welcoming committee, his voice sounding clearer and more confident than he looked. “She would, but we hope the Ancients will verify this to be true.”
Gelsadim spat. The spittle landed next to Kaden and then burst into flame, sending Kaden scrambling back, before it dissipated. “You risk your life for this human. To take one of his kind into the Den of The Ancients is to invite their wrath down upon you all. Where is Opalin?”
Evandrel shook his head. “Dead. She took out four of the Tyninians before they overwhelmed her. I owe her family a life debt, but I must repay another first.” He glanced at Kaden.
Gelsadim snarled and spat another sizzling glob at the stone wall. “Wasted! She has no family and you will all be joining her soon enough. You can repay her there.”
Hasla answered. “We will survive. Cathal is with us.” Kaden thought she sounded like she was trying to convince herself.
Hands pulled Kaden to his feet. He could barely see now, but he fell in line behind Evandrel and Hasla as they walked deeper inside the cliffs they’d seen in the distance. He didn’t have as much faith in his role as his companions, but he didn’t have the strength to argue. Aren’s still lost out there and these elves are my best chance of finding her. I hope the Ancients are nicer than they’re being made out to be.