- 43 years ago, The Karnulian mountains, southeastern Irkathian range-
-::- Maya -::-
I plodded through the snow towards the cave, towards home.
The wind blew snow onto my face in a horizontal blur. It was surprising considering that the sky was clear merely a few moments ago. But that was only to be expected, for the weather up here in the mountains was a fickle thing. Passing by the dwindling trees, I returned to the guards carrying bundles of firewood in wraps, one slung over my shoulder, and another held by hand. Because I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to wander past the edges of clearing which sat overlooking the fortifications at the mouth of the cave that was so rigorously defended by the guardsmen. They had a clear view of me the entire time and it felt reassuring, even though in my heart I knew that if a predator indeed did decide to attack me, I would be dead long before they were anywhere close enough to defend me. The warrior that accompanied my group could only do so much.
It was a risk I was willing to take though.
Getting lost in these mountains meant certain death, so my clansmen regulated all exposure we had outside the cave with extreme caution. Life here was unfair, for only the hunters were allowed to prowl the world beyond. Throughout the entirety of my life, all I knew were the confines of the cave I knew to be my home. So I cherished those occasional moments that I was allowed to walk through these snowy woods even if it was merely for the sake of gathering firewood while the hunters were away.
I wish I could be a hunter, but my clansmen were really unfair. They didn’t let women join the hunt, so I could never be able to see those green grasslands, the warm rivers and lakes, or those dreamy fields full of flowers I kept hearing so much about. I was jealous of them, frustrated over their unfairness, sad that I could never experience those sights myself. There were other tribes in the world below as I hear it. There was even an empire there, but they refused to acknowledge our traditions and thus my tribe refused their authority. Hence, the only reason for which my clansmen would descend was to wage war or to hunt.
Even so, I wanted to explore.
Even if the entire world stood as my enemy,
I still wanted to travel.
I dreamt of days where I had the right to go an all the hunts I wished to participate in, where I could eat to my hearts content during all those grand feasts rather than just spectating from the side-lines. I wish I was taught to wield the sword to be able to defend myself, to be taught those books so I could become smart like elders and make wise descisions. I just wished I could be ANYTHING other that what I was right now.
I wanted to be useful. I wanted to be respected.
Proud and bathed in glory.
With my own achievements to boast, to explore, to hunt. I wish I was born a man. But it was not to be, and I was not one to defy tradition.
I weaved my way through the labyrinth of pathways that connected the entire system of caves that made up my town, till I reached the store-room. After dumping all the firewood into a neat pile in the corner, I joined the rest of my sisters who were taking a break right outside the tunnel entrance, in front of one of the ventilation shafts which were cut into the mountain's face. I just finished my thirtieth round today, and I was pretty sure we were finished for the day owing to the storm outside that was slowly picking up in intensity. I could either go to the kitchen to help cook, or maybe I practise my dance or music, anything that would set me apart from the rest of the lot. I was no beauty, so it was a good idea to distinguish myself among the women here in order to attract the attention of a stronger man, but due to my clumsy self my prospects were pretty bad even for the chieftain’s niece. The most I could do was dream, or maybe listen to the prisoner!
I perked up and my long grey ears twitched in joy at the thought of meeting her again. After sufficiently cooling myself, I left my group and headed home to finish up all the responsibilities I had in helping my mother. I quickly went through my chores, played with my sisters for a little while and hugged my mother goodbye before I decided to set off. But there was one more challenge to overcome.
I peeked at my father who sat sleeping on his luxurious chair woven of winterwillow. The problem was not the fact that he was sleeping, but the fact that he was sleeping right beside the front door. I was a bit scared of him or rather, scared of his admonishments which he was sure to dish out if he saw me loitering around so early no matter how much work I had finished up until that point. He had a strange notion of time which was as extremely inflexible as it was annoying. Usually, I would wait it out or pretend to do something else until the right moment to escape but I could hardly wait right now. But sneaking out was risky business because even the slightest mistake could set off his instincts and waking him up in that state was even worse. My father, the chieftain’s younger brother, was a strong man, and an even more proficient a warrior. But today, the hunters just returned from an intense encounter with a pack of nightprowlers. His senses were dulled by exhaustion, thus the reason for my brave determination. I slowly crept my way to the door, placing one foot in front of the other silently until I made it outside.
After confirming that I was in the clear, I jogged down the tunnels until I came across a dimly lit room with several guards stationed around the corner. Slowly, I creaked open the wooden door. At the end of the room, there lay a single woman. Saying that she stood out, would be an understatement. I was entranced by her appearance every time I met her, the air about her made her appear ethereal, as if she was but something that could exist only in one’s imagination. Her hair as dark as the midnight sky contrasted greatly with her flawless golden skin. A soft glow radiated from beneath it, not enough to be considered glaring, or even the slightest bit straining to gaze at, but more than sufficient to light up the entire room even without the presence of a torch. I was told that she had unimaginably powerful magic, and that she was subdued using a powerful seal by our shamans. What our hunters lacked in brute force, they made up for it in ingenuity. Obviously since I could hardly imagine them subduing anything so… unreachable with brute force. I heard that she was a rare creature called an elf, and that she was kept to become the chief’s wife. But even with her magic sealed and her body bound, she was no less dangerous, and thus kept here until she was calmer.
Normally, I wouldn’t be allowed to meet prisoners like this, but for some reason, she only spoke to children. For the obviously unreasonable reason that the chief wanted to form friendly relations with a kidnapped woman, we were made to talk to her. At first, I was reluctant but over the days, I was fully immersed in the stories she told me. Slowly, day by day, I came to befriend her.
I was escorted inside with a man in leather wraps wielding a great spear of spine and bone. After checking me for suspicious items, he stood at the door while I ran towards the chained woman.
“ Alliana, Alliana, I’m back!”
The elf slowly opened her eyes, and I nearly wet myself when her cold eyes raised to meet mine. The bloodlust made me tremble in place and only after nearly a dozen long seconds, did recognition finally dawn on her delicate face.
“Oh, I’m sorry child, I didn’t realise it was you.”
I let out a sigh of relief as the pressure lifted off my shoulders. I cheered myself up as soon as it did.
I won’t let a bad mood stop me from listening to my only source of adventure!
“It’s fine, Alliana, but come, on, tell me more stories! I want to listen to more of your travels! Tell me more of the world outside!”
She merely chuckled before replying with a question.
“Well then, young one, how much did I tell you last time?”
“Until the part where you were called back to Alkstar!”
“Ah yes, I left my daughter to take care of my grandchild and went back to Alkstar because I was summoned by the elven council. They don’t usually summon back anyone who defiled their precious bloodline, but it was apparently a serious issue for me to be summoned for aid. I guess it was only natural given the scope of my knowledge-“
“You have grandchildren? But you look soo young! But why did you have to leave your family behind when you returned?”
The elven woman chuckled again.
“Ah young one, you must understand that I am old, very old despite my appearance, true elves such as myself don’t age. We would be immortal if our bodies could actually handle the magic stored within by the time we reach the end of our lifespans.”
Then her expression saddened further.
“I… very much like yourself, wanted to explore the world, so I left behind my old home to accept a new one. I fell in love, had children, watched them grow until they had their own, but they were not pureblood elves and so were shunned by my kind. Even if they were actually allowed in, they would die from mana poisoning.”
My mind enraged at the thought of the elves trying to separate her family.
Despite everything, no matter how better their society sounded better than my own, NO-ONE should try to split apart a happy family! That was just too horrible!
“That was horrible! Why did you go back to those bad people who won’t even let them come with you?”
"It's not like your clan is any better."
"We-" I stuttered.
Byt before I could say anything, she gave me a sad smile as our eyes locked.
“It was the only choice. I can't exactly bring them with me you know. Sometimes young one, you must make a sacrifice so that your family can survive, so that they can thrive. But it was fine, and it wasn’t even that bad, because I returned to my Illya and my adorable grandchild merely after a decade of service anyways. I was even able to return with lots of money and magical items so my return was an event to remember!”
She let out a happy laugh.
“I can’t imagine staying away from my mother and sisters for so long! Weren’t you lonely?”
She gave me a sad smile again as she closed her eyes.
“Oh yes, it was horrible, even if a decade isn’t a long time in the life of an elf, it’s still a considerable amount of time. It was torture being away from my young ones for so long, oh how long I spent being worried and fretting over the thought of something horrible happening to them! But I managed to calm my nerves by taking some students during my stay there.”
“Oh yes, I taught the younger generations the way of magic. They were a weird batch if I say so myself, but I was happy during my time with them. One of them was even a princess I tell you!”
“REALLY? What was she like? Was she strong?”
Alliana chuckled as she replied.
“Of course that’s your question, what is with you and your obsession with strength, young Maya? Do you really desire it so? But yes, she was strong. Not at that very moment, but she had the talent and potential to become very, very strong, despite only being the 28th in line to the throne. Ariel was such an outstanding prodigy! So were Iola and Nael. There were a lot of good students among them, huh. It was a lucky catch.”
I tried to ask for more clarification but all her replies were very vague.
“Oh, I also had a whole lot of pranksters among them as well, it was interesting training them and I had to be very, very strict. Those ungrateful brats even had the mettle to call me a nightmarish hag! How I wish I could go and smack sense into them all again.”
She let out a long, sad sigh before continuing.
“That was.. in the year 862 on the sixth kings calendar, I think. Now its…hmmm… the year 971? Oh my, it’s so close to the next coronation, I hope Ariel makes it out unscathed. It would be sad if something happened to her.”
“Alliana, don’t be unfair! You skipped over a hundred years! Tell me more about your time as a teacher, I didn’t know you were such a respected person! Tell me more about your time there!”
Her eyes were nearly completely closed at this point and I could see the exhaustion on her face.
“Maybe later, girl… I’m very tired right now and I want to rest, come back tomorrow hm?”
“Okay! See you tomorrow then!”
I visited her the next day, and the next and as time flew by, the less she talked. The exhaustion on her face was as clear as day and the sickness she suffered equally so. Her health kept deteriorating by the day. The chief became frantic at the thought of losing the woman he had spent so much effort in capturing and thus had a lot of search parties sent to the lands below, to bring back various humans and half-elves to try fix her problem, but none succeeded. Eventually, even I wasn’t allowed to meet her anymore.
One day, I sneaked past the guards during a change in their shift and what I saw made my breath freeze in my lungs. Her situation was alarming.
Alliana slept there like every other day, her face unchanged, her breath slow and heavy, but steady. Yet she did not open her eyes, nor did she respond to my cries of worry, nor my desperate shaking.
She was dying.
I knew it for her light was dimming. The warm glow which radiated from her skin and which once illuminated the entire room and drew my attention oh so many times, was now nothing but cinders of the flame which once raged within her. The room was dark and barely lit. I knew the problem there and then, and I knew that the shamans understood it as well, so did the people that were brought in from below, all of them.
It was simple actually.
Her body was running out of magic, and for a being like her, for a magical creature such as an elf, having her magic cut off from her was the same as suffocating her. But releasing the seal would be the same as releasing her. It was too dangerous to unleash her inside the cave for she would utterly destroy the tribe. If we were to release her, all the chief’s efforts in capturing her and attempts at making her his bride would be for nothing. He knew he couldn’t have her but still, the chief kept her here, took away her sustenance and locked up in this dark forgotten corner of the world, so far away from her family.
Only to die.
The chief, my uncle was a bad man, a stubborn man, like so many of the men in my clan and evil even more so. I understood this as I let go of my own stubbornness in defending my clansmen’s practices. I now saw evil everywhere I turned. I could see the suppression, the tyranny which was carried out in the name of tradition. And I sat there helplessly as I watched the last embers which was Alliana’s life, extinguish.
There and then, when the light left her eyes, I made a wish.
I made a wish over my tears, my cries, my little acts rebellion. I wished for retribution, for Justice.
And the deities answered.
One day, several days later, I ran away from home. My ultimate act of rebellion, my challenge against the chief’s acts. wounded and scarred, hunted and with nothing but punishment to await me, I ran.
I ran and ran till my feet gave way and fell into the snow. I left myself to the mercy of the beasts of the wilderness. Neither my parents, nor my sibling rose in my defence, my cries for justice. When I rose to speak and sought support, they just stood there, as mere bystanders, almost as if all these years we spent together meant nothing to them.
Day fell as the sun dipped beyond the horizon and the moon rose, illuminating the night with its beautiful light. I stared at it as the heat left my body. I may be a Ureyan girl, but even my racial resistance to the cold, nor the clothing made from the warmest of furs, were enough to keep the harsh mountain winds to strip away what heat I had left.
Tonight I was to die, but death never came.
Something was wrong.
Against all odds, I survived till midnight. Just as I collected enough strength to rise up, something prevented me from doing so. Something kept me rooted in place. It was my mind, holding my body down in place, despite all my effort and struggle to rise. Why was I stuck in place? My body didn’t freeze enough for me to be rendered immobile, and I definitely, am not dead.
Close, but no.
Then I saw it.
And I clearly understood why.
The fear was oppressive to such an extent that my entire body was frozen in place, like a statue. Not a single muscle in my body dared to move. I wasn’t able to scream, nor cry. I was petrified. It was no intentional affliction or magic the monster directed at me, but merely the effect of the sheer amount of bloodlust oozing out of its slender form. It felt similar to what Alliana occasionally let out, but worse.
Multiplied a hundredfold and then compacted in intensity.
My heart nearly stopped beating there and then.
It stood on all fours, barely a few feet ahead of me, and through my half shut eyes, I saw two blue orbs staring back. Its eyes almost seemed to be two balls of ethereal flame suspended in the two hollow depressions in its face. It had pointy ears, as I noticed, and its dull skin was grey very much like our own. But all signs of familiarity ended there. The creature’s skin was… unnerving. It almost seemed to be made of some sort of wood, its flesh seemed to be entirely made of elastic fibres of muscle, but the lines seemed to be carved into its form as if it was a decoration. Its torso appeared as a mass of luminescent leaves from which four spindly limbs rose. And on it’s head was adorned a crown of what appeared to be branches.
It was beautiful. Mystical. Terrifying.
Oh, so terrifying.
It slowly crawled closer to me. Its face merely inches away from mine. My eyes were closed by that point, but I could still feel its unnerving presence, its power. The light from its eyes was so intense that it lit my mind white, the membrane of my eyelids failing to protect my soul from its blazing gaze which roared with the intensity of an inferno.
But thankfully, I was cold, already dying.
It had no need for my flesh for it had a different purpose to carry out tonight, and I knew not what. As I felt its presence shift and slide over me, I heard cries of alarm from behind me. The huntsmen obviously catching sight of the unsurmountable threat that made its way towards them. I heard a bang behind me as the creature launched itself forward, its speed rending the air apart. And to my horror, I saw another one making its wat towards the cave.
THERE WERE TWO OF THOSE THINGS?
Screams of terror and pain rent the night for hours on end as the entire clan was wiped out one by one. I lay there, petrified and scared. Then I felt the creature’s presence once more as it walked away. My eyes were open and I had not the courage to even close them lest the movement alert it of my presence. But thanks to that, I managed to see something that perplexed me to no end. The creatures were bathed in blood, blood of my clansmen, yet it was carrying Alliana’s body. It held her up carefully as it walked away, as if it was cradling its own daughter. I watched them until they disappeared from my sight.
But I understood what it had done.
The monster dealt justice to my friend in my place.
But it was too much. Too heavy was the regret that weighed my mind. This was not what I wished for. Not like this...
I didn’t wish for everyone to be killed.
Today, as the sun rose over the sky, the last Ureyan in the Karnulian mountains sat there crying my eyes out. I didn’t fear the predators that prowled these lands as I had nothing to lose, but they avoided me as well, merely for the fact that the presence of the walking calamity that visited my Clan still lingered in the air.
And then I woke up.
-Today, The Fort of the Lion’s Gate-
I woke up from my nightmare. The same nightmare that had haunted every night of sleep for the past 43 years.
I am a Ureyan, commonly known as the winter elf. We were not elves in any literal sense of the term other than the fact that we had long pointy ears. Even so, they were even longer than the ones possessed by the elves for mine were nearly a foot long each! Some humans found it fairly unattractive while others seemed to roll head over heels for it. They were a queer bunch by the way. In actuality, we are rumoured to be a race originating from a group of half-elves who transformed to survive the harsh conditions of the Karnulian range, so I don’t know what to think of my social situation here. We had roughly double the lifespan of a human, and yes, we are very much a mortal race despite what our name suggested.
My desire to explore was fulfilled, and I was even discovered to possess great talent in magic, even receiving the offer to study under the great archmage, Raphsal of Gilleon tower. He found me and kindly offered to tutor me. I would have considered myself a lucky woman under normal circumstances, but no.
I knew the price for the happiness I am experiencing right now. It was a terrible price, one which no girl should ever come to pay. But I did, and the nightmares never forgot me for a single day.
And I never forgot.
I started to adorn the length of my ears with enchanted silver rings, to stabilise my magic. By how Alliana had explained it, I thought that learning magic would be an easy task. But even with all the tomes and grimoires, even with the guidance of an archmage and even with my supposed talent, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It took me well over five entire years merely to cast an unstable flicker of flame. Magic was an intangible existence, something I knew to be there, but untouchable yet.
I never understood how to make it obey my will, and I still don’t. However, I eventually managed to learn to channel it through my body and I was now able to dish out spells of intermediate difficulty. However, like all mages, I needed a wide assortment of enchanted support to do it. Now that I thought about it, the ease at which the elves commanded magic without the same was terrifying. I could understand why the chief was so obsessed over them. To command that monstrous power would just be enough to turn the tables on an otherwise disadvantageous skirmish.
I shook my head.
After I made sure all my ear-rings were in place, I Combed my unruly hair into place . I put on my uniform, a simple white tunic with a yellow cloak. It was an ugly thing and VERY unfashionable to boot. I didn’t care for fashion a lot but the other girls in my group cursed the invertor of this garb to the ends of the world.
As I stepped down the stairs which led to the dining room, I laughed as memories of some of those comments flashed in my mind. One thing led to another until my mind stopped.
I thought about my friends. There was me, then little young Jane, the unruly Irsif, charming old Lariot and…
Beautiful, proud Ralli Coal. My best friend. But she was no more, and in her place, now stood… THAT.
My eyes narrowed in open hostility at the monster that now replaced what was once my friend. She looked unnatural with how white her features were, almost to the point that it seemed inorganic. A chill went up my spine when her blazing orange eyes settled upon me. It reminded me of the eyes of the creature that annihilated my kin. It was different in every sense of the word but there was a similarity in how those eyes kept imposing its mind on those around it.
Rayola, was her name. She nodded at me as I sat down next to my mentor, Lord Raphsal.
“Good morning sir, you too Rayola.”
I greeted them both.
“Oh, good morning to you too, Maya. Rayola and I were discussing the terms of our contract, after all she will be escorting us for a good part of our tour!”
I bit my lip and gave my mentor a sad smile. I knew exactly how desperate Raphsal must be to go as far as to arrange a contract for Rayola to accompany us. She was always his favourite student after all… For him, the young woman was the equivalent of his own child.
To him… she was like his own daughter. And to now see her like this… I could hardly imagine how much pain he is enduring right now. I remember the day we heard he news… of the fire. He really did, almost die of a heart attack.
“So, back to our topic, we will then leave the Rhinestone Gorge and finally, stop at the United front fort-city. By that time, most of the batch would finish up their current term. And then, our contract’s over.”
“Isn’t that four months ahead of time? From what I understood, I thought you’d want me to stick with you until the beginning of the winter year.”
“I’ll be very occupied in the efforts for reclaiming the spectral woods, and that’s something which is going to take a long time to see through. So I might as well let all of you go for the time being.”
She nodded in understanding.
“So, I’ll get going then. I gotta get all my things and let my friends know. We’re going our separate ways as of today, so we might as well spend some time together before we part..”
“Sure, I won’t be keeping you here any further. We’ll meet up here tomorrow at daybreak, so it would be great if you’re prepared to travel by then.”
Rayola nodded in confirmation one last time before sliding the chair back underneath the table.
“Have a good day, sir. I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
“Goodbye.” Raphsal said as he waved her away.
I watched them as they parted, and let out a long sad sigh as I watched her leave the inn. Raphsal patted my shoulder as he noticed the melancholy in the air.
“ It’s a sad thing, seeing her but not.” He stated.
“ It is.” I confirmed.
A grumble rang in the air and I blushed when I noticed that my stomach was the source of it. The archmage burst out laughing.
“Get some breakfast girl, you’re late.”
My face blushed furiously in embarrassment as I waved my hand attempting to catch the innkeeper’s attention.
Jane slowly climbed down the stairs and sat beside me.
“You’re late again Maya. Nightmares again?”
I nodded silently. Two small arms embraced me in a hug as she rocked me back and forth as if trying to calm a baby. My mood brightened by the little blonde girl’s adorable behaviour.
I nodded as a smile broke across my face.
“I’m fine.” I said, reassuring myself more than her.