Casper Valery was a 200-year-old gnome living peacefully within his village.
He wasn’t actually 200 years old, but rather, his most recent birthday was his twentieth. Gnomes could live up to 300 years and he’ll be damned if he had to count his age for a whole 300 years, assuming he gets to live that long.
Thus, a rule was agreed upon that the gnomes of Þú eigmuniðr gnomeð would only celebrate their birthdays once a decade. Since keeping track of everybody’s birthdays for centuries can be difficult, they lumped everybody’s birthdays with the celebration of the passing of seasons.
Today was one such day. To celebrate the coming of spring, the gnomes of his village all came together to hold a festival. Casper was coming back to his village after a day’s worth of hunting. Over his shoulder slung a sack full of game. Nothing beats good food during a celebration and Casper was pleased with how the food preparations were coming up.
He looked up and noticed the towering wall of oak that marked the center of their village just peeking over the dense treetops. Shading his eyes with his gloved right hand, he raised his head to look at the sun.
‘Hmm… It’s now around the thirteenth hour, better get my old bones up and running!’
Adjusting the position of the sack, he leaped onto a tree before speeding into the dense foliage. Eventually, a wooden sign hanging on a tree branch came into view. The sign was worn and weather-beaten and the symbols on it could barely be made out. Þú eigmuniðr gnomeð. Below the symbols were words etched in the Common language. Silkweed Village.
The village that he resided in had a reputation for its products made out of silkweed. For simplicity’s sake, outsiders named their village the Silkweed Village as not everyone can understand the gnome language. The residents had no qualms about it and thus, their name came to be.
Silkweed was a local specialty that couldn’t be found anywhere else and served as their main source of income. In fact, the very sack Casper was holding was crafted by his wife with silkweed as its main material.
As he leaped from tree to tree, the leaves and branches parted to reveal the village. As forest gnomes, they carved out their buildings from tall, massive trees which blotted out the sky with its dense leaves. From a glance, four such trees rose from the ground, with many more in the distance.
From the various openings carved into the tree, light spilled out and the shadows of figures merrily moving about could be seen. Thick, coarse roots formed sturdy foundations for the wooden platforms built around them to form some semblance of regular terrain. Several roots deviated from the towering bark and formed tall archways that served to make the place look haunting.
Silkweed village was located in the Verdant Throne, the largest forest known to mankind. Legends say that an all-powerful being lies at the very center of this forest, serving as a guardian and protector. Many foolish adventurers have ventured into the forest’s depths only to never return. Most residents in the Verdant Throne worship this great being as a god and Silkweed Village was no different.
“The Verdant King has blessed us with a great harvest last year! Let us pray for even better years to come! Hurrah!”
By this point, Casper had already arrived at the village and landed his feet on the solid platform. The tree that he landed by had a tavern built into it and a passionate speech followed by resounding cheers could be heard from within it.
“Hehe, now would be a good time for a drink… Nope, nope. Gotta head back first!” Casper slapped his wrinkly forehead and walked off.
He crossed the wooden bridges connecting the trees to each other with light footsteps towards his home. Passing by the various tree buildings, he managed to get an idea of how the preparations for the celebration were coming along and was immensely proud of his community. There were silkweed streamers in various vibrant colors hanging from the various branches and roots of the trees. Various tapestries depicting the Verdant King in many forms hung from the windows, each neighbor boasting their artistic abilities to others.
“Dad! You’re back!” A female gnome with similar stature and features hopped down from a tree. She immediately plucked the sack from Casper’s fingers and slung it over her shoulder. Giving her dad quick hug, she headed back to their treehouse.
Titania was Casper’s eldest daughter and was old enough to be considered an adult in gnome years. She worked primarily as a seamstress but was also the lady of the house. Ever since their mother died a few years ago, she had to take care of her multiple younger siblings while Casper was out hunting food for the family.
“Alright everyone, settle down! I need to get started on the cooking!” Casper heard her voice echo through the treehouse, followed by boisterous whoops and cheers. Chuckling, he walked through the door of his house.
“Wow! So that’s your daughter who got kidnapped?”
“Hmm? What? No! Titania’s completely fine!”
Standing at the center of the cell was a life-sized replica of Titania. The illusion was so vivid it looked like she was present within their cell. Throughout the story, Casper had been recreating imagery from his encounters, making him a very talented storyteller.
“How many daughters do you even have?”
“Not a lot. Only about four. Sons I have plenty. There’s like, seven of them.”
“Oh… okay.” Kayden supposed that living a long life meant having the opportunity to make many children. As a human, hearing about gnome culture blows his mind.
“Hmm… There’s one thing that bothers me throughout this. Do gnomes actually eat meat? Somehow, that doesn’t feel right.”
He had been actively listening to the old gnome’s backstory, and there was a part where he carried home the prey that he had hunted. He recalled his master’s stories of gnomes that live in burrows and were masters of manipulating rocks, which was a stark contrast to what he was hearing about gnomes now.
“Of course we eat meat!” Casper retorted. “We forest gnomes eat the same things that humans do! What do you think we would eat?”
Kayden scratched his head. “I don’t know… Rocks, maybe?”
“WHA—Oh, those are rock gnomes” Casper was about to burst out in anger but sought to correct the boy’s mistake instead. Rocks gnomes shared the same ancestry as Forest gnomes, so the boy wasn’t completely wrong.
“Really? They eat rocks? Guess it’s in the name and all.”
“Yup. But other than that, they eat normal food too. Seriously, what have they been teaching you at school?”
“Hah! Surprise, surprise. I never went—”
“I don’t care! Back to the story!” Casper intertwined his fingers together, and the illusion began to change once more.
“Daddy! Daddy! Who is the Verdant King?” A little girl no taller than two feet hugged Casper’s side. This was Riva, his youngest daughter.
Casper chuckled heartily and carried her into his arms. He found a stool to sit on, before placing the girl on his lap.
“Let me tell you the story about the Verdant King.”
He lifted his free arm and projected a screen with moving images. While simultaneously casting his magic, he began to tell the tale.
“First off, nobody knows what the Verdant King truly looks like. Some say that he’s a beast so powerful that even the dragons had to be wary. Some say he is now a spirit of a very ancient tree in the middle of the Verdant Throne. Regardless of what he is, all the stories agree on one thing, he is the protector of the weak and gracefully sheltered us during our time of need.”
“As you know, the flames of calamity scorched Eden into five continents. To put out those flames, special methods were needed.” The original image of a lush forest turned into a glowing lake. It encompassed the whole room they were in, prompting Riva to reach out in an attempt to grab the non-existent water.
“One of these special methods was the water from the Lake of Beginnings. The spirit of the lake helped put out the flames from the goodness of her heart but lost much of her power. The water from her lake was highly coveted as it could cure wounds, curses, and diseases, and best of all, it could even put out flames of the calamity. Thus, in exchange for protection from any potential thieves, she provided her water for a certain group. The Verdant King was second-in-command of the forces she enlisted.”
Casper waved his hand to dispel the illusion, causing the lake to disappear, leaving behind a cloud of sparkles. “However, one day. There was a thief that stole the Origin Gem, which was said to be what gave the Lake of Beginnings its miraculous properties. With no more water to give, the forces that the water spirit enlisted left her one by one, all except one. The Verdant King.
“To fulfill the promise that he had made to the spirit, he marched all the way to the thief’s hiding place and managed to retrieve what was stolen. However, the thief was no ordinary person, they fought for countless days and nights before the Verdant King emerged the victor. He did not emerge unscathed, however, and was severely wounded.”
The illusion now showed a devastated battlefield that looked like a tornado swept through. Trees were uprooted and lay in random places while the ground showed long cracks.
“The spirit of the lake was touched by the loyalty of the Verdant King and decided to reward him with the Origin Gem itself. Using it, it could heal his wounds and save his life.”
Casper’s tone grew reverent as he continued to recount the legend.
“However, the Verdant King refused. He used the Origin Gem to repair the very land he destroyed during his battle, and it grew into a massive forest now called the Verdant Throne, where he stayed to this very day, recovering from his wounds.”
Casper grinned at the starry-eyed Riva.
“Now, by making this very forest, not only did he save us, but he also saved countless others as well! There’s a flock of harpies that were nearly captured and sold to slavery. You know what I’m talking about, it’s the aunties from the neighboring village! Thanks to his Majesty’s sacrifice, they are now living the best life that they could ever have!”
“Wow!” Riva raised both arms in excitement.
“And that’s why you have to be a good girl! If not, the Verdant King might not protect you anymore!” Casper pinched the little gnome’s cheek.
“Humph! I’m always a good girl! Elder sis said so!”
Casper laughed while clutching his belly. He stood up from his seat and sat her down on the stool.
“Daddy has to help Titania prepare the food. Why don’t you go play outside?”
“Okay!” Riva exclaimed as she jumped in. Following the slamming of the door, the sounds of her small nimble footsteps outside could be heard grow softer and softer until it was lost to the winds.
“And that was the last time I ever saw her,” Casper said with a sigh, dispersing the illusion of Riva with one hand.
“After the food was done, I called out to her but there was no reply. I figured she had gone to her friend’s house, but I couldn’t find her anywhere. Even during the festival, I got many friends and families out looking for her, but she still wasn’t found.”
Casper looked up at Kayden with somber eyes. His face filled with grief as he clenched his first. “I hope she’s alright, I really do.”
Kayden lay on the stone bench with his hands cushioning his head. “You know… that story was pretty anti-climatic. I kind of expected a more dramatic or tragic ending. You said you were trying to rescue her before you were captured, so you must have found out what happened to her, right?”
“Yeah, I did.” At this point, the old gnome’s eyes glowered, and his voice came out as a deep growl. “Slavers… Damn humans can never keep their hands to themselves.”
“You know I am human myself too, right? Why did you even tell me all this, anyway?”
Casper chuckled; his previous anger washed away. He held up two fingers. “There are two reasons. Firstly, we gnomes are more sensitive to mana than humans. From what I can sense, you aren’t particularly powerful.”
“Wow.” Kayden had his head down in shame.
“Cough! Compared to the other prisoners I mean.” Casper corrected, but the damage was already done. “As you said, only very dangerous criminals are supposed to end up here. You don’t strike me as one. Guess you could call it a gnome’s intuition.”
He imitated a gun with his finger and pointed it at the gates. A milky-white ball of mana shot out, only to disperse harmlessly upon hitting a transparent barrier.
“As you can see, you can use magic in here, but it can’t go out.” He leaned his head forward and whispered. “I suspect that they look forward to the prisoners killing each other.”
Kayden shrugged. “Guess they want us both dead, then.”
“Maybe. But listen to this, my arrest was very likely a special circumstance. I suspect that the slave traders that hold my daughter captive must have had some sort of influence. They probably arranged for me to be here so as to permanently dispose of me.”
He leaned back, before continuing, “Now, that brings me to the second reason I told you about my story.”
He raised an index finger and pointed straight at Kayden’s left cheek. From an outsider’s point of view, this seemingly innocent action made no sense whatsoever. However, his next words would leave Kayden in shock.
“That’s the same mark I saw on my daughter’s thigh when she was captured.”
His shoulders tensed.
Casper raised an eyebrow and leaned forward once more.
“You’re a slave too, aren't you?”