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Short Story Entry - Of Beginnings


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   The slanting rays of a setting sun dance upon a carpet of mottled gold leaves that cover the forest floor all around. And the tread of my cloven hooves make little sound as I move along the loamy edge of a two-track cart path worn between these old oaks.


   This cart path is what passes for a road between the ruins of Meriden, where I had recently been hunting with little to show for it, and the guild-lands of some group with a green and black banner... I’d watched a few of them from a distance over the last week and assumed the sigil, some sort of tree-like device, meant that they were associated with Gaea. This usually means the group are devotees of Balance, and in my experience they would not be openly hostile to my presence as long as I did not present myself as a problem.


   Either way, they were few in number and I wasn’t overly worried about patrols on the fringes of their lands, so I had allowed myself the luxury of travel by road this day – or at least the very edge of it.


   My ears flicked to and fro as I listened to the sounds of the late evening forest about me; the chirping of the night birds beginning to wake, the scuttle of a small animal as it moved on the fringes of the forest, and the rustle of a slight evening breeze through the leaves…


   I drank in the surrounding forest through all of my senses.


   Almost unconsciously I began to hum and piece together the beginnings of a melody; my antlers bobbing to fill in with the imaginary tempo. And as the woods about me added their own subtle tones to the harmony, I began to test a few words against it to capture the sense of peace that fills this place like the undisturbed surface of a quiet pond.


   It’s an odd habit I admit, my minstrel’s musings, but thoughts stick longer in the mind and are easier to recall when put to music, and I tended to relegate my scouting to song as that makes the details easier to recall later.


   But just as a pond's surface is disturbed and set into motion when a stone is plunged into it, my peace is likewise shattered by the clash of arms in the distance. The sounds that perk my ears are not loud really, but they strike so much against the grain of the natural woodland noises that they may as well have be a trumpet blast.


   I halt, crouching in the long shadows along the edge of the road. My dark fur and long cloak becoming nothing but a shadow amongst the tall trees and undergrowth as I focus my attention on the conflict; the snarl of more than one wild wolf, the sound they make when lunging into an attack, followed by a loud, singular cry of surprise - distinctly Human.


   I’m not normally one to get involved in matters not of my own making, but where there are wolves there is prey and I had yet to bag anything worth taking back to my camp – that and it’s never a bad idea to be owed favors…


   Standing, I quickly slide between the trees and leave the worn path I’d been following to instead make use of a thinly visible animal trail that leads deeper into the forest.


   As I move silently through the trees the sounds become louder; more snarls and an angry shout of "Come get some!"


   The air grows colder, the trees darker, and the ground sparser of undergrowth the further I progress towards the sounds of conflict. I lower my head to bring my antlers to bear as my steps slow; I am scenting a mix of musky fear and metallic blood nearby – which is always a bad combination.


   Rounding a large oak, its branches barren and curled like skeletal fingers, I step into a clearing; across the way a dark-haired Human male in similarly dark leathers has his back against a tree. He’s holding three enormous wolves at bay with a longsword in one hand and a dagger in the other, and the snarl that twists his face matches the wolves’ perfectly… But so far his blade work appears to have only succeeded in depriving one of the wolves of an ear, and for its part the animal is showing no less resolve for the lost bit of flesh and fur as it continues to seek an opening.


   I quickly take stock of the situation – years of scouting the Dying Worlds allowing instant assessment; the wolves in this land are pretty damn big, but these were unnaturally large examples with small patches of fur missing to show barren flesh – and an unnatural light glinted in their narrowed eyes…


   The Hunger had set into this pack, which meant Fall had clearly come early to this place…


   My silent approach bought me a moment of advantage, so I spent it and lunged toward the wolf on my left – succeeding in catching it by surprise. With my left arm around its neck to hopefully control those snapping jaws, I hauled back – my hooves digging furrows in the dead ground as I fought for the leverage to force the animal to sit back on its haunches – and I slid my horn hilted dagger into his soft underbelly towards the heart with my right.


   The animal was silenced instantly and it collapsed just as quickly, dragging me to ground with it as it slumped over.


   The snarling sound of a second wolf was decapitated by the slash of a longsword as an exclamation of bravado reached my ears; at least the Human was still alive.


   All that remained was the wolf with a single ear, and it circled just out of the Human's sword reach; rumbling deep in its throat. Repeatedly dodging swings, the beast danced about with almost supernatural grace as it waited for the man to tire.


   Kneeling next to my kill and working my dagger free, I saw one ear’s eyes flicker from the Human to the trees behind him and back again. Following the line of sight, I was just able to make out a faint outline in the dimming light; another one of these twisted wolves was approaching from the fighter's back, low to the ground, ready to pounce at any instant.


   There was no way I could reach the new combatant fast enough to keep the Human alive…


   I unslung the bow from my back in a practiced, fluid motion; bringing it up and around before me as my other hand was already nocking a black feathered arrow on the oiled string.


   The woods grew still around me as I drew back on the bow, sighting along my outstretched arm as mere seconds stretched out impossibly long... Runes delicately etched into the wood were beginning to glow with faint eldritch energy; my focus narrowing to a pinpoint just beyond the wolf’s hide, my ears picking up the slow beat of the beast’s heart as it prepared, the creak of sinew as muscles coiled for the leap…


   I let the arrow loose.


   The wolf fell as a brilliant shaft of emerald light lanced forth from bow, transfixing the wolf from stem to stern just as its lunge began. The arrow vibrated slightly, embedded to half its length in the tree behind the wolf. As the emerald glow from the enchantment upon it dissipated into a thin vapor, the smell of charred fur and eldritch power filled the little clearing.


   Keying on the distraction this caused, one ear made its attack. It was caught in mid jump by the fighter's shorter blade as he deftly dodged to the side, and the beast crumpled to the ground, twitching as its life ebbed from the mortal wound in its chest. The Human ended the beast with an angry exclamation and a thrust of the longsword to the head, and it lay still.


   Approaching the twisted creature that I had felled with an arrow, I found it too was still just barely alive. And I likewise ended its misery with a quick stab of my dagger just behind the shoulder... I was careful to note the pale blue glow in its eyes that expired as it did.


   That the Hunger had made it this far into the continent meant that I would have to plan my next few months very carefully…


   "I am in debt to you for your help." The words yanked me from my thoughts as I realized I was being spoken to, and I stood to turn and face their source.


   "I am Darith.” he said absently, more to himself than to me as he wiped the gore from his blades before looking up at my two-and-a-half-meter height with a small jump of surprise, "and by the silver lady! What manner of creature are you?"


   "Alder. Alder Darkmoon. That is my name." I responded slowly, bludgeoning my mind to remember the words in his language, "and I am... Elkin."




That's a bit over 1500 words, so I should stop there... I may introduce the next member of our little band, a Confessor searching for our mysterious swordsman, in another installment. :)

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(Just continuing the tale...)


Alder leans his sturdy frame upon the windowsill with one hand, and uncomfortably fiddles with the collar of his outfit with the other. He absently stares into the evening though the leaded glass before him, taking in the sweeping view of the lights below…


Out there, in the moonlit night, the city still hums - even at this hour; the lamps that line the streets and light windows strike sparks from the rippling inky black of rain-slick cobblestones. Alder knows that were he outside on a veranda, and not cooped up here in the palace, he could more than likely hear the commotion at The Rat’s Nest; the nearest tavern to the palace proper, and one known for being a place where mercenaries and nobles alike mingle.


And it is where he had left Darith. The odd human had insisted on following Alder to the capital, insisting that he had a life-debt to Alder and that he would not rest until it was repaid in full. While the human was loud and boisterous – absolutely useless for stealth – he was fairly good with a sword and had been marginally helpful over the last week.


Alder grumbles as he runs a finger under his collar again. Even though his current outfit is tailored specifically for him, a gift from Queen Ainuliden herself, Elkin necks and thrice-damned noble finery rarely mix.


He catches himself and tamps down his growing frustration. All of this ‘civilization’ never really sits well with him. He is a creature of the wilds and cities make him nervous; too many odd echoes and strange smells for his finely honed tracker’s senses.


He shakes his head and let’s slip a little chuckle; and don’t even get him started on the complexities of polished marble floors and hooves.


For these reasons, if he was in the capital he usually made it only as far as the aforementioned tavern where he’d meet up with one of the Queen’s security advisors and give them his reports. With the tavern’s mixed clientele, it had a certain scale that prevented him from perpetually hitting his antlers on lintels, hanging lamps, or other trappings of civilized life that the smaller races seemed so enamored with…


That and being at the tavern, casually overhearing the ebb and flow of information from both here and abroad, would be preferable to delivering the current situation report directly to Her Highness. Not that he minded the lass, specifically, but she operated on an entirely other level than he did, and she made him feel, well, simple…


But whatever is going on here at the palace had her wanting to hear his report directly. So he had to set aside his dislike of cities, come to the sprawling capital of the empire, and deal with palace bureaucracy… Like that damnable chamberlain who wouldn’t let him into the Queen’s private wing of the palace looking like, to quote, ‘a bear with antlers and smelling like one as well’.


That delayed things by at least an hour, on top of being responsible for his current state of attire-based annoyance.


His ears flick at the sound of something in the kitchens down the hall, and he looks over his shoulder towards the door of the room in the reflection of the window.


Behind him sits a large and rather ornate dark oak desk. In front of the desk sit three matching chairs with deep red upholstery, and behind the desk there is no chair at all, just a large crimson pillow. The set occupies the center of the room’s polished stone tile floor, which is inlayed with bronze to create a stylized sword, shield, and raven motif that is echoed everywhere in the empire. The desk itself is festooned with loose papers, maps, stacks of old books, and two lit candelabras that lend a warm light to the chaos.


The room itself is rather pleasant; there are two immense seven-meter tall windows framed with thick deep red curtains that are currently drawn back. These windows flank an equally immense fireplace made of gold edged white marble, which currently contains a well banked fire that is attempting to chase off the damp night air.


The remaining walls around the room are lined with shelves of books from the floor to the ceiling some ten meters above. And two winding open staircases on either side of the entry into the library lead to a walkway around the perimeter, about five meters above the floor.

Scattered around the room are lit braziers casting light and warmth, various ladders for reaching those harder to get tomes, and miscellaneous crates of old velum scrolls awaiting binding.


He sighs as the cathedral bells begin to toll out nine times. The Lady is undoubtedly in the garden, as she tends to be to end her day, and he knows better than to trouble her there… But there really is no option for waiting any longer.


Alder can feel his frustration returning, furrowing the dark pelt between his brows, and he silences it once again. He takes a step back from the window, allowing the light from a nearby brazier to overcome the night outside and illuminate his visage, turning the window into a makeshift mirror.


There in the window his doppelganger looks back; various shades and patterns of black fur and big emerald green eyes, with a broad cervine nose and large expressive ears beneath large many-pointed antlers.


He adjusts his uniform a bit with thick, heavy-nailed fingers; lining up the buttons of the quilted black satins and velvets of his doublet and coat before pausing to inspect the ornate armor at his shoulders. He feels the absence of his bow as he would note the absence of an arm – but weapons are only allowed to the Praetorians within the palace, and Alder is just a mercenary.


A mercenary in direct service to the Queen, but still a mercenary.


He knows he is pointlessly fidgeting in the hopes the Lady will walk in and he can deliver his report without interrupting her – but it is not to happen.


Damn chamberlain…


With a final nod to his reflected twin, he strides out of the room and towards the garden.

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The gardens of the palace are always at their most magical under the silvery light of the moon. The various night-blooming flowers, artfully arranged by the groundskeepers, are scenting the cool night air with the sweet perfume of nature while myriad fireflies twinkle amidst the topiary.


Even the lamps that line the covered walk around the garden walls are carefully placed to add to the overall ambiance. Though the Praetorian Guard had interceded a bit on that point during the design; preferring a lack of shadows to hide in over frivolous mood lighting.


She’d counted four – no, there were two more at the archway leading into this walled botanical sanctuary – so there are six armed guards trying to be inconspicuous around the garden at this moment. She knows they have their reasons for being vigilant, after all the world beyond the walls can be a decidedly unfriendly place – but this does not stop her from secretly wishing the guard would take the night off…


Their presence is a constant reminder of the tensions in the lands beyond the walls of the palace.


As she slowly winds her way between the various carefully shaped trees and beds of groomed plants, the gravel of the brick edged path crunches quietly under her silver-shod hooves. She comes here sometimes, late at night and after the petitioners have all gone home, to clear away the day’s travails of running a nation. The trees and flowers care not for the petty squabbles of people, and in their midst she is sometimes able to borrow a bit of their serenity – if only for a while.


She pauses at the foot of the massive oak that presides over the north end of the garden to reminisce a moment, causing the long fur-trimmed train of her ornate cloak to drape over her hindquarters and whisper to a stop about her back hooves.


Her father was King Kaelis Ainuliden, and he had decreed that she, and her two brothers, would learn the arts of statecraft at an early age. At her father’s hooves she learned much about the functional and financial ins and outs of the Legion and its operations. And though even he could not make an acceptable shield maiden out of her, he supported her innate talent with numbers with the best books and tutors the kingdom could provide.


On her 20th birthday she, and the entire royal family, had been killed in a sweeping coup. And for reasons she’s never quite figured out, she awakened as one of eternal spirits waging an endless war for the Gods… It’s not like she was a great warrior, or a brilliant tactician, or anything that would be handy in a cosmological conflict. She’s not even certain which of the Gods is responsible for her current state of spiritual endlessness; though she’s come to suspect Kronos is somehow involved…


Time has little meaning in the endless spring that is the Eternal Kingdoms, but in the period since she awakened into this afterlife she has come to discover that her father’s lessons in statecraft have made her very successful at one thing; and the present state of the Selentine Empire, her Empire, is proof enough of that.


After this moment of contemplation, she smiles and reaches out to place the palm of her hand on the old oak’s warm bark in silent greeting – the finely wrought silver bracer that graces her forearm, and which matches the bands about her lower forelegs, glinting in the moonlight…


This is her favorite spot here in the garden. This old tree feels, to her, as if it is the ruler of all it surveys; it looks out over its leafy citizenry from this spot in much the same way she looks out at her own citizens from the windows of the palace.


But here she is not the ruler. Here she is simply a quiet observer to the efforts of a silent nation whose borders are the garden’s walls.


She glances down to a lone flower between the oak’s roots. It is a small thing, which one of the groundskeepers has apparently overlooked; clearly the flowers over there are unhappy with being so far from the fountain over here, so they have sent a representative to speak with King Oak… She likes to imagine the sorts of things the plants would come to King Oak for, and how he would resolve their issues…


“My Lady…”


The voice that comes from several paces behind her is sonorous and shatters her introspection abruptly, causing her to jump slightly and her tail to lash in annoyance. She pulls her hand away from the tree and turns her upper body slightly to view the speaker.




The huge Elkin who all but materialized out of thin air behind her offers a bow before he speaks again, keeping his eyes low. “You asked to be informed when I had actionable intelligence on that site the miners unearthed, I have that now – as well as indications that the Tirynian Circle moves on the site as we speak. They are three days from the site; three wagons, six crafters, and two squads fully armed.”


“I see...” She motions toward the arched entry into the garden and the manor proper beyond as she speaks. “Thank you Alder, please meet me in my office. I shall be along shortly, as soon as I speak with Imperious and send an appropriate response to these scavengers...”


The Elkin nods once and turns sharply to return whence he came; she is struck by how uncannily silent and fluid the huge creature moves.


Valinye sighs quietly and reaches out to pat the old tree once more, “It appears there is no rest for the weary my friend…”

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Several hours pass whilst the Elkin is off reporting to whomever the leader of these lands are, and this gives Darith ample time to explore a bit of the city.


Curiously for him, the general language of these people is Vhirel’eth, the Old Tongue, the spoken language preferred by the Fae and those of their ilk - like the Centaur. Darith has never been one for languages other than his own because there was no real reason to pick up another… The Humans are so plentiful that trade tends to happen on their terms, so everyone somewhat speaks their language.


The same held true here – luckily enough – and he was able to spend his coin on a meal and mead in short order once he’d returned to the tavern.


He sits nonchalantly on an oversized rough-hewn bench he’s claimed for himself, and watches the activities of the place with a practiced eye. It’s clear enough that the establishment is more than a simple watering hole; at this very moment there are a good half-dozen patrons in finery that belies means that would normally see them hard pressed to frequent such a rough-shod establishment. And just as clearly the ruling class of this place are Centaur; the heavy wooden floor holds as many of the thick mats the Centaur use as it does benches for bipeds. Outside there are the famed paved roads of the horsemen that define the city, and the shallow ramps versus stairs for the battlements are another dead giveaway.


For Darith this merely means the scale of things are a bit larger than he is accustomed to, which also means the shadows are a bit larger too – and this appeals to him.


The down-side is that the Centaur are known for policing their territory with fanatical zeal. Their society is entirely based on civil service, and because service is what grants full citizen rights they generally look forward to serving in some capacity.


And this means a plentiful supply of constables and guards.


Darith frowns slightly, remembering the last time he was on the wrong end of 40-odd stone of overly-angry pole-armed man-horse…


At that moment the Alder returns from his meeting with their queen, reflexively ducking slightly as he crosses the threshold into the tavern.


It was pretty easy to recognize Alder as there just weren’t a lot of three-meter-tall bipedal Elk wandering around, even here, and the few there were tended to be brown toned instead of the grey and black colors of Alder. The Elkin’s expression was inscrutable to Darith, who figured the Elkin was just stoic all the time, but the creature’s movements indicated no small level of annoyance.


The Elkin slumps down onto the bench next to Darith and gesticulates as his deep voice rumbles. “Kaisera’a Ainuliden denen’ne ieo gan’ne elb acin’ne hadri… Te’maga eom ieo geun’ne ois!?” He punctuates this with a motion towards the door and questioning look.


Darith blinks. “I have no idea what you just said Alder…”


Alder’s ears droop slightly, an indication that Darith has quickly come to associate with the Elkin feeling sorry about something, and Alder follows this with a shake of his head. “Alder sorry friend Darith. Alder forget Darith not speak Alder’s tongue.” The words come haltingly with a thick Fae accent; “Queen sends Alder to steal map from enemy so that Queen know enemy plan, Alder know not how to do such thing.”


Darith brightens, having been pondering how to broach the subject of ‘acquisitions’ with his new hairy friend. “You’re in luck Alder, as I happen to know a thing or three about the procurement of things from people who would rather them not be procured.” The human glances around the room quickly, “But – not here. Is there somewhere we can discuss this in private?”


The Elkin processes the rapid-fire words for a moment before nodding his head, “Alder knows quiet place, come.” And he flows back to his hooves to tower over Darith as he motions towards the door once again.


Following Alder through the city is not unlike properly casing a location before a heist; the Elkin instinctively sticks to the shadowy edges of streets and darkened alleys, and avoids notice of pretty much everyone as he leads them both to a central park-like location. If Darith were not so well versed in this particular sport, Alder would have lost him a half dozen times on the way…


The greensward is thick with trees and tall grasses, and as they near the center of the small wood the street lamps and people of the city fade away. “None come here in dark.” Alder announces. “Rumor of wild beast…” The Elkin makes a low growling noise that makes Darith’s hair stand on end before making an odd whistling laugh. “No beast, just Alder.”


Here between the trees is an area of flattened grasses and piled leaves about 5 meters across. Alder strides over to one of the trees and fishes about in a hollow for a moment before producing a leather sack. “This where Alder stays when in city,” he states before shaking his head in the negative. “Alder no like houses, forest better. Forest home.”


The Elkin takes a seat on the ground and reaches into the bag to produce a handful of berries that he pops into his mouth. “Now, tell Alder how to steal map.”




(I'm having to take some great liberties with the lore here to generate some interesting character interaction - take everything with a grain of salt as it will undoubtedly change when we actually know how the world works. :) )

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