NAMELESS ENTERS THE FIRELANDS
The heat was oppressive, and burning fingers scratched gleefully at the skin beneath his clothes. Nameless felt a paradoxical chill as perspiration rolled down his spine, but concerning himself with such discomfort was a luxury he could ill afford. Here, in the Lands of Fire, the watchers hid in what should have been plain sight, yet their movements were obscured by intermittent mirages and the painful glare of sunlight bouncing off crystallized sand. Countless generations of devotion and adoration meant that the skills of these elves were honed to such a degree that they could anticipate the interactions between the sun and the land upon which it blazed with benevolent fury; and they had taken great advantage of their abilities. Thankfully, Nameless had stopped at Baelin’s Cross before making the journey across the hills that seemed to try in vain to retreat from the baking sun towards the more moderate climes of the near north, their extremities parched and bare.
In that sleepy town, that small, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet, a sly merchant who knew more than he should and less than he needed told Nameless of the whispers coming from these southerly lands. He told of blinding sunlight coming from the ground itself, loosed at unwelcome guests like a barrage of fiery arrows defending a citadel from a siege; and he told also of ghostly creatures of light appearing on the horizon and darting from vision to emerge at your throat and slice hot blades across your melting flesh. The merchant knew of the whispers…but he also knew the truth, a rarity in a world of superstition. He had taken Nameless into a back room and showed him something the exiled elf had never seen before. ‘When you reach the Firelands,’ the merchant explained, ‘put these on. They will protect your eyes from what are nothing more than tricks played by their…god.’
Nameless had found the man’s demeanor offensive, but his explanation was sound, and Nameless had spent long enough amongst humans to learn of their hypocritical disdain for beliefs they deemed primitive while maintaining norms rooted in antiquity. He had considered killing the man, but that bore the risk of drawing unwanted attention; and ignorance alone did not warrant death. Havell, his adoptive father, had taken great pains to ensure that this elf he had raised as his own boy would not be so quick to anger, and it still shamed Nameless that he had reacted so when he had found the old man’s broken body beneath his cherished writing desk. Despite the seven men Nameless had sent to the next world in revenge, Havell was still dead. Nameless had learned a great lesson that day, but he also saw the human world with such clarity that he knew it was time to leave. Strange the way one’s path is laid.
Now, as he descended the sun-blasted reaches of the Border Hills, the last vestiges of vegetation crunching beneath his feet as he came upon one of the towering Border Stones of the Firelands, Nameless had taken the merchant’s advice and put the colored lenses to his face, hooking the light wire arms behind his ears to keep them in place. Ridiculous they might have looked, but with these…spectacles on, Nameless saw instantly what trickery was afoot beyond the tall markers of Sun Elf territory. Light still bounced off the crystals embedded strategically in islands of rock, but it would have rendered him temporarily dazed had he not been so protected. The stone islands were relatively small here at the outskirts of the lands, but he could see larger ones in the distance; and he understood that he would have to be careful how he moved through this place. The time he had arrived here did not help either, for with the sun at his back, the larger of these seemingly randomly-placed defenses offered ideal cover for Sun Elf scouts to accompany him without his knowledge as he penetrated farther into their territory. Even as the sun moved across the sky, these omni-directional beacons would spell doom for unsuspecting travelers.
Nameless stepped forward, reaching out with one hand to touch the sandstone obelisk of the border. He saw another one in the eastern distance, but the shimmering heat obscured its form and kept it dancing on the horizon. This one was cooler than he had expected, and its markings were intricate, beautiful and mysterious. The esoteric pictograms of sun worship were so ancient that were it not for the great longevity of elves, their meaning might have long been lost. Nameless struggled to make sense of them, and sadness gripped him. Yet before his melancholy could set in, his right foot struck something on the ground, and he looked down to see a glistening, polished surface peeking out from the sand. Reaching down, he lifted an egg-shaped, transparent stone, realizing immediately that this was one of the magical stones used to illuminate the world of the Sun Elves when night fell. ‘It must have fallen out,’ he mused aloud, looking up to the heights of the Border tower where such things were likely stored.
He had a choice, for more than one merchant had spoken to him of Sun Stones and their great worth: he could buy all the weapons, armor and supplies he needed to complete his quest. He could turn around right now, find the nearest port and pay for passage on a ship to bring him up the coast and avoid the parched lands before him. But he did not. Instead, he decided that it might be best to offer the stone to any Sun Elves he encountered, as a show of good faith. So he pocketed it and continued on, leaving the hills behind as his trail-beaten boots met the blistering wastes of the Lands of Fire. My feet will burn in this hell, he thought. My soul for a good pair of boots.
‘A fair price,’ came a voice like crackling tinder. Nameless looked around, but there was no one to be seen. Unless…
He moved swiftly towards the first large island of rock and crystal, shielding his eyes even with the spectacles on. Not until his own shadow doused the glare could he see properly, and here he knew that this was the closest one could get to finding a safe way to traverse the defenses. He moved around to one side of the unnatural cluster, seeing a still form behind it. An elf was seated with its back to the shimmering rock, a bejeweled and wickedly curved blade discarded at its feet. Nameless looked all around with his hunting knife drawn, for this might have been a trap. But no one else was near, and the seated elf was dead, his semi-naked body parched and his skin brittle. ‘This wasn’t just from the sun,’ Nameless told himself, for it looked as if the elf’s hair had been torn from his scalp. ‘What happened to you?’
He sheathed his knife and set about searching the body, relieving him of a number of small weapons, a healing salve, some sort of dried leaves in a pouch, and, of course, the beautiful blade for which the poor soul would have no more use. All the while, Nameless was eyeing the elf’s footwear. They were not boots, merely soles strapped around the feet and ankles; but they were in one piece. ‘My soul, you said?’
The only response was akin to a memory of derisive laughter, and Nameless appreciated the inference. Only amongst Wood Elves would a man take another’s shoes, for they were not really the other’s to begin with. To take them from one whose days were marked by constant vigilance in service to his people would dishonor him. Still…Nameless had a lot more walking ahead of him. He decided that it was for The Greater Good, that scapegoat for shameful decisions that Humans held so dear. There was still more time to leave their ways behind him.
The sun was climbing higher in the sky, so Nameless’ shadow was growing shorter as he resumed. Any shade he might cast across the crystals would do him no good if he had to be almost upon them before knowing if someone was waiting to cut his throat. He could see the rolling mirages on the horizon, and it was clear that the mind would be at least as guilty of trickery out here as any concerted defense on the part of the Sun Elves. Hazy figures like spirit bodies moved across the fiery distance, but Nameless considered them nought but what they were: distractions. He heard the crunch of feet on sand and turned to face a charging attacker to his left. For a fleeting moment he wondered what this creature was, but there was no time to give it much thought, for blades were drawn.
With just his dagger, he parried a clumsy but vicious attack which would have at least severed his jugular – if not taken his head clean off – and he dropped to spin on his right foot, slicing his attacker’s calf muscle with his dagger so that the creature lost its balance. It worked, but the creature dropped to one knee and still managed to lash out with a flailing arterial extension that stung like a barbed whipcord. It scratched Nameless’ face and he stumbled back to gather himself, drawing his hunting knife. Both forearms of the creature were sliced to allow these demonic protrusions to seek their victim, and Nameless moved back in quickly to dodge a swipe of one before severing it. The creature yelped like a feral dog, its whine turning swiftly to a growl. The second artery whip lashed out, but Nameless was back out of range and he now had his small crossbow in hand. A bolt pierced the creature’s eye…and silence fell. That is, until the dark laughter was no longer a memory. With his hand to his bleeding face, Nameless shouted, ‘Who are you? Come out and show yourself!’ And the land swallowed him.
‘Welcome, Lonely One.’
Nameless groaned and coughed dust from his mouth. Blinking in the half-light, he saw a figure take shape before him. ‘You could have just invited me in,’ he quipped as the stranger stepped closer and offered his hand. It was a pale-skinned elf, garbed in robes of black and red with silver trim which twinkled in the torchlight of what seemed to Nameless to be an underground workshop. There was strange equipment around the place, and a great cylindrical device directed upwards to the now closed portal through which Nameless had fallen. ‘I presumed you would not have come willingly,’ the pale elf replied as he moved away. ‘Especially since one of my sentinels caused you such distress.’
Nameless looked around for his crossbow, seeing its hilt protruding from fallen rocks. The crystals which had crumbled into this place looked almost dead in the darkness. Gathering up his crossbow, Nameless hooked it to his belt as he brandished his hunting knife. ‘You control those creatures?’
The pale elf chuckled darkly. ‘You should appreciate the irony, Lonely One,’ he mocked. ‘They were once human.’
‘Why do you call me “Lonely One”? I thought elves called my kind “Nameless”.’
‘And why should I do as other elves?’ the pale elf countered. ‘You do not.’
‘As am I. Yet you and I are the same. How does that sit with you?’
Nameless shook his head and moved towards the strange elf. ‘It doesn’t,’ he snarled. ‘My mother and father were exiled from these lands long ago, and I was raised by a human when they were later hunted and killed. How are you anything like me?’
‘Put away your blade, Lonely One.’ The pale elf walked towards the huge device, but was sure to keep a pillar of stone between him and his would-be aggressor. ‘I too am an exile…of sorts. Yet my exile was voluntary, for it is one of the spirit. The Sun Elves would name me…Heretic.’ He growled the word.
Nameless heard a crackling sound, and thought he could hear the voice he had heard at the border, this time repeating the word ‘Heretic’. There were no torches down here, no fire by which such sound might be made, yet neither was this an echo. ‘You’re not alone down here,’ Nameless realized.
The pale elf laughed aloud and said, ‘The irony of my exile is that I live with the cause. Or perhaps it lives with me.’
‘What is it?’
‘You need not concern yourself. But you should know that I live now to serve it. I am High Priest to its wishes.’
‘And what are its wishes, exactly?’
‘They are not to be known to one like you. But the Sun Elves will soon experience a revelation in which you might choose to share.’
Nameless looked up at the black cylinder. It was supported by mechanisms not unlike the wheels and levers he had seen once at the drawbridge of Gadden Keep. ‘What is this thing?’ Nameless asked, moving around so that the pillar no longer offered protection for the pale elf.
The self-appointed Priest edged farther back while gesturing expansively. ‘You do not need to be a thousand-year-old Sun Elf to understand the sun. You should know, having lived amongst humans and their pursuit of what they call “Science”.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Through this instrument, I have seen that the sun is soon to erupt. I have no doubt that the Sun Elves know this too, but unlike them, I know that this is a somewhat regular occurrence which has nothing to do with gods.’
‘And what good does that do you? Why hide down here watching the sun?’
The Priest grinned, but it was a twisted thing. ‘Sometimes the light is best appreciated from a place of darkness,’ he replied cryptically. ‘The perpetual light in which your kin up there live does nothing but dull their perceptions of the world.’
Nameless held his tongue for a moment, looking around. Something was very wrong, and the crackling sound was still in his head. The Priest stared at him knowingly. ‘So you also hear it?’ he taunted his guest. ‘Up there, they call it the Voice in The Flames.’
‘And what do you call it? Is it a demon of sorts?’
‘It is nothing of the sort!’ the Priest roared, his voice echoing around the chamber so it seemed as if the underworld were rumbling. In a much calmer voice, but one still laced with venom, he added, ‘It is The One True God, Consumer of Lies and Idols, and you would do well to show respect!’
‘The One True God?’ Nameless repeated. ‘Isn’t that what the Sun Elves call the sun?’
‘They are fools!’ the Priest hissed. ‘The One True God simply put the fire in the sky to keep His creation alive. To worship it is idolatry of the highest order.’
Nameless knew then what this madman intended, but he could see no evidence that he was capable of it. ‘Whatever you have planned, I won’t let you harm them,’ he promised.
‘You are as foolish as they,’ the Priest replied calmly. ‘Do you think they will welcome you as if their city was your home? You are Nameless, exiled, outcast!’
With unnatural speed, the Priest rushed forward to grab Nameless’ empty hand, turning it to see the star-shaped scar on his palm. ‘They will see your mark and damn you for it.’
‘You don’t know that!’ Nameless snapped, wrenching his hand back from the iron grip. ‘I am their kin!’
The Priest stared down at Nameless’ blade for a moment, before his eyes flicked up with a piercing glare and he declared, ‘Then you will die with them.’ A staff appeared in his hand and he stepped back to level it at Nameless’ chest. Taken off guard and unprepared for the magic, Nameless was thrown across the chamber by its invisible force; yet even though he was dazed, he still heard the Priest shouting commands: ‘Burn his eyes! Take his tongue! Make him wander the Wastes searching for the brethren he never had!’
As he clambered to his feet, Nameless thought for a moment that he was back up on the surface, but the blinding lights he saw before him came into focus not as flashes from crystals but as three…no, four blackened men unfazed by the fact that they were burning from head to toe. They lurched towards him, their melting flesh revealing muscle and sinew that would not stay in place for long. Just long enough to try to set Nameless alight and tear him apart. He drew from his belt the jeweled blade he had taken from the dead elf, and his burning foes howled as if nerves were being pinched. Nameless looked down to see a dull but steady pulse of blue light emanating from the pommel stone, and then he looked up to see that the burning men were afraid of it.
He rushed at the closest man and slashed his knife across his neck, but although the head lolled backwards, the flaming man still grabbed at Nameless. Whatever spell the glowing pommel stone had cast was evidently fleeting, and as the others closed in, Nameless realized that this was a fight he was not going to win. He cursed himself for not buying more suitable potions back at Baelin’s Cross, and as he backed away to the place where he had fallen through, he felt a force beneath one of his feet that almost made him stumble. The ground here was glowing blue like the pommel stone of the elven blade, and he stepped into the circle of light with both feet. There was a flash…and he was back on the surface. But he was not alone.
A band of elves stood staring for a moment, clearly as surprised to see him as he was to see them. Dark-skinned and burnished from the sun, they were dressed for hunting, their heads decorated only with short red and yellow feathers representative of the sun. There was little need for clothing out here, as Nameless was quickly learning, but unlike their shameless woodland cousins, Sun Elves donned sufficient garb to preserve their socially-constructed modesty. Their chests were uncovered, and only short loincloths protected their member from the sun and any wayward – or intentional – hazard. Ceremonial garb out here would be nothing but a burden, but each elf bore on his forearms and lower legs hardened leather gauntlets and guards with his family markings. What they were hunting was not yet clear, but Nameless knew it might easily be him.
‘From where have you come?’ one of them asked.
Nameless found himself looking down at the ground, but the only sign that it had been disturbed was some crumbled stone and crystal. It looked as if he had broken one of the islands himself. ‘I…came across the Border Hills,’ he replied as he looked up, choosing to keep things vague.
They stared some more, clearly wary of him. ‘That…thing,’ the first elf said, pointing at the crossbow hanging from Nameless’ belt, ‘is distasteful to me.
Where is the honor in such a weapon? Where even is the skill?’
Nameless smiled. ‘I can show you if you like.’
‘That will not be necessary,’ the tallest of the Sun Elves interrupted, stepping out from the group as they moved to surround their visitor. But although Nameless now held his hunting knife in one hand and his dagger in the other, none of them had followed suit. The leader eyed the trespasser up and down.
‘You expect us to fall before you?’ he asked with a grin.
‘Probably not,’ Nameless replied, returning the grin, ‘but I’ll start with you.’
The leader’s grin fell, but now he was merely curious. ‘You do not speak like other elves.’
‘Have you met them all?’ Nameless countered.
‘Them,’ the other elf noted, almost sympathetically. ‘Now I understand.’
‘I doubt that very much.’ Nameless hefted his hunting knife with undisguised intent.
‘How long have you lived amongst Humans?’
Nameless held the piercing, inquisitive glare, saying nothing. Another elf interrupted: ‘Long enough to scorn our burial rites. Look, this is the one who took Gaelin’s shoes!’
Now weapons were drawn, and Nameless prepared to attack. Had he done so immediately, he would never have been asked the question that saved his life: ‘Did you hear the Voice in The Flames?’ Indeed, had he attacked, the next voice he heard would have been in the next world.
‘Yes,’ he replied to the leader. ‘And I didn’t kill your friend.’
‘We know that. Gaelin was no friend of mine, but we mourn his passing as all Elves should. You will return his belongings and traverse the fire stones with his brothers.’
‘And if I don’t?’
‘We will set you loose here. And his brothers…’ the leader indicated the one who had spoken and another beside him, ‘will bring you in chains to the Temple once their mourning is done. No matter where or how far you go, they will find you.’
Nameless thought of Havell, and how much respect the old man had for the customs of others. But it was more than that which swayed his decision, for these were the closest he might ever get to his kin. If this was their way, then Nameless had to embrace it. It would delay his quest, of course, but sometimes The Greater Good was blind to courtesy. ‘I’ll…walk the stones,’ he said, lowering his weapons. The brothers nodded gratefully and the leader stepped in to offer Nameless the warrior’s grip. ‘You may be Nameless,’ he said, ‘but God shines for you this day. Now tell me of the Voice.’
‘It told me that I was here to be reborn,’ Nameless lied, unsure as to how, when, and to whom he should divulge the truth about the pale-skinned Priest.
‘Something about the one true god revealing himself to me.’
The elves exchanged glances, before the leader argued, ‘The Voice is the enemy of The One True God. It lied to you.’
‘Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.’ Nameless felt beads of perspiration rolling down his forehead, and he asked, ‘Could I have some water? I drank the last of mine.’
‘In this place, you earn your water, and learn not to waste it.’
‘Is that a yes?’
‘If you survive the journey, you will have as much water as you can drink.’
The second brother laughed: ‘He will need it before walking the stones.’
‘A measure of advice, Nameless,’ the leader told him quietly as the others turned to leave. ‘Discard some of your clothing and equipment if you wish to make it even halfway. Your chainmail will not keep you safe from elven steel.’
It turned out to be good advice, and Nameless felt the immediate benefit of dropping the chainmail tunic on the sand. He had to be selective about what else to drop, for there was no way of knowing what else would be needed. As the journey wore on, however, Nameless was growing weaker from exposure to the heat, and sacrifices had to be made. It did not help his situation that there were sporadic attacks from small groups of what the Sun Elves called devil-dogs, presumably a name given to justify the killing of animals created by their god.
By the time they reached the first oasis, Nameless was ready to throw himself into the water. The elves stopped him, however, deferring first to the local fauna before dropping to their knees and praising the one they believed had provided this salvation:
O, Maker of Days, hear us; Giver of Life, see us.
As the beasts of the earth receive your grace,
Permit us to live in your mighty creation.
Nameless felt a chill rush through him as the animals withdrew from the water, their heads down as if deferring now to the Sun Elves. It might merely have been their voices and their presence that dispersed the animals, but Nameless found himself thinking otherwise; which surprised him. What happened next surprised him even more, for these elves were not here to drink. One by one, they stepped into the water, descending until they vanished into its depths. The leader turned to Nameless: ‘I trust the humans taught you to swim.’
‘Where are they gone?’
‘They are on their way home.’
‘That remains to be seen.’
‘You’re all dressed for a hunt. I don’t want to risk drowning in there to find I’m facing execution.’
‘A hunt it may have been,’ the leader explained, ‘but killing is never to be taken lightly. There was a time when it was anathema to our way of life, but…sadly…that time has passed.’
‘So I’m lucky to be alive, then?’
‘You may be Nameless, but you are still an elf, an immortal creature of God whose death would trouble Him greatly. Now swim with us.’
The water, which revived him as soon as he entered it, was warm and soothing, and disturbingly so. Nameless felt that were he to stop moving, he would fall asleep and never wake. They emerged from time to time in dry chambers lit by Sun Stones, with perforated ceilings to allow air and some light in. Nameless did not concern himself as to how the water did not rise and flood the chambers, so grateful he was to be breathing again. In the first chamber, he replenished himself by drinking water from a small rock pool. The third chamber, however, was broken in from above, the Sun Stones strewn around the place so that it was filled with flickering shadows within which its occupants hid. Three of the creatures with the whipcord arms attacked the elves as soon as they emerged from the water. There were wounds, but nothing which stopped them resuming their journey. Nameless noted how panicked the elves seemed when the light was not sustained, and he was reminded of the Elf Priest’s comments regarding their dulled perceptions.
Four more chambers and Nameless could tell that it was getting darker up on the surface, and he felt a sense of urgency on the part of the elves. He struggled to keep up with them, but by the time he emerged into the final chamber, only the leader was waiting. A great staircase hewn out of the rock beckoned behind the tall elf, and Nameless was surprised to see light streaming down from wherever it led. ‘Isn’t it night yet?’ he asked.
The tall elf beamed with pride. ‘You will learn much about us here, Nameless. The land in which we found you is nothing more than a deterrent to keep unwanted visitors at bay.’ He turned to walk swiftly up the staircase, and Nameless followed him, hearing him say, ‘Welcome to Solestria…where it is never night.’
Nameless closed his eyes against the glare as he ascended the staircase, so blinding was what could only be called sunlight. In a sense, it was. There was perpetual light in this place, testament to the mastery of magic and architecture. The sky was turning to black, and stars were emerging to sparkle in the moonlight, but it was a false backdrop as far as the City of the Sun Elves was concerned. Everywhere there were Sun Stones, atop wooden poles and obelisks, along walls and pathways, even hanging across streets and the tops of open buildings. No roofs meant that the Sun Elves baked in sunlight all day and bathed in the light of these stones all night.
From the moment Nameless stepped out from the stone staircase into Solestria, he could smell the verdant flora that filled the city. A passionate blending of nature and craftsmanship characterized this place, and Nameless felt tears in his eyes as he felt the mixture of warmth emitted from the Sun Stones and luxuriant air produced by the vast array of trees, shrubs and flowers. As the tall elf led him onwards and other elves – dressed in bright and exotic clothing the like of which Nameless had never before seen – observed his passage, he passed merchant’s homes and artisan’s workshops, and scores of other buildings he could not identify. Some stood alone, some were attached to their neighbor's, but Nameless’ eyes were gradually and inexorably drawn to the system of tiered, unroofed and interconnected dwellings built upon the flanks of a great pyramid marking the heart of the city. ‘This place is…astonishing!’ he exclaimed. ‘I can see why you keep it hidden.’
A new voice, a woman, replied, ‘We would gladly welcome strangers were they not so disregarding of our ways.’
Nameless turned to see that a new group of elves had gathered to meet him, and there was no sign now of the leader of the hunters. These elves were dressed in considerably different attire, light materials of vivid colors married to jewels, precious metals and ceremonial displays of feathers. Nameless decided that these people represented some kind of ruling council. ‘I hope I’m a welcome stranger,’ he said, catching the eye of a beautiful elven lady dressed in sky blue.
‘Tarrin vouched for you,’ the lady explained, ‘but you are still a stranger.’ She offered her hand and Nameless responded without thinking. His heart sank as she turned his palm: ‘And you are also Nameless.’
He snapped his hand back, saying, ‘I shouldn’t be judged for the sins of my father!’
‘You presume that he had sinned.’
‘Why else would he be exiled?’
‘You presume that he was exiled.’
Nameless felt his heart pounding. ‘Do you know what happened?’
‘No,’ the lady replied, ‘but I know not to presume. I also know that you are not a Sun Elf, and so the answers you seek will not be here in Solestria.’
‘Are you…the Queen?’
The lady laughed aloud. ‘You presume too much,’ she said, turning away. As the others followed, Nameless called after them, ‘What am I supposed to do here?’
‘Find your way,’ the lady called back.
‘I saw…something…out there!’ he shouted, feeling compelled now to tell. ‘I need to see someone about it.’
The lady stopped and turned. ‘Then you need to see one who will not see you.’
Nameless stared at her. ‘I’m getting a bit tired of riddles.’
‘The young usually do.’ She turned away again, adding, ‘You need to speak to a Sun Watcher. The closest one is in the Eastern Quarter of the Pyramid dwellings.’
Throughout his years amongst humans, Nameless had from time to time seen elves, but they were always adults. Perceptions of elves borne by outsiders tended to forget that they must once have been children. For the first time in his life, Nameless, who was almost sixty years old and did not look a day older than twenty, saw elf children. Or more correctly, they saw him. Like children anywhere, they played in the streets, and laughed, and fought…and they were curious. Many stopped and stared, while some backed away, seeking their parents’ protection; the latter injuring Nameless the most.
The Eastern Quarter was characterized by what Nameless would call eccentricity. The domestic dwellings clawing their way up the flanks of the pyramid were on this side connected by a jumbled array of rumbling pipes and smoking chimneys, buzzing cables and conduction wires, and devices and machines that appeared as arcane as they were ridiculous. ‘I’ve never seen elven technology,’ Nameless explained when he realized he had been standing with his mouth open and he was being watched from the door of one of the larger dwellings. ‘I didn’t know elves concerned themselves with inventing.’
‘Wise and ancient we may be,’ the old elf replied, ‘but the daily rebirthing of God reminds us that having one foot in the past does not mean that we cannot look to the future.’
‘I like that,’ said Nameless. ‘Tell me…do you know where I can find a Sun Watcher?’
The elf stepped out from the shadow of the doorpost. ‘I am a Sun Watcher.’
Nameless stared again, thinking someone was trying to make a fool of him as he saw the white eyes of the elf. ‘But you’re blind!’
The ancient elf chuckled. ‘The cost of watching the sun.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘There have been many times throughout the ages when the enemy of God has sought to extinguish His light,’ the old elf explained. ‘Although we are warned not to observe this celestial battle, some of us are so in awe of the Divine that we will risk anything to see the ultimate display of his might.’ He turned back into his home with his head lowered, adding, ‘At least, this is what we tell ourselves. I was no more than a petulant young elf when I saw the light for the last time.’
Nameless followed him in. ‘You mean…the sun blinded you?’
‘The One True God punished me for my arrogance. Yet still He is merciful, and I see His light in a way only others like me can.’ The old elf took Nameless by his marked hand, but there was no judgement to be found here. ‘Would you like to see?’
‘Not if I’ll go blind!’
The Watcher chuckled. ‘No. We will look now.’
‘Now? But it’s dark! Well…it’s night, I mean.’
‘Night it may be, young elf, but it is never truly dark. His light is always with us. You have a Sun Stone, do you not?’
Nameless hesitated, but there was no point denying it. He reached into his pocket with his free hand and took out the glowing stone, which was now so bright that Nameless averted his eyes. ‘Do not worry,’ the Watcher assured him. ‘I will look into the stone and you will see what I see. Close your eyes.’ He gripped Nameless’ hand tightly and held the stone up to his face. With his eyes closed, Nameless saw first the residual light from the stone, before seeing something which humbled him beyond measure. ‘What is this?’ he gasped, seeing a tumultuous ball of black fire surrounded by a halo of light.
‘This is The One True God, young elf,’ the Watcher replied. ‘The sun as I see it by day. The Sun Stones not only harness the light and warmth of God, they remember it…like an echo of His presence. Can you see the wisps of black reaching outwards and falling back in?’
‘Yes. What are they?’
‘They are the Arcs of Creation. Great bursts of fire that are so large they can engulf the world if God wills it.’
‘An eruption!’ Nameless realized.
‘You might say that, yes.’
‘No, not me. The one calling himself a High Priest. An elf underground out in The Wastes. He was looking at this through a device he had built.’
‘A different kind of Watcher.’
‘No, not a Watcher. A destroyer. He wants to punish the Sun Elves. What will happen if the eruption is very large?’
The Watcher released Nameless’ hand and thought for a moment. ‘I recall a time…many ages ago…when a burst of fire from God overwhelmed the Sun Stones. Every one of them shattered, and our people despaired in the dark and the cold. We knew that God raged at us, and it took a long time to regain His favor.’
‘That’s what he’s hoping for,’ said Nameless. ‘That the city will be thrown into darkness and chaos, and his forces can attack. When will the eruption occur?’
‘It is impossible to say. Some things are beyond even my eyes. It could be tonight…or a month from now.’
Nameless shook his head. ‘It will be tonight. I have to warn them!’
‘It will be as God wills it.’
‘No!’ snapped Nameless. ‘It will be as that madman out in the Wastes wills it. You’ll all be plunged into darkness and wiped out in your terror. I saw the hunters in the underground caves. They panicked in the shadows!’
The Watcher nodded solemnly. ‘God has sent you,’ he said. ‘Do what you must.’
Without another word, Nameless turned and ran from the building.
But he was too late. As he descended the streets of the Eastern Quarter, a humming sound could be heard. It seemed to be emanating from all around, and it increased in volume and intensity until, reaching a crescendo of vibrating, pulsating agony that forced everyone to their knees with clenched teeth and hands held to their heads, it caused the explosive shattering of every Sun Stone in Solestria. The city was plunged into darkness.
Normally brave and sometimes stolid elves of great age and experience cried and screamed and crumbled into hysterics, running for cover from an intangible enemy as their god seemed to have abandoned them. Nameless looked up to the night sky, seeing stars and a moon, but also something else. Whispering lines of light, green and yellow and orange, crept across the blackness likes the probing fingers of some spectral invader, but for Nameless, it was the clarion call of a very real invader. ‘It’s an attack!’ he shouted, drawing his knife and dagger as he approached the base of the pyramid. His eyes adjusted to the absence of the Sun Stones much quicker, it seemed, than those around him; and ahead he saw the brothers of the dead elf from the Wastes. ‘Get your soldiers!’ he roared. ‘They’re coming!’
It was clear that they could not see him properly, but he came right up to them, saying, ‘I’m the one you rescued out in the Wastes. I found Gaelin.’
‘What is this?’ one of them asked, clearly panicked. ‘Where is the light?’
‘It’s gone!’ Nameless snapped. ‘You have to defend the city!’ In the distance, he heard screaming, but this was of a different nature. He squinted as he probed the darkness, until a source of light came into view. And then another…and another. Fire. Moving. Walking. ‘They’re here,’ he gasped. ‘There’s no time. Follow me!’
They did, and Nameless drew them into chaos. By moonlight and aurora, they encountered at first only devil-dogs harassing and attacking elves still out in the streets, and there were a few small groups of male and female elves holding them off from population centers. But gradually they approached different attackers, and Nameless understood the purpose of the burning men he had encountered in the underground chamber. They were beacons for the more dangerous creatures to find their way, acting like rally points for infantry divisions. Not only were the men with the whipcord arteries here, hissing and screeching and lashing out with their gruesome weapons; a more fearsome creature had been unleashed on Solestria.
Nameless decided it must be a magical melding of bear and wolf, and it howled and snarled as it lumbered around with legs twisted by the merging of two forms. Its arms were long and clawed, and it threw strong elves around as easily as it tore them apart. After a time, the elves began to adjust to the shadowy realm into which they had been plummeted, and even their archers began to show some promise. But this was a long time in which many were lost, and Nameless knew that the only way to end the slaughter was to eradicate the source. The pale-skinned Priest was around here somewhere. ‘Where would someone go to oversee an attack on the city?’ Nameless asked Gaelin’s brothers amidst a lull in the fighting.
‘The temple,’ they replied as one. ‘You would have to ascend the North Ramp to reach the Peak of the Pyramid.’ They were attacked again and Nameless backed away as the elves fought. ‘I’ll go alone,’ he declared, looking up to the peak where he could see no points of light. ‘You’ll be blind up there.’
He ran, keeping to the shadows as much as possible, avoiding enemies where he could so as not to alert the Priest of his approach. He had to take him by surprise in the darkness, because he would not expect a Sun Elf to seek him there. The Temple was not made for cold or darkness. It was open on all sides, with great pillars climbing into the sky that supported an undoubtedly elaborate entablature whose aesthetic detail was lost to the night. Nameless cared little for the beauty of the structure, however; not when he could see the Priest standing in the courtyard working on yet another mysterious device, this one pointed directly upwards. Nameless crept silently into the eerily-lit courtyard illuminated by floating green spheres, but his entry was noticed by something he could not see. The crackling voice roared, ‘The Nameless Elf!’ and the Priest spun round in shock as Nameless loosed a crossbow bolt and followed its flight with his knife and dagger drawn.
The bolt took the Priest high in his left shoulder, but even as he stumbled back, he released a blast of green energy from his hand that slammed into Nameless’ chest like the palm of a god, throwing him off his feet. Laying on his back without his favored weapons, he could feel the Priest approaching. But as the Priest brandished his staff to bring it down on Nameless’ head, the young elf lashed out with the jeweled elven blade and split the enchanted wood. The crackling voice howled in fury and pain, and Nameless realized where it resided as the Priest retreated. Getting to his feet, he swiftly loaded the crossbow before burying the bolt in the Priest’s back. As Nameless took up his two blades again, he rushed towards his enemy. Though injured greatly, the Priest still fought, now wielding the staff emptied of magic. A blow to the head took Nameless by surprise, but as he staggered, he threw his hunting knife. It spun through the air and it was as if the Priest had time to see it coming, for he cried out in terror even before it plunged into his chest. The Priest crumbled to the Temple floor, and Nameless was still wobbling, his head spinning.
He heard movement behind him, but despite his exhaustion, he swung round to defend himself. There was no need. Gaelin’s brothers had gathered a formidable force of fighters, and they bore torches to light their way. No, Nameless realized, they bore burning limbs torn from the attacking men down below. The Sun Elves had adapted swiftly to the terror, but they stood now in awe of this Nameless elf who had killed the one they would come to call the Dark Priest. One of them whispered a name. Another repeated it, nodding: ‘Elandafel.’ Before long, all of the elves were chanting the name, and Nameless felt his skin tingling as if electricity were running through him. Sunlight began to creep into the courtyard as dawn awakened, but as a shaft of light embraced Nameless and warmth brought a welcome shiver of delight, he was raised from the floor by some invisible force and he felt strength coursing through his veins as the elves now roared the name that filled him with supernatural power: ‘Elandafel!’
A day’s recovery, and Nameless now sat on a horse, looking back to see countless beacons lit by Sun Stones, the Border Towers reaching in both directions as far as the eye could see. A fleeting melancholia attempted to overwhelm him as he left this wondrous place behind, but he suppressed it. What he had done here would be remembered for centuries to come, as they told tales of the Nameless elf who vanquished the Dark Priest of the Demon God to become Elandafel, Savior of Solestria. Now he bore greater weapons than he had ever wielded, a magnificent steed carrying enough supplies to sustain him deep into the southern continent, and an array of spells and potions of which a human mage would be envious. But as the horizon called to him with promise of great adventure, his chest swelled with pride even as his lips trembled with humility. For now he bore a name.
© Ronald A. Geobey 2018