Brute Squad Interludes Writing

Interlude: The Wanderings of a Lost Elf

Naeris awoke, certain of exactly one thing and nothing more–they were lost. The tree they had settled into for the night now stood in an unfamiliar swamp; definitely not the roadside clearing they had fallen asleep in the previous evening. They sighed deeply.

“You must really have it in for me,” they said to the trees. “I didn’t even leave the path! And yet!” they gestured angrily at the swamp. “Every fucking step I’ve taken this time around has been a fucking nightmare. Fuck! What do you want from me?!”

The only answer the Green Plateau gave was the chirping of cicada and the buzzing of midges.

“Ugh,” Naeris muttered to themself as they stormed off through the mud and shallow pools.

A regular traveller of the plateau1) Naeris knew better than to try and figure out which direction they were heading. The veil between worlds was thin here, and it was all too easy to step out of this world for a moment, and re-appear miles away, all turned around. Once you’re off the path… it was best to keep moving and pray you meet something you can try diplomacy with rather than, well, pretty much anything else.

Thankfully, Naeris had a wide array of useful tricks for just this sort of situation. Invoking Skerrit, the Centaur god of nature, they wove a spell of shadow around themselves and practically faded from view. Moving with supernatural silence, Naeris stalked through the wetlands. Far ahead, on the very edge of their hearing, a troll lumbered through the undergrowth muttering to itself in its harsh language. Naeris changed direction and moved to what they thought might be higher ground.

They hadn’t gone more than a few feet when, without warning, the spell faded. Puzzled, they cast it again; this time invoking Olladra, the human goddess of good fortune. The spell almost took form but–with a sudden breeze that sounded faintly like mocking laughter–the fabric of magic fell apart before it was complete. Naeris cursed under their breath.

“Okay,” they muttered. “No spells then. I guess that’s what I get for not knowing which one of you is even giving these to me. Fine, I’ll do it the hard way.”

The troll lumbered on, oblivious to the elf and their plight.

After a mile, Naeris stopped and surveyed their surroundings. They had been following a small stream, heading upstream to higher elevations. The pools of brackish water were nowhere to be seen, and the terrain underfoot had a markedly different quality–rocky and firm, rather than peaty and damp. A good sign that they hadn’t gotten turned around, at least. Free from the wetlands, for the time being, Naeris sat on a nearby rock and removed their boots. Small rivulets of water poured from their mouths as they were upended and placed upside down to dry out a little.

While they waited for their boots to dry, Naeris pulled a viol from their backpack and tuned it up before playing a slow, haunting melody that seemed to linger in the quiet forest air. A hush fell over the woods as if everything nearby was listening intently–a very perturbing sensation, Naeris thought. As the final bars faded, the sounds of the forest quietly returned as if they had never gone.

“Well that’s fucking bizarre,” Naeris said.

Ahead, the sound of rushing water came crashing through the trees. Here, the stream looked fast-flowing and deep. Cresting a rise, Naeris felt the breath catch in their throat as the forest opened up to reveal a waterfall cascading rainbows into a vast, crystal-clear pool. An elfin woman, hauntingly beautiful, bathed in the clear waters. Naeris averted their eyes quickly–out of a sense of decency as much as danger–and cleared their throat loudly.

“Hello traveller,” the naiad greeted them, seeming entirely unsurprised at the intrusion.

“Good afternoon,” Naeris said. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you. I heard the waterfall and came to see if there was a pool here, but I didn’t realise it was already occupied.”

“You did not disturb me, young pilgrim. My name is Castalia, and these are my waters. The stream warned me of your approach.”

“Then the stream has my thanks,” Naeris bowed, “for it would have been most ungracious to approach unannounced, even unknowingly.”

“Well spoken, pilgrim. Now,” she regarded Naeris with an appraising look, “what brings this little nightingale to my pool? Is it lost?”

“A nightingale, Lady Castalia? I’m afraid my voice is not so sweet,” Naeris said. “As for what brings me here, why, I was simply following the stream. I am quite lost.”

“Lost? I think not, dear pilgrim,” Castalia said, kindly. “You are simply following a different path.”

“Lady Castalia, I’m not sure I understand.”

Castalia laughed the laughter of a babbling brooked. “You will, my little nightingale. Now come, will you not refresh yourself in the waters of my pool?”

“If you will permit me, Lady Castalia.”

“I will permit it,” Castalia said, sounding very formal. “But first, you must look upon me and tell me what you see.”

There were tales, of course, about the dangers of gazing upon naiads. Their beauty, they said, is enough to strike the viewer blind. Naeris wasn’t sure if they believed it or not, but they hadn’t wanted to take the risk. Now it seemed like they didn’t have much of a choice. Cautiously, Naeris raised their head.

Castalia was standing in the water a few feet away; blue eyes sparkling with mirth from a strikingly handsome face. The water was drawn up around her and had formed into an azure silk gown. “Don’t be afraid,” she said as their eyes met and Naeris’ world fell into a calm blue void.

The forest parted, revealing an ancient temple of stone and vine standing at long abandoned crossroads. The paths lead nowhere, ending abruptly at the edge of the glade. Naeris stepped into the glade and-

Naeris blinked and tried to clear their head. “What was that?”

“Your destination, young pilgrim,” Castalia said solemnly.

“How… how do I get there?”

Castalia laughed again, the sound of rain falling on a spring evening. “Keep following the path, of course. But first, little nightingale, you should rest. Bathe in the waters of my pool, and eat of the trees from the west bank–but never the east.”

“I-” Naeris began but thought better of objecting. “Thank you, Lady Castalia. Your generosity is deeply appreciated.” Naeris unslung their pack and placed it gently on the ground. They reached up to remove their leather armour and hesitated.

“Do not concern yourself with such things,” Castalia said softly. “I am the only one here, and I am as changeable as the water. Who you are is a fae blessing, and you should be proud.”

Naeris turned a violent shade of red but resumed removing their armour.

The water was cool and refreshing, and Castalia sang strange and wondrous songs. Naeris could have floated there for hours, had not hunger reared its ugly head. Carefully noting the naiad’s warning, they gathered some fruit from the western trees and sat down to eat. The fruit–peaches, apples, and apricots–dripped with juice and sated them far more than Naeris expected. As Castalia continued singing, Naeris found themself drifting off into a state of peaceful meditation.

A few hours later, a well-rested and well-fed Naeris bid farewell to their most gracious host, and set off deeper into the plateau. “Don’t expect much more hospitality from this place,” Castalia warned as they said their farewells. “You have many trials ahead, little nightingale, and they will not be easy. The Plateau is harsh and unforgiving–failure will likely mean your death.”

Her words weighed heavily on Naeris’ mind as they slipped through the dense woods. The entire encounter had been a little strange, even for the Green Plateau, but her warning was welcome. It wasn’t often that the fae-lands gave you that chance.

Ahead, the forest thinned, and eventually gave way to a large meadow. Naeris paused, unsure if venturing into the open was a good idea. It looked safe enough, but that didn’t really mean much here.

LEFT, NOW!

The gut feeling came suddenly as Naeris stepped between two trees. Naeris got a short glimpse of something large and covered in fur–or maybe feathers–before diving into the undergrowth to the left. For an eternal five seconds, all Naeris could hear was the sound of their own heart kicking into high gear, and then the air was split with an all-too recognizable hooting bellow. The owlbear crashed through the undergrowth and Naeris scrambled to their feet and started running.

RIGHT

They swerved right, narrowly missing a low-hanging branch. The owlbear sounded like it was only moments behind, and closer than before. Off to the left, Naeris spotted a deadfall leaning up against another tree. A perfect ramp, and unlikely to bear the monster’s weight–if they could reach it in time.

JUMP

Naeris leapt over a rock, almost invisible in the tangled undergrowth. The deadfall was close–so close–but the owlbear was closer. Its horrid beak clacked in the air next to Naeris’ shoulder, narrowly missing as the elf twisted to the left and ran their blade along the monster’s side. It was a shallow cut, but it was enough to provide the momentary distraction Naeris needed to make a break for the deadfall. Screeching in rage, the owlbear launched back into the chase.

NOT THAT WAY

Naeris hesitated, wasting precious seconds. The owlbear lunged, one paw catching Naeris in the side. Their vision swam as they hit the ground a few feet away. The monster reared up and Naeris, in a fit of desperation, tried to draw on their divine magic. A blast of radiance flew from their outstretched hand and slammed into the owlbear’s chest, throwing it off balance. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for Naeris to get back to their feet and back on the run. Moments later, feet hit the deadwood and Naeris sprinted up its length into the branches of the next tree. The owlbear tried to follow, but with a satisfying crack and a splintering of wood, the deadfall collapsed under its weight.

Screeching, the owlbear paced under the tree its dinner had taken refuge in. Naeris braced themself against the tree and unhitched their bow. “Oi,” they called down at the owlbear as they nocked an arrow, “Fuck off.” The owlbear bellowed in response and reared up against the tree. Naeris desperately tried to remember if owlbears could climb, but mercifully the creature seemed more intent on shaking the tree apart than hauling itself up to the lower branches. They sighed and took aim at the beast. “You don’t have to die, you know. You could just leave. Find someone else to eat. I don–gods; like you can even understand a word I’m saying. That’s the trouble when you deal with mostly intelligent enemies: you get used to talking them out of killing you.

“Not that you understand me, but I am sorry about this,” Naeris said as they loosed the arrow. It struck true, impaling the owlbear through its right eye. It screeched in pain and finally lumbered off into the woods 2). Naeris exhaled in relief, winced, and automatically started casting a healing spell; only for the magic to dissipate before it could take effect. Cursing, Naeris started untying the side of their armour and inspected the wound. It looked shallow; their armour had done its job at least. Naeris prodded the area around the wound gingerly and winced again.

“So magic is only going to work in life-or-death situations, huh?” they muttered as they applied a foul-smelling poultice to the gash in their side. “Well, at least that means you don’t want me dead. Broken ribs though, that’s just fine.”

Despite their frustrated protestations to nobody in particular, Naeris was more unsettled than angry. Their magic, though of unknown provenance, had never failed them before. They had originally just chalked it up to something odd about this region of the Green Plateau, but the fact it had worked in a desperate situation… “Someone’s playing me for a fool,” they said as they bandaged their side.

After an uncomfortable night spent in a tree, Naeris weighed their options carefully. Being out in the open was a risk, and would probably lead to trouble, but the meadow looked like the more even ground. Which, given their injury, meant a much easier walk than the tangled brush of the forest. After a heated internal debate, Naeris picked up a fallen branch to use as support and set out in the direction of the meadow. Twenty minutes later, they still hadn’t arrived and the forest seemed to stretch on forever.

“Ugh,” they groaned. This was definitely the way they had come–all they had to do was follow the owl-bear trail back to where the chase had started. But the meadow was gone, replaced by dense forest3). Naeris sighed and pressed on regardless.

The cave seemed empty, but Naeris was still suspicious. They had come to a cliff, and had been picking their way along its lower edge when the sky had opened and unleashed a deluge of rain. They had found the cave soon after, and Naeris didn’t trust anything so serendipitous. They threw a rock through the cave mouth and listened intently as it skittered across the floor. Nothing. The pressing need for warmth, food, and rest overrode their caution, and Naeris tentatively stepped into the cave. When nothing untoward happened, they threw down their pack and flopped onto the floor.

For a time, they just lay there listening to the sound of rain falling outside. It was peaceful, if a little damp. Eventually, the dampness of their clothes finally irritated Naeris enough to sit up and venture back outside in search of enough dry wood to start a fire. It wasn’t easy; the rain had come in hard and fast and already soaked most of the exposed dead wood lying on the forest floor. But in time, Naeris had a cheery little fire going and turned to more important matters.

It had been three days since their encounter with the owlbear, and the wound was starting to show signs of infection despite the poultice Naeris had been applying. Without magic to cure it easily… Naeris tried not to think about dying alone in the wilderness, killed by a septic wound; better to have been eaten by the owlbear. With reluctance, they placed one of their dagger blades into the fire. “I should have brought wine,” they said wistfully as the blade heated to a glowing red.

The next morning, Naeris stood at the base of the cliff and gazed upward, certain that their path continued at its summit. They put one hand on the cliff-face and stepped up to begin the climb-and immediately stopped as their ribs strenuously protested. They regarded the cave thoughtfully; it wasn’t the worst place to recuperate. There was a stream a little further along for water, and enough fruits, berries, and edible roots in the area. And fish, if it came to that. Naeris made a face at the thought.

Every morning, Naeris attempted the ascent. Every morning, they gave up before making things worse. During this time, they grew well acquainted with the surrounding area, and came to a definite conclusion: the only way forward was up, and the only way up was waiting until their ribs were healed enough to handle the climb. Naeris had never made an art of patience; they had never had the time for it. But here, alone and injured on the Green Plateau, they learned how to wait.

Six weeks later, though it might have been seven–time was really difficult to keep track of here–they awoke with the knowledge that today would be the day. After a breakfast of charred fish (ugh) and mixed berries, and a few days worth of smoked fish and fruit packed into their pack, Naeris began the ascent. It was not an easy climb; they were far more familiar with the rough masonry of the city than unworked rock. But with great effort, a couple of hours, and more than a few twinges of pain, Naeris finally crawled over the summit of the cliff. They lay there for a time, eyes closed, just breathing.

“What is it? a voice at the edge of Naeris’ hearing asked.
“Elf,” another answered. “Dead, I think.”
“Taste good?”
“Not enough for a meal. Too scrawny.”
“Snack then.
“Snack.”

Naeris exhaled heavily and pulled themself to their feet. They turned to where the voices had been coming from and said “A snack?” They shook their head. “No, no, no. If you’re going to eat me, you should really do it properly.”

The two goblins paused their approach. “Elf is alive,” one commented to the other.
“Has weapons,” the other observed.
The goblins glanced at each other. “Not food,” they agreed.

“Well, I have food with me,” Naeris said, guesturing to their backpack. “Trade?”

“What does Elf want?” one of the goblins asked suspiciously.

“I’m looking for… somewhere. A temple at a crossroads.”

The two goblins exchanged significant looks. “Sorry Elf, can’t help.”
“Have to go, tribe is expecting us back soon. Good luck!”

“Wait! Ple…” Naeris trailed off as the goblins ran back into the trees. “Well,” they muttered to themself. “That’s not concerning at all.”

Resigned, Naeris looked around for an obvious path. The plateau at the top of the cliff was less thickly wooded than the area around the base. The stream that Naeris had been using for drinking and washing meandered off the cliff’s edge not far from where they stood, and it seemed as good a path to follow as any.

The food was running out. Following the stream for three days had taken Naeris out of the woods and on to a large open plain of tussock. Crossing the plain had taken another week, and stretched Naeris’ supplies to their limit. The stream bubbled on, unheeding of the elf’s plight.

“How are there not fish?!” Naeris screamed at the stream. They thought back to the strange flightless birds that had inhabited the tussock and found themself wondering what they tasted like. “Ugh. You fucking moron,” they berated themself. “You should have known this would happen.

“Not much sense arguing about it now, idiot. You got yourself into this mess, you can get yourself out.

“Can I though? This whole situation has seemed a bit beyond my capabilities. I’m not really the wilderness type.

“You’ve survived this long, haven’t you?”

Naeris sighed. “Luck. Like most things in my life. And look where it’s gotten me; arguing with my own reflection like a mad-man.

“Luck? Aren’t you one of the greatest thieves ever known? Stealing state secrets from the most secure vaults and emptying the pockets of the rich to feed the poor?

“Oh, I see what’s going on here 4).

“What?

“You’re not my reflection at all. You’re a manifestation of my own ego, sent by whatever god has given me my powers to tempt me into agreeing with your lies. At which point, I assume, I’ll be trapped in this stream forever or turn into a lovely flower or something weird like that.

“What lies? You prove your skills time and time again. That you’re even standing here, aliveafter the life you’ve lead?

“You really don’t get it, do you? Yes, I’ve got skills. Yes, I’m good at what I do; I’ve made it thisfar without your help–excepting that one time against the owlbear–but fuck you if you think I don’t realise when I’ve reached my own limits. When I need help. Because I do, and have always done. You suggest that I wouldn’t have survived unless I was the best at what I do–I contend that I would never have made it out of that alleyway without relying on other people. And I definitely wouldn’t have made it anywhere without you, so stop it with all this fucking ‘test of faith’ bullshit, we both know you already know how I feel so all this is really doing is making me look like a crazed idiot yelling at some water.”

The stream was silent.

“That’s what I thought.”

A few miles later, Naeris collapsed under a lonely tree. They were sweating despite the cold, and their head was pounding. Leaden arms wove an exhausting spell, and the elf stared at their waterskin, glowing faintly with traces of disease and betrayal. Dirk loomed over the prone Naeris, brandishing his eponymous weapon. “You should have avenged me, elf.”

“You’re not real,” Naeris said as they feebly tried to wave the hallucination away. “I’m just delir.. del… seeing things. Water’s bad.”

“You could have found me,” a half-orc said. “If you really wanted to, you could have found me.”

“I tried, but you… you left me,” Naeris almost sobbed. “Like everyone does.”

“You drive them away,” an older human spat. “Nobody wants a… whatever you are.”

“I…” Naeris started crying.

“Hey now,” a woman’s voice, “don’t cry, little one. We’re just going to be in the city for a few days while your father finds a way to get us out of this gods-forsaken country.”

”… mother? Where are you?”

“Sorry kid,” a male dwarf. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.” The dwarf sighed as he turned his back. “Poor thing. I hope whatever gods are left are watching over you.”

“I must be putting on quite the show for them, if they are.” Naeris laughed bitterly, and slipped into unconsciousness.

When Naeris awoke, groggy and exhausted, they immediately threw up. Standing was difficult, but they found that if they kept almost-falling forwards, they could get their legs to co-operate. Follow the stream they thought to themself. Traitor stream, got me sick.

“You should have boiled the water,” the half-orc commented. “Like we had to do as kids.”

“You’re right, Tusk. You were always right. But there was nothing to burn. But now there’s just this tree. Oh, and those trees over there,” they gestured towards a small stand of trees in the distance.

“Were those there last night?” Lord Quirion asked.

“I don’t… what are you doing here? You’re me!”

“I’m you? Heavens above, I would never let myself stoop so low. Look at you, with your scruffy hair and your tacky leather armour. Is that what passes for fashion in these parts?”

“Ugh. Go away,” Naeris waved at the hallucination. “Go bother someone else. Like that satyr over there.”

Lord Quirion vanished, and Naeris stumbled towards the satyr.

“Hail traveller,” the satyr greeted them. “I was going to offer you a drink, but you look like you’re about half-pickled already.”

“I’m… sick,” Naeris tried to explain. “Not drunk. Wish I was drunk. Hurt less that way.”

“Oh, well that’s no good,” the satyr said. “You might want to lie down and rest a while. There’s a stand of trees not far from here.”

“Yes, I see them, over there. They weren’t there before. Where did you… where did you go? Hello?” Naeris looked around in confusion, but the satyr was gone.

Naeris woke up under a group of trees. They didn’t remember how they got here, or how long they had been here. Their lips were dry and cracked, and their throat hoarse. There was a deeply unpleasant smell coming from somewhere nearby. With tremendous effort, they struggled upwards and looked around. They had come to in a stand of small trees–vague memories of walking towards them surfaced in Naeris’ mind. Everything ached, and the feeling of thirst was overwhelming. They reached for their waterskin, but it was gone. “Oh,” they said. “Of course.”

Nearby, the stream flowed on. Naeris eyed it suspiciously. “I’ve been following you upstream, ” they muttered hoarsely, “So if this was something back that way… Still, I shouldn’t take any chances…”

A spell, half-remembered from delirium, came to their mind. “Please,” they said aloud to the trees. “This is your domain, and I am but a weary traveller, dying of thirst. Please grant me this boon, that I may reach my destination.”

No answer came, but none was needed. The spell took form as Naeris cast it, and to their immense relief, the stream’s water was free from contamination. They stripped, and threw themself in headlong. The water was cold, but Naeris drank deeply. When they emerged, a satyr was standing nearby, watching them.

“Ah, you’re awake,” the satyr said.

“And you’re not a hallucination,” Naeris replied. “I could have sworn I imagined you.”

“Quite a feat that would have been, young traveller,” the satyr smiled wryly, “and yet not entirely inaccurate.”

“I’m not sure I follow. Are you real, or am I still sick?”

“That’s a very good question,” the satyr laughed, and waved his arms at the trees. “It’s hard to tell here, on the Plateau. Perhaps I am the one dreaming of a naked elf, bathing in a mountain stream. If so, then it is a strange dream, though not entirely unpleasant.”

“Well then, good dreamer,” Naeris chuckled slightly. “I don’t suppose you could imagine a pleasant camp-fire? This water is mighty cold.”

“Alas, I cannot,” the satyr said. “Though, in exchange for a good story, I could be persuaded to make one the old fashioned way.”

“A good story? I’d be happy to oblige. I’ve had precious little chance for conversation these past… weeks? Months? Gods, how long have I been lost?”

“Longer than you realise, I’d wager.” Just a little too slowly, the satyr added, “Time has a habit of getting away from people up here on the Plateau.”

“In any case,” Naeris continued, “You have a deal my friend. A warm fire for a story.”

“And that’s how I got this,” Naeris said as they uncovered their shoulder to reveal an ugly brand. “Only time I’ve been caught for more than a couple of days. Thank the myriad gods Serif was there too, otherwise I’d probably still be locked up somewhere. Or worse.”

“I’ll drink to that,” the satyr said, pouring more wine into his mug. “To finding friends in expected places; be it a bird in a gaol or a naked elf bathing in the woods.”

“To finding friends,” Naeris agreed, and drank deeply.

“You know, it feels a bit rude to ask this right after we toasted our friendship, but I’m not sure I ever asked your name. I’m Adlas.”

“Oh, it’s, uh…” Naeris shook their head, trying to clear the drunken haze. “I… honestly don’t remember. Call me Naeris. It’s the closest thing I have to a name these days.”

“Your name is turnip?”

“Ohhh, you speak elvish,” Naeris nodded as sagely as possible. “So many people don’t realise that’s what it means.”

The next morning, Naeris awoke with their viol in their hand, a pounding headache, and absolutely no memory of what happened after the fifth mug of wine. Nearby, Adlas was extricating himself from a pile of sleeping creatures of several races and genders, many of them in various states of undress. Naeris waved weakly. “I, uh, assume from the, uh… everyone,” they gestured at the pile of people, “that there was quite the party last night.”

“Last night?” Adlas chuckled. “It’s been five days. I think. My memory is a bit, well, you know.”

“Lost in a drunken haze?”

“Whenever possible,” he said as he poured a mug of wine. “Wine?”

“No, but thank you for the offer.” Naeris said, holding their temple. “I think I’ve had enough to last me a year or two.”

“Are you heading off then?”

“Yeah,” Naeris said eventually. “I think it’s time.”

“Where are you going, anyway? I forgot to ask.”

“I guess I’ll know when I get there. For the time being, I’m enjoying being lost.” Naeris grimaced a little and rubbed their head. “Some parts of it much less than others, of course.”

“To safe journeys,” Adlas toasted, and drained his cup.

Naeris had meant what they said as they departed the satyr’s glade. They were enjoying being lost, even if that sometimes meant almost dying. There was a freedom up here that didn’t exist elsewhere; here there was only one rule–don’t leave the path–and they had long since abandoned even that. There was an inherent unruliness to the Green Plateau that resonated with something deep inside Naeris. This place felt like home far more than the streets of the city or the oppressive society that lived within it had ever felt; they wondered if it was elf thing. They had met few others, and most of those had been of a different ilk–’high elves’ they’d called themselves, like they were inherently above the other kinds of elf. Naeris had learned then that they were a ‘wood elf’, and the woman who had informed them of this had sneered down at them like they were stray cat. Which, Naeris supposed, made a lot of sense.

But, even so, Naeris was eager to return to the straight lines of the city where direction and time made sense. Not because they missed it, though there’s a lot of good to be said about comfortable beds and warm taverns, but because they had a job to do. Every day spent wandering here was a another day that could have been spent opposing the Divine Regent. The message they carried still burned a hole in their pocket–though, by now, it would probably arrive much to late to be of any use. The mission had been a time sensitive one, and while the passage of days was difficult to track here, Naeris estimated that they’d been wandering the Plateau for almost three months. They were amazed that they hadn’t died. Twice, they’d come close: once with the owlbear, and once with illness; and there had been numerous other encounters, some good, some bad, and some infuriating. Naeris would never trust a faerie dragon again.

Lost, both in thought and the woods, Naeris didn’t notice the hard stone path under their feet until their foot caught on a loose rock and intimately introduced them. Naeris brushed themself off and wondered why on earth anyone would build a stone path in the middle of thick for… their line of thought trailed off as they realised they had wandered into a clearing. The path underfoot was rough flagstone, worn by time and the roots of plants. Ahead, it formed a crossroads with three other, similar paths. Beyond, a sight that Naeris would later describe as their first, and only, religious experience.

The temple was in ruins, but it did not seem ruined by any meaning of the word. Rather, it seemed that ruin was the building’s natural state; it was designed to be a crumbling shell. Naeris couldn’t help but grin at the idea of it. Someone, long long ago, built a gigantic temple of marble and crystal that would have glimmered in the autumn sun like white and gold fire. It would have been magnificent, a soaring masterpiece of spires and archways. Entire new schools of architectural technique would have had to have been invented to complete it. Years–perhaps centuries–of planning and building, all just to have it torn down by the very god it was built to honour. But it was not ruined out of displeasure, or as punishment, or to teach a lesson to the mortals that dared construct it; no, this was just what the god did. They cared not for churches or temples–to be confined to a single location is worse than death. They cared not for the final product, but the act of the creation itself–the new arts and sciences it spawned, the radical new ideas dreamed up by the artist. Those were the point of it all. A single large building that nobody uses is useless–an entire army of trained artists and masons and architects, scattered to the four winds? That is something useful. Naeris finally understood. All they would find here was the most sacred thing a traveller could find–a safe place to spend the night.

In the ruins of the foyer, an elf of ambiguous gender sat by a camp-fire, waiting. They smiled warmly as Naeris entered, and gestured to a cushion on the other side of the fire. “You must be weary, little nightingale. Sit, eat, drink.”

Naeris bowed, and took a seat. “My thanks to you, Traveller,” they said with an almost undetectable emphasis on the last word.

“That is an old name you invoke, little nightingale,” the other elf said, grinning. “Are you so sure it’s the right one? You’ve had many failures in your search.”

Naeris met the other’s gaze. “I’m just calling you what you are. The nameless traveller; the wandering pilgrim; the mysterious outsider. You’re a god with no church, but hold sacred this location that can only be found by the truly lost. Nobody prays to you, but you’re worshipped by every wanderer whether they know it or not. Every act of creation or destruction, anythingthat changes–these all give you power. You, of all the gods, are the least in need of a mortal agent.”

The other just smiled, a wide toothy grin.

“So why?”

“That is your question to answer. That is your journey. I’ve just set you on the path.”

“That”, Naeris said with a wry grin, “is word-for-word the exact answer I was expecting.”

The Traveller laughed, a long, hearty laugh that echoed from the ruined walls of the temple. Naeris couldn’t help but laugh too–finally, after years of searching and failing, they understood. As the last echoes of their laughter faded, the Traveller stood and walked to the door. They paused briefly on the threshold, and said “Oh, one last thing. When the time comes–and you’ll know when it does–remember that everything, and I mean everything, can change.”

And then the Traveller was gone.

The next morning, Naeris stood at the centre of the crossroads. They pulled a die from a pouch on their hip and threw it into the air. It landed with a clatter on the paving stones, a faded ‘3’ uppermost. “Right,” Naeris said to nobody in particular. “West it is.”

A week later, by Naeris’ reckoning, they emerged into a familiar roadside clearing where a tree grew next to the path. Four months had passed since they had left this very clearing and woken up in a swamp. They exhaled deeply, and set off, message in hand.

“Ah, you must be Agent Alleyborn,” a male elf greeted Naeris as they entered the encampment. “We received word that you would be arriving soon with an urgent delivery.”

“I’m not too late then?” Naeris was relieved.

“If anything, you’re slightly earlier than we expected,” the elf frowned. “We were anticipating that you’d be here tomorrow.”

“Oh,” Naeris paused for a moment. “Well, you know how time gets around here.”


1)

Naeris wasn’t quite sure why they kept getting these missions, but they suspected it was mostly because they were an elf

2)

Some still tell tales of a great beast of an owlbear that roams the Plateau, an arrowhead in its right eye. If the stories are to believed, it has developed quite the insatiable hunger for elf-meat

3)

It is widely accepted knowledge that no path on the Plateau–outside of the main path–ever leads to the same place twice.

4)

and they thought they did see, though later they would realise that they had a fever and this entire exchange may have, in fact, just been a delirious elf yelling at a stream

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