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Farstrider

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I heaved out a sigh of relief as my gloves brushed the half frozen wooden door, the mere gesture of touching it alone offered some measure of respite from the howling winds and biting cold. Frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d manage the trek into the ghostlands, at this rate. The far north was a world apart from the comfortable libraries of Thule and the environment’s only going to grow more inhospitable. My fire magic? Weakened. My water magic? Ice. My wind magic? I pulled my cloak tighter around me, in a futile attempt to resist the screaming cold.

A tired sigh escaped my lips as I drew my fingers down the door, formed a fist and knocked on the half-frozen wood with a few solid, measured thwacks. There was nothing special about this house, it was just the first in the village that still had faint lights shining out its grimy frosted windows.

There was a clattering from inside and a muffled “Just a minute.” To their credit, just about a minute passed before they opened their door a sliver, one aged eye squinting out at me and half a white moustache below it. I put on my best personable smile, honed with years of practice alone in the archives.

“Yer not some kinda ghast, are ye?”

My smile twitched and he flinched back a bit. “No sir, I’m just a travelling scholar on my way through this fine village. I wonder if you might have a bed to spare... or if you know some one who might?” His expression turned into something marvellous, part disgust, part despair, major parts annoyance, part reluctance, part determination. The old man pulled his lips into something of a scowl which I presumed was supposed to be a smile. Hopefully.

“Come on. And hurry it up, yer letting the cold in. No point goin’ to the others at this hour. Can’t let it be said ol’ Weylin’s forgotten hospitality.”

Nodding my thanks, I stepped past the opened door and closed it behind me, entering the man’s humble abode. Both he and I looked each other over for a moment, common courtesies set aside as we assessed this new being before us. His eyes lingered especially long on my robes and the staff I carried with me, while I merely observed the tatter and wear of his thick, faded brown tunic. Frankly, it was a little hard to gauge what he did for a living, though some contraptions lying about offered a hint. I breathed out a sigh of relief as the warmth of the room began to sink into me.

“Much appreciated, master Weylin.”

“Just Weylin. So… yer a scholar eh? City boy? Noble? Can’t be, you’d not want to shack up with a filthy peasant like me keheh!” The old man shambled over to a table and thumped down onto a chair by it, knocking over a bottle yet catching it in a surprisingly, concerningly smooth motion. He brought it to his lips, gulping greedily from it, even as his expression twisted and a small shudder worked through him. I leaned my staff against the wall and shucked off my pack, waving a dismissive hand at him as I pulled up a chair of my own.

“Gentry, but think nothing of it, ‘twas only my grandfather’s deeds. Yes. I grew up in a city, quite far from here, in fact, Thule. And as I said, I am indeed a scholar. And you are…?”

“Trapper now, I reckon. Used to be a hunter, but then the bones got old and now the chill gets to me, can’t hold a bow so well, with quite the patience I used to. So, what’s a cityboy from all the way south doin’ all the way up here?” He squinted at me from behind his bottle, before taking another swig.

“Travelling through, following up on some old records for my research.”

“Travelling through eh… Headin’ to Strohmbelt then? Yer a bit outa yer way, oughta been travelling up the coast.”

I shook my head, “No, headed north west.”

His old hazy eyes widened and grew sharp. “Yer headin’ into the Ghostlands?” He pulled a grimace. “Mmrh, well it ‘tain’t my business how ye wanna get yerself killed. I’ll warn ye though, if ye make it back, ye’ll not be welcome by my door. In fact, ye’ll not find any of our doors open to ye.”

I raised an eyebrow. Though it was my furthest travel yet, it was not my first. There are very few things that could turn an entire village against you like this. “Why’s that?”

“Place is haunted as I reckon ye well know, master scholar.” I wasn’t too fond of the sarcastic bent in his words, but something about his face made it hard to remain annoyed. “The only people interested in that place are weirdo freaks with a hardon for ghosts and the sticky fingered. Eh, guess they’re one-an-the-same, hah! Haha heugh.” He coughed a little longer before his expression grew solemn. “Everything there’s cursed. Haunted. Research eh? Seen plenty o’ yer type. Got some silver on ye?”

I tilted my head at the old man and his seemingly unrelated question. “I do.”

Shakily, he rose from his seat and headed over to a set of draws, bringing back a pen, some ink and parchment. “Ye seem like a nice enough lad, I’ll waive the ink and paper. How about ye write some last words, an’ if I happen ta come across yer corpse, I’ll send it off in the post to yer next of kin. If not, I’ll just presume ye dead after a few weeks and send it anyway. Deal?”

I quirked an eyebrow. “Is it that certain?”

He sat down and reached for the bottle, contemplating it before taking another sip. “What if ye found a priceless artefact. The kind what’s discovery could see yer name in the annals of history fer all time? Could ye bear ta leave it?”

“Of course... not.”

He nodded in understanding. “Feel free to leave yer valuables with me fer safe keepin, the spirits don’t need it. If they’re not too valuable, I’ll send em off. If they are, I might well just nick em! Hahaha!”

I shook my head exasperatedly. “Have you had your fun?”

He grinned. “Heh. Aye. So anyways, they’re haunted. Lookin’s fine. Touchin’… ‘s fine I spose if ye don’t break it. Takin’? Ye’ll never sleep a wink again, hounded by ghosts ‘till the end of the earth, day in, day out. Those elven bitches are too proud to just lie down. Ye touch their toys at yer own peril.”

Both my eyebrows shot up at the mention of elves. That’s… select knowledge. “Elven?”

“Oh aye,” He squinted a single, glimmering eye at me. “but I reckon ye already knew that, you researchy types. Me, I live it. Venture in from time to time, although ye ken never get too far in ‘fore ye start to lose yer fingers an’ toes. But the animals on the outskirts are fine pickin’s… muddled. Easier to trap, and finer pelts. ‘Course, I don’t push it. Steer clear o’ the ruins, never touch anythin’. Seen plenty ‘o the gloomy buggers mopin’ around with their droopin’ ears an tear-streaked cheeks, keh!”

“Wait, you see them?”

“Oh, they’re everywhere. Some are ‘alive’, awake, some are stuck on their moment a’ death, screamin’ fer eternity. Some don’t wanna admit they’re dead, keep goin’ bout their days.” A lecherous grin stretched across his weathered features, “There’s this one lass, real kinky slut roughly seven leagues north northwest a here, cookin’ somethin’ in nothin’ more than an apron, keheh all bent over nice like. They way she jiggles… they musta fed them elves like somethin’ different. Course, the kitchen’s gone, and the building.”

“Charming.”

“Ah, sod off. You would.” He looked around the room furtively and leant in, booze thick in his breath. “Lil’ legend that some one once found one touchin’ erself. Had a go, he did. No one heard from ‘im since.”

“How do you know of it, if the only witness vanished?” The old man shrugged.

“Any way, point is, I can’t trust ye not to nab somethin’ and none-a us want a pack of screamin’ banshees ransackin’ our little village. So ye best factor that in on yer way back lest ye wanna sleep outside in the cold! Kehehhe.”

I ignored the evident relish in the old fool’s voice as he imagined me turning into a block of ice and replied dryly. “Noted.” Still... haunted, huh?

“Olright ye blighter. Yer from all the way down south eh? Well ye ruined an old man’s evenin, so give us somethin’ nice to gossip about and I’ll head off to bed.”

My lips twitched. “Seems like your evening was going to mostly consist of drinking, I don’t think I’ve impacted that in any way.”

“‘Course ye have. I wasn’t just gonna drink, I was gonna drink alone, an’ ye went an’ ruined it. Now spit it out.”

“Hrm, interesting eh?” I folded my arms and raised a fist up to my chin. “Lowsage Carter recently put out his Thesis on Mental-Magic Resonance, an-”

“Non a that fancy shit.” He waved his hand grouchily. “Who’s fuckin’ who? Who’s killin’ who?”

I sighed. “Fucking and killing, huh… Oh!” I leaned forwards a bit. “Keep your eye on people travelling from the south, like I am. If they say they come from Bergen, give them a wide berth. I did. Place is just recovering from a pretty nasty plague, way I hear it. Even the dead rose.”

“Oh?...”

“The Church had to get involved.”

“Oh!...” He frowned deeply. “Hrm… Was it contained?”

I shrugged. “No one left, as I hear it. A handful of corpses here and there, some kinda wildfire burnt down a few hundred of them at the north gates, but all the other citizens? The zombies and men? Gone. Without a trace.”

“Hmph… I’ll be sure ta let every one know… tomorrow, that is. Fer now I’m gonna get some rest.” He pointed an ancient, gnarled finger across the room. “Cot’s there. Give me a yell if ye need blankets.”

I shook my head and thanked the grump, already feeling almost too warm in my cloak. “I should be quite alright. Thank you, Weylin.”

“Hrm? Oh yeah, ye never gave me yer name, citykid.”

I looked up at the old man, my amber eyes focusing on his faded blue as I brushed some of my unruly brown mop off my face. “Aelfwyn.” I shot him a grin. “I’m Aelfwyn.”

 

* * * *

I ended up leaving behind some silvers. Not for the note, I didn’t think I needed that and to be frank, I’d have no one to send such a note to anyway. My mother had passed some years back and my profligate father’s probably too busy with his new wife to notice my absence. It is his fourth one. Not even he knows how many half-siblings I have out there. It was just a blessing enough that I managed to wrangle hold of my mother’s family assets after she passed and return it to my uncle in return for his funding my education. No, I left the silvers because I decided to make a decent go of filling my belly before I ventured off into the unknown and fairly ate the old man out of house and home.

Ghostlands, huh? It’s been some hours since I’d left the village, well into the morning though you wouldn’t know it for the chill. It took some time trekking through crunchy snow before I was able to crest a hill of such elevation that a portion of the frigid dead expanse unfurled before my eyes. Black-grey turbulent skies hung oppressively over the cracked and broken land, as if reminiscent of the cataclysm that once happened here, for only some world shaking event could lay low such an empire. The land was an uneven puzzle of frozen crags, Sometimes standing proud, sometimes slanted and collapsing in on itself. Rolling plains of ice and titanic sheets cracked and sunk into the earth.

All vegetation here was black and bearded in ice shards spiking out chaotically, formed in one storm or another and almost glowing a certain ethereal quality. I recognised it as one of the many forms of less-than-mundane ice. Indeed that must also be the motivation behind the groups that do come here to scavenge. Harvesting the ever-ice here is no different from mining rare, powerful ores from the bowels of a volcano, or delving deep into ancient, enchanted forests for magical woods that lie at the heart of it. Only the magical ice here was probably more treacherous to harvest than ice at a mountain’s peak, as the latter probably lacks for spectral custodians.

I hadn’t used it so far as to conserve its power and my own, but it’s about time, considering the shivering I’d started. I knelt down and rummaged through my pack. I was not at the level yet and would probably never reach the level where I could carve out and brand a small space of my own between the realms to store my items. Had to make do with the normal way, unfortunately. Of course, my bag was so well protected that in all honesty I don’t know what might happen to it if some one were to tamper with it or its contents. I wouldn’t be surprised if it just outright exploded.

I took my glove off and my white hand instantly began to ache in the icy wind. The villagers would handle it better than most, but not even they would be able to withstand the cold as well as I, the passive benefits of dabbling your mortal flesh into the realms of magic. But even I couldn’t bear this alone for too long. Fumbling a little stiffly in the cold, I dropped the ring into the snow by my foot. By the time I picked it up, a small puddle had formed, probably the only water this land had seen that wasn’t locked in some form of ice in centuries.

Being more careful this time, I slipped the ring over a finger and placed my glove back on. Instantly the cold decreased to the level of a particularly chilly autumn’s day in Thule, my robes being entirely adequate to handle it. Of course, it wasn’t that the air around me had warmed, far from it. I had, however. The air trapped under my robes did a fine job of circulating around the heat coming off my skin, and the heat trapped under the scarf wrapped about my mouth and nose quickly warmed the air I was breathing, so my lungs wouldn’t freeze from the inside. It’d be like a sauna under these robes in any other circumstance, so fiercely had I inscribed and calibrated the ring. Thankfully, I’d over estimated and over estimated again just how cold it would be. I’m still not even in the ghostlands proper yet, it’s going to get colder, as evidenced by the ice clinging to absolutely every surface I see. I don’t know how well the ring will hold up.

I rummaged around and unfolded a map I’d sketched after much cross referencing, but I was careful to keep it within the confines of the demon-beast leather bag. I’d made backups, but I’d still rather not see this paper frozen solid in the air and rendered unusable.

My eyes settled on the village I’d just left and I placed myself based on how far I’d walked and in which direction. I looked up from time to time, to spy landmarks, but it was difficult. Jagged ice plains with the infrequent, rime-blasted bones of a dead civilisation jutting out in freak arches or mounds of once-walls encased in permafrost. It’s all very samey, though I suppose I could be glad for the grim cloud cover, lest this entire stretch be a gleaming incandescent mirror to the sun’s great rays. I looked to my destination, some ways off the outskirts of the very centre of the Ghostlands, just some ways from the core of it, that dead citadel to the very north, an island spire left standing in a hollow mockery of pride.

Referencing again my map, I stood and shouldered my pack once more before I begun to trudge off into the wastes.

***

The first ghost I saw was of a young, flaxen haired maiden doing much the same thing as I appeared to be, trudging aimlessly through the snow, only whereas I took great care in crossing the cracked fissures in the earth, like split skin beneath a relentless sun, she merely glided over them, paying no heed to the world around her or even me. The second gave me a salacious glance and a coy wave, yet looked right through me as she was on her way to wash some clothes. Or at least, that’s what it seemed like she was doing, her arms cradling nothing. That was by a building I could only surmise as once having been something of a tavern, going by the tattered remnants of a road and the skeleton of a foundation with a foot print too large to have been an ordinary residence, surely.

Well, it’s all just conjecture anyway. I rose from the small pit I’d dug for myself through the snow and ice and put my axe and pick away, sparing a last glance at the stone foundation, with its etchings about the perimeter. It’s a mere table crumb prepared to the academic feast I was hoping for but if I find nothing else, at least deciphering the markings could lend some insight to the wardings they used to inscribe upon their foundations. To evident effect, given the preservation of the slab. The elves are notoriously cagey about their ancient ways, but personally I believe they’ve just forgotten them – so total their culture’s annihilation.

Theirs was an epoch of information, everything was recorded from high theoretical magical conjecture to the food on an elf’s plate any given day. Scholars have long been faced with the daunting prospect of unearthing some great discovery of magical or political insight, only to find it a bothersome citizen’s complaint to the local council over noise pollution caused by local golem workteams. That said, even mundane discoveries can shed a world of light onto that most ancient and prime of civilisations.

What led me down this precipitous rabbit hole that saw me venturing alone into one of the most inhospitable regions of the northern continent was little more than graffiti. An elf’s personal communication crystal sardonically in that smug elven way of theirs mocking an ‘Oracle’ Caeldissa for apparent doomsday portents. Given the utter void of context around this missive, I could only assume that this was information relayed along a theorised ‘Lattice’ of theirs, a supposed interconnected grid of crystal relays that could dispense information from these personal crystals with unfathomable speed and to unfathomable length – global as has been preposterously claimed. As for proof for such a Lattice, all we have is repeated primary source references to one and long shattered, useless crystals. If any one were to tap into this ancient bygone network, with all it’s bounty they’d be the defining discoverer of an era.

At any rate, in relaxing my mind from my studies and taking a little walk to clear my head, I headed into the section of the archives holding such miscellaneous and overly pointless titbits of information and took an aimless gander. It might seem futile allocating room – and quite a bit of room at that – to minutia, but I suppose the wisdom of the elders is self evident here, because this one bit of randomness stood out. Caeldissa. ‘Oracle’ Caeldissa, the name stood out to me, and though it was not an uncommon name, it wasn’t especially common either, especially not when you consider the nod to divination, an already elective field even to the High elves, and evidently none too favoured.

Probably less so now, that whatever doom she foresaw had evidently transpired. They say not to shoot the messenger but no one ever listens. I spent months of my free time in a hobby pursuit, cross referencing and searching for mentions of such a Caeldissa and some months ago I found a likely match, some young protege of a rather famous diviner from a lauded lineage though she herself didn’t seem to descend from notable stock. She’d shown some considerable success with minor dabblings in clairvoyance as I could infer. My break arrived once again from that sprawling archive of ancient ideations, wistful daydreams, lusty swoonings and petty bickerings. We really weren’t all that different.

It amounted to a bunch of business reviews. Caeldissa, if this was one and the same, seemed to earn a little on the side prophesying love. Some mentions were amiable, some scathing. The latter probably didn’t hear good news, though if these sources are dated to anywhere around near the collapse of their once-great civilisation, then there may be some grim reasoning for that beyond their generally haughty outer demeanour. All these derived from crystals owned by girls out abroad, but hailing from the same academy. A rather prestigious one at that, that seemed to excel at producing exemplary specimens of magical and martial prowess. The some what narcissistically named Trinity Paragon’s Academy, so named for their tripartite headmistress-ship of the fields of Magic Theory, Combat and Biology.

Only the absolute broadest strokes of their curriculum could be gleaned from discovered sources but this academy seemed to be of the same breed of the other institutions – some of which even exist today – dedicated to producing young and excellent fighters and proud figures in their field. I never really understood all the pomp and circumstance, indeed I could never afford such a school, so it’s all fine and well that my interest in magic is only marginal, my interest in physical combat non existent and my interest in less lofty scholastic pursuits far greater. Not that I’m not good at magic, though to be ‘good’ at such a thing is rather subjective. I’m quite terrible at magic, rather, as evidenced by my wide breadth of abilities and the fact I’d dipped my toes into nearly every accepted school.

The study of magic, summed up most basically, is the study of the extreme. It took extreme dedication, talent and single minded focus. I lacked two and a half of those qualities and merely coasted on my innate potential to pick up some piddling arcane tricks to make life easier for me along the way. If I had a speciality at all that rose above the rest, then it would be my conjuration. After all, the art of calling material from the immaterial was profoundly handy and is why I’m travelling as light as I was.

At any rate, through cobbling together related sources and cross checking, I’d drafted myself a map that I felt reliably narrowed down this academy’s location to a rather small radius. All that’s left now was to verify my speculations. Finding the academy alone would see my name in the long annals of academic achievement. Should I be able to divine some truth about this oracle and uncover the great mystery… I’d be immortalised. Our collective understanding about the world around us would leapfrog into an entirely new era and I would go down as its pioneer and reap for myself my ultimate life’s goal. Permanent tenure at my Thule College of Civil Ministry, to dwell within the libraries and archives at my whim and have a personal dormitory of my choosing. Somewhere tucked away in the College with a great view over the bay. Live the comfy life, infrequently lecture younglings on this culture or that.

The College of Civil Ministry was exactly as droll as it sounds, geared primarily towards rearing civil servants, it still saw it’s fair share of merchant’s sons and daughters and elective scholars like myself. It’s the college of the functions of civilisation, those that were – my interest – those that are and those that can be. Their economies, their arts, the hopes and dreams of their citizens, the marshalling of their armies, the logistic beasts chained under any gilded throne. Anything to create a learned and well rounded force of ministers and servants of the people. I couldn’t care less, though I’d be more than chuffed if my expertise in the past was ever called upon to help navigate the present. As a result of this focus, our atrophied departments of magic and combat – for a minister cannot be unlearned or incapable of defending himself or his people from threat – weren’t especially imbued with an active spirit. Indeed the teachers and lecturers were often either rejects from greater academies, or other civil servants with a particular affinity one way or the other.

Still, those libraries had been my only respite in life and I wanted to die there, a long long time from now. I unfurled my map and tried to cross reference any of the other landmarks I’d noted to help me along my way. The land was surprisingly difficult to navigate with its irregular slopes, like the shattered glass of a fallen mirror after the pieces had settled. Not to mention the rapidly shifting snowdrifts revealed and concealed the bone white skeletons of this dead and haunted civilisation moment by moment. I stooped over, pulled down my mask and cupped a handful of powdery snow, drinking it as it melted in my hand, felt the jolting chill slide down my throat, accompanying a queer sensation of invigoration due to the faint magical properties of the snow and ice here.

I continued trekking my way through the ghostlands, subsisting off my rations and subsisting off… whatever I could catch. The lethargy the old trapper noted existed purely at the outskits of the ghostlands, creatures from outside stumbling in for whatever reason and beset by the magics. The natives here thrived in the ferocious cold and didn’t care to wander where it was thinnest. I was stunned to spy a rimetailed hare practically vanish amidst the snow the moment I erred too close before the kill. Thankfully I was able to sustain myself a good way off the ambient magic of the area, though I feared my body temperature would never remain the same after this venture and I’d probably have to spend some considerable amount time trying to thaw the frost in my spirit once this was all over. Maybe vacation further south. I do hope I prepared and rugged up adequately to stave off the magical emanations of the ice. I’d hate to have to return to using mundane means to heat my teas and baths due to it’s corruption. That said, ice’ll come free and I’ll never have to worry about keeping my room cool over summer. It’s all about the little things.

I rested wherever I could avoid the biting winds and as far from the ghosts as possible, old man’s warnings prescient in my mind. Given the relative ease at which I’d been traversing this land, the only reason that there could be for the abject lack of its exploitation was the ghosts lingering. I’d begun to see the ‘living’ ghosts the Old man mentioned. And kept a wide berth. They went about their lives, not blissfully ignorant of the state of the world around them, not transfixed on their moment of death, but morosely combing through the ruins of what once was, seeming to take from it what they can to make their existence squatting amidst former glories more bearable. I came across a number of small villages seemingly scavenged from the ruins and spied and steered clear of many a grim faced elven custodian, overseeing their lesser sisters, those who do not have their eyes open and those that do, but refuse to see. It would seem that even wilful ignorance can still be blissful to the dead.

What a shame it is that I could not just directly approach one of these ghosts for their account. Everything seemed to point to the awakened as being extraordinarily recalcitrant and cagey, while the others either wouldn’t acknowledge me, or wouldn’t acknowledge their own existence. Day by day, while doing my best to minimise the use of my resources, I crept closer to my goal.

 

* * * *

Hunkered down to block the wind, staff lent up against the wall beside me, I unfurled the map and poked my head over the crumbled, iced over wall, turning this way and that. At a glance, the landmarks all seemed to match up. It had been about a week since I began and the cold honestly didn’t bother me overmuch anymore. I’m sure I’m going to have hell to pay after this venture when I return and try and re-acclimate to weather that isn’t so extreme. Even my conjuration had changed from the colour of raw magic, now tinted with a more pale blue-ish white, not unalike ice. On the up side, my ring of warmth is functioning perfectly fine. I etched the runes into it myself and I’m feeling quite proud of my accomplishments. The charge for some one else to do it was exorbitant, especially for one without a bevvy of contacts such as I. Self sustainability is the motto.

I looked around again and sighed. If I really am where I am… I cast my gaze over the wall again to the yawning, howling crevasse nearby. Then down’s the only option. I took a short break to rest, then began to look for a fine vantage point to descend. My expectations were immediately elevated upon peering over the edge of the abyss. Multiple tilted, fallen, cracked and broken structures were encased in the ice and the earth, such that the chasm was practically riddled on the way down with structures that I should probably be able to reliably stand upon. Spiring towers at some points even formed albeit precarious bridges across the chasm. Colossal dark shadows lurked in the ice almost like beasts awaiting prey, halls and buildings utterly concealed. Some I might be able to breach from the structures jutting from the surface of the ice walls, some I might have to tunnel into directly.

Although I was reluctant, if a preliminary investigation should prove insufficient, then I’d have to return and see if I could bring my findings to levy a full excavation. I wager the ghosts would make that a troublesome prospect. Hence why I set out alone to begin with. But I also know, that if there’s enough to gain, Thule may well send out an army. Certainly conscript a few paladins to safeguard the expedition.

I had my suspicions that such delvings would become necessary, thus brought plenty of rope. Tying an end doubly and securely about a cracked pillar rising out of the snow and checking it thrice, I headed over to the edge of the cliff some tens of meters above a jutting spike of slate tiles and with my axe carved out a smooth, deep notch in the ice to lay the rope down in. Satisfied, I made the descent.

It took a few hours and a lot of rope and some thrilling slips on smooth, weathered ice but I eventually found, dropping from one foot hold to another, a window which I could pry open and a room for me to slip into. The window was quite sizeable, more than large enough for me to comfortably lower myself through, though it’d been totally sealed over with a film of ice. The glass was still immaculately clear excepting the ice and the metal filigree woven over it was still as beautiful as it no doubt would have been the day before its fall.

Reaching for my ice pick, I placed the tip between the frame and the window itself and gave it a light tap with my palm. The pick easily sunk through the two centimetre thick film, followed by a shrill whistle as I pulled the pick back out. I punctured another hole at a corner, jumping a little at the high pitched sound as a fracture ran across the ice and the shrill whistle grew louder and deeper. I didn’t even need to strike the last edge with my pick, the ice splitting around the frame as I levered the edge and cracked the ancient window open. An immense gust of air pushed past me, marauding through this long forgotten, ancient building. I winced a few seconds later as I heard a few more distant shatterings, then a loud, distorted ping echoing through the depths.

“I… seem to have cracked the seal...” I gulped as a whirl of emotions took me, my innate control of the magic within and around me slipping as it reacted to the overwhelming excitement emanating from me. I worked quickly to dampen and retain control over my emotions. The first step was to untangle this dense ball lodged in my chest, separate the anticipation from the trepidation and the hope. The reality that I could find nothing of particular significance but half a room and a solid wall of ice worked well to reign in my expectations. Fingers shaking, I gently waved my staff and cast an orb of light down into the darkness beneath me. This crevasse was still lit enough by the daylight and the walls of ice themselves emanated a soft, cold light, but inside the building was a pitch darkness. My orb illuminated it, revealing rows of tables and bookshelves.

Then, waving the catalyst in a spiral motion, I cast a soft wind spell on my self, to lighten myself. The fact that this building was sealed for so long and now reopened to the world for the first time in aeons, I’d best navigate as carefully and light as a feather, lest I fall through the floors or worse.

The ambience was unfathomably ancient and I felt a century older just walking through it. The frigid cold and the eerie silence gave off the feeling of a mausoleum. The furniture was in as much disarray as you’d expect from a structure tilted fourty five degrees from the architect’s intended design and I feared to touch a thing, not for the old man’s warnings, then far from my mind, but for the fragile integrity of everything around me.

It appeared to be some clerk’s office, an upturned desk, scattered documents, the moisture within all long frozen to ice and just the body heat radiating off me making me feel like anything so fragile I’d touch would just instantly shatter into nothingness. A bird stared at me from the “floor”, which was more the wall, in it’s upside down cage, glassy eyes still frozen with the images of millennia past. Afraid to touch anything personally, I conjured a disembodied hand of null heat to ever so gently sift through what loose documentation there is, selecting one at random, perspiration freezing to my skin as my heart thunders up by my throat. ‘Trinity Paragon’s Academy Groundskeeper’s Faculty Evaluation Report’.

I held it within my magical grasp, nearly faltering as my emotions surged once more. This is it. I’d found it. No sooner had the thoughts roared through my mind than did a soft thump from behind send me into a state of hyper vigilance.

“Drop it, slowly. Carefully.”

Following the feminine, blunt voice, a little cold but also firm, the document promptly shattered. I couldn’t help it, that I’d managed to not react at the first noise is plenty admirable enough. This place is haunted after all, I hadn’t lost sight of it, even if I felt I understood the mechanics behind how the ghosts worked. I heard a sigh from behind as the shards of frozen solid paper sprinkled down to the ground and the magic hand was left hovering in the air, clutching nothing and almost looking a little guilty.

Rigidly, I turned to see a ghost, not unalike some of the others I’d seen. She stood tall, two heads taller than I and proportionally a little longer in the legs than most humans are. That alone may not set her apart from greater humanity but the two big bumps in her loose, voluminous cowl did, the marked trait of an elf. Or some kind of avid animal dress-up enthusiast, the latter more inhuman than the former. A white wood bow hung from her back, the string gleaming like ice and a decently long sabre sat sheathed at her hip, with the handle of a smaller knife jutting out from behind. Her dressage was of immaculate artisanship, nearing skin-tight, pale, pure white sturdy leather with intricate designs scored into it of that typical elven naturalist bent. Aesthetic tufts of fur protrude from cuffs, rims and hems, indicating the warm, insulating inner nature. The frigid winds of the north made her lack of protruding ears – as is typical of most modern elven fashion – more sensible. The weather consciousness of the elf however, was neither here nor there, she’s probably just wearing what she died in.

Due to her armour and the large, thick white cloak hanging over her shoulders, I couldn’t discern much of her figure, but her face… I don’t think any tales of elven beauty can truly be overstated. My heart froze in my chest for a reason other than sudden fright and my breath was stolen away. Dark rivers of black silk ran down her chest from her hood and two forelocks of streaked pale blond stood out atop, strikingly and proud, like pale glimmers of winter sun. An enthralling pair of ice grey eyes stared out at me from under eaves of long dark eyebrows, following the curve of her brow and then jutting out and up a good deal. The frozen grey orbs sat upon their beautifully lashed almond shaped throne, a carpet of black rolling out like tears through heavy makeup, though not splotchy and meandering as actual tears would be, more straight – if faded at the edges – markings, like what I’d seen on other ghosts. Her pale, almost translucent complexion only served to make the dark around her eyes and somewhat thin, but shapely lips pop out all that much more, the juxtaposition made her feel even more ethereal. Her expression – cold, charming stern finality – fit her occupation as Death’s praetorian perfectly.

Her gaze drifted regretfully from me to the now shattered document. I gulped, that old man’s words then rushing back into my mind and with gleeful schadenfreude. “I’m uh… sorry? Y-you kinda startled me.” Those cool eyes returned to mine, conveying a sense of… something. Exasperation? Dismay? Disappointment?

Wordlessly, she reached a hand out for me and took a step forwards with a heavy thunk. I immediately paled. Only the most powerful of spirits can manifest and exert their presence as physical mass. That or she wasn’t a ghost. Both were horrifying to contemplate, I didn’t want anything to do with weight and mass at the moment. “Wait! No, Stop!”

Her other foot lifted and landed all the same despite my protests. As if in response to my frantic cry, the moment it did, the loud crack of shattering ice rang out in the room. She looked down. She looked at me. She tilted her head and we fell.

I don’t know how many floors, I was able to reduce my weight, not fly. All I could do was shut off the pain and fright and try and cast upon myself a spell of hardened skin. At some point, I bounced off a wall, then through some open space, before slamming through floors again, the only saving grace at the moment being the elf slamming through all these surfaces before me and taking the brunt of the impact. I think I passed out after slamming my head into a pillar shortly before feeling a pair of strong arms grasp and hold me.

 

* * * *

When I came to, I found myself naked, only wrapped up in my robes and lying on a familiar looking, thick white fur cloak. Every inch of me hurt to one degree or another and my head ached. Some of it was bruising. Some of it was a broken, shattered ache deep down. Some of it was stinging, light lacerations. Some of it was gouges deep enough to make the blood run cold. Multiple places on me were wrapped up in bandages and something hard seemed to be bracing my right shin from within the wraps.

Suddenly, a figure loomed over me and ripped the robes from my body. I squealed and covered my dignity, or tried to, but the pain just turned it into a pitiful gurgle and my body seized up the moment I tried to move. The figure, that elf from before, put her warm hand on my shoulder. Definitely not a ghost. Her ice grey eyes flickered with unerring favour towards my penis. “It’s okay. I’ve already seen it many times before. I need to change your bandages, now.”

“Th-that’s not any better. W-why do you have to change them? Many times? How long was I out? Where am I?” I panted, jaw clenching to suppress the pain as I blurted a bunch of questions.

“They’re dirty. First when I stripped you. Seventeen hours. I don’t know.” She answered each question summarily and worked to unravel the bandages she could, unveiling many a crusted red splotch. I turned to look at her, only to gape at the piece of metal sticking out of her side. She was a mess, far more a mess than I, it seems. Her once clean white armour now scratched and torn and beaten almost beyond recognition, many deep cuts were red with her blood absorbed into the fur and from what I could see of her back, it too was a mess. Also there was a fucking piece of metal sticking out of her side. Her hair was somehow still perfect though.

“W-what about you?!”

Blank faced, she made a reassuring gesture with her hand. “I’m strong.” I stared at her for a few moments, before I tiredly shook my head and let her help me sit up so she could work on the rest of the bandages. “Hmm, you took to the dressings fairly well...” I gasped softly, as her smooth fingers ran down my back, dancing gently over wounds that felt mostly sealed over and healing.

“What was in it?”

“Just some herbs I picked up.”

“...” Oh, my heart skipped a beat, there. I looked around for my staff, but didn’t see it anywhere. Must have lost it in the fall. Muttering under my breath, I cast a weak cure poison spell with my fingers, just in case. I could make do without my staff, but it’ll use more concentration.

“What was that?”

Surely, elves are quick to recognise magic. “Uh… it’s nothing.” I turned to face her. “Do you need help with your- ah, hey, stop!”

She halted, hands halfway through undoing her leather top, “You’re not going to help me?”

“I-I will, it’s just… aren’t you… t-too eager?”

“I am strong, but I am also bleeding. Also there’s a piece of metal sticking out of my side. Both things require seeing to, as quickly as possible.” Her matter-of-fact tone irritated me somehow.

“R-right… go ahead then.” I looked away and tried my best to centre myself despite the… exciting view I’d surely soon have to contend with. I opened my eyes a little while after the rustle of garments ceased to the sight of the elven beauty kneeling before me, naked but for a cut up bra and pair of torn panties that despite their simple look and design, could not truly hide the immense quality of their craftsmanship. For a moment, I couldn’t muster any response other than to stare. With a pair of breasts that sat on her frame treading the boundary between big and huge – though more the latter when you take proportionality out of it and just reckoned by sheer size – the only other retreats of softness on her seemed to be around the hips and inner thigh and her large, plump ass deforming around her heels, pressing up from beneath her rump as she kneels on them.

The rest of her could run an amazon for her money. Toned, tight and defined muscle, though seemingly structured less for intense bursts like perhaps a minotaur, but more long distance endurance, running and moving, though I didn’t doubt she’d be perfectly fine at unleashing her considerable strength in a single burst. More than that, her muscles gave off the sense of density, achieving great prowess not through sheer bulk and power, but intricate dexterity and infinite control. Her wide hips lent themselves perfectly to her long, shapely legs and despite the current state of her and despite her well honed body, there’s little sign of scarring or wear and tear.

That’s a phenomenon I wasn’t unfamiliar with, our own headmaster of the combat faculty was the same, a young, fit looking dandy boy thrice my age with nary a callus on his hands. When you honed your body to a certain extent, it returned to perfection as if you’d never worked a day in your life. How could simple wear and tear mar the acme of form? Skin becomes soft, supple, unblemished and hides a frankly demonic level power. Not unlike a mage’s mind and soul – acute, expansive – the two opposing extremes, not crossing again until far later, so they say, at a level that supposedly defies mortal understanding and begins delving into the realm of gods and legends.

She was littered with more wounds than I presume I was, though only the deepest still required serious attention, the others already scabbed over and seemed to be healing nicely. She startled me, as she cleared her throat, the faintest hint of red upon her cheeks. I jolted. “S-sorry...” In her slender, graceful fingers she held a roll of bandages and some fine cloth. From where isn’t immediately apparent, though my eyes quickly focused on the silver band about her middle finger and I scarce believed them, awe and want writ large over my features.

“Is that… a storage ring?”

“Yes.”

I closed my mouth and wiped the figurative drool off my chin. They’re incredibly rare and expensive, nothing I’ll ever get my hands on and even though it kind of makes a mockery of conjuration, the convenience is… godly. Still, can’t take out what you didn’t put in. I set my thoughts aside and called to mind a vessel, conjuring it wordlessly. The water to fill it with was actually a little more difficult, tricky for me personally so I relied on and uttered a short incantation, causing some ice cold water to form out of the air above my palm. It was supposed to be lukewarm, but that’ll take a long process of purging myself of the frigid energy of this place. Not that it made any difference to her, as I finally set about cleaning her wounds. Though evidently not a ghost now, surely her and her people’s inhabitance of this region conferred a supernatural resistance to all things cold.

She then wordlessly handed me a jar of a pale green paste, a poultice of some kind and I dressed the worst of her wounds with it, conjuring a thread and needle to tie them closed just long enough to dress and compress them together, before the conjured thread fades back to nothingness. She was indeed strong, it felt like trying to sink a needle through leather. Really, really nice and soft leather. She copped it pretty bad to have been cut at all. She must be a pure warrior through and through, given the strength of her body, rather than a magical warrior that relies less on raw power or the draw strength of a bow but more on their arcane wiles. A little unusual for an elf, though not unheard of.

Finally, with nothing else, it was time to address the elephant sticking out of her side. “Uh… I’m afraid this is the limit of my expertise.”

“Oh, I didn’t need your help with this, just some of the harder to reach places.” She explained generously, and wrapped her fingers around the metal shaft, before casually sliding it out of her body with a sickening wet squelch. It seemed to have once been a section of railing or something, still cool to the touch. A priceless material in and of itself, anything mundane – not that the elves used anything mundane – would attain wondrous qualities when steeped in extreme magical power for so long.

As for the gaping, now pouring wound, she grabbed the water, lent back and poured it in, flushing the wound out with the last of it and not making a noise. She then scooped a decent chunk of poultice with her fingers and plugged the hole in her side, before gesturing to the bandages. Stunned at her crude display of aid and moving like an automaton, I wrapped the final wound up.

“I-is that… okay? What’s even in it?”

“I do not know. I’ll be fine though.” She reassured me with the same deadpan finality and I could only shake my head in some parts bewilderment and awe. Sniffing for myself, I identified… I really should have taken more alchemy classes. Probably something elven.

Finally, given respite to actually look around, I took stock of where I was, some stone platform bordered on three sides by sheer ice wall, with a stone wall on the final side. Chilled air swirled about and our breath joined it endlessly, meanwhile the ice walls seemed to almost give off a faint magical chime as they emanated endless frigidity. Indeed, I didn’t realise it until now, but the ice itself was shedding the pale blue glow by which we could see, albeit dimly. Other wise, this deep down, all I should be able to see is pure blackness. A simple yet elegant, dark wooden and frozen over staircase led up to another more elevated platform and ahead of me were a pair of giant wooden doors and two corridors that terminated abruptly in more ice. A straight path ahead, then.

“Where are we?” I asked again, somewhat redundantly.

“I do not know.” The elf rose, “We were falling for quite some time.” Perhaps forgetting my own state, perhaps pulled into her pace, I tried to do the same, only to instantly cry out in pain and flop back down. Her figure loomed as she quickly knelt beside me and placed her hand on my shoulder, eyes showing a glimmer of concern.

“You’re far too injured to be wandering about on your own and you’re far worse off than I am. I’m also much stronger.” She really liked to emphasise that. “You should be more careful around places like this. Let me look after you.” Without waiting, without asking permission, she stooped down lower and scooped me up into her arms. I naturally protested.

“L-Let me go!” I blushed, pushing against her arms and shoulders, desperately trying to ignore the bouncing of her breasts as I squirmed with all my injured might, but couldn’t budge her. “This is all your fault anyway, don’t you know you have to be careful when entering ruins?! Especially sealed ones? Anything could happen, couldn’t you tell I was using magic to make myself lighter?! Did you think it’s because maybe I was worried about, I dunno, falling through fifty fucking floors?!” My rage echoed off the ice and she looked down at me with her impassive beauty.

“I’m sorry... I thought you were just self conscious. As for entering ruins… I left it to my sisters. I hunt and track. I am not very smart. But I am strong.” She freed an arm and held me aloft with the single one, flexing her bicep. I looked at her immaculate face, dazed. Despite the haunting markings under her eyes, the maudlin palette framing her features, she still looked like such a cool beauty. Dignified. Regal. Intelligent and decisive. It’s a pity when she opens her mouth and says things. A-And!

“What do you mean self conscious?!”

“You’re all soft.”

“I’ll have you know I exercise regularly between studies. Also!...” Was I the dumb one, to only realise now? “Y-you forgot your clothes.” I looked away, my cheeks burning.

“Oh.”

She walked me back and placed me back down where I was, before dressing herself again. I sighed, the break affording me the time to regain my senses. Gods, I was never this bad at talking to people, was I? I made another, more normal attempt. “Sisters? I honestly thought you were a ghost. There are other elves living here?”

“Yes, a whole city. We aren’t ghosts, although some of us are.”

“You just...” I looked her over, especially those markings on her face. “Look like ghosts?”

She nodded seriously, “Our duties and theirs are one and the same, to watch over and safeguard our home for eternity. We delve into the ruins and recover what we can, but most of our charges lay in watching over the lands and hunting intruders who would seek to defile them.”

I gulped. “What do you do with them?” Perhaps too absorbed in the conversation, I didn’t struggle this time as she lifted me into another princess carry. Granted, it’s less… exciting when she’s fully clothed.

“I do not know.”

“...What do you know?”

“Not much. As I said, I leave that stuff to my sisters.” She looked at me, like she was looking at an idiot. Good. That’s good. Very convenient, in fact. If I can keep my blood temperature at this level I’d be able to start thawing out the ice energy within me before having to return south. Very good. I took a deep breath.

“So you just… capture people and take them to your city? What happens to them there?”

She just shook her head, “I never bothered to ask. I have seen a few around the city, though, they seem to be happy.”

It probably wasn’t worth asking her about why no one’s ever seen again. I guessed I’d find out for myself sooner or later, I was evidently in a bit of a predicament, injured but to be brutally honest, probably outclassed regardless. Mages of my level were only a little better than an ordinary town’s guard physically. Perhaps through careful planning and preparation I could ambush her and come off on top, but as things were now, she’d elfhandle me as well as… well, about as well as she was currently doing.

“So… you were watching me?” For her to suddenly drop in like that out of nowhere made it fairly obvious I was being trailed.

“Since you crossed our borders.”

I shuddered a little at the thought. Elven arrows are liable to descend like the reaper, only more silent. Not to mention her white armour blends in to the snow and ice obscenely well. If at any moment she’d wanted to, I’d never be able to leave these ghostlands. Well, I still may not, but not because I have an arrow through my brain. “Oh... I’m Aelfwyn, by the way. It seems like I’ll be relying on you from now on.”

“Laraela. My sisters call me Lala.” Lala… strangely fitting for the elf. She looked down at me, seeming proud to have some one to rely on her, though her brow furrowed slightly shortly after. “I am… sorry for not being careful in the ruins and hurting you.”

I sighed. “It’s fine, accidents happen.”

Lala nodded sadly, “That’s what my sisters said.”

“… I thought you said this was your first time.”

She just looked away and mounted the wooden steps to the other platform while picking up stride. “Don’t!...” I breathed a sigh of relief as she stopped a few paces away. “...kick the door open. Put me down, please.” She did, although perhaps a little too gently.

Carefully testing my weight on my not-broken leg – so I don’t hurt myself, I’m not concerned I’d fall through a stone floor, I’m not that heavy – I hobbled up to the doors. It should be rare to come across magical seals on doors, considering this place was never intended to be interred in the ice for aeons – not even elves plan that far ahead. But if they happened to have been sealed for other more contemporary security reasons, there’s a good chance the ambient magic might have kept the seals churning. Elven sorcery was notoriously sturdy and as long lived as they are, after all, a by product of their particular take on magic.

However, as I gently felt with my mind and then my fingers, despite the hinges giving tiny crystalline cries of protest as I lent against them, they turned out to be ordinary doors. Well made, but ordinary doors. There was nothing I could sense and I don’t know how well I could rely on Lala behind me, so unless I wanted to spend the rest of our lives together in this little ice cavern, the only option was to move forwards.

The doors opened into a room, a room not encased in ice and thus, a very dark room. Dearly missing my staff at this point, I uttered another incantation and a gleaming ball of light emerged from my hand, shedding light over the room ahead. It… looked like a colossal library.

At least, all I could see from the light being shed from the little ball is… book case after book case. Wall to wall, columns of them, from the ground to the ceilings, the cases rise for hundreds of metres as intricate, master-crafted wooden flights of stairs, mezzanines and balconies weaved between them.

“Welcome… mortals.” a deep, feminine voice suddenly boomed around the library and hundreds, thousands of sconces lit up, illuminating the whole stretching expanse of library in a relaxed, dim glow. Enough to read and see by, but not so bright as to be especially disruptive to the mind. “After an eternity... you’ve finally arrived.”

Hearing movement behind, I looked back as Lala knelt. Her face was sombre, serious. Then again, it had been this entire time. I waited to see how quickly she’d shatter the illusion. “Laraela Dannen-Arathelyn greets the honoured ancestor.”

“Fu fu fu~ Long has it been since I- A-arathelyn? Dannen?” Following the confused voice, a figure popped into being upon a nearby desk, diminutive for an elf and around my height, she wore what appeared to be a dark, buttoned up uniformed jacket, a skirt, stockings and smart looking black shoes. I didn’t need to see much more than her brunette, loose twin braids and glasses to guess at what kind of character she was. The more things change, the more they stay the same. There was a good number of these types of girls at my college, though to be entirely fair there’s a certain… whimsical air about her that the others lacked.

She slid off the table and stalked on over, ignoring me as she stooped down at an angle to look at the kneeling elf. “Ehh~ You really do look familiar… tch~ out of all the people, it had to be one of you.” She pulled her lips back in a sneer, then turned to me, long elven ears perking up as her expression inverted to a beaming smile. “And who’s this cutie?” Lala for her part, didn’t seem to care overmuch, rising as she watched the other elf.

“Grtblbluth?” My eyes widened as I brought my hand to my mouth.

“Fufu~ A wildling, eh?” She looked back to Lala. “He isn’t yours then? That or you’re not a very good teacher.” She giggled at my evident confusion. “We’re speaking elven right now, cutie. Rather, you’re trying to. It’s a… dexterous language.” A pair of amethyst eyes gleam lewdly behind her glasses, “men who learn it tend to be… very good with their tongues. Let me just...” She closes her eyes and points a finger at me, “Tinker a bit… Try now.”

I cleared my throat. “U-uh… hi? I-I’m Aelfwyn.., a scholar from Thule.” Relief flooded me as I began to speak again in my native human tongue and I bowed in my best etiquette while my thoughts started to spin. Some kind of mind manipulating spell? Translation? I hadn’t heard of a magic that could make some one else speak a language they’d never spoken before. When was it even cast on me? When I entered? Is it just woven into this library? These questions burned in my mind as I finally stood face to face with an actual, conscious ghost. A contemporary of that bygone era in the flesh. Rather, spirit. A student of the academy no less, surely she can point me to what I’m looking for.

“Aelfwyn, nice name. Thule? Never heard of it. I am Caeldissa. ...O-oh?” My eyes fairly bulged as she revealed her name and I gasped, shouting.

“Caeldissa?! You’re Caeldissa?! The ‘Oracle’?!”

Her brilliant, almost mystical eyes widened. “Y-you know me?”

“Know you? You’re the reason I came here! T-the odds of… I must be upon some cusp of fate, I-I…” A warm hand clasped my shoulder.

“Calm yourself. Take a deep breath.”

I halted, suddenly coming back to myself and shooting Lala an appreciative look, I did so. “Sorry about that.”

Meanwhile, the bespectacled elf geek stumbled a step back, leaning her weight into a desk as she lifted a shaking hand to her temple. “H-hang on...” She started to mumble to herself, almost inaudible.
You came here... you can’t speak elvish, you’re not with her… I...” Her voice lowered as a dense pall of despair coloured it. She heaved a forlorn, heavy sigh then looked up, addressing us. “I was right, wasn’t I? It all came to pass. The collapse. That… total annihilation...” She looked to Laraela, who only solemnly nodded. “So the… humans, now rule?” She looked back to me and I shrugged.

“Depends where you go, I suppose. Around here, mostly yes.”

“Then… how did you know about me? Wait.” Her long, delicate, dark eyebrows furrowed. “How long has it been, exactly?”

“We don’t know. Our recorded calendars stretch back only a few tens of thousands of years.”

“Do you know?” She turned to Lala, who shook her head confidently.

“I do not know.”

“… Anyway, as for how I know about you; over the long years we’ve collected, archived and catalogued many relics from the past. I… was a little excited earlier, but it really is far, far too coincidental for me to have stumbled upon mentions of you deep in the archives, to have found you off the bat like this...”

Caeldissa waved a hand dismissively, “Best not to think about it, boy. The forces of fate are beyond your ken.”

I nodded, understanding that much. “Right. Anyway, I found records of people mocking you in old recovered message crystals and then found records of your love scrying side business and cross-referenced it with the records of this academy. Then, I came here, hoping to find answers where the Oracle once dwelt.”

“Mocked me.” She laughed sadly. “I suppose I can’t blame them… The heights we had, there’s no way you’d believe it would all fade within twenty four hours. And you?” She turned to Lala. “What’s your story? What happened to our people? How… are they?”

I turned to look at Laraela with interest. “I do not know that either.”

“...”

“...”

She shrugged at our expressions. “I never looked into the past. We have a single city, where we eke a living. The retired women and recent mothers tend to the civil affairs. All the other women are sworn into the Farstriders at birth and it is our duty to guard over and maintain the Ghostlands. Sometimes we form teams to delve into ruins like this and reclaim our heritage. I’m not usually allowed to join them. Most times we just keep our vigil.”

“… What a dreary and dismal existence...” Caeldissa sighed. “Farstriders, huh? I suppose if any one would be able to survive and rally the remnants, it’d be those girlscouts. Heh, I wonder if those tree huggers also survived? Last I recall they were raising a stink too.”

Though she tilted her head at the mention of ‘girlscouts’ she pressed on with her answers. “They did, almost perfectly intact, though they shun us now. Their elders committed a great ritual suicide to spare their descendants the land’s wrath. Another village formed to the west from those who were out at sea at the time and managed to brave the tides to return to the ruin.”

“Oh?” I perked up at the information. “There are a bunch of different elves up here? That’s the first I’m hearing about it.”

Lala looked at me. “Those who know may never leave.” I gulped.

“Knowledge… heritage.” Caeldissa sighed again, then perked up, rising off the desk, seeming to have come to terms with the accuracy of her portents. “Welp, good thing I imprinted what I could. This library around you isn’t real. You more or less fell into my domain, I am the mistress here and in the long aeons, my power has only grown. Each book here is representative of a memory, information. I dare say this must be the single most complete repository of information from my age.” She turned to me with a spark of smug seduction in her tempting gaze. “The moment I started having the visions, I set about archiving everything that was, everything I could, down to the taste of the air on a warm spring’s evening and the sound of the golems cheerfully humming as they toiled.” Every word of hers fed the fire in my heart. “All can be yours, if you fulfil a simple request of mine.”

“Anything.” I answered, sombrely and sincerely as I could.

Caeldissa blushed squirming in on herself, “Show me love.” I blinked. I drew breath into my lungs and blood circulated about my body, only the most instinctive of actions able to continue as all my higher thought ground to a halt and an awkwardly long silence desended.

“…Uhh… excuse me?”

“Love! Show me love! Do you have any idea how long I sat, daydreaming by the window? How many books of romance I hungrily devoured?! No one wanted to be with weird Caeldissa, no one wanted the shy, lowborn freak, with the spooky master! All the elf-born boys were already in arranged marriages, every outsider boy so fought over I could never lick the dirt he walked on. There was no boy for me and yet I still spent every second of every moment, aching, pining, dreaming. Love! I want love!”

Her outburst set the shelves to rattling, the books to shaking, but I knew it was a request I could never fulfil, and disappointment gripped me. I looked to Lala who seemed nonplussed with the situation, observing the vibrating shelves with some interest. My heart wasn’t set on either girl here, or any other, it was set on knowledge. I don’t desire fame, Lala could whisk me away to this city of hers to toil in obscurity for the rest of my life and I’d still be satisfied with the knowledge of the mystery unravelled before me. Glad, even. Alas, this love of my own is now what stood in the way. How ironic.

“Oh, don’t give me that look.” Caeldissa rolled her eyes. “The best of your entire race were squatting in caves and toying with bronze when I walked this earth. I’ve had a long, long, long time to reflect. Too long. And I…” She turned to look at me, her amethyst eyes turning dull with an ennui I could scarcely fathom deep in her soul. “I want to rest. I have no interest in sticking around and I couldn’t bear to make some one fall for me. I am only a lingering remnant of aeons past. This... burning desire of mine fuels me and shackles me to this existence. But!” Her tired eyes lit with the flames of passion and life. “I can still experience love. You want knowledge? I’ll immerse you in it. With all my strength, I’ll craft for you a world indistinguishable from the one still indelibly burned into my soul. And in return, the two of you will show me love. Play out the countless fantasies still gnawing at my mind. And then finally, I shall be in peace.” She bowed to us slightly, pleadingly.

I looked to Lala and she looked at me. It’s a lot to ask from two people who just met. What were her thoughts on the situation? Did the tall, muscular elf even have thoughts? I didn’t think we were really compatible... “U-uhm, I don’t think that’s really-”

“Fufufu~ Sorry cuties, not your choice. I’ve been waiting far, far too long for this. I’ve read thousands, millions of romance novels, plays, poems and songs. I travelled to the greatest libraries of the known world and engraved every single tome and crystal into this collection of mine and I’ve had an eternity to read, watch, listen to and re-read, re-watch and re-listen to them all countless times over. You think I can’t bring your two hearts together in true love? Fufufu~ I could make a demon and an angel fall to the depths of forbidden love without breaking a sweat. You might as well start thinking of baby names.”

“Gelythrael.” Lala interjected.
Caeldissa’s eyes gleamed, then blazed with power. Theatrically, she lifted her arms and pointed to the two of us. “Now, new students of the Trinity Paragon Academy. I, Caeldissa, your upperclassman,... welcome you.” Her lips curled into a mischievous grin and my vision went dark.

 

* * * *

The strangely familiar, strangely beautiful cawing of seabirds roused me from what felt like an eternity’s rest.

“How can he do that? Do you think he’s one of those Farstrider cadets?”

“No, have you seen how those outer-humans live? I just don’t think they know what beds are.”

“I heard they were all rugged giants… isn’t he… kinda cute?”

“I taste magic on him, too. Weren’t they supposed to all be brutes?”

“Hey, hey, do you think if he’s so small, his ‘that’ is small too?” My brows twitched.

“Phimoana, you’re incorrigible.”

“But they’re so cute!”

I reluctantly opened my eye to the gaggle, the last sense I’d yet to use, my nose had already told me that I’m by the ocean and near nature, my hands clutched luxuriously soft grasses and my skin told me of the warm breeze and the odd leaf drifting over my skin. My ears told me I’m surrounded by four or five young girls, while countless other people walked down a nearby stone path, amidst the odd heavy trundling of a carriage and the resounding footsteps of some hulking beast of burden.

The stood, crowded and towered over me, young teen elves already far taller than I, an unspeakable grace and beauty to their features, even as surprised as they currently were. “Kyaa, he’s awake!” The group fled before my eyes could even properly register, giggling all the way, hair streaming behind them as their graceful limbs danced like retreating nymphs.

I found myself lying by a roadside, snoozing under a golden tree, a bag in my too-small arms and dressed in a strange uniform. Bewildered and astounded, I slowly raised my hands and rotated them about, before calling to myself a thin film of water. In the reflection, I spied myself as I was as a teen, verging on young adult. Amazed, I looked out about me and shakily rose, head spinning this way and that. Spiring silver, golden towers lined the horizon, all immaculately crafted, beautiful pinnacles and gentle sloped domes, the dissonance caused by such heights of civilisation, yet such naturalistic aesthetics almost defied comprehension, as if this weren’t the crude reality I knew, but some utopic fae-land. Though most roofs were a pale blue-ish teal, quite a bit of colour was spread about, yet all the walls were a uniform off-white, almost warm.

Turning my head to follow the flow of traffic, my sight landed upon a pair of giant, proud silver gates, bearing a script I didn’t recognise, yet understood perfectly fine. ‘Trinity Paragon Academy’. Some way beyond the gates was a large square, with a colossal statue in the centre, of three elven women stood back to back and looking outwards, bearing their symbols of authority in different poses. Further beyond was a veritable village, with an immense central building and many smaller but no less extravagant ones scattered around. Numbly, legs barely listening, I walked out onto the path by the road, looking down it and out over a sprawling city. It seemed the Academy was built upon the crest of a large hill. Far as my eye could see, I cast my gaze over a civilisation vast enough to rival the Imperial City, yet so much greater. Asides from the idyllic bay dotted with millions of ships large and small, asides from the solitary island in the middle of it and it’s colossal, sky-scraping tower, all the horizon I could see was this sprawling beautiful city.

“It’s not hard to see, is it?” I jolted and turned to the familiar voice to see Caeldissa standing there, or not as people pass through her spectral figure. “A people, an empire so great, there’s no way you could believe all this would vanish overnight. I suppose I should have expected that no one would listen to me, any more than they’d listen to you.”

I still didn’t know what to feel, it certainly didn’t feel real. She giggled as she saw me standing there dumbly. “Run along now, the head mistress has a real mean streak, so you don’t want to be late for the opening ceremony. If you’re worried about how real all this feels and you get on the wrong side of her, you’ll wish later tonight that it didn’t feel so real.” With that she vanished, as a loud pealing of bells rang out from the academy and the tide ambling its way over to the academy hastened. I joined the throngs, feeling an almost childlike anticipation welling within me for the times ahead. Already, what I’d seen lay to rest so many questions, so many hypotheses. What else did the past have in store?