'My Long Running Fantasy Story, Spellbound. I'll keep it going as long as I do...
The Amber Wax.
The purple moon glided by the branches above as they were rocked by the thick storm. Thunder boomed low through the sky, like it sometimes did here. It had come now almost to mock or test him, but he would effortlessly rise to its match.
His boots slipped again in the thickening mud of the forest as he dragged the body of the old man along foot by inch by foot. The palm leaves he had woven skillfully into a cradle for the corpse had been broken down now completely by the tropical rains, so now he dragged it mostly by the ropes around the joints.
He scrambled up painfully long hills and then down the tracks at the opposite side that his father and mother had trodden in during the course of their long lives, and more recently he had done over the seventeen years of his life, all leading to this moment.
It took a great deal of time that night, from the setting of the sun to the first hint of dawn. It was an orange dawn that quickly began to blaze through the wet clouds on that side of the sky, throwing misted shadows from the tiny hummingbirds that came out of the forest to see what was happening. They were being a deliberate nuisance, but the forest knew him, and they knew that something was wrong.
He brought the old man to a grave he had already dug by a lighthouse at the edge of a sea.
It was a small and calm sea, one of a couple inland on this continent. Deep within the untouched forest wilderness this water lay undiscovered, but for the brief passing of these few souls.
The waves rushed and hissed as regularly as ever over the rocks and pools at the foot of the faded white tower as the last of the storm's wind moved through the old leaves of the palms. They spilled out of the forest along the shoreline, into the distance.
Soaked through and caked through with mud he stood in a numbness, waiting for it to pass and looking over the body he'd laid in the grave by the grave of his mother.
"I love you father." he said cooly. "What can I do now I'm alone?"
A tear escaped one of his eyes and ran a rough track through the mud on his cheek.
He began to fill in the grave a spadeful at a time.
"You shouldn't stay here." his father said, from the recesses of his memory. They had discussed this a few times sitting by the lighthouse looking out over the water. He had been so sure that they had covered everything in those conversations but now standing in the moment he realised it wasn't at all true.
"We were selfish your mother and I. Keeping you out here with us, perhaps we should have taken you back to the cities." his father had said as he played with a dry blade of grass he'd picked off the beach. "That's where you ought to go. That's where a mind like yours can flourish. You have the best of us both, your mother's mind and my strength. You should use them to help those who do not have the things. There's people that need help... especially in the 'Fifty-Nine'."
His mother had been a witch. She had accumulated knowledge throughout her early life, stealing it mainly until she had become adept in most magical traits. Back in the empire of Fifty-Nine Cities she had been on guard lists as 'Kill On Sight'. And so she had come out here and built a cottage where nobody had ever been, and through a chance in a million met his father who had been a missionary for a religious order called The Script. His father and another man had come out here to build a lighthouse on each of the seas in the endless forest, a one way journey in fact. They had encountered his mother and her cottage a few miles from the shore and fought for her love to the death. His father took her second name, Manes and then later he was born of the two, and they named him Squire.
Manes the witch died when he was thirteen, and for the next four years he and his father seemed to spend the most part preparing for when he himself would be gone.
Squire returned to the cottage and after burning up a stove for tea and a lunch from what was left in the larder, he began to pack a shoulder sling.
It was too soon he knew, and he could feel that numbness returning like he were handling this all wrong.
He bathed in the rapid river that flowed by the cottage, fed by a small waterfall from a cliff face that in turn turned an old wooden wheel that his mother had somehow constructed long before his father had entered the scene.
The river fed into a short gordge toward the back of the house and then disappeared under the slate lip of a hill, where it ran through caves down under the forest until eventually it reached the sea. As a child his parents had told him never to play or bathe in the river lest he be sucked down into those channels and never seen again. One time though, in the madness of those years he had swam down into them in the hope of either wading far enough down to surface in the sea, or to find the air pockets too few and return. He made it far and further than he dared remember, to a point where in his arrogance he believed he may be near the cove. At a point where the airpockets ended he looked below the surface and saw light ahead and so swam for it, then finding the distance to be quite a way too far for his ability to hold his breath. With the now mounted current preventing him from swimming back he clawed and pulled at the slightest groove in the smoothed rock tunnel, before being spat out of the cold river into the warmth of the sea. He had sucked at a tiny breath of water as the pressure threw him up over toward that light, and then he was in the grip of the waves tossing him back toward the shore. With the last of his coordination he had stumbled on one foot to drop his weight onto his back and force the water out of his lungs.
It was the stupidest thing he'd ever done, and he vowed never again. He had returned wet and his parents petted him and asked him about his swim down at the cove. For the first time he had lied and kept the lie right up until the death of them both.
As he knelt naked in the riverflow he whistled at the trees atop the low ridge from where the river flowed, the start of the way back to civilization, whatever that was.
At first there was nothing and then above the silhouette of a broad winged bird circled before the flow of cloud and blue sky, as if pleasing itself about time. As it came down through the encircling trees, into the grounds of the cottage Squire stepped out of the river and began drying himself with his hands. He was a muscular boy, lithe and fit with a dark burnt skin from the tropical heat. His dark blonde hair he shaved himself at back and sides and the top he let hang loose, although his mother would often plat or create something else with it during her time.
He pulled on cloth underpants and lay back on the long grass at the foot of the reading room window, at the front. The white raptor flapped haphazardly and then flew down to the cobble path between the front door and the steps up the ridge.
"I'm leaving." he said as he rolled over onto his front. "You're coming too you little cunt."
There was no argument from the bird.
Still a little damp he dressed in cloth pants and hemp weave string vest. There were replacements in his shoulder sling, along with a few short sharp knives and a few gold coins that his father insisted he take as a down payment on an estate, which he would need in the Fifty Nine Cities, if he wanted to live a life of anything other than a beggar. With some string tied around his wrists and ankles he walked those steps from the garden to the steps leading up the short cliff and then found himself at the first of the forest path.
He took a last look at the cottage but he had seen it so many times and it just looked like their cottage. Would he really never see it again?
He made his way along the long forest path that led across the top of the hill here to where a valley began, the valley where he had spent most of his childhood. To the right he passed the bubbling pool where the natural spring that fed the river began, and flowed down the gentle slopes eventually to the sea. It was the reason his mother had chosen to build here, a wise choice.
At the end of the path he mounted the stile there and looked back again, seeing only the old familiar track.
Then he was in the first of the wilderness again. Familiar wilderness at first, navigating brooks and clumps of brush and overgrown grasses. He knew the way at first, even over the opposite hill and into the valley there, but then it became less well known and after a while he were finding places for the first time that he had only ever seen at a distance.
He had a map that his father had drawn and redrawn for this time. It was sealed in a bee's wax so to weather whatever he were to come against out here.
The sun stayed in a fixed position to the South East, as it had done his whole life. Using this steady point in the sky he was able to judge which direction was North, and that he should be heading North West, with the sun to his back.
Their sun was strange he knew. His father had told him that if their world were normal the sun would go right around the world and back again each day, and you could judge North by the regularity of this path from horizon to horizon. But their world was not normal, it was infinite. He had told him again and again "The world is flat. Flat and endless in all directions. It shouldn't be but it is."
"It can't be right. It doesn't make any sense." he'd said, with a muddy feeling in his mind like maybe his father didn't know as much as he'd like to think.
Muddy logic, but not so muddy as the valleys and hillsides he had to drag himself through now. The rivers washed him and his clothes, but not so much as he'd like, and the sun was still too hot to be out in all day, although growing cooler the further west he journeyed through the blind wilderness.
So as it goes, their sun blazed somewhere far away across the desert it made of the land closer to it, being eclipsed once a day by a gigantic dark body to make their night. There were two enormous planets that took turns passing between the sun and the land each day, sliding by so close that you could see the craters and imperfections on their surfaces. Both were darker than coal, with a darkness that semed to flicker as if it were a kind of energy, with one having a glossy emerald hue, and the other a more rocky purple. There was a science at play, like in the many books his mother either possesed or had written herself, but he knew too little of it and to him it was simply a sight to behold.
Squire made the journey by day and into the first of each night while the raptor circled over head sometimes pushing ahead and sometimes further behind. He slept regularly and believed he were making good distance given the meager resources he'd been forced to bring on his own.
He spent the first few days scanning around for straight branches to file down into a rod for fishing. He found a good one soon enough and spent the other days scanning the brush for deadwood to cook the fish he caught from the little rivers in each valley.
The going was tough though since nobody had been here in a very long time, or maybe ever. The foliage was thick and tangled and finding a less taxing path through or around it was often the hardest task.
After many nights sleeping under tha stars or in a canopy alcove up in a tree during rainstorms he began to come across the odd tribal encampment. They were wild fairies, savages by his father's standards and to be widely avoided, but the fact that he were now encountering them showed that he had kept roughly the right direction.
He circled them widely but not before spying down on them in their daily living from high rock outcrops and trees. They'd made their elaborate multi-level camps between the treetrunks around bubbling oily pools that they seemed to regularly dip in and out of. The blue and black streaky liquid dripped from their half naked bodies and from delicate looking wings that hung out back from between their shoulderblades. He'd seen a few flap them at a rate that made them look like some demonic bee lifting up from the earth to land atop one of their hive like upper tiers.
There were times when he was nearly caught by patrols or huntsmen but they weren't particularly skilled at spotting tracks with their naturally deep set eyes within puffy cheeks and brow. Undoubtedly fearsome and well known in the forest they seemed quite unconcerned about attack from man or beast.
During his journey he had heard wolves howling like crazy, but his father hadn't marked any dens on the map although there was still the chance that he had missed one on his own journey the opposite way. If he weren't in their pissing ground the wolves wouldn't go crazy on him he knew, but he remained cautious, and more cautious than these tribal peoples
The hot maze beneath the tree canopy of trunks, streams, hillsides and chasms was beginning to seem endless as the days and nights merged into the hell of repetition.
Palms turned to conifers and pines with mists seated in natural balconies on the hillsides, and proving chilly to pass through in the already colder air. Keeping his soul alive he had crossed whole countries-worth of distance, avoiding trouble but for a bloody faced wolf he had come eye to eye with as they both went to drink from the same river, at opposite sides. Washing his meal down, he supposed, just like him, and staying alive.
After a long while more in this new and depressing forest he began to come across ruins.
The city had once been magnificent he could tell, but now it was in major decay and densely overgrown by the forest.
"Nature will eat you if you let it." his father had told him when he was very young, and had been the stuff of many a nightmare since. It was only now he began to realize what he had meant.
It disturbed him that none of the crumbled buildings were marked on the map. Some of them were large enough to pierce the top of the forest ceiling, and others stood on their sides on stone foundations that had been torn from the ground and now lay at angles like strange flat hills. There had been rumblings in the ground for a while now, and he felt another tremor rattle his heels. Earthquakes had ended this city it was clear to see.
His father had marked none of this anywhere and there was the chance that Squire had made a slight mistake in his direction and now so far toward the edge of the forest he could have missed his destination by hundreds of miles.
He had been slogging through the filthy valleys for months maybe, and if he had been even slightly off course then his destination in the Hearthlands that eventually led to the first city, could be many miles to the north and he were now somewhere unusual in the south.
But an unusual beauty it had, and Squire would not dismay just yet.
He camped in the foundations of what would have been a cottage much like their own, only this was now a ruin by an old forest pond filled with reeds and a milky algae. He judged where his own room would have been had they lived their lives in this long forgotten neighborhood.
He lay looking up at the stars beyond the black, dimly flickering orb of the emerald moon, and its own smaller moons that could sometimes be made out in sillhouette, but not often. With its speed of orbit around the sun and its dominant presence filling their night sky, when you stared at it long enough you'd notice it travelling fast on its journey. The oldest recorded men and women used to worship them in elaborate stories, with the emerald moon named Theia and the purple moon, Maigin, and to this day they were called the same. So much those moons had witnessed over the many centuries, now Squire had come to take a share.
His mother had never said much to him, and especially not about magic and witches. What she had said however was that there was nothing truly magical about magic, and that it was all a simple manipulation of the mind of time and space. There were forces we see slight hints of in magnets and the gravity that holds us down, and what civilization labeled witches were people that could control them with the song in their own minds. The blood of the universe she'd called it, the hidden veins and organs that give us the world we know, no matter how strange and pointless it all may seem.
He dreamed of his mother that night, and it was a nice dream, and preferable to reality as it stood. There was some part of her she'd tried to give him, maybe now in dreams it was his.
The next day he came across a large expanse of felled trees that ran down a long flat toward the base of a hill and then up and beyond it it seemed. He stepped out into it not knowing if he were trespassing, but unable to go around as it stretched off to both sides for a similar mind boggling distance. The forest began again a little further on he could see and so crouching in the cool morning light he made haste across this wasteland.
There were many thousands of smooth tree stumps and the odd dusty foundation of an old building that were actually difficult to cross over with any speed. A few times he nearly twisted his ankle on some strange and unexpected change in the ground.
As he neared the darkness of the trees on the opposite side his peripheral vision caught sight of a static burst and electric flickering far along the tree line to his right. There was someone a great distance away that hadn't seen him, but the smell of his activity was noticeable even here.
He was dressed in a black robe and singing in a strange, endless tone while conducting it with his arms. Static eruptions burst from a tree trunk before him and Squire could see it fall sidewards into the rest of them. It solved some of the mystery but not all of it.
The boy Squire was too tired to give a care, and thankful for not being seen he shouldered onward into the woods again.
For sure this was not on the map, so what was this unusual place after all? Soon after wondering this he began to find out.
The trees were as dense as ever but there were trodden tracks all around. The ruins here were denser too and seemed to make up most of the forest floor. In the end he found himself jumping from quaked foundation to fallen walls to empty window frames before returning to the trees.
All buildings seemed to be leading down in a huge valley basin, to where some of the buildings at the center now looked to be potentially in use. At the far side of these center most buildings was a huge crumbled fortress with what looked to be slivers of chimney smoke coming from its inner grounds, beyond the quaked ramparts. Evidence of this terrible cataclysm could be seen probably best from the height he was at, where keeps and other city central buildings had been either pushed over or now stood at angles on their thick stone foundations. This stone, a testament to whomever had build it jutted above the tree line like jagged bergs and seemed to carry on similarly beyond the hillsides.
This place built in the ruins was fascinating to him but he knew to avoid it as if it were another tribal encampment. There was no way to know what to expect from them.
At the rightmost side of the place, where he was it was less ruinous and so luckily easier to navigate. He began to creep and crouch his way along each inner building grounds and between them via various forest tracks that encircled the place up on the hillside.
About half way he heard a girl's screech and some cheering voices, and moving slightly closer through a roofless house he saw below through some trees a concrete park full of young people about his own age.
The long flat park had been reclaimed from some buildings and now played host to a series of practice courts for various games. On the far side a dark, tree lined road seemed to run by between it and the central fields that led up to those buildings he'd seen at the center.
Stalking a little further along, he looked down over the faces of these new people he had found here, trying to remain objective despite the thrill of finally meeting new people beyond the three that had filled his world. They were beautiful in body and spirit, but with a hard edge that he couldn't help but notice.
Beyond the parks and near the end of the basin he saw through a clear view across to the road a weathered and worn wooden sign at a gate leading into the courtyard of one of the buildings. It read 'Elite Academy' and he supposed that it explained all he needed to know for now.
He made his way carefully and cautiously away from these grounds and up through stumpy twin peaks at he top of the hill where a lower road led to what he hoped to be the last of the forest.
Behind bushes at the side of the road he hid from a couple of fast moving coach and horses as they bombed by into the place.
There was a turn in the road at the opposite side of the hill and at the side of the road he found he could go that way no further, as the ground dropped away to a deep basin and pool fed by a thin water fall from one of the peaks. He considered climbing down and back up as there were rock slabs in the glistening pool that he could jump between to get across. But he thought better of it and instead waited for yet another coach to gallop by and then skipped over the wall and onto the compressed stone road.
Squire looked around where he stood, feeling slightly over exposed and alien with his badly washed hemp slacks and his weathered shoulder sling. He ran a hand through his hair and began walking along the road from the turn.
It led a way around the outside of the basin through trees before turning and heading down a long slope to what looked to be a very distant gap in the trees.
"That's it." he mumbled smiling slightly and then began tropping down the slope in it's direction.
After a ways he saw yet another of these coaches and so ducked aside into the forest again. He watched it go past, noticing at a distance how different the people on board looked to those that he had seen in the parks. These didn't look elite, but more ragged and frightened like people fleeing to safety.
Who knows, he thought and continued on through the trees, cracking dead branches under foot as he went. Another small quake shuddered through the ground, rattling the whole forest around him but he was strangely used to them now.
He headed away from the road alongside what he now believed to be the edge of the forest. He would head for there after he was sure he had put enough distance to that place, since he hadn't come all these many leagues only to get caught up in some strange business that was none of his concern or interest.
There was a sound ahead now, and he could see the end of the forest at this side too. But he was thirsty now, and wished he had taken a few sups from the falls he had passed when he'd had the chance.
All the major water he needed was gone from his body, and so as he heard the torrents of a rushing stream or river he began to move that little bit faster toward it.
He left the trees and stepped out over grass under the harsh glare of the sun. Now he was certain of his place on his father's map as the rushing volume of water was unmistakable. It was the fjord but what the map hadn't shown was that the incredibly deep line of water was rapid flowing and full of splinters of wood and thus forth from its many paths through the endless forest. They had all converged somewhere from a direction he could barely imagine, somewhere way to the south where the forest was mainly flooded and the roots stood up out of it all like the legs of a bug.
He was over a hundred miles south it was true, in a place drawn in caveat almost like a doodle to spruce up the rest of an amateur masterpiece.
Squire staggered in a slight delirium over what he saw now would be the last of his journey in this particular direction, over the long field of grass to where it became a pebbly beach that led down to the edge of the fjord waters. To the left a little way along he could even see the bridge his father had marked, but something had happened here in the years since city folk had crossed and it was now in two parts with the central, most important part missing, probably at the bottom of that deep gulf. A diverted road somewhere far to the right no doubt led to the road he'd come from and so now this little area lay deserted, unvisited.
He stood at the waters edge staring at it as it flowed by, realizing that he would not be able to drink directly from it. There was a brisk and bracing wind here flowing through the broad space between the huge, towering old trees at either side of the loch.
He began to walk aimlessly along the shoreline toward that broken stone bridge, kicking at pebbles and glancing up at it now and again to mull over this problem.
There was no safe way even to swim across due to the nature of the flow, and even if he did there was a short white cliff face of meandering height at the far side that could potentially trap him down in the stream should he make it that far.
He stopped his slow walking and stood and sighed at the long beach leading away to a distance beyond the bridge before splitting in what looked to be two directions toward that stagnent old forest.
The harsh light was glistening on the pebbles all around he noticed, and noticed too a thrum that seemed to stir them slightly.
In the second or more that followed he heard that thrum approach as if to impact upon him, and the pebbles all around began to leap and dance. A flat object the size of a house burst up from the water to his side throwing a huge wall of water before it. Squire became lost in the tidal wave of water that engulfed him and threw him like a ragdoll to the beach.
He clung to the pebbles as the water dropped and flowed back over him to the fjord. To either side as this happened two large tracks like those of an industrial tank lifted a large and elaborately decorated caravan out onto the beach. It chugged and rolled to get clear of the water's edge then turned left the way Squire had come and began rolling away on it's squeaky axels.
Left like a beached fish, Squire looked around where he lay and to his sling that he had managed to keep a grip on somehow. As he got to his feet he saw that there were more similar caravans leaving the water all along both sides, their runners apparently making short work of the small cliff face opposite.
He was in wet clothes again which he hated, and some part of him felt he had the right to complain to whoever these people were. He doubted he would do so though, and walked back to the grass so to give them a wide berth. He made his way past the puzzling iron contraptions, so egregious in their gold and silver styling yet locked up tight as a trap. Whoever was in them had traveled here beneath the water it seemed, and although this was all becoming more fascinating he still felt like this was essentially none of his business and to be avoided.
He circumnavigated them all and walked up onto the bridge. The paving here had been broken and remained as uneven and un-cared for as maybe he himself were beginning to feel. It was a sad reflection on this empire he were heading toward that they had left it so.
He stopped at the very edge that hung out over maybe twenty feet of the water's surface and sat dangling his legs over the side. Here he set up the rod and managed to hook it under a metal cement rivet that was now bare to the elements.
After pulling the sling tarpaulin between similar rivets on the bridge wall and floor he put the belongings in this small shelter and jumped up and lay on the wall, staring at the cold coloured sky.
Glancing every now and again to the side at the sited caravans he waited and wondered if the owners would even actually come out onto the land. Time passed that day but then eventually a few figures could be seen in his sky-blurred eyes.
Rubbing at them and blinking it away he eventually began to focus down on them, just as more and more began to litter the spaces between the trucks.
Semi naked but for togas of slinky material their skins were clearly of different colours. Most were either black, white, or shades of a dirty grey-blue in between, with the odd one a deep mustard colour. Their ears were huge and pointing sharply up above their heads, and was the first noticeable feature about them. With their strange, rain drop eyes and long limbs, toes and fingers they clearly were not human and may even be what his father had talked about a few times, what he had called Elves.
Elves lived far away beyond the endless desert, 'further than the stars' as he had described it.
Just then as he was in the midst of remembering such things, one of them, a black elf that had clearly stalked along the underside of the bridge came lurching up at him from the side.
He pushed Squire hard from the wall shouting "Raargh! What are you doing here!"
Squire clenched up as he flew a short way to the tiles and bounced slightly on impact.
There was a chattering laughter from down on the beach no doubt to do with what was going on up here. The elf stood barefoot on the wall where Squire had lay, squatting there and watching him with some amusement as he roused himself.
"Not really funny." Squire said but managed a slight smile. "I won't bother you guys I just need to catch some food before I move on. Might stay the night here. I won't come near you."
"The others won't like it, but I can ask them." the being said as it stood up to its full height and took a leap along the wall face. It was almost twice as tall as Squire and with a subtle but obviously muscular physique that made him realize how little say he actually had in this matter.
"I'm Squire Manes." he said as the huge elf took a few more bunny hops along the dusty, crumbling wall.
"Fuck you, Squire Manes." the elf said pointing one of it's long fingers at him. "Stay up here until I come back."
Suddenly and a little too sudden for Squire's liking the elf leaped with so much force that the stone below it's feet burst slightly into powder. It leaped in a black streak out over the water, the beach and even one of the nearest caravans.
Squire thought maybe he should just move on, since if the elf were to return with bad news, or worse return with a crowd of them offended and angry at his presence, he could end up very badly hurt, or even worse.
But his hunger got the better of his logic and he sat and waited for a bite on the fishing line. Time passed again into evening, and a few fish later the elf returned, all be it silently.
In the gloomy darkness there was no way for Squire to know how long it had been stood there watching him squatted on the wall over his camp.
He had made a small fire from the dry wood lying around and a makeshift spit from some of the damper branches to hold the fish in place.
As Squire's eyes found the elf it sniffed at the fish and said "Hmmmm. That's better than what we eat. All we brought with us are reconstituted meat and mineral tablets. Fresh from a lab, not a river."
"Lab?" Squire asked but kind of suspected what it meant. "You want some of this? It's fully cooked."
"Give it to me now." the elf said with a strange lack of impoliteness.
Squire threw him the back half which it caught in the cage of its long fingers of multiple joints.
"I take it I can stay for now." Squire said while slaking his yearning hunger on the fish meat.
The elf moved from the wall to sit by his camp, where it sat cross legged staring at him in the flickering fire light.
"Stay here as long as you like. We'll be moving on soon. I'm Keyn of house Ioh. We are traveler elves."
"A long way from home. I don't understand it quite frankly. Elves live somewhere across a desert that's further than even the stars? How is that possible?"
"Anything's possible." it smiled wickedly. "In a universe of infinite universes law of averages say a place like this must exist somewhere, and here it is, The Infinity. We don't come from here though, we come from a planet far beyond anything you can see in this sky."
It pointed up at the scattering of stars above, so familiar yet so unknown to him.
"Elves come from there? You seem so basic, though I guess those vehicles are quite amazing."
"That's nothing." the elf said. "The real magic is the technology you cant see. Tiny machines and vehicles, and even machines that hang just outside this realm."
"In the blood of the universe." Squire said, sounding as if it wasn't a question.
"Witches can control such things with their strong minds yes. But it's not magic, it's the way the universe really works."
"That's what my mother said as well. She died as did my father."
"And that's why you're wandering around alone." the elf said almost cruelly, but for the fact that it were the final truth.
"We're not supposed to be here." the elf said, and noisily spat a fish bone out over the side of the bridge. "We aren't supposed to interact with lower cultures, but they make allowances here as it's so strange and broken already. Even we don't know exactly why the land is flat and endless. It goes on forever in all directions some with stable sun systems overhead like the trinary star system you have here, two nice dark matter satellites giving you a clockwork day and night. There are many more like it tracing paths through the infinite lands, but much more space is either too hot or too cold. We set up worlds in the cold parts, cold like our home world."
"Well while I have a fire you're welcome at it." Squire said wearily.
"I appreciate this." Keyn said. "More than you can know."
When Squire awoke the next day he found Keyn lying like a giant dead spider opposite him. He nipped the night muck from his eyes and stepped around the sleeping mass of elf limbs to his camp and took out the map.
He leaned against the opposite wall, facing the water and stared down at the piece of paper thinking, thinking. Maybe the elves could take him across the water if he asked nice enough. Keyn would no doubt make it so. But something inside him was nagging like a piece of undigested fish, or was it the undigested fish...
A better way?
"Oh, whoh." he heard Keyn say to his side, and looked over at him as he stirred and sat up. "The fish made me dream. Of times centuries ago. I need to return."
The huge elf got to his feet and began walking along the bridge back to the land like a normal person this time, and not a showboating grasshopper as he was yesterday with his friends nearby.
"Come down to the third caravan later today to meet an elder. You won't be harmed."
With that Keyn was gone for the morning, and some part of Squire felt relieved.
But he was still thirsty, and if he knew water, and currents then he knew there was a chance that below all that debris and detritus on the surface there could be faster streams that would kick out all impurities. Fresh water could be down there, but deep.
But he didn't care how deep now, and since he didn't feel so comfortable asking the elves for water he dived from the end of the bridge and arrowed down between two large pieces of tree. The junk was like a film on the surface and now that he were below it he began kicking and swiping to swim deeper.
The water flowed over him faster as he descended and then he opened and closed his mouth quickly a few times and let the fresh water fill his cheeks. He swallowed a few mouthfuls before his lack of breath began to bite, and he kicked and clawed his way back to the shimmering light beyond the surface litter.
He emerged further down river and swam to a point on the beach a ways beyond the elf camp. A few of them were standing by their caravans watching him as he ran to the grass and then along past each of the trucks.
"Fool." one of them said. "What are you doing?"
"Just a drink." Squire said as he mounted the bridge again.
Another one threw him what he couldn't know to be a plastic bottle of water. He squished it in his hand and liked the way it worked.
"We'll get you some more, Squire." he said, apparently knowing his name now.
Squire drank it down fast and then lay back watching the sky again as he waited for more fish to bite on the line. After a few hours of putting off his visit to the elf encampment he felt a few more of the bottles slam down on his stomach and crotch. They seemed to just miss the more sensitive parts, and looking up he saw that an elf of deep mustard colour had thrown them quite skillfully from right down on the grass track.
He rolled the bottles to his shelter and lay back a while longer. He had caught five fish as the afternoon drew late, and as the light began to dim into evening he sighed and put his fish aside.
He decided to go now. Better to pay a late visit than no visit at all, and so Squire made his way lazily down to the broad field and then around to the third caravan on the beach.
It was open at the back with two heavy metal doors hanging open and unmovable to someone of his size. Keyn was standing at the side of it talking to two whiter elves and within the caravan itself he could see an extremely large and old elf of medium complexion.
He tried to smile at it but its overall presence was quite overwhelming in the moment and he simply smirked and grimaced before turning away toward Keyn at the side.
As he approached them he heard them talking quite seriously.
"These shadows still follow us. We must be hasty..." the elves stopped talking as they noticed Squire, and like you might expect from elves they immediately turned and walked away, vanishing into the rest of the buzzing camp. Then he was left with Keyn only, who himself looked as if he'd instinctively prefer to turn and join in with his kind and their menial tasks.
But he seemed to strain against it and turned to address him.
"Shadows stalking you? What's that all about? More elves?" Squire asked, not really caring if he offended him, since he hadn't extended him any of the same courtesy so far.
"Not elves. They were discussing... something strange. But don't concern yourself." Keyn looked quite gaunt as he ran his mind over this subject, and Squire decided to change the subject.
"Allot of people coming into this place. Some kind of secret college."
"They are giving shelter to refugees as they come. The Fifty Nine just won a war against a rival merchant empire, so it's an odd time in these lands. We just found something similarly odd that I was about to address before you decided to rouse yourself. Think you can stay awake long enough to tag along?"
"I'm free for the evening, Keyn. Lead the way." he said dozily and followed as the huge elf strode off along the grass verges of the beach.
Skipping to keep up with the long, powerful strides he began to realise where he was taking him. They were heading back around the curve of the forest, away from the fjord, through a meadow toward the road track leading into the forest.
"I don't want to be seen by them." Squire said running up beside the elf as best he could.
"Nobody comes this way at night. It'll be fine."
Night was spilling shadow into the place, but there was still enough light to make out the gaggle of elves that had gathered on the road just before the openning into the forest.
They joined with them and one shouted out that Keyn shouldn't have brought the 'underling'.
Keyn said "What is this all about. Who's keeping the record?"
Someone held up a hand, but didn't seem to be holding anything. If fact none of them had anything with them other than their togas.
All around them a silvery mist was slithering across the grasses toward the road. Milky vapour began wisping up and dancing in a way only a flame might. There was energy at play here, Squire could tell, but how it were being controlled he couldn't see.
The record keeper boomed his voice over the crowd "At four fourteen a coach entered the imperial grounds..."
Squire was taken aback now as from the mist hexagon patterning seemed to emerge like a mesh of wire fencing, then seemed to wrap around and change into an apparition of one of those coach and horses. It galloped by them, and through them in some cases like a ghost and then slowed, stopped and reversed as if taking back its steps.
It stopped again and the record keeper boomed "Here!"
In the frozen white apparition certain areas began to glow like a heated stove and pulsed as if waiting for their attention.
Keyn went close and dipped his head inside the open door of the coach, examining what was being highlighted in the bag of one of the refugees.
He returned and seemed to be holding a transparent object between his thumb and forefinger, although it obviously was just another part of the fakery.
His hands swept over it and brushed apart the sleeves of a wallet.
"Fake credentials. Elite credentials, reworked to look like they belong to these people."
One shouted over from the back of the frozen coach "There's traces of blood everywhere, Keyn. What are we gonna do here? We can't do the right thing. We need to move on. We have to warn the Fifty..."
Keyn span at him and silenced them all in their chitter chatter.
"Make me one of these." Keyn gestured with the credentials. "Match it to our underling friend Squire Manes."
"What are you now? A bloody mind reader?" Squire said, ignoring his chilled shock at the goings on.
"This is what you were planning, right? And yes I can read your mind. Sorry." Keyn gestured for him to walk back to the traveler's camp. "Some pretty nasty characters seem to have stowed away with the rest of the refugees. They have stolen credentials from students that they no doubt ambushed and murdered somewhere along the way. They'll try to use them to secure placements in the elite academy and then who knows from there. This school trained the best of the best, Squire. They train them for the highest posts in the Fifty-Nine."
"I guess that's why it's secret." Squire said sarcastically.
"Don't joke. This is the most serious of topics, especially now that these muggers seem to be worming their way into the halls of power."
"You want me to go get them? In exchange for a college place?"
"No." Keyn said. "There will be all kinds of scum stowing away with the genuinely displaced war victims. Hundreds must have gone in there already. You just take that pass and do your best in some field. And remember us kindly... no matter what anyone says."
Squire considered this and then nodded.
They walked back along the caravans and fires under the stars. Keyn turned to his elder's truck, as did Squire, and they slept sitting up in the doorway opposite one another.
The next day Squire got his things together in his sling and took his perfectly reconstructed credentials from the elves.
"I came from the Eastern city of Bastardton? Bastardton?" Squire asked looking up.
Keyn nodded and said "It's actually a place. It's quite far away so there won't be many folk from there, and it's full of bastards too so hard to verify your identity with any ease."
"Smart." Squire smiled. "Thank you so much. I don't know what I would have done without this stroke of luck. Unnerving to think I've relied on luck really..."
"Then you'll have allot in common with the people there. The luck of being born to the right house and with the right ability is the only reason any of them were sent here."
"I see." Squire said, and just then the white raptor cried out and came flapping haphazardly down between them to land on his shoulder. It bowed its head toward the elves and then let out a raucous howl in their direction.
Backing away he smiled and said "I think she likes you."
"Come back to us before we move on." Keyn said with a deep solemnity, showing his massive age at last.
"I can do." he said, then turned and stepped back into the forest.
Squire would never know to the end of his days the conversation that happened next. The elder elf leaned out from the door of the caravan and spoke to their backs.
"We're all going to die. We need to warn the Fifty-Nine Cities. We don't have time to play with children..." he began to cough uncontrollably, and Keyn turned and waited for him to stop.
"Why not give this poor soul something beyond his dreams? If they're all doomed anyway? Warning the empire isn't going to help anything. If we can't stop these shadows what hope do they have with their sticks and stones and name calling?"
"They have a right to know. This menace came from Hell itself it said. Hell below the land! It will be here soon, expanding through the desert faster than we could fly. Coming to take us all to Hell! Hell!"
He got a little overexcited now and one of the elves behind them joked "Yeah right, Hell you old coot! You'll be dead before it gets here I bet."
Keyn didn't rise to any of it, and simply walked away to the bridge and looked at the black scorch where Squire's fire had been.
It was the quiet moments of remembering that cleared his mind, always.