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Combat Chaos - Story 36
D&D - Combat Chaos, Fantasy Stories of Battle

Story 36

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ACELA V.S. DURMANIUS

Durmanius frowned as he overlooked the forest of Quiliston. He could clearly see spires where trees should have stood, and knew that the temple lay at the heart of all of it, that she was at the heart of all of this. It had been too long since he had been here. A small part of him wondered how long he had slumbered, but he knew it was irrelevant. It was time. There was only one thing he must do now.

*******

Acels looked out from the top of the temple of life and smiled. Perfection, harmony, peace, tranquility. As only an elf could understand it. Each building was a living, growing marvel, home to dozens of elven families. Interconnecting branches formed pathways between the buildings, wooden roads wide enough to accommodate dozens of elves with enough room for them to pass freely by each other without anyone having to move aside. Water collected from the morning rain supplied their needs in excess. Nearly every type of fungus, fruit and plant that grew here was edible and in abundant supply. In their treetop city, the children of the forest were always in the light. Under the sun or the stars, they sat directly in the view of the gods at all times. Idly she rolled the smooth, polished gemstone from one hand to the other. She could feel the magic pulsing within it. A gentle breeze ruffled her ankle length shining blonde hair, causing her pale green silken shift to ripple against the curves of her body.

“Would it please my mistress to have something refreshing?” Acels smiled benevolently and turned away from the window to look past the human kneeling before her. As she did so, she released the stone, allowing it to float and circle above her head. The servant was dressed in a simple loincloth, bare-chested and without sandals. His head was bowed, chin touching his chest as he held forth a delicately carved wooden tray laden with fruits, nectar, bread and several other delicacies. Acels frowned slightly, not recognizing the tattoos that spiraled up his arms, a new servant.

“Yes.” Acels stated pleasantly, gesturing to a nearby table, the only piece of furniture in the austere room. “Place it over there then you are released to your other duties.”

The human nodded once and rose, keeping his eyes averted. “Thank you mistress.” Keeping his head bowed he turned and walked swiftly towards the door, a bit too swiftly.

“Servant.” Acels called out after him, her eyes narrowing slightly.

The human winced visibly as he froze in his tracks. He turned around slowly, and looked directly at her. “Yes mistress?” He started to say before he realized his error. Closing his eyes he dropped to his knees, forehead touching the floor. “Forgive me mistress, I intended no disrespect.” Acels lips twitched in a faint smile. “Who is your overseer?”

The human paled visible and started to tremble, but his voice was steady. “Master Quelnost.”

The elven woman turned away from the human and plucked a glass of nectar from the tray, examining the delicately fluted glass in the light. “Have you been bred?”

The human glanced up, his eyes wide in shock. “No mistress…” He whispered before placing his forehead back on the floor.

Acels frowned and took a sip of nectar. “Return to your master and tell him that you need more discipline. I do not wish to see you in the temple again.”

“Yes mistress.”

Acels watched the human go and shook her head sadly. No matter how much effort was put into their domestication, humans still proved to be troublesome after all this time. Females were so much easier to handle. With a small bit of magic, they could be rendered infertile and then appropriately marked as such. Males were much more troublesome. Only the cruder methods were effective. By sundown, the disobedient human would be taken to the middle of the lower city, into its very center where he and likely several others would be publicly gelded. A healer would be on hand to make sure none died from blood loss, and to ensure that they were well enough to resume their duties on the following day.

******

“All stand and bow their heads in honor of the lady of light, protector of the realm, and visionary of our noble people.”

Acels smiled as the assembled council stood and bowed before her, the gem floating just above her head. “Greetings, honored council. Your strength and wisdom is a shining beacon to us all.”

She stepped forward lightly, her dress shimmering and rippling around her as if caught in a breeze. The council hall was a wide, opened room with a table and room for two dozen to sit comfortably. At present only the six members of the council sat around the table, three to either side of the space set aside for her. Standing before the council table, she made a small gesture and the floor rose up behind her, forming a low seat. A human servant rushed forward with a silken cushion and had it in place just before she settled into the chair. Waving the servant away, she glanced around at the half dozen elves gathered before her. Reaching out she placed her hand on the delicately carved staff that lay on the table before her, six identical staves lay before each council member.

“Good morning to you all, what is our first order of business this day?” To her left, Lord Varlurian, impeccably dressed in his overseer leather, placed his hand on the staff before him. “Nobel lady, our most pressing concern seems to be the humans.”

Acels arched an eyebrow inquisitively at the council. “Of course the humans are our primary concern, Lord Varlurian. We have much invested in them.”

The gathered elves chuckled slightly at this, whiled Varlurian frowned. “I am afraid it is much more serious than that, we seem to be having a shortage of humans.”

The smiles around the table vanished, replaced by confused looks of concern. Acels frowned, a sharp crease forming in the middle of her forehead. “Shortage? That is not possible.”

Varlurian nodded with a deep sigh. “That is what I thought at first. With the selective breeding and overseers, there should be no problems maintaining sufficient numbers to serve our needs. But recently I have noticed that the accountings have been coming up short.”

The council began murmuring quietly amongst itself, Acels frown deepened. “How short?”

“At first it was only a handful here and there.” Varlurian commented, his gaze distant. “Then the numbers slowly added up to the hundreds. Now it is estimated we are at a loss of at least several thousand.”

“Impossible.” Acels stated flatly, her face serene. “You must be mistaken.”

Varlurian shook his head slowly, not meeting the elven woman’s gaze. “I wish it were so. I have counted myself, several times to be sure. Each time the result is the same.” He pulled a small item from his uniform and placed on the table. With a flick of his wrist he sent it sliding towards Acels. “And then there is this.”

Acels looked down at the object before her, placing a delicate finger on it. Above her a streak of gray and blue rippled through the gem, then vanished. She recognized the symbol immediately, a stylized icon representing a dragon in flight. The object was cool and slick to the touch. Metal. “Where did you find this?”

“In the low city.” Varlurian commented quietly, brushing one finger lightly along the length of the staff. “One of the harvesters fell and broke his neck. He was dead on impact. It was found hidden in his garments.”

Acels picked up the talisman in the palm of her hand.

“Long ago, when this forest was untamed and I was very much younger. I came to the temple of life and received a vision. A vision of peace and harmony. When I first began, I created a sanctuary for all elven kind. And it was prosperous for a time, but petty bickering and jealousy threatened it. After a time, all that was ‘unnatural’ was purged. Metalsmithing and other war-craft was abandoned. We learned to live simpler lives, through shaping the forest to our needs. Living as one with it. We believed to have created a paradise for ourselves. We were deluded. Though within our domain, which rapidly grew, we had an enlightened society. Outside our forest, humans waged terrible wars. After the orcs and goblin-kind fell, the humans turned on the dwarves, halflings and other ‘lesser’ races. When they had no one left to conquer, they turned their attention to us, the last bastion of the elven races.” The room seemed to darken as she spoke, lending a somber air to her speech. The council leaned closer, intent on her words.

“Since we had no army, no tools of war, they thought us easy prey. They were mistaken. With our magic, we brought their invading armies to a screeching halt. All who trespassed into our lands, were dealt with. One way or another. Finally they tried to fight magic with magic, burning our forests with wizard fire. Our magic was stronger, and we prevailed.” Closing her eyes she murmured a word of power and the item rusted and crumbled to dust in her hand. As the dust blew away she continued. “With the humans defeated, many thought we should destroy them, the way they had destroyed the other races.”

She gestured around her, the gem glowing faintly green. “That is not our way. Look around you. Life, creation, order. That is our way. It was decided that the humans would not be destroyed.”

Acels gestured for the servant to come forward. “They were strong, and well suited for crude labor. But they were violent and self destructive. They try and place themselves outside the natural order, thinking themselves above it. For many years, while we searched out the last of the humans. I thought long and hard on how to best handle them, how to find a place for them in the natural order of things. The answer was deceptively simple: Animals can be bred for certain ‘qualities’, why not humans? So it was done, those with the best qualities, beauty, intelligence, resilience, obedience, were selected for breeding. Those with undesirable qualities, the destructive, the malformed, the insane, those with the gift of magic, were not. After that it was a simple matter of behavior modification, positive and negative reinforcement. Teaching them only what they need to know to best fulfill their duty in life.” She looked around the table, her gaze cold. “Since then, we have had order, harmony. Elves and humans, living in balance. We have had this order because I imposed it. Providing direction for the lives of both our peoples. And I will not see it…”

Her words trailed off as a large drop of rain splattered on the middle of the table. Everyone glanced up at the darkening sky in confusion. It never rained during the day, not anymore. Another large drop followed, along with several others. Soon a low rumble of thunder echoed across the sky and the heavens unleashed a torrent of rain soaking the council to the bone.

As one the council turned to look in askance at Acels.

The elven woman stared intently at the sky, her pale blue eyes as dark as the clouds overhead. “This is nothing to be alarmed about. It shall pass.”

To everyone’s surprise, the human servant kneeling next to her, stood. With an agile leap, he stepped onto the table and stood at its center, boldly facing Acels, his eyes locked with hers. “You have overstepped your bounds.” The human intoned hollowly, his voice echoing clearly through the rain. “Release the humans, or suffer the consequences of your actions.”

Acels arched an eyebrow at the servant, the gemstone swaying from side to side behind her head. “Overstepped my bounds? Who are you to say such things? Who is your overseer? You shall be disciplined for this.”

The servant bowed his head. “I see you have made your choice.” He looked back up and his eyes glowed incandescent blue, his short cropped hair standing on end despite the driving rain. “Now let us see you enforce it.” With that a bolt of lightening shot down with a deafening crack, blinding the council and sending the elves flying back.

Gasping and coughing, the elves staggered to their feet. As their vision returned they cried out in horror, the rain had turned to blood, staining them a bright crimson. Only Acels was unmoved by it all, the gemstone resting in her hand, quietly pulsing with a subdued light. Sitting exactly as she had before the lightening, her only concession to the chaos around her was a slow blink, her knuckles white on the staff. As the blood ran down her face, she snapped the staff in half. “Find out who has done this.”

******

After seven days of blood-rain, the city was in dire spirits. The second day of the rain, Lord Ulrian had been walking about his duties and slipped from the path. He had fallen several hundred feet, slamming into several branches along the way. By the time he had hit the ground, he had already been an unrecognizable bloody pulp. Only his talisman, a pendant with a sword wrapped in leaves, the symbol of his office, had his body been quickly identified. Acels took a deep breath, thankful the rain had stopped. Unfortunately the stench of blood permeated everything. She couldn’t breath without smelling, or tasting, blood. This made most of the elves queasy, if not downright ill. The human servants seemed largely unaffected by it. Turning away from the window, she stalked out of her chamber. “Servant, I require your presence.”

When no one appeared she frowned. “Servant! Come forth!” A moment later a battered human female stumbled in and kneeled weakly at Acels’s feet. “I humbly beg your forgiveness mistress. What do you desire?”

Acels frowned and snatched the woman up by her hair, the human woman hung limply at arms length as Acels scrutinized her. The human’s face was swollen and bruised. It looked as though she had been beaten severely. “Who has done this to you? Why were you sent to attend me in this condition?” “Others, mistress, they did this.” The slave stammered weakly.

Acels let the slave drop with a heavy thud. Others. That was how humans referred to an elf they did not know by name or serve directly. She had been beaten by an elf, or elves. “Go and bring me something to eat.”

The slave bowed and limped from the room, leaving Acels to her thought. “This does not bode well.” The elven woman muttered to herself. Inquiries would have to be made. She could not allow such blatant abuse of the humans, they were servants, not dogs to be kicked whenever they got underfoot. Such treatment could lead to poor performance.

She turned as the servant shuffled back into the room with a tray of food held out to her. “Thank you.” Acels replied, acknowledging the servant’s presence. Still looking out the window, she plucked a fruit from the tray and bit into it. Something wriggled. Acels looked at the fruit in disbelief, the outside looked normal, but where she bet into it revealed a rotten core swarming with maggots. Enraged the turned and threw the fruit, splattering it against the far wall, sending rancid juice and maggots everywhere. “What is wrong with you!” She screamed at the servant, stomach churning. “How could you bring me such vile things?”

The human placed the tray on the ground, and stood up. When she spoke, her voice was unnaturally calm and resonant. “Release us, or you will suffer as my people have suffered.”

Acels made a gesture and vines sprang forth from the walls, entangling the servants limbs and pinning her to the wall. Stalking to look the servant face to face, she could now see the familiar blue glow in the servant’s eyes. “Who is doing this?” Acels demanded. “Who commands you to do these things?”

The servant bowed her head reverently. “He is the beginning and the end. Though he slept, he has not forgotten us. And now he is returned, to release us from our prison and return us to the Promised Land. Release us, or you will be visited by another plague. And your loss will be great.”

*******

“There is no food left to us. All of it has rotted.” Lord Mealfieas’s face turned grim. “If something is done, now, thousands will starve.”

Across the table, Lord Eliasian reached forward and touched the staff, normally as the youngest member of the council, he did not often speak, but his fellow councilman, Lord Anduval had been found dead this morning, half-eaten rotten food clutched in his hands. “Why do we not simply commandeer the surplus of the food for the humans and distribute that?”

Acels who had been quietly staring at the two empty council seats, the gem gleaming darkly, like polished hematite in her hands, gave the youngest of the council a withering glance. “Surely, Lord Eliasian, you are not so young, or naive to suggest such a thing?”

The young elven Lord’s face darkened. “And why is that, Mistress Acels?” He snapped back angrily. Lord Varlurian cleared his throat and leaned forward. “Let us remind you that humans are predominantly… carnivores.”

The younger elf looked at Varlurian and Acels blankly. “So? Is what they consume not edible? Will it sicken us that much to survive on their food while we re-build our own stores?”

“Actually, it will.” Acels replied coldly. “Where do you think we get all the meat from?” “Well, they raise herds of beasts for slaughter.” Eliasian stammered, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable.

“It is not enough.” Acels replied. “There are not enough herd animals to support one out of four of the human population we have. Early on there were problems with supplying them with sufficient food to survive. Many died of starvation. Fortunately the solution was simple.” A look of horror gripped Eliasian, chilling him to the bone. “You do not mean…” He let his words trail off as Varlurian and Acel’s cold eyes confirmed his suspicion. “How could they… How could we? Don’ they realize that they are…”

“Eating their own dead?” Acels replied, her face neutral. The gems color shifted, turning slightly red. “No, great care was taken to endure that they never discovered this. All their dead are quickly taken away to be ‘sent to the afterlife’. The bodies are butchered quickly, anything unfit for consumption is… processed and used to fertilize crops.”

The council shifted in their seats uncomfortably, Eliasian looked as if he were going to be ill. Most of them knew the truth, but it was something they all tried to avoid thinking about. Finally, Eliasian found his voice. “What then, shall we do about this latest plague?” Acels eyes narrowed dangerously. “What did you say?”

“A plague.’ Eliasian repeated quietly. “Surely I am not the only one who thinks this? The sky rained blood, as soon as the rain stops all our food rots, humans disappearing, surely you do not think this is all happenstance, coincidence?”

Acels started a to reply when an odd keening noise caught the council’s attention. “What is that gods awful sound?” Varlurian asked, coming to his feet. No sooner had he spoken than a guard rushed in, his eyes wide with fear.

“What is the meaning of this?” Acels demanded. “We are in a private council and not to be disturbed.”

The guard took deep panicky breaths and found his voice. “Forgive me mistress, you must leave immediately, it is not safe.”

The council rose to its feet, murmuring amongst itself, at once they all noticed the sound was getting louder. It was screaming, and something else.

The guard glanced back and his eyes widened. “You have to run, NOW!”

As they watched he turned and raised his hands to cast a spell, but his words were lost as he began stumbling backwards, screaming in pain. Lord Varlurian caught him before he fell and held him up. As one the council recoiled in horror as a tide of crawling, chittering bugs swarmed across the floor, they could now clearly see dozens of the stinging biting insects crawling up the guard’s legs. Varlurian swore as several climbed up his arms, forcing him to drop the guard to the floor. Swearing and swatting, he crushed several before the swarm reached him. A wave of insects swarmed up his legs and he tumbled into the mass. The remaining council watched in horror as he screamed once before being completely overwhelmed

Acels stepped back, the gem springing to life in a flash of light and circling above her head. Words of power flowing to her lips and flames sprung up in a circle around her, diverting the insects. The remaining three council member has leaped on the table to avoid Varlurian’s fate and now stood clutching each other in terror. “Save us, mistress! They screamed to Acels in terror. The elven woman caused the ring to move outwards, encircling the table. The magical flames drove the insects back, scorching their tiny bodies and consuming them, causing their bodies to crackle and explode with tiny pops. Then, as quickly as they had arrived, they receded, leaving the bloated bodies of Varlurian and the guard n their wake.

With a gesture, Acels extinguished the flames. The council slowly climbed from the table, steering clear of the bodies.

“Release us.” A resonant voice echoed from all around them. “Who are you?” Acels demanded, her patience wearing thin. “Your petty tricks will not impress us. When we find you, you will be punished.”

A hollow laugh echoed from all around them. “Fools. Despite all the loss and pain around you, you still do not see. When will you listen? When will you realize your folly? Only when you have released the humans, will your troubles cease. Not one moment sooner.”

Acels reached out with her magic, the gems pulsing with a soothing blue light, trying to find the source of the voice. Tendrils of power reached out and recoiled. Repelled by some intangible barrier. “If you care so much for the humans, why do you allow them to suffer so?”

“Release them.” The voice repeated. “Or your misery will only grow. The suffering of your people will increase tenfold.”

The elven woman was not impressed. “Show yourself. Put aside these petty tricks and reveal yourself to me. Then we will talk.” The room was silent as they awaited a response. Finally the voice replied. “Step forward.” Acels walked straight ahead to the open window and looked out over her city. A single figure, garbed in a worn gray cloak stood out in her sight. Standing in the middle of a pathway as elves milled around him, apparently oblivious to his presence. He held a gnarled staff in his aged hands. A short gray beard flowed out of the bottom of the hood. From his stance and build he was undeniably human. The hooded figure raised his head slightly, revealing steely gray eyes. Acels locked gazes with him, trying to seize control of his will with magic. She projected her mind onto his and smashed into an impenetrable barrier. Even his surface thoughts were obscured from her.

“Release the humans.” He stated quietly. Though his lips didn’t move, the words formed clearly in her mind.

“Never.” Acels hissed, knowing he could hear her just as clearly. “As long as I live, the humans will remain as they are.”

The cloaked figure nodded sadly. “So be it.”

As she watched, the figure raised his staff and tapped it on the path at his feet. The elven woman could feel the blow reverberate through the pathway to her feet. As soon as it had stilled she felt, more than heard the trees groan in protest. Before her eyes, half the leaves throughout the city withered and turned gray, falling from the trees in droves. A resounding ‘crack’ reached her ears moments later, followed by another, then another. As she watched the city seemed to vibrate and shake, as if caught in an earthquake, here and there branches snapped and pathways collapsed. In some distant spots, whole trees collapsed taking entire buildings with them. She could feel the magical decay spreading throughout the city. Holding the gem close, she drew upon all her power, tapping into the untainted trees and creating an impenetrable barrier, ceasing the decay. The surviving trees steadied, bolstered by her power. Strengthened with resolve, she turned her attention to the foul enchantment that writhed in her grasp and turned it back towards the figure. As she watched impassively, the bridge that the strange figure was standing on collapsed, sending him plummeting from view and taking a dozen elves with him.

Acels smiled grimly. “That is what one gets when one thinks they are too clever.”

******

The plague came quietly in the night. Creeping silently through the remaining homes. Those who were afflicted the worst, never awoke. The fever dreams gripped them tightly in delusions until the blood boiled in their veins and blood poured from their eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. By morning not a single healer remained and a third of the city was stricken by the strange illness. Apothecaries and herbalists were working like mad to find anything that might alleviate the symptoms. The only consolation was that the children seemed to be immune to the illness. Not a single one had been taken with fever.

Acels had not slept, instead she had been conferring with the remaining overseers to confirm her suspicions. Over a third of the humans had vanished. Disappearing into the woods without a trace. Worse still, it was rumored that some elven families were beginning to follow suit. Those farthest from the heart of the city had began leaving as soon as the troubles began. Acels had issued an ultimatum as soon as the sun had risen, giving it to each of her wizards to spread to the rest of the city: Any who tried to leave would be marked as a traitor and imprisoned until they could be tried as such. To her overseers she had given them a simple directive: The firstborn child to each human family was to be taken away until the traitors were discovered.

Now she stalked the top most floor of the temple of life, the gem huddled in her arms like a small animal. Two more council had been claimed. Lord Laersilus had fallen through the floor of his home, impaling himself on the jagged wood below. While Lore Parganion had been a healer, and the fever had claimed him as it did all the others.

Now Eliasian had barricaded himself in his own home, refusing Acels summons. The city was in chaos, but here… in the temple, she was safe. Echoing footsteps brought her pacing up short. “Who disturbs me?”

A human, and old man was walking resolutely towards her. His gray eyes were sad. But it was his gray robes that caught her attention.

“You…” Acels Hissed. “You did this. I watched you die.”

The old man shook his head, coming ever closer. “No. You watched me fall. Just as I have watched you fall.”

The elven woman laughed and gestured, clutching the gem tightly in her other hand. Vines exploded from the ground, wrapping around the old man’s feet and twisting their way up his body, as they climbed, the vines blackened and grew vicious thorns. “Now this ends.”

The old man smiled sadly. “No, not yet. I am here to offer you one last chance, to save your people. To save yourself, before it is far too late.”

Acels scowled at him and made the vines draw tighter around his frail old body. “I know you… Who are you?”

The old man smiled. “I am your salvation, if you want it. Or your judgment.”

Acels howled incoherently and willed the vines to tear at him with their poisoned thorns, but they closed on empty air and collapsed to the ground. Her scream of fury echoed through the temple and out across the city.

*******

That day the fever faded, those that survived thanked the gods for their fortune and set about the grim task of caring for the dead. The human servants were scarce, no overseer wanted to venture down to the lower city to see just how few were left. None wanted to report that to Acels. Throughout the rest of the day, she stood, atop the tower, unmoving, watching her people try and restore their damaged utopia. Dried blood still stained the top of the temple, forming intricate patterns in the wood. As the sun became low in the sky, and the evening chant of thanks began, his words were the only thing still ringing in her ears. ‘I am your salvation. Or your judgment.’

She concentrated on the memory of his face, searching her mind for where she knew him from. It should have been easy, a lifetime to a human was but an eye blink to an elf. Yet she could not recall his face from recent memory. “Who are you?’ She whispered, half to herself, half to the shattered city sprawled before her. Her musings paused as the chanting became stilted, than stopped. Closing her eyes and clutching the gem close to her chest, she projected her will into the city itself. Immediately she gasped in pain. Gasping, choking, dying. Acels fell to the floor clutching her throat. Mirroring the desperate pain of a hundred other dying souls. The children were dying. She could feel them as they choked their last, their throats tightening until they could not draw another breath. With a scream of terror she pulled her mind back, reeling from the pain. Shakily she pushed herself to her knees. “Why is this happening?” A myriad of images now assailed her. Hundreds of years of pain, subjugation, torture. Packs of overseers raiding in the night, snatching humans from their beds and taking them away. The slaughterhouses where they languished until it was their turn to meet the butcher. Men brutally mutilated while horrified humans looked on.

“No…” She hissed, shaking her head, pushing the images back. “We cared for them. Guided them. We took them from their petty wars and saved them from destruction.”

Rolling onto her back she found herself, as she was years before she had decided to follow the path that led her here. The first day she had been to the temple.

“Acels.” A warm voice called to her. “What do you see?”

“I see peace. I see order, perfection.” She found herself saying, the words flowing unbidden from her lips. Sitting up, she turned and saw the one who had brought her here, all those years ago. The human Druid, Durmanius. Once caretaker of the temple of life. She had lived with him for a time, while he taught her the ways of the druid. It was with him that she had received her vision of perfection. Then he had left, leaving the temple in her care. Now she was back there, with him again. She looked up into his eyes. Full of understanding and compassion. His gray eyes.

Something within her snapped, letting loose a flood of anger, of hatred. The world twisted and withered away around her. “NO! I will not be tricked by you!”

Magic, that had to be it, human trick, trying to fool her with false memories and mind games. Despite all their efforts, to repress it, there must have been a human born with magic. And now they were trying to use their petty human magic to rebel.

Coming to her feet, she turned to look out over the city. She could now see grief stricken elves, running through the remaining paths. Dragging struggling humans from their hiding places and beating them savagely. Men and women pleaded for their lives as they were beaten and thrown from the paths, their screams ending abruptly when they met their ends far below. Acels smiled, soon her people would finish those disobedient servants that remained in the city. Then they would make their way to the lower city, the human warrens, and then this madness would end. Acels realized now that she had been too kind, too lenient to think that humans could ever be anything other than they were: feral animals that had to be put down.

She now saw with perfect clarity what must be done. Releasing the gem, she raised her hands skyward, pulling all the power she dared, from the earth and from the sky. Eldritch magic roiled through her, the gem turning as steely gray as the clouds over head, her silken clothes twisting and fluttering in the wind. As she intoned ancient words of power the sky above darkened, her clothing blackened to match and hardened, turning into a suit of carapace like armor. Acels smiled grimly, her eyes wide, reflecting the storm brewing over head. As she watched the trees and city writhed, changing. Spikes grew from every angle, long and wicked. The elves below, awed by what they were seeing, ceased their rioting and stood, staring upwards, staring at her.

“Hear me, my people.” She spoke quietly, yet her words carried to every corner of the city. “The time of gentility is over. Too long have we suffered the brutish humans. Time and time again, we offered them compassion, and understanding. Each time they turned away from us and spit in our face. Their time is at an end. Go forth and cleanse their dark stain from this world, only then, will we know peace.”

Below her a thousand elves cheered, caught up in her rage. As one mind they wrenched nearby spikes from the trees. Through her will, each shifted and changed as it was grasped, forming cruel blades of hardened wood.

Caught up in her magic, driven by her will, the elves swarmed to the forest floor. A mad, bloodthirsty armor bent on annihilation. A chill wind swept across the treetops, bringing thunder and lightening with it. In the distance, a faint orange glow glimmered, growing brighter, creating clouds of billowing black smoke that merged with the storm.

Her eyes narrowed as she projected her thoughts outward. “So the humans wish to play with fire?” She grinned to herself. “Let them see true fire then, born of magic, fueled by fury.” With a primal scream she channeled the power of the storm through her body, sending jagged arcs of lightening streaking through the sky. Again and again she gestured, smiting distant enemies. As the storm raged around her, the glow grew brighter, until the flames could be clearly seen. Acels frowned and summoned forth a gentle rain. In response the flames licked higher as if fueled by the storm. “What trickery is this?” “None but your own devising, Acels.” A deep voice replied.

The elven woman whirled, throwing a bolt of lightening in the direction of the voice. Durmanius shook his head slowly as the lightening struck him in the chest, dissipating harmlessly. “I’m sorry it had to be this way.”

Acels grabbed the gem from overhead and held it in front of her like a talisman. “Your tricks will not fool me human. Your pitiful magic is nothing compared to my own.” As she stalked closer the gem pulsed slowly, its dark swirling color diminishing.

The old man sighed wearily, holding his empty hands wide apart. His gray robes rippling around him, untouched by the rain that drenched the crumbling city. “You never did see, did you? You never understood what I tried to teach you.”

A cold wave of fear suddenly clutched at the elven woman’s heart. She glanced from left to right and now noticed the flames had consumed much of the city, and were drawing close to the temple. She could clearly hear the pleading screams of the dying, smell their charred flesh as she choked on the smoke and soot. Soon it would consume them both. “Who are you?”

Durmanius reached out and touched the gem, his fingertips brushing hers. “You know who I am.” Acels gasped as the gem blazed with a bright white light, and tried to close her eyes. But she could not shut out the flood of visions that assailed her. The forest, pristine and pure, as it was before she had come to the temple. The temple, whole and intact with the gem she now held floating above it. A young man, a human man standing at the base of the temple smiling at her with warm friendly eyes. Gray eyes. She felt herself fall into the depths of those yes and saw the ancient wisdom within them, caught a glimpse of a powerful mind so old she could not begin to fathom it. A mind that was ancient when her people were still young. She watched, frozen in place as she saw the man leave. She saw herself walk to the top of the tower and reach out for the gem. As her fingers touched it, her world flashed. The city rising up around the temple, filling with elves, and humans. Hundreds of years sped by as the city grew, flowing out from the temple like a tide. But like all tides, it receded.

Durmanius sighed and let his hand fall, the gem floating free in the clear blue sky above him. At his feet lay a withered ancient elven woman. Around him, the remains of the city lay, long forgotten through the ages and overgrown by the forest. A memory kept alive by a desperate soul in need of order. The old man kneeled by the decrepit elven woman and helped her to her unsteady feet. “What happened?” Acels croaked, her weak voice barely a whisper.

“I’m sorry.” Durmanius soothed. “You had your dream, lived it, but like all things, it did not last. Now it is time for you to sleep.”

The elven woman nodded and held her hands up towards the gem, closing her eyes. In her mind, she was flying, soaring through the clouds. As Durmanius stepped back, her skin thickened and turned dark. Her form shifted and twisted, her skin turning to bark. As she froze in place, leaves sprouted from her fingertips and head.

The old man smiled sadly. “Rest well my love.”

*******

The old druid leaned on his staff and gestured. “Aye, this is the spot.”

The young druid looked at the tree skeptically, thus far he had not been impressed by the old druid’s journey through the old woods. “It does not look like much. I expected this grand temple. By the way you describe it we should have seen an ancient elven city. Great spires and towers on our way here. You say this is the legendary spot, where the temple of life once stood. Heart of the ancient elven city before the elves left this world. Where the elven queen and her dragon lover said their last goodbyes. All I see is a lonely old forest, filled with ghosts.”

Durmanius smiled faintly. “You never could see the forest for the trees.”

By: Jason Haley

 
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