I rocked side to side as Boo’s broad back swayed with each slow step. His breath was heavy and even, almost sleepy after gorging himself on glitterfish. We were taking our time, moving slowly as we returned from Boo’s favorite fishing spot and headed toward the square outside Town Hall.
I could already hear the low rumble of many voices combining. It sounded like dozens, maybe even a hundred or more…
It was weird. Growing up in Xyrus, a day at the market meant crossing paths with hundreds, even thousands of people. I never thought twice about the noise of a crowd back then. All those people just kind of blended into the background, there but…not important.
Now, the idea of so many people—each one having suffered such horrible loss, surviving the nightmare of these last several months—made me feel uncomfortable. Constricted. Even as this feeling took root in me, though, a golden light issued from my core, infusing me with confidence and bravery.
Smiling, I patted Boo’s neck. “Thanks. I can always count on you, can’t I, Boo?”
The crowds’ volume inched higher and higher as I approached the gathered refugees, almost all elves. Several sent wary looks in my direction as I rode by, and I was surprised by how uncomfortable and agitated the crowd seemed. I wasn’t completely sure what was happening, only that Albold had sent me a message to be here.
My mother was waiting for me in the mouth of an alley that led toward one of the community gardens, outside of the dense pack of elves filling the square.
Staying mounted atop Boo, I reached down and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “What’s going on?”
“I thought maybe you would tell me,” she said, her eyes darting nervously around the crowd.
Following her line of sight, I realized why. More of the elves were looking at me now. Some stared openly, while others shot me poorly hidden glances as they talked quietly to their friends and family. And while some seemed just curious or even—I hoped—friendly, others were much less so.
Then I realized why Albold had asked for me.
I wondered exactly what he and Feyrith had told these elves. Everything I had shared with them about Virion and Windsom’s conversation? That seemed foolhardy, but then, I wasn’t exactly sure what I expected them to do with the information. By the way people were looking at me, though, that must have been it.
I found myself wishing they would have at least not mentioned where they got their information…
Not that I felt frightened. Sitting on Boo’s back, with my mother’s hand wrapped comfortingly around my calf, I had the same warm feeling I did as a little kid when Art would fall asleep next to me while putting me to bed. Like I was protected.
But I couldn’t help but feel like all this unhappiness and frustration I saw around me was my fault.
It had been a couple weeks since I told Albold and Feyrith about Virion and Windsom’s lies. Rinia had warned me to stay out of it, but I still thought they deserved to know. I knew a bit too well what it felt like to be lied to, to have things hidden from me to “protect” me. Mom and Dad were always keeping things about Arthur from me. Even when the Lances took him away, they made all kinds of excuses so I didn't worry.
Like I was too stupid to understand that when Mom locked herself away and cried, something was wrong.
But I wanted to be told the truth so I could grow from it, react to the world as it was, not through the rosy lenses of what my parents wanted to show me.
Still…I knew that the elves might not feel the same. Maybe in scary times like these, some people would prefer to stay ignorant, unaware and clenching onto the hopeful, filtered words of our leaders.
And so I waited, expecting for something to happen since my conversation with Feyrith and Albold, almost hoping for it just to get it over with.
Because, if something bad happened, I knew it would be because of me.
“Thank you for coming, Ellie,” someone said from behind me. I spun around so I was sitting backwards on Boo. Feyrith and Albold had just come out of a narrow alley.
“What exactly is happening here?” Mom asked, moving so she was between Boo and the pair of elves.
They both bowed to her before Feyrith said, “Thanks to your daughter, we elves were finally told the truth of what happened to our homeland, something our leaders have lied about to protect an alliance with false friends.”
“We’re going to make Virion explain himself and his actions,” Albold said forcefully.
Feyrith gave me a tight-lipped smile. “We wanted you to be here, Ellie, to hear what Virion has to say and…offer some perspective, if necessary.” He quickly held up a hand when Mom started to object. “You have been guided by the seer Rinia herself. You were in Elenoir when the destruction occurred…the only survivor of that attack. You heard for yourself the lies shared between Virion and the asura. We need you here, Ellie.”
So I wasn’t brought here to be questioned, I thought in relief. But what’ll Virion say—or deny—when they ask him for an explanation? Either way, it was because of me and the information I chose to share that this gathering of elves happened in the first place.
Mom sighed, stepping back and looking up at me. Boo was twisted around so he could watch the elves, his heavy brows low over his small eyes, and his huge teeth bared.
“It’s fine,” I said to no one in particular. “We’re already here. I just…did you have to tell everyone it was me?”
A light flush appeared on Feyrith’s cheeks and he looked down at the ground. “People took convincing just to show up. We had to tell them exactly how we’d discovered the truth.”
“Oh,” I said. I wanted to be upset, but I couldn’t blame them. If I didn’t want to be involved, after all, I could have just kept my big mouth shut.
I guess I won’t know if what I did was right or wrong until I see how it all turns out. Hopefully, most people are glad to learn the truth, but I bet a bunch of them think I’m lying, or blame me for causing problems.
I glanced around again. More eyes had turned my way now that I was speaking with Feyrith and Albold. An old elf with a cane—one of the council, I thought—was making her way toward us, but behind her, I caught sight of a genuinely friendly face.
Riding above the crowd on Jasmine Flamesworth’s shoulders, my friend Camellia beamed and waved at me. Her pale blonde hair was tied back in thin braids, and there was a sprig of holly tucked behind her ear. She tapped the top of Jasmine’s head and pointed in my direction, drawing a sour frown from her mount.
The rest of the Twin Horns were with them, and when they turned in our direction, the crowd parted to allow them through.
Helen gave me a warm smile and patted Boo’s side. “Ellie. I should have known they’d drag you into this.” She gave Feyrith and Albold a sharp look, her smile quickly dropping.
Durden, who stood out from the crowd due to being at least a head taller than everyone else, frowned in an exaggerated kind of way, highlighting the scars over half of his face. “Ellie, you do know you’re riding your bear backwards, right?”
Camellia rewarded his joke with an appreciative laugh, but it faltered quickly. She looked down, letting a loose braid of pale hair fall over her face. “Sorry, I suppose this isn’t the time for laughter.”
“There’s always time to remind ourselves we’re still here kicking,” Angela Rose responded as she wrapped her arms around my mother, pulling her into a tight hug.
The old elf woman finally made her way through the crowd. She hesitated, looking around at the Twin Horns and me. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but…” Her gaze shifted to Feyrith. “I was hoping for a word before we began.”
Feyrith nodded, looking gaunt and serious. But when he looked at me, there was a softness in his features that seemed to undo some of the damage his time spent as a captive of the Alacryans had done. “Thank you again for being here, Ellie.”
And then they were gone.
I turned around so I was sitting properly on Boo, and Camellia clambered off Jasmine’s shoulders and onto Boo’s back behind me. Her arms wrapped around my waste and she rested her head on my back, squeezing me slightly.
“Things are going to get pretty rough,” Angela Rose mumbled, one arm still wrapped around my mother.
“Let’s hope not,” Helen said. “But if it does, remember that our role here is to keep people from hurting each other.”
Durden pulsed with mana, and a stone arm coalesced in place of the one he’d lost fighting at the Wall. “We’re with you as always, Helen.”
Our strange little family fell into a tense silence as we waited.
It wasn’t long.
Albold and Feyrith eased through the crowd until they could climb the stairs that led into the Town Hall. The usual guards that would have stood there were absent, and the doors were closed.
Albold tried to shout something, but his voice was lost in the din. Feyrith fired a kind of water burst up into the air, where it exploded with a popping, hissing noise, silencing the crowd.
“Most of you already know why we’re here,” he said when the last of the chatter had died down. “Some of you had already seen through the lies of our commander and are here to support this effort, but I know many of you are still skeptical. And I don’t blame you for that.”
He paused, letting his words settle over the crowd. “My fellow elves, we have lost much.” His voice cracked, and he paused again. “No one can heal the hole that has been torn in our hearts and souls at the destruction of our home, the careless genocide of our people. But I, Feyrith Ivsaar III, am telling you now that you deserve to understand why this was done to us.”
Feyrith’s voice rose as he spoke, becoming a shout that filled the cavern. “We have been lied to. Treated like children. Asked to align ourselves with our destroyers. Betrayed by our own leaders!”
This was met with supporting cheers from several elves, but most remained quiet. A few were obviously hostile to Feyrith’s message, glaring fiercely up at him. Beside me, I could see Helen clocking everyone who seemed like a potential threat, regardless of which side of the argument they were on.
“Proof!” a gray-haired elven man yelled, cutting over the cheers. He had a brand burned into the side of his neck, still shiny and scabbed. “How dare you accuse Virion Eralith, a man who has fought for us all his life, of betraying us without proof!”
There were a few cries of support, but more boos as Feyrith’s supporters tried to shout the man down.
“Are we supposed to take the word of a human girl over our own commander!” another elf shouted, a woman this time, her bright green eyes so full of bitterness and disdain that I felt bile rise up in the back of my throat.
The crowd fell into bickering, shouting across each other so their words were lost. All I could see was the division that was being caused, the fracturing of our fragile resistance, and how my words had brought us here.
“I hope you’re not taking their words personally, El,” a worried voice said as Emily Watsken appeared out of the crowd. Curly hair framed Emily’s soot-stained face, and there was a crack around the edge of one of her lenses.
“Em!” Slipping off Boo, I gave her a big hug. “What happened to you?”
She rubbed her cheek, further smudging the soot clinging to her skin. “An explosion at the lab, one of Gideon’s new projects…but never mind that. What did I miss?”
I sighed, leaning back against Boo. “Nothing but a bunch of shouting and dirty looks so far.”
Everyone else said their hellos, although the Twin Horns were mostly focused on the still seething crowd. I crawled back up on Boo, leaning into Camellia, who rested her chin on my shoulder.
“No one really blames you for anything, you know,” she said in a whisper. “They’re just scared.”
“Aren’t we all?” I grumbled, then blew out an unnecessarily loud sigh. “I just…”
Mom squeezed my leg and gave me an apologetic smile. “Being caught in the middle of world-altering events is apparently the curse of my children.”
I took my mom’s hand and laughed a little. “We’re just lucky, I guess.”
In front of the Town Hall, Albold had turned away from the crowd and was now hammering on the doors. “Virion! Virion, your people need to hear your voice. Address these accusations, or be named a—”
The doors flung open, nearly knocking Albold over backwards.
The Lance, Bairon Wykes, now personal guard to Commander Virion and member of the council, stood framed in the doorway, his gleaming armor alive with crackling lightning. His eyes blazed as little lightning bolts jumped from him to the walls and floor, burning scorch marks into the stonework.
“Clear off,” he ordered, his voice thrumming with the kind of power I’d rarely witnessed up close. Even fifty feet away, I felt the static discharge tingling across my skin, and tiny arcs of electricity jumped between the fine hairs on my forearms. “The commander won’t be dragged from his home by an unruly mob. If you want to talk, make an appointment.”
Feyrith and Albold were quick to recover. “Our own commander, once king of Elenoir, sends his attack dog to run us off. What is your plan, Lance? Will you—”
“Enough, Bairon, enough,” a rugged voice sounded from inside the Town Hall. The crowd—nearly driven into a frenzy by the Lance’s threats—went still and silent as a field of standing stones. “I will speak to my people.”
The Lance glared fiercely around before stepping out into the open and moving to the side. Virion came up behind him.
Although the old elf stood tall, each step firm and confident, I felt immediately like something was off. He was dressed in forest-green batttlerobes embroidered with golden leaves and vines, his hair pulled back into a tail, making him look regal and powerful…but that alone wasn’t enough to hide the deep tiredness that hung about him like a black cloud.
He didn’t immediately speak, but let his sharp old eyes track across the gathered refugees. Wherever they fell, the elves looked down. A few even wept, their soft snuffling the only sound.
“My brothers and sisters,” he began, his voice both firm and soft, somehow. Still the practiced tone of command, but also the grandfatherly projection of understanding. “You have asked for me, so here I am.”
I didn’t know what to make of Virion’s expression when his eyes scanned the crowd. “It pains me to see us like this—the last dregs of our civilization, hidden underneath the earth instead of flourishing in the forests of our birth…but more so that we are being pulled apart, and at a time when we need to come together more than ever.”
“No one is questioning anything you’ve said,” Feyrith responded from the bottom of the steps, looking up at Virion. He gestured to the onlookers with one hand. “But it’s hard to reconcile your message of unity with the reality of our situation, at least for me. Our home is gone, Virion…and the asura of Epheotus took it from us. Not the Alacryans. Do you deny it?”
Virion nodded along with Feyrith’s words. Before he answered, he took a deep, shuddering breath. “No, I don’t deny it.”
The crowd burst as people cried out in dismay or disbelief, some demanding to know why, others shouting that it couldn’t be true, that Virion was being manipulated somehow.
“Then why lie?” Albold shouted above the din.
“It was a necessary lie, told to keep the ragged tatters of our civilization from collapsing into despair.” As Virion spoke, he held his head up, facing the accusing gazes without flinching. “I may regret its necessity, but, given the chance, I would make the same decision again.”
“You would protect the asura over your own people?” Feyrith asked in disbelief.
Virion stood straighter, and when he glared down at the younger elf, his eyes were full of fire. “Do you see an asura before you, or are these ears not proof of my heritage!”
His sudden outburst smothered all other noise.
“Do you really think I have lived so long and fought so hard for Elenoir that I do not mourn its destruction just as deeply as any of you? Did the asura destroy Elenoir? Yes! And in the act, they eliminated an enemy foothold in this continent and cut the heads from many of the highest-ranking families of Alacrya. They burned the enemy’s war camps and magical laboratories. They cut off many of the long-range teleportation devices that connected Dicathen to Alacrya.”
From where I stood in the crowd, I could see the very moment when the crack in Virion’s disciplined, royal demeanor formed—the empathy and the emotion winning out as Virion’s eyes grew wet with barely suppressed tears.
“But they did not take our home.” Virion pressed one hand against his chest, gesturing to the crowd with the other. “Wherever we go, whatever becomes of the elven people, we carry our homes with us. Trees can be replanted. Houses rebuilt. Magic reclaimed. No one can take that from us.”
“But the people they killed can’t be reborn!” someone shouted, their voice choked with emotion.
“This is war!” Virion’s gravel-filled voice cracked, the word “war” crashing like a fallen tree among the crowd. “Sacrifice is necessary, even when the price seems beyond paying.”
The fire, momentarily so bright it seemed to glow out of him, died, leaving behind a very old, very tired elf. “Don’t let this tragedy push us into an even worse situation. We can’t properly mourn those we’ve lost until we save everyone who remains…”
The crowd was silent, watching Virion, Feyrith, and Albold with wide, wet eyes.
I didn’t agree with Virion. But…I understood him. His people were so fragile, had already been through so much. He was just trying to save them from whatever pain he could.
After a long pause, Virion motioned behind him for something. “It was the Alacryans who attacked our continent, invaded our homes, murdered our friends and family…executed our kings and queens…” A single tear fell from Virion’s eye, traveling in a zigzagging pattern down his craggy face. “This war ends when they are thrown from our shores.”
He turned to take something from the head guard, Lenna Aemaris, who then bowed and retreated back into the Town Hall. When he again faced us, he was holding a long, ornate box. It was made of a deep, richly black wood and bound with luminescent silver metal. With one hand, he opened the lid, revealing the contents to the crowd.
It was a rod, around two and a half feet long, with a gleaming red handle wrapped with golden rings every few inches. At the head of the rod, a crystal glowed with diffused lavender light. It was beautiful, but the sight of it sent a shiver down my spine.
“You all now know of the artifacts used to empower the Lances, which were long kept secret from the population, used to guarantee the safety of our kings and queens by both creating and binding the continent's most powerful mages in their service,” Virion said to the enraptured audience.
“Those artifacts no longer serve a purpose,” Virion continued, his voice soft, almost reverent. “And so, to keep them out of the enemy’s hands, our asuran allies have ensured they can’t be used again.”
Several onlookers shouted in dismay, but Bairon waved for silence, lightning crackling between his fingers.
“Instead, they have given us new artifacts,” Virion said, his voice rising, growing less tired and more powerful. He held up the box, making the rod’s lavender gem glint in the soft light of the underground cavern. “This is one of three artifacts capable of raising a mage to white core or even beyond, which could be our best chance to fight back against the Alacryans. Each artifact is specifically attuned to one of the three races of Dicathen, and can’t be used by anyone with Vritra blood, making them useless to the Alacryans.”
I couldn’t help but be surprised by the number of cheers that rose from the crowd. Glancing around, I realized that most of these people had been drawn here out of fear, not a search for truth, and Virion had just shown them what hope might look like. It suddenly mattered a lot less who had caused the disaster in Elenoir if we had had weapons like this to fight back against the Alacryans with.
“That’s…pretty good, isn’t it?” Camellia asked, still sitting behind me on Boo.
People were shouting out questions or words of praise, but one cut through the rest. “Who will be granted this gift, Commander Virion?”
Virion frowned, his brows coming together sharply as he closed the box and handed it back to Lenna. It grew quiet again as we all waited for an answer.
“Much remains to be decided,” he admitted, taking the first step down toward the people. “The old way—selecting just two warriors from each race—will no longer be sufficient. With these new relics, we could create an entire Lance Corps, and—”
“ —cause untold devastation while shackling our most powerful defenders to the Indrath Clan,” a croaky old voice cut in from somewhere in the audience.
I rapidly scanned the surprised faces until I found her. A hunched form, wrapped in both a cloak and a blanket, shuffled out from the doorway of one of the houses surrounding this square, pulling her hood back as she did so.
The crowd shuffled to give her room. A few of the elves bowed respectfully, but more gave her wary or even outright hostile looks.
She paid them no mind, moving shakily toward Virion. “These artifacts are designed to trap us in power. Ensure our subservience. I know what will happen if we make use of them.”
Virion’s frown etched deep wrinkles into his face. But instead of anger, I thought his expression showed more sadness and regret. “Rinia. Please, come inside and we can discuss this further.”
Ignoring Virion, Elder Rinia turned her head left and right, meeting the eyes of those closest to her. “If used, these relics will indeed help our mages grow strong, strong enough to fight the Alacryan Scythes. Together, in number, strong enough even to fight the asuras of the Vritra Clan.”
The audience was briefly filled with whispering, but it died out quickly. “Our enemy will respond by escalating his efforts on this continent—a distraction put in play by the Indrath Clan. The battles that follow will leave the continent in ruin. Xyrus will be ripped from the sky. Etistin, shattered and taken in by the ocean. The Wall, crumbled back into the earth. Dicathen, our home, will be in ruins, with titans still battling in the rubble.”
Virion was quiet when he asked, “And what will happen if we refuse Lord Indrath’s hand of friendship and break our alliance with the asura? With no allies, and no hope, I don’t need visions of the future to understand the fate of our continent then.”
Rinia scoffed derisively. “Your allies will use our people as fertilizer, from which they’ll grow a new nation after their war with the Vritra is settled.” Rinia’s demeanor softened somewhat as she looked at her old friend. “There are so few of us left, Virion. Don’t march the last of the elves to their own extinction.”
“Then what should we do?”
“The gods have turned against us—”
“—die fighting, at least!”
“—accept the asuras gift—”
“—destroy the artifacts—”
And so it went for a while. Helen and the Twin Horns stayed sharp and watchful, just in case things escalated, but no one took it beyond shouting or the occasional shove. Camellia stayed with me, her cheek resting against my back, her body tight as a bowstring. Mother wrapped her arm around my leg and leaned against Boo, her face unreadable.
“I wonder how they work?” I just barely heard Emily mutter under her breath. “I’ll have to ask Gideon…”
After a couple minutes of this, a heavy pressure, like before a coming thunderstorm, filled the chamber and made my ears pop.
Everyone went still as Lance Bairon took a step forward. “Silence,” he said firmly.
Virion gave Rinia a searching look. “We have a choice before us, then. But…”
Virion’s gaze tracked across the cavern, landing on Albold and Feyrith, and a few other leaders among the elves, before coming to rest meeting my own eyes. “If you all want to be heard—if you wish to shoulder the weight of not only your lives, but others’ as well—then that’s exactly what we’ll do.” Lance Bairon shot him a concerned frown, but wiped it away almost immediately. “Speak to your kin. Spread this information to everyone in this sanctuary, so that each and every one of us—displaced as we have been by the Alacryans—may express our desires. In three days, every human, dwarf, and elf in this sanctuary will be given the chance to vote on the matter, and determine the direction of our people. For better or worse.”
Mother pulled away, turning to leave, but I stayed, watching Virion as he took the steps down from the Town Hall slowly.
The crowd was breaking up, starting to disperse, some lingering to speak to Feyrith and Albold, others gathered around Rinia as if she were a candle in a dark room, but through the noise of it all I could just barely hear Virion’s words as he approached Elder Rinia.
“Rinia. Come inside. Let us speak, like we used to.”
The old seer pulled her blanket close around her shoulders. “Can’t,” she answered gruffly. “You don’t listen to me like you used to.”
She shuffled off, several elves trailing after her, and Virion caught me watching them. He inclined his head slightly in my direction, his emotions unreadable behind the fatigue and resignation clear in his every little movement.