Banner art by JackOfClubs (jack_spire on livejournal).
You can find the whole cover art here- JoC did a great job on it!
There's also a great mix/soundtrack that goes with this story- you can find that here.
(Prologue, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5)
It appears that the centaur was right, Phillip mused to himself as he crossed the undeniably empty village. There was nothing. He could have charged in here with an army and trumpets blaring and there wouldn't have been any more reaction. There was also a definite lack of any centaurs; he'd passed many a monster corpse, but no sign of anyone not green and none of those once-monsters had on them anything remotely like what his master was seeking, either. About to give up the search and grumbling once again about this stupid quest, he jumped when he saw what appeared to be a ball of flame shoot up towards the sky not far to his left.
Quickly snatching up a rock and pulling a piece of lightly-glowing phosphorescent moss from the pouch at his belt, he muttered a few words and waved his fingers above both objects, causing the rock to emit a bright glow. This was likely a waste of magic, but he didn't feel like fumbling through his pack for a torch and he wanted to hurry to see what caused the blast without tripping over something in the rapidly fading light. Rock in hand, he scurried forward. If nothing else, he could beam anything that approached with the stone, as unlikely as that would be in this ghost town.
Phillip figured there there was no need to be silent and began softly calling out when he neared the spot he reckoned the blast had come from. As he approached yet more fallen masonry, he heard a weak shout come from somewhere nearby. Whatever it was, it wasn't a language he knew, but it didn't sound threatening so he bravely followed it. He was led to a small hole in what seemed to be a recently collapsed building. Holding the glowing rock above his head to try to see in the gap, he was startled by two gleaming green eyes staring up. Whatever the eyes belonged to said something; from the tone of voice, it was probably something like "help," although for all he knew, it could have been saying "artichoke."
"Stand back," he informed whatever was down there, not that it could understand him. "I'm going to drop this in so we can see." He could always make another lit rock if he had to.
Whatever was down there stopped blathering, like it- no, definitely a she. Possibly that centaur? How am I supposed to lift a horse up, anyway?- knew he was trying to help. He saw the eyes move back a pace and he dropped the stone. As she reached down to grab it hesitantly like she was afraid it would be hot, Phillip was again surprised. She was neither the centaur he'd been expecting nor the orc he feared it would be (or was it the other way around?). Instead, staring up at him with eyes so frightened and wide that he could clearly make out the whites, was a young elf. She appeared to be in her late teens, but with elves that guess could be decades off, garbed in mostly leather in shades of what must have once been russet and brown but were now almost uniformly grey; even the green tattoos that wound around most of the skin Phillip could see were mostly a dull, grimy grey. Her pulled-back brown hair had fallen partly out of its tie and was also caked in dust.
"Here, I'll throw down a rope," he told her. It wasn't until he saw the shocked look of comprehension on her face and her frantic nod that he realized he hadn't spoken in his language, but the Halfling tongue, the language he'd learned as a child and had rarely used since. Now why would I say that to an elf? he began to wonder, but shook his head. Whatever the reason, she seemed to know that, anyway. "Hold on," he added as he reached into his bag for the rope he'd picked up at the wall.
He dropped this down and within seconds the girl had scampered up it, weighing surprisingly little. Phillip realized why when she got to her feet after first giving what sounded like a small prayer of thanks to the ground. For all that she looked near his age, she was about a foot shorter than he was, which was normal for an elf, he supposed. The frantic, scared look was now gone from her eyes to the human's relief; he'd had no idea how to deal with a violent centaur and would have had even less of an idea of what to do with a frightened elf.
Dipping her head slightly, she said, "Thank you greatly for getting me out of there! I'm terrified of being underground." Even just speaking of this made her appear uncomfortable; she bit her bottom lip and stepped farther away from the crumbled building.
The human was about to brag about how it was no big deal and how he rescued young women on a regular basis when she snatched the rope out of his hands. "Wait a second, this is my rope, isn't it? Did my brother send you over?"
Thrown off by the fact that a girl was unmoved by his chivalry, he could only blink at the last part of her questioning. "That was your brother? He said he was looking for a sister, but I'd assumed that was another centaur." He looked off into the distance like the rampaging horse-man was coming after him with a log. "He was frightening! Err... no offense intended," he added hastily.
The elf... halfling? Was was he getting the idea of both from her, anyway? The elf did something he wasn't expecting. She broke into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. "Kryro? Frightening? What, did he get tangled in a tree and bring it down on you?"
Okay, that was maybe why he thought "halfling"; she certainly sounded like the ones he'd known. But she didn't have to be so dismissive of what he'd said, either. Crossing his arms over his chest, Phillip frowned. "I'm serious. There was a tree involved and he was beating a gate with it."
The elf looked at him for a second, then raised an eyebrow, shifting the vine tattoos near her eyes, which Phillip should have found disturbing, but for some reason didn't. He was glad when she interrupted that thought by saying, "You're serious? He must really have been worried. He doesn't usually-" A thought seemed to occur to her; did all elves jump annoyingly from subject to subject like this? "But how did you find me?"
"There was a ball of fire," Phillip started to answer. He stared. Surely this small elf hadn't... "Did you do that?" Was she a wizard, too? He didn't think elves, or at least any kind of elf colored to look like a tree, had wizards, but where else would that fireball have come from?
The girl looked confused, then thoughtful. Moving the glowing rock from hand to hand, she fidgeted. "I thought I'd imagined that. I was so frightened and worried.... then this necklace thing I picked up felt warm and then that..." she fumbled for words, "fire thing happened."
Now Phillip finally noticed the simple necklace hanging from her neck. In the light of the uncanny rock, it almost seemed to have a dim green glow. Was this what his master was looking for? He tried to recall exactly what the old wizard had said about it as they made their way over to the nearest part of the wall. But from what the girl said and what he thought he remembered about it... yes, it was likely one and the same as the item he sought. And even if it wasn't, something powerful enough to cause elves to shoot magic flame would likely be almost as good of a prize in the eyes of his master. How to get it off the girl, though...
As the elf secured the rope so they could climb back down from the wall, he asked as nonchalantly as he could in an attempt to keep his voice free of that hope of possible impending freedom, "Were you going to keep that?"
She looked confused by his question. "I did find it. Yes, I am."
Phillip cursed silently to himself. Trying to act as charming as possible, he asked, "But do you think I could have it? I did rescue you."
The elf almost looked as though she was going to agree then quickly shook her head. "No. If it's all the same, I'd rather keep it. This could come in handy."
He gave another mental curse, this time stronger. He'd have to do what he should and normally would have done in the first place. Why was this girl making him act so strangely? He began to chant softly, counting on her apparent lack of knowledge of his language to disguise what he was saying, and moved his hands in a theatrical gesture which he, however, couldn't hide. She had time to ask, "What are you-" before she crumpled to the ground, this time deep in sleep. He gently removed the chain with the now purple glow from around her neck and thought briefly of leaving her there and darting off, but that voice inside that he was coming to recognize and rather dislike instead made him pick her up and swing her over his shoulder. He dropped the chain over his neck and bent down to retrieve the torch-stone she'd dropped. Then, moving clockwise around the wall, he headed to where he'd last seen the centaur.
Kryro was not happy. His sister had been in there for days now and that human still had not come back, either. He knew he shouldn't have trusted a shady-looking young human, but what choice had he had? He was probably long gone by now, having stolen Meren's rope and likely using it to scale from a side not visible to the centaur. Blasted two-leggers. Cannot trust any of them. Elves excluded, he added hastily, Those you could always just trust to do something thickheaded and dangerous.
When he saw the human come around the wall carrying some sort of light in his hand, Kryro had been about to take those silent insults out on him when he realized the man was also carrying an unconscious and rather grimy Meren. "What happened to her?" the centaur demanded, galloping over to them.
The young man lowered the elf gently, Kryro was glad to see, to the ground. He hesitated for a moment, then stood confidently, brushing at the embroidered stars on his black robe. "I think she was hit in the head. She should be coming around soon, but you should probably get her out of here."
You do not have to tell me that twice, Kryro thought to himself. He knelt down, never a fast motion when graced with so many legs, and felt her forehead. Or tried to. The centaur yanked his arm back when a spark leapt over to his hand.
Luckily that spark seemed to shake her awake; she gave an "Ouch!" and opened her eyes. Blinking up at the centaur, her eyebrows wrinkled in confusion. "You're green," she mumbled dazedly in Halfling.
Kryro looked down to see what she meant. Nope, still the same shades of brown he had always been. And why was she using that language, anyway? Now it was his turn for confusion. "Meer, are you alright? Why would I be green?"
Rubbing her head, Meren sat up. Still speaking that language, she muttered, "Feel all tingly..."
Yes, that really answered that one. He looked over at the human who was still standing there. Still there, but looking posed to run away. Realizing the centaur's gaze was in his direction, the man gave a sheepish shrug. Kryro had been called many things: large, good with languages, clumsy, horsebutt (Gee, thank you for that one, Meer), but never stupid. He knew that human was hiding something.
Dazed though she was, Meren was on top of this. How she was on top of it, though, left Kryro even more disturbed. She blinked at the man a time or two, then switched that to a vindictive glare as she climbed quickly to her feet. Without any hesitation, she spoke low in Elvish. To the centaur's bewilderment, it sounded much like "Winged mice of the forest, aid me". Wondering what she meant and thinking she must really have hurt her head, he saw her gesture towards the wood behind them, then point at the human, whose necklace momentarily flickered between purple and green. The young man was now most certainly not looking comfortable. When a swarm of bats flew out of the treetops and towards his head, he became even less so. Giving a yelp, he turned and ran, trying to outrun something that could move far faster than he.
This left Kryro satisfied, but also incredibly worried and even more disconcerted. Before he could ask Meren what in the name of the earth spirits had just happened, he saw her collapse to her knees, looking visibly drained. The centaur had the presence of mind to catch her before she fell and held her steady. "What is going on?" he demanded, his voice breaking from worry.
Meren blinked at him. "I don't... what happened?"
It was rather fuzzy to the centaur. Why did this feel so familiar? "There was a human here. You threw... bats... at him." He wasn't sure if he wanted that memory to clear up or not, it seemed so strange.
The elf looked perplexed for a moment, then simply nodded. If Kryro had to guess, he would say she was simply too overwhelmed and tired to care about flying things, a fact which was bothering him greatly. That had looked suspiciously like magic, but she was no shaman...
The centaur shook his head. Whatever Meren was or was not, she was still his sister and he still had to get her home safely. "Just get on my back."
Dazedly she started to argue, "But centaurs don't let people-"
"Most centaurs do not have exhausted elven sisters who have been throwing woodland creatures around until they appear ready to fall over for a second time," he pointed out.
That long sentence was clearly too much for her to comprehend in her current state. She obeyed, climbing up and wrapping her arms around his chest to keep in place. As they fled back into the woods, Kryro felt warmth on his chest. Looking down, he saw that emerald sparks were flashing between Meren's hands and grounding on his skin. It didn't hurt, but it tingled slightly and he wondered if this was the feeling she'd mentioned earlier. Whatever it was, he hoped it was harmless, but knew Meren would never do anything to hurt him. ...or at least the Meren he knew would not. The fact that his sister was sparking and summoning nocturnal animals had him worried; centaurs and wood elves were not keen on magic, to say the least. We better not tell her father, he decided, his gut telling him that this would be wise.
Part 5 can be found here.