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 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9)
Meren continued south in a much better mood than she had been in. She would learn and do so quickly. She would get by fine without her brother's help. Now if only that mage turned out to be someone inclined to help a strange vagabond elf. Her smile faded as a thought occurred to her: what if the mage doesn't speak a language I do? This gave Meren a few minutes of panic before she recalled that her father had said it was a halfling village, as well. Even if the mage was not a halfling, someone there would be able to speak with her and point her in the right direction.
This conundrum solved, Meren traveled on almost cheerfully. It was a cool night, the moon was bright enough to see by, her brother would be safe with his own kin soon, there was the sensation of something brushing her arm... She jumped, yanking her arm away and twisting around to her right. Nothing was there. What the... She looked from side to side, but there were no trees this close to the river and her elven infravision wasn't picking up the glow of anything living in the area, either. When she felt it again, she almost let out a shriek and only years of training for silent scouting kept her from doing so.
Her heartbeat didn't slow until she heard a hoarse voice whisper near her ear. "Calm down, elf-girl. It's just me."
"Phillip? How? Where are-" she began to ask, then mentally chided herself. Magic, of course. "So that's how you got away from the clearing. I'm seriously beginning to think that you're following me around, you know."
"I think not… Alright, so this time I may have been." Now that she was paying attention to the spot to her right, she could see vapor rising about a foot above her head as he spoke. Guess he's still stuck with that, she observed as he added, "And I... er... did follow you back to your home."
"You did what?" Meren exclaimed, turning to glare at the spot she now knew him to be. "How many times do I have to tell you to leave the area? And could you please just make yourself visible again? I feel like an idiot talking to a cloud of smoke."
She heard Phillip mutter something under his breath, then he reappeared looking rather sheepish and from what Meren could tell through her night vision, still somewhat discolored. "Six, I would guess. But before you say anything else, you didn't seem too upset when I knocked out those orcs and put out that fire."
"So that's what happened? I should have known," Meren tried to glare at him, but found that she couldn't and felt dangerously close to smiling at the annoying human. "I suppose I should say thank you."
"Always a pleasure to help a woman in need," he replied with a smirk. Meren snorted, which didn't seem to take away his strange good mood. After a moment, however, he turned serious again. "If you don't mind me asking, elf-girl, what happened back in your … town? Encampment? Whatever it's called? Why are you going south and the centaur back into the forest?"
Well, there goes my good mood, she thought. But what was the harm in telling him? He'd probably just tag along, annoying her longer if she didn't. "East. I'm only going south until I can cross the river. My kin learned of my magic- thank you for throwing yours in there because they now think I have even more than I actually do, by the way- and they sent me off to some sort of mage in a town to the east. Kryro is going north to find his kin." There, that was vague enough, right?
Phillip's dark eyebrows wrinkled. "A mage? But I'd thought you were already trained."
Meren stared at him blankly. Why would he think that? "No, never. I can do magic, but my father thinks that a mage can help me not set things on fire."
The human shook his head slowly and gave a short, low whistle. Finally he said, "Hearing that, you do need to find a master. If you can do magic like that on your own, setting the forest on fire may be the least of your worries, Meren."
Being called by her real name for once made the elf realize that the man was serious, but a statement like that was downright terrifying when she'd already been fretting about her lack of control. Phillip tugged at the frayed hem of his sleeve and Meren got the impression that he was thinking hard about something. After a minute or two, he said, "I didn't mean to frighten you, only to give a warning. Just make sure the mage you find is a good one. I don't mean good as in 'competent'... well, I do, I suppose, but what I meant was someone who is a good person." His raspy voice grew quieter as he added, "Believe me, this is important."
As he spoke this, Meren recalled his earlier paranoia. She nodded; clearly he was trying to warn her away from his experience, whatever it was. "I will. But where are you going? More … things aren't following you, are they?"
He stared at the staff in his hand, studying it for a few moments, then glanced behind him. The wood elf was about to ask her question again when he answered softly, "I hope none are. And I don't know. I was going west, but how can I go home looking like this?"
"Wouldn't that be the best time to go home?" When the man looked down at her, confusion evident on his purple face, she explained, "If they're your kin, they won't mind who you are."
"As yours so readily accepted you?" His hoarse voice was bitter, but Meren didn't think he was actually directing that sharpness at her.
The wood elf frowned as she realized that he had a point. A rather good one, actually. "Alright, bad example, but you have to go somewhere you can be safe for a while." After saying so, she realized that she meant it. Despite the human's irksome tendencies, she truly didn't want those horrible things coming after him again. Drat. Chalk it up to that healer nature, she mused to herself.
An idea occurred to her: I don't really need this and I think it has something to do with magic... She reached into her pouch where she'd stuck the pendant earlier that day and pulled it out by the chain. "Here, take it back," she said simply, holding out her vine-patterned hand.
Phillip stared at the slightly luminous purple object for a long moment, then shook his head. He looked down at Meren and in the dim light she saw in his dark eyes an emotion she couldn't quite read. Is that concern? Before she could figure it out, though, he looked away again, but took her free hand in his for just a moment. "Take it with you, elf-girl. If the master you find is worthy, show it to him. It may help you. Otherwise, keep it a secret."
Meren could only nod dumbly, completely bewildered by his words and actions. This was the same person who had been a thorn in her side for years? Why was he being so helpful? Seemingly satisfied by her mute agreement, Phillip gave her a small smile. "Good. Stay safe, Meren."
His words echoing those spoken so recently by her brother left Meren even more speechless, and it wasn't until he'd walked out of sight westwards that she realized that she hadn't asked him why exactly he'd turned purple in the first place. As she walked across the stone bridge, she shook her head. If you couldn't trust your own curiosity, what could you trust? She couldn't help smiling to herself as she mentally answered her own question: spells to frequently be chaotic, a brother who always wanted to protect you and a human wizard to be dependably unpredictable. Now if only she could get that first one to function properly and the last two to realize that she could perfectly well take care of herself...