Verentil came down from his room dressed for a river cruise. As he approached the front desk to settle accounts and collect his things, a gregarious gentleman invited him to brunch. They had met briefly on the Silver River, the gentleman explained, but missed an opportunity to connect. The man considered it a great disappointment, because he too was an archaeologist.
Always happy to talk shop, Verentil accepted the invitation.
Once they had been seated at a prominent table, the prodigy ordered a dessert wine along with a bowl of raspberries in cream. Sipping and nibbling, the pair discussed the tragic fate of orcs in Callech Borea. They had done nothing wrong – and been punished for it. The gentleman asked Verentils opinion on how well Degenerate Giant Theory explained the sacred caves carved into Jasper Mounds. Verentil forcefully rebutted the proposition miniature giants appeared anywhere in the archaeological record.
"Fascinating!" cried the gentleman. "Where are you headed now?"
"I wanted to reach Kernaemon by way of Cairn Peaks," said Verentil.
"Dear boy, you would never make it over!"
"I understand that now," said Verentil, "but hadn realized it before I set out. Though embarrassing, Im headed back the way I came."
"To Port Jasper?"
"There I will catch a boat to Cairn Cross," said Verentil.
The gentleman exhaled in sorrow.
"I wish I could accompany you," he said. "Now that Ive been illuminated on the shortcomings of Degenerate Giant Theory, Id love to get your take on Dwarf Trolls."
They shared a laugh.
"Is business keeping you in Willowton?" asked Verentil.
"Until the end of the month."
"Then Ill just have to debunk Dwarf Troll Theory now!"
A bellboy handed Verentil a note.
"Theres a problem with my account," he said after reading. "Ive left them too much money! Im better with ancient coins than new."
"Archaeologists are like that," agreed the gentleman.
"Please excuse me for a few moments," said Verentil.
"Of course, of course!"
Verentil had not been gone long before another gregarious individual introduced himself to the first and took a seat at the table. They bonded over timber futures and the latest vintage out of Scythemoor. The gravelly soil there produced positively magic grapes. An hour into their conversation, the first gentleman observed the dear boy must have absent-mindedly headed for Port Jasper.
"Genius is dizzy," he said. "Pity. I would have liked to hear more about Dwarf Trolls."
"At least it is a pity paired with good grog!" said the second gentleman.
They laughed uproariously.
In fact, Verentil was never present. Hotel staffers had ushered him into a service corridor long before he descended from his room. A pubescent actor employed by a theater company affiliated with the hotel went down in his place. Professional makeup and a touch of enchanting glamours gave the boys already fine bone structure just the right sparkle. The first and second gentlemen were also members of the troupe. They had been selected for their enthralling baritones. The actors ran through a routine worked out in advance, taking care to enunciate Verentils itinerary clearly. The young actor returned to the banks secure location, scrubbed off his makeup, dropped his glamours, and melted back into ordinary life.
By the time the two gentlemen finished with their steak and grog, the prodigy who paid for everything was inside an empty keg of beer on a barge exiting the last lock at the top of the Willowton Escarpment. The Willow River was big enough to chew a long valley from the cliffs where it merged with the Silver. A large lake in that valley gave Willowton its harbor, while the city climbed surrounding cliffs. Industrialists had constructed a cacophony of gears, cranks, gates, basins, locks, and mills to harness the rivers abrupt change in altitude as it fell into the lake.
Constructed for subterfuge, Verentils keg was ventilated and comfortable. It had a little window through which tasty snacks were occasionally delivered. After some time, the barge began to slow as it prepared to pass under a low stone bridge. A young dwarf opened the food hatch to tell Verentil it was almost time, then opened the kegs lid when the barge was under the bridge and it was time.
He helped Verentil out of the keg and led him to the edge of the deck. From there, he hopped onto a stone ledge and signaled for Verentil to follow. Verentil followed. The dwarf opened a hidden door in the bridges stone abutment. A dark passage beckoned. Verentil wanted to clap excitedly, but was under instructions to remain quiet. He followed his guide into a subterranean world of masterful dwarven masonry. The duo veered left and right through branching corridors. It was like being chased by hoodlums – only without the hoodlums. After a good long while, and too much zigging for Verentils remarkable memory to keep track of every zag, they climbed an old ladder into an abandoned barn.
"Here you go, then!" the young dwarf announced.
Verentil tipped his guide so much, the dwarf gave half back.
"Theyd arrest me for carrying that much platinum," he said.
Verentil wondered what First Snake, the serpentification of greed, thought of a dwarf who refused to carry so much platinum it would get him arrested. The idea would have been inconceivable – yet it happened. Nodding cheerfully, the young dwarf turned and climbed back down into a subterranean world. Verentil stood a while gawking at the barns artful dilapidation. A large, harmless (to elves) spider descended on a line from shadows overhead. Verentil held out his hand. The spider landed on it and tapped his pedipalps inquisitively. Had Verentil seen any hot young ladies with huge fangs looking for some action – and maybe a meal?
"I have not seen any lady spiders," Verentil replied, "but only just got here, myself."
He carried the randy bundle of legs to an old post. The spider stepped off. Verentil wished him the best of luck in both reproduction and navigating treacherous food chains. Turning toward the barn door, the prodigy squinted against red gold sunlight splashing through gaps in old wood. The rolling door wasn fastened, but Verentil still struggled to slide it a few inches.
He considered turning into a puff of mist, necromancer wannabe vampire style. Refusing to concede that he couldn open an unlocked barn door, however, the prodigy reminded himself that with proper leverage, his might could move the entire world. Wedging his body and legs just right, exerting himself, accepting the risk of a few splinters, he moved the barn door if not the world. It only slid a few inches, but that was enough to get a prodigy who was too thin to see out into a brilliant afternoon.
Intoxicating freedom smelled like pine, cedar, and spruce. That was a lot better than a necromancers laboratory. Verentil got his bearings. The dilapidated barn was crumbling off-center in a clearing surrounded by dense woods. If there had been any other buildings in the vicinity, they had become nothing more than lumps of poison ivy (which didn bother elves) and long grass.
Verentil was in the middle of nowhere. He named the disappearing village "Perfection," wondered why it had been abandoned, picked a direction, and disappeared into the woods. An hour or two later (some of that time spent hiding in Phantasm like a boggle to watch for tails), he settled into the embrace of a mossy boulder and stamped small feet on the ground gleefully.
Hed never had so much fun!
His getaway was obviously not the first time someone needed to get out of town without being noticed by husbands, wives, or creditors – and it wouldn be the last. Verentil had learned about the practice from not just any decrepit old creepy bastard, but the Dean of Necromantic Sciences himself (before their apparent falling out). As a pretend frontier town flush with mobile assets, Willowton fostered a culture with even greater need for great escapes than Port Jasper. Verentils great escape was particularly elaborate, but the serpentification of greed was his sugar daddy and he therefore had a big budget.
"It all comes back to me in the end," First Snake liked to say.
Naturally, Verentil had considered the possibility Willowtons great escape network might sell him out. Betrayal played badly in an industry dependent on reputation, however, and was rare. Besides, he had backup. Right on cue, Yllaariel emerged from the dark transform. The elongated pixie twirled in the air and stamped small hooves as if standing on solid ground. He was delighted Verentil had taken the initiative to arrange his own escape, and not simply whined to be carried away on pixie wings.
"I told you I was getting better," sniffed the prodigy proudly.
He snapped his fingers and lit a small magical fire in the middle of a flat rock. The intoxicating air of freedom was warm, but lighting a fire felt like the appropriate course of action when camping in the woods. Being alone with an elongated pixie playing imp servitor to an archdevil, surrounded by a dark forest on a cursed mountain range with only an extra-dimensional backpack to his name presented Verentil with all kinds of adventurous scenarios. It was like the old days, when hed been on his own in the realms of dream and nightmare before Tiryendil showed up and took him to Sand House.
How would things have gone if Yllaariel showed up first?
In all likelihood, the youngest and second oldest elves in all Creations would still be chasing one another around tree trunks stretching up to the sky. Verentil the Great Escaper could not blame Tiryendil too much. He might even have to give the Too Tall warlock credit for making this evening possible. The prodigy breathed in, held it, and breathed out. He couldn get over how good the air tasted.
A mundane creature would have faced the prospect of hypothermia and starvation if left alone in a dark forest on the side of a cursed mountain range. Elves were aggregated bits of different realities mixed together, however, and did not worry about dying from mundane causes. Even dying from extraordinary causes was only a temporary inconvenience in any given universe. With his narrow back against a mossy boulder, his slender front warmed by a magical fire, and his barely visible side cuddling with a devils pretend servant, Verentil drifted into dreamy trances. A deer came up to nuzzle. An owl settled on a branch overhead. It was a sylvan paradise – until boots crunching twigs sent the animals fleeing.
Had he been followed after all? Yllaariel slipped back across the dark transform. Recognizing it might get him shot with a crossbow bolt before he could lay on the charm, Verentil pretended to be asleep and waited for the boots to reach him.
"Whats this?" cried Kelrin Wainbridge.
Verentil "woke up."
"What are you doing out here?" Kelrin demanded. "Where are your parents? I hope this isn going to be some long, convoluted sob story. Are you trying to get yourself killed? Get yourself killed in someone elses forest, punk! Who taught you how to make a fire like that? You need to contain it, or youll burn everything down!"
Kelrin, born in Willowton twenty years ago next week, was a tall and rugged young man dressed in fitted leathers designed for more than flattering muscular bottoms in mirrors. Verentil noted, however, that the tall rugged young man stomping out a harmless magical fire had a very fine behind. Kelrin whirled around as if aware of Verentils assessment. Eyes met. The amber prodigy was not prepared to call the emotion love quite yet, but the woodsy youth clearly appreciated being appreciated.
"So what are you doing here, kid?" the ranger demanded.
Kelrin took a closer look, then cursed like a stevedore who dropped a crate.
"Just what we need," he groused. "A vampire."
Kelrin put a hand on his crossbow. Verentil put both hands forward.
"Im not a vampire!" he said. "Im an elf!"
"No one I know has seen an elf, and I know a lot of people who see a lot of things."
"There are only four…," said Verentil.
The crossbow disengaged from its harness.
"Whats in the bag?" asked Kelrin, pointing with a bronzed silver tip.
The glint of that curious metal was all Verentil needed to fill in the gaps. But why was Tarnished Chapter operating so far from Silver Wood? Kelrin was obviously a new recruit. The youngest elf in all creations was not inclined to dismiss anyone on account of youth, however.
"Weve gotten off to a bad start," he said. "My name…."
"I asked what was in the bag, not your name."
The crossbow shifted menacingly from the backpack to the prodigy who owned it. Verentil wondered if it would be ironic to be killed by a silver-tipped crossbow bolt – one fired by a human member of a special force created to honor a commitment (to another elf) about protecting the Silver Wood from humans. Boosting the irony meter higher, Verentil had been expelled from Sand House for insisting that Tarnished Chapter should not be abolished in the name of boosting shareholder value. Capping the irony meter, Kelrin filled out both the front and back of his expensive leathers very nicely. Maybe that wasn ironic.
Even if it wasn ironic, the scenario certainly had "elf" written all over it.
"Traveling supplies," said Verentil. "I am on my way from Sand House to Kernaemon."
"I, Verentil Silvertip, of Silver Wood and Sand House, am an archaeologist…."
"Your story gets better and better, elf."
Verentil started to stand. The crossbow pushed forward.
"Stay down there and open the bag," said Kelrin. "Slowly."
Verentil did as instructed. He kind of sort of liked being ordered around by rugged young men who filled out their leathers well. Well, there wasn any kind of or sort of about it. He wanted to wiggle and squirm with delight. Tarnished Chapter had no reason to be nice to strangers and so it wasn . But it wasn in the habit of dealing with random travelers headed away from the Silver Wood, either. They should have a full calendar killing dock workers deluded into believing their ticket to owning a yacht lay buried in some fairy wood. Even if Verentil had been an actual vampire, their kinds assistance should have been welcomed by Tarnished Chapter.
Vampires were like snakes and spiders. Scary, yes, but they controlled pests well. The Dean of Necromantic Sciences wasn wrong about that. Maybe he wasn wrong about playing both sides for maximum profit, either. The necromancers were too clever to have been the ones who kicked Verentil out. It was the demonologists. That bunch wasn half as smart as it thought, and could be easily manipulated by the robber barons.
Young, muscular legs took a step forward and brought Verentil back to the present moment. A booted foot scooted the backpack away from its wiggling and squirming owner. Once he was comfortable with the distance, Kelrin crouched down and glanced inside. The young rangers calves were the stuff of dreams even if he wasn an elf – and his hamstrings made waves beneath his leather. The aromas wafting off that leather were intoxicating, but Verentil began to find this routine a bit silly. Sure, any new recruit in an organization with a license to kill might put on a tough show when out on his own, but no new recruit in Tarnished Chapter would be on his own. While sharp eyes remained fixed on curvy hamstrings, sharp ears listened.
"Toss your knife over here," said Kelrin. "In the sheath. Carefully."
He tapped on the ground. Verentil tossed Snakes Bite to the spot indicated. Keeping his crossbow ready, Kelrin pressed down on the weapon with his other hand. Through a combination of tension with the ground and strong fingers, he separated the blade from its sheath. Verentil worried Yllaariel might interpret disrespecting First Snakes gift as reason to kill the ranger. The second oldest elf in all Creation was out of everyones league – including First Snake for that matter.
What were the fake imp and his devilish "master" up to?
Whatever it was, the pixie made no move on Verentils curvy hamstrings. If his shadow was present at all, not even Verentils eyes could spot it through nights darkness. But sharp ears heard a large bird land on a thick branch. Verentil remembered the owl. This wasn that bird. But when one member of a Chapter team was new, another nearby would have more experience.
"This thing couldn cut butter hot," said Kelrin about Snakes Bite.
"Oh, enough with the act," Verentil snapped. He crawled forward, collected his dull knife, and stood up next to the ranger. For a moment, he was taller. "Even if your butt looks delicious, you
e getting on my nerves. And come down from there, druid."
Kelrin chuckled and stood back up. Verentil was no longer taller.
"Now you sound like a vampire," the young ranger said. "But what are you doing here?"
"I am in fact an elf walking from Willowton to Kernaemon by way of Arungrim," said Verentil. "What is Silver Chapter doing here? Silver Wood is that way and theres plenty of trouble."
"Arungrim is that way," said Kelrin, pointing in a direction Verentil was not headed. "Theres a big river running down the mountain leading straight to it. All you had to do was follow that."
"I didn want company."
"Then you shouldn have lit a fire," said Kerlin. "Who taught you to make one?"
"Why does a vampire need a fire?" asked a more experienced voice.
Otilia Marl was a middle-aged woman with dark hair and fierce eyes. Kelrin nodded to her respectfully. The druid looked remarkably like the Jorok Verentil had seen on the Silver – only human. The prodigy conceded that vampires required no fires, even though that never occurred to him before.
"Have you ever seen an elf?" he asked her.
"Ive seen one of the so-called Princes of Yu."
Verentil had never seen one of that lot, but understood from Yllaariel they related to Eaurlindel in some way. Yu was an island east of Two Song Dynasty. The rebellion which eventually overthrew the Gargogryeon Empire got its start there.
"Are the Princes of Yu the same height as me," asked Verentil, "or taller?"
"The one I saw was a little taller than you. Straight black hair. Lighter skin."
"Interesting," replied the prodigy. "But what are you two doing here?"
"Why shouldn we be here?"
"Corrupt plutocrats are conspiring to invade the Silver Wood!"
The druid laughed.
"Thats been going on for years," she said.
"But now they
e actually doing it! Seriously! Everyone could die!"
Otilia took a long look at the dazzling prodigy.
"I get it," she said. "You
e the vampire genius that has been translating blasphemous texts for Sand House these last few years. They kicked you out for fornicating with goat boys. That seems a bit short-sighted."
"And very hypocritical," chuckled Kelrin.
Verentil blinked in confusion. Should he be enraged; or, flattered?
"Cavorting," he said, "not fornicating. With a goat boy, singular. Furthermore, he is an elf pretending to be an imp. And anyway, I know for a fact that the necromancy and demonology departments have upped their lying game to undermine the archaeology of the Silver Wood…."
"They have," agreed Otilia. "Dean Gusgen crushed the Assistant Dean of Demonologys skull with his bare fingers during a faculty meeting last week."
Verentil had no words.
"Killed him?" he asked meekly.
"Squeezed his brain out his nose and eyes," agreed Otilia.
The Assistant Dean of Demonology was no slouch, and even had a tentacle or two, but Professor Gusgen, Dean of Applied Archaeology, was a dwarfs dwarf. Fearless and physically powerful, he had led numerous expeditions into tombs and sunken cities all around the world – including Hadros Akhet. Necromancers and demonologists might strike casual observers as fearsome, but archaeologists were the true heavy hitters of academia. An explorer couldn open an outhouse door in Hadros Akhet without coming face to face with some embalmed sorcerer king or an imprisoned demon prince.
"Well," said Verentil. "I suppose that might change the conversation."
"It has changed the conversation," said Otilia. "Now the spin is about how mean bullies are suppressing the free exercise of speech and curtailing unfettered academic discourse."
Verentil threw up his hands.
"Theres no winning these arguments," he said. "Cut one down and two pop up."
"Dean Gusgen has moved past arguing."
"What is he doing?"
"He has admitted that he is curtailing unfettered academic discourse, and has announced that the next faculty member who slanders the archaeology department will have his brain squeezed out his nose, too."
Verentil clapped excitedly.
"About time," he said. "But all that is behind me. I am headed up the mountain."
"And into trouble," said Kelrin.
"What kind of trouble?" asked Verentil.
"Have you seen any orcs?" asked Kelrin.
Verentil rarely lied and saw no reason to start. He described the four orcs he had seen, spread across two occasions. When asked which direction the Jorok was headed on the Silver, he realized he hadn considered it important at the time. But thinking back, she was headed in the opposite direction of the riverboat.
"Towards First Fork," he said. "But so what? Orcs are not a Chapter problem."
"Do tell," said Otilia.
"The guardian of Silver Wood has his own agreement with orc clans – and has had it for thousands of years. If an orc violates the Woods terms, thats a problem for them. The Silver League would not face retribution."
"You know a lot," said Otilia.
"I do," agreed Verentil. "So why don we just both go about our respective businesses?"
"What is your business up the mountain?" she asked.
"Im going to remake the world."
Verentil rarely lied and saw no reason to start. Otilia laughed.
"I haven heard that one before," she said. "Are the dwarves going to let you through?"
"Yes," insisted Verentil.
"Really, now?" said Otilia. "Fine. Its not our problem."
e off course," said Kelrin.
e headed up the Mounds towards the Notch," said Otilia. "Its already been a long day. Kelrin can put you back on the right track in the morning. If youd like to follow his delicious butt, of course."
Verentil felt confident he could reach Arungrim on his own. But there was no reason not to have a guide from Tarnished Chapter if one was available. Especially a tall, muscular, rugged guide with dreamy calves and… and all right, fine, he wanted to follow that delicious butt.
Would it send Yllaariel into a fit of jealous rage?
The youngest elf suppressed his freedom to giggle. The imp could kill at any time.