Verentil said his goodbyes to the Haxton-Gales. The riverboat had reached Willowton. The prodigy was disembarking, while the two jewelers were continuing on to Scythemoor. Even if Thorvums plan for Qor-Bellaron involved potatoes, the abandoned hold remained fundamentally a silver mine. Verentil descended the riverboats ramp into a melee of industry and commerce. Everything – people, wagons, mules – moved together like one of the oozes in a tenured necromancers sealed laboratory. At its founding, Willowton was a frontier town populated by lumberjacks, timber barons, and fur trappers. When the frontier shifted west and south, the fourth Silver City found itself at the center of everything. Ore floated down the Willow from Arungrim; timber and gemstones down from Scythemoor. Food, and half the population of South Harbor, sailed up the Silver from First Fork and Port Jasper, respectively.
Disposable income went boom. Good times rolled along with dice. Despite its newfound riches, Willowton clung to the pretense of remaining a frontier town. All the streets were paved with dirt. Dirt was practical. Fixing cobbles cracked by heavy ore wagons was expensive. Throwing new dirt on top of old was dirt cheap.
To protect pedestrians from flying mud, carpenters had constructed elaborate enclosed boardwalks. There were no enclosed boardwalks by the docks, however. Five foot four and too thin to see, Verentil squeezed and slipped through the tumult of bodies, wagons, and mules as he searched for shelter. If dwarven abductors (or some new threat) tried to grab him and disappear, Yllaariel would never notice. Of course, assailants would have to pick the prodigy out of the crowd – and reach their prize before the current carried him away.
If anyone tried, Verentil failed to notice. Looking more like a mud sprite than the first new elf in twenty-two universes, he extruded from the tides of commerce safely into an enclosed boardwalk – and then the lobby of a swank hotel. The staff did not judge him. All residents of Willowton, including the citys vampires, got covered in mud at one time or another during the day.
After cleansing prestidigitations, Verentil checked his backpack at the front desk and laid a loop of coins on the counter. No one blinked. The fortune was recorded professionally on a ledger, as per established routines, and Verentil signed to confirm. A knight paladin of truth, honesty, and integrity put the loop on a tray and carried it into a back room warded against trickery.
Roughly half Verentils coins (and all the jewelry in his backpack) came from mortal admirers. The other half came from Yllaariel – who had passed the booty on from First Snake. A devils gifts were theoretically never free, but no metaphysical rules bound elves. The embodiment of greed and lust took a calculated risk any mischief an elf got up to would prove "beneficial" to one infernal plot or another. It was a good bet, befitting the serpentification of greed. Verentil had no idea why Yllaariel hooked up with an archdevil in the first place, but being part of a cult was fun.
Cleaned and changed, the amber cultist asked the hotels concierge to recommend a shop for purchasing quality hiking gear. After questions to establish the prodigys tastes, she provided directions and handed Verentil a small card. He could give the outfitter the card when he was finished with his purchases. The shop would deliver the goods to the hotel, which would handle payments using the funds Verentil had already deposited.
Verentil navigated a maze of enclosed boardwalks in the direction of his destination. Sharp ears and sharper eyes spotted a tail. The lout was human, but no ordinary man could have been born with such a singular lack of identifying characteristics. It was only Verentils nearly perfect memory that allowed him to realize he had seen the same flawlessly average lout several times already.
A thrill began to build. Verentil had learned a thing or two about dirty deeds from dirty deed doers at Sand House – that "foremost institution of learning in the world." In addition to accepting bribes to undermine the reputation of the archaeology department (and public policies intended to protect all human life in Callech Borea), tenured necromancers wooed Verentil for drops of his blood. It was simultaneously distasteful and intriguing. He learned a lot about necromancers. To avoid undermining their own reputations, tenured necromancers hired professionals for the doing of their dirtiest deeds (of which there were many).
A few professionals picked up the addiction for buttery honey amber, and took Verentil on as a sidekick to get more of it. The prodigy therefore knew a tail this good preferred to watch. Once the tail felt satisfied he understood Verentils pattern, the flawlessly average man would signal others to begin the next phase of whatever operation was planned through the use of subtle gestures. As visual communications of meaning, gestures were vulnerable to Verentils gift for understanding. His pursuer signaled that the mark, which was in this case Verentil, had become suspicious and that he (the tail) was therefore disengaging.
Verentil considered himself a good actor. Certainly, he never forgot his lines. Either he was not good enough, or whoever wanted him operated on a higher level. Sand House was a possibility. Even if they had conspired with demonologists to kick him out of the institution for supporting archaeologists, tenured necromancers would remain eager to retain access to the prodigys blood. Under present circumstances, they might even want to secure more than a few drops. The demonologists, irredeemable hypocrites one and all, also retained an interest in the boy genius. Before throwing their lot in with corrupt robber barons, they often passed Verentil scraps of blasphemous literature to decipher. Reading that nonsense had no effect on an elf, but could make a tentacle grow out of some lesser beings eye socket. Demonologists always considered themselves the smartest people in any room, but repeatedly made life decisions which suggested the opposite.
Verentil continued to his destination. Thinking about necromancers and demonologists only put him in a bad mood. They had reason to keep him around, but for whatever reason decided that being useful idiots to megalomaniacs was more important. No, something didn add up. Sand Houses necromancers and demonologists were competent enough to hire professionals in Port Jasper, but they couldn order wood for a casket from Willowton without getting barley from First Fork by mistake. Verentils eyes narrowed.
The robber barons could be responsible for everything.
If the youngest elf could cut down enemies as easily as Eaurlindel, Port Jaspers civic coffers would reap the benefit of numerous estate tax windfalls. The prodigy would make sure to find a special place for robber barons when he remade the world in his own image. No more tails picked up his trail before he reached the outfitting shop. Shopping always made him feel better. After picking out some gear and admiring the fit of new leather on his uniquely perfect behind in flattering mirrors, Verentil asked what paths were best for crossing Cairn Peaks.
"There are no paths across," said the outfitter.
"None," insisted the man, "though a vampire might be strong enough to climb over."
"I only have vampiric tendencies," Verentil conceded.
"What does that mean?"
"I suck on things," said Verentil.
"Catch a boat to Port Jasper, then another to Cairn Cross."
Verentil would rather not go back the way he came. It wasn just a matter of pride, or a desire not to waste time – or a need to avoid necromancers, demonologists, and robber barons. It was always Big Wave Season on Shallow Sea, and the prodigy required fixed horizons. His brain tried to decipher moving horizons as cursive script, and that made him mighty woozy. The outfitter repeated that the only monsters could cross the weirdest mountains in the world.
"Boats the best way," he insisted, "even if its ten times farther."
Truthfully, Verentil had only read about Cairn Peaks in books and illuminated scrolls. He had never visited, and considered depictions of their nature exaggerated. While he preferred to hike above ground, surely Qor-Arungrim had a low road through the middle?
"Dwarves never let outsiders through."
Verentil handed over the card given to him by the hotels concierge. The outfitter promised to have everything delivered as soon as possible. Returning to his lodging, the prodigy picked up a different kind of tail. It required no special insight to conclude this mans agenda was something other than just following.
At the first opportunity, Verentil veered left, then right, then left after proceeding straight long enough to verify the bruiser was not only still following – but picking up speed. Circumstances were such that Yllaariel could intervene at any time without drawing attention, provided the imp himself was paying attention. The youngest elf was not completely hopeless on his own, however. Only mostly hopeless.
In fact, Verentil knew several tricks that… he better employ soon. Veering again, he darted down a short alley, turned sideways, stepped back into the embrace of a dark corner, and disappeared. The bruiser burst into the alley. After accelerating around the turn Verentil hadn taken, the large man pulled to a surprisingly sudden stop. Verentils pulse quickened. The thug looked around carefully. He checked up. He crouched down. He had nice legs and a luxuriously beefy behind. There weren any behinds like that in Sand House – except for when the necromancers called in one of their specialists.
Skeptical that his feeble mark could have cleared the area, the bruiser with a luxuriously muscular butt started to investigate shadows. After reaching the correct corner, he pushed his hand forward to make contact with the wood slats running between posts. His fingers crawled down the wall like a spider. It tickled Verentils imagination. The rough man with a luxuriously muscular butt was feeling all the right places – just in the wrong world. Instead of using a simple trick with light and shadow, Verentil had crossed into Phantasm like a boggle.
"Fairies," cursed the rough man. "Why did it have to be fairies?"
His luxurious butt retreated. Verentil waited a good long while, and….
"Its clear," said Yllaariel.
Verentil jumped out of Phantasm clean into the alley.
"Don do that!" he cried.
"Get better," said the imp.
"I am getting better!" said Verentil.
Yllaariel ruffled Verentils hair and conceded that the prodigy was getting better. He kissy kissied and vanished. Verentil made an effort to find the way back on his own, but his nearly perfect memory had left out one or two abrupt veers. At least he recognized that he was lost. He spotted a handsome young wood cutter and asked for directions. The wood cutter tried to tell Verentil how to get there, but was too distracted by his remarkable beauty and said he would show him the way. The concierge looked relieved when the prodigy came into the lobby riding on the young mans back. She had been in the process of sending someone out to find him. Verentils purchases arrived a while ago. Everything was waiting in his room.
Verentil thanked her, and took the handsome young wood cutter to the hotel bar for a few rewards. After playing foot fetishes under the table for an hour, they retired to Verentils spacious suite. Lying next to a warm hunk of snoring beefcake on another impossibly comfortable bed, Verentil reflected on the days events. Perhaps he could have done more homework on how to cross Cairn Peaks before leaving Sand House. He wasn expecting to be separated from the institution over policy differences that came to a head months earlier, however.
The hypocrisy remained infuriating. More to the point, it forced him to come up with his itinerary on the fly. At least he knew where he wanted to get. Verentil cuddled against the warm young hunks back. Both Kernaemon and Cairn Peaks were strange lands that shouldn exist. Consequently, it followed they held the secret to creating other lands that should not exist. Studying them would therefore facilitate remaking the world in his own image.
All that was elementary.
Verentil rubbed a finger lightly back and forth in the warmest crevice he could find. The Cairnwater River started on the other side of Ostrobeths continental divide. It was scarcely a mile from its origin to that of the Willow River. In prehistoric times (or times when civilizations other than those presently in charge wrote history), water from the two rivers came back at the base of that warm, fuzzy crevice. No, no that wasn it. They came together between Mount Urarhtu and Carthalga.
A delicate amber finger ran back up the crevice. Tucked under the headwaters of both rivers, Qor-Arungrim (fifth city to join the Silver League) escaped destruction during the Giant Wars. It was an irrelevant backwater way back then. Urarhtus giants would probably have gotten to it eventually, but they believed a bunch of superstitious nonsense about Cairn Peaks. It didn matter how big you were if your superstitions were even bigger. Verentil ran his finger back down the warm fuzzy divide and pressed a little harder. The young hung murmured sweet nothings into his fluffy pillow.
Either lacking superstitions of their own, or completely out of options, dwarven refugees streamed into the weirdest mountains in the world. Verentil pushed a little hard. Then orcish refugees came along and conquered Arungrim for themselves. Verentil withdrew his finger. Orcs believed dwarves were responsible for starting the war and so it was only fair for them to take the last dwarven city of any size for their own. Verentil wet his finger tip and sent it back to the deep crevice. He fundamentally agreed with the orcs about who started the war, and maybe some refugees from Icewalls knew more than they let on at the time, but Arungrims dwarves had nothing to do with it. So they mounted a series of heroic campaigns and took Arungrim back. Verentil advanced to his first knuckle. But the orcs weren done. Verentil retreated.
The cycle repeated for millennia. Presently, dwarves held Arungrim – and certainly controlled a low road connecting the Willow and Cairnwater River valleys. Verentil had already convinced one dwarf with political power to embark on an epic quest. He could convince another to let him walk to Kernaemon.
Yllaariel extruded into the shadows above Verentils bed. The prodigy used every ounce of restraint he possessed, and borrowed more from some dark power or another, to rest the urge to jump out of his own skin and awaken the handsome young wood cutter who had worked so hard to earn himself a good nights rest. The imp held his arms behind his back and twisted playfully. Verentils rage immediately melted. The elongated pixie was hiding a gift. The prodigy softly withdrew from Arungrim, tugged on a dainty hoof, and asked to see his present. Yllaariel twisted a few more times, and then retrieved a huge hunting knife in an old leather sheath from nowhere that could hide either.
"Is that a magic knife?" asked Verentil.
"Snakes Bite," said Yllaariel. "An artifact of terrible power."
Verentil took the weapon and pulled it out.
"It couldn cut butter hot," he said.
"It gets sharp when its hungry," replied Yllaariel.
"Wearing weapons in the Silver Cities risks getting hit with an infraction."
"In the woods, youll need something to protect your bottom from bears."
"Id cut my bottom before the bear," said Verentil. "Even with a dull knife."
"Snakes Bite won bite you!"
The elongated pixie vanished. The prodigy enjoyed a peaceful nights trance. There wasn much risk. Busting into Willowtons swankiest hotel to abduct a guest would have been a tall order even for an established guild of elf abductors. Next morning, Verentil gave the handsome young wood cutter another proper show of gratitude and then bought him breakfast. After they parted company, he approached the concierge.
"I want to catch a ferry heading up the Willow," he said, "but theres a problem."
"What is the problem, Mr. Silvertip?" asked the concierge.
"Im being followed by assassins."
"I see," she said professionally. "Yes, we can help you with that."