Swords rang in the arena as I watched Laryn and Corso spar. I thought it was going as well as could be expected. Corso hadn’t stabbed himself yet. Laryn had given him a sword and made him practice several drills until the boy had learned which end of the sword was sharp, and then they had begun what Laryn called ‘practical application.’ It would have been dangerous, two combatants armed with pointy metal bits and swinging them at each other, but Laryn was so much more capable than Corso that he prevented both combatants from harming the other.
It didn’t take long before I got bored and wandered off. As I walked along the forest floor, I gazed at the elven village suspended above me. People walked along the bridges that stretched between the trees, going about daily life. For a few moments, I just watched them all move about. It was oddly similar to watching people from above; they payed no attention to you, and the distance made them shrink into inconsequential figures.
On a whim, I decided to join them.
I made my way up a staircase which wrapped around the trunk of a massive oak tree. The stairs and the guard rail seemed to have grown naturally from the tree, but it wasn’t covered in the rough bark of the tree. Instead, it was made of wood that was so smooth it was like glass. I suspected druids were involved.
I arrived on what was the elves’ equivalent of a street, and heads immediately swiveled in my direction. I almost slapped myself. I could not have done anything to look more like an outsider. I was human, for one thing, and I had red hair, which elves on Alaran didn’t. The elves were dressed in leaves and bark, I wore a scarlet and black cotton, not to mention that elves eschewed any mechanical technology, calling it unnatural, and my gauntlet was by far the most advanced artifact on the world.
I rolled my eyes, walking towards a nearby shop. I pretended to be interested in what the shopkeeper was selling, a selection of medicinal herbs. People on every world would distrust strangers; this wasn’t going to change for me. As I admired some feverfew, I heard people whispering around me like a breeze through trees.
I moved on from the herb shop, strolling along a bridge. I walked past more shops, buildings set straight into the trees that, like the stairs, looked as though the tree had grown that way. I walked past stores selling food, arrows, and elven clothes as well as several buildings that I guessed were elven homes.
I stopped at a house that was different from the others. I looked closer, peering through the windows, because at first I couldn’t place what made it different from the others. The house was un-lived in. It wasn’t that it hadn’t been lived in, I could tell that it had, but not in at least a month. There was a thin layer of dust coating everything in the house. As I watched the elves pass, their eyes slid off it, but all of them glanced out of the corner of their eyes. It looked like a house someone had died in.
I turned to a passerby. “What is this place?” I said. Instead of answering, she blanched and hurried away before I could protest.
I walked over to the owner of a shop who stood across the bridge from the house, trusting her not to run away and abandon her store. I planted my hands on the counter, cutting off all potential customers. “What is the significance of the house across the street?” I said.
The woman shrank back, not wanting to discuss the topic. “Um, you should, uh, talk to her.” She pointed at an old woman standing near the house. I was surprised I hadn’t noticed her before. “She knows more about it than me.”
I sighed, walking over to the woman. I inspected her as I approached. She had long, white hair which contrasted with her dark, haunted eyes. She appeared to be only semi-sane.
“Why won’t anyone talk about this house?” I asked, half expecting her to refer me to someone else.
“They are afraid,” the woman whispered, not looking up.
“Afraid of what? What is this place?”
“This is my daughter’s house,” she answered.
“Your daughter lives here?” I was surprised that anyone lived here, given how people were loathe to even discuss it.
“No,” the woman said. “Not anymore.”
“She is… gone.”
“Not gone,” I guessed. “Taken. By the Alok. Correct?” The elf gave several quick nods. “What was your daughter’s name?”
“Is,” she insisted.
“Alright, what is your daughter’s name?”
“Her name is Fay,” she said. “My little Fay.”
“You’re Laryn’s mother,” I confirmed. “Interesting.”
Those dark, almost deranged eyes bored deep into mine. “Yes,” she said. “My name is Nara. But who are you? A human, a traveler from a distant land, one who asks the right questions to the wrong people.”
I matched her gaze, trying to discern if she was asking who I was or if she knew I was a Flicker. I decided to take the question at face value. “My name is Nyx,” I said. “And I’m here to stop the Alok. Is there anything you can tell me that might help?”
Nara’s eyes shifted away from mine. “I saw the Alok,” she whispered.
“You saw it!” I said. “What did it look like?” I had formulated several ideas about what the Alok might be. These ranged from a powerful malevolent spirit to an exotic teleporting forest animal with a habit of collecting elves.
Nara shook her head. “Not it,” she corrected. “He. I was walking to Fay’s home. We were to have dinner together, but when I opened the door, I could not find her. Instead, there was a young boy clothed, his skin and robes as pale as bone. His hair was black, like a raven’s shadow. He turned to face me, and his eyes were like the void left by a dying star. He might have smiled. I could not tell. He laughed, and in a flash of white, he was gone.”
I nodded. “The Alok is an elf, then?”
Nara shook her head.
Another shake of the head.
“Then what is he?”
Nara looked up, meeting my eyes. Her tanned skin was crumpled, like an old map. “I do not know. He is something other. Unnatural.”
Unnatural. That was an odd way to describe someone. I racked my brain for any useful information Nara might have, but she didn’t offer any.
“Thank you for the information,” I said at last. “I’m going to bring it to another human hunting the Alok.
I strode away, ignoring the stares of the people around me. As I went to tell Corso about my encounter with Laryn’s mother, I couldn’t shake a nagging doubt about Nara’s description. It sounded similar to… no. There was no way he could be behind this as well. Still, I couldn’t discard the idea. I had no idea what was possible when the Eternals were involved.