29 of Eleint 1371, Year of the Unstrung Harp
I nodded my acquiescence not bothering with pronouncing it aloud. What was the point? She was going to force it down my throat anyway. Cold, rational fury finally replaced the impotent doubt in my mind. Whatever game she was playing - I was not going to tag along, whatever the price.
Her ritual was shorter this time, as if the elemental was following a familiar path. Her song was sweet and enthralling, and it drove me into an enchanted sleep faster than the triangular shadow on a sundial slides across the half-hour mark.
I saw an emerald island among the white froth of the surf on a high reef, and two incredibly tall crystal towers sparkling in the fading light of golden dusk. A flock of dark shadows was circling the sky. Lightning blazed among the clouds, blood-red flashes of fire reflected upon the white marble of the high palace. Then - a silent explosion that consumed the spiraling heights of the beautiful twin spires, as they fall apart before my incredulous eyes, raining glass dust, globs of molten silver, bronze and gold on the charred ground below. I have never seen the place before, of that I was sure even in my heart of hearts, but a sudden spell of sorrow fell upon me, as if I knew something precious and indispensable was destroyed forever. The night was swiftly falling upon the land and the sea, and all I could perceive now were the stars flickering in the blackness above, reflecting dimly on the surface of endless waters.
"That was the destruction of twin towers of the Sun and the Moon on Evermeet," Aluril chimed impassively. "It happened this summer, when the united forces of human buccaneers, drow, and renegade elves allied with a host of black dragons, attempted to seize the isle of the Elven Retreat. In the aftermath of that explosion almost all of the Evermeet's High Mages were killed, the royal navy and the dragon riders were wiped out, and the isle defenses shattered. If not for the Seldarine's intervention, the last Retreat would have been lost, and even after that Evermeet will take a long time to recover. A few months later Queen Amlaruil's youngest son led an expedition of refugees, most of whom had lost their loved ones in that desperate battle, away from the isle to settle on the continent in a remote northern valley beyond the Spine of the World."
"Why are you showing this to me?" I answered dispassionately still floating in the velvet darkness of the dream. "And why should I care?"
"You are an elf, Nwalmaer, however vehemently you may deny it. Surely, this must concern you."
"Since I know nothing of elves, it does not. To feel regret one must possess the knowledge. The isle of Retreat, you have said? It must be on the other side of the ocean, far away from here. Suits them right, I imagine, for trying to run away from the world."
"Is not this what you are trying to do as well, Nwalmaer?"
"Very clever if rather frivolous allegation. The old habits die hard, you may add. The nation of refugees, aren't they? Why, I may fit right in," I mused in feigned good humor, "but how my supposed elveness explains my other unnatural traits? Like having dreams about being cut open and burned alive every night?"
"You know the answer to this. To be forgiven you must first forgive yourself."
"To be forgiven for what, pray answer me? To seek absolution one must first understand his crimes. I have no idea what I did to whom in my past lives, if there were many. How am I supposed to find out? And how can I be held responsible for something I don't even remember? I never sought forgiveness, and I never will."
"Oh, but you did. Otherwise you would not be here."
I did not have time to answer. The world swirled around us, and we plunged into a thick curtain of mist. When I opened my eyes again, I saw a day breaking over another vastness - a sea of shifting sand and red jagged rocks. Two small figures were moving across, leading a sturdy desert-bred horse on a line. They were both swathed in loose-fitting aba and white keffiyeh - the floating veils covering nose and mouth that the desert dwellers favor when they are out in the waste. I wished briefly that I possessed one, and decided I can use the silk headscarf after all. Though both of the strangers were covered with folds of cloth from head to toe, something told me that the front one was female. Perhaps it was the way she moved, gliding gracefully along the narrow path that was almost invisible among the treacherous sand dunes and rocky slides. They were following the trail winding among the stony hills jutting from the slopes of the Marching Mountains, steadily moving east - in the direction I was supposedly going before I was lost in the sands.
"Who are these two?" I asked curiously. "Surely they have nothing to do with destruction of the elven kingdom."
"You will find out soon enough," Aluril assured me pensively. "Sufficient to say they are essential to your survival. I am pressed to believe that without them you will not have any future to speak of, and that is why I am showing them to you."
"Fascinating," I replied sardonically. "And how am I supposed to recognize which two among the crowd of nameless vagabonds are so important? I can't even see their faces."
"I do believe you know these two. My only request will be that you do not shun their help when they find you. Remember, your life will depend on it."
"Maybe I don't want a life that is secured with submission and servitude."
"I despair to ever understand your reasoning, Nwalmaer. What about friendship? Will you consider a bond of gratitude and mutual respect a burden?"
"Any attachment is a bond, whatever the name. It is a chain, a tie, a limitation of freedom."
"Feel free to die a nameless exile then," the elemental wavered and for the first time I sensed anger in her fluid speech. "I would not be able to see your future if you continue to act like a reckless child, for you will have none."
"You are very serious about it, aren't you?" I was taken aback by her bitterness. A vague feeling of remorse started to creep into my consciousness. She was kind to me, in her strange way, and I could feel the potential profit in cooperating. There was no need to antagonize the weird by dismissing her foretelling in her face. I can laugh at it all I want, afterwards. "Fine. I will be careful when talking to strangers," I said soothingly. "I shall accept the offer of help if it ever materializes."
"It may take more than passive acceptance," she responded cryptically.
"I can sense the duality in your answer. Do it your way, but rest assured
- you may never cheat your fate, Joneleth."
"No. Not that name again," I recoiled in distaste. "If you have to call me something, call me Jon. It is as close as I am willing to have it."
"Is it what you call yourself these days?" She sighed, a sound that came out as a surge of a wave, splashing over the rocky shore and rolling back into her watery cradle. We were still floating in the clouds looking down upon the distant earth. "Truncated meanings, life cut short of its fulfillment, reverie reduced to a string of nightmares, and a mind devoid of communion. You don't even know what you are missing, or do you?"
"If you are trying to ridicule me," I replied with ire, "I am not going to listen. Speak plainly or hold your tongue."
"You have lost your connection to the Elven Spirit, Jon," she said simply. "And now you are denying yourself even the memory of it. I cannot have it for I need you badly to remember."
"Remember what? A pain that cannot be assuaged, an emptiness that can never be filled, a craving that will eat you alive like a snake that is coiled in your guts tearing at your liver? No, spirit, I will never have it back."
"So, you do remember then? Who told you, you could never be forgiven?"
"I know it in my heart. And don't try to talk me into remembering it, for I shall have none of it. You may be able to break through to my inner self in this parody of a sleep, but when I wake up I will deny it once again."
"Please don't. I need you to remember. You need it to be able to strive for redemption, and the People need you too, as everything may be lost without that vital need for reconciliation on both sides."
"What do you want of me, spirit?"
"I need you to see into your future."
The world tumbled below us once again, and I saw a bright vale, full of sunlight and laughter; a row after row of the vineyards on the rolling golden hills; a rainbow in the clear autumn sky, a waterfall hovering in a silent jump into the clear lake; and above all, a city of floating gardens and living green towers, marble palaces and wondrous crystal shrines, shining like a bright evening star on the fading sky of the quiet evening.
"The city of Evereska, the Fortress Home," the elemental whispered.
The air shimmered, and I saw the columns of black smoke rising into the sky from the burning houses and temples. A strange brown haze was suspended in the air, and it took me some time to realize in was a fine mist made equally of dry blood, burning vegetation and rotting flesh. The valley was strewn with dead bodies. Most of them had sharp angular features and ears of the elven folk - the look that I learned to recognize from the image I have seen so often in the mirror. A sharp shriek tore the silence, and I saw a young elf, half-naked and covered in blood, breaking out of the scorched glade into the open, clutching a broken sword. Two strange shapes of the elongated worm-like creatures with foul claws and a ring of sharp teeth around the mouth cavity floated after him. It was mercifully fast, for the boy did not wait for the things to reach him, and cut his own throat with a sharp edge of his sword stump, gurgling blood as he fall in convulsions on the blackened ground.
The vision faded. I looked at Aluril in mute apprehension. She was crying, the wailing lament of grief pouring out of her mouth like spurt of clear water...
The valley below slowly cleared of dreadful brown smog. All was peaceful and harmonious again, and the thickets of blueleaf trees whispered under the light breeze. The weird waved her fluid hand and we plunged forward, tumbling through clouds and wavering mist. Soon our descent blurred into a free fall through the endless grey tunnel. Darkness fell upon me. When I opened my eyes I was sprawled on the small beach near the elemental pool, and Aluril still hovered over the slow bubbling waters. The crescent moon had a reddish tint, and was now at the very end of her night journey, ready to be consumed by a pale haze of the predawn.
"So, what lies in the future? More death and destruction?" I sat up and shrugged dismissively remembering the last part of the dream. "Surely you cannot blame this one on me."
"Ignorant fool!" The weird cried in sudden irritation. "And I have to count on you in a matter of utmost importance. You are a self-centered, egocentric child, Joneleth, despite your great age. If only I had a choice." the elemental shifted briefly from side to side. "To think that so many gifts were bestowed on the head that is empty of anything but self-indulgence, and reckless curiosity. Can you ever learn to feel compassion or it was all in vain? So much pain - it would have been enough to fill an ocean, and yet all you can yield is this superfluous excuse."
I felt genuinely distressed by that last comment, unfair though it was.
"What more do you want?" I said blandly, "I never knew the boy, neither can I care for the city itself - I had never been there."
"You have spent more then twenty years in that place when you attended the Academy of Magic." The weird cried out. "Its stones still remember your step, though it was a briefest of interludes for a settlement that is more then ten thousand years old. Can you remember nothing? I may as well ask a fish to fly," she added sorrowfully. "Yet, you should be able to feel at least something, now that you have been granted a new soul, mortal though it is."
"What do you mean 'granted a mortal soul'? " I glowered at her. "Why would I need a new soul? A soul is not something you can lose. It is not a key or a purse."
"You of all men and elves should know better for you had lost yours once," the weird replied mournfully. "Remember I told you there was something strange about you before I started the ritual? I was confused with a mix of psychic images I was receiving. Perhaps, I can I explain it better in mundane terms. Imagine - drinking from a fine chalice of firewine and tasting water instead. That was what I felt around you. You are an elf with a human soul, Nwalmaer, and this makes me feel dizzy, as I keep seeing two of you instead of one. I never felt anything so disturbing in the thousands years of my existence."
"I don't understand," I said cautiously. "What is so special about elves? Don't they have souls just like men?"
"Not exactly, Joneleth," the weird murmured, and I cringed at the name but let it go this time. In this strange place, she held powers beyond my imagination, and I wanted to appease her.
"The People have spirits, not souls."
"And what is the difference?"
"Much as the Seldarine, the spirits of Arvandor and your Gods, are one with that blessed realm; the People are one with the earth they walk upon, the forest they dwell within, and the water they swim in. The essence of the Elven Spirit belongs to each individual Tel'Quessir, yet, it is also shared between them all. The People are bonded to the world and to each other in this most primal way. That is why Fair Folk can be reincarnated as animals, plants, fairies, or even elves once again if they choose not to travel to Arvandor, upon their death. Similarly, elves are the creatures of the Weave, as the Spirit is tightly bound to, and is part of the web of magic that envelops Toril."
The weird finished her speech and glided closer, locking her flickering silver eyes with mine.
Something changed in me then. I felt a jolt of well-forgotten pain surging through my body as a craving, terrible and powerful as deadly disease, stirred deep inside me. I tried to fight it, to lock it behind the murky wall of amnesia, but it kept rising back, filling me with grief, wretched desire, and distant anger.
"Why?" I gasped at her, fighting back the agony of longing. "Why would you do this? I was almost content with what I had. Why bring this back?"
"To understand what you are, you must remember," the weird answered gravely. "I hate giving you more pain but without this you will surely die."
"More likely I will die from this."
"No, you shall not. You've lived through decades of this pain after severance, as your spirit slowly decayed into bitter ashes. Having a new soul should make all the difference. Now you shall travel to Evereska. You shall convince Lord Erlan Duirstar and the council of Elders that it is a matter of their survival to make sure that no one opens the old Vyshaan Tomb this coming winter. It is beyond my powers to discern the horror that lurks within, but you can tell them of what you saw in my foretelling. And you shall stay there, with the People, and make sure they accept you back as one of their own."
"If even half of what you've showed me about my past is true I doubt they will even talk to me, let alone believe my weird tale." I snapped back. "What you are asking of me is impossible. And why should I shame myself by trying to get back in the good graces of people who rejected me? I have a feeling my connection with the Spirit was severed with their approval. Who did it anyway?"
"The only Ones who can do such a thing to their Child are the Seldarine of course," Aluril replied sternly. "And the more I learn of you, the better I understand their decision."
I was about to reply but she stopped me with a regal wave of her hand.
"Silence, Exile. I am not done with you yet. You have asked me 'why should I do it?' I will tell you why. Because if you don't, not only Evereska will perish but you will be lost as well. This is your final chance at redemption. You've challenged the Gods and suffered, you've betrayed the trust of your People and murdered many, and you were punished for that. But that punishment did not bring consolation, neither to the Gods, nor to the ones you killed and wounded. Only your true repentance can heal the wounds, only your honest desire to repair the damage can bring closure and restore the balance. The People will survive another betrayal but you shall not, of that you may be sure."
"That is what you say!" I cried. "I don't believe a word of it, and I am not going to accept a mindless quest without some reassurances. You told me I attended the Evereskan Academy of Magic, and it was I who attempted to seize the power of the Tree and unravel the mythal. Preposterous though it sounds, let us assume for a second that you are telling the truth. Then, what happened to my magic? Was it another part of the Seldarine's punishment? To strip me of my powers and diminish me to a state of wretched misery, implanting a human soul into this despondently weak body, and stripping me of my memories?"
"This body is young and healthy," Aluril responded with scorn, "and it is your own, unlike the magically embellished construct you had made of yourself over a century or so of your original punishment. When you were stripped of spirit, your body began to decay at astonishing rate, and that was how you tried to stop the ravages of time. Many years have passed before you were brought before the Seldarine once again to request a reversal of their first judgment. Don't ask me how you attained this - this is between you and the Gods. After that second trial, the Seldarine healed your scars and gave you a mortal soul. As to what else did they do - it is forbidden for me to tell. But I believe it was something so horrible that you deliberately erased your memories of it, and nobody can give them back to you unless you unlock them yourself. Not even I can heal these wounds. You will not have your magic back, Joneleth, until you willingly embrace your punishment, and remember what it was. But I suppose you can gain it back over time, if you are willing to spend a few centuries on re-learning your lore."
"A few centuries!" I spat in disgust. "I may not have that long. Whatever it was, I am willing to trade, if only it can bring back my powers. What should I do to unlock it?"
"You should truly wish for it to happen," Aluril responded looking at me with what I decided was almost a pity. "Simple enough, and yet well beyond your reach for deep inside you are more afraid of it than of staying forever a nameless exile with no roots and no obligations. Enough of this, Nwalmaer! I told you everything you should know. The rest is up to you. If you are willing to try healing the rift between you and the People by saving the greatest elven city from demolition - then you will do as I bid. If not I cannot goad you into salvation."
The weird finished that highly melodramatic speech on a high note. I suppose the sarcastic scowl playing on my lips did not help to improve her opinion of me, but I could not help myself - I found her arguments highly dubious and the whole performance slightly absurd. I nodded silently without saying a word. For a moment or so the elemental hovered in hesitation, looking at me sadly, then realizing I was not going to answer that last plea Aluril uttered one of her meaningful sights.
"Forgive me, Joneleth... I wish I could help you more but from this time forth, you must make your own decisions. Best luck to you and fare thee well." And with these last words, she exploded in a fountain of clear sparks, filling the air with fine mist and many echoes of ringing water.
I looked at the dark mirror of the pool for some time, as if expecting her to come back, but the water stayed empty of her presence. Slowly but steadily the bubbling and the vortexes ceased under the surface, and the reservoir now resembled an ordinary water hole. I sat on the wet sand, propping my head with both hands. I felt dizzy and tired. I was in no condition to think the things over at the moment, for my head was aching dully and my mouth was filled with unfamiliar taste of fear. I did not expect her to give up so easily, and the fact that she admitted my final right to make my own decisions bothered me greatly. What if she was not lying after all?
I fall asleep at the very edge of the elemental pool, slumped in an ungainly crouch on the cold dark sand. The moon glided over me reflecting in the dull surface of still water. For the first time in many months, I did not have any nightmares. My sleep was bleak and empty as a purse of a beggar.
communion - all elves have the inborn ability to share their experiences, their feelings, and their lives with those elves they love or trust implicitly. This sharing, called communion, can only be undertaken by fully willing elves. It does not work with half-elves, nor does it function when one of those participating has even the slightest reservation. This includes those under the influence of charm-related spells, for they hold qualms deep in their hearts, even if told they do not.
reverie - yet another difference between elves and the other humanoids of the worlds they share is that elves do not sleep in the typical sense, though they can enter that state if they desire. Instead, they gain their rest through a process known as the reverie. The reverie is akin to sleep, yet is very much unlike it. When elves enter this state, they vividly relive past memories, those both pleasant and painful. Like the dreaming of humans, elves have no control over which memories rise to the fore when they relinquish their bodies to the reverie. Occasionally, elves do actually dream, but this is not a frequent occurrence and mostly occurs only when they truly sleep.
Elven dreams, when they happen, are sometimes prophetic. Whether these dreams are an indication of some sort of precognitive ability on the part of the elves or granted by their gods is a matter of debate. However, not all elven dreams are prophetic. Indeed, enough of their dreams are like those of humans that they cannot rely on their dreams for guidance. Still, all of their dreams are highly symbolic, providing insight into each individual's character. In a very real way, the reverie accounts for the elven desire to lead happy, joyous lives. Who would look forward to reliving unpleasant memories every night? Very few, though there are some truly noble elves who take on the pain and suffering of others so that they relive the memories with each reverie instead. These elves have accepted this sacrifice for the good of their people, taking upon themselves the burden that could not (or should not) descend to the lives of other, more innocent elves. They perform the unpleasant task of drawing into themselves the suffering of their people.
When they enter reverie, elves do not usually close their eyes unless there is a bright light present. They relax their bodies entirely, each muscle losing its rigidity, until they are absolutely calm. Their faces relax into a dazed and distant look as if they were seeing another land or another time. During this time, they are aware of their surroundings, but they cannot act to influence them any more than a human can while asleep. Only by an act of will can an elf tear herself from reverie, and she will be confused for a short time, just as a human would be who has torn himself from sleep. Although the reverie provides rest, it is primarily an important memory tool that helps the elf maintain a strong sense of identity. Since their lifespans are so great, elves must periodically recall the events in those hundreds of years that were integral to the making of their personality.