~:|:~ CHAPTER 0: MODERN DAY

HORTENSE ~:|:~

The grand double doors of the music hall swung open. Despite reaching the height of at least two stories and aging into late antiquity, they moved quietly into the room on their metal hinges, almost voicelessly, and with great ease. The doors were truly rendered in quality equal to that of expert craftsmanship. The architecture and décor of the whole room in fact was quite a sight to behold.

On the far wall opposite the doors, six windows ascended majestically through the heavens. Their paneling and panes, which were manicured with a white gloss finish, spanned from the base of the floorboards to the elaborate crown molding at the ceiling. Upon these windows, velvety drapes of deepest wine red swam lavishly down until they splashed against the brilliance of the polished hardwood floors. They complimented the two-thousand thread silk carpets spread across the floor which were imported, salvaged, all the way from the lost Manticore cities in Zerzaram.

Seven chandeliers hung about the room, each holding eleven candles. The chandeliers illuminated a great battle scene that had been hand-painted on the ceiling by as many as eighty-four celebrated artists, over many years. The crystals hanging from the bends of the chandeliers' golden arms refracted the daylight from the curtained windows, a light which danced upon all the art in the room.

The light of the crystals waltzed with the numerous sculptures and busts, each crafted of unblemished marble. It sambaed with the cosmetic suits of armor, each whose polearm was bannered with the crimson-and-gold Crest of Lorelei, of course. It mamboed with the high, laddered shelves of rarest literature, poetry as well as prose, which were lined against the far-right wall. It tangoed with the harbingers of music, archaic and nouveau, that circled the far-left wall. There were lutes, harps, piccolos and bassoons, violins and cellos, and even, as a boastful centerpiece of modernity, a glossy, brass gramophone.

In the center of the room were wooden tables at which sat the pupils of fine art and culture. Their eyes were full of concentration and their hands were hard at work as they toiled to evoke in oils, in paints and clay, the nude model who lay across the closest table to those grand double doors. At the far side of the room, their professor sat distractedly at a grand piano near the tall windows, his back to his diligent pupils.

The woman who had opened the doors to the music hall was both intrigued and vexed. The inhabitants therein ignored the timeliness of her arrival, or rather, were too preoccupied in their own devices to make themselves aware of her splendid presence. She waved her wooden fan at her face, making her auburn hair and the tall plumes on her hat undulate in the breeze.

"Ahem."

Lowering her fan, she revealed her face unobscured. Her auburn hair was short, falling just above her shoulders. They were not the long, luxurious locks that marked the expectant beauty of the princesses and queens who had come before her. She kept them at a manageable length, and out of the way. Her sapphire eyes were subdued, whatever vigor they could offer was held captive behind her gold-rimmed, half-moon spectacles. Even through the heavy blush and rouge that was artfully caked onto her face, lines of stress demarcated the great many miles of responsibility the woman had endured for kingdom and country, her years not yet adding up to a mere thirty.

This time she cleared her throat loudly, gutturally, as unbecoming of a lady as highborn as she were reasonably permitted to do while in the polite company of aristocrats and socialites.

"Ahem!"

One of the pupils looked up to the door, and back to his clay. He carried on for a moment, molding his virtuoso's representation of the human figure set before him. He raised an eyebrow, then did a double take. He rose from his seat, revealing its red and gold upholstery, and headed toward her, only pausing briefly to bow to her, affirming graciously "Your Highness" as he fled through the door.

Upon hearing this, the other pupils rose from their seats too, leaving their workspaces in all stage and manner of disarray, their projects incomplete and unperfected. The nude model as well climbed down from the table, cheeks flushed in embarrassment, and threw a smock over his barren skin. The pupils and their model filed out, the men bowing and the women curtsying as they passed Her Royal Highness, who was now, in her vexation, tapping her wooden fan impatiently with her fingertips as it rested in her hand at her side. 'Your Highness' and 'Princess´ each mumbled, their choice arbitrary, as they exited.

"Maxwell," the Princess called to one of the particularly younger pupils as he passed by; a man, not so much younger than herself, twenty-four years of age she knew. She had learned a long time ago she is expected to keep track of these things.

"Your Highness?"

"These great doors—magnificent as they may be—lack enough thud."

"Your… Highness?" Maxwell stammered.

"Thud, Maxwell. They need more thud by next time I enter." The Princess delayed herself, giving time for Maxwell to understand. "Now, go, go. Make awares whomever you must."

"Your Highness!" He bowed again. The young man moved posthaste into the hallway, looking left and right in search of his colleagues.

"And Maxwell. Be a dear and shut the doors behind you."

The young man entered back into the music hall and grabbed the handle of one of the great doors, dragging it shut with much of his strength, though, slower still than what pleased the Princess. Then, he repeated with the second door. The Princess waited for him to finish and the door closed with a noticeable but limited thud.

"There we are. That's nice."

The Princess moved about the room slowly making her way toward the instructor, gliding on high-heeled foot. She inspected the art of both the pupils and masterpieces of the remembered as she floated by, putting her fingers on the paintbrushes and allowing her hand to glide across the figures half-carved of stone.

"Have you prepared for the inauguration, Aschion?" She asked the man sitting at the piano, taking her time still as she glided toward him. "Lateday will be the start of something special for you. You become the Bard of Lorelei to my Princess."

"It'll be a pleasure to serve you."

His answer was automatic and mechanical. The man seemed as if he were still distracted with something much more important, more enthralling, than a mere Princess or his own induction. He reached to one of his long, pointed Aelf ears and withdrew the quill that sat upon it, concealed in his sheen, golden-blonde hair. The Human Princess had always been a tad envious of the Aelf man's hair, healthy and full of body as it tumbled into loose curls down his back. She remembered such deep envy as far back as when he was her tutor, and she, an eight-year-old girl with no interest in art and music. That part had not changed though, truth be told. But now the two were adults of approximately the same age. No, not chronologically, of course—Aelves lived on average to be five-hundred, even six-hundred years old—they were, by the measurement of his own peoples, the same age physically: a budding twenty-seven years.

"Serve me? Oh, please, Aschion. Serve with me. The crown…" the Princess removed her feathered tiara—she had many styles of crown for different occasions—and tossed it over Aschion, watching it slide across the piano top, "…is but a relic of the dying Age of Magic. We of royal blood are just figureheads, walking metaphors. Lorelei is ready to welcome in this Age of Science with open arms." She opened her arms wide, dramatically. It was an attempt to play into the creative flair of the artist before her and capture his attention. "And I'll lead it," she said pointedly, very much under her breath. She continued aloud "We all have a part in welcoming this new era, dear."

The Princess glided quickly to Aschion's side and plopped herself beside him, annexing her own portion of the long piano bench with royal authority, an elbow upon the piano top. The man still paid her little mind. His eyebrows were furrowed in contemplation, a finger to his lips as his eyes ran up and down a page of sheet music, his inked quill stroking notes gracefully onto a stanza.

The Princess smiled. Aschion was, in fact, a celebrated avant-garde of high art in all of Vereva, but especially there in the Kingdom of Lorelei. Most artists found their muse in a single form; in sound, or on paper, or on canvas. Most artists, too, are not survived long enough in life that they see the fruits of their labor become renowned, rejoiced, add to the cultural identity of the people. This was one of the Princess' favorite things about Aschion; she had the opportunity to witness the creative process in real time, masterpieces added to portfolio at their release, by their author still-living.

"What's this? Composing a new piece, are we? Is it for lateday's gala? You know the gentry will be expecting something new of you." The Princess rose back to her high-heeled feet, rolling her eyes with disparagement. She glided to the window and peered out into the garden. "I know, I know. You've scolded me if not a thousand times: 'You can't cheat true inspiration'."

"Hortense," Aschion interrupted the Princess.

She recognized the lack of her royal title in his words, so her eyes fell upon him, her tutor, her mentor, her friend, enthusiastically. She had already had enough of these formalities for the day, and there was still so much of them left to come.

"This one will have its place as part of my theatrical debut."

"That's a whole six months from now," Hortense gasped dramatically again, throwing the wine-colored curtains around her. "Oh, pleeeease. Won't my favorite Bard-to-be let me hear it beforehand?"

"Hmm," Aschion considered her. "It tells a story which will be, I'm afraid, incomprehensible without the aid of my singing actors."

"Oh, come on, you!"

"Not yet, Hortense."

"I'm not taking no for an answer."

"Hortense!"

"There are still a few hours left where you would be under my royal authority," she stomped her foot. "Don't force me abuse my power," she shook her finger at him. "Let's hear it."

Aschion laughed wholeheartedly, returning his quill to its position above his ear. "Very well." He struck the first chord and added snidely, "Your Highness."

The two laughed aloud as his fingers caressed the ivory keys.

ALESSANDRIANA ~:|:~

The melody of a piano sonata, soft and scherzo, bounced rhythmically against every nook in the open kitchen as they escaped from the small radio box on the far countertop. The notes reverberated from the walls, floor and ceiling and tickled the Aelf woman's ears with playful delight. There had long not been any pianos in Isle Aelysia, the nation of the Aelves. Such devices had in not-so-distant past been deemed 'borderline scientific,' and therefore 'sacrilegious,' in the eyes of the Aelves. But times had been changing over the course of the past two decades. Years prior, in fact, it was not well known that this woman in particular had, in her traditional Aelven treehome, not one, not two, but three of these small radio boxes in all. Most Aelves would have shunned her back then for keeping such blasphemous devices about if they had known. A few more radical traditionalists would have argued that she be thrown in prison never again to see the light of day, the key thrown out over the horizon into the depths of the sea.

Nowadays, most Aelves under the youthful age of three-hundred fifty, such as she, reshaped the very heart of modern Aelven values. They imported their fanciful gowns and overcoats from foreign Human lands they had only heard about in passing. They employed Human gearworks and cog devices that refined their lives bringing levels of ease and leisure they had never known before in the isles. They let their Aelvic tongue fall into disuse, near abandonment, as they adopted the Human's Commonish as their desired lingua franca allowing them at last to communicate with the world, with the other nations so far beyond their reach across an endless expanse of ocean.

The Aelf woman however did not keep the radios because she herself had turned her back on the old ways per se, or because she had initially invested any significant interest in the changing world with the Age of Science giving birth to all matter of Humanity's exponential progress. She kept these devices—had them enchanted with Dwarven magics to amplify them that they may receive signal from as far as the nations of Lorelei or Kahrim—so that she could, in the least, vicariously, keep dutiful tabs on her brother Aschion who had left the Aelven communes of Isle Aelysia already more than one and a half centuries prior.

And so much had happened since then, so much she longed to tell her brother. There were things she knew now that could mend their long-crippled relationship.

She thought about the things that occurred which she neglected to tell her brother over the years and how, when she finally gathered the courage, the means, and the purpose to contact him, not once had he returned her letters. Fourteen years of letters and not a single response. She thought about these things until the smells overtook the music.

The aromas of suppertime wafted through the air and sifted through the kitchenware. They buried themselves in the pages of the open cookbook—page sixty-two, dandelion mutton stew—and moved about the many potion jars that cluttered the counter. The aromas left traces of themselves as fingerprints in the fabrics of the tablecloths and the dishtowels. The aromas wafted and sifted, their tendrils reaching and stirring, all in an attempt to find the nearest nose to entice, to dare someone and anyone to taste their savory flavors.

Removing six bowls from a doorless cabinet and gathering six of her finest wooden spoons, she set the table and found herself joining in with the melody, humming in tune. Tonight—as much as one can call it night in a place where the sunstar never sets—was a special one for all of them. She had played unaware all morning, day, and afternoon, but she had not forgotten.

"Boys," she called, though there was expectantly no answer. She walked into the hall and called a second time, "Boys?" Still nothing. She moved toward the bedroom where she could hear the voices of men—not of boys. Confusedly, she approached the room.

"Give it up, Edmund. This particular dreadnaught is property of His Royal Highness, the King himself. No merchandises will be lifted from this ship this day."

The two boys sat on stools without any semblance of noise or motion between them. In front of them, the second of the house's three small radio boxes rang out through minimal static on the bedside table.

"Oh, my dear brother. You seem to be under the delusion that I've gone through all this trouble only to surrender. It's not her treasure I'm after. I want the ship herself."

"This is my final offer: give up. Don't forget we have you thoroughly surrounded. Men, at arms!"

"Boys, aren't you a little old for such stories?"

The Minotaur boy sitting on the left shook his head, and the brown-haired boy hushed the Aelf woman. "Shush! They're just getting to the good part!"

"Surrounded? Bah! We always come prepared."

"We?"

The voice of a narrator took over. "Just then, a darkened, oval shadow fell over the seafaring dreadnaught! What could it be? And lo! From the air! It 'twas—the captain could not believe—the zeppelin Zebulon appeared, its magnificent steam engine still intact! And from the rear door, upon the rope ladder hung—"

The Aelf woman walked over to switch the radio box off.

"Thaddeus? The Zebulon? Impossible. I blasted you from the skies myself!" The voice actor on the radio box blared out as the radio static came to a finite end.

The boys both groaned and smacked their teeth.

"Enough of that. It's suppertime." She shepherded the boys away from the radio box.

"Alright, but, can he stay?" The brown-haired boy asked.

"I don't know. I have already set the table for only three," she grimaced behind him.

The brown-haired boy, first writhing in anger and resentment, quickly changed his tune to see the table set for six.

"Where is everyone else, Alessiana?" The brown-haired boy asked his sister, pleased with the truth of her answer, as his Minotaur friend took a seat.

"Alessandriana," she corrected her brother. "I'll be a married woman tomorrow."

Both boys breathed heavily.

"Married to Sir Boring."

"Let's see. That fiancé of mine has business in town. And Father… I'm not sure where he is. But your father should be over shortly, Rodof," she added to the Minotaur.

The younger brother, with his friend Rodof, moved over to the kitchen's radio box as his sister was distracted moving the food to the table. They began to fiddle with the few switches on its face looking for the right frequency to continue their previous program. The boys had nearly cycled to their desired station when Alessandriana heard a keyword.

"…inauguration…"

"Wait! STOP! Go BACK!" She demanded. She stopped serving the stew into the bowls on the table and rushed over to the boys' sides. Reluctantly, her younger brother cycled back.

"That's right, folks," one announcer said.

"Set your watches! For later today…" The second rang in. "…in the late hours…"

"History is made as our fair Kingdom of Lorelei elects…"

"…as its Bard…"

"…in an official ceremony…"

"…conducted by King Harold himself…"

"…the first ever of its in-Human Scholars! We will welcome the Aelf, Aschion of Aelysia!"

"This is frankly an honor long overdue, Barnaby."

"Indeed."

"He swears in today?" Alessandriana was taken by the untimely surprise. "No, I swore it was next week. This is such poor timing."

Alessandriana marched out of the kitchen, through the hall, and into the front room with its high vaulted ceilings. The boys followed.

"Rodof, make sure Andam stays here," she asked of the Minotaur. "Andam, stay here. You both eat. I made your favorite. I must go inform Father."

Alessandriana picked up her coat from the coat rack against the door, threw it over herself, and walked out the door, her steps too rapid to hear Andam as he called after her "No, wait!"

"I'm sorry." Rodof said.

"All he's ever done is ruin every day for me. And I've never even met him."

"Happy Birthday."

BRANNONDORION ~:|:~

An elderly Aelf crouched on the ground, drawing in the drying mud with a stick. The three others around him paid close attention to the unvoiced commands of his diagram. The Aelf man motioned a pair of fingers in the air, signaling that it was time to operate. The four conspirators raised their masks and tightened them around their faces. The others also chose to wear hats, bandanas or scarves to cover the tops of their heads but the elderly Aelf's white hair was much too thick and full to be so easily cached away. His lengthy beard stuck out from the bottom of the mask he wore as well, but under the circumstances at hand, the man did not have many options to mask his identity.

The four crept at the edge of the wood and into the grey, stone ruins of a long-forgotten kingdom. Time can be cruel, the Aelf knew firsthand. Ahead of them, across a makeshift bridge hastily thrown together with questionable integrity, a tent city stood in all its soot-laden glamour amongst high mounds of dirt and rubble. Its Human tenants, more men than women, toiled in their sweat, shoveling deep into the earth.

This archaeological site belonged to a fallen city of Humans, the official, accepted story goes. But Brannondorion knew better. The grey stone structures spoke to an era that predated the modern Age of Science and expanded deep into its predecessor, the Age of Magic. These ruins belonged not to the Humans, and so the Humans to their own end would only theorize their reasons, their excuses, why the site's artifacts fell out of sync with their own understanding of history's timeline.

Brannondorion had seen it so many times since he arrived in this 'when.' It disgusted him. Brannondorion could understand the Human's newfound position of dominance that they enjoyed over Vereva during this age. He applauded it. They had come a long way. That much did not disgust him. What did disgust him was the Human's lack of understanding, their willfulness of logical inconsistency. He did not understand this inconsistency in the people who praised and lauded their own intellect insomuch that they elected to formally assess their most elite minds, inducting their brightest as their political and moral leaders. It was the fact that he knew the Humans would bend whatever they found to support their claim to the lands that disgusted him.

Brannondorion could tell, even if she had never uttered the words to him over and over again during the span of these last fourteen years, that the Gnome woman in the pink bandana beside him shared the same attitudes built upon the same foundations.

The whole world was in a state of confusion. If only the Humans too knew.

Even so, beyond the two of them, the remaining two members of his party were both Human men. And they knew something of the predicament. That is why they were here with him.

So, the Humans could not be all that bad, could they?

Brannondorion told one of the Human men, pointing up ahead: "Rose Lips be there already. Shouldst she be unable take the package from him of his own will, I needst thou do a distraction."

The Human in the orange and white striped scarf nodded his assent. Brannondorion's command of the Commonish language was archaic. Dated. The two Human men of the group had suffered many months getting used to his phrasings, his cadences, his formalities.

"And I shalt aid him in his distraction." The Gnome woman's voice carried over as she huddled behind a wooden crate, her language as archaic as the Aelf's own.

"Then I will stay here with you," the man in the hat said as he dusted dirt from his black tuxedo, the shark's mouth painted on his mask moving with his mouth as he spoke.

Brannondorion nodded and the four masked individuals moved further ahead until they could hear the voices of their target speaking from beyond the wooden crates. Brannondorion peeked his head to wait for Rose Lips' signal.

"From the Late Theurgic Era, I'd assume. Some of the script is still legible by modern standard." Beyond the crates and the digging workers, past a few leather tents, in the center of what was once a cobblestone road, a Minotauress was deep in conversation with one of the Human men. He seemed much to young for the authoritative stance he took at the foot of a long wooden table as the other men and women worked laboriously around him.

The Minotauress stood slightly taller than the man himself was, though still a runt of a woman for Minotaurkind. Her left eye was patched over, a treasured keepsake of a former battle or the personal tale of a bygone accident, maybe—who could at all be certain?—and atop her black, kinky hair, a tiny white hat sat. She wore a white shirt too, a man's shirt if truth be told, with many frills on the neckline and at the ends of her sleeves. Her pants were tight, belted, black and leather. Her clothing covered much of her dark syrup skin, a kind of modesty which was a thing in itself remarkably unbecoming of Minotaurkind. Their kind choose in unanimity to show off their tattoo brandings; the prideful totem of their still-potent magic. The only thing that appeared truly Minotauress of her was the short broadsword she carried sheathed upon her back, and the existent fact of her skinny brown tail.

The Human man had long, curly dark hair drawn neatly into a ponytail. His hazel eyes stood out against his olive-skinned complexion. His clothing was pressed and proper. His shirt was long-sleeved, its collar pulled tightly together by a long necktie, all of which lay beneath a pin-striped vest. His dress shoes were freshly polished and reflected the sunstar's rays. Over his left shoulder, a crimson-red matador's cape sat perched majestically, emblazoned with the Crest of Lorelei, ornamented with golden tassels. He was one of Lorelei's dear Seven Scholars—the Chroniclere: the philosopher of the histories and thus, to Brannondorion's humblest opinion, the living representation of the grandest cusp of Humanity's irony.

"Look, here," the Chroniclere said. He moved to the Minotauress, who was inspecting an ancient book with exceptional care. He raised his hand and with a pointed finger circled the page she read until he came upon the passage he was searching for. "It shows the numeral twelve as plain as unending day."

"I see it," the Minotauress folded her arms. "I concur… Though, you haven't sought me all the way here from Kahrim to read you numbers, have you?"

The Chroniclere smiled. "My fair interpreter, does one bake a cake for want of just frosting?"

"Sometimes," the interpreter said guiltily.

"The rest is written in a script I entirely fail to recognize. The numbers are just the frosting. I want to eat the cake." He shuffled through a number of pages over a short, few seconds evidencing his claim to the interpreter.

The interpreter reshuffled through the pages, slower this time. "I am only somewhat familiar with the script. 'Tis odd. But I do know the language beyond it. This is written in Olde Sembish. A rare find. No, quite a rare find."

The Chroniclere curled the edge of his bacca pipe mustache with the tip of his fingers. He paced the length of the wooden table pensively. "Olde Sembish? How would Ogre artifacts find themselves in Human ruins of this age?" The Chroniclere continued to pace trapped by his own thoughts, before coming to a conclusion in his head. "No matter," he said. He finished his pacing and looked to the interpreter with hopeful eyes. "The question is: are you able to transcribe and translate it for me?"

The Minotauress interpreter scratched her eyebrow. It was a motion already established with her four co-conspirators to hold off on their distraction. The four masked onlookers behind the crates limited their movements.

"This won't be light work as advertised. A book this large will take no less than a few months to interpret thoroughly. I would need take it with me."

The Chroniclere was neither baffled nor riled by the Minotauress' answer. He opened his mouth to answer when—

Behind Brannondorion, a foot crackled on dried leaves in the grass. He turned, as did the other masked three, to look behind him. A boy, no older than ten was slowly backing away, fear in his eyes. When he saw the masked bandits look at him, he squealed out.

"They're here! They're here!"

"Who's here?" One man called, his shovel in hand.

"More graverobbers or bandits?" Another man closed some distance between he and the boy, still unable to see the four masked individuals behind the crates.

"N-not just any bandits! It's the Five Fingers!"

And they were thus; Rose Lips, the silver-tongued mercenary, and Drifty, the wandering thief, Black-Tie, the sharpshooting embezzler, and Traveler, the mysterious assassin. And the four of them were led by the elderly Freddy. And they were the Five Fingers, pirates who for the last few years made a great and terrible name for themselves.

At this, the boy fled into the woods screaming. A man, his father or brother, ran in after him, and a few of the more cowardly workers threw down their shovels and fled behind him. The adults who remained picked up their shovels as weapons but kept their distance in fear as the four masked stood on their feet.

"The Five Fingers. I am not the least bit surprised. Stealing a lot of artifacts lately. I was sure to run into you."

Drifty bounded forward without order, the orange and white scarf dancing in the wind behind him as he closed distance on the Chroniclere. Traveler moved forward as if to join him, or limit him maybe, but the leader Freddy commanded against it in authority:

"No. Permit the thief. This one wert always his fight."

"Baskerville, my swords," the Chroniclere asked of one of the workers. An elderly man, the tent city's doctor it seemed, tossed the Chroniclere a pair of odd swords, the first, long but extremely thin, with looped guards and decorative quillions. A rapier. The second sword was large, had a sharp edge adjacent from a dull edge, and a slight curvature. An espada.

The thief Drifty drew two bladed weapons as well and was immediately at the Chroniclere's forefront. A few of the shovel-wielders stumbled away from the two swordsmen. Drifty stabbed with his left, a dagger, and cut with his right, a sabre. The Chroniclere blocked and parried with ease and grace, spinning, letting the tassels of his cape fly. The thief was unimpressed and undeterred. He stabbed again, sliced again, stabbed and sliced, stabbed and sliced. The Chroniclere clanged his espada alone against the steels of his attacker, slapping away gently the dagger right and the saber left, right and left, right and left. The Chroniclere threw his crimson cape onto the face of his opponent who, in removing it with haste, could only narrowly dodge a cross swing of the Scholar's two blades with an instinctive backward arch of his back. The two cleaved their four odd blades.

"Not bad, Coggenspire," the thief told the Chroniclere. "I've been dying for this fight a long while."

Chroniclere Coggenspire was bewildered and pushed the thief away from him. Drifty seized an opportunity to jab his sabre low and hard toward the Chroniclere's abdomen, to disembowel the man, but the man was faster than he. The Chroniclere let slip his rapier for a moment, letting an amount of the sabre's blade weave between the guards and quillions of its beautiful hilt, the sabre's tip tearing ever so slightly a thread of his pin-striped vest. Grabbing the rapier by the pommel, he pirouetted, backhanding the thief across the face for insult and effect—the Chroniclere loved his flair—while the rotation of the rapier flung his opponent's weapon into the distance. Innocent men and women ducked and dodged for their own mortality's sake.

"Yvadni," the Chroniclere said aloud and the espada flashed and glowed like green dragon's fire and Ithyna relived a moment in shock.

The crowd gasped oohs and aahs. Even the Five Fingers exclaimed their awe and surprise. There were no Dwarves nearby. Weapons with permanent Dwarven enchantments were extremely rare. These Relics were so rare in fact, it was commonly regarded that their complete inventory was entirely locked away deep within the Darkmage Dungeons of Uldegost, safeguarded by Minotaur and Minotauress warriors who were each hand-selected by the Alpha of Kahrim himself. Of course, there were known to be a handful of Relics in the museums of Coquaigny or traded in the darkest alleys within the black markets of Issia.

"Black-Tie." Brannondorion said.

The man in the tuxedo and hat raised a rifle level to his eye.

"Don't kill him. We don't want them coming after us."

The Chroniclere raised the espada Relic to strike down his opponent but a thunderous shot buzzed through the air, striking the espada—the Yvadni—and the espada was cast from his hand. The thief did not hesitate, running past the Chroniclere, his eyes on the prize, forgetting his old sabre and chasing the priceless treasure.

"We'll be taking this," the interpreter slammed the ancient book shut, her sword drawn at level height with the Chroniclere's neck as she crossed around the table. "Drop it," she ordered, her tattoos glowing through her white shirt.

Chroniclere Coggenspire dropped the rapier and put his hands in the air as hostage. The men and women, fearful of their own disadvantage against magic, dropped their shovels too, and the interpreter kicked the rapier away from the Chroniclere rendering him indefensible. She backed away to regroup with her co-conspirators, never taking her eyes off the Chroniclere and never lowering her sword.

"And I'll be taking this." Drifty held the fiery espada in the air and the crowd, the majority of it, cowered and bowed before him. "She sure is beautiful, but you're no descendant of any Paladin, Chroniclere," the thief laughed victoriously. "We know the origins of your lineage."

The Chroniclere ignored the quip, unable to quite identify the thief who had clearly been working out a personal vendetta. Instead, he spoke to the unmasked interpreter; "Freddy, Drifty, Black-Tie, Traveler. I guess that makes you the infamous Rose Lips. Beware now that we've seen your face."

The interpreter was unthreatened. "There are a million Minotauress with patched eye, Chroniclere. We are a nation of warriors."

"Though how many speak Commonish without accent and recognize Olde Sembish."

The interpreter remained yet unthreatened and the group started toward the forest, the Minotauress never turning her back until Drifty was also behind her. As soon as he was, she turned, and they began to flee.

The Chroniclere reached onto the wooden table and flipped open one of the excess books sitting thereon. He removed the concealed pistol, Loreleian issue, from within its hollowed-out pages. He shot once, then twice, three times before one of the diggers stopped him.

"Please, Lester and his boy, and all else are still in the forest. You don't know who you may hit."

At the sound of the gunfire, Drifty and Black-Tie fell to the grass for cover, and Rose Lips turned about, sword drawn as if to block bullets straight out of the air. Traveler felt one as it hummed a macabre song past her head and heard another drive into a tree behind her. Brannondorion spun in impact and simply fell backward onto the ground, holding his side.

Traveler panicked. Her heart racing, she ran to him. She raised his head into her lap as his life's blood spilled from him.

"Thou art an Aelf. Heal thyself." She said, but she knew. She had known for a while now. He was aged now; an Aelf of nearly seven-hundred years. He was unable to draw upon mana as quickly and freely and carelessly as he were able in his youth.

The other three ran for the Gnome and the Aelf. They were unaware of how many more shots would be fired, unaware of any who were injured, but aware something was wrong as they looked at Traveler. Their feet carried them slowly, over hours, toward the Aelf man but the Gnome had no patience. Not then. So, she let the ley lines surround her, and the two disappeared.

ITHYNA ~:|:~

When they reappeared, their bodies popping from nothingness into existence, the two were no longer so near the Kingdom of Lorelei, on the continent of Sanghenny. The two were now back on the isle continent of Hyldia, in a hut deep within the wood between the ever-burning ruins of Salemansia and the forgotten pride of the Centaurs, Arcadaeia.

No, this travel was nothing near instantaneous. At least, not for the Traveler Ithyna. Two-thousand four-hundred eighty-seven spell casts to speed and slow and cease time it cost her. Two-thousand four-hundred eighty-seven casts as she carried a man through forest, and marsh, and grassland, and atop time-dilated ocean water that seemed ever so endless to her, so draining.

But Ithyna had been learning how to master her magic for fourteen years. Fourteen years and she still had no idea how to get back to her own time.

Ithyna helped Brannondorion onto a straw bed, his arm dangling around her neck as it steadily lost strength, his other hand applying pressure to his wound. While this whole ordeal had taken place over what felt like six months to her, she had counted that she let her ley lines falter only as many as forty-one seconds for him.

She scanned the room around her as the man groaned. Were this the events of two-hundred years prior, when she was barely a woman of nineteen years, she would be inclined to seek out the nearest Aelf. Now, at thirty-three, she had invested much of her downtime collecting vials of potions, each brewed carefully by Alessandriana herself, so that she could remain anonymous to the world—the world's last Gnome hidden in the trees, the truth of her existence known by only the two Aelves, this poor man and his only daughter. But now, as she had exposed herself, the hint of her existence may have been witness by all the bystanders who were present in the Ogre ruins of Paititti.

She found, on her shelves, potions for poisons and venoms, for broken bones and toxic fevers, but she could not find any potions for bleeding wounds. The dying man spoke to her.

"We hath prepared for this Ithyna. All involved knew one day I might perish before our day's work be done."

"Say not such things. I must have Draught of Vitality here. I know it."

"Thou must prepare mine—what calleth it our dear thief?—mine plan B? Deliver all we acquired to my children three."

Ithyna shook her head at him, then looked at him. His blood was now pooling on the floor and spilling like the sticky drool of an infant from his mouth. That's when Alessandriana ran into the tiny hermit's hut. Her eyes swept over her father momentarily, then she ran to him.

"Have you no Draught of Vitality, Ithyna? You know I cannot help this!"

"I search, Aless!"

"Father," Alessandriana took his wet, red hand into hers. "At lateday, Aschion swears allegiance to Lorelei."

"I know, mine daughter." Brannondorion stroked the woman before him, painting her. "This wast meant be special night for all mine children. One leadeth the Humans in the morn, one ageth into final year afore manhood, and the last…" Brannondorion lifted his daughter's delicate hands. He looked at the wooden love's promise on her littlest finger, and the emptiness of her middlest finger. "The last married away in the morn with a Human man. She casteth her Aelf's totem aside and now her years are so few as match his. She hast her magic ceded for love of The Black-Tie Bandit."

By this time, Ithyna was tossing potion glasses from shelves, disappointed with the quality of their contents. "No, no, no, no, no!"

"I should get Andam so he can say goodbye."

— "No, Alessandriana. He is such mirror of thy brother. Shouldst he see me this way, such would break him. Thou art the strong one. Be strong for thy Father one last occasion."

His last words to his daughter were in Aelvic, beautiful and rhythmic, though she did not shed a tear. She was dutiful in her father's command as she had been each and every hour in her waking life. There would be no tears for Brannondorion: the two women had too much a great duty ahead of them, so much more to lose.

And then, the man closed his eyes. He was tired. And cold. Oh, how they say you feel cold, he thought, but no one ever speaks of the great acumen of the fatigue. He thought to Amiantra; she was so beautiful the last night he saw her. Then, he joined her, a final decision, when at last he chose to fall asleep.

At long last, after as few as seven centuries, there would be no more decades for Brannondorion as there is ever not enough time in the world.

And with the death of this one particular Aelf, our story at long last begins.