Monday, August 24, 2015

Peridot and the Revenant

Since watching the movie Inception, has anyone else taken to referring to ideas and events with various layers as "fill-in-the-blank-ception"?  This is, of course, in reference to the concept in the movie of having a dream within a dream within a dream.

I experienced something along those lines while writing this short story.  I actually had to write it so that another character in a different story could talk about it in detail but then it is also based on a historical event in the world the story (or stories?) takes place in but is a sanitized, disney-esque version of the real story that is merely a background for the first story I was working on in the first place.

Makes perfect sense, right?

Now that we have that not at all cleared up, I went about writing this story in the style of a fairy tale.  I read several different versions of a selection of the "classics" like Beauty and the Beast to try and get an accurate voice for it.  I think it turned out quite well but it really is more to you, the fair reader, to decide if I succeeded.

So here is my crack at a new fairy tale in the old style...

By Spencer Stoner

Long ago in a land filled with rolling hills and verdant grasses that filled the very air with the fragrance of exuberance lived a large family of noble means. They were a household of fifteen in all. The citizenry felt the Queen Mother and King Father watched over them as close and lovingly as as the royals watched and cared for their own children.

They were wise rulers, having married the three eldest daughters as well as four eldest sons to neighboring clans. Thus they saw that peace surrounded them always and all sought only to improve the lives and destinies of all in the land.

Even so, all but the second daughter brought their husbands and wives back to their fine castle to live with the rest of their family. Otherwise, missing the feeling of love and compassion that radiated from the Queen and King would have surely dimmed their humours.

One fateful night a carriage came to the castle, out of which a man of a foreboding nature emerged. He demanded an audience with the entirety of the noble family even though the hour was greatly late. In spite this, and being of gracious natures themselves, the Queen and King agreed to meet with this most unusual of guests.

The man was well traveled, wearing clothing of a nature not to be found anywhere in the the vastness of the noble family's lands. Despite his newness to the region, he had come before the ruling family with a most disquieting demand! He insisted that the Queen Mother and King Father relinquish their eldest virgin daughter to him or he would ravage the very fields and displace the entirety of the people who lived in the lands that the nobles so loved.

Seeing as the three oldest daughters had been long since wedded, the burden fell to their fourth daughter, the young Maiden Peridot. As she had only barely reached an age that was acceptable to marry and did not care for matters of politics, Maiden Peridot had busied herself with reading any book that came within her reach and learning the skills of painting and riding horses.

None of these things increased her advantage but they had given the young noblewoman an intelligence that differed from those of her siblings. Among those things that the books she so loved had taught her was the very identity of the type of creature that stood before her family in the guise of a man. As his very countenance matched the descriptions she so clearly remembered, Maiden Peridot revealed to the Queen Mother and King Father that the stranger was truly a creature called a revenant!

Maiden Peridot understood that the revenant was a man of unnatural strength that could fulfill his threat if she did not comply with his commands. So for the good of her family and the people for which they all cared so deeply young Maiden Peridot accompanied the revenant from the castle that had been her home the entirety of her life and into his carriage.

The stallions that pulled the carriage were mighty indeed and carried Maiden Peridot and the revenant a great distance in only a short time. They were still on her family's lands but had traveled into the moors that not many mortal men traversed into due to the unstable earth that could swallow them whole if they stepped wrong.

But the carriage continued on without fear until they finally reached a cave that entered a broad round hillside. Once they stopped, the revenant stepped out and offered his hand to aid Maiden Peridot in dismounting from the carriage herself.

His hand ended in long, sharp claws. Such a sight caused the young noble to gasp but she quickly recovered herself. She accepted the surprising gentlemanly gesture from the revenant and stepped onto the soggy earth.

“I know it does not appear hospitable.” The revenant said. “But I do hope to make you happy here.”

His words confused Maiden Peridot. The gentle nature he was showing her did not match the descriptions of the monsters his kind were said to be in the books she held so dear.

Maiden Peridot had no skill in spelunking and she felt uneasy as she neared the opening of the cave. What awaited her when she peered inside again surprised the young noblewoman. It appeared as if the halls of a luxurious castle not unlike those of her own home had been build inside the hill!

The revenant guided her deeper into the cave that seemed more a hallway. They passed doors lined either wall, hinting at rooms that led further into the hill until the revenant stopped before a particular door.

“This is your room.” He said. “You are free to explore the cave all you wish but I do have two rules upon which I am most insistent. First, you must stay within the cave. If you try to leave, I cannot be held responsible for what will happen next. Also, while you can explore the cave all you wish, you will be required to adjourn into your room and stay there upon dusk on the night of the full moon until dawn of the next morning. Is that understood?”

The boundaries set by the rules were most simple to Maiden Peridot. However she was of a precocious mind and did not understand the reasoning. Particularly, why must she seclude herself once every fortnight?

When she asked the question of the revenant, he simply opened the door to what was to be Maiden Peridot's room and ushered her inside. It was as luxurious as the rest of the cave, more so even than her room back in the castle.

There was even a large selection of shelves weighed down with numerous leather bound tomes. As well as an easel with a blank canvas and a small table with paints and a pallet resting atop. It was as if he had known it would be her coming to live within the confines of this cave.

Running her hands along the spines of the numerous books, she did not see a familiar title among them. That caused her equal parts excitement equaled only by dread. While the revenant wanted her to be comfortable, he also wanted her to not have anything familiar.

As it had already been late when she was taken to the cave, fatigue quickly found young Maiden Peridot and she adjourned to the bed that had been so meticulously prepared for her. She was astonished when she awoke to find that she had slept fitfully. Never once did she have a dream that she was to be eaten by the revenant in one of the many ways described in the selections of books she had read on the subject.

The young noblewoman found a new dress made of finer silks than she had ever seen before resting on the foot of the bed. Maiden Peridot considered staying in the simple riding clothes she had entered the cave wearing. She found a tub full of steaming water waiting in the corner and decided to weigh her options as she bathed.

She wondered what should be expected of her in a situation such as this. She had been forcibly taken from her home only to arrive in a place even more luxurious. To her the revenant had been nothing but a gentleman but he had also threatened to attack the people her family so vehemently watched over.

Maiden Peridot's mind swirled trying to make sense of the contradictions until the water started to turn cold. She rose from the tub to find her riding clothes missing. The only option besides walking around in naught but her skin was the dress that waited at the foot of her bed.

Dressed in the finest silks she had ever felt Maiden Peridot decided to take the revenant up on his permission to explore. As she entered the hall, the young noblewoman could see late morning light spilling into the cave but there was no sign of the revenant.

She walked from room to room never finding a locked door. Whatever room she expected to see when she turned the knob, a more opulent version awaited her whether it be a sitting room, sewing room or even a study filled with even more unfamiliar books.

Throughout the day she never saw the revenant. She had found a kitchen and made herself a simple repast around midday but she did not see her captor until after sundown.

That was when she found him sitting at a long table with a fine meal resting upon it. There was only one plate set across from him as a silent invitation for her to sit.

As she entered, the revenant rose to his feet and gave her a courteous bow in greeting. “Will you give me leave to see you sup?” He asked.

“As I am to be here at your pleasure, I do not see how I can refuse.” She replied.

Her answer seemed to pain the man. “You are the mistress here, milady. As you so wish within these walls it will be. Even if it is for me to begone.”

She stood silently pondering his words for a long time. Finally, she sat down before the bare plate.

“Though the circumstances are unusual you have done me no disservice so I see no reason to send you from me.” Maiden Peridot said.

That pleased the revenant. As she ate they had a most pleasant conversation. They seemed to share similar passions. Maiden Peridot was clever enough to ask very specific questions that one who had only a precursory study would not be able to answer to alleviate any concern of his knowledge being only to comfort her and not truly enthrall him as well.

By the time Maiden Peridot decided it was time to retire for the evening, she was surprised to see how much time had passed. She bid the revenant a fond farewell and returned to her room.

Inside, she found the loveliest nightgown draped over her freshly made bed. In the hours they had been conversing, there was no way the revenant had time to have tidied her room and delivered new clothing. The noblewoman resolved to learn how it was done but not until after she had rested.

Weeks passed and each day went much like the ones before. Maiden Peridot came into the habit of painting for several hours after waking up in the mornings, then exploring deeper into the cave, finding new rooms well into the afternoon.

She never lost track of where the dining room was, always finding the revenant waiting inside. “Will you give me leave to see you sup?” He always asked.

Maiden Peridot would not contrive a false reason to refuse him and since he personally treated her with nothing but kindness she always granted his request. They spoke well into the night, more than once finding the sun starting to arise from the horizon beyond the cave's entrance when she finally took off to bed. It continued this way until the night of the full moon.

The revenant entered the reading room where Maiden Peridot had discovered a new volume about painting techniques and was studying its pages. He begged her forgiveness for his intrusion and presented her with a covered silver platter.

Finding a meager meal compared to the fare she had been served up to this point the young noblewoman did not hide her confusion at such an unexpected change. He asked her to return to her room with the platter and stay until morning came.

Remembering his rules Maiden Peridot did not argue and withdrew for the evening. When she returned to her room, she found it as she had left it that morning. The bed was unmade the same nightgown she wore the night before rested upon the rumpled covers.

This did not worry the young noblewoman as much as make her wonder how the fullness of the moon related to such a sudden change. Maiden Peridot pondered on this the rest of the day until she finally readied herself for sleep in the nightgown from the previous night.

It was then that fearful feral noises came from outside her room. She had promised the revenant that she would stay inside her room the entirety of the night. But being of a wondering nature Maiden Peridot proclaimed herself unable to go on without knowledge of what could be the source of such terrible noises.

Maiden Peridot opened the doorway just enough to peek out into the cave beyond. She took in the sight of the revenant tearing into the flesh of a long haired animal in a manner that could only be described as ravenous.

She covered her mouth to stifle her gasp of shock at the sight but the revenant still somehow heard her. He turned his face toward the door of the young noblewoman's room and Maiden Peridot received her second shock. The face that looked back at her no longer contained any humanity as blood dripped from its long fangs and down the chin of the creature.

Unleashing a howl that seemed unable to come from any form of mortal animal, the revenant streaked for Maiden Peridot. The young woman hurriedly closed her door and found it to be without a lock. Until this moment she had not thought to need one.

Maiden Peridot could still hear the revenant pace back and forth in front of her room, releasing occasional growls and other beastly sounds. But the beast did not enter.

Though he somehow appeared more of a monster than a man he surely retained the physical ability to open doors or at the very least break one down with his unnatural strength. While she was worried for her life, Maiden Peridot wondered why the revenant would not enter.

Eventually the young noblewoman found her fatigue victorious over her worry and she slept. Awakening the next morning she found a hot bath drawn for her as usual but beside it was a letter on a small table.

“I regret any discomfort you had to endure over the evening.” The note read. “I do hope you will forgive the lapse in your mediation and will still join me in the dining room this evening as has been a practice I have found most pleasant this past fortnight.”

Despite herself Maiden Peridot found herself flattered at the words the revenant had written. It also ignited a curiosity about the nature of this revenant that made him so unlike the words from the experts in such things that she had read.

This was a mystery she intended to solve starting that very day. As she traversed deeper into the cave than she ever had the previous fortnight she desired to find the place the revenant took sanctuary in these daylight hours.

The walls of the cave started to more resemble their namesake rather than the well built castle-like facade she had lived within. Still, there were doors and she entered the first in this more natural area.

Inside was a study much like the one Maiden Peridot used to learn her new art techniques. There were fewer books inside and none of them had any titles on the spines to hint at their subjects.

She pulled one of the volumes from the shelf and opened the cover. She found it to be a journal belonging to the revenant!

The young noblewoman felt it was improper to look further into the book and replaced it on the shelf. Then she realized that more time had passed than she realized and if she did not make haste she would be late for dinner with the revenant. She had found herself enjoying these repasts and did not want to miss out.

“Will you give me leave to see you sup?” The revenant asked as he did at the beginning of each dinner.

Again she did not refuse him. As they had every evening previous the noble and the creature conversed about a great many subjects but Maiden Peridot felt as if the air in the dining room was more leaden than it had been in evenings past. She soon learned why.

“Did you leave your room last evening?” The revenant finally asked.

Though she had opened the door Maiden Peridot was able to answer honestly that she did not. This answer did seem to satisfy the man and the subject again turned more pleasant.

The young noblewoman did feel a certain guilt though it was not entirely about her answer to the question from the revenant. She decided to confess that she stumbled upon his study and the collection of journals that rested inside.

“Did you read any of them?” The revenant asked.

“That would have been an invasion of trust I could not justify.” She answered.

“All that is here is yours.” The revenant said. “You cannot invade that which is yours.”

“Then shall I read your journals?” She wondered.

“If it is your wish.” He nodded.

Maiden Peridot could not bring herself to return to that study for several days afterward. Finally, though, her desire to know more of the revenant overtook her and led her back deep into the cave.

Pulling free what appeared to be the oldest of the volumes, Maiden Peridot read the words written in the hands of a man from before he had become a revenant. The tale told was of a noble that fell into the all too common trap of pride in his station.

After reading this story from cover to cover Maiden Peridot adjourned to the dining room. She did not tell the revenant what she had done and their conversation was as pleasant as it had ever been.

Maiden Peridot found herself returning to the study every day. She learned of the curse that came upon the man and made him into a revenant. She was reviled as the joy the revenant took in writing of the details of his early attacks on the mortals around him.

But it was the later volumes that truly astounded the young woman. As much pleasure as the creature took in his attacks he was even more so disgusted when he wrote in his journals the following day.

He wondered why God would allow such a cruel fate to befall a noble of his stature. He begged any deity that would listen to take this burden from him and saw no relief.

Peridot found the revenant to be a walking contradiction. As much as his wickedness brought him joy it brought misery down upon him tenfold. Still, whatever demon that resided in him would not allow him to stop his evil.

Until the previous fortnight. He entered the land of Peridot's family and demanded a sacrifice. He had intended to commit great evil on her but found himself unable to do so.

The revenant spoke of their conversations over dinners which only Peridot ate with as great of affection as Peridot herself felt. He wondered why the blood of animals was able to sate him now when he could not even stomach it before entering these lands.

The night of the next full moon, Peridot read the last of the revenant's journals. On the last page the creature had written a message specifically to the young woman.

“I have found your company to be the greatest gift that could be given to a monster like me.” He wrote. “But I cannot allow myself to hoard a treasure such as you any longer. Tomorrow, please take whatever you would like as a reminder of your time here and return to your home. My carriage will take you in the morning and, afterword, be yours. Please do not return as I wish you only joy from this day on.”

Peridot wanted to run to the revenant but she found the clocks striking the time of dusk. She had to rush to her room to keep her word to the man and shut herself in for the night.

Growling and gnashing of teeth again echoed through her door but she bared it no mind. If she was to leave tomorrow, she determined to give the revenant a gift that would only be able to repay perhaps a fraction of the kindness he had shown her.

She resolved not to leave the cave until she had spoken to the revenant one last time. She declared this desire in a note that she left beside her bathtub, hoping that he would somehow be able to read it when whatever drew her bath came to do so in the morn as it had every day.

When she awoke the next morning, she found a note beside her bath responding to her message just as she had hoped. What it said, though, drew tears from the young woman.

“I cannot.” Was all that was written.

Peridot took her gift to the revenant and started deeper into the cave than she had ever braved. Doors disappeared to become dank offshoots of the murky cave that coated mud all over the young woman's feet.

Peridot traveled so far into the cave that she was no longer sure she could find her way back. That was when she heard the sounds of metal scraping against metal. She followed the odd noises until she found the revenant awkwardly fastening a cuff around his arm.

Every other one of his arm and legs had been restrained in a similar manner. The cuffs were each attached to chains that were in turn attached to the wall. When he saw Peridot he froze in horror.

“I cannot leave until I have given you a simple token to remember me.” The young woman cried.
She pulled the cloth that had been covering a painting of the revenant. Peridot held it up so that he could see every detail.

“This is how I see you.” She confessed.

There was more humanity in the painting of the revenant than he had seen even in himself in the longest of times. There was no hint of the monster that lurked within.

Tears welled from the man's face in a way that he thought he had been no longer able since he had been cursed. He wept tears of joy.

He confessed to the young woman that he had intended to entomb himself deep in the earth and starve himself out of his cursed existence so that he would never harm anyone again. Until he had met Peridot the revenant thought that undoing his curse was impossible but now he wanted to find a way so that he could return to the land of daylight with her.

The next fortnight Peridot painted every morning. She painted landscapes of the sun drenched marshes just outside the cave to remind the revenant of the beauty of the land to which he wished to return. In the evenings they poured over every tome both could find in search of a way to cure his unnatural condition.

As the night of the next full moon neared, though, the revenant found sadness overtaking him. Peridot tried to reassure him that they would find a way to help him but he only shook his head.

“It is not for me that I weep.” He said. “I look at your beautiful paintings of the world of light but each is surrounded by the darkness of this cave. I darkness to which I have exiled you.”

Peridot tried to comfort him but, again, he shook his head. He guided her to the entrance of the cave where the carriage awaited, loaded down with as many trunks as it could carry.

“I have not lost hope.” He said. “But my heart aches at the pain I have caused not only you but your family by what I have done. Please, go back to your home and show them that you are safe. I will restrain myself with my chains. If you return, I will become a man again. If you decide to stay away, I will afflict this land no more.”

The revenant did indeed understand her heart. As much as she enjoyed his company and wanted to help him her heart did ache when her thoughts turned to her family.

“I will do as you ask. But I will return to you before the next full moon and we will leave this cave as man and woman.” She promised.

Peridot returned to the luxurious castle that had been her home just as the revenant wished. As she entered the courtyard she was surprised to find many men sharpening blades and hammering armor in preparation for war.

When she was reunited with the Queen Mother and the King Father they were overjoyed to see their daughter delivered from danger. When they asked how she escaped, Peridot told them of how the revenant released her.

“Then you can guide us back to his lair so that we may destroy this threat to our lands!” They declared.

Peridot tried to protest. She tried to explain to them how the revenant had changed but they would not hear. Instead they had Peridot's eldest brother as the commander of the armies loose one of the stallions from the revenant's carriage and release it onto the road so that they could follow it back to the cave where the revenant waited.

The Queen Mother and King Father restrained Peridot in her room so that she could not interfere. Then they decided to accompany the army so that they could see the revenant die for his transgressions against their family.

In the time they had been apart, the noble family had forgotten about the cleverness of their daughter Peridot. She was able to escape from her room and find the fastest of the revenant's stallions held in the stables.

Peridot did not waste the time it would take to saddle the stallion. She instead rode the horse back to the cave faster than the army could as they had to follow a stallion not running as fast as it was able.
The young woman rushed into the cave and told the revenant of her family's plot. Though he was now freed from his chains he did not seek to flee or fight.

“Thanks to you I am now a man.” He said. “We will meet the Queen Mother and the King Father at the cave's opening. If they accept me as I am now they will share in the joy you have given me. If they still seek my life, I will give it to them in penance for my misdeeds as a monster.”

Though the idea that the man who was a revenant no longer dying saddened Peridot, she was heartened by his sense of honor. She resolved to stand with him, hopeful it would be forever by his side in life or in treasuring the memory of the fine man he had again become in death.

They waited at the mouth of the cave as the army drew near. The Queen Mother and the King Father screamed with rage, not seeing the man the revenant had become but the monster he had been.

So great was their rage that they charged past their own armies to strike the killing blow themselves. They did not know of the dangers the loose soil of the moors held and were swallowed up by the bogs until only their crowns remained above the water.

The former revenant and Peridot tried to come to the aid of the young woman's parents but failed. Despite this, the eldest son saw the pure intention of the one who had taken his sister when he was a monster. Now he saw the man and decided to spare him, allowing the monster to be forgotten.

The nobles and all the people in the land mourned the passing of the Queen Mother and the King Father but later rejoiced when the Lady Peridot was wed to a fine man of the regal Desiderata Clan to the north.

The sorceress that had taken his lands and cursed him into a monster died the moment he returned to being a man and he was able to reclaim his birthright. His and Peridot's lands joined together and a new era of peace and joy fell across the continent.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Vala: One Story from Two Perspectives

Author's Notes:  This is one of the first stories I wrote that actually made me feel really emotional.  Vala, her adult version, was one of the first characters I ever created in my 12 year old head, along with her best friends Sil (who has a slight amount of seniority) and Cyrus.

Vala, though, has a unique background compared to Sil and Cyrus.  That's not to say that the background stories of the other two aren't interesting, it's just that... well, I know their backgrounds but I haven't written stories about them yet.  So I guess you'll just have to take my word for it that they are interesting.  At least for now.

But back onto the subject of this story.  This would be what those in the comic book industry would call an "origin story".  I decided to write it from not only Vala's perspective but of the woman who finds her.  I thought it would be interesting to see how two people of such different backgrounds and ages would see the same events rolling out.

With the first draft, people found the concept confusing because I didn't explain it.  I thought it would make itself clear fairly quickly but it isn't typical (much like Vala herself) of the genre and people thought that it was a time travel story at first.  So I decided to add the subtitle to make the concept as clear and concise as possible.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy Vala:  One Story from Two Perspectives.  It starts in 3... 2... 1...


          Keta Lowwil was all packed and ready to go. She waved to the small group that had gathered to see her off from the small forest town of Doren. Her backpack was even heavier with books than it was when she arrived. It was their way of thanking her for helping to make their homes safe again.
          As a member of the Elemental Guilds of Arbitration it was her job. The Guilds held no affiliation with any country or organization and were often called in to mediate disputes as an impartial entity. They also investigate crimes or even retrieve particularly dangerous fugitives. Their ability to sense and manipulate the elemental energies of the world make them quite adept at such things.
          She was also trained to recognize the aura of those with Guilds potential. But Keta didn’t expect to sense that on the third day of her trek through the King's Forest, far from any town or village.
          Adjusting her heavy backpack, full of books and supplies (but mostly books), Keta stepped off the trail in the direction of the aura she sensed, keeping an eye out for anything from a farmhouse to a mud hovel. Deeper and deeper into the woods she went and the Guild member saw no structure resembling any kind of building.
          After awhile, Keta stubbed her toe, the soft leather of her knee high boot not much of a shield, on a rock she failed to notice. Before that, a tree branch decided to whip around and smack the woman in the nose. When she wiped her chin length auburn hair out of her face, she was surprised to not see blood caked in the strands. That was only after she tripped into a large puddle of mud, soaking her nice, clean emerald green uniform.
          As the thought of quitting and starting back home came to mind, some laughing came from the other side of some shoulder high bushes ahead of Keta. Light streamed through the leaves, making it seem as if there were no trees on the other side. There must be a clearing. 
          Hearing movement, Keta's brow furrowed and she concentrated on moving silently, not wanting to startle anyone. She peeked over the bushes to see who was there.

          There wasn't much in the clearing but the family always enjoyed stopping here. It gave them a chance to rest from having to make their way around all the trees in the forest while still enjoying the shade they provided to keep the heat of the sun away. It also gave the moms a chance to play with their children, which the whole family reveled in.
          Vala’s Mom playfully tickled her daughter’s pointed ears. The eight springs old girl blushed but couldn’t keep herself from laughing. Vala was the only one of her family to have pointed ears and Mom just loved playing with them.
          So Mom continued to tickle and Vala continued to laugh. Even after Vala saw a strange face poke up from the other side of the bushes, she couldn’t stop laughing. But then Mom noticed.
          She snatched Vala into her arms and ran as hard as her legs could carry her into the trees furthest away from the stranger. She dashed under branches and over rocks easily, already knowing where most of them were. This was their home and they knew it well. None of the moms were going to let bad things happen to any of their children. So they ran off in every different direction.
          But they wouldn't stay apart for long. After a few turns, Vala's blue eyes caught the familiar sight of the cave that the family used to find each other. Two other moms and their daughters had made it there before them and were already waiting.

          Keta quietly watched a small group of nymphs in a clearing. Nymphs were another species of human, much like the alfar. While alfar, like Keta herself, were nearly indistinguishable from humans at a distance, up close their pointed ears and angled eyebrows gave away their heritage.
          Nymphs lived in the wilds, like forests, and were rarely seen by other human species. Even those sightings were fleeting as nymphs dashed off at the first hint of being noticed. As far as anyone could tell, they didn't have any kind of spoken language and didn't seem to have the capacity to learn one. They lived off the land, using their instincts like other animals.
          Nymphs didn't wear clothing or show any kind of ability to make it. But their hair was tight and curled much like wool from a sheep. Some even grew wool-like hair on their arms and legs that served the purpose of keeping them warm sufficiently without cloth.
          Those differences came to the Guilder's mind as she looked over the little group of nymphs. There were several little girls but the one laughing didn't have any wool on her arms or legs. She did, though, have pointed ears. The child was an alfar! Keta couldn’t stifle a gasp.
          Hearing her, the nymph tickling the alfar snatched up the little girl and dashed away. The plants, sensing Keta's reaction instantly grew high enough to hide her face from the group but it was already too late. The other nymphs followed suit with the first, each running in a different direction. Keta didn’t want this. Still, she had to be sure about the child. Why would a little alfar girl be living among nymphs? 
          Keta followed the tracks of the one that carried the alfar. She didn’t run, the grass was even kind enough to spread away from her prints to make them easier to see. The Guilder didn’t want to give the nymph the impression that she was hostile.
          The terrain here was treacherous. It was a good place for the animal-like thinking nymphs to live and avoid predators. The rocks kept any creature unfamiliar with the area from getting too much momentum and the trees grew wildly, their branches seeming to reach down and grab at any pursuer, that is, until Keta asked them to keep away. After she passed, they went right back to their normal behavior.
          Finally, however, Keta caught up with them. They were hiding in a shallow cave in the face of a small hill along with the rest of the group of nymphs. They had somehow, somewhere regrouped after they split up. The alfar woman stepped up to the entrance of the cave and stopped.
          She spoke in the gentlest tone she had. “My name is Keta Lowwil. I’m a Member of the Guilds of Arbitration from Haku'o.” She lifted her hands from her sides, the right one covered in tattoos that looked like bark and leaves that symbolized her membership in the Elemental Guild of Wood, which gave her the ability to manipulate plants. “I’m not here to hurt you. I only want to talk.”

          Vala’s Mom hugged the little girl so tight her shoulders were starting to hurt. When she saw the stranger step up to the entrance of the cave, Mom squeezed Vala even harder.
          Noises started coming out of the stranger’s mouth. Everyone looked at each other and nobody understood it, but she didn’t sound threatening. The stranger lifted her hands. She didn’t look like she had claws or anything that would hurt them. In fact, one of her hands looked like it was wrapped in leaves.
          Vala, feeling curious, wiggled out of her mom’s grip. Carefully, she started toward the stranger, keeping a sharp eye to make sure the stranger didn't suddenly become scary. Mom must have been shocked because it took her a few seconds to leap up and stop her. She grabbed Vala’s ankle to keep her from going but, in doing so, tripped her daughter.

          The little alfar pulled herself free from the nymph’s grip and started toward Keta. The Guild member smiled sweetly, trying to show that she wasn’t someone to be feared.
          Suddenly, the older nymph snatched the little alfar’s feet from under her and pulled her to the ground face first. Keta’s face betrayed her surprise and disgust. The nymph would actually hurt her child to protect herself?
          Keta heard the little girl start to cry. When she looked up from the ground, the child had a bloody scrape on her nose.
          Keta started toward the child but the nymph woman pulled the girl back into the cave. Keta continued forward slowly.
          “Let me help her.” Keta said. “I can heal her.” She pointed at the tip of her nose, trying to show what she meant to the speechless nymphs.

          Vala felt tears well out of her eyes as her nose throbbed. She cried for her Mom and her arms were around Vala immediately. She carried the child back into the cave, to safety.
          Vala couldn’t see what was happening because of her tears but she heard noises coming from the stranger again. It wasn’t as nice sounding as it was before but she still didn’t sound mean. Mom stopped walking back into the cave.
          Vala heard the stranger again. It sounded like she was directing the noise at her Mom, whose grip around the little girl slowly loosened. She felt something rub the tip of her nose. It stung but it felt better at the same time.
          After a few moments, Vala’s tears stopped. She saw the stranger kneeling next to Mom. Both were looking at her intently. She gave a reassuring, if uncomfortable, smile to Mom.

          After the nymph let the child go, Keta knelt over the little alfar and removed her heavy backpack. She opened the top flap and reached inside.
          The nymph looked ready to snatch the girl away again. “Please, I’m just getting my curing pouch.” The Guilder was starting to get annoyed but tried to hide it. “It will help her, I promise.”
          She pulled out a small jar of healing balm and put some on the little girl’s nose. It already started to look better, the deep red almost instantly turning soft pink. The child stopped crying, looked up and smiled. Finally, Keta felt she might be making some progress.
          The nymph pulled the little alfar up into her arms again. She looked at Keta thankfully.
          “I’ll have to put some more on in a few hours.” She pointed to the jar and then her nose. “And tomorrow, too.” She pointed to the jar and her nose again.

          Mom didn’t seem afraid of the stranger anymore. She even smiled at her. The stranger pointed at the jar and then at her nose a couple of times. Vala guessed that meant that she’d have to put that stuff on again.
          Vala hugged her Mom tightly; thankful she didn’t hurt anymore. Mom started out of the cave and motioned for the rest of the family to follow.
          The stranger just stood there, looking unsure. Mom, while still holding Vala in one arm, tugged on the stranger’s arm to get her to come along. It was getting late, almost time for bed.
          Mom led the stranger back to the sleeping place. The rest of the family looked at the stranger unsurely but let Mom have her way. The sleeping place was only a short walk anyway.
          Once there, Vala once again wiggled out of her Mom’s grip. This time, she headed straight for her favorite leaf stack before any of the other children could claim it. Mom laughed as she saw Vala race away.

          Keta didn’t know where the nymphs were leading her. She followed, working hard to keep her bearings. Thankfully, the walk through the trees was short.
          When they entered another clearing, lush and green compared to the one she initially found they nymphs in, the Guild member saw piles and piles of leaves. She was surprised when she saw the little alfar free herself from her mother’s grip and dash for one of the biggest piles. She was even more surprised when she saw the mother laugh at the girl’s actions.
          The mother motioned for Keta to follow. They both walked up to the pile of leaves the little girl decided to lay in. The mother tugged on the Guild member’s green sleeve, pointing at her nose and then at the girl.
          It took Keta a moment to figure out what the nymph meant. “Oh, you want me to put more balm on her nose.” She shrugged. “It’s a little early but I don’t see why not.”
          Keta slowly sat on the leaves next to the little girl and motioned for her to sit up. She almost bounced up next to the Guilder and pointed her nose at the older alfar, smiling.
          The mother stepped over to one of the other piles to help another nymph and her child get settled in. Keta decided to try and talk to the little girl.
          “I am Keta.” She pointed to herself. “Who are you?” She pointed to the little girl.
          She looked back at Keta quizzically. She pointed unsurely at her nose again.
          “I am Keta.” She pointed at herself again.
          After a few seconds the girl smiled wide, seeming to finally understand. “I am Keta.” She poked the woman in the stomach.
          The Guild member shook her head but smiled at the progress. “Keta.”
          This time, she did understand. She pointed at the older alfar woman again and said, “Keta.”
          Keta pointed at the little girl. “What’s your name?”
          The girl looked thoughtful for a moment then she pointed to herself. “I am Vala.”
          Keta smiled even wider, then heard a rustling beside her. Turning, she saw that the mother had a leaf bed for her or, more accurately, commandeered the one closest from that other nymph. Keta nodded to the mother then opened the jar of healing balm and applied it to Vala’s nose.

          Vala slept peacefully in the arms of her Mom that night. She didn’t know why but she felt a great sense of pride that she was the first one to learn the stranger’s name. Keta... it sounded nice. Vala liked her and hoped Keta didn’t have to leave too soon.
          In the morning, after everyone had woken up, all the Moms went into the woods to get breakfast. It had been dry lately so there weren't as many berries as usual but Mom always made sure that Vala was never worried about her stomach. In fact, she always made sure that Vala ate first out of their share of the berries.

          Keta stayed behind with the children. After putting more balm on her nose the alfar woman tried talking with Vala again. It was a slow start, Vala was able to tell Keta what the adults were doing.
          Keta pulled a thick, leather bound book out of her backpack entitled "The Field Guilde to Peoples and Creatures of Honua". She opened it to pictures of the different races of the continent. First she opened it to a picture of a nymph.
          The nymph in the picture had fine, wool like hair on her head, forearms and legs. “Nymphs.” Keta pointed to the other children, who looked a lot like the picture.
          Vala smiled and pointed at herself pridefully. “Nymph.”
          Keta shook her head and turned to a different page in the book. “Alfar.” She pointed to the page, to herself and then to Vala.
          Vala’s eyebrows pressed together. “Nymph.” She insisted, poking herself in the chest.
          Keta shook her head again. She pointed to Vala’s pointed ears and then to the pointed ears of the slender alfar woman in the book.
          Vala frowned, thinking hard. She lunged at the book and started pushing the pages back to the picture of the nymph.
          She pointed at the curly, woolen hair of the nymph in the picture. Lifting her hand from the page, she tugged at her own golden, wavy locks.
          “Nymph.” She scowled at Keta.
          Keta looked at Vala. The Guilder hadn’t thought of it, but it was rare for alfar to have curly hair, not unheard of but rare. She looked down at the picture of the nymph.
          She thumbed back to the picture of the alfar and it long, straight black hair. Keta’s hair was short and auburn but also straight. There had to be a reason for Vala to resemble… both… races.
          Of course! Vala must be a half-breed. Keta didn’t really like the term but couldn’t think of a better one. Nymphs have been said to be desirable to most any species. Vala’s father must have been an alfar!
          Before she could try and explain this to Vala, a very somber looking group of adult nymphs walked into the clearing, each carrying small handfuls of berries.

          It was really bad this morning. None of the family could find much of the berries and fruit they knew and liked. So they were forced to experiment with some new kinds.
          They both had tried this yesterday. Mom was lucky to find a new berry that was purple and bumpy and tasted okay. Mom had picked some more of what looked like that kind of berry for Vala. And she couldn’t find much of even that.
          Mom motioned for Vala to hold her hands out. Scooting away from Keta, she lifted her hands to her Mom.
          Mom dropped all of the berries from her hand into Vala’s. Vala looked down at the berries then up to Mom’s empty hands. She motioned to Mom to share.
          Mom shook her head. She sat down next to Vala, kissed her forehead and told her to eat.

          When Vala moved away, Keta knew she had made a mistake to try and explain why she was different so soon. The girl's worried looking mother then dropped barely a handful of berries into her daughter’s smaller hands.
          Vala didn’t want the berries and tried to give them back to her mother. The nymph refused and insisted that Vala eat with a series of grunts.
          Vala looked at the berries unsurely. Finally she picked one up and started to bring it to her lips…
          Keta jumped and knocked them out of Vala’s hands. She hurriedly checked Vala’s hands and face to see if even any juice had touched her skin. Keta breathed a quick sigh of relief when she saw no sign. Then she turned to Vala’s mother.
          “Are you crazy? Trying to feed your daughter Sivle Berries!” Keta pointed an accusing finger at Vala’s mother, who cowered back, looking confused. “Is this how you test new foods? Just getting the juice on her hands would kill her!”
          Behind her, Keta suddenly heard one of the other children start to gag. The color drained from the woman’s face.
          “Oh, sweet spirit of mercy.” The Guilder dove into her backpack for the curing pouch.
          Opening the small bag, she dug for a potion that could counter most poisons. Finding it, she ran to the other child and force-fed her a mouthful of the blue liquid. Her breathing improved almost immediately. Keta almost relaxed then but then she realized that the many of the other nymphs, mothers and children alike, would likely have gotten the juice on their hands as well.
          The illness crept through the adults quickly. Keta treated them as fast as she could but they would be sick for a while. Thankfully, only four of the nymphs had come in contact with the poisonous berry. Unfortunately, Vala’s mother was one of them.

          When Keta started walking toward Vala’s Mom with that bottle of blue stuff, Vala jumped up to stop her. She wasn’t going to let Keta hurt her Mom. It wasn’t until Mom started making weird noises and coughing that the little girl realized what was happening.
          Vala turned and saw her Mom’s hands, covered with purple spots from the berry juice, reach up and cover her mouth, trying to stop her coughing. Keta rushed to Mom’s side and poured some of that liquid between the nymph's fingers into her mouth. Mom stopped gagging but she still moaned weakly.
          Worried, Vala sat next to her Mom on the leaf stack, never taking her eyes off of her. It took Keta a while but after she had given some of that juice to the other nymphs, the alfar woman lowered herself beside Vala and put an arm around the little girl shoulders. Vala didn't move an inch the entire time.
          Keta had pulled another, smaller book out of her backpack and showed Vala a picture of the blue liquid. She said something that sounded comforting but couldn't understand the words.
          Vala didn’t know what “poison” was. She pushed the book away, shrugged off Keta’s arm and laid down beside her Mom, trying to comfort the nymph.

          Keta slipped the Guild Potions and Medicine Guide back into her pack. She pulled the large Field Book back onto her lap and looked up the Sivle Berry.
          She showed the picture and the poison symbol to Vala. “This is the poison that potion will cure. Your mother will be fine.”
          Keta unrolled the blanket from her pack and placed it over Vala and her mother. She gave the child a reassuring smile.
          "Don’t worry, Vala.” Keta pulled a loaf of bread and cheese out of her backpack and gave Vala a slice of each.
          The little girl reluctantly reached out from under the blanket and took the offering. Keta grinned at the little half nymph as she practically inhaled the food after the first taste. Her stomach was obviously working just fine.
          “I’ll take care of you. All of you.” She looked back at the other ill nymphs.

          The following weeks passed both slow and fast for Vala. Slow whenever she thought of her Mom, who was too sick to even walk. Vala worried about her so much. Fast when Keta was showing her things in that big book the young nymph was growing to adore.
          She learned a lot of things that helped make her Mom more comfortable. Vala learned how to build a fire, to keep Mom warm at night, what berries and fruits were safe to eat and how to make a bowl to bring water up from the stream so that Mom didn’t get thirsty.
          As she learned all these wonderful things, including the language of the alfar, she told her Mom about them. Her Mom was happy but Vala could tell she didn’t understand. Still, Vala told her everything.

          The day after Vala’s mother had fallen ill, Keta wrote a Phoenix Epistle, a parchment soaked in a special chemical that, when set aflame, the message written upon it would launch off to the Guild Council. Even though it would be delivered almost instantly, she knew it would be some time before she got a reply.
          “I write this epistle to you in request your guidance.” She wrote. “I found a girl with Guild potential in King’s Forest. She is around eight years old, a mixed race of alfar and nymph named Vala.
          “I have observed behavior that bordered on abusive when they at first considered me a threat. I had to keep half of their group from eating the poisonous Sivle Berry and treat some who had already eaten it.
          “I am not certain if this is a suitable or safe environment for a young alfar. I need instruction on how to proceed. Shall I return with the girl to Haku'o, or leave her in the normal, albeit dangerous, care of her natural mother?”
          She also wrote down some of her specific experiences since she'd come to stay with the nymphs and included them in the message. While Keta waited for a reply, she taught Vala everything she could out of the tomes she carried in her pack. Vala eagerly learned everything from language to basic survival skills to mathematics and science.
          Keta's heart was conflicted at what to do next. She was lost until the Council’s epistle came to give her instruction.

          Mom sat up for the first time in weeks. She slouched, obviously still weak but at least she was up! Vala almost tackled Mom back into the leaves that had somehow stayed greener than every other pile with a relieved hug. Smiling, Mom wrapped her arms around her daughter.
          “Keta! Keta!” Vala called into the trees. “Mom’s feeling better!”
          After a few moments Keta came out of the woods, looking up at the sky. “That’s good news, Vala.”
          Keta knelt and started to examine Mom. She pulled some things out of her curing pouch, which she had started wearing around her waist. She poked a little stick into Mom’s mouth and checked Mom’s heartbeat by pressing her fingers against Mom's neck. How that worked had taken quite a bit of explaining to the little girl.
          Vala looked at Keta expectantly. “Well?”
          Keta looked thoughtful for a moment… then smiled. “She’ll be fine. One or two more days and she’ll be as good as new.”
          Vala jumped at the happy news and hugged Keta as hard as she could. She held her for a few moments then dropped back to Mom to hug her again. Tears started to roll out of her young eyes.

          Keta sighed as she sank onto her leaf pile for the night. Hers and Vala's had stayed greener than the rest over the passing weeks due to the energies that like to stay near the Wood Guild members. She was glad Vala’s mother was feeling better and the look of relief in Vala’s eyes… the feeling that gave Keta still filled her heart with warmth.
          The Guilder looked up to for her favorite constellations for the last time that night when she noticed an unusual light dancing through the sky. She recognized it almost immediately: A Phoenix Epistle.
          Keta jumped up from her leaf pile as quickly and quietly as she could and dashed into the nearby trees. It would be difficult to explain why she was catching fire falling from the sky to the nymphs. She forced herself not to pace but that didn't keep the woman's feet from stomping into the soft earth impatiently for the message to traverse the distance.
          Finally the message in the shape of a bird made of flame landed in her hands and transformed into a normal envelope with the seal of the Guilds Council on it. She ripped it open straight away and read:
          “Guilder Lowwil, we sympathize with your dilemma and are thankful you turned to us for guidance.” The letter continued. “Based on your report to us, including injuring of the child to keep the adults from harm and possible use of the children to test the safety of new food sources, it may be prudent to take the young child, Vala, from the dangerous surroundings to those that will ensure her safety.
          However, while nymphs may be creatures of instinct, it is rare for beings to use their offspring in the ways you have described. Please be sure you are correct in your assessments before you make final judgment.”
          When Keta finished the letter, it didn’t fill her with relief like she thought it would. On the contrary, it left her heart as heavy as ever as the decision was still up to her.

          “Keta's been acting funny since Mom started feeling better.” Vala wrote very slowly and carefully in the blank journal Keta had given her, making sure to use all the right letters for each word. “Is she going to be leaving soon? I hope not. I hope she can stay with us forever.”
          The young girl sat near her still green leaf pile on a log that she and Keta had dragged into the clearing to use as a study area. All the other nymphs had gone off to get fresh leaves to replace their browning piles to slept in and, more often, play as usual. Even Mom had started joining them, not wanting to interrupt Vala's new education. She didn't understand what they were doing, all Mom knew was that it was making Vala happy.
          Keta had left to do something called “meditation” after she gave Vala the journal and told her to practice writing in the book. Keta did say, though, that what Vala wrote in this was personal, for herself alone, and that the Guilder wouldn't read it so it could say anything she wanted. So Vala wanted to make sure she did it right.
          The little girl quickly lifted the book to her chest to cover the writing when she heard someone coming. She relaxed and laid the book back flat on her lap when she saw it was her Mom. She was always the first back into the clearing. She made sure that Keta had time to teach but Mom wanted to keep her time away from Vala as short as she could.
          She kissed her daughter’s cheek as she sat next to her. Looking down at the writing, Mom lightly ran her finger over the drying ink, smudging it but the writing was still easily readable. She smiled as she looked up at Vala.
          “Pretty.” It was the only word in the alfar language Vala was able to teach her mother.
          Vala wasn’t sure if she was referring to the writing or her and didn’t care to ask. She leaned her head on Mom’s shoulder and closed her eyes. She wasn’t sure if she could get much happier than this.
          Vala and her Mom sat there in the clearing together for a long while. They didn’t speak. They didn’t have to.
          Vala didn’t open her eyes until she heard twigs snapping under the feet of a new arrival. When she saw it was Keta, she made sure the journal was closed and smiled at her first alfar friend.

          Keta paced back and forth in the solitude of the trees all morning. She couldn’t wait any longer. She had to make a decision.
          And that was to find Vala’s mother to try and explain herself to a woman with no language. It didn’t take long to find her. The full blooded nymph was never far from her daughter, though she stayed out of sight during lessons. Since Keta hadn't been with her, Vala's mother returned to the clearing and was sitting next to her child.
          Vala closed the journal Keta had given her and smiled up at Keta. The Guilder gave a hesitant half smile back. This was going to be harder than the alfar thought.
          Vala’s mother looked upset when Vala closed the book and smacked her daughter's shoulder. “Pretty.” She pointed at the book then at Keta.
          Vala girl shook her head at her mother. The nymph snatched the book from the girl's hands and started to rise from the log. Vala grabbed for the journal and started wrestling with her mother. Still, the child just wasn't as strong as the full grown woman and Vala’s mother pulled the book from the child's grasp, causing Vala to sprawl onto the ground.
          That made Keta's decision much easier. Vala had to come back to Haku'o with her. The Guild member's determination steeled in the face of what was happening.
          Vala’s mother stepped toward Keta with that same na├»ve smile the nymph had on her face since she recovered. She started thumbing through the journal, holding it upside down as she walked.
          Keta marched up and snatched the book from the unsure fingers of Vala's mother. She stepped around the nymph and started toward Vala herself. Keta forced herself to not look back at the other dumbfounded woman.
          She handed the little girl's journal back to her. “Come along, Vala.” She held out her hand to help the little girl up. “It’s time we left.”
          Clutching her journal in one hand and Keta’s hand in the other, Vala rose to her feet. They started for the leaf bed where Keta kept her backpack. Vala’s mother stumbled behind them, making grunts and other sounds that made her confusion obvious.

          What had gotten into Mom? Vala looked up from the ground, not physically hurt but definitely confused as Mom was looked through her journal and walked over to Keta.
          Suddenly, Vala understood. Her mother wanted to show what Vala had written to Keta. She didn’t know that it was supposed to be personal. Vala had never explained that to her.
          Keta took Vala’s book from Mom’s hands and marched over. The alfar woman held out her tattooed hand to Vala as she returned the journal with the other.
          “Come along, Vala. It’s time we left.”
          Vala walked hand in hand with Keta to the leaf bed. The grown up woman looked upset.
          Keta picked up her backpack and slung it over her shoulders. Over the last few days, it had been hard for Keta to find some items when she was teaching Vala. Since she started keeping the bag packed all the time now.
          “Where are we going, Keta? To the river bed?” Vala asked, her gold eyebrows pressing together.
          Keta shook her head. “No, we’re going to Haku'o.”
          Vala stopped walking. “Where’s Haku'o?”
          Keta turned and looked at the little girl. Vala’s eyes opened wide as she figured out what was happening. Keta was taking her away. Taking her away from her home, her family… her Mom.
          “No!” Vala started backpedaling away from the alfar. “I want to stay here!”
          A pleading look crossed Keta’s face. “I know, Vala, but it’s not good for you here.”
          The little girl felt tears welling in her eyes. “Yes it is!”
          Keta shook her head, looking on the verge of crying herself. “No, baby, it’s not.”
          “Mom loves me!” Vala started shaking all over.
          “I know she does.” She knelt in front of the child. “But she can’t take care of you.”
          Keta reached out with her hand and took Vala’s free arm. Vala pulled away from her.
          “Then I can take care of her!”
          The girl threw the journal down at her feet and started to run. But Keta was quicker and grabbed her by the arm again.
          “I can only hope that someday you’ll know I did this for your own good.” With her free hand, Keta picked up Vala’s journal and started dragging the little girl into the forest.
          With a howl of grief and anger, the grown nymph charged into Keta, tackling her to the ground. Pinning her to the dirt, Mom looked up at Vala.
          “Pretty!” She motioned for Vala to run away.
          Vala couldn’t run. Not because she didn't want to but her legs just wouldn't move. How could everything be so perfect then come crashing down around her so fast?

          Keta felt her muscles rip as she was shoved to the ground. Her backpack was so thick it stretched her spine into an unnatural position just short of breaking. Blood started rushing to her ears as the pain rushed through her body, making her unable to hear a thing past her throbbing eardrums.
          She pushed Vala’s mother off of her. The nymph rolled into the dusty ground but quickly picked herself back up. Keta lifted herself to her feet in agony. The backpack stayed on the ground. The alfar woman looked around and saw Vala standing in stunned silence.
          With a heavy, heaving breath Keta raised her hands, readying to defend herself from the nymph. Vala’s mother charged straight at her, screaming as loudly as the air could come out. This time Keta had the grass snag around the feet of Vala’s mother, making her lose balance. Not wanting to seriously injure the nymph Keta then simply lifted her boot, tripping the nymph back down to the dirt before she could even touch the Guild member. Keta just wanted to stop the woman from fighting back anymore.
          From the ground, dust clinging to her cheek, Vala’s mother looked pleadingly at her daughter. “Pretty...”
          Keta stepped over the nymph and towards the little girl. Vala’s mother lunged and wrapped her arms around the alfar's legs to stop her.
          “Pretty?” Tears welled down her mother's cheeks, washing the dirt from her face.

          Vala couldn’t understand. Why was this happening? Her feet wouldn’t move. She couldn’t run. Why?
          Keta tripped Mom trip made her fall into the Guild member's big backpack, knocking it over and spilling its contents over the ground. She'd seen the Wood Guilder make plants grow faster before but never to hurt anyone. Keta started toward Vala again.
          Something snapped inside of the little half-nymph. She charged at Keta with all she had.
          Keta let out a yelp of pain and surprise as she struck the dirt beside the full grown nymph, her already ripped muscles feeling as if they were on fire. Vala sat on Keta's chest, not letting her breathe as she slammed the journal into the alfar’s head.
          “You hurt my Mom!” The tears fell from Vala’s eyes to Keta’s face.
          “You tried to take me from her!”
          “I thought you liked me!”

          Vala lifted her arms for another strike but the book wouldn't come back down. Looking up, she saw Mom gripping the journal tight.
          Mom had such a look of anguish in her eyes that Vala immediately dropped the book and jumped up to hug and try and comfort her. Vala felt herself cry even harder when she felt the softness of Mom’s arms fold around her more gently than ever.

          Keta slowly tried to lift herself from the ground and found that she couldn’t. She looked over at Vala with her mother, embracing each other tightly. On the ground beside her laid Vala’s journal lying open on its first entry:
          “Keta's been acting funny since Mom started feeling better. Is she going to be leaving soon? I hope not. I hope she can stay with us forever.” The handwriting, while simple, was so... pretty, so pure that it was like there was no filter between the sentiment and the words.
          She lost consciousness after that. When Keta awoke, the alfar found herself lying on a familiar leaf bed, staring at the familiar, albeit not as open face of little Vala.
          “How long have I been unconscious?” Keta croaked.
          Vala lifted her small clay bowl of water to Keta’s lips. “Two days.”
          She sounded like someone speaking to a total stranger, saying only what was necessary to convey only essential information. The Guild member took small sips of the cool water. As she did she saw Vala’s bruised mother rubbing ointment on her wounds, no doubt at her daughter’s request.
          Keta’s lips trembled. “I’m sorry, Vala.”
          Vala looked at her as Keta might have looked at a wagon she was repairing. She put the bowl down and readjusted the blanket around Keta.
          "You’ll be able to go back to… Haku'o,” Vala barely choked out the name of the city. “Tomorrow. Until then, Mom and I are taking care of you.”
          “You AND your Mom?” Keta couldn’t hide the disbelief in her voice.
          Vala nodded proudly. “Yeah, she’s been finding all the things that fell out of your backpack after you knocked her into it.”
          Keta cringed at the reminder of what happened. A new wave of guilt washed over her.
          “I guess you don’t want me to stay forever anymore?” She couldn’t keep the sadness from creeping into her voice.
          Vala tried to hide her surprise. She didn't realize that Keta had seen the entry after all. She tried to busy herself by folding some rags.
          “I’m sorry, Vala.” Keta started again. “What I did was wrong. I know that now.” The alfar looked enviously at Vala’s mother, who was putting ointment on where it wasn’t needed. “She was just trying to show me that entry so you could know how proud she was of you.”
          Now the little girl’s lower lip trembled. She nodded and blinked hard, fighting tears from coming.
          “She needs you here.” Keta motioned to her mother. “Otherwise she’d be covered from head to toe in healing balm.”
          Vala turned and looked at her mother. She rushed over and stopped the nymph from putting on any more medicine. She took the jar from her mother and placed it neatly back into the curing pouch and returned to Keta’s side.
          “Did I ever tell you why I came here in the first place?” Keta asked.
          Vala slowly shook her head. “No.”
          “I sensed an aura with Guild potential. You do remember what I told you about the Guilds?”
          The child nodded. “They help and protect people no matter what species or belief.”
          Keta nodded back. “We make mistakes.” She cringed to herself. “But that’s why we always look for new friends to join us.”

          Vala frowned. “Is that what you were going to make me do? Join you?”
          Keta shook her head. “I just wanted you to be safe. Whether or not you joined the Guilds was always going to be completely up to you.
          “We always look for people who can help us help others.” A tear slipped down Keta's cheek. “Please don’t judge the rest of the Guilds by my mistake. We actually do a lot of good.”
          Vala grunted. “You only came here to draft a new recruit.”
          Keta raised an eyebrow. “Where did you learn that word?”
          Vala lifted the thick Field Guide. “I’ve been reading it for the last two days.”
          The alfar chuckled to herself. As she did, the tears Keta was fighting flowed out of her eyes unrestrained.
          “What’s so funny?” Vala folded her arms sternly.
          “I didn’t come here to draft you, Vala.” The Guild member choked back a lump in her throat. “I came here to show you your potential.” She laughed louder. “And you just showed me that you had more than even I thought.”
          Vala's breath caught in her throat. “Really?”
          “Yes. Really.” Keta yawned.
          And she fell back into a peaceful slumber. When Mom knelt down next to her, looking confused by what just happened, Vala showed her the herb she had put in Keta’s water to make the Guilder sleep.

          Keta was all packed and ready to go. Only Vala, with the Field Guide and her journal in her arms, and her mother were left in the clearing to see her off. She started to lift her backpack but put it back on the ground.
          She walked over to Vala’s mother. “I am truly sorry for what I did.” She knew she couldn’t understand the words but she continued anyway. “You have a very pretty daughter.”
          Vala’s mother smiled. “Pretty.”
          Keta nodded and hugged Vala’s mother tightly. Catching her by surprise, she just stood there for a moment but, at last, returned the hug. The alfar finally released her and gave the nymph one last, gentle smile before kneeling down in front of Vala.
          She held up two envelopes, one sealed and one open. “These are called Phoenix Epistles. We use these to communicate with other members of the Guilds.” She shook the sealed one. “I’m sending this to my leaders to tell them what I did here.” A pained look flashed over Keta's face then she shook the unsealed one and handed it to Vala. “This one is for you. If you decide to join the Guilds, just write on the paper inside this envelope and light it on fire to tell me. No matter where I am, I’ll get it.”
          Vala held the paper uncertainly. “What if I don’t want to join?”
          “Then tell me if you want to come for a visit. Or simply keep it as a reminder of the good times we had together.” Keta rose and lifted her backpack onto her shoulders. “I hope to hear from you in three or four years.”
          She waved to the little girl and started out of the clearing. Vala hurried after the Guild member.
          “Wait!” She clutched the books tightly to keep from dropping them as she ran. “Aren’t you going to give me a hug?”
          Keta looked down at her for a long moment. “Well your arms are awfully full and I’m in this clunky backpack…”
          Vala looked for a clean place to set her books. She looked almost ready to just drop them into the dirt.
          The alfar knew what she was thinking and stopped her. “Tell you what.” She knelt down in front of Vala again. “If you come to Haku'o, Guild member or not, I’ll give you the biggest hug you’ll have ever gotten. Is that a deal?”
          The little girl rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. “…I guess so.”
          Keta started out of the clearing again. When she reached the trees, she looked back for one last lingering look at Vala. Taking a deep breath and she started back into the forest for Haku'o, the Guild City.

* * *

          Three years, eleven months and nine days later:

          Keta jumped when the unexpected Phoenix Epistle landed on her desk, covering the paperwork she had been working on. She looked at it curiously, saw who it was from, and tore into the letter eagerly:
          “Dearest Keta,” It began in the prettiest penmanship the newly ordained Guild Councilwoman had ever read. “I am writing to tell you of both sad and happy news. First, I will tell you the sad.
          “My mother recently passed away due to old age. She lived to a hearty thirty-six springs, not bad for a nymph according to my research. Before she passed she made me promise to be the smartest, best person I could be. She made sure I read from the Field Guide and wrote in my journal everyday (and believe me when I tell you the writing has gotten very small toward the end). That brings me to the happy news…”
          Keta continued reading the letter not looking up at anything else. “To fulfill my promise to my mother I have decided to join the Guilds. I am en route to Haku'o as we speak. In fact, I am writing this from just outside the city walls.
          “I hope to see you shortly and get that hug. Truly your pretty, Vala.”

          Vala, adjusting the straps of her makeshift backpack, stepped through the stone archway of the western wall, looking upon the inside of the city in awe. She saw a multitude of alfar, humans, dwarves and other races go about their business on the grounds.
          She nodded a greeting to an alfar man up in a tree, trimming the branches with only his hands. After she passed Vala heard a thud but didn’t realize that the he had fallen to the ground in shock.
          The half nymph walked down the trail to the largest building in the city, a great structure with seven walls that were each made of one solid piece of stone with giant trees making up its five corners. Vala noticed people were staring as she passed but she didn’t care. The young woman was too overcome by what she was seeing in this city, the first she had ever been in.
          As she neared the entrance on the southern wall of the giant stone building she noticed two alfar about the same age as her standing beside it. The short one with black hair stared at her, flabbergasted.
          The other, taller one with brown hair didn’t look up from his book until the first smacked him in the shoulder. "Sil!"
          Looking up at Vala, the same look came across his face… then his black haired friend fell down and he had to help him up. "Cyrus? You okay?"
          Keta ran out of the entrance, nearly smacking the two young alfar with the swinging door. Keta dashed straight to Vala and gave her the biggest, tightest hug anyone since her Mom had given her.
          They stayed that way for some time until Keta noticed something. “Vala, dear?”
          Keta pulled her emerald green tunic off and draped it around the half nymph's shoulders. “We alfar aren’t used to lovely, maturing young ladies walking around the grounds naked.”
          Vala looked down at herself and pulled the tunic in tight around her. “Oops, must have forgotten that part.”
          “It’s alright.” The woman ushered Vala into the building. “Come in, come in. I’ll get you some clothes of your own then I’ll introduce you to our leader, Warlock Bishop Asellus. He really is an unbelievable man.” Keta closed the double doors behind her, blocking off all the staring Guild members. “Then I’ll get you a copy of the newest edition of the Field Guide.”
          “Newest edition?” Vala smiled at the chance to learn something new.
          “Oh, yes, it has been almost four years, you know…”