Twilight had come, and Viridiane was still walking. The sun had blinked at her from between the densely packed trees once more, then disappeared behind the forested hills to the west, leaving her cold and feeling immensely alone. Soon it would be dark. She should have stopped and made camp already, but something kept pushing her forward. She was so close.
Or at least, she should have been, according to Jarven. Her employer was a well-traveled man, and claimed that he had been to the City in the Forest many times. That’s why Viridiane had stolen his map, after all.
Her face burned with renewed shame at the thought, and she swiped a strand of dark blonde hair out of her face self-consciously. Jarven would forgive her, right? She wasn’t sure when or how she would return to Enley, especially after the fight with her father, but it wasn’t like she wanted to leave for good! And it would be nice to not come back to being immediately fired. Hopefully her father wouldn’t blame Jarven either; the apothecary didn’t know anything about what Viridiane had planned in the last few weeks. She had been careful not to share, not even with those few friends that she had.
But what else was she supposed to do? It was unfair of dad, not to allow her to know the truth about her mother. The further she’d pondered it throughout the years and the harder her father had forbidden her to inquire, the more certain she’d become that she wanted those answers. “It is better you don’t get involved,” he always said, his face hard, full of anger, but sadness too. “Your mother loved you, but she could not live the way we do. It was her decision, and we need to respect it.”
As a pang of sadness resonated through her body, she clutched her chest for a second, losing her balance in the thickening underbrush. It wasn’t right. Getting to know her mother wasn’t supposed to separate her from her life.
But wasn’t this the exact thing the half-elves of Hollowhold had warned her about? They’d told her she would never be part of either world, not really. She would always be somewhere in between, yearning for more, but never belonging.
She couldn’t accept this. Not until she tried. She was twenty years old now, an adult, even among elves. She refused to live in ignorance, to pretend to be satisfied and to always be the quiet and obedient one. If she understood it right, her mother was a powerful elven dignitary. What did that make her? She needed to know what her legacy was.
And there was the magic as well, of course. She wanted to learn about magic.
She’d been walking along the bed of a long dried-out, small river for the last few hours, circling jagged cliffs, tall boulders, and tangled brush that made it difficult to traverse the terrain. In the beginning, the forest had been quite sparse, but by the time the sky had darkened, she was in the thick of it. Always following the old riverbed, heading north, like the map showed.
The nearest human settlement, apart from Enley, was days away from here. This was South Ostia, packed with ancient woods, swamps, and hills hiding ruins of long-forgotten temples and towers, nothing like the developed, more urban North Viridiane only heard from travelers’ tales.
Her vision was always better than a human’s and the moonlight trickling down from above helped as well. During the rush of her preparations in the morning, she was also careful enough to switch her usual working outfit consisting of a long skirt and a blouse to a more comfortable dark blue tunic and sturdy boots combination. But she was getting tired and was not used to the environment, and it slowly got to the point that she couldn’t take a step without stumbling on a rock or a root jutting out of the ground. She finally had to stop, leaning against the knotted trunk of a tall grey tree, dejected, breathing in the chilly air. All of a sudden, the feeling of being very exposed rushed her.
She took her bag off her shoulder and rummaged around for a torch and her flints. She might not need the light to see, but the warmth would do her good—both physically and mentally. The gates should be close already, right? Just a little more walking. The thought of spending the night in some fancy elven cottage under soft blankets instead of alone in the middle of the dark forest was alluring.
A menacing howl echoed between the hills, stopping her hands that were trying to work a spark out of the flints. Her heart hammered in her chest. Right. Wild animals. She knew there were beasts around these parts; that was expected. So, maybe it wasn’t such a smart idea to light a fire, after all.
She stumbled forward, torch forgotten, her fingers fumbling for her shortsword. If she didn’t reach the City, she needed to find a cave or a nook to use as a shelter until the sun came up again. Darn it, she should have walked faster! Or brought a horse. Maybe a cart? She bit her lips. Awfully unprepared, that’s what she was. “Impulsive” and “thoughtless”, as her father would have said.
She whipped her head around, scanning the forest as she trudged forward. Turning back wasn’t an option. But what should she do then?
There! Up ahead, among the trees, something glinted.
The shimmering of the light almost seemed intentional as if it was calling for her. She shooed away the thought, frustrated. If nothing else, it might have been a torchlight from the City. Maybe she really was close.
Viridiane started off with revived energy, careful not to make too much noise, eyes fixed on the light source in the distance. She only vaguely noticed the forest opening up around her, the column-like trunks receding to give space for what seemed to be the blurry outlines of lithe, adorned wooden buildings scattered between and up on the trees. The faint moonlight painted everything blue-grey like in a dream. There were no lit torches, no candles, though, and no one was around.
But she wasn’t looking around anymore at all, because the source of the glimmering light was right in front of her, floating mid-air in the center of a circular, paved town square.
It was a frilled sheet of white light, fluttering in the wind like the softest blankets on a clothesline. Its upper corner seemed to be suspended five arms-length from the ground in the air, and the waves of light spread forth towards the ground from it in slowly moving ripples. It looked similar to one of the illustrations of the dancing rainbow lights of the far north that Viridiane had seen in a book once, except this one was lacking those brilliant colors.
She took another step towards it as if drawn on a string. A quick thought passed through her mind that maybe this wasn’t such a great idea, but the warning came and went without effect. Stopping only a few inches short of the apparition, she narrowed her eyes at it to see more details. The greyish-white light blooming forth seemingly from nothing was faint and ethereal, but somehow still powerful, and thin tendrils of darkness were spreading throughout the frills like veins enmeshing a large leaf.
A vision, manifesting in solitude. A secret that someone had left behind. Would it be as mesmerizing to touch it as it was to watch?
In a daze, she lifted her arm and reached out.
There was a shriek in her head, and the glowing material twitched and constricted, like a hurt animal. Viridiane tried to yank her hand back, but it was too late. The threads jerked forward and entwined her fingers, suddenly growing thicker and stronger, clinging to her, pulling her in.
Viridiane cried out, desperately trying to get free. The sculpture of light in front of her collapsed on itself with a screeching, pained sound. She pulled and pulled, but the grey threads burrowed under her skin; the light was behind her eyes now, in her mind, breaking and tearing apart everything inside her. She screamed and screamed and screamed—until everything went quiet, and dark, and still.
When she woke up, she was lying on the ground, and it was morning.
She sat, feeling woozy and exhausted. As the events of the previous day pushed into her mind in a whirlwind of scattered memories, she frantically clasped at her arms and hands searching for the grey threads that had trapped her. But they were nowhere to be seen; her dark brown skin was unblemished and smooth. Was it just a dream? Had she been that exhausted that she’d imagined the whole scene?
But then her eyes focused on her environment, and she saw.
She was indeed in the middle of what seemed to be the central plaza of a city built into the shadows of the forest. The cobblestone floor beneath her was firm and well-made, just like the tidy, tall wooden houses and towers that stood circling the square. But she only needed to take one observant moment to notice the many signs of destruction as well.
Most of the buildings and spires were damaged, burned, or broken apart; the sprouting, elegant arches stood half-collapsed, the gates embellished with flower motifs and precious metal inlays lay wrecked and demolished. The place was completely empty; no one walked the narrow alleys, and no one was looking out at her from behind the windows.
The City in the Forest was dead. The elves had disappeared, perished, or left.
Along with her mother.
Viridiane climbed to her feet, trying to grasp for explanations, her limbs aching like she’d been in a fight. What could have happened to the town? The last news from here that reached Enley hadn’t talked about any disturbance or attacks, and that had only been maybe two weeks ago. She knew because she’d checked. How could a whole city disappear like this?
The sheet of grey light from the previous night was nowhere to be seen. She searched for any sign of it or a similar phenomenon around the town, but there was none. The only thing she found was a small grey crystal, resting on the ground not far from where she had fainted. She hesitantly took it into her hands, but the stone seemed inert and harmless. From inside it, the same strange light glinted at her that had come from that material—creature? portal? artifact?—that she’d touched.
She shuddered. Something peculiar had happened to her back then. She felt it, as sure as she was breathing air, and as sure as she was standing on stone.
And as the light in the crystal blinked like it understood her thoughts and agreed to them, and a feeling—a small tingle of anxiety, a tiny jab of a knife so sharp—answered it from her chest, she knew.
Something was different. She was different.