Preview Chapter: Darkness

The Underground City of Ikedria

The neon lights that twisted and curled into art lent a familiar hum and glow as Elspethe wandered slowly back from her meeting with her mentor to her home in the noble quarter of Ikedria, the underground city so named because it was ‘Ikara’s’ in D’leesh. The dark elves, or Ikedrians—meaning those belonging to Ikara—had made the underground darkness their own, and it seemed to envelop her in warm, comforting arms as she walked. She thought briefly of the wood elves and high elves that made their homes above ground – the wood elves going one step higher and living in the very trees of the Great Forest – and scowled. To be so far away from the ground and from Father Ikara was just beyond comprehension. Why would you want to stray so far into the light when the delicious, warm darkness was there, waiting to cover you up and keep you safe? It made no sense.

Elspethe Turlach was an Ikedrian wizard, and while she despised the ways of her elven cousins, she had sought out a particularly well-known high elf wizard for some training. His name was Taeben, and it was rumored that he could command both the ways of the wizard and of dragon magic. He could bend an enemy to his will, mesmerize that enemy to remain still, and then strike the enemy down with the natural forces at the disposal of those with wizard training. It was all too enticing, and Elspethe had found herself unable to pass up the chance to train with him.

At first, he had agreed to meet her on neutral ground, a fact that she could plainly understand. It was not safe for either of their kind to enter each other’s home cities, nor would it be safe for them to be seen together in public. Elspethe’s own siblings had both fallen in love with their above-ground dwelling cousins, and it had not ended well for them. Her twin sister, Maelfie, had run away with a wood elf named Cursik, who hadn’t even had the respect for his mate’s kind to return her body home when she was killed in the wilderness. Maelfie’s death had hit Elspethe hard, and she had made sure that the wood elf had paid for his role in her death when they finally met above ground in the Great Forest. Surely Father Ikara had guided her footsteps straight to that moaning and morose male on the day of his death.

Yet another wood elf had been the ruin of Elspethe’s brother, Kamendar. Elspethe could not remember her name but knew that she had gotten herself killed by the very Rajah of Qatu’anari. Kamendar had not been the same since learning of her death, and he had been one of the most promising sorcerers in his guild. The Turlach family was among the noble houses of Ikedria and had been even as far back as the Forest War centuries ago.

Kamendar, or Kam as Elspethe called him, had taken on head of household at the death of their parents.  Tasked with all sorts of tasks befitting a house of their standing, he had excelled in his position—House Turlach was known throughout dark elf society as one of the strongest. However, all Kamendar did was travel daily to sit in the Outpost near the Fabled Ones hall, waiting for his love to return. He swore from time to time that he saw her run past and would therefore not be moved — just in case the news of her death was a mistake. His mind, once sharp as his wit, now could not do more than mumble her name and watch for her return.

Elspethe came back from her musing as a trickle of water bypassed the magical glowing design on the wall and ran onto the back of her hand. She jumped, startled, and then chastised herself for becoming so lost in her thoughts that she almost touched the lights—she remembered other friends who encountered the painted lines when they were younger. The burns on their fingers lasted weeks because the healers in the community refused to treat them. It is better to let them learn from their actions and have a constant reminder to never forget what they have done. It was the way of her people—considered cruel to outsiders, yet it was effective. She did not even have scars from the blisters, and she had not forgotten.

She quickened her pace, not sure how much time she had lost while mired in memories. It would not do for her to be late to the guild meeting, considering that she had been above ground to meet with Taeben as well as to hunt. Elspethe had been very careful not to be seen with the high elf, but her people were nothing if not stealthy when checking up on a member of the community suspected of wrongdoing. How many times had she seen a flash of cerulean skin duck behind a tree when she was running around the perimeter of the Great Forest as a young one? It gave her courage then, but now it made her feel guilty. However, it would all resolve when her guild master saw how strong she had become and confident she was now in her magical training.

The guild hall was teeming when she slipped in the back door. “Have I missed the roll call?” she whispered to Vetri, a fellow wizard and childhood friend of Elspethe’s. The dark elf female shook her head. “Good.” Meriel Q’Indyrk, the wizard guild master, stepped up in front of the throng, and all of them sat in unison. Juxtaposed with individuality was the superiority of the Ikedrian over all the other races of Orana; Ikedrians still held a strong sense of knowing one’s place in the community. This was probably a result of the training that young Ikedrians received from the time that they were old enough to stand up and walk into their chosen guild halls. The practice often included beatings and torture, and only the strongest would prevail to become full members of the guild.

Elspethe could remember vividly training at the hand of her own master, or A’chyra in D’Leesh, Meriel Q’Indyrk. She was particularly cruel and took her students for individual training with some of the most fearsome creatures in the Great Forest. Those that survived the training became the most powerful and feared wizards in all of Orana. A’chrya Q’Indryk stared out at the crowd that had fallen into an uneasy silence and then addressed them.

“I am not sure how it happened, for I was sure that all of you that look upon me now would be dead by this time. I have never seen worse candidates for the ranks of wizardry in all my time here at the feet of our cursed Father Ikara. He would destroy you himself were he here,” she shouted angrily. Those assembled bent forward and bowed, touching their foreheads to the floor, before rising back to a seated position. “Your humble gestures of respect do you no favors, but our Father has granted you life—who am I to threaten to take it. May your energies combine to bring our revered Father back from exile to rule all of Orana. Rise, as the children of the Father of Darkness, and never bow to any living being again!” With a rousing cry, they got to their feet and elbowed each other out of the way. Elspethe sighed loudly. Upon hearing the ways of the Ikedrian wizards, Taeben had been simultaneously horrified and intrigued. At every meeting, he presented her with a list of questions about her culture. He would reward her compliance with tales of high elf culture; the more she heard, the more Elspethe found herself wishing she had been born in the shining high elf citadel of Alynatalos at the other end of the Great Forest from her murky home.

She let her mind wander to her lessons with the alabaster-skinned wizard. Did Taeben’s guild master beat him? Did that guild master take Taeben to the Great Forest and leave him to fend for himself? He seemed to have darkness in him that had drawn her to him, but upon getting to know him, she found it was his light that enthralled her—light poised to be engulfed in his self-made darkness.

He had taught her so much, even though he had disappeared several seasons ago and remained gone for a long time. The last time she saw him, he had seemed different, haunted—almost a shell of himself. She had begged him to tell her what had happened and to let her help in any way she could, something utterly unheard of among her kind. But he refused to say to her even the tiniest bit about his time away from her. That refusal burned in her gut like smoldering coals on a campfire. Elspethe had vowed to him that she would set right what had gone so wrong, but Taeben had made her swear that she would forget him – but continue his work—when he was gone. And then – then nothing, lots of inky black nothing in her mind when she tried to recall anything past that meeting. He must be gone from Orana, just as he foretold he would be.

She had no idea that time would have come so soon, or she would have refused the oath outright. Vetri nudged her, and she came back to the present, right in the middle of the promise of fealty her kind swore at the end of every guild meeting. Allegiance to the cursed Father. Fidelity to the superior race, the Ikedrians. Death and destruction to all others. Elspethe balled up one of her inky fists until her fingernails dug into her skin. The pain they caused distracted her from the growing Void within her for a moment, and she was able to breathe more easily as she continued to press her talon-like nails into her flesh. The pain was good. Pain meant you were still alive. The easing of pain came only with death.

The meeting soon came to an end, and Elspethe was shuffled out the door by the crowd. She stumbled about until she was in an alleyway, pleased for the freedom to stretch and move that she hadn’t had in the throng. Sometimes she was able to see her home city for what it truly was: a hollowed-out system of caves in the damp ground, with rats and other vermin running alongside the self-important and rude members of her race. This was one of those times. She grimaced as she kicked a giant sewer rat off her boot and then twitched her fingers in the pest’s direction. She smiled maliciously as it squealed at the tiny lightning bolt that singed its tail before it ducked into a crack in the mud bricks that reinforced the underground walls.