When I wake up late the next morning, the first thing I see is Faladel waving my second best jerkin in the air. I stare at him for a few seconds, wondering if I’m really awake at all, or if him jumping up and down trying to catch the attention of the creatures piloting the flying boat in the distance is just a very strange twist to my earlier dream about riding a giant firefly.
It takes a few seconds before I realize that this has all probably been an extended fever dream brought on by bad mushrooms. There was no way that the time distortion could have been so large, and the whole glowing blue hands thing really didn’t make any sense anyway. So, I do what I’d do in any fever dream, and immediately go to rescue my second-best jerkin, snatching it out of a surprised Faladel’s hands and returning it to my pack, bringing back my best jerkin.
“Wait, isn’t that your–?” Faladel begins, “I’d specifically avoided that one.”
“Why?” I ask him, annoyed by how groggy my mind is. In my dreams, I’m normally much more awake, “It’s not like it’s my real one, and we want to make a good impression don’t we?”
Faladel stares at me blankly for a bit before I encourage him “You should really go back to jumping now. I’d try jacks. You are spectacularly bad at them, it might get their attention.”
“Something’s wrong with my jumping jacks?” Faladel asks, a bewildered expression on his face, exactly what I would expect from Dream Faladel. I sigh and shake my head knowingly. Real Faladel would have already realized that one was supposed to clap during the jump, not after one landed. After demonstrating the proper technique for him, I abandon him to it, and go to wash up. The boat will come, dream-plot will force it to. But considering this is a fever dream, it will likely be piloted by restless souls or something equally sinister. I splash water on my face, and as the cold, salty droplets trickle down it, I consider my options. Illogical as dreams are, I can probably make the restless souls become friends with us. The question is, what do they like to eat for breakfast? Besides the living of course. That would be rather counterproductive.
I start up a fire as Faladel shouts in excitement. “I think they’ve spotted us Briareth! We should pack up, get ready to go! I wonder how their boat flies, I’ve never seen anything like it!”
“Do you suppose restless souls would prefer a breakfast stir fry, or stew?” I ask him, feeding another bit of shrubbery to the fire. It smokes terribly, and I cough as the wind changes, pushing it into my face.
“What?” He just stares at me. I stare back at him and repeat my question.
He frowns at me. “Briareth, they’re going to be here any minute, we have to get ready to go.”
“No, we have to be ready to serve them breakfast.” I explain logically. “They’ll be hungry after their voyage, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be their next meal.” I feed another leafy branch into my small-but-growing fire. It devours the branch a little too quickly and licks at my fingertips. I yelp from the pain, and suck on my fingers unhappily.
Wait, surely that should have woken me up. People don’t feel pain in dreams, which is why I’m not overly upset by the idea of being eaten instead of breakfast. Perhaps those mushrooms were stronger than I thought? I scowl. I don’t know if I can handle the pain of being eaten! I need to wake up now!
I squeeze my eyes really tight shut, and then open them as wide as possible. Nothing. I rub my closed eyes, go back to the lake and splash saltwater on my face again–I vaguely notice that the boat has come closer– but it doesn’t help. Turning to a bemused looking Dream Faladel, I ask plaintively “How do you wake up?”
“Oh, is that what you were trying to do? Don’t worry Briareth, this isn’t a dream! The boat is coming, and we can continue exploring this new world, it doesn’t have to end here.” He smiles at me, obviously trying to be reassuring.
“That’s exactly what I’m worried about.” I mutter. How can he not get it, dream-logic states that since nothing bad has happened yet in this fever dream, the ship has to be crewed by–
Wait. Dream logic. If I’m not dreaming then… “We aren’t going to die!” I shout exultantly.
“That’s the spirit.” Faladel says, still looking absolutely bemused by my antics. But the relief sweeping through me overwhelms me utterly, and I suddenly can’t find the strength to even try to explain my thought process to him. Instead I slump down on the shoreline and watch the flying boat draw closer. Now that I’m not distracted by trying to make breakfast, I take the time to observe the ship and its crew.
It’s a small ship, no more than a very large rowboat really. It’s made of lots of different planks of wood, probably held together by some sort of glue or sealant, and the keel of the ship– its bottom– has a long strip of something strange running from bow to stern that– if my eyes aren’t fooling me with light reflections off the water– is actually glowing blue. The boat has a single set of sails, but I’m not convinced the wind is strong enough to carry them at the speed they’re traveling, so there’s probably some other method of propulsion involved. There is also a wheel up in the helm. Put the wheel and the sails together with the tiny size, and that glowing blue material and– I have no clue what kind of ship this is. I was never very good with boats. I always preferred my trees uncut.
I lean back onto a conveniently placed rock and try to estimate how much time we have, as Faladel bustles around behind me, probably packing things up. Suddenly, I leap up and let out a shout of surprise. Someone just fell off the boat! But instead of falling into the water, dark wings spread out from their back and catch them mid fall, and they swoop towards our island, much faster than the boat itself.
“Faladel–!” I shout, but find myself unable to shout anything else, unsure of what exactly to say. The figure soars closer and is soon landing right in front of me and a very confused Faladel.
Folding his wings tightly against his back he looks us up and down and asks “Who exactly, – well, first– what exactly are you?” My ears buzz slightly, and I shake them out. The young man’s face is smiling, but one of his hands settles on a small, strangely shaped scabbard at his hip, that I have no doubt holds a weapon of some kind. He doesn’t seem keen to use it yet, but I get the feeling that he will if we make the slightest provocation.
“We’re elves.” Faladel says, staring at him with eyes that are at least as wide as mine as we take in the strange creature. “What are you?”
“I’m a Kashan, obviously.” The young man extends one of his wings, as if that were proof enough. It is black, and looks– leathery? There aren’t any scales or feathers, just a soft looking fur. It looks surprisingly fragile, like a dagger could slice into it and cause a lot of damage and pain.
“Mind if I…?” I gesture to the wing and trail off. He stares at me blankly, bright red eyes looking very confused. “Can I touch it?” I ask again. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
He somehow looks even more flabbergasted. “Sure I suppose. But avoid the veins, they’re ticklish.”
Delighted, I move behind him and run my fingers over the outstretched wing. It’s huge, soft and warm and very much alive and a part of him. He jolts as my fingers brush a lump– probably one of the veins he was talking about. “Sorry.” I apologize, while internally wondering if it would bleed a lot if I cut it with the dagger in my sleeve. Considering how easily he let me touch it, perhaps it’s not as fragile as it looks? Or perhaps I misread his earlier suspicions. Either way, if he takes offense at anything we do or say, I’m in a pretty good position right now. Well, until his friends on the ship arrive in a few minutes. Then things could get very hairy. I study him some more, as he studies Faladel in turn. He’s a head and a half taller than me, with shoulder length black hair and pale skin with a bluish undertone. Well, except where he’s sunburned, there he’s red as fresh meat. His ears are the same ashen color as the rest of him, but they turn to black as they reach their points, and look slightly fuzzy. I resist the urge to touch them as well.
“I’m guessing you guys aren’t from around here.” He says after studying us for a bit longer. Apparently, what he sees satisfies him, as he relaxes slightly, his fingers leaving that sinister pouch. His eyes still study Faladel curiously as I stay in my position behind his back. “I’ve never heard of elves before. How did you end up on this deserted rock? Did you crash?” His wing twitches slightly. “Do you perhaps have a map of where you came from?”
Faladel hesitates, clearly not sure of how much to say. I don’t want to take the lead on this, don’t want to bring attention to myself, so I wait him out.
“We brought maps with us of course, but I don’t think they’d be of any use to you.” He says carefully. “We came from a different world, so our maps wouldn’t make any sense to you.”
“Well, that is both intriguing and disappointing.” The young man says, and glances around. “Is the gateway to your world on this island then? Is it still open?”
Faladel stares at him silently, and the young man throws back his head and laughs. “It’s alright, I understand. We don’t know each other yet, it would be foolish to tell me all about it. You said you were explorers, right? It’s always good to meet a trade-mate, especially when we are so rare nowadays.” I move out back in front of him. Studying his posture and tone is all well and good, but I really need to be facing someone to get a good read on them. And now this young man, who had been ‘hand on his hilt’ to us earlier, is smiling broadly, and behind him, his shipmates have ‘docked’ their sky-ship and are disembarking. They are equally as odd as this Kashan fellow. They’re both female. One is short– short enough to be a child, but with a very adult figure. Her hair is white, and her ears are the largest I’ve ever seen. She marches over to us and immediately starts scolding the young man.
“Fin Hypnious, I told you, not to engage with the strangers! You were just supposed to do a flyby and report back!”
“But they clearly weren’t hostile!” Fin protests, “You saw it, just like I did, the blond one had been trying to signal us! They’re explorers, Silv!”
“Oh?” Silv turns towards us, her shorn, honey-colored hair sticking out in all directions as she stares up at us, unimpressed. “If they’re adventurers, where’s their ship? How did they get here? And what exactly are they?”
“They say they came through an Interworld gateway.” Fin explains. “They’re clearly not from around here, Silv.” His tone is wheedling. “Surely we could take them to the outpost at least. I’m certain the Chroniclers will have much to ask them, if they came from the outside world.”
“And what if they’ve already aligned with the dragons?” Silv asks, disgust twining with distrust in her tone. I shoot Faladel a look, they have dragons here? Dragons plural?
Faladel makes a small stop gesture with his hands, and I understand immediately. If dragons are the enemy of these folk, we probably shouldn’t mention that we’re friends with one who makes spectacular pancakes.
“We’ve been here for only a day.” Faladel says, “And not even a whole one at that. It would be impossible for us to make any alliances in that short a time.”
Fin gives Silv a look that says, ‘see, I told you so!’ quite clearly. She frowns at him, but turns to study us. After scanning and dismissing our swords, she says “Well, they look harmless enough. I suppose we can carry them back to the outpost. There they can decide what to do with them.
Fin smiles. “I knew you’d warm up to them, you can’t resist a good mystery. And we can outvote Elen if that becomes a problem.”
“Who’s outvoting me about what?” The third crewmember from the ship– another winged creature of about Fin’s height comes over. Her wings are white and feathery, and her deep brown eyes match her chocolate hair and tan complexion quite nicely. She takes a second to observe the situation. Fin smiling broadly, Silv still staring at us eyes narrowed and arms crossed, and sums it up easily. “So, we’re going to take them with us then? I see no problem with that. As long as they behave themselves. What are they, anyway?”
After introductions have been made again– Silv is actually called Silveth Ziertan, and is what is known as a Zytherling in these parts, and the white winged girl is a Tadhiel by the name of Elen Nerifaren– they’re happy to help us finish packing up the camp. But once we’re all set to load up, Elen freezes and says– “Wait, what about water and food?”
Fin snaps his fingers together, “Fudge, you’re right! I mean, food should be fine, We have enough dried stuff, right?” He glances at Silveth, who after a brief second nods.
“Tight but doable. No snacking for you, Fin.” Fin chuckles, as if there’s an unspoken joke in there somewhere. “But the water…” She continues, shaking her head. “If we hadn’t hit that storm three days ago, we would have been fine, but we had to dump two casks to get rid of the weight, and a third was spoiled by a leak.” She frowns and then turns to look at us. “You do eat normal food and drink water, right?”
“I take offense at that.” Fin interrupts before Faladel can say anything, and I chime in after him, “Depends on what you mean by normal.”
Silv ignores Fin– which doesn’t seem to bother him a jot– and turns to me instead. “Breads, meats, cheeses, salads?” She offers. “Omnivores, right?”
“Very!” I say happily. Almost anything would be better than our dried rations. “Although, I’ll draw the line at pickled asparagus or pickled pigs liver.”
“I don’t blame you.” Elen says, “pickled pig’s liver sounds disgusting.”
I shake my head. “The asparagus is worse, trust me.”
“If you’re running low on food, we have our own rations. They should still last us at least a week.” Faladel offers, “Although we were planning on mostly foraging while we explored, I suppose that won’t be possible out here. I doubt fish like salty water particularly much. How long will we be crossing this lake anyway?”
Three heads swivel towards him, all speaking over each other.
“You’d be surprised at how many fish–”
“Salty water? Don’t you mean saltwater?”
Another buzz cuts through my ears, and I wince at its intensity, but suddenly it’s gone. And everyone has gone silent until Silveth says. “This isn’t just a lake you know, this is a whole freaking ഷ✩ヰ♇. That’s why it’s salty. Don’t you have an ഷ✩ヰ♇ where you come from?” The buzzing had returned as she spoke, and, thankfully, disappeared as quickly as it came this time.
Faladel and I shake our heads silently. I didn’t even understand the word and glancing at Faladel, it seems like he doesn’t either. The sounds they were making weren’t even similar to any sounds I’ve ever heard. Sort of– grating I suppose? With deeper vowel sounds. I couldn’t attribute them to letters if I tried.
“If water is the problem.” I say, putting aside the strange word and buzzing to come back to later, “I might be able to fix that.”
“I know a ♇७中⥗⧫ that can purify water. I don’t see why it shouldn’t take the salt out of water as well.” I say, and this time it’s my words that get scrambled into that strange language. I frown and try it again. “♇७中⥗⧫” Faladel looks just as befuddled as I feel. But the three explorers are looking excitedly at each other, apparently recognizing the word.
“You have magical abilities?” Elen is the first to ask, turning to stare at me.
“Yes.” I reply hesitantly. I mean, it’s not exactly right, I wouldn’t count knowing a spell as an ability, but I don’t want to risk trying to correct her and end up with that annoying buzzing noise coming back.
“If you want, we can gather some water and I can show you.” I offer. “We can see if it works.” Fin immediately grabs for something on his belt, and I flinch until I realize that he’s grabbed a waterskin, not that strange, tiny scabbard. Blithely, he starts to empty it out, not realizing that his companions are staring at him like he’s gone mad until Elen grabs his arm and physically stops him from pouring more out.
“Fin, you idiot! I know you don’t need water, but don’t just dump your share out like that!”
“But he said he could purify all we’d need.” Fin protests, wresting his arm from her grip, but not making any move to continue pouring yet.
“He said he might be able to.” Elen corrects him. “What if he can’t actually purify it? What if his abilities don’t work on salt water?”
“Ah…” Fin says, seeing the problem.
“You’ve just wasted half a day’s water from that.” Elen finishes. “Give me a second, and I can get a bowl from the boat we can use. Or, better yet, I’ll grab an empty barrel.” She turns to me. “Do your abilities have a limit on volume? How much water can you purify at once?”
I think about it for a bit. The spell doesn’t have a stated limit, but I doubt I’d be able to make this giant lake drinkable. I just don’t have the power or energy to give such a big spell. But a barrel should definitely be doable, it isn’t a very costly spell, it just removes impurities after all. Most materials want to be pure, so they kinda help out spells to purify them. Instead of trying to explain all that though, I just say. “A barrel should be fine.” Elen grins, “Excellent!” She leaps into the air, and spreads her wings, quickly making her way to where the ship is halted high above the ground. She quickly reappears at the ship’s railing with a barrel that’s about half her height, and flies back down to us and the water’s edge. The barrel is quickly filled and delivered back to me with Fin’s help. Elen wasn’t strong enough to carry the full thing by herself apparently. Looking into it, it does appear quite full. And I gulp nervously, before closing my eyes and placing my bare hands in it.
I concentrate, calming my racing thoughts and summoning up my magic. Magic was never my strong-suit. I could never concentrate in classes the one year I was at Mossblossom Central. And even the brief stillness that’s needed to feel one’s magic never came easily to me. But I did learn some spells that I had to, that every King’s Archer has to. One of them was the purify water spell. It’s been quite a while since I’ve used it, but the memory of the words, the emotions involved in coaxing the impurities out, comes back easily enough. In order to avoid my concentration being disrupted by that annoying buzzing, I decide to do it non-verbally. It will cost more energy, but it’ll be worth it.
I breathe in, and hold it for a count of five, before slowly releasing it, channeling the magic I can feel summoned up inside of me through my palms and into the water, dispersing it amongst the gathered particles. But something feels off. My magic is sluggish– slow, even before it leaves my hands. It doesn’t all make it out before the spell ends. I can feel, even before Elen tastes it, that it didn’t work nearly as well as it should have.
“Still salty.” She confirms. “But less so than it normally is I think.” Fin and Silveth taste and concur. It takes two more tries for the water to fully be purified, but nobody else– not even Faladel seems to think anything of it. Instead, he is caught up in the explorers’s delight at having, as Elen succinctly put it, “A portable source of freshwater that will make us the envy of all the Explorers in the guild!”
I mean, I’ve never been called portable before, but I suppose since they have a boat…
“Do you have magical abilities as well?” Silv asks, turning to look directly at Faladel. I wince internally at the uncouth topic. Faladel is pretty sensitive about not being able to use magic, which makes sense because he’s both a huge nerd about it and the only elf pretty much anyone knows to have no aptitude for it.
He shakes his head slightly, and offers a not-quite-convincing smile. “I was born without any aptitude for it.”
“It’s okay,” She says, “I can’t read even one word, so I understand how you feel.” She’s clearly trying to be comforting, but Faladel looks a lot more shocked and confused than comforted. And if I wasn’t already at my limit for being weirded out, I’m sure I would be right there with him. As it is, I’ve decided that I’m just going to try and let go of all preconceptions of how things work in this world. It will probably be better for my mental health.
Once everything is packed aboard their craft– A Zipper Mark II by the name of Adranhiel according to Elen, who strokes the ship lovingly– we set off. It takes quite the getting used to, sailing without the normal rocking of the waves beneath the ship, but Silveth is happy to explain the many benefits of travel by air– not the least of which is increased speed. I stop paying attention after she pulls out strange phrases like ‘decreased friction’ and ‘density dependent factors’, and I don’t even try to ask how the ship is flying.
Faladel, however, has no such qualms, and actually quite a few very lively discussions with her about that and many other topics as the hours turn to days, and the days into over a week of travel. Since there is not a lot of room on the ship, and even less privacy, we learn a lot about each other.
Silveth prefers to be known as Silv, and is from the ‘Outer Isles’, wherever those are. Apparently they were one of the first places to be burned when the war with the dragons started– only thirty years ago. She lost her entire family. Thus, she really really dislikes dragons. She didn’t want to be an Explorer originally, she had wanted to man one of the defensive battleships so that she could protect people, so that no one else would have to suffer as she did. But apparently, those ships already had all the Zytherlings they needed– and the ratios of each race on each ship is super strict. So, she started looking around. “And” She had concluded, tossing her very short head, “When I realized that we don’t even know where these dragons are coming from, I decided that I would help us find them, so that we can one day strike back!” She seems quite excited by the prospect, and I admire that.
Elen is from the capital city and from a quite powerful family there, although I would never have guessed it based on her very direct lines of questioning. In fact, that little propensity to be a bit too blunt is exactly what started her Exploring life in the first place. Although she was quite clever and good at reading situations from a few details, she had this terrible affliction of being too honest when talking. Her family simply couldn’t keep her around– she was too much of a political liability! So, since she enjoyed visiting the ports so much, they sent her off and funded this whole shebang. “The only good thing about all of this,” she had said, clearly trying to ignore the hurt that simmers beneath that story. “Is that we all found each other, and we own our own ship. Most Explorers owe allegiance to one noble family or another and have to give them a good chunk of whatever they find, but we own this ship. My family gave it to us. We don’t have to split our finds with anyone.”
Fin absolutely refuses to talk about his family, or what started him Exploring. But he’s happy to answer all our other questions. And in fact, is normally quite a happy fellow in general. As long as I don’t press him for his story. He even lets me take his weapon, something he calls a pistol, out of its scabbard. I mess around with it for a bit before nearly blowing my foot off and actually blowing a hole through the ship itself, which we then have to stop and repair. After that, I am, unfortunately, no longer allowed to hold the pistol. Faladel though, is deemed more trustworthy, and actually becomes quite a decent shot with it. Although he still prefers his sword.
Faladel and I also get our chances to shine in the spotlight, to tell our tales. I get the distinct pleasure of regaling a fresh audience with tales of our daring do, and go as far back as rescuing Faladel from that nasty mine where we first met. Although I get the feeling our new friends don’t quite understand all the jokes and clever tricks I pulled, they still act quite impressed, and appropriately sober when I tell them of Albreth’s terrible fate as a mom-goose. Faladel leaves the tale weaving to me, and takes the more serious Faladel-esque task of comparing cultures, discussing differences, and clearing up false assumptions. For example, the Triumvirate Tribes, as their people call themselves, already knew of a world outside their own. It’s ingrained into their history lessons, just something that every child grows up knowing. They’ve never had visitors from there, but they used to be capable of peeking out into it, opening a crack between those worlds. Of course, all that knowledge was lost eons ago, when the saltwater floods burst in and drowned most of their world.
It takes quite a bit of maneuvering around words we can’t understand to get the point across that we don’t actually come from there. We certainly aren’t in any way related to these fabled ‘humans’ they’ve heard so much about, and we honestly don’t even know what they are.
Elen had been the first to accept the idea of a third world. “I mean, they didn’t even know what saltwater was. Makes sense that they didn’t come from a world full of ഷ✩ヰ♇s.” The others nod, seeing the wisdom of her thoughts. Faladel and I just stare at each other blankly though. At least with the repetition of these words we can’t decipher, the buzzing seems to have gone away almost entirely.
On the ninth day of sailing together, I finally bring up the indecipherable words to Fin, and complain about the weird buzzing, which had been particularly loud this morning. He just shrugs. “I’ve never heard of the buzzing, but I think we have chronicles of the inability to communicate somewhere. There was a human who visited a very long time ago, and he suffered from a similar affliction if I’m recalling my history lessons correctly.” He turns to stare at me curiously. “Perhaps it only affects other-worlders?” He offers, and then shrugs again. “When you tell your tales to the chroniclers, you can ask them about it. They’ll surely have copies of the original records.” He sees me making a face and grins at me knowingly. “Or they could probably give you a brief summary, perhaps they’ll know of a cure. Chroniclers have knowledge of a great many things after all. They memorize entire sections of our histories, in case the physical copies are ever destroyed. So they know a lot of useful stuff, and a lot of random tidbits.” He turns to stare at the sky. “Like extinct plant uses, the exact dates at which a dead noble family first changed surnames, that sort of thing.” He shakes his head and grins. “I could never.”
“Me neither.” I agree wholeheartedly, daunted by even the idea of trying to remember so much. I have enough literal nonsense of my own to remember without anyone else adding their entire family’s history to it!
“Look!” Silv suddenly shouts, gesturing over the prow. I hurry over to join her, and catch my first glimpse of the outpost.