It was a dark and stormy day.
That morning, the sky had been a flawless blue, marred by no cloud or vapour. The warm sun of late spring had shone a bright yellow, pouring golden light over the Taliyid countryside. Low, gently rolling hills, slow rivers meandering through meadows of tender grass; and of course, the ever-present woods in this Elven land. It had been idyllic.
Now, wellâ€¦ The sky was getting noticeably darker, and ominous black clouds were gathering on the horizon and approaching fast. A nasty, chilled wind had picked up and was blowing through the trees. Birds were silent, and all the forest animals had taken refuge in their lairs and dens. Beyond the rustling of the leaves, the only sound that could be heard was elf-made.
It was the sound of nailing and lashing, of shoring and propping, and it came from a small settlement in the middle of a particularly fine grove of ancient oaks. The Elves there, oldest forest dwellers of the World, were well used to storms. This one was a bit of a surprise, of course; while not unheard of, such climatic events were unusual at this time of year. And not even the Elders had sensed it coming.
Then again, thought Marren, there are a lot of things they havenâ€™t sensed lately. More and more, as a matter of fact.
Marren was a young wood Elf of 30 years. Slightly built like most of his people, he had the telltale pointy ears, and wore his long black hair in a catogan. He was dressed in the grey-brownish leather clothes of the working forest-denizen, and was currently wielding a hammer, which he swung at otherwise innocent nails with more vigour than was strictly necessary. For Marren was angry.
At 30, Marren was the Elvish equivalent of a teenager, so that anger was of course his normal state of mind. But there was more to it than just adolescent angst and rebellious urges. The whole community was having similar feelings of anger and slow-boiling resentment, or their opposite: resignation and despair. Life hadnâ€™t been easy lately. Many Elves were sickly and frail. Many had lost all fire, all creativity. There were fewer births even than usual, which for a race with an already low reproductive rate was a serious concern, and some of the children had been stillborn for no discernible reason. And they had all seen a diminution of their innate powers, as demonstrated by the Eldersâ€™ growing blindness to even the most basic signals of Mother Nature.
In short, it was not a good time to be an Elf. So when the glorious morning had dawned on the village of AlmarollÃ«, the first after a long period of grey, wet weather, Marren had been delighted, and had decided to enjoy it to the full. He had planned to go fishing, play some ball with his friends Arnol and Guimor, sit in the midday sun after a light lunch to finish carving his brotherâ€™s birthday present, then â€“ and that had been the most important item on his list â€“ invite sweet Hadriel to go for a walk through the woods. And possibly even find the nerves to talk to her this time.
Things had gone sour right after lunch, though. The village sentry, posted on top of the central tree â€“ a magical, fabulously ancient giant of a tree, of an essence called a RiollomÃ« â€“ had shouted down that dark clouds were visible on the horizon, and seemed to be coming this way. It took no longer than five minutes to confirm that they were, indeed, and then the weather alarm had sounded and everyone had been called upon to batten down the hatches.
And so, deprived of this opportunity to speak to Hadriel, and he just KNEW that this time heâ€™d have worked up the courage to tell her how he felt, Marren was angry, at life, at the World, at his parents and the other adults, at his brother for not being here, and more specifically at this stupid storm. Nevertheless, you didnâ€™t grow even to the tender age of thirty by ignoring safety procedures in a sylvan village, and so he hammered away to board up windows and doors.
By now, the wind had started to howl rather than whistle, and it was as cold as a winter gale. The clouds were getting very close, Marren could even see their lining over the treetops â€“ and it wasnâ€™t silver at all. And it was getting really dark.
That was when Marren understood that something was seriously wrong. Busy with their preparations, none of the villagers had thought much about the growing darkness. But suddenly the young Elf realised that the sun was not, in fact, behind the clouds. That there were virtually no clouds aside from the black ones â€“ the handful of fluffy cotton balls lazily making their way through the sky hardly counted. And they were slow, much slower than the stormâ€¦
And yetâ€¦ With nothing to hide it, the sun was getting dimmer, paler; the azure had turned grey. And now it felt like twilight.
Confused, Marren looked around for a trustworthy adult, one who would listen to him rather than treat him as a child. He caught sight of Vogar, the old Tree Attendant, and quickly made his way to the ancient Elf. But he neednâ€™t have bothered; other people had realized something was amiss. There were a few calls, some exclamations of surprise and dismay. Fingers were pointed at the sky, community leaders headed towards each other; work pretty much stopped, and silence fell upon the village. The black, oily mass of clouds flew closer still.
Marren was the first to start moving again. Dropping his hammer, he headed towards the nearest ladder and started down it towards the ground, ignoring Vogarâ€™s half-hearted call behind him. He jumped about 3 meters off the ground, and landed running, heading towards a group of girls about his age who had been tasked with securing the animals in the barns and stables. Sometimes before he got there, he broke into a sprint.
Several shouts around the village announced that other people were waking up from their horrified contemplation of this new looming disaster, and soon the sound of trampling feet on wooden platforms and walkways beat a frantic rhythm over the howling wind. Children were gathered, tools abandoned, and Elves rushed to and fro, some heading towards their own homes, some towards the Gathering Hall nestled within the RiollomÃ«â€™s branches. A few others had decided that it would be safer to go into the caves dug among its roots, and were running down to the cavesâ€™ entrance.
Marren was among the ones who thought being above ground was not going to be a good idea; but before he went down under it, he had one thing to do. He reached the group of girls and stopped almost too late, scattering them before him. They had been huddling together, unsure of what to do, and looked pretty much terrified. He ignored most of them but grabbed the hand of a pretty, tall blonde one, and started running the other way towards the caveâ€™s entrance, dragging her behind him.
-Â Marren?!â€ she exclaimed. â€œWhat are you doing?â€
-Â Donâ€™t worry, Hadriel, Iâ€™ll keep you safe!â€ he answered, white as a sheet but determined to show courage all the same.
-Â Butâ€¦ I have to go home! My parents must be waiting for me at the house! Where are you taking me?
-Â The caves!â€ he responded, stating what was now the obvious, as they slowed down to join the others who were heading inside. â€œWeâ€™ll be much safer in there. Donâ€™t worry.â€ he said again.
-Â But, Marrenâ€¦
The young Elf stopped and turned towards his companion, letting go of her hand to cup both of his around her face. He looked her in the eyes and, trying hard not to let his own fear show, he said softly: â€œHadriel, trust me. Iâ€™ll never let anything happen to you. We have to go into the caves.â€
She looked into his eyes in silence for a few seconds, unsure, scared, surprised. Then, a very small smile appeared on her lips, and she nodded once.
Marren, his heart beating even faster now and a blush on his cheeks that had nothing to do with fear, put his arm around her shoulders and guided her down inside the caves. Whether or not this storm was as bad as it seemed, at this very minute, the young Elf would not have exchanged it for all the summer days since the beginning of Time.
A couple of other Elves got in behind them, then the villageâ€™s smith got hold of the heavy door, cast a last look around for stragglers, then, seeing none, pulled the entrance shut and sealed it.
Darkness descended upon AlmarollÃ«. There wasnâ€™t an Elf in sight. Tools and utensils lay abandoned everywhere. The wind shrieked a last time, then stopped. An eerie silence enveloped the grove. In the sky, the black clouds rolled in, then, when they were right over the village, they stopped.
Vogar, the old Tree Attendant, had been half-expecting massive lightning strikes and unending thunder. Instead, as he huddled with many other inside the Gathering Hall, he listened toâ€¦ nothing. There were no sounds, no pyrotechnics, no mayhem and destruction. Just darkness and silence.
Yet he could feel something was happening. His skin tingled, and seemed to tauten like dried leather. He imagined that he could feel his brain do the same inside his skull. Around him, other people started to murmur, showing signs of the same or very similar symptoms and uneasiness. The villageâ€™s chief Priest, sweating despite the cold, suddenly doubled over and vomited. Soon, others followed suit, and the Hall quickly filled with moans and cries of anguish, and other, more organic noises. Vogar, nauseous himself but still vaguely in control, looked on in helpless horror, until his eye caught a bit of movement outside through the small view holes.
He got closer and peered out, then froze and stared, dumbfounded. Little motes of light, like tiny glowing snowflakes, were floating up from everywhere, bathing the entire village in beautiful golden light.
Vogar walked to the entrance door and opened it slowly. The glowing particles were right there in front of him. They seemed to be rising from everything â€“ branches, leaves, planks and ropes â€“ and spiralled slightly on their way up. The old manâ€™s face was as golden as the rest of the woods. He extended a hand to touch one of the motes. It went through his flesh as if it hadnâ€™t been there; Vogar felt nothing, not even a tickle.
A few others joined him. Around the village several heads popped through windows and doors to gaze at the spectacle. Soon, Elves were wandering aimlessly among their tree dwellings, looking up towards the clouds and their golden lining.
Vogar himself walked away from the RiollomÃ« until its branches were no longer blocking most of his view, then turned around and looked up. What he saw made his heart turn to ice. Above the rest of the village, the golden, inverted rain was steady but thin, and the further way you looked into the grove, the thinner it became. But over the central tree, it was so thick it looked almost like a solid column of gold, connecting Heavens and Earth.
When he saw, very faint but there nonetheless, a small dim mote rise directly from his flesh, he understood at last.
-Â The magicâ€¦â€ he whispered. â€œItâ€™s absorbing the magic from the tree, from us!â€
There was a crack, and several anguished or startled exclamations. One of the smaller branches of the RiollomÃ« had snapped in two. Vogar ran towards its stump, dreading what he would see. But even before he got close to it, he saw the signs all over the tree. Leaves were turning yellow and brown. Buds shrivelled. The bark peeled off the trunk, and branches were shrinking as if the sap was being sucked out of them.
The tree was dying. The RiollomÃ«, the symbol of their community, the centre of their life, the Protector of their world and their most ancient friend, was dying! And the magic was being sucked out of them as well, and everyone looked haggard and sick! If no one did anything, they would all die!
Vogar, trembling, extended a gnarled hand and laid it against a gnarled branch, then dove inside himself and summoned all his personal skill, experience and power, in a desperate attempt to shield the tree from what was happening to them all.
The world exploded. A massive bolt of lightning struck the old Attendant square between the shoulder blades and vaporized him. More lightning struck in quick succession, blasting the village at random, trees, houses, people, boom, boom, boom! Thunderous explosions resounded for miles around, as dwelling after dwelling was obliterated in a cataclysmic barrage of pure energy. Giant oaks, trees that had stood for hundreds of years, were engulfed in an inferno of unnatural flames, while others burst in deadly wooden shrapnel that shredded everything and everyone in their path. The RiollomÃ«, struck again and again, turned into a gargantuan bonfire two hundred feet tall. Those in the Gathering Hall who had survived the explosions were turned into human torches, and jumped shrieking to the ground and a merciful death.
In the caves, where no one had seen the golden rain, where everyone had stayed prudently, waiting for the go ahead from outside, Marren, Hadriel and the others died in terror, choked by acrid smoke or roasted alive by the terrible heat of their world burning down.
A few minutes after the first bolt struck, the barrage stopped suddenly. There was a strange keening in the air, a sense of resistance, and then nothing. The clouds started to dissipate quickly, the light became normal again. The glowing motes of magic stopped in mid air, then started falling back to the ground, slowly at first, then faster, eventually spattering on the leaves like true rain, little solid beads of golden magic.
AlmarollÃ« burned on, lifeless.
-Â Itâ€™s back in the Pool, my Lord.
-Â At last. Where was it?
-Â Somewhere in Taliyit, according to the Keeper. Not a very populated area, fortunately.
-Â Still. Thatâ€™s the third time in seven months. It has to stop.
-Â Yes my Lord. Â Â