ES: Lorrin's Story, part 2 (was Origins)

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ES: Lorrin's Story, part 2 (was Origins)

Postby Graybeard » August 20th, 2010, 9:25 am

[Changed titles here, since it's now clear that this is about Lorrin Elle. Sorry this first chapter of this part is a bit slow, but it's intended to set the mood; what follows will be ... livelier.]

Chapter 19: Six Months Later, Slowly

Time passed, as time does, and Lorrin settled into the routine of Ensigerum boot camp.

“Routine” was the word for it, for by and large, the business of learning his trade was routine. One day would be pretty much the same as the next, and the day after that, and the day after that. The endless physical training consumed most of his time, and most of the rest would be taken up in the chores of the camp, chores that he’d largely evaded during his first week there. Two or three times a week there would be other lessons, in basic magic or weapons or weaponless combat or protocol or anatomy or geography (he hadn’t realized how large the world of the elves was) or something else. One or two nights a week, he would be called on to “service” an elf, usually Varani or some other Rinkai, but with a series of bed partners, not all of whose names he could remember.

It was hell.

The stultifying sameness of the elves’ existence was almost calculated, he thought, to drive a bright, strong, and above all, active seventeen-year-old mad. The elves didn’t seem to mind; they’d lived so long, with so little variation in their own lives, that being instead of living seemed to be entirely acceptable to them. (Lorrin thought that as damning an indictment of immortality as he could imagine.) Most of the humans in their midst reacted by withdrawing into their own world and letting themselves be lost in the routine. This, he had come to realize, was the reason for the apathetic reaction he’d received from most of his training partners when he first joined the group: the ability to care, to form friendships, had been eroded away from most of them with the passage of time.

Only two others bucked the trend. Pontus Cardiel would continue to do what he could to make newcomers to the group feel welcome (at least at first…) and deal with such breaks in the routine as did come along, with the closest thing to real compassion that the camp seemed able to muster. Pontus, Lorrin rapidly realized, was a born leader. He cared about the people in his charge, whether officially or not, and he used that caring not just to preserve his own sanity, but as a motivational tool. I’d follow this man into war, Lorrin thought more than once. The other human who resisted the pressure to the routine was youthful, angular Lars Kankaniel, who seemed to find wonder and novelty in everything. Lorrin thought him child-like in his innocence and enthusiasm.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Lars Kankaniel would be the next of the humans to die.

To his surprise, and in no small measure, annoyance, for the next few months Lorrin saw relatively little of the elves who had been introduced as his “trainers.” He did have frequent sessions with Kalis, and a degree of affection and respect was clearly growing between the two; Lorrin sometimes wished he’d been selected as one of the humans trained as mages rather than warriors. He also had frequent … sessions … with Varani, particularly when she needed a carnal itch scratched. The others were more conspicuous by their absence. He had only three or four sessions with Sarine, none of them notable; most of the weapons work was done in one-on-one sparring with another of the humans, sometimes overseen by an elf, usually not. The others did their teaching as though going through the motions, and deferred as much practicum to the older, more experienced humans as possible.

He'd asked Pontus about the absent trainers, and didn't exactly understand the response. "Oh, they're off being Viradior," he'd said. (What's a "Viradior"? Lorrin wondered.) "For most of them, that's their day job. They get to spend time with us for parts of a year or two every few decades, as a break to keep sharp." Lorrin was puzzled: if the monotony of the camp was sharpening for an elf, what would a dull existence be like? He decided he didn't want to think about it, and returned to living his life.

Then, about six months into the monotony, came a break in the routine.

Pontus Cardiel strode into Lorrin’s and Vlado’s tent carrying a pair of sashes. Lorrin had seen something similar before, worn by the most senior of the trainees. They obviously had some ceremonial meaning that he didn’t yet understand … but he would.

“Go draw new tunics from the commissary, and put these on,” Pontus said. “You’ve got a field trip.” He did not say you lucky bastards, but the thought was all over his features as the two tentmates followed him toward the supply area.
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Re: ES: Lorrin's Story, part 2 (was Origins)

Postby Graybeard » August 22nd, 2010, 1:27 pm

Chapter 20: Field Trip

“Where are we going?” Lorrin asked as they entered the commissary.

“Don’t know,” Pontus answered. “It’s an escort trip of some kind. Some elven high mucky-muck is going somewhere, and he wants both elves and humans in his retinue so he can look important and at the same time ‘appreciative of human contributions.’ It can’t be anywhere either very important or very dangerous, or they wouldn’t be willing to take trainees. Still, they don’t tell us where we’re going on these things until we’re on the way – security, you know.”

Lorrin made neutral noises as he looked for a tunic. The sessions on protocol had been rather sketchy, and the basic message they conveyed was “stay in the background, speak only when spoken to, and don’t do anything stupid.” Well, duh, as the children of his village would have said. Lorrin wondered whether any of the recruits could possibly have been so clueless as to require a message like that. On the other hand, he’d come to realize that his tentmate’s attitude toward the elves could be – impolitic at times, so maybe the message wasn’t so obvious after all.

Vlado wore the same bored sneer while looking for his outfit that he wore at most other times. However, he did condescend to say something to Lorrin that wasn’t pure cynicism; Lorrin wasn’t expecting that, maybe the other man was more excited about the trip than he let on. “Rumor is this is a trip to one of the tree cities,” he said. “That’s Keiren territory. They’ve still got a big racial bug up their ass about secrecy. We might not learn any more than that until we get there. I’ve never been to one of those, this might be interesting.”

That was about the strongest statement of enthusiasm he’d ever heard from Vlado, Lorrin reflected, apart from things involving bloodshed.

Uniforms found, the three humans walked through the main gate of the encampment, getting a cursory nod from the large elf on duty there. Lorrin had only been outside the gate a few times since he arrived, and it always looked like the same guard. Didn’t he get bored? Possibly, but it didn’t seem to matter to the elves. Lorrin thought again about the implications of immortality, and as usual, wasn’t sure he’d like it, at least if this kind of featureless apathy was what it entailed.

When he first arrived at the camp, he had noticed something at the edge of the clearing opposite the gate, and they were heading toward it now. It was a small ring of standing stones, most in pairs with a capstone laid horizontally across the tops, but a few isolated and standing alone. Stone rings were common enough in the hills of his homeland; there’d been one close to his village. Nobody seemed to know exactly what they did or why they were there. Oh, there were all sorts of rumors and legends – magic sites of an ancient civilization, it was said, or dwarven artifacts whose function had been lost in the ages. There was even one school of thought that said the elves had something to do with them. When he was a small boy, Lorrin had been excited at the elf connection, and had gone with two of his friends to stake out the ring near the town overnight, hoping to see elves coming and going. However, all three had been so excited at the prospect, and then so bored when nothing happened by the time the moon set, that they all fell fast asleep, waking in the morning to a scene that hadn’t changed in any perceptible way.

It hadn’t occurred to him, of course, that the elves might have had something to do with his sleep as well as with the stones.

Now there were three elves standing in the center of the ring, one wearing the distinctive, ornate armor of a mid-level commander, the others the flexible (and thoroughly functional) armor of what he’d come to recognize as the Viradior: the elven special forces who did most of the training in the camp. This surprised him. What were the elves doing out here, in this rather non-elvish-looking setting? He was about to ask, when the commanding elf spoke (in a female voice, he noted). “Come, humans. It is time for us to go.”

“Go where?” Lorrin asked, puzzled; there was no carriage in the clearing, no way to get from here to there. As he entered the circle, he looked around; no magical conveyances were in sight there either. How could they be traveling to –

With a whssshh, the elven travel platform functioned.
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Re: ES: Lorrin's Story, part 2 (was Origins)

Postby Graybeard » August 25th, 2010, 9:52 pm

Just to let people know what's going on, there's going to be a brief hiatus in this while I'm out of town for a while. Next installment in about ten days -- the story definitely isn't going away.
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Re: ES: Lorrin's Story, part 2 (was Origins)

Postby Graybeard » September 8th, 2010, 9:53 pm

[Okay, back among the living... Sorry for the delay.]


Chapter 21: Sylvanicus Minor

When the magical blur cleared, Lorrin Elle was in a place unlike any he’d ever seen before.

Lorrin was no stranger to forests, of course; the hills of northern Veracia, where he had grown up, were forested, and he’d spent many a happy boyhood hour roaming among the trees, playing games with his friends, imagining himself a mighty hunter who would protect the tribe from the great and terrifying beasts that lurked there. But there were trees and there were trees. The grandest trees of home were stately elms and oaks, standing perhaps a hundred feet high (and oh, how far from the ground their tops had seemed when the ten-year-old Lorrin climbed them!), and nearly as wide at their crowns. These trees were … different. Lorrin gaped unashamedly at the awesome coniferous mass that rose above him.

The group had ported into a tree, or at least, into a cavity within its trunk that itself could have held a fair-sized oak. The treetop was literally out of sight above them, lost in a milky haze that had to be a good three hundred feet above the ground. Nor was the portal-tree in any way unusual. The whole grove was composed of similar giants, some even larger than the portal. Many had doors and windows carved into their mighty trunks; several had what appeared to be buildings protruding from them, some extending five or six stories above the ground. Lorrin stood for a moment, taking it all in.

“Impressed, kid?” Vlado sneered, breaking the mood; Lorrin knew by now that his tentmate would seize any chance to take the wonder out of the experiences they were sharing. However, Lorrin managed to sneak a glance back in the hairless youth’s direction when Vlado didn’t think he was watching, and discovered that he too was looking up into the heights. Obviously he was more impressed himself than he let on. Even Pontus Cardiel was staring at the giant trees, and the elven dwellings among them.

Eventually Pontus shook himself free from his reveries and turned to Lorrin. “Sylvanicus Minor,” he said, indicating the grove. “It’s one of the smaller of the Keiren cities. Oh, the trees aren’t!” he amended, seeing the look on Lorrin’s face. “They’re some of the largest in all the Keiren territories. I think they intentionally bring us into a place like this just to see the looks on our faces. Sylvanicus Major is a much bigger city, but the trees aren’t as grand, at least most of them.”

Lorrin was still looking at the sights around him when the elven commander approached the humans. “We will meet the ambassador here,” she announced. “There will be a brief period of indoctrination, then we travel on to our destination. I am not yet at liberty to reveal where it is.”

Vlado snickered, quietly muttered “The Keiren and their damn secrets,” in a voice that Lorrin, to his alarm, thought was just a little too loud; the elf could probably hear it as well as the humans. If she did, though, she had no reaction. The group stood quietly contemplative for a few minutes, until an elf wearing a preposterously ornate cape emerged from a nearby tree.

“Good morning, my lord,” the commander said, genuflecting slightly, and the humans did the same. The important elf condescended to nod at the group, and spoke a single word. “Come.”

Still gaping at his surroundings, Lorrin followed the others into what could only be described as a half tree, half castle, where he would learn what he was here for, and what had to be done.
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Re: ES: Lorrin's Story, part 2 (was Origins)

Postby Graybeard » September 11th, 2010, 11:29 am

[Oops: minor retcon needed to bring this into line with some things we've learned about Malacia since it was written. It doesn't affect what's going on in any way.]

Chapter 22: The mission

The castle-tree and its great hall were exaggeratedly grandiose, of course, but only in the usual elven way, and Lorrin was getting used to that. The caped elf conducted the travelers into a smaller but still ornate side room, and made a great show of locking and securing the door. “What you are about to see,” he announced, “is to be held in the strictest confidence. You will discuss it with no one outside this room. In fact, I’d prefer not to show it to you at all, but since it is our destination, you’ll need to see and understand, to reduce the chances that you’ll do something stupid when you get there.”

He gestured, and a magical beam shot out from his hand to the far wall of the room. Instantly, an image came into focus – an image of what appeared to be a city floating above the sea. It looked like a mountain top had been sheared off and turned upside down, and the city was growing from its flattened surface. Skyscrapers rose from the platform’s center, surrounded by smaller buildings that still caught the eye. The image had been created near sundown, and the rays of the setting sun glinted off windows, walls and roofs in such a way as to suggest magical fire. It floated above a turquoise ocean whose color added to the effect.

The image really was quite grand, and Lorrin stifled the annoyance that had started to build in him at the elf’s condescension and sat back to study it. Vlado, of course, had a less – awed – reaction. “Strictest confidence, my ass,” he snickered quietly in Lorrin’s ear. “This damn thing has been all over the camp for at least six months. Anybody who doesn’t know about it isn’t paying attention.” Lorrin was about to object that he hadn't heard about it, but the elven commander, whose name (rank?), Lorrin had learned, was Viradior Vilina, impaled the two of them with a glare, and Vlado took the hint and subsided.

“This,” the ambassador was saying, “is the capital city of the Erufu Rinkai. Its location is a closely guarded secret.” (Now it was Lorrin’s own turn to think my ass it is. During one of his sessions “servicing” Varani, who was a Rinkai, she’d fantasized about taking him to the place off the shore of the Rinkai homeland, although she’d implied it was an island and hadn’t mentioned that it floated in mid-air.) “It is called Malacia,” the man continued, “and it is a marvel of engineering and enchantment. The Rinkai spent centuries getting it to its current magnificence, and even I, as a Keiren, concede that my own people have nothing to match it. And its crowning glory – this is highly classified – is that there is to be another one just like it, but built through the combined efforts of the three races, elves, half elves, and humans.”

Now this was interesting, Lorrin thought. He’d heard rumors of some grand tri-racial project, but didn’t know exactly what it was. Of course, Vlado might be better plugged into the camp rumor mill, and this bit of news might not surprise him, but Lorrin thought he’d detected just a flicker of amazement on Vlado’s normally bored-looking countenance. He sat back while the ambassador described the plans for the new city, and then came the biggest bombshell of all.

“So we’re going to Malacia, so that I can pay a courtesy call on the man who’s the chief magical architect of the new city, which doesn’t have a name yet, we're just calling it New Malacia for now. You’ve been selected to join me on this trip, and you will be meeting my half-elf assistant, Jo, shortly; she too will be joining us. It is important, you see, that all races be represented on this visit, because …” He gestured again, and the image dissolved, to be replaced by that of an elderly, distinguished looking half elf.

“The chief magical architect is a half elf himself,” the ambassador said. “Kiyan Nizami. Some say he is the greatest mage of our time, even greater than any of my own people. And you have been chosen to travel with me, to express the enthusiasm of the Keiren for this wonderful new project.” Oration finished, he stopped to let his retinue take it all in.
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Re: ES: Lorrin's Story, part 2 (was Origins)

Postby Graybeard » September 16th, 2010, 5:31 pm

[A bit of a short one, but I'm mildly writer's blocked, so to resolve it with what I do have:]

Chapter 23: Jozefina

Lorrin had to admit that, despite his minor, nagging prejudice against half elves for the way they had usurped humanity’s place among the elves, he was impressed. One thing he’d learned already was that the elves had more than their share of hubris: they considered themselves the best at anything. If an elf was to opine that this half elf Nizami might, even in the remotest bounds of possibility, be anything like “the greatest mage of our time,” he must be a very great mage indeed.

He put the illustrious mage out of his mind for the moment as the elven ambassador described the outing. It all sounded routine enough: the party would gate into the flying city just as they had gated into Sylvanicus Minor, to be met by their opposite numbers among the Rinkai for a minor diplomatic reception. (Lorrin wondered whether the Rinkai would be as … uninhibited … at this event as he’d seen them to be in camp. He rather doubted it; diplomatic decorum would need to be observed. Still, the reception might prove more interesting than it sounded.) Following a night to rest from the travel, they would go to see the great man, marvel over his plans, express wonderment at the mighty work that they would inspire. Ambassador Salray would offer the full cooperation of the Keiren, and the party would depart.

Idly, Lorrin wondered: why all the fuss? There would be no real security needs for the human and elven warriors to address; they wouldn’t even be traveling with weapons, other than the elves’ own magic. And surely Keiren cooperation in a project that would involve all the intelligent races could be assumed, couldn’t it? It hadn’t yet occurred to him that the elves would engage in pageantry for its own sake. Well, what would be would be.

He was listening to the ambassador drone on about preparations and the need for complete secrecy (secrecy from whom? he wondered, never getting an answer that made sense), finding his attention diverted by the ornate room, when there was a gentle knock at the door. The ambassador’s face lit up with pleasure such as Lorrin had never seen on an elf. “Ah! Jozefina, my dear! Do come in and join us,” he said as the door opened.

Lorrin gaped. What was coming through the door – “floating” would describe it – was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in his life.

Jozefina Ramorciel was half elven, that was clear from her height and ears. Her long, silky hair was the color of finely spun flax, and framed a serenely delicate, oval face with startling green eyes. Her smile revealed perfect teeth that almost sparkled. Her gown revealed just enough that Lorrin knew she had a perfect figure, yet without the slightest hint of vulgarity. She moved as though on the wind as she came to deliver a demure kiss to the ambassador’s cheek, then daintily sank into a chair without a wasted gesture, as if to say I’m sorry for interrupting, please look at him, not at me – not that any man in the room would ever have obeyed. For his own part, the ambassador was beaming …

Nor was he the only one in the room who was reacting to his "assistant's" entrance. I’m in love, Lorrin thought as the lecture continued, not sure whether he was serious or not.
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Re: ES: Lorrin's Story, part 2 (was Origins)

Postby Graybeard » September 18th, 2010, 12:04 am

Chapter 24: Aging

The group broke up to make preparations for the next travel-platform jump, but Lorrin and the other humans stayed seated as the elves and half elf left the room, Jozefina floating serenely on Ambassador Salray’s arm. Lorrin just gaped silently as the room emptied, then finally let out a low whistle. “Great Mother, she’s beautiful,” he breathed to anyone who was listening; in other words, Vlado and Pontus.

Vlado reacted as one might expect: with a guffaw. “Yeah, and she’s also boinking His Importantness,” he sneered. “Don’t even think about it, kid. Not only is she way out of your league, she’s old enough to be your mother, and maybe grandmother. Nice ass, though.”

Vlado’s leer seemed almost obscene, Lorrin thought, given its subject, and he was about ready to launch at the irritating young man, but something he’d heard brought him up short. He took a moment to calm himself, then asked the question that had been forming. “My grandmother?” he said. “What are you talking about? That woman can’t be a day over thirty, and I’d guess twenty-five would be more like it. She’s – “

Pontus interrupted. “Then you would guess wrong, Lorrin. Vlado is right, about her age at least. Let’s take a walk, then come back and get ready. I’ll explain as we go.”

Completely dumbfounded, Lorrin complied, joining Pontus in heading back out into the tree-city. (He didn’t know where Vlado was going, and truthfully, he didn’t care.) The two young humans walked in silence until they found what looked like a park, distinguishable from the inhabited part of the city only by the fact that the immense trees didn’t have man-made (or, rather, elf-made) structures attached to them. Pontus motioned Lorrin to a bench, and as they sat, asked, “Have you ever seen a half elf before?”

Lorrin thought about it. “I – think so,” he said. “The server at the camp mess hall is a half elf, isn’t she? I think she’s the only one.”

Pontus nodded. “That’s Daria. How old do you think she is?”

Another pause to think. “I don’t know. Forty, maybe. She looks like she’s probably about my mother’s age, maybe a little younger. Of course, she’s probably had an easier life than mom has, so to look like that – oh, maybe fifty at the most.”

Pontus nodded again. “That was what I thought too, the first time I saw her. Then one of the instructors set me straight. Lorrin, Daria is almost one hundred years old. That’s the way half elves are. They don’t age the way we do. Oh, they’re not immortal, like the elves, and they will grow old and die like us. They just do it a lot more slowly. Vlado was right, or almost: that half elf is forty if she’s a day, and fifty wouldn’t be out of the question. Given that she’s been able to take care of herself, and probably get magical rejuvenation from the elves, fifty might even be more likely. She really is at least your mother’s age.”

Some things were starting to fall into place inside Lorrin’s head. “Great Mother,” he swore again, but this time it had a bit of reverence to it. “So you’re telling me that half elves don’t grow old the way we do? And they look like that into middle age, damn near perfect? No wonder the elves like having them around more than they like us.” Now why was Pontus looking at him like that?

The older human looked around as though checking for listeners; seeing none, he lowered his voice and continued. “It isn’t quite so simple, my friend. Yes, the half elves age slowly. They also mature slowly. And that’s just the healthy ones, like Jozefina and Daria. They aren’t all like that.” He took a deep breath, let it out. “Has anyone told you yet about Errants?”

“What?”
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Re: ES: Lorrin's Story, part 2 (was Origins)

Postby Graybeard » September 23rd, 2010, 9:55 pm

Chapter 25: Errants

“What’s an Errant?” Lorrin repeated. “I’ve never heard the term used – what’s wrong?”

Pontus was looking around nervously again. “Don’t say that so loud,” he said. “It’s a – sensitive subject with the elves.”

Lorrin was puzzled – what could possibly be a “sensitive subject” with a race that were the clear masters of the world – but he followed his friend’s lead and lowered his own voice. “So you’re saying these Errants aren’t like – she is? That there’s something about them that scares the elves?”

Pontus emitted a humorless laugh. “Oh, they don’t just scare the elves, they scare the piss out of me. Let me tell you about something that happened to me the first time I went out on a mission, just like you are now.” His eyes clouded over with the trip down memory lane …

It wasn’t much of a mission, really, just a simple diplomatic escort, very much like the one he was on now. They’d gated into a small city in the Sanguen territories whose name he wasn’t sure he’d ever learned, and certainly forgot long ago if he had. It may have been “small,” but it was still the most spectacular sight he’d ever seen in his life, with the buildings ablaze with magical light, streets that might have been paved with gold (they weren’t, of course, but the illusion was that good), and never to be forgotten, the elves themselves, coming and going in capes and cloaks and gowns and pantaloons and waistcoats that seemed impossibly glamorous.

At least it seemed that way until they walked past the sanatorium.

He hadn’t recognized it at first for what it was. It was a low, single-story structure on the outskirts of the city, on the way out to the farming complex where Ambassador Whoever-she-was was supposed to deliver an oration. It was functional in design, and certainly not ornate; its walls glowed with magic, but the effect wasn’t one of beautification, but rather a certain intangible menace. At the perimeter of its yard stood small, two-story towers every so many meters that had a definite guard-post look to them. The space between them glowed with filmy magic too, transparent to translucent rather than opaque, so that Pontus could see shadowy forms shambling aimlessly around the green.

His first thought had been that he was looking at an elven jail; he asked Shiree, one of the elves in the detail (one that he’d slept with a few times – she was Rinkai, after all – which didn’t imply “intimacy,” of course, just availability), whether his guess was right. “Oh no,” she said, distaste playing across her features. “That’s where the Errants are kept until the Sanguen figure out what to do with them.” She pressed on, dodging the questions forming in his mind … but not for long.

As he understood it, the investigation never did establish exactly how the one Errant had made it through the magical curtain. The best guess was that he’d simply walked through it as though it wasn’t there, as though magical barriers simply didn’t
apply to him. Some Errants, Pontus would learn, weren’t affected by magic at all – even though, in some cases, they were capable of powerfully destructive magic themselves.

However he got out, now he was standing in front of the party, as though he’d materialized there out of thin air. “Buh – buh – bad p-p-people,” he stammered … and before any of the warriors could cut him down, magic roared from his fingertips.


“And that’s how I got this,” Pontus concluded his oration to Lorrin, as he rubbed the scar on his face. “I got off light. He cast a Blade Storm, that’s what I call it. Vishy, next to me, got completely turned into pulp. God, I can still see the blood flying through the air … The elf, Shiree, got killed too, never knew what hit her, and it takes one hell of a lot of magic to kill an elf in her tracks. One of the other elves lost an arm. All of the others had injuries too, worse than mine. And you know the hell of it? The Errant just stopped and curled up in a fetal position, whimpering. I couldn’t even bring myself to kill somebody like that. One of the elves had to do it.”

Pontus shook himself. “So yeah, they scare me. And the elves say that with every passing generation of half elves, there are more of them.”
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Re: ES: Lorrin's Story, part 2 (was Origins)

Postby Jack Rothwell » September 25th, 2010, 7:59 am

You've got a real knack for painting a picture with your words, greybeard. These last several chapters give the impression of groundwork being lain down for something big. I'm enjoying the multitude of characters and the history-blank-spots being filled in. I can't help but wonder what the future holds for Lorrin. I'll be reading this until the end. Keep on posting!

And thanks for the replies to my stuff.
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Re: ES: Lorrin's Story, part 2 (was Origins)

Postby Graybeard » September 27th, 2010, 9:06 am

[Thanks for the kind words again. Slightly short one this time; I decided to break the next section into two parts, not having time this morning to finish the second half. And yeah, this is building toward something, but it's quite a ways in the future. So:]

Chapter 26: Malacia

Lorrin started to ask more questions about his friend’s near-fatal encounter with the mysterious, deadly Errant, but Pontus extracted a glowing object from his pocket that Lorrin recognized as an elven time-piece. “Damn,” Pontus said. “I didn’t realize how long-winded I was. We’d better hustle back and get ready for the gate.” They set off, Lorrin’s long legs carrying him along at a brisk pace, but Pontus was motivated to keep up; they didn’t want to be late and prejudice their chances of going on another mission … because it was clear to both men that a job like this was desirable.

A few minutes later, after going through the Keiren’s overly elaborate security procedures (“Remove your shoes,” Lorrin was ordered, “so we can inspect them” – now what kind of paranoiac could find a threat in a shoe?), the group was ready to go. Vlado bore a strange, secretive expression on his face; he looked like he’d been out sampling some forbidden fruit somewhere in the elven city and didn’t want anyone to know about it. Jozefina Ramorciel, it was observed, had changed into a more – reserved business outfit that might be more comfortable to travel in than the gown she had been wearing earlier. No outfit, however, could disguise the beauty of its wearer. Lorrin could barely keep his eyes off the half elf as preparations for the gate were made.

When the sparkling magic cleared, Lorrin was once again in a place unlike any he’d ever seen before.

The image the ambassador had projected failed to get across just how big Malacia was. Now, surrounded by soaring buildings that each could have held the entire population of his village, Lorrin understood. There was a domed structure in the distance that looked like it could hold not thousands, but tens of thousands, of people. A sports stadium? Probably, although he’d never seen the elves engage in any sports other than watching the duel … to the extent that that was a sport. Of course, the elves might have their own uses for such a place. Anyway, it was all incredibly grand. The buildings shimmered with reflected sunlight as though they were made of gold, just as Pontus had recounted.

He was still taking it all in when an elf appeared in front of the group, wearing the armor of what Lorrin had come to recognize as the Viradior, the elven special forces. “Welcome to Malacia,” the elf said formally. “I am Viradior Kozma, and it is my duty to escort you to your lodging for the evening.” He turned to go, and the group fell in behind him … but not before Lorrin noticed something unexpected, and a bit jarring.

Somehow, he would have thought, the elves should have come up with some magical means of keeping the buildings and streets of this wondrous city clean without resorting to manual labor. They hadn’t. A crew of janitors was hard at work in the huge chamber bearing the travel platform they’d gated into. Most had the beaten-down look of people who’d worked with their hands, in a job they didn’t like, for far too long. All of them were human. And as the group left the platform, several of the janitorial crew were staring at Lorrin, Pontus and Vlado with expressions that were definitely not conveying admiration and respect.

Lorrin realized, with something of a shock, that he’d never been the target of envy before – envy so strong that there was an element of hatred in it.

And suddenly the prospect of serving the elves in the elite military unit that he knew bore the name “Ensigerum” didn’t seem quite as attractive as it had.

Lorrin was still puzzling over the unabashedly hostile humans and his reaction to them as the group entered the lobby of an impossibly grand hotel … where more humans were doing the menial work … and staring.
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