Ardyn crept silently through the brush, his eyes intent upon his prey. He had been stalking the beast for days now, waiting for the right moment to catch it unaware and get a clean shot. He patiently tracked downwind from the lone wolf. Unfortunately, he failed to notice which part of the forest he’d recently entered.
When Ardyn came upon the beast again, it had finished gorging itself on a fresh kill and had laid down to take a nap. The wolf usually holed itself up into the hollow of a log or a small cave to sleep, but today it had opted to nap in the middle of a clearing. It’s possible that it wasn’t ready to abandon its current kill, hoping for a snack after it’s nap.
The sun had faded behind clouds when Ardyn came across the still-sleeping beast, and he couldn’t believe his luck. However, Ardyn had been so intent on his prey that he failed to note how rapidly the cloud cover had increased and that the winds had begun to pick up.
Ardyn crouched low within the brush, quietly pulling out his bow and an arrow. He had just nocked his arrow when the beast began to rouse itself, blinking it’s three luminous, silver eyes. It had taken more note of the changing weather than the athla’naa who hunted him.
Suddenly, the clouds burst open, and the rain began to pelt down in heavy sheets, the trees doing little to prevent Ardyn from being completely soaked to the skin in a matter of moments. As soon as the storm broke, the beast fully awoke and ran, seeking shelter from the downpour.
Ardyn sighed in disappointment before he gave up the hunt to seek shelter himself. The rain and wind whipped tree branches into his face. He was forced to raise an arm to shield himself as he hurried through the forest. Thunder boomed overhead while lightning lit up the sky with brilliant flashes. Ardyn hated thunderstorms. He’d seen one too many trees nearly obliterated by lightning strikes, and he always worried about the people in his settlement and their homes nestled within the treetops.
Ardyn didn’t know how long he ran until he finally found the small cave along a cliffside, nearly hidden behind thick brush. He was lucky to find it at all, with the rain obscuring everything within a few feet of him. Stumbling inside breathless, he sank to the dry floor of the cave.
Sitting at the mouth of his shelter, Ardyn watched the storm while he wrung water from his long braid. He soon realized that the storm wasn’t going to relent anytime soon and he would have to make camp for the night.
He began to unpack his gear. As a ranger, he always had a small bedroll along with a supply of rations and a waterskin. The rations were dried blocks made from a mix of dehydrated meat and berries. They were favored among the rangers, who would often spend weeks, and sometimes months, away from any athla’naa settlement.
Ardyn next stripped off his wet clothes, laying them out on the dry floor of the cave, hoping they would be able to dry without a fire. There would be no way to find dry wood in a deluge like this.
As Ardyn began to settle himself into his bedroll, his mind drifted back to the morning several days ago, that had led him to track and hunt this beast in the first place.
The athla’naa settlement, Maala’naa, was still and quiet in the early hours of the dawn. Ardyn rose early on the days he was here, preferring to prepare for the day undisturbed. He exited the small treetop hut he called his own, as he made his way across several bridges interconnecting the many treehouse dwellings in his settlement. Ardyn then let down one of the ladders that were pulled up overnight for safety. He climbed down and made the rest of his way towards the creek at ground level. There he took a bracing bath in the chill waters before anyone else in the settlement stirred.
Ardyn undid his long braid of auburn hair to wash it. He worked to separate the braided strands of his hair, before submerging himself in the icy water of the creek. Once he was clean, he redressed, putting his long hair back into its usual braid, still wet. He was just walking back from the creek when he was approached by one of the Elders.
“Good morning, Elder Aelrindel,” Ardyn greeted. “You’re up early today.”
“I have a task for you, Ardyn,” Aelrindel said with a grave tone in her voice. “Another child was taken in the night by the beast. Our other rangers have attempted to hunt it down, but it has eluded them. I put the task upon your shoulders now.”
“Which child?” Ardyn asked with concern.
“Not one of yours,” Aelrindel assured him. “It was Cora’s youngest, Athandruel. He was just four winters old, and he left the safety of his hut in the night alone. He probably needed to relieve himself and didn’t want to disturb his mother.”
Ardyn shook his head. “Such senseless tragedy. That’s the third child the wolf has taken now, isn’t it?”
Aelrindel nodded. “Yes, and we never know when the beast will attack next, so it’s best we eliminate this one swiftly. Lone wolves such as this are always dangerous.”
“Where was the child attacked? Did anyone see where the beast headed afterward?” Ardyn asked.
“On the northern edge of Maala’naa,” Aelrindel explained. “I believe they said the tracks headed north into the woods.”
“I will prepare myself and head after it,” Ardyn promised.
“Be safe and well,” Aelrindel said. “Also keep in mind, if the beast does continue to head north, do not forget where the border of the aria’una lies. You must try to catch the beast before it wanders there.”
Ardyn nodded. He knew. Every athla’naa knew to avoid stepping beyond the border of bhath’laa’arh trees into the aria’una. The forbidden place.
He headed back to his hut and packed his gear, along with his bow and quiver. Then Ardyn headed out and made his way to the forest floor below, down several bridges and rope ladders. When he finally stepped upon solid ground, he turned to see his eldest daughter, Myria, and her mother, Celaena.
“Going off again so soon?” Celaena asked. “You never do like to remain here for long, not even to spend time with your children, do you? How long will you be gone this time?”
“Aelrindel has tasked me with tracking and killing the wolf who has been attacking our children,” Ardyn explained. “The beast took Cora’s youngest last night. Please, tell the others. Keep the children in the treetops until I have brought back its pelt.”
Celaena’s eyes widened, and she nodded in acknowledgment. Myria waved as she was herded by her mother towards the ladder back up into the treetops.
“Bye-bye, Papa!” she called as she began to climb.
Ardyn waved back even as he saw Celaena scowl at him. He sighed before he turned to make his way towards the site of the attack. Ardyn’s mating with Celaena hadn’t been a pleasant one, and she still resented him for his reluctance when she had been chosen to mate with him to produce his first child.
Everyone knew Ardyn’s preference for male partners, but that did not matter when Ardyn had come of age and he was forced to mate with Celaena. The athla’naa population remained small, with always far more females being born than males. Because of this, it was the duty of every male to father at least three children, preferably with three different mothers.
Ardyn had reluctantly mated with Celaena when he had come of age at twenty-five autumns, but he chose to have little involvement in his daughter’s upbringing. Myria was now nine summers old and looking more like her mother every day. A part of him cared for the child but the circumstances surrounding her conception still deeply troubled him. Seeing the child or her mother always brought back memories of the mating ritual he had been forced into.
In order to isolate himself, Ardyn chose to become a ranger, spending most of his time far away from his settlement. He preferred to spend his days alone, to range through the forest, guard the perimeter of the athla’naa lands, and occasionally hunt and bring back meat and pelts for his people.
Ardyn and the other rangers also ensured that the only athla’maakh or humans as they called themselves, allowed through their lands were traders. The athla’naa preferred that those traders traveled alone, which is why most of them chose to skirt around the athla’naa lands on their way between the athla’maakh villages.
As Ardyn arrived at the scene of the wolf attack, he studied the blood pattern and tracks that were still fresh on the ground. It was clear that the beast had been needlessly vicious with its kill. From how much blood there was, this was not a kill made out of necessity. The tracks were also deep enough in the soft ground that it was clear that the beast was large and not anywhere near starvation. The lone wolf was most likely rabid.
Ardyn stood, shouldered his gear, and walked steadfastly northward into the forest where the tracks led.
A flash of lightning startled Ardyn from his reverie. Another flash drew his attention to the far side of the cave, as the light glinted off something. He may never have noticed it if he hadn’t been looking in that direction. Ever curious, Ardyn rose and made his way towards where he saw the glint of light.
In the dim light of the cave, he could barely make it out, but there seemed to be something metallic, partially buried in the dirt. It was the edge that peeked out from the soil that had glinted from the flash of lightning. If it was metallic that meant it had to be athla’maakh in origin, meaning this cave must be one that the athla’maakh hunters used. He must have strayed too far from athla’naa lands.
Ardyn’s curiosity got the better of him, and he reached out to see what the half-hidden object was. As he picked it up and brushed the dirt from its surface, he startled and dropped it.
It had … glowed.
Ardyn had on occasion seen metal objects from the athla’maakh he occasionally traded with, but he’d never seen any that glowed. Without touching the object again, he bent closer to study it. As soon as he’d dropped it, the glow had faded. Now it just glinted dully in the dim light. He reached out again as his heart pounded in his chest. As soon as he touched it again, the glow came back, which made him flinch away.
Part of his mind wanted to scream foul magic, but Ardyn knew better. Logically, he knew magic didn’t exist, and he understood that more advanced technology could appear like magic. He had seen firsthand some of the technology the athla’maakh possessed. While his own people shunned technology, he had never feared it.
Yet, he was baffled. What kind of technology could do this?
Ardyn steeled his nerves before he reached for the object again and picked it up. He didn’t flinch or drop it this time, as it began to glow. It produced an eerie light, faintly blue against the silver of the metal. As he held it up for a closer inspection, he realized the glow came from symbols carved into the surface of the object.
Looking more closely at the symbols, Ardyn’s eyes flew open in surprise. The words were in an ancient athla’naa script. He couldn’t make out the archaic words, but it was obviously athla’naa in origin. He had seen this writing before on the scrolls and books the Elders kept.
That didn’t make sense. Athla’naa didn’t forge metal, and they most certainly didn’t have technology like this. This object was more advanced than anything Ardyn had ever seen even an athla’maakh possess. The metal objects he had seen from them were never this smooth or polished, and they didn’t have the capability of emitting light.
Trying to understand what the object even was, he turned it over in his hands. It was small, just large enough for a hand to comfortably grasp it. It was roughly octagonal in shape, with four sides longer than the others. One edge extended out from the silvery metal the object was composed of and looked like a different metal. Copper, he thought he recalled from his limited knowledge of athla’maakh vocabulary.
The back was smooth with no marks; the glowing writing only appeared on one side of it. Ardyn carefully placed it within his pack before he went back to the side of the cave where he’d found it. He looked for more clues, but he found nothing more but dirt.
Exhaustion hit Ardyn, so he slipped the object into his pack and once again settled himself into his bedroll. He may as well get some sleep while the storm continued to rage outside. He could worry about the meaning of the strange object tomorrow.
Ardyn awakened to the sound of chirping birds coming from outside of the cave. It was the next morning, and the storm had finally passed. He blinked the sleep from his eyes, sat up and reached into his pack to break his fast when his hand brushed over the object.
As the dawn light filtered into the cave, he drew the thing back out of his pack and contemplated it once again. It just didn’t make any sense. The words on the face of it were an archaic form of athla’naa script; he was sure of that. Only those destined to become Elders were ever taught how to read that form of script. The current script that his people used was a much-simplified form. Ardyn had seen the scrolls and texts the Elders used, and could recognize the script, even if he couldn’t read them.
What were these ancient athla’naa words doing, glowing at him, from this piece of ostensibly advanced technology? From everything he had been taught since he was a child, his people avoided technology beyond the most basic things. Metalworking was strictly forbidden. Possessing or trading for metal tools was enough to get you shunned from your settlement. Athla’naa favored wood, bone, or stone for everything from weapons to the needles they used to sew together their clothing.
Generation after generation, the athla’naa were taught to do things the same way they had always been. To uphold tradition at any cost. Innovations and inventions were the product of a weak or lazy mind that had no patience for the old ways. Not adhering to tradition was a slight against the ancestors and would not be tolerated.
When he was younger, Ardyn had always wondered why the Elders were so strict regarding these edicts, and he’d found himself punished a few times for daring to speak out and question their wisdom. Ardyn’s curiosity on the matter never abated, but he had learned the hard way to keep his questions to himself.
He wondered how the Elders would react upon seeing this object. They would undoubtedly be able to read the writing on it, but knowing their aversion to any technology, he wondered if they would just take it, or even destroy it, without explanation. Not being able to reconcile the conflicting evidence he held in his hand, he once again shoved the thing back into his pack and packed up the rest of his gear.
Ardyn had lost his prey and had to see if he could pick up the wolf’s trail again, now that the storm had passed. He knew he’d gone beyond his usual hunting range if he had ended up in a cave possibly used by athla’maakh. Running nearly blind in the storm the day before, he’d completely lost his bearings.
Ardyn decided the first thing he had to do was to figure out where he was. The best way to do that was to go up into the trees. He made his way towards a suitably tall tree, leaving his pack and bow at the base, and began climbing. Once he was at the top, he looked around only to feel his heart jump into his throat. Oh no.
He hadn’t crossed into athla’maakh territory as he’d feared; this was much worse. He’d crossed into the aria’una. He could clearly see the arc of red-leafed bhath’laa’ar delineating the border. He had to get out of here, now.
The Elders must already know of his transgression, so he was in a near state of panic. Somehow, they always knew. His heart raced and his breath caught in his throat as he climbed back down the tree. He grabbed his pack and ran immediately in the direction of the border of the aria’una, which had looked like it was at least a half day’s journey from where he was, even if he ran at top speed the entire way.
How had he gotten so deep into the aria’una? He hadn’t been running through the rain that far the day before. So intent on tracking the wolf, he must have failed to note that they had headed farther north than east. Somehow he’d also missed seeing the bhath’laa’ar when he’d obviously passed them. Ardyn was a seasoned ranger; he shouldn’t have let himself become so distracted by his prey that he had missed the perimeter. He felt like a complete fool.
Ardyn ran for nearly an hour when he finally stopped to rest and catch his breath. He knew he had to leave the aria’una as soon as possible, or face even worse punishment. However, at his current pace, he’d pass out from exhaustion before he’d ever reach the border. Trying to calm his nerves, he took stock of the situation and decided to pace himself. It would be nightfall by the time he’d reach the border this way, but at least he’d get out today instead of lying passed out for who knows how long.
After several more hours of travel at a more moderate pace, Ardyn reached a natural spring. Deciding to take a quick rest before continuing, he refilled his water skin and drank deeply, taking a few bites from his rations as well.
Exhaustion had crept up on Ardyn, and it dulled his ordinarily sharp senses. He sat idly by the spring, lost in thought. He almost didn’t notice the sound of a twig snapping behind him. When he turned, he saw the wolf that had once been his prey hurtling towards him, fangs bared. It was on top of him in an instant, knocking him backward and lunging for his throat.
Ardyn dodged the first lunge, as he twisted to one side and tried to scramble from beneath the beast. As the wolf lunged forward again, Ardyn heard a yell and the distinct twang of a bow as it loosed an arrow and in the next moment, the wolf collapsed on him, dead. Pushing the massive wolf off him, he managed to scramble free from the beast. He looked up to see an athla’maakh.
Standing up slowly, he remained wary. The athla’maakh walked up to him brazenly and greeted him in the athla’naa tongue. “Yawen uthera ior. Kerros ma’naath Jevan.” Greetings. My name is Jevan.
Ardyn was stunned for a moment, not expecting to hear his own language from the man. Taking a moment to compose himself, he then returned the greeting in the athla’maakh tongue.
“Greetings. My name is Ardyn.”
Jevan’s green eyes sparkled as he regarded the elf. “Nice to meet you, Ardyn.”