Massive trees, trees that had seen species come and go, soared into the mountain air. Their spreading branches, thicker than most lowland trunks, were illuminated by lanterns filled with an almost eerie glow made by no fire that ever burned. Around the trunks of these enormous guardians of time were wrapped wooden and crystalline staircases, and walkways streamed between the broad canopies of these most ancient of forest giants. Floating on the air were the scents of baking bread and the pungent smell of cooking candies accompanied by the sweet voices of elven musicians merging their plaintive strains with the angelic voices of their kith and kin raised in song. The canopy hid from those below the elf city of Lothlonihal Lothiel, a city which had seen the dawn of elfkind and was now seeing its decline.
Lothlonihal Lothiel was the last metropolis of the ancient world left. The great elven cities of Jilaniel Juwasil and Munarisielial, and the dwarven cities of Grunarsh, Klanitch Gla, and Qandrasch were all gone. Even the timeless fortress of Umund-ke-Ra was no more. All were either pillaged and razed by the encroaching barbarians or leveled and abandoned for safer, more defensible places by their inhabitants. For the humans had evolved to the point of wanting what others had and adapting thought to ingenuity. Slowly was the stone of their weapons being replaced by what metal they could claim as plunder in battles with elves and dwarves or could work without forges. Their clothing was becoming more than merely the skins of dead animals crudely sewn together. They had gradually realized that certain plants appeared in certain areas every year, no matter how much they harvested. And their numbers would only increase, as they seemed to be more fertile than the insects the elder races once considered them to be.
And they had finally discovered magic. This was the last factor in the waning of the elder races, forcing them to flee their cities for the forests and the mountain caves. But even those would not save them and the faery city of Lothlonihal Lothiel. The graceful arches spanning between the branches of the great trees, the writhing columns rising to hold up the fantastic crystal roofs which shattered the barely penetrating streamers of light into a myriad of colors, and the elegant but simple dwellings of even the eldest and most prosperous of the elfkind living among the branches and trunks of the elven city would not be able to protect the peace of the elves for much longer.
"Lord!" a piping voice shattered that peace in what sounded like panic. A lithe form darted through the oaks of Lothlonihal Lothiel, his bronzed face pale, his rosy eyes wide with fear and loathing. The figure seemed young; his limbs thin, his face free of the cares of his unwrinkled but still wizened elders. However, in his hand was a bared sword, deep red human blood running thickly down the blade to encrust the hilt with its scum. "Lord, we are found!"
Elves all over the city were turning towards the commotion of the warrior's entrance, darting among the trees until he came upon what seemed like a place the towering trees had decided to leave open and carpeted in grass for the elves to gather amid the thick column of sunlight crashing down to the earth through the gap in the canopy of leaves. Slowly, the adults of Lothlonihal Lothiel began drifting towards the green.
One of the adults, his hair glowing silver and so long it was artfully looped back upon itself several times in the traditional braids of the Vinslanda Elves, raised his arms for silence. He gazed reproachfully at the gasping elven warrior, his sword dripping blood on the sward.
Flushing, the younger elf took a piece of cloth from his belt and wiped the blade. "Lord, barbarians were encountered a few miles from here," he said, causing the other listeners to burst into worried chatter again. Once more the elder raised his arms, causing them to be silent. With a flick of his long ears and a twitch of his thick, silvery brows, the elder motioned for the warrior to continue. "There were twenty of them. None of them were looking for animals to kill or plants to gather; they were looking specifically for us. They were trying to capture us, not kill us. After we drove them off, I questioned one of the survivors and he said he was hired to find us or some dwarves and take us alive ... by one of their shamans."
Quiet settled over the green, frowns of confusion reigning supreme on the faces of the elves. "Are you recovered enough from your run here that you could take a message to Thane Axzigund?"
The elf nodded dubiously. "Of course, Lord Arathiel, but why would we want to speak to the dwarves?" he blurted haughtily, then flushed again at the quizzical raising of a silvered brow. "I will leave immediately, Lord."
The young elf turned and sprinted off towards the only thing visible through the canopy of Lothlonihal Lothiel: Mt Gravenhaim. It was there the dwarves had retreated when they were forces to tear down their great fortress-cities, long after the elves saw which way history had turned. Both races had survived the great droughts and freezing cold of the Ice Age only to be displaced by the burgeoning barbarians coming from the south and east. The dwarves, miners and metal smiths already, merely took their love of mining and engineering to the next level, creating several great cities within caverns they discovered in the course of their mining the mountains of the south-central parts of the continent. The young elf would find one of their foragers quickly, for the dwarves had become jealous guardians of their newly settled lands, killing all who came with ill intent.
"What are the filthy humans up to now, Arathiel?" one of the other elders of the city asked in confusion.
Arathiel sighed and closed his eyes in sadness. "They have realized were are withdrawing from them and accepted the victory as it is," the older elf replied grimly. "But there are some among them who have discovered magic and, more importantly, its dark side. I imagine that those poor beasts who were sent to take our people were sent by a wizard who intends to harvest as much of our blood as possible while he can still find us. Elven blood is very useful in certain protection and longevity spells and dwarvish blood has an infinite number of battle uses that come with nasty effects to those it is used upon. I need to discuss this development with some of our colleagues in Mt. Gravenhaim. They will come when they learn an elf has entered their realm willingly and purposefully."
The next day dawned bright and clear. The elves of Lothlonihal Lothiel were continuing a routine as old as the eldest elder when the first of them began stomping through the forest, their grumbling voices grating and harsh against the musical whisperings of the elven language. Unlike the gold and silver complexions of the elves, their hides were dull gray and were as tough as its leathery texture implied. Bushy beards and long braids of varying shades of gray made it impossible for most non-dwarves to tell the difference between individuals, never mind male and female. Each of the dozen stumpy creatures was covered in shimmering mail and easily carried weapons that looked far too big for their diminutive stature. At their head strode the young elf sent to Mt. Gravenhaim and a dwarf standing nearly a hand taller and wider than his comrades, a thick sword taller than he was strapped to his back and a pair of throwing axes belted at each hip. Atop his head was a helm decorated with what looked like the horns of a demon and a gleaming gold crown.
"Arathiel!" the lord of the dwarves roared in a shockingly resonant bellow in the common tongue. "Why have you summoned me?"
Shocked and embarrassed, the young elf scurried ahead to kneel at Arathiel's feet even as the elder's brow rose. "I apologize, Lord Arathiel. He insisted on returning with me. He would not allow me to come ahead to warn you and he would send no other in his stead."
Arathiel smiled and nodded, motioning for the young warrior to rise. It is alright. Dwarves are mistrustful and Thane Axzigund drives the compulsion to sometimes absurd lengths," the elder explained as he walked through the growing crowd of elves. He noted in passing that there were several of the city's more proficient bowmen in the treetop walkways with their bows knocked. Arathiel, never overly fluent in common, grimaced and replied to the thane in the same tongue, "You will have to excuse my abominable accent, Axzigund. My common is rusty."
The dwarf puzzled through what was said and finally snorted. "None of you flitterbies was ever good at speaking a language you can't sing. Now why have you dragged me out of my mountain?"
"It would seem there is a human shaman who has a desire for elven or dwarven blood," the elf lord replied gravely. "Preferably with its owner still alive."
Another snort. "I would have expected you to anticipate such long before this, old man," the thane retorted in disgust. "You are, after all, the master sorceror in this land. Surely you knew that once humans discovered magic they would also discover blood magic. The demons and dark gods are always looking for new souls to reap and are only too happy to nudge magicians in that direction. The humans' souls are probably just as tasty to the dark lords as the rest of ours are."
Arathiel sighed. "Yes, I feared that such would be the case, but I never thought that they would send out parties of hunters to invade our lands to capture us alive for the purpose."
Axzigund's eyes narrowed. "So the skinny runt was telling the truth? Your people actually chased the barbarians off."
"Their shaman won't give up, Axzigund," Arathiel said wearily. "Eventually he will catch some of our people in the open and without aid. He will eventually get what he desires."
The dwarf shrugged. "What do you expect me to do about it? We have to gather outside. Things do not grow very well under ground. I started sending the gatherers out with armed guards ages ago. I know very well how the barbarians view us. I also knew that this day would come. Magic is a very nasty business. You damned magicians are at the root of much of the misery in this world," Thane Axzigund growled, his fierce gray eyes glaring at the elf. One of his warriors' brows rose at his statement and an amused twinkle sparkled in the seemingly ancient gaze Arathiel caught with his own. "Now, did you send for me to lecture me, or did you actually have something intelligent to tell me?"
Arathiel looked at what he assumed was the thane's wizard again and smiled. "Yes, I think I have an idea as to how to get this ambitious shaman and to spread the word to the rest of the barbarians as to what happens to those who try to prey upon us."
The dwarf lord stood staring at the elf for a long minute before growling, "Do you plan to share any time this millennium or are you going to turn niggardly on us?"