3:42, December 24, 706 CR
The forest is quiet. No snow, new fallen from winter clouds, crunches under paws or boots. No breezes whistle through the many branches, playing a melody only they know. The air is still, as no man or beast is awake to disturb it. All have found their beds, some in the trees, some in the ground, and some on their mattresses. None here are awake on the eve of the most portentous night of this year.
Yet the snow does crunch, and the air does stir, as a black paw hitherto unseen softly touches the ground. It is followed by three others, leaving tracks quickly obscured by the drifting snow. The head they support lifts up, taking in the forest around it. The pair of ice-blue eyes gaze forward, into a small clearing that is warmed to keep the snow out. The ears twitch and swivel, trying to capture a sound, any sound, but only registering the noises of their own body. After a few minutes of silent regard, the moist snout finally picks up the scent, faint though it is, of the being. It is sleeping in the single wooden chair set amidst the delicate clearing under the starlight. It has been lying there some time, as its scent has had the opportunity to diffuse quite far through the air.
The lupine head moves forward, pulling the long black body toward the chair and its occupant. The tongue, kenneled behind large fangs, slips loose but is reigned back in before it can slurp and announce its presence. Yet the tail, which was held high behind the body, stiffens out straight as the sleeper declares his consciousness: "I knew you would return eventually."
The wolf, knowing surprise was lost, responds in kind, for even though its windpipe cannot produce words, his host has never misunderstood him: Oh come now. You can't have been waiting all this time.
"I knew you and I would talk sometime during this century. You have never been that particularly difficult to predict."
Yet despite that, you are still the only one in this forest who knows I am here.
The being sighs, saying, "That you found your way here through whatever legerdemain you saw fit to use speaks highly of your unique qualities; and of your stubborn nature."
The wolf raises its head, proudly proclaiming, I am the first to ever circumvent your wards, gaining entry without permission, and proving, once again, that your kind are not omnipotent.
A chuckle wafts from the reclined seat. "We never claimed to be! Your boasting, however, is a poor attempt to cover your vexation that I noticed you and ruined your little 'surprise.' I do not think I would have liked it much anyway, but thank you for the thought."
The wolf moves behind the chair and lowers its jaws to a foot above the headrest, its hot breath tickling the being's pointed ears. It growls, the air rumbling in its massive chest as it broadcasts, I can still crush your head, be rid of you. The world would be that much better off without your scheming and controlling. Besides, I've never personally seen one of your kind die.
The Åelf steeples his fingers but keeps his gaze forward, replying, "You could do as you say. But you know, as certainly as I know, what would happen to us all if you did. Nor can you have already forgotten your punishment for the last time that you lost your temper."
The wolf backs its ears and tucks its tail before recovering and moving to the left of the chair. It makes eye contact with the Åelf as it says, Such things rarely happen. The world and its peoples do not intrigue me as they once did. Dragons are too reclusive with their secrets and their mysteries, and you know my quarrels with the gods. The one race that I can find kinship with anymore is yours, and only with a select number of individuals.
"Am I one of them?"
The Åelf raises his eyebrows as he murmurs his thanks. Knowing the sensitivity of the wolf's ears, he does not raise his voice as he says, "Then you should come to appreciate my apprentice as well. He shares my temperament, and still possesses the fire of youth."
The wolf lies down, disturbing the leaves again as it falls to rest its head in its paws. I never said I liked you, even though that is the case. As for your apprentice, I will reserve my judgment until he has his first millennia under his belt.
"He will most likely survive that long. He has a natural affinity for change, and knows how to make use of it. He will need that ability as well; once the prophesies before us are fulfilled – for better or for worse – the predictions grow more disorderly and eventually begin to contradict each other. The stars no longer speak with one voice. With time, anything will become possible."
Then I will stay out of his way, as those who lead change are not favorably disposed toward those who have led it before.
"You should not hold back from relationships so much. No nation survives long without allies."
I prefer not to spend time and energies building something that will last no longer than an eyeblink.
"Yet some bonds still need to be forged."
The wolf gives off the impression of a smirk. Ah yes, your guest for tomorrow evening. Would you be so kind as to introduce us? I'm sure he'd love to meet me.
"His reaction would undoubtedly be… interesting. I'm sure you would find it amusing, but somehow I do not think your grinning head on a pike would serve any worthwhile purpose."
"I know you like to entertain yourself by provoking the Ecclesia, I did hear about your little escapade in Pyralia-"
"652 by their calendar."
Ah. The wolf's tail wags. That was a fun year.
"And while I agree with you that their current doctrines concerning magic are overly constrictive, I do not condone your 'efforts' to 'change their view.' In my opinion, you are not endeavoring to shift their outlooks as much as exploiting the more ignorant amongst them for cheap laughs."
So what if I am? I need all the laughs I can get. That spree should last me for another seventy-five, hundred years anyway, and by then Yesulam will be flipped upside down if not razed. Your young guest will help with that soon enough.
"Yes, he will. He will fight with all his strength and all his mind and all his heart and all his soul, and even that which is not his, but… he does not know what lies ahead." The Åelf sighs. "I fear none of us truly do."
Oh, come now. You've been reading that Story correctly for so long, you might as well be made a prophet. The wolf adopts the guise of fearful worshipfulness, and stretches its front legs as if prostrate before the chair. Oh great Pencina, please, tell me, I beg of you; how will I die?
The Åelf's ears perk up in mirth as he answers, "I am truly sorry, but you will choke on the pelvis of the next deer you eat."
The wolf rolls onto its back, paws swinging in the air. Bah. You can do better than that. Besides, I'd be eating something much more filling, like… elk. Deer are appetizers.
The Åelf finally smiles. "An elk, then. A fine twenty-point elk will twist as it slips down your throat, clogging your windpipe and ending this life."
At least I won't be going out hungry.
"Hungry? You have never let such a simple thing as hunger slow you before!"
The levity falls as the wolf's paws drop back down. I never had the chance to stop, even when I wanted to. I have been forced to continue against all forces and powers of this realm.
"You have the opportunity to give that chance to others. That is more than most are ever given."
The wolf chuffs. Why should I help them benefit from what I can't enjoy?
"Cannot, or will not? You feel a purpose deep in your soul, or you would have given up a long time ago. It drives you to keep moving, taking up the purposes of others in the hope that one might be yours. However, because you have no knowledge of its nature nor how to recognize it if you find it, you continue your wanderings, hoping despite all evidence to the contrary that you have a reason to exist, to persist, and that you will discover your reason sometime before the end."
The wolf is on its feet, growling, its motions harsh. You said you could not read my part in the Story.
"And I did not lie. I can offer you no guidance nor help in your search. But I have studied the races of this earth for ages, and at some point each and every individual will wonder what his purpose is. You simply have more time to ponder."
The wolf snorts in surprise and lies back down, resting its head on its paws. I was wrong when I said you should be a prophet. You don't know the future; you just know people well enough to predict, anticipate, and lead them.
The Åelf sighs, resigned. "You will believe so, as it is not totally incorrect. You may interpret even my death in that way, when the story spreads."
The wolf's ears perk. Do you know of it? Do you know how you will die?
"I have my hopes, and my fears. Wait another year, and you will be able to know my end."
The wolf's head lifts. So soon? Over three long millennia, and you only have one more year?
The Åelf quickly interjects, "I only want one more. If I have any more than this one…" The ancient creature shudders. "I do not wish to think of it. Though I will stand alone until I can stand no more, I must release my life from my control. You know this."
No, I do not know what horrors you will suffer, what pain you must endure, what tears you will shed to see this thing through. This is more than any mortal should have to bear. The wolf's head rises look the Åelf in the eye, and it smells the distress from its friend. My offer still stands. I could spare you the anguish that this coming year will bring.
Seeing compassion in the wolf's striking blue eyes, the Åelf quietly sighs, then slowly shakes his head. "Your proposal is enticing, more so than when you originally mentioned it. Yet, though I might wish to accept it for my own sake, this is much grander than any one person – even one so venerable as I. Besides, I am not yet so weary of my days as you are of yours."
Then you had better make these coming days count, more than any of your considerable lifespan. May the world shake with your passing.
"It will. However, if it comes to pass, mine is not the last. One more must be taken before you may know that it is finished."
I have seen him and know his family, and I do not like either of them. They all have a history of arrogance, leading straight back to their first. I don't care about their talent; they could certainly have used it better than they did. Not all is foreordained.
The Åelf's voice is sharp. "Only you among all beings on this world have the latitude to say that, and the freedom to prove it. That family, if they knew of you, would detest you as well, for that very reason. Even from before their births, they know that everything happens for a reason. Some of them can chart those reasons, sailing safely through their lives, and the most wise can even alter the map. You alone add doubt, contradiction, chaos to their tidy world, and they are afraid of your potential for destruction. This last one has been and will be called upon again to make sacrifices that approach the limit that humans can endure. And you know that humans have the greatest capacity for endurance, for healing."
The retaliation is spiteful. I have never exceeded my capacities.
His words remain quiet, yet carry more rebuke than a slap. "You have done so many times, and those only during my life. Each incident is stunning. I cannot imagine your previous wounds, nor the emotional scars you yet bear."
Almost too quiet to understand, the wolf replies, Nothing can.
The pair remains silent long enough for the waning crescent moon to traverse another quarter of the sky. Finally, the Åelf says, "Metamor will need a protector."
They have their spirit, she seems to have done fine so far.
"No. She is but passive, only defending when attacked. It needs an aggressive defender, who is not afraid to make the first strike."
…And you want me to take the job.
"Not necessarily. You do seem to be the best choice, but you will do as you want, like you have always done. Several who live today can take the position, and some are in the Keep already. You will return to Metamor in time, regardless." He adds, inaudibly, "If only to learn of my death."
Of course I will return there. I cannot go anywhere in this world without returning anymore.
"If you find a home, you will enter it for the first time. And you will never find it the same again." The wolf bares its teeth and growls, but the Åelf continues, "You have seen this many times over in your lifespan: everything changes. And my knowledge enables me to repeat what you already know. You have never had a home. Dwelling places, perhaps, but nowhere that your heart yearns for. And besides, not all changes are for the worse."
The wolf slowly rises, and pads over to the Åelf. I will miss you. Bado mae, Qaneg.
The Åelf rises to face those ice-blue eyes, his gold-trimmed green robes flowing over his body. "I will miss you as well." He raises his arms and embraces the wolf around its neck. The wolf leans back, surprised, then nuzzles its friend in return.
After they part, the Åelf asks, "I did not understand your last sentence. Would you repeat it, please?"
The wolf smiles. If I did, you still would not recognize the language. I said, 'Go well, little Qan.'
Qan-af-årael smiles as well. "You are the only one I know who can rightly speak to me in the diminutive."
The wolf draws closer. As I will ever be. It leans down and licks Qan-af on the cheek, then turns and retraces its advance through the leaves. Goodbye, my friend.
The moonlight glances on the wolf's back, rippling over the lean muscles, highlighting the sheen of the black fur, then illuminating the drifting snow. Qan-af-årael raises his hand to the wet streak on his cheek. He says farewell to his departing friend with the only name he ever learned. "Goodbye, Ingemer."