Chapter 1. The Sprite
Long after it was over Alastine would wonder where it all began. Every story has a beginning and hers inevitably began with the Sprite. She was thirteen years old at the time and starting to believe that they didn’t exist. Having never seen one herself Alastine assumed Sprites were part of an elaborate folk tale meant to scare young children into behaving properly. Perhaps she should paid closer attention to all those stories. Maybe then she would have at least been prepared for all that ultimately followed.
On the day of the Sprites arrival she had been in Tallyneck preparing for a riding festival. Just as the games were about to begin a Border Guard arrived with word that Alastine’s father Kirc was needed back in Glyn for an impromptu village assembly that same evening. They departed immediately with the Guard and rode home at a breakneck pace. The long and arduous ride was difficult for all of them, having just risen from hibernation a few weeks earlier. Tired and sore Alastine arrived in Glyn just as the assembly was about to begin.
The assembly hall was overflowing with townsfolk vying for a place in the standing room only gathering. Their escort departed as soon as he saw them safely inside the assembly hall. Alastine thought it odd to have an escort home but was too tired to question her father much about it. For his part Kirc didn’t offer any explanation. Village affairs usually bored Alastine. Though she was unhappy about having to attend the assembly she was eager to see her friend Sawyer. He was supposed to have been her partner in the Tallyneck riding festival but he had never arrived. In his place came the Border Guard with the message for Kirc return to Glyn immediately.
Alastine had been to many village assemblies but she couldn’t recall any that had been so well attended. She quickly lost her father in the crowd so she climbed the steps that lead up to the stage where the Elder and Councilor tables were being set up. Her father was already on stage speaking with Enid Leese, a village Elder and her mother’s mentor. He nodded at her as she seated herself on the top step and glanced around the room. Sawyer had to be in the throng of people somewhere. His father was a Village Councilor. It was his message that prompted their hasty return.
As if summoned by her thoughts Sawyer suddenly appeared from out of the crowd and seated himself on the step right below her. Behind Sawyer came a few village Sentries. They lit the small torches around the hall to help illuminate the darkening room. Sawyer’s oldest brother Caleb was in the middle of the hall, lighting the bonfire that would signal the beginning of the assembly.
“Why didn’t you come to Tallyneck?” Alastine whispered to Sawyer.
“My father and brother had to stay here. My mother couldn’t take me to Tallyneck, she’s terrible on a horse. Besides your father was needed back here. I knew you were coming home.”
“Why is this assembly so important? What is going on?”
“I don’t know.”
“Didn’t you ask?”
“No. It’s not like they would tell me anyway.”
“Well, what about the Sentries?”
“What about them?”
“Have you ever seen them at an assembly before?”
“I haven’t but I’m sure they’ve been here before.”
“When? I’ve never seen them and I’ve been attending these gatherings since I was little. Why are so many people here?”
Sawyer shrugged, “I think the suddenness of this assembly made some folks curious. Plus whenever the Elders bother to join the Councilors there are always rumors.”
“What rumors? What have you heard?”
“Do you ever stop asking questions?”
“Aren’t you even curious?” Before Sawyer could answer the bonfire roared to life and the Village Councilors and Elders took their seats. Sawyer’s father Tristin Carr was walking to the center stage podium with Kirc Arden by his side. Tristan was the senior Village Councilor and as such tended to run all assemblies.
“Thank you all for joining us this evening,” Tristan began. “We are here to discuss a visitation request from the Madia.”
Alastine perked up immediately and Sawyer leaned in to get a closer look at his father. The mention of the Madia was unexpected, that even Sawyer would acknowledge.
“An odd request to be sure but there may be just cause. Most of you know Leif Quinn. I give him the floor to provide further detail.”
Leif Quinn was a well traveled history instructor who often played the role of unofficial mediator during assemblies. Alastine had heard much of his adventures beyond Glyn in her weekly history lessons. These tales fascinated her, always the one eager for more detail when her classmates had long lost interest. By age thirteen Alastine had already traveled further than many of her neighbors. She and her family has been all over Sylvian lands and twice they had left the realm through a Passage. Alastine yearned to go through another but her parents were always cautious. Inter realm travel could be dangerous, they often said, and should only be undertaken when in dire need. Alastine knew they had just cause for believing so but it didn’t stop her from dreaming of far away places.
“Thank you Tristin,” Quinn nodded as he walked to the center of the platform and cleared his throat. “Ladies and gentlemen, three days ago one of the Mystics came forward with a message from the Pital Academy. The Madia are seeking permission to enter Glyn. I think we should consider this proposal seriously as I have been informed by the Elders that there could be a threat to our lands.”
“What kind of threat?” The question came from somewhere in the middle of the hall. Alastine couldn’t discern the individual faces of the crowd standing at the periphery of the bonfire’s light. They seemed to sway and blur indistinctly in the flickering firelight. Beyond the light’s reach were many unseen faces in the crowd. For an instant Alastine wondered who was really out there.
“We suspect there may be some sort of outbreak among the animals that roam the wild areas of the realm. I know some of you have heard rumor of animals attacking folk traveling between villages. I’m here to tell you those rumors are true. We need to understand the cause.”
“Should we be frightened?” Another voiced call out.
“No, we don’t believe there is call for alarm. We do suggest that if you are traveling through the wilderness that you go by coach or in a small party. I would avoid traveling alone until we know more. The wilderness in our realm is vast and the Border Guards cannot patrol all areas at all times.”
“How can the Madia help?” This question came from one of the Village Councilors, surprising Alastine with his seeming ignorance. Certainly the Councilors has been briefed prior to the assembly?
“The Madia are both well traveled and learned, they will be able to help advise us.” Enid Leese answered. “The Arden’s and I are very eager for their guidance. In the past several weeks we’ve all treated the victims of these attacks. I can assure you that nothing about their wounds is ordinary.”
“Why are we just hearing about these attacks now?”
“We didn’t want to alarm anyone unnecessarily.” Quinn said. “Enid treated two seemingly unrelated attacks over the past six months, one in Glyn and another while she was in Horvath. Then the two in the wilderness near the Arden’s homestead certainly heightened our concern this month. The Elders were evaluating this request from the Madia when another attack happened yesterday in Tallyneck. I think we can all agree five animal attacks in six months is highly unusual.”
“Kirc, before this slew of attacks when was the last recorded animal incident?” Tristin Carr asked.
“To my knowledge there was an isolated incident in The Lakes region eight years ago.” He replied. Kirc smiled reassuringly over at Alastine and she felt herself frowning in response. This was the first she had heard of any animal attacks, including the two that had supposedly occurred near her home. From a young age Alastine had been privy to many of the injuries and illnesses that her parents treated, even assisting in some. Yet she certainly didn’t remember seeing any victims of an animal attack. Had her parents hid those patients from her? If so, why?
“A representative from the Madia can be here as early as a week from today, we just need approval from the Village Elders and Councilors before we can begin arrangements with Pital,” Tristin said. “But before I do that I’d like to move the proposal to the assembly for open discussion.”
“Do the Madia have to come to Glyn? Couldn’t they just as easily go to one of the other villages?” Another question from the crowd.
“Three of the five attacks occurred in or surrounding Glyn. This is a natural place to start.” Tristan replied.
Sawyer whispered something to Alastine but she couldn’t hear him over the clamoring in the assembly hall. Occassional shouts could be heard during numerous heated discussions, though no one voice rose to the top. Tristin and Quinn were trying to direct the crowds’ attention without much success. Over the rumble of the crowd Alastine became aware of a soft pattering of rain upon the roof of the hall. She glanced up at the opening above the bonfire and wondered what was happening. Earlier in the evening there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky and the rain was unexpected. A silence fell over the assembly as rain began trickling inside. Within seconds, the steady drum of rain turned into a downpour that put out the bonfire. Save for the small torches scattered throughout the hall the room was plunged into a wet, dank darkness. Sentries quickly gathered and started up the back stairs towards the roof cover when the rain abruptly stopped and the fire burst back into life. Or rather, some version of a fire re-ignited. These flames were tall, thick, and a glowed light blue in color. The flickering flames gave off no heat and seemed to pulse with energy. Within the fire itself, black silhouettes of three figures could be seen wavering with the flickering blue flames. Staring in disbelief Alastine noted that a fourth figure had detached itself from the group. This flaming figure rose above the crowd and floated to the front of the room. As it moved towards the platform the blue flames subsided, and a fully formed male figured emerged covered in water. When he stepped onto the platform he was dry and nude. Alastine was too terrified to be embarrassed.
“A Sprite,” she whispered.
Sawyer clutched both of her arms and pulled her slightly back towards him. The Sprite turned and considered them briefly. Alastine felt her throat go dry.
“I must speak.” The Sprite said as he addressed the crowd. Alastine had never heard a voice like his before. It sounded somehow like the pounding of rain. The other three black figures remained in the fire watching silently.
“Olefin,” Enid moved forward, took one of the Sprites’ hands in both of hers and bowed to her waist. “We welcome you and are honored by your presence.”
“I am unhappy to be here. I do not like this form.”
“Please, what do you ask of us?”
“We do not approve of a Madian Prime entering Glyn. This village has been untouched by their corruption. We forbid their presence.”
“We do not know if it is a Prime. The Pital Academy mainly houses pupils.”
“Nevertheless, we strongly urge disallowance.”
“But what of their knowledge?” Tristin Carr asked, taking a hesitant step towards Olefin. “I wonder if they could help us understand the animal attacks.”
The Sprite turned slowly to Tristan, his expression one of utter distaste. Instinctively, Tristan took a small step backwards.
“Animals are behaving erratically because they sense an abnormal presence in your lands. A visit from a Madian will only increase their agitation.”
“What is this presence?” Enid asked.
“We do not know, but a power grows here. A power that will do nothing for your people but attract negative forces. You must root it out. That can be your only response.”
“How do we find it?”
“You know your folk, you know your lands. Something is out of balance. Find it.”
“But where do we start? What do we look for?”
“That is not for open discussion here. Send to us an emissary tomorrow at dusk. Follow Krystall stream to the waterfall at its source. Send only one.”
“Whom should we send?”
“That is for you to decide.” Olefin paused and sniffed the air. His head moved slowly from side to side, taking in the assembly hall. Was it Alastine’s imagination or was he glancing in their direction again? Behind her Sawyer sucked in his breath and stiffened noticeably. Olefin turned back to Enid.
“For now, that is all to be said. For now, that is all to be done.”
Olefin’s form dissolved into a crash of water onto the stage. Alastine could hear the droplets of water trickling through the floorboards and into ground below. A loud crack drew her attention back to the center of the hall. The bonfire flickered from blue to orange flames as the three remaining figures rose in smoke and drifted out the opening in the ceiling. As quickly as they appeared the Sprites were gone, leaving a stunned and shaking Alastine clinging to Sawyer in their wake.
“Why do the Sprites hate the Madia so much?”
It was almost a week after the village assembly and the furor over the Sprites’ appearance had yet to subside. Sitting in the schoolhouse Alastine had been absently drawing on a piece of paper trying to stay awake when the unusually direct question caught her attention. She glanced up at Jordy Hoffstra who was looking at Professor Quinn with an expression of guileless confusion. Jordy was one of Sawyer’s closest friends. Like Sawyer he was from an established Glyn family who had lived in the area since the town’s inception. The Hoffstra family had cleared the land in the village center and continued to maintain Glyn’s paths and public gathering places. They were also were in charge of a community favorite activity — the building of a homestead for a newly joined couple — and very well liked. Jordy was a perfect representation of his family; lively, friendly and always ready lend a hand where needed. Alastine often thought of him as an apple, sweet, shiny and appealing to all.
“The Sprites don’t hate the Madia, Jordy,” Quinn answered. “They don’t trust them, I’ll grant you that but I wouldn’t say they hate them.”
“Why don’t they trust them?”
Quinn came out from behind his wooden desk in the front of the room and stood before the class.
“Come one everyone, gather around. I think we should talk about this openly. It’s an important part of our history.”
“I’m so sick of talking about Sprites!” Keelia hissed into Alastine’s ear as she pulled up her chair.
Alastine smiled to herself, fully understanding Keelia’s frustration. Besides her beauty Keelia was known for one other characteristic, her temper. Given that Amenty women were meant to be agreeable her mother Irri often told a tale to explain away her unruly daughter.
“What is that story your mother likes to tell again?”
“Ugh! That I was such a beautiful baby that Fire Sprite took our form and give mea kiss. He marked me with his fire.”
Alastine giggled. “So ridiculous!”
“I know, but it doesn’t stop the silly hens in this town from clucking does it?”
Alastine shook her head, trying to suppress her laughter under Keelia’s steely gaze. Since Olefin’s appearance many in Glyn have speculated that he was the Sprite that left Keelia with her unmanageable temper. Though there were three other Sprites at the assembly he was the only one to have taken form. The general consensus around the village was that it had to have been him. He was clearly their leader, had the ability to transform, and was familiar enough with the Etman ways. Knowing the story to be untrue Alastine also found the speculation to be funny but tiresome after a while. Keelia did enjoy the notoriety for a few days but the attention quickly grew stale. Both she and Alastine were more than ready to move on from the Sprite’s appearance and Keelia’s disposition.
“Does anyone know where the Madia came from?”
Quinn looked around the room only to be greeted with blank stares. Alastine knew the story but trained her gaze out the window. She caught a glimpse of Sawyer walking towards Sustenance House with Tigin Oake. It was a beautiful afternoon and she found herself longing to join them. A refreshing glass of mint honey water was just what she needed.
“Alastine could you help us out here?”
Alastine looked up in surprise at Professor Quinn. Of course he would call on her to answer. Quinn had spent many evening’s with the Arden’s and knew they were a learned family. Even her young sister Lyonesse knew about the history between the Madia and the Sprites.
“The Madia are descended from us, the Etman, as we have descended from the Sprites.” Alastine answered.
“Not just any Sprite but the Earth Sprites,” Quinn added.
“So if we are all relations, why the discord?” This question came from Saba Tyske. Alastine and Saba were on friendly terms, mostly through Marienn Easterwind. Marienn is Sawyer’s cousin and she and Alastine really got to know each other when Alastine and Sawyer became riding partners last season. Marienn never went far without Saba tagging along. By default, Alastine got to know her better as well.
“I would say we’re only distant relations at this point,” Quinn replied. “The evolution of our races occurred when our world was new. If it weren’t for our archives no one would remember.”
“So do the Sprites dislike us too?” Saba asked.
“That’s a great question, Saba. There is definitely some suspicion towards us as well, though to not as great as in the case of the Madia.”
“Yes, but why?” Keelia pressed.
“The Sprites are elemental forces, inseparable from nature. Originally, the Etman were the same. Our race began from the Earth Sprites who over time became aware of the remarkable world around them. While still in the ground they tasted the clear waters, felt the warmth of the sun and the freshness of the air. They fell in love with the world but longed for more. So what did they do?”
“They rose.” Alastine answered.
“Yes, they rose and more importantly separated themselves from their true nature. This was highly offensive to the Sprites.”
“How did they rise?” Jordy asked.
“That is a question of considerable debate and not one we’ll solve here. Do any of your read Mystical texts?”
Once again, Quinn was greeted with a room full of blank stares. Even Alastine shook her head. He laughed.
“No, I don’t blame you. They are very abstract and hard to follow. All you really need to know is that first Earth Sprites to rise were our ancestors. The Mystics call them the Sacred Siblings. When the Sacred Siblings choose to take physical form they carried with them a sense of responsibility to this world. This is why most Etman feel so compelled to maintain the natural balance of our environment. At least for three seasons of the year. In the winter we return to the ground to hibernate.”
“We return to our elemental state.” Alastine added. “We honor the Sacred Siblings by becoming one with the Earth again. In return, when we wake we are acclimated to this world. But for the three seasons we spend above ground the Sprites consider us impure and a potential threat to the natural order of things.”
“I’ve heard that the saying among the Sprites is that any Etman above ground should be soiled.” Keelia said. “My father doesn’t trust the Sprites.”
“I’m sure your father isn’t the only one. Now the Madia have been known to interfere with the environment in the past. They also no longer practice hibernation.” Quinn said. “This willful ignorance of our natural state greatly troubles the Sprites. They blame it for the lack of respect they claim the Madia have for our world. The Sprites tolerate the Etman because each year we respect our origins and return to the Earth. We also take our responsibilities to this world very seriously. The Madia make no such consolations, at least according to the Sprites.”
“But if they don’t hibernate how do they remain acclimated? I know when it gets close to hibernation I sometimes feel a chill in the air. And I don’t like to bathe in late autumn. The water hurts my feet.” Jordy said.
“You don’t like to bathe any time of year,” a voice shouted from the hallway and Alastine’s room burst into laughter. Alastine wasn’t sure who said it, one of Jordy’s silly friends no doubt. A group was passing in the hallway. It was nearly time for midday meal.
“All right, all right,” Quinn said, chuckling slightly to himself. “Let’s settle down. The Madia have abilities beyond our understanding. The natural forces of this world do not disturb them in the least. The Sprites do not understand the source of their power and as such, they distrust and fear them.”
“I heard the Sprites hate the Madia because a Madian in his prime can control the natural forces of this world, including the Sprites.” Keelia said.
All eyes turned to Keelia who was boldly staring at Professor Quinn. He appeared a little taken aback by Keelia’s assertion. Alastine herself was shocked, never had she heard such a wild claim. Up until a week ago she wasn’t even sure that Sprites actually existed, let alone a Madian Prime being able to control them. Unthinkable.
“Keelia where did you hear such a thing?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she tossed her hand aside. “It’s just something I remember hearing at some point. Maybe at an assembly?”
Alastine knew that wasn’t true. Keelia never bothered attending village assemblies.
“I know there has been a lot of talk about Sprites and the Madia this week but I can assure you that that particular claim is false.”
“So the Sprites hate the Madia because they don’t hibernate?” Jordy asked. “That seems kind of silly to me.”
“The Sprites dislike the Madia because they consider them impure, unnatural.” Alastine interjected.
“Well, what about the visit? Will a Madian come to Glyn?”
“Not anytime soon,” Quinn answered. “For now we are going to reinforce our border patrols to see if we can get a better handle on the animal outbreaks on our own.”
“But why? Councilor Carr and Alastine’s father seemed pretty worried about the animal attacks.”
“The Sprites hold Glyn very dear. They consider our village uncorrupted and argue forcefully to keep it so. They’ve agreed to support our Border Guards in patrolling the wilderness. If we didn’t at least try this approach they could make life very difficult for us.”
“How so?” Saba asked.
“Well, for starters they could easily flood Krystall River.”
“But that would destroy the center of town!” Jordy yelped.
“Exactly the point,” Quinn agreed. “I don’t think you all understand but we enjoy a very stable relationship with the Sprites in our area. Not all realms are as lucky. Though there was some disagreement, it was the village Elders and Councilors who ultimately voted to accept the Sprites assistance for the time being. No need to worry about the stray animals, we are well protected.”
“So no Madian then?” Jordy asked. “That’s too bad, I would love to see one.”
“I can assure you Jordy you wouldn’t know it if you saw one. They look just like us. They are also extremely rare.”
Keelia waited for the classroom to empty before pulling Alastine aside.
“A Madian Prime can control the Sprites. I read it in the archives.”
“Access to the archives is restricted! What were you doing in there? How did you get in?”
Keelia smiled slightly and shrugged her shoulders. “I can be very charming when it suits me.”
“But Keelia you could have got into a lot of trouble. Why would you bother?”
“I was looking for something.”
“Oh, just some idea I got into my head a while back. Turns out it was nothing.”
“I’m shocked. Really, how did you get in?”
“It wasn’t hard,” she lowered her voice to a whisper as folk were still milling out in the hallway. “I’ll tell you about it later.”
“Alastine? Keelia?” Professor Quinn had just poked his head back into the room. “Are you coming?”
“Come on,” Keelia said grabbing Alastine’s arm and giving it a little squeeze. “Maybe we can catch your friend Sawyer at lunch. I saw him walk by.”
Sawyer was at lunch with Tigin when they arrived to Sustenance House. Alastine’s felt an odd tightening in her chest when she saw how Sawyer’s face lit up at the sight of Keelia. Keelia was friendly and charming to both Sawyer and Tigin, not appearing to favor one boy over the other. She told amusing stories about the parties and festivals run by her family. An Amenty event was an eagerly sought after invitation throughout Glyn and the wider Sylvian Realm. The Amenty women were Inspirits, whose role in their world was to inspire. Inspire they did, mostly through creating or enhancing the beauty of their surroundings. The Amenty women were decorators. They created works of art out anything they touched. Their home was a magical place, full of wonder, imagination and comfort. It was also the site of many parties or more formal ceremonies intended to lift the spirits of the community. Alastine had attended many at the behest of Keelia. She hated these events and wanted a conspirator close at hand so that they could escape together as soon as the opportunity arose.
“Sawyer I suppose once your brother Caleb is joined to my cousin Lilliya I’ll be seeing you a lot at Amenty parties. We’ll practically be family.”
Sawyer smiled with pride. “I look forward to it.”
“Just try not to be too disappointed. The parties are usually boring, just ask Alastine.”
“Alastine has only said wonderful things about your parties.”
Alastine glanced at Sawyer sharply. She had said no such thing.
Keelia laughed out loud. “Well, if she did, she was only being polite. Alastine knows they are dreadful. Sure, the first time or two are fun but you soon learn that they are all the same. Lots of opportunity to laugh at the silly women of Glyn though, don’t you think?”
Keelia turned to Alastine with a sly grin. Alastine returned Keelia’s smile and caught the look of surprise on Sawyer’s face. It would be good for him to get to know Keelia better she realized. Perhaps that was needed to break the enchantment that Keelia had clearly, unwittingly, cast over him. Alastine knew Sawyer had a crush on her best friend. She had seen him often enough gazing adoringly at her in school assemblies. That was hardly unusual, though, as Keelia attracted all the boys in their year. Alastine found it so boringly predictable.
What Alastine also knew was that Keelia could be very challenging. Below her carefully constructed exterior lay a feral aspect. She doubted Sawyer would be the one to tame her and the prospect of doing so could only end in heartbreak on his part. That probably wouldn’t stop him from trying though. Alastine dreaded not only watching the inevitable unfold but being forced into a position where she had to choose between the two of them. They were all at the age where it was becoming expected that they began pairing off into potential match situations. Keelia and Sawyer together wasn’t such a wild idea. Sawyer was the brightest of their year and undeniably appealing once you got to know him. Alastine supposed he was an obvious choice for her best friend. Strange, then, that the thought of the them together left her feeling so cold. She was just worried about his welfare, at least that what she remembered telling herself at the time.