A Story From the Nine Houses Universe
By Michael J Pennington
He stepped into the light. It had been years since he had seen the sun. This world that he once lived in was now painful to him. This mattered little to him. Blinding sun and the inability to breathe through his nose were trade-offs for the constant cold and the smell of wet death of the underground. He would breathe through his mouth and squint his eyes until he adjusted to this environment again.
He took his bearings and then began walking. His course was carefully plotted to avoid all settlements and as many roads as possible. Secrecy was his product and his quality was utmost. He would travel a thousand miles before stopping again. Twelve days passed water and food were found on the way. He did not need sleep, at least not in the way he once did. It took energy to stave off sleep and fatigue. He would have to replenish that energy before his next task.
He made camp. It was at the edge of a high waterfall overlooking an ancient mountain lake. He meditated for a time. Night had fallen and the Gluon the night moon was high in the sky it’s pale reflection shown on the water it was close to full. If you looked closely you could just make out the edge of Graviton the hidden moon. Gluon constant companion. It was a small moon of irregular shape like a black rock that can’t be seen except on nights the night moon was full. Graviton was the smallest of the five moons Gluon was the biggest. The other three were Photon and the Boson twins Doubleu and Zee. Doubleu and Zee were the farthest away and passed through the sky once every few days they were known as the twin moons because they seemed to dance around each other as they passed through the sky. Photon was the quickest moon not much bigger than the twins and passed through the sky twice a day. These were the human names of course. The elf names are Lunogs, Tigavrons, Tsoonph, Zons & Wobs.
It was Graviton that caught his imagination. He was the youngest of the five children and the only half mortal amongst them. Vitasrag the only got to not have children and the first of the gods one day became infatuated with an elven woman. He disguised himself as a man and they begot Graviton. Graviton was born with dark skin darker than obsidian. The elves who cherished their golden skin could not believe it. Despite being the son of a god he was rejected by the elves. Because they rejected Vitasrang banished the elves from the sea and told them never to return. Vitasrang asked Gluon to look after Graviton as he wandered the world.
Graviton found his place amongst the unintended race of men. As outsiders themselves the humans accepted him with little trouble. Although humans were a race of many colors many tribes many of the humans shared the same skin color as Graviton. The humans began to revere him as the demigod powers made him without equal.
Some of the elves saw humans as an abomination and sought to destroy them to gain favor with the gods again. After many battles, humans lead by Graviton finally defeated the Elves in a long a bloody conflict. His long life allowed him to rule justly over the humans for long years and he fathered many children. It was his children that defeated the cursed races and founded the empire. Graviton himself faded from the world there is no clear record of his death. He now lives outside of mortal existence.
The Outsider shook off those thoughts. He returned to his meditation. Photon was passing through the sky to signal the approach of the morning it wouldn’t be seen again till close to nightfall. He didn’t need the whole night but he waited for the sun to come up. He removed his pack and took out the troll head that was inside. Trolls were one of the cursed races, and as such didn’t do well in direct sunlight. As the son hit the troll’s head it’s somber face became frozen in stone. He was the leader of the trolls, the outsider was commissioned to kill him. There was a tenuous pact between humans and trolls. Humans longed for the gold under the mountains the trolls made a home. Humans outnumbered the trolls and could easily overpower them above ground, but it was quite different under the rock of the mountains. So a pact was stuck, humans would stay away from the mountains of the trolls if the trolls brought the gold and other precious ores as a tribute.
Did this troll oppose this pact? Did he plan to break it? Nothing so noble. He was invited to dinner with Emperor. He dared to insult the wife of a wealthy baron. The Barron paid the price and the troll died in an “accident.” This was so the trolls would not suspect human involvement and maintain the pact. The outsider even ensured that his replacement was also supportive of the arrangement.
Creating the accident and retrieving the head where before it was burned in the funeral fire were no easy feats but it was ensuring the troll selected the right leader for the job was the most difficult. It was a test of strength and the outsider’s influence could not be seen. Spears broke at the right moment, shields shattered, minor but costly slips happened, and one particularly powerful troll died of a heart attack in mid-swing of his mighty sword. To the other trolls it was seen as destiny, to the outsider it was part of the job.
He put the troll head back in his bag and carefully hid the bag amongst the rocks. He looked down at the lake below. Mountain the trolls lived in was thought to be an abandoned Dwarf-mine. Perhaps once this was true, but there was a difference in architecture only a few knew this secret, human scholars who caught a glimpse of the city under the mountain a whisper among the scholarly that was more legend than truth. It was the lost city of shadow, Yestmiropolious. The outsider was a dealer in secrets, but his skills paled in comparison to the builders of that ancient city. It took him three years of searching to find the entrance of the great library. From there it took five more years to translate the shadow elf language. The baron who hired him pilfered the only copy of a blood elf spellbook. The blood elf language was also dead but the blood elves didn’t try to hide their words in a labyrinth of symbols and unnecessary words.
He translated the blood elf language first, it’s easy if you know the ancient high elf language, then he compared sentence structure and used a trial and error system until he began to think like the shadow elves themselves. It took him two years to solve the great riddle of the shadow elves the secret to finding their temple to Yestmira. Patron of secrets. That lead him here.
He stepped to the cliff’s edge overlooking the lake. He dove off. He plunged into the crystal clear waters of the lake and dove into the deep water below. His lungs strained against him begging for air, but he had to keep going. Deeper and deeper into the shadows he swam. Until the last shreds of light faded and everything was as dark as he was. His eyes adjusted there was light but a very faint one it came from ahead.
As he was swimming he became aware that he wasn’t swimming alone something was following him. He paid no attention to it, he would deal with if he had too. The creature took his inaction as a sign of weakness the massive monster realized a tentacle at him like a harpoon. He managed to dodge but only just the water slowed him down considerably. He was at a disadvantage. He chose to run instead of attack, his lungs were hurting badly he could feel a tingling in the tips of his fingers. He didn’t have the time nor the will for a prolonged battle. Another tentacle shot at him like a lightning bolt it missed two. The monster apparently abandoned the stealth approach. Its body lit up with a thousand lights of every color of the rainbow.
The outsider had seen a lot of things in this world but nothing so wondrous as this. Its body was a massive shell-like structure like a lobster or a shrimp. The harpoon-like tentacles came from two massive claws that it wielded with deadly precision. It had leg-like tentacles that hung from its body but it was a massive tail that propelled it. The creature would have been beautiful to behold if it were not so deadly.
It’s two massive eyes seemed to hone in on him although he did his best to evade the monsters attacks its massive claw smashed into him. Bubbles erupted around him from the sheer speed of the blow. He saw stars as he reeled from the blow, it had been so massive he smashed into the rocky lake bed below. The only fortunate thing was he was near the source of the light he sought. He scrambled towards the light clawing and struggling for air, he actually feared for his life! This was no ordinary monster. He struggled into the cave a short way in was an air pocket. He almost made it to the pocket but he felt the monster’s tentacle around his waist. The monster began to pull on him and he began to slide back out of the cave but he managed to grab onto the rock wall. With the monster pulling against him with all its strength and blacking out from the lack of air, it was all he could do to drag himself to the air pocket.
As his head finally burst above the water he exhaled the molten hot air that had been burning his lungs. And drew in a sweet gulp of breathable air. He couldn’t expand his lungs all the way through. The tentacle restricted his lungs. He lost his concentration and he was pulled back under and out of the cave by the monster. He felt the creatures elephant sized claw clamp onto him with crushing force. The monster began to bring him close to its beak-like mouth. It seemed smaller claws were positioned near the mouth to help with feeding.
The outsider was done with this he called upon his great strength and began to force the creature’s claw open. He released himself from its grip and confronted the monster ready to fight. The creatures other claw hurled at him with the same deadly force as before. This time he was ready for it. He took the brunt of the blow by crossing his arms to block it. The bubbles erupted around him with the force of great explosions just as before. When it ended he saw the monsters claw retreating slowly. It was fast hit but slow to wind up it seemed. The outsider took advantage of this. He interlaced his fingers and took a mighty swing at the claw. As his fist collided the same bubbles erupted from his blow. The shell of the claw began to crack, the monster gave a shrill cry and began to pull the claw away in response. He did not let up he followed the claw smashing into the claw making the crack bigger and bigger until with a final intense blow he destroyed the claw. With shrill cry’s of pain the monster was defeated it swam away in a panic. It’s glowing lights turned off, and it emitted a black inky cloud to cover its retreat.
The outsider made it back to the cave now he could see with some amazement the Shadow elf temple. Amazement because no matter how hard it was for The outsider to make it here it was still impossible for an elf. When Vitasrang banished the Elf from the sea he made it so a terrible curse would befall any elf who dared return to the water. The shadow elves were indeed the masters of secrets.
He entered through the ornate doors into the temple chamber beyond. He began to study the walls to figure out if he could define great secret of the shadow elves people the secret of shadow. He was only there for a moment when a voice called to him. “I did not expect to see you here child.”
“I thought you were busy propping up an imposter on the throne.” Said the outsider.
“We could use your help.” Said Yestmira. “Your support could…”
“No! I will not support a lie!” Said the outsider.
“Then perhaps I could help you.” Said Yestmira, and he took his eyes off what he was studying for the first time. Yestmira was a Patron a herald of the god and master over secrets and shadows. Despite her hiding in the shadows, she was loyal to the gods. She had chosen the form of a young shadow elf woman. Strong and beautiful.
“No thanks.” Said the Outsider. “I’ve been burned by the gods and their favors before.”
“Would owing me a favor really be so bad given the circumstances?” Said Yestmira. “Afterall no one wants things to go back to the way they were.”
“Do you really think I want things to go back to the way they were. Why would I help you do that?”
“It’s better than the alternative.” Said Yestmira. She waved her hand over the wall and many mechanisms began unlocking. A panel opened and inside was a black book bound in leather with shadow elf marking all over it. Another wave of her hand and the word returned to regular elven. “This is what you are looking for.” She said picking up the book and handing to the outsider.
“What do you want?” He asked.
“No tricks, no strings nothing like that.” Said Yestmira. “We know what you’re trying to do and we hope you succeed. You need this, it’s yours.” With that, she vanished. No strings attached? That was a bold claim for a woman who regularly wore the visage of a spider and operated from the shadows.
Still without her help who knows how long he would have spent in the temple solving her riddles. He read the book of shadow skill and finally, he understood. In just a few days he mastered the techniques it to shadow elf masters years to understand. He imagined the shadow elf secret to be many things but nothing like what he found. No hint or whisper ever suggested they could become as shadows themselves. This was why they were the best spies and assassins. They could hide anywhere.
With his newfound knowledge making it back to the surface was easy. The elves never touched the water. They traveled in the shadows under the lake bed safe from the curse they would have barred should they tried to swim through it. He retrieved his things and made his way to his last stop on this trip. The home of the Baron who hired him. He ascertained the barons whereabouts and followed him until he was alone. The Baron had made it to his garden to sit in front of his wife’s grave. He found the petrified head of his troll enemy sitting on the grave. The Baron gasped in surprise. “It’s you!” He cried.
The outsider appeared behind him. “It’s me.”
“Looking for a job well done?” Asked the Baron. “You can forget it! It’s been ten years! I could have killed him myself in that amount of time.”
“Yes, but then you’d be at war with the trolls.” Said the outsider. “And your land would suffer the most for it.”
“You know what the worst of it is?” Said the Baron. “We made up he and I. Sort of. He saved my life about five years ago.”
“I know I saw it happen.” Said the outsider.
“After that, I felt guilty knowing what I did. That you were still out there. I kind of hoped you had died or given up or something…”
“No such luck.” Said the outsider.
“I guess I knew that deep down.”Said the Baron. “So why did it take so long?”
“It took time to collect my payment.” Said the outsider handing back the red elf spellbook.
“I hope it was worth it.” Said the Baron. “I got into a lot of trouble when I told them I lost this book.”
“I doubt you suffered grievously.” Said the outsider.
“I got banned from the Imperial Library!” Said the Baron.
“Like I said.” With that, the outsider took his leave. The outsider didn’t care about the baron’s quest for vengeance. He knew in time that his rage at the trolls slight would dull over time, but by killing their leader and creating a power vacuum, the outsider got to see who amongst the trolls was against the pact with men. He eliminated many of those trolls and insured that the empire’s interest had been looked after. Those who knew the outsider thought him a simple assassin. Few realized he had been its silent protector from the beginning. A role he was going to leave soon. He couldn’t leave the empire unguarded.
With the book of shadow skill, he could train in secret an organization that could do the job for him. A shadow society who could protect the empire from the shadows and remain unseen. This had been his goal all along. He trained his new agents for ten years and when they were ready he disappeared not to be seen again for a very long time.