When he’d strode from the temple that had been the heart of his life in every way he’d had a destination in mind. Once he’d known the way; he had walked the path a thousand times. Once Mythal had been alive and her sentinels patrolled a wide swath of the wilderness that protected her home.
Abelas, his name never more appropriate in the anguish of failing in his final and most sacred duty, got no farther than what had been a road before his last, lingering bit of purpose failed him. What had stretched across miles, shining white stones fitted with precision and arching over the gorge of a rushing river, now lay in rubble and broken spans.
The river had dwindled to shallow, still pools flanking a sluggish stream. Once-familiar trees, stretching graceful limbs to shade the road, had gone. A jungle had replaced them, choked with undergrowth and trailing vines that had strangled the trees into tortured shapes. Yet this was no young forest. Abelas could see fallen trees with trunks twice his height, their roots long since crumbled from the banks the meandering course of the river had undercut.
He tried to find joy in the teeming life, the deep and varied greens of the jungle. Flashes of scarlet and sapphire betrayed hundreds of birds flitting and hopping to catch the twilight’s feast of insects. A brave little creature, pinkly devoid of fur, snuffled out where he stood on the bank, his golden armor glinting as he sighed. It showed no fear as it patted his toes with curious, hand-like paws, the first time anyone had touched him without anger since his god had died. Even this small evidence that the world may still be kind could not dispel the fear that clenched his heart.
Mythal’s sentinels had never known how long they’d slept between incursions. Their sole calling had been the defense of the Well of Sorrows, though such had not been its name when the goddess still lived. Hundreds of priests had given the last of themselves to it, literally pooling every scrap of their knowledge and adoration for Mythal into one whispering, liquid mass. The eluvian through which she had majestically appeared to accept their accolades and the reports of her spymaster stood dark and dead over what she’d once called her heart as no one remained who knew the words to restore its connection.
Abelas sat on a boulder, the creature snuffling at his fingers in the hope of finding food, and surrendered himself to the memory of the first time he’d seen Mythal. He’d devoted himself to her service a decade before, moving from his village to the heart of Arlathan for love of her. He recalled his first journey into the city, the crystal spires leaping from leafy crowns, birds and monkeys flashing among them as thousands of elves made more-languid journeys from between them.
Even that small glimpse of the whole had overwhelmed him. He’d followed animal trails to dirt paths to an immaculate, shining road, passed towers pressing their elaborately scrolled points to the clouds, admired the painted and carven images that told stories and paid tribute to the various gods. As he’d made his way through the increasingly ornate path to Arlathan he’d badly underestimated the soaring beauty awaiting him.
It had taken four stops to ask the way before he’d found Mythal’s temple in the city. Creators, everything had been so tall! Arches led the eye down one path and then another, confounding his sense of direction. He’d finally stepped into the central clearing, the one place in the city completely paved with the white stones so many of the builders preferred. A spring had burbled merrily across the space, though, and bright halla bent their heads to drink there before ambling off to rest in the shade that kept the sun from blinding Abelas entirely.
The temples that ringed the clearing each bore their god’s symbols. Mythal’s twining mask marked her door and it was there that Abelas began his transformation from adoring acolyte to fierce warrior, protector of the Great Protector.
Through the years of training, from the first ritual shaving of his head to the final trials and granting of his golden armor, he’d sustained his devotion to Mythal on signs and stories. It had been more than he’d had a hundred years before, when he’d become her priest and taken on the vallaslin that marked him as hers. She’d never spoken to him directly, though she’d shown him favor enough in rendering judgments on matters he’d deemed important enough to lay before her.
His decade of final training had passed in a blink. When the time had come to send him to Mythal’s Heart he’d expected a map, a halla, and a bundle of supplies. Instead, the men and women at the pinnacle of her priesthood at the city’s temple had scraped clean the sides of his head and plaited his long hair tight down the center of his scalp with the goddesses’s beloved flowers wound into the turns. They’d dressed him in his new armor, the plates polished until they flashed in the sun streaming through the high windows, and draped him in a cloak so heavily embroidered with metallic thread that it had taken two priests to lift it over his head.
They’d given him a new weapon, a bladed staff inlaid with glittering gems he’d had scant moments to admire before they’d led him deeper into the temple than he’d ever been, to a hidden glade open to the sky. Small trees dappled the tall mirror on the far side with coins of light and shadow, glinting off the golden surface. As the escort approached the glass had sprung to life, a cloud covering the surface and bleeding into a swirl of blue light that chased the sunlight from the clearing.
All elves knew of the eluvians but few had seen one. The hidden paths between them opened only to those who could speak the words of power and passage, the purest of the nobility and the highest of the priests. Abelas hadn’t heard any of those around him speak but the eluvian flared and, with a gesture, they’d sent him into it.
Part Two - Part Three - Part Four - Part Five