He called himself Neil, and he huddled in the cave, watching the blizzard outside. He pulled his cloak tighter around him, trying to keep in his body heat. Cold didn't normally affect him, but with this blizzard, the temperature had dropped so much that even he could feel it.
When he had first come to Elyshaeza, the snow had enthralled him. Its white beauty was something he had never seen before. However, the blizzard had hindered his progress, obstructing even his keen eyesight, and he had been forced to take shelter. He was just glad that he had been able to acquire gloves and a thick blanket and had been able to light a small fire. Not for the first time, he wished he were one of the species of demon who could conjure flame at will.
Then again, if he'd had a choice at all, Neil would have wished that he wasn't a demon. He'd tried his best not to steal, but the gloves had to come from somewhere, and he had hoped his presence wouldn't be too intimidating. Compared to many demons, Neil looked normal, so long as one didn't take into account his ash gray skin and long hair, the color of churned butter. It was layered in front and fell just past his shoulder blades. He was elven in appearance with lithe features and pointed ears. His almond-shaped eyes were a deep amber, almost seeming gold in certain light, but the gray skin would make others see him as something dark and dangerous.
The views of humans were clear, and he had thought the view of celestials was, too, but one had him puzzled. When he came to Elyshaeza, Neil had encountered a gray-eyed angel. The first time, he hadn't been sure he'd seen the celestial at all. He'd blinked, and it was gone. The second time, the angel had stayed. It had been a male, and he had those characteristic white wings. The robe, like his eyes, had been gray, and he and Neil had stared at each other for a long moment with Neil hardly daring to breathe. The angel had faded with barely a whisper to mark his passing. The third time, which had happened just over four days ago, had started out like the one before, but then the angel approached him, leaving no marks on the cold ground. He stopped a yard away, and again, they regarded each other.
"Who are you?" Neil asked.
The being seemed to be assessing him, and then once more, he simply faded. A day later, the snow began to fall again.
Neil poked at the fire and wondered if the angel knew that he was willing to fight against the demons. He had never seen them as kin. He'd always been different, and he'd always hated them, but he'd have to fight the blood in his veins and the instincts that made him enjoy battle and see the light fade from his opponent's eyes.
Leaving the Hells was perhaps the best choice he had made, but Neil had to admit he hadn't really thought it through. He'd been so focused on leaving his homeland that he hadn't considered what he would do once he reached Elyshaeza. At just over three hundred, he was young for a demon, hardly more than an adolescent, but that didn't matter to the humans he'd encountered. A demon was a demon to them.
Neil's species was the Ilyus-gur, descendants of the Ilyus, a sub-race of elves that had sold themselves to Mephistshion to gain power. Unfortunately for them, their ambitions to make a stronger race fell short, for as the generations continued, the power of the Ilyus-gur declined. They had intelligence, agility, and keen senses, but little influence. The only thing that marked them as demonic at all was the fact they were from the Hells, their skin color (in which the original Ilyus had actually been quite pale, almost albino), and their ruthlessness.
Neil's sharp eyes caught movement in the snow despite the blizzard, though the form was unclear. He crouched lower in the cave, waiting and watching. He didn't know what creature would be out in this cold, and as it got closer, he saw it wore a red cloak, the only protection against the blizzard.
The figure continued to draw near, and Neil's sharp eyes told him it was an elf ... and a woman at that. It was his first sight of an elf, and he knew he'd register as a demon, but he hoped he wouldn't have to fight her. Her choice of clothing surprised him a bit. From what he understood, elves only wore bright colors when in the safety of their settlement, and a simple cloak was no match for a blizzard. Furthermore, why was this woman alone?
For a moment, neither moved in spite of the storm. The elf's presence, as he had been by the angel's, puzzled Neil. She finally nudged her mount, a beautiful white horse, forward. Neil held his breath, the snow stinging his cheeks. He caught the scent of the horse and its rider. The horse had the musky scent he expected, but the elf's was crisp like the winter with a hint of wild flowers. Neil slowly raised his hand to point toward the cave, and the elf turned the horse to the shelter. The demon followed slowly, and the elf walked her horse at such an angle that she could keep an eye on him.
Once in the cave, the elf lowered her hood, and the dimming fire reflected off her light brown hair. Her eyes were a startling blue, and with her red cloak, white horse, and proud bearing, she looked like a queen of some faery land ready to intercept unwary travelers.
Neil held up his hands, showing he was no threat. "Well met," he said in Common, hoping she understood.
The elf regarded him sternly, neither running nor attacking. Neil didn't smell any real fear from her either, just a wariness.
"We'll see if that is so." Her voice was crisp like the snow. "I am looking for someone, and you may or may not be him."
She was looking for a demon?
Neil thought back to the towns he had been chased out of and wondered if she'd been sent to hunt him down. By her raised chin and straight posture, she could likely hold her own. Neil saw a quiver of arrows and a bow on her horse and a sword poking out from beneath her cloak. He noted the leaf engraving on the scabbard. He didn't want to have to fight her, but it was still hard to resist the urge to put his hand on his sword hilt.
"And if I am the one you seek?"
"If you are, I'd like to speak with you," she said. "If not, I'll have to kill you. And trust me. I'd like that, too." Her hand drifted to her sword to emphasize her words.
Neil did not want to just give her his identity. "I may be able to help you," he said slowly, edging over to the fire to poke it, trying to stir the flames. "But I'd need to know more about who you are looking for and why."
The elf's sharp blue eyes flashed, and Neil's fingers flexed toward his sword, thinking he had finally provoked her, but the woman made no move.
"If you will not give me your name, why should I give you mine?" she demanded.
"Then it seems we are at an impasse, my lady." He spread his hands. "I do not know whom you seek."
The elf hesitated before finally speaking. "I am Shara Aotallin, an ambassador of Näenamarü Caelaynin, or Silver Crescent, as it is more commonly known. I have heard of a demon who claims not to associate with others of his kind, and as far as I can tell, you match his description."
Neil had made no such claims, but it was true. Had word of him spread so quickly? Neil wondered what kind of consequences this would have. He'd been seen, of course. But there had been other demon encounters lately, so he shouldn't have been singled out unless it was because he had avoided fights.
Inwardly, he shook his head, not finding any sense in this. Shara had been wandering alone in a forest, searching for him. If she had come across another demon, she would have had to have fought it alone, and she sounded confident that she could do so.
Shara studied him with those bright eyes of hers. "You are him, aren't you?"
"It sounds like me, my lady," he confessed. "But I do not understand—"
"It is you. Otherwise, you would have attacked me by now." The elf came closer on her horse. In spite of her words, she still looked ready to fight him. "What do you call yourself?"
"Neil," he answered slowly. It was only part of his demonic name, but it sounded "human."
"Sounds rather ordinary," Shara said.
"It's what I want to be called, my lady."
Shara repeated his name as if she were considering it. Then she nodded and eased her mount further into the cave so its rump was out of the wind. Thankfully, the cave was big enough for such a move.
"You are coming with me to Notton, Neil," she said shortly. Her tone warned him not to object. "And there you will be judged."
"Judged?" Neil echoed, confused. "Am I being sentenced?"
"Not yet," was the cool reply. "If you are truly a rebel, then you will prove yourself loyal to our cause. Notton's soldiers have fought demons for centuries. The city rose from the ashes of the War of the Races. You will be welcomed in Silver Crescent only if you have proven yourself in the human world."
For a moment, Neil couldn't find the words to respond. This wasn't what he had expected, and while he had waited for such an opportunity, he found the situation strange. How had they heard of him? He was one lone demon and not a very memorable one at that.
In spite of his questions, Neil nodded his consent, even though he doubted he had much of a choice. His head was reeling, trying to take this all in. Battles between demons and the other races filled the histories on both sides. Much of it led up to the infamous War of the Races, but there had been other fights before and after that, though the latter had mostly been skirmishes and isolated incidents. Neil knew that could change, for he knew what was happening in the Hells, and it was one of the reasons he had come to the surface.
"Lady Aotallin," he said politely. "I may have news that will be—"
"You will inform Lord Rorimys of Notton." Shara cut him off. "Save the information you have until then." She glanced out at the blizzard and scowled. "I don't relish being in this cave!" she snipped. The "with you" was unspoken.
The demon eyed her as they stood there awkwardly. He shouldn't be this accepting of what she told him. What if it were a trap? While it seemed a lot of effort to take one demon to Notton only to kill him, Neil couldn't simply let them do with him what they pleased.
"I cannot just ride with you when I do not know what your true purpose is," he said.
Strangely, a look of brief satisfaction swept across Shara's face. "Ah, so you do have sense. I was beginning to think you were a blind idiot so eager to please that you followed orders without question."
Neil let that pass and shook his head.
"We do not trust each other." Shara leaned back against her horse, which remained calm in Neil's presence. "Believe me, I find this endeavor quite foolish, and I am not a blind idiot who simply follows orders either, but I have a duty as ambassador, and considering all the demon sightings lately, I suppose I haven't much of a choice." Her look was stern again. "And neither do you, so do not give me a reason to kill you. Well, another reason anyway."
"The first being what I am?" Neil asked with an arched brow.
The elf woman sniffed, and Neil just smirked and returned to his fire. Shara could stand and watch the blizzard if she wanted. He silently decided to accompany her, even as he felt his direction was being chosen for him. He figured he didn't have much to lose, though he couldn't help but wonder how Shara had found him and how long she had been looking. If she had been tracking him, then he had overestimated his stealth and secrecy.
"The gods enjoy their games, don't they?" he said, trying to make conversation.
"Indeed," was the short response. "Make no mistake, Neil. I am taking you to Notton. I will even let you ride my horse once this blizzard clears. But I hold no love for demons, and should you step out of line, I shall have no qualms about killing you."
"You've already made that clear," he said dryly, sitting back on his heels. The fire finally crackled to life again. "But I'll keep it in mind."
* * *
The elven city Näenamarü Calaynin, or Silver Crescent, was beautiful in every season. The trees were ancient. Their trunks were so large that it took up to twenty elves to wrap all the way around them. Their thick branches provided perfect support for the elves who built their homes in them. Though they used wood to make their houses, they planted two trees for every one they cut down. They also used stone, as evidenced by the tall buildings that were almost as old as the trees.
The Näenamarü Calaynin palace was one such structure, with sections reaching to the taller branches of some trees. There were wide, open balconies and arching windows with vines entwining their way along the stone. The wide branches of the giant trees obstructed parts, but that didn't bother any of the inhabitants. Trees, the first seeds said to be planted by Nelathorian, were sacred.
Ellina Alshavisin exited her mother's dress shop and looked up to see elves walking on bridges that linked some of the buildings in the trees. The branches made a canopy over much of the city, and it was most evident in the spring and summer, when the leaves were full and light filtered through them.
As always, the glory of it all struck Ellina. Silver Crescent was in Mithorin, the oldest forest in Elyshaeza. It was a mystical place, a forest that was ancient and breathed, and not even the elves knew all its secrets. Mithorin could be a dangerous and even deadly place for those who did not understand it or were unwelcome there. There were creatures and things in Mithorin that even the elves did not touch. The only ones who truly understood Mirthorin were the Catharin, and they weren't speaking.
Ellina headed toward the archery range and thought of love. A secret smile tugged at her lips. To elves, love in all its forms was sacred, but they were cautioned against entering into a relationship too fast and too soon because they lived so long. Gender didn't matter much to them—a male loving another male or a female another female. It was as accepted as a male and female loving each other.
Ellina was quite young for an elf, but she had a fantasy, and today she would be meeting the object of that fantasy. The Ginjo Gildas saved her from drowning as a child, and he was her dearest friend, but over the past few years, Ellina had found herself wanting to move beyond friendship. Though she had never seen his face due to the white mask he wore, his lean body, shoulder-length coppery hair, and slender hands were all the evidence the elf maiden needed to stimulate her mind.
Ellina could hear the twang of the arrows and loud, clear commands of the trainers as she neared the archery range. Being one of the oldest races on Elyshaeza meant the elves had acquired many enemies, and the trees of Mithorin did not protect them from that. All were trained in basic combat, and her people were best known for their archery.
Ellina's brown hair fell freely about her shoulders as she passed the range, glancing briefly at the archers. Captain Vaelis was training them, and she remembered when Saeris Isamal was head of the archers. But he was living in Notton now, following the ambassador of Silver Crescent and her brother.
Just beyond the range was a large oak, now bare of leaves, but it was secluded enough to afford some privacy. It was where Ellina and Gildas would meet. He had been seen elsewhere in Silver Crescent, even dining with Ellina in a café and ignoring the stares, but the tree was their most frequent meeting spot.
When she saw him, she waved and quickened her step. He was leaning casually against the tree, his black robe like a shadow, and he straightened when she came closer.
"Are you happy to see me?" Gildas offered a smile.
The masks of the Ginjo were practically melded to their faces and still showed expressions. At first, it had been eerie, but now it just added to the fascination.
"Always." Ellina hugged him.
His return hug was warm but too brief. He never wrapped his arms around her for long. "How are your studies?" Gildas asked.
"Fine." Ellina was an aspiring healer and attended school at the Kelsran temple. "Gildas, do you still see me as the child you rescued all those years ago?"
Gildas chuckled. "No, Ellina, you've grown into a fine young woman."
Not sure if that was the answer she was looking for, Ellina still felt her cheeks grow warm, and she hoped she wasn't blushing.
"Have there been any demonic sightings near Näenamarü Calaynin?" Gildas inquired.
"No." Ellina shook her head. "There are other dangers—monsters of Mithorin—but no demons in these parts."