<-----------Previous They stayed the night at the Wayshrine. Melfice was convinced due to the Rafael's kindness, shown despite his own poor opinion of the man. While the large room was par for the course when it came to free housing, the food was quite good, as well as bountiful. The food was simple but wholesome. Melfice tore into a cold roll slathered in melted cheese as Skelly and Rafael spoke of older times. All the others had fallen asleep hours ago, leaving the three free to speak. Survivor… Melfice thought as he swallowed the remains of the third roll. The thought… depressed him, as odd as that was to admit. Some survivor… couldn’t even make it out with the things that matter. “Hey,” Rafael said, leaning over the crackling brazier. In the crackling light of the brazier before him, Melfice could now see the light lines of wrinkles on his face. He'd been unable to before, but now he could see the telltale signs of Elven descent in the man's features. “None of that.” “Huh?” Melfice replied, reaching for a slice of chicken to sandwich between two rolls. “I know that look…” Rafael said, a slight frown marring his placid features. He reached up and pulled the shoulder of his robes down, revealing his left collarbone. As well as the nasty spiderweb of scarring that crisscrossed over his upper torso. Skelly hissed in pain, ch darkly at the sight of the old wound. “Damn, that had to hurt… took a bolt head on, did you?” The old druid said more than asked. Rafael nodded. “I was… hell, had to be no older than thirteen. The purges were in full swing, nasty stuff. My family is Descended, some Elf having bred with one of our ancestors a long time ago. All we have to show for our ‘gifted ancestry’ is slight longevity and a mild inclination to the arcane arts. My older sister was going to apprentice under one of the local wizards in a year or two, and my baby brother had already shown signs of innate power. Could help plants grow, sweet kid.” “That why they targeted you, you think?” Melfice asked, knowing where this story was going. He’d heard it dozens of times over the years. Hell, he’d lived some of it. Rafael shrugged. “I’ve stopped trying to play seer, so not even going to hazard a guess on what sent them after us. But they kicked in our door close to midnight, spells glowing off their swords and arrowheads. They took my father in three shots, two clustered around his heart with the third catching him in the throat. He was dead before he hit the ground, book still in his hands.” Skelly shook his head, mumbling about the horror of war. Melfice felt sick as Rafael continued. “They took my sister and mother, no clue what ever happened to them. I like to think they got executed, nice and simple. But when they had one of their mages scan the area, and found out Barty had inborn power? They ordered him dead.” Rafael let go of his garment and smoothed it over as it draped over his damaged upper torso. “One of them, mad bastard by the look of him, cast a long incantation while pointing at Barty in his crib. I don’t know why I did what I did, but I found myself standing in front of him after kicking the guard holding me back in the jewels.” “You saved your brother though,” Melfice said, hoping against hope. Rafael shook his head. “No, I didn’t. It was a bolt of lightning, shot through me like I was wet laundry. Blew the crib to splinters and my brother to bloody chunks. Hell, it took out some of the wall behind us and messed up a neighbors home too. Fire blazed for a while, from what I understand.” Skelly had pulled a pipe from his bag and was packing it with some tobacco, nodding along. “Who found you?” Rafael stared at Skelly before continuing. “The poor neighbor. The vandals that broke in worked for that faction, the one that took over. Some militia had arrived by then, and they took the battle to the streets. Another fifteen died pushing them back, triple that injured.” Rafael took a long, slow breath and closed his eyes. “They didn’t kill one of those rotten bastards though. They all escaped.” “Joined up with the church after that episode, then?” Skelly asked, earning a tired shrug from Rafael. “Where else could I go? My heritage was outed, and more and more businesses and schools were closing their doors to people like me. It was dangerous to take in half-breeds and Descended. I had nothing, not even the clothes on my back as they had a massive burn through them.” “The Collective was accepting though, I take it?” Melfice asked. The Collective, the clergy of the Patterner. They cared more for a person's mind and heart than their blood, or so they preached. They’d been a major part of Elven culture for thousands of years, only losing favor over the last three or four hundred. The civil war had swelled their ranks with half-blooded orphans. The fact they were forced from the Elven homelands only made that more obvious when they set up new temples. From what Melfice knew, they had a city of their own that they set up as their new main temple, somewhere far to the south. He heard it was lovely, especially during the Summer. “I remember the temple grounds, so peaceful and honest.” Rafael said, his tone becoming more strained and somber as he spoke. “I healed there for four years, learning to be an acolyte after I could use my arm again. And then… then they came again.” Melfice winced, knowing what he meant. “The Last Night…” Rafael only nodded, Skelly grunting as he rubbed at his left leg. The night when the old Elven government had collapsed. Torn down and the old leaders hung in the streets. The new leader had established order, their first act banning half-breeds from being citizens. Thousands of attacks had happened at the same time, killing countless others in the name of "racial purity". “Most of us made it out okay, though we all got a few scars to show off for our trouble.” Rafael continued, his tone weak. “My teacher… I saw her executed as I fled, her head falling from her mangled body. Took me years to accept that there wasn’t anything I could do to have stopped her from dying.” “I felt the same way when my sect stepped in,” Skelly said, finally lighting his pipe. “I was new, had been able to communicate with the Wild for maybe a few months. The Ashen Pine had a few families in the homelands. We went to try and get them out before things grew too dangerous.” “Too late?” Rafael asked with a wince. Skelly grimaced. “Far too late. We found a grove aflame, most of their bodies tossed into pyres that were helping to consume plants that had been there for some thousand years. After that, we took the fight to the oppressors and helped ferry survivors out of the homelands.” “May have helped me when I was an infant, then.” Melfice said, setting his half-eaten sandwich down. “If so, thank you. My mother would likely say the same, but she died shortly after giving birth to me.” “Old wound?” Skelly asked. Melfice shook his head. “Just sickly. She was something like the ninth child of some minor noble, and between inbreeding and her own lack of bloodline power, she... never had the fortitude to survive giving birth. She lingered for like a year, from what I’ve been told.” “Your father, then?” Rafael asked. Melfice shrugged. “No clue. She left some diaries, notes and whatnot… none of them mention him, like, at all. Just notes on alchemic research and a few odd scribbling.” “Do you know which area your mother called home? Or the noble family name?” Rafael asked. “We might be related, who knows?” “No,” Melfice replied. “Never learned who she was, not really. Just knew her first name was Iliana.” “Common name among the older families, from what I understand.” Skelly hummed, puffing on his pipe. “Would be hard to reconnect, if any of the old guard made it out alive.” Melfice shrugged. “No clue if they did, nor any desire to find out. They likely were the reason she fled if her diary entries were anything to go off.” The other two winced at the thought, and all three lapsed into a companionable silence for a few minutes. Rafael broke the peace with a snort, earning a raised eyebrow from Melfice. “It’s funny,” he said, waving between the three of them. “Been out here in this hellhole of a town since I graduated, some forty years. Took the spot from a guy that was too old to meet and greet and knew that I wouldn’t be getting out of here with anything better. But… I still took it, knowing that the chance of ever seeing another Elf out here was slim to none.” “Sorry…” Melfice even did sound apologetic about it, but Rafael waved off the apology with an easy smile. “Not your fault, you were traveling. But it worked. You’re the first Elf, of any kind, I’ve seen since I got here. Kind of refreshing, to be fair. I’d kind of made all Elves out to be somewhat elitist assholes.” “Now I feel worse!” Melfice groaned. Skelly laughed, explaining to Rafael what the young mage had been saying as they’d approached. Rafael took it in stride. “I get why you’d say that about us, its true. We’re kind of a home for the rejects of each church, but we still serve a vital purpose. I treat illnesses in this village every week, ranging from low-grade fevers to horrible fungal infections. I get a stipend for needed goods and make a modest side business by tutoring local children to read and write.” “I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge,” Melfice said, still feeling the need to apologize. “Elena was right, and you seem to be a good man.” “As do you,” Rafael said, reaching for the pipe Skelly was offering. “This tobacco, or something better?” Skelly laughed. “Just tobacco, didn’t want to impose…” “Stop by before you leave the village, we can share some herbal recipes.” Melfice just rolled his eyes when Skelly perked up at that offer. “Anything worth looking for in the marshes? We’re heading for Netres—” “The Sinkhole City.” Skelly interjected. “—which has become a nest for some Marques that have scooped up an old relic. Anything in that area we should look out for, to scrape together some extra coin?” Rafael took a long, relaxing drag and seemed to consider the question. “Well, wild herbs and flowers are useful, and you have a druid. I imagine if you go slow and let him explore, you could harvest some ingredients to sell to a different town later. And Marques ears, they go for three copper a pair at the town hall.” “Damn,” Skelly grumbled, shaking his head, “we should’ve cut a few off the ones we fought the other day.” “Seems grim but makes sense…” Melfice mused. “Anything else?” “Watch out for the Longjaws, got two warring tribes out there that make life hell for everyone.” Rafael offered. “One group has green scales, the other tribe a deep umber.” Longjaws. Nasty business, they were massive men that had the heads and tails of crocodiles. Some stood easily over eight feet in height and weighed in at a quarter of a ton, and they all had short tempers. People avoided them due to their aggressive natures, and everyone was happier for it. “When did they start fighting?” Skelly asked, concerned. “Longjaws don’t war over simple things, and rarely have prolonged conflict due to how bloody they can get.” Rafael shrugged. “Two years now? They’d been a nuisance, kind of, raiding small gardens and farms around here for fresh meat. Never more than that before all this started. But they went crazy about two years ago. They attack with intent to kill anyone that goes past their markers into the marshes and have trained animals to act as early warning systems.” “Great…” Melfice groaned, rubbing his eyes. “This got a lot more difficult.” Skelly laughed, rubbing Posnev’s stomach as he did so. “The best things in life often are, as I’m sure you’ve discovered by now.” Skelly said, offering Melfice a drag from his pipe. “Come on, what kind of Elf passes up a free toke?” Melfice glowered at Skelly, earning chuckles from Rafael. “Go on then, to keep the peace. Druids like sharing pipes, and like he said… what kind of Elves would we be if we turned down free smoke?” He snatched the pipe from Skelly’s offered hand, sniffing the air as the lit object came close to his face. Thick and rich, and dark... “Is this Isolde Brand?” Skelly’s face split into an even wider grin as he offered a salacious wink. “When out and about, I tend to treat myself. Don’t let the walking gold drains know.” He said, motioning towards where Wheeze and Needles slumbered. “If they knew I had this, I’d have to trap my damn snuff bag.” Melfice took a long, slow drag from the pipe. It was thick, and rich. It spoke of shadowed groves and cool Autumn winds billowing through creaking trees. It spoke of home. Melfice went to his cot that night and, unbeknownst to the others, cried tears that hadn’t flowed for decades. He’d forgotten the smells of his home for so long, and in an instant, they’d flooded back. Whatever cost this mission took on him… It had was worth it.