HIGH ELF RANGER
Dungeons and Dragons, Fifth Edition
E' silumba halya i' hwandi alai
The culling prayer of the wood elf rangers. They chanted it whenever they felled a tree, or thinned a herd, or burned off encroaching scrub brush.
Translated to common, it lost much of its charm, but to Elvish ears, it essentially meant "In the deepest shade, the fungus grows." You always thought it a bit of pretentious, pseudo-philosophical nonsense, the kind your woodland cousins were so fond of, but the point still stood. The densest forests may appear healthy, if the sheer volume of trees was all you judged by, but beneath a canopy allowed to block out too much sun, the rot could take hold.
Nature was about balance, about understanding when a thing must be diminished for the good of the greater whole. The wood elves, and their ranger and druid scions, were supposed to be the most stalwart defenders of this concept, and they did indeed tend to the Emerald Crescent with the utmost diligence and care. Yet one growth continued, unabated, to their complete and total disinterest -- mankind.
Mankind was not in balance. The humans were a choking vine, and they had been allowed, unchecked, to engulf this continent, on which your proud ancestors once stood. Now what remained of your people sat huddled in their faux fortress, guests among their own kind, reliant on the hospitality of the wood elves which the humans so openly worshiped.
The high elves had not been conquered. Worse, they had simply walked off of their own accord, despite being superior to their usurpers in nearly every discernible way. In refusing to take part in mankind's foolish conflicts, less than a respectable elven lifetime ago, somehow all their millennia of dominion was forfeit. And no one could, or would, tell you why.
Your own lifetime did not stretch nearly so long yet. Though you would be quite the senior as a human, you were still considered young and impetuous by the elders of your race, not mature or seasoned enough for The Knowledge, the structured acquisition of your ancient history awarded to high elves as they progressed through their life cycle. It was precisely this pervasive condescension that drove you away from your family, your home, everything you knew, at the deeply green age of 80. If you could not find your answers within, you would pry them loose from the outside. Packing your bow and what possessions you had, you left a curt farewell letter to your family, and snuck off in the night, heading north. Away from the Sanctum, away from the Crescent, in to the lands of the humans, to study them as a hunter would his prey.
It wasn't that you viewed the humans as your enemy. There had been no violent conquest, no forced relocation, no manifest destiny. If the tales were to be believed, the humans hadn't lifted a finger before the high elves had simply surrendered and moved on, reinforcing the accusations against them and breeding what was now a deeply institutionalized racism. But a current ally did not a future enemy prevent. You were a child of practicality; you understood that there may come a time when the high elves must reclaim what was once rightfully theirs, and if that day came, you would be prepared.
The human farmers and their halfling companions you first encountered were too dim and slow and doddering for your tastes. Whatever answers they may possess, they were not for questions you wanted to ask. In need of more diverse and stimulating points of data, you pressed on. The roads were well traveled by day, filled with people you knew were suspicious of your kind. You took to traveling by night out of an abundance of caution, stalking the shadows in view of the road. After weeks of meticulous nocturnal travel, with precious few resources left to your name, you arrived at Shard, the population center of the north and capital of the human Imperium itself. And it was here that your youth and inexperience caught up to you.
You had been relieved of your bow, your remaining rations, and your coin purse within a day, leaving you stunned and bleeding in a gutter before you had fully managed to shake the trail dust off your cloak. Your pointed ears and fair skin had made you as a mark that the guard wouldn't put up too much of a fuss about. Your wide eyed stare at the height of the buildings and the evocite machines humming past you in the streets had revealed you to be a tourist. For the denizens of the city's underbelly, it had been a matter of simple math.
Without coin, you could not find shelter, which was unheard of in the Crescent, where communal lodging was simply a fact of life; no elf would willingly let another of their kin go without, provided they had not been formally exiled. But here, beds cost coin. Food cost coin. You were surprised the air didn't cost coin, somehow. The humans were hard here, barely sympathetic toward their own kind. With your bow gone, you could not hunt for sustenance, not that you necessarily would have been able to anyway, in the sparse gray rock valley that this accursed city was nestled in to, on the edge of the Cyndil Mountain frost belt. You did not have the resources to make the trip back to your homeland unassisted, and were still too proud, at least for the moment, to admit defeat and beg a ride home, tail between your legs. You were determined to make this work.
Your first night was the hardest. It rained, a bone-chilling downpour swept from the mountains above, each icy drop seeming to cut straight to your bones. Guards in waxed cloaks and broad-brimmed hats ran you out of every alcove and doorway you stopped in on the main thoroughfares, leaving you only the vast labyrinth of dark alleyways, from which your original assailants had come. There, among the shattered supply crates and broken glass and human refuse, you curled in to a ball beneath the flimsy shelter you contrived from the available materials.
Your education had begun.
You watched from the shadows on the second floor window as the gilded carriage rumbled by beneath you. A bird whistled innocently farther down the block. You saw one of the guards, a larger man, with visible scarring beneath his balaclava, twitch, and scan the rooftops. It was not his first rodeo. He would need to be first.
A jackdaw cawed back, and the suspicious guard began to slow, before a fortuitously timed flock of birds took flight from another nearby rooftop. His hand remained on his sword hilt, but the gauntlets were flexed ever so slightly less.
You made eye contact with the elf in the window across the lane. In complex gestures, you indicated the guard who would give you the most trouble. She nodded, or her cowl dipped momentarily at the least, and then she was gone.
Another bird sang out, and now the guard grabbed the sleeve of the carriage driver and ordered him on, double time. The driver moved to crack the reigns on the chestnut mare pulling the elaborate, old-fashioned vehicle, when instead he clutched at his neck suddenly, pulling it away to stare at his hand, seeing no signs of--
The driver slumped over. The horse, feeling its bonds go slack, came to a halt as it had been trained. The veteran guard opened his mouth to scream, but then a shadow was upon him, rag over his mouth, dragging him in to the alley. Similar shades descended on the remaining mercenaries guarding the caravan. One man broke free and began to flee toward the direction of the city center. This was your cue. Nocking an arrow whose head was covered in an odd purple tincture, you embedded your shot deep in the man's thigh. It was perhaps a deeper wound than you had intended, but not lethal, and the sleeping sickness took hold just the same.
A morbidly obese man in opulent robes burst forth from the carriage then, a half-dressed woman of negotiable affection trailing behind, attempting to scream before being gagged and bound, though someone did throw a robe over her dignity. Clutching a nearby trellis to slow your descent, you hit the street in a three point stance and converged on them both with the rest of your clan. Based on the color of his cloak, he was a baron of the Mezzacatto clan. Their unusual route through the slums spoke of not wanting to draw attention to the company he was keeping this evening, and a certain hubris about the kind of coin he had spent on his guards. You hoped he had saved his receipt. The carriage had a duchal plaque and banners, meaning it likely belonged to his father, or a rich uncle, who may or may not know he had "borrowed" it. The make and model had a smuggler's panel in the right-hand door, to try and squirrel your most valuable bits away from prying bandits.
A patient elf could learn a lot in 30 years, clinging to the lowest rungs of Shard society for dear life.
The rest of your gang had the baron thoroughly restrained by the time you arrived. You quickly inventoried his pockets, then his hidden pockets, then tore open the carefully disguised seams hidden within the hidden pockets. By the gods, this was your largest fish ever. In multiple ways. The eyes inside the hoods all around you gleamed at the site of platinum, handfuls of it, more money than any of you had ever seen in one place, at one time. Rolling one of the coins dexterously along your fingers, dancing and twirling it on each knuckle before palming it and making it disappear in to your sleeve, you thought of all the return voyages you could pay for with--
There was a scream, then a gurgling noise. Your eyes snapped around to see the whore, fountaining blood from a knife would in her throat, life draining from her eyes.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" you screamed at the young elf holding the dripping blade. "No deaths!"
"SHE MADE ME!" he shrieked back, clearly unhinged by what he had done. "I went in to get this gods damned diamond out of her tits and she recognized me! She made me, honest! She was gonna rat on me!"
The baron struggled to his feet in the confusion, surprisingly agile for a man his size, and began to waddle down the street as best he could in his restraints. His gag, loosened in the struggle or never fully secured, came free, and he began hefty, throaty screams for the guard. A dagger whistled through the air, inches past your ear, implanting itself directly in to the roll between his shoulder blades. It severed his spine instantly, and he felt to the ground in a heap. The woman from across the way strolled past you without a glance, lifting a stack of platinum from your other, unclenched palm
"Maybe it's time..." she said almost absently, tapping the fallen baron with one jet black boot, "...that we reconsider that policy. Seems like there might be more profit in it."
In your three decades on the streets, you had seen this cycle repeat itself, ad nauesam. You needed friends to survive, so you found a group of competent, somewhat like-minded folk to run with. Sometimes the wheels came off on the very first job. Sometimes you would stay together for years. But in that longevity, there was always one constant.
E' silumba halya i' hwandi alai
Sometimes it was an outsider with new ideas. Sometimes it was an uppity underling who felt like the time had come for them to earn some respect. And still other times, it was an ambitious leader's escalating psycopathy that lead the group in to waters you were no longer comfortable with.
Illithia was by far the most competent rogue you had ever been enlisted by. She was, not coincidentally, also the most terrifying. And now, here on this decrepit backstreet, you all had gone from opportunistic thugs, to murderers of nobility. It didn't take much platinum to push someone over that line. Pocketing your fair share of the coin, you scattered the rest on the ground at her feet.
"I'm out. This was never part of the deal."
She faked a pout at you. "Poor baby. Not even going to keep a little extra for your poor refugees?"
Illithia made endless fun of you for spending half of every take sending high elves trapped in Shard as servants, day laborers, or simply urchins with no resources to escape on their own back to the Crescent; or anywhere they wanted to go, really. Humans would make slaves of us all, if they could, without ever really meaning to, and you didn't so much care what choices the people you helped made, so long as they were free to make them, themselves.
"I have plenty," is all you replied. Turning on your heel, you caught the eye of Melthior, your closest friend through four gangs now. He fell in step beside you as you moved toward the mouth of the nearest alley.
"DON'T YOU TURN YOUR BACK ON ME, YOU GREEN LITTLE SHIT!"
You kept walking. There would be no reasoning with her, you two would just need to lay low for a few--
A dagger sprouted out of Melthior's shoulder. He gasped feebly and staggered forward at the sudden pain. Your bow was off your shoulder and an arrow flying free before you had finished turning. It sailed just wide, carving a cat scratch across Illithia's cheek and shaving off one of her curls, which fluttered to the ground. She let out a blood curdling scream and began to charge you, when the heavy footfalls of plate mail began to reverberate through the steep stone walls. A light cruiser sailed in to view over the looming architecture, evocite core glowing blue through the exposed engine, driving the primary vertical propeller that helped keep it afloat. The two mages on the stern had magic missiles free before she had closed even half the distance.
Grabbing Melthior, you broke for the nearest alley, as the rest of the gang scattered like roaches. Some instinctive tingle made you juke left, jerking Melthior's injured arm with you as he yelped in pain. A dagger, one last parting gift, sailed through the space you had only seconds before occupied. Then you were in the alley, but by no means free. The acoustics of the stone made telling where any one set of footsteps was coming from. The patrol ships would be dense in the sky before long. Between that and Melthior's arm, up was out of the question.
Shard was sizable enough, and built on enough bedrock aquifers through the mountainside, that it came equipped with a rudimentary sewer system, accessible by grates hidden well from the site of proper society. It was to the nearest one of these you made a beeline, throwing Melthior in and sliding through after him, down in to the wretched, gray waters and overpowering smells. It was not the most undignified thing you had done in the city, but it made the short list.
"You could have left me, you know," Melthior gasped through labored breaths, slumping against one grime-crusted wall. You didn't know if the dagger had been poisoned, but it was always a safe bet with Illithia. You rummaged through your kit for your antidotes. Growing up surrounded by plants had been good for something, at least.
"We don't do that."
"Yes we do," he argued. "We do it all the time."
"No. They do. We don't. It's an important distinction."
"Is it though?"
"It is," you affirmed, with a solemn nod, pouring a thick salve over the jutting blade of the dagger before pulling it out slowly. "Help debts should not be left unpaid. If some random jackass can't get out of their own mess, that's their problem. You are not a random jackass. Now on your gods damned feet. So help me, if you get me killed after I saved you, I will find you on the abyssal plane and kill you again myself."
You ran then, for what seemed like a stench-filled eternity, keeping to the narrow ledges on either side of the sludge clogged channels whenever you could, holding your breath and splashing through when you could not. You had never spent much time down below, typically the realm of the Consumed and the depraved, but you knew the layout of the city streets well enough that you effectively transposed one on to the other. Only once did you have to detour, when a gibbering madman with glass embedded up and down his arms had come giggling towards you on erratic tip toes.
You led Melthior to the grates to your hidden space on the other side of town, near the airship docks, in fairly neutral territory. To her begrudging credit, Illithia was already waiting for you. She was holding her left side, thick blood oozing between her fingers.
"I don't you not to turn my back on me."
"And I told you not to murder anyone."
"You don't give me orders. Now stop running. You'll only die tired."
She was quick with a dagger. Very quick. But you were faster, though your footwork less refined. All things considered, your strengths canceled one another out, and several minutes in to a very pitched battle, you had begun to wonder if your victory would come only when she bled to death through the wound in her abdomen. Until the blade burst through her sternum, at least, from somewhere on the other side.
As the light slowly faded from her wide, shocked eyes, her figure slumped to the ground, revealing Melthior on the other side, short sword in hand, clutching his shoulder.
"Help debts, right?"
Panting and shaking from exertion, you could only clap one hand on his good shoulder and nod. Rummaging through Illithia's pockets, you found her double share of the baron's platinum, a few lockpicks, several vials of poison, the baron's signet ring set with a diamond the size of a gnome's fist, and various trinkets of no meaning or value to you whatsoever. Your eyes did keep lighting upon the black stone necklace she always wore, and you figured she wouldn't be needing it much where she was going. Pressing her eyelids down with the palm of one hand, you unclasped the necklace and tucked it away in your cloak. Overhead, the sound of whirring propellers was becoming ubiquitous.
"Melthior, old friend. I believe I am tired of this game."
He looked at you, confused, like a dog that had been shown a card trick. This was, to be fair, more or less his default expression.
You grasped his hand in a firm shake, passing two platinum to him in your palm as you did.
"Make sure one of those gets to the high elves in the servant district. Find Calemdor. He's my contact, he'll know how to get it where it needs to go. Get some of them home. The other one is yours, to do with what you will. I suggest investing in disguises. We don't know how many of them the guards knicked, and who might roll over on you."
"On me? Where are you going?"
"I don't know, really," and this was the truth.
You parted with your friend, there in the exit from the stinking sewers beneath Shard, closest to the airship docks. Creeping through the lengthening twilight shadows, you found a well to do traveler's luggage left woefully unattended. Equipped with new, respectable looking clothing that would befit the platinum in your pocket without raising suspicions, you bought a one way airship ticket to the station in The Crossing, knowing it was a matter of when, not if, you were identified as an accomplice to murder.
Halfway between here and home seemed as good a place to start again as any. You had found none of the answers about your people, in your 30 summers away from the Crescent, swept away in the cutthroat street politics of the city, but perhaps life among the humans had given you the tools you needed to wrest that Knowledge away from your own kind now. You just needed some time to figure out how.
Taking your seat in the back of the passenger cabin, making note of all the other faces and the locations of potential exits, you settled in for whatever it was that came next, absently playing with the dead baron's ring and a handful of platinum in your pocket.