Nulvhenen - "Worlds End"
Mal hallan - My heart
Shemel - Sister
There was nothing to do but sit and wait. And that, they reckoned, was probably worse than being dead.
The Forest of Sleeping Giants was dark and dreadfully still. For three days it had rained continuously, a band of storms with harsh winds and warm rains that seemed never-ending. The woodland critters had long been flooded out of their hovels. Those that had wings or made their nests in the trees fled the canopy, leaving behind their newborns to die. Not a whisper of a song carried through the trees, only the sad, scared croon of the abandoned young struggling to survive.
Water saturated the soil and built up into reservoirs over the vegetation. The air was hot and muggy, and carried the overbearing stench of rot and petrichor.
Ranamdralath and Arlith’ea, under the notion that they were the last remaining elves in the entire world, rested beneath a grand old oak, shielded from the brunt of the rain by the millions of pointy green switches sprouting from mossy boughs.
Arlith’ea lay on the soaked ground with her head on Ranamdralath’s lap, letting the raindrops batter her face. They made her skin feel cool and waxy and clean. She parted her lips slightly to catch a few drops.
Ranamdralath — or Ranam, as she so endearingly nicknamed him, was in the process of tearing his cloak into thin strips for gauze. Each new rip and pop of threads felt like pulling his own teeth. He had made this cloak out of materials imported to their workshop from the Capitol—rayon and silk, and leather from the ivory hide of a dragon. The rayon, a bold steel gray, composed the outer layer of fabric and the silk, silver like the moon, composed the inner layer. He cut part of the leather to resemble dragon scales, which adorned the shoulders of the cloak; the rest comprised the clasp that fastened around the throat.
It was the first garment he had put together by himself. It had earned him the title of “tailor”. He was proud of it and wore it everywhere he went as a testament of his skill.
And now, he was tearing it to ribbons to patch up their wounds, all because Arlith’ea had refused to give up her sash.
And, oh, what a sorry sash it was, made out of burlap and stained with paplo berries! It would have made a much better substitute for bandages than his precious cloak, but Arlith’ea protested the idea. She gave him quite the tongue-lashing, and claimed that her sash had more value than ten of his finest cloaks.
This wounded Ranam. In a frenzied state of rage, he lost his nerve and scathingly replied, “My cloak was made from high-quality materials—silk, rayon, dragon leather. Your sash was cut from a corn sac!” To which Arlith’ea screwed up her lip and sobbed, “Well, you can’t have it because Nira gave it to me.”
He realized then that the value she had referred to was purely sentimental. Compared to her sash, his cloak seemed next to nothing.
Though his pride remained a touch sore, he smothered her face with apologetic kisses until she stopped crying, then unfastened his cloak and went to work ripping it apart.
The sash had been given to Arlith’ea three days prior, on the morning of her nineteenth birthday. It was true that her younger sister, Nira, had cut it from a sac of corn and stained it yellow using paplo berries from the orchard.
Arlith’ea woke expecting to find peasants quartz sprinkled across her pillow, as she had every year since Nira was six. The mines were chock full of these valueless minerals. They reminded Nira of Arlith’ea’s sea green eyes. There was nothing much Arlith’ea could do with the quartz. She thought once about grinding them up into a powder and selling it to Mar’thula, the village Elder and shaman. But the sweet smile she received from Nira convinced her otherwise.
Instead of quartz, there sat on her pillow a sweet-smelling burlap sash, wrapped neatly around a bundle of glowlillies. It was perplexing just how happy that sash made her. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Arlith’ea had never received a gift from her parents, especially one that was hand-made. It was always Nira. Kind, sweet, thoughtful Nira.
She got dressed, slipped her bow and quiver over her shoulders and tied the sash into a pretty knot around her waist. Outside, Nira and Ranam were waiting for her to show. Ranam was blowing into his flute, a cheery song that always brought blood to Arlith’ea’s cheeks. It was one he sang to her all the time.
O mal hallan, fairest in the land,
Touch me with your supple white hand,
Lay me down in a bed of glowlillies,
O, mal hallan, kiss me...
Without words, the song sounded innocent enough. But Arlith’ea knew its true meaning. It mortified her to watch Nira dancing a jig to the melody, right there in the middle of the street for all to see. Passersby paused to admire the curious little show.
When Nira spotted her sister standing on the stoop of their house, she lunged forward and tackled her in a mighty hug. Arlith’ea kissed her cheeks and thanked her for the sash, all the while casting nasty looks over her head at Ranam.
His eyes sparkled. He finished his song with one last triumphant toot and pocketed the instrument. After greeting Arlith’ea with a long, wet kiss, he grabbed her hand and slipped a bracelet onto her wrist. She about dropped dead of delight. It was a simple cord of tough brown leather looped around an arrow-shaped pendant. She swore never to take it off for as long as she lived.
Ranam bent to give her another kiss. Nira clapped a hand over her eyes and groaned. Arlith’ea wished for this moment to last forever.
Far in the distance, thunder rolled.
Only, the skies were clear blue and cloudless, and the wind blew stale and dry.
When a child misbehaved, parents threatened to feed them to the Nulhadra. That way a great fear would come into the child and make them want to obey the rules and be good to their friends and neighbors.
No one had ever seen a Nulhadra before, but everyone knew what they were. They were (supposedly) large dragon-like beasts that skulked around on six broad, powerful legs. They grew poisonous quills all over their bodies. Their paws curled into one giant claw; all it took was a swipe and they’d tear your guts clean out. They had three rows of sharp teeth and eyes like a smoldering fire and, above all else, they had the keenest sense of smell of any living being. If they got a whiff of you, they could track you from the other side of the world.
An encounter with a Nulhadra always meant certain death.
Of course, for as long as Arlith’ea had been alive, this was all baseless conjecture. There were encyclopedias and mythology books chock full of the beasts yet not a single living soul had ever seen one. Instead, they took the word of some long-dead human who claimed to have summoned one while experimenting with dark magic. After all, it was only by dark magic that they could be seen—they cloaked themselves in it to make themselves invisible to their prey.
But again, this was all conjecture.
“Don’t listen to a word your parents say,” Elder Mar’thula always said. “The Nulhadra are all dead. Been dead for a long time. We won’t see one in our lifetime—no, we won’t see one at all. ‘less some fool decides to bring’em back with dark magic, that is!”
Within minutes, half of the villagers had been slaughtered.
The square was buzzing that day. It was a beautiful sunny day and a caravan of merchants had come through. Vendors sold clothes the lords and ladies wore in the Capitol—leather boots with pointed brass caps and sturdy work trousers for the men, and frilly chiffon dresses and glistening jewels for the women.
The air was rich with the smell of fresh fish and noxhide flanks, sweet corn, roasted machee nuts, paplo berry pies. To a child, the food was like ambrosia: It filled their small bodies with vigor. Because of this, they ran wild and played well.
There was music and dancing from the gypsies, and the atmosphere was lively, and the vendors’ pockets piled with coin, and everyone was happy.
The first victim was a child of four years.
One moment she was clutching her mothers’ hand, nibbling on a stalk of sweet corn, and the next she was pitched into the air by an unseen force. Her mother, paralyzed with shock, watched her child flail about in the sky, cuts sprouting over her body. There was a maddening crunch as the girls’ spine broke, and with a spray of blood she disappeared completely.
The mother hardly had time to scream before meeting a similar fate. Soon, the entire square was bathed in red. People ran, but they had no where to go. People hid, but it was a vain attempt. The Nulhadra just sniffed them out.
Arlith’ea, Ranam and Nira were headed towards the square when the mayhem broke out. Arlith’ea had promised to buy Nira whatever she wanted, as a thank you for the sash. Ranam walked contentedly beside them.
He heard the screams before they did. He stopped walking, pulling Arlith'ea's hand from his elbow.
“What is it?” she asked. “What’s wrong, mal hallan?”
“Shemel, look!” cried Nira.
Around the street corner came a group of men, piling one over the other. The men pushed to the ground were gobbled up by the invisible Nulhadra, their blood creating rivulets in the air that dripped puddles onto the ground. The remaining men waved their arms at the trio, urging them to flee.
“Run,” Ranam shouted, shoving the two girls rendered stiff with fear toward their house.
They made it into the yard when one of the men, having chanced a look over his shoulder, tumbled into Nira. Arlith’ea went flying, too, scraping up her arms and cheeks and hands.
Nira wailed in horror as the mans’ watery eyes stared into hers. An invisible claw had punctured his chest; she could feel it poking through her shirt. The man spit blood onto her face, levitated, and fell into the jaws of the Nulhadra. Nira shook as she watched him slowly being devoured.
“Nira,” Arlith’ea screamed, “come to me, shemel, please!” She equipped her bow, nocked an arrow on the string and began firing at the invisible beast enjoying its meal. The arrows stuck in mid-air. There was a terrifying roar; the mans’ torso fell from the beasts’ jaws and landed at Nira’s feet.
The young girl wretched.
“Arli—” Nira scrounged up just enough sense to twist her body toward her sister.
Arlith’ea dropped her bow. Nira’s honey eyes, once so full and brimming with light, were now gone.
Her headless body slumped to the ground.
Ranamdralath and Arlith’ea survived, but it wasn’t by chance.
There was a secret Ranam had kept from Arlith’ea for years, and it was that he knew how to use dark magic. Unlike his lover, who grew up in a society of magic-fearing wood elves, Ranam was an orphan raised by dark elves. They sewed into him all the spells and incantations they knew, under the guise that dark magic was necessary for an elfs’ survival.
But Ranam saw no necessity in killing other living beings in order to benefit himself. When he turned eleven, he ran away to the nearby village and took a job as an apprentice to their tailor. The tailor pitied the boy and put him up for a few nights. When the parents came through looking for him, the tailor lied and said he’d come through, stolen a steed and made off for the Capitol. The tailor had grown so fond of the boy, he felt in his heart that Ranam was his.
There was only one rule that Ranam had to follow in order to stay with the tailor: Dark magic was prohibited.
It was a rule he easily obeyed—until three days ago, when he had to break it to save Arlith’ea.
After witnessing Nira beheaded in the yard, Ranam spied a worm writhing in the dust and wasted no time squishing it beneath his boot. He caught Arlith’ea by the arms as she lunged toward her sisters’ body and whispered, “Mal enem vir’lest.”
A shroud of black encircled them. Arlith’ea remembered only darkness and a prickling sensation on her skin before she fainted. Ranam lifted her over his shoulder and ran, not caring how much noise they made or how slow he ran. The spell cast a cloud similar to the one the Nulhadra’s used to disguise themselves.
Any nearby beasts would pick up their scent and believe they were one of them.
They hid in the forest those three long days.
Ranam squished any insects that crossed their path and kept the cloud swirling around them until at last his energy depleted, later that night.
Arlith’ea, when she finally awoke, was shocked and disgusted to discover Ranam’s abilities, but when no Nulhadra came after them, she turned her cheek in gratitude. Magic or not, it was still Ranam. He was still the man she’d fallen in love with, even with his eyes glowing purple like that and the blood of insects smeared on his dark palm.
Fear gripped them both when Ranam crushed a bug and chanted the spell and nothing happened. They huddled close together, Arlith’ea balled up in his lap, her head on his heart. She wanted his heartbeat to be the last thing she heard.
With each crackle of leaves, each shudder and groan of tree boughs, the two elves shivered. They wept and kissed and shivered until they fell asleep.
It was a great shock when morning came and they were still alive. Arlith’ea reasoned, “The beasts must have gone. I think we're be safe.”
“Maybe. Best not to risk it, though,” Ranam said. He crushed another bug and chanted the spell.
“Where do you suppose they came from?”
“I don’t know.”
“Elder Mar’thula said they were all dead. Every last one of them. But those were Nulhadra, weren’t they?”
“Had to’ve been. No other creature aside from us and dragons can use dark magic.”
“Do you think…I mean, do you wonder if anybody…?”
Ranam said nothing. He held Arlith’ea’s body close to his and buried his face in her hair. He didn’t want her to see him in mourning.
The two refused to leave the safety of the forest, so Ranam continued to kill insects and chant his dark spell. Arlith’ea started up once, declaring that she would venture into town to check for survivors. Ranam knew in his heart that no one else had survived, but he went along with it regardless. She made it to the edge of the forest and looked down at the decrepit village through the thicket. She broke down and said she couldn’t do it.
The first of many storms came that first night. Arlith’ea thought, “The rains will clean the blood from the streets. The village will go back to normal. We can check for survivors then.”
But the rains just kept coming, pouring from the sky in bountiful waves. They were protected from the brunt of the storms in the forest, so they made up their minds to wait for the rain to pass. It kept on raining and raining for two more days.
By that point, Ranam and Arlith’ea were starved and miserable. They had been living off of the smushed insects and tree bark. There was one glorious instance in which Arlith’ea spotted and shot a wandering baby fozlox, but there wasn’t enough meat for two people. Ranam contented himself with tree bark and bugs and gave the meat to Arlith’ea.
For three days, they alternated between sleeping and eating; Ranam protected them with his dark magic whenever his energy came to him; and Arlith’ea mourned the loss of her sister.
On the evening of the third day, the clouds in the sky broke and a bit of sun peered out. The two lovers, hand-in-hand, walked reluctantly out of the forest and stood at the top of the hill, looking down on the village.
Arlith’ea moaned in agony.
The rains had been so plentiful and so fierce that they flooded the sewers and streams. In the lowest elevated points of town, houses sat practically underwater. Debris, dolls, clothes, and bits of leftover elves floated in the giant, rust-colored lake.
There was nothing. No survivors. No hope left for Ranam or Arlith’ea to cling to.
“What will we do now?” asked Arlith’a. “Where will we go?”
“We’ll find a place,” Ranam said. “We’ll check other towns for signs of Nulhadra and find other elves. Someone will know what to do.”
“What if the Nulhadra have already killed them?”
“Then we’ll keep searching for others. Someone will know what to do.”
“I’m scared, Ranam.”
“I am, too, mal hallan.”
“I miss Nira.”
“I know. We’ll avenge her, someday.”
Arlith’ea knew that he was speaking these confident words for her benefit. She loved him so much in that moment. She stroked the bracelet he had given her, felt the cool metal groves of the arrow pendant; she placed a hand on the sash tied around her waist.
She knew not what the future held, but she knew one thing: She trusted Ranam. And if Ranam said they would survive — if Ranam said they would find other elves — if Ranam said they would avenge her sister — then that’s what they would do.