The Elf of Black Iron Lake
A Tale by Aaron Canton
No reeds stuck up from the water of Black Iron Lake, nor did lily pads rest upon its surface; even the trees pushing against its banks were ill and scraggly. Birds and animals avoided its waters, no matter how thirsty they were, and if a fish had ever swum within its depths, nobody had found any sign of it. In fact, despite the lake’s proximity to the only mountain pass between Vessa and Eastern Blacklehn, few merchants on that route would stop there to rest and water their horses. Only the most arrogant or ignorant ones tried, and when they did, they invariably reported later they and their mounts felt thirstier and wearier after drinking than before. Nobody knew exactly what it was, but it was clear there was something wrong with the lake, something inimical to life itself.
Yet there was beauty in it too, at least in the eyes of one Callieflynn Xaxos. The dark-haired elf had just sat down cross-legged on the lake’s sole island—no more than a barren pile of dirt jutting up out of the depths—and smiled as she looked at the water, which had taken on a bright silvery tone in the moonlight. The surface was still, all the way from her little island to the distant bank, and she knew that no matter how hard anyone looked, they could never find so much as a single ripple or wave to disturb its perfect tranquility. There was a cold, clear purity to it. No matter how lively and vibrant the ocean shores near her home forest were, she knew she would never prefer them to Black Iron Lake.
Just as she was relaxing, she heard faint noises behind her and sighed as she recognized the distant sounds of splashing oars. When her sect had cast her out, she’d refused to tell anyone where she was going, but she knew one priest fancied himself a sort of older mentor to her and had sufficient skill with tracking magics to find her if he really wanted. She’d told Ganellor not to bother when he’d offered to check up on her, pointing out that if he really wanted to keep an eye on her, then he shouldn’t have supported throwing her out of the sect. But apparently he hadn’t listened.
The sounds of the oars grew louder as she walked across the tiny island and stepped into the water near her own canoe. The drop was steep enough that she was submerged up to her waist after two steps, and the water pulled at her feet and legs as if to leech all the warmth and energy from her, but that couldn’t be helped if she was going to cast the spell she needed to cast. Besides, the water might be draining, but its crisp, cold nature was also bracing in its own way. She drew upon that to support herself as she murmured a soft incantation and then gently stroked the water’s surface with the very tip of her finger. Nothing happened for a moment…
And then she felt the shadows on the surface of the lake, as clear to her in the moonlight as if they had been cast by the blazing sun. Three of them were in the large shape of canoes typical of elvish war parties; a dozen more were the silhouettes of the elves in the canoes. Finally, there were still others, but she couldn’t say what they were; they were tiny, as if of something very small or far away. Birds, perhaps, though she knew of none that would dare fly over Black Iron Lake. Those shadows would be something to investigate once she had been rid of the approaching elves.
The canoes reached her island a few minutes later. No sooner had they landed then Ganellor hopped out of the first boat and rattled off an incantation. A bright, warm ball of light appeared in his hand, and he held it up while the other elves disembarked and summoned lights of their own. Callieflynn had stepped out of the water by then, and after sighing to herself, she stepped into the little circle of illumination around Ganellor. “Yes?” she asked.
Ganellor jumped, and the ball of light in his hand flickered. “Callieflynn!” he said, causing the other elves to turn to them. Callieflynn recognized them all; they were the elves in her former sect, the ones that had thrown her out just two months before. “I’m so glad you’re all right! But what are you doing here?”
“I like it here.” Callieflynn met his gaze before looking at the others. “And besides, you lost the right to tell me where to go when you expelled me.”
“That’s hardly the point,” began Rosenia, an old sage who led the sect and led the others in its secret rituals. “We couldn’t overlook—”
Ganellor held up a hand. “We can talk about that later. For now, Callieflynn, you need to come with us. There’s danger coming, and we can’t stay here.”
“We wouldn’t have come here at all if he hadn’t insisted we get you,” grumbled Calence, the sect’s youngest member.
“We couldn’t just leave her!” shot back Ganellor. “What if the Hooked Talons passed over this lake while they were searching for us? Their chieftain might sense the traces of our magic on her, and they wouldn’t know she left! They’d target her!”
Callieflynn decided to overlook how Ganellor was using ‘left’ as a euphemism for ‘was thrown out.’ “What danger?” she asked, thinking back to the little shadows she hadn’t been able to identify. “Who are the Hooked Talons?”
“A clan of harpies that attacked our temple last month,” growled Rosenia. She snapped her fingers and the ball of light in her hand grew large enough to encompass the whole group, though it was still smaller than other times Callieflynn had seen her cast that spell. In the light, Callieflynn could see Rosenia’s once-fine robe was now ragged and torn. “Their chieftain claims their god wants them to destroy our sect as an ‘abomination.’ They offered to leave us unharmed if we would tear down our own temple. We refused, of course, but then…”
“Then they attacked and tore it down anyways,” said Ganellor. “And now they’re pursuing us for our ‘heresy.’ We think we can sneak back to elvish lands—Calence is an expert at concealment magics—but we couldn’t just leave you behind. Especially when my tracking magic showed me you were here, of all places.”
Callieflynn frowned at Ganellor. “And what is wrong with ‘here’?”
Ganellor looked stupefied, and the ball of light in his hand suddenly went out. “This place drains magic,” he said slowly, as if speaking to someone who had just been hit in the head. “It doesn’t just drain the life force of anyone who approaches it; it absorbs their spells as well. Surely you’ve noticed that by now.”
“Not my magic.” Callieflynn deliberately stepped into the frigid water, earning gasps from some of the surrounding elves, and whispered a spell. Her shadow quavered, then lengthened, and as it stretched around the other elves, their magic lights dimmed further. “It’s fine. And I’m perfectly capable of fending off a few harpies.”
“Your ‘magic,’” snapped Rosenia in a tone which made clear she didn’t want to dignify Callieflynn’s spells with that particular word, “is obscene. It is vile. It has no place among the elves.”
“Shadow is just as important as light,” insisted Callieflynn. “There’s nothing wrong with it. Just because you don’t like it—”
Calence snorted. “You think your shadows will help you fight the Hooked Talons? You can’t use evil magic to fight evil. Your spells will betray you.” He turned to Ganellor. “This is why we shouldn’t have come here. Our magic—real magic—doesn’t work on this accursed lake. We’re defenseless here. We should get back to shore and make haste for the elvish lands. Even the harpies won’t be able to defeat us there.”
“And we will,” said Ganellor. “Once Callieflynn agrees to come with. Just because we had a falling out doesn’t mean we can leave her to get killed by the Hooked Talons. We’ll take her—”
“Nobody is taking me anywhere!” snapped Callieflynn. “I won’t be driven from here by a bunch of harpies. If they attack, I’ll fight them.”
Ganellor held up his hands as if to beseech her. “Please, we can talk about this later. We have to get to shore now, before the harpies find us!”
“Talk?” Callieflynn’s eyes flashed. “Like we talked two months ago?”
Callieflynn slammed her foot onto the rocky soil of the island. “I went to you all that day because I wanted you to know what I knew,” she growled. “I didn’t have to do that. I could have pursued my studies in secret. I knew there was a risk you’d…overreact. But I really wanted to teach you all the magic I’d learned, so you could do it too. All I asked was that you hear me out, and what happened? You decided to expel me. Unanimously.”
“No.” Callieflynn spun on her heel. “I told you how important my magic was to me, how important I thought it was for all of us, and you didn’t listen. You just threw me out. I don’t care what you have to say anymore, about harpies or anything else.”
Ganellor sighed. “You don’t understand. The harpies are—”
Rosenia stiffened, then rattled off a spell and swept her hands to the sky. Streaks of light soared upwards, and though most of them faded quickly, a few hung together long enough to reach a few circling figures. They were humanoid with large wings, and Rosenia’s eyes narrowed. “They are here.”
The harpies cried out in a horrible shriek as the light blasted over them. One answered in an authoritative roar, and they all swooped down towards the island.
* * *
“Keep Callieflynn safe, Calence!” yelled Ganellor as the harpies approached. “The rest of us will fight them!”
“I don’t—” began Callieflynn before Calence grabbed her and dragged her to the other side of the tiny island. Taken by surprise, Callieflynn couldn’t stop him from pulling her almost into the water, and by the time she pushed him off, it was too late. The harpies had arrived.
There were twelve of them, led by a brawny, scarred harpy who Callieflynn guessed was the clan leader. That one had several piercings in his ears and nose and a large scimitar in his talons. Gems in the sword’s hilt twinkled despite the unnatural darkness of the island. The blade itself was also an odd color, obsidian with some kind of finish that shone when it hit the dim lights the elves had cast. The harpy leader pointed it at Rosenia’s head and chanted something—
Callieflynn’s eyes widened as the harpies were surrounded by what looked like masses of shadow. Their features, their talons, and then their entire bodies were swallowed by an unnatural darkness. The clan leader was the last to be covered, and he managed a twisted cackle as the shadows fully covered his face. Ganellor scowled. “Don’t worry!” he called as the elves took quick steps backwards. “They can’t overcome our spells!”
The harpies plunged into the elves before anyone could say anything else. The one targeting Ganellor moved before the others, but Ganellor, who had some training as a ranger, expertly spun out of the way before the harpy slashed him. That harpy missed and slammed into the rocky island with a pained grunt, his talons catching in the dirt. Ganellor grinned as he drew his blade and stabbed it at the harpy in a single fluid motion. The blade connected and sliced through the shadow…
To no effect.
The weapon passed right through the harpy and out its other side without the harpy even seeming to notice, and the blade’s pure silver surface didn’t have a single trace of blood on it. Ganellor gaped as the harpy got his talons free, then only barely dodged his enemy’s follow-up slash. And all around them, other harpies dropped and attacked the remaining elves.
Callieflynn tried to run at them, but Calence pushed her back with an annoyed growl. “Let me go!” screamed Callieflynn. “You can’t—”
“Yes, we can, heretic,” growled Calence. “Watch.”
Two elves jumped at the harpy leader, who was in turn menacing Rosenia. They passed through the leader just as Ganellor’s sword had, but the harpy did flinch back for a second and allow Rosenia time to raise her staff. She belted out several words, causing the end of the staff to glow with a brilliant light, and then slammed that end directly into the leader’s chest. The harpy stumbled back a step as his shadow armor burst away on that spot. Both the elves then attacked the leader while the others cast lights of their own.
But while all the elves could cast lights, it seemed that only Rosenia’s was strong enough to do anything. The others tried, but their light magic immediately flickered and dimmed as the lake’s anti-magic nature did its work. Few of those lights reached the harpies, and the ones that did were easily shrugged off by the shadow armor. The harpies renewed their attack and Callieflynn’s stomach clenched as they landed hits with talons that—however insubstantial they were to enemy attacks—were perfectly solid when it came to attacks of their own. One elf screamed as a sharp talon stabbed into his shoulder, then cried out again as the shadow on the harpy’s talon flowed into the wound and began to roil. “Stop!” he cried as his wound oozed darkness. “Please, stop!” Other elves who took hits fell as well, and one who collapsed into the water immediately stiffened and then went limp as the lake drew the life force out from his injured body.
Callieflynn bit her lip. She knew that, in one sense, this wasn’t her problem. The other elves had excluded her—abandoned her. They couldn’t very well claim she had some kind of obligation to help them now. Besides, nobody was paying attention to her except for Calence, so if she could just blind him with a quick shadow spell then she could probably sneak over to the boats and row away before anyone knew she was missing. She’d be fine.
The cult may have abandoned her, but she’d still spent a long time with them. Even if she didn’t want to see them ever again, she also didn’t want them to die. Especially not Ganellor. He’d looked out for her, and even if he’d betrayed her later, she knew she had to do the same for him.
Instead of running, Callieflynn muttered a quick spell and smiled slightly as a shadow leapt from the lake and rushed over Calence’s eyes. He yelped and rubbed at his eyes to clear them, but it was useless, and as he struggled, Callieflynn slipped past him towards the battle. “Harpies!” she yelled as Ganellor and Rosenia—the only two elves left standing—were forced back to the water’s edge. “Let them go!”
The harpy leader looked at her. Even though they were all covered in shadow, Callieflynn could tell him apart from the others thanks to his sword and his tall stature. “I sense no taint of their foul magic upon you, elf,” he said, his voice sharp and painful in Callieflynn’s ears. “You are not part of this. You may leave. But the rest must be dealt with for their heresy.”
“I refuse,” snapped Callieflynn. She muttered a few words and summoned a ball of twisting shadow, somehow darker than the night around her, into her hands. “Last chance. Leave.”
“Fool.” The harpy raised his sword. “Kill her!” His soldiers rushed at Callieflynn, one leaping ahead of the rest and clawing at the elf—
But Callieflynn cast another quick spell and drew the shadows of the lake around her. Coldness blasted into her, a deep, bone-chilling freeze that seemed to drain the heat away from her body, but instead of struggling against it, she leaned into it and let its magic flow through her. And as she did, she drew upon it just a little, taking some of that coldness for herself. The lake took her warmth, and she replaced it with the clean, cold, pure energy she had studiously trained herself to use. By the time the harpy reached her position, she was ready.
She threw herself to one side with a strength she had not previously possessed, and as the harpy turned to take another run at her, she snapped out her wrist and raised her hand slightly. The darkness of the lake responded to the darkness in her and obediently flowed up and over the harpy. Then she made a slight waving gesture, and the darkness vanished—taking with it the harpy’s shadow armor. The harpy gawked, suddenly defenseless, and when Callieflynn surged at him and smashed him into the lake, he couldn’t resist.
Then she was charging into the other harpies, shadows leaping from her hands as she did so, and a fierce grin flashed from her face moments before her own shadow armor covered it. She stepped over the wounded and collapsed bodies of her former friends with ease, feeling their positions with their shadows and trusting her instincts to avoid running into them. She ‘felt’ for the locations of the harpies in the same way, and whenever they slashed or stabbed at her, she always managed to push just out of reach. The magic of the lake, warped as it might be, was hers to command, and she felt inexhaustible as she slipped around yet another harpy’s attack. She raised one hand, and a mass of shadow rose from the lake and swallowed the harpy before pulling its armor off—but when she happened to look down and see a badly wounded elf lying at the harpy’s feet, she changed her mind and clenched her fist instead. The shadow smashed through the harpy’s armor and pressed against his body, leeching away at it until there was only a withered husk left to tumble silently to the ground.
She turned to see Ganellor fall to one knee as his sword slipped from his bloodied hand and the harpy leader howled in triumph. Ganellor fell back, wincing, as Rosenia struck at the enemy with blasts of light. The leader, however, batted away the lights with his peculiar sword before flying over their heads and slashing Rosenia in the arm. She screamed and dropped her staff, allowing the harpy a chance to strike—but Callieflynn was already rushing over. She quickly whispered a few words to raise a mass of shadow from the lake, and then pushed it at the harpy.
But the leader stepped out of the way and slashed the shadow with his sword. The darkness suddenly disintegrated away as the leader looked at her. “So,” he said. “You know some magic. True magic: not what they teach.”
“I do,” growled Callieflynn.
“Hmm. Interesting.” The harpy leader chuckled as he raised his sword. “I’d let you join us, but now you’ve hurt too many of ours. I’ll settle for sacrificing you alongside this heretic.” He gestured at Rosenia, who was slumped in Ganellor’s arms, and then turned back to Callieflynn. Both looked at each other for a few seconds—and then both cast.
The shadow magic in her writhed and spasmed as the harpy tore at it. But she had magic too, and even as she dragged at the leader and his armor, she kept part of her focus on herself. She worked with the shadow, moved with it, and stepped with it even as the harpy tried to force it from her body. Across from her, the harpy leader did the same thing, but his steps were just a little less sure. She had him, she thought, as she pulled at more darkness from the lake to add to her strength; if she could just hold on for another minute or two—
The harpy yelled and thrust forward with a wing, and then a wave of freezing blackness slammed into Callieflynn with such force that not even she could push through it. She almost tripped as she stumbled back, and even while she fought to keep her balance, she saw the harpy leader charging her. He was moving too fast for her to draw any more energy from the lake, but if she retreated, she’d leave Ganellor and Rosenia open since they were directly behind her. She stood still for an agonizing moment.
Then she leapt into action.
Shadows swept around her, pulled from the lake, the island, and even the bodies of the collapsed elves and dying harpies. Rather than absorb them, though, she let them mask her as she twisted just to one side. She was almost too late and felt the edge of the harpy’s wing glide against her as he raced into the shadows she’d drawn. He began to turn even as he passed her—
But she’d already scooped up the sword Ganellor had dropped, and as the harpy twisted, she was already stabbing it into his chest. At the same time, she grabbed at his shadow magic with all her remaining strength and drew it into herself, wincing as it hit her—it was even colder than that of the lake—but still managing a fierce smile as the shadow faded from the spot where she’d stabbed him. The harpy leader, no longer intangible, let out a horrible cry as the sword pierced his heart.
Then he fell, and it was over.
* * *
“Are you sure you don’t want to come back with us?”
Callieflynn shook her head. It was the next morning, and the surviving elves were preparing the boats to leave. Callieflynn finished helping Ganellor load the body of the last fallen elf into the bottom of the nearest boat—the harpies had already been pushed into the lake and vanished into nothingness—before gently saying, “That ship sailed, Ganellor.”
“But Rosenia meant it when she said we’d welcome you back. Look, we get it—we made a mistake. Your magic is powerful, and ours can’t do everything. If you teach—”
“It’s not about power,” said Callieflynn in a soft tone. “My purpose in showing you the magic wasn’t to make us all strong enough to carve out some kind of kingdom. I just…I thought we were all studying together, and I learned something I thought was important and wanted to show it to the rest of you. And you all said you didn’t want to hear it.”
Ganellor clasped his hands together and fixed a winning smile on Callieflyn. “But we want to hear it now—”
“Because you’re interested in the magic. Not because you respect me any more.” Callieflynn sighed. “Maybe someday. But not now.”
Ganellor met her gaze for a moment and then looked away. “Well…all right. If you insist. But even so, can we at least take you to the shore? It must get lonely being on this island.”
Callieflynn managed a little smile at that, then knelt and let a hand trail through the water. It pulled at her and she pulled at it, and the bracing cold of the water’s energy helped cleanse the tension from her body. “It works for me,” she said. “Thank you, but I’m fine.”
She watched them go and remained looking in their direction once they’d sailed into the early-morning mist that always covered the lake. She hadn’t been lying when she offered to return to the cult in a few years, she realized. Maybe she would. But in the future. Not at the moment, when the wounds were still fresh.
After another minute, she sat cross-legged on the island’s shore and let her senses once again drift over the hard, cold purity of Black Iron Lake.
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