An Elfhome Story
By Wen Spencer
Copyright © Wendy Kosak, 2004, 2012
All rights reserved
Cover Photo by Don Kosak
Cover Design by Wendy Kosak
Kate wasn’t sure what pissed her off most. Was it being jerked off her first trip back to the states in years, to be shoved into an alternate dimension filled with undocumented zoology, real magic and snotty elves? Or was it that her smattering of ten human languages and knowledge of dozens of Earth’s more obscure cultures weren’t worth a damn with the Elfhome natives? Or was it that this time around, her native guide managed to always make her look frumpy?
Stormsong came up the mountainside with all the fluid grace of a big cat, annoyingly beautiful in the muggy August heat. The nimble elfin bitch didn’t even pant. She paused at the edge of the kuesi’s blood, and murmured, "I told you that your ‘tracer’ would not work," and continued up the rock face in bounds that would impress mountain goats.
"I found this much!" Kate shouted after Stormsong.
"What an idiot couldn’t see of the blood trail" --the elf’s voice came from somewhere above-- "a blind man could smell."
Kate picked her way through the swimming pool’s worth of viscera to rescue her tracer off of the massive kuesi skull. When she’d heard that the railway project manager for the elfin crew was a female, Kate expected to skip all the normal macho butthead stuff.
Stormsong waited on the summit beside Godzilla-sized footprints. The feet of their kuesi-snatcher mimicked the structure of birds: three digits pointed forward, one backwards. The talons had gouged the granite as deep as eight inches in places. Old, weathered scratches indicated that the stone outcropping was a common perch site.
"Dragon?" Kate had checked her zoology reports last night, but they varied wildly from gigabytes of data on wargs – frost breathing cousins of wolves – to three words on phoenixes: still believed mythical. The dragon section was nearly as scant, it stated "While apparently dragons vary in size, they are reported to be very large, fire breathing, and dangerous. Approach with caution." Doh.
Stormsong shook her head. "Too small. Wyvern."
Kate tucked into an overhang and scanned the nearby mountain peaks with her binoculars. In the broad valley below them, the railroad right of way cut its straight raw path through the primal forest of the elfin world. Out in the vicinity of Pittsburgh – which fate chose as the human portal into this dimension -- they had bulldozers, dump trucks and earthmovers working their way east. The low-tech elves, though, working from the sparsely settled coast, only had hand tools and the kuesi. Until a connecting road was complete, trading between the two races was at an impasse. Construction had been going smoothly until the wyvern decided that the work crew was a moveable feast.
Speaking of which, Stormsong had poised herself on a rock projection like a piece of bait.
"Get down." Kate pointed to the protected ledge beside her. That only earned her a cold stare. Damn elves. "Move over here."
"I see better from here."
"The wyvern could take you from there."
The elf made a noise of understanding. "The wyvern. It sleeps. It hunts at night like a whou."
Stormsong sighed at Kate’s ignorance. "A night bird! It flies very quietly, and calls whou, whou, whou."
Kate caught herself gritting her teeth and worked her jaw to ease the tension. What was it about Stormsong that pissed her off so much? Kate wasn’t sure if actually was the elf girl herself, or just the irritation with the general situation finding focus on the only breathing target.
Kate returned to her scanning. "These wyverns. Do they den alone or in mated pairs?"
"Mated pair. Like falcons, females are larger. The nest will be on a peak, high up, on bare rocks with dead branches and such to keep the young in. One mate will stay on the nest and the other will hunt while there are eggs in the nest. Once the eggs are hatched, both will hunt to keep the young fed."
So they were either dealing with a solitary creature, perhaps a youngster, or two beasts -- which meant near the nest they’d have to be careful watching their backs.
"Your viceroy wasn’t completely clear," Kate said. "What are we supposed to do with the wyvern?"
"The viceroy said this was a royal hunting preserve. On Earth, when an animal on a preserve causes a problem, we trap it and move it to another location where it’s not in conflict with humans."
Stormsong shook her head. "Wyverns return to their nesting site, year in, year out. If we moved them, they would return next year."
"Zoos on Earth might take a mated pair."
Stormsong gave a musical laugh. "You might want to risk your life to trap such beasts, but not I. And no. Wyverns need magic to exist. They would die on Earth. Here on Elfhome, they nest on the strongest ley line in their range."
Native guides always believed in magic, but here it was a real, measurable force. Trying to determine reality from superstition was going to be a real bitch.
"What else about this animal can you tell me? What does it look like? Is it a bird?" Damn big bird if it was, carrying off the elfin cousin of an African elephant.
"Wyverns were a forerunner to the dragons. They have four limbs like a bird, not six, so they have no front limbs. Their bones are light but strong, as are their scales."
"These are wyvern scales." Stormsong tapped the vest she was wearing. Kate had never seen the elf without the vest of overlapping glittering scales. Earlier attempts to look at it closer had been rebuffed. From the distance, the stuff looked like steel hammered into seashell shingles, and then somehow dyed blue.
"It would be nice to know what the fuck I’m dealing with here. Can I see the scales?"
Stormsong hesitated and then undid something on her left side and peeled back part of the scales. The scales were attached to a leather undergarment with a slit laced shut. The elf female undid the lacing and then wriggled a bit. If Kate had been a man, the show would have been extremely interesting.
The vest was lined with hard leather. Over it had been tacked a strong cloth, to which scales were sewn into an overlapping pattern. All in all, the vest weighed only ten pounds, but a goodly part of it would have come from the leather. The edges of the scales were sharp and slowly cutting through the leather.
"Why don’t you grind down the edges?"
"It is organic carbon. There is nothing stronger that we forge that would grind it down. It can take a pistol bullet at close range without breaking. It is permitted only to the domana and sekasha caste."
"So this thing…wyvern is bulletproof?" How the hell was she supposed to kill it?
"It has points of weaknesses."
"How does it grow? Does it ever shed, like a snake?"
"No." Stormsong wriggled back into her vest and laced it back up. "The young are born with down, which is why the parents are so protective. They are vulnerable until they molt."
So she was fighting an armored attack helicopter. Oh golly joy. She wished that she’d thought to bring a missile launcher. She doubted that even her Winchester African with its .458 caliber rounds had enough stopping power for this, but she had nothing bigger back at camp, or on this planet. Kate studied the blood pool. If this splattering of blood and viscera on the southern exposure was from the wyvern arriving from their camp, then the blood trail on the northern exposure was probably from the wyvern taking off. She climbed up to another summit, hoping that Stormsong was right about the wyvern’s sleep habits. She’d seen falcons strike like bullets enough times to be nervous as she scanned the northern horizon.
Stormsong stood waiting as patiently as any other native guide Kate had ever used. The wind played with the few strands of golden hair that dared to come out of Stormsong’s thick braid down her back.
In the north lay a several mountains offering possible nesting sites. Hiking for days through virgin forest without GPS, blindly looking for something that could swallow her whole wasn’t Kate’s idea of smart hunting.
"You said that they nest on ley lines. That means they’re attracted to magic?"
"They will nest where it runs strongest."
"They say magic is measurable. Can you tell, from here, which of those mountaintops has the most?"
The elf girl shot her a hard look and then, reluctantly, nodded. "Yes, of course I can."
Stormsong cleared a flat rock of twigs and dust. From her waist pack, she produced a small, loosely bound, hand printed book, bundled in a layer of suede. She flipped through the pages of complex designs until she found what she wanted. Laying the book flat, Stormsong copied the page out onto the rock with what looked like a grease pencil, only the black lines glittered in the sunlight, like it contained flecks of ground metal.
Kate frowned at the design as Stormsong carefully rewrapped the book and tucked it away. So far it wasn’t any more impressive than Earth ‘magic,’ although a hell of lot more orderly.
"Stay back." Stormsong whispered, blocking Kate’s closer inspection with an outstretched arm. "Do not get metal near it, or make any loud noises."
That annoyed Kate, although she wasn’t sure why. Normally natives using magic didn’t piss her off, even when it was blatantly nonsense. What Stormsong had copied out looked oddly similar to computer circuit board design.
Taking a deep breath, Stormsong chanted out a series of deep, guttural vowels. As if the mantra had thrown a switch, the black lines suddenly gleamed gold. A glowing sphere appeared over the spell, and slowly a model of the local mountain range took form. From the distinctive stone outcrop, Kate recognized that the center-most mountain was the one they stood on. Watery lines appeared in model, of varying width and brightness, bisecting the mountains.
Stormsong peered at the model and then looked up, scanning the horizon. "There." She whispered as she pointed at a far peak. On the model, the line crossing over it was the brightest and widest. "That’s the strongest ley line in spell range."
The elf extinguished the spell, and smudged out the lines on the rock with her foot.
Kate examined the distant mountain with her binoculars; it looked like the rest of the Allegheny range, an oversized rounded hill. One section of it seemed slightly bald. She unpacked her digital camera and its tripod. She had reluctantly packed these, but it seemed that they were going to come in handy. Training the telescopic lens onto the treeless area, she set the automatic capture on it, took her hands off the camera and let it capture a perfectly still image. Once the timer hit zero, she gave it another second, and then started to enhance the image.
The bald area enlarged to a wasteland of rock, strewn with broken timber.
"Well, what do you think?" Kate asked the elf girl.
Stormsong eyed the picture and then glanced out at the mountain, featureless to the naked eye. "Yes," she said flatly. "That’s a nesting site."
Well, let’s not jump up and down with joy. Kate packed away the camera. "What exactly are the wyvern’s weak spots?"
Stormsong picked up a stone and scratched out a rough drawing on the rock. "The joints in the wingtips, here, here, and here. If you can cut this membrane," she indicated the taunt skin of the wings. "You can ground it, which will keep it from striking and flying off. Its mouth and eyes are weaknesses. Death magic works, as does light magic."
Yeah, right. "Poison? Or does it avoid poisoned bait?"
"It’s an indiscriminate eater, but it takes massive amounts of poison to affect it, which we don’t have."
"How big is this?"
"They are not as large as a dragon, but they are considerable in size."
Considerable my ass, Kate thought, it has to be huge. But kept her verbal opinion to a snort. "How do your people kill these things? Or do you just pick up the scales after they die?"
Stormsong lifted up her bow in answer.
Well, that explained the declining elf population.
"It’s stupid to attack it on its own grounds," Kate stated. "We’ll lure it to us, and we pick the shots."
"This is not a simple animal."
"The smarter it is, the better. We give it an option. To land in among the trees and hope for a clear takeoff, or take something here on its favorite landing site."
Stormsong gazed at the blood-splattered rocks. "We will try it your way."
Baiting a trap should have been simple. Kate had done it a thousand times before, but she hadn’t counted on the size of the wyvern compounding the process. Stormsong maintained that nothing smaller than one of the kuesi would do as bait. There was getting the beast up the steep mountainside, and then trying to control it once it smelled the blood. Luckily she thought to bring her tranq pistol, although the dosage, set for a tiger, was only enough to make the massive beast groggy instead of putting it down completely.
"Well, you have some uses," Stormsong said, looking toward the setting sun. "It will not be long. It will come soon."
As a byproduct of working too long in the third world, Kate carried a computer attachment to detect incoming planes as standard equipment. She set it up, unsure if it would work on the wyvern. She liked to cover all bases.
The sun set and the sky slowed deepened into violet and then color leached out to total black. Kate had tucked herself in among the rocks, and as the sky went to dark, tugged on night goggles. She could pick out Stormsong close by, silent, an arrow nocked but not drawn.
From her computer stick tucked in among the rocks, she heard the quiet pinging.
"It’s coming." She called to Stormsong.
She’d made the mistake of setting it up so she couldn’t see the screen, worried only about keeping her hands free. Now, with the gentle chime indicating a closing wyvern, she didn’t want to move out of her niche to check the screen for its direction.
Then she saw it, and wasn’t about to leave hard cover.
She hadn’t accounted for how much space the massive creature would take up on the rock ledge. She’d tucked herself into a niche that seemed a safe distance from the kuesi. She scuttled backwards along the overhang as her vision filled up with monster. Stormsong’s drawing had been anatomically correct – a wedge head on a snake neck, wings of membrane like a bats, a lizard leg redone on a falcon template -- but lacked scale.
My God, that can’t possibly fly. But it was. Or to be more precise, plummeting – rocketing down out the night sky toward the kuesi. She planned a shot to the wyvern’s vulnerable eyes; she’d expected them to be wide and round as an owl’s, specialized for night hunting, done on a more massive scale. In the blur coming toward her, she couldn’t see anything remotely looking like an eye.
The wyvern came out of its dive, wings unfurling with an audible crack, legs swinging forward, hooked talons longer than her arm flaring into over-extension. Even drugged the kuesi saw death and bleated. The cry cut short with the impact of bodies that she felt through the bottom of her feet. The kuesi, that had stood another head taller than her, was suddenly rabbit-small under the wyvern.
"Oh God, oh God." She whispered. Was Stormsong insane? Kill that? With what?
Then like an Earth-born falcon, the wyvern cocked its head back and forth, examining its kill with its eyes. Protected by a ridge of bone, the solid pupil was a beady black target.
Kate ducked out of her niche, raised her rifle up to her shoulder, and aimed down on the eye. Breath. Hold it. And she squeezed the trigger.
Even as the elephant rifle kicked, the wyvern jerked its head around, spotting her movement. The bullet ricocheted off the bone ridge, making the wyvern jerk its head aside.
Reflex kicked in, and with icy calm, Kate worked the bolt -- ejecting the spent round, loading another bullet, locking the action -- and took aim. Kill it, before it kills you.
But she forgot about the massive tail until seconds before it hit her.
She saw it whipping toward, knew she couldn’t dodge it, and held position to get off her shot. Kill it, before…
And then darkness exploded around her, the actual contact lost in a moment of unconscious, and then she was aware of being airborne. Falling. Somewhere close by, she could hear her computer, tucked into the cliff face, pinging again.
Not off the cliff, oh God, not off the cliff. And so the contact with solid land only a moment later actually came as a relief. She managed to tumble across the ground, lessening the impact, torn earth filling her senses.
She scrambled to her knees, trying to gain her feet, but her right leg was refusing to move. A bus-sized mouth full of teeth was coming at her -- rows upon rows of sharp shark-like teeth.
She was going to die. "God damn it."
With a deep guttural howl, a streak of light flashed through the air, lightning white in intensity. The light struck the wyvern in the side of the neck and sliced through the armored skin and punched through the other side of the huge neck.
What the hell? Kate didn’t waste time trying to figure out. If she lived, she’d investigate closer. If the wyvern was dead, the news hadn’t reached its brain yet. It came on.
She rolled to the side, whimpering in pain from her right leg. There was her rifle. The wyvern hadn’t turned, and its forward motion began to look like floundering. She could still hear the pinging from her computer, though. The second one was coming.
The tumble hadn’t damaged her rifle. It had been fired at some point since she last remembered holding it. She worked the bolt, reloading, and looked up.
Stormsong stood on an outcropping of rock, arrow nocked and bow drawn, sighting down on the wyvern on the ground. What was the little idiot doing? The elf released the string, and the arrow flashed toward the wyvern. Immediately the arrow howled, and light flared around it, growing in size and intensity as it leaped the span. The second arrow struck the wyvern in the back of the skull, blasting the news of its death straight into the brain this time. The wyvern collapsed into an ungainly tangle of giant limbs.
Magic arrows. The damn bitch had magic arrows.
And the damn bitch was going to get nailed from behind. The second wyvern was in a silent dive -- aimed at the elf outlined against the stars. The wyvern on the ground probably was the male, because the one in the air was much bigger.
"Stormsong! Move!" Kate shouted, bringing her rifle to her shoulder.
The female wyvern was still in its power dive, wings folded close to its body, mouth closed, its tiny eyes invisible – a great expanse of bulletproof armor. Kate held her breath, waiting for an opening.
And the chance came, as it swung forward its legs, wings spreading to brake its dive. The vulnerable joints of the wings opened up. She squeezed the trigger, and the rifle kicked hard on her shoulder. The bullet struck the joint, jerking the wyvern sidewises, and then wing folded back at an impossible angle. The wyvern screamed and came tumbling out of the air. It struck the side of the cliff below them in earth shaking impact.
Curling in pain on the ground, Kate reloaded the rifle's magazine. Oh, God, please, let there only be two.
Silence filled the night. Stormsong stood on her rocky lookout, staring down at the ruined mass of the female. Finally she crossed the ledge to Kate.
"I think my leg is broken." Kate didn’t want to whimper, not in front of her.
Stormsong dropped down to her knees and then prostrated herself fully on the ground. "Forgiveness."
"I have treated you poorly since your arrival, you who have come so far to help us. I believed myself to be superior of all humans and yet found that I was only merely equal. I let it irritate me, and in spite, treated you rudely."
It was as if Stormsong held up a mirror to her soul. Kate suddenly saw her own arrogance and irritation reflected in the elf. This is what was driving me nuts, Kate realized, I saw how I acted with all other natives. I didn’t like what it showed of myself.
"I wasn’t at my best either." Kate muttered, dismayed by the revelation.
"We elves say ‘see the beast in yourself and kill it.’ I have slain my beast."
Kill the beast, before it kills you.
"Ah," Kate said, and meant every word, "how very wise of you."
Elfhome Books by Wen Spencer:
Wolf Who Rules
Elfhome Short Stories:
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