Who the hell are you? (Part 2)
 

"Alved! My name is Alved!" He stammered to Hans, near tears.

"And who do you think I am?" Hans raised his voice in standard, hoping the treacherous elf didn't recognize he was the one that visited the shop.

"You're Hah-ans! Hah-ans from my store! You're the alchemist! Please don't kill me! I mean no harm!"

Fuck, thought Hans. He recognizes me. And out of anyone I give magnets, tell we have no magic with us, and boast of our culture, it's a spy.

Salhera fawned at Han's firm and beautifully masculine display. She had never seen his strong, dominating side and it was enchanting. His bare, beautifully sculpted back inches from her arms gave her the urge to nonchalantly brush against him. And the smell of his golden hair was intoxicating.

Her focus was directed on Hans more than Alved. However the alchemist was too shocked to notice the spear holder was distracted and had no combat experience for it to matter.

Greta spoke in standard, venom in her tongue "Lower your voice, infiltrator. We will ascertain your intentions." Alved snapped to look at her and Salhera did the same. Then ordering in English, "Bind him. Hans, Josef, Klaus, suit up and prepare to leave. Make sure to keep an eye on our 'guest'. Hans, after you three are ready to embark, question him as you please. Salhera and I are going to have a talk in private."

Greta turned to Salhera and gently motioned her to follow. As the females exited the room, Josef and Klaus dropped their weapons and grabbed Alved by the shoulder, forcing him face-down on the floor. Josef laid a knee onto Alved's back and pulled both of his wrists together behind the waist while Klaus tied both together. After Klaus finished the binds on the ankles, Hans lowered his blade and the three hoisted Alved onto the bed. They then proceeded to don their elaborate uniforms.

The humans were soldiers masquerading as ambassadors. The ornate robes, coat, and trousers were made to conceal a full suit of lightweight plate armor. Under the billowing trousers, the legs were encased in an aluminum shell. Beneath the black tunic covering the torso and arms, a titanium breastplate that wrapped around to the back while the arms were encased in an aluminum exoskeleton. Over the black tunic, an aluminum plate gambeson, concealed by a draping red and black coat. The gleaming neckband was outwardly decorative but functioned to deflect fatal decapitating blows and strikes to the back of the head. Boots only had a small external plate wrapping over the arches but it was by design. Their footwear was the most thoroughly thought out aspect of the uniform. Incorporating prototype materials like plastics, rubbers, polymers, and engineered leather, an army equipped with such boots could march across a continent nonstop. It was not lost on the cobblers that a grueling trek into the Empire necessitated immense durability, support, and above all, comfort.

Salhera followed Greta silently out of the men's room to Greta's quarters. After they both entered, Greta closed the door and turned to Salhera.

"Alright, ask" said Greta flatly in standard.

Salhera was puzzled for a second and then realized what she meant. "How long have you known standard?"

"Hans and I knew from the beginning. When we first met you on edge of the Taldun forest."

"Where did you learn standard? Why all this secrecy? Why the deception? Why do you finally offer to answer my questions rather than forcing me to pry and guess?" Salhera asked rapidly with a hint of anger.

"We learned from accumulation of scavenged tomes and other assorted artifacts. I answer your questions now because you have been brought into the fold by the current events, you are the closest thing to an ally in several hundred miles, and most importantly, Hans trusts you— greatly. As for the secrecy and deception? Ask more questions first, the explanation is long." Greta listed calmly.

"Hans trusts me? Really? He stonewalled me less than the others but he only answered vaguely, I gave up trying after a month!" Salhera challenged, hoping Greta was serious about Hans.

"Like the rest of us, Hans followed his nondisclosure orders dutifully and is fiercely loyal to our kingdom, but that does not mean he wasn't conflicted. He made his affection towards you quite evident to us early on" Greta's last sentence was colored with annoyance.

"Hans' affection to me?" Salhera said in disbelief, heart fluttering.

"Yes, he's infatuated with you; and you, him. If the pain of sneaking around you in robes every time we made camp didn't push me to reveal ourselves first, the obliviousness of you two to the other would have" Greta replied sarcastically, to hide the fact she was partiality serious, before continuing. "Given our time traveling together and what the tomes told us about the wood elves, I was strongly considering Hans' suggestions to reveal ourselves well before we entered Nal'esu. However I reasoned that it would be safer to keep you ignorant until we cleared the town." Greta softened her monotone to sincerity "I apologize for the deception. You have been remarkably patient with us and we all are extremely grateful you have stayed all this time."

Salhera was silent, touched. "I forgive you" she said softly.

"Thank you, Salhera" she replied before her tone relaxed. "Now I'm sure there's a great deal more you want to know, I will answer completely."

"What are you? Are you mer?"

"No we are not mer. We are humans. We are uncertain of our origins or relation to mer, but suffice it to say: the Empire of 'Higher' Mer is unaware of our existence we would like to keep it that way. The fate suffered by the dwarves and its treatment of your kind should be reason enough."

"Yes… my people are subjugated to some degree…" she trailed. "I begin to understand your secrecy. But what are the dwarves? How have you managed to evade the Empire?"

"I will answer both questions with a story. Ten thousand years ago, when the Empire of Higher Mer was in its infancy, when we were but small bands of tribes learning the ways of the world, we learned of others like us. The dwarves were another intelligent species. Like the mer, they had a great empire, stories of their greatness carried orally among us and persist to this day. But accompanied by stories of dwarven greatness, were stories of great atrocities wrought upon them by the Empire. Tales of slaughter, genocide, total erasure of any evidence that they existed. I understand that the whole of mer are ignorant of the dwarves, the Empire expunged all mention of them long ago and demolished any structures they could find. But we carry their memory. Dwarven ruins still exist at the edges of our territory and their ancient carvings confirm our tales of genocide."

Salhera stood, barely able to contain her rage but she needed to know more. "How did your kind survive? Will mine suffer the same as the dwarves?!"

"Humans, my people, we live in what mer call, the Dark Forest"

Salhera's attention shifted from learning how the humans could teach the wood elves to flee subjugation, to Greta's answer. "The very same Dark Forest infested with dark magic and fetid evil? The very same one that is stalked by leshens and corrupts life to perverse monstrosities?"

"The very same"

"I suppose I should get used to surprises from humans now" she sighed apprehensively. "How do you survive?"

"I was hoping you'd ask that" Greta said with glee, an extant emotion of her's. "In order to be harmed by the forces of the Dark Forest, something or someone must have some inkling of magic within to become targeted and perverted. Even magically inert life such as a tree or wild animal will inevitably absorb and maintain a minuscule quantity from constant exposure to the benign and omnipresent background magic that persists even among the dark magic infesting the forest. The dwarven ruins taught us much about the nature of magic." She paused and her voice lowered. "One ruin also taught us of ourselves, not willingly I must add, we had to toil to the conclusion. We are not magical. We could not perform the spells the engravings so clearly instructed. Nor could we open the sealed passages as intended with magic; we had to pry out the boulders with acids, picks, and hydraulics. We thought ourselves magically inert, this made sense to us and the known inscriptions seemed to support this theory. But when we forced the barrier to the first sealed chamber open, it showed us a map and taught us about corruption. On this map, we recognized fringe territories that our cartographers had already charted as well as vast tracts we had not. But what was most disconcerting were the territories left uncharted. On one edge, the map terminated at the borders of a forest— the Dark Forest. We noticed similarities of the geography at that edge so we compared our maps and then it dawned on us: the whole of humanity lived inside this Dark Forest. The inscriptions of the chamber called the very forest that sheltered our cities as a vile den of concentrated evil, a place so foul that any life not driven to death was perverted into monstrous abominations. We were dumbfounded. We clearly could not utilize magic, we had to be magically inert. But the newly discovered inscriptions explicitly stated that even the magically inert were not immune to the corruption of the Dark Forest. Yet our people thrived, our crops flourished, our livestock was healthy. The seeming contradiction of the glyphs heated our curiosity white hot. So we ravenously tore open all the sealed chambers, learning ever more about the magic we were deadened to but never the answer we set out for. At last however, we found a wall suspiciously less robust. Without hesitation it was rent apart, revealing a hidden alcove. Within it? Tomes, diagrams, sculptures, drawings, and theses on magic. Among these treasures was a theoretical mechanism of resisting corruption. In the alcove we found our answer but that did not stop us from probing the ruin and others for more hidden echoes of the past. Persistence rewarded us with music, artwork, pottery, literature, and most important to us, remains." Greta paused and inhaled deeply. She had been dispensing a great deal of information and Salhera likely needed some clarification before continuing.

Like clockwork, Salhera derailed her previous query. "Why are the remains important?" she asked with a puzzled countenance.

"Tales of the ancient dwarves are of cultural significance to us, we would like to have an idea of what they looked like. That and spite to the Empire. The Empire tried to erase the dwarves from existence, like they are slowly and methodically doing to yours. We would like to think that as long as we preserve the dwarves' knowledge and hold their memory, the miserable 'empire' failed."

Salhera's tone grew meek. "The Empire isn't going to erase the wood elves…?" A statement of fragile hope turned into an uncertain question.

Greta softened, sympathetically "Salhera, I know you don't want to believe it— but you see the writing on the wall. Look around you. Right outside the town they dug a hole in the ceiling of one of your tribe's mausoleums and now they fill it with sewage." The dam that relegated Salhera's painful memories of the Empire to the darkest corners of her mind was yielding; she was near tears but Greta continued, lowering her voice "In truth we are not here for diplomacy, trade, or any other bargain with the Empire, we never were. This is a scouting mission for a future campaign against the Empire and we intend for you and your brethren to be a part of it."

Greta held Salhera's arm, she was sobbing at this point. "My people are broken! Their land has been taken! Half are enslaved and the other half scrapes by on a meager existence, scattered deep in forests, on land that can't be plowed! How can we participate in a war when most of us are too starved to even replenish ourselves?!"

Greta made a slight smile. "We will gather all the wood elves we can and they will live among us humans in the Kingdom of the Three Point Star, rebuilding civilization and replenishing their numbers in the safety of the Dark Forest. We offer your people an autonomous province of our kingdom, all wood elves and their descendants considered honorary humans, and a chance to exact revenge. We get to bolster our ranks with committed wood elf soldiers, enhanced guerrilla warfare capabilities, and infiltrators."

Salhera was regaining her composure but still heaving and now somewhat incredulous. "All mer are magic, we don't just absorb it, we produce it. We will die or go mad not long after entering the cursed wood"

Greta was deviously smiling now. "True, all mer are innately magic producers, but they don't have to stay that way. Remember what I told you about magically inert life retaining some background magic? About how the dark magic of the forest binds with retained magic? Well humans are neither magic producers nor magically inert, we are magic drains. We don't retain any background magic, malevolent magic has nothing to bind to. In fact our bodies siphon and presumably destroy nearby benign magic. Dark magic is not siphoned nor destroyed but it ignores us all the same. Now to the subject of the inert and producers. Have you ever wondered how our crops grow and our livestock remains healthy despite being inert retainers in a hotspot of dark magic? Us."

"You?" Asked Salhera, calm now.

"We don't just siphon background magic, our bodies aggressively strip it from other life and enchanted objects, provided of course that it is of the benign variety. Prolonged exposure to humans will permanently destroy the ability for life to produce magic and eventually turn it into a weak magic drain. Not strong enough of a drain to strip it from anything or create another drain, but strong enough to destroy absorbed background magic."

"So, your animals and plants destroy the magic they absorb therefore are ignored by the corruption of the forest?"

"Precisely. Now I hope you had no aspirations of becoming a mage because the three months you've been with us has been long enough to turn you into a drain." Greta smirked, another unsettling rarity. "Now please get dressed and meet us in the other room, we're leaving soon."

~~~~~~

The interrogation, if it could be called that, was going remarkably well, Josef didn't even need to use a wet towel. Alved laid in the bed formerly occupied by Klaus, Hans, and Josef. More relaxed than he was earlier when he fell through a window. But as long as his feet and hands were bound and held at the mercy of four mutant mer with a wood elf, his anxiety would only drop so low.

The three humans, fully dressed in their uniforms that practically reeked of fear, towered over Alved as Hans bombarded him with volleys of questions.

"What was your mission here, worm" Hans demanded venomously.

"I— I had no mission." Alved stammered.

"Lies! You scaled the inn to the roof under the cover of darkness, broke into one of the only occupied rooms on this floor, all of which occupied by members of a visiting envoy, and bring this—" Hans held up the locating rune, glowing with less intensity "with you and you mean to tell me no one instructed you to do so? Speak."

"I wasn't— no one instructed me to come here" Alved said mournfully.

"And yet you had help. What is this? Where did you get this rune? How did you know which inn we stayed? Who told you we were an envoy?" Hans was furious.

"It's a lo–lo–locating rune"

"Locating rune! What does it locate?! You?! Plan to storm our quarters with guards?! Assassins?"

"No! It locates me! Me to Galamun!"

"Who is Galamun? Your handler?"

"No, no he's my friend. A mage. I was concerned about your presence and he agreed to help skry you to know if you were a mage"

"Who is this information being shared with besides Galamun? Does he know you're here? Is he expecting your return? Answer me damnit!"

"It's not being shared with anyone! I swear! He made me promise not to tell Gavlan!"

"Who is Gavlan!? Why do you communicate with him?!"

"Oh fuck, fuck, fuck. He's the guard commander of the town! Spymaster too! He wanted me to investigate who you are but I was curious besides that and so I went to Galamun for help and he said to not tell Gavlan you were mages! Please don't kill me! I'm telling the truth!" Alved was crying at this point.

"So you are a spy! You lied to me! What do you know spy?! Troop movements?! Garrisons?! Checkpoints?! What are your armies capable of?!" If Hans' face was visible, it would be red.

"I'm not a spy! I'm an informant! He has me investigate travelers and their origin! He doesn't tell me about troop movements! There's about 50 soldiers posted in each border town! Only Raalif is watching the gate you entered! They say the Empire has three million in its legions! Please, please, please! This is everything I know!" The smell of urine confirmed Alved's testimony.

The door slammed opened. Salhera and Greta entered, fully clothed this time.

In English, Greta announced "Alright everyone, Salhera has been briefed and is now our first honorary human. Nondisclosure protocols are no longer in effect, you're free to fraternize as you please. Hans, I've already told her about how badly you want to 'fraternize' with her and frankly I find it touching that she fantasizes about it too" Salhera's face turned a deep Crimson, behind the veil, Hans' as well. "But that can wait. Josef grab a sack and a sock. We're leaving." Her gaze turned to Alved "And taking a prisoner."