Eager was an understatement. Liss hadn't felt this kind of anticipation in years, maybe ever.
The day leading up to the secret expedition had dragged on from one mundane task to another. Breakfast to rounds, lunch to more rounds. By the time the sun began its slow descent through the hazy sky, Liss' fingers were itching with excitement. It was a cool evening. Fog swathed the valley in a pale sheet, but dreariness was common in Cradelow. There was a kind of electricity in the air, like standing near a lightning strike. The little white hairs on Liss’ arm stood on end as she huddled next to Dev within the copse of trees where they'd met yesterday.
Dev pulled out the map he'd drawn, angling it so they could both see.
"I figured we'd start here and take a circuitous route to avoid anyone patrolling."
"Sounds good," Liss agreed. "Lead the way, navigator."
She wasn't as familiar as Dev with the nooks and crannies of the valley, but if there was a rift in the goddess’ barrier holding them hostage in Cradelow, or a spark of magic to be found, she'd find it one way or another.
Moss squelched under their boots as they picked their way through the trees, moving away from the village and its possibility of prying eyes. Liss doubted anyone would follow them, but it might raise suspicion if someone spotted them together outside the village after dark. The Lightkeepers would question Dev, certainly. Whether they would reproach him was a different matter. The Council might let the infraction slide, since Liss and Dev were newly Engaged. They might even condone the behavior. Either way, Liss didn't want to find out.
"This way,” Dev instructed.
He kept a few paces' lead, indicating their path with the same hand that held his map. Liss followed him onto the forested foothills that rolled over the valley, increasing in steepness as they neared the mountains. The last stubborn rays of sunlight sunk beneath the stone cliffs, immersing them in the pseudo-darkness of a misty twilight. Liss almost regretted that they hadn't brought torches, but it was wiser to rely on their night vision than chance exposure.
When they came to a clearing in the canopy at the crest of the first hill, she paused. Up here the chilly air dispersed some of the fog, and she could see the pointed tops of the trees and stars emerging overhead twinkling like celestial fireflies. An unexpected sight.
"Wait," she called down to Dev, who had already begun descending the other side of the slope.
"Am I moving too quickly?"
"No. This is higher elevation." She gestured with a sweep of her arms at the modest summit. "Better visibility. I want to try a rune."
"The hills get much steeper closer to the mountains."
"Yes, and we need to check as many spots as we can. "
Liss stooped to the ground, flipping open her notebook to the first blank page.
Dev watched her for a moment. "How many stops are you planning?"
"How should I know? I've never done this before."
"Well I have, and I can tell you we'll be lucky to get a couple hours' sleep to spare as it is. If we stop every few minutes to draw a rune and wait around to see if anything happens, we won't get very far."
There were a lot of ways Liss might have responded, and not all of them were nice.
She withdrew her drawing pencil. "It won't take long," was all she said.
The pattern of whorls flowed from her fingers with practiced efficiency, her pencil hardly lifting from the page. "This rune is called the Seeker. If there's a rift nearby, or if magic has somehow seeped through Hona's barrier, it will show us."
"How will we know if it's working?"
Dev sounded calm, but his eyes scanned the darkness and his right hand fidgeted at his side. Liss realized he'd brought a weapon. It was probably in his pocket. She wasn't sure how to feel about that, but grateful was likely the correct answer.
The Darkbane were the only people in the valley, but they weren't the only hunters.
"It's supposed to emit a tendril of light to guide its path."
She wished her tome of runes had included more detail, but she supposed it came from a time when written instruction could stand to be basic. Practical application would have been the most important part of rune-casting in the days Before. And there would have been teachers. All Liss could do was guess. And wait. And hope.
After a few long moments spent checking the sky without luck, she took Dev's advice and kept moving. The valley was wide; they had a lot of ground to cover. Besides, it was easy enough to keep a watchful eye while they walked.
"Do you know how far the radius or height of this Seeker rune extends?" Dev asked after a few more failed attempts on slopes of increasing elevation. "Let's say there is a small rift in the barrier, how do we know the rune will reach it? And if it does, what then? We can't fly out of here."
Liss slid her notebook and pencil back into her pocket, silently ruminating. They had crested the foothills' highest peak to stand where the bowl of the valley met walls of stone rising to disorienting heights. There was no way they could scale the sheer cliff face without the proper equipment, and neither of them was skilled at rock climbing. The idea of conquering the mountains was almost as ridiculous as flying. There had to be another way.
"I'm not sure how far it extends," she admitted, scanning the impassable crags and rocky slopes. She turned to Dev, whose eyes reflected the burgeoning moonlight. "But finding a rift in the barrier would be a victory of its own. I'd send up a rune bright enough to be seen on the other side. A rift would change everything."
Dev silently consulted his map, coming up with a deeply furrowed brow. "We need to be careful, there's a wildcat den around the corner. A mama cat and kittens. There should be a sign, so we don’t wander too close by accident, but stay on your guard."
Liss followed closely, feeling slightly vindicated when Dev pulled a thin shining blade from his boot; not his pocket, but she'd had the right idea. Her own hands suddenly felt cold and empty. She didn't like weapons, but sometimes they came in handy. A fistful of stones would have been better than nothing. For all that she wanted to believe she didn't need anyone’s protection, she was glad for Dev’s foresight.
An insistent breeze rolled off the mountains, forming an eerie, swirling fog that pressed in on them as they continued around the valley. Dev pointed out the sign marking the wildcat den before Liss saw it, a flimsy board nailed to a tree and painted with red ochre.
"STAY CLEAR—WILDCATS IN THE CLIFF." Straightforward. Simple.
"How close are we?"
Dev checked his map again, then veered sharply away from the mountains, waving Liss along after him. "Too close. The den is in a crevice in the rock. We should skirt around this area, in case mama cat comes looking for a midnight snack."
Another reason torches might have come in handy. But water under the bridge and all...
They continued on with a renewed sense of caution, as if a predator might leap out of the fog, which was a genuine possibility. There were dozens of aggressive animal species in Cradelow, a few of which got bold about picking off elves when they had the chance. But with Dev in tow, she didn't worry so much. Lightkeepers were one of the few Darkbane traditions held over from Before, when clans had defended their homes from invasion, but hunting was perhaps their most important duty in Cradelow. Lightkeepers used their strength and knowledge of the landscape to overpower the valley's predators. Dev had been in training for months. He knew the dangers of the valley better than most.
Liss tried not to be disheartened as their search passed its midway point without so much as a flicker of light from her rune-castings. But with each marker they completed on Dev's map, and every time she tore her gaze from the unchanged heavens, her shoulders slumped a little lower. She felt as if she was sinking into the earth, like the valley was determined to make her its prisoner. Earlier she’d been intent on scouring every accessible inch of Cradelow, but as the night elapsed, she wondered if continuing was worth the effort.
Dev backtracked, patting her shoulder. "Cheer up, there's still a quarter of the map left."
"Why should I? You don't believe we'll find anything."
"But I'd like to be proved wrong." His broad, natural smile was impossible to resent.
Liss was lucky to have Dev with her tonight. She was about to admit as much, when a gust of wind kicked up, tossing her hair into her face. Something hard and smooth grazed her scalp, followed by a heavy flap of wings.
She dropped to her knees, covering her head. "Dev?"
No response. Fog surrounded her, carpeting the ground and preventing her from seeing the spot her friend had been standing in a moment ago. The grass was cool and damp, soaking through her pants, but she didn't dare move.
A shadow glided across the ground, moving closer and sliding away again. Not a wildcat, not with those wings. Something was circling them from above.
"You think that because I cannot see you I will not find you?"
Liss almost shouted for the thing to identify itself, but its voice was disturbing. It wasn't a person's voice, at least it wasn't an elf's. Its tone was thick and strident, as though speaking took great effort.
A hand clamped down over Liss' mouth. A shrill caw echoed overhead. "Stay silent and low," Dev whispered in her ear. "We have to get to the lake."
What exactly were they hiding from, and why? Liss was desperate for answers, but she trusted Dev's instincts. Mud and broken bits of leaves stuck to her hands as she crawled along the ground beside him. She racked her brain, trying to remember if she'd ever heard of or read about a flying creature that spoke elvish and terrorized her kind, but her mind was blank. Even if there had been such a creature Before, she would have heard if one had been living in the same valley as the Darkbane for the past three centuries.
But then, why did Dev seem to know just what to do?
"What are you out here looking for, pretty elves? Perhaps I can help you find it."
Had the creature been watching them all night? Did it know what they were up to, or was it bluffing? However reckless, Liss couldn't deny she was curious what it might say if she responded.
Dev hesitated, imploring her with his eyes. When she glanced in his direction, he shook his head once, side to side. No. Don't answer.
Liss gritted her teeth. Fine.
"I promise I will not hurt you. Not like you have hurt yourselves."
The earth became softer, giving way to loamy sand. The fog hung suspended over the moonlit lake, creating a ring of visibility between the grassy bank and the edge of the water. Dev grabbed Liss' wrist and pulled her upright. The moment they were both standing, he urged her forward.
"Run. Get under the water."
"Do not run, listen. There is a way forward, but there is no way back. You know, you understand, don't you, girl?"
Dev tugged Liss toward the lake. "Ignore that thing, it lies. Come with me."
Something in his words gave her pause. It lies. That didn't sound like a guess so much as heeding advice he had heard before. Just like crawling to the water. It made her wonder what else Dev knew and wasn't saying.
Liss turned away from him and the murky shore, peering up into the half-naked boughs of a sickly pine tree. An oddly shaped bird perched on one of the thicker interior branches, its long talons hooked around the flaking, dry bark. Its chest and the top of its head were covered in shining black feathers, but its folded wings were jointed and leathery. Worst of all, it had the face of a man, pale and eerily luminous.
"What are you?"
The creature smiled at her, revealing small teeth with sharp points.
"Do I not look familiar?"
What kind of question was that? Liss was certain she'd seen nothing like this strange flying beast in her wildest dreams.
"Your warriors keep the valley waters anointed. Your friend would have you go into the lake where I cannot follow, but there is no need to freeze yourselves. I will not attack you."
"It sure seemed like you wanted to," Liss said, rubbing the top of her head for emphasis. Then again, it could have easily hooked its talons in her. This seemed more like a game. "If you won't hurt us, then what do you want?"
"Liss!" Dev's voice was a curt warning. Their hands were still linked, and he was squeezing the sensation from her fingers.
She ignored him. "I'm waiting for an answer, you creepy old bird."
"What a brave, feisty girl. I see why he protects you."
"Leave us alone, changeling!" Dev shouted, taking a step past Liss to put himself closer to the creature. "We want nothing to do with your trickery."
Liss stared at the back of Dev's head. "Changeling?"
He turned to glance at her, a pained expression tightening his features. "I'm sorry. We’re sworn never to speak of it. I doubted it was even real. Few have ever seen it."
The blows just kept coming. Here was yet another example of something she'd missed out on by not being Lightkeeper material. But not anymore. This creature could talk, and if it was a changeling as Dev suggested, then it also had magic. Magic she'd been told didn't exist. Magic that could change her fate. And Dev had kept it a secret from her.
She wrenched her hand out of his grasp, stalking toward the pine tree, ignoring his sharp intake of breath. If the changeling would not tell her what it wanted from her, maybe it would like to hear what she wanted.
"Tell me how to leave the valley."
"How...? Or where?"
"Whichever will get me out quicker."
The bird's white face twisted to the side, frightening and impressive in its flexibility. Its glossy eyes narrowed to slits, but its rictus grin lingered. Liss fought the urge to flee, to run into the water with Dev like he wanted, where she might be safe. But when had doing the safe thing ever helped her? In fairy stories from Before, heroes didn't turn tail and run from danger, they faced it head on. Challenges and conviction led to happy endings, not complacency and cowardice.
"Why would a little elf like you want to leave the valley? Do you not have friends here, loved ones?"
Friends? Loved ones? Liss wasn't so sure anymore.
The changeling read the hurt written on her face. "What will you do if the outside is worse than the inside?"
"I doubt that's possible. Please, just tell me there's a way out of here!"
The gleaming end of Dev's blade appeared at Liss' side as he advanced past her again, holding out an arm like he would prevent the changeling from swooping down and gouging her eyes out. Or like he would prevent her from doing what was necessary to get an answer.
"In order to leave, you must be as foolish as you are brave. You must go back to go forward. You must be willing to accept an eternity of nothing."
There seemed to be many secrets in the creature's riddle, but one thing stood out over the rest.
"A minute ago you said there was no way back, now you say it's the only way forward. Why don't you speak plainly?"
"Because it's trying to confuse you!" Dev shouted. "Don't you get it? This abomination isn't here to help us, and even if it has magic, it's trapped here just like we are!"
Liss pretended she hadn't heard him. Maybe Dev was right, but she wasn't willing to give up yet. From what she knew of changelings, they enjoyed teasing but weren't inherently evil or violent. The truth could be buried in its twisted riddles. And if she was smart, she might just dig it out. Maybe that was the game.
The creature spread its wide, bat-like wings and took to the air, wheeling in and out of mist clinging to the trees.
"I have said all I may and must go now, but we will see each other again soon, pretty elves. Until then, farewell."
"Wait–!" Liss cried, but it was already gone, swallowed by the night's shadows. She was alone again with Dev. They stood side by side along the edge of the quiet shore, less than a shoulder's width apart, but the distance seemed far greater.
Dev hadn't lied, he'd done something worse, something that had taken both foresight and effort. He had manipulated his way around the truth. For how long?
"I was afraid to tell you." He spoke in a hushed tone, his words carried on the ephemeral breeze. "I didn't know if the creature was real or a tale spun out of proportion over time, but I knew what you'd think if you heard the story. I didn't want you getting your hopes crushed, believing there must be magic in the valley, when the truth is… that creature's existence is irrelevant. It might be magic–if it's actually a changeling–but it's stuck here, too. The only thing that's changed now is that it's planted dangerous ideas in your head."
"Don't." Liss shielded her face with her hands, backing away from Dev into the forest. The cloaking fog hid the tears springing to her eyes. "You know how badly I wanted to be a Lightkeeper, and how much it hurts to stand on the outside and watch you succeed. Yet you still withheld the one thing you might have shared to give me hope. You're just like the rest of them. I should have known the other night, when you let me go through with the ceremony."
Dev didn't respond. An aura of intensity surrounded him. Liss knew him well enough to know he would erupt if she said much else, releasing his pent up anger into the sky. Maybe she deserved some of it. Maybe she'd even driven him to this point. The goddess knew she'd said things she'd regretted over their many years of friendship, but right now none of that mattered. He'd never hurt her like this. All this time, she'd thought she knew him, that they didn't hide things from one another, that it went without saying. She'd thought they were family.
"You don't want to find a way out," she hissed. "You're just playing along with me out of pity. I get it, this place has everything you think you want. Why would you ever leave when you belong?"
"You belong too, Liss! If you would just stop for a second with the drawing and the collecting and the obsession with Before, you'd see it! There's always been a place for you here, you just have to look forward instead of into the past. That's what you should take away from the changeling's riddle."
"Look forward to my place in the clan? That's easy for you to say, you'll be a Lightkeeper. What will I be, Dev?" She glared at him, placing both hands on her stomach. "Imagine if you were the one who had to become a Bearer. Would you be looking forward to it?"
Dev's cheeks flashed red, but his eyes remained steady on her face. "No."
"Then maybe you can begin to understand how I feel."
"I'm trying to! That's why I'm out here. But it's hard for me, I'm not like you, and when I see you running headlong into danger, it terrifies me. If anything had happened to you, if the changeling had hurt you, I couldn't bear it. I'd feel like it was my fault."
"You're not responsible for me, Dev. All you have to do is be my friend. Just be there for me." She took a step toward him out of the fog. "You should have told me about that thing long before tonight. You should have trusted me."
Dev sighed. "If I had, tonight would have been a changeling scavenger hunt. Don't deny it, you know I'm right. That thing is dangerous. They call it a changeling because it's so rarely spotted, it must assume different forms to spy on us. It could be anywhere. You heard what it said, it was watching us."
Spotty moonlight brightened the forest in hazy, shifting beams. The trees around the lake rustled, like the leaves themselves were whispering secrets. If the creature was still watching them, it did not wish to be seen. But Liss doubted it had stuck around.
"You know, there's another explanation for its disappearing, right?" When Dev only stared at her, she shook her head in disbelief. "It's leaving the valley. It comes and goes as it pleases. Its riddle isn't a trick, it's a test." She pulled out her notebook and copied its cryptic words before she could forget them. "A test I won’t fail. And when I figure out the riddle, I'm leaving this place too..."
She closed the notebook with a loud smack, turning her back on her oldest, dearest friend. "With or without you."