Tales of Elda’ri
Chapter One: The Shadow Melder
“Shadow Melders are easier to see in the fog,” Uncle Drakan’ay reminds them, for the second time since they left their home at Foxhole a short while ago. “Without the fog, we’d be fighting blind.”
That’s easy for him to say, Elda thinks. He’s the one with the living staff covered in bioluminescent Foxfire shrooms, which give off a green light bright enough to illuminate several paces in all directions. And her brother Arro’ay follows behind her, carrying a small flame in a lantern hanging on the end of his spear. Even with the fog, she is the only one of their trio who will be fighting blind if the Shadow Melders attack. Despite walking between the two Sylvan, Elda’ri still stumbles as she crosses the Fox Clan’s wheat fields with her brother and uncle.
Traveling across Sylva at night is like exploring a mossy cave, thanks to the cloud city Nebula, which floats above the Rainforest Sylvan Realm and blocks all light from the moon and stars. Elda squints up at the giant gray cloud, silently cursing the darkness while rain patters on her nose. She stumbles on after her uncle, her bo staff at the ready just in case.
“How much further to the Fringes, uncle?” Arro’ay asks in a soft voice that barely travels to Elda’s fox-ears.
When their uncle doesn’t answer Arro’s question, Elda pipes up. “We’ve been walking forever. Did we accidentally pass the Fringes already?”
“Patience, Pup,” Uncle Drake says. “The Fringes are well guarded, even in the wee hours of the morning. We couldn’t possibly miss it.”
Uncle Drake has called Elda’ri Pup for as long as she can remember. They are all members of the Fox Clan, but somehow, out of the many cousins and siblings she said goodbye to this morning, Elda is the only one Uncle Drake ever calls Pup. And maybe it’s an apt nickname. Her whole short life, Elda only left her Smallclan one other time, so she fits the visual of a young fox kit bravely venturing forth from her den for the first time. She’s glad to have her uncle guide the way to Foxden, but as she thinks back on all the goodbyes from this morning, tears prickle at her eyes. She wishes her parents could have come along, even though she knows that it would have been impossible. But now is not the time to dwell on long goodbyes.
Elda focuses instead on the journey ahead and the chances it will bring. She will finally meet members of the other Sylvan clans. Despite being human, the Clans of Sylva all have distinct animal features thanks to their magic and their Clan Animals. So Uncle Drake, Elda, and her brother Arro all have pointed fox-like ears, fiery-red hair braided down their backs, and sharp fox-canines. Elda hopes to meet a fellow Duellator of the Wolf Clan. She’d love to win a duel and prove once and for all that a fox’s craftiness in a fight matters more than strength.
Uncle Drake stops walking, and Elda comes to a sudden halt and shifts uncomfortably when she recognizes the Fringes. The mist ebbs and flows over the man-made clearing. Off in the distance, the first signs of the sun’s light bend over the horizon. The far-off thin line of blue, orange, and red light only reminds Elda that she cannot see a thing more than a few feet beyond the range of the viridian Foxfire. But dawn is upon them; they timed their departure perfectly. And the foggy morning will give them a distinct advantage over any Shadow Melders that lurk in the forest ahead.
Even with everything aligned to work in their favor, Elda can’t stop her insides from quivering. She looks about the Fringes, which at first sight appear to be a natural clearing dotted with knobby bark-like growths protruding from the moss. On closer inspection, anyone would notice that the bark barricades have been set up in a formation that completely encircles Foxhole and allows the Duellators to protect the Smallclan dwelling from any outsiders—Flitters and Melders alike. Uncle Drake just stopped beside one such barricade, and Elda finally notices the Sylvan Duellator kneeling behind the barricade, keeping watch.
“Any sightings tonight?” Uncle Drake asks.
“More than most, I’m afraid,” the Duellator—a distant cousin on Elda’s mother’s side—answers. “They seem to be gathering in a group at the forest’s edge just to the east of here. Would it be safer to head west before making your way south to Foxden?”
“The Root is closest to us here,” Uncle Drake replies. “Ready yourselves, Arro and Elda. We will make a dash for the safety of the Root soon.”
Arro kneels down near the bark barricade to adjust his pack. Elda kneels down beside her brother and tries to ignore her shaky knees. Now is the time to tap into the primal force of the rainforest and activate her elemental staff. Elda folds down into half-lotus position on the mossy ground and focuses on her breath. Beside her, she senses her brother doing the same.
After meditating upon her mossy pillow for a long still moment, the power of her Root Chakra begins to stir. She mentally catches hold of the energy and draws it up and out of herself by visualizing a lotus in bloom. Elda tugs on the flask hanging around her neck and pours a small amount of the precious water into the palm of her hand.
She inhales as the water seemingly grows in her hand and forms a giant globe of ebbing water. Then she exhales loudly as she waves her hand over the staff at her side; the water ripples over the wood and intermingles with the weapon. Her staff might not be alive like her uncle’s, but Elda knows how to wield the powerful water staff in combat. She knows it will protect her, should they come across a Shadow Melder.
She returns to her feet and watches Arro infuse his spear with the fire he keeps in his lantern—which he already moved to a hook on the back of his pack. Arro is one of the fortunate Duellators whose Smallclan could afford to trade for a glass lantern. Without the Terran glass from the Mountain People to the north, his fire would be snuffed out by the constant rains of their Rainforest Realm. Fire is not a common element of her people, and Arro knows how to use the element to his advantage. Elda knows she is safe beside him.
While Elda and her brother infused their weapons, their uncle also prepared himself for combat. He already bound his living staff to his back and brought out his round shield instead. Uncle Drake is a Cultivator, which means he can manipulate anything plant-based with his powers. The round shield can grow to be five times its current size if needed; it also provides light by way of the same bioluminescent Foxfire shrooms, which grow all along the inside of the shield.
With his Changeling magic, Drake can take on any of the characteristics of their Clan Animal. He now resembles a fox more than ever. Where he once only sported the subtle pointy canines of the Fox Clan, he now has a full mouth of pointy fox teeth. He has no need for a weapon, because those teeth, along with his newly grown fox claws, make naturally sharp weapons. His pointed ears now appear more foxlike than ever. Finally, his fox Companion Auma has returned to his side from wherever she tends to wander off to when he doesn’t need her. While small and seemingly useless in a fight, Auma can easily move into enemy range, where she is very meddlesome and distracting, and then easily slip out of danger due to her small size and craftiness.
But the hope is that there won’t be a fight. If everything goes according to plan, the three travelers will make it to the nearest Life Root before a Shadow Melder can reach them. For whatever reason, Shadow Melders tend to avoid the Roots of the Life Tree. Elda thinks it’s because the Life-force Leylines are sacred to her people, and their power turns away any who are not worthy of treading upon them. Other Sylvan speculate that the Life Roots are the only landforms which aren’t shrouded in shadows during the day, so the Shadow Melders feel exposed when they stand on them. Whatever the reason, when they reach the Life Root at the exact moment of sunrise, and the sun’s rays spread over the Realm, they will be safe.
“Arro, you will go first. Your sister will follow close behind, and I will bring up the rear.” Uncle Drake moves to take his position; his keen eyes and fox-ears search the area ahead, which measures several hundred spans to the rainforest, and a short distance beyond that to the sanctuary of the Life Root. “Don’t go too fast, Arro. We need to stay together. Run at your sister’s pace.”
Arro nods while Elda scoffs. “I’m just as fast as Arro,” she insists. “Watch me!” and she breaks out into a run before her brother and uncle are ready.
“El!” Arro calls, breaking the stillness of the early morning. He races to catch up to her, and Uncle Drake follows closely behind.
“Be safe on your journey!” the Duellator calls out as the travelers leave the safety of the bark barricades and disappear into the fog.
Running in the thick fog is like playing a chasing game while wearing a blindfold. Elda’s brother quickly pulls up alongside her, and she fights to move at her top speed despite the low visibility. “Now’s not the time for games. Get behind me, El!” Arro’s fire spear illuminates his pinched face.
Elda obliges as her legs falter briefly on a slippery patch of moss. She grips her staff even tighter and with a slow intake of breath, she strengthens her link to the water infused into the weapon.
Then suddenly, the trio plunges into the forest. Arro slows considerably as he is forced to weave in and out of the spindly vines and thick flat fronds of the walking palm trees. Elda glimpses a trail below her feet, but even with the constant ware from travelers to and from Foxden, the untamed plants of the forest constantly shroud the trail in new growth.
The worst part is the noise they make as they scramble through the underbrush. Any Melders close by have undoubtedly heard them already, but they are more than half way to the Root. Any Melders who come after them will also make quite a ruckus and alert them that they are not alone as they race to the Life Root. Elda squints through the thick fog that seems to billow off the lush vegetation. Even with Arro’s fire and Drake’s glowing shield, she can only see a few hand’s-breadths to either side of her, where the towering undergrowth mingles with the fog.
Over the tops of the kapok and palm trees Elda spots an immense shadow, which must be the silhouette of the Life Root. With renewed vigor, she presses onward, gaining confidence as the patterns of the narrow trail and slight incline become more and more familiar to her. That incline means the Root grows ever nearer. They are almost there!
In her eagerness to reach safety, she forgets to pay attention to the runner right in front of her. Her knee suddenly connects with the heel of Arro’s boot. They both stumble, and with the next step, Arro’s heel hits her shin, and she lets out a cry as the pain and the force of the sudden contact send her reeling into the shrubbery with the solid crack of breaking undergrowth. “Sap!” she curses as she skids to a painful stop in the darkness.
“El!” Arro calls. “You alright?”
“Just twiggy!” Elda calls back. She winces from the sharp pricks of the many thorns that tear at her arms and legs. The leaves in her eyes make it impossible to see a thing. She struggles to climb out of the bush with a cacophony of rustling leaves. “Ow! Stupid bush! Let me go!” She reaches up behind her and realizes her pack is caught in the shrubbery. “Perfect,” she mutters as she slides her arms free of the rucksack’s thick straps. She manages to crawl out of the bush while she drags her staff in the dirt and blackens her knuckles and knees with the rich soil. “My pack’s—stuck!” she says as she tries to pull it free, but without any luck.
“Stand back,” Uncle Drake says, and Elda stands up and gives him some room. Drake closes his eyes and reaches out to the bush with his free hand. Slowly, the branches start to shiver, though it’s not the wind that touches them. Then the leaves begin to recede, almost as if the bush is backing away from the trail. Drake takes a step to maintain contact with the bush as it continues to shrink away, and then Elda’s bag emerges from the undergrowth. She snatches it up and turns to continue after Arro, who quickly takes up the lead again.
“Come on, we’re almost there,” Arro says.
Elda takes a few more running bounds, and then she blinks as the sunlight shines through a gap in the canopy, pierces the fog, and shines into her left eye. “We made it!” she says with a laugh, her pace naturally slowing as the tension in her muscles melts away.
“Almost,” Arro interjects as he slows way down and climbs up a few step-like ridges in the path; swimming in the fog beyond that, Elda glimpses a towering hill of mossy bark that must be the Root. “Keep moving.”
Elda slows down even more to replace her pack on her back. First one arm, then switching hands on her staff, she slides the other arm through the thick straps of her rucksack. Behind her, Uncle Drake slows to a walk.
At that precise moment, something yanks Elda off her feet and wrenches her through the underbrush. In a moment of panic, Elda screams as a dark shape pulls her along the forest floor, dragging her through bushes and over rocks. She scrambles for a foot hold, without any luck. Finally, she attempts to swing at the Melder with her staff, but it’s all she can do to hold it in her grip as the underbrush threatens to pull it from her hands. Her pack pulls at her shoulders, and the forest floor jolts her whole body.
That’s when she realizes the Shadow Melder grabbed her pack, not her body, and she makes a split second decision.
Elda twists out of her pack, scrambles to catch her staff as it rolls out of her grasp. She bounds away from the dark flitting form in the fog. As she sprints for her life, she hopes that the Shadow Melder only wanted her bag, but she doesn’t wait around to find out.
She quickly slows to a clumsy lope through the thicket of vines and bushes while the plants slap her face. “Sapping weeds! I hate you!” she declares as she breaks through the solid mass of growth and finds herself back on the trail. But she’s completely turned herself around, and with the tall kapok trees and acai palms blocking her view, she stands still for far too long as she determines the direction of the sun and finally bolts south toward the Root.
That’s when she recognizes the terrified voices of her brother and uncle, who followed her into the foliage and are now behind her. “I’m back on the trail!” she shouts, her voice cracking. She turns back the way she just came, but she hesitates to re-enter the wall of hedges. Her brother’s shouts and uncle’s calls are too much for her, though, and she dives back in, her hand up to guard her eyes from the cuff of leaves and branches. “Here, follow my voice!” she calls out.
She breaks out of the bush and finds herself in an open area not unlike a clearing, though it’s still so densely overgrown with plant life that it would be a joke to call it a clearing. But finally, with the ability to move about more freely, she is able to jog in the direction of her brother’s voice.
Arro breaks out of a wall of green directly in front of her, and he sighs audibly when he sees his sister. “Saint Sylvana, you scared me to death,” he says.
“Don’t take the Saint’s name in vane over me,” Elda chides playfully. “I’m okay.”
“You lost your pack.” Arro grabs her shoulder and pulls her into a half hug as he turns and heads back to the path, toward the Life Root that looms over them, about twenty paces away.
“I think that’s all the Melder wanted,” Elda explains as she returns the hug. Arro’s arm is warm to the touch, making her shiver. She returns her brother’s embrace with her off-hand. “At least I still have my staff,” she says, waving the weapon in her other hand. The water infusion has all but dried up, and now she doesn’t have time to recharge it.
“Lucky you,” he says with a wry smile as he glances over at her. “You don’t have to carry any supplies to Foxden now.”
“I’ll take turns carrying—” Elda spots a blurred image just beyond her brother. She gasps as a jaguar prowls toward them. “—Shadow beast!” she manages to get out as she pulls her brother the other way, but it’s too late. The giant feline closes in on them before they take more than a few strides.
The Shadow Melder’s beastly companion growls at them, a low rumble that makes Elda back away. Arro pushes Elda behind him, drops his pack to the ground, and takes a fighting stance to block the feline’s path to his sister. But the Melder’s jaguar doesn’t hesitate when faced with a fighting Sylvan. Instead, it pounces, so quickly Arro only barely manages to swipe at it with his spear. Arro backs away, and Elda scrambles to give her brother more room to maneuver, as the jaguar pounces again.
Arro thwacks the feline over the head with a downward swing of his spear. But the jaguar reaches him with its powerful claws and thrashes his spear arm. Arro cries out in pain as his spear drops out of his grasp.
“Arro!” Elda calls.
The jaguar attacks the now-defenseless Sylvan; it closes its powerful jaws around his forearm and tears him to the ground. Arro punches the beast’s head, but it refuses to let him go.
Elda readies her staff and whacks the beast in the head. Unfazed, it drags Arro away through the underbrush. “Arro!” Elda cries out. She follows closely behind and unleashes a frenzy of attacks, but the beast seemingly ignores her as it continues to lug Arro deeper into the forest.
Finally, when it looks like the jaguar will disappear into the undergrowth with her brother, Elda does the only thing she can think of to save him. She jumps onto the feline’s back and proceeds to bash its head in with her bo staff in a very unconventional wide hold with both hands palm down. “Stop, stop, stop!” she yells with each attack, until her bo staff snaps. “Sap!” she swears as she tosses the bent staff aside and puts her hands on the feline’s jaws, intending the pry its mouth open.
But the moment she makes contact with the jaguar, it collapses on the ground in a heavy sleep. Elda jerks down after it and mashes her face into the black earth. “Ow,” she grunts.
Arro scrambles to his feet. They both look down at the jaguar sprawled on its belly purring like a kitten. “What did you do?” he asks. He grabs his bleeding arm with his good hand and kicks at the beast, which continues to snooze away.
“I don’t know,” Elda answers. “But let’s get out of here.”
The two turn and make a run for the Life Root, shouting the whole way, so that Uncle Drake will know where they are. They stop only briefly so Elda can gather up Arro’s spear and pack, and then they push onward through the foliage until they make it back to the path. In a short span of time, they both plant their feet firmly on the bark of the Life Root and begin the climb up the hill-like landform. After a few moments of climbing, Elda looks back down and spots their uncle hurrying to catch up to them. He reaches the Life Root without incident and scrambles up after them. “Thank the Saints you’re both alive. Are you two unhurt?” he calls once he is safely on the Life Root. Auma follows right behind him, her orange tail flicking in the bright morning sunlight.
“A Melder’s Beast mangled by arm, but Elda rescued me,” Arro says as he gives his younger sister a one-armed hug with his good arm. “She was brilliant.”
Elda’s cheeks burn. “I broke my staff and lost my bag, but other than a few scratches and scrapes, I’m unharmed.” She hugs Arro back, letting out a deep sigh. That whole encounter could have ended much worse. Now that it’s behind her, she can’t help but sag against her brother. The sun peeks over the horizon and the mist recedes back into the shadowy forest below them. Holy sap it’s good to still be alive, she thinks, and a toothy smile spreads over her face.