The letter on my table is damp with tears, smearing the sky-blue ink and the elegant hand of my Nuian friend Kalya. It was she who taught me to read and write, she who made it possible for me to be sitting here in Golden Fable Harbor now. I last saw her the day I left Windshade, five years ago.
"My Darling Frax," she had written, "I am afraid I have terrible news to share. I wish I had been able to tell you sooner, but I only just learned of it myself. Several weeks ago, a group of Elf children and their guardians traveled to Lilyut Hills so that the little ones could see a glimpse of the Nuian lands. It seems that one of them fell into a waterfall on the Lilyut River and your mother bravely dived after her, trying to save her, but they were both swept away in the swift current. I'm so sorry, Frax."
Of course my own people would not have informed of my mother's passing; I was far away, and their opinion of me was low. How typical it was for her to plunge fearlessly into a raging river without thought of the consequences. Once, she had been a formidable warrior. The scars lacing her face and arms bore witness to that. When I was still very small, she and my father had gone together to Auroria to fight on the frontier; she returned alone, disfigured and disabled.
All I had of my father was a wisp of memory, the scent of wood smoke and summer rain, the flash of a smile, and dark hair like mine, unusual in an Elf. As for my mother, the hand she could no longer use meant her life as a soldier was over. She had turned instead to caring for the orphans whose parents never made it home from the battlefield.
I began my combat training with the other children, starting with edged weapons. But I proved to be so clumsy that I was a menace to life and limb. They would not even allow me to pick up a bow, though on more than one occasion, I overheard the others saying they should take me to archery practice — to use as a target. Since I was clearly incapable of melee combat, they tried to train me as a mage, but once again I was utterly inept. After I accidentally set a few things on fire and froze a cat nearly to death, that training was also stopped.
My older sister was everything I was not. She had a natural gift for swordsmanship and an uncanny accuracy with bow and arrow. She first went into battle when she was more child than woman. For a long time she seemed invincible — until the day they brought her home from White Arden, where she'd gone to assist against the Crimson Army. Whatever terrible fate she had met, she'd fought it until she could fight no more.
My mother was devastated; my sister, her greatest joy, lay dead. And I, her most bitter disappointment, stood at her side. That day, I realized that the clumsiness I'd carried as a curse was also a blessing, for it meant I would never come home like my sister, blood-drenched, broken and battered almost beyond recognition. And although I didn't understand until much later, that day my mind was made up: I would never come home at all.
I was already accustomed to spending most of my time alone, but after my sister's death, I began to wander farther afield, disappearing for days at a time. I've never been sure whether anyone noticed. I explored the Greenwoods; then the Chimeran Marsh and Thorntimbre Woods, where I learned that people did far more horrible things than I'd previously known.
My life changed when I crossed the border into Nuian lands, to Windshade. There I met a few other Elves who didn't fit into the warrior mold. And I met a group of Nuian children who invited me to play games with them. They didn't scorn me when I tripped over my own feet and fell in the dirt. Instead, they laughed companionably and helped me up. Kalya became my teacher and protector. Charming, clever, and kind, she was a wonderful friend.
A new world opened when she taught me reading and writing. Suddenly, there was something I was actually good at. But in a society with little use for written records, such skills were worthless, just like me. I returned home more and more rarely, spending my time at Windshade instead. Within a year, I'd been hired as a recordkeeper and errand boy by a local merchant, and earned enough to rent a tiny, dilapidated cottage.
My Nuian companions matured much more quickly than I did, but I was determined to keep up, and imitated their ways as best I could. People joked that I was the oldest little boy they'd ever met. In time, it became evident that Kalya desired more than friendship from me. I never had the heart to tell her I fancied her brother instead.
When I was offered a job as a clerk for an overseas trading company based in Golden Fable Harbor, I took it. And so I came to be here today, reading the news of my mother's death. Now, the last tendril that bound me to my homeland is severed. And it hurts, more than I ever imagined it would.
Far off, the sun crept over the horizon, first rays illuminating the waves as they died against the seawall, lighting the side of the Golden Fable Harbor airship tower, and finally a lone figure sitting on the highest platform, looking out at the vastness of the sea as he had done on so many other mornings.
But this morning was different. Frax was afraid, cold to the bone with fear. The quiet, safe, excruciatingly dull life he'd accepted here had been sundered. Often he had sat on the tower at daybreak, dreaming about embarking on a grand adventure; then, at full light, gone back down to work in the port, resigned to the impossibility of that. But this morning, possibility had become as immediate and inexorable as the rising sun, made manifest by an improbable avatar of reversal: an Elf named Alexander.
Frax could count on one hand the number of adults who had ever expressed an interest in listening to him. And have fingers left over, he thought.
Not only had Alexander sought him out to ask questions, he had attended with remarkable forbearance to a narrative far longer and more intense than politeness allowed. Even more extraordinarily, this pitiful tale seemed to resonate with something in Alex. And, in typical fashion, Frax had forgotten to express any appreciation for all of that before they parted, his companion to fulfill his duty to ward off the legions of Kyrios, and he himself to go nowhere in particular.
When next they met, he had vacillated for a long while before finding the courage to approach and ask for a few minutes of Alexander's time. They'd walked away from the tavern to the upper levels of Ezna, where Frax had belatedly thanked him for his patience, and asked if, perhaps, there was any known remedy for his ineptitude, so that he might have a chance to help defend their world too.
That was when the foundations of his life were ripped apart. Alexander challenged him to a duel. He knew, having read it in a book once, that meant he was supposed to try to damage his opponent, and to prevent them from harming him. Having no idea what else to do, he accepted, and the ground dropped out from beneath his feet. He floated above that abyss, frozen, for an impossibly long moment, unable to think of anything within his paltry arsenal that would accomplish either objective, finally opting to do something, however futile.
Before he could grasp what was happening, he found himself taken into a guild, with people wanting to teach him to support them in battle against pestilential entities. He sensed that they would never hear of it, should he tell them he had proven completely incapable of any such thing.
The sea turned wild, bitter grey, storm clouds condensing on the skyline. He could escape all this; just plunge from the tower into the murky water so far below, sink out of sight, and no one would ever be the wiser. He remembered, abruptly, how absurd that was, and laughed.
"You're an idiot." he said to himself. "The real waters of Sanddeep are as clear as the sunlight." Long ago, when he was very young, he had discovered the unwisdom of mentioning this phenomenon to anyone. Nearly all Elves occasionally saw the world through another's recollections, but Frax had apparently inherited a bit extra. At times, strong feelings altered his perception of his surroundings to match.
The real waters of Sanddeep were as clear as sunlight, and they would find him very shortly if he jumped in. And then, they would regard his crumpled body with the same profound horror as he had regarded his sister in death. Not because they cared for him, particularly -- he hadn't cared for his sister, yet the image of her mangled corpse was as vivid today as on the day she died. He would not willingly inflict that on anyone.
He would not escape from his fright; he would meet it with clear eyes, abide with it, and love it. For a thing that is never loved is bound to remain, forever seeking.
He understood this in retrospect: Just as his pathetic incompetence had protected him from being sent into battle and killed; fear of other people had, when he was not yet grown, kept him from any number of situations where his naivete would have proven fatal. And for that, he was grateful to his old friend.
He stood up.
"Walk with me a while longer." Frax spoke out loud, as though a real entity stood with him.
"One day, my friend, we part ways. But not today." Today, just thinking about combat training would have him fighting tears of shame instead of enemies. Today, he would still flinch if someone spoke to him unexpectedly, and he would stumble over his words in attempting to reply.
And today, he would descend the stairs -- very carefully, lest he trip -- but he would not turn toward the town. He would walk out into the sunrise, into an unknown world. He looked again at the horizon, and far in the distance, a small flash of light sparkled for a moment, a half-formed thought at the edge of his consciousness. Maybe, just maybe, Alexander was not the only avatar of reversal.