“Where are we?” Asterlas asked. He had pulled the van over to the side of the dusty road.
Tadriel turned the map she held around, peered at it a moment and then turned it again. The map was a typical gas station production — a tiny pamphlet until it unfolded to almost cover the windshield of their VW van. Several additions and annotations had been made on it in pen. Some were place names, written in glyphs and runes that no human had ever used. Others were diagrams and arrows. There were also several question marks, odd looking with the other symbols.
“I’m not sure,” Tadriel said. Holding the map in one hand she reached up with the other and scratched her pointed ear. “You know, the gas station attendant looked at me pretty hard when I bought the map.”
“I think he saw my ears.”
“Frazen! Sorry. So, even that little spell doesn’t work anymore?”
She shrugged, studying the map again.
“Well,” Asterlas said, “I guess it doesn’t matter. Hopefully we’re done with humans.”
“They were done with our kind long ago,” Tadriel said absently, still looking at the map.
“That was probably for the best; humans and elves don’t mix well.”
“Once we did.”
“So the legends say,” Asterlas said.
“It’s history, Aster. Not all the legends are exaggerated.”
“Sure, sure. Anyway, Tad my darling… we’ve been going in circles for the past hour.”
“Yeah, I know. This human map is hard to read, okay? What I wouldn’t give for a seeing map.”
“For all the good it would do us. Anyway, we’ve already given all we have,” Asterlas said, smiling. “We have nothing left.”
“Except the van,” Tadriel said, returning the smile.
“Except the van,” he agreed. “And enough food for another day. At most.”
They both glanced into the back of the van a moment. Their eyes met but neither said anything. They turned back to stare ahead.
Tad sighed and lowered the map. She peered out the passenger side window at the barren landscape.
“We’re somewhere in Utah,” she said.
“You don’t say?” he asked sarcastically. Then he added, “Don’t you mean Prizenfrist?”
“It hasn’t been called that in a looooong time. And it was just the island called that, not this whole area.”
She looked at him. He shrugged.
Turning, she looked out the window again. Her eyes followed the contours of rock rising in all directions. Heat shimmered in the air above their dusty surfaces. “And it looked very different then.”
“Yeah, we’d be swimming right about now,” Aster said.
“We’d be at the bottom of a sea right now.”
“And, thus, swimming. Am I right?”
She shook her head but laughed a little in spite of herself. “Sure, you’re right.”
“Exactly.” He rubbed his hands together and looked through the part of the windshield that wasn’t covered in map. “Now, let’s try a different approach.”
“Which is?” Tadriel asked, lowering the map to see what he was looking at.
It was one simple word but a chill ran up Tad’s spine. “I can’t,” she said.
“You don’t know that. It’s not all gone yet.”
“It might as well be.” Tad sighed and turned to look out the window once more. “Remember, the ear glamour?”
Asterlas smiled at her. “We’re going to get home. Do you hear me?” She made no move to turn toward him, gave no sign that she had heard him at all. “Hey, do you hear me? We can do it together.”
“We have to.”
She didn’t say anything but chanced a look over her left shoulder, toward the rear of the van. A large sigh escaped her lips.
“Together,” he said again. “One last time, to get us home. To get us all home.” He paused and looked out the window again. “Look out there,” he said, pushing the map down from the windshield; sunlight filled the cab. She followed his gaze. “What do you see?”
“Endless miles of towering rock.”
“Which all look exactly the same?”
“So,” Aster said, “what chance do we have? Even with the map we’re only guessing, based on landmarks that we know.” He pointed at some of the strange writing on the map. “And we’ve run out of those. It’s here, somewhere nearby, but we’re lost without seeking it.”
“It won’t work,” she said, shaking her head, her eyes bared shut.
“Come on,” he said, his voice soft, “we have to try.”
“It’s going to hurt. It might kill us.”
He shrugged. “Being stuck here… perhaps it’ll just happen a little sooner. Come on, time is running out, the sooner we start the better. And, besides, if magic still exists anywhere it’ll be here.”
“I don’t know…”
“Look, this is where it entered the world first, and spread to the entire globe.”
“And,” she added, “it’s receded, like a withdrawing wave.” She paused. They had come from the other side of the globe, travelling for the past two years, trying to find a place where the magic still flowed. Each time it had receded farther they had picked up again, following the trickle of energy. A light bulb went on in her head. “To this point! It’s leaking back, through the portal.”
He nodded. “Back to Relmhizen.”
“So, we seek the flow, we follow it,” Tad said, more to herself than to Aster. “Just like we’ve been doing.”
“Right to the portal,” Aster said, smiling wide. “See, I knew you’d get on board.”
Her own smile turned upside down. “It won’t be easy. This will be more delicate, more precise than ever before.” She thumped her knee with a balled fist. “Erir!”
“Language,” Aster said, casting his eyes toward the back for a moment.
“It’s just,” she started and then stopped, shaking her head. “It used to be so easy, even a year ago. Dip into the magic, tell it what you wanted. And that was it, it worked.” She inhaled sharply and let it out again. “Now,” she shook her head, “it’s like you’re fighting it. It’s like trying to scoop water out of a nearly dry puddle; you can’t get your hand down enough to get the water.”
“We have to try.”
“We’ve got nothing to lose,” Aster said.
Tadriel shook her head again and looked into the rear area. “Wrong, we’ve got everything to lose.”
Asterlas said nothing, just reached out his hand and squeezed her upper arm. She turned to him and returned the smile she saw there.
It took them half an hour to find the flow, ebbing as it was. Tad, seeking, had finally felt it, small but constant. She followed it with her mind and Aster drove the van where she directed. Twice they had to let it go to drive around large buttes. But Tad was able to home in on it again. Now it was stronger, though still very weak.
“We don’t have much time,” Tad said as they came to a stop at the base of a butte. “It’s ebbing so much.”
“Where to now?” Aster asked.
He had his left hand on the wheel. His right was grasping Tad’s left hand. He was sharing the load, giving her his strength to make the magic work. But, looking at her, he had a feeling she hadn’t taken much from him. She looked worn out while he still felt okay.
She shook her head. “This is it.”
“We’re there?” Aster asked, excitement in his voice.
“Not yet,” Tad said, her exhaustion showing. Her eyes drooped and closed before she opened them again. She slowly raised her hand and pointed upward.
“Right, right, we’ve gotta get up there. But still… progress!”
Tad closed her eyes and rested her head against the seat. She produced a weak smile. “You’re way too optimistic sometimes.”
“That’s why you love me,” Aster said, opening the door.
“Yeah, whatever you say…,” Tad mumbled, trailing off.
“Hey, you okay?” he asked as he got out.
“Hmmm? Yeah, fine. Just need to rest.”
“For a minute. I’ll check on the cargo.” He moved around the front of the van.
“Stop calling her that.”
“A joke! It’s the other reason you love me.” Aster passed the passenger side door as he spoke.
Tad said nothing. Aster stopped and looked through the window. He watched her chest rise and fall. She was asleep. Studying her face he found himself smiling. She was still as beautiful as ever, though they had both aged tremendously since starting their nomadic life. Though that was the kind of ageing you couldn’t see on the outside. Every month they had found fewer elves. Most had died when the magic left; they had given up. Others, like themselves, were migrating here. Looking for the portal. The gateway to a home they had never seen. They had no idea what awaited them on the other side. Whatever it was had to be better.
He let Tad rest and moved to the back door.
Being careful to be quiet he pulled on the handle and opened it, slowly. Aster stepped up, into the small space. His short stature, like that of all of his people, meant he didn’t even have to duck. He moved to the seat they had added to the van a year ago. Secured with the seatbelt was an infant’s car seat. The occupant, like her mother, was sound asleep. She was wrapped in a blanket with only her head poking out. Aster stroked one pointed little ear. She had her mother’s nose. And his eyes, though he hadn’t seen those in a while.
She wasn’t asleep, Aster knew, not really. It was a coma, of a sort. The elf physician they had sought out in California had explained the malady to them. And the only solution. The doctor had, himself, set out that very day. They had followed not long after.
Clarezen had been stricken for a month now. As the magic ebbed so did her life force. The receding magic affected all elves but children most of all. The younger they were the more affected they were.
All the elvish tribes had separated millennia before. And, in the last few centuries, even the remaining small groups had split up, trying to make their way in a changing world. The humans had spread everywhere and the magic had started to weaken. Now it was disappearing altogether. Clarezen was weakening with every passing day. They knew what would happen if they did nothing.
So, here they were, looking for Prizenfrist, the first place.
“Come on little one, it’s time for an adventure,” Aster said. He unbuckled and lifted Clarezen from the seat. Using a cloth sling laid nearby he wrapped her up and secured her on his chest. He would be able to use his hands but still keep her safe during the climb.
Outside he returned to the passenger door and looked at his wife. He didn’t want to wake her, wanted to let her sleep, regain her strength. But even he, not as sensitive to the magic as Tad was, could tell it was departing. It was seeping away, like air leaking from a balloon.
“Tad, we need to go,” he said gently, squeezing her shoulder lightly through the open window.
“Hmmmm? In a minute.”
“No, we have to go now,” he said, a little louder.
“What?” Tad asked, her eyes opening, looking around. “Oh, I dozed off. Sorry.”
“You needed to rest.”
Tad saw the infant strapped to Aster’s chest.
“How is she?”
“The same,” he said.
Tad got out of the van and stretched. Then she stroked the little girl’s ear, as Aster had done. “Oh, little Clare, you will be safe, I promise you.”
“As we both promise.”
Tad smiled at him. She got out and filled a bag with items from the rear of the van. There were snacks and water, of course, but also the few heirlooms they still had. There was Asterlas’ father’s dagger, passed down through millennia. And she had her family’s copy of the legends — a small amulet that one accessed with magic. It would be useless soon. At least on earth.
When Tad had collected everything she turned and walked toward the base of the butte. “Come on,” she said.
They both looked up, taking in the butte’s height and majesty.
“Prizenfrist!” Aster exclaimed.
“Now you can call it that,” Tad said. “Doesn’t look much like in the legends, does it?”
“Well, it’s still an island… of a sort. To think, our ancestors arrived here. Do you think we’re the last elves on earth?”
Tad shrugged. “Who knows. We might still be if we’re not quick. Come on, the day is not getting any longer.”
Aster tipped his head down and whispered to the unhearing child on his chest. “Your mother is way too serious sometimes.” But his words hid the fear he felt for his daughter. He would do whatever it took to keep her safe, to see her through the portal. And to protect her once they arrived on the other side.
Tad, her eyes closed, held out a hand, as if reaching for something. She walked ahead. Aster said nothing, only followed along. He knew she was seeking the flow again. It was better not to interrupt. They walked a little way around the base of the butte and then stopped.
“Here. This is where we go up,” Tad said.
And Aster could see that, yes, it was. Looking up the sheer rock face he saw several switchbacks, almost like flights of stairs. Actually, in some places, he swore he could see stairs, carved into the beige stone. And, though he couldn’t be sure, there looked to be flat places they could rest, little ledges.
“We’re not the first ones to do this,” Aster said.
“And those that came before have made a trail for us, left signs. Though they’re fading now.”
“You obviously can see them,” she said. “The stairs and ledges? There’s magic, marking the safe trail.”
“Oh, I just thought it was natural.”
“No, other elves have used magic to make the path.”
“Lucky for us then.”
Aster started for the rough path. Tad followed behind. There was no reason to seek now; there was only one way to go. Up.
They stopped after a couple of hours, about halfway up the rock face. Aster leaned back against the stone, catching his breath. Tad took some water from her bag and trickled it across her daughter’s lips and pushed it into her mouth.
“How’s she doing?” Aster asked, his eyes closed.
“Good. I guess. I think she’s doing better actually.”
“We’re going to the magic; it’s stronger here.”
She nodded. “I can feel it too. And she does, I suppose. Even if she doesn’t know it.”
“Well then, let’s keep going. Maybe she’ll even wake up.”
“She might…,” Tad trailed off, unable to finish the sentence. “You know that, right?”
He looked down at the child strapped to his chest. “No, I don’t know. I’m not going to know, not as long as there’s a chance.” He turned and started up the path again. “Besides, there’s still blood magic.”
“No!” Tadriel cried at his back. “No! There will be no blood magic!”
He stopped but didn’t turn around.
“Let’s not have this conversation now. We’ll have it if it’s necessary.”
“No, we’re having it now!”
“Why? We’re running out of time.”
“There are certain lines we shouldn’t cross,” she said.
He turned and looked her in the eyes.
“Not even for her?” he asked.
Tad said nothing but looked at Clare, seemingly peaceful in her little sling. What could she say?
“Come on,” Asterlas said. “I can feel the magic ebbing. We’re running out of time.”
They continued in silence.
As the minutes and hours passed their exhaustion grew. They stopped from time to time to rest and snack but the afternoon heat sapped what little strength they gained. But they were almost there; a little higher and they’d be at the top.
Aster looked out and down. Their van — their home for the past two years — was like an ant, so very far away. The sheer scale of the distances starting playing with his mind. He looked away before disorientation took hold.
“We’re almost there,” Tad said from ahead of him. She had taken the lead once more. “The magic is stronger here, though its weakening. It’s good we came when we did. I don’t think the door will be open this time tomorrow.”
“Let’s go then,” Aster said.
Tad walked up a rise and then stopped.
“Oh, no,” she said, nearly whispering.
“What is it?” Aster couldn’t see from where he stood.
“There’s a gap.”
“A gap? How far is the drop?”
Tad said nothing.
“All the way. Right to the bottom.”
He put his hands over Clare’s ears. “Frazen! How wide?”
“Doable. Maybe.” She paused. “It looks like the rock shelf, the trail, gave way there. The magic, as it goes so does the spell that made this trail. Our time is nearly up. Hopefully the ledge is still secure on the other side. There’s a wider space there, it looks pretty solid.”
“Come back,” Aster said, “we’ll swap. You take Clare and I’ll go first. If I fall, well… At least you can go back, or find another way.”
“No. There’s no time. And there’s no going back.”
“What do you mean ‘no’?” he asked.
“Get her to the portal. I love you both!” Then she was gone.
“Tad!” Aster cried as he raced ahead, carefully but as quick as he could manage. Tad had jumped. Why had she done that? Of course, he had been going to do that but he wasn’t prepared for her to die.
At the rise where she had disappeared he peered over, afraid of what he would see. There was the gap, as she had described, and the ledge beyond. But where…
There, at the far end of the ledge, hanging part way over it, her head and shoulders in the empty air, was Tad.
“Tad! Tad!? Are you okay?”
She didn’t answer, appeared to be struggling to get her arms back, to shimmy back onto the ledge. Was she slipping?
Aster didn’t hesitate. He backed up and took a flying leap off the edge, sailing through the air. With his arms wrapped protectively around Clare he landed with bent knees. He rolled before coming to a stop. But he was okay. He removed his arms. Clare was okay. He blew out the breath he had been holding. Then, not thinking, acting on instinct, he moved to his wife. Aster grabbed her ankles and pulled her back onto the ledge.
Now able to get purchase once more she pushed up onto her hands and knees. Finally, having caught her breath, she sat up and leaned against the rock face.
“Frazen indeed!” she said, panting.
“Language,” Aster said, smiling.
He threw his arms around her, pulling her to him. She nestled against him, feeling his warmth and the drumbeat of his hearts. Her chin rested on Clare’s head. She moved, kissing the light hair there.
“That was too close,” Aster said.
“Way too close,” Tad agreed.
They sat there, panting and clutching each other for a minute before agreeing, without words, that it was time to move on again. The magic was gone from this place. They had to continue; the spell that held the trail in place could vanish at any moment.
Up one more rise and back, along a switchback, and they could see the top of the butte. It was a wide plateau, perhaps a hundred yards across, with a small tower of stone near the middle.
They stumbled to the plateau and, though feeling triumphant, pushed on, across the flat space toward the tower. The magic was still here but ebbing. And the small tower of stone was their destination.
The portal. Prizenfrist. The point where elves had come to earth from their own domain, Relmhizen. It was so long ago that even the elves themselves didn’t know anything about their original home. But the portal was still here. For now. Like a beacon it cried out to Tadriel and Asterlas. Humans wouldn’t have seen it but, to them, it was a bright light, shining, glowing, pulsating like a lighthouse. But dimming with each passing minute.
“Come on!” Aster cried to Tad but he didn’t have to. She was next to him, running for it too.
As they approached, when the pulse brightened momentarily, they had to shield their eyes, it was so intense. The whole tower was the portal. They stopped next to it, hesitant, unsure how to proceed.
“What do we do? Just go through it?” Aster asked.
Tad eyed the portal and then closed her eyes.
“Well?” Aster asked.
“We have to time it right. We enter when the pulse rises. That’s when the magic is strongest. Though it’s very weak.” She turned to look at him. “I don’t know if we’ll make it. We have to go one at a time.”
“We’ll make it,” he said, removing the sling and little Clare from his chest. “Here, take her. Then go, as soon as you can.” He saw that she was about to protest. “No, this is better. You’re smaller than me, so two of you together are better. And as the magic ebbs our chances are dropping. Don’t argue. Go!”
She took Clare and kissed Aster.
“Can you feel the pulses?” she asked.
He nodded. He could.
“Come, right after us.”
“You know I will. But…”
“No! No buts, no excuses. You will make it!”
He nodded again. “Go!”
Turning from him, her eyes tearing away only when they had no choice, she faced the portal and focused. Her eyes were closed. She reached out to feel the pulses of light, the rise and fall of magical energy as it swirled around the beacon. It was falling, draining, seeping back to Relmhizen. They would all join it there.
Aster watched as Tad leapt. She had her arms wrapped around Clare, as he had done. Then she was gone. And he was alone with the weakening pulse of the portal.
As Tad had done he positioned himself in front of the glowing rock face. He closed his eyes; he felt the rise and fall. It was much weaker now. Had Tad and Clare’s voyage through it used what little magic was left?
He couldn’t think such thoughts. He would make it. Aster felt for the pulses, waited, waited. Now! He raced ahead, jumping at the precise moment his feelings told him was correct.
He collided with solid rock. Well, not solid, no, but though there was a little give it wouldn’t let him through.
It was too weak. He was too late. Aster was trapped. The magic was gone.
His legs gave way beneath him and he sank to the ground, cradling his head in his hands. He was alone, would never see them again. But they were safe, that was what mattered. He would die here when the magic left completely. Slowly and painfully. But they were safe. There was nothing he could do about his own predicament now.
Or was there?
He waited a moment, for the pulse, and then reached out with his hand and pushed against the stone. Yes, there was some give. He needed a way to push through, to open it slightly. Enough for him to slip through.
Tadriel had told him no. But she had also told him no excuses. And she wasn’t here. Besides, he was out of options.
The legends told of the old magic, the magic before. It was only ever called old magic in the legends but elves called it blood magic. For that was what it exacted: flesh and blood.
The magic that was ebbing now, the magic he and Tad had always known, took energy, yes, but nothing that couldn’t be replenished. It was helpful and pure.
Blood magic was more ancient; it was demanding, tarnished. But it worked. Aster had heard stories, some of them from his own lifetime. They were tales of horror.
But what wouldn’t he give to see his wife again? His little girl? He would give his soul, everything, to see them for one more second.
Again he pushed his hand against the stone. It gave less this time; he had wasted too much time thinking, deciding. That time was past. He pushed, willing the magic, reaching into a part of himself that he never had before. Past the point of resistance, past the point of pain.
Then he felt the portal give. A little.
Asterlas reached deeper, hurting, tearing through his own flesh with his thoughts. He willed the portal to take whatever it needed to let him through.
With his eyes shut he didn’t see the fingers of his hand crack open, blood running down them. Yet, he did feel it. Then the fingers, damaged as they were, slipped through the portal. He felt that too. Aster pushed more and his screams joined the weakening pulse of the portal. Though he felt the pain, with his eyes still closed, he didn’t see his fingers evaporate. One by one. It was more agony than he had ever experienced.
The fingers disappeared, then his palm after them. But the portal opened, wider and wider still. Finally, with only a smoking wrist where his left hand had been, Aster fell through the now open portal.
He vanished, leaving the earth behind.
He was alive. And he was on his way home. They were waiting for him.
Moments later the pulsing of the portal stopped, leaving only cold, dead rock.