Crispus awoke, disappointed he drew breath another day in this wretched place. He knew his assignment was important, and he would never shirk his duty, but each night he went to sleep hoping the morning would not find him.
But he stood and once more splashed water on his pale skin, dragging his wet hands up into the spiky, auburn locks that stood out from his scalp before he studied his face in the mirror. His lids felt heavy over his large, almond-shaped eyes with their deep, emerald irises beneath long, full lashes. Crispus pinched the bridge that began the slope of his thin, aquiline nose, attempting to dismiss the headache trying desperately to set up residence behind it. His tongue darted out, licked his slightly pink, bow-shaped lips and Crispus realized his mouth was very dry. That would be due to the drink of the previous night’s indulgence. Sometimes the drink was the only thing that would summon sleep in this place. His long fingers rubbed his strong, yet delicate chin, testing it for stubble and found none as usual. That was fine; Crispus hated to shave. He prodded the dark circles under his eyes before he grabbed the priceless, fine-toothed comb with its detailed engravings and inlaid gems. Crispus recalled the King of Ashdale smiling with pride as he’d presented the kingdom’s top Vanguard with the bauble. Crispus couldn’t remember which assignment he’d completed to earn the gift. He dragged the comb through his wet hair, sweeping it back from his temples, past his large, pointed ears. Despite his efforts to tame them, the locks remained spiked and only slightly less unruly than before.
Ashdale, Crispus thought as he stepped back from the sink and looked down at his slender, muscular torso and its network of delicate scars earned through years of impeccable service to his king. He picked up the necklace Lady Melindra spelled to allow him to blend easier with the humans he was forced to live among since the attack of the Bloodshadows. Melindra was the most skilled caster in Ashdale, and even after all these years, the elfwitch’s enchantment remained as strong as ever. He slipped the cord over his head and let the acorn-shaped pendant rest against his skin. The tiny mystium charm was always warm, just like every perfect afternoon in the golden forest back home in Ashdale. Unlike this gods-forsaken world. Especially at this time of year. Crispus regarded the tiny window coated in frost, and he shook his head with remorse. He was assigned to this human village to protect the gate between the two lands and insure no further incursions from Torvack and his kin. The elf was aware of the enormous honor of this post, but it didn’t ease the longing for his homeland.
Crispus left the tiny bathroom, switching off the light as he entered the equally tiny bedroom. He’d almost gotten used to the human mattress with its metal springs, but it was no match for a soft patch of grass. There was no closet in the room and no space for anything as elaborate as a chest of drawers. A small steamer trunk sat at the foot of the twin bed, and from this Crispus removed a shirt made from coarse human materials, slipping it on. His skin had chafed horribly when he’d first started wearing the garments, but it grew steadily accustomed to the sensation. The few clothes he owned were well worn now, and he pulled a pair of faded blue jeans from the trunk, easing into them. He’d kept a fine robe of dreamsilk for a while to wear around the apartment, but it only served to make the human clothes seem more uncomfortable by comparison. The robe remained folded at the very bottom of the trunk beneath his human clothes, untouched for the better part of a decade.
The solitary elf sat on the edge of his bed, pulled on socks and shoes before he picked up the parchment envelope with the broken wax seal of King Ashgren. He read the looping, fancy script written by the king’s own hand. Crispus remembered un-teaching himself Elven and the elaborate way in which elves are accustomed to writing so that his penmanship could pass for human. He’d never been able to break himself completely of the extra loop or flourish from time to time. Crispus Birchmount. He traced his name written by the king at the top of the sheaf, followed by the king’s orders, a new assignment.
The king wanted him to protect the nephew of a revered elfwen, a friend of the elves. Crispus knew this elfwen, a powerful witch who had assisted his people during the Battle of Raven Night. Althena Darius was one of the only humans allowed to hold lands in Ashdale and while Crispus was honored that Lady Althena had requested him specifically, he was also disheartened because this meant he would have to venture outside. Into the bitter, December cold. Crispus rarely left his apartment over the winter months unless there was some problem with the gate, and for the last several years there’d been none. He looked at the shard of crystal which rested on his tiny nightstand between his lamp and the book he’d been reading: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Crispus didn’t care much for human society in general, but he loved science fiction. The crystal wasn’t glowing, indicating that the gate was undisturbed. The elf sighed once more and stood.
He reached under the bed and retrieved a plain but polished nightwood case. Crispus slid back a hidden panel, dipped his pinky in and the lid of the case unlatched. The elf lifted the lid to reveal the weapons of his station: a supple, beautifully carved bow of white soulwood and a pair of deadly, sharp dragontooth knives on delicate silverine chains. Crispus’s fingers hovered over the bow, barely touching the almost luminescent soulwood that responded with a faint hum. The elf smiled. Soulwood was extremely rare even in the elven lands, and it possessed a consciousness that bonded with its bearer, making a weapon made from it an extension of the warrior in a way no other weapon could be. Unfortunately she was much too large and difficult to conceal for this particular assignment.
Crispus, instead, picked up one of the dragontooth daggers, removing it from its sheath, which had to be made from tanned, cured, and hardened dragonhide—anything else would be sliced to ribbons by the blade within. The elf held the black blade before him as he inspected the surface. As it caught the light, numerous colors appeared in the dark blade which was long and curved with one finely serrated edge. The dagger had no hilt but tapered into a handle that ended in a small ring where the chain was attached. The handle was wrapped in leather made from dragon’s tongue, its rough texture offering a perfect grip. Crispus returned the blade to its sheath before strapping it to his forearm with the tip pointing toward his elbow. The tiny chain trailing from the dagger disappeared into a small, metal canister, which not only held an implausible length of the chain but also a spring that allowed the chain to be reeled in with a flick of the wrist. He strapped the canister to his upper arm before he repeated the ritual with the other dagger. The Twin Teeth were the most difficult of the elven weapons to master. One mistake and the wielder could lose a limb to the blades. Crispus was the only warrior to master the weapon in seven generations. Properly equipped, the elf closed the case and slid it back beneath his bed, then stood, grabbed the Gate Crystal, and strode from the room.
The third room in Crispus’s apartment served as sitting room, dining room, and kitchen. The elf’s stomach growled, and he reached into the small cupboard and retrieved a pack of toaster pastries. Everything in the cupboard as well as the small refrigerator contained an inordinately high amount of sugar, another aspect of humanity that Crispus adopted. He didn’t spare time to actually toast the sweet squares in light of his pressing assignment. He tore open the silver envelope and gobbled the contents quickly. He then retrieved his coat from the hook by the door. It was a large, scratchy woolen garment that he’d purchased from a store that specialized in selling human warrior castoffs. The coat was extremely warm against the winter wind, and that was good enough for Crispus. The elf wrapped a scarf around his neck and pulled a knit hat onto his head, the last as much to hide his pointed ears as to keep warm. He glanced about one last time and headed for the temple of commerce the humans referred to as The Mall.