Before time began, before the fabled realm known as Faerie began its descent toward twilight, there was Olympus.
Home of the gods, Olympus was a vast and wondrous place. Here were limpid seas from whose depths sprang new life-beings who would in time find homes upon the infant worlds awakening beneath a thousand suns. Here lay verdant meadows as whimsically fertile as the minds of the gods who walked upon them, and gardens like vast and glorious sunsets. Here was Arvandor, the forest home of the elven gods.
It was to Arvandor that he fled now, wounded and heartsick, and as near to death as ever an elven god had come.
He was Corellon Larethian, the leader of the elven pantheon. Lithe and golden was he, and beautiful despite the ravages of battle. Though gravely wounded, he ran with a grace and speed that a mountain cat might envy. But the elf lord's face was taut with frustration, and one hand was clenched around the empty scabbard on his hip.
Corellon was a warrior-the father of all elven warriors-and he wanted nothing more than to stand and see the battle through to its conclusion. But his weapon was shattered, and he was bound by honor not to use his godly magic against his foe. There was no choice but retreat, for if Corellon fell-Corellon, the essence of elven strength and magic and beauty-then the destruction of the elven People seemed assured.
He took some comfort from the knowledge that for each drop of blood he spilled an elven child would be born. Thus had it been many times before: This was not his first battle with Gruumsh. He suspected that it would not be his last.
Since dawn had the battle raged, and now dusk was drawing near. All but deafened by the pounding of his own heart, the elf lord faltered to a stop and looked about for a place where he might take a moment's rest and shelter. Such places were scarce on the Moor, a place of endlessly rolling hills, shallow seas of peat, and a few stubborn trees. One tree huddled nearby-a low, gnarled cypress whose twisted and thinly leaved branches swept down to touch the ground.
Corellon ducked into the meager shade and sank down to rest. Even as he did so, his eyes swept the hills and he mapped out plans for a battle that might yet overtake him. He acknowledged that the Moor was not without a certain austere beauty; even so, it was hardly the place for an elven god. Corellon was outside his element, and well he knew it.
Olympus knew no finite boundaries, and within it were lands that defined paradise for many, many peoples. This place had been chosen as a courtesy to another god, one with whom Corellon had sought parlay: Gruumsh, the First Power of the orcish gods.
Gruumsh was at home in the wild moors, hills, and mountains of a hundred worlds. Although the orc lord could never have defeated his elven counterpart amid the trees of Arvandor, here the advantage was his. The familiar setting had apparently emboldened him. From his first strike, Gruumsh had seemed more confident, more grimly determined, than ever before. He came on still in swift and dogged pursuit of the elven god.
Corellon's sharp eyes caught a glimpse of his foe cresting a distant hill. Taller by half than any of the Moor's gnarled trees, Gruumsh was corded with muscle and armored with a gray hide nearly as tough as elven mail. His bearlike snout twitched as he scented the air for the passing of the elf lord, and his iron spear bounced on his shoulder as he strode along. The bestial god bled nearly as profusely as did Corellon, for the battle between them had been long and fierce. The difference between them was that the orc lord still held his weapons, while Corellon's sword lay in scattered shards among the heather.
As he watched the orcish god's approach, Corellon understood for the first time the depth of his own folly. He had asked Gruumsh to come to Olympus so that they might discuss an end to the destructive war between Gruumsh's orcs and the elven children of Corellon-a war that was threatening to shred the very fabric of the ancient realm of Faerie. Corellon had invited, and Gruumsh had accepted.
Accepted, and then betrayed.
The elf lord blamed himself. Although he would have liked to claim that he'd treated Gruumsh as an honorable foe, offering good faith and expecting it in return, he had not been particularly surprised when the orc lord broke truce. In truth, Corellon had been willing to surrender nearly every advantage because it had never occurred to him that he might lose a fight.
He was proud, perhaps too proud, as were his elven children. Corellon had reason to know the cunning and battle fury of his orcish adversary, but he had trusted in his superior agility and in Sahandrian, his marvelous sword. Even now he could not fathom how the orcish god had managed to shear through Sahandrian's magic and metal with naught but a rusty, one-handed axe.
Treachery, Corellon concluded grimly. There was no other explanation, for Sahandrian was far more than a common sword. It was Corellon's own work-he had lavished untold centuries upon the crafting and enchanting of it. Nor was he the only god who'd had a hand in its creation. Sehanine Moonbow, the elven goddess of moonlight and mysteries, had bound moon magic into the shining blade. Since beauty has a power of its own, Hanali Celanil had made of the sword's hilt a work of art replete with gems and intricate carvings. Upon the blade she had etched runes that portrayed-and perhaps captured-the enduring strength of elven love. His beloved Araushnee, the patron goddess of artisans and the goddess of elven destiny, had woven with her own hands the intricately designed silken sheath that padded Corellon's scabbard and warded him with a web of magic.
All of these goddesses had worshipers among the People; it was possible that a high cleric had caught a glimpse of his Mistress's magical essence, and had somehow turned this knowledge against the elf lord.
But why? For what purpose would any elf turn against his own gods? This question, a question that Corellon had never before thought or needed to ask, haunted him as he watched twilight purple the sky and Gruumsh draw ever closer.
The single moon of Olympus crested the distant hills, an amber orb that paled to silver as it rose. Its light sent a hulking, moon-cast shadow stretching out before the orc lord. Noting this, Gruumsh bared his fangs in a savage grin. The bright moonlight was as much his ally as the open terrain, for it made tracking all the easier.
A slight movement on the horizon caught the orc lord's eye. It was little more than a shimmer, rather like the colored lights that danced in the cold northern skies on one of Gruumsh's favorite worlds. But he recognized its source, and grimaced.
Gruumsh hated all the elven deities and loathed their not-quite-mortal children, but he reserved a special enmity for this wench. A wisp of a female, pale as moonlight and insipid as a bloodless meal, the goddess Sehanine was nonetheless a potent adversary. This offended Gruumsh. Female orcs were generally smaller and weaker than males, and as a result, they held considerably less power. Orcish young learned the precept: "If Gruumsh had intended females to lead, he would have given them bigger muscles." He certainly wouldn't have equipped them with Sehanine's fey magic, or that subtle mind whose depths no orcish warrior could fathom. Corellon was bad enough, but at least Gruumsh knew what to expect from the elven god: battle-straightforward, bloody, and invigorating. That he could understand and respect.
The orc watched with apprehension as the dancing lights coalesced into a slender, feminine form. Like a luminous cloud, Sehanine walked toward him, rapidly taking on substance as she came. Night was her time, and she seemed to draw sustenance and power from the moonlight. In her hands was a shining sword, held point-up before her.
Gruumsh knew at once that this was no common weapon, even as gods reckon such things. No, this sword was a living thing. It was as alive-and as troublesome-as any elven world and all the beings that walked upon it, as vast in power as the sun that warmed that world and the skies that cradled it. The stunned orc noted the thousands of tiny stars that swirled within the wondrous blade and sensed the magic that pulsed through it like an ocean's tides.
It was Sahandrian, the sword of Corellon, made whole and new!
Surprise turned swiftly to rage, and Gruumsh let out a furious bellow that rumbled like thunder over the Moor. The proudest moment of the orc lord's godhood had been shattering that sword, watching the glowing fragments fade and disappear. Somehow, this great triumph had been undone by a scrawny elven wench. The orc's hatred of the moon goddess increased a thousandfold, and he howled out a fearsome oath of vengeance upon her and all creatures elven.
But Sehanine walked on, not sparing the furious Gruumsh so much as a glance. She crested the hill on which he stood and began to pass down into the valley, moving within easy range of a spear's toss.
The orc lord's brow beetled at this tacit insult. He whipped his spear from his shoulder and hauled it back for the throw.
The faint sound must have alerted his target, for Sehanine turned to him at last, an expression of faint disdain on her face. Too fast-impossibly fast-she leveled the elven sword at the orc lord as if it were a wizard's staff. A single pulse of silver light burst from the weapon and engulfed him in a shimmering sphere. Blinded and snarling with rage, Gruumsh fisted his free hand and dug furiously at his eyes in an attempt to banish the stars that swam and spun behind his eyelids.
By the time the orc lord's vision returned, the goddess had moved far beyond the range of his spear. She stood beside a gnarled cypress that clung to the top of the hill beyond. To the orc's dismay, Sehanine was not alone-a familiar, golden warrior came eagerly toward her. She knelt to him, Sahandrian held out before her. The lights that whirled within the elven weapon flared and leaped as the rightful owner reclaimed his sword.
Gruumsh shook his now-useless spear and fairly danced with rage. "Knave! Coward!" he howled at Corellon Larethian. "Bested in single combat, you hide behind a female's skirts! And what of your oath? You swore that no elven magic would be brought against me, yet you suffer this witch to undo my victory!"
"Not so," Sehanine said firmly, her silvery voice floating out over the valley that lay between them. She rose and faced down the angry god. "You have broken the truce, Gruumsh of the Orcs, and thus it will be remembered for all time. Corellon holds to the contract he has made with you and to all the tenets of honorable battle. He was never bested. Destroying his sword was no victory of yours. By an elf was Sahandrian undone, and thus it falls to the Seldarine to restore their own."
With these cryptic words, the goddess turned back to Corellon. Her silver eyes swept over him; tears sprang into them as she took note of his many wounds. Sehanine wiped the tears from her cheek and reached out with gentle fingers to touch the god's bleeding face. Instantly the mingled droplets on her hand took on a mystic glow.
"Children of the moon and the sun," she whispered. "Behold, my lord, the souls of elves yet unborn. Even battle with a dishonorable foe cannot diminish the magic we share."
She started to say more, but the bright moonlight that sustained her suddenly dimmed, and the rising wind chased a welter of black clouds across the moon. Sehanine cast a glance over her shoulder. The orc, as she expected, had kicked into a running charge, seizing what must have seemed to him a moment of elven weakness.
The goddess's face hardened. "Kill him, my lord," she whispered fiercely, and touched her fingers to Corellon's scabbard as if in grim benediction. When the dark clouds parted, she was gone.
Corellon bit back the words of thanks and tamped down the questions burning within him. Later, he vowed, he would seek out the moon goddess and have from her an explanation concerning the magic she had done, and the elven treachery to which she'd alluded.
But for now it was enough just to hold Sahandrian again. The elven god raised his sword high, exulting in the feel of the wondrous weapon in his hand and the prospect of renewed battle. With a ringing shout, he raced down the hillside to meet the orc's charge.
They met in the valley below with a thunderous clash. Sparks flew like shooting stars as the elven blade struck the iron haft of the orc lord's spear. Corellon deliberately allowed his blade to glance off the spear; he knew he could not equal or even counter the force of the orc's attack. His advantage was agility. Never once slowing his momentum, the elf ducked beneath the crossed weapons. Metal screeched over metal as his sword slid up the spear's haft with deadly intent.
Gruumsh twisted his spear sharply to one side, flinging the oncoming blade wide. He spun, stepping back to move himself beyond the elf's reach. As he turned back toward his foe, Gruumsh brought the blunt end of his spear down, swinging in hard and low at the elf lord's booted feet.
Corellon danced nimbly back-exactly as the orc hoped he would. Gruumsh's primary weapon was considerably longer than the elf's: Not even Sahandrian could cut what it could not reach.
With a fierce smile, the orc completed the sweeping arc, swinging his weapon up so that the shaft was level, the iron tip aimed at the elf lord's throat. With all his strength he lunged forward, thrusting as he went.
Corellon made no attempt to parry the mighty blow. He ducked under the rushing spear, then pivoted back to face his foe, using his speed to lend power to Sahandrian's swing. The sword scored a stinging blow to the orc lord's hip. Gruumsh whirled at the elf, his spear out full length before him. But the elf stepped in close, too close for the sharp tip to find him. His sword darted in and ripped yet another gash in the orc lord's hide before the shaft of the spear smashed into his ribs.
The elf rolled with the blow, coming up on his feet and once again lunging in close. But Gruumsh had tossed aside his spear. In one massive hand he held a dagger, in the other, the axe that had somehow destroyed Sahandrian earlier that day.
For many moments the foes stood nearly toe to toe, and the clash and shriek of metal upon metal rang out over the watchful Moor. In the hands of the elven god, Sahandrian whirled and thrust and danced, moving so fast that it left ribbons of light in its path. But this time, Corellon's sword held firm, turning aside the orcish god's axe again and again without taking so much as a pit along its gleaming edge.
The enjoined shadows of the battling gods grew shorter as the moon rose high in the sky. Gruumsh's breath was coming hard now, and his ears buzzed as if a swarm of angry insects had taken up residence in his skull. The orc was the stronger by far, but try as he might, he could not get past the elf s guard to strike with his full power. Nor was Gruumsh as agile as the elf, and though he had two weapons to Corellon's one, the elven blade slipped through his defenses again and again. His hide was crisscrossed with garish stripes, and the grip of his axe was slippery with his own blood. It began to come to Gruumsh that the battle he'd thought already won, the victory he'd purchased from a traitor's hand, would once again belong to the elven god.
As if he, too, sensed the turn of battle, Corellon surged forward, ducking under the orc's lumbering swing to leap, sword leading, at the orc lord's throat.
Gruumsh knew at once he had no hope of parrying the elf's attack. Instinctively he ducked and flung his dagger hand up to block the killing thrust. The elven blade bit deep into the orc lord's forearm, sinking between the twin bones-and driving his arm up into his face.
Too late, the orc realized that he still clenched his dagger. His own blade stuck him hard, parting the hide on his meager forehead. Gruumsh heard the horrid sound of metal sliding wetly over bone, felt the sudden easing of resistance as the blade slipped down. Then all other sensation vanished in a white-hot explosion of pain.
Corellon leaped back, tugging his sword free of the orc's arm before the god's fall could bring him down, too. For a long moment he stood and regarded his fallen adversary. On the battle-sodden ground, the orc lord rolled and tossed in immortal agony, his hands clutching at his eyes-one of which was blinded by the copious flow of blood from the gaping head wound, the other blinded for all time. Other than the ruined eye, most of Gruumsh's wounds would heal-too quickly for Corellon's peace of mind-but there would be no more fighting this night.
The elf lord slid Sahandrian back into its scabbard. His fingers touched leather, and a pang of sadness filtered through his elation. Though victory was his, the wondrous padded sheath his Araushnee had woven for him-which he had carried into battle as her token-had been lost during the horrendous fight.
"You are forsworn, blinded, and utterly defeated," Corellon said coldly. "Yet I find these things little enough payment for what I have lost this day."
The orc dashed blood from his face and squinted at his foe with his one remaining eye. "You don't know the half of it, elf," he growled. "And you can't begin to understand what you've lost-you don't even know the names of your foes! As for defeat, I admit none! Kill me now, if you can, and your own silver whore will bear witness that you struck down a wounded and unarmed foe!"
Corellon glanced moonward, and knew that, at least in this much, the orc spoke truth. The goddess of moonlight and mystery would see all and would be compelled by honor to speak of such dishonor before the Seldarine Counsel. Even if Corellon wished to do so, he could not slay the downed orcish god. Nor, by the terms of their agreement, could he banish Gruumsh from Olympus before the orc chose to go.
"You spoke of others," the elf lord said, glancing over the silent hills, "but I see no one ready to take up your fallen weapons."
The orc smirked. "As long as you're on the open Moor, I need no help from anyone. It's a long walk to Arvandor, elf, and you're swaying on your feet like a sapling in a strong wind. Go if you can-I'll not be far behind you. One eye is more than I need to follow a trail through these hills. If you're still standing when I find you, we will fight again. If not, I will kill you where you lie!"
Corellon found that he could not scoff at this grim promise. The heat of his battle fever was fast slipping away, and the weight of his wounds pressed heavily upon him. It was possible that the orc, grievously wounded though he was, could do exactly as he promised. Without another word, Corellon turned once more toward Arvandor.
Dense and deep was the forest curtain that surrounded Arvandor. Lost beings could wander in the woodlands beyond its borders for many days, never once passing over the invisible boundary, perhaps never even realizing that their way was barred. Ancient trees shifted to confound the passerby, paths appeared seemingly at random only to disappear into a forest pool or a bed of ferns; brooks suddenly widened into vast yawning chasms; thick tangles of vines suddenly sprouted thorns or simply refused to part. Arvandor was a haven and a fortress.
Hidden among the green shadows that surrounded and protected Arvandor, an elven goddess clung to the uppermost branches of a tree and peered out over the woodlands. Her slender black fingers clenched tightly around her handhold, and her beautiful face was taut with foreboding.
Three long days had passed since Corellon Larethian, her lover and her lord, had gone to meet with the orcish god. Araushnee awaited the outcome with tense anticipation. She had much at stake. There was no telling what might happen among the Seldarine if Corellon did not return. Although none among the elven gods could truly replace Corellon, many would certainly try.
Araushnee's relationship with the Seldarine's leader was unique. Corellon Larethian was all things elven: warrior and poet, mage and bard, even male and female. But since the coming of Araushnee, the deity had settled into a single aspect: that of a Gold elven male. In Araushnee, he had seen his perfect counterpart: female to his male, artist to his warrior, the mysteries of midnight to balance the brightness of day. Though Araushnee was but a minor goddess, Corellon had been utterly enchanted with her beauty and had made her his consort. She had borne him children-twin godlings as darkly beautiful as herself. As the beloved of Corellon, Araushnee held a place of honor among the Seldarine, as well as new powers that the elven god had bestowed upon her. By Corellon's decree, the destiny of the mortal elves who shared her dark beauty was in her keeping. She had learned to enjoy that power, and she feared its loss at least as much as she feared the battle's outcome.
Her sharp ears caught a faint sound-the distant hiss and rustle of underbrush trampled underfoot. No elven god would make such a clamor. Araushnee had her answer, at last.
The goddess slipped down from her perch on a thread of magic. Her slippers touched the forest floor without a sound, but before she could take a single step toward the victorious orc, her eyes fell upon a most unexpected sight.
The elf lord was but a few dozen paces away. His progress was slow, and he looked as battered as a trod-upon flower, but still he moved through the woodlands like a breath of wind. Araushnee's gaze dropped to his hip. The sheath she had woven and enchanted was gone, and the sword Sahandrian was whole. An invisible aura clung to the sword-the unmistakable touch of Sehanine's moon magic.
Araushnee's crimson eyes flamed at this new evidence of her rival's hand in her personal affairs. Dizzy with rage, the goddess flung out one hand as if to erase Sehanine's handiwork. Magic burst unbidden from her ebony fingertips, spinning out into a vast curtain that blocked the forest in either direction, as far as her eyes could discern.
Corellon stopped, clearly puzzled by the glistening barrier that presumed to bar Arvandor to him.
Chagrin tore through Araushnee. Surely the god would know whose hand this was. Even as besotted as he was with her, he would certainly see this act as treachery. And even as weakened as he obviously was, he could easily overshadow the magic of a minor goddess. Then where would she be? Damned by a single impulse, all her work undone.
Thinking quickly, Araushnee began to weave another sort of web. She stepped out of the shadows into plain sight, her face alight with feigned relief and welcome.
Pass through, my love, she said silently, willing her words into Corellon's mind. The web will not hinder you but will bar the orc. Go, and find healing.
She felt the answering surge of Corellon's gratitude and love-and was buffeted by a nearly overwhelming wave of exhaustion. As if he sensed this, Corellon quickly withdrew his painful touch. The elven god slipped through Araushnee's net as easily as a falcon pierces a cloud. He kissed his fingers to her in a salute, then disappeared into the forest to seek the trees of Arvandor.
Araushnee stayed where she was. Distasteful though the prospect might be, she had to speak with Gruumsh, for she had questions that only the orc could answer.
She did not have long to wait. Gruumsh apparently had caught an elven scent-whether hers or Corellon's she did not know or care-and he came crashing wildly through the forest toward her.
Toward the web.
The orc blundered right into it. Flailing wildly, he roared and cursed and accomplished nothing but getting himself hopelessly entangled. From the forest beyond, Corellon's laughter floated back toward him like golden bells-beautiful even in mockery.
The orc lord's struggles redoubled, but he was well and truly stopped. Of course, Araushnee mused with a wry smile, the natural defenses of Arvandor would have accomplished that with or without her "intervention." Apparently that thought had not occurred to Corellon. He was too much entangled in Araushnee's charms to see any tapestry but that of her own weaving.
"Fool," she hissed as she regarded one captive and contemplated the other. And as she spoke the epithet, Araushnee wondered whether orc or elf deserved it better.