The group approached a large mountain.
“Do… do we have to climb it?” Lilly asked.
“No,” Bonnie said. “The nearest entrance to the dark elf kingdom is at the base of the mountain. Have you never been?”
“N… no,” Lilly said. “I… I never came this way.”
“Hold up,” Twila said. “We should be close enough. “Tie up the horses. We’ll have to go on foot from here.”
“Do I have to?” Velvet asked.
“The dogs should be fine,” Twila said. “Although it’s going to get bumpy.” She cleared her throat. When she called out, her voice was loud and clear. “Hail the underground! We wish to speak with thee.”
Three armoured dark elves appeared in front of them, all female. Axra could hear the sounds of bow strings around them. Indicating more in hiding around them.
“Hail the underground,” their leader stated. “What is your… Miss Twila?”
“Oh, it’s you, Raven,” Twila said. “We’re here to see my aunt. Can you lead the way for us?”
“Of course,” Raven said. “The Matriarch always welcomes you. She’s in a counsel meeting right now, but I can lead you to her residence.” She nodded to her companions. “Keep watch, I’ll return shortly. And make sure our guests horses are attended to.” They bowed to her and moved aside.
“Counsel?” Lysara asked. “Doesn’t the Matriarch make all the decisions?”
Raven looked at her with upraised eyebrows and a bemused smirk.
“The dark elves are ruled by an elected counsel,” Twila explained. “The Matriarch presides over that counsel, but can’t make any governing decisions by herself. The entire counsel has to vote.”
Raven led the group to a cavern, covered by overgrown bushes. Twila hurriedly cast a darkvision spell on herself, Lilly, Lysara and Bonnie. They followed Raven through a twisting series of tunnels until they reached a massive cavern. A guarded gate stood in front of them. Beyond it lay a series of stone buildings. Hanging from the ceiling was a variety of fungus that dimly lit the city.
“I have guests for the Matriarch,” Raven declared. “Open the gate.”
The gate was opened to allow them access. Raven led them to a mansion. It wasn’t quite as big as Axra’s home, but it was pretty close.
“I’ll have to leave you now,” Raven said.
“Thank you for the help,” Twila said. Raven nodded and headed back the way they’d come.
“You’ll have to leave your dogs here,” Twila said.
Lysara put her arms around Twila from behind. “I can’t believe I’m going to meet your family. This is exciting.”
“Maybe we should leave Lysara and Velvet out here to look after the dogs,” Axra suggested, glaring at the bard.
“That’s fine,” Velvet said. “I can manage by myself.”
“Stand back,” Twila said. She knocked on the door and opened it after thirty seconds.
Axra took an involuntary step back. There were easily a dozen wolves clustered around the entrance. When they saw Twila they happily wagged their tails and leapt up at her.
“Careful,” Twila said. “Come in slowly and don’t make any sudden moves. Since you’re with me, they shouldn’t attack.”
Axra went in first. The wolves sniffed at her, fur raised, but didn’t make a move. Bonnie went in next, receiving the same treatment. Followed by Lysara, who elicited a few growls.
“Scary,” Lysara muttered. “I don’t suppose security is a problem.”
“They don’t usually do that,” Twila said. “I’m sorry.”
“No big,” Lysara said. “As long as they don’t bite me.”
Lilly came in last. She was speaking in a slow, soothing voice as she came in. “It’s okay, Little ones. We’re here as friends.” The largest wolf moved over to her, sniffed her and jumped on her, licking her face. “There, there,” Lilly said. “You’re a friendly puppy, aren’t you?” Several of the other wolves followed suit, nudging Lilly affectionately.
“I’ve never seen that either,” Twila said. “They’re usually very slow to warm up to strangers.”
Twila led them into a nicely furnished sitting room. The wolves followed, gathering around either Twila or Lilly. “Sit down,” Twila invited. “We’ll make ourselves comfortable while waiting for the counsel session to finish.”
“Odd,” Bonnie stated.
“What’s up, Bon?” Lysara asked.
“There’s no fur on the furniture,” Bonnie said.
“It’s a simple cleaning enchantment,” Twila said. “Auntie Elaine has to recast it every twenty four hours, but it keeps everything clear.”
“I’m curious about something else,” Lysara said. “How does your aunt keep this many wolves? You’d think watching and caring for them would take a huge amount of time.”
“My uncle does most of that,” Twila said. “I wonder where he is.”
“Twi!” The group turned. A young blue-haired half elf with a sword strapped across his back approached them.
“It’s good to see you, Shin,” Twila said. “Ladies, this is my brother, Shin. Shin, these are my friends, Axra, Lilly, Lysara and Bonnie.”
“Good to meet you,” Shin said. He turned to Twila. “I remember when I was your age and traveling with friends.”
“You’re five minutes older than me,” Twila said. “If that.”
“You’ll understand when you reach my age,” Shin said, laughing. “So, what brings you all here?”
“I came to speak with Aunt Elaine on a matter of some urgency,” Twila said. “Where’s uncle Lulu?”
Shin turned away from her. “He’s with the clerics. They… don’t know how much longer he has.”
“I see,” Twila said.
“Is your uncle sick?” Axra asked. “If there’s anything I can do…”
Twila shook her head. “I’m sure you know the story of Queen Zenas and the Gauntlet of Zeus.”
“I do!” Lysara declared. “Wait… the name Lulu sounds familiar. He was…”
“A ranger, wasn’t it?” Axra asked.
Lysara snapped her fingers. “Oh, yeah! He had the Eris orb sealed in his eye. He used a bunch of its power during that final battle against Zenas.”
“Yeah,” Twila said, her voice low. “That power put a terrible strain on him. Even the best clerics can’t fix the damage.”
“A power not meant for mere mortals, is it,” Bonnie pondered.
Axra put a hand on Twila’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t worry,” Twila said. “It’s not your fault. Besides, I get the feeling that he’ll be around for a long time yet.”
“That’s right,” Lilly said, taking Twila’s hand. “It’s important to have faith.”
“My, my,” an unfamiliar voice said. “Such a lively gathering.”
They turned. A tall dark elf with silver robes was studying them. She looked from Lilly to Bonnie to Lysara to Axra, with her gaze resting on Axra the longest. “Perhaps you’d care to introduce your friends?”
“Of course, Auntie,” Twila said. “This is Axra, Lilly, Bonnie and Lysara.”
“Charmed,” Elaine said. “I am Elaine Silverstar, Matriarch of the dark elves. Twila, I’m guessing that this isn’t a purely social visit.”
“What gave it away?” Twila asked.
“Your stance, girl,” Elaine stated. “Rather than relaxing, you’re sitting here alert and tensed up. So, what can I do for my favourite niece?”
“I’m your only niece,” Twila stated.
“No need to be pedantic,” Elaine said.
“We should speak in private,” Twila said.
“Very well,” Elaine agreed. “Follow me.”