Into the Belly of the Beast

A novel written by Daniel Ortiz

Ch. I - Arrival at citadel Fembarr

The trip from Erevander to Citadel Femmbarr had been long and tiresome for the young elf and by the time she had finally arrived at the doorstep of the Last Dragon Inn, she was incredibly hungry and terribly exhausted. “At least the spring scenery of the plains was, rewarding..,” she thought, before letting out a loud sigh in an attempt to reassure herself after realizing the true weight that crossing the threshold into the building’s interior had over her.

 She had planned on arriving at least a week before the registry even started but, since she felt she had the time to tarry, she “allowed” herself to take more than a few unnecessary stops along the way. After all, she had always enjoyed her solitude. But immediately regretted that decision after taking a quick glance at the Inn’s interior. The place was bustling with what seemed to her like a horde of other youngsters who were there, presumably, for the same reason that she was; to undertake their mandatory military service.

Even when there hadn’t been any “real” wars during the last 1200 years, every two years since the end of the last great dragonwar, the nation of Velthara had drafted its youngest citizens to temporarily serve in its military. Both of her parents served during their youth, as did her older brother a couple of decades ago, and now it was her turn.

“For an elf, two years shouldn’t be too much of a hassle” she thought unconvinced as she finally decided to enter the inn.

She knew she lacked that perspective a lifespan of a couple hundred years gave to other elves. She was 25 at that time; an age that in most other cultures qualified for full adulthood but, for her elven peers she was still no more than a child. Even her own brother, who was only a couple of decades older than her, treated her as such, and that bothered her greatly. But this, this was her rite of passage. She would come back home as an equal to Gaillarael.

The young elf carefully examined the place until she found an open seat near the bar counter and gracefully made her way through what resembled to her, an ocean of crowded tables. Upon arriving, she was greeted by a stocky gold dwarf sporting a thick brown beard and a heavily stained cloth apron.

“Hoi youngun’!.” Despite his gruff appearance, the dwarf’s attitude was warm and welcoming. “Not many moon elfs around this year!, name’s Bybor. Can I get ya’ somethin’?.”

“A meal and a room please,” she answered softly, so much that the dwarf had to lean forward on the tip of his toes to be able to decipher the answer over the general noise of the room.

“Oh boi! Fer that ye should have arrived earlier, my lass… The meal I can surely get ya’, but... unless ye’r a Keilryn Varivender, ye’ll have to find somewhere else to sleep tonight. This year there’s a lot of ya’,” said the dwarf, gesturing at the bustling establishment.

“I’m sorry, but. What do you mean by that? Why’s my name important? And, how would you know of it?” she replied, visibly confused and raising her voice after taking the cue offered by the leaning dwarf.

“Well. A letter arrived, ‘bout a week ago, requesting lodging fer a young moon elf goin’ by that name. And since no other of yer kind arrived with this generation, I only assumed — 

“Ye were expected to arrive a couple of days ago. Ya’ see, the letter included payment for the whole week. —

“Ye do understand I cannot offer ye a refund, right?” the dwarf said as a manner of closing statement.

“Right...“ she said absentmindedly.

“Did the letter say who the sender was?” the young elf asked, still trying to process the information.

“It arrived by hawk and was signed by some Gail... Maybe yer Da’. Or Ma’?. I never know, elven names have always eluded me, can’t tell if —

“No offense, of course. ‘Ere, take a look! There’s a bunch of stuff written in elven inside. Guess that part’s intended fer ye’...”

The dwarf handed her a letter written over a coarse parchment. As she read through its contents, her pale purple skin started to turn violet with both anger and embarrassment. She was undoubtedly grateful for her brother’s foresight; but there he was, treating her like a child again.

Watching the colorful display of emotions over the moon elf’s face, the dwarf handed a room key and excused himself off with a softened “I’ll get your meal, youngun’.’” And even when only a few moments ago she was starving, she ended up finishing the meal offered by the dwarf halfheartedly. She then settled on spending the afternoon exploring the area surrounding the inn.

With the exception of the small hamlet of farmers and traders where the Last Dragon Inn stood, most of Femmbarr’s extension was occupied by the walled citadel that served as training grounds for the new recruits, as well as a staging area for other Veltharan troops heading down south to Blackgate, and since she hadn’t registered as a cadet yet, her little exploration trip was confined to the civilian area. She decided to spend some time by the Fem river before heading back to the inn.

Before long, dusk started to creep in, and almost immediately she felt some of that weariness that had been burdening her wash away with the fading light. She was a moon elf, after all, and she had always enjoyed the cold solace of night. She noted how early it happened here in Fembarr in comparison to Erevander’s long hours of daylight. She wondered why the biggest community of moon elves in all of Velthara had formed so far north, so close to the everlight?.

She stood by the riverbank for a while, soaking in the atmosphere. She noticed a thick woodland area to the east of the settlement that she thought would be nice to explore on a later day and watched a couple of human kids throw fishing lines for a while. “They’re still too young to be concerned about anything else I guess. How nice,” she thought before making her trip back to the Last Dragon much to her discomfort. But tomorrow was a big day, so she shouldn’t ‘stay up’ late. 

When she arrived though, the dining hall was in total disarray. From what she could quickly gather, there had been a scuffle between a group of peasant enlistees and some pompous “sons of someone” from the big city. Apparently, punches were tossed, and now all sorts of food and drink laid splattered around the floor. The few patrons that remained inside the inn rushed to finish their meals, while the staff worked diligently to clean up the littered remains of food off the floor.

Keilryn tried her best to navigate the mess without disturbing the cleaning efforts and was halfway across the hall when she was stopped short by a voice calling out. “Hey you, moon girl! Care to come and tend to my wounds?. You seem to have a delicate touch, and that’s just what I need right now…”

Distraught by such a statement, she turned around only to see a young male wood elf reclined over a seat, surrounded by a bunch of other pampered-looking boys. His handsome features were only accentuated by a long, golden mane; he wore expensive silk robes over his slim body and a cynical smirk on his face. He looked a bit tattered, yes, but he certainly wasn’t injured. Despite that fact; a pair of human girls, villagers judging by their appearance, tenderly caressed the pretty elf as if he really was.

“Seems to me that you have all the tending cares you need, milord.—

“Or deserve, for all I care.” That last part she spoke to herself as she turned back to face the stairs that would lead her to her room.

“Do not turn your back on me, moon girl! Don’t you know who I am?” the elf raised his voice.

“Not know, nor care. Good night to you, milord.” She continued without glancing back.

“It’s true what they say about your kind…—

“Heartless bitch that one, huh?” the male elf said as he looked back at the group, which immediately burst into laughter. They were all turning to mind their own business again when a piece of what seemed to be a half-eaten sandwich landed right into one of the wood elf’s smooth cheeks.

“Oh, now you’re gonna get it!” he screamed and got up from his seat reaching for the fine rapier that hung on his belt. Keilryn stood frozen at this gesture, she was unarmed and had never before participated in a fight.

“Methinks one fight’s too many fer tonight boi!” Bybor’s commanding voice resounded all over the hall. “Ye are exceeding the boundaries of my hospitality and I’m not in the mood of summoning the guard once again.—

“I’ll kindly ask ye bullies to take yer leave, lest ye grant me the honor of kicking yer shiny butts myself!.” There was a slight pause in the dwarf’s scolding.

“And for fuck’s sake! unhand that weapon ye fool!. Ye wouldn’t know what to do with it even if ye were in front of a troll-shaped rock.”

The elf glared at Keilryn with fury before spatting. “You purple scum should have stayed on the other side of the rift. In the dark where you belong!.”

“Enough!” shouted the dwarf while smacking at a table.

“See you in the training course then, moon girl...” Added the wood elf before leaving.

The dwarf let a long, calming sigh out. “I’m sorry, that was foolish,” Keilryn added, ashamed, but also frightened.

“Don’t be. Every two years we have ‘em. Damn Righlor braggarts.” Bybor turned to Keilryn and motioned towards the bar counter, “I’m bound to have something fer yer nerves. If ye care to have some.”

“I… I think I’ll be fine without it. Thanks,” Keilryn stuttered.

“Have to admit, that was a solid throw back there. Ye’ll do well at the trials tomorrow. Ye’ll see.—

“For now. Get some rest.”

The young moon elf looked gratefully at Bybor and halfheartedly exclaimed, “Yeah, rest…”

She entered the small rented room and attempted to follow through with what the dwarf had suggested, but her nerves were wrecked. In the end, the best she could achieve was staring at the moon through the window while sitting motionless in bed for long hours until she finally succeeded in falling ‘asleep’. 


Ch. II - Welcome to the army

As an elf, Keylrin’s ‘sleep’ was more akin to a deep meditation than to actual, sounding, profound sleep; therefore, she knew that dawn had arrived when she started hearing the rustling of backpacks as well as the pounding of feet on the wooden floors of the inn. This was the last day for the registry of applicants as well as the official welcome for the new generation of recruits, and those sounds were the indication she needed to get ready. She promptly snapped out of her trance and started the process of getting ready. She changed into a clean set of clothes, braided a lock of her long white hair, and packed the few things she carried in her backpack as quickly as she could. As soon as that was done she raced downstairs to thank her dwarven host.

To her surprise, the dwarf was already expecting her at the counter. The majority of other cadets just tossed their room keys at the wooden counter in a hurry, without even glancing back at Bybor to express their gratitude. 

“Hoi youngun’! Big day today huh. Ye’ ready?.” He exclamed in a cheerful tone.

“As ready as one can be, I guess…” She genuinely tried to match the dwarf’s high-spirited attitude but felt that her actual response was somehow lackluster.

“Ha ha!  First days’ are rough, not gonna lie to ye’. But ye’ll get the hang of it in no time, ye’ll see.” He replied nonchalantly.

After a short pause he added, “trust me, I know. I also went through it all. A couple of ages ago, of course.”

She let out a modest laugh before getting bumped into by a young gnome girl with vibrant pink hair tied into a ponytail. The gnome was too preoccupied with memorizing the exact wording for her spell’s verbal components to care for anything else.

"Hey!" Keilryn retorted, but the gnome continued unfazed on her way to the door. Keil turned back to Bybor, slightly rattled, and said, "Thank you for your hospitality, Master Bybor."

“Figured ye wouldn’t leave without sayin’ goodbye. I really appreciate that kind of clientele, y’know?—

 “On top o’dat yer kin paid for a whole extra week in advance. So, I figured I could get a little somethin’ fer ye to compensate.” The dwarf added while searching below the counter, he then procured a simple-looking leather scabbard with a small hunting knife sheathed inside. “Please take this.”

“But, just yesterday you said not to expect any refund, master Bybor,” she said jokingly.

“Ha! And I stand by that! This is more of a gift, lass. Know that it is not a weapon, but a tool.”

“I would hope I’ll never have to use it altogether.” She replied as she took the knife and carefully packed it inside her rucksack.

“One can certainly hope. Still, I trust ye’ll find a good use for it during these next two years.” Said the dwarf matter-of-factly.

"Thanks again, Master Bybor. For everything." The stream of other would-be cadets on their way out dwindled drastically, and the young elf took that as her cue. "I should get going..."

"Of course! Don’t let me keep ye’ any longer. Come visit again whenever ye’ have the time, lass."

Keil stepped out onto the gravel road and hurriedly headed to the nearest citadel gate. Luckily for her, it was just a few blocks away from the Last Dragon. However, by the time she arrived a long queue had already formed, and she was, of course, the last in line.

Inside and out, the citadel was bustling with activity; soldiers came and went, handing uniforms to newcomers and escorting enlistees to their assigned barracks. Keil spotted the little gnome girl who had bumped into her moments ago, still stubbornly trying to memorize her spells.

"So glad magic's not my thing," she mused to herself, trying to dismiss the mounting anxiety. She knew she had everything she needed. She even looked inside her rucksack one last time to make sure her papers and letter of recommendation were there.

Unsurprisingly, everything was in place, yet for some strange reason, she still felt terribly unprepared for this moment. The horribly slow pace at which each new applicant was registered and assigned didn’t help her state of mind at all. When she finally stepped up to the counter and handed over her papers, her heart was almost racing out of her chest. She took a moment to collect herself and placed her documents on the makeshift table.

The officer gave her a once-over look, then glanced behind her to make sure she was the last applicant for the day. His eyes returned to her face and lingered there for a moment, as if in recognition, but quickly fell again to the registry form and Keilryn's papers.

"So, the last one this year ends up being a dark elf... That's gotta be a bad omen," he muttered, making no attempt to conceal his words. "Name?"

Her mind immediately flashed back to the encounter with the wood elf just the night before. "Excuse me? Dark elf? That's somewhat rude, don't you think?" Keil retorted, visibly upset.

"Rude?" the officer said, amused. "You hear that, Abaz?" he added, turning to another soldier standing nearby. The soldier laughed and continued with his tasks. "Listen, girl. This is the army, not one of your fancy dinner parties or whatever it is you're accustomed to in your forest city home. Here, you'll do as you're told and count your blessings. Nobody cares about your feelings here."

"How can you... you don't even—" Keilryn started, but the officer abruptly interrupted her.

"Name."

Keil groaned but quickly gave up and answered, "Keilryn Varivender."

“Age.”

“25.”

“Place of birth?”

“Isn’t all that information in my papers?” Keilryn retorted again.

The officer gave a long, disgruntled look right into Keilryn’s eyes and continued. "Place of birth?"

She sighed in utter defeat and replied, "Erevander."

"Living relatives?"

"Um, my parents and a brother."

"Names, occupation, and place of residence?"

"No wonder it took so long to get here..." she muttered to herself, not low enough apparently.

"You should have seen the goblin with seventeen brothers and sisters. Only from his mother’s side."

"How’s that even—"

"You'd be surprised… Do not further waste my time, girl, and answer." He looked right into Keil's eyes with a cynical expression and ended his statement with a plain, "Please?"

"Ugh, fine! Father: Naelfeyn Seleryn, he's a scrivener for the Erevander University library. Mother's name is Melindra Varivender, she's the head librarian, also in Erevander. And my brother is Gaillarael Varivender, he's a ranger in the Erevander city watch."

"I see. Do you have any particular skills?"

"I'm proficient with a bow. I have a recommendation letter from my—"

"We'll see about that in the trials tomorrow. That's going to be all for now! Private Kargadz, equip Miss Dark Elf here with a uniform and escort her to Barrack Oldfang immediately."

"Yes, sir!" the soldier replied, then added, "Oldfang, huh? Tough luck."

"She should've arrived earlier. Besides, I think she'll fit right in with the others..." The officer gave her one last once-over look before turning to give orders to the other soldiers at the registry booth. "Seems we're done here, people! The rest of you, help me pack up and close the gate."

Private Rolv Kargadz, a thirty-something human male with brown hair and a well-kept beard motioned for Keil to follow and handed her a clean uniform as they passed through the gate. He finally addressed her, "Don't take it personally. He's like that sometimes, but he's a fine officer once you get to know him."

"Easy for you to say... sorry if I can't take you at your word," she answered absentmindedly. "Anyway, what's wrong with Barrack Oldfang? And what did he mean by 'fitting in with the others'?" she inquired, still upset but also a little worried.

"Well... the Oldfang Barrack has a history of being reserved for both troublemakers and outcasts," he replied, his tone tinged with uneasiness. "Not that you look like either of them to me, mind you."

Keilryn flared up again, "So is it because I'm a 'dark' elf that I belong with them?!"

Private Kargadz stopped on his tracks and sighed, then turned to explain, “you’ll see, Lieutenant Graywood comes from a family with a long military history. And I'm just guessing that since most of your kind allied themselves with the mineral dragons during the last great dragon war, he…—

“But it’s not just you! He’s like that with goblinoids, and orcs too...” he said, in a miserable attempt to offer some context.

"Am I supposed to not be offended because it isn’t just me? Plenty of humans sided with the mineral dragons during the war too.—

“A war he wasn’t even in to begin with!" Keil's voice was starting to crack with repressed anger.

"Well, you’ve certainly done your homework. That’s... not something they usually print in the textbooks," the human replied calmly, a little amazed and sincerely embarrassed, trying to ease the tension.

"Librarian parents will do that to you."

“Look, I’m sorry you had to go through that… I really am,” he stated heartfeltly. “First couple of weeks here are going to be rough.—

“But you’ll get the hang of it, we all do. And after that, it gets a lot better, I promise. We’re almost there...” They had just arrived at the barracks area of the camp. Oldfang was a small wooden building that stood near the west side of the wall and was one of the last structures in its row.

After some more walking, he stopped, turned back to Keil, and said, "Well, here we are!"

"Somehow it looks shabbier than what I expected..." Keil replied ironically.

"Welcome to the army! I guess..." he said jokingly, matching Keil's tone. She just chuckled.

“Trials start tomorrow, you are required to be present at the training grounds later today for the general’s address, just before sundown.” 

“Understood.”

“Listen, most people here are going to be jerks to you and not only for your heritage.—

“But not everyone here is a jackass. If you ever need something, you can just look for me or ask for staff sergeant Brightbelt. Red-haired dwarf, thick beard. He’s always willing to help.”

“And, your name is? You know… in case I do need to look for you.”

“Oh yeah, silly me right?. Name’s Rolv, Rolv Kargadz.”

“Thank you, Rolv, I’ll keep that in mind.”

“I have to report back to the gate now. Good luck, cadet.” Rolv stated.

“Think I might need it?”

“Well… we all need it at some point. Don't we?” He replied with a smile.

"Fair point..." Keil paused before ironically stating, "Guess I have some 'fitting in with the others' to do, don't I?" She motioned to the barrack's door.

Rolv gave her a military salute, and she followed suit, trying her best to imitate the motion. He nodded in acknowledgment, turned on his heel, and returned hastily to his post while Keil was once again, left standing outside yet another threshold.

She proceeded to knock on the door and wait. On the other side she was able to hear some rustling and shuffling noises followed by a couple of thuds and a long and awkward silence.

"Can I come in?" she exclaimed and waited again.

Behind the door, there was silence, then she heard a confused and boyish voice blurt out, "What!?" After another long and awkward pause, the same voice added in a puzzled tone, "Um... yeah, yeah. You can... I guess?"

Only then did she open the door and step inside the building, feeling a mix of excitement and nervousness as she entered.

Being so close to the citadel's stone wall, the room was dimly lit, barely illuminated by a small window and the light coming in from the open door. Bunk beds lined the walls, and a small table sat in the back. Beside the beds closest to the table, standing perplexed, were a lanky human boy with a mop of unruly grayish-green hair and a big-framed, young, and hairy hobgoblin. After some uncomfortable looks of confusion between all three of them, the human boy, still bewildered, was the first to speak, "So... you lost, or something?"

“Um… not that I gather” Keil quickly replied. “I’m pretty sure this is my assigned barrack… My name is—”

The human boy interrupted her and spoke again, “Ha! So you’re new? That explains a lot! You really scared the breath out of us! Y’know?”

“I didn’t mean to, I’m—sorry?” she stuttered.

“Oh, boy! Here we go…” the hobgoblin exclaimed loudly in anticipation.

The human boy gasped for air and started talking, "Just to clarify, and hopefully avoid you thinking weird stuff about us. Before you knocked, we were... working! On a secret project of ours... that I can’t and won’t tell you what it is, because it’s secret, of course; but then you knocked on the door... and for a moment, we thought you were an officer conducting some sort of surprise inspection on us. So we had to rush and hide it! And now, here we are... talking calmly as if nothing ever happened. What happened? Nothing happened, see? Hello, newbie, I’m Erren!"

“Man, you realize that does sound super weird, right?” Inquired the hobgoblin.

“Oh! but we definitely weren’t doing anything weird, or suspicious, or anything in between obviously. Just, you see, secret…” The boy said in a failed attempt to sound casual.

“Right…” Keil asserted, but still sounding unsure.

"Dude! Just stop, ok?" the hobgoblin demanded in a friendly but stern tone. "Name's Khuvark, and this weirdo here is Erren. We're happy to make your acquaintance," he said, extending his hand towards Keilryn while motioning with his head towards his squadmate.

"Hi! I'm Erren," added the boy.

"My name is Keilryn, and I'm honored to meet you both." Keil extended her hand to shake the hobgoblin’s and noticed an impressive array of scars along his arm. Upon seeing this, the hobgoblin quickly pulled back his arm, giving an embarrassed look to the elf as an excuse for the gesture.

"Did she just say honored? Wow! She's nice to us, man. That's surely a first, isn’t it?" Erren said, then motioned to their surroundings, still amazed at the elf’s demeanor. "But how come someone as graceful and well-mannered as you is so unfortunate as to end up here with us?"

“Because I’m a ‘Dark elf’, I guess.”

"Oh, so you got the 'You hear that, soldier?' guy at the booth?" Erren inquired, making his finest impression of Lieutenant Graywood.

She just chuckled and nodded.

“He was also super mean to Khuvark, right buddy?”

"I swear, I'm gonna punch him in the nuts someday!" The hobgoblin clenched his fist in front of his face in an attempt to look menacing, but instead, he ended up looking kind of funny.

"Yeah, and end up in solitary like...—"

"Excuse me! Just what do you think you’re doing!?" Erren's expression suddenly changed as he stared at Keil, who was placing her rucksack on one of the beds close to the door.

Keil froze, as if she had been caught in the middle of a transgression. She wasn’t sure she was, but the tone in Erren's voice certainly felt like it. "I’m just… unpacking."

"Trust me, you don’t want to do that there," the boy replied seriously.

"Why? Is this one taken?"

"Not only taken, that’s Trosha’s," added Khuvark.

"O... kay. How about this one?" Keil motioned at the bunk directly on top.

Erren made a face of true concern and said, "Do you have a death wish or something?"

"You make Trosha sound like some kind of monster."

Erren and Khuvark didn’t answer and just stared at Keilryn’s general direction, motionless and speechless.

"Is she?" Keil asked jokingly, trying to lighten the mood, but the pair’s faces only grew increasingly preoccupied. Before she could say something else, Keil felt a forceful jerk from the back of her neck that slammed her into one of the bunk's supports.

"Do you want to find out, smart girl?" replied a deep and rough female voice.

Ch. III - Rites of passage

Coming soon...