I.I The Forest in Winter

Still. Leaves and branches, dust and air, all absolutely still. A breeze from the north billowed down into the forest, rustling grass and wheat along its way... but just beyond the forest's edge it gasped, strangled by the stillness until it fell dead among the withered leaves. A doe's glassy eye captured the stagnant scenery, its owner long dead. The forest floor was littered with the bodies of its former residents, each strangled by the stillness and preserved by its torpor. Robbed of the power of the El crystal, the air became poison, the ground became stone, and life faltered in its footsteps.

From the road in the midst of the wood, a faint light cut through the stagnant haze. Dust rose and fell on the sandy soil and a twig snapped beneath a heavy footfall. Wrapped in red, the boy marched toward a clearing in the forest, a village deprived of the source of life, his back laden with the weariness of a full day's journey with meager rewards. As he passed through the stillness, the small blue gem hanging from his neck stirred the air and the earth into motion only to see them strangled by the stillness as he moved on. Stifled whispers floated through the air from an open window and the boy picked up his feet, running inside to find a weary man hunched over an old woman's bedside. From that spot alone, a faint glow radiated from a pendant held between the two, the light of its tiny fragment of El just enough to hold the stillness at bay in that one dark corner. As the boy approached, the weary man looked up to him.

"Elsword! Have you found any more?"

The boy reached into a pouch at his waist and withdrew two slivers of El and pressed them into the old woman's trembling hand.

"It should be enough for you to move around the house." Elsword stepped back and everyone relaxed. With all three of them standing there, the room was nearly half full of the faint blue glow of the El. Bracing his hands against his knees, the weary man rose to his feet and returned his small pendant to the confines of his shirt.

"T-Thank you... dear boy... Chief Hagus..." The old woman struggled to sit upright, clenching her hand against her chest.

The chief nodded and rubbed the red edges of his drooping eyes. "Be careful now, Mrs. Appleby. We've had seven dead already from this..."

"Oh ho ho..." Mrs. Appleby forced a ragged laugh, "I'm just as like to die of chill in the night as I am anything. Just be sure to give this El to someone healthier when I go..."

"Don't talk like that!" Elsword glared fiercely at her and his voice quivered. Hagus placed a hand on his shoulder and shook his head.

"Calm down now, you're exhausted from walking all day aren't you? Let's get over to the Inn, everyone's waiting for us there." Hagus motioned for him to head toward the door and then turned back to address Mrs. Appleby, "I'll send Lowe by later to see if you're feeling well enough to come down to help you over to the Inn, it will be much safer and warmer with everyone else around."

"Of course... but don't mind me, I'll make my way over in good time..." Mrs. Appleby gave a strained smile as Hagus and Elsword turned and headed outside. In the frigid winter night, the two passed solemnly through the silent village, its river frozen, its trees bare, and the frozen ground freshly disturbed by the digging of seven graves. All villages need two things to prosper: Water, and the El. The ancient Tree of El near Ruben village had bathed the surrounding area with flood of light from it's massive crystal, allowing several villages to grow and prosper beneath its boughs and spread throughout the forest. Now that the El had been stolen, the villagers struggled just to stay alive in their own homes while the trees and animals died around them. Had this tragedy occurred months earlier, during the harvest... it is unlikely that seven would have been the final tally of the dead. Trudging through the empty street, Hagus surveyed the devastating haze of lifelessness around him.

"What of the other villages, Elsword?"

"They're all worse. There's no El to spare and everyone's huddled together and headed for Elder." Elsword clenched his teeth together.

"Hm... If it were not for you and the others, we would surely be doing the same... but what would we do in Elder? What wealth do we have that we could sustain our entire village there until Lord Wally's soldiers can apprehend the bandits who stole the El?"

"You won't have to! We'll go and take the El back!" Elsword stopped and turned to face the chief, "As soon as we get enough El for Lowe to come with us, we'll-"

"Elsword... we cannot leave the village unprotected. We've only four able bodied fighters here, and you and Lowe are the only two we could ask to stay. If we sent you all out after the bandits, what protection would we have against other that would come to steal what little El we have left in desperation?"

"But if we keep waiting around they'll get away, and it'll be spring before Wally's knights get their asses into gear and even start looking!" The two faced off in front of the Inn, Elsword's eyes fierce and determined, Hagus's tired and calm. While they stood with their gazes locked, the door swung open and a tall knight filled its frame.

"He's right, chief." Lowe glanced at both of them in turn. "And Elsword, watch your mouth. You might be a knight, but you're also just thirteen."

Elsword started to protest but stifled his complaint. "Yes, sir."

"Lowe, you cannot seriously think that four people can take down that swarm of bandits and retrieve the El? Even if you defeated them all, how would you carry the El back?" Hagus stepped inside and removed his cloak, the warm glow of candles and El pouring over him. Elsword followed, closing the door behind him.

Lowe headed over to an empty table and leaned against the back of a chair. "As it stands right now, it'll have to be just three. Aisha, Rena, and Elsword are all we've got, and we don't have time to wait around while those bandits take the El farther away."

"No, impossible... We cannot ask our guests to retrieve our El for us, and Elsword cannot do this alone-"

"I can do it alone!" Elsword rose just as he was about to settle into a seat.

"Sit back down." Lowe looked down at Elsword. "He's right about that part, you'll need help."

"No, I-"

"You're not up to Elsa's level yet." Lowe repeated that name with a gravity matched only by that of the stagnant air outside and Elsword went quiet immediately. The villagers around them all spoke quietly and anxiously, eating the surplus from this year's harvest and trying their best to be content. Hagus stroked his beard and closed his eyes, considering Lowe's plan and its consequences.

"...You may be right... In truth, we don't know where those bandits are headed, nor why they stole the El in the first place. Even with all the wealth from all of the villages in the forest, any ransom would be a paltry sum, and I cannot see Lord Wally emptying his coffers to save a few small villages just barely within his fiefdom. If they try to sell it to another kingdom or take it across the sea... there's little hope for us to ever get it back, and this forest will die, and us along with it..." He sighed and rested his hands on his knees. "Very well. Lowe, you'll stay here to defend the village. Elsword... when our guests return from scouting, the three of you will head out to retrieve the stolen El."

A broad, confident grin spread across Elsword's face. "Don't worry." He loosened a buckle and a loud thud echoed throughout the building as a massive blade fell from Elsword's back. He took it in hand and hefted it over his shoulder, "We'll get the El back, no matter what."