This story takes place the same night as the last bonus stories, after Dee has left Steff’s company.
The slim, dark-skinned woman made her way through the dim hallways of the spiritual awareness center. She followed the signs to the stairwell which led into the basement, where the private meditation chambers were located.
The lights were out in all the chambers, so Gloria simply picked the first one on her left. She stepped in the door and flipped on the light, jumping and screaming in fright at the dark figure sitting cross-legged in the center of the floor.
The first thing that Gloria registered was that the woman was nude, and her skin was black… not black in the human sense, as Gloria’s was, but black. If there was any variation in her body’s pigmentation, either in her lips or her nipples or anywhere else, it was too subtle for Gloria to pick out. In fact, if not for her eyebrows and the white hair which spilled down around her shoulders, the thin form might have been carved from a single block of onyx.
When Gloria took in the thin, angular and androgynous beauty of the woman’s face and her pointed ears, she realized she was looking at a dark elf and her hand went to the hilt of her sword.
A moment later she realized that the elf had not yet made a move, hostile or other, and she relaxed, feeling embarrassed. She realized she’d been staring at the statue-like figure for far too long before she found her voice.
“I’m sorry,” she said, backing out through the door “I expected this room to be empty. The, ah, light was off.”
“I prefer the dark,” the seated woman said without opening her eyes, and barely even moving her lips.
“I can imagine,” Gloria said. “I apologize. I’m interrupting; I will go.”
“Please, the interruption has already occurred,” the dark elf replied. Her eyes were still closed. “I try to choose my hours of meditation to coincide with times when the building will most likely be empty. I find myself curious as to why another should visit the chambers at this hour.”
“Midnight services just ended,” Gloria said, not moving from the doorway. “And, after… I needed time to think. The temple and the dormitory are both social places, in their own way, and I preferred to be alone with my thoughts.”
“What is your name?”
“I am called Gloria,” Gloria said. “Gloria Dhambizao.”
“I am Delia Daella d’Wyr,” the meditating elf said. “Called Delia Daella, or Dee to those who would be my friends.”
“May I call you Dee?” Gloria asked.
“That is your determination to make.”
“Then I will,” Gloria said. “May I ask you a question, Dee?”
“You may,” Dee said.
“You are naked,” Gloria said.
“Your powers of perception are remarkable for a human,” Dee said. “However, that is not a question.”
“Is this some sort of… rite?” Gloria asked. She swallowed. “What I mean to say is… I am not sure how to phrase this.”
“Am I engaged in a sexual ritual? In a manner of speaking,” Dee said. “I am an initiated priestess of the forsaken goddess, and the thoughts I have come here to think are not a priestess’s thoughts. I would not wear a priestess’s robes while I entertain them.”
“Do you have no other garments?”
“Any garment I own is a priestess’s, is it not?” Dee said.
“I see,” Gloria said. “I suppose I can understand. That is the other reason I did not remain in the temple.”
“You are troubled by impious thoughts?”
“By worldly matters.”
“Will you sit?” Dee asked. She still had yet to open her eyes or move.
“Will you dress?” Gloria asked.
“Not until I have purified my thoughts,” Dee said.
“I am not comfortable speaking with a naked woman,” Gloria said. “I’m sorry.”
“Is it a matter of your faith?”
“It is a matter of decency.”
“There is nothing indecent about my body,” Dee said without rancor. “There are sacraments which require me to bare it.”
“I am not surprised,” Gloria said. “Being that you are dedicated to an evil goddess, such perversion is to be expected.”
“Arakhis is not evil,” Dee said. “She is a goddess of intricacy.”
“I suppose she must not seem evil, to you,” Gloria said charitably. “I believe that the commission of evil acts is a matter of ignorance among humans, and possibly among other races of similar intelligence.”
“I find myself strangely in agreement,” Dee said, a wry note in her voice which Gloria did not understand. “In any event, you do not fear to converse with an ‘evil’ priestess but you balk at nudity?”
“I fear no evil thing beneath the sun,” Gloria said.
“I am afraid I qualify on neither count,” Dee said. “But you need not fear me.”
Gloria came into the room, closing the door behind her. She took up a position about five feet away from Dee, mimicking her cross-legged posture. Once she was settled, Dee slowly opened her eyes and took in Gloria’s appearance.
“You are of the Argenti, I think?” she asked.
“Yes,” Gloria said. “You know of my people?”
“I have greater academic knowledge of your culture than that which plays host to us,” Dee said. “My formal schooling focused more on the human race in its natural state than the light skinned variants which have come after. I did not know that animists had temples.”
“I am a Khersian,” Gloria said. “It is the natural religion of humanity, whatever choices individuals or groups may make to the contrary.”
“I apologize,” Dee said, bending at the waist to bow forward on the floor. “I meant no affront.”
“Do not bow to me, please,” Gloria said, grimacing and twisting away.
“It is my way of apologizing,” Dee said, lifting herself back into the upright seated position. “I should know better than to draw inferences from the color of your skin. I am distracted by my troubles.”
“What troubles you?”
“Thoughts of people I love dearly,” Dee said, “and will not see again until my schooling here is complete.”
“Will you not go home for the summer?” Gloria asked.
“The journey from my home to the surface or back takes weeks to complete and is too dangerous to be undertaken without necessity,” Dee said. “I will not see my family and my loved ones for four years.”
“I sympathize,” Gloria said. “My situation is much the same. But is four years so long, for your kind?”
“There are the same number of seconds in a year for an elf as there are for a human,” Dee said. “Though, of course, we do not actually mark time in the same way. Your days and years are based on the movements of the sun. We have no such markers to rely upon.”
“How do you measure time, then?” Gloria asked.
“Our time is divided into… shifts… of about twelve hours,” Dee said. “One shift for eating, resting, and reflection followed by one dedicated to labor and duty. Five hundred and thirty-two shifts make up a cycle, the closest thing we reckon to a year.”
“It seems strange,” Gloria said. “I realize you do not see the sun, but would it not be useful to track days and years anyway?”
“Useful in what sense?”
Gloria had no answer for that. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
“What is the basis for your cycle?” she asked instead. “Some event?”
“Motherhood,” Dee replied. “It is the basis for everything. A child leaves the womb one cycle old, so it is the most convenient measure of age.”
“Then you believe life begins at conception,” Gloria reasoned.
“We celebrate each new life,” she said. “It is considered a sin to bring about a birth which cannot be joyously welcomed.”
“Do dark elves practice abortion, then?”
“I do not like that term,” Dee said. “Are you a dark human?”
“I am a native of the Argentus Archipelago,” Gloria said. “The people of this land call me islander, Pelagian, and other names… but in the language of my people, our name simply means ‘people.’ I call myself human.”
“And by that token, I am an elf,” Dee said. “To answer your question, we do our best to avoid it, but sometimes it is necessary to send a child on into the silence. Ideally, this is done before she has been born, but the world is not always ideal.”
“Indeed it is not, but I can hardly imagine a situation where such a thing would be ‘necessary’,” Gloria said. “The murder of a child is among the highest of crimes.”
“The Argentus Archipelago is in the region of the outer world denoted as the tropics, is it not?” Dee asked. Gloria nodded. “Where the sun shines warm and bright for an entire year, and the trees grow heavy with fruit and shelter abundant animal life?”
“Yes,” Gloria said. “The islands are sometimes referred to as a worldly paradise, though they are not without their hardships and dangers.”
“But those hardships do not include a paucity of food,” Dee said. “My people live in caverns of lifeless stone. In this day and age, we have settled and carved out great cities around the underground lakes and seas, and we cultivate mushrooms, fungus… lizards for eggs and meat, but once we were nomads, roaming the endless tunnels in search of food and water. A child who could not be fed would be sent with love to the care of the goddess. It still happens, though not often. Births are planned carefully and awaited with great anticipation.”
“Children are a precious gift,” Gloria said. “A mother should go hungry rather than let her child go wanting.”
“And if the mothers all starve and there’s none left to care for the children?” Dee countered. “A capable elf who lives to adulthood can live forever and can always have more children. The survival of the family… of the race… rests with the mothers.”
“Well, I suppose it would be wrong of me to expect you to know any better than that,” Gloria said.
“Your generosity of spirit quite overwhelms me,” Dee said.
“I think I will pray for you, Dee,” Gloria said. “And your people.”
“I will pray for you, as well,” Dee said.
“What exactly would you be praying for?” Gloria asked, a nervous note in her voice.
“That you may have alim,” Dee said.
“What does that mean?” Gloria asked.
“Peace, safety, bounty, wisdom,” Dee said.
“All of that?”
“They are the same thing,” Dee said. “It was only when my people founded their cities and learned to husband their resources that they knew either peace or safety, and were able to pursue wisdom.”
“In a world like you describe, does not possessing bountiful resources make you a target for others?” Gloria asked.
“Yes,” Dee said. “It does.”
“So, as your bounty increases, is not your peace and safety imperiled?”
“So… what do you do?” Gloria asked.
“We pray often,” Dee said. “And we learn to defend ourselves.”
“I think I should go now,” Gloria said.
“I fear I have made you uncomfortable,” Dee said.
“It is like my interruption,” Gloria said. “The discomfort has already happened, but… perhaps it has been good for me.”
“Goodbye, Gloria Dhambizao,” Dee said. She closed her eyes again, and listened as Gloria rose and walked to the door. She felt the light go out and then the door closed, and she was alone once again with her thoughts.