She’d always worked in the far fields, the hive a distant growth against the side of the mountain while she did her work near the slopes that dove down into the gorges.
She’d never really considered herself to be different from any of the other water sylphs who worked near her. She was nameless, she was busy, she was happy and contented. She was well fed and had friends she giggled and gossiped with. She knew her place in the word and enjoyed it.
He was a battle sylph, a guard placed to scout the end of the field and watch for predators. He was there to protect all of them and she certainly had no problem with that. Just knowing he was near kept her relaxed, not worrying about what might crawl up out of one of the cracks in the ground.
Perhaps that gratitude was what made her start talking to him. It certainly wasn’t forbidden, but it was unusual for a water sylph to have anything resembling a regular conversation with a battle sylph. The breeds mostly kept to their own. Still, he sometimes looked lonely as he floated along the edge of the crops she tended, gazing towards the hive that his duty kept him from.
“Hello,” she said to him one day. He was so surprised that it delighted her and she resolved to keep doing it.
He didn’t react the second day she greeted him, or the third. He gave her the barest nod on the fourth. It wasn’t much of a reaction, but it pleased her and she kept doing it, greeting him in the most outlandishly silly ways she could think of. It gave her a bit of entertainment beyond endlessly tending the fields, but she didn’t think it had any effect on him until one day when he was floating past and she gave him a particularly high-pitched and cheerful hello. He stopped and rolled over in midair, regarding her with one ball lightning eye.
You’re silly, he told her.
Of course I am! she replied. He laughed.
From that moment, he would detour his route to make sure he passed her, even when she was far in the middle of the field, and it became a challenge to see which of them could call out their hello first.
They kept that tradition for seasons, while the crops grew and were harvested, planted and grown again. Every day, until he was the first thing she looked for when the suns rose and she left the huddle where she waited out the most dangerous hours of the night with her sisters.
On the latest morning of their tradition, she saw a black shape passing along the edge of the field, far away from her. She darted towards him, hoping to cut him off before he came looking for her, and crashed out of the rows of lush purple plants with her hello ready.
She was nearly obliterated by the battle sylph she startled. The strange battler. He reared back and yelled at her, calling her stupid.
She barely heard him. Where is he? she gasped.
The battle sylph who was here yesterday, she said frantically, and the day before. Where is he? Is he okay? A panic she’d never have expected filled her, confusing her. Why was she worried about a battle sylph? Battlers were fighters. Fighting and guarding was all they did. They didn’t need a single water sylph worrying about them.
The battle sylph obviously agreed as he looked at her as if he thought she were mad. He was sent with the gorge hunt teams, he admitted at last.
Why? she thought in horror. Why him? Why now?
Why did it matter?
He was a battle sylph. He fought and defended, he strove to be worthy of the Queen. She was a water elemental, passive and pacifistic. She took care of the growing crops the hive depended on. For all they lived in the same hive, they belonged to different worlds. So why did she feel as if the core of her had been torn out?
There were ten thousand sylphs in the hive, all speaking on the same hive line. There was so much noise that no one used it except when close together. There was no way that she could single out a single battle sylph, no matter how hard she tried.
What gorge? she wailed.
The battler was already turning to continue his rounds, uncaring of simple games and friendly hellos. The river drop, he said and was past her.
The river drop. Deep, twisting, dark. A channel down to the jungles below the mountain and a route for predators to climb up to the hive. She’d heard horror stories about it. There weren’t any fields nearby, even the Queen judging the risk too great for her sylphs. Battlers scoured it for danger constantly.
Battlers died in it frequently.
She found herself racing across the ground before she even understood what she was doing. She couldn’t fly the way that air and fire sylphs could, or healers and battlers. She could change shape, though, and dropped her usual rather amorphous form for something with many legs that galloped her across the ground.
No one stopped her. No one had ever considered they’d need to stop a water sylph from going into a gorge. She reached it and forced herself down into the dim light, her feet scrabbling for purchase on the rough ground, the dirt dampening from her nervousness.
She kept thinking of his laugh, and his surprise, and the sound of his voice when he said hello. All the conversations they’d had about so many different things. Secrets she never felt like talking about with her sisters. He’d told her secrets as well, admitting that he trusted her more than anyone else.
Now he was here, in the dark. She kept going down, listening and straining to sense his pattern as the shadows closed in and the temperature dropped. The gorge was wet and narrow, small rocks and pebbles shaking loose with every step she took.
She heard a hiss in the darkness and turned to see something segmented and luminous, long and skeletal, coming her way through a wide crack. It hissed with hunger, its pattern one of murder.
She squealed as it snarled and when it lunged for her, she leaped high into the air, over its head and down to the ground past it. She ran and heard it chasing, snarling and hungry.
She was going to die down here. That thing would catch her and devour her energy until nothing was left and all she could think about was that she’d never see the battler again. It felt so monumentally unfair.
A blast of destructive energy hit the predator. It exploded and she was thrown forward, tumbling over and over until something warm and dark caught her, something that flickered with friendly, welcoming lightning.
She looked up into the swirling eyes of her battle sylph.
Hello, she whispered.
Hello, he said back, his tentacles wrapped around her, leaving her feeling safe. I missed you.
She sighed and nestled against him, not questioning it. She’d missed him too.