It was midday, and the glare was blinding. The fact that her head was throbbing didn’t help. “Oh, sweet Y’ffre,” groaned Kaawen, a tiny Bosmer with long, silver hair and emerald-green eyes, squinting to block out the sunlight. Well, at least she wasn’t seasick anymore. She usually had no problem with ocean travel, but riding out a hurricane could make anybody’s stomach do flipflops.
She dragged herself to a sitting position and took in her surroundings. She was on a beach strewn with debris, and a handful of shipwrecks dotted the coastline. The storm had come up out of nowhere, and it had been devastating. She didn’t even see the Wayrest, the ship she had been sailing on, among the wreckage. She wondered how far she had traveled before washing ashore. The last thing she remembered was getting tossed over the side by a huge wave and feeling a searing pain in her head. She had been sure she was going to die, but apparently the Divines weren’t done with her yet, because here she sat. Aside from the headache, she seemed to be all right; she even had her bow with her, still threaded through the strap of her knapsack, which remained buckled across her chest. Unfortunately, her quiver and all of her arrows were gone.
A smiling Khajiit walked over to her. She was striped like a senche-tiger, with black dreadlocks and a pleasant face with two studs in her lower lip. “Ah, good, you are awake!” the Khajiit purred.
Kaawen dug through the sodden contents of her knapsack for a leather strap, then combed her fingers through her hair and pulled it back into a braid. “Just barely.”
“How do you feel?”
“Like I’ve been through a hurricane. Did you wash up on shore too?”
“No, this one made it in unharmed. I do not care to sail through corpses, but if I dock at Mistral, they’ll inspect my cargo—which is all legitimate, I assure you!”
“Mistral. Are we on Khenarthi’s Roost? I just left here.”
“Welcome back. Yes, you are on the beach outside Eagles Strand Fort. Incidentally, you did not wash ashore, either. A Khajiit named Razum-Dar fished you out of the sea and brought you here. He asked me to keep an eye on you till you woke up. This one said yes. She believes he wanted to speak with you.”
“Where is he now?”
“He is inside the fort. You cannot miss him. Red hair strip, black leather armor, devastatingly handsome.”
Kaawen turned her head and looked at the fort that loomed over the beach. It really wasn’t much of a fort; it was mostly in ruins. More than half of it had gotten washed away in storms over the years, and it looked like even more of it had been damaged in today’s squall. But they still used it for one thing or another. Apparently, that included this Razum-Dar fellow.
“Thank you . . .”
“Thanks, Sugar-Claws. I’m Kaawen.”
“Pleasure to meet you. I am sure we will speak again.”
Kaawen made her way up the beach and through the gates of the fort. Lots of people were milling around, mostly talking about the storm. Some were being treated for injuries. At the top of a low hill, she noticed a Khajiit waving at her. He fit Sugar-Claws’s description, so she ascended the knoll.
“You, there. Wet one. This one needs to speak to you,” he said.
“So I heard. I hear you’re responsible for saving my life.”
“Eh, Raz was simply in the right place at the right time.”
“Still, I appreciate it. Is there any way I can repay you?”
“Funny you should mention that. Raz is here on a mission of some . . . delicacy. You are no soldier, which is useful. You can speak to the locals, assure them we are not invaders or marauders. If anyone asks, just tell them you are a soldier who survived the hurricane.”
“How can you tell I’m not a soldier?”
“Your bearing is different, the way you carry yourself. You are a fighter, most likely a hunter, but you do not belong to the military.”
Kaawen had no idea what this Khajiit was talking about, but she was too curious to tell him to go away. Besides, she was short on money and this might be a source of some good coin. She would see this through, find out what he was up to. “Sure, why not?”
“Come. There is someone Raz wants you to meet.”
Razum-Dar led Kaawen through the fort and met up with a lovely Altmer in heavy steel armor. She towered over Kaawen like most high elves did, gazing down at her imperiously. Kaawen met her eyes boldly.
“Commander Karinith,” said Raz, “a moment? This recruit survived the shipwreck without injuries. You mentioned something about the Shattered Shoals, yes?”
“Yes,” said the commander. “Glad you’re up and about, recruit. I need a scout to head out to Shattered Shoals. Most of our fleet foundered along the west, but we’ve had a few trickle in from that direction.”
“Are you looking for anything specific?”
“Assist any injured you find—anyone, of course, but especially marines. Also, we captured a Sea Viper spying on the camp. Those pirates never travel alone. See if there are any more around Shattered Shoals, and find out what they are doing on this island.”
“Speak with Ealcil before you go. He just returned from exploring a nearby temple and claims to know something about everything. He may know something of the Sea Vipers.”
“Come,” said Razum-Dar. “Ealcil is this way.”
He led Kaawen to a small courtyard where a copper-haired Altmer wizard was studying an orb. It was gray and ugly, and it spun in midair and periodically shot water across the courtyard. One such blast hit Kaawen directly in the face, and she swore. Raz chuckled.
“This one thinks you will have trouble staying dry while on Khenarthi’s Roost, yes?”
“Keep that up, and I’m going to use your tail as a towel.”
With that, Raz laughed even harder.
The wizard turned around and began speaking as if they’d been there all along. “Marvelous, isn’t it? We’ll have to construct a special room for it when we get it back to the Mages Guild.” He looked at them curiously, as though only now realizing they hadn’t been there before. “I’m sorry, did you need something?”
“What is that?” Kaawen asked him.
“It’s the Mourning Stone. Fantastic, no? We recovered it from the Temple of the Mourning Springs. As you can see, its supply of water appears endless.”
“Yes, Commander Karinith said you had just returned. Did you happen to encounter any Sea Vipers?”
“What, do you mean those Maormer pirates? Divines no, although there were plenty of undead to go around.”
“You were attacked by undead? Why?”
“I’ve no idea. Actually, have twelve ideas, but they’re far less fascinating than the Mourning Stone. Probably some ancient curse; it usually is with these things.” He turned back to the stone, and Kaawen sighed with frustration.
Razum-Dar patted her on the shoulder. “We should speak in private. Come with Raz.”
Kaawen followed Raz to the northern gate, where no one else was around. He turned to her and said, “Ealcil is most impressed with his newest toy, no? One can’t help but wonder if he unwittingly released the undead when he took the artifact. While you are exploring the island, check out the Temple of the Mourning Springs. Perhaps you can determine how to contain the undead there. Then the locals should see we come here as allies, not conquerors.”
“What about you?”
“Oh, there’s far less glamorous work for Razum-Dar. Meet me back here later and tell me what you found.”
“I assume I’m going to be paid for all this.”
With a chuckle, Raz said, “Yes, shorty-elf. You will be well compensated. See to the weaponsmith on the northeast side of the fort before you go; get yourself some arrows and a dagger. Tell him Raz sent you, and he won’t charge you.”
“All right.” She started to turn away but stopped and looked back at him. “Raz, why are you doing this?”
“Raz told you. You can help reassure the locals.”
“I’m not the only one who washed up on the beach.”
“But you were the only one Raz saved from drowning. And the only one he could peg as a fighter. Call it a hunch. You are just what he needs here.”
“Thanks for the opportunity.”
“You can pay this one back by not letting him down.”
“Absolutely. I’ll see you later.” She turned and headed back through the fort, nodding hello to an Altmer she noticed standing on a low ledge and leaning unassumingly against the wall. He made Commander Karinith seem short, and Kaawen barely came up to his shoulders. His golden skin was an interesting contrast to his hair, which was silver like hers, pushed back from his face and cut just at his collar. His eyes were like topazes bathed in sunlight. He was gorgeous. He winked in response to her nod, and she smiled inwardly as she continued on to the weaponsmith’s.
* * *
Betath Anyuviel watched the tiny wood elf walk away from Razum-Dar, who waved him over. “What do you think?” the Khajiit asked him.
“I think she would fit in my knapsack.”
“Follow her. This one has a good feeling about her.”
“And don’t call Raz ‘sir’! How many times must this one tell you?”
“Sorry, sir. It won’t happen again.”
* * *
Kaawen stopped at the weaponsmith’s for arrows and daggers, of which she took two and stuffed them into her belt. She also stopped at a supply station and grabbed some bandages and first aid supplies, including a healing potion to combat her headache. Then she left the fort and headed up the beach, looking for survivors and evidence of the Sea Vipers.
She stopped to help the injured several times as she combed the beach, but they were mostly civilians. She had to fight a few alits, large, leathery beasts with no front legs and lots of sharp teeth. They weren’t too much trouble, especially because a few soldiers happened to be around as well and helped her fight. Even after the soldiers departed, however, Kaawen got the feeling she wasn’t alone. She turned and looked behind her, but she didn’t see anyone. But the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, and she didn’t like being watched.
She finally came across a marine, a Bosmer who sat next to a pile of rubble, holding an injured arm. She was quite a bit older than Kaawen, with dark red hair and the hard eyes of an experienced soldier.
“You there,” said the marine. “I’m Sergeant Firion. Have you seen my squad?”
Kaawen shook her head. “Not that I know of.”
“We were on the Little Alkosh, part of the Dominion fleet sailing for Khenarthi’s Roost, when that hurricane blew up out of nowhere. We were thrown into the ocean.”
“Same here. I was on the Wayrest.”
“I ended up here, but I can’t find the rest of my squad. I thought I heard one of them calling out, but the ocean twists up sounds. If they were wounded or pinned down . . . could you keep an eye out for my soldiers? They answer to Edhelas, Onglorn, and Nistel.”
“Of course. If they’re injured, I have some first aid supplies.”
“I can help with that too. Our ship’s hold was packed full of an old Bosmer healing remedy. The labels say Torchbug Treacle, but marines call it glow juice. The wreck scattered bottles across the beach; must be what brought out the alits. Their sweet tooth is bigger than their walnut brains. I saw one of the things swallow a whole bottle of glow juice. Glass and all!”
“I know Torchbug Treacle from back home. I’ll keep an eye out and take some to your squad if I see any.”
“Good luck. And do me a favor? If you find them before I do, tell them the ocean hasn’t killed me yet.”
With a smile, Kaawen said, “Will do.”
She fought a few more alits and found several bottles of glow juice, as well as the members of Sergeant Firion’s squad, who were all grateful for the assistance. The feeling that someone was watching her still lingered, and once, she turned her head and could have sworn she saw the handsome Altmer from the fort leaning against a rock. But it might have been her imagination. There were lots of high elves roaming the beach.
When she found Onglorn and gave him the Torchbug Treacle, he sent her further along. “Lieutenant Gelin dragged me out of the water. He’ll want to know Sergeant Firion and the rest of the squad are all right. Think he said something about looking for shelter in a nearby cave, but I was still coughing up sand.”
Kaawen nodded. “I’ve seen a few caves up and down the beach. I’ll see if I can find him too.”
She continued her search, helping survivors as she went and asking questions about the Sea Vipers, but if anyone knew about them, they weren’t talking. They did manage to direct her to a cave where they thought some marines were holed up. Kaawen went into the cave and seriously considered going right back out. It was filled with snakes. She wasn’t afraid of snakes, but the huge piles of bones that the creatures slithered around gave her the chills. There were also hundreds of candles, all flaming brightly, and several short posts were stuck into the ground amid the piles of bones.
Kaawen found a corpse tied to one of the posts. His armor bore the insignia of an Aldmeri Dominion marine lieutenant. His body was covered with shallow slashes and looked as though he had bled to death, slowly and painfully. A greenish foam mingled with the smeared blood. “Who in the world would do such a thing?” she whispered to herself.
She stood up and was turning to go when she was suddenly stopped by a loud hiss. There in front of her stood a snake, but it wasn’t small like the ones she had stepped over to get into the cave. This one was at least ten feet long, as big around as she was, and it was reared up and hissing at her.
With a single, swift motion, she drew her bow and sent an arrow into its scales, and the snake screamed and struck at her. Kaawen managed to dodge the lunge and get off another shot, backing away in the process, but the big reptile pursued her, hissing and snapping. She held out a hand and released a Strife spell at the snake, but the health it leeched wasn’t enough and only exposed her hand. It struck again and managed to get ahold of her arm as she reached for an arrow with the other hand, and its fangs sank deep into her flesh. She screamed and jabbed the arrow she was holding in the creature’s eye. It let go of her arm, but she found that with the pain of the bite, and perhaps the venom it had injected into her, she couldn’t draw her bow. Just as she turned to run, someone moved past her in a golden flash and launched two fireballs in quick succession. The snake shrieked, seized up, and collapsed to the floor of the cave, dead.
“Are you insane?” the golden giant from Eagle’s Strand asked in a highborn accent. “Going up against a snake like that alone?”
“Well, I didn’t exactly seek him out, you know. He snuck up on me.”
He pulled a salve out of his knapsack and handed it to her. “Rub that on. It will draw out the poison. I’m just glad I happened along when I did.”
“Happened along, right,” she said with a wry expression on her face. She rubbed the ointment into the bite marks on her arm and handed the jar back to the Altmer. Her skin tingled as the milky-white poison leeched out of the wounds and ran down her arm.
“That was quick,” she mused.
“Indeed.” The Altmer held his staff toward her and released a small burst of light that left a glowing nimbus trailing up and down her arm, which instantly felt better.
“Well, I do appreciate it. Perhaps since you’ve been following me since I left the fort, you can just stay with me and help out.”
With a mischievous grin and an air of feigned innocence, he said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You’re not that good a sneak, you know.”
“Look, if you just want to travel together, all you have to do is ask. I would imagine you need someone to keep you out of trouble.”
“I’ve never met anyone who could keep me out of trouble.”
He smiled. “I bet that’s true. Ah, well, I’m no stranger to trouble myself. I’m Betath. Betath Anyuviel.”
“Kaawen. It’s short for Kaawenyth, but only my da calls me that.”
“Do you have a surname?”
Kaawen shook her head. “Most Bosmer don’t worry with them. We just try to give as unique names as possible, or just use our parents’ names or our city of birth.”
“Many Altmer do the same.”
“Except for the pretentious ones,” she said with a smirk.
Betath shrugged. “Except for the pretentious ones.” He nodded at the dead marine. “You were looking for him, I take it?”
“Yes, the marines I encountered on the beach, he was their lieutenant. I have to go find them now and let them know he’s dead.”
He walked over to the post and examined the tableau before him. “Looks to be some sort of ritual. See how the cuts form repetitive patterns? And the blood was smeared in just such a way.”
“I noticed. And all the bones had to come from somewhere. This obviously isn’t the first time this has happened.”
“I know the Maormer possess magic, but this is very dark stuff.”
“Do you think it’s them?”
He looked back at her gravely. “Better an enemy we know than one we don’t. Let’s get out of here.”
They left the cave and walked back out to the beach, and before long they came upon Sergeant Firion and her squad.
“Did you find Lieutenant Gelin?” Firion asked.
“I did. I’m sorry; he’s dead. I found his body in a cave.”
“It looked like he was killed in some sort of ritual,” said Betath. “Perhaps a sacrifice.”
The sergeant’s eyes widened with alarm. “A sacrifice! Jone and Jode, this is too big for my squad to handle! We need reinforcements. There’s a ship down the beach. It looks mostly intact, and Nistel thought she had spotted Dominion sailors aboard. We’ll see if we can combine our forces and find out who murdered Lieutenant Gelin. And we need to pull his body out of that damned cave.”
“You and your squad take care of your lieutenant. Betath and I will go see if we can get help from the ship. And warn them that it’s not safe to go wandering around.”
“Here,” said the sergeant, handing Kaawen a couple of bottles of Torchbug Treacle. “I found some extra glow juice while I was looking for my squad. Hold onto them in case you need them.”
“Thanks.” Kaawen stuffed the bottles in her knapsack and headed down the beach with Betath following.
“A hurricane blows up out of nowhere, and we find evidence of a ritual sacrifice,” Betath mused.
“Do you think the two are linked?”
“Of course they’re linked. I don’t believe in coincidence.”
“You don’t believe in—really? Weird. I’m not saying the world is just chaos, but too much happens for it to all be fate. There’s free will and all that.”
“Do you believe this is a coincidence?”
“He was captured after the hurricane.”
Betath stopped and looked at her for a long moment, as if he were trying to process what she had said. He finally shook his head and said, “You are correct, of course. But I still believe the two events are related. I just have not figured it out yet.”
They found the ship and the quartermaster, a spotted Khajiit standing at the end of the gangplank with a clipboard in his hand. He looked them up and down.
“You aren’t a slick-arsed Sea Viper or a cabbage-mouthed castaway. State your business with the crew of the Prowler.”
“A Dominion marine was killed in a nearby cave,” said Kaawen.
“The hurricane killed hundreds.”
“This one didn’t drown. He was murdered in some kind of ritual, and his squad needs reinforcements.”
“Oh. Well, perhaps your marines can help the Prowler. If they pitch in to repair the ship and make her seaworthy again, I’ll consider reinforcements.”
The crew was willing to help out, and they all worked through the night, scavenging parts from shipwrecks and making repairs. They worked as fast as possible because the wind was starting to pick up, and distant lightning hinted that another storm may be coming. As daylight came over the horizon, they could see the storm swirling out in the ocean. The clouds and wind had already overtaken a nearby island; it wouldn’t be long before it came ashore and the whole thing started all over again.
“Tell your marines they are welcome to room and board on our ship,” Quartermaster Oblan told Kaawen. “As long as they work for their food.”
“What about the reinforcements you promised?”
“I said I would consider it. Captain Jimila is the only one who can make that decision. Go see her; she wants to speak with you anyway.”
The quartermaster directed Kaawen and Betath to the helm, where they found the captain, a pretty Khajiit with pale fur and dark spots on her arms. “Due to your efforts,” she said when they approached, “the Prowler is free to sail once the tide comes in. We thank you. I have no reinforcements, but I offer something better. I know who killed your lieutenant, and I know to prevent more killings.”
“Go on,” said Betath.
“Our lookout saw the Sea Vipers drag a Dominion marine into that cave. If we weren’t so short-handed, I’d have ordered a rescue, but three of my own crew were missing.”
“What happened to your crew?” Kaawen asked.
“They were captured while scavenging among the shoals. One of them has returned, and she tells a harrowing tale. Find Mastengwe below decks and she will tell you what she knows.”
They found a traumatized Altmer sitting on the floor of one of the sleeping rooms, her arms around her curled-up legs.
“Are you Mastengwe?” Kaawen asked her.
“Yes. Did the captain send you? I have to tell you, the Sea Vipers are insane! They’re trying to create another hurricane.”
“What? How is that possible?”
“Suhr, Virkvild, and I were scavenging for replacement parts when the Sea Vipers ambushed us. They took us to the island with the beached Dominion flagship. They’d done terrible things there, terrible things! They dragged my mates up and tied them to these serpent-shaped statues; then they started chanting, and lightning surrounded them. That’s when the storm began to form around the island.”
“The Sea Vipers created the storm?” Betath exclaimed. “I knew they were not coincidental!”
“Oh, it was a terrible sight,” said Mastengwe. “The Sea Vipers were so caught up in the ritual, I slipped free. I tried to grab Suhr, but the lightning held him fast. He was in so much pain.”
“How did the lightning not affect the Sea Vipers?” asked Kaawen.
“The Maormer wore lodestones on their wrists, so they were safe from the lightning. While they were distracted, I jumped off the ship and swam for it. But Suhr and Virkvild are still out there!”
Kaawen and Betath went back topside and peered out across the expanse toward the small island where the storm raged. It was centered around the island and the beached ship, and it wasn’t moving. Then with a sudden jolt, it seemed to increase in size. Kaawen knew what she had to do.
She looked up at Betath. “I’m going across.”
“What?” he replied incredulously. “Are you mad?”
“If they’re using those two sailors to cause a hurricane, we have to interrupt the ritual. We obviously can’t do it from here.”
“Oh, by Auri-El, you are mad.”
Kaawen grinned at him. “You coming with me?”
“Well, of course I’m coming with you. Razum-Dar would kill me if I lost track of you.”
“Ha! I knew you were following me!”
“Nope. No idea what you’re talking about.”
“Looks like sandbars most of the way there, but we may have to swim out to the island.”
“Well, you’ll have to swim. I’ll likely just wade.” Kaawen made a rude gesture, and he laughed.
They left the ship, navigating sandbars and shallows until they were less than a hundred yards from the storm-lashed island. They fought a few Sea Vipers on the way, and Betath seemed impressed with her abilities.
“You’re a Nightblade,” he noted as he pulled the lodestone from the wrist of one of the Maormer.
“Yes. My mother teases me, calls me a vampire because I favor Siphoning. She prefers the Shadow school, which is great, but I enjoy a good fight rather than sneaking past an enemy.”
“You do kill easily.”
“I grew up in Grahtwood, where my parents are part of the Vinedusk Rangers,” Kaawen replied as she affixed a lodestone to her own wrist. “They taught me to fight and to hunt, but I had to learn to kill the hard way, all on my own. If it’s me or them, I don’t have much choice, do I? But never think I find it easy to kill another person.”
Only when they got close did they feel the wind and the spray of the sea. The hurricane was still isolated to the island, although it was beginning to expand beyond its borders. They swam through the shallow water and made it to shore with little trouble, then found a plank leading up to the deck of the ship.
A mage was floating in the middle of the deck, caught up in some sort of trance, and the storm seemed to emanate directly from him. While the eye of a hurricane is usually calm, the center of this one was worse than the eye wall. Kaawen could barely hold herself up as the wind battered her and threatened to knock her off balance. Betath reached out to catch her a couple of times when he apparently thought she would blow away. She managed to catch hold of the railing, though, and keep her feet planted on the deck.
Betath motioned for Kaawen to follow, and they fought against the wind and rain as they ascended the stairs to the aft of the ship, where they found a Khajiit suspended amid a large construct made of two serpent-shaped prongs. Lightning was holding him in place and he was moaning in agony. Betath pointed the lodestone at the construct, and the lightning migrated toward his wrist, breaking the connection with the Khajiit, who slumped to the floor.
Kaawen knelt to help him up and handed him a bottle of Torchbug Treacle, which he gulped down. “Are you okay to walk?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “This one is getting out of here. Those Sea Vipers are insane!” He dashed down the stairs and jumped over the side of the ship, barely slowing down until he hit the water and began to swim.
The storm continued to rage as they made their way to the prow, completely ignored by the Maormer on the deck. They found the other sailor bound in the same type of contraption as the Khajiit, and Kaawen used the lodestone to free him.
“They won’t kill me today!” the sailor said joyfully as the storm instantly began to die down. By the time he had swallowed a potion and trotted down the plank to the ground, the clouds had dissipated, the sun was shining on the wrecked ship, and the mage on the deck was nowhere to be seen.
“That was easier than I thought it would be,” Kaawen quipped.
Betath looked at her like she had sprouted horns. “You call that easy? By the Divines, woman!”
“Well, it’s a long way back to the Prowler. Perhaps it will get more difficult between now and then.”
But it didn’t, not really. They fought and killed more Sea Vipers, and Kaawen found herself giggling hysterically when Betath would sneak up behind one and hit them with a low swing his staff augmented by his magic, sending them flying through the air into the sea. By the time they reached the Prowler, they were laughing and chatting like old friends.
Captain Jimila was very appreciative. “Suhr and Virkvild returned just after the skies cleared. My lookout says I have you to thank.”
“Yes, we stopped the ritual,” said Kaawen.
“Then we’ll finish repairs and shove off at high tide. Your marine friends fended off the Sea Vipers while you rescued my crew. They are welcome aboard as long as they want.”
“Where are you heading now?” Kaawen asked her.
“Mistral first, for supplies. After that . . . well, we’ll see where the ocean takes us. Perhaps we’ll meet again.” She handed Kaawen a heavy coin purse. “For your trouble.”
“Thank you, Captain Jimila.”
“No, shorty-elf. Thank you. We won’t be casting off for several hours. Why don’t you two take a rest belowThis one imagines you need some sleep.”
“Again, thank you.”
As they went below decks, Kaawen smiled at Betath. “When Commander Karinith said to help survivors, I wonder if that’s what she had in mind.”
“No, I believe you’ve gone way above and beyond the call with this one, Kaawen.”
She went into one of the sleeping rooms and climbed atop an empty bunk. Betath ducked into the bunk beneath her, and she leaned over the side. “She was right: I’m beat. When I get up, I’m off to this temple Raz mentioned. Do you want to accompany me, or will you go back to following me from a distance now?”
Betath smiled at her. Sweet Y’ffre, he was handsome! “No, I think it will be better for all parties involved if I accompany you. I will probably need to step in and defend you anyway.”
“Mighty sure of ourselves, aren’t we?”
“It’s just that you’re awfully small. Back in the hurricane, I was looking for some string in the hope that I could fly you like a kite. I wouldn’t want you to get stepped on by any of the undead.”
“Sure, keep talking, golden giant. You’ll scare them off just by stomping toward them. Is it at all possible for you to be stealthy?”
“You have no idea, shorty-elf,” he said with a wink.