The caverns sung.
Heat and fumes rising from the deep left the air blurry, and the rapidly changing temperatures made the stalactites growing from the ceiling hum and chime. Between crystal stalagmites big and small walked an elf, and she was the last elf in the world.
Her bare feet left hardly a sound as she wandered among the pillars. They reached so high up towards the roof of the cavern that she couldn’t see where they ended; she only knew it had to be far, far away, for the occasional drops of moisture falling down hurt when they landed on her skin.
She ran her hand across the gleaming, translucent wall as she passed it. Her own reflection played across the shapes entombed inside it. They seemed to be everywhere in isolated, hard to reach places, for anywhere she went she found new ones. The vast woodlands outside. Inside the deepest reaches of the caverns. On the top of the mountain where a single path through the caves lead. Places where life had once been plentiful, places where traces of old magic still lingered.
Time had not touched their features, distantly similar to her own. Just taller, with longer hair as if it had never been cut when they had still dreamed and walked this earth. Their ears were elongated and sharp like hers, limbs long and graceful, but where she felt a sense of loss looking at them, their faces remained eternally calm and still like glass.
And they always would, no matter how many times she wandered past them.
She came to a halt besides a figure only partially covered. They stood upright, arms crossed over their chest as if they might look around and continue walking at any given moment. Crystal covered their arms and jutted out of their back, and when she touched the figure’s face, it was cool and smooth like glass. And just as hard, unyielding. She withdrew her hand.
Fossilised remains, nothing more. Before long the figure would be completely engulfed just like the others.
This was a younger one, she thought, younger than the rest yet ancient to what I am.
When they had walked these caverns just like she did now, how many had there been then? Had they been alone, or had they met each other in life, had they spoken, had they held hands? Or had they, too, felt the same longing, the same loneliness that she did, gazing at the only other creatures like them they had ever known?
For she had been alone for as long as she remembered, which was since she had opened her eyes for the first time. The first thing she had become aware of had been the singing of the caverns, and the shifting lights playing across the crystallized walls, like the bursts of aurora lights she would later see from an opening in the cavern’s ceiling. And as she wandered her abode she came to know darkness, and solitude, and that there was not a single other creature down there with her.
Had she known how to cry, she would have. There wasn’t a sound that had ever left her mouth. She had never once spoken. She didn’t know if she even could; what good were words to someone whose world consisted of silence?
A current of colder air made her shiver as she rounded a cluster of smaller crystals, growing atop a wide stone plinth. Within them lay curled another frozen figure, as if they had simply laid down to sleep and just never opened their eyes. Their hair was shorter, almost as short as hers. As she knelt down to touch the figure’s partially covered hands she wished she could lay beside them and hug their sleeping form and drift off, believing she was with her own.
It was then that she realised she was crying and couldn’t stop, and her first sounds in the world were those of a wounded animal.
If I stay here, I will become just like them, she knew. The thought could have been the weight of the entire mountain on her shoulders. I will diminish, and I will never wander again.
She was an elf, and elves did not decay like living things did. They were as eternal as the mountains and the trees; they faded and diminished like the magic that gave birth to them, but they did not return to the earth.
Her voice burst out of her, loud and clear, and it startled her so badly that she stopped crying at once. She clambered to her feet and wrenched her gaze away from the figures of the sleeping elves.
“There must be others in the world,” she said out loud. “I can’t be the only one. How would I know? I’ve never gone beyond the forest.”
Somehow, hearing the words spoken gave her comfort. Her voice sounded strange to her ears after seasons and seasons of silence, but already it marked her different from the others. She still moved. She still breathed. She had a voice, and thoughts, and a consciousness. She could still choose.
“I will find the others, wherever they are.”
Without a backwards glance she left the cave, and though she was afraid she did not stop walking when she reached the entrance.