"Hey," Mitch said as he walked into the grimy alley, "you know where I can find Sam?"
"I'm Sam," a young man in a dirty hoodie said. He was sitting against one of the walls, next to a dumpster that shielded him from the wind.
"Oh, sorry," Mitch said. "I thought Sam was a girl."
"I was," Sam said. "Past tense. Over and done with. What do you want?"
"Julie said that I should come to you if I wanted to understand... everything," Mitch said. "The realms, their inhabitants, so forth."
"Julie said that, did she?" Sam asked.
Mitch nodded but wasn't sure if Sam saw, because Sam slowly rose to his feet.
"You human?" Sam asked.
"Yeah," Mitch said, thinking it was obvious. Then, a moment later and far less sure, asked, "Are you?"
"Yeah," Sam said. "Seven eighths for sure. Probably more than that." Sam pushed himself on top of the dumpster and sat on it, back to the wind. He pulled his hood up. "The first thing that you have to understand is that in the eyes of most of the others we're a gadfly species. Small, insignificant, short-lived, and extremely annoying.
"Our greatest strength is that out short lives force us to learn quickly. The others can absorb facts just as fast as us, but skills are harder. A skill that would take you or me five years to master, assuming eight hours a day every workday, would take them more like two centuries, and that's the quick ones. Of course, when you've got all eternity, they still come out on top.
"The second thing you have to understand is that, in spite of what they'll tell you, none of the four worlds are ruled by the original inhabitants.
"Demons are the most honest about it because while, like the angels and the gods, they claim that they came first, they didn't move to Hell until the schism between themselves and the angels. At first they thought that they were the first ones in that place, then the attacks started.
"The confrontation between the outsiders and the demons left an indelible mark on demon culture and rather than claim they were the first inhabitants of Hell and that it belongs to them by birthright, they celebrate their conquest of Hell. They have epics about it. Of course it would be harder for them to deny the outsiders have always been there when the conquest of Hell is incomplete and beyond the rearguard's walls and assorted other fortifications is untouched outsider controlled outsider territory."
"Ok, so demons I've got a handle on," Mitch said, "but what are the outsiders."
"Monstrous beings of flesh and, occasionally, bone. The original inhabitants of the realm we now call Hell. The body component of the mind, body, and soul that the outer planes exemplify if you buy that trichotomy which you shouldn't because it requires very specific, carefully calibrated, peculiar answers to the question of what one means by the terms 'mind' and 'soul'.
"While they're as diverse as anyone else, it is generally the case that they think in ways that seem incomprehensible to us and that they're hostile to any kind of structured mental processes. They spread like a cancer, and have an ability unlike any of the others: they can change things to become more like themselves.
"The others call this 'corrupting' or 'twisting' the original being. Other than grafting, it's the only process known to be able to alter the fundamental makeup a being is born with."
"Ok, that's one realm," Mitch said, "What about the others?"
"Well you can't talk demons without talking angels. So Heaven is a logical place to go. It's worth understanding that Heaven and Hell have both been without direction for a long time. The god of the angels and the leader of the demons had a habit of going away for long stretches and letting their respective domains rule themselves, and as a result no one is really sure when the two disappeared.
"That they both disappeared makes some think that they called the apocalypse early, killed each other, and no one noticed."
"So angels and demons have no oversight?"
"Yup," Sam said. "In Heaven there's great debate over the correct religion and rifts between lots of not quite openly hostile, or at least not usually violently hostile, to each other factions. In Hell the demons just decided things they way that had been traditional: anyone could have whatever power they take for themselves and hold onto, and they could do whatever they could get away with.
"That's not to say that demons don't debate religion. They definitely do," Sam said, "but it's more of a way to while away the time at Parisian cafes than a way to decide policy or determine who's in leadership positions.
"Now Heaven is, according to angels and demons, the first realm and they its first inhabitants. They claim to have created it and then universe. Of course given that they weren't the first inhabitants, that kind of screws up their whole theory."
"And who was there first?" Mitch asked.
"Spirits, elementals," Sam said, "beings of pure energy that had no physical bodies but could bend and twist physical things to their will. They've been almost entirely driven from Heaven, the largest displaced population in the four realms.
"Some say that before they were displaced they didn't have any elemental affinities at all and could interact with whatever they wished, but millennia on earth caused them to be inextricably linked to physical things, thus why a fire elemental can't preform hydrokinesis."
"Anyway, there are two of the three outer realms. That leaves--"
"The gods' domain," Mitch said.
"Yeah, and you can imagine what the gods say about angels and demons," Sam said.
"Um, I'm actually not sure," Mitch said.
"Well, you can't very well advocate monotheism when you're involved in a land dispute with Odin," Sam said, "so they say that the henotheistic angel pantheon ran off to a different realm so they could pretend the other gods didn't exist. When the angels and the demons had their falling out, Hell was the only place the demons could go if they wanted to continue denying other gods."
"But the angels and demons don't deny they exist," Mitch said, "do they?"
"They don't now," Sam said. "Things were apparently somewhat different back then. And you have to admit, by living in an entirely different realm, the monotheists are pretty well secured from any evangelizing on the part of the gods. Not that the gods tend to evangelize, they just like people to recognize that they are gods and not deny their existence."
"So who are the original inhabitants of the god's domain?"
"They're still there," Sam said. "The Angels displaced the spirits, the demons are in a war for survival with the outsiders, but the gods were quite content to take over and let the original inhabitants remain.
"Their domain was originally inhabited by the figments," Sam said.
Mitch laughed. "The imaginary friends?"
"They're creatures of pure thought and imagination, they can be anything in any form, and none can match their mental powers," Sam said. "Take them seriously and don't piss them off unless you want to experience firsthand what it's like to be unable to distinguish between illusion and reality."
"Ok. Figments are not to be joked about. Got it," Mitch said. "The fourth realm is earth?"
"Our universe, yes," Sam said. "One of the things that you have to remember is what that we only know about the the realms in the vicinity of earth. Given that earth isn't the center of the universe, it seems possible that Heaven isn't the center of its realm, Hell isn't the center of its and the gods we know are just as provincial as we are."
"But, for our non interstellar provincial purposes," Mitch said, "the fourth realm is earth and so we've covered everything. Right?"
"Depends, on if you know about elves," Sam said.
"As in Keebler?" Mitch asked.
"And that's a resounding, 'No,'" Sam said. "More as in Ljósálfar, Dökkálfar, and Svartálfar. Just like the gods, angels, and demons became the dominant species in the outer realms when another had been before, so too did we. After all, if the gods, whichever of them you prefer to trust, created us, we can hardly predate them, now can we?"
"When the figments ruled the gods' domain, the spirits ruled Heaven, and the outsiders ruled Hell, elves ruled the earth. They were in tune with the environment to the point that their bodies changed to accommodate the environment and the environment changed to accommodate them," Sam said. "They've escaped notice in the fossil record because when they die their bodies return to their habitat in totality. There's nothing that we could detect to distinguish them from their surroundings.
"They still exist, pushed to the margins of our world, hiding from our sight," Sam said. "Sometimes hiding in plain sight. They're enough like us that you'd hardly be able to distinguish someone who was part elf from a full human.
"They're the original mortals, but they live so very much longer than us," Sam said. "A full elf in good health who suffers no great injury might live to be four thousand years old. Then again it's not uncommon for them to die of old age before they reach three thousand either. There's a range of lifespans, as just as there is with humans."
"And now do I know about everything?" Mitch asked.
"Eight races means that there are some twenty eight possible halfbreeds," Sam said, "Then there are the quarter breeds, and so forth. You're not going to learn about it all in one conversation."
"But the realms," Mitch said, "do I know all of those? I've heard mention of Limbo and I think some others."
"Limbo is halfway to Hell, Purgatory halfway to Heaven, dreamscape halfway to the god's domain. They're all strongly linked to the mortal realm and are more like ancillary dimensions than true realms. It's also possible to journey from one outer realm to another without going through earth. The battle plains lie between Heaven and Hell. The others don't really have names, but some call the path from Heaven to the gods 'Revelation' and the path from the gods to Hell 'Omen'."