Into the Deepwood

Escaping the Doom of Opra Dale

Co-written with LSP and Nim

Kingdom of Verden
The Skeldergate Forest
357 DSTR
Late Afternoon

The companions experienced a profoundly disorienting, dizzying sensation, and found themselves overcome by vertigo and the intense magical light that enveloped them in the transition between locations. At the end of the brief journey, the blindingly bright tunnel through space abruptly ended in comparative darkness and the normal effects of gravity returned to send the three crashing to the ground next to each other. All were acutely aware they had been transported somewhere else and it had been a rough, turbulent ride getting there.

"Did anyone get the number of the double-decker bus that hit me?" Horo groaned, staggering to his feet.

Lafayette looked up, his head spinning. "Wh... what's a bus?"

"Er—did I say bus?" Horo laughed, supporting himself on his cane and struggling to stay erect. "I meant wagon or carriage of course. But that would be silly – there aren't even any roads here."

No roads? Her body aching and her stomach nauseous, Kalena opened her bleary eyes and saw nothing but green. She pushed herself up to her knees to take in their new surroundings and found they had been deposited in the middle of a deep, dark forest. Majestic and primeval, the trees were magnificently tall with boles of unlikely and incredible girth. The pleasantly temperate air was fresh and strongly smelling of pine needles and lady's slipper blossoms that grew abundant in the thickly shadowed glade. The glade was like a vast emerald cavern, more lushly verdant than her eyes and other senses could readily absorb. And after the earsplitting ruckus of the war-torn city, the calm serenity was nothing short of deafening. Only the sound of their own respiration and heartbeats broke the quietude of the primal setting.

"Quels grands arbres," Lafayette said in a nervous, hushed voice. "Where are we?"

"Unless I miss my guess," Kalena answered softly, "this is the Skeldergate Forest in Verden."

"That's very astute," Horo said, having already guessed as much. "This is where Orla lived before coming to Dalen. It was her home."

"I imagine this forest is home to a great many... things," Kalena said. She weakly stood up and studied the rich and varied greenery suspiciously, trying to make out the many amorphous shapes shrouded in the dense and tangled undergrowth. Her sharply honed assassin's instincts told her they were being watched, watched by what felt like countless pairs of unseen eyes.

Experiencing the same feeling, Horo circled on the spot, holding up his cane like a divining rod. He stopped to face one direction and frowned—then suddenly leapt back as if from a hidden threat. A musical girlish laugh rang out at his expense, and in a swirl of iridescent glitter a hazy shape formed out of the gloom in front of him. His fear quickly turned to relieved mirth and he grinned as his gaze met the playful silvery blue eyes of Orla, who was lounging prettily on a toadstool the size of a wagon and looking rather self-satisfied.

"Merde," Lafayette cursed. "I wondered what happened to the sprite."

"I could honestly have cared less," Kalena growled, crossing her arms and shaking her head. Now that they were both safely out of harm's way she had no use for the annoying little fae creature. Although well-travelled and worldly wise, exposed to a variety of different races, beyond a few rare exceptions, she preferred the company of human beings.

Orla, for her part, looked visibly happy to be back in her natural habitat after living so long in a human dominated city. Giving Horo a look of affection, she lightly hopped from the giant mushroom to the mossy loam of the forest floor. "You tore my dress," she said, not sounding angry, just as if she was stating a fact.

“Well yes, but perhaps--” Horo's quip was quickly cut short.

"You call that a dress?" Kalena said with a snort.

"Not everyone could afford to buy expensive tailored garments from the likes of Lars Saiki," Orla replied without offence.

Kalena winced slightly, briefly wondering at the fate of Isai and Lars.

"Lars was overrated," Horo said, examining the ripped seam. "Aelmerian designers are far better artists, whose garmenture is nearly as renowned as their country's cuisine. I'll buy you a replacement dress from one of them."

"You need do no such thing," Orla told him, having fully understood his protective actions. "And besides, it's very easy to mend a tear in faerie silk."

Kalena rolled her eyes at their antics. The dress in question resembled a flimsy night shift she might have worn to bed, not in public. Looking upwards at the thick canopy of branches, she endeavoured to locate the sun. Unless it was directly overhead she would be able to use it to gain her bearings and a sense of direction. "I appreciate all you've done for us, Orla, but I think Lafayette and I shall be taking our leave of you now," she said brusquely, adjusting her cloak about her shoulders.

"Oh, don't leave us just yet, Miss Valade," Orla replied with an amused, almost sly smile. "You've not arrived here by chance, you know."

Kalena turned and narrowed her suddenly cold, sage-coloured eyes at the fae. "And just what do you mean by that?"

"There is someone who would like to speak with you."

"What? Someone here in these woods?"

Beaming mysteriously, Orla nodded her head and gestured for them to follow her down a picturesque footpath winding its way through the thick forest, a footpath they would have sworn was not there a short moment ago.

A shiver tingled down Lafayette's spine. "I don't like any of this," he whispered to Kalena.

"Magical theatrics," Kalena said with dismissive contempt. "This is her turf and she's having a little fun with us it would seem."

Lafayette nodded. "Who would know you here in the Skeldergate?" he asked, keeping his voice low.

The former assassin gave a shake of her head. "I haven't the remotest idea. All my friends and acquaintances in the Two Kingdoms are either, as far as I know, back in Dalen, or no longer among the living. I have a few enemies in Verden, but they would have naught to do with Orla."

"I guess we'll find out soon enough, but something about all this just doesn't feel right," Lafayette sighed, his anxiety apparent.

Kalena gave him a reassuring smile as she squeezed his arm. "The Skeldergate is a spooky place, granted, but Little Miss Carling is hardly a threat to us." She chucked richly. "I would sooner fear a chipmunk."

"Orla's not who I think you need to worry about," Horo remarked, gesturing back behind them.

Kalena turned and was startled to discover a host of figures silently following along on the path without so much as a rustle. So they were what she had sensed skulking in the heavy underbrush! The creatures were vaguely elvish-looking, tall and delicate with leafy green hair. Their skin was a light brownish-green, an almost dove grey or pewter colour, and had patches of tree bark and branches protruding from it. The most striking feature were their eyes, which glowed a lambent green in the gloom of the ancient dark wood.

"Dryads," Lafayette said under his breath.

"Yes, and I have the distinct impression they're herding us," Kalena returned warily, her hand falling to the hilt of her sabre. "Creepy looking things, aren't they?"

"Not as ugly as goblins," Lafayette opined, staring back at them over his shoulder.

"They're not ugly at all," Orla interjected, her sharp elvish ears catching every whispered word of the conversation. "You should know that dryads are revered in the Skeldergate and considered to be the most beautiful and purest of all woodkin; they were some of my best playmates growing up."

"Well, I'm glad you developed a better fashion sense, at any rate," Kalena said dryly, observing that the creatures did not appear to be wearing any clothes.

"Why are their eyes glowing like that?" Lafayette asked.

"Whatever do you mean?" Orla said innocently, and as she glanced back at them a similarly green light emanated from her own eyes.

Kalena shook her head again, patently unamused, however Horo gave an appreciative smile at what he hoped was a joke. But when Orla turned away, Horo shot a discreet look at Kalena and Lafayette that plainly indicated he too had a bad feeling about all of this, and from here on in they had best exercise some caution...

==============================

The dryad chieftain, Kurnuous, watched Orla and her human companions approach from the shadows of thick brush. His clan had the prestigious duty of protecting the dwelling place of the Avatar of their Goddess, Fernoia, Champion of the Wilds, of Life, Nature, and Disorder. Theirs was a duty that Kurnuous took very seriously. All the portals and borders into the Deepwood were under constant watch, and as such, the faerie elf and those with her were quickly detected. Visitors, especially of the human variety, were quite rare, and many of Kurnuous' kin arrived to witness the spectacle.

Orla led the group up the path toward the Avatar's dwelling, perhaps hoping for her guidance. Unfortunately, the Avatar had departed almost half a moon ago to Kobrorus, land of the traitor fey, those who had chosen to rebel against the will of Fernoia in favor of the trappings of civilization and decadence. The Avatar had been going to that land a lot as of late, and Kurnuous hated every minute she was gone, knowing that he could do nothing if the traitors decided to harm Fernoia's Chosen.

Someone had to inform the faerie elf of the Avatar's absence before she embarrassed herself in front of the humans, and Kurnuous decided to take that responsibility upon himself. Emerging from his position in the brush, Kurnous barked in his native tongue, the ancient language Aetherian, "Isilis dranari Orla. Koris jal susafen koni. Fenani alus ana sota? Erus kona val ralus? (Orla, we were not expecting you and your companions. Who are they and why are you here?)"

Thinking it rude to leave the others completely out of the conversation, Orla cast a temporary spell to allow the three to understand what the dryad was saying. To their ears the olden Aetherian speech suddenly became words that they could comprehend as clearly as their own native tongue.

"Kurnuous," the faerie elf spoke warmly in Aetherian. "Be at ease, do not be alarmed." Smiling, she turned and made introductions. "This is Kalena Valade, Lafayette Le Renard, and my good friend, Horo Inu. They are all pieces in the great design, as are we all, and if I'm to guess, with unique roles to play in the Avatar's plan for the world. It was She who bid me to fetch the three humans to her," Orla added in explanation, a solemn tone to her voice.

"Who or what is this... Avatar?" Kalena said, as if unsure of the word.

Ignoring the human woman's coarse gibberish, Kurnuous replied to Orla in Aetherian, "I still have not seen the Avatar return. If you insist on escorting these humans further, be prepared to wait for some time for Her to return."

"We can do that, Kurnuous," Orla stated patiently. "Are any of the guest shelters being occupied at the moment?"

"No, the last people to use those shelters were the necromancer and his companions," Kurnous grunted, his disgust evident. "They left a moon ago."

"Thank you, I will guide my friends to one of the guest shelters, and we will wait there for summons from the Avatar," Orla declared, hoping this would satisfy the dryad. Kurnuous grudgingly stepped aside. He began to follow the group as they passed by until Orla gave him a polite look that had 'mind your own business' written all over it, which pointedly served to shoo him and the other dryads away.

"Was it just me, or did he seem a bit.... prickly?" Kalena said, sounding amused at her own wit.

"Very funny, Miss Valade," Orla said, a tolerant smile on her face. "You might be a bit prickly too if you were the target of genocide. There would be no dryads left alive in Verden were King Asgurt to have his way."

Kalena sighed. "Yes, yes, I'm familiar with the plight of your people, Orla." No words of sympathy were offered.

"I think after this war things will change very much," Horo said, injecting an optimistic note.

"For the worse I should imagine," Kalena said darkly. "If the Timber Crag were somehow defeated — hardly a likely prospect at the moment — Verden could well be in a position to annex Dalen in the aftermath. That would certainly bode ill for all of the tired, poor, huddled masses Thalia offered sanctuary, if there are any left when the Timber Crag get through with them."

Horo frowned at her. "You're just a ray of sunshine, aren't you?"

"Well, for the nonce, we shall all be safe here," Orla said, her usual upbeat voice returned as the path ended in a small forest clearing. "Please, all of you, make yourselves at home."

In the middle of the clearing sat a small mossy hill and a few lichen-encrusted rocks.

"Very homey," Lafayette observed, making a face.

"How about now?" The wheat-haired fae moved her small hands in the quick motions of a spell and a set of quaint mushroom cottages materialized in the glade with red conical bell-shaped roofs and round front doors. Behind them was another brightly painted round door of a larger dwelling built into the side of the mossy hill. A cheery profusion of flowers sprouting in clay pots and boxes beneath the deep set round windows provided a dash of colour and a refreshing fragrance for the visitors.

"Interesting," Horo mused, waving his cane in the direction of the structures.

"They were hidden by an enchantment to keep them invisible to mortals," Orla explained.

Kalena took in the ridiculous little huts. "Does this represent the pinnacle of faerie architecture?" she asked snidely.

"No," Orla answered, again without offence. "My people have no need for houses and buildings."

"I always heard you lived inside trees," Lafayette said.

"That's partly true," Orla said, smiling at the question. "For us the trees are... conduits."

"Conduits?"

"Yes, conduits from one plane to another," Orla said, putting it as simply as she could for them. "We dwell in a realm betwixt this Material Plane and... beyond. What that means is we're part of the natural world much as you are, but also another world lying just out of the corner of your eye."

Horo nodded in apparent understanding and snapped his fingers exuberantly. "Dimensions! Humans only exist in three—no wait, four, counting time."

"Six, actually. You forget the dimensions of mind and spirit, without which there could be no magic. Like time and space, there is a subtle overlap between them; the intelligent soul is dependant on the mental body. My kind are higher vibrational beings, allowing us to percieve and interact with our six dimensional reality in ways humans are not ordinarily meant to. My form is less corporeal than yours, spiritually mutable," Orla explained, searching for the right words. "Dryads are similar except their physical forms take on the aspects of the tree, are a reflection of it. I am of the same illimitable energy as they, the same breath and life force of Fernoia."

Horo frowned at the religious rhetoric. "What of the fae of Kobrorus?" he asked. "The way I hear it their magic is the most powerful in all of Aeran."

"It's true their sorcerous skill and knowledge is very great indeed," Orla conceded. "But they are naught like us; their empty, superficial way of life has relegated them to an almost purely physical existence."

"Fascinating," Kalena said in a manner and tone that clearly suggested it wasn't. The only thing she needed to know about faeries was how best to kill them.

"I don't think I understand," Lafayette said, frowning. "So you are saying that beings like yourself make a body from magic, but some of you make bodies that are more solid?"

"No, I'm simply saying that I'm not limited to a strictly material form in the same way that humans and those other fae are — my people can cross the veil between the world of spirits and the world of men, and take a nap in the solid bole of a tree for instance— but we don't fashion our own forms," Orla told him, looking at her small delicate hand and waggling her fingers. She was not usually so forthcoming about such arcane and generally secret things, but felt like she was preparing them for their extraordinary audience with the Avatar. "I appear the way I do because of traits of the flesh and the spirit passed on from generation to generation, much as any other creature of the natural world. But you are weary. Come and I'll show you where you can rest and have a bite to eat."

"Some food would be good," Lafayette said gratefully. "I'm starving."

Orla led them all into the largest of the guest shelters that sat beneath the hill. Despite its humble outer appearance the burrow was surprisingly very agreeable, the interior spacious, with pristine whitewashed walls, luxuriously soft moss carpeting and rugs, simple but exquisitely crafted mushroom furniture, and ample fresh air from the open round windows. Most remarkable of all were the vivid murals of breathtaking detail adorning the walls and ceiling showing Fae tales and legends, one depicting an elf maiden and her dragon love. A clay pitcher of wine and another of water with four clean cups stood on a nearby table as if in full expectation of their arrival.

Orla pulled some colourfully painted clay plates out of a cupboard and incanted a spell that caused a spread of food to appear on them, slices of delicious cheeses, various pieces of juicy fruit, and freshly baked bread slathered with melted butter and sweetened honey. A single lamp of faerie fire illumed the dinner table.

"Is this real food or an illusion?" Kalena inquired dubiously as she prodded a piece of orange cheddar cheese.

"It smells real," Lafayette said, inhaling the mouth-watering aroma of the warm bread.

"It's real enough to fill your bellies and provide you nourishment," Orla assured them, and she broke into a pleased smile as the pair immediately fell to devouring the conjured victuals, having not eaten since the previous day.

Horo raised his eyebrows. "You can create food out of thin air? And here all the money I spent taking you out to lunch and dinner."

"My powers are strongest in the Skeldergate," Orla explained. "It would have taxed me quite a bit to do this in your shop back in Opra Dale with only my inner reserves to charge my spells. But now that I'm home I can feel the magick coursing through me, and my power feels thrice increased."

"Well, let's see how good a cooking mage you are," Horo said, smiling.

He sat down at the table with the others to grab something to eat before the food was gone as Lafayette and Kalena set about demolishing it with gusto. Orla poured some of the wine in their cups, a wondrous raspberry vintage chilled to perfection. She then reclined on a plush mossy settee, watching the three and studying their psychic auras. Kalena was grieving and reeling from her losses, making her more ornery than usual. Lafayette had seen enough of the Two Kingdoms and was nigh ready to leave for his homeland he had never been so long away from before. Horo, as always, was impossible to gauge; his aural field was so off-kilter and abnormal it made reading it exceedingly difficult.

Slowly Orla turned her attention away from the humans as her sensitive elvish ears detected the approach of footfalls outside the door. Realising who it was, a beatific smile lit her pixie-like features. The Avatar had come!

Next: Avara

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