It was the height of summer in the Realm of Auld. The midday sun shone brightly, unsheltered by clouds, its heat beat down upon the land only offset by the occasional cooling breeze that brought with it the scent of the sea. Green pastures stretched on for miles, only disturbed by ancient trees and flowing streams.
In the centre of a particularly large stretch of land stood a tree that bore three pronged leaves of the greenest green and stretched taller than any that could claim to be a thousand times its age. Magic pulsed through its bark, etched into its inner rings and flowed through the veins in every leaf. In solitude it stood tall and proud, not bending for the wind or growing for the sun. It simply was.
There was no wind when the leaves began to quiver and the trunk began to groan. The thick bark seemed to shiver as if preparing for something to happen.
Something was coming, bounding through the grass towards the tree. It raced as fast as its little legs could carry it, wanting and needing to be where it was headed. Then it stopped a little short of the tree, simply staring at it, it was waiting for something too.
At the base of the tree the very air began to ripple and swirl with magic. Hot then cold then hot again was the wind that seemed to originate from the centre of the ripples. Then something began to appear from with the disturbance. Dark was the space and formless for but a moment before it began to take shape. Long wavy mahogany tresses flowed like silk from the anomaly. Skin, sun kissed and smooth save for the crisscrossing of scars that blemished her, came into focus as she became more solid. She was lean and athletically built, the body of a warrior, clothing then wrapped around her before she was fully solid. The gentle rise and fall of her chest began before her eyes snapped open. Immediately she stood, sighing in relief when she took in her surroundings and placed her hand on the rough bark of the tree. Though she already knew the outcome she plunged her hand into the bark of the tree and retrieved a smooth glowing stone. She had made so many and this was the reason why. It was a summoning stone, made by her Will and when she was in transit between worlds they called to her like a beacon. They were objects of safety, telling her that she had visited the Realm before and that she would wake in a place she knew. The trees she grew around them were constructs of her Will to protect the stone as only a small selection of creatures knew how to retrieve her stones and fewer still resided in the same Realm.
Content that everything was as it should be she returned the stone to the heart of the tree. It was then that she noticed a small creature a small distance away. It only reached her ankle in height except for its oddly large ears that dwarfed its own body. Its fur was short and tufty, pale grey but for the white fur that accented its small face. The creature was stoutly built with little stumpy legs and clawless paws. Its nose was a pale wet pink with three long whiskers either side. The molten amber eyes were disproportionally large to its face but still small in comparison to its large circular shaped ears.
It bounded up to her and began to paw at her leather boots. A small slender tail waggled from side to side energetically.
When she didn’t immediately show it affection it began to bounce around her before returning to pawing at her leg. It did this three more times before she finally decided to ignore it completely. In quick precise steps she strode forward, leaving the creature to watch her walk way before it bounded after her.
Paying the animal little attention she strode ahead looking for signs of the people she had come to know during her last visit to Auld. The green pastures stretched on for several miles and in the distance she could see the beginnings of a forest with only a shallow beck between the grass and ancient trees. With a quick determined pace she made her way towards the edge of the fields. The creature trailing behind began to complain at her fast pace but its whimpers did nothing but increase the speed of her steps.
Eventually she reached the cool waters of the beck, a stone path lay in the water offering her passage into the forest, once it had managed to catch up with her the creature stared at her in confusion when she stopped her quick pace and simply stared into the dark foreboding forest. She felt eyes upon her as she stood still for a moment before she began to unlace the front of her leather jerkin. The creature gazed at her silently as she pulled her arm out from the leather and tugged down the corner of her linen shirt so that her left shoulder and bicep were revealed. A symbol was etched into her skin like a scar or birthmark, it was unclear which, and power radiated from the mark.
“I am Dreeva, Barghest Slayer, Walker of Worlds and ally to the Forest-kin.” She pulled her shirt back up and put her jerkin back on but did not bother to lace the ties.
The air in the forest seemed to thicken, whispers echoed on the wind as if a decision was to be made. Everything was still for what seemed like a long time. The small fuzzy creature began to get restless as Dreeva remained stoic, staring down the forest.
A light peeked out of a forest, like a curtain had been pulled back and the light from inside was leaking out, the gap widened until a figure stepped out. He was overtly tall, hair the colour of autumn leaves and eyes green as the grassy plains that bordered the forest. A fine silk cloak draped across his broad shoulders, hiding most of his form, and dragged on the fallen leaves behind him. Slender pointed ears stood out from his silken hair but, unlike the fairies of Nevel, the Forest-kin were not bewitchingly beautiful.
“Good fortune, from highest branch to deepest root, I greet you. The Grove welcomes Dreeva and grants passage to the Heartwood.” His voice was deep and rough and once he finished speaking he looked as if he expected something but after a moments waiting gestured for her to cross the beck. She nodded to him once before stepping across the stone path. When she stood beside him he turned towards the forest entrance, he reached out into nothing and revealed a passage hidden in thin air. He nodded for her to step through first and then followed in after her.
That was the reason she had not simply stormed into the forest. Access to the bastion could only be granted by the Forest-kin. Had she attempted herself she would have walked past the entrance and become trapped in the labyrinth of trees. The enchantment was for the protection of the Forest-kin, who were peaceful folk, but those unlucky enough to not know the dangers were forever lost and left to wander the endless paths.
The pair walked down the passage, made of twisted branches and trunks of trees that shimmered like diamonds as they passed. The light around them grew brighter as they drew closer to the Heartwood. The passage widened suddenly to reveal the ledge of a cliff, the path leading down veered off to the side, it was here that the beauty of the Heartwood would begin to show itself. Below them was a vast canopy of gold and silver that seemed to emanate magic and in the centre spiralling towers jutted out from amongst the trees, six all equally spaced apart in a circle.
Even at their current distance they could see the large silhouettes ducking and weaving around the towers, had it been her first visit to the Heartwood Dreeva would have mistaken them for large birds. A mistake that could only be made once, for seeing the creatures up close was an experience few were privy to.
“I would like to go to the Granite Spire once I have been received by the Grove. I trust they are expecting me..?” Dreeva paused for a moment as she glanced over to her guide that had yet to introduce himself.
“Rubrum.” He supplied a little sheepishly when he realised why she had paused. She eyed him for a moment more. He was young by Forest-kin standards, not far past his first century she guessed and Dreeva wondered if he had had dealings with outlanders before. He shifted slightly under her scrutiny and looked as if he simply wanted to finish escorting her and return to his own business.
“Rubrum, the Grove?” She prompted sharply when he failed to answer her question.
“Oh, yes they will be awaiting your arrival.” He informed her quickly before he turned to continue down the path. Silently she nodded and followed after him.
She wondered if his behaviour was due to his youth or whether it was because he was unused to dealing with outsiders. His height and breadth gave him what should have been an imposing physique but the awkward way he moved and the kind eyes with which he looked upon her made him seem too gentle and oafish. The edge of several scars on his neck, not quite hidden by his cloak, gave her an idea as to his role within Auldish society and it was not a submissive one.
Dreeva decided that he simply could not be a scout for the Forest-kin, for he was too large and lacked the roguish grace she had come to expect from such people, but in turn that made her wonder why it had been him to greet her at the beck. The first time she had requested entrance to the Heartwood she had been accompanied by six border scouts and that had been after she had slain a Barghest, a monstrously large demonic canine, that had found a way in and out of the Heartwood despite the enchantments in place. It had taken her days to track the creature before she eventually found it, its secret way past the barrier, and slew it. She remembered the battle with crystal clarity, the fire of its eyes, the gnashing of its fangs, the impossibly black fur that melted into shadows, the unnatural rattle of chains when the beast had become invisible to her eyes.
Granted, at the time she had been hunting the creature, she was unaware of the Forest-kin or the trespasses the beast had made against them but after she ripped her blade from its dead flesh the Forest-kin had made themselves known. They had told her that her coming had been foretold by their eldest mystic and that they were to be allies. As far as she was aware at the time they were preparing a feast in honour of her finally appearing to them, but before she could enter the Heartwood she had Faded from Auld and awakened in Hyleasia.
For a moment she felt adrenalin pulse through her as she thought back to the fight. She shivered slightly with the extra energy and could feel the magic pulse beneath her skin. Her thoughts were then interrupted when she felt something pawing at her ankle. Her eyes flicked down at the furry creature that she had forgotten was following her. Sighing irritably at the creature’s persistence Dreeva quickened her pace, wanting the animal to give up on whatever it was doing and leave her be.
“Rinoine.” Rubrum supplied as they walked down the steep path. “It is what we call them. You should be honoured, they are very good luck.” Dreeva looked at the rinoinĕ, at Rubrum and then back again. Irritation flashed across her face as she hastened her steps further, forcing Rubrum to lengthen his stride to keep up with her. He looked at her with confusion clearly marking his features before she sighed and spoke.
“Luck is for the foolish. Believing good things will simply happen leaves only room for evil to take advantage.” Her words were brisk and uncompromising as she ignored the rinoinĕ despite it practically sprinting on its short legs to follow closely behind Dreeva. The creature’s actions only seemed to irritate her further but she chose to ignore the fluff ball.
“If you do not believe in luck,” Rubrum frowned at Dreeva’s disrespect to the rinoinĕ but remained close beside her “what do you believe in?” He asked as the path began to level out and lead directly into the Heartwood.
Her piercing gaze passed over him for a moment before she returned her attention to the path ahead of her with determination. She gave him no answer as her steps quickened leaving Rubrum several paces behind her confused as to why she had reacted so strangely.
The sun had set long before Dreeva and Rubrum had reached the Marble Spire but the sight of the cool pale stone bathed in moonlight was a far more beautiful sight. At least it was according to Rubrum who seemed to deflate a little when it became obvious that Dreeva was terribly indifferent about the wonders of his people. The Spires were central to his culture, both physically and spiritually, they served as the seat of their ruling elite and the home of their mystics and the source of their protective barriers. There were seven spires in total and each had its own function as well as being built from varying materials, for which each was named. The Marble Spire served as the offices of the Grove, nobles of ancient bloodlines that were taught from birth the ways of leadership and-
“There are only six spires.” Dreeva interrupted as Rubrum had attempted to pique her interest in their society. Though the Forest-kin seemed a little irritated that she had interrupted him he was pleased that she was indeed listening to him and had paid him enough attention to notice what strangers always noticed. His sharp chartreuse eyes glinted as he looked up at the six towers that reached higher than any tree in the Heartwood.
“Very astute,” His smile danced across his face making Dreeva bristle at his smug tone. “Indeed there are only six spires that reach to the heavens, the seventh in fact points in the opposite direction.” He had expected surprise, awe, confusion, questions most of all he had expected questions and curiosity. Instead Dreeva seemed quiet for several moments in contemplation before she spoke again.
“That seems counterproductive.” Her words cool as she seemed unaware of Rubrum’s reactions to her. “The Forest-kin are bound to the trees and the light, the sun and stars, like most Fae races, why you would delve into the ground seems uncharacteristic of your people.” She paused when she noticed that Rubrum was no longer keeping pace with her and looked behind her to see him stood several steps back. He was staring at her strangely as if surprised by her observations and the accuracy of which she had spoken of his kin. “Do the Grove enjoy waiting upon their guests.” She spoke in more of a statement then a question as she critically studied his still form. He quickly seemed to realise he had stopped before he hurried to catch up with her and continue towards the closest tower. Its looming shape had long shadowed them as they walked closer blocking the moonlight leaving only starlight to guide their steps.
Soon they were close enough to see the entrance to the spire. No guards stood vigil nor was there any form of barrier to halt their entry to the unbelievably large marble structure but like the entrance to the Heartwood itself there was no visible means of continuing on. They stood before the smooth white stone that under closer inspection was not as plain as it had first appeared to Dreeva. Long delicate lines, swirls and runes were carved beautifully into the stonework that continued up until she could no longer decipher such detail from her low vantage. So focused she had been on discreetly examining the carvings that Dreeva missed Rubrum lightly trace a rune with his finger causing said rune to glow where he had made contact. When she glanced back at her companion he was holding the door way open like a curtain though she was unsure how he was able to make the marble flow like cloth.
She stepped in ahead of Rubrum and found herself in a long narrow hallway that stretched and bent around corners on both ends. There was little in the way of decoration in the space. The walls, floor and ceiling appeared to be made from one continuous substance. It resembled marble but thicker, cooler and there was no sign that the material had been carved or cut. In fact there were no straight edges or unnatural lines, it was as if the hallway had been grown into its shape. Despite the lack of windows, doors or other openings the corridor was brightly lit with silver and blue sconces that were made from almost transparently clear white crystal that, like the walls and floors surrounding them, appeared to have been fashioned into their shapes by natural means. The lights inside the sconces reminded Dreeva of the wickless flames made by the mages in Remulas, to entertain the victorious soldiers during their victory feasts, but she knew that magic had a different set of rules in each Realm. It was then she knew what the silver and blue flames were and still she felt no sympathy or any form of emotion that would have moved someone whole.
The lights were Whisps, similar in form and function as Wisps but could only be found in Auld for the Whisps were once the most powerful of the Mystics. An ancient order residing in the Moonstone Spire that cited prophesises but rarely spoke in anything save indecipherable riddles. Once age and magic had withered their bodies Mystics would be cremated while still alive, releasing their souls in the searing pain and freeing them from the mortal coil. Once they assume their Whisp form they had mere moments of freedom before they were caught in enchanted silk bags and imprisoned in the sconces to further serve their people. It was the first vision a Mystic received, the sight, sound and touch of the very moment they die to be reborn, and that is how they are chosen for the order. Dreeva knew what the Whisps were and how they were made but she barely spared them her attention for more than the moment it took to realise what they were.
They were an order of people that knew their fate but would not fight against it and in the eyes of Dreeva if one does not fight for themselves they are not worth the lives of others.
As her gaze swept over her new surroundings she noted that the entrance was gone, now that Rubrum was no longer holding it open and that the rinoinĕ had not followed them into the Spire. A satisfied smile curved the edge of her lips before her expression returned to stoic indifference.
They were only still for a moment longer before Rubrum turned and began to make his way down the corridor knowing that Dreeva had no option but to follow. The two walked through the winding corridor for what seemed like hours with only the gentle incline to tell them they were in fact making any progress forward. Dreeva walked contently in silence whereas Rubrum seemed to become more and more uncomfortable as they continued forward. Eventually he began to speak again, if only to fill the gap that only their echoed footsteps had filled.
“Earth-kin. They built the Seventh Spire… technically the Ebony Spire was the first to be built, the Earth-kin knew nothing of the world above their caverns and tunnels, for they build downwards, carving their homes in the heart of our lands. It was only when a cave in occurred near the base of the spire that they saw the light of day. Unfortunately the Earth-kin had lived so long in the dark they could not abide the bright sunlight.
“The soft glow of our Whisplights was gentle enough to allow our two races to meet and work together as friends.” Rubrum explained as they walked, he gestured to the sconces when they became relevant but he made no mention of where the lights themselves came from. “We provide fresh foods that the Earth-kin always found so scarcely themselves and share our knowledge of healing and divination. In return by the cover of night they built for us the Spires that protect the Heartwood and all that reside within. Their knowledge of runes and mastery of the under spirits have been equally valued by our people.” He continued speaking as the incline became more noticeable but Rubrum seemed terribly focused upon bestowing the histories of his people onto her.
“As fascinating as that is supposed to be.” She interrupted seemingly without a care for his crestfallen look when it was obvious she had no interest in what he was talking about. “I am more interested in how soon I can meet with the Grove and be done with them. I have no love for political pleasantries, especially when I must climb a tower for the supposed honour of their presence.” She spoke with a rather snarky tone as his insistent wittering was grating upon her nerves.
It took a couple of moments before Dreeva realised that Rubrum had paused a little ways behind her. She then paused and turned to look at him wondering why he had stopped if they had not yet reached the Grove and if they had why he had not said as much. He was staring at her with an odd expression spread across his face, it seemed to be some strange mix of irritation, embarrassment and frustration. She could not fathom why he looked at her so but she also cared very little and was herself getting irritated with the constant pauses in their progress.
Eventually his expression settled into one of defeat before he walked past Dreeva to a section of the wall just past where she was stood. It was the same marble material that encompassed the halls in all directions, there was nothing different about that one section of wall than any other that Dreeva could see. Her eyes narrowed as she studied his every move in attempts to gain insight on how their magic worked but she did not see his finger trace over an almost invisibly carved rune in the wall. Instead of wonder or awe on her face there was only mild annoyance when the doorway opened and she was still no closer to learning the secrets of the Forest-kin.
Rubrum held the wall open for her like he had each time that he had allowed her access to his home. Without a second glance Dreeva strode past Rubrum into a large dome shaped room. Slender spiralling columns reached to the high ceiling merging seamlessly from top to bottom as once again the room was made from the same marble as the corridor she had been standing in only moments before.
Hundreds of the same crystal sconces that had lined the halls shone giving the great room silver and blue hues reflecting from the glossy walls, floor and ceiling. In the centre of the room were five high backed wooden thrones, each grown into their shapes naturally with only gentle encouragement from the Forest-kin unlike the carved wooden furniture of creatures like humans. Sat in each throne was a Forest-Kin wearing rich silken robes in vibrant natural colours, much like Rubrum’s own clothing but far more elaborate, slender wooden coronets graced their foreheads in intricate swirls and knots. There were three males and three females perched on the thrones in the centre of the room. Quickly Rubrum strode forward to greet and introduce the Grove to Dreeva though she knew the introductions were only for her benefit as it was certain that each creature gazing back at her knew exactly who she was.
“Good fortune, from highest branch to deepest root, I greet the Grove.” He spoke before he swiftly knelt before them showing a grace that seemed to Dreeva more than a little forced and awkward.
“Blue skies and clear waters, the Grove welcomes you.” The six spoke in almost perfect unison making the formality seem lifeless despite the words uttered. After they had responded appropriately, as Dreeva had only just realised was what Rubrum had expected when they met, he stood and turned his attention back to her. She stepped forward with confidence until she was stood level with Rubrum.
“To the Grove I present Dreeva, Barghest Slayer and Walker of Worlds.” Dreeva duplicated the flourished bow that Rubrum had performed as she assumed was expected but knew it was only for the sake of their customs, for which she cared little, but allies were valuable and she didn’t wish to burn bridges needlessly. “To Dreeva I present the Grove, Beast-Master Quercus of the Granite Spire, Lady Salix of the Silver Spire, Lord Ulmus of the Marble Spire, High-Mystic Tsuga of the Moonstone Spire, Master Alnus of the Jade Spire and Master Ilex of the Sunstone Spire.” He named them each in turn to which they nodded their greeting. It would seem that the Grove was made up of the leaders of each spire. The spires all had specific purposes and housed within them most offshoots of that purpose.
“You performed a great service to our people when you slew the Barghest, but never have you lingered long enough to be properly rewarded for your deed.” Remarked Beast-Master Quercus as he leaned casually back in his throne. He was an imposing male, Dreeva thought as she glanced over to him. His skin was dark, toned and his robes hinted at the muscles that were corded beneath. His robe was less elaborate that the rest of the Grove, simple greys and blacks, with his leather boots exposed from his shorter robe presumably for ease of movement, more worn and much more suited for the hands on work he had clearly done for a very long time. His hands were clearly callused with thick strong fingers draped over the side of his armrest. His face was stern, with thin lips, deep set dark eyes and darker hair that draped down his back, only tied together with a rough leather strip. His coronet was by far the simplest as a single band of carved wood across his brow.
“There is little need for that.” Dreeva answered without a hint of humility in her words. “The creature attacked me, what followed was simply a consequence of that action.” Several moments of silence followed her words as the council made a series of discreet glances at each other in a silent form of communication. Beside her Rubrum stood rigid as if afraid he would be punished for her words, it was possible but concerned her little as she returned her focus to the Forest-kin in front of her.
“Whether it was your intent or not, the Grove and its people stand in your debt” A quiet lilting voice informed her. It took Dreeva a moment to place the voice with the speaker, High-Mystic Tsuga sat, wide eyed innocence reflecting back at Dreeva. She was physically the smallest in stature of the council and doll like in all her features. Her porcelain skin and powder blue eyes a dramatic contrast to her curled ebony locks and crimson silk robes. Unlike her soft appearance her coronet was sharp and angular, a dark sturdy wood that rested uncomfortably on her brow. “Allow us to be grateful for your efforts and the service you have done us.” She continued in such a soft tone Dreeva found herself straining to hear the words uttered.
“As kind as your offer appears to be,” Dreeva took a step forward and could practically feel Rubrum wince “I have no need for trinkets. I cannot take anything from one Realm to another. Any gift you grant would be left behind when I leave.” She stopped several paces away from the Grove. She was aware that it was dishonourable for these people to not reward her ‘act of heroism’ but anything bestowed upon her would be a waste and seemed pointless to her. The Grove exchanged more glances before they seemed to come to some form of silent agreement.
“That, World-Walker, is why your reward would not be something so mundane as gold or jewels.” The voice of Lady Salix, who sat perfectly poised with an elegant air to her, rang out clear and musical as a chime. She seemed the most delicate of the leaders. Her skin smooth, pale and only the smallest of creases near her eyes and mouth, clearly a result of years of smiling though her expression was more akin to polite interest than genuine joy. The majority of her pale blonde tresses were braided in a complicated pattern down her back. As seemed to be her general theme, her robes were pale shades of cream decorated with intricate silver thread embellishments. Her coronet was also made from a pale wood but was the only one in the group to have blossoms growing from the knots. Even though she was sat down Dreeva could easily tell that she was not only the tallest of the woman but the men as well, making her seem more willowy and slender.
“We would grant you the title of Guardian and all rights associated with that mantle.” Quercus’ baritone voice echoed through the council chambers. He seemed to be the most at ease with the decision they had silently made, Dreeva’s gaze was drawn instantly to the clearly most uncomfortably seated figure. Rubrum had named him Lord Ulmus of the Marble Spire making him the leader of the Grove. Though age was difficult to judge with fey races such as the Forest-kin, he seemed to visibly be the eldest of those gathered. His skin was thin like parchment, deep set wrinkles furrowed by years of making difficult decisions, his eyes a pale grey as if the colour had been worn away. His robes were of vibrant blues and purples clearly supposed to give him a regal presence but only served to make his pallor more prominent. The coronet resting atop his head was made of a dark thick set wood, carved with complicated knots and swirls, was by far the most elaborate of the Grove.
“Along with all responsibilities and expectations such a title would undoubtedly be tied to.” Dreeva remarked dryly, never allowing her gaze to shift from, the so far silent, Ulmus. His sharp scrutiny swept over her as if he was still making his mind up about her. What was clear to her was that he had not fully agreed to the Grove’s choice of reward and neither did he trust her.
“It is true that there would be expectations placed upon you but they will be fully explained to you before you make your decision.” Another, distinctly male, voice informed her. Master Alnus. His voice was soft but clear as if he was used to speaking in quiet places as not to disturb others. Of all the forest-kin she had seen so far he was the leanest, the least athletic, but his skin still sported an olive glow that suggested he spent a lot of time under the sun. His features were sharp, giving him a calculating expression most of the time. Chestnut coloured hair was well kept, slicked back into a long braid and slender twists of wood came together to from his coronet. The multi layered green silks of his robes shifted as he leaned forward in his throne.
“That is, of course, if you choose to stay with us that long.” Master Ilex informed Dreeva from her throne at the end of the council seats. The final female member of the Grove, Ilex, watched Dreeva with unveiled curiosity. As far as Dreeva was aware, the Forest-kin were a peaceful people, with no warriors or army of their own. It occurred to her that this may have been the first time Ilex had seen a warrior before.
Her robes were gold and yellow silks, finely embroidered, and complimented her honey coloured skin flawlessly. Her heart shaped face was framed by her dark blonde waves flowing down her back with several loose braids interwoven with the loose curls. Atop her brow was her coronet, pale wood swirling and knotting delicately.
“Indeed,” Lord Ulmus finally spoke “you do seem to vanish at the most inappropriate of times.” He looked down upon her from his perch as if he expected her to turn into a quivering mess at his words. A dark smirk twisted her lips as she levelled her stare at him defiantly.
“I see.” Dreeva took a single confident step forward. “I am no citizen of yours, you have no control over me or my actions, this title you wish to brand me with would officially give you superiority over me. Or at least that is what you assume.” The triumphant smirk on her lips diminished slightly when not a single member of the Grove flinched. Perhaps she had misread the situation but her pride would not allow her to back down now.
“You are not wrong.” Master Alnus intoned. “However, simply granting you a title would not formally make you a citizen in the eyes of, or under the control of, the Grove. For that a formal alliance would have to be forged.” He informed her causing the rest of the Grove to nod once in agreement of his statement.
“A formal alliance… as in a peace treaty or something of that manner?” She questioned unsure she liked the direction the conversation was turning. Her skin twitched with energy in preparation of the battle she felt to be close at hand. A familiar sensation as battle always seemed to be close at hand to Dreeva.
“To formally become a citizen of Auld, under the rule and protection of the Grove, one would need to wed a current citizen of the Realm.” Lady Salix spoke gently as if to a frightened animal.
“That is your plan? You think that forcing me to wed one of your people would somehow bind me to your Realm? That is not how I work.” Dreeva would have laughed at the ridiculousness of it if she were not so on edge. Her fingers tingled with magic, only a moment away from forming her sword should she have need of it.
“There is of course another option.” Lord Ulmus spoke causally as if the idea had just occurred to him. “If there was a way for the Grove to call upon you in times of need, should you be in another Realm for instance, then we would have little need to bind you to a citizen or to this Realm.” His posture straitened as he watched her every move. “Like the totem you bestowed upon the Queen of Nevel.”
“A summoning stone?” Dreeva murmured to herself. How did the Forest-kin know about them? Nevel was a completely separate Realm to Auld, there was no way they could communicate, there was no way they could even know the other existed. How in the Infinite Realms had the Grove gotten this information?
“It would seem that Lord Ulmus has not worded this correctly.” The Beast-Master interrupted her thoughts, causing her eyes and that of the Grove to snap in his direction. “We are not threatening you. A Guardian is of no use to us if they cannot be reached, but that does not mean we will force the role upon you, nor will we attempt to force this totem from you.” The imposing man then stood with the eyes of everyone in the room glued to him. “However, there has been enough talk. You need time to make your decision and Rubrum tells me you desired to visit the Granite Spire when you arrived, as it’s Beast-Master I would be most honoured to escort you myself.” Quercus extended his arm to her, though she was still on edge Dreeva was more than glad to accept the offer of escape before she was backed further into a corner. It would not have been long before she would have lashed out at the council. A choking sound was heard as she glanced back towards Ulmus, his race was flushed in anger and he had risen to his feet but the gentle hand of Lady Salix beside him had stopped any further movement.
“Then,” Salix spoke calmly “if the Grove has no more business we will adjourn.” Her head inclined subtly towards Dreeva before she, and the rest of the Grove, filed out of the chamber through an opening in the wall that had appeared.
Once the room had cleared of the rest of the Grove Quercus gestured to Rubrum, who strode forward and opened the wall to reveal another hallway, leading downwards. The trio walked the identical corridors lined with Whisplights in relative silence. The descent out of the Spire seemed to take half the time it had taken to ascend before they found themselves in the starlit Heartwood.
Dreeva breathed in the brisk night air languidly, as if she had not had a moment to breathe while she had been in the Spire. The chill swept over her before she regained her composure and turned to face the Forest-kin beside her. Beast-Master Quercus and Rubrum seemed to be in deep conversation with one another but neither had said a word since leaving the council chambers. She was about to interrupt their silent words when a familiar pawing at her shin caught her attention. Irritation clear in her eyes Dreeva glared down at the rinoinĕ as it continued to vie for her attention. She wondered why the creature was so enamoured with her or what it wanted from her. It had been in the area when she had awoken in Auld, most animals that were a witness to her arrival in a Realm would flee or attack her on sight. Dreeva could not understand why this creature had reacted so differently.
“Mïraal!” The familiar baritone voice of Quercus called out, immediately the rinoinĕ lost all interest in Dreeva and bounded over to the Beast-Master. The large male bent down, lowering his arm, allowing Mïraal to climb up and perch comfortably on his broad shoulder before he stood up again. The large eyed fluff ball should have made Quercus seem less formidable but he was in no way less imposing. “I had wondered why she was so excited this morning.” He continued as he gently petted her large soft ears. “As you may have guessed,” Quercus began as he started, striding in the direction of the Granite Spire, leaving Dreeva only a moment to start moving beside him “rinoinĕ are very unique. Tell me, have you ever come across one before in your travels, in other worlds?”
“No.” She said after a momentary glance at the creature. “But most Worlds have beasts unique to their Realm, while others have something similar. There is nothing that I have found to be in all Realms.” This was true, the most wide spread and varied creature she had seen were humans. Many, but not all, Realms were populated with them often as the dominant species. There were even some in Auld, though they lived far from the Forest-kin and were barely past making fires and squatting in caves.
It took Dreeva a moment to realise her mind had wandered before she took a furtive look at Quercus to see if he had noticed. If he had he did not show it but had had not spoken for some time. “You believe rinoinĕ only dwell in Auld?” She asked after a moment to consider why he had asked her the question he did.
“Indeed.” He intoned. “It has long been believed by my people that the rinoinĕ are tied to the land. Intune with the spirit of our world and can sense things that we are not aware of.” He gave her a sideways glance as he spoke. “Such as your arrival.” Mïraal yipped as if to agree with Quercus but Dreeva’s eyes only narrowed at the irritating creature.
“I have never found nor heard of such a thing.” She dismissed with a definitive wave of her hand. The Beast-Master seemed displeased with her immediate denial of his people’s beliefs.
“All things have a first occurrence.” He told her definitively before distant screeches became more pronounced. In their quick pace the Granite Spire was fast approaching and with it the proximity of the Wyverns that Dreeva seemed to be so interested in.
Wonder, awe and fascination should have been plainly painted across her face but when Quercus looked he found her reaction oddly devoid of anything save curiosity. “Why are you so interested in the wyverns?” He finally asked causing her eyes to flash over to him. At first he thought that she would not answer him. Until she spoke.
“Many Realms have legends about Wyverns. Dragons, Sirens, Fae, each I have seen myself. Auld is the only Realm I have found that still house living Wyverns.” Many Realms often confused wyverns with dragons, and though they were similar they were by no means the same. Most dragons were incredibly large with long sharp spines running down their backs, fore and hind legs strong enough to hold the massive weight of the body, with a massive set of wings connected together with delicate membrane. Most also were terribly intelligent, with the ability to speak and think with cunning and their most definitive feature was their ability to breath fire. Wyverns however had several important differences with their fire breathing kin.
“You wish to know about wyverns?” He asked with a slight twitch to his lips that could almost be a smirk. “Very well.” He nodded before he pursed his lips before releasing a loud high pitched whistle. The three stopped just outside the entrance to the Granite Spire that was well lit with moonlight until a dark shadow descended upon them. With a silent grace a wyvern glided from the top of the Spire to land soundlessly beside its Beast-Master.
It was a lot smaller than Dreeva had expected, but as it stood on its front and hind legs, it was still a good foot taller than Quercus. Immediately she noticed that where dragons have a set of wings on their backs the wyvern before her had a folded set that she had mistaken for fore legs. It was also a lot broader in build than she had expected with a wide flat face. Its scales were smooth, grey and small, like chainmail. The tail was as broad as the rest of the creature with a spiked tip to the tail that reminded her of a spiked mace.
“May I approach it?” Dreeva asked so not to overstep her bounds while remaining curious.
“Her name is Rhenya and that is up to her.” The Forest-kin told her simply before she took another step forward. Dreeva wondered if, like their dragon-kin, they were clever enough to converse. Slowly, and in full sight of Rhenya, Dreeva approached and stopped just short of her scaled muzzle. The wyvern looked up at her with intelligence gleaming in her eyes as she sized up the stranger before her. Dreeva stayed as still as possible before the wyvern leaned forward and sniffed. Her snout wrinkled for a moment before her mouth lolled open to reveal her long, sharp slender teeth and wide grey tongue, both coated in a clear luminescent green liquid. Rhenya looked as if she were about to try and lick Dreeva’s hand before Quercus whistled sharply, causing the wyvern to recoil. She remained still for only a moment longer before she leapt at the Granite Spire and climbed the stone high until she could no longer be seen under the light of the moon. Dreeva scowled at the creature’s reaction to her before she turned towards Quercus and Rubrum, whom she had forgotten was even still present. The Forest-Kin were looking at each other in a particular way that Dreeva could not identify before Quercus nodded slightly and disappeared into the Granite Spire before she could say another word to him. Sharply her gaze turned to Rubrum who simply stared evenly back at her.
“Beast-Master Quercus had retired for the evening, if you would, I will take you to the chambers that have been prepared for you.” He gestured her forwards until the pair were once again walking a starlit path.
“What was the wyvern about to do? Why did he send it away?” She asked after a long silence between the two. Rubrum didn’t reply immediately, he seemed to be considering his answer.
“Though the Granite Spire houses the wyverns they are by no means tame, the venom of a wyvern is exceedingly dangerous, and if you were to come into contact with any of the venom in any way… it would not be a pleasant or a quick death.” Rubrum said solemnly. Out of the corner of her eye Dreeva looked over Rubrum keenly. His demeanour towards her had changed in the short time she had known him. At first he had seemed uncomfortable, awkward even, but the longer they were together the more serious he became. She was unsure as to why he would act this way towards her but decided that she would give it no more thought as they seemed to be coming up to their destination.
The Spires, though now an integral part of the forest-kin’s culture, were not where the majority of the forest-kin lived. In the centre on the Spires were the most ancient trees, in which the forest-kin had resided long before they knew the earth-kin existed. Each individual tree was as tall as it was wide and connected high above with its neighbour through the intricate entanglement of braches that formed pathways and bridges. Whisplights hung from their sconces in the branches high above, making the trees seem to glimmer. The openings in the trees were not hidden, like the Spire entrances, and seemed welcoming to any who wished to step into the warm light from within the ancient boles.
Dreeva followed Rubrum as he stepped into the entrance of the tree and up the helical stairs until they reached the top. The steps opened out into a wide open area, branches reached up and hanging moss draped down giving the space shape but was too few and far apart to actually be walls. Whisplights hung from the branches above giving the room a pale silver glow. There were three openings in the room that lead out into branch formed bridges but she was unsure where they lead to, possibly other residences or rooms. The only discernible furniture in the room was a moss stuffed palette, draped in soft furs and silks for bedding. It was rather Spartan but Dreeva was glad of it, she disliked being pampered and the room would serve its purpose as guest accommodation, until she left Auld.
Before he left Rubrum pointed out the exit to the left of the palette lead to another similar room, down the steps and outside she would find the hot springs, if she wished to use them. He did not explain where the other exits lead, nor did he say what would happen for the rest of her stay. Dreeva got the distinct feeling he wished to be finished as her guide and leave. After he assured her that this copse had been allocated to her for her stay, so despite the open feel of her chambers she need not worry of being disturbed and with that he disappeared down the steps.
She decided she would take advantage of the hot springs before she slept and followed Rubrum’s directions. Once out of the tree she glanced around and easily spotted the secluded bubbling pools. Almost mechanically Dreeva stripped, stepped into the warm fragrant water and scrubbed herself clean. After she finished she immediately stepped out of the water, without even a thought for prying eyes, and collected her clothes before she returned to her room. Then she braided her wavy chestnut locks, tied them with a leather lace from her tunic and settled into the warm furs to sleep.