A Tale from the Forest [Story]
The clearing by the river always had rabbits in. Kael watched one intently through the long grass, narrowing his eyes and keeping low to the ground. With a slow, careful movement, the young marsh elf took a smooth pebble from a pouch on his belt, and tucked it into his sling. Careful now - it would only take the slightest sound to startle the rabbit, then he would lose his dinner.
"Hi Kael!" The rabbit bolted as Kael's younger brother Taffy came bounding carelessly through the clearing.
"Taffy, look what you did!" Kael shouted in frustration, causing some nearby birds to take off as well, "It took me ages to get this close without startling it!"
"Oh." Taffy stood looking sheepish for a moment, before apparently remembering why he came, "I came to tell you - everyone's saying the Great Spirit is sick!"
"What are you babbling about?" Kael scolded as they headed back into the woods towards their village, "Spirits don't get sick."
"It's true!" protested Taffy, "Ask Father Sand." He peered around wildly, as they passed through the village, "Father Sand!?"
Old Father Sand was the village priest. In most marsh elf villages, the priest was a shaman who spent most of his time smoking dubious substances in the hope of acheiving some manner of lucid vision or contact with the spirits. Father Sand didn't need to resort to this method. Aniru, the Great Spirit lived quite openly in a Sacred Pool in the nearby woods. Father Sand was less of a shaman, and more of an official ambassador to the spirit.
"There he is," Taffy pointed, to where Father Sand was walking with Asta, a young priestess. "Father Sand! Father Sand!"
Kael rolled his eyes, and followed Taffy as he scampered over and accosted the priest. Personally, he didn't much like Father Sand, who he considered pompous and esoteric, but everyone liked Asta. "Good morning Father Sand, Asta. My idiot brother is babbling some nonsense about the Great Spirit being sick. Tell him spirits don't get sick."
Asta looked at him sadly, "It's true, Kael. Somehow, the Spirit is weakening. It's as if he's being poisoned."
"Told you," said Taffy, smugly.
"He won't die, will he?" asked Kael, suddenly afraid. Aniru was their protector - nobody from Kael's village ever starved or died of disease. The Spirit saw to that. Kael knew how brutal life was for the other marsh elf tribes of Stickwood. The sudden possibility that it might be his own future was disconcerting.
"We don't know, lad," said Father Sand, "But the Great Spirit has spoken to me and given me a list of reagents and rituals that should restore him. Best you don't worry about it."
"Maybe you could help us gather some of the reagents?" said Asta, rummaging in her bag.
"We'll help, won't we, Kael?" blurted Taffy, before Kael had a chance to politely refuse on the grounds that he still had nothing for dinner.
Kael shot a fierce look at his brother, but his expression immediately softened when Asta beamed happily at them both. Marsh elf females weren't especially attractive by human standards, being excessively inclined to pudginess and smelling almost as bad as the males. But the way Kael blushed whenever Asta smiled at him was probably indicative that she met his particular standards.
"Wonderful! We need as many of these as you can find!" From her bag, Asta produced a small, pointy orange mushroom, "It's called Witch's Hat. You have to be careful you don't bruise it, because when they turn black they're no good for rituals. There should be lots near Fallen Oak at this time of year."
Kael examined the mushroom, "Hmmm... well, alright then."
“Great, we’ll see you in a couple of hours!” said Asta, smiling at them before she and Father Sand continued on their way to the Sacred Pool.
Still blushing, Kael watched her leave, before heading off towards Fallen Oak, another grassy clearing in the woods where a mighty oak tree had fallen due to internal rot. Taffy bounded along after him.
“Kael likes Asta, Kael likes Asta!”
“Shut up, moron.”
OOC: This is sort of a closed story I'm writing as background for a possible future RP. Once the scene is set, I may start an OOC signup thread to start a RP continuation, but for now, Read-Only please.
“Here’s one! Here’s one! Ooh, there’s another one!” Taffy scampered about among the long grass and nettles picking out the brightly coloured mushrooms. They had a bag each, although Kael wasn’t sure if Asta and Father Sand really needed two sacks’ worth.
It was a warm day in late summer. The air was heavy and humid, and the forest was abuzz with the chirping of crickets and other more mysterious sounds. Kael sat himself down between the roots of a large oak, and watched Taffy bounce about enthusiastically hunting mushrooms.
“Here’s one! There’s one! Ugh, this one has an earwig in! Oh, that’s a big one…”
Kael wondered what could possibly make the Great Spirit sick. Of course, only the priests – Father Sand and his novices – were allowed to go to the Sacred Pool. Everyone else only went there once in their life, as a child, when Aniru would ask their name and give them a blessing. Kael remembered the spirit as an immense white haze rising from the surface of the pool like steam from a bowl of soup, only vaugely humanoid in shape, with the merest suggestion of facial features among the curling mists. Even so, it had radiated an aura of warmth and benevolence, as well as power, and ever since he had never been afraid of anything, knowing he had such a mighty protector.
Kael awoke abruptly as Taffy bounded over to him, and he realised he had fallen asleep. He yawned, and picked himself up as his brother appeared before him with a sack full of mushrooms.
“Look how many I found!” said Taffy, waving the sack, “Hey, you didn’t get any!”
Kael looked at his own sack, which was completely empty. “Uh, yeah, I did have more than that, but uh… some raccoons stole them.”
“Those pesky raccoons!” agreed Taffy, waving his fist. Kael sighed. His brother, amiable and harmless as he was, also rated as a strong contender for the title of village idiot.
“How long have we been here?” he asked, with a yawn.
“A few hours, maybe?” said Taffy, who certainly wasn’t the best judge of time, “I searched all along the river!”
“We ought to be heading back, I guess,” said Kael, as he stretched. Sleeping on the ground under the tree had left him a bit sore. He picked up the empty sack and started to head back.
“Here, you can take some of mine,” Taffy offered, “’cause then Asta will like you.”
Kael glared at him. But he accepted half of Taffy’s mushrooms anyway.
As they strolled back towards the village, Kael thought he heard some noise coming from that direction, some kind of shouting. After a while, they both heard it clear enough – it sounded like shouts of fear and anger, as if the village was having a riot.
“Sounds like trouble!” exclaimed Kael in alarm – there had never been a disturbance in the peace of the village in as long as he could remember, “We’d better get back there quickly!”
They ran the last half-mile to the village. The sight that met their eyes when they arrived was horrifying. Bodies were strewn everywhere, and several huts were on fire. Hunting spears and slings, the only weapons the villagers had, lay dropped among the carnage, suggesting a battle had taken place. There didn’t seem to be anyone still there, but more shouting was coming from the direction of the Sacred Pool.
“What happened?” wailed Taffy, his eyes like saucers as he looked around at the devastation, “Kael! What’s happening? Why is everyone dead?”
“I don’t know!” snapped Kael, dropping his sack of mushrooms and breaking into a run towards the Sacred Pool, “Come on! Don’t just stand there gawking, we’ve got to help them!”
“But..” Taffy hesitated, “We aren’t allowed to go there… Only Father Sands-”
Kael looked around at him, “That doesn’t matter anymore! Come on!”
Taffy started to follow, then stopped in alarm. His eyes widened even further, “Kael, look out!”
Kael turned just as the bushes behind him errupted outwards, and some creature threw itself at him in a wild lunge. It looked like a marsh elf, but wilder and more feral than anything Kael had seen, it’s eyes blazing red and its mouth frothing as it screamed in wordless rage. It swung a vicious black scimitar at him, and he was only just able to dive out the way. The creature slashed at him again, as he ducked and dived just to escape its attacks. Taffy was watching in open-mouthed horror.
“Do something!” Kael screamed at him.
The creature managed to fetch Kael a blow to the chin with a heavily-booted foot, throwing him to the ground in a daze. Groggily, he watched as it loomed over him preparing to deliver the killing strike. He didn’t want to see it coming, so he shut his eyes.
Kael tensed at the sound of something striking flesh, but opened his eyes when he realised it wasn’t his own. The creature was still standing over him, but now looking confused as a few feet of spear shaft protruded from its abdomen. Taffy let go of the spear, and the creature toppled to the ground.
“I killed it!” Taffy wailed miserably.
“Well done,” said Kael, “Now come on, we have to hurry before it’s too late!”
“I killed it!” Taffy repeated, still staring at the skewered corpse.
“Come on!” said Kael, grabbing his brother’s arm and tugging him along as he continued towards the Sacred Pool, where the sound of fighting was still intense.
Located in a secluded grove, the Sacred Pool was the holiest place known to Kael’s tribe. There were other small shrines to lesser spirits – the elves held animist beliefs and saw spirits in everything from trees to pebbles – but nothing compared to the home of the Great Spirit.
The path to the grove was defiled with blood and corpses. Among the bodies of those they knew – their friends and neighbours – lay the occasional body of one of the mysterious attackers, although it seemed to be a pretty one-sided fight. Kael and Taffy’s tribe were peaceful and unprepared for war. The Great Spirit always protected them from other, more violent tribes. But this time he hadn’t. He really must have been sick.
Kael and Taffy arrived on the shores of the sacred pool, its waters already tinged pink with blood, and more than one body floated face down in its holy waters. Kael’s heart leapt as he saw the Great Spirit again, its hazy form suspended over the waters. It was much diminished in size, barely larger than an elf, and less substantial. In the shallows of the pool stood Father Sand and Asta, the old preist shielding her and the weakened spirit with only his staff.
Before them stood another of the strange creatures, this one dressed in an elaborate headdress like some outlandish chieftain. In its hand it carried a strange, shimmering blade formed of some kind of dark spiritual energy. Around the pool stood dozens of the attackers, watching the confrontation in the waters, hooting and jeering in harsh voices.
Before Kael and Taffy even had time to react, the strange chieftain lunged forward, swinging his eldritch weapon. Father Sand tried to block his strike, but the blade sliced through his solid oak staff as though it were paper, and cleft into the old priest’s torso, killing him instantly. The evil blade sizzled and steamed, as the blood boiled off its surface.
Asta screamed. The creature raised its weapon again, and advanced towards the Great Spirit itself, as though it intended to cut him down in the same manner.
“Father Sand!” yelled Taffy, running out into the bloody waters before Kael could stop him.
The distraction was enough. The strange cheiftain turned to see what the shout had been, and in that split second, the power of Aniru flared to a semblence of its former self, and a massive shimmering fist slammed down on the creature, squashing it flat. With shrieks of terror, the creatures around the pool disappeared into the forest, fleeing the scene now their leader was dead. It seemed the battle was over, for the time being.
“Why did they kill Father Sand?” said Taffy, “I don’t understand!”
“Who were those creatures?” added Kael.
The hazy form of the Great Spirit shrunk again, back to its former pitiful size. “Those were Shadowed Elves, minions of Moeras,” he told them in his deep, baritone voice, “They were once Marsh Elves like you, but they have been posessed by shadows and twisted into evil mockeries of their former selves.”
“Moeras?” asked Kael.
“The Spirit of Death,” said the Great Spirit, “I, Aniru, Spirit of Life, am his brother. We are two sides of the same coin – I create new life, and he releases the energy of the dead, so the cycle may continue. Once, he was a noble Spirit, but he has become twisted and jaded. Instead of releasing the energy of the dead, he has been keeping it for his own ends.
“It is he who has been poisoning me – this river, that runs from his realm deep in the swamp, and flows into my Sacred Pool, carries its insidious taint. Now that I am weakened, he sends his minions against me with blades forged of shadows, but he has misjudged my remaining strength. Next time, however, we will not be so lucky..”
“Lucky?” exclaimed Kael, “Everyone’s dead! They wiped out the whole village!”
“I am sorry, Kael,” said Aniru, his misty form shrinking further. “I am sorry I could not protect them, as I promised. Even now, there is more at stake. If Moeras were able to kill me, and capture my life energy, he would gain total dominion over life and death. The world would be his plaything.”
“What are we gonna do?” wailed Taffy.
“We must leave this place,” replied Aniru, “If I remain in this tainted pool, I will be too weak to fight the shadows when they return.”
“What about this ritual thingy we were collecting mushrooms for?” Kael remembered.
“It is too late for that,” said Aniru, “It would have purified the waters and reversed my poisoning, but it will take far too long. Without Father Sand, it would take weeks. Moeras will send more of his minions against us before nightfall.”
Kael looked at the other two elves. Both were soaked in the bloody water of the pool, looking bedraggled and miserable. Asta was sobbing over the body of Father Sand, and Taffy looked like he might start crying himself.
“Where will we go?” he asked.
“Far to the west, beyond the boundaries of this forest, in the kingdom of the High Elves, is a sacred lake where a water spirit resides.” Aniru replied, “Those holy waters would allow me to recover my strength, and fight back against Moeras. But we must leave quickly, as I grow weaker with every second. Go back to the village and find the supplies you need. You will need a soul gem to carry me.”
“Where will we get one of those?” Kael frowned.
“Suba, the apothecary had some,” said Asta, looking up at last.
“Hurry, and bring the largest one you can find,” said Aniru, “Meet back here when you are ready to travel.”
Back in the village, the elves were searching among the devastation for anything of value. It seemed wrong to loot the posessions of the dead like this, but Kael was, if nothing, practical and held them to their task. Soon they had bundles of clothes, food, and tools ready. But they hadn’t found a single survivor.
“All the children…” Asta kept saying. She looked at Kael and Taffy, “The whole tribe. What can we possibly do?”
“We could join another tribe,” said Taffy, “I mean, Kael’s a good hunter, you’re a priestess, and I’m a frog tamer! They’d be silly not to take us!”
“Frog tamer?” Asta asked Kael, as Taffy scampered off.
Kael shrugged, “It isn’t a real job. We just told him to do it to keep him out of the way.”
They found the hut of Suba the apothecary, which was still undamaged. It gave off an eye-watering spicy smell at a considerable distance, and Kael wondered how Suba could bear to live in it. He must have lost his sense of smell a long time ago. Inside, it was full of bundles of all kinds of herbs and spices, as well as jars of more obscure ingredients such as snail eyes and mouse tails. There were racks of unmarked bottles, of all shapes and sizes.
Kael looked around, “Do you know what a soul gem actually looks like?”
“I’ve only ever seen one,” said Asta, “it was a jagged crystal. Uhm… Sort of like that one, but blue…”
She pointed to a row of crystalline forms on a shelf, which ranged in size from barely the width of a finger, up to crystals the size of Kael’s head. Very few marsh elves of any tribe are literate, and they lack a native writing system. Nothing was marked – Suba knew what everything was, but he wasn’t there.
Kael picked a large yellow crystal off the shelf. “This one will have to do, then. There aren’t any blue ones.”
They left the hut, and were passing the well outside, when a voice called out from its depths, “I say, hello? Is anyone there?”
Kael peered into the darkness, “Who’s that?”
“Kael, is that you, boy?” called the voice, “It’s me, Suba. I used to trap squirrels with your father. This is rather embarrassing, but I appear to have fallen down the well. Be a good lad and get me out without anyone seeing, eh?”
“How long have you been in there?” Kael asked in disbelief.
“An hour, maybe? I was having a brew, but I think I must have used the wrong kind of mushroom paste, because suddenly everything went all blurry, and I thought some creature with red eyes was attacking me, so I… er… jumped down the well.”
Kael lowered the bucket into the well, and called the others to help him pull Suba out. “It wasn’t a hallucination, Suba, the village has been attacked.”
Suba blinked as he pulled himself out, “Oh my… Where is everyone?”
“We’re all that’s left,” said Asta, sadly.
“What about the Great Spirit?” asked Suba, shaking the water out of his boots.
“He was too sick to save us all,” said Kael, “I hope you don’t mind, but we’re taking this soul gem so we can carry him to another Sacred Pool.”
“That isn’t a soul gem!” said Suba, waving a dismissive hand, “You don’t think I leave them lying around so any young rascal can make off with them, do you?”
“Well, do you have any?” Kael asked, “It’s kind of important. We’re leaving today.”
Suba looked around, at the wrecked village and the scattered corpses. He sobered up quickly, “Come, I’ll show you.”
The soul gem was hidden in a hollow tree stump in an overgrown patch of nettles. After drinking a potion to protect himself against their stings, Suba waded in and pulled out a sack. The crystal inside was sky blue, and emitted a faint glow, as though a firefly were trapped inside. Asta took it from him, and examined it.
“This is how I remember it,” she nodded.
“Thank you, Suba,” said Kael, “Now come and pack your bags.”
Some distance upstream from the Sacred Pool, the forest turned into a grim swamp. Warped trees slouched and glistened in the stinking mire, and heavy mists swirled lazily among the reeds and gnarled trunks. Even experienced trackers could find themselves lost in the gloom, or following a false path to a slow, sinking demise in the sucking mud.
An emaciated figure with a tattered black robe on its back, and a tarnished bronze crown upon its head, picked its way with ease through the quagmire, making its way eventually to a dark, stagnant pool. At the centre stood a gnarled skeleton of a tree. Its bulbous trunk was jet black, and its twisting branches bore no leaves or any other sign of healthy life. Massive roots sprawled snake-like into the pool, giving the impression of arteries spreading outward from some great black heart. There were no sounds of life in this part of the swamp - no croaking of frogs or buzzing of insects. Nothing but tomb-like silence.
The Ghoul King raised stick-thin arms and called out, “Great Moeras, Lord of the Swamp, your servant awaits!”
Nothing happened at first, but the caller waited patiently. Then, a dry cracking sound began, like an old wooden staircase groaning under excessive weight. The sound grew louder and faster, and the tree began to writhe and spasm in jerking movements, as the surface of its trunk contorted into grim, skull-like features. Abruptly, the sound stopped, and a dim red glow appeared in the skull’s eye sockets.
“Moeras is listening,” boomed a deep voice from within the tree.
The Ghoul King prostrated itself in a kneeling position before the tree, its head bowed.
”Oh mighty Lord Moeras, I bring bad news. The slaves sent to slay your brother have failed. He has left his sacred pool in the company of marsh elves.”
“This is unacceptable,” stated the voice of Moeras, “He must be destroyed. Have your shadows track them.”
“Yes, my lord,” the kneeling king answered, “And what of the slaves?”
"Punish them, and send them out again. Let them know that if they fail me again, they will be slain and their spirits bound in torment for eternity. Now begone, and do my will.”
“Yes, my lord.” The Ghoul King rose and turned back the way it came.
With another crescendo of cracks and creaks, the black tree returned to its original form. Once again there was deathly silence in the realm of Moeras.
The long summer day was fading to night, and the small, weary band of elves were a long way from home. Aniru had driven them on, giving them directions from within his soul gem, and forbidding them to rest for fear their enemies would catch up to them. They had come more than twenty miles, further than any of them had strayed from the village.
“I’m tired,” Taffy complained, “and my feet hurt. Can’t we stop yet?”
“I think we have come far enough for one day,” said Aniru. The spirit’s hazy features were just visible, shifting and swirling beneath the surface of the gem, which Asta clutched protectively in her arms. “You may set up camp here.”
There were sighs of relief all round, and the Marsh elves dropped their heavy packs and sat down at the base of a tree between two arching roots. Kael looked around apprehensively. The forest here was dark and dense, not at all like the bright grassy clearings around the village.
“I don’t like it here,” he muttered, “I don’t recognise these trees.”
“We’ve got a long way to go yet,” Suba pointed out, as he calmly busied himself lighting a fire with the kindling he had been collecting as they walked, “There’ll be stranger places ahead.” When the fire was burning happily, he set up a tripod to put his kettle on. “Now, who wants soup?”
After their long hike, the strangeness of their surroundings and uncertainty of their future became of secondary importance to a much awaited dinner. Suba stewed some beans and root vegetables in the kettle, and for a brief while, the elves forgot about their troubles. After the soup was eaten, they huddled together between the roots of the tree, and fell asleep.
In the darkness, shadows moved swiftly.