Thursday, April 16, 2009

A New Beginning

It was over. Well, almost over. The journey we had started was coming to a finish. I guess it was never really my journey to begin with, but I couldn’t help but feel some sort of connection to it, having been involved for so long.

I glanced over at Lotheryn, who was picking her way determinedly through the forest, clearly wrapped up in her own thoughts. Anca trotted along beside her. Having had no real home for such a long time, I couldn’t imagine the emotions that she must be feeling. Returning to her kin and her Grove (the source of her being, really) after being away for so long, having completed the task she set out to accomplish, bringing her people the power they needed to restore their environment. That power was in the form of a simple flower, the terellor, still embedded in a clump of dirt and nestled carefully in Lotheryn’s pack.

Yeah, we found it. It took almost a year after our fellowship split up, but we finally found it. These things are always in the last place you look.

I couldn’t keep my thoughts from drifting back over the occurrences of the last year.

After I caught up with Lotheryn and Anca following our little "mining expedition," we made our way north to a decent sized city called Urgor. Lotheryn knew of a plant expert (by the odd name of Ratlab) who might be able to help her on her quest. We found the guy rather easily. Unfortunately, the reason it was so easy is because the man had apparently just gone completely mad, began casting lightning bolts at anyone wearing a dark cloak, screamed about something called the “Cult of Stone,” and then changed himself into a large alder tree and planted himself in the middle of the marketplace.

The halfling merchant we were conversing with pointed to the left, noticing the skeptical expression on my face. “It’s right there if you want to see it. Happened just two days ago. Quite a lovely tree, I might add. Wouldn’t mind a tree like that in my garden back home. While you’re here, could I interest you in any asparagus?”

“Ugh. No thanks.” I muttered. I flipped the man a couple coppers for his troubles and turned to Lotheryn. “Well, that certainly puts a damper on the start of our mission. Any other leads you know of?”

The elf looked like she was about to cry. “No. Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve met with nothing but dead ends. I keep having this vision of a flower embedded at the top of a mountain of rock, with sheer cliffs on each side, no way to reach it. It looks like that is my destiny. I thank you for your willingness to aid me, but I feel I must return to my Grove. They will need to know of my failure.” She began sobbing in the middle of the street, oblivious to the glances we were getting from the passersby.

What was I supposed to do? I’m pretty bad at the whole “empathy” thing. I was more uncomfortable in that situation than I had been when we fought that red dragon. At least then I could let my bow do the communicating. It spoke much more clearly and authoritatively than I did, that’s for sure. Then I had an idea.

I patted her shoulder gently, as a rather poor means of calming her down. “Well, this guy had to have journals, logs, or a library of some sort. I’m no rogue, but I can sneak around with the best of them. We’ll find his house and I’ll try to get us in to do some research.”

Thankfully, that seemed to take the edge off of Lotheryn’s despair. Our halfling merchant was able to tell us where we could find the man’s home, although he couldn’t do it without another sales pitch. Lotheryn bought some broccoli from him, just to make him happy. We spent the rest of the day in a dark corner of a tavern, the druid sitting quietly munching on nasty green vegetables, while I thought about how were going to get into the herbalist’s home.

We waited an hour after nightfall and were about to leave our table when three well-armed, angry looking dwarves barged into the tavern. I immediately recognized them from Odo’s clan. Something told me that it was probably not a good idea to say hello at the moment. It turned out to be a good instinct.

One of the dwarves stepped forward and shouted, “If any of you has seen or heard tell of a gnome called ‘Moonglum,’ step forward and provide any information you possess. Any credible information we receive will be paid for, while anyone caught concealing information will be held duly accountable.”

The bartender made a feeble attempt at trying to get the dwarves to leave, mumbling that they were going to be bad for business, but he was quickly silenced by a glare from the bearded man who had spoken. When no one stepped forward to offer up intelligence, the dwarves began making their way around the tavern, harshly questioning individuals.

I looked at Lotheryn. “I think that was our cue to leave.” She nodded silently as we slipped out of our booth and made our way to the back door, hoping that we had escaped unseen. Thankfully, we had left Anca outside at the rear of the tavern, otherwise we would have been given away for sure.

I seethed as we snuck out. Hearing the gnome’s name made me angry all over again at what he had done back in the depths of Odo’s mine. And apparently he had done something else, as well, to tick off the dwarves that badly. I had no intention of finding out what it was. I was perfectly happy to be as far away from that wizard as possible. As it turned out, that was the last time we heard any mention of our previous companions.

We breathed a sigh of relief as we collected Anca and made our way out of sight of the tavern. It was a quick walk from there, down a few back alleys, to Ratlab’s house. As we arrived I felt confident that we remained incognito.

“What now?” Lotheryn whispered, as we crouched down beside a rear window. “How do we get in?”

I took one last look around the alleyway to make sure no one was spying on our activities, and then I calmly broke the window with the haft of my flail. The elf looked appalled.

“What? I told you I’m no rogue. This is how I do things. Besides, the guy’s a tree. He’s not going to miss his back window. Let’s just get in there and do our business, shall we?” I said. Even in the near blackness, I could see Lotheryn roll her eyes.

The three of us hopped in, lit a couple of candles and began our search. The place was a disaster. It looked as if a typhoon had gone around the place a few times and then called a tornado in to finish the job. We gathered up all the tomes and notebooks we could find and began perusing them for any hint of the terellor.

I was halfway through a riveting classic about the germination of fir trees, when, without warning, a brilliant orb of light lit the room. Completely startled, I dropped the tome I was reading. Anca crouched down, growling and ready to leap. I turned and slowly opened my eyes, letting them adjust to the new brightness.

Standing there, holding a staff tipped with a crystal that was the source of the light was a very tall man of medium build. The man looked to be past middle age, with jet black hair and beard, streaked with white in various places. His face was stern, but I could see some amusement in his eyes as he regarded our state of shock.

“Well?” He started in a booming voice. “You have approximately 17 and a half seconds to convince me not to turn each of you into smoking piles of ash.”

I was still trying to figure out where I might be able to obtain a clean set of undergarments at this hour when Lotheryn spoke up. As freaked out as I was, she spoke without a quaver in her voice.

“Sir, we did not intend any harm. I am searching for information that Ratlab was said to possess. This information would lead me to a flower that holds the ability to save my home. I was hoping to speak with Ratlab myself, but he has passed, as you know. This was my last option, and I took it out of desperation, not malice. Please forgive our intrusion.”

I was impressed by her composure, and apparently the sorcerer was impressed as well. His face softened considerably. “My name is Suiag. Lab was a good friend of mine for many, many years. I know of the information that you seek. I tried to pry it from him myself, but he never gave it to me. Every time I asked, he would look at me with a mischievous grin and tell me ‘Only my true friend can know that.’ I never fully understood what he meant by that. And now I never will.”

The big man sighed as he seated himself on a stool in the corner of the room. He gave a quick whistle and to our astonishment, Anca trotted over and seated himself beside Suiag, even allowing him to scratch his ears. “That information would have been quite useful, as you well know. I take it that you heard mention of the Cult of Stone?” Lotheryn and I both nodded. “They are most likely the ones responsible for the decay of your Grove. This is a group of evil men, some of whom have become wraiths, twisted by their ill-advised dabbling in necromancy. The short of it is that the power they possess is limited by growing things, and so they seek to destroy especially those who would nurture the flora of the world. There are some powers that druids and shamans wield that can combat the spread of the disease they have inflicted upon fields and forests, but only the terellor has the power to actually cure it.”

This story was getting bleaker and bleaker. Hopefully the sorcerer would give us at least some good news. He continued, “Lab obviously guarded this information closely, knowing that it would be abused in the wrong hands. Unfortunately for you, by the time it became obvious that the information needed to be shared with someone who could use it for good, his brain had been addled by a confrontation with a rather powerful mind flayer. As you can see from the curious collection of random objects, he became rather eccentric in the last couple years, hoarding pieces of junk that he thought were significant in some way.”

I glanced around the room, really seeing it for the first time. Among the myriad items, there was a strange carving of a man’s distorted face, a small statuette of a scantily clad woman who appeared to be wearing a skirt made of grass, and a multi-colored cube. I asked about this last item.

“That?” the sorcerer grunted as he picked it up. “This is some sort of puzzle. Apparently the pieces can be moved around so that each side consists of only one unique color. He was constantly fiddling with this thing, claiming that it held the key to his destiny. You may have it, if you wish. As far as I know, no one has ever solved it.” He tossed it to me. Hey, I like a good puzzle every now and then.

Lotheryn interrupted us, urgency in her voice “So is there no clue here as to where we can find the terellor?”

Suiag shook his head. “Certainly none that I know of. Members of the Cult were here looking, and they couldn’t find anything either. They obviously didn't pick up after themselves. You are welcome to look around if you’d like, but I’ll tell you that I have read every word on every piece of paper in this place, and nothing will lead you to your answer. I am sorry.”

We gave one last look around the room. I was ready to turn and head back out the window when Lotheryn spoke up. “I find it strange that a lover of plants such as this would not have a dwelling full of green life. The only growing thing I see is that small tree in the pot over there.” She pointed at a tiny tree on the window sill. Something was funny about that tree, other than the fact that it was the smallest tree I had ever seen. It couldn’t have been more than 12 inches tall. I looked closer, and then I realized it.

“Hey, that tree looks exactly like the one Ratlab turned into in the marketplace. It seems to be withering and dying, but the color and shape of the tree is the exact same.”

The large spellcaster looked over. “Well, I suppose you’re right. I don’t see what significance that poses, other than that he liked this particular plant.”

Lotheryn said, “You are probably correct, but still, I have some ability to talk to plants and trees. Before we go, I would like to see if it has anything it can share.”

Lotheryn gently placed her hands on the small, frail branches. I could see that she was vocalizing something, but her voice was inaudible. This had gone on for some time when I heard a loud snap and saw that the tree had collapsed. Lotheryn had a tear in her eye, as she turned to us, but her words reflected respect and admiration rather than sadness.

“This tree has spent the last of its life energy to communicate with me. What I heard was, ‘The life of the star flower is held by Elanor the Grower.’ That was all.” She looked at the sorcerer expectantly. Suiag, who had an air about him that indicated his ability to handle just about anything, suddenly seemed unsure of himself.

After a moment spent deep in thought, the man spoke, “Ratlab must have shared his secret only with the tree, his ‘true friend.’ And he probably didn’t keep other plants around because he knew that the tree would communicate with them in its own way, and his secret would be in danger. As to the message, the ‘star flower’ refers to the terellor, its shape being very unique, as its petals and leaves form seven-pointed stars. Elanor the Grower is the name of the second oldest living creature around. At least, I assume she’s still living. She is, or was, an elf, a daughter of one of the original elves that were formed out of faerie. It would make sense that she would know the location of the terellor but I had no idea she was still alive or that should would possess this information.”

“Well,” I started, impatient to get the show on the road now that we had our lead, “Where do we find this lady?”

“That is the problem,” Suiag said. “As far as I know, the only one who’s been in contact with her over the last few centuries is the oldest living creature in the world. The green dragon known as Emraung. Last I heard, he was living amidst an old forest in the Northern Reaches.”

“Emraung!” I was incredulous. “That dragon is just a fairy tale. Even if such a dragon existed, it must be long dead by now. This is the same dragon that supposedly gave advice to the gods when they were creating plants and animals. Surely you don’t expect us to go looking for a myth.”

“You are not as smart as you think you are, ranger,” Suiag snapped sharply. “This world is full of strange things, and a several hundred thousand year old dragon is one of them. Do you want my help, or are you going to question me further?”

I looked at Lotheryn. She looked back at me with hope in her eyes, the first I’d seen of that in awhile. I sighed and shrugged my shoulders, still skeptical of the whole thing. “Yes, we want your help. What can you do for us?”

The sorcerer told us of a wizard he was acquainted with on the edge of the Northern Reaches. He told us he could teleport us to the wizard, who would be able to give us information on how to find Emraung. Suiag told us to meet him at his quarters when we were ready to leave. Then he was gone in a flash of light. I looked at Lotheryn, “Here we go, I guess.”

We had the sorcerer teleport us the next morning. I could spend several novels telling you of the various encounters we had on our journey, but I’m not sure I remember them all, and I’m not sure I could accurately relate the ones I do remember. We traveled for some time with an old cleric, who was in the area as part of a mission from his god to chronicle the history of the Norther Reaches. His piety got on my nerves sometimes, but he did teach me a neat trick which would allow me to channel energy (which he claimed was granted to me by my god, Ehlonna) in a ray of light that would burn my enemies and grant favor to my allies. I don’t know how that all works, but hey, it is dang useful when I run out of arrows.

After we parted ways with the cleric, we walked for months until we found signs of the dragon. Even using all my tracking skills, it was blind luck that allowed us to stumble into the cave where Emraung made his home, deep in the heart of the largest forest I’d ever seen or heard of.

Of all the details that I've forgotten about that journey, the encounter with the dragon was something I will never forget.

As soon as we entered, we heard the gravelly, commanding voice of the dragon, “Come in, travelers. Come and look upon my glory before you perish in my jaws.”

Well, this was off to a promising start. Every impulse in my body told me to turn and run; my brain convinced me that my training would allow me to hide from this creature until it was safe to get out of the forest. But I steeled myself and led the way inside the dragon’s lair.

Emraung was the most massive living thing I had ever seen. All of a sudden the claim that this beast was eons old didn’t seem quite so preposterous. At that point, I was willing to believe anything anyone told me as long as it meant I could leave that place alive.

The dragon addressed each of us by name. How it knew us, I have no idea.

“Well, Taran the Witless, Lotheryn the Lost, and Anca the Blindly Loyal. You have come a long way to see me. I smell the blood of one of my red grandchildren on your persons. Fortunately for your existence, I never liked the red ones all that much. More trouble than they were worth. But that is neither here nor there."

The dragon fixed an eye on each of us, seeming to stare into our hearts and minds. It was disconcerting to say the least. He said, "Your quest is to find Elanor, my good friend of many millennia. I am not in the habit of granting information to random visitors, preferring simply to consume them. However, since I am not particularly hungry for food at the moment, I will make you a deal. You have one hour to satisfy my main hunger – something to occupy my mind. You see, I have encountered everything this world has to offer, and some that it hasn’t. It has taken quite a long time, but after so many years my life has lost its vigor. If you can provide me with a diversion from my disinterest, you will have your answer. If you cannot, I will have my supper.” The dragon laughed mirthlessly at this last witticism.

Lotheryn and I were at a loss. After about 45 minutes, we started throwing random ideas at the dragon, all of which were rejected without a second thought. A sudden dread swept over me as I realized that this was the end of our journey. Our blood, sweat, and tears spent on this quest had been in vain, all because a dragon was bored out of his mind. Oh how I love injustice.

I looked at Anca and then at my pack, wondering if I could somehow create a diversion long enough for the wolf to take my journal and sprint away. At least our story would survive. Maybe some bard would make a song out of us some day. All of a sudden, the answer came to me.

“Oh wise Emraung, mightiest of all dragons, wisest living creature,” I started with a flourish. He probably knew I was kissing his giant, scaly green ass, but I didn’t care. “As powerful a mind as you possess, I know one riddle that you have never solved. In fact, this riddle remains unanswered by any living being. This riddle is so profound that its originator went mad when he could not solve his own creation.” I completely made this last part up, but I thought it sounded good.

The dragon’s interest was piqued. I reached into my bag and tossed him the multi-colored cube I had taken from Ratlab’s house. The dragon turned it over and began moving pieces around. There was silence as the giant beast put his full concentration on the puzzle. After a minute that seemed like eternity, the dragon began to laugh.

“Wonderful! This should keep me busy for some time. Although I warn you, if I cannot solve it in several years, I may become frustrated and decide to eat a village or two. For your sakes, I would make sure you are well out of the region by then,” Emraung said. We breathed a collective sigh of relief. We would live. And we would get our answer.

Emraung spoke again, “You will find Elanor in a deep valley that can only be entered through a secret door in a mountain due north of here. The door is revealed every sunrise by a shaft of light that shines on a green rock embedded at the base of the mountain. The rock is perfectly round. While the sun is shining on the rock, the druid must speak ‘Open’ in the language of the plants. You must hurry as the light only lasts for several seconds. The door will open to the valley and there you will find your elf, tending to the last remnants of ancient life that exist in the world. Now begone from here. I have a puzzle to solve.”

We couldn’t have left any faster. We sprinted out the entrance to the cave, took our bearings, and began to make our way north. It took another month, but we finally found the door to the valley and opened it. Once inside, we were amazed at the life we saw. Things that only existed in stories flourished in this place. We found Elanor, who led us to the flower that Lotheryn sought. She carefully removed it from the ground, complete with fertile soil from the earth, and handed to Lotheryn. She never spoke, seeming to know our intent, and we both seemed to understand that there was no need for words in that place. Afterward, though, as we left the hallowed valley, Lotheryn told me that she heard words in her mind.

“It seemed that she said ‘Your work has yet to begin.’ After all this time, I feel like my mission is almost complete, and yet it seems I have much left to do. What could she mean?” Lotheryn asked, half rhetorically.

I just shrugged. Ancient elves are certainly not my area of expertise.

We took several more months to find our way back to the wizard that had guided us to the dragon’s lair. An unfortunate incident with some gnolls along the way resulted in the loss of my flail, Narqualme, but I was happy to be back in civilization. The wizard ported us to a location near Lotheryn’s Grove. We began the several day walk to her homeland, which is where we currently found ourselves.

We walked on, getting closer to the Grove. Lotheryn looked at me with a frown, “Something is not right. Look at the trees! Look at the undergrowth! Listen…”

I looked and listened. The plantlife seemed to be dying, and there were more fallen trees then elsewhere in the forest. It seemed like there was more rock strewn about than one would normally find in a forest so far from a mountain range. I also heard nothing – no sound of bird or other animal. Lotheryn and Anca, sensing a need for urgency, began to jog and then broke into a full run. I could go pretty fast when I wanted to, but I couldn’t keep up with those two.

They had just gotten out of sight when I heard a wild scream. It was Lotheryn. I sprinted toward the sound, praying that nothing bad had happened. I made for a ring of broken trees that stood directly before me. As I burst through, I saw the reason for the druid’s scream.

What I had thought were trees had been turned to stone and broken off, lying in pieces on the ground, which had also become mostly rock. Bodies of elves were strewn about, some frozen into rock as well. But of more concern was the dark-robed necromancer still standing in the middle of the clearing.

Lotheryn was summoning a ball of fire as I joined the battle. Anca was circling the evil wizard, biting and clawing when he could get past the lightning bolts it was casting and trying to turn it away from his master. Lotheryn finally released the fireball, causing the necromancer to shriek in pain and turn suddenly on the druid. He began to gather a lightning bolt in his hand. I unslung my bow and drew an arrow, but it was too late. Anca jumped and bit the necromancer’s hand just as the bolt was about to be released. Its violent energy discharged into Anca and threw the wolf against one of the stone trees, where he lay motionless.

In a blind rage I loosed my arrow, striking the thing square in the chest. As I nocked another arrow, I turned to Lotheryn. She had her eyes closed tightly as her chest heaved in fury. Before I could fire another round, she began to transform in front of my eyes, changing from the beautiful elf that I had come to know and love into a large wolf, alike in almost every way to the one lying motionless behind us. She charged the necromancer, catching it off guard as she mangled one of its arms. Regaining my composure, I looked for another shot, but I couldn’t risk firing with Lotheryn darting in and out of the way. Just as I thought she had the fight won, the necromancer released a burst of energy, throwing Lotheryn to the ground and knocking her unconscious.

The wizard was bent in pain from the wounds we had inflicted, bleeding whatever passed for blood in that warped body that may once have been human. It turned to look at me as I moved closer for a point blank shot.

“You are too late…” It hissed through pointed teeth. “Your world will be stone. You cannot stop…”

“Enough," I interrupted, glaring at the necromancer. "Tell me where we can find the rest of your Cult so so I can make sure they suffer as much as you have.”

The thing hissed at me again, seeming to laugh, “You cannot stop us…Stone cannot be made to suffer…”

“Wrong answer.” I sent my arrow into its eye, silencing it for good. The body crumbled into small pebbles as it hit the ground, leaving only its black robes as evidence that it had ever existed. I quickly turned and looked for Lotheryn, who had returned to the shape of an elf, and was picking herself up off the ground. I went to help her, but she brushed me aside and ran to Anca.

The wolf was barely breathing. I could see the pain in his yellow eyes as Lotheryn reached down to stroke his fur. Silently weeping, she picked up the large wolf in a feat of strength that could only have been accomplished with the raw anguish that was coursing through her.

She took Anca to the center of the clearing and laid him down. I followed closely behind, not wanting to interrupt her last moments with her dearest friend and companion. Finally she seemed to notice me.

“I am sorry. I must speak the words that will grant Anca a peaceful death. I want him to be at rest here in the Grove where I first met him so many years ago,” Lotheryn’s voice was shaking, barely above a whisper. But as she leaned over to send Anca to his final destination, we heard a groan behind us.

“Lotheryn…wait.” The voice said, louder now. We both turned. One of the elves that we had assumed dead was feebly motioning us over. “Bring…the wolf.”

It was obvious that the elf could not rise, as his lower half had been turned to stone and merged with the ground. The sight made me sick to stomach, but I went beside Lotheryn as she gently placed Anca on the ground beside the man and knelt next to him.

“Master Rillin,” she began. “What happened here? I…I have finally returned. And I have brought…I have brought the terellor.” Her voice cracked with emotion.

“You have done well…child. Too late…for this…Grove.” The druid master seemed to gather his strength. “Cult of Stone…is dangerous. You have…seen…touched…the beast within. You know…your capabilities now. You…are a druid.” His breath was coming in ragged gasps. Lotheryn lowered her head as the tears streamed down her face.

“Need a…guardian on…your quest to…preserve life. There…is some strength left…deep…in this Grove. Anca…bestowed with power…Wolf…Elf…Nature…your Warden.”

With the last of his strength, Rillin put his hand on Anca’s barely moving chest and closed his eyes. What occurred next is almost beyond description, but I’ll do my best. Not 10 minutes ago, I saw a normal elf turn into a wolf without warning, but this was even crazier than that. I saw what remained of the green vitality in the Grove drained to brown and gray as power seemed to flow into the wolf. Gradually, Anca grew and stood slightly crouched on his two hind legs, becoming a kind of half elf, half wolf. His wounds were healed as he stood before us, looking at us with the same knowing, wise yellow eyes that he had when he was Lotheryn’s animal companion. There was a sadness in those eyes, but it was not the sadness of Anca the wolf or even the sadness of the elven community that had lived in the Grove. Rather it was the sadness of the trees and flowers that had given the last of their essence to live inside this new body. They grieved as they realized that they would never again feel the flow of water through their veins or take in the rich nutrients of the soil through roots buried in good earth. It was that pain that showed on Anca’s face as the natural power within him gradually understood that nothing remained of the beauty that once surrounded them in the Grove. He looked to the sky and howled in agony, releasing all the frustration and despair that was roiling inside him.

There was something therapeutic in that cry, as the sadness soon passed. The three beings, newly joined in one body, came to recognize and accept each other’s existence. There was harmony in their co-habitation, and I saw resolve and fierce loyalty as the former wolf-turned-shapeshifter looked at Lotheryn. I knew that Anca would be a better, stronger guardian now than ever before, infused with the power of Nature itself as he protected us wherever we would go.

Lotheryn looked at me with intense, indescribable emotion.

“We must go. I cannot be in this place any more. We will start a new journey from this moment on. And wherever that journey leads us, we will heal the earth.”

I nodded silently. We turned and walked from the former druid haven, never to return there.

Here we go again.


2 comments:

Moonglum said...

Well that was much more entertaining then whatever was going on in my class. I really liked the end and the tie in to my character. "Need a…guardian on…your quest to…preserve life. There…is some strength left…deep…in this Grove. Anca…bestowed with power…Wolf…Elf…Nature…your Warden.” Nice. I also like how Loth shapeshifted for the first time. Oh, and crazy stone people?!? "Stone cannot be made to suffer..." was quite a line to spit at someone before you catch an arrow to the face. I'll have to think of ways to incorporate insane stone people.

Taran said...

Thanks! I definitely got carried away with this one, but I enjoyed it.

Also, I totally think you should bring Moonglum back as an NPC later on. Evil, power-hungry gnome, crazed wizard, or some dude who wants us to help him with a quest, it's your choice.

By the way, did you recognize Ratlab and Suiag? Read them backwards.