"You may stay the night in my home." The elf woman carried her niece delicately, as though holding a picked wildflower. As if Carlie would wilt if she grew too close, held on too hard. Angela could see a vast, looming sadness in those eyes, somehow blue and green at once, like a wetted jungle. Watching the elf's elegant, graceful movements, she realized just how much sadness pervaded Fa'Diel.
:More than you know, Princess.:
She started, and Duran frowned back at her, but she just waved him away and schooled her expression to neutrality. What do you mean, Faerie? I've practically toured the globe. Seen the High Priest of Light, the Starlight Sisters, and everywhere...everywhere, the monsters. I think I've seen plenty of sadness. She focused her golden eyes on the small child in Kallalis' arms. More than I want to.
Following the tall elf with slow, even steps, no one spoke. Perhaps they were too afraid of breaking up what time Carlie could spend with the remnants of her family.
:Such is the lot of a seed of the Goddess, specially grown and picked.: The faerie perched on Angela's shoulder, gossamer wings flicking away small sparks of blue magic every now and then. :You know the stories your companions have to tell:
They came to one of the odd trees that populated the elven village, and Angela listened to the song Kalla used to open a door in the trunk.
"Imouto...imouto...okete kure, imouto ki..."
Of course. she replied as they went inside. They all told me when I met them.
Kalla showed them where a pool for washing— heated by magic— lay, as well as their rooms.
"I'd like to use the bath first." Angela stated loudly. Riesz nodded, and the boys mumbled in various pitches of assent. Once she had gone inside the chamber, an opaque sheet of sap closed behind her, granting silence as well as privacy. Steam rose pleasantly from the pool, and Angela stripped down quickly. Her red dress was filthy from many days of travel, but she set it aside in favor of the bath.
:They haven't told you everything.: the faerie intoned as Angela slid gratefully into the water. The bottom of the pool was smooth stone, curved to fit the body.
"Faerie, I don't need to know everything." She reached over and grasped the first bar of soap she had seen in what seemed like months. The faerie alighted at the edge of the pool and gazed up at Angela, her tiny face grave.
:Perhaps.: she said cryptically. :Perhaps not. You sense the undercurrents of resentment that flow through them; you can't help it.:
Angela knew exactly what the faerie was getting at. Hawk and Riesz...they're getting worse all the time. Hawk says he's over his prejudice, but he still won't look Kevin in the eye. Even Carlie's got her problems; Duran babies her all the time. "No," she told the faerie, working up a good lather between her hands. "I can't. I am what my mother made me, after all." Unfit for anything but to rule, yet unable to because I have...had no magic.
:How can you be so calm: the faerie flapped her wings quickly to clear a few stray water droplets. :Angela, you must do something. The Seeds of Mana cannot afford to fall away from each other. You can't...:
"Stop it." Angel barked, cutting the deity off. "Please, just stop. I'm trying to take a bath here, can't you just leave me alone?"
The faerie glared at her reproachfully. :We don't have time, Angela. Every moment is precious.:
Angela shook her head and slumped further into the water. "Go bother someone else for a while."
:Angela! You are their leader! If you won't do anything, how can you expect them...:
"Expect?" Angela rose out of the water to loom menacingly over the faerie. "I don't expect anything out of them. It's you that chose us, remember? Goddess, I'm only human! We all are, or near enough it doesn't matter! A band of floating heads and some magic hasn't changed that!" She sat down again, scattering bubbles every which way. "We're tired, faerie. Let us rest tonight. I'll deal with it when I can."
Why is it that I always seem to be having this conversation!
Nodding, the faerie bowed and vanished in a flash of blue sparks. Angela sighed and continued to bathe, never noticing the shimmering, azure droplets that lay on the lip of the basin — faerie's tears.
"The king has masked the entrance to Dryad's home amongst the trees. To discourage unwanted 'visitors', no doubt."
Kallalis glared out into the morning gloom toward Hawkeye, who simply shrugged and readjusted his violet collar casually. Angela yawned; the sun had yet to rise beyond a tiny flicker of light above the treeline.
"How did His Majesty conceal one of the Elementals?" Riesz asked. The tall elf turned to regard her coolly. She gave the valkyrie a long, measuring look, then nodded slightly.
"Many ages ago, eons perhaps, by human reckoning, the Goddess granted elves and faeries a pair of twin statues, icons in her image. They were of unsurpassed beauty, molded by Gnome himself, hardened by Salamander's breath, and doused in Undine's tears."
:I've heard of these statues.: said the faerie, floating just above Angela's shoulders. It seemed she was going to act as though nothing had happened the night before, and that suited Angela perfectly. :But I thought they had been destroyed, long ago, when the elves fled Holyland.: the faerie pressed.
Kallalis's eyes, if possible, grew harder, granite instead of merely ice. Behind Angela, Kevin shivered uncomfortably. "The Faerie lost their gift during Exodus, yes, but elves were not so careless. We brought a tiny bit of the Goddess with us, and now our king has used that blessing to hide the Spirit of Wood in her time of need."
"So he can take down the protection, right?" Duran said bluntly. "He put it up; he can let us in."
Angela shook her head at him, sighing. "I don't think it's that easy, Duran."
The elf opened her mouth to speak, but Hawkeye interrupted smoothly. "Getting a bit ahead of yourselves, don't you think?" Clasping a hand around one of his daggers, he looked significantly over at the elf. "We don't even know how to find this statue, much less break through its protections. You need to cut the history lesson and tell us where it is."
The faerie gave an almost audible mental gasp. :Hawk! There's no reason for you to be rude:
Hawkeye slide a finger up and down the dagger's hilt absently. "You've said it yourself often enough, 'we don't have time'. Well, we don't."
"The forest will show you the way," Kallalis said, her tone chilly, "if it finds you worthy."
At Kalla's side, holding her hand, Carlie shook her head. "No, Auntie Kalla. Forest ish bad now."
Kallalis blinked and looked down at her niece.
"Carlie's right." Angela said calmly. "Don't you feel it? Something about the forest just feels...wrong somehow."
"Smells bad." Kevin murmured, and Carlie nodded encouragingly at him.
Angela glanced about in the dim light, eyes tuned for magic, and she saw little aside from the pale, nauseating green of sickness. Kallalis scoffed openly.
"So you say, but how can I believe what a human says when my own senses tell me all is well?"
"You can't even believe Carlie?" Riesz demanded. Even in the low light, Angela could see dark hemispheres beneath her eyelids. Apparently, the valkyrie had not slept any better than the sorceress. "She's your sister's daughter, why would she lie to you?"
Visibly taken aback, the elf glared venomously at Riesz. "Charlotte, she is young. Perhaps her judgment has gone awry. I cannot believe the forest where I have lived all my life has turned to darkness."
"Yeah, well maybe that's why the Goddess chose Carlie for this, not you." Duran snapped.
Shaking her head, Kalla loosed her hand from Carlie's and turned to walk away. "My answer has not changed. Let the forest be the measure of you all."
I hope it takes your lives, and brings young Charlotte back to me.
"Where are we going?" Angela demanded. They had already been traveling for over an hour, and the fact that it was remained dark didn't help things.
"To see Miss Tree!" Carlie burbled happily. Oblivious to Angela's enraged, heavy breathing, the tiny enchantress hopped along through the underbrush blithely.
"Her name is Dryad." Duran corrected absently. The big knight frowned; had he seen something move in the trees? Carlie ignored him, too, in favor of following whatever trail she seemed to be tracing. He had to admit that there seemed to be a curious force driving the tiny half-elf along, something beyond her usual childish meandering. With Kallalis unwilling (or unable) to guide them, they had to trust in the only elf they had.
Even if she was effectively a five-year-old.
"Miss Tree Miss Tree Miss Tree Miss Tree! Lalalalala!"
Angela resisted the urge to wallop the little munchkin with the hind end of her staff with some difficulty. If this turns out to be another dead end, though, I swear, I'm going to spank her, fifteen years old or no.
Hawkeye peered over at her, observed her stormy look, and sighed. "Angela, why don't we just follow the red flowers again?"
The princess perked up at the thought; somehow it had slipped her mind. Well, she had a lot on that mind, of course, didn't she? She couldn't be expected to keep track of every detail. "Won't they just lead us back to the village?" she returned, and deflated a little bit. Hawkeye shook his head.
"I don't think so. They're different this time. Don't try taking a whiff; they're not trying to attract us. Just look close."
Angela motioned to Duran, who moved up and distracted Carlie with an impromptu game of cat's cradle. Riesz and Kevin stopped as well, looking over to the Altenan quizzically.
"Hawk has an idea." she explained. Riesz's eyes went hard; Kevin's murky, and Angela just shook her head. It didn't take her long to find one of the flowers in question; a small group was clustered around the base of a nearby tree. They had a macabre air about them, the color of blood just drawn from a wound spliced with a painfully bright blue. In the morning's dim light, they glowed softly, menacingly. She stepped closer, and nearly gagged as the smell of them wofted up to her nostrils. Cursing softly, she whipped away and hurried back to where her companions were standing. "They smell like rotten meat!" she spat, trying to rid herself of the horrible taste the smell had left in her mouth. Hawkeye nodded knowingly.
"I told you not to try to smell them." he admonished, and Angela seriously considered nailing him with her staff.
"I didn't try to smell them, idiot. They just...attacked me."
That seemed the only way to describe it. Resisting the urge to retch, she turned back to look at the flowers. They still shimmered evilly in the darkness, like a grim beacon. "You're suggesting that we follow those? The ones that led to the village didn't smell like much of anything!" Certainly not like...like that!
:The taint on Mana has taken hold here too strongly.: the faerie said unhelpfully from the inside of Angela's head. :It's not too much of a stretch to imagine that those flowers could have changed, even overnight, into what we're seeing now. Besides: and Angela got the impression that the feykin was just as frustrated as she, :as much as I hate to admit it, Carlie's getting us nowhere fast. She may lead us to Dryad eventually, but...:
"But so could a pair of clowns with a cannon." Riesz hissed acerbically. Angela blinked, wondering where that reference had come from. Then, with a sour grimace, she recalled Bon Jour and his "Ultra Deluxe Turbo Sweetheart", or whatever he had called that cannon.
"Fine, but I don't have to like it." she stated firmly. The faerie ignored her. People seemed to be doing that a lot to her lately. It was not a good trend.
"Bin chob bin?"
Chobitus Maximus nodded to his subordinate approvingly. Chobillion, the tiny Chobin with wide, fluffy ears had successfully located the humans, perpetrators in this, the great Chobin Forest, and reported back with alacrity. Chobillion bowed her head neatly and vanished into the trees in the way that only the skilled Chobin Rangers could. Chobitus glared out at those trees, cute mouth fixed into what he hoped was something close to a forbidding frown, and contemplated what sort of soup he would make out of the perpetrators. He, the greatest Ranger of the Maximus clan, would wreak havoc upon the backs of the hapless humans.
"Chob chob chob chob chob!"he gloated.
"Bin, chobin." admonished a dark voice from behind him.
"Did you see that?" Duran asked Angela. Carlie hopped along ahead of them, apparently still under the impression that she was leading them, though it was actually Kevin's acute sense of smell that kept them on track now.
"See what?" asked the princess, peering into the trees. Dawn had dawned, but she could hardly tell, what with all those blasted trees blocking it out with their canopy. Duran waited for a moment, then pointed surreptitiously at a tree about twenty paces away.
"There. See that?"
Angela squinted. "Yeah, I think I do." she whispered back. Tiny, hooded shapes flitted from tree to tree, mere shadows in the wan light. "What do you think it is?"
"No idea." Duran replied. "But I doubt it's good. Might be the elves." His mouth turned down in a dreadful grimace. "Maybe they decided to hunt us down after all."
"I doubt it." Angela watched for a moment, careful to keep her pace even. No point in alerting it that we know it's there, whatever it is. "Elves are just a bit taller than that."
"Like you can tell anything in this foul jungle dim anyway." Duran spat. Hawkeye moved up smoothly, and though he did not look at the shadow shapes, Angela knew that he was as aware of them as she or Duran. She frowned; the Navarran had certainly grown strange since his class change. Very strange. Why on earth did he dress in purple and green? Of all the... she cut herself off mid-thought. What am I doing? We're being shadowed by some unknown thing, and I'm thinking about what that fool thief is wearing? Sod off, Princess.
She thought she might have heard the faerie snort, but since that would have earned the winged irritation a sound smack, one Angela was too nervous to give, she chose to ignore it. Hawkeye walked along next to her for a while, studiously avoiding those dark shapes, then said, too casually,
"You remember that rat infestation at the Golden Road, Princess?"
Angela blinked, and nearly stopped, but the ninja grasped her arm and pulled her along smoothly. Duran coughed politely, and Angela decided to play along. "Yes, Hawk, I remember. Couldn't take a step without running into one."
Rats? What is he playing at?
"I seem to recall that they liked the color green quite a bit." Hawkeye continued, and something wiggled at the back of Angela's memory.
:Maybe the faerie said noncommittally. :I'll check. Hawk...:
With a tiny spark of something that was not exactly pain, Angela felt the faerie depart from her head, presumably to enter Hawkeye's.
"My aunt Stella didn't like rats." Duran remarked, just as airily as Hawkeye had. "Said they liked to eat up her couch cushions for no good reason."
"Aw...ratsy-watsies are cute, though!" Carlie admonished, her childish features set into a mockery of disapproval.
:Not these rats.: the faerie said, returning to her resting place inside Angela's mind. :You were right, or almost right. They're Chobin Hoods; the forest cousins of the Porobin Bandits that plague trade routes. Hawk's been keeping track of them for a few minutes now; he says they're probably going to attack.:
Angela narrowly refrained from scoffing. What? Those little mouse things? They couldn't even get close...
Something small and sharp whistled past her ear, and she whipped to the side. A quick glance showed Duran protecting his face with a gauntlet, Hawkeye with both of his knives out, and even Carlie looking worriedly at into the trees. Riesz stared at them all like they were crazed.
"What in Mana are you..." she trailed off, eyes closing, and collapsed to the ground. Angela fell to her knees beside the valkyrie and felt up and down her neck swiftly. Finding what she sought, she pulled the tiny needle out of her friend's neck and hurled it to the side. She looked up, surprised to find Hawkeye couched on his heels by Riesz's supine form, facing away from her.
"Is she all right?" he asked. "The poison might have other effects."
Angela shook her head. "I think they just knocked her out." Barring her teeth wrothfully, she whipped started up a wind spell to foul the Chobins' aim, but Hawkeye touched her hand to stop her.
"I've got it covered." he said simply, and suddenly a spray of dark dust sprang up all around them, obscuring their view of the forest. "Get down and move!" he hissed, and Angela complied, pulling Riesz's slack form along the ground laboriously. Every breath she took turned into a cough. Did your job a little too well, ninja boy. Angela thought, reluctantly admitting that his little dust trap had given her the cover she needed to drag Riesz to the relative safety of some nearby bushes. The princess could hear the sound of metal hissing through the air all around her. More of these things. She fingered the needle that had put out the valkyrie, careful not to prick herself.
"Chob Bin chob chobin!"
That sounds familiar...
:It was Chobins after all.: the faerie explained. :Hawk was right.:
Well I'll be damned. Angela replied as she lay overtop of Riesz's prone body to protect it.
:Let's hope not.:
Hawkeye slid smoothly into the underbrush, oozing along the ground silently despite the myriad of dead twigs, nuts, and other chaff that coated the earth. It was not an easy task, even for someone who had lived on the underbelly of Navarre, but he had help.
:Like water, dearie.: murmured a soft, bubbly voice, seemingly directly into his ear. :Just like we practiced, remember:
Undine's presence hung about him, giving him the minute reactions to touch that allowed him to avoid making noise. As he focused on getting to the Rangers unseen and unheard, a memory sprang up, unbidden.
"You know, for a crybaby, you're awfully good at sneaking around."
A vast dune extending as far as he could see and further patterned his dreamscape. Blue sky swept down from overhead, intermingling with white cloud. Clouds made no sense; he was standing in a desert, but they were there anyway. Neither did a blue woman-creature with a tail instead of legs, though.
"And you," Undine said, scowling slightly up at him, "could be better at it. You call yourself a ninja? I even slipped into your dreams without your noticing it, how do you expect to keep others from doing the same and worse?"
He glared right back at her, unwilling to give ground. "The Goddess seems to think I'm worthy."
The Elemental scoffed, tossing her hair, a mass of blue and green that changed depending on her mood. Right now, it was dark emerald, nearly black, as the water before a storm. As she flicked those viridian strands back, waves crashed down onto the desert, populating Hawkeye's dream world with water.
"You communed with only the tiniest scrap of the Goddess, Hawkeye, through a now faulty vessel. It gave you the power, but not the control. Now, let me teach you the ways of water."
He was grateful for that training now, and for the Elemental's blessing.
You might just be mice, but you hurt her.
Something moved just a pace away, and the ninja rose up to his knees to cut that tiny throat. A short whistle of air, infinitesimal enough that none but he would hear it, was the only sign that Hawkeye had just murdered the first of the Chobin Rangers.
No one hurts her.
He could not be sure how long he sat there curled up in the bushes, a big hand clamped over Carlie's mouth to keep her from speaking. His shield, green lacquered iron crossed with gold, lay to his right side, and he did his best to keep his armor from rattling and giving their position away.
They're just rats! Salamander's balls, this shouldn't be this hard! He swore silently. Carlie shifted slightly, and he patted her head with his free hand to try to comfort her. He tried to tell himself that this was Hawkeye's element, but it was only by the barest sliver of will that he didn't shower the clearing with light and dive into the fray.
Wouldn't do any good. he assured himself. The damn things'd just run the hell away. Dammit, they got Riesz, and I can't do a thing about it!
To his left, he could feel the presence of the wolf/boy, hiding in a shrub nearby. Kevin did not make any noise, but Duran could almost feel his tension seep out. He obviously felt the same way as the knight, and he just as obviously knew that he had to leave this to the only one of them that worked well in darkness.
Well, at least, he thought Hawkeye was the only one. A needle smacked into his armor, making a tiny ping, and the little girl in his arms went absolutely still. Pain bloomed in his hand, and he snapped it away.
She bit me! he thought. He felt like he'd been smacked on the top of his head by a pole axe. A heavy one. As soon as he moved his hand away from her mouth, the young enchantress started to chant in that odd, haunting way that Duran remembered from the Moon-Reading Tower.
"Korz varnag sumentall le. Arz ibrik danma."
Slender tendrils of black energy slipped out from her skin.
Did I just hear a giggle?
A sound like a young child's laughter, only demented, broke the silence in the trees, and Duran saw that Carlie's eyes were glowing faintly blue.
"Gremlins will get the bad mousies." Carlie assured Duran. A cry like a small animal dying rang out, and Duran shivered as that horrible child's laugh broke against his ears. Carlie reached over and took his big hand into her own tiny digits. "Carlie is very sorry."
The bite marks on his hand, felt rather than seen, vanished in a nearly invisible spark of healing light, and Duran shook his head.
"You're a scary little girl, Carlie." he said ruefully.
"Carlie ish scary? Duran shouldn't say mean things!"
:Scary indeed.: Wisp echoed, and Duran nodded.
Riesz stirred groggily and raised her head, shaking it to rid herself of the odd befuddlement that leadened her limbs and fogged her mind. Or tried to anyway. She managed to lift her body into a sitting position, but none of the grog fled, even when she knocked her open hand against her cheek a few times.
"Stop that." admonished a voice.
"Angela?" the valkyrie murmured mistily.
"Of course it's Angela." The voice was icy, and entirely too loud for comfort.
"Dun be so loud." Riesz whispered. Goddess, my head feels like Gnome dropped a sack of bricks on it.
:I resent that.: came an injured voice in her head, and she winced.
"Oh, don't be such a baby." Angela snapped. Riesz forced her eyes to focus, and she could just barely make Angela's white hair in the low light.
"I said not to talk so loud." Riesz complained. The ground vibrated beneath her, and Angela's angry face whirled about wildly in front of her eyes. "Why's the world spinning to the left?" she asked dizzily. The spinning Princess of Reason frowned.
"You were hit in the neck with a drugged blowgun's needle. You've been out for a while, now." Angela explained, thankfully speaking a bit more softly. Riesz nodded, and immediately regretted it when the world bucked and swayed around her.
"Ugh...I hate the spins." she burbled. When the whirling stopped though, Angela no longer looked annoyed with Riesz; she looked frightened.
"Wuzzit?" the valkyrie slurred.
"The ground...it moved."
Riesz guffawed. "Stop puttin' meh on, Angie. Said I was drugged, din'cha? Dun need ta mess aroun' wit meh."
"No, Riesz, the ground really moved. It wasn't just you."
"Oh. Well then, we're in trouble."
Riesz looked woozily over in the direction the third voice came from. "Hawk? Ass. Ya did this ta meh, din'cha?" she spat heatedly.
He gave me this Goddess-cursed headache!
"Later." the ninja replied, his voice clipped. "Angela, can you tell the faerie to go get the others?"
Riesz shifted her gaze back to the princess laboriously.
"What about those mouse-things-men-whatevers?" Angela asked.
"I took care of it." Hawkeye replied evenly, and Angela shuddered.
"Took care of what?" Riesz mumbled giddily, and the other two just shook their heads.
It didn't take long for the faerie to track down Duran, Carlie, and Kevin, but even in the few minutes it took her to search, the tremors grew worse. As Duran bent over Riesz to drive out the drugs with Wisp's magic, the faerie floated just above his shoulder, bobbing up and down nervously.
:There is an alien force destroying the force.: she said, even her mental voice quavering. :I have heard legends, but...I suppose that it is the time that legends walk, and why should we have all the benefit of them:
Angela scowled at the tiny deity. "What aren't you telling us?"
The faerie dry-washed her minute hands anxiously. :There are tales in the Holyland, tales of an enormous weed that once threatened to devour all of Fa'Diel's forest. No one knows where it came from or how it was created or born, but when it appeared, the people of Fa'Diel were entirely unprepared. Whole swaths of trees vanished overnight, and the earth was wracked with a great trembling.:
As if in response to the fey's ominous words, the ground beneath them rumbled. :It took the lives of six mages devoted to Salamander and two of Dryad's before finally a pair of twins were able to seal it away. In these dark times, it is not unlikely that it has broken free of its prison here in the greatest forest in the world.:
"Does it have a name?" Duran asked absently, holding a hand up and sweeping it up and down through the air above Riesz's body, trailing white sparks.
:Yes. They called it Gildervine.:
Next Chapter Teaser:
"It's just a bloody flower!" Duran spat as he stalked into the clearing.
"Flower or no," Angela reasoned, "it's what's been causing the quakes."
The ground shook violently beneath their feet, hard enough to rattle teeth.
"I dunno." Riesz said dubiously. "It's big, but it still just looks like a flower."
She ambled over to the flower ostentatiously, ignoring the hand Hawkeye put on her arm to try to stop her. Looking it up and down, the valkyrie inspected the flower closely. Finding only red petals and a few massive, sharp thorns, she whirled back and smiled sweetly at her friends.
"See, nothing's wrong with it!"
With a blow like a smith's hammer, she was face down, mouth full of dead leaves.
Author's Note: Riesz isn't have too good a day, is she? Oh well. Sorry about the lack of actiony bits in this chapter (and the past few, actually), but I'm just happy to be putting out more chapters, period. As always, thanks for your reviews, they are appreciated.
In case anyone wondered, yes, I'm including teasers at the end of chapters. I'm probably going to go back and edit the earlier chapters to make them more "professional", too. Wish I had someone to do that for me...