The long walk back towards the Grove was filled with excited chatter and laughter, and great stories to be told about faraway places. Time seemed to glide by and before they knew, night had fallen and almost passed. All three were tired, but still happily talking when Aife leaded them into the Grove.
It had unrecognizably changed. The clearing around the Pale Tree had been expanded to at least three times its former size, and branches had been built into balconies, slender bridges connecting them with the ground. The whole area was cultivated and kept neatly, with distinct paths and small fences made from ivy to keep anyone from falling. The Grove had grown into a huge complex of rooms and chambers and hiding places. Aife walked towards a big pod, and placed her hand on it. Muscles contracted inside the plant and it opened up, revealing a hollow inside.
'Look! Everyone has their own spot now. We made you houses, as well.' She said, gleaming with pride. Caithe and Faolain walked around with their mouths ajar, while Aife sat down at the table, casually leaning her chin on her hands. The Grove was nothing like how they'd left it. After a while, Caithe walked back at the entrance of Aife's house, and looked at the Grove.
'Aife,' she started, her expression suddenly a little forlorn, 'maybe it's just that it everything is so big now, but,' she looked around once more, 'where is everyone?' Aife's smile fell from her face.
'All those that are still here, you will meet at dawn. We always gather at the Pale Tree in the morning,' she said, folding her hands and staring at them. Caithe managed a small smile despite Aife's obvious troubles.
'I am glad at least that has remained the same,' she said, putting a hand on Aife's shoulder. Aife looked up and smiled back at her.
'I am also glad you have not changed,' she said, letting her gaze slide over both Caithe and Faolain. 'Or, well, you have changed, but I sense you are still the same.'
'It feels that way because you have changed as well,' Faolain stated. Aife shook her head.
'I do not feel like I have changed. Maybe I am more convinced of what I am now, more able to express my feelings and fulfil my duties,' she said, nodding to herself.
'You are convinced that what you are doing is right.' Faolain said. Caithe wasn't sure whether it was a question or not, but she didn't like Faolain's tone, or the gaze she was giving her former friend. It reminded her of the cold stare Faolain had had before, in the Shiverpeaks, the ruthless kind of stare which would be followed by cruel words.
'So you are able to question your own actions,' Faolain continued. Aife stood up slowly, her voice confident as she replied, facing Faolain's cold stare head-on.
'Then you are different from before,' Faolain said, staring into Aife's eyes. Caithe stood up cautiously, ready to jump in and separate the two. The tension had suddenly become almost tangible between them, the atmosphere vastly different from the relaxation before. Then just as sudden as she had begun it, Faolain looked away, placing her hand on her forehead and sighing, breaking the tension.
'I am very tired. I must bid you goodnight, Aife,' she said, nodding at her hostess. Then she smiled at Caithe. 'Goodnight, my love.'
Her dress rustled as she exited the house, and the pod closed smoothly behind her. Caithe let out the breath she was holding, and Aife let herself drop on her chair again. For a moment, it was silent.
'It must have been a very harsh trip,' Aife eventually concluded, breaking the silence. She thought for a moment. 'For Faolain to say something like that...' Caithe looked at her, but Aife did not continue.
'We have had some ... arguments, along the way,' Caithe then admitted quietly. 'In the end, we have the same goal. But I learned that her ways are different than mine.' Aife chuckled at that.
'That does not surprise me, Caithe. Faolain was always bold, and strong willed and stubborn. It was but a matter of time before she wanted to do things her own way. It is what makes being her friend so interesting.' Aife smiled to herself.
'Did you spend a lot of time with her?' Caithe asked. She realized she had never asked about Faolain's daily activities before their journey. Caithe had always been by herself, exploring, or on rare occasions she had been with Trahearne, who had been nothing more than a kinsmen to her then. Time had connected all of them, brought them closer, no matter how far she had been travelling. Something had kept their bonds, levelled their experiences. She knew their names, their faces, without ever having asked them, and shared memories of events she had never experienced.
'Yes, I did. When I was not with Riannoc, I was with her.' Aife smirked. 'Basically she was always up to mischief, pushing the boundaries of what she knew, of anything that seemed possible. She's not one to let go before she gets what she wants, is she?'
'I never noticed her before that night in the forest.' Caithe sighed.
'She is silent, like you.' Aife replied. 'But you adapt, you find your way like a stream downhill, while Faolain is a rock, that would clear out anything in its path on the way down.' Caite looked up, her eyes slightly widened.
'What do you-' Aife interrupted her as she stood up, shaking her head slowly. Her face vaguely resembled that of the Pale Tree as she bore a motherly, slightly patronizing smile.
'It is late. Let me show you to your house, and let you get some rest.'
The sun rose early over the Grove, and Caithe found Faolain bathing in the stream, her back towards her, just outside the clearing of the Tree. She approached carefully, scolding herself for being weary, but unable to cast off the feeling. Quietly calling out to her lover she walked up to the edge of the water, where Faolain's dress hung over a few low branches. Caithe felt the fabric with her fingertips. It was starting to get worn, and needed to be mended at the seam. The fabric was not quite as smooth anymore as it had been before.
Caithe felt Faolain's piercing gaze rest on her, as she stood in the water. Her dark body contrasted sharply with the glittering, crystal clear water, and the sandy soil under it. She carefully cleaned her body, rinsing it with water she picked up in a small chalice made out of leaves. It was tense for a moment, while either waited for the other to speak.
Did you really need to act so hostile towards Aife? Caithe found herself thinking. Faolain closed her eyes and sighed as she picked up more water and let it cleanse her face.
So that is why you are here. She did not look at Caithe, but instead focused on the water.
You did not know?
I can barely hear your thoughts over the noise. Faolain looked at Caithe now, her gaze open. As if everyone talks at the same time.
Caithe kneeled by the water, and dipped in a few fingers to check the temperature. It was cold, much colder than the warm air would have had her believe. 'Then speak to me,' she said. She did not like cornering Faolain like this, but she was troubled. She wanted to resolve this. Faolain sighed again and she lowered herself completely into the thigh-deep water now, only to emerge a moment later. She shook the drops off her mane of branches, and smirked.
'It's nothing. You wouldn't know, but I've always thought Aife too docile, too blindly loyal to duties. Yet now that she started thinking for herself, -we all did, I might add- she still pretends to be the same.' Faolain smiled as she shook her head, and rinsed her shoulders. 'We used to quarrel about it a lot.'
'She still performs her duties, though,' Caithe mused, swirling the water with a finger. 'I don't understand.'
'Yes, she does. But let's just say she now knows whom to shoot, and whom to take back to the Grove.' Caithe heard the water splash and Faolain stepped out of the stream, greeting Caithe by giving her a warm smile and stroking her cheek, her hand cold from the water. She shook off the remaining drops from her leaves and rearranged the bell-shape around her legs. Caithe picked up the dress carefully, still a little annoyed at how everyone was treating her like she knew nothing.
'Would you like me to lace you up?' she asked. The sound had barely outrung the faraway chirping of birds, and still it sounded like it had been far too loud. Faolain shook her head. She gestured vaguely to where the dress had been hanging and Caithe put it back before joining at Faolain's side.
They walked silently towards the centre of the Grove, where the roots of the Pale Tree were firmly planted into the ground. Everywhere around them constructions were still in progress, the Grove would soon expand even further. Caithe felt her hand touch Faolain's, and her fingers being interlaced. They glanced at each other before looking up in surprise. Kahedins came running towards them. Aife stood at the tree's roots, her arms crossed, a small smile on her face. Dagonet and Niamh were just arriving but their eyes sparkled as they recognized the two, and ran towards them as well.
'You are back!' 'Where have you been?' 'You must tell us everything!' They hugged and held each other's hands as they greeted, happy and relieved to see their siblings in good shape. Caithe looked around their small group.
'So.. this is it? Where is everyone?' Faolain had walked over to Aife and conversed softly with her. They seemed to be on good terms again. Kahedins shook his head sadly.
'They're all gone. You just missed Trahearne, he left only a few days ago.' He opened his mouth to continue, but hesitated. Caithe caught his sad gaze.
'What about the rest?' She asked him, urging him to speak on, but he merely shook his head. Suddenly a light illuminated the group as the Avatar of the Tree descended. She held out her arms to her children, who ran towards her. Caithe fell into her embrace, and Faolain found her cheek being caressed, savouring the simple gesture. The other Sylvari bowed deeply before stepping up to greet her.
'Trahearne has started his Wyld Hunt, my child,' the Pale Tree spoke. 'He will not be back for a long time. A heavy burden has been placed on his shoulders.' Caithe bit her lip. She knew of Trahearne's burden all too well. She knew of the impossibility of it, it seemed even more impossible than her own Wyld Hunt.
'The others are out there, researching their purpose. Except for my dear Riannoc.' The Pale Tree looked sad for a moment. 'May he one day be avenged.'
Silence took the clearing. The Sylvari stared at each other with wide eyes. Niamh dared to speak first.
'Mother, what do you mean?'
'Riannoc has returned to the Dream, my child.'
Gixx stretched out and turned around in his soft bed. It was great to be back in Rata Sum. No more cold, no more Norn, no more disrespect. No more running errands. Here, people ran errands for him. The sun shone generously through the windows, and he slowly got up and yawned, rubbing his eyes. It must have been past noon already. He climbed out of bed and got dressed, humming relaxedly.
While brushing his teeth, he noticed a small folded piece of paper on the floor. It looked to have been shoved under the door. Gixx had a mailbox outside for all work correspondence, so this was highly uncommon. He unfolded the piece of paper. It was a short note, written in a neat, swirly hand.
Would like to show you my project. Please come down as soon as possible. Lab 34, Inquest division.
See you soon,
Gixx raised his eyebrows at this in surprise. He was mostly concerned by the 'please' and 'see you soon'. If this project had infected Kudu's mind, then these would be the first signs. He was surely going mad.
Gixx studied the curvy handwriting more closely. It was definitely feminine. Then he realized Kudu dictated his letters so he wouldn't have to write them himself. Apparently his assistant had taken some artistic liberty to add in the polite phrasings. He folded the piece of paper. Try as he might, he was very, very eager to learn more about Kudu's mystery project. After fixing his hair, he set course for the Inquest labs.
The long halls seemed colder than the rest of the building, even though the red light should have given the illusion of warmth. Gixx didn't come here often, and when he did, it wasn't gladly. Kudu he could get along with, sometimes, but most of the Inquest were absolutely aggravating to be around. If it weren't for their excellent results, the Arcane Council would have ceased their funding many years ago. Sure, they had to calm down a Skritt colony once in a while, but the Inquest had a way of dealing with these situations.
He peered at the worn tags next to the doors. Lab 65, the one next to him said. He needed to go way deeper still. He descended stairs into even colder hallways. The doors had become thicker, the labs bigger, and the hallways narrower. Even the red light seemed dimmed, this far underground. He located the lab, at last, and tapped the door. He wasn't sure if he was nervous or excited, but his heart seemed to beat a little more rapidly than normal.
Big eyes appeared behind a crack in the door, and then the door opened completely. Gixx vaguely recognized the assistant from the day before, but ignored her as he stepped in.
'Who is it?' Kudu creaked from the workbench. Gixx coughed to announce his presence. The assistant folded her hands obediently as she introduced Gixx with a tiny voice.
'It's magister Gixx, master.' Gixx peered at her. She had large bruises over her arms and neck. When she walked away towards the cabinet, he saw a slight limp in her stride as well. He wondered briefly if he had simply not noticed these things yesterday, or if she had not had them. He was shaken from his thoughts however when Kudu turned around, a pleased smile on his face.
'Ah, Gixx. Are you here to hand over the other two? You'll have to admit, I am the expert here now. I know them from the inside out, literally speaking...' Kudu trailed off, chuckling and testing a syringe in the air. The table and its contents behind him were covered with a stained cloth, that hung as low as the floor. Gixx shrugged, tapping his foot impatiently.
'I'm just here because of your note. I have no idea what you are talking about.'
'That was shoved under my door this morning?'
'I didn't send a note.' Kudu creaked, his brow furrowing. The assistant looked panicked.
'Y-yes, you did!' she squeaked, trembling. 'Don't you remember, master Kudu? You wanted me to write it up and bring it directly to magister Gixx' room.'
Kudu shrugged, and tore the cloth off the table. Something flinched underneath it. 'Could be,' Kudu grinned, 'not that it matters. You're here now. Where are the other two? I need some fresh meat to test my other vials on.' In the corner, the assistant let out a relieved sigh.
Gixx first thought Kudu had indeed had a ravaged Jungle Wurm lying on the table. But then the figure moved, and he saw the unmistakable features of a Sylvari, though damaged, sometimes so badly that it looked more like something you would scrape out of a garden in autumn than anything. His eyes widened as he walked towards the table. It definitely resembled the two women Gixx had met, however with a broader chest and longer legs. The features of his face were masculine. For a moment, Gixx only stared at the mutilated figure.
'W-what did you do?'
'Oh, the usual. Checking chemical reactions, made a sketch of the muscle and nerve structure, didn't quite get to the gastrointestinal tract yet. I wanted to do a search of the circulatory system, but it only had this sap that supposedly just goes everywhere...' Kudu explained, but lowered his voice when Gixx started shaking his head and going 'no...no...no..' under his breath.
'Is he alive?' Gixx asked. He noticed his hands were shaking. Kudu just shrugged. 'Maybe. Not for long, I'd reckon.' The assistant made a sad little squeaking sound, and Kudu immediately turned and smacked her down. She fell to her knees, shielding her head with her tiny hands, pleading for him not to hurt her. Gixx looked back sourly between the commotion in the corner and the mess on the table.
'Kudu.' He started, his voice low and dangerous. 'Do you have any idea what you have done? These are not half-sentient life forms. This is a Sylvari. And this is not the only one. We don't even know how many there are.'
'It's a plant!' Kudu replied, exasperated. 'What are you talking about? Sure, it babbles a bit, but-'
'Babbles?!' Gixx exclaimed. He grabbed Kudu by his collar, yanking him close. 'Kudu, listen to me. These creatures are more intelligent than your average Norn. They are taller than us. They might even outnumber us. Kudu, your reckless actions may cause a war!' For the first time, Kudu's eyes widened.
'A war we might even lose. It needs to be avoided. At all costs.' Gixx decided, letting go of Kudu, who rubbed his neck and swallowed thickly. They both stared at the Sylvari. It lay completely still on the table.
'Untie him. And make sure he gets patched up. We need him in acceptable condition before we return him.'
'Return him?! But Gixx, that-'
'We return him!' Gixx snarled at Kudu. 'I've had enough of your foolishness. You will return him. You will make an official apology to the Sylvari on behalf of the Inquest. And you can be sure that the Arcane Council will hear about this.' He sniffed and turned to leave, but as he reached for the door, he looked back, a thoughtful expression on his face. When he spoke again, his voice was softer, more concerned. 'And while you are there...you check how many there really are of them.'
Kudu gritted his teeth. 'The Council? Do we need to involve them?' Gixx simply smacked the door closed behind him as he exited. 'I guess so..' Kudu muttered, turning back to his precious subject. In the corner of his eye he noticed a quivering figure. When he looked up at his assistant, the realization dawned on him, and his eyes burned with rage.
'You knew about this, didn't you, you little brat?' He advanced on her, snarling. His eyes were narrower than they had ever been. The assistant wailed in fear and shook her head, tears already flowing down her cheeks.
'I didn't, Master, please Master, I did not know!' She pleaded in vain.
'You conjured up that note, didn't you? Didn't you?!' Kudu was positively growling now, closing in on her and trapping her in the corner. She trembled over her whole body now, pulling her ears down in a frustrated gesture.
'Yes, I did!' She suddenly yelled at him, voice breaking. 'I did it to stop you from further hurting him! You could not go on with this!'
For a moment, there was complete silence, only broken by the sound of the assistant's heavy breathing. Kudu's face was completely still. Then, his lips curled upwards into a cruel smile.
'I told you not to have an opinion, didn't I?' The assistant nodded weakly, averting her gaze.
'I told you to be unconditionally obedient, didn't I?' His fingers went back to the table and picked up the object he'd left there.
'I am fired again.' The assistant sighed. She slowly looked up as no answer came, then her eyes widened in fear. Kudu stood before her, blocking all her escape routes. In his hand was the loaded syringe, filled with a purple liquid. He slowly shook his head, that insane smile still on his face.
'Oh, no...' he whispered, 'we are far from finished.'
The high-pitched scream was so loud it echoed off the walls in the hallway, even penetrating the thick door, but there was no one to hear it.
The atmosphere in the Grove was grim. While glad to be together again, with the return of Caithe and Faolain the absence of the others seemed even more painful. Caithe kept to herself, busying herself with small chores around the Grove. She needed to think. This new Grove was something she'd have to get used to. She had known it would change, and grow, but now that it was actually happening, she wasn't sure if she had been prepared for this.
It was a small solace to be able to do familiar tasks and so help the Grove grow. It made her feel as if she had some influence in this massive process, as if her presence mattered to her surroundings. She collected berries in a small basket, not really bothering to think much about which would go together, too deep in thought. She had wandered off to a less cultivated back alley of the Grove, where the plants still grew thickly and close together, where weeds would flourish and flowers had to fight for their sunlight. In the distance, she could see the plains she had once so longed to explore. When she saw them now, she was filled with many memories, and subconsciously looked around for the one she had made these memories with. Faolain was not around. Even though it had been just a silly thought, it was very unlike Faolain not to appear out of nowhere when Caithe looked for her, and Caithe felt a little disappointed.
An image flashed by before her eyes, of high white walls and a room with wooden window shutters, and an angry Faolain on the bed. Despite herself, Caithe smiled. She understood her lover a bit better again today. She also did not like not knowing where Faolain was. The thicket made place for a row of large pods, hanging from a branch. The thick branch was bent through the weight of its heavy fruits. There were five, maybe six of these giant pods that she could see, blocking the way. Caithe ran her hand up one. It was at least as tall as she was, and felt warm, pulsing with life.
When she looked more carefully, she suddenly realized what it was. It was not just any pod. It was a Sylvari pod. And if anything, it was about to burst.