just testing 2

Chapter 3 — Part 1 — Into Town

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The journey back to town was uneventful. Asëa could tell Flinn wanted to travel faster, but they had eaten all their rations, and Asëa had to gather food for them to eat. She did not like the delay, but they had to eat. There was plenty of food to be had, but she had the distinct impression that the others were not happy with the salads she prepared. Eruanna hunted, of course, but except for one day when she could not find enough food for them all, none of the others did. She was glad, she hated seeing death.

She spent her mornings training Eruanna to search for living creatures. She already knew how, of course, to hunt, but it was important that they have someone who could locate Dice. Eruanna’s eyes were far keener even than her own. She enjoyed her time spent alone with Eruanna, and wished that she could speak with her more, but she could only cast Speak with Animals so many times. She could tell how Eruanna felt, mostly, just by watching how she acted, and Eruanna could understand her whistled signals well enough, but there was nothing like actually talking with her. She looked forward to growing strong enough to assume animal form like the Elder druids. Then she could talk with Eruanna for much longer. She would even be able to fly with her! It was strange, but she actually felt she was growing stronger now than she had ever in training. She doubted the Elder druids were holding her back. It must be Ehlenestra’s way of telling her she was doing the right thing, she thought. Nothing else made sense.

She tranced early, so that the others could sleep knowing that someone was watching for predators. The arrangement suited her perfectly, she loved the night. It would take some getting used to, people actually sleeping. And even after they woke up, the others seemed sluggish. She was ready to move on with the rising sun, but they rarely broke camp before midmorning. She did not mind, it gave her time to train Eruanna, but she felt as if the others blamed her for their slow pace.

She led Aether aside the first morning, to make sure Flinn was not mistreating her. The horse did not seem to think it strange that they could communicate. ⊰Do you feel okay?⊱, Asëa asked. ⊰Do you like traveling with us?⊱.

⊰Carrying things is a little hard,⊱, she replied, ⊰but the humans feed me. This human takes me out in the grass and trees, and lets me run away from scary predators. Then he brought me back to the predators, but they were dead. The herd was not dead, and my wounds went away. It is a safe herd.⊱. Asëa thought she sounded happy.

⊰I am sorry you have to carry so much.⊱, she said. ⊰When we get to town, I will make sure that you do not have to carry as much, but we should not just leave anything in the middle of the forest. And I can take your wounds away if you ever get hurt again. Just come to me if anyone ever treats you badly or if you are tired or anything, okay? I will make sure no one is mean to you.⊱. She was not sure if the horse would know what a town was, but she seemed to understand as she nuzzled Asëa’s hand gently. Asëa gently stroked her head for a few moments, before walking Aether back to their camp.

They reached Tinnsville late in the afternoon of the fifth day. Flinn and Boots wanted to take a room at the inn, which they explained was something like a big house where people could stay for a few days. She did not understand until she saw the building. It was enormous, and bustling. She had never seen so many people in one building before. She was overwhelmed, the building was far larger than any in her village. They had a meal at the inn, though the innkeeper — that is what the others had called him — had seemed taken aback when she asked for a salad with no meat.

After eating, she hurried to Esmeralda’s house. She had promised to visit the kindly wizard when they returned, and she was eager to see the her again. She had been very friendly, and even in the few minutes they had been together, she could tell Esmeralda was a good person.

She knocked at the door of the brightly painted house, and heard footsteps coming from inside before Esmeralda opened the door. “Hello?”, she asked, looking confused for a moment, before smiling broadly. “Ah, the elf who helped Elizabeth last week! The one from the Forbidden Forest! Um… Asëa, was it?”. Asëa nodded. “Come in, come in!”.

Asëa followed her inside and waited for Esmeralda to offer her a chair before sitting. “You said you wanted to ask me some questions?”, Asëa asked, once they had settled into the comfortable armchairs.

“Ah, yes, I was hoping that was what you were here for.”, she said, sounding excited. “Now, as you might be aware, very few people have ventured into those woods and lived to tell the tale. Fewer still have any real understanding of the forest. But you have actually lived there! I’m sure you can tell by my house…”, she paused, gesturing at the assorted books and items lining the shelves, tables, and in some cases floor, “... that I’m a scholar, curious about the world. Here is something in my own county that has a reputation as exotic and dangerous, and finally we have someone who understands the forest!”. Her excitement was almost palpable, and Asëa was sorry that she had to disappoint her. Their forest was not nearly so interesting as Esmeralda seemed to think.

“I would be happy to answer any questions you have,”, she said slowly, still struggling with the human’s language, “but you have to promise me that you will not try to visit the village, or suggest that anyone else try to visit it.”. She paused for a moment before continuing. “In fact, it would be best if you did not tell too many people about it, at least do not tell anyone you do not trust. It is, unfortunately, a dangerous place for Outsiders, and I would not want anyone to get hurt… or killed. Nor would I want a large group of people to go and kill my kin. I wish I could take you there myself, but I am no longer welcome in my own home….”. She had to take a deep breath before she could continue. “I would have asked you to come with us when we went, but I did not think it wise to bring any more people than we absolutely had to, and I believe I made the right decision. It was difficult enough to get them not to kill my friends, I do not know what would have happened had anyone else come.”.

Esmeralda frowned, and muttered, “Hmm, well, that would explain what happened to that trio of foolish mercenaries….”. She trailed off and seemed to think for a few moments, before her smile returned. “Very well, I won’t try to visit your village. Besides, I am far too busy in my studies. Isn’t that right, Rune?”, she added, and the large grey cat looked up, almost casually, for a moment. It meowed once, before curing back up to sleep. “Now, what do you think I would be interested in hearing about?”.

“Well, let me think for a moment….”, Asëa said, pausing. She had hoped that Esmeralda would have more directed questions. “I am afraid I may not be the best person to ask about our history, I am not quite eleven, you see, and I am afraid to say I never paid much attention….”, Asëa trailed off, embarrassed.

“Eleven? Eleven of what?”, Esmeralda asked in the pause. “Could it be…?”, she mumbled to herself.

“I am eleven… I do not know what you would call them, but we count time in cycles of thirteen years. You see, we add an extra day every thirteen years so that our Holy Days and Festivals fall on the proper days. I suppose you must use years to tell time, yes? It is just a little bit too short for us. I am, let me think… almost one hundred and forty-three years old? Ten thirteens is one hundred and thirty… yes, that is right. You see, that is just so difficult to say. Eleven is much easier. My birthday is less than a month away, now, so it is very close.”.

“Ah, so you are using that system….”, Esmeralda mused, more to herself than to Asëa.

“But as for our history, I know that our clan has been in the woods for at least two hundred cycles… that would be… twenty-six hundred years, at least. Our ancestors fled to the woods in the wake of The War, seeking a quiet, peaceful life. There are only about three hundred of us, and I do not think that number has changed much in all the time my people have lived there. We live off of what we can harvest from the land without straining it. There are not many children born, because we do not want our population to grow: the land can support us, but not many more. Several dryads live around our town, and they taught me what little Human — you call it Common, I believe? — I know. Very few of us learn, we have so little need of it, but I suppose some part of me always knew that I was not meant to live there with the others. Unfortunately, some… most of us are simply too… I do not know the word, but they are afraid of strangers. We relocated to the woods because we wanted to avoid war and strife, but they kill anyone who comes near. That is why I had to leave, why my very father attacked me: because I helped an Outsider!”. She shook her head sadly. “The Elders, that is the council of druids who lead our village, say that it is because we would be unable to defend ourselves if many men came, but the fact remains, we live in the forest to avoid such pointless bloodshed and violence. Even our best hunters take only enough game to sustain us, and yet they kill humans without a second thought. It is as if they think humans are not truly alive.”. She shook her head again, sadly. “That is why I cannot let you go, they would kill you and not even think. But I know, you are not any different from me, from my family, from any of us. You may not be an elf, but you are every bit as alive as I am, your life is worth just as much as mine!”. She shrugged awkwardly, she had not meant to let her emotions get the better of her like that. “I am sorry, I do tend to get worked up about that, I just do not like killing, you understand?”.

“Anyway, I must confess that I don’t have much interest in politics.”, Esmeralda said, sounding disappointed. “I’m more interested in magic and mystery. These dryads you mention intrigue me, for instance. Are there any other interesting woodland denizens? Or perhaps a forgotten artifact of the gods in your forest? I was hoping that there would perhaps be a true curse on the woods,”, she added, pouting slightly, “but it sounds like the explanation for the danger is much more mundane.”.

“No, I do not think there is a curse!”, Asëa said, more defensively than she intended. “Although it does seem as if the woods want to keep people out. We were attacked by a pair of krenshar and… I think Miithi said it translated as ‘assassin vine’ on our journey to the village, but nothing except my father threatened us as we left. As for artifacts, I do not think so, but there are plenty of creatures around. I presume you mean more than just the animals, yes? There are several small bands of satyrs that visit us on occasion, and treants. Oh, there are pixies, of course, and the dryads…. I am just so used them all, it is difficult to think of what is interesting. Oh, yes, there are even some centaurs, though they do not visit us nearly so often as the satyrs and treants. The dryads are very nice, they have always been my favorite….”. Asëa thought she heard a faint buzzing sound, but she could not be sure. “One of them lives in the oldest oak in our glade, right in the center of town. You understand, our town is not nearly so closely packed as this one, so she has plenty of room around her tree, but she has always taken to me. Do you know, I never actually asked how she came to speak Human. All the dryads can, and the pixies and the rest. I never realized how strange that was until now.”. She paused for a moment, pondering the puzzle. “Have you ever seen a dryad?”, she asked at last. “They are beautiful creatures. They are almost like elves, but their skin is the finest tree bark, and their hair a canopy of leaves. It is rather odd, their hair changes to orange in the fall — autumn colors — even though the leaves of their oaks are green all year. Their lives are tied to that of their oaks, you see, they cannot go more than a short way away from them without becoming ill.”.

Asëa paused, and realized that the gray cat — Rune — had started purring. Esmeralda must have noticed too, for she was glancing around the room, almost nervously. Rune slowly opened his eyes, still purring. Suddenly, he let out a faint yelp and leapt to his feet, swatting at the air. Asëa was sure she heard the buzzing sound again, and suddenly Puck appeared, several feet away from the cat.

“Wow, what’s up wid that?”, he asked. “He was enjoying it, and then BAM! He almost hit me!”.

“Oh, a pixie!”, Esmeralda said, obviously excited. “I’m terribly sorry, I don’t think either of us was expecting Rune to be pet by something invisible. It alarmed me a little, that’s all.”. Rune yowled at her, Asëa thought he sounded annoyed, and Esmeralda said something unintelligible in reply before turning back towards Puck. “I think if you approached him while visible, he’s more likely to be receptive.”.

“Well, it’s not the friendliest welcome I’ve had recently,”, Puck said with a glance at Asëa, “but it’s also not the worst. Hey, come to think of it, I’m not sure why we fey can speak Common.”. He shrugged. “It’s something that we can kinda just do.”.

Asëa smiled. She thought Puck had followed them, but she had not seen or heard from him since the morning. “As for magic,”, she continued, “we use very little. Most of us do not bother with it at all. The strongest every generation is trained to join the Council of Elders, and I am… I was training for that, before I left. Some of our scouts and hunters can use a very limited amount of magic, like my father, for example, but we have almost no wizards or sorcerers among us. We worship nature, you see, and Ehlenestra, and our magic reflects that. I can speak to animals, create fire, water, wind, fog, and lightning, I can heal wounds and enhance your strength and so on. I know the Elder druids can do more, they can reincarnate the dead, summon storms of ice, even walk on air. Oh, and it is not precisely magic, not like a spell or anything, but we druids are able to use the magic of the land, almost without thinking. I can walk through the thickest of underbrush, for example, without being snagged. All the plants bend away from me, and I do not leave tracks even in mud unless I want to. I know that is not very exciting, but the Elder druids can even transform into animals when they wish.”.

“Well, at least I have a druid and a pixie I can talk to….”. Esmeralda said, looking disappointed. “But still, I was hoping for something a little more… exciting. Something unusual. Something that would advance the collective knowledge of magical scholars everywhere. Treants and fey are interesting, to be sure, but they can be found in any deep, ancient forest of the world. A closer examination might be useful, but I can’t even enter without risking my life!”, she added, looking forlorn “Are there at least some green dragons? Or perhaps you’ve seen a unicorn first-hand?”.

“You see what I mean, I did not even consider the unicorns, I am so used to them!”, Asëa said. “Yes, there are a fair few in the forest. At least one always stays near the village, though. Unicorns are sacred to Ehlenestra, you see, and so one always watches over our village. They are all very nice, if unpredictable. I am… friends is not quite the right word, but I know two or three of them quite well, though I am afraid there is little to tell. They are magnificent creatures, though. The stronger druids can even summon them for brief periods of time. I promise you, I will come back when I learn how to do that so that you can see one. As it is, I cannot summon anything more exotic than a hippogriff or elemental, and only for a few seconds at best, but if you are interested, I would be more than happy to show you!”.

“Oh, there’s no need to summon one of those creatures for me….”, Esmeralda said, trying — and failing — to hide her disappointment. “I’ve actually done it myself, on occasion.”.

“As for dragons, I do not believe there are any in our forest, although Yávëiel — the Eldest on the Council of Elders — seemed to think that a red one was especially bad….”, she trailed off awkwardly. “Well, anyway, as I said, I am afraid it is not nearly as interesting as you hoped. I do wish there was some way for you to see it. I will take you there if you want, but I cannot guarantee that they would let either of us leave alive. I could draw you some pictures if you wish. I know it is hardly the same, but it is the best I can do right now.”.

“Hmmm… visiting the forest itself… it’s an intriguing offer.”, Esmeralda said slowly. “But it would be much more enticing if the forest were either less dangerous or more unusual. But if you would not mind,”, she added, pushing some sheets of paper and a pen towards Asëa, “first-hand illustrations would be very nice to have.”.

“Hey, Asëa,”, Puck said suddenly, “maybe you should show her the sack o’ fur I gave you!”.

“Yes, of course!”, Asëa said. “Puck was kind enough to give me this….”. She pulled the small sack out of her belt pouch where she had it neatly folded. “If you reach your hand in,”, she demonstrated, “you pull out something like this.”. She held the small, gray fuzzy ball up for Esmeralda to see. “And when you toss it…”, she threw the ball on the floor by Esmeralda’s feet, “... well, it turns into an animal!”. As the ball hit the floor, it suddenly became a rat.

“Oh-ho! Is that a Bag of Tricks?”, Esmeralda asked, sounding pleased. “My goodness, I think it is!”. Suddenly, Rune leaped towards the rat. “Rune!”, Esmeralda shouted sternly, before saying something else unintelligible. Rune meowed back at her, before whining and whimpering almost ruefully. “I’m sorry little rat,”, Esmeralda continued, “he didn’t mean anything by it….”.

“I do not understand how it works….”, Asëa mused. “The bag is empty now,”, Asëa continued, shaking it out upside down, “but…. Well, here, you can look at it if you want.”. Suddenly, Asëa had an idea. Casting Speak with Animals, she turned to the rat. ⊰Where were you before you came out of the bag?⊱, she asked.

⊰Bag? What bag?⊱, the rat asked hurriedly. ⊰‘Before’? All I remember is uncurling from sleep and finding myself on this floor. And then the cat! Oh, bad, bad, bad…. But he stopped! Why did he stop? Is he friendly? He doesn’t look friendly. Will you let me climb you? I don’t think the cat can climb you. If I climbed you, and then the cat couldn’t climb you, I think I’d be safe. Or a burrow. Yes, a burrow might work. Can I climb you and find a place to burrow?⊱. The rat showed no signs of of stopping, or even slowing, his chattering, so Asëa had to speak over him.

⊰Yes, of course you can climb on me!⊱, she said. The rat scurried towards her, before climbing the arm of the chair. It looked at her for a moment, before jumping onto her arm and climbing towards her shoulder. She let it, the poor rat was clearly terrified. ⊰You can hide wherever you want.⊱, she added when the rat reached her shoulder. After a moment, it slipped down beneath her vest, nestling in one of the inner pockets. Once the rat had settled itself, Asëa turned to Rune. ⊰I am sorry, I had hoped it would not be a rat again, that was cruel.⊱.

Rune just looked at her, and meowed once, before locking his eyes on the bulge in her vest, still quivering slightly.

Asëa tried again. ⊰Do you like living here? She treats you nicely, right?⊱. Still, the cat was silent.

“Is that a spell to let you speak with normal animals?”, Esmeralda asked. “I’m sorry, but I doubt Rune will understand you. He’s complained to me in the past about the ‘rudimentary’ manner in which normal cats communicate, so I’m not sure that your magic will work. I’ve never actually tried it, so it might, but don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t.”. Rune was sweeping his tail back and forth across the ground behind him, still staring at Asëa.

“Oh, he is not a normal cat?”, Asëa asked. “That is too bad, I would have liked to talk to him. Well, he looks happy enough, even if he is a pet.”. She could tell by Esmeralda’s expression that she had said something wrong.

“‘Pet’?”, she said, stiffening. “My dear, he’s no pet. Have you never heard of a familiar? It’s the closest companion a wizard can have. Rune is far from a normal animal. Didn’t you notice me talking with him? Let’s see… I’m not sure of the specifics, but it would not surprise me if Rune is somewhat like your eagle.”.

“Oh, I did notice you talking to him, but it is just so natural to me,”, Asëa said, “being able to talk with animals. I did not even consider it. Yes, I have heard of familiars, Miithi has one. Swii, the air elemental, yes? I just did not realize that animals could be familiars. I am sorry, I did not mean to offend you, I just assumed…. I am sorry.”. She paused awkwardly, blushing. “Eruanna… yes, we are very close friends, but she is not ‘mine’. But, maybe they are similar. Although I can still talk to her, and so can anyone else who knows the spell. As I said, I am sorry. I would not like it if someone called her a pet.”. She paused, still blushing furiously. She hated it when people just assumed things they did not know. It was even worse when they assumed wrong. And now I have done that very same thing! I assumed the worst about Esmerada, assumed Rune was just a pet, when he is really her closest friend!. After a moment, she looked up at Esmeralda contritely, but the wizard was smiling again. “I am terribly sorry that I could not tell you anything more interesting about our forest. You have been so helpful to us, I wish there was something I could do for you….”, she said at last.

“Did you mention something about actually seeing a dragon?”, Esmeralda asked.

“Oh, yes, we did just see a dragon of sorts.”, Asëa said with a hint of sadness. “When people are Reincarnated, they do not come back in the same body, you understand? Usually, the body is similar to the original, I was expecting that perhaps Dice would be Reincarnated as a human or elf, maybe goblin or some such, but… well, I am not sure how exactly, but Dice was Reincarnated in the body of a dragon. A red dragon. Yávëiel seemed to think that was more troubling than that he was Reincarnated as a dragon! As if he would really burn our forest! He flew away before we could say more than a few words to him, and we could not keep up with him, especially not with so little food. We will try to find him once we are rested. I do not think we can catch up with him, but if he stops, maybe we can…. I just hope that people do not attack him, he is very small, not much larger than a wolf….”.

“From a Reincarnate?”, Esmeralda asked, clearly shocked. “I’m not terribly familiar with healing spells — all Divine, you know — but I’ve never heard of anything like that. Well, now this is interesting! Are you absolutely positive that there wasn’t a spell like Wish involved? Or a… what do you call it… um, ‘Miracle’, I believe?”.

“No, I do not think any other spell was involved….”, Asëa said slowly. “I am fairly certain that none of us, not even Yávëiel, can cast any spell named ‘Miracle’. But she was rather angry when she cast the spell, I can only assume that had something to do with it. She seemed just as surprised as we did, at least.”.

“Actually, the red variety breathes fire, do they not?”, Esmeralda asked. “Could he have headed east, do you think? Now that I think about it, the dwarven traders — I’m sure you’ve seen them hanging around town today — said that there was a hillside explosion while they were traveling here…. I can’t be sure, not having witnessed it firsthand, but perhaps it’s your friend Dice?”.

“To the east, you say?”, Asëa asked delightedly. “Thank you, we will certainly try that! Oh, thank you!”.

“Yes, I’m sure any of the dwarves would be happy to give you directions.”, Esmeralda replied. “They said that they wouldn’t return until they were sure it’s safe, after all, so I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to know that someone is investigating. And I would be quite interested in examining Dice in his new draconic form. I’ve never heard of such a transformation using such simple magic, so I’m quite curious about how it happened. And even if you don’t find him while investigating the explosion, I’d be most interested in any clues that you do find!”.

“Yes, if — no, when! — we find Dice, I will be sure to bring him back to you. Well, I really should tell the others the news. Thank you again for all your help. Please, if there is anything I can do for you, do not hesitate to ask. I would like to do something for you in return for all your kindness.”, Asëa said, rising.

“Hey, Asëa, before you leave, do ya think wizards know how to destroy evil weapons?”, Puck asked.

Esmeralda echoed him, more to herself than to Asëa, “‘Evil’?”.

“Oh, right, Puck gave us a sword designed to hurt fey!”, Asëa said, pain etching her voice. “Yávëiel said it was called ‘cold iron’, I think. Puck wants us to destroy it, and I agree with him. Yávëiel did not think we should, and I think Flinn wants to use it, but it is still disgusting that anyone would make material specially designed to hurt fey. They are all so nice! Anyway, do you know how we can destroy it?”.

“Ah, cold iron!”, Esmeralda said, nodding to herself. “Yes, that would explain why you called it ‘evil’. It’s not just for fey; cold iron is also effective against certain fiends. Of course, knowing the forest’s true nature, it’s unlikely that it was intended for fiends. If you really want to destroy it, I believe heating it above a certain temperature might work…. I’ve heard that the anti-magic properties are quite sensitive to heat, after all.”.

“Hmm, I know several fire spells, so I can probably destroy it then, if they burn hot enough, or long enough.”, Asëa mused. “But if it works on fiends, too…. No, it is a vile weapon, and I said we would destroy it, so I will try.”.

“Mmm, I’m not sure that fire spells will be sufficient….”, Esmeralda said. “You might have to go so far as reforging it. But, it might be worth trying.”.

“Thank you again, Esmeralda!”, Asëa said, before pausing for a moment. She did not want to ask more of the kindly wizard, but Esmeralda seemed so curious…. “Oh, we found many strange items, would you mind if my friends brought some of them to you, perhaps tomorrow? You seem to know so much about… well, everything!”.

“I’d be delighted to take a look at them!”, Esmeralda said. Her expression matched her words. “Would you want me to cast Identify on them, or do you just want me to examine them mundanely?”.

“Actually, I have a gem that we found with me. Perhaps you want to look at it now? I think it was glowing when we first saw it, but it stopped after the gnoll… died…. Boots said it had an aura of Conjuration, but I am afraid that is all we know. I have been carrying it, just in case it does anything interesting, but so far I have not noticed anything….”. She dropped the crystal into Esmeralda’s hands.

“Hmm, interesting….”, Eseralda said, examining the gem. “You said you found this on the gnoll? That was in Tinsville Woods, right? Hmm…. Where, exactly, did you find this on the gnoll?”.

“I think it was on his chest,”, Asëa said, “but I was not paying too much attention, since Dice had just died. I know I remember it glowing, that is why it stood out to me, but…. Miithi might know, I can ask him and come back later? I could ask them if we plan to stay long enough to have you use the spell on some of our items tomorrow, as well. I would hate to have you prepare the spell and then have us leave before you can use it. Would you like to examine this while I go ask them?”.

“Ah, on his chest! Attached to the armor, perhaps?”, Esmeralda asked. Asëa nodded, remembering. “I believe I’ve heard of these! They’re not made around these parts very often, but perhaps…. Ah, that bow you’re carrying! Is that also from the gnoll? May I see it?”. Asëa nodded and handed her the bow. “Aaah, yes, so that’s what happened to the half-elf…. Err, the other one, that is!”. She handed the bow back to Asëa. “If I’m not mistaken, this red gem you have is an ‘augment crystal’. Specifically, an armor augment crystal, if my guess is correct. It’s no wonder it never did anything, if you were just holding it! Um, do you mind if I examine this for a little bit? No? Many thanks to you!”.

“Yes yes, of course!”, Asëa said, starting for the door. “I will be right back, let me go and tell the others about Dice and see what our plans are. I will be back in perhaps a quarter of an hour, maybe a little more?”.

If Esmeralda heard her, she gave no notice. She started muttering to herself as Asëa made her way to the door. “Well, I never expected to see another of these….”, she muttered as Asëa stepped out.

Asëa hurried back to the inn, practically running. Flinn would be delighted to hear that she had an idea of where Dice might be!

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