Previously in our story...
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”
― Hermann Hesse,
Shalev, Lan, Yaeger, Tobias and I traveled quickly to try to catch up with the rest of the party. Unencumbered, we made good time, and arrived at the small town just as night fell. We saw the cart parked just outside of the only inn, guarded by a small terrified looking boy of about 8. Shalev approached the cart, only to be sternly rebuffed by the trembling child who said "She said no one was to approach the cart, sir."
Shalev looked at the child for a moment, then silently turned to enter the inn with the rest of us following him. He has said very little over the past day or so, still being mostly lost with his internal contemplations of what Ma'at had chosen to reveal to him beside the lake.
We saw Osman sitting at a table in the middle of the common area, but Fife and KelLyn were nowhere to be seen. Osman told us KelLyn was upstairs and Fife had departed almost as soon as they had arrived, stating that he no longer felt comfortable traveling with us. Shalev blinked once at this news, then sighed and walked over to the innkeeper only to find that nothing had been arranged for the rest of the party. He spoke with the innkeeper to arrange room and board for us and the animals for four nights. Shalev inquired as to whether or not it was acceptable to have Amit stay with him, and the innkeeper replied, with a pale faced glance at the giant cat, that it would be preferable to the alternative. When asked about facilities, the innkeeper informed us all that a bath was included with the room. I promptly decided to make use of the luxury, and disappeared upstairs.
The rooms were small but well kept and tidy, and there was a large bath tub in the center of the space. The tub was made of a single piece of a tree trunk that had been hollowed out and polished until it shone. Out of curiosity, I touched the wood to see if I could sense anything about it. The wood was from a very old tree, and someone had used a modify plant spell at a very high level to create it. I ran my hand over the smooth surface and then sank myself into the heated water with a sigh. It had been a while since such a luxury was available, and so I spent long moments simply enjoying the feel of being clean. Afterward, I gave my adventuring clothes a good wash, laid them out flat to dry, and donned my blue and silver dress, wanting to feel something other than the worn traveling clothes against my skin. I let my hair fall free and then made my way down the stairs to take a seat by the fireplace where I ordered a bowl of the odd but delicious root vegetables that the inn's cook had prepared and made some tea. As I sat there in the corner, sipping my tea and watching the other guests, I noticed a rather nondescript man also sitting by the fire.
KelLyn descended the stairs shortly after that, also wearing better robes and appearing freshly scrubbed. Shalev approached her and asked if she would go relieve the boy watching the cart so that Shalev could add a few things to the inventory. She does so, and Shalev noted that when Fife left, he left almost all of this possessions with the cart. The only things that he took with him were the potions he carried, the trident, a small bag of smaller coins, and the sword that they pulled out of the ceiling at Lacosta's tower.
Returning to the fire, Shalev brought me a list of the wine collection that also came from that tower, and he asked me to help him categorize the bottles for value. I helped him do so, and over the next several hours, also helped him rewrite the list properly. I chose one of the better vintages to enjoy during the process, and also earmarked about 20 bottles or so of the best vintages to keep for my own. As we worked, I noticed Osman trying to engage the stranger by the fire in conversation, but he seemed to get nowhere with the exchange.
At dawn, Shalev and Osman came down to head to the farmer's market to restock the supplies, and they noticed the same man sitting by the fireside. He seemed to be in the same exact place that he had been before, and when Shalev inquired to the innkeeper, he was told that the man had been there just like that for four days straight. Shalev approached the man and asked if he would like something to eat, and what he might like, and the man looked at him blankly before replying "flavorful" before blinking once and turning back to the fire. Shalev took some of the spices that he had back to the kitchens to have the chef add them to a meal for the man.
After that he and Osman headed down to the markets. I walked along with them, helping them restock the cart with a variety of fruits and vegetables. A farmer came in a short time later, driving a cart laden with large red globes. As soon as he appeared, a crowd immediately began to form around his cart, and the farmer began to auction off the fruit - apples. He called them the Queen's apples, plucked from the queen's orchards and that they only came in once a year. The townsfolk began loudly bidding for the fruit, and Shalev and Osman also joined them. Shalev purchased 14 apples, and Osman bought 10 more for his own consumption. Shalev asked the farmer how long the fruit would keep, and the farmer looked at him oddly before stating that he had never seen anyone wait to eat the fruits. Shalev bit into one of them with a crunch, and within mere moments had finished the entire thing. He nodded in affirmation that the fruit was delicious, and then as he walked past me, handed me the seeds of the fruit to keep in store for later. I decided to stay there at observe the crowds for a time, and Shalev and Osman ventured off to find armor and weaponry.
As I watched the stock of apples dwindle down to the last 20 or so, a portly man - noble in appearance - came up and began bidding for the rest. I watched him for a moment, and decided to bid the apples up, as he looked like he could afford it, and the farmer looked like he could use the extra income. As the bidding war continued between us, I realized that there was more at stake here than just a handful of apples, as the farmer goaded the merchant noble into offering his daughter's hand to the farmer's son in marriage. I looked at the young man and asked him quietly if this was what he wanted. He looked at me, wide eyed, and said that it was. I ceded defeat at this, and after the noble grudgingly carried the high-priced apples away, I turned to the farmer and asked if it would be possible to visit the orchards.
The farmer said that he would be happy to have my company, and Tobias and I traveled with him back to the orchards. I saw the trees before we even got close. The apple orchard was enormous and so very old, and these were the largest apple trees I had ever seen. As we walked up, the trees began to shout angry insults at the farmer. Tobias blinked in surprise at this, and I asked the trees why they were being so insulting. The trees told me that the farmer insulted them and stole their children, and the farmer said that shouting insults at the trees made them throw apples to him as it was the only way to get any to sell. I noticed that the apples that had fallen to the ground were bruised and rotten, and I asked if they would be willing to come to an understanding. The trees became insulting and they called me a city elf and a tree killer. I informed them that I was not one of those elves, but that I would deal with them very soon. The trees told me then that those elves were all dead, and tentatively agreed to talk.
I spent several moments in conversation with the trees and the farmer, in an attempt to help them reach an agreement between each other. The trees agreed to stop insulting the farmer and share some of the fruit if the farmer agreed to expand the orchards, keep them protected, and stop insulting them in return. The farmer looked thoughtful for a moment, as if amicably discussing this had never crossed his mind before now. He agreed to the terms, and then said that he would have to save up to purchase the neighboring fields. I promptly handed him a bag full of gold pieces to help with the purchase, and the farmer said that he couldn't accept it. I told him, truthfully, that it was just shiny metal to me, and that it would be better served in his hands to help with the expansion of the orchards.
At that moment, an older tree spoke up in a grinding voice that I was one of the Immortals and that he should listen to me. The farmer paled and took the money with thanks, and the other trees in the orchard became very quiet at this revelation. After a moment of startled silence, the trees apologized to me, and I accepted the apology with grace. I asked the trees if they would like a guardian, and again there was a startled moment of quiet. They asked me if I had one, and I told them that I did. They showed me to an area on the northeastern corner of the orchard where the oldest tree had died. The ground was thick with old dead roots, and nothing else grew there. I asked the trees if it would hurt them to remove the roots, and the trees declined, saying that the roots had been long dead. As the farmer started to move in to tear the roots up, I stopped him with a gentle gesture. I made my way to the center of the area and knelt down to touch the ground, I used some of my power to cause the roots to rot to a rich mulch in a 6 foot circle. I took one of my ent seedlings carefully in hand and planted it deep within the rich earth. I thought for a moment, and then took the unidentified pouch with the create earth spell on it and planted it deep beside the seed. I felt a rush of heat as the seed drew power from the object, causing it to crumble to dust around the newly sprouted roots which curled gently around my fingers. I quickly but carefully removed my hand from the earth,and a moment later, a small sapling pushed up through the earth and stretched it's arms out with a sigh.
I nodded at the work, feeling tired but accomplished, and informed the farmer that the ent would protect his groves, and that in turn he was to protect the ent. The farmer snarked at the fact that he would have yet another talking tree, and I warned him solidly that this grove and this ent were entrusted to him to protect from now on. I would return to check on him, and he subsided into silence as he began to realize what I had gifted him with. He made some notes to build a protective fence around the ent's clearing and the orchard to help protect against thieves. The trees all rustled with their approval and also agreed to act as protectors as they had agreed until the guardian was old enough to protect himself.
I added a blessing to the orchards, and then Tobias and I began walking back toward town and then inn. As we walked, the trees reached branches down, and I held a hand up to brush along them in greeting. Tobias stared at me, and at the trees, but walked quietly beside me along the road, lost in his own thoughts of my display of power. I knew that if we stayed on the road that the trees would protect us, and we made it back to town without incident.
Once we made it back to the inn, we walked in to see the rest of the party conversing with the nondescript stranger, who had introduced himself simply as Ashley. I noticed that both Osman and Lan sported new, fitted armor, and that Shalev had a bundle of black silks in one arm. As I took my seat by the fire, Ashley turned to me and asked in halting common "what do you do?" I thought about this for a moment before responding simply "I live."
Later that day, I walked with Shalev over to the poorer side of town, as he had requested my company to help him examine the poor and sick to see who could be aided. As Shalev and Lan worked to heal and feed those who needed it most, I traveled back to the farmer to inquire if he would need any additional help with the groves. He declined the help, and I told him that there were those in town who might need a job later on. He agreed to check if the need arose, and I made my way back to town again. I spent the rest of my time in front of the fire, studying my book on sacred druidry and sipping tea.
I did go by the armorer at Shalev's request, but found that they could not make better than I already wore. We also visited the apiary where Shalev eagerly purchased about 20 lbs of honey (about 40 half-pint jars). I also purchased 3 small jars of the honey for my own use, and Shalev also purchased a keg of good beer as a gesture of goodwill for KelLyn. I am happy to see that they at least treat each other civilly now.
Ashley still sat by the fire when we returned, and I offered him some tea. He drank it without comment, and Shalev asked where we were to go next. As he did, he pulled out another apple to eat, and offered one to Ashley. Ashley tore the fruit in half with his bare hands and sniffed at it curiously. He took a bite, and then within moments had consumed it all, saying with the first real inflection I had heard in his voice "THAT was flavorful."
Shalev repeated the question about where to go next, and I stated that I would like to visit the university here, as I was interested in finding the journals and maps of the wizard who had been here before. Osman turned to Ashley and asked if he would like to travel with us, as it would be a good way for him to learn new things. Jaeger looked at me and said something in orcish which I did not understand, then turned to glare at Osman. It is my guess that he is wary of picking up additional party members, and I wonder if Shalev should remind him gently that it wasn't so long ago that he was the new one among us.
Ashley contemplated the offer to travel with us for a moment or two, then agreed. We packed up our things and made preparations to leave the following morning. The animals had been well cared for and appeared fit and well fed for their time in the stables. Once we got the cart hooked up, I took the apple seeds that Shalev had given me, and planted them in my small traveling garden, next to the tea tree saplings. I decided to ride in the cart for a while, since I was already here, and found a comfortable place to sit and continue my studies.
We traveled around toward Yup castle, where we had been advised by the brownies to inform the people there that Lacosta was no longer a worry. As we neared the area where Locasta's tower was, the horses became skittish, and the ground began to rumble and shake, cracking up from underneath. I quickly climbed out of the cart, and Shalev was able to steer it clear and back away form the hole that suddenly opened up in the ground.
The hole grew rapidly, and a full circle of teeth appeared around the edge. Lan was still on her horse, and was not able to handle the animal skillfully enough to make her way clear of the threat. Osman, thinking quickly, threw a rope with a grappling hook on it to Lan, and she grabbed it. She jumped off of her horse and Shalev and Osman yanked closer to safety. Free of it's rider, Lan's horse was able to scramble up to solid ground and ran over near the cart. They were not able to get her clear of the closing jaws, however, and as they began to close, Jaeger began to chant and wave his hands in a spell. Two large hands made of earth appeared on either side of the jaws, holding the giant mouth open with tremendous strength. Shalev and Osman tried again to pull Lan clear, but there was a groaning sound and one of the giant hands disintegrated back into dirt as the mouth of the now visible great purple worm snapped shut.
Lan was trapped inside, and Osman continued to try to pull her free. Ashley began to cast a spell, and as he worked, his appearance began to change and blur around the edges. Jaeger responded to Ashley's spell by casting one of his own, and Shalev grabbed the javelin from the cart. He ran to attack the worm, and I, realizing that my bow would be useless here, drew my sword to attack where I could. Shalev was successful with his attacks, and he managed to visibly wound the creature. I was also able to hit it, and as I did, the sword once again began to sing. Once the blade struck the hard purple hide, it screamed and sparks flew off as I knocked several scales loose.
Ashley's spell went off and it looked like he was on fire, though he did not appear to be taking any damage from the flames. Jaeger's spell also went off, and the giant purple worm fell to the ground with a loud groan. It was not dead, but it seemed to have lost all will to live, and just lay there on the ground. Osman, giving up the attempt to pull Lan free, moved to summon an elemental, and Ashley also made motions to cast another spell. Jaeger, noticing that some of the scales were loose, ran over to grab one of them.
Shalev struck the worm again and again, and I took the chance to stab at it through one of the revealed patches of skin behind the scales. Jaeger grabbed one of the scales and began casting a spell that I recognized as one KelLyn had cast on the dragon to draw it's essence down into a point. Osman summoned a fire elemental and asked it to go burn a hole through the worm to get to Lan. Ashely's spell also went off then, and the great worm turned transparent. Shalev finished the beast off and then quickly began cutting in to free Lan. Osman and Lan dismissed their summoned elementals, as Lan had also summoned a small fire elemental while she was trapped inside the mouth of the worm. Just before they were dismissed, I heard Ashley say very clearly in a tone of happiness "people!" After Lan was freed, Shalev donned the tapestry gloves and protective clothing he had crafted in the swamp, before beginning to cut his way through to the now -visible treasure in the worm's stomach. He retrieved 2 long swords of average craft, a shield of average craft, a rough hewn building brick made of emerald, and a large egg shaped black stone.
Shalev showed it to me, and I recognized it as a black sapphire, but could not give him any more information than that. Shalev offered it to Jaeger, and Jaeger took a look at it and said something in dwarfish that made Shalev quickly but gently put the stone on the ground. He told KelLyn that the stone is magical, and she promptly picked it up and identified it as having an extremely powerful Modify Human spell on it. She claimed it for herself and quickly became lost in the study of it. Shalev and Jaeger pull off 4 of the foot-long teeth to turn into a matching set of knives.
We moved a safe distance away and made camp, and Shalev expressed interest in trying to take some of the transparent hide to turn into an invisible armor of sorts.
The wizard's quest to restore the sylvan tree strikes close to home for me. Despite being told that there is no way to regrow a sylvan tree, I have not lost hope that it would be possible to restore one to health, should it be willing. Those notes and maps might give me some of the answers I seek.
Shalev seems to have returned to his roots, after a fashion. Focusing more on being a fighter and a ranger than a paladin. This is good, I think. This crisis of faith that he is experiencing will either draw him to or push him away from Ma'at, but that is ultimately for him to decide.
The more I consider this place and all we have learned about the area, the more I think that the dragon is trapped here within the fairy ring. It makes me wonder if killing it is necessary. Goddess knows it could take us out any time it wants to, and yet it has refrained from attack. It is food for thought.
We have lost one party member, and gained a new one. I hope Fife finds peace with his decision to leave, and may his adventures lead him to all the riches and glory he desires. As for Ashley? He appears to be another spell caster, albeit an eccentric one. His speech patterns are odd, but my understanding of common is only rudimentary as well, so it could be just a lack of understanding.
One of the ents that I was given care of has been planted. It felt *right* to do so, and what better place for one of the guardians than in an enchanted apple orchard. I know that the trees there will protect him, as he will grow to protect them in return. The farmer does not seem to realize what he has been gifted with, but I trust him to hold to his word to protect the groves and the grounds as he promised. I will make a note to return in time to check on them once these adventures are done. I have one more entling to care for in the mean time, and like this one, I will know when the time and place are right to find it a home.