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Sunday, December 2, 2012

VI - The Water Stone

Sorry again about the delay ;_; I had a very busy past couple of weeks, but things should be quieting down now. Thanks for your patience!

The following morning was grey and silent as Fen packed the tent away and started northwest along the Iggnir River, following her map toward the Tree Stone. It had snowed lightly during the night, and the powdered grass crunched under Fen’s boots as she walked.

The sun had retreated further behind the solid wall of cloud by the time Fen reached the fourth stone, standing upon a small hill in the middle of a clearing in the evergreens. She moved around to its flat face and saw a crude tree carved there. Once again, she pressed her hand to the icy surface of the stone and the carving came to life, the branches of the tree rustling as if stirred by the breeze.
The First Trees are gone. Travel east and find the one who has stolen the Seeds. Beware – he who has the seeds, controls the trees. Plant the First anew.
Fen lowered her hand, and the words sank back into the stone. She glanced around – a light snow had begun to fall, and to the east the ground was already covered, the space beyond the trees shrouded by the thick branches. She wasn’t sure what to expect as she cautiously made her way back into the snowy forest, and she walked carefully, keeping her eyes moving and a fire spell on her fingertips.
Fen slowed as she neared a snowy clearing, squinting to make out five tall, willowy figures swaying slightly through the snowfall. She moved to stand behind a thick-trunked pine, and as she looked closer, she saw the figures appeared to be women, but they were unlike any woman Fen had ever seen. Their skin was a pale, leaf-green, and their bodies were spotted with what appeared to be tree bark – branches sprouted from their heads and arms in the form of long, lethal-looking claws. Their faces were sharp and angular, and their dark, sultry eyes glared around the clearing.
Spriggans. The word came to her, and Fen knew immediately that those were what the tall creatures were. She vaguely remembered seeing a crude illustration of a cruel-eyed tree-woman in one of her books in the Royal Library, accompanied by a short description: Tree-spirits. Die three times. Extremely dangerous. Do not approach. One of the Spriggans took an elegant step to the side and Fen saw they were gathered around one of the small blue men, fully outfitted in boiled leather armour and glancing shiftily around, his grubby hand clenched around something Fen couldn’t see.
She recoiled behind the tree. If a Spriggan could die three times and she was faced with five of them, that meant fifteen creatures to take down in addition to the blue humanoid. Fen reached into her bag and drew out the Amulet of Shadows, thinking…the Spriggans were tree-spirits, which had to mean they would be overly weak to fire. She activated the Amulet and stepped out from behind the tree, invisible to the creatures now. Carefully, Fen aimed a spell of God’s Fire at the nearest Spriggan and let it fly off her fingertips.
The spell struck, and almost as one unit, the Spriggans all turned and fixed their gazes on Fen with their cruel, piercing eyes. Then the effects of the spell took hold and the Spriggan that had been hit crumpled into the snow. The others all suddenly let out a horrible, inhuman shriek that sent birds in the trees panicking into the skies, and as one, the tree-spirits dove through the snow toward Fen, their clawed hands outstretched and their eyes mad. Even as they raced toward her, Fen saw the Spriggan that had fallen rising up out of the snow, brought back into its second life, and leap in to join the fray.
Fen lost all sense of what she was doing. She moved back and forth between slashing at the creatures with Trueflame and using God’s Fire, moving constantly, struggling to dodge the razor-sharp talons that scratched at her from every angle. As soon as one Spriggan fell, it would rise back up out of the snow, fully restored to health and angrier than it had been before. They were ruthless, trying to drive her to the ground, tearing her cloak to shreds, ripping at her hair, her face, her hands. She started to ignore the pain, focusing only on hacking down the strange, shrieking creatures that sought to see her dead.
Then, finally, the onslaught stopped. Fen collapsed to her knees, exhausted, and glanced around. The snow around her was dark and saturated with blood, the entrails of the Spriggans spilled all around her. In the distance, the blue man lay dead, his throat split open. Fen’s hair had been torn loose from its braid and hung around her face, matted with blood. Pieces of her shredded cloak littered the ground, and she could feel a burning pain in all the places where a Spriggan’s claws had found her skin. She stared around at the slaughtered green bodies that lay around her, waiting for them to rise again. But they lay silent, and Fen slowly and shakily got to her feet. She glanced up toward the end of the clearing and her heart missed a beat.
He stood in the trees, silent, watching her, a sad smile on his face. Their eyes locked, and Fen stared at him, unwilling to believe it, her heart pounding. It was certainly him – the ragged hair, the long nose, the wiry frame under scuffed netch leather armour. The wind was the only sound in the clearing, hissing as it blew snow from the branches where it had been. He stared at her for a split second longer, then turned away, starting back into the trees.
“W – Wait,” Fen choked out, slipping over the sticky gore that was spread out in the snow. She sprinted across the clearing, keeping her eyes on him as he started to grow harder and harder to see. “Wait – Julan –” But then she had crashed into the trees, and she was alone in the dark, snowy forest, her heart pounding in her ears.
She squeezed her eyes shut, seeing the Clockwork City on fire, Almalexia standing over her, laughing, Julan’s empty eyes staring up into her face, blood seeping across his chest…
Fen hurriedly returned to the clearing, her breath short in her throat as she bent to take hold of the little burlap sack that the blue creature had been holding. Hastily tying her hair out of her face once more, she made her way back through the snow to the Tree Stone, remembering the words upon it. Plant the First Anew.
Fen moved several paces away from the Tree Stone, where the grass was still visible. The ground was cold and hard, and Fen warmed it with a fire spell and made a small hole in the dark soil. She opened the tiny burlap sack and overturned it – several long, pale brown seeds fell into her palm. She dropped them into the hole, covering them with soil and pressing it down hard. When it was done, she returned to the Tree Stone, and it grew bright with energy just as the others had done.
The afternoon was still young, and Fen did not want to dwell aimlessly and think about what she had seen in the clearing, so she made her way to the west end of the island, following the map deep into the trees where the Earth Stone stood.
Travel northeast to the Cave of the Hidden Music and learn the Song of the Earth.
She traveled to yet another cavern, cutting down still more undead Nords, moving onward despite her aching muscles. She soon reached a cavern were long stalactites and stalagmites almost met, forming music as they blew air into one another. Fen remembered the story, and she struck the pipes until the music stopped. The Earth Stone glowed as she touched it.
Fen turned and leaned against the Earth Stone, exhausted, as she checked her map. The Water Stone was the last one, standing directly north of the Earth Stone, at the base of Hvitkald Peak, the tallest of the Moesring Mountains. Fen stared upward – the sky was beginning to darken, but she was not tired, and wanted to keep her hands busy.
The temperature dropped quickly as Fen began the long walk north across two unnamed rivers that barred the way. Snow was falling more thickly now, and the wind began to blow more fiercely, burning Fen’s cheeks. She had left her shredded cloak behind, donning a fresh one, and her eyes stung and watered as the wind blowing down from the mountains struck her. The ground grew icy, and Fen’s boots slipped as she struggled onward. The night grew so chill that even the wolves stayed out of the cold, their howls absent from the night. Fen kept her eyes trained upward on Hvitkald Peak, looming far above.
Soon she felt herself elevating, her boots digging into the snow as she climbed. She spotted the Water Stone in the distance, on the face of the mountain, like a dark grey finger pointing tall into the dark sky.
By the time Fen reached the Water Stone, she had lost feeling in her feet and her hands, and her face was numb. She pressed her hand into the freezing surface of the standing stone, feeling tears of cold running down her cheeks.
Travel west to a small island off the coast, and follow the Swimmer to seek the Water of Life.
Fen removed her hand and the words sank away. The snow had slowed, though the wind still blew as fiercely as ever, and Fen could see the coast in the distance, and a small, ice-covered island beyond that.
She stumbled through the cold down the slope and water-walked across to the island. On the water, the wind was even more fierce. Fen stepped onto the island, slipping a little, and raised her eyes to see a creature there, staring at her. It was a Horker, an odd seal-like creature with a tusked sac for a mouth. Fen had seen them swimming in the rivers and lounging on the banks in the south, but this one had a black hide, and its eyes seemed brighter and more alert as it moved its head up and down at her.
Follow the Swimmer.
As Fen watched, the Horker turned and pulled itself off the ice and into the water, turning and staring expectantly at her. Knowing that water-walking would not suffice, Fen undid the latch of her cloak, letting it slide off her shoulders to the ice. Almost in a trance, she stripped off her robe, her fur-lined shirt and pants, her gloves and her boots and her stockings until she stood naked, shivering in the freezing wind.
The Horker turned with a splash and dove into the water, and Fen followed, closing her eyes and bracing herself for the chill as she slid in after it. Fen’s gasp was masked as icy water enveloped her, so cold that it felt like blades cutting into her flesh. She forced her eyes open and stared through the dark water until she spotted the Swimmer, moving methodically ahead of her. Fen forced herself to swim behind it, keeping her eyes trained on the Horker’s tail, her mouth clamped shut.
The Horker seemed to lead Fen for hours. She stayed focused on swimming behind it, and soon the water became so cold that she could barely feel it. The Horker finally stopped at the mouth of an underwater cave, far beneath the surface, and it gave Fen a single meaningful look before turning away and swimming away, out to sea. Fen cast water-breathing on herself and slid through the mouth of the cave, glancing around.
The thick ice walls formed a narrow, water-filled tunnel. Fen swam down through it endlessly, her arms growing sore and her skin prickling with discomfort. Her head ached with being so cold and under so much water, and she found herself wondering why she hadn’t set a mark to get back to where she had left her clothes.
Then, quite suddenly, her head broke the surface of the water, and she found herself in a tiny ice cave, the air thin and cold. Fen reluctantly dragged herself out of the water, hastily dispatching a single skeleton that stood guard there, and glanced around, shivering, her hair dripping into her eyes. In the centre of the cavern, a small, elegant glass bottle sat, filled with water. The Waters of Life. Fen quickly picked up the bottle and held it firmly in hand as she slid back into the freezing water and made her way back through the ice tunnels and to the surface.
She dragged herself onto the shore, coughing and sputtering and freezing, and dressed quickly, tucking her hair up under a scarf and covering it with her hood, glad to be somewhat less cold. It was very dark now, and Fen was disoriented from her time beneath the surface. She glanced around. To the north, an enormous sheet of ice dominated the landscape, standing still and silent. Just ahead, the Moesring Mountains rose into the night. The wind was less angry now, but it whispered across the ice that rose jaggedly out of the snow around her.
Fen gradually found her way back to the Water Stone, where she emptied the Waters of Life at its base and felt its energy rise up into the dark sky.
She was too numb and too exhausted to set up the tent, and had, luckily, remembered to set a Mark in the Skaal Village. Fen recalled herself into the warmth of the Great Hall, where Tharsten Heart-Fang looked up from his fur-covered chair.
“Fen,” he said as she lowered her hood. “You have been through many hardships these past few days. But I can feel the Oneness in the land once more. Would you sit and share your tales with me?”
“I would,” Fen told him. “But not this night. I am sorry, Chieftain, but I am so tired I can barely see. If you don’t mind, I would save my tales for the morning.”
“Certainly,” Heart-Fang agreed gruffly, gesturing to a serving girl nearby. “Give this woman a room upstairs and see that she has everything she needs,” he told the girl, and he gave Fen a nod. “We shall speak again in the morning then, Lady Fen.”

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