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The Tree-Saver She watched anxiously as the tree lords strode away, their crunching steps always somehow softer than she’d imagined. They had a grace about them that was at odds with their jarring, hardwood armor. Eliriya suspected that there was more to the sylvaneth than simply sentience in tree-form. She had seen the revenant farmers nurturing young hunters and slow-growing lordlings, and she wondered what other spirits coursed through the children of the forest. As the last of the wargrove faded from view, only Eliriya Tree-Sister and her young charge remained. The Undissons had long allied themselves with the sylvaneth who inhabited the foothills and valleys below their icy lands. After generations of scholars had apprenticed and labored alongside the spiritual gardeners as they grew the next generation of forest people, Eliriya alone had been deemed worthy of learning the secrets of the soul-pods. When her brother, last of her family’s line, had been cut down by a plague-rotten knight she prayed to the clan’s patroness and was shocked to see not only the queen of the winter storm in her dreams that night, but the Everqueen as well. Eliriya’s grand work had never quite earned the acceptance of the grove’s other residents, but he grew nonetheless. As his bark had grown harder and viney reach expanded, his sapling-kin had taught him to hear the forest’s songs and listen to its needs. But while they learned to race along hidden pathways as every prior generation of guardian, her brother only grew heavier of fist and of preference for the mountain stones he stacked and balanced everyday. Snapping back from her memories, the priestess looked over at her brother’s reincarnation. He was straining to lift a small boulder the size of a grown dwarf and place it atop the tenth stack in his circle. With a comically small growl, C’Drak lifted the stone into position. Breathing heavily, he took in his latest creation before finding a seat in the center of the ring. There he let himself root into the earth and absorb her strength. He stretched towards the sky, soaking in what little warmth the winter sun could offer. The warrior-to-be drifted off into slumber while his sister and caretaker smiled proudly. That peaceful moment would be short-lived however. In the distance Eliriya could make out the discordant sounds of rusted war gongs and bent tin chimes. The defilers were coming and the few tree kin left in this valley had left for the march. C’Drak was preternaturally strong for such a young sapling, but he was still a babe compared to the great tree-lords that had grown in this grove previously, and even they had failed to hold off the tide of filth closing in on her mountain home. While he napped and soaked up the Living Realm’s bounty, Eliriya combed the plot and those neighboring theirs that had been left empty. She had previously never been allowed on those grounds. The novice gardener filled her pack and pouches with forgotten soulstones, tiny wooden carvings, and all manner of other trinkets that could amplify her connection to earth and ancestor alike. With their belongings ready, the adopted sister of the forest and favored daughter of the mountain knelt and quietly sang a woodland hymn. The small fox previously darting from shrub to stone finally settled nearby, its glittering spirit trail fading into the wind. Her heart swelled knowing that her ancestor-guide was near. Though Eliriya did not open her eyes to see them, she could feel the presence of other sprites and spirits of the forest as they joined her song of friendship. Her whispered final lines gave way to a roar of defiance. Eyes crackling with lightning and fists hard as ice, she emptied her lungs and beat the ground in furious rhythmic challenge. With a thud, C’Drak’s heavy fists joined her own, his eyes ablaze with the mountain’s power. In unison they stomped, punched, surged upwards and slammed down into the dirt. Chests heaving and steam rising from their mouths, the unbowed duo took a moment to enjoy the echoes of their ancient war dance. ...And then they left, climbing an imperceptible trail amongst the stone and rubble towards the elevated home of the Undissons. She had hoped that if a last stand was to be made, her toils alongside the Sylvaneth would’ve been the catalyst for a great alliance between the races. Instead she brought no aid and knew this climb would be her last before finding an honorable death alongside her last remaining kin. It appeared that the time of the Undissons was coming to an end. At least their deaths would be in the spirit gardens, honoring them through their sacrifice.
Brothers in Exile: Nori spat dust from his mouth, cursing his brother for choosing this inn as their night lodgings. “Nobbin ye right git! You ‘aven’t the coin for ale t’wash the taste a’bones from me mouth!” Sweating with exertion despite the midnight cold, Nobbin didn’t appear bothered with his twin’s complaining now, nor had he ever. The younger by nearly two whole candle-marks, Nori had known that any position Nobbin was entitled would not have been similarly awaiting him. From a young age he had hefted axe and mace, training from dawn til dusk to make his own place in the clan. It had never made much difference though, as Nori always seemed to find a way step on his own beard as they say. When their father’s exile was announced, Nobbin had solemnly knelt before the moonlit altar of the great Beast-Mother, opened his palm in silent blood oath, and strode down the winding ice steps into the depths of the Ursine Labrinthes. ...Nori had muttered sullenly the whole way. He chuckled to himself remembering his brother’s dismay at his defiant rant. “Nobbin where’d th’beasts go?” he called in annoyance. “They best be back soon.” “Mind yer tongue, brother,” reprimanded Nobbin. “Verminbane might not be bothered by your insolence, but Grizzlemaw will not suffer it lightly.” With her usual imprecise timing, his companion came crashing through the single-plank wall of the inn. She tossed undead swordsmen aside as though they were babes, their remnants clattering to the floor. “Nori, retrieve your mount and clear a path to the road. We’ll be fast on your heels,” his brother bluntly ordered, oblivious that the younger had already set to the task. Nori smirked and tried to swallow his sarcasm back down. “Finally your senses have emerged brother. Follow then!” *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** Soft footpads pressed effortlessly from the powdered ground. Nori could feel thick bands of muscle undulating beneath him as his mount strove to keep pace. Up ahead, instead of surging muscle carving through snow, the bear carrying his twin seemed to lope weightlessly across clouds. Despite being half of her size, Verminbane was not blessed with Grizzlemaw’s speed. A toothy grin burst across his face, then split into a chuckle, before finally erupting in boisterous laughter. He could not contain his love for the undersized bear, poorly crafted and tempestuous tempered though she was. Snatching him from his amusement, the loping grizzle bear skidded to a halt in a flurry of glittering, white snowflakes. Nobbin nodded ahead of them towards a warm flickering amidst the tall, thin trees of the Omenwood. “Friends?” asked the younger. “Perhaps,” replied the older twin. “We should be closin’ in on th’meetin place, b’with all th’dead walkin around, we oughta still be cautious…” His voice trailed off as he felt Grizzlemaw’s haunches rise under him and her fur bristle in his grip. “Where girl?” he asked in a whisper. Without looking, Nobbin knew his twin had taken up a rear-facing position, staggered from his own, in order to spy any trailing threats. “We aren’t hiding lads,” said the red-bearded rider as he and his beast strode out from the shadows directly in front of the young dwarves. “You jus’ di’n’t see us.” A second rider appeared to the left, staring without speaking. They were mounted on grizzle bears as well, though by the size of them, they were practically different creatures. Much as their enormous mounts, the armor covering the two duardin was almost beyond description. Scaled cloaks, runes and live-metal all over - they must have been questing in the wild’s of the realm for an age. Before either brother could formulate a question though, the red-beard beckoned them and wheeled his mount to walk towards the fire. “C’mon young riders. Best we get back t’the fires before the others leave us starvin’ away to bones. Poorly-timed joke, thought Nori. But his objection never left his lips, because again the veteran rider spoke first. “Besides, she arrives tonight.” Follow the Leader: Scale and tooth and claw of beast Forged in underhill fire Quenched in blood of legends deceased To make the live-metal desired... The shaman sung with the bouncy energy of a babe or aelf-maid. It unsettled Nobbin, but he hoped they wouldn't notice and so redoubled his focus on polishing the live-metal shield that had kept him alive through these last, harsh years. He stole a peek up from his work saw his twin sharing ale with the three other knights sitting round the fire. It felt awkward being here, in this band of exiles. Norri savored the warm flush in his chest he got from every swig of the wilderness brew, it's unrefined harshness be damned. He relished the company almost as much… Nobbin had always been the wiser of the brothers, and Norri had kept his place, following orders and respecting their “duty.” But it was the choice to pledge themselves to an overgrown forest sprite that pulled at his mind when ice was whipped past his bare skin. Their father’s exile at the hands of the demigoddess was a mark on the family for sure, but had he not committed a crime? And now they were making some point by refusing to serve her? Norri’s gripe was a familiar one, and so it hardly delayed his sleep. Nobbin smirked as his proud brother stumbled over to his mount and curled up against her dense hide. Now that the group had begun to settle themselves, Nobbin ventured over and joined them in their drink. They had hardly made a round of jests about his brother’s drunken boasts when the red beard looked past Nobbin, over his shoulder, and grew silent. From the treeline emerged a rinn the likes of which he’d never seen before. “She’s here,” he whispered, almost to himself, as he moved onto a single knee. Gisselle Ghullazi, the Verdant Knight, exiled Knight Questor of the Undissons She wore ornate metal plate over tunic and scale. Similar scales fell down her back from under shoulder guards of live-metal. The same invaluable material had been shaped into a helm, shield, and sword, but this rinn was not to be confused with some show-lordess. A dark patch covered one eye, unhidden by the way her travel-greased hair was sloppily braided behind her. A raised scar was visible down from her nose and cutting across her lips. This rider had seen many battles, and from the way her massive mount stared down at the now kneeling company, the legend was accurate. “Good evening brothers,” she began, the bear below her sauntering forward until his snout was a mere hop from the fire. “We are all that is left.” Even the deferential duardin exchanged sideways glances to see if another might understand her words or find them more believable. “We are the last remaining questors of the Beast Mother,” she restated. “Long ago you took the same oath as I, rejecting those who would seek to own the mountains of this realm and vowing to return them instead to their natural state of wild harmony. I share with you now a message that perhaps only you will be prepared to hear…” her voice trailed off with a malicious smile. “The would-be prophetess asks for our help.” Nobbin looked over at the red-beard, who appeared the most veteran of the bunch. He too smirked subtly at the humbling of the demi-goddess. “It appears that storms can cloud even Skaddi’s vision, and she was caught unaware by the great necromancer. The ancestors are cut off from the mountain clans, just as the clans need their aid the most.” “And what d’you propose we do?” asked a blonde-bearded warrior, his impetuous tone exposing both his arrogance and ignorance. “After all, we left Skaddi an’ her clans fer a reason.” “An’ y’already said there ain’t many o’us left,” Norri chimed in rudely, rubbing his eyes as he stumbled back to the group. “Mayhaps we jus’ stay t’our own busin…” His voice trailed off as her beast’s growl swept over their complaints. “Brothers, perhaps you misunderstand me. Hunting the petulant tree-goddess’ scaled pets is a matter of pride, preserving your clan’s burial sites and other places of importance is one of devotion, but this is a matter of duty. The mountains gave birth to our kind. They have swaddled us, fed us, and shielded us from the rain. And when our own kin allowed us to walk alone in the cold, the mountains always welcomed us home." Even Norri had grown silent, alternating sheepish glances at his feet and awestruck stares at the rinn. “This is not a mere sorcerer seeking objects of power, nor corrupting demons looking to spread their dominion. This is no greedy neighbor, nor all-consuming herd. The unquiet dead threaten all living things. They have begun to harvest souls for their master’s unknown plots. These cruelest of captors now beat down our door to claim our kinfolk; aged and weathered, newborn and pure, it matters not… Either we release our kin from this hell, or we concede the end of our kind. It is as simple as that little brothers.” Exiled Knight Questors of the Undissons The Race: The fire hissed as ice and snow smothered it. The great grizzlebears snorted and snarled threats at the darkness as they were roused. But the duardin knights did not speak. Armor was strapped and tightened, worn leather packs latched and hoisted, but not a word was exchanged. They had days to ride before their death songs would be sung; they'd save their voices. Lives spent writing their own legends - what greater ending could be written than a heroic death, their service mending wounds with the clans with whom they had feuded and avenging those who still held them in their hearts. Far off on the horizon a persistent glow illuminated the tree-tops that blanketed the rolling hills. That it could shine out above them spoke to the sheer size of the realmgate. As they closed the miles between it and themselves, the fluid movement within it became visible. This was no ancient relic or crumbling artifact. No, she had been awoken from her centuries of slumber to throw the doors to the underworlds wide open. The duardin knights continued their silent ride through the night, savoring every sensation. Without having to acknowledge it, each was aware that the smell of the pines, the sting of the snow, the taste of a beast’s musk on the air, might very well be their final linkages to this land should they not find their way home. A particular sensation that perked the attention of each rider was the way in which the forests were racing alongside them. Tree-kin scrabbled and wound their way between trunk and limb, keeping ample pace with the duardins’ mounts. Further along, the bright heraldry that demarked the unified forces of the free cities highlighted their marches towards the same gates. Even high above them, the green-scaled drakes they had ritualistically hunted, swooped low above the thinnest branches and beat their powerful wings, carrying themselves and their Aelven riders towards the target. None knew for sure what awaited them beyond the gates. None knew for certain what the great necromancer had planned for them. But across realm, race, and region the unquiet dead had threatened to enslave their people for time without end. This threat was greater than any dispute between nations, and the magnitude of this unified response spoke to that. Firm of jaw and clear of purpose, the stoic duardin knights undertook this one last quest, perhaps their last, not to find a new trophy, but instead to deliver a final message - The ancestors and their homelands would remain free. The Verdant Knight leading knight questors