Lotian, City of Light
The ghost woods, everyone in Lotian knew about them, the grey trees that looked like living stones, the iridescent leaves at the top of them, the faint spectral light that came from no direction in particular and the creepy whispers that called anyone that came close to them. Everyone knew better than to go wandering close to the ghost woods, and that is exactly where Franklin is going to.
As he approaches the small collection of no more than twenty trees that make the entirety of the ghost woods of this region, he spots Dix and Orim in the distance. They are sitting in the grassy slope just a few meters away from the grey trees, Orim is holding on to a large leather bag, ready to run in case i had lost the fight.
“Impressive hideout, they will never expect to find us here.” Franklin asks, sarcasm oozing into his voice, “they won’t even need to.”
“You can go back and fight the rest of the wispshapers in the city if you so desire,” Orim replies, “You might have a better chance, you know, seeing that all wispshapers appear to be muscle brains and all.” He says, making a dismissive gesture with his hand.
“You know what, my expectations for you were low, and you still managed to disappoint me. Let me see if i get it, instead of getting ourselves killed by the city guard, you rather get us lost forever in the ghost woods and starve to death?”
“Or worse, maybe an outsider will come and eat you when you are asleep.” Orim replies, mocking sarcasm seeping into his voice this time, ”i don’t know what type of bullshit stories do noble tell their children.”
Franklin steps toward Orim, staring daggers at him, the steel mage takes a step back looking in Dix’s direction. She hadn’t moved or spoken at all since she first arrived with Orim, Franklin took step after step in his direction, time seemed to slow down, maybe i said too much, he thinks to himself.
“Stop,” Dix intervenes, “both of you.”
They stop in place, Franklin seems to calm down a little and takes some steps back, i can’t beat him, not without preparation at least, Orin thinks as he visibly relaxes.
“Franklin, behave yourself” Dix continues, “and listen to what Orim has to say.”
A wide grin appears in Orin’s face, Dix shoots him a reproaching look.
“And you Orim, instead of mocking him, explain it instead.”
“Sorry.” Orin replies apologetically.
“What does she mean?” Franklin inquiries.
Orim clears his throat and turns his face toward Franklin, then towards the ghost woods and then to Franklin again before finally speaking.
“Well, how should i put this?” He makes an inquisitive expression and gesture, as if in deep thought, “You, like everyone else, have heard stories about the ghost woods right?”
“And what did they say?” Orim said, as if talking to a small child.
“Is this part of one of your pagan metal worship or something?” Is he messing with me?
“What compels you to always be so insufferable? Just answer the question.”
“They say that if you enter the ghost woods you’ll never get out, that all sorts of bad things lurk there.” Franklin said while pointing to the grey trees.
Orim noded, Dix also noded in unison staring at nothing in particular in the distance.
“While not entirely wrong, it still misses a great deal of details to be called anything more than a half truth. You see, people talk about them as if they are a deep hole in the ground, or a prison, but in actuality, the ghost woods are more similar to roads than anything else, strange and dangerous roads i’ll grant you that, but roads nonetheless.”
“If they are roads, that means they go somewhere, are you proposing what i think you are?” Franklin crosses his arms, a severe expression of deep thinking on his face.
“Look, we need to get out of this place, the main roads are too dangerous to use, the broken roads are dangerous for different reasons, if we hide here, Cyne will surely be prepared for it, hell, he probably prepared something even for the broken roads. The ghost woods are our best option. It is the only place where even if they knew we went there, no one would send any amount of force after us.”
“How can you be so sure? Do you know how to navigate inside? Better yet, have you ever been inside?”
“No i haven’t, but--”
“Then it’s decided, broken roads it is.”
Franklin turns around and begins to make his way down the slope, back toward North Whisper. Sound is heard at the city’s edge, movement and shouts, a water stream hits the ground near Franklin, turning to ice on contact, he slips, turns around once again and runs back toward Dix and Orim, using a soulstep, he arrives instantly at the top of the slope.
“Change of plans, ghost woods it is.”
They run between the trees, the darkness of the night slowly fades away, the whispers around them get louder and more numerous, voice by voice, forming a small crowd. The light with no direction in particular grows brighter and brighter, their shadows disappear and the scenery changes, they are no more in the surroundings of North Whisper.
Dix, Franklin and Orim stand surrounded by the grey trees of the ghost woods, but instead of the twenty from when they were in North Whisper, this time they extend as far as they can see in every direction. The three look up to see a green sky the likes of which none of them has ever seen before.
“Are we still in Lotian?” Dix asks the other two.
“Hard to say.” Orim replies..
“I don’t seem to have attracted any blood wisps,” he moves to show Dix and Orim his bloody wounds, “we might not be in Lotian after all.”
The other two eye Franklin with concerned looks on their faces.
“Something wrong?” Franklin inquiries.
“Yes!” Dix replies.
“What’s your problem?” Orim complements Dix’s answer, “you are bleeding, but you don’t seem concerned.”
“It’s not as bad as it looks, not life threatening at least.”
“We need to find a way out quickly.” Dix urges them to move, has she gotten better? Franklin thinks to himself while paying attention to her talking.
They nod to each other “Did you bring the bird?” Orim asks.
Franklin nods and takes it out from one of the pockets of his coat, a small metal bird, silver from beak to tail with engraved body and wings to look like feathers and hands it to Orim.
“How does it work?” Franklin asks, genuine curiosity in his eyes.
Orim shows a toothy grin, joy overflowing from his eyes.
“The honorable wispshaper,” he says making wide and grand gestures as if trying to encompass his surroundings with his arms, “shortly after becoming an outlaw, decides to enter the evil ghost woods and engage in pagan metal worship.”
Orim laughs a guttural laugh, Franklin flushes red with embarrassment, which in turn causes Orim to laugh even harder, even Dix let out a chuckle.
“I’m sorry Mr. Heretic, but my vows to the order of steel mages forbid me from telling you our secrets.” Orim says while looking to the side toward Dix, she is not well, but at least she was able to let out a small laugh, he thinks.
“Stop making so much noise we might draw attention of something dangerous. Can’t you scout ahead using the birds?” Franklin suggests and Orim quiets down with the sudden realization of where they are.
“Unfortunately for us, they can’t fly.” Orim dismisses the suggestion.
“We can’t stay here and wait for Franklin to bleed out, we don’t even know what kind of things live here." Dix says.
“Let me check if there’s anything in our surroundings.” Franklin says, as he begins to move.
“What are you doing?” Dix yells at him, as he readies himself to climb a tree, “Stop this, i’ll do it.”
Dix climbs the tree that Franklin was going to.
“What’s up with her?” Franklin asks Orim, who just shrugs.
At the top of the tall tree, Dix sees in front of her, trees up to the horizon line and the same eldritch green sky. Above she sees a large white circle of light, similar to the ones that mimic the sun in the large rooms of Lotian, but this one has six other smaller circles around it. Just like in Lotian, no heat comes from the lights in the sky, turning around, she sees a massive area completely shrouded in shadow, forming a dome, images of the most cruel and painful experiences flood her vision.
“So?” Orim asks when Dix gets down from the tree.
“We’re surrounded by trees from all sides, except from that direction,” she pointed in the direction of the dark area she saw, “but i really don’t want to go there.”
They stay silent for a while, and Dix begins to fall again in her silent state, but before that Franklin interjects.
“Let’s get going, doesn’t look like we are going to get anywhere by standing still.”
“Agree.” Orim says while nodding.
“With me then.” Franklin says accompanied by a gesture for them to follow.
“Wait.” Orim cuts him off, “coming here was my idea, why should we follow you?”
“I’m clearly the more suited one to lead.”
“If arrogance is one of the parameters, then sure, i can agree with that.”
“I’m a noble, my job is to lead people.”
“Dix?” Orim asks, trying to include her in the conversation.
She shrugs, “Don’t you have anything to stitch him up?” She points to Franklin.
“It’s nothing life threatening, we have more pressing matters to attend to.” Franklin reminds her, she is not focussing at all.
She shrugs again, and decides to focus on watching her surroundings instead.
“Still,” Orim continues, “Do you have a plan Mr. Leader?”
“Do you?” Franklin replies full of spite.
They stare at each other for a few taks, then turn around and sit on the ground, backs facing the other. I have to think of a plan, before he does, Orim thinks to himself. I’ll show him, thinking he is the only capable one here, Franklin thinks. While both are stuck racing toward the making of a plan, Dix’s eyes wander through the trees, observing the leaves that haven’t moved in the wind ever since they entered the ghost woods. Then her gaze lowers a bit, focussing on the tree trucks, grey as castle stone, appearing lifeless yet still seeming to pulse with life. Then she analyzes the light, everything seems to be illuminated from every direction at the same time, due to that, no shadows are casted anywhere. She cups her hands together, making to see inside, even the small space inside seems to be illuminated, as if somehow light is omnipresent inside the ghost woods. She drops her hands and upon removing the obstacle, sees it on the ground, under a tree, black as night, a shadow.
“Hey!” She calls for Orim and Franklin, “take a look at this.”
They come close to her, and she points towards the small shadow under one of the trees, the only tree with a shadow, small and thin, looking like an arrow.
“In which direction are the seven circles of light?” Orim asks for clarification.
Dix points in the same direction as the shadow is pointing to.
“Maybe shadows point in the wrong direction.” Franklin suggests.
“If that was the case, then the other trees should have shadows as well.” Orim corrects him, “maybe we should try to find out why this tree specifically has a shadow.”
“Let’s stop wasting time on shadows and focus on getting out of here.”
“Then why don’t you wander off and then come back to tell us what you find there.” Orim snaps at him.
Franklin grunts and walks away from them.
“Maybe we are in a place between Lotian and the outside? That would explain the lack of wisps, maybe if we head towards the light, maybe we will get out in Lotian.”
Franklin just circles them, paying attention to nothing in particular, too proud to rejoin the conversation, let him solve this if he doesn’t need my help, that will show him… but… maybe we shouldn’t fight like this. He looks at Dix, she barely said anything since, he turns around to rejoin Orim.
The moment he puts his eyes on the two, a hand that appears to be made of black smoke comes from the shadow and grabs Dix by the throat, soon a vaguely humanoid figure with two luminous white points that resemble a distant light at the end of a long tunnel on its face comes from the tree’s shadow raising the girl from the ground.
Dix looks inside those distant eyes, the creature twitches it’s head to the side in a very human sign of confusion. Suffering flashes in Dix’s vision, the doors of her soul open wide to welcome death and her mind starts to collapse into madness, she tries to scream, but she can’t seem to remember how to do so, her mind unable to decide if it is in danger or is already dead makes her body do a half hearted attempt to struggle, though her arms lack the strength to do so. Tears well up in her eyes more in a reflexively response to the stress than to an understanding of the situation.
Orim and Franklin are taken aback by the surprise attack, Orim reacts first and charges the creature, trying to grab it by the arm and have it release Dix. A third arm forms from the right shoulder, looking more like a tentacle with fingers at the end than a human arm, and hits him with a backhand strike, sending him flying back and almost knocking him out.
Dix continues to struggle in the creature’s grip, legs shaking, barely mustering the strength to raise her arms, hands unable to hold the creature that appears to be a living shadow.
Franklin draws his sword and charges at the creature, the third tentacle-arm slashes the air in his direction, making a thunderous sound with it’s movement. He slides under it to dodge the attack and goes for a slash, in response, a fourth arm sprouts from the creature’s torso. Franklin jumps over the shadow figure, landing behind it, the wounds from the fight finally claims it’s toll, and he moves a bit too slow and before he has the opportunity to attack, the first tentacle arm comes back and hits him square in the chest, blasting him to the nearest three. Franklin hits the grey wood, making a hole in it, all the air in his chest forcibly ejected from it, what is this thing?
Dix’s body goes limp, vision darkens and death flashes in her mind, her whole being slowly giving life up.
Franklin falls from the hole on the tree directly on the ground, trying to stand up, c’mon, move dammit. Orim tries to stand up, but his legs give out on him, instead, he crawls on the ground, hold on Dix.
They both scream, trying to push their bodies further, Dix’s eyes close, the two tentacle arms rise and the hands turn into spears pointed towards Orim and Franklin. Their eyes widen, Orim goes for the bag that is still with him, Franklin tries to reach his sword, the black spears descend, plunging towards them.
Just as they are about to get impaled, a luminous white spear hits the creature in the chest, freezing it’s movements. The spear explodes in a flash of light and the shadowy monster slowly dissolves into nothingness. Dix falls on the ground, they watch her closely and relax a little when she starts to cough, their attention then turns toward the direction from where the spear came from.
A woman stands in an elevated portion of the ground, far, but close enough for them to see the light grey robes decorated with red ropes and lines that partially hide the armor underneath. She walks up to them, they notice her luminous white hair and pure green eyes that shine like gemstones. Dix’s breathing stabilizes and she stops coughing, they relax further.
“You are all under arrest and will be imprisoned in wait to be judged.” She says flatly, no inflection on her voice.
Franklin notices that her eyelashes are white like her hair and emit a faint light that reflects on her eyes. Once she gets closer, he realizes that it’s not just her hair, her whole body is glowing, it seems to be coming from the inside, i get it now, it’s hard to notice due to this strange light all around, but she is a wispshaper.
“What?” Franklin and Orim ask at the same time, still lying on the ground.
“I said,” she reinforces, “you three are under arrest, come peacefully.”
“I heard that, but why?” Orim asks.
“Because of what you just did. Now stand up and come with me.”
“You’re talking about that monster? It attacked us, you saw it.” Franklin yells, trying to explain himself.
“Shut up, don’t talk about it.” She silences him while approaching Dix, and delivers a light probing kick to her leg, to see if she’s still alive, “carry it and follow me.”
“Can’t you wait a bit?” Orim begs.
“We can barely move.” Franklin says, we need all the time we can get, maybe get a few answers, “much less carry someone else.”
“Alright then.” A second spear of light forms in her hand, pointed down towards Dix, “she won’t come with us then.”
“Wait wait wait,” Franklin says, interrupting her in the middle of the stabbing motion, “i’ll carry her.”
Franklin stumbles to his feet and approaches Dix, then immediately turns around and tries to punch the woman, who swiftly dodges it and counters with a punch to his gut. He drops with one knee on the ground, breathing hard.
“We can continue if you want, or you can grab that thing,” she points toward Dix on the ground, “and we can continue.”
Franklin gets up once again and lifts Dix, carrying her on his back, Orim comes closer to join him, the mysterious wispshaper woman raises a finger, and light condenses around it, shooting in twin beams toward Orim and Franklin circling their necks, forming a collar. She grabs the other end of a rope of light she made, securing it in her hand and yanks them toward her.
“Come.” She says.
They walk for a while, if she is a wisp shaper, why do her eyes look like that? Franklin thinks to himself. Until Dix finally wakes up, she jumps down from Franklin’s back, startled, and looks at him, Orim and the woman as if she saw three monsters in front of her. Then she feels her head ache and calms down while clutching it.
“What’s happening?” She asks.
“We’re under arrest?” Franklin clarifies.
She makes a confused face and looks toward the people in front of her, until her eyes fall on the woman in grey robes. Visions of death come, stronger than before, the three see Dix’s expression contort in that of fright and she motions to run away.
“If you run...” The woman says, drawing Dix’s attention and pulling her out of the alert state, “i’ll execute those two right now, then you will be next.”
Dix’s eyes shift rapidly between the feet of the three individuals, carefully considering her options, and then, she finally relaxes and takes a step toward the woman in grey.
“Smart.” The woman says, forming another light rope, “we’ll take a two hundred taks rest.”
The four sit down on the rocks and large roots of the trees and for the first fifth taks, none of them speak a single word.
“What was that thing?” Franklin finally breaks the silence.
“Shut up.” The wispshaper woman silences him.
“That’s why we are here right?” He persists.
“Shut up.” She answers again, still no inflection on her voice.
“You said that there will be a trial, how can we defend ourselves if you are not going to tell us what we did wrong?”
“You know what you did, there’s no need for me to talk about it. If you wish to be persistent and keep talking about it, i’ll just kill you.” She threatens.
“But…” Franklin says, the woman gets up, the light inside of her flares up and a spear of light forms in her hands, she maintained the bond for all this time? He thinks while backing down, she pulls him by the rope and points the spear “We don’t even know where we are!” He says with haste.
“What do you mean?” The woman demands, pressing the tip of the spear against his chest, Franklin is able to feel a sliver of heat coming from the weapon.
“We came from Lotian, through the ghost woods, we’re lost.”
She gives him a lingering stare, studying his facial expression, searching for clues, waiting for him to break, maybe we can use this, Orim thinks as he gets up.
“That thing was an Outsider right?” If we let ourselves pass as ignorant folk, she might let us go.
“Shut up!” She silences Orim, face growing pale, “i’m not talking to you.”
“I’m right, am i not? We are outside of Lotian.”
“SHUT UP!!” She screams at them, then immediately checks her surroundings and seems to relax a little and color returns to her face.
“Is he right?” Franklin asks, uncertainty in his voice, do i even want to know the answer? He questions himself.
“Yes...” She says quickly and suddenly, “i’ll only say this once so listen carefully.”
Orim and Franklin fix their eyes on her, devoting their full attention to what she’s about to say.
“You are in Lotian, and that… thing, is something very very old, older than this entire realm.” She says, releasing her grip on Franklin.
They patiently wait for her to continue, but when she doesn’t, Orim asks.
“Does it have a name? Why is it here? What can it--”
The woman dashes toward him and puts her hand on top of his mouth.
“It knows when you talk about it, just know that that is the reason shadows have no wisps.” She says to him, “i believe that you three are not from this realm, now, let's get out of here” she twitches her head, pointing toward a shadow under a tree.
“Have any of you seen Dix?” Franklin says, stopping them.
The other two look around, searching for her.
“I’m right here.” Dix appears from behind a tree.
“Let’s get out of here, quickly.”
With the woman guiding them, they make their way through the trees.
Two days after Franklin, Dix and Orim entered the ghost woods, Gyles makes his way through the Dawnlight estate, followed by advisors that accompany him to the main meeting room but have fallen behind due to him stepping up the pace and them being distracted by the discussion amongst themselves. Wearing a regal long coat on the colors of his family, a reddish brown with golden patterns in it, same as the hallway, over his shoulders, a plain yet refined white shirt with long sleeves and gold buttons accompanied by black pants and boots with a circlet in his head marking him as the head of the Dawnlight family, he looks around.
“Gyles?” One of the advisors calls for him.
“The estate is not as well cleaned as it used to be.” Gyles says absent mindedly.
“I’m sorry?” The other advisors are still in the middle of their discussion.
“The paintings, the floor, the busts and other sculptures. I can see that they gathered quite a bit of dust.”
“I didn’t notice a thing.” The advisor notes.
“It didn't used to be like this, why is it now?” Displeasure creeping into his distant tone, he stops in the middle of the hallway.
“I...” the sudden change catches him off guard and he also stops, “i apologise, we had to make cuts on our staff, to avoid spies, the ones that are still here are having trouble keeping up with the dailly schedule.”
“And what kind of measures have you taken?” The early distant tone vanishes, an inquisitive one comes in it’s place, Gyles turns around to look the advisor in the eyes, to show that he had his full attention on the conversation.
“With all the problems we are currently facing, i didn’t think that this one was…” he struggles to find the right words, “as important as--”
“You didn’t think or you didn’t care enough?” Gyles rhetorically asks.
“I...” the advisor hesitates to answer, aware of the trap laid in front of him.
The other advisors finish their conversation and hurry to join both of them, “Why did we stop?” one of them asks.
“We were using the time to discuss how the staff shortage predicament should best be handled.” Gyles says and points to the advisor, “your colleague suggested that we close away parts of the estate and restrict ourselves with only a portion of it, that would reduce the workload of the staff while also improving the quality of their work.”
“Gyles, shouldn’t we focus ourselves with more pressing matters ahead of us?”
“We lost the majority of our workers due to fear of spies. If we don’t deal with this, soon we will lose the rest due to overworking them.” Gyles reproaches the three advisors and continues. “Our situation is already bad enough and the spies are probably spreading rumors around Lotian to make it worse, but i have the slight suspicion that you don’t want to pick up brooms and clear the estate yourselves.”
The three nod in understanding, Gyles resumes his walk to the meeting room.
“Who’s gonna deal with such changes?” One of the advisors asks.
“Weren’t you three supposed to be the smart ones here? Yet i am the one that has to solve all the problems.” Gyles makes a long pause then sighs, “promote one of the staff members and give him the task, they know their own work best.”
The three nod and accompany him in silence.
“One more thing.” Gyles says suddenly, “i am your current lord, refer to me as such.”
Three days after the encounter with the mysterious wispshaper woman, Orim, Franklin and Dix sit each in a different cell side by side, the small prison made of a single smooth piece of stone. The entire place consists of an upper floor for the guards and a lower one buried on the ground, with only six jail cells. The only other presence aside from the three is a madman sitting on the corner of his cell mumbling something incomprehensible.
“Do you think they forgot us here?” Franklin asks, head pressed against the bars and arms out in between them, looking at a madman in front of him.
“Mithra told us to trust her, calm down.” Orim replies from the cell to Franklin’s right.
“Can’t even tell how much time has passed with this light everywhere.”
“Dix!?” Orim yells toward the jail cell to his right.
“Dix!?” Franklin yells in sequence when no replies come.
“I’m here.” Dix replies with annoyance.
She hasn’t said anything besides that for three days, Franklin thinks. The door that leads to the ground floor opens, the wispshaper woman that brought them in appears from it, followed by two other guards.
“Mithra, do you have any news?” Franklin asks.
“Yes, you are to be temporarily set free, i’ll give further detail once we’re out of here.”
The guards open the jail cells and the three step out of them.
“You three must be quite hungry, follow me, i’ll treat you to something.”
“Actually...” Orim interjects, “the food was quite tasty and i’m very well fed.”
“Same.” Franklin agrees.
“I’m not hungry.” Dix says.
“Alright then, let’s get out of here then.”
“But,” Orim interrupts once again, “i’d be willing to accept a bath if you offered me one.” The other two nod in agreement.
Mithra thinks for a while, “Sure,” and finally agrees to the request, “come then.”
Few hundred taks after they were set free, Franklin and Orim sit on the couch of Mithra’s living room, now properly washed and wearing some spare clothes given to them. Does one need such a big room only for themselves? Franklin thinks, while looking around the tall room with sculpted walls that resemble the hallways that link one section of Lotian to the other. No tak glass, and none of the other common items produced by steel mages, Orim notes, am i in danger?
Mithra enters the room and sits next to them.
“I sent your clothes to my servants,” she says to Franklin, “should be fixed by tomorrow. And i sent your clothes to be washed.” She says to Orim, who nods in response.
"Appreciate it.” Franklin says
“Diz should join us soon.”
“Dix.” Franklin and Orim speak at the same time, Mithra shrugs.
After a small wait, Dix enters the room, wearing the same clothes she was wearing before, she sits opposite to them and fixes her eyes on the ground. Franklin opens his mouth, but Mithra interjects before he has a chance to say anything.
“So, i imagine you want to know the results, right?”
The three nod in unison.
“It was agreed that you are not entirely at fault in the incident,” she continues, their faces brightening up “however, rules are rules. You cannot get away with murder just because you didn’t know it was a crime, and here in Rel Jorgun what you three did is even worse than murdering someone.”
“You mean--” Franklin stops after she shoots him an angry glare.
“Are we going to be exiled back to Lotian?” Orim inquiries.
“It would be easier, yes, and would be what i would choose. But unfortunately, the council of small gods seems to want you three dead.”
“We’re going to get executed then?” Franklin asks.
“Not exactly, you’ll be given a chance to prove your innocence,” Mithra raises her index finger in the air, “eyes on the ground.” She says, voice severe, when Dix raises her head to look at her, before Franklin has time to protest, she continues.
“You’ll be forced to take the trial of light.” She lowers her finger, “if you succeed, you’ll be given the chance to talk to the council of old gods.”
“And if we fail?” Orim asks.
“It is said that no one ever came back from the trial, but i imagine that if you manage to survive you’ll be executed afterwards.”
Franklin and Orim mimic Dix’s pose, looking at the ground with solem expressions, i have to succeed and go back to solve this whole plot against my family, Franklin thinks, but… if no one came back alive, can i do it? Surely there must have been tons of more capable people that have already tried, right?
“The trial will begin tomorrow at twelve thousand on the glass. You can stay here and prepare.”
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