Night fell on the forest and torches were lit. Before long it was too dark for Guy to see the road ahead, and even those with eyes capable of vision in the dark began to struggle. Pulling into a clearing near the road, the three carts set up individual camps and tents.
Under the cover of a towering tree Guy stoked a small fire, while Erlan erected a large group tent he found in their wagon. Aware of the lack of light, Ela walked to the back of the cart and took hold of the mace that she’d placed there back in Wayhearth. Moving to the side of the cart nearest the fire, she stuck it into the ground headfirst and then reached out to touch the handle with the tips of her fingers. She whispered a brief prayer to Pelor and the entire mace lit up with a pure white light.
“Anyone for cards?” Erlan called to everyone, seating himself beside the fire as Guy began to cook.
Bakris and Esieh made assenting sounds, joining him by the source of warmth. When Erlan looked to see if Ela would be taking part, however, he saw her walking away and stopping to kneel near the edge of the light. Her white dress reflected the brilliant light from the mace as she faced it, reaching up to grasp the holy symbol around her neck. His keen vision saw that her mouth was moving, and decided not to interrupt her meditation.
Their friendly game of cards soon turned into gambling as Guy joined in and gold began changing hands. Their laughter and lamentations echoed around the camp. Before long, Ela stood back up and returned to the cart. She retrieved a blanket from her pack then took a seat beside the wagon, her back against a cartwheel and her tail wrapped loosely around her once more.
They played into the night, long after the enchantment on the mace had subsided, but eventually decided it was time to get some rest. Guy and Bakris volunteered for the first watch while Erlan and Esieh retreated to the communal tent. Looking down at the isolated form of Ela, Guy considered waking her before leaving her to her sleep, instead beginning to walk patrols around their little campsite.
Bakris, rooting around in the back of the cart, found a scimitar; one of the bandits’ weapons that Erlan had taken. He looked up at the colossal tree at the edge of the clearing and smiled. Muttering a brief spell over the sword, it suddenly burst into light, much as Ela’s mace had. He carried it to the base of the trunk and widened his stance. With a hearty grunt, he threw the weapon upwards.
The rotating light source flew gracefully, making it almost to the start of the branches far above the clearing. As it neared the lowest branches, however, it illuminated unusual shapes among them. Plummeting back down, the sword embedded in the leaf-covered ground, but Bakris stayed staring up.
“Guy?” he called quietly. “Did you see that?”
“No,” answered Guy, stopping his constant patrol and standing beside him.
Bakris retrieved the sword and threw it again, but was unable to get it high enough to shed any light on the branches.
“I don’t see anything,” the human told him with a shrug. “I’ll try.”
He took up the fallen weapon and threw it with all his might. It clanged loudly against the tree and rebounded into the undergrowth.
“What’s going on?” asked a soft voice behind them.
They turned to see Ela stood near the fire, blinking at them. Stood as she was between the fire and them, her purple skin seemed unusually dark. Her pure white eyes, however, stabbed through the low light.
“I thought we needed another light,” Bakris began to explain. “So I cast Light on a sword and threw it into the tree.” Ela blinked at him, confused. “I threw it up the first time…and there was something odd up there. The other times Guy and I just…missed.”
“What do you mean…‘something odd’?”
“I saw something that wasn’t tree-like.” Bakris concluded.
“Would you like me to try and light it up?” Ela offered.
“If you want to. I didn’t mean to wake you up,” Bakris said hurriedly.
“If it’s concerning you, then I can…” She paused and rubbed her eyes. “Sorry. I’m still tired. Then I can help.”
Bakris nodded furiously. Stepping closer to the tree, Ela touched her fingers to her pendant and spoke a few words. It sprang into light like her mace did, illuminating the base of the tree. Looking up into the black expanse above, her fingers still on her holy symbol, Ela closed her eyes and quietly muttered a short prayer to Pelor. Upon its conclusion her eyes shot open and the branches of the tree exploded into colour.
Instinctively Guy ducked down and covered his head, but Bakris and Ela stood watching as dozens of birds ignited in purple. Each one glowed vividly as they streamed out of the tree, frightened by their own brilliant light. They screeched and cawed as they flew madly through the air, approaching each other and immediately fleeing again. Ela was mesmerised, the purple glinting in her completely colourless eyes and making her small fangs flicker as she smiled in absolute fascination.
Guy’s expression turned disgruntled as he glanced up at the elaborate living lightshow, but the young tiefling couldn’t tear her eyes away. She watched until every one of the careening purple birds was out of sight. She sighed happily, returning her eyes to the world around her, and felt a warmth within as a certain fellow lover of light smiled. Bidding Guy and Bakris a good night, Ela retired to the tent.
The human and the dragonborn wiled away the hours of the night, talking as they kept watch. They briefly remarked on the bandit hostage that Erlan found dead, before Guy brought up something that was on his mind.
“Do you think Ela is ever bothered by having that light all the time?”
They both looked over and saw the bright light from her holy symbol spilling out of the tent.
“No,” Bakris said, shaking his scaly head. “I think she likes it. She worships the god of light, or something like that?”
“Pelor, she said.”
“I think it comforts her.” Bakris sat on the ground near the dimming fire.
“I’ve heard that Pelor is a kind god,” Guy explained, looking over at the tent. “Doesn’t like cruelty.”
“That explains why she didn’t want me to chase down that bandit and shoot him with my crossbow.” Bakris nodded to himself. “But I think I saw a little smirk when that other one burned. Pure justice.”
Thinking on Bakris’ words, Guy moved away to patrol the perimeter again. When their turn on watch was over, they entered the tent and found the two elves already alert. Not needing to sleep as other races do, elves instead enter a trance-like meditative state during which their minds can rest. The four hours of trance they’d had was plenty for them to feel fully energised. As they left, Bakris called after them:
“Don’t worry if you see any purple birds!”
Erlan and Esieh exchanged a quick glance, but such a statement didn’t seem out of place for the dragonborn.
The next morning the party worked together to pack up the makeshift camp, covering the remains of the fire and rolling up the tent. With everything prepared, Guy took up the reins of the cart again and was joined at the front by Ela. As they trundled back onto the road they saw the rest of the caravan ready and waiting. Wordlessly the wagons moved off one-by-one, taking their place behind the leader.
After scanning ahead for a while, Ela slumped back in her seat then turned to speak to everyone aboard.
“I would like to…apologise for my behaviour yesterday,” she said solemnly.
“You have nothing to apologise for,” Erlan told her, but she shook her head.
“I feel I need to explain.” She hesitated. “The…fire and the lightning… The destruction and violence… It’s not something I saw during my time with the priests of Pelor. It shocked me, is all.”
“The real world is different,” Erlan stated plainly.
“It certainly is,” murmured the tiefling.
“Did you spend your whole life in the temple?” Guy asked gently.
“No. They found me when I was only six years old.” Her fingers subconsciously sought out the holy symbol around her neck. “And I’ve been with them ever since, travelling with the caravan of priests. They taught me what kind of person to be.” Her eyes drifted down to the dirt road passing them by. “They are my family.”
“Where are they now?” Guy’s voice was gruff, but had a soft touch to it.
Ela looked up and her hand fell away from her pendant.
“They’re still travelling. I hope to see them again one day, but now…I just know that Pelor needs me elsewhere.”
The sun drifted quickly across the sky as their cart ground slowly along the road to Eshlethas. Bakris offered to share some dubious nuggets of dried meat that he kept in a small pouch, but only Guy was willing to accept. Esieh leaned on the side of the cart, boredom written across her face, watching the dark shape of the next wagon in the caravan. The longer she watched, however, the harder it got to see it. A thick acrid fog began to seep out of the trees and soon the rest of the caravan was completely out of sight.
“I don’t see the others,” Esieh stated flatly.
“Can someone create a light to guide the other carts?” Ela asked, struggling to see anything in the grey miasma around them.
“I’ll light a torch,” Erlan answered, slipping one into small metal sconce on the back panel. He began to strike his tinder, but stopped when he realised that he could also see no shapes or movement behind them. “Stop,” he commanded Guy.
Not daring to pull off the road in the blinding fog, Guy slowed the horses to a standstill in the middle of the path. They waited in silence for some time before deciding that they should have been caught up by the others. Erlan sighed.
“So who is going back to look for them?” he asked wearily. Ela and Bakris were too occupied staring at the fog to respond, while Esieh and Guy just looked at him. “I think the fog has been here too long to find them on foot; they could be miles back.”
“Should we take the cart?” suggested Guy, already jumping down to lead the horses around.
It wasn’t an easy feat between the low visibility, the narrow path and the agitated horses, but Guy succeeded in turning the entire wagon. Remounting, they began the journey backwards. Standing in her front seat, Ela squinted through the mist. It was so thick that even the other people in the cart appeared slightly blurred and grey. Removing her necklace, Ela whispered a short prayer and it started emitting a strong purple light. She held it up like a beacon to light the way.
Where the purple glow fell upon the road Ela could see only the tracks they’d made. Retracing the path for some distance, Erlan suddenly called for them to stop again. When the horses slowed, Erlan jumped over the side and wandered off the dirt track.
“There’s a purple tree,” came his voice, muffled slightly by the fog.
“A purple…tree?” repeated Bakris, bewildered.
Ela climbed out of the front seat and walked to the back of the cart. As she did so, she tied her pendant around her neck again. Reaching past Bakris, she retrieved her mace as well as a sturdy wooden shield and moved cautiously after Erlan. As she approached, she saw the elf examining a very unusual tree.
The bark was impenetrable and had an almost metallic sheen to it. Above the trunk, the leaves were a bright purple shade and made of something decidedly inorganic and crystalline.
“This is unusual,” Erlan muttered, more to himself than Ela. “Transmutation takes many forms, but this…” Looking past the first tree he saw the unmistakable glint of crystalline leaves reaching further back, out of sight. “What do you think, Ela? Do we follow the trees?”
Gripping her equipment a little tighter, Ela looked up at the broad, transmuted tree.
“They’re a marvel, but they’re not the important thing. We have missing comrades.”
“Yes,” Erlan nodded, straightening up from his examination of the roots. “I think you’re right.”
He called back to Guy and the cart rumbled up to them, emerging from the fog. They climbed aboard and continued on, searching for the other teams. A little while later, they heard a sound ahead; a rhythmic clomping sound. The fog swirled as the first of the other two carts came into view. The halfling driver, who introduced himself as Davyas, explained that they slowed down considerably as the fog crept in.
“We thought you’d slow as well,” the diminutive man explained in a squeaky voice. “But I’m grateful you came looking.”
Everyone stood back while Guy turned the cart again, gently coaxing the horses in a wide arc. Setting off in the original direction, taking it slow to keep the other teams within sight, the caravan came level again with the transmuted tree. Once more Erlan called for Guy to stop.
“I suppose we should investigate this,” he said, rubbing his hands together subconsciously.
“We have a job,” objected Ela. “We have been hired to guard and escort this cart. We should do that, should we not?”
“This isn’t normal,” stated Erlan, climbing out. “It could be a threat to other people. We have a duty to take a look.”
Ela blinked and her face flushed, almost imperceptivity tinting her skin with pink.
“When you put it like that, I have to agree,” she said, casting her eyes down.
Everyone readied their equipment to venture into the undergrowth while Erlan walked back to explain that they intended to discover the reason for the abnormal effects. Davyas understood, promising that he and the others would watch the carts during their absence. Guy held the metal crossbow-like weapon, tempted to take it with him, but decided that visibility was too poor to use it properly.
The atmosphere deeper in the forest was different. Free from the ever-present scent of horse, and the constant low rumble of wooden wheels on uneven roads, the sounds and smells of nature permeated. Birds and insects flitted though the air, small creatures rustled bushes as they passed, and the wind rattled the stone-like branches like the clatter of dice. As they penetrated further from the path, the group found more and more trees were purple and inorganic.
The peaceful ballad of nature was suddenly punctured by a loud snapping noise. Four pairs of eyes whipped round to see Esieh holding a broken branch that she had clearly just torn from a low transmuted tree. Ignoring the others’ expressions, she ran her hand over the surface and, to her surprise, found it to have the texture of polished metal. Turning her attention to the leaves, the others closing in to get a better look, Esieh realised that they were made of delicate crystal; the closest she’d seen before was amethyst, but this was far weaker. Gripping one purple leaf, she found that it crumbled under the lightest of pressure. They had the texture and look of quartz, but the strength of a leaf.
“This is seriously weird,” Esieh commented, watching the gem in her hand bend and break like it was nothing.
After seeing Esieh with the branch, Ela turned her white eyes upward. A smile slowly played onto her face, revealing her small, sharp fangs. She placed her mace and shield on the forest floor, then tentatively approached a tree. Reaching up slowly, almost as if afraid it’d bite her, she stretched out one hand and very gently touched a single finger to one of the gemstone leaves.
“Grant me light,” she whispered under her breath.
Instantly it began to shine with white light that emanated outwards from within its crystalline structure, turning purple in the process. The natural facets of the leaf sent beams of holy light spraying out, hitting other gems and continuing the cycle. Soon the light from a single leaf lit the forest in a spectrum of purple and violet.
The wind softly shook the branches, manipulating the light within the leaves, shimmering and glittering like a thousand diamonds. Ela’s eyes widened and sparkled as she watched the rays of purple bounce, reflect and combine all around her. The once-oppressive fog also played its part in the show; the vapour around them echoed the light, staining it a pale fuchsia.
Ela’s breath came long and deep as even her white dress shone in shades of purple. Her arms fell by her sides and her tail flicked excitedly as she gazed, the world around her fading into colours and lights.
Saying nothing, Bakris and Guy continued onward, followed by Erlan and Esieh. Lagging behind, loosely carrying her equipment, Ela barely paid attention to where she was going, still fixated as she was on the display of lights. Some way deeper, Guy raised a hand.
“Do you hear that?”
Stopping to listen, the others also began to pick the sounds out of the heavy air. Voices, singing in some unfamiliar language, rebounded weakly around the petrified trees. Moving closer to the source, the notes of a woodwind instrument joined the sounds, their combined effect almost hypnotic in its alien chords. Bakris closed his eyes, opening his inner magical senses to the sounds in an attempt to understand them. Whether there was no supernatural power within the music, or he was simply unable to perceive it, the dragonborn opened his eyes.
“It’s just music,” he told the others.
A doubtful expression on his face, Erlan slowly weaved his hands in the air in front of him, his fingers tracing intricate patterns. His tongue uttered phrases quietly as particles of orange flickered and spun in his palms. When he’d finished he looked around at the solidified trees and nodded.
“I thought as much.” He saw his companions’ quizzical looks. “The trees were transmuted,” he told them, shrugging.
Esieh rolled her eyes.
“Stay here,” she said, covering her head with her thin hood and disappearing into the bushes ahead.
Minutes passed with only the alien music to listen to. Then, with scarcely a rustle, Esieh leaned out of the undergrowth and beckoned them forwards. Keeping low, and avoiding stepping on any fallen transmuted branches, the group neared the source of the sounds.
The silent elf crept on ahead, leaving the others to follow much slower. Ela tried to replicate Esieh’s path and movements, unsure how a humanoid creature could move so stealthily. Guy, however, cut across a gap between cover and froze in the open when the music immediately cut off with a discordant note.
Stopping level with Esieh, Ela saw an unearthly scene. In a round clearing among the purple trees, floating or sat upon fallen logs and stumps, were several tiny creatures, no more than a few inches tall. They had three pairs of paper-thin wings each, but otherwise resembled elves. Ela had never seen a pixie before, but the fey beings had featured in a few books she had read in her youth with the priests.
In the centre of the clearing, around which the pixies sang, stood a satyr; a short man-like creature with goat legs from the waist down and curved horns atop its head. Its goat-like ears were pricked up and its heavily-bearded face was staring directly at Guy. In its human hands it held a set of wooden pipes tied together with fibrous strands.
Once the initial shock of seeing Guy passed, the pixies erupted into a babble of tiny voices. Unable to understand them, however, the group could only watch and listen. Even without comprehension, Ela could recognise the inherent poetry of the Fey language; each voice dipped and rose like a leaf on the breeze, floating and spinning before settling, only to whip back up into the next chorus.
“Common?” Erlan asked hopefully. “Elvish?”
His words made no impact on the drone of little voices, but one pixie chose that moment to vanish entirely; whether it died, turned invisible or left this plane of existence, none could say. The satyr added its deeper, yet still light, voice to the din. Placing her mace and shield on the ground as quietly as possible, Ela stepped out of the bush. When fully in the open, she crouched down and slowly stretched out an open palm to the fey.
The voices fell silent. The closest pixie, no more than ten feet away, cocked its miniscule head and fluttered towards her, landing on her hand. Ela smiled at it. It looked at her, its minute face scanning over her horns, pointed ears and finally her pure white eyes, before its features shifted into a childlike smile of its own.
Slowly, mere inches at a time, Ela’s tail curved around her so the pointed tip was level with the standing creature. Fearfully the pixie took flight again, hovering a foot away. Her smile not wavering, Ela began to wiggle the tail, the very tip bobbing rhythmically. Upon seeing this the pixie’s grin returned and it clapped its tiny hands.
Taking a seat on the ground, Ela crossed her legs. Her tail kept bobbing and her palm was still offered to the supernatural being. The pixie flew back to settle on it, standing as light as air on her pale purple skin. In a voice so quiet it’d be inaudible beyond a few feet, Ela began to whisper to it. Speaking in Elvish, a language believed to have been derived from the Fey language of nature, she tried to reassure the little thing. She offered friendship, kindness, and understanding. She promised she’d never hurt it, and that her companions were harmless. The pixie listened, riveted, and even seemed to understand some words, nodding gently.
Taking a breath, Ela slowly turned her head to look at her fellows, still crouched in the bushes behind her. Bakris carefully rounded the tree near which they were all hidden and sat with his back against the metallic trunk. Guy, finally moving from his statuesque position in the open, strode to the edge of the undergrowth beside Esieh.
As soon as they began to move, the fog, which had been fading gradually since the music stopped, tightened around them once more. The pixie in Ela’s hand took on an expression of fear and zipped through the air to the exact spot it had previously occupied, the choir of voices beginning anew. The satyr hurriedly lifted its wooden pipes and recommenced its playing. The light grew dim as the grey mass around them clouded the sky and limited their vision. The fey in the clearing wore mirrored expressions of panic.
“Maybe we should back off…” Guy suggested, taking a step backwards.
“Yeah, maybe we should get away from the trees,” agreed Bakris.
Erlan had just began to rise when his eyes were drawn to the tree above them. The crystal leaves had started to glow and, in an instant, shot bolts of purple energy at each of the people around it. Ela, Esieh and Guy yelped in pain while Bakris winced as the energy, taking the form of coloured lightning, arced into them. Erlan fell backwards in shock, tumbling clear of the bushes.
Standing where the tree had been, or perhaps it simply woke up, was a creature unlike anything they’d ever seen. Part metallic-wood and part living amethyst, it twisted its trunk in a seemingly impossible way and brought a branch round to smash into the back of Esieh’s head. She was knocked forwards, landing unceremoniously on the hard earth.
Rolling to face it, Esieh and the others looked up as the crystal dryad prepared for battle…