Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Howland Stone

Something was stirring about outside my camp. “A bear, I hope it’s not a bear,” I though to myself. “It doesn’t sound like a bear,” I told myself reassuringly, although I can’t say what exactly a bear sounds like. I peaked out of the tent, three forest elders looked at me, there wise eyes looking into mine, they were right, I had better get a move on. I had a long journey through the forest today, and not a moment to spare. 
Forest Elders outside my camp.
I packed up and headed for the wood line, the elders stayed with me, their silent wisdom guiding me to a hidden trail at the forests edge. I dawned the green cloak my mother had given me three days prior.

“This will help you hide in the Red Wood,” She said, a noticeable concern on her face. 

“How is a green cloak going to help me blend in a Red Forest,” I asked naively. 

Without looking up from the table she said, “The Red Wood is not named for the color of it’s foliage, but for the blood that has been shed on those mountains,” the fear in her eyes betrayed her stoic stance. 

I entered the forest, the trees still dripping from the prior nights heavy rainfall. This was not a place for mankind, it was a forest of giants and of magic, neither of which mixed well with humans. The trees towered high overhead, darkening the forest floor. I stayed to one side of the trail blending in with the ferns that themselves dwarfed me. 

I had been warned that the entry to the forest was deceptively welcoming. Beams of sunlight pierced through the tall canopy illuminating the world around me. Everywhere life flourished, moss hung from branches, where singing birds had built their nests, life stacked upon life. The forest glowed with possibility as i warily waited for the change of scenery. I was completely alone in the wood, at least as far as I could tell. The trail was poorly maintained, rarely used since the humans had moved from the canyon to the prairie lands, a exodus that occurred when I was still a boy. 

I soon came to a bridge, and was abruptly interrupted by a troll, who wondered what I was doing in these parts.

“So you came to find a rock, in a canyon,” he asked, clearly confused as trolls have a tendency to be. 

“Yes, I was sent by The Wizard Klamath to retrieve a stone that belongs to my family,” I reiterated, unsure of how to convey the matter any simpler. 

“Hmm, well that seems like an awfully long walk just to get a stone, but I guess if a wizard sent you…” he mutter before trailing off.

“Well, may I pass or do I need to answer some sort of riddle,” I asked, hoping I could forgo the gimmicks and press on. 

“No riddle today, too much rain, not enough roof, too wet to bother, carry on,” he said without looking back at me. I ran off before he could change his mind. 
The troll bridge. 
I was now inside the enchanted backwoods. The path seemed to come to an abrupt end. I walked through the ferns hoping to find where it continued. The path seemed to have vanished into the thick underbrush, and I could find no sign of where it was.

Just then a small green man popped up from the ground, a fern serving as his headdress. his green flesh caught me off guard, as well as the fern growing out of his head, I stared at him quixotically waiting for him to speak first. after a moment he did.

“Hello there, are you looking for something?” He asked.

“Yes, I said, do you know where the trail that ends over there, continues?”

“Oh yes yes, the old human trail you mean…you must be a human, you look like a human, I haven’t seen a human in a long time, I use to like humans, except when they would step to close to me, it gives me an awful headache when someone shakes the ground so close to me…” he prattled on, I waited for him to finish before finally interjecting.

“Yes! The old human trail, can you tell me where I can find it,” I asked, trying to be as polite as one can be in such a circumstance. 

“Oh yes yes, it’s right over this way…It rarely gets used. Sometimes the elders use it when they come into the forest, but they rarely come into the forest, cause it’s dark in here and theirs no know how they love their grass…”he rambled while leading me through a thick patch of ferns. 

“You sure this is the way?” I question as the ferns grew taller and thicker around me. 

“Oh yes yes, just a little further, We don’t get many visitors here…it’s nice to have visitors, that’s why I like humans, they are always willing to visit. It’s a shame your people no longer walk this way, we could really use the visitors…” he continued rambling as I ignored him, concerned with where exactly it was he was leading me. 

“Well there it is,” he said while pointing to a bridge high on the cliff side, “the bridge is the next part of the trail, oh yes yes it is.. I do wish you safe travels, hopefully I will see you on the way back, don’t forget to not go to the right, it’s going to be mighty difficult to get up to the bridge, I know I couldn’t do it, but humans always have a way around these sorts of things…” he continued talking as I started my ascent up the steep cliff face, lucky the heavy rains had exposed enough roots to make the climb rather simple and as I pulled myself up onto the bridge the sun broke through and illuminated the path. 

Having found the path again I regained my senses and pressed forward. The forest grew denser and denser, felled trees laid strewn across the path, forcing me to climb over them, exposing my presence to anyone who was paying attention. 

I found was in a mushroom gorge, the mushroom king watching over his citizens as they went about harvesting the crops. I had to watch my step as hundreds of mushroom workers scuttled across the path, undeterred by my presence, working diligently to bring in the crop. 

I came upon a fork in the road, the fern guy had told me “don’t forget to go to the right.” So blindly trusting a green guy I had never met before I did just that. 

Instantly I realized I had made a grave mistake. The forest closed in behind me as I walk.

Yes, I know the door looks ominous, yes that should have been a give away.
“He said, don’t go to the right,” I thought to myself, realizing this too late to be of any use. With the forest closed around I had only one choice Enter through the scorched door, into the dark realm, a realm ruled by an angry wizard whose hatred of all things was only surpassed by his hatred of humans, who, with the help of the wizard council, had banished him to this small region of the Red Wood, where he lived with his legion of loyal followers, mostly criminals and vagrants that had been forcibly removed from their respective realms. 

I tried desperately to blend along with the foliage, but the deeper I walked in the dark realm the more barren it became, and before long I was surrounded by scorched earth, the trunks of the majestic trees having been licked by the flames that had ravished the land here. I had no way of hiding so I ran, hoping my small stature would allow me to pass by unnoticed. 

I came upon the impassable tree, a fallen tree that had become legendary years before the banishment of the Dark Wizard. But the impassable tree had been spliced in half, a crevasse just large enough for me to squeeze through. The smooth edges of the splice reminded me of the wizards power.

“If he can split the impassable tree in half, imagine what he could do to me,” I thought, gulping at the imagery of my body being torn in two. 

A rounded a bend and the Dark Wizard’s tower rose up from the ground, instantly I was spotted. A legion of the wizards followers started running down from the tower, I sprinted to a small cave and hid inside, outside the followers searched for me. Soon the Wizard would be informed and I would surely be killed. I searched around, knowing I had only one choice, to run and run fast. I waited till most of the followers had left the trail searching for me in the rubble of the burnt forrest. I jumped out of the cave and sprinted, luckily most of the followers were old and beat up, having been recruited before the banishment, an event that had occurred prior to my birth. 

I ran, pursued by a angry mob, the faster ones pushing the slower ones out of their ways as they chased, sending their compatriots hurling off the cliff sides. Finally I saw the Lighted Bridge,  The light was not from the sun, but of Elfin origin. The light was used to imprison the Dark Wizard and his cohorts, if I made it to the bridge the followers would be forced to stop, or be scorched by the Elfin light. 

I ran faster, knowing I was only yards from safety, a followers hand reached out grabbing my pack and sending me sliding, but I was close enough to the bridge that I slid into the light. The followers pulled up, a few pushing others into the burning light. 
The light bridge.
I sat for a second on the bridge catching my breath. The ground trembled I looked up as an elephant trumpet the arrival of an Elfin Guard. 
The Elf Guard's Elephant, his name was Tusker.

“What were you doing in the Dark Wood, human!” The Elfin guard barked. 

“I took a wrong turn…I was sent…on…a quest by…Klamath, The Wizard.” I managed to spit out between gasps.

The guard chuckled, “That’s a hell of a wrong turn to make, you could have easily been killed, I’d suggest not making the same mistake again. Where is it you are headed?”

“Fern Canyon, I’ve been sent to retrieve a stone that belongs to my family, before the Dwarfs open up the dam and flood the canyon.” 

“Well you might want to hurry along then, they are set to open the damn in just a few hours.” He said handing me a dull looking talisman. “Take this with you, it will bid you safe passage through the wood elf realm, and you will need it to meet with Clintonia, the empress of the Coastal Elves.”

I thank him and continued down the path, Elf children scurried about the forest, while parents gazed down from their lofty residences, curious about the strange visitor to their land. I hadn’t walk these trails since I was myself a child, but Elves don’t age like humans, and I recognized some of the children as those who I had played with while my day was trading with the Elfin people. They looked up at me in recognition, nodding as I walked by, unfazed by how the years had changed me so drastically while barely effecting them. 

The woodland Elf realm is rather small. Most of the Elves moved to the Coast when Clintonia decided to stake a claim just above the human town along the banks of the Fern River. Being so close to humans did not sit well with the elder members of the Elf hierarchy and they chose to stay and kept their families in the forest with them. These were the remaining Elves, a peaceful band who kept to themselves, living out their days among the eldest of the ancient trees. 

The world in the Elf realm is peaceful, the Elfin magic protects the forest and the plants and animals flourish throughout. The path out of the Wood Elf realm was along a steep cliffside. I stretched my head back to see the tops of the trees and still had to put my chin to my chest to see the forest floor where the magnificent bases were blanketed in a sea of green, once again life stacked upon life. 

On the other side of the Wood Elf realm is common wood, or land unclaimed by any of the major races of the wood. This is a land of hermits and outcasts, but on this day I was left alone in peace save for a distant voice angrily screaming in an unfamiliar tongue. I hid amongst the ferns to stave off any unneeded impedances, I was already behind schedule and couldn’t afford to waste time with a gabby hermit.

The common wood is divided by a divine realm, although it can’t properly be called a realm, as it is not occupied by any race of living being, but rather by the Zynxies. The Zynxies are said to be the spirit of humans who have passed, brought back in their most innocent form, as children, save this time they have wings. Not like bird though, more like bubble bees, perched up on the branches one wonders how the gleeful children managed to climb to such heights. Just wave at them and you get your answer as they buzz off giggling, as Zynxies are notoriously shy, and ever giggling. 

The world was bright in the Zynxy realm, the forest filled with the laughter of children, buzzing playfully in the trees, giggling at me as I passed. When the Zynxies land the branches they perch on don’t even budge, and when the braver ones swoop past their is no feeling of wind passing, they are simply caught between world, playing in the branches without a care. The races of the Wood Realms have a reverence for the Zynxies, leaving them to their place in the forest in peace. In the great wars of the past entire armies were divert around the Zynxy home so as not to disturb the spirits. 

It’s strange how silent the wood becomes once you pass the Zynxies, the laughter replaced by the silent wind coursing through the treetops. I was once again in the common wood, the mushroom people here were again hard at work. I again tucked myself into the deep foliage, feeling more like a hermit than a human in these over sized woods. 

I made it to the first elfin bridge to Ah-Pah, the elfin capitol city, which was situation on the bluffs overlooking the ocean. The Coastal elves had little use for the woods anymore and this far outpost of their realm was unmanaged, a wilderness untouched by the hand of man or magical race. It wasn’t till the second bridge that the scene changed and a guard approached me. 
One of the Elfin "A" Bridges, leading the the Capitol City Ah-Pah.
“What business do you have here,” he said sternly but politely.

“I am wishing for safe passage to the Fern Canyon, I was given this talisman to give to Clintonia, your empress.”

I pulled the talisman from my pocket. It had been dull when given to me by the elephant guard of the Wood Elves, but now it glowed a marvelous green, illuminating the guards pure white garments. 

The guard look at the talisman, and smiled slightly.

“Very well, come with me,” he instructed, before saying something in Elfin to the other guard. 

I followed him through the forest, the hoof steps of his horse attracting the attention of the Elfin citizenry who lived in the tall trees. Children ran out to the street and began to follow us into town. I felt I was a spectacle to be seen by all, and was uneasy with this fact. The guard shooed the children away as we reached the Clintonia’s residence, a beautifully sculpted palace, The glowing light of the Elfin Life Crystal shining for from it’s steeple, for all to see. Clintonia’s Palace also served as a lighthouse for those out in the unpredictable sea. The Elfin Crystal’s light undiluted by fog. 
Clintonia's Palace
“I know what you are here to find,” Clintonia Said, without turning to face me. “You are searching for the Howland Stone, the one carved by your ancestors.” 

The Wizard Klamath had come to me five days ago, telling me I needed to retrieve a powerful stone from the old human town on Fern River. I was curious to why I, a simple butchers apprentice, would be tasked with such a quest.

“Because the stone belongs to you, it was carved by your great great grandfather, Howland, and has since remained protected by your family,” he explained. “You ancestor was in the old Elfin mines one day, searching for raw stone, when he stumbled across an ancient inscription, he summoned my from The Wizard Drury who deciphered the text and told Howland it told of a stone that, when carved precisely, would give the bearer powers. Although The Wizard Drury did not elaborate for he feared what such power would do to the world.”

My eyes grew wide, I had over heard my father arguing with my old uncle Elam once the only phrase that still stood out to me was, “humans aren’t meant to possess magic!” that my father screamed at my uncle before storming out. I never understood what it meant but now it was starting to make sense.   

“Your ancestor Howland became obsessed with finding the stone, and eventually he did, deep inside the Elfin mines. When he removed the stone the Elfin crystals that lined the cave disappeared, the stones power was magnification. The small elfin crystals that flourished in the cave no longer grew to extraordinary size, the elves soon abandoned the caves.”

I stood in disbelief, how could a simple stone hold such power I thought, and how could it have been lost after all this time. 

“Uncle Elam…Uncle Elam had the stone didn’t he,” I exclaimed. 

“Yes after Howland carved the stone, harnessing it’s rawest power he passed it on to his first born son, Elam, who you well know outlived any other human, and now you know why.”

I knew my last name meant “stone mason” in the ancient language, but I had no idea that went beyond a simple craftsman.  

“I will allow you safe passage through my realm, but you cannot return this way, that stone is not to be trusted to anyone but you, it will destroy my people.” Clintonia said, “you will have to take a different way back, show me your map.”

The oracle in Moon City had given me a map as I travel towards the forest edge, the map had led me this far, but it showed no other way back through the forest. 

Clintonia placed her hand on top of the map, a grey light illuminated from her hand, soon the map showed a glowing grey path, up the back side of the mountain. 

“That is the old Elfin Mining Route, it hugs the mountains ridge, the Dwarfs will not expect anyone of this path, but I must warn, their is a foul beast who lives on that side of the mountain. a beast that has a vested interest in obtaining the Howland Stone,” she said as she walked out of the room. “Now get moving, the dwarfs are nearly ready to open the dam!”

I hurried back to the path and headed off to fern canyon. I was glad Clintonia’s route would keep me away from the Dwarfs, as they weren't found of humans, blaming our farming practices for diverting the rivers flow and forcing them to build the dam to keep their cities from flooding. The dam was nearly about to overflow, and the dwarfs had little choice but to flood The Fern Canyon, which as a child was a raging river where humans fished, until the five year drought that forced our people inland, to work the land for food. 

When the dwarfs released the dam it would sweep away the last remains of the human settlements along the former banks of Fern Canyon, and with them, the Howland Stone. I only had a couple hours before the flood gate would open so I rushed along the path, soon coming to the Northern Edge of The Ah-Pah Empire and was back on human land. The land had remained unsettled since the last humans left, the bridges and houses had deteriorated after years of neglect, but the street still seemed familiar. I searched for Elam’s house. He had moved down into the canyon after the rest of the humans had left, choosing to stay behind. He died some years ago and I hadn’t been to his new residence. the path down into the canyon had been blocked by a landslide, and I was forced to climb down one a tree to make it to the canyon floor. 

In my childhood this entire canyon would have been filled with rushing water, and soon it once again would be, but for now a mere creek ran through it, the walls now covered with the ferns that had flanked previously flanked the banks. 

I found Elam home and went inside, the stone sat on a table in the middle of the room, glowing, how no one had stumbled upon this before was beyond me, but I didn’t have time to question it. The sound of rushing water echoed in the canyon.
Uncle Elam's Canyon home. 
I grabbed the stone and ran, a wall of water was careening down the canyon, apparently the dwarfs had got impatient and opened the gates early. I rushed to the stairs on the south side of the canyon and ran up them, the rushing water flooded the canyon, filling higher and higher, always one step behind me, I reached the top of the canyon wall and breathed a sigh of relief, tucking the stone into my pack. I had got the stone and could now take a break. I sat on the high canyon wall and ate some of my rations, the canyon roared as the rushing water flew by.

The sun was beginning to set, and I had no intentions of sleeping in the forest, so I gathered up my things and set out along the beach for the old elf mining route that Clintonia had scoured on my map. I had spent many years as a child playing on these beaches and the bluffs had always seemed to be topped with wilderness, but now with the Howland Stone the bluff showed the majestic city of Ah-Pah overlooking the sea. 

The thing is that humans can’t see magic, unless the magic is meant for them to see. The Wizard Klamath had put an insight spell on me, allowing me to see through the forests magical realms, but that spell had worn off and I was now under the influence of the Howland Stone, and the world around me had changed dramatically. 

The trail beginnings as an old human milling site, until it reaches a gorge here an elfin bridge led the way, but the human tracks stopped. Without the stone this bridge would be invisible to humans. Magical bridges had been an issue on the old trade routes. The humans and elves had made an accord, and the humans built bridges through the forest that were for many years used for trade, the trail I had walked to get to fern canyon. On the old elfin mining trail the elves had built a set of bridges unbeknownst to humans, the only human trespassers would be those brave enough to ford the deep, treacherous ravines, and apparently my ancestor Howland was one of those men. Luckily the stone afforded me the luxury of taking the elfin bridges and I before long I was deep in the forest. 

I was on a ridge just below a dwarf town, I could hear them talking, their deep voices echoing down into the valley. The forest in the valley had an ominous feel to it, and I remembered Clintonia’s warning of a beast. I had felt like I was being watched since crossing the bridge, and knew that it was only a matter of time before I came face to face with this beast. 

He waited to strike when I was on a precarious edge, a smart move for him. He had limbs but slithered to move his moist skin skimming across the forrest floor, he slithered up to his hind legs, towering over me. 

“My my…what do we have here, it that a human I see?” he said while slithering around me. 

“Yes I am a human, I am just trying to get home before dark,” I utter, futilely trying to convince him of my innocence. 

“Hmm…tell me, tell me why is it,..that you don’t smell like a HUMAN!” he growl. 

I pulled out my dagger sensing that reasoning with the beast would be to no avail. 

The beast laughed arrogantly, “oh thats adorable, but no mortal blade can pierce my flesh.” he said, puffing himself up to seem bigger.

“But I am no mere mortal,” I said, hoping the stone indeed gave me the ability to defend against this creature.

“Oh…but, but you are! you just have a shinny trinket in your pack…a trinket that you need to GIVE TO ME!” he scowled, his oozing face touching mine. 

“I will not be doing that,” I said, looking into his eyes trying not to flinch as his cold slime ran down my skin. 

“Well then I guess I will have to TAKE IT,” he said, lugging at me. I moved to the side cutting his flimsy limb with my dagger. It cut! He was bleeding, I took my stance again waiting for his next move. 

The beast tore his arm off, instantly regrowing another in it’s place. I lunged for his abdomen, he moved but to slowly as my dagger dug into his soft belly. The beast cried out in pain, then vanished back into the bush. I ran from the cliffside. If he was going to come back I didn’t need the disadvantage of falling to play against me. 

I sped on through the wood, knowing that he would be back, the forest foliage grew thicker and thicker and soon I was nearly unable to see more than a few feet in front of me. I could hear the beast return, he was wheezing ever so quietly just below me hidden by the thick ferns. as I came to a bottleneck he popped out again. I had my dagger still in hand. this time hitting his tail. Again, he ripped it off a new tail taking it’s place. I lugged again, his cold claws torn my green cloak, but didn’t break my flesh, I stabbed again this time catching him him in the shoulder, he growled in agony and puled away, my dagger still lodged in his flesh.

He went to once again escape into the brush, I followed, weaponless. he hunkered down in a hollow tree, I jumped on his back fighting to retrieve my dagger. He flailed wildly but I was able to hold on as I regained my dagger piercing it into the back of his neck, he let out one last gasp of hot air and fell limp of the ground. 

All the commotion had drew the attention of the Dwarfs at the top of the mountain and dwarf guards were running fast to my location. I sprinted down the trail when I saw a long laying across a ravine, I raced across the log and pushed it off the ledge down to the ravine. The three dwarf guards looked at me from the other side, flustered by my escape. I ran on, i was nearing the woods edge again. The trail climbed to the top of the adjacent peak to the dwarfs, the map said it was common wood and I slowed my paced. 
Some human stairs leading up to the Prairies. 
The fog was descending into the forest as I tiredly walked out. On the edge was The Wizard Klamath and the Elders waiting for me. 

“You’ve slain the beast I see, the forest will be better off for it.” Said Klamath. 

A bright light appeared in the center of the Prairie. 

“Thank you young human, I could not have told you your mission was to slay the beast, for then you would have been unable to do so. Myself and the Elf People of Ah-Pah and the Woodland Realm thank you for ridding the forest of evil,” Said Clintonia, as she handed me back the talisman I had given her. “This will bring you wisdom and guidance as you learn the ways of the stone, the stone amplifies your greatest gift, yours is humanity, we hope you can restore peace to the realms.”

*I apologize for the pictures, see without the Howland Stone you can’t see the true forms, just their earthly disguises.

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