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The Woods Beckon

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  Lhoth found himself busy harvesting many types of plant outside his home in the deep northern woods of Genesaris. He busied himself cultivating the local vegetation for alchemy, and potion crafting. Sure to harvest the flowers of the woods, along with other fungi, moss, vine, and minor creature. Lhoth was currently trying to find ways to grow stronger with certain magics as of late, thus he took to pocketing foliage to test alchemically.

  Lhoth picked up his walking stick probing along as he walked sure footed looking around himself passively as he packaged more foliage from the roughly guided boar path. Lhoth packaged the local vegetation into his travelling pouch walking away slowly as he studied the old ground. Crouching as he listened for foot steps almost thought he could hear in the distance.

He looked down, and studied foot steps in the forest, his eyes thinned briefly as he wondered how to proceed. Shrugging a bit as he stood up, he looked around the forest for clues about the person stumbling about in his woods without a guide. Idly he could feel a certain calling for him to seek out the disturbance in his woods, just to see who could be without a guide. Walking a bit further he didn't want to pry into someone else's life to cause them unneeded annoyance, however he was sublimely curious who was wandering out this far.

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‘They think they can buy me,’ Nina thought, pursing lips that felt uncomfortably dry. A branch cracked underfoot. Seven days past the last time she’d seen a human being, the spite was no longer enough to sustain her.

‘His Highness, the Duke, has paid your tuition for two trimesters at Mageside Academy.’ In the silence woven among the cobweb of light and shadows, Gray’s voice from memory rung uncomfortably clear. Too many times she’d hastily turned around, mistaking curtains of ivy for his cloak. ‘I recommend packing warmer clothing.’ The assassin had added, in his normal flat tone. As if that had ever been discussed.

Inside her chest, anger flared. She took a step, two steps, through the soft layer of half-rotten leaves, a path carved by rain torrents that, she imagined, perhaps no other sapient being had walked before, and she let her anger slowly fizzle out into embers under the weight of exhaustion. The straps of her backpack were digging in her shoulders. Her shoulders alone felt too heavy to bear. Her head was heavy with worries that she would get lost and never find her way out again. She was already halfway there. Yet she went on. Because in that book which the assassin didn’t mind her picking up from his library, a book that she couldn’t read, not when it was written in the elaborate script of the Archipelago, she’d found a note tucked inside the covers. A simple note which was for now her only hope of untangling the mystery of the assassins of the Clocktower. The note said:

<<The records are lying. They say no prisoner ever escaped the Tower. But during the time of the Mother of Shadows, there was Yaga. For evidence of her to be erased so thoroughly, she must’ve stolen important secrets. I wonder->>

That was all. That, and the fact that the cursive letters sketched a caligram, a map where letters were hidden in plain sight – an ‘A’ shaped into a peak, an ‘I’ as a scratched-out part of a road. Back when the standard language of Genesaris would have been unusual in the isolated Archipelago, the foreign nature of the script would have added to its secrecy. It was this very detail which enabled Nina to read it. The message spoke of a time long, long gone, the girl figured. Gray held the title of the Master of Shadows, and from his oblique references she could just about figure that at least two of his immediate predecessors had been men. Following the letters, she could see the message swirl from the Archipelago into the main continent, with ‘escape’ and ‘secrets’ digging into the Great North. That was all she had. And yet she followed this hint, even as she doubted herself. It spoke of escape. And she had to escape. Because they thought they could buy her with money and power-

‘You can’t buy something that you already own, apprentice.’ The memory said.

Yet even the anger was no longer enough to hide the silence. Day by day, it crept deeper into her veins. The further she got from the forest edge, the wider the trees grew. By now some were as large as towers. In places, moss grew thicker than the width of her palm. She carried no map, but simply followed her senses, followed the path that felt most discomforting in a way she could not name.

After she’d unwillingly unleashed thousands of vengeful spirits on the Archipelago, her magic-sense had gotten painfully sensitive, like scalded skin. It was particularly sensitive to artifacts associated with the Clocktower.

Gray had sent her to Mageside. Among other reasons, to have her heal to a point where she wasn’t getting sensory overload just from being in the Tower. To keep her shiny and functional, as if she was just another gear. She’d taken a little detour for her own goals.

And yet, as she walked deeper into the forest, she couldn’t shake off the feeling that she was not welcome.

Ants had swarmed her sleeping place last night. Their stings still burned. The day before, she’d had a lynx leap at her just as she was checking her traps. Brambles which had been perfectly still fell on her the moment she walked by. Nina wasn’t new to traveling in forested areas, but this string of misfortunes unsettled her.

She stopped for a moment to take a deep breath, her arms wrapping around her ribs. In front of her, a large branch crashed down from the canopy. It was withered, and thick enough that it could have knocked her unconscious if it had struck. The girl looked at it, walked over it, and stopped. There was no trace of wind in the air. She reached in her pocket for a sweet, a little jar of honey that she kept for emergencies. She didn’t realize her hands were shaking. The jar slipped from her grasp and broke on what was possibly the only stone around.

“OH COME ON!” She screamed.


Already, her voice was starting to break under the weight of her sobs.

Edited by Nina

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  Lhoth shook from what the tree's nearby sensed of the situation another spirit caught in the wilderness. Scanning the brush he could hear her snap twigs, and irritate the locals to her presence, the birds chirped up a storm and the crows circled. With dark-green eyes looking to the skies with a certain distant curiousity as he seemed to welcome the company of another. Lhoth walked with the stick leading him through the brush of the many boar, and pheasant trails that existed in the deep woods of Genesaris.

  At times he checked the tower in the distance behind him out of a certain old habit known to the outsiders. Looking forward he tempted walking forward once again listening to the cries of the woman in the distance. Checking his robes he ruffled out a crease as he pressed on carefully stepping over roots, and known ivy's. He was no stranger to helping others escape this dense patch of foliage, he knew it well which is why he kept a low-key cottage in this wood hidden deep in the woods. The forest knew when people wandered into it as well, though it was more subtle in communicating danger to outsiders to itself. As she began sobbing Lhoth arrived to her location feeling a little disoriented by her at first. 

  Lhoth adjusted his expression as he stopped looking so curious as he changed to looking concerned for her as their expressions met. For a moment Lhoth breathed a quick sigh as he felt a bit vulnerable as he'd not spoken to anyone for a time, "Greetings, I tend to be out here by myself collecting alchemy supplies, my name is Lhoth. What brings you out this way, miss?" Truth be told, he had no other weapons on hand to defend himself other than the staff at first sight, a few potions hung from his belt.

  The pointed ears stuck out from Lhoth's long hair and dyed robed, he was tall about six feet but fit looking enough. Shifting lightly in his robes he kept his distance to her as he studied the girl who had lost her honey. He himself kept a private bee hatchery near his solitary cabin nearby. As far as this was concerned he looked forward to having the company as he absently pressed his own issues away from the surface in his head briefly. Trouble was, he was seemingly very awkward to outsiders, and it showed, though as much as that was apparent there was a soft compassion in his eyes that was sure.

  His expression to her denoted respect, and caution, while at the same time registering her as an equal for having found him out here. He was young, bright, and inquisitive looking with an air of the strange, and awkward at the same time. Briefly he looked around to the birds breathing their disgust with her aimlessly wandering through their homes. Quietly he breathed as he willed the calm to pervade the area around him without seeming to obviously linked to the mystic system of the forest. 

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“That tree dropped a BRANCH on me!” The words, unbidden, burst out as soon as the traveler heard the voice of another, as soon as she saw a tall figure appear from the undergrowth. Her arm flailed in the direction of the offending flora. If she had been less in shock, she might have admired the ease with which the elf moved.

“You’re not a plant, are you?” Suspicion rang in her voice. The young woman crouched down, and tilted her head to the sides to spot any wayward leaves. “I’ve read about plants whose fruiting bodies look like people. They attract unwary travelers, charm them with alluring scents, sink them into deep, wonderful dreams, and use their bones for fertilizer.” Nina’s index finger wagged with the anxiety of just realizing she was alone in the middle of a dark, frightening forest. “I would like to clarify that I do not make good fertilizer. If you kill me, there will be VENGEANCE.” The rough edge of her trembling voice gave way to a blank expression. Her shoulders slumped, as if her energy had been extinguished. She thought of Gray, the assassin, and grumbled through her teeth. “Either that or he’ll tell you what a good job you did, and ask to chat about poisons.”

Perhaps Gray would then ask the plant-with-human-fruiting-bodies to become his apprentice.

She breathed. She breathed too fast, with a hand pressing on her ribs, feeling like there wasn’t enough air. A normal symptom of shock, her mentor would have said, but he wasn’t there and so Nina felt like she was dying. When she finally calmed down, she spoke:

“I’m looking for a person…A story.” She said, more quietly. “Somebody called Yaga, who hid in these lands more than a hundred years ago…Maybe as long as five hundred. My data isn’t clear.” Her eyebrows tensed as she tried to make sense of the little information she had. “I assume that she was powerful, for she was never caught, but it is also possible she simply had the skill or luck to make strong allies. I think she might’ve carried a magical artifact with her.” The more she spoke, the more the forest seemed to grow wary of this intruder. As if every word was scratching an old wound. When she said ‘Yaga’, the soul of the forest almost winced. Yet, in the mystic’s presence, it didn’t react further. “Have you ever heard that name? Or…are you familiar with someone who would know?” Nina asked.

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  Lhoth's brow crinkled a little as he shrugged a little at her shouting to the forest, nodding he offered, "Sorry, these old wood tends to keep out outsiders, it's a bit of a special place for Elves. I've been bonding with the tree's, and learning old techniques miss." Looking at her rather mediocre form he suspected the forest was quite a strange place to her. As he balanced himself against his staff, he shook his head as he listened to her question, "No, you can call me Lhoth Astrae."

  Studying her shock briefly as she described her need, he never had fancied himself an adventurer before, though there appeared a need for one. Quizzically he studied her face seeing the need arise in her eyes, he offered matter-of-factly; "I've never heard of Yaga before now to be honest with you, however that doesn't preclude that one of the Elder Tree's wouldn't know what you're looking for. You just need to humble yourself to the Wood Guardians in an offering, offer your blood to a sapling, they will see it as a blessing."

  As he walked toward a lone pine sapling growing nearby, he cut his own palm with a strange power, bleeding a tiny amount of blood out as his face contorted. Tapping a finger to the sapling he relayed a message to allow the woman passing. Seeing as how the women may not perceive in the ways of the wood didn't mean he wouldn't be willing to guide her out of compassion. Turning toward her, he clenched the wound on his hand as the wind suddenly picked up blowing leaves out of their path, and felling a few rogue branches that could have harrowed her to death. Tapping his staff, Lhoth combined his psychic power with the landscape, and felled the area of rogue branches that would imperil her journey.

  "Sorry about that,  I forget how temperamental these parts of the woods can be. I assure you that I am just an Elve who can guide you through these parts. Though I am better as a woods guide, I am a Novice Mystic at best, so you can trust that I will tell the woods to be friendly to you, and help you find your story." In his expression he maintained a firm expression though it wasn't immediately apparent why he was willing to aid her. It simply felt natural to help her out of the woods, or perhaps to his company, it wasn't often Lhoth made new friends.

It was a good night to brew a late tea he decided, the spirits of the forest needed amusing.

Edited by evil

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There was an aura of peace around the elf, a way that he seemed to fit in with the forest around them, which Nina at first rejected, afraid of it being a trick of the mind. Yet she soon realized it wasn’t meant for her, and it was then when she allowed her soul to reach out.

Her senses for the world beyond seeing were sharp, though haphazard. She could tell that when Lhoth offered his blood to the sapling, it was a confirmation of an old bond between him and the many inhabitants of the forest. She felt the heartbeat of the green darkness slow down and acknowledge his request, in an incredible show of trust of which she was only glimpsing a figment. She stared at him, speechless, resembling a newborn calf with her wide, round eyes, and just as unsteady on her feet as she picked herself up.

“Blood, huh?” The girl’s voice still carried the crackle of anxiety. More than once she had been warned that blood had a magic not to be messed with. “I guess it’s only fair. I’ve taken food and water from the forest.”

She looked around, for a place that felt right, and nearly jumped out of her skin when, with thunderous peals, dry branches fell to the ground all around them at the elf’s command. Despite his reassurance, Nina couldn’t stop her heart from trying to elbow its way past her ribs. That tickled. She chuckled out of sheer emotional overload.

“Lhoth Astrae.” She spoke. “I’m Nina. I am grateful for your help. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be disruptive-“ She shuffled her feet. It wasn’t fear which made her backpedal on her threats, but rather the reassurance he’d shown her. She looked around.

There, in the spot of sun. On a boulder, there was a conifer sapling which had sprouted in a crack of the rock. It would have few resources until its roots reached the ground. Something about its lonely, difficult path resonated with the traveler, and it was to this sapling that she knelt and sacrificed a drop of her blood, with her trusty penknife.

Nothing happened. Not at first.
“What is a mystic? Is it a type of alchemist?” She asked, turning back to Lhoth. 

Despite her many travels, she hadn’t interacted much with elves, and was curious.

Behind her, she heard a rattling sound. On the boulder now marked with her blood, a viper lazily crawled out from a crack in the rock, uncoiled its body, and Nina had the pleasure of meeting it face to face as she turned back. It leapt forward, licking her nose with its forked tongue, and then slid down her back and slithered away, before the girl could do as much as think. Nina looked to Lhoth and, with frozen gestures, asked whether to follow. If this wasn’t a sign, she didn’t know what it was.

The snake would soon disappear under another boulder, but at that point a woodpecker started its clicking in the distance. A large swallowtail butterfly would cross their path, if they followed, and at that point they would find a meadow of autumn crocuses zigzagging like a purple river. She followed rays of sunlight and the darting flights of blue-winged tits and, on occasion, found herself led to already familiar places, in circles.

“Do you live here? In the forest? It’s got…quite a personality.” Nina gasped.

Yet not too long after she’d first met Lhoth, it would become clear that they were slowly moving closer towards a great tree, with clusters of white flowers that she could glimpse through the undergrowth, whose honeyed scent that had reached them long before she could see the flowers, with feathery leaves and needle-like thorns as long as her fingers. 

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  Lhoth nodded her direction as he observed her wonder to the oddities of ancestral woods, "No worries, the woods here have seen, and experienced a lot here, I wouldn't be surprised if there were demons like the kind you have described." His eyes darted to the viper that had slinked away underneath a rock, the forest seemed happy with her sacrifice as the wind seemed to die down, the cold remained thick, a mist began to creep over from a lake. Lhoth followed her noticing that the forest too would guide them into seeking what they must. Lhoth looked upon the great tree with a little bit of an awe'd expression, smiling he stepped closer not having seen this one as he remarked back to her.

  "Well, besides being a little complicated without mentally conveying, let's just say that I am strengthened by the forest, and the forest is given strength by me psychically. It's a bond that I enjoy, it allows me to learn, and do more with my body as a source of power, quite remarkable, I tend to keep to myself in studying my gift with the forest itself." Lhoth added as his dark green eyes looked upon the tree, for a moment he looked around addressing the ivy, and fungi that grew around the tree. Knowing that a poison marked this tree to be guarded by outsiders. Lhoth was surprised by the ivy as it grew outward as if to ward against his presence.

  Shaking his head, Lhoth settled on his knee's for a second, pressing his hands to the root of the tree untouched by the ivy, and closed his eyes. Melding with the tree was a difficult task for him as he sought to pacify the tree was a little disorienting for Lhoth. Reaching into the deepest consciousness of the tree, he pacifies the tree his fingers glowing green briefly. As he opened his mind he made the mental handshake with this tree, as his voice whispered something about it was deadly serious, "The tree would hear you now, we can make the connection together if you must know the story."

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She placed her hand over Lhoth’s hand, and reached out with her mind. It felt like pushing her brain through a dark, narrow gap while someone was propping the door open. When she looked again at the tree, it seemed to have grown to encompass the whole world. The flowers burned brilliant white, the spines looked sharper, the dark ivy around them looked strong enough to poison by sight, and the scent merged with the glimmer of the slowly rolling mist to create a space where Nina couldn’t tell up from down. When the tree spoke, she felt it like a rustle of leaves behind her ears, like a pulse of sap in her chest.

And she felt something more, cold metallic strings binding her from the inside and disappearing far behind her and, in the distance, the ticking of a clock.

“Greetings, kind Mystic and -ah.” The elder tree sighed. “Master of the Clocktower. We meet again.” 

Overwhelmed, Nina barely found the will to speak.

“You’re mistaking me.”

“Seasons come, seasons go. One who bears the mark of the Tower turns up sooner, or later. Do you not bear the mark?” In that rustling voice, she felt the weight of rolling time.

The girl looked down at herself, to see strings glimmering all throughout her body, as fine as spider-silk. The glimmer got stronger around where her heart would be. Ever so faintly, she heard the tick…tock.

“I was not told about this.” Her eyes went uncomfortably wide, as she tried to cope. The days where she’d been bed-bound. The hot tea and the fresh sponge cake left on the nightstand. She’d thought Gray had cared for her out of some sort of responsibility for her having saved his life…but instead he was keeping an eye on some sort of sick experiment of his? “I did not agree to this.” Her pitch rose. Down on the inside of her left arm, she saw the strings curl into letters and she read:

<<Good luck.
                You sure as hell will need it.>>

Nina shuddered, and decided she couldn’t deal with all of this right then.

“Tell me, elder, what is your name? And can you tell me about Yaga?” She asked.

“Names…You tiny people are all about names, and not enough about bonds.” The tree huffed. “To tell my true name would require time, much time, and trust that we don’t yet share. For the purposes of our conversation, you can call me Keeper-of-Words. “And…hmmm…Yaga, yes. Once again, that question is asked. But why do you seek the answer?”

Her eyes momentarily flicked to Lhoth. Did all trees talk like this?

“I want to escape.” Nina said. She looked down at the letters as if she could rip them out with her eyes.

“Once again, that answer. But the fact that it is still asked means that none of the previous ones fully succeeded.”

“I-I don’t understand.” The girl felt ice slowly dripping down her spine. “The Tower is just some place on an island that no one knows of. An assassin lives there, yes, and he has some magic items, but this is Genesaris. It would be more surprising to have a country without some sort of magic shenanigans.” Panic gradually grew in her voice. This was growing into something much larger than she’d expected. “Why do you know so much?”

“Once, I promised a witch to kill all those of you of the Tower who might come for her.” The tree spoke, matter-of-factly. The ivy glimmered darkly. “Luckily for her, and for you, I’ve since grown to, hmm, act on a more case-by-case basis.”

“The memories you wish for are buried deep.” The tree said. “Reach down, little human. Do you feel it?” Nina’s fingers brushed along a long gash left across the roots of the great tree, and nodded. “It’s a mark left by a sword. Do you know its name?”

“Everything Ends Here,” Nina whispered. The sword that Gray carried. It had to be.

“Correct. I’ve tried to heal, and I’ve buried memories I thought were no longer needed.” The tree sighed. “It would take years for me along to bring them back to the surface. I’d thought it was over…” Was it just her, or did the tree sound…tired? “If you still wish for them, go ahead. Step deeper into my mind, if you dare.” As the tree spoke, Nina grew aware in a shift of the branches. “But remember. Not all wisdom brings joy.” Now the branches looked like platforms, spiraling around the trunk, or spiraling around other main branches, each following one slightly further away than the one before. Some of the ones at the edges swayed in a distant breeze, enough for Nina to feel unsteady on her feet. She had to jump all the way up?

Her gaze flicked to the Mystic.

“I hope you like watercolors,” she grinned. “You’ll be inheriting my stash if I die.”

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  Lhoth was as much the conductor of this ride through time with the tree, as much as he was the audience to her words. Holding the bond together with shere force of will, he spoke kindly to the tree. "You won't be dying next to me Nina, my life is on the line here too. Thank you kind Miss, we will be traveling back to your younger, and youthful days, worry not, we will not be going back to your infancy this trip."

  The kind Mystic shortened his voice as he spoke to both the tree, then to Nina, Lhoth sounded none-the-worse for keeping the bond alive. Lhoth was sure the tree held deep secrets, however he would not go so far as to reach back to its seedling days. Lhoth knew that going too far back risked polluting his mind with mindless facts attributed to a seedlings growth. Rings began to spiral around them from below in the tree's mind, each ring was a symbol of the tree's evolution going back. In the background battles picked up around them, fires burned close, but not too close to them. The figures in the background were almost obscure looking from the tree's point of view, and their eyes while in the bond.

  Unsure of what she was looking for Lhoth strengthened the bond with Nina, and the Tree slowly so as to not overwhelm the woman. Lhoth breathed a gasp as vines reached out for his hands reflectively shading the area in an emerald green light. Used to the feeling of Gaia touching him, he looked up. The tree's trunk morphed into a face as the tree began to grow smaller before Lhoth, and Nina. Each ring made the tree younger, and shorter as if the tree itself were reversing in age by the layers.

  Lhoth's dark green eyes glowed a mysterious shade of green in a ring around his eyes noticeably as the bond strengthened. Travelers, immigrants, and passerby's all came through this area as the tree was growing ever younger. Gasping as it had nearly gone back to being a sapling where the roots were barely there poking above the surface. Lhoth gasped as the phantom shades of bushes just up around him leaving him, and Nina near a sapling.

  Questioning Nina in his mind if she had that which she needed from the Bond, Lhoth continued to dutifully listen to the conversation. Vines slowly crept up his arms threatening to consume him as old vines from a past era threatened to eat him alive if he didn't stop. "Anytime you have what you need, I can release us from this bond Nina." One so young using the Bond ran the risk of corruption overtaking Lhoth's mind if he went too far back to the tree's infancy. Soon warning signs crept up as the old tree shrunk ever more in front of the two. "At your discretion, Nina."

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“I am grateful.”

Summer was cooled by the fresh breeze of spring, which grew harsher and colder until Nina cowered under the blows of the wind, watching the ice seep from the ground around her heels, grow into snow and then float up into the sky. In the background, seed pods clinked closed. Seasons turned, in reverse, faster and faster, until their succession became just the blur of a bird’s wing. There was something melodic in it – the beauty of a life lived – but even so, even with Lhoth’s mind providing the transition between her and what would have been an alien mind, it was too much. How could one find one significant event in the haystack of hundreds of years?

She wrapped her fingers around the letters itching under her skin. If this was part of the Clocktower, then, perhaps she could use its aura pattern to look for-

“You know, don’t you?” The voice behind her nearly made her jump out of her skin. She moved out of the way barely fast enough to dodge the heavy sword coming down, in the place where she’d previously felt the scar in the root.

The speaker knelt, his face hidden by the hilt of the sword. It was clear that they were using it as some sort of conduit to interact with the tree. He was a young, sickly-looking kid with silvery hair and a voice hollow of expression, that Nina knew well. 

“The Tower is like this forest. It builds its power from complexity. Artifact over artifact, hundreds of them, crafted over hundreds of years. Some components are the gears and springs within its clock mechanism; but many have been scattered all over Genesaris and, rumor has it even beyond…Some of them are here. Tell me, Elder. Why?”

Nina cried, feeling the pain of the tree at the sword digging deeper. Deeper, into the past, just like them.

Shadowy figures with pointy ears darted in front of them.

“They say that the Black Forest is expanding again out the Valley, up North.” One of them said in hushed tones. “The human tribesmen have told of some of their own dragged into the forest by moving trees. They ran as fast as they could here, seeking help from our elders, but when Hellebore got there, the victims had already turned to wood.”

“Those poor trees. Twisted in that manner.” The other speaker clenched her fists. “It would’ve never happened if Yaga had been turned away. If that witch hadn’t been allowed to pervert our teachings.”

“Shh…This tree was-“ The first speaker’s voice was lost, as they flickered out of sight.

Time swirled. Nina’s mind held on to the strings inside her, as if they were a compass. While Lhoth drove them deeper into the tree’s mind, she was just about able to navigate the blur of rolling time to pockets of connected memories. They heard rumors of a giant lumbering monster, with joints of gears and a breath of steam, rampaging through the forest. Years apart, she smelled smoke. In the distance, a tall man, with the same long sword and dark grey cloak as the boy before, stepped out of a fire. His voice had a velvety feel. His appearance had the translucent nature of something remembered from other’s memories.

“Yaga might’ve told you what this is about. The Clocktower feeds on death and pain. You get me what is rightfully mine, or this place will be razed to the ground.”

Nina cried, realizing that she’d seen that fire engulf the forest just before.

Yet she held on to the string. Years turned like the flickering of the seconds hand on a clock. In the sky, there was a star she’d never seen before, which merged into the glowing arcs of the spinning canopy. Rumors flickered around them, as shadowy figures darted around, but never anything solid. Every now and then, there would be a glimmer of a particular sword in the distance, or the shadowy movement of a grey cloak. Fearsome sounds of machinery approached the tree a few times, but Nina saw no more than a giant blur. The tree started to grow not only noticeably thinner, but also shorter. Lhoth’s glowing eyes felt intimidating to behold as he carried their minds ever deeper into the past. Was there nothing to come of this? There was nothing here to find, nothing, nothing at all.

Until the fearsome sounds approached once more, sounding like a breath or the huffs and puffs of pistons and boilers, and this time Nina saw it, in the shape of a giant, gap-toothed mouth of metal and plant which broke out from the undergrowth, with legs of metal that clanked as it moved. Nina was just about to grab Lhoth’s arm and drag him away from the monster, unsure of how safe being stomped to death by a memory would be, when the beast stopped, lowered its head on its metal paws, its mouth opened like a door and a raisin-faced old woman picked up her skirts and hiked up to the now much younger tree. Nina followed.

“I am sorry, friend. I know this weighs heavily on you, but someone has to remember.” She said much more, but Nina couldn’t catch it all in the whirlwind of time. Her face and figure changed shape as she spoke, a mature woman with braids curled around her head, a young woman with thick braids running down her shoulders. This wasn’t a single moment in time, but a friendship that had gone over years. Even though she carried no sharp-pointed hat, there was something about her that felt both witchy and familiar. “If I fail, someone has to protect what I left behind. Someone has to know why those of the Clocktower have to die, if they can’t be distracted away.”

“The records said Yaga stole from the Clocktower.” In the far distance, the ghost of the forest-burner spoke.

“The records lie.” Behind Nina, the boy with the large sword said. “The Tower is built on fear. Out of fear, the past is changed, to the point that we wouldn’t know the truth if it jumped out of a sewer grate and bit us in the ass.” That atonal sarcasm was something that Nina had grown very familiar with. “Even Yaga’s story might not be the full truth.”

“Listen.” The old-young woman said, raising her palm. And Nina understood that even though these people had lived decades or hundreds of years apart, they were connected, like her, and connected memories, especially those most significant, often come with commentary. This was where it all started.

“I was once a prisoner of the Tower. I was once its Master. I had attracted the ire of a Warlord back home, on an island so forsaken it didn’t even have a name. I think I ran in front of his horse, and spooked it. I was tortured. Forgotten. I was only a child.”

“One day, I was taken out and led to a different room than usual. There was food, and I ate. There was an old lady, who looked much unlike the masked torturers. She looked as frail as a paper figurine.”

“She presented herself as the Mother of Shadows. She ruled with an iron fist and poison-spiked velvet gloves over the Tower and its network of assassins, torturers, seductresses, spies, many of whom were her grandchildren and great-descendants. She had lived long past a normal human life, she said, sustained by the magic of the Tower. But now even that magic was beginning to crack. She said she would grant my freedom if I did her a favor. I wasn’t in a position to bargain,” the woman, which now Nina understood was Yaga, said with a grin, a wry grin that remained the same across decades. “But what she said next surprised me.

Kill me, she asked.”

“You said that I have to kill you to stop you.” Nina whispered, suddenly turning to the silver-haired boy. The memory didn’t answer.

“You see…” Yaga continued. “The Master of the Clocktower, also known as the Master of Shadows (or Mother, as it was the case for her), is more than a title. It is a bond. It connects someone to the machinery of the Clocktower, giving them insight into its workings. Giving them access to incredible power. With incredible risks. That’s why it’s passed on the way it is.”

“But that’s a lie, isn’t it?” The boy who was a younger Gray said.

“It is passed down from master to apprentice, more precisely to the apprentice skilled and daring enough to kill their master,” Yaga continued. “The Mother of Shadows said, <<I might be one of the few to die in my bed, due to a healthy mixture of love and fear I’ve instilled in my Shadows. That would leave it up to the Clockwork to decide. And regardless of what you think of me, I love my children enough that I don’t want them killing each other for power before my body even cools.>>”

It hurt Nina to maintain her focus, when the conduit enabling her focus was inside her. It felt like she was pulling on her own nerves. Then she saw Lhoth engulfed by vines, and realized there was no time. She finally heard his voice. Her focus broke, and she ran through a disconnected jumble of memories to reach the elf.

“Stop! Lhoth! Go back!” She shouted.

“The Tower isn’t what everyone thinks it is,” Yaga said.

“If I have to destroy it gear by gear in order to be free, I will.” Gray spoke.

“Why? Why did you go back there?” Nina asked, fighting tears, as she ran.

“<<Perhaps if you carried the title away, lost it, far away from here,>> she said-“ The story went on.

But Nina had reached the Mystic, and grasped the stems encroaching on his chest.

“It’s enough,” she said.

She tried to get the vines off him, at first with as much force as she could without breaking them, and then, if that didn’t work, by ripping them off.

“Don’t be stupid!” She grumbled. “Keeper-of-Words, tell him not to take absurd risks for people he’s known for a whole of fifteen minutes!” 

Could the older tree even hear her, still?

Edited by Nina

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  Lhoth could feel himself being slowly enveloped by the tree's bio-luminescence gasping from the shock of the tree's knowledge of the Druidic Arts shocked him. As he went back undaunted by the threat, Lhoth's dark green eyes thinned, as his long ears perked back - in ambition from the challenge ahead of him the images, and words, actions, and shadows around them. Holding himself through the transitions of time being replayed back around them panoramically, Lhoth focused in on what she needed more than the tree's inner power of which all had. Holding back his full power, Lhoth sought the answers pertaining to Yaga, but was surprised to hear mention of The Tower, as he had little information to go on about that strange place.

  Surprised to hear that a Witch had corrupted the Tree's original plan pertaining to perhaps to Druidic Arts to begin with surprised to know this he pressed on to find more information. Little did Lhoth know, his arms were being covered as he closed his eyes to push out the distraction of death from his mind. Closing his eyes, he could still drive the reversal of time as giants seemed to step right through them menacingly enough. Lhoth felt it strange that the shadows themselves were quite cold to have pass through oneself. Lhoth supposed that it was a warning to him from the forest that his safety was in peril as he threatened to go back to far. 

  Lhoth couldn't spare a look at the mere sapling before him like a shadow fluttering in the wind, clinging to life as a lucky sapling surrounded by a large parentage. Lhoth was pleased that this tree was keeping the death away from him at this length, he supposed that he'd made a friend in these woods. Slowly his neck began to cover, as well as his legs, and knee's at least Lhoth could draw the gift of breath out of kindness of the old tree. When Nina told him to go back a little he immediately honored her request going back to the point she regarded to. 

  Lhoth was happy he'd found the young woman's moment, feeling a small reprieve of freedom from the tree's embrace at her request. In places the back hardened little more than tree's bark would in the forest naturally giving Lhoth the appearance of a tree-form. Listening to the information become all the more clearer for the young woman, Lhoth realized that the tree's prefer Druids to tend to their bonding needs. In recognition of this fact Lhoth could feel his body unlock new powers from the bond, regardless of what he'd been searching for the tree granted him Druidic knowledge naturally through his bond with the old miss.

  As Nina began to pull the tree bark off a small laugh occurred while she pulled the back off of Lhoth that had stopped growing around him threatening to devour him whole. Knowing that Lhoth had gone pretty far back he scolded himself knowing his mother would not have approved of his recklessness for a person he barely knew. Rubbing the back of his head, Lhoth nodded his head to the young woman as he got up, catching his bearings. "It was a little risky however the tree was kind enough to gift me with Druidic knowledge that came freely thanks to your request."

  "The bond comes with it's own rewards at a price, your request becomes my pursuit, though as my mother once said Mystics have to weigh requests to tree-bonding heavily upon our minds. However I think it's safe to say your request strengthened my own knowledge into the arcane, so you're request is honored. If ever you need my services again for the purpose of investigation you have my blessing. The old tree granted me some of her power that I will cherish, along with this chance encounter."

  Picking a root out of the bottom of his hair he tossed it aside as Lhoth smiled and continued pleasantly, "The tree has informed me of older tree's to consult, perhaps one of them would know, do you know how to get to Crystallo Stella from here? Seems more knowledge might be there on my pilgrimage to draw power from the realm, per the duty of the bond-keeper." Lhoth was amiable enough to people on any given day, however he was knowing enough that he didn't need to follow new friends, or people he'd just met. However, Lhoth was his own person, and had a quest of his own to contend with for the sake of the forests of the land.

  "I trust that you will stay alive long enough to perhaps do more investigating into things, seems I might be lucky to keep you as a friend, and meet again Nina."

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There was something unsettling about the way Lhoth seemed to take in stride whatever came his way. From a crying girl, to being engulfed in bark and then suddenly deciding to travel halfway across the world, it seemed to be all in a day’s work to him. Was it an elf thing, or had he merged with the forest to the point where his free will was as much as an illusion as a puppet’s gestures? Nina couldn’t tell, especially not when she had been hit with enough secrets for several lifetimes herself.

She pressed her left arm against her abdomen. The strings, the named sword, Yaga’s monstrous travelling hut…She guessed that the hut was, or contained, the Clocktower artifacts she’d felt in the forest. Still, one look at how that pile of metal and plants looked, or had looked in the past, had been enough to cure the girl of the wish to get any closer. It looked like it could bite her in two with its window blinds. Besides, if Yaga had been so vehement in protecting this place from the Clocktower, it might be wise to stay away until she figured out what the thing inside her actually did. Yet even though she had questions she couldn’t answer, perhaps she could answer some of Lhoth’s.

“Crystallo Stella? All the way in the Rising West, I think. I recommend packing well.” Nina carefully spoke. She sat down, holding her head. “I owe you immensely, but I don’t think I can join you just yet, Lhoth. Not past the first or second split of a main road.” Her lips felt dry as she spoke. “I’m expected all the way in the other direction, in Mageside.”

Back to being played on strings, back to a game that she didn’t understand. A game that she started to doubt that anyone alive fully understood.

“Would love to meet again someday.” She smiled. It was strange to hear being referred as a friend by someone she barely knew. But then again…can there be another term once you’ve shared your soul with someone? “Would love to meet again.”

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  Lhoth bowed out of respect to Nina, as he smiled back at her he calmly replied back, "I would like that very much as well, you've been courageous to travel out here. Please know you're welcome back to these woods anytime, the woods will welcome you because I showed you their tribute pricce. Remember it well if you ever need safe passage through a forest." Lhoth said matter-of-factly, as he didn't seem bothered by his usual behavior.

  Lhoth realized it looked very strange from Nina's perspective that he'd been here fortuitously enough. Walking over to her, he shook her hand with a nod, "Safe travel's to you Nina, be welcome back anytime. I can cook you tea when you find my home." Lhoth accepted that Nina had her own path to dedicate herself to, like he did - besides his skill tree was literally that much different.

  In his mind Lhoth began to think about what he would need for such a long journey to Crystallo Stella, "Anything that I should worry about along the way?" Holding his walking stick Lhoth had gained power from the tree as a blessing without having to be judged for it per protocol. Looking over to the tree carefully he intended to lay a guardian spell in these woods to protect against demons, and others. Looking back over to Nina he was concerned for her well being, but knew she was competant enough to make it out this far.

  Before leaving, Lhoth wished her well then went home back to his finely crafted hut in the middle of the woods, near a lake. Lhoth set his walking stick aside, and went home turning his lamp on as he did. Knowingly Lhoth grabbed all the things he would need to head west, all the while hoping he met Nina again at some point.

End Thread.

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