It was the eve of ceremony. My compatriots and I camped on the border of the forest that is home to the Temple of Sylvanas, mere miles away from the altar, the site of the ritual, that we were to protect. We were in possession of all the requisite ritual components, including the First Seed, our edge against the Green Circle corruptors.
It was time to craft a plan.
We could reasonably assume the rite would be attended by devout Sylvanians, Chawntaeans, as well as celebrants from all walks of life, and of course, the Green Circle. We would have to infiltrate the festivities, and displace the ritualists, without causing undue harm to the genuine worshippers, and try to avoid widespread alarm.
Father Sindaron provided us with the layout of the temple grounds, which wove in and around the roots and trunk of the First Tree, and sprawled outward in gated paths that would ultimately dwindle in the thick forest. The ritual itself was to take place underground, in the sanctuary of her roots.
Perhaps, Miss Linny posited, Gaspard could be used as a distraction. Maybe lead the Green Circle into an ambush, as raised by the Rushmore trainees. Maybe one of our initiates could set up the ambush, with word of the seed itself. Father Sindaron suggested infiltrating the temple by air, which did not sit well with Miss Linny – by ground was more her style. Maybe we could even the odds by compelling the Green Circle to speak the truth, to all gathered.
We could, of course, combine our strategies. With our varied talents and resources, it was decided.
Everyone was woken well before first light. Students were outfitted and armed with simple daggers, bows and staves, and formed earnest, if mismatched, ranks behind Miss Jax and Taman. Miss Linny, Edith, and Father Sindaron were ready to sneak into the compound, the slightly uncomfortable looking priest to be polymorphed by the elder Elderthorn.
Gaspar … took a tongue-lashing from Jax as he failed to comprehend his instructions, and she had to remind him of his role. We wouldn’t rest too much of our hopes on his performance.
And for myself, I went alone to the south, disguised, as much as I could, as a simple celebrant, to gauge the crowd, and sow seeds of discord, if possible.
It was time. The fate of magic in Tearn, if not the world, was at stake. Three badgers dove into the underbrush. Jax took the bag of components, and the Braunsteiners to the north road. And I went south.
Jax and Taman stationed the initiates within the forest, at the edge of the temple clearing. Gaspar was sent on ahead, and they waited in silence as dawn broke, and celebrants began to appear from the north road, including a pilgrammage of Chawntean priests, struggling in the forest growth.
I was not prepared for the beauty of the temple. I had grown accustomed to gargantuan trees in the thick of the forest, and perhaps anticipating this, the Sylvanian caretakers kept a solid, half-mile cleared to mere brush. The First Tree herself was centred in this sudden clearing, rising, reaching into the sky, towering above everything. The temple grounds sprawled out from the Tree’s trunk, as I grew closer. Elegant iron fences and gates protected the sanctity of the temple, appearing as if grown from vines, and then transmutated to iron. The temple grounds were awash in the greens and browns and golds of Firstmas, with coils of leather strung with signs of Sylvanas, Chawntea, and small packages strewn amongst the temple’s smaller, narrow trees, and reaching to the temple herself. I barely recall passing through the gates, awkwardly stammering greetings to the guards on duty, under the majesty of the temple, with carved wooden staircases spiralling up the tree herself, and down in amongst the gargantuan, knobbed roots of the tree.
On the other side of the gate, I found myself in a crowd of celebrants, in a festival of life. Tents were arrayed for craftsmen to show and hawk their wares, idols and charms inspired by Firstmas, and vendors of food and drink and choruses of Firstmas song. I greeted the other visitors with Firstmas cheer, and received it in kind. I spoke to a group of Chawntean celebrants, led by a young man named Acorn, asking if they had heard of the Green Circle’s presence, and warning them to be wary of trouble.
Miss Linny, her sister Edith, and Father Sindaron burrowed through the earth, pausing in the small tunnel they’d created, nestled in the roots of the great tree, mere inches from the great inner cavern, to the sound of reverent chanting. Our companions prepared their assault, and burst through the earthen wall.
The inner chamber, the altar room, blazed with light from a ring of burning braziers, and the room suddenly pulsed with vigor, grasses and moss sprouting from the floor and walls, reacting to the presence of the seed that Miss Linny carried. The chamber was guarded by pairs of Green Circle guards, and around the altar itself were chanting druids of Sylvanas. A small, severe woman with purple hair, crowned with twigs, and her compatriots. Dear Miss Linny, no patience for games with the fate of magic at stake, launched into the group assembled by calling lightning, into the depths of the earth. Lightning, knowing what is good for it, obliged. A number of druids fell to its strike.
The small woman addressed Miss Edith personally, raising surprise and consternation from Miss Linny and Sindaron. She inroduced herself as Priscilla, and wondered what the small group was doing, in the deep altar chambers with the First Seed. Miss Linny threatened her with the combined armies of Braunstein and certain Teanynians, but Priscilla disappeared through the chamber’s floor, leaving the guards to handle the interlopers, our friends.
Miss Linny and Edith assaulted the guards with thunder and ice, pummeling the guards, and pushing them back against the wall, braziers flickering wildly, a number falling dark. The room grew quiet, wild grass growing tall around the seedbearer. Settling in to the altar room, Miss Linny and Father Sindaron set a ward to alarm them should anyone return to them.
The central platform on the tree-trunk temple was eventually claimed by a womman in a white dress with gold and green ribbons. The crowd grew silent, and she introduced herself as Ainora, the church’s matriarch. She announced that the ritual was being prepared successfully, and that the ritual itself would procede as scheduled, with mages sharing the ceremony via illusory projections. Seeking to rattle the corrupt among the Sylvanian priests, I yelled for news of the Chawntean portion of the ritual. A soft mutter spread through the crowd. The priestess looked stunned, and started to recover, stating that the Chawntean priests were on their way. The rest of her speech grew quiet, as she wished the celebrants well.
As you’ll recall, Jax and Taman had arranged themselves and some of their best students in the forest north of the temple, along the northern trail. Amira, Edan, and Helga had climbed into the trees to watch and wait in ambush.
They remained quiet as visitors traipsed through the forest, intent on making the Firstmas celebration. Eventually, they heard a pair of familiar voices, Miss Lydia berating Gaspar for his betrayal, and the murmer of other, less familiar tones. The bait had been taken. They entered the forest.
Edan loosed an arrow from above, planting solidly in Lydia’s chest, her face freezing in surprise, sinewy vines sprouting from the ground below, holding her fast. She called to draw out her attackers.
She got her wish. Amira slipped from the trees behind her, and before anyone could react, slid her dagger across her neck. Lydia slipped to the ground wordlessly.
The patrol of Green Circle guards were obliterated in the wake of the horror of losing their leader. Taman, Jax, Helga, Gaspar, Kyle and Evandyr eliminating all but one of the guards. Our companions left Gaspar and the students to dispose of the bodies.
Jax and Amira were tasked with getting the components to Miss Linny as quick as possible. Taman, Helga and Edan would infiltrate the temple from the west, assess the situation and then also join the rest in the temple. They approached the north gate, announced their presence, and their intention to stop the Green Circle. That got the guard’s attention, and he sent away for instructions.
In his place returned a troop of Sylvanian guards, led by a bronze-skinned woman in leather armour and a green cloak. She identified our friends as Braunsteiners, and introduced herself as Cathora, and dismissed Taman from the temple with the threat of violence. Our partners withdrew from the gate to try another approach, leaving a pair of arrow traps behind, should Cathora follow.
I was drifting through the grounds, watching the temple for the Green Circle, and the gates, for my companions. A contingent of Chawntean followers caught my attention, and I in turn grabbed theirs, informing them that the Green Circle had it’s talons in the Sylvanian worshippers, and suggesting that we make haste to the inner chambers. Bishop Lenora saw the value of the information I provided, and agreed to hurry to the ceremonial chambers.
Jax and Amira ran through the open gate, and then adopted a casual saunter, before any guards noted their presence, and seeing me, followed our procession into the temple.
After descending through twisting staircases, we found ourselves in the receiving room, deep beneath the services. Bishop Lenora introduced herself, but was dismissed by one of Ainora’s guards, she would send for them later. I, perhaps out of turn, defended their right to be present in the ritual’s preparations. My gambit withstood a brief interrogation, and as the guard stalled, I pushed the Chawteans’ role in balancing the ceremony. Ultimately, the guard agreed to lead the Chawnteans to the inner chamber themselves, as something of a compromise.
The boom and crackle of thunder echoed in the passage before us.
In the altar room ahead of us, Miss Linny, Edith, and Father Sindaron continued their watch, holding the altar room in wait. The earth below them pulled apart, and Priscilla along with Ainora emerged from the ground, faces grim. As Ainora began to introduce herself, Miss Linny dismissed the pair, as they were unnecessary to complete the ritual in its traditional, uncorrupt, form. And smugly reminded them that she had a distinct advantage in the matter, the seed itself.
So she called lightning on the druids.
Ainora retreated to the altar, where Miss Linny heard her invoke Sylvanas, and beseech him for a champion to aid them. Miss Linny stuck the kneeling woman with her staff, desperate to prevent her summons. Ainora’s skin shimmered briefly, her prayer uninterrupted.
Priscilla commanded Edith to kill Miss Linny, which resulted in, a short laugh from Edith, as the geas failed.
Ainora, chanting, raised her hands upward, here eyes flickering bright green and then dark. Sylvanas did not answer her prayer. Her face fell.
Miss Linny took advantage of the situation, taking Ainora’s failure as a sign from Sylvanas that the traditional ritual was the right ritual. Ainora struggled with the relevation, and Miss Linny’s lecture, and agreed to compromise, to support the traditional ritual today, and discuss the role of change for, perhaps, the next year. We had won a reluctant ally.
Priscilla, on the other hand, remained unconvinced, and summoned a swarm of insects in the small room, biting and scratching at the occupants.
Outside, Cathora received some report, and ordered the north gate closed, withdrawing into the temple grounds. Music continued to play in the festivities, but the celebrants grew quieter with the movement of Green Circle patrols amidst their revelry.
Halfway between the North and Western gates, Edan saw that the West was also abandonned, and the gate remained open. They hurried toward it.
When they got inside, they saw Cathora’s guards disappear into one of the northern temple entrances. Taman, Helga and Edan rushed into the nearest entrance, hoping to beat them to the inner chambers.
The thrum of insects is what alerted us to our proximity to the room, and they prevented our entry. If Lenora and her entourage were not already convinced that the ritual was in jeopardy, they were now.
The Chawnteans had the presence of mind to call into the swarm. Only hearing muffled replies, Lenora raised a holy symbol, but the locusts continued to swarm. Our situation seemed grim, but Miss Linny’s voice cut through the horrid buzzing of the insects. She verified that Jax had the ritual components, and grew silent again. I suppose she was conferring with her attendants.
The Sylvanian guards had grown quiet. They nervously looked between themselves, and begged to take their leave. They seemed wholly unprepared to deal with the powers at play here.
Bishop Lenora was suddenly suspicious. How was I, and the two elven tagalongs, related to the voice in the altar chamber? I assured her that we were working together to ensure the property rite was cast, and that she, unlike the Green Circle stooges, was actually capable of completing it.
From the swarm of insects came a rush of wind, a small corridor between Miss Linny in the centre of the room, behind a large, glittering barrier, a small corridor free from the insects. She chirped at Jax to throw the components to her. Behind her, Sindaron and Edith were tending to their injuries, and the priestess Ainora concentrated on maintaining the barrier.
Shards of ice and snow ripped into the centre of the room, pelting Miss Linny even through the barrier. Jax ran through the corridor to Miss Linny, hitting the barrier solidly, before tossing the bag at the druid. They were ready to complete the ritual.
Miss Linny directed Jax, Amira, and myself to follow Priscilla, the purple haired Sylvanian and stop her from gathering forces to interupt the rite.
Amira loosed and arrow, clattering in the tunnel. I uttered a few words at the already fleeing woman, sending her into terror, and she fled in panic. Jax ran past me in the tunnel, running along the wall, magically aided, bow drawn. Her arrow stuck in Priscilla’s back, as the woman neared the bright tunnel exit
Priscilla ran into the crowd, Jax and Amira and I in tow. I released my spell, unclouding the woman’s mind from the nightmares I had summoned there, and she lashed out at me, with tendrils of vines. I called for her to give in, and Jax punctuated my sentiment with another arrow, putting an end to the druid’s resistance.
In the heart of the temple, Edith and Sindaron worked together to complete the ritual, consigning components to the holy flames. Ainora maintained the barrier, under Miss Linny’s watchful eye.
In the space of a breath, Taman and Helga burst into the chamber from one side, and Cathora and her entourage from another. Cathora was rebuked by Ainora, who explained that she was convinced that the changes to the ritual were untenable. Cathora’s eyes narrowed at her colleague, but Ainora did not back down. Cathora seemed moved by the other woman’s conviction, until she noticed Helga, and Taman, and Edan on the far side.
When Cathora voiced her objections, Miss Linny stepped in, explaining the events that had transpired in the chamber, and the need to move forward transparently, together. She defended her relationship with the Braunsteiners, telling Cathora of their accomplishments and heroism in the face of the dirty tactics of the Green Circle. Miss Linny expressed concern for Priscilla, who seemed motivated by darker designs, unable to see reason from her compatriot Ainora, and eventually, Cathora relaxed, and used her forces to bolster and protect the group completing the ritual.
In unison, father Sindaron and Miss Edith completed the last of the offerings and prayers to Sylvanas and Chawntea, the room brightening in radiant light centred on the seed. The seed itself rose into the cavern, flickering, flashing, and then dropping back to the ground.
It was done.
It was not done. Oh, the ritual was complete, but we had promised Ainora discussion. A chance for the Chawteans and the Sylvanians to come together and work out their differences. An opportunity to raise concerns, and actually address them.
We gathered in Ainora’s chambers, amidst the lower branches of the great tree. Her voice was filled with doubt. The conviction that had sustained her choice below had left her. She wished us well, seeing no reason to change her order’s intention in the future. This was her idea of a discussion.
We had not risked ourselves to protect the seed and the ritual to simply be debriefed with a promise of a return to the sentiments and actions that had led to the events of the day. We cited the history of successful balance, the duty to the followers of both deities as reasons not that the ritual should be preserved, but as reasons that the discussion, honouring both parties, should be preserved. It was important that both should commit to open communication with the other, not an easy task, to evaluate the rituals, and come to an arrangement that would respect the needs of the world at large, and the values of the faithful: Chawntean, Sylvanian and other worshippers.
Ainora seemed unconvinced, like a child who had indulged in a tantrum, and could not comprehend the reasons why the behaviour was discouraged.
I chastised her for her small-mindedness, offering her that her values could be discovered, not only in the remotest wildernesses, but even among the villages and cities that seemed at odds with her views.
Perhaps swayed, she held firm to her ideals, and suggested that even with a dialogue in place, her agents would still strive to buyout land and return it to an uninhabited state. Which earned her Miss Linny’s attention, who reminded her that the Green Circle’s shady tactics would not be suffered, and that Linny would keep watch to guarantee it.
Finally, of course, the First Seed could not be trusted in the hands of either party, while they proved unable to work in harmony. Responsibility for the seed then, had to lie in the hands of a capable third party, and that would be, by necessity, Miss Linny and her stalwart companions.
Betraying their mistrust, both Bishop Lenora and Ainora protested the solution, demanding the seed for themselves. Miss Linny pressed for the competence of her team, thwarting suggestions that a Tearnian official body could be neautral enough to be trusted to the task. No, all would have to be content with the seed in Miss Linny’s hands, and, as Taman suggested, accessible only through the concerted efforts of all three parties involved.
The terms were sufficient for Bishop Lenora, who withdrew from the discussion with a look of distaste on her face. Ainora expressed some displeasure, but allowed us to depart with the seed.
We collected our students, and returned to Braunstein as the keepers of the First Seed.