Arcanum - Of Steamwork and Magic Ch. 15

August 21 st , 1885

Here, the trip transformed -- as if by some ancient and unspoken magick -- from a hike across the wilderness to an evening outing in a fine park that seemed to never end. The weather remained warm and kindly, even during the deepest night, and never swung past the needle to blisteringly hot like in the Morbihan. But what truly made it marvelous was the wildlife and the wilderness itself. The brush was thick, yes, but it lacked thorns, and we weren't hounded by wolves, nor attacked by bears. And the trees!

That tree, it soon transpired, was one of the smaller of the great trees of the Glimmering. We could not measure some as we walked beneath their arched roots as if they were the arches in some primordial city constructed by agelessness gods. We could merely marvel at their size and feel impressed upon us the majesty of this place. It should have felt alarming, even frightening, to stride through such a vast place, to witness such immense scale. But instead, I merely felt at peace.

I admit, I left more than a few red marks upon the neck of Virginia when, mid march, she had coyly bent forward to 'examine' some handy rock or another. And usually, once Virginia was satiated and quivering, I was raring and ready for the others. It felt, faintly, as if we should have been ashamed of our wanton lusts -- but in the depths of the forest, it felt all too natural. Soon, we might pass a day or two without even putting on every scrap of clothing we had -- wearing only what was needed for comfort and proudly displaying what was left uncovered.

The position marked upon my atlas was, by far, the thickest portion of the forest that we had yet been in. The branches and leaves that spanned overhead formed a canopy so thick that only knife thin lines of sunlight escaped between, flickering and glimmering as the trees shifted in the breeze that blew through the forest. I admit that I spent a good five minutes checking the atlas, checking my compass, and doing some equations, scratched out on the dirt with a stick, before I was certain that we had, in fact, arrived.

I frowned and took another glance around...which was when I became aware of the elf watching us. He was, like all of his kin, tall and willowy. However, his skin was a dusky brown, almost the same hue as the bark he leaned against. That, plus his dark colored tunic and his light brown leggings and his leather shoes, made him nearly invisible against the bark of the immense tree that he was lounging against, arms crossed over his chest. His manner was entirely unfriendly, with flinty black eyes glittering in what little sunlight escaped the canopy. I could see that a light blade was hung from his belt, shrouded in a utilitarian scabbard of cured leather.

The elf stepped away from the tree. The motion made him visible to my companions, provoking gasps from Gillian, 'Magnus' and Virginia. Sally merely grunted quietly, her fists clenching.

Virginia growled, taking one step forward, her hand flashing to the hilt of her blade. "You will speak to sir with respect!" she said, bristling, but I held up my hand, stilling her tongue for the moment.

The elven guard shrugged one shoulder. I waited -- and as I waited, the breeze grew more pronounced. Leaves rustled and the great trees groaned faintly against their own immense weight. The silence continued onward, seeming utterly interminable. But elves, I knew, reckoned time in their own idiosyncratic way. Having centuries, if not millennia, to wile away in their own pursuits...why not spend an extra minute or two to test the local savage, eh? And so, to pass the time, I reviewed what experiments I wished to try next. Maybe something involving black powder -- my accelerator pistol needed so little compared to a more standard firearm. Maybe a properly shaped charge filled with shrapnel could serve to spice up the next shamble of zombies we ran into, eh?

I bowed to him, stiffly. "It will be my pleasure to teach you the joy in denial, sir," I said, my voice as dry as I could make it.

In its place stood a gloriously baroque archway of carved wood, leading into the hollow in the center of the tree. Shafts of light spilled down from some distant opening, illuminating a broad wooden basket, like one that might be hung beneath a simple hot air balloon. Stepping onto the basket, I felt the wicker wrapping that made up the floor sag only slightly, even under Sally Mead Mug's prodigious weight. Once we had all taken up our positions, the ropes connecting to the corners of the basket strained, then creaked, then lifted us upwards.

To call the elven tree-city beautiful would be accurate. So, too, would be to use the words 'terrifying' and 'alien.' There was not a single building that I could easily recognize, nor streets. Rather, there were a mixture of walkways made of wood and wicker that were strung between circular platforms that were braced on a semi-even ring of branches hat thrust from the apexes of the extremely tall trees that served as central axii around which the city grew. But those walkways were not the only method to traverse the city. I saw, too, lines strung between trees that elves slid along, using wooden sticks to spare their hands rope burn. But many others simply leaped from platform to platform, skipping across branches as if they were stones in a shallow creek and they wished to avoid wetting their feet, rather than foot-wide strips of safety poised above a plunge nearly seven hundred feet straight down to the forest floor.

Standing near us on the platform was an elven male. His bare arms were covered in winding tattoos and his hair had been allowed to grow almost to the small of his back -- though he had tied it back into a severe ponytail. He was not looking at us. Rather, he was glowering at the forest floor as if it owed him...whatever it was the elves used for currency. If they did used anything for liquid currency. I walked forward, then coughed politely to try and get his attention. As a newcomer in this city, I'd need directions.

"Sir?" I asked.

"Greetings," I said, holding my hand out to him -- and damn formal reserve, I let my smile show. "My name is Rayburn Cog. I'm new to this city."

"Is that your name?" I asked, curiously.

"It is nearly eleven sharp, my good sir," I said.

"I beg your pardon?" I asked.

I thought I heard capital letters in that sentence where I would not expect them. I smiled, ever so slightly. "Pardon is your...friend?"

"You hunt?" I asked.

"For meat?" I asked.

"Tarant, actually," Gillian said, her voice full of Tarantian pride -- she would not stand to be mistaken for some Arlander upstart. Of course, Arland and her capital were significantly older than Tarant, but that made no never-mind to upper crust Tarantian aristocrats. Winde missed -- or ignored -- this nationalistic sentiment. Instead, he watched me -- and upon seeing the shake of my head, he sighed dejectedly.

I nodded. He marked it for me when I held it out, and then blinked at me when I chuckled. "Normally, I would offer to help," I said. Winde's face fell. I grinned at him. "But it seemed you made the assumption before I could."

"Ah, sir!" I said. "Wait, before you go. Who leads you here -- I need to speak to them of a matter of great import." I smiled at him.

"Bloody elves," 'Magnus' grumbled.

An elf...leading a dwarf. Both wore robes, and the dwarf's beard had been trimmed to keep itself neat. A glimpse of the elf's face beneath his hooded robes made me almost want to recoil -- I had grown used to seeing elves with merriment and amusement -- even if it was often at my expense. This elf looked as cruel and surly as Gilbert Bates if one had suggested blatant socialism to him. His lips were curled and his eyes narrowed and he stomped forward with a graceless thump thump thump. He also clearly cared little if the dwarf behind him was able to keep up -- and the dwarf did try, pushing himself to hurry up. This led to his near undoing: The dwarf tripped on his robes as the elf reached one of the wicker walkways. He stumbled, his arms flailing, and I darted forward, catching his elbow before the dwarf could go plunging down to the bottom of the forest.

"My thanks, good s-" the dwarf stopped, seeing my face.

The dwarf tossed his hood back to give me a better look at his face. He was youthful for a dwarf, with russet brown hair and bright purple eyes. He locked his hands together and let his robe sleeves cover them up in a rather monk-ish gesture, and bowed to me. "My thanks," he said, his voice somewhat more gruff and formal now. "My name is Jormund."

If there existed a better time to traverse the Hadrian pass and stride through the Glimmering Woods than August in the year 1885, I was sure that it had not come to Arcanum since the last Age of Wonders. I was concerned at first, when the Hadrian Pass turned out to be a treacherous crossing plagued by immense waterfalls and shifting, smoothed pathways of stone and gravel and scrubby brushes that survived the yearly floods that came with the thaw. But once we had traversed this pass without more than a single broken arm -- quickly set and healed by Virginia's magicks -- we entered into the vast, primeval reach of the Glimmerng.

Virginia marveled at them -- and I could hardly stop myself from doing the same. Gillian actually called us to a halt and we contrived a measuring device by using some rope and found that the tree we had stopped by was nearly ten yards in diameter. The only reason we did not contrive to measure the height of the tree was that the branches -- though large enough to hold aloft our tents and bedrolls with room to spare -- were easily fifteen feet above our grasp. Sally did make a go at clambering up to one of the lower, but upon seeing the way the bark stressed against her great weight, we called her back down.

That is not to say that we moved with lassitude. For...ah...there was another property about the Glimmering Forest that reminded me of a fine outing in a park during the warmth of an eternal summer. It was the curiously frisky energy that filled me and each of my fair companions. I noticed it first on the 11 th,, when Virginia had slipped from my tent, still dripping faintly with the seed I had emptied into her, only for her form to be replaced by the already naked form of Gillian! But that was merely the start -- the next few days, our progress stalled nearly to a standstill as the wild freedom of the forest impressed itself upon us and we made love -- often with a frantic, feral edge.

But, at last, on the 21st of August, with the waning of Summer and a slow fading of our passions, we Quintarra.

"Where is it?" Sally asked.

I snapped my compass shut, pocketing it, and raised my right hand in greetings. "Hail," I said. "Is this by any chance the city of Quintarra?"

"It may be. It may not, Orc." The elf's words were as harsh and unwelcoming as his eyes.

"We come in peace," I said, bowing my head to the elf. "To speak with the leader of your people about a matter of grave import. The Black Mountain Dwarves -- have you heard of them?"

Dogmeat, seeming to sense the growing tension, padded forward to stand at my hip. He growled at the elf, but I reached down to tousle his fur, then scritch behind his ear. Dogmeat loved the attention, and soon lost interest in growling at the elf -- who smiled ever so thinly at me. "I have not heard of any Black Mountain Clan, nor know why you may wish to speak with any leaders here..." He said. "But elven law allows passage into the sacred tree-city. Even your kind." He looked me over, his hand drifting to his blade. "Know, orc, that I sincerely hope that you give me the excuse needed to remove you. Orc."

The elf smirked at me -- his expression entirely readable: Oh, I need only bide my time. Well. I intended to make even an elf's patience grow strained and frayed waiting to see me lose my temper within this city. Spite alone could hold my tongue where common sense might have failed in the face of these prigs. But as I made that resolution, the elven guard turned to the tree he had been standing before. Magick flared -- the green and brown colors of the school of nature -- and the bark I had thought was so very solid flowed aside as if it were water.

We were ascending -- accelerating faster and faster. Knotholes in the tree were open, to allow fresh air and light to shine into trunk. Those flashed by, like the lights in the pneumatic subway back in Tarant. The lights flickered more and more, as if we were sitting in a kinematograph's projection booth. Then, with shocking suddenness, the basket came to a halt. And yet there was no jolt, no jarring of movement, nothing but a sudden sense of arrival. Curtains drew aside and let yet more light spill into the wooden chamber we stood in -- the walls themselves decorated with geometric patterns and elegant whirls and whorls of carved wood -- and I stepped forward into the city of Quintarra proper.

The buildings were primarily situated either on the circular platforms that surrounded the city's main trees or suspended on cables and ropes between trees, swaying with the breeze and with the motion of the trees. Those suspended structures had elves perched on them, lounging upon the roofs or the canted walls, rocking in time with the movement of their abodes. They lounged underneath the sun, spoke to one another, or simply sat and looked outwards or even downwards towards the forest floor. Above the canopy, the sun beat down hard enough that it nearly negated the stiff breeze that tried to wick away the heat as soon as it reached us -- and the sky was utterly cloudless. I tried to imagine what this city looked like in a storm and shuddered.

He did not glance my way.

"Oh?" He turned to face me. Rather than the immediate dislike I expected, I saw instead a faint look of distraction. He reminded me so much of an absent minded librarian that I found it hard to not smile at him. "Yes? Hello?"

He took my hand, shaking it. "Winde," he said.

He blinked slowly. "Oh, yes, forgive me. I'm rather distracted. Do you happen to know the hour?" he asked, craning his head back, looking at the heavens. I pulled my pocketwatch from my pocket and checked.

"Oh, no, Sharpe is the alchemist," he said.

Winde smiled at me. "That is the issue -- there's no Pardon to beg."

"My..." He paused. "What is the human term? Apprentice." He nodded. "I am the master of hunters for this city."

Winde inclined his head. "Quite well."

Winde chuckled. "Elves are not merely plant eaters. But we do not need much meat -- no more than the forest can give. But the issue is that I sent Pardon out, eh..." He paused. "Well, quite some time ago. Did you see any elves while heading here from..." he looked me over. "Caladon?"

"I'm afraid, then," he said. "Pardon was hunting near the dark fens. Do you have a map?"

"Oh." Winde looked crestfallen. "I thought any outlanders that came to Quintarra were looking for this kind of task. Ah well." He started to walk away. I held up my hand.

Winde looked at me curiously, then shrugged. "I'm afraid I don't quite know," he said. And before I could ask him how he could very well not, he stepped up to the edge of the platform which I only just now realized lacked any kind of railing. He then leaped forward, his lithe body carrying the distance with the aplomb of a skilled athlete. He landed on a branch nearly ten yards below us, sprang upwards like his legs were springs, and landed on one of the suspended buildings.

"Quite," I said, memories of Mryth floating in my mind.

Wandering about Quintarra provoked similar encounters -- though none going quite so far as to enlist me in a quest without so much as a by your leave. Instead, it was more repetitions of Winde's evasiveness. Elves laughed at my questions about who led their city, often responding enigmatically, or not at all. And sometimes, when the answers seemed direct, they were anything but. I was sent to a tree that held not a single elf on it after being told that their leader was there, surely. By the time the evening started to set, I and my companions were all quite tired and we were quite ready for elves to stop being so...elvish. However, while hunting for a place to stay, all of us bore witness to something quite remarkable.

The elf cared not a whit -- he kept walking.

I grinned at him. "Think nothing of it, good dwarf," I said, helping him back to a more central part of the platform. About me, I saw several elves nodding slightly. What was more, one stepped away from the pair of us. I hadn't even seen her starting forward...but it was a relief to see that most elves would have lifted a hand to keep this poor fellow from exploring the forest floor up close and personally.