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Gnarcheon's Festival at the Grove of Needles

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Qwydeon Albyr SYNCATH VY 237 (June 3rd)

No matter from what direction one enters, the vast forest is dense with deciduous and conifers. It is a healthy forest that stretches from the edge of the Tortured Lands, skirting the Wasteland of Archea, to roll to the northern sea and west all the way to the Dale of Wolves, stopping within a score of leagues of the Ghoul Swamp in the north.

This vast tract of unnamed wilderness is home to the Dale Gnomes, the Wildlanders, the City State of Kurr, the Citadel of Gholan, and uncountable tribes of various gargun. It holds the memories of scores of ancient peoples and conflicts. It further supports outlaying lands such as Rhohannus and D’Flewn, and across Feather Gap is the imposing Fortress of Durhain, which sits upon the waters of the northern sea, halfway between Rhohannus and New Jarla.

Although many believe that the venerable forest, having been home to so many for eons, is a well known geography, she holds secrets still from the masses.

One of these secrets is deep within the thickest part of the forest, in an area where great sycamores and sequoias squeeze in close to giant cypress and enormous pines as if to better enjoy each other’s company.

This part of the mighty forest is under a perpetual cloud; it rains daily here, often in such a deluge the likes of which would scatter lesser trees. But these giants drink greedily of the rain waters, and if man could penetrate this place, he would see that the ground is always dry, even while the rain yet falls. But man cannot penetrate here; this primal place has many defenses against the intrusion of man, from the dense trees themselves, many of whom are sentient and some of whom are apt to walk about, to a thick, thorny undergrowth, and the land herself, which is never calm and even, but seems to have birthed this place in a fit of upheaval.

Scree-strewn hills jut up abruptly and fall away just as suddenly leaving broad chasms to be crossed. Sharp, rocky teeth wait at the bottom of these chasms to chew any so unfortunate as to fall from the few spans of height…sufficient to kill anyone foolish enough to seek entry. And there are the magics that in subtle ways turn away the particularly obstinate.

If the rains were to relent, and the winds abate, a crow could fly over this denser-than-dense part of the northern wood in less time than it takes for Kossuth to mount the sky. Such an opportunity rarely presents itself to any crow, but at times the sun shines down upon the canopy of trees managing to barely penetrate unto the forest floor.

When these crows traverse this inhospitable wood, they might espy near its center a small mote of grassy meadow, half a score acres at most. At the center of these few acres is a splendid ring of resilient soft-needled white pine. These pleasant pine trees sit in a perfect circle that is about a bow-shot in diameter, and have sat thus since before humans entered the greater forest. Their soft needles have over the centuries carpeted the little circle across which that they stare at each other, and no sentient foot has ever trod upon them without Mahiya’s blessing, for it is only such as these as can navigate the uninviting wood that surrounds this place, and it is only such as these that the wood knows, and allows entry.

This is the Grove of Needles, and on this day every year meets the council of Gnarcheon to plot the north woods’ annual celebration of Long Summer’s Day.

She looked out over the grey, ash laden wasteland. Nothing grew here. Nothing lived here. Nothing except the children of The Nameless Void and it’s first born, Zyxu Archeon. The edge of the wasteland of Archea was rimmed with black skeletal remains of trees and the twisted and gnarled tendrils of bushes. She could sense their thirst for life as they futilely reached for her. They reached not to enjoy life but rather to drink it in offer to the Void. The once beautiful and lush forest that prospered here had been mostly consumed but what little had remained was changed into perverse, life-hungry shells of what they once were. They were aberrations and insults to all she held dear. They mocked Mahiya and the natural world. Cailyder looked across the expanse trying to see the Three Towers of Zyxu but her vision could not penetrate the dust.

Gripping her sickles tight she breathed deep and crinkled her brow in an angry sadness. A snort of derision blew out of her boar, Grubar. Never one to be overshadowed, Koth, her wolverine, growled in ominous warning. “Be still my children.” The vigilant hybsil replied, “Our time of retribution will come. The Blood Tear has arrived and soon we will vanquish the enemies of Mahiya.”

The light and familiar voice of one of her “fronds” as she liked to call them asked from behind her, “Grenvardaien, are you ready for the journey to the meeting?” Cailyder glanced back and nodded. “Are you, my frond Sharrewn?” she asked knowing the answer. She pulled five berries of her Vallenbrush from her belt admiring their significance. “Our time of retribution will come.” she whispered.

It was true, Eswarth realized once again, that nothing happened truly by coincidence. The centaur had been a follower of Mahiya since he was very young, and being a Divine Soldier was what gave his life meaning, gave his bow range, and gave his great sword its vengeful wrath. Nerlander, his erstwhile companion, was similarly blessed and bore the symbol of mahiya in his deep, intelligent eyes.

Eswarth and Nerlander had received Shankaria’s rabbit only a day before they had  planned to start their leisurely journey  to the Grove of Needles, and a good thing too. Had not the Torquanic sent the bounding messenger, then Eswarth and Nerlander would have arrived at the Grove of Needles without their Vallenbrush berries.

And it was their path towards the Vallenbrush that had spontaneously placed them in the path of the necromancer Quetztochal.

The necromancer himself had been their most formidable foe this day. In many seasons, in fact. Eswarth and Nerlander had known at the outset that this was no ordinary cabal of ghouls and such. It was too near the Tower of the Damned, and at the same time too near Redstone to be anything but an army manufactory. A place to manufacture a legion of undead, and that was something that Eswarth and Nerlander could not allow.

Neither of Mahiya’s crusaders emerged from this fray unscathed; they had contrived to divide the targets such that Nerlander would engage the foul necromancer Quetztochal while Eswarth held the attention of what by that time remained of the small undead army.

Eswarth, for his part, now bore heavy, deep lacerations about his hindquarters, having been cut near to ribbons by the unnaturally sharp and poisoned talons of the harpies, they themselves made undead by the foul powers of the now-late necromancer Quetztochal.

Stealthy Nerlander managed to ambush Quetztochal himself, and had split the foul death priest in parts. The dire cougar’s great maw was more than adequate once he had gotten to the priest. Nerlander’s fur was now laden with hoar frost, and were it not for Mahiya’s blessings upon her two warrior priests – Her Ghrunvedling – the two companions would now member among the ranks of the undead themselves.

But this was not the first time that the two friends had done battle against the denizens of the Ghoul Swamp, and neither would it be the last. A prayer to Istisha brought loving healing first to Nerlander and then to Eswarth, and a fervent prayer to Kossuth brought a great mystical bonfire into being in the swamp. Such fire was the best way to ensure that the undead went back to being dead, and that any secret phylactery of the necromancer’s went unused. Eswarth and Nerlander remained vigilant until the last of Quetztochal’s ashes were airborne and harmless. They then burned thoroughly the remains of the undead harpies, ghouls, skeletons, and vampire lieutenants. None escaped the fire.

Satisfied with their work – work which had taken them days to accomplish – Eswarth and Nerlander turned their mind and feet southerly. It would take them the better part of the remaining days to get to the Grove of Needles, and this year it was far more important than it had been in years past that they not be either late or missing entirely. They were at current late, however. It could not have been prevented, as it would simply not do to leave Quetztochal to build his army in the tail of the blood tear, as it were. Still, centaur and dire cougar would be running to their utmost to arrive at the Grove of Needles before the Gnarcheon were departing and the Chankathur might start their own meeting. They had but two days ahead of them; sleep would wait.

And after, a thorough search for any magics that might bring Quetztochal or his armies back again.

Mirriam flitted along through the forest in seeming capricious fashion while Flitter, his colorful kestrel friend, flew along with him: a bit above and a bit behind the sprite. The two were on a mission of utmost criticality before they swifted along to the Grove of Needles for the Long Night celebration.

They came along to the mushroom field, in the middle of which was a small cave – a tiny cave by most standards – that they disappeared into. Flitter only entered the little cave, and she had to hop along into the mouth of the cave, as flying was not an option for her.

Mirriam was a far more agile flyer, though, and his wings weren’t as demanding as Flitter’s were. The sprite flew deep along the narrow passage of the cave, down to the subterranean mushroom grove that Kaltya had supplied for him, much as she had for the field above. They were mystical mushrooms here, and served several purposes, from deflecting curious investigators to proofing the small grove from attempts to magically locate it. In truth, this was not the first line of defense for the small Vallenbrush that Mirriam was warden over (Chankathur was a high honor bestowed upon the lively sprite in addition to his status as Sho-Atraliar…Mahiya’s child).

He set himself down amid the mushrooms, some of which puffed a magical spore for him and him alone. This spore was an activator that, when mixed with his Song, would open the portal and afford him access to the little Vallenbrush to which he was bonded. The brush had long since been hidden away from the rest of the world as a matter of necessity.

The atmosphere started to become heavy with the magical spore, and Mirriam began to sing. Low (as Sprites go) at first, then joined by a music that he generated by rubbing his diaphanous wings together. His music tripped and lilted as he sang the ancient song of the Brownies – the Song of the Hidden.

Although the music filled the small grove, it did not resonate along the entry tunnel, nor did it reach the forest above. But inside, the mushrooms awoke and came to sentience and joined in the song, adding a soft luminescence and the occasional puff of colored spores at just the right time.

It was not long before the portal opened and Mirriam was allowed access to the Vallenbrush. When the portal opened, the Brush that was hidden there lent its ancient part to the song that filled the grove. Mirriam was always left with tears in his eyes when the Vallenbrush joined his songs. The brush’s voice was the foundation of life for him; it was ancient, and wise, penetrating and enveloping. It was love, guidance, mentorship, and affection all together. And it was so much more.

Wings rubbing, voice trebling, eyes welling, Mirriam greeted the Vallenbrush and told in his song the need for berries. The Vallenbrush already knew, of course…it always already knew.

Mirriam reached through the portal and five tiny, perfect, red berries were deposited gently in his small hands. The five filled his hands completely; he was glad to have Flitter’s help to bear them to the Grove of Needles.

Their task complete, Mirriam’s heart embraced the soul of the hiding Vallenbrush, and he withdrew, knowing a mother’s complete love for her child. He stopped his song, and slowly the mushrooms stopped their puffing and glowing and the portal slowly closed as it had so many times these past decades. Presently the grove was nothing more than a grove once again.

He and Flitter needed to be getting along to the Grove of Needles. This would be no ordinary celebration.

The humans called them Druid. The savage gnomes to the west: Gnarcheon. To the wee fey they were Sho-Atraliar, and the Centaurs called them Ghrunvedling. In Kaltya’s dialect of the sylvan tongue she was Fra Shathor: a child and soldier of Mahiya. This was the greatest calling and honor for Kaltya, but in addition she was the Lady of the Spore, and while not Chankathur herself, she had close ties to those honored soldiers and she knew that something was different this year as the celebration at the Grove of Needles drew near.

In the three days prior to the day of the festival, each of the Chankathur had spoken with their respective Vallenbrush plants and had each of them received the gift of five berries – one for Mahiya Herself, and one for each of Her divine children.

It was a truth for Kaltya that what one mushroom knows, all mushrooms know. And she, the Lady of the Spore, would come to know what the mushrooms knew. And as her mushrooms were part of the defenses of each of the Vallenbrush plants, they whispered to her over these last days as the berries had been bestowed upon the Chankathur.

Why this had come to pass, she could only guess, but given that the Blood Tear had stained the sky, Kaltya knew that momentous stirrings were afoot.

Now, in the pre-dawn of the morning of the Festival, as she lay not-quite-sleeping on her bed of mushrooms they whispered her to full awake: “The first one comes.”

She smiled at the knowledge: one of her brethren had entered the thick northern forest en route to the Grove of Needles. She wondered who, exactly, the early comer would be this year.

She stretched a satisfying stretch and melted into her fungal bed. The dryad’s union with the fungal world allowed her to move instantly between clusters of mushrooms, and this gift she used to travel to the Grove of Needles to greet this morning, as she did every year.

She would busy herself in greeting the celebrants and in setting up the bonfires that would light the festival. One to each point of the compass within the Ring, and one in the middle; all in perfect balance, as Mahiya herself was. The fires that would be lit tonight would reflect each of the divinities: Istisha’s fire would burn green while Akadi’s would burn blue. Grumbar enjoyed a fire that burned a fluid sort of light brown while Kossuth’s blaze, like the great orb at sunrise and sunset burned a deep orange fringed with yellow and red. Mahiya’s fire, central to the concentric rings of forest, white pine, and divine fires, burned white with tongues that flickered in the colors of her children.

And she would wonder which of her Fra Shathor family would be first to show.


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