CHAPTER FORTY SIX
Kythorn 23 1277, Year of the Beholder, the Great Forest of Tethyr
Cautiously, so as not to disrupt the steady throbbing of the green veins under his ethereal feet, the elven mage sidestepped an intermediate lode and continued his travel up the stem. His sense of direction was almost worthless here, as were many of his other senses. While in the Prime he used his eyes, and to a lesser extent his ears, to guide his path, whereas here, in the heart of the Old Man’s dream, navigation was primarily achieved by taste, scent and touch – specifically, by tasting the strange currents and eddies and through their fine bouquet of smells – the deep and slow pulsing of life underlying everything. In this particular Dreamscape things grew and flowed rather than walked or climbed, yet the mage was able to maneuver his astral form around with little difficulty. He simply allowed himself to be carried along by the suitable currents, mentally resisting and moving against the flow when it threatened to take him the way he did not wish to go.
Myriads of identical glowing lines ran parallel to his chosen path, joining and interlacing with each other all the way to the epicenter – the great plexus of pulsing energies that was the seat of the great Arakhor’s pseudo-intellect. A feather-light touch at the periphery of this incredibly complicated knot of capillaries and nodes was enough to send the visitor’s mind into frantic palpitation. Back on the Material Plane this grand corona was the focus of the Old Man’s power – the engine that processed and redistributed the life energy of the entire Great Forest of Tethyr, and that of all other forests in the region, which were the remnants of the ancient Forest of Keltormir. Here inside the Dreamscape, it was a brightly glowing magical projection of the real thing, rendered visible by the Old Man’s continuous dreaming.
The People had named the grand Arakhor of Suldanessellar the Tree of Life – and the ancient treant was truly worthy of this title, for not only was he one of the eldest remaining members of his near-extinct race on Toril, but if one believed the legends, the Old Man’s covenant with the Seldarine had granted him direct access to the magic energies of the elven paradise – the Plane of Arvandor. According to Suldanessellar’s mythos, it was the Tree’s direct link to Arvandor that helped him maintain one of the last significant manifestations of high elven magic this side of the Trackless Sea – Suldanessellar’s mythal. And today, all that enormous power lay at the tips of Joneleth’s ghostly fingers; in fact, all it would have taken to examine it closely, would be to raise his hands and slowly start unraveling the faint web of glowing ley-lines. And since the Demiplane of the Old Man’s dreams lay so close to the Heart of Dreams, it was plausible that a conduit of power attained here would remain useable back in the Material Plane.
But as soon as his mind registered the errant thought, the spellbound elf pulled away from the dream, quickly sliding along the silvery arc of his reverie: first through the swirling gate of rainbow colors that brought him out of the Plane of Dreams and into the Astral Plane, then through the bright silver pool leading back to the Prime, where he was finally able to break the contact with the Tree. Stirring the threads of the mythal would have been a serious violation of the unspoken code of conduct between him and the Arakhor, not to mention a deadly dangerous feat for the mortal mind unused to handling so much raw magic. And with all his insatiable curiosity and ever-burning desire to test the limits of his substantial arcane abilities, Joneleth was no fool. The temptation was almost too great, but on this occasion he had found the will to resist it.
No, there was no need to alarm the Tree with such foolishness. Especially since today’s trip into the network of energy lines had taken the elf deeper than he had ever been permitted before, allowing him to finally catch sight of the very foundation of the Old Man’s sylvan powers. The merest glimpse of the Arakhor’s coronal plexus intertwined with the mythal had made the mage’s head spin, and yet he had almost been able to sense the inner logic of the layout. No spell cast from the Material Plane, however sophisticated and refined, had helped him see the threads of the mythal as clearly as the Old Man saw them in his ever-lasting dream. If only he could have allowed himself to stay a little longer… Jon was sure he could have understood the intricacies of the arrangement.
Snapping his eyes open and hissing in frustration over his panicky retreat, Joneleth tried to take control of his numbed limbs, and winced at the pain in the base of his skull that flared excruciatingly every time he tilted his head to one side just a little. He was certain that on top of his annoyance over the missed opportunity to understand the pattern of the ley-lines, the exercise would cost him a few days of throbbing headaches, as always after such sessions his mind would have to re-adjust to its normal size, as well as to his reacquired mobility, (blending one’s mind with that of an elder treant was a precarious business, as afterwards one tended to forget that he possessed feet instead of roots). Still, the experience was worth it.
Joneleth had never been entirely sure of what it was that he wanted from the Old Man. The Tree of Life had been a natural mystery that had challenged him by the mere fact of its existence, and unlike many in Suldanessellar he had never been especially awed by the religious significance of the mythal and its guardian. His abrupt decision to cancel his move to Evermeet, where he had once intended to enter an apprenticeship with a High mage, had brought about decades of personal happiness and exalted romance with the most beautiful and desirable woman to ever walk the lands of Faerun. But under many layers of romantic bliss lay quiet uncertainty.
How much arcane power had he given up with that choice? How many unsolved mysteries would he leave behind when his time on Toril would be over, and it would be his hour to depart to the eternal groves of Arvandor? The Tree of Life was a guardian of one such mystery. The mythal spell was supposed to be a crown jewel in the arcane tiara of an accomplished High mage, as its casting was a death penalty to the daring elf – a willing sacrifice that very few of the elder archmages had ever had the courage to offer to the People. Trying to uncover the secret of mythals on his own, without centuries-long training under the watchful tutelage of an elderly adept was madness, and still, the Queen’s ambitious lover could not stop himself from thinking about it. What’s more, the Tree of Life was always Ellesime’s domain... and from the start Joneleth had been strongly motivated by his burning desire to get closer to his Queen by sharing her link. But for some reason, he had never told her of his attempts to contact the Tree, always pledging to do it later, at a more convenient time. Yet regardless of his original plans, once the connection had been established his secret association with the Tree had become a symbol of his strength, maintained as a proof of his personal worth, so it had become an imperative to keep it hidden.
It had all began a few decades after his return to Suldanessellar and settling in the Royal Palace. Driven by insatiable curiosity, Jon had searched for every scrap of information, however implausible, on the Old Man and Suldanessellar’s mythal, looking particularly for anything written by those who had communed with the Tree. Acting on the hints he had found, he had created and refined a number of magical techniques for the express purpose of reliably making a contact.
Firstly, he had gone through the complex exercises of calming his mind and preparing his neural paths for the connection with a greater mind of a demi-god. Then he had tried entering the minds of trees and smaller sylvan beings: like dryads, satyrs, and lesser treants. But breaking into their fragile minds with his spells had felt almost like using fire and steel to control the flow of tree sap. His magic was strong, perhaps too strong to be used safely on a living creature, but not of the kind that was required for such a task. Joneleth was no druid, and his methods of mind-control lacked the subtlety of a true sylvan cleric. When he had finally admitted the fact to himself, his envy of Ellesime’s innate talent had flared into an almost childish tantrum. After his anger had subsided, he had been forced to stop those experiments and look in a different direction.
It was by pure coincidence that he had uncovered the journal of a long-departed priestess of Sehanine Moonbow, who had dabbled in arcane magic on top of her clerical vocation. The woman had mentioned the name Sylvaree in the same context as the Tree of Life. It took him another decade to discover that she had supplied him with the name of the Old Man’s personal Dreamscape – a small pocket plane inside the Plane of Dreams created and maintained by the power of the Tree of Life’s personal dreams. This discovery had been of immense significance, as making contact with the Arakhor from within his private Dreamscape was a considerably easier task than trying to break into his mind uninvited. Of course, there was always a danger of being ejected upon being discovered... but Joneleth was willing to take that risk. Plane walking had always been one of his favorite subjects, and locating a particular Dreamscape had at first seemed like a feasible task.
The elven mage had never traveled to the Plane of Dreams before. Throughout his stay in the Academy, his planar explorations had been limited to visits to the Elemental Planes of Earth and Air, as had been required by the curriculum. As a result of this he had become acquainted with a number of the Djinn and the Dao, and those had been his main sources of information. After weeks of hard bargaining, trickery, and plain intimidation, Jon had managed to procure information about the location of an astral pool leading into the Plane of Dreams. Nevertheless, when he had first sent his astral projection through the rainbow-colored gate, and suddenly found himself within a galaxy of swirling translucent bubbles – each one a separate dream of a sentient being – he had nearly despaired at the scope of his task.
At first glance, all the dream-spheres had looked essentially identical, and although knowing the true name of his destination had given him certain advantages, it was not enough to draw him directly to the pocket plane he sought. Indeed, all his laborious preparations would have been in vain, if not for the unexpected cooperation from the Tree himself, who had not just allowed but had actively encouraged the connection. Thus, after an hour or so of aimless wondering through the Dreamplane, Joneleth’s mind had been suddenly snatched up by a force of stunning magnitude, and drawn into a surreal alternative plane, full of drifting green vines and floating witch-lights, that was the Tree of Life’s endless dream.
The reasons for the Old Man’s initial interest in the elf had forever remained cryptic to the perpetrator himself, and over the following years had caused him no small degree of discomfort. Not that Jon had ever doubted his own merit... But how and why had the Arakhor discovered and drawn him inside the Dreamscape had remained a mystery. Perhaps Joneleth’s mind had felt familiar to the Tree, as the mental image of her lover had been woven into Ellesime’s every reverie, and the Queen had shared enough of her private visions of Jon with the Old Man to stir the Arakhor’s curiosity. Or, had it been an instinctive action, carried out solely to protect one of the Children, who had foolishly wandered into the Dreamplane without clear understanding of its dangers? Only later, after many repeated trips into the Region of Dreams, had the elf realized how perilous his first journey there had been. Sylvaree’s bubble was drifting through the void dangerously close to the turbulent zone called Dreamheart: a mysterious core region of the Plane of Dreams where various dreams merged and coalesced, forming entirely new realities. Had Jon entered that zone on his own, untutored and unprepared, he would have never come back.
But regardless of the exact circumstances of the event, the first contact had happened three years ago, and had been a near mind-shattering experience for the elf. It turned out that entering the dream of a being as powerful and alien as the Tree of Life, carried hidden dangers of its own. Unlike Ellesime’s hallowed link with the Old Man, which featured safe-guards and protections for both sides of the connection, Jon’s adventure had plunged him into the very depth of the Tree’s psyche. The degree of difference between the finite elven mind and that of a millennia-old Sylvan demi-god had almost made the curious mage lose his wits, as his very essence had been nearly consumed by the enormous intellect of the Arakhor. That had been a terrifying experience indeed, but Joneleth had been too ambitious to give up and eventually he had managed to discover a way to exist in the Old Man’s dream without losing himself to it. The trick was to skim the surface of the Tree’s consciousness without ever diving too deep, or touching the ethereal strands that were mythal power-lines. Subsequently, his trips to Sylvaree had become easier with each try, and now Jon was able to locate the correct Dreamscape without the Old Man’s help, and sometimes almost without his awareness.
Jon’s relationship with the Tree had always been a strange one. Since the day when he had first made contact, they had been able to share memories, on a level that was barely possible to comprehend. Sometimes the Old Man had been childishly curious about things that the elf himself considered insignificant and not worthy of remembrance: like events from his early childhood, or experiences of his later formative years spent in the vast libraries of the Evereskan Magic Academy. In return, the elf had been shown brief visions of enormous natural catastrophes that had concerned him little, and all-destructive magical wars that had been of more practical interest – although all Jon’s impatient requests to gain knowledge of the particular spells used by the elven mages of the lost Empires had been gently but firmly rebuffed. However questions related to the magic of healing and mending had been always answered in full. That distinction had always made the elven mage laugh, yet had also caused some minor degree of annoyance. It felt as if the Old Man perceived Jon as an impatient and imprudent child, in constant need of control over his areas of study.
That last thought was especially galling, and the frustrated elf jerked his head upright as if from the bite of a stinging insect – the movement that resulted in another sharp flare of pain shooting through his cranium. He moaned, more in vexation than out of genuine affliction, and was at once rewarded with the warm probing touch of invisible healing magic. His back rested against the gnarled surface of a giant root, his hands and feet were spread on the soft carpet of green moss under him, and the healing energy slowly poured into his flesh from every living surface that his body touched. In moments Joneleth’s headache was gone, leaving behind nothing but dizziness and an acute feeling of embarrassment. Writhing in pain among the Old Man’s roots was, from his viewpoint, akin to the whining of a small puppy seeking the comforting touch of its master, and Jon was already sufficiently humiliated by his retreat from the Tree’s consciousness to take the further indignity of the Old Man’ reflexive healing without a wince.
He had passed the night wandering through the woods around Suldanessellar, then taking the long walk down the river valley, getting miles away from the borders of the mythal, before turning back. Strangely enough, this always made him feel better, as if leaving the safety net, carefully woven by the revered elders and supervised by the immortal agent of benevolent gods, proved him to be a self-sufficient adult – a feeling that he sometimes lost while dwelling in the magically-protected, beautiful and harmonious elven cities.
Joneleth had spent most of his life inside the two mythals, surrounded by architecture that resembled artistic visions of paradise more than functional edifices, and yet, more often than not, the very brightness of the facade made him doubt the validity of that lifestyle. It felt as if the People were nothing more but brightly painted miniatures trapped inside ornamental displays of fading magic. The life went on outside the glass, while inside, the ever-dwindling residents of the mythals doted on the few remaining artifacts of their once great civilization.
The People were always surrounded by foes, but while the primitive humanoid tribes of Toril seemed to multiply and prosper over the centuries, the long-lived and highly cultured Tel’Quessir had lost one territory after another, both to the savagery of the orcish and giant tribes, and to the humans’ enormous appetite for fertile land. The Grand Retreat to Evermeet was supposed to save the last remnants of the elven civilization on Toril, however this tactic did not suit the wood elves, who were spirit-bound to their ancestral forests, and no amount of political maneuvering had brought Queen Ellesime any closer to her goal – the stabilization and expansion of the elven population of the Great Forest of Tethyr. Of course, the House Ithilnien was of the Teu-Tel’Quessir lineage, but Joneleth’s family had dwelled in Tethyr long enough to firmly bind their fate with that of their forest brethren and the fair city of Suldanessellar.
This new trail of thoughts further soured Joneleth’s already despondent mood. He had sought communion with the Tree of Life as a distraction from the latest affront dealt to his highly sensitive pride by his royal lover. And while coming here, to the very roots of the sylvan patriarch, had not been a technical necessity for casting his astral travel spells, the Old Man’s presence had helped the elf to concentrate. Besides, this place always reminded Jon of Ellesime’s first kiss... Perhaps it was a load of romantic nonsense, still, he had felt strangely mellowed by the mere sight of the grassy spot between the Tree’s elephantine roots.
The elf clenched his teeth and chuckled weakly over these pointless sensitivities, then propped himself into a sitting position, stretching his limbs and dragging his fingers through the tangled strands of his pale hair. His holiday robes looked worse for wear – but nothing that a few simple cantrips could not fix. The position of the golden disk that was flashing its unwholesome rays right into his sleepy eyes even through the thick foliage of the Arakhor, indicated that the entire morning and probably much of the afternoon had been spent floating inside the Tree’s mind. Joneleth always tended to forget that time flowed differently inside the Region of Dreams. It did not matter much, as it was doubtful that his absence had been noticed by anybody amid the cheerful madness of the Faradome’s festivities.
It turned out, however, that Jon’s cynical estimate of his own popularity was incorrect, and at least one resident of Suldanessellar had been looking for him, whilst he had fallen into a reverie amongst the Tree of Life’s roots.
“Here you are at last,” a female voice sang into his twitching ear, even as the owner of the voice dropped into a sitting position at his side, leisurely stretching out her long legs before gracefully folding them under her body. “Jon, isn’t it curious that in order to converse with you I always have to hunt you down first, much like tracking down a prey?”
“Curse it, Bodhi. I would rather you leave me alone,” the elven mage replied coolly. After his outer-planar experience, he did not care much for another exchange of unpleasantnesses with his sister, but there was very little he could do to chase her away. “What is it now, relentless one?” He continued with an expression of utter sourness. As always, rendering his displeasure visible had very little effect on his sibling. When Bodhi was in one of her talkative moods, even being overly rude did not help.
But for all his dislike of Bodhi’s manipulative nature, Joneleth had to admit that his sister looked truly stunning today in her reddish purple velvet gown, fastened with an elaborate golden belt. Her complete disregard for the practicality of her attire only added to her appeal, and somehow he felt pleased by the fact that she cared less about dirtying her extravagant dress than about appeasing him.
“Nothing more than the natural care of a loving sister,” Bodhi answered playfully and grinned at his suspicious scowl. “I have been worrying about you, oh overly smart one.”
“How amusing. Now that you’ve found me in good health if not spirits, would you be so kind as to leave me be?”
“If you are so upset over your illustrious girlfriend’s behavior, why do you want to chase away the bearer of good news?”
“My mood can hardly be improved by anything you say, foolish one. And I have already told you I am not interested in your ‘solution’ to my little problem.”
“Ah! You have finally admitted that you have a problem, hallaer. If only you could see that I am trying to help you, not harm you. Then I would call you hodoer as well.”
Bodhi gave her brother a sly look and before he could reply with another sarcastic remark, leaned closer to him, taking one of his long-fingered hands into hers and bringing it up to her smooth cheek. Jon was about to jerk it away from her when she suddenly dropped it to her lips and brushed it with a light kiss, then released it as swiftly as she took it, leaving him with an angry exclamation hanging at the tip of his tongue.
“What was that supposed to mean, brazen one?! If you are trying your stale charms on me...”
“I am about to give up my freedom for your happiness, brother dear,” was her meek reply. “And I expected somewhat more enthusiasm from you at this announcement.”
“And what did you mean by that, foolish girl? Was that yet another of your wicked mind-games?” Joneleth’s eyes flashed lightning bolts at her, and for a second Bodhi felt uncertain – if he was still not buying her game she was going to be in deep trouble. However she was intent on seeing the scheme through, and so she braced herself for the final act of her little drama.
“I was trying to tell you that our ‘dear’ Queen was looking for an elven bride for her human toy, and that I have offered her myself to spare you more heartache.”
“You did what?” He jolted bolt upright, suddenly coming to his knees in front of her and peering into her face with an expression of complete bewilderment. Joneleth thrown off balance was such a rare treat that his sister almost giggled at his stunned, chalk-white face, surrounded by the disheveled mane of his equally pale hair. The poor dear must have spent the night here in the woods, instead of the cozy royal bedroom, she decided amusedly.
“You would have made a fine drow, my brother,” she said casually, and touched a strand of his hair with pretended care, “if only you blackened your face with soot and shrunk a few inches. Your eyes are already red enough for some reason... You know, I saw a few dark ones in that last expedition of ours... Of course, none of them are any longer counted among the living,” she added hastily. “That was why I was so upset when you did not ask about my health upon our return.”
“Stop insulting me with your vile associations and changing the topic of the conversation, sister!”
Bodhi’s heart jolted, this was the first time in decades that Jon had called her sister and actually meant it. Both of his hands were now gripping her near-naked shoulders, shaking her badly, (her gown was smartly cut, so as to show as much of her gorgeous flesh as possible without falling off), but the fact did not seem to bother him at all. Much to Bodhi’s regret Jon had always been completely blind to her charms – a little game of incest would have suited her just right, if it could have brought him under her sway.
Still, the huntress was flushed with excitement over the likely success of her ploy, and her joy spilled over into her eyes, giving her features all the needed animation of a natural emotion. Her true feelings were as far away from sisterly affection and true empathy as the crawling of a blind centipede is from the flight of a bird, yet it was a motion of sorts, and it nearly fooled Jon into believing her. He shook her one more time, looking deep into her dark blue eyes, and trying to perceive a hint of deception, but all he could see there was her genuine thrill at drawing his attention.
“I have already told you all I can,” she complained loudly. “Stop shaking me like I am a peach-tree full of ripe fruit, you boor. The Seldarine willing, I am soon going to be the Queen of Tethyr!”
“I want to hear the whole story once again from your own mouth. What did you tell Ellesime and why? Did Errilam agree? I know all too well how much you despise humans. What are your plans for the human King, foolish one? Are you plotting to strangle him on your nuptials?”
“Why would I want to do such thing?” Bodhi’s voice sounded genuinely hurt. “Now it is you who is taking me for a complete fool, brother dear. Power is power, even if it comes in a guise of a barely comprehensible, round-eared barbarian, stinking of sweat and perfume. I would only have to wait a few decades to rule a land thrice as populated and ten times as rich as Ellesime’s pitiful hovel of a city. Plus, I am going to set your heart at rest over your fair lady’s potential entanglement with the human. You know, he asked for her hand in marriage last night, and her only way out was finding him another willing sacrifice.”
“You are a bad liar, Bodhi,” her brother’s scowl reappeared after her last tirade. “Ellesime has been preparing the grounds for this marriage for years. And frankly, I am surprised she has picked you, for as far as I know, she had a different maiden in mind.”
“And who was the ill-fated lass might I ask?” Bodhi’s already low voice softened to a velvety purr, betraying her serious interest. Over the years, Joneleth had become somewhat accustomed to her intonations, and this one did not promise anything good to the object of her inquiry.
Her reaction, however, convinced Jon that for once his sister’s vocalized intent of marrying the King of Tethyr had probably been a genuine one; and maybe Errilam was safe from Bodhi, at least for as long as he was still useful to her, that is, until she was proclaimed the Queen of Tethyr and firmly settled on the throne in Ithmong. After that, the elf would not have given a copper penny for the human’s life. But truth be told, King Errilam’s long-term wellbeing was not the highest priority on Joneleth’s list. If the human fool agreed to marry Bodhi he would get what he thoroughly deserved. Certainly, if Jon knew his sister, Bodhi might well succeed in becoming a royal widow simply by means of encouraging her husband to overindulge in his marital duties. That would be a fine punishment indeed for a fool who had dared to set his eyes on Ellesime’s divine face and hope for reciprocity of his feelings.
“The name of the King’s bride had not been set in stone,” he answered cryptically, “but I am surprised that Ellesime asked you without talking to me first.”
“Well, you were not around to dispense your sagely advice, and the Queen needed a solution quickly. Besides, I doubt Ellesime would have told you even if you were there. From what little I overheard of her conversation with Demin, she was ready to betray your bond and marry him – all for the sake of some foolish vision of hers!”
“You are lying. Ellesime would never do that to me.” His voice was unnaturally calm, but Bodhi noted that her brother’s face had become even paler than it was before, if such a thing was possible. Jon had stopped shaking her awhile ago, but now his fingers dug into her shoulders like the talons of a hawk.
“A Kingdom prosperous and united under a dynasty that would bear the blood of two races in its veins, the People living in peace and harmony with their human cousins,” Bodhi recited cheerfully. “Do you think I can make something like this up? She was crying on Demin’s shoulder, begging absolution. The scheme was to abandon you, jump into bed with that human, and bear him half-elven bastards!”
“What did the priestess have to say?” Joneleth’s voice sounded like the rasping of an iron file. He was visibly struggling for air, and Bodhi decided it was time to show some compassion.
“Oh, Demin was adamantly against it,” she murmured, briefly caressing one of her brother’s hands, (still clutching her shoulders), with the tips of her fingers. “But her protests would have been to no avail had I not been there too. I am sorry to bring this up, but you know how the Queen is when she gets into one of her moods. She nearly convinced herself that it was her royal duty to marry the vermin-king, even though Rillifane was mute and deaf to her prayers. Luckily, Demin forgot that she had summoned me to talk about the stupid orc-ears, so I overheard them both. I had to jump in and offer myself as a substitute; otherwise she might have actually gone to offer herself to the human!”
“Yes, when it comes to matters of state, Ellesime is about as acquiescent and tractable as an iron golem,” the Queen’s consort replied solemnly. “Not that I believe that you did what you did solely for my benefit!” He glared at his sister with an expression of utter misery, and was rewarded with a stare full of affronted concern.
At that point, he was no longer able to control his emotions, and a quick succession of distress, shame and, finally, dull anger played over his pale and drawn face. “Even the Old Man cannot make her change her mind when she is set on fulfilling her divine destiny.” He said after a brief pause. “He once compared her to a bird that is so fond of flying that it cannot separate itself from the sky… yet its flesh needs rest and nourishment, as much as that of any ordinary creature crawling upon the lowly earth. A fine analogy indeed... considering all the parties involved.”
“Aye, Ellesime could never appreciate you enough, nor understand that your talent is worth more than both her puny kingdom and her so-called destiny,” Bodhi whispered into his ear, leaning closer to him. Normally, Jon would have mocked her most cruelly over this blatant attempt to flatter him at Ellesime’s expense, but today he was less than eager to defend his Queen and lover. “Who is this Old Man you are talking about?” his sister inquired suddenly. “Can you commune... with the Leaflord himself?”
“Whatever gave you that idea?” Joneleth’s eyes glided over his sister’s lovely face, without noticing the sudden sharp and hungry light in her eyes. She had once told him that he could use her for a mirror if he so desired, yet their similarity began and ended with appearance. “Why would I want to converse with Rillifane? I am not one of his Chosen. I was talking about him,” he released her shoulders and patted one of the protruding gray roots of the monstrous tree looming over them. “Scatter-brained one, have not I told you many times before that the Tree of Life has a mind of its own?”
“You have found a way to actually converse with the Tree?” Bodhi asked in disbelief. “But... is it not the Queen’s divine blood that allows her to link with the Tree of Life and tap into its healing powers? I thought it was forbidden to everybody else.”
“Not so much forbidden as virtually impossible.” Jon replied calmly. His expression was less pained now that the trail of their conversation diverged from the original topic. “Ellesime’s link was established a very long time ago, as part of the Tree’s bargain with the Seldarine. The Old Man is far too deeply immersed in his dreams to answer anybody else’s call now.”
“Then how did you do it?” Bodhi’s mouth must have gone dry with excitement, for she licked her plump, cherry-red lips with an almost comical expression of hunger.
And still Jon paid no heed to her antics, totally lost in contemplation of his real or imagined miseries. He had been forced to accept that Bodhi’s humiliating tale was probably true. The news of Ellesime’s inner struggle over Errilam’s proposal of marriage had shaken him badly. After so many years together, Jon could no longer conceive of life without his Queen, and the fact that Ellesime had been ready to sacrifice their love to the interests of the state wounded him more than her notional preference for another.
He knew that she loved only him and would have continued to love him even if she decided to give herself to the human. The thought of Ellesime’s distorted sense of duty coming between them was unbearable. The man he could have competed against and won, maybe challenged to a duel, or killed subtly and without much remorse. He could not have challenged Ellesime’s decision to sacrifice herself, and that would have been the end of everything they had built together. Truly, sometimes it is easier to forgive the loved one her weakness than to forgive her strength.
Adding to Joneleth’s inner turmoil was the fact that Bodhi was the first person he had ever told about his clandestine connection with the Tree of Life, (and honestly, he would never have done it had he been in full control of his senses), and his sister’s excited and hungry attention was a balm to his wounded pride, even though he knew her too well not to suspect where the conversation was headed.
“I simply walked into his dream uninvited,” the elf shrugged at his sibling’s doubting stare, as if he was talking about something quite ordinary. “And the Tree was too amused by my boldness to bid me leave his domain, or perhaps he simply liked my company. Nevertheless, I visit him when I feel like it nowadays, and we converse. I find this arrangement very practical, indeed, as I cannot even fathom the limits of his memory, or the degree of his knowledge regarding the Arcane.”
“Can you ask favors of your new friend?” Bodhi said coyly. “Perhaps even persuade him to do your bidding?”
“Maybe so.” Still shaken by her earlier revelations, Joneleth felt a sudden urge to boast about something he had never contemplated before. “Why should I beg for favors from a Tree, silly one? I can see the conduit of divine energy flowing through his mind. Maybe I can even tap into that power somehow… although that would be an immensely dangerous feat, and not just for me.”
“I am sure that if anybody could do such an unimaginable thing it would be you, my brother!”
Even as she uttered her last words, the worm of jealousy ate at Bodhi’s heart once again. So, even when nearly rejected by his royal mistress, the wretch had managed to turn a fiasco into a triumph. If he was not lying, the possibilities that such a connection could bring were not simply immense – they were utterly fantastic. Once again she praised herself for the bold move. Interrupting Ellesime’s private conversation with the high priestess had been a reckless act, yet it was already bringing her some serious dividends. Bodhi had never intended to let the marriage charade get out of hand, although she would have happily given herself to an orc if such a liaison could have brought her the power she sought. Now her greedy mind was quickly considering the advantages of becoming a human Queen, over the possibility that Jon’s admission of a connection with the Tree of Life was not just a boast.
Over the decades that Bodhi had spent studying and testing her brother, he had never been knows to brag about his successes. On the contrary, Joneleth had always delivered his good news in a matter-of-fact, nearly bored voice. What was even more remarkable – he had never lied. Thus, Bodhi’s envy of Jon had flourished into an ugly mix of hatred and almost superstitious adulation. She knew he could do anything – if only to prove once again that he was better than her. If he had been telling her the truth just now...
“Jon,” she declared suddenly as if moved by an irrepressible urge to speak, “I know that I don’t deserve the throne, but neither does Ellesime. You do! You should take the power for yourself and be our King to protect both the Queen and the city from more of her divine blunders. Can’t you see that Rillifane’s daughter is making one silly mistake after another? Perhaps divine blood does not grant immunity from bad judgment, or maybe she is turning senile in her old age, who knows? How could she even think about abandoning you, knowing that you are one of this city’s greatest defenses? Look at yourself – you are the greatest mage ever born to the People, and yet she treats you as if you were a love-toy that could be thrown away on a childish whim. I love you, and I want to be at your side when the time comes for your ultimate triumph!”
“Silly girl,” he answered with a forced laugh, stroking the outline of her cheek with one of his long fingers, “how can you be at my side when you are about to marry the human king?”
Mages and musicians were always the best lovers, Bodhi recalled oddly, and her brother’s hands were much more skilled that those of her pet magician. “I am doing this for you, silly boy,” she said holding the hot stare of blue eyes that were too much like hers. “Take the power and marry your little queen if you so desire, to make her your consort, instead of the other way around. We deserve to be royalty, you and I, and we shall have it, whatever they say about it!”
“Fancy you saying that,” Joneleth replied with a sudden boyish grin that, however, never touched his eyes. “Look at the sun, reckless one – it is already sliding over the horizon. We have spent nearly an hour here, chattering like two blackbirds. I don’t know about you, but I am starving, and I need to change my clothes before attending the second night of the Faradome. By the way, if you are planning to court your human groom tonight, you need to do something about your hair. The way you look now, will make him run away faster than a brown rabbit.”
Bodhi opened her mouth to object, but her brother’s eyes were once again as cold and impenetrable as two chunks of blue ice, and all she could do was accept Joneleth’s assistance in helping her to her feet and swallow her remarks, as he cut off any further attempts at conversation. Almost immediately, he bid her a polite goodbye and departed, leaving her to seethe in frustration, and wonder if her last words would have any long-term effect on him. Yet the facts that he had bothered to offer her a hand, and noticed her tousled hair were remarkable by themselves.
* ASTRAL PLANE
It is the space between everything.
It is the road that goes everywhere.
It is where you are when you aren't anywhere else.
The Astral Plane is the space between the planes. When a traveler moves through an interplanar portal or projects her spirit to a different plane of existence, then she travels through the Astral Plane. Even spells that allow instantaneous movement across a plane, such as dimension door, briefly touch the Astral Plane. The Astral Plane is a great, endless sphere of clear silvery sky, both above and below. Large tube-shaped clouds slowly coil into the distance, some appearing like thunderheads and others looking like immobile tornadoes of gray wind. Erratic whirlpools of color flicker in midair like spinning coins.
** ASTRAL FORM
If an astral form passes through a color pool or otherwise manifests on another plane, it forms a new body from the building blocks of the plane itself. That body is identical with its natural form, except it is immune to the natural hazards of that particular plane. An astral body that travels to the Elemental Plane of Fire is immune to damage from the fire-dominant trait, for example. If the astral form is slain, the soul returns to the unharmed original body and location.
Teu-Tel’Quessir – (elv.) moon elves
Su-Tel’Quessir – (elv.) wood or copper elves
Hallaer – (elv.) Tall one
Hodoer – (elv.) Wise one