The expansive grassland eventually came to an end as we passed through the tree line of the once distant forest.
The trees that stood as a windbreak were a lot denser than I had imagined at the distance. They were thick, yet smooth like the stone columns that supported the weight of a massive canopy born of their branches. The leaf stems that were flat and widened to make up for the harsh winds that blew along the plainlands we crossed interlinked and threaded one another, clinging as if to brace and protect the small flower pods that could be seen just beneath the protective layer.
The trees that were beyond the windbreak were different. They varied in their species and seemed as if they had been plucked from different forests and grown together without regard for their natural biome. Even so, they rose to nearly the same height as their sentinels standing guard, never overtaking them to retain the protection from the harsh winds as they fanned out their leaves to form a ceiling that soaked up the light shed from above jealously. That created unnatural darkness below, permeating the air with a haunting chill.
Yet despite the minuscule natural sunlight, there was still pale light abound. Drooping vines shed bio-luminescence from the petals of flowers that grew from them. Thick patches of illuminated moss could be found on some rocks that jutted up from the ground and some of the trees. There were even mushrooms that shed soft light as well, their caps glowing brightly among the dense flora that had grown richly despite the lack of sun.
<It’s like the Greenhouse for the baby.>
“I originally obtained some of the flora to be used from here,” Elsa admitted as she set her fibrous digits against what served as her chin before spanning her gaze across the environment. “Neither of you move for a moment. I want to speak with the Forest Spirit to avoid any problems.”
This being a Forest Spirit’s territory would explain a lot as my gaze ran over what I could see, which admittedly wasn’t very much. The plant life held such a vast difference in variation based on what I could grasp from my classes, belonging to different regions on our side of things. But they all were here and growing rather well, meaning that they were likely under the care of some being in the same way that Elsa maintained her Greenhouse—a Spirit’s Garden.
“Are you going to negotiate with it for safe passage?” I asked. The whole reason she warned Aeria not to demonstrate any extensive control over her dominion was because it could attract the Storm Spirit, which was decidedly hostile. I could only presume the fact that she wanted to talk with this one to avoid any problems because said Forest Spirit was at least capable of reasoning with her.
“You could say that,” she answered vaguely. Then her head shifted over to the side before raising one of her arms towards us. “Don’t be alarmed if something feels off or you feel anything washing over you. They’re just being curious.”
Her statement only made sense when I felt a sensation splashing over me unlike any I’d felt. It was as if countless, invisible vines were slithering about in the air from the nearby flora. The presence coiled around my body with an invasive curiosity that reminded me a little too much of when the Mire Propagate attempted to consume me. I put up with it for a few moments before the sensation stopped.
Aeria guided our eyes towards where the ground and flora itself rose with unnatural smoothness. There was no sound as an entire section of the ground, thickets, and shrubbery, parted from the surface of the land while remaining intact like a blanket that had been draped over a large creature. Beneath the turf looked to be a network of roots that were woven to hold a mound of earth together that seemed to be its main body, before turning into elongated but quadrupedal limbs akin to Elsa’s—albeit far thicker and more suitable for a beast like an Uarien rather than humanoid.
Elsa greeted it rather amicably. “Hello. It’s been some time, hasn’t it?”
In response, there was a… sound. Some kind of noise that I couldn’t quite process as it carried on for a few seconds. All while approaching closer to us. Then, despite lacking eyes or a mouth, I could feel the weight of its presence shifting towards us again.
It remained unpleasant. “Elsa…”
“This little one is just keeping me company while I head to the ruins beyond your territory,” she explained away while waving her digits, brushing the invisible tendrils away. “I intend to make use of my dominion to an extent, but I have no intention of claiming your territory. I brought you a present too.”
Her makeshift fingers slipped beyond the moss and root binding her outline to pull out what looked to be a bundle of different herbs and flowers. They looked like they had been taken from her Greenhouse. But the Forest Spirit seemed almost taken with them for some reason that I couldn’t fathom.
But more interesting than that was the fact that I could spy something inside her chest. It looked like a rough crystal still imbued within a stone that was wrapped by a cage of branches with little leaves, almost like a heart nestled behind a ribcage. But before I could observe it further the opening faded as her skeleton snapped back into place and she presented her offering towards the Forest Spirit. “Here you go.”
The Forest Spirit hovered over the bundle for a moment. Then it collapsed atop it, its massive weight and body toppling over and burying it along with a portion of Elsa’s limbs. The flora that had been nestled upon its back settled into a mound where they were, even as the ground where the spirit originally emerged from was left gaping wide.
“I’m going to get changed but it’s going to take a moment,” Elsa told us as she slid across the ground. “Don’t go anywhere until I’m done. This place is dangerous.”
I patiently took in my surroundings as she went about her business and tried to see if the Forest Spirit was still lingering about. But my visibility was limited due to the dim light, making it hard to see shapes beyond a certain point. Aeria, did that spirit do anything to us when it was doing… whatever it was?
<It was just looking over us really hard. Though it did feel a little different this time since we’re like this.>
If it felt strange but was commonplace, then I can only presume it was due to our current state—shared senses and all. Considering it lacked eyes or any adaptation suitable for communication verbally, it likely utilized whatever means spirits had to commune with each other. And, since I was human, what passed as normal for Aeria and Elsa would feel foreign to me.
“All done~” Elsa chimed with a granular lilt in her voice as she finally emerged with new garments fashioned from the flora. The thicker and broad leaves were bound together to form the equivalent of a flowing dress. The shorter blades of grass were lengthened and entwined with her fibrous limbs, and she turned the luminous mushroom caps that had a soft glow into the equivalent of a necklace that illuminated her visage.
“I’m guessing you needed to incorporate that foliage in specific so that you have better control over it, like when we first arrived?”
Elsa nodded. “We’re effectively in the Forest Spirit’s territory, with the entire area saturated in its essence. I’d have to forcibly take control over whatever I wanted to move with my dominion and that could be seen as picking a fight. So, I asked for permission and gave it an offering, and it left these behind giving me the authority to do so. I can also sense the terrain much better now, so I can guide us safely to where we need to go without getting lost.”
<You look amazing, Elsa!>
The Mountain Spirit responded with a smile that stretched her wooden mask before gesturing off towards the southwest with an arm. The dense foliage shifted to create a solid path that was no longer obstructed by the overgrowth. “Keep your senses sharp. I can sense whatever is on the ground to an extent but above us is a different story.”
With her warning given, and affirmed by the Wind Spirit, Elsa then glided over the ground. The soft illumination from the mushrooms she’d decorated herself with intensified to a much greater degree, allowing me to actually see a modest range around her. It would be near impossible for me to follow her otherwise.
I followed after her with only the haunting ambiance of insects noises and occasional skittering of nocturnal creatures padding out the silence. The darkness beyond the illumination of the flora was impenetrable to my eyes, despite the fact that the sun had to still be shining high above us. It had to be the Forest Spirit’s doing, manipulating the flora to seal out the sun at its discretion.
“…You don’t feel comfortable here, do you?” Elsa said softly as she continued to move forward, breaking the silence even as small moths fluttered around her. But her tone lacked its usual tenor and seemed almost melancholic.
“I will admit it feels unsettling, but this place was not made with the comfort of humans in mind. For a spirit such as yourself, who has an affinity for this terrain, I imagine it is far more comfortable. After all, it is supposed to be a sanctuary for spirits—a paradise without humans.”
The Spirit Sanctuary was supposedly created for them when they parted ways with our world, or so the text stated. The existence of the creatures the higher Fire Spirit mentioned brought that into question. But the fact that such a place was a necessity indicated that there had been enough of a rift to where most spirits themselves decided against remaining near humans. So why bother taking human needs into consideration?
“This place isn’t any more comfortable to me than it is to you, Sweetie. At least back home I could feel the footsteps of thousands of people bustling across the ground like the heartbeat of civilization. The absence of all of that here only leaves me feeling lonely, I suppose.”
Her response caught me by surprise until I realized my mistake. Elsa was probably as close to humans as a spirit could possibly be. Her mannerisms, the way she interacted with her neighbors, and her maternal instincts were not something a spirit would natively possess. She had even been accommodating my presence either knowingly or unknowingly by speaking aloud and other body gestures when addressing the spirit earlier.
That was what separated her from the Forest Spirit earlier, an example of what she could have been if she had not been defined by the relationships she had with humans. So why would she be any more comfortable than me in a place that was so unforgiving to the humans she had come to know and love? “…Forgive me, Elsa. I did not consider how uncomfortable being here would make you feel. For what it’s worth—”
My words were cut short as my body lurched to the side as something came crashing down on the ground ahead of me. It was shelled fruit of some kind considering the contents that spilled out, thrown from behind towards my head. It would have hurt quite a bit had Aeria not moved us in time.
Elsa’s response to the potential threat was to whip one of her arms around while extending it to a much greater length. It swept over our heads and there was a shriek of some kind before she reeled it back. Hitting the ground was a primate with a body covered in dark fur about the size of my torso, but its limbs were nearly twice that. It scurried upright with elongated digits that were curved and consisted of two fingers and a thumb. before warily chittering in our direction.
Elsa bristled and the simian promptly bound into a tree, its nails being deceptively sharp as they dug into the bark and allowed it to ascend into the darkness once more. “Aeria, assert yourself a little more just in case we run into something more dangerous than a mischievous Nightshaw. I’ve been dealing with some of the creatures around here, but there’s a chance one may slip by and Kowler could get hurt.”
I felt her perception bleed into my own as she did so. The dim light gained muted colors as my brain tried to interpret the Sylphid’s comprehension over the ebb and flow of the various gases that made up the world around us. It was then that I registered just how many creatures called this place home lurked in the shadows.
The Nightshaws were familiar outlines on the fringes of what I could perceive. All but one of them were fleeing from the area, whatever they intended to do no longer being worth the attempt. The exception was the one that had been injured by Elsa as, no sooner than it passed a distant branch, something snatched it out of the air and coiled around it as they fell to the ground.
Then there were the countless flying insects within the air, especially around a massive flower of some kind. Gases were rising from it that I couldn’t identify off the top of my head. But considering what Elsa said I was willing to bet it was likely a corpse-eating flower of some kind.
I could also sense a thrashing jungle cat further away. It was being tethered to the ground by roots and vines. That was the way we had come earlier so I could only think that it had been stalking us the entire time and Elsa had quietly subdued it to avoid worrying me.
Not to mention there was some kind of… shambling mass of vines that was a living plant creature lumbering off to the side from what I could tell. It must have been a monstrous creature of some kind. Thankfully it was nowhere near us at present.
My mind was attempting to comprehend all of that at once and more. It came from every direction, and I couldn’t make it stop. To say it was a distraction was an understatement. “Aeria, this is a bit much to process…”
<I’m sorry. Should I stop?>
“It’s painful because it’s sensory information you aren’t accustomed to, but eventually you’ll be able to handle it. For now, just focus on me until we’re at least out of the Forest Spirit’s territory. We can relax a bit once we reach where the Wind Spirits have taken shelter at the edge of it.”
I focused on Elsa, taking advantage of the fact that she was in front of me and glowing to make out the details of her current body. The more I focused on one thing, the further back everything else would be pushed in my mind. “I thought they would be around the grasslands we came from?”
“They were and are still frequently born there, but Storm Spirit drove most of the ones that haven’t been preyed upon over to the end of the Forest Spirit’s domain. We’ll have to go that way to get to the ruins and thankfully it should be safer than this place. Just don’t drop your guard for even a moment until then, okay?”
That said, we continued our trek through the dark forest unsuitable for humans in silence.