"So… you are not a masseuse?" Gwen questioned her attendant, now confessed to be a multi-classed Druid Hierophant-Initiate of the Tryfan Enclave.
"I am that and more, though I understand the confusion, Magus Song. It's admirable— for even the Dökkálfar with their long-lives seldom master more than one profession." Sanari's perpetual smile persisted. "And though some of our kind prefer stagnancy, I enjoy the fluidity brought by each changing cycle of service. Within the World Tree, seasons change and each year is different from the last, why should we be any different?"
"So you don't find the work demeaning?" Gwen continued her enquiry out of morbid interest, attempting to trace the sprigs and branches of Hvítálfar society. "You're an ageless being with centuries of wisdom, and you are willing to 'service' a member of the younger race? I was under the impression that 'real' Elves saw us as akin to apes... Like how we see the Mermen..."
"We have no conflict with the Mermen to denigrate them as you do." Sanari waved away her accusation. "Their envoys are just as welcome as yourself. It is true that before my time, before even Lady Solana and the Guardian came to be, your kind may have been simians, but you are not now, are you?"
For some reason, Gwen thought of the macaque queen she'd met in Burma, as well as the Water Ghosts in their sodden den.
"No," she said. "But it's still demeaning."
"Demeaning?" Sanari slowed her step to match Gwen's stride. "How so?"
"I, for one, can't imagine myself in your position." Gwen intimated that she was offended by the very notion of menial servitude, even if it was something respectable that cost a great deal of money to purchase. In her eyes, she'd rather pay with cash than cash-in her dignity.
"What a peculiar arrogance." The Druid's golden eyes regarded her with interest. "Must pride and power always occupy the same pod? In your Human Circle, does might and wealth make one superior to one's kin?"
"Not abstractly, not in a society where all have equal rights," Gwen replied with a hint of cheek. "But explicitly, prestige and power can purchase equality by the bundle."
Sanari grew confused by her Gwenism. "A contradiction, I see. Is your hypocrisy because Mages in your society are inherently superior to your non-magically affiliated citizenry? How irrational. Doesn't one engender the other? Mages don't grow on trees, I assume."
"Wait up," Gwen asked in turn. "Don't the Hvítálfar lord over the Träälvor?"
"If you mean whether the Träälvor come to us in times of need," Sanari replied. "Then, yes. Though not often. The Circle Council may grant a boon if the need is dire."
"But the Hvítálfar do not consider themselves superior to the Träälvor?" Gwen asked. "I mean, in terms of magic, lore, lifespan, power..."
"It's truer to say the Träälvor consider themselves inferior." Sanari searched for her next words. "As kin, we think of them kindly, of course, though they have their duties, just as we have ours. I would not presume to impose a Träälvor Ranger, for instance, though most would be happy to do my bidding. Likewise, among our woodland cousins, some are proud as well, such as the Keepers of the Circles. They resist the hierarchy their people revere acutely— it's a complex affair."
"I bet." Gwen took mental notes. "I like you, Sanari. You're not snobbish and self-important despite holding such a position in your society. If that applies to your people in general, then the Hvítálfar sound too good to be true. I mean, do all Hvítálfar exist in an egalitarian commune?"
"I do not think your human analogy would work," Sanari disagreed with her summation of fantasy communism. "This harmony is merely how things are. Take this notion of elevation which you prize so dearly. For our kin, the seasons turn as a water-wheel, and that which blooms shall wilt to bloom again. Why fight for the fecundity of the moment? An irresponsible desire for unnatural harvests will only poison the soil. Things fade, creatures die, trees perish. Nought exists for long but for the aeons. Our disinterest in pride and prestige isn't something we consciously pursue: it exists as the Accord; as holistic as our genesis from the World Tree."
"Like a... Great Chain of Being?" Gwen was beginning to feel that her fellow Humans had thrifted plenty of ideas from their knife-eared neighbours.
"Perhaps. It is difficult to explain to an outsider."
"I see…" Gwen attempted intellectual empathy, but lacking the necessary context, she felt like an illiterate rube trying to unpack Keynesian economics.
"The Bloom in White will be a better instructor than I, I am sure," Sanari assured her. "I am yet unlearned in the Accord. Perhaps I shall apply myself in the next cycle."
The two walked on until they reached the centre of the tourist town.
At the crossroad of Trawsfynydd's square stood the Heart Oak, so named because it was the tallest tree visible to the guests, and also because it served as the conduit between Trawsfynydd and Tryfan.
"Before we head inward. Are there any taboo subjects? Despite being an Alfarphile, Ollie's not much more knowledgable on Elven etiquette beyond trade basics. His sorcerous thesis was on Elven integration of the Imperial Magic System, not Elven intrigue."
"When speaking to the Bloom, you should be yourself," Sanari stated. "The Lady has met generations of Humanity's finest. Your genuine nature will be an important distinction."
"I'll do my best. Are we climbing the World Tree?" Gwen's eyes sparkled. "Is it true that it's a multi-tier Grot?"
"Yes. No, we will proceed directly to the Sun Sanctum," Sanari informed her.
"We're not sight-seeing?" Gwen felt taken aback.
"You are not a guest in Tryfan, not yet." Sanari's face retained its unflappable serenity. "Your talents are too peculiar to be left unchecked. Your Void beast, if left alone, will bring great alarm to our insular kin."
"Caliban?" Gwen touched a finger to her heart. "Cali is perfectly tame."
"My concern isn't for the wellbeing of our people." Sanari smiled. "Enough talk. Let us proceed."
Ahead, the branches of the Heart Tree lowered themselves, entwining until a threshold formed. Sanari incanted in Sylvan, a language Gwen could comprehend only thanks to her Master's Ioun Stone. Soundlessly, an emerald portal sprung into being in the space between the twisting branches.
"Is this Tree Stride?" Gwen eyed the portal.
The Druid extended a hand, saying nothing more.
Swatting the butterflies alighting in her stomach, Gwen arrested the Elf's elongated digits, mindful of her imminent close encounter of the Galadriel kind.
In her old world, Gwen had travelled the breadth of its cities. Inevitably, curated by Tripadvisor, she had detoured through innumerable cathedrals from the medieval Notre-Dame de Paris to the ultra-modern Catedral de Brasília, all of which had succeeded in making her cynical heart swell with wonder and worship.
Such was her immediate impression of the Sun Sanctum, the interior of which reminded her of these vainglorious edifices.
As with her visitation of the Hagia Sophia, her vision first ascended toward the Elf hall's apex, a curved, bell-shaped roof grown from warped leaves two storeys tall, joined by colossal stems to form an organic, semi-translucent octogramic dome that filtered the radiance.
From there, pillars composed of polished white oak, carved with what Gwen presumed to be narrative tapestries of Elven lore, cascaded downward as towering monoliths of ivory, seamlessly sprouting from the ground level. The floor itself was formed of soft moss, creating an overlay plusher than any carpet.
Inside, the open space was sweet with mana. Nearer the exterior, in place of curtains, Sylvan Glyphs, gentle in their channelling of latent, mysterious energies, hovered between the columns, beyond of which an unbound and uncanny vista made Gwen gasp.
The cosmos of the World Tree was without a horizon.
A little disturbed, Gwen looked away, refocusing her attention toward the temple's centre.
As with her Master's Grot, there was a tree in the Sun Sanctum's loci, a yew tree from the looks of the leaves; an expected detail, considering Britain was famous for yews, whose wood was famous for producing bows, a staple armament of the Träälvor's Ranger Wardens.
The yew tree itself was enormous, with a height Gwen guessed to be six or seven storeys and a vast circumference of two football fields. When an unseen wind passed, its verdant foliage susurrated as she and Sanari crossed the mossy underlay.
Gwen clutched the hem of her dress.
Earlier, at the Hierophant-Initiate's advice, she had forsaken her battle armour for a tunic-skirt that suited her humble purpose, a one-piece cut above the knee in crow-black with white-winged collars. For footwear, she entrusted her Mary Janes, a veteran of her many ordeals, to possess the grit and luck to see her through an Elder being's scrutiny.
As they came closer, she noted the gentle incline of the floor and heard the music of tender water flowing beneath the tiles. The air inside the lowered depression was noticeably crisper, humid but pleasant, abundant with vital mana. Each step Gwen took, her body felt lighter, as though buoyed by new life, wearing away the lingering fatigue from conjuring her Shoggoth.
"Where is the er… White Flower?" Gwen asked of her hostess, her eyes scanning for what may be a colossal Alraune.
Sanari bowed in the tree's general direction. Gwen bowed likewise just in case. Then her host whispered something about "Bloom eternal", took a step backwards, and was away.
"Sanari?" Gwen's eyes followed the Druid until, a safe distance away, the ripple of a Tree Striding portal swallowed the Hierophant-Initiate.
"… Okay." Gwen returned her attention to the tree. "Em... Your Ladyship! I am Magus Gwen Song of Cambridge. Apprentice of Henry Kilroy. Please forgive my informality. How may I address you?"
"In your tongue, 'Your Grace' will suffice…" came a chirping voice from somewhere in the shadowy alcove.
Gwen looked up.
There was a blooming white flower sitting on a rough and pitted branch jutting from the giant yew.
"Up here, dear child." The same voice filled her head, negating the distance. "The solar wind from the Plane of Radiance is quite nice."
Gwen accepted the invitation, thinking of Ollie begging her with tears in his eyes to obey every word waggled forth by the Tongue of Tryfan. Gingerly, with great care not to touch a single leaf, she flew upward until she drew level with her interviewer.
"Your Grace—" Gwen's voice caught in her throat as her mind briefly turned white.
Solana's divinity, simply put, was on par with Galadriel, dispelling the disappointment she felt for the worldly Sanari, leaving Gwen in stunned silence for a jaw-dropping second.
Against the yew's trunk, Lady Solana sat, regal as the noblest metal, pretty as the rarest flower, so absurdly brilliant that Evee would appear as common as a clucking hen besides a dignified crane. Was it Solana's radiance? Gwen wondered, circulating both Void and Essence to dull the impact of the Demi-god's glamour.
Her effort at self-control took several breaths, gradually building in strength until the saintly aura of the Lady dimmed enough for her to rediscover her senses.
"Well done, child of Kilroy," the voice in her head whispered again. "I had expected nothing less."
Now close enough to touch, she could see that the Bloom in White had the same atypical features as her kin, only more pronounced. From her head, Solana's hair flowed fair and flaxen, wild and untethered as spun Mithril from her shoulders to her waist. Upon her elfin face, a pair of blazing golden irises looked out toward her impertinent guest; sagacious with experience, but tender with benevolence. Below her Grecian nose, Solana's mouth was small and petite, gifting the ageless leader an unsettling youth. Finally, past her waspish waist, from the flower-pocket of her folded dress, a graceful pair of legs dangled over the branch, ending in a pair of dainty feet, its soles tinted green with sap.
"Here." The Bloom in White patted the place beside her. "Let us take a look at you."
Gwen demurely sat.
"Don't be shy," the High Priestess spoke, this time the words issuing from her lips. "No harm shall come to Henry's legacy."
Gwen shimmed closer, wincing when the rough bark stabbed into her unprotected thighs.
"First time sitting in a tree?" Solana glanced at the bark. Without warning, her spiky saddle mutated into something with the softness of duck down. "I do apologise. Our bodies care little for creature comforts."
Gwen nodded, relieved that she wasn't about to be rubbed raw by a Mythic-class yew's envenomed protrusions. "I haven't scaled a tree since I was a child. The one time I did, my mother skinned me alive for ruining a forty-HDM dress."
"Hahaha…" Solana laughed. "How candid you are. Your Master was never one to speak his mind. Did the two of you get along?"
"Very well, strangely enough." She instantly felt a strange kinship with the demi-human deity, especially the way Solana managed to pronounce "Henry" so effortlessly and with natural ease.
"Is that so?" The Tongue of Tryfan hugged a knee against her chest, just touching the tip of her sculpted chin. "I've been well-informed of your history and your achievements, Gwen. Both from sources working for us, and from your allies. In exchange, I judge it fair that you may ask me a few questions before I seek answers for mine."
"I would like to know about my Master." Gwen wasn't one to look a gift-goddess in the mouth. "That is, please tell me about the Mage Henry Kilroy and what you know of him."
"You don't… know?" Solana tilted her head. "How curious. Henry has two other Apprentices, does he not?"
"I'll be blunt." Gwen used her hands to mime her lack of knowledge. "Master cared not for our past, and we did not ask about his. I didn't even know about Sobel— or at least not the whole story— until some psycho called Mark sent me to the slums as bait. Master occasionally waxed about his old post-Tide days, but that's about the extent of it."
"What would you like to know?"
There were so many questions simmering at her throat that Gwen took a moment to try and place the unreadable mien of the serene-looking spiritual leader of the Elves. Solana's amicability felt different from Sanari's polite caution. Where the Hierophant had the demeanour of a middle-manager, Solana felt akin to a professor overseeing a precocious pupil.
Wary of the cosy vibe they had going on, Gwen reminded herself that the female demi-human in front of her wasn't an elderly babulya, but something as old as the Nazarene, if not older, and according to Ollie, the Vessel of a tree that may have existed since tyrant lizards stalked the earth. Likewise, she had to remind herself that here was a being on another tier of existence. Even if she were to become Gwen-E-Buffett, she might not move the Bloom in White in the slightest. Here was a woman that had seen the Egyptian dynasts rise and fall, witnessed Caesar butchered in the streets of Rome and the Knight Templars burnt to smithereens by the Djinn Marauders of the Elemental Sea.
If she were to insult the Bloom in White, such a quake would ripple through the Mageocracy that England's Queen herself, armed with the faith of the Commonwealth's billion-strong citizens, would move to placate her ire— which may involve atomising their Void sorceress.
"My question." Gwen made firm her trembling voice. "Is what questions may I ask. What topics are taboo, and how much time do we have?"
"Hahaha…" Solana's trilling laughter sent the tree into a shivering sway. "Thou truly art a strange one."
"… I've been told to tread like a Träälvor ranger," Gwen confessed, laying the blame on Ollie as her mind turned. "After all, your Ladyship is the oldest and most powerful being I've had the pleasure of meeting."
"You lie well." Lady Solana's lips formed a thin line, not unlike a headmistress catching her head girl midway through a fag.
"Er…" Gwen felt taken aback by the sudden change in tone. "The most powerful Mage I know is Gunther, or maybe Master, so…"
"Half-truths? How Henry of you..." Solana touched a finger to her chin. Her holinesses' digits, Gwen noted, were without adornments; instead, she could just make out pale markings in Sylvan forming intricate floral patterns that extended up Solana's wrists like Henna, with the rest hidden by her floral tunic.
Gwen acutely felt the blood hammering at her temple. Should she just blurt her 'patron' out when she had no idea what the stakes were? Was Almudj friendly or otherwise to the Elves? If Solana replied with "Ah, old Elf-muncher, very cheeky, we lost millions to that bastard... you bitch..." Would she be fucked?
Concurrently, alarming thoughts of Ollie screaming "Why-why-why!" flashed through her teaming brain. Gwen agonised over her imperfect awareness. If Solana was as old as they say, shouldn't she know Almudj from the old days? Would the Mythics enjoy a once per-thousand-year meeting of the oldies, ala Golden Girls, to discuss the present state of Terra and the damned new kids on the block ruining the garden?
"Your Grace..." Gwen took the plunge. "Are you familiar with the Rainbow Serpent?"
"I know of it."
"Al—mu—dj—" Gwen uttered the syllables in the manner of a gipsy fortune teller. "Almudj!"
"A true name for mortal ears, but one I have never had the pleasure of address." The Tongue of Tryfan's confession filled Gwen with equal volumes of surprise and relief. "Perhaps Milord Tyfanevius will know. He is older than I."
The bower grew turbulent, forcing Gwen to grasp the closest branches to keep her balance.
"No matter. As promised, let us first converse about Henry." Lady Solana slid from the branch, Feather Falling to the ground with the grace of a petal bore by a gentle wind.
"Who is Tyfanevius, your Grace?" Gwen inquired, following the Lady.
"My consort and our Guardian. Do not fret, child. He's been sleeping for a long time, albeit with one eye open."
Before their feet even touched the ground, whatever forces that fed the enormous yew obeyed, germinating a table and three chairs.
"Do remove your leather garments," Solana advised. "The moss of our Sun Sanctum is a rare pleasure for the younger races."
Gwen willed her shoes and socks away, not wanting to perform the crass act of removing clothing mid-descent.
When she landed, what met her was an immense nostalgia. At once, Gwen realised that Henry likely had modelled his Grot after the Sun Sanctum, for the design of the table and the chair were the exact ones she had enjoyed, and the positioning of these familiar-looking furniture was also precisely as she had recalled. Together with the dappled garden-grove, she could almost imagine her old life revisited, only this time her instructor was an ageless Elf Queen, and Sufina, she supposed, a world-topping tree.
Solana took her seat, as did Gwen, leaving the chair of her 'consort' jarringly empty. The Elven priestess waved her hand over the table. Instantly a feat of patisseries materialised.
Gwen audibly gasped, her vision made blurry by the sheer volume of calories presented in one sitting. "Incredible! What manner of a spell conjures floral cakes? Is this high-tier Druidism?"
The Elf gave her a puzzling look, then flashed a wood-band Storage Ring by raising a hand.
"Oh…" Gwen turned as scarlet as the blossoming desserts.
"Feel free to partake," Solana commanded. "I had these prepared. Do not mind my abstinence. I ate months ago."
Gwen fought down a cheeky impulse to ask the Lady for dieting tips. Gently, she broke off a petal of crystallised sugar and delivered the morsel to her lips.
A vivid sensation of verdant vitality suffused her tongue.
"Vessel." Solana studied her with her golden irises. "Tell me what you know of Henry."
Collecting her thoughts, Gwen did her best to narrate her and Kilroy's first meeting, their conversation about the Middle Path, and her Apprenticeship. When prompted, she expanded on Marc Chandler, his sister, Elizabeth Sobel, Noosa Heads, and finally finishing with a first-hand account of Henry's demise in their desperate push to regain control of the Tower.
When Gwen finished, the immortal Elf sighed. Above them, the yew shivered, shedding a small sun shower of leaves.
"What a needless and wasteful loss." Solana shook her head with far more human emotion than Gwen had expected the Demi-God of possessing.
Gwen took another sugary petal to banish the oppressive melancholy, finding the vitality rush as therapeutic as it was intense.
Solana waited for her to finish.
"Your Master, Henry Kaine Foster Kilroy." The leader of the Elves of Snowdonia spoke after a half-minute of contemplation, dusting off the ancient history archived within her mind. "Is the eighth grand-scion hailing from the line of Morden. Do you know Arch-Mage Morden, child?"
Gwen could almost recite the biography by heart, as Morden had been one of Henry's favourite casters. "Yes. Malcolm Kane Morden, Arch-Mage. A nineteenth-century Scottish Highlander, originally from the Greyhawk Citadels in Suilven. He was the Master of a failed alliance called the Circle of Eight."
"Well done." Solana appeared pleased by her knowledge. "Continue..."
"He hunted Trolls and Giants and was... formidable as a Mage and a politician. Morden was against the English Crown and wanted Scotland's independence. In the end, he disappeared, failing to stop the English, but leaving behind numerous books and spells, and a Noble House that prospers even now..."
"Also— Morden was a signatory of the Accord," the High Priest appended her recollected biography. "A sorcerous purist, and a progenitor of the Magic you employ, not to mention the Towers you build. And of course, he was Henry's grandsire."
Though Gwen's non-monetary arithmetics suffered, she did her best. "I fear you've lost me. Do you mean Morden was Master's progenitor?"
Lady Soalan smiled.
In response, Gwen's hands grew clammy. "May I ask what year Master was born?"
"We are not familiar with the calendar of the Nazarene," the Elf spoke without a single indication she found Henry's purported age to be peculiar. "But I do recall that it was the same decade Alexandrina Victoria of Hanover took to the throne."
"But that's..." Gwen recalled from her high school propaganda class that Alexandrina Victoria was the maiden name of her Majesty, Queen Victoria. "That's... that's 1838!"