Her silent footsteps wound overtop roots and moss, deftly avoiding leaves and sticks without so much as a thought. Traveling through the Evergreen was second nature to Skye now, only in the roughest terrain did she even really need to look down. Even so, she made certain not to get into the bad habit of not checking her footing. After all, there were plenty of stories of adventurers stumbling into traps set by one another, and she very much didn’t want to be the one to deal with them. While she was fairly certain she could escape them or disarm them given time, there was always the concern that some fool armed a trap that could maim.
Generally, the kinds of people who set those traps without thinking about them were fools and not good at it in the first place. But, if a skilled hunter did so, then even Skye would have to be wary of spotting them.
Not that she’d ever run across them, especially not this far out from the beaten paths. Of late, Skye had been dipping deeper and deeper into the ‘Green than ever before. Truth be told, she was beginning to feel stagnant, though her new team was alleviating the feeling somewhat. Skye wasn’t the best at ‘peopling’ as her father called it, generally not preferring to talk with others. She knew that had to change, especially since her team had something special under the surface. She could feel that they had good chemistry, and she hoped she wasn’t the only one who thought so.
Even with that, she couldn’t manage to find away to ask if they were ready to dive deeper, to explore more. Maybe they could find some rare plants and animals, or perhaps they would find a freshly grown place of power, rife with essence that they could benefit from. The possibilities were endless, and anything that could advance them would be worth it.
Skye wanted one thing above all else, and that was freedom. The freedom to choose her own path, and if there was one thing her mother ensured she knew, it was that freedom wasn’t necessary for power, but power certainly helped with being free.
Then again, her mother was something of a berserker, so she supposed that advice might be taken with a grain of salt.
“Hmm… Now that’s new.” She paused at a tree while pushing a stubborn lock of reddish-brown hair back behind her ear. While she hadn’t been in this area, she wasn’t unfamiliar with the beasts of the forests. Her mentor, wherever he was now, would have thrown a fit if he knew she couldn’t identify something. That often was accompanied by week-long sessions of being thrown into the wilderness until she could identify each track she came across, often with grueling detail.
“Deep claw marks… Somewhat fresh, too. Maybe a week old?” She ran calloused hands across the bark, a contemplative look on her face. Idly, she thumbed at the twine straps around an oiled leather pocket that was sewn into her belt. She pulled out a glass vial, marked on each face with a winding symbol that looked like a trail. Within moments she pulled the stopper up, dripping a few drops onto the cut bark.
A sizzling sound and smoke drifted through the air for a second before amber colored energy began to emerge almost uncertainty. After another second, though, the essence stabilized, becoming rigid and appearing to Skye’s eyes as a tapestry. A true druid would be able to read an essence signature and tell a good deal about the state of mind of the creature who left it. Creatures - or animals, the term was generally interchangeable - left fairly simple essence marks that denoted their territory and general wants and needs. She was quite skilled at their measure herself, and had been able to determine much about the ecosystem around her fairly easily.
The alternative type of mark, though, was left by something that didn’t quite fit into the ecosystem. Generally seen as aberrant and unusual, and would either change the ecosystem, or be changed by it to fit.
Those types were monsters, very often dangerous for the unprepared and prepared alike. Their records tended towards distorted, or wholly too focused in one area over others. Hunger, violence, desire, any number of such things could be overexaggerated in an essence mark left by them.
Then, there was whatever this was.
Skye grimaced at the essence mark before her, “Why is the imprint so large? It’s like a book.” She read through the essence, trying to take everything in while the fluid’s effects lasted. What she could glean of it surprised her, the wants and needs were complex, tempered, but also tinged with a simple-minded but potent drive that she’d come to associate with animals. More than that, there was a definite focus towards combat and aggression, and if there was anything less elsewhere she’d be worried that this was some kind of monster. Instead, she was left somewhere in the middle, and then some. Usually only fully matured creatures left marks like this, a sort of impression of a fairly long life. Even that much was rare to come across on the outskirts of something’s territory, rather than deep in their home.
Trimmed versions were most common this far out… which meant one of two things to Skye.
“Either you’re actually surprisingly old and can’t be bothered, or you’re an aberration that doesn’t need to care how much others might know about you.” She murmured under her breath, uncertainty warring with her desire to continue exploring. Old wasn’t a problem, it just meant she had to be wary not to annoy whatever left the mark in the first place. An aberration was another story, they could be different from the standard version of their species in so many ways that Rangers the world over were in conflict if aberrants should even be considered the same as their base species. Worse still, the marks they left behind didn’t necessarily indicate what essence abilities they’d developed.
Any creature that could use essence had at least one or two tricks that they used, but aberrations could have more than the standard. Skye didn’t know why that was, nor if that was something anyone was especially aware of, but that wasn’t important.
After taking a few more moments to consider her options, she began to slowly push deeper into the forest.
‘On the one hand, this is very risky,’ she admitted to herself, ‘but, on the other hand, finding information about what left this here could be worth a decent amount of merit at the guild.’
With that in mind and decision made, Skye cautiously pressed deeper. She’d come through this area several weeks ago, but not especially deep in. Already she was nearing the edge of what she’d seen, and she hadn’t heard of anything unusual about the area from the guild. That meant that no one else had happened across this at least, so it was guaranteed new information. It wouldn’t be enough to advance another rank, but every bit helped.
She stopped at every clawed trunk, but regrettably couldn’t determine the species from the slashes alone. They were sharp, unusually keen for any predator she’d heard of in the region. There was the possibility that this was something from the Daurgast, but Skye doubted that. Neither forests’ denizens especially liked migrating between the two regions.
The mountains were even less likely. The marks would likely be even more dense with essence, and the environment itself likely couldn’t support them adequately.
Which lent to the thought that this was a native to the forest, but a rare one.
At once, Skye was happy and nervous that this was likely the case. She could fairly easily pick out the tracks and trails of the common and uncommon creatures in the forest, but while she knew that whatever this was had to be at least near man-sized, she didn’t know for certain what it was.
She did have a lingering suspicion, but those things were incredibly rare. If it was one of those things, well, that would be worth a significant amount of merit. Skye focused outwards more, not allowing her thoughts to run wild any longer as she prowled forth through the underbrush. Her steps were nearly silent, and only rarely did she disturb the environment as she moved. Every brush that rustled led her to pause in her steps, carefully listening for any answering sound. After every incident, she chastised herself and worked to be more wary, though as far as she knew there weren’t many in Greenleaf that could match her. Even in the greater reaches of the Arnost Kingdom, she was comfortable that she could beat out all but the most dedicated sneaks in their craft. If it weren’t for the rampant growth all around, Skye wouldn’t make any noise at all.
This deep in, though, she could almost feel the branches and brambles reaching to catch the edge of her cloak, or catch on one of her bags. Skye picked through and around them steadily and patiently for several minutes. As she went, though, she began to notice an issue.
‘The marks aren’t changing in spacing at all.’ She tutted aloud, ‘I have no idea if I’m closing in on its lair or just moving through the edge of its territory.’ Skye paused for a moment, scanning the ground with a searching gaze only to shake her head with disappointment shortly after. The creature seemed to leave either very light prints, or was wary of leaving them at all. That was disconcerting, considering that meant the beast was quite adept with stealth as well. Skye was about to resume her trek when she heard the sound of running water echo through the trees.
Skye patted her side, noting her waterskins idly. Only one was approaching empty, so she didn’t expressly need the water.
But, she did need a break after having been active for several hours. Still, the ranger remained careful as she picked her path through to the river. Before long, she’d reached the body of water, a relatively shallow body that went hip deep at the most. It was crystal clear, and void of the white-water rushes that some areas of the river bore.
“Now isn’t this a pretty place,” she muttered, her stern expression not matching her words. The ranger paused, looking around the clearing immediately adjacent to the river while studying the water itself. It didn’t appear especially deep, and there were a few locations with broad stones that could be used to cross. The water was slow and gentle on a very gradual slope, unlike the falls that emerged closer to Greenleaf, and wouldn’t pose any particular challenge to cross even without the stones that gave plenty of crossing routes.
Still, while most creatures didn’t hunt next to water sources, there were always exceptions. As she studied and waited, she gradually allowed herself to relax, not noting anything to be wary of.
She moved to the water’s edge, doing her best not to display any standard prey behaviors, small gestures such as kneeling rather than bending. She feigned putting her waterskin into the river, waiting a few more seconds and listening carefully for movement around her.
When nothing did, she finally uncorked the waterskin and filled it up. Before it was full, she took several gulps of the pristine, cold water. She filled up a few other waterskins freshly, then splashed her face. Only now did she truly stop to appreciate the sunbeams that peered down through the branches here, the slow rustle of leaves in the wind. The earthen smell of damp earth and moss filled her lungs as she breathed in and out slowly, savoring the scents that had first attracted her to her calling as a ranger.
Idly, she glanced at the trees around, thinking back to how her teacher had showed her aspects of nature she probably wouldn’t have considered. His particular calling wasn’t for her, but that didn’t mean that she didn’t see the value in a druid’s craft. Right about now, she’d have loved some of the perks that came with it.
Before she could sink her consciousness into nature any further, though, she couldn’t help but pause as her eyes settled on one particular tree trunk. Skye blinked in confusion for a moment as she saw what looked to be more or less straight lines against a trunk, each parallel to the next. They started low on the trunk and rose a centimeter or so at a time. The few at the bottom were spaced further apart, but the ones near the top were much closer. Skye shifted her pack off of her back, letting it rest against the ground as she rolled her shoulders before approaching the marks.
As she approached the marks her curiosity grew, the marks against the tree faintly emanating essence just like the territorial marks from before. Almost habitually, Skye pulled out a small stone and held it up against the marks, shimmering with the same essence frequency from before. She could nearly do the same herself, but after having done so for years, Skye couldn’t quite shake the habit of confirming her senses.
‘Sure enough, they’re from the same creature,’ she wondered at the marks, ‘this almost looks like a growth-mark though. If it is…’ She sighed aloud, staring at the marks with anxiousness before shaking her head.
“Looks like it’s an aberration after all.” She took up her pack again, questions only increasing as she glanced at the marks. If it was a growth-mark, then the creature was intelligent, curious, and most certainly not full grown. It was two meters tall, roughly, and as Skye looked into the damp earth leading into the forest, she realized there were a few trails going deeper into the forest here. There were clear footprints here, though, and Skye gratefully took the opportunity to examine them.
“Three clawed, probably a bird, big and heavy, not a flier, hopefully.” She whispered to herself, now fairly certain that the creature was at least 400 lbs., and probably a Phorus.
Skye swallowed hard, staring at the footprint as her better sense and ambition warred with each other. She weighed the pros to cons rapidly before steeling her resolve and following the trail deeper into the forest, her steps as silent as she could make them.
There were a few reasons why she continued in spite of the risk of the creature being an aberration. There were several reasons to continue her pursuit, not the least of which being the reason why the bird was named Phorus in the first place; while the exact truth was uncertain, popular mythos stated that the first of these dangerous and powerful birds were tamed by a man named Phorus and became his companion. Fiercely loyal and lethal, Phorus and his bird were a central part of many of the legends that the Arnost Kingdom promoted from their founding days. They were exceedingly rare, having been almost entirely removed from the wild during the early war-torn days in the kingdom, and then poached for strategic resources by other nations in the spanning time afterwards. In other words, they were not only valuable, but incredibly well regarded as excellent partners and symbolic of the early days of their history to many of the Arnost Kingdoms upper-circles.
They were virtually extinct in the wild, and that led to a tremendous strain on the species in captivity. The Arnost Kingdom fiercely protected these resources from being hunted, and rewarded any information on wild born Phorus with a king’s ransom. Given how a significant force of the military was based around tamed creatures and their handlers, it wasn’t a stretch to say that the Kingdom nearly considered it treason to hunt a Phorus.
Skye, of course, had no intention of harming it. But information on it was worth a great deal. More than that, if she could tame it herself…
She shook her head at the thought. Phorus were fiercely territorial and independant. It was nearly a miracle that they were tamed at all, not to say anything about an aberrant on top of that. Beyond that, taming one would almost certainly bring a great deal of possibilities to her doorstep, but also pressure from the kingdom to join its forces in some capacity.
‘This is good for me,’ she told herself, ‘no matter what, I can gain something from this.’
‘Provided I don’t get torn to pieces. It’s an aberration.’ The counter thought came and forced her steps to pause. This was the crux of the problem, that an aberrant could be wildly different from the standard of the species. Frankly, she knew very little personally about a standard Phorus in the first place, only knowing what she’d read in books and the brief dialogue her teacher had offered on the topic. It wasn’t important at the time, given how ridiculously rare they were, but now she wished that she’d explored the topic further.
After a few moments more hesitation, her feet continued carrying her in the direction of the trail. The marks spoke of a highly intelligent, or at least experienced, creature that didn’t have a particularly immense streak of rage. Those that did were very obvious, and tended to taint the surrounding essence such that even those uneducated in the finer nuance of essence reading could tell the temperament of the beast. She would have to be careful, but a fight wasn’t necessarily guaranteed.
Minutes of picking through underbrush rewarded her with a strange sight. In front of her, she could see a gathering of trees, unlike those around. What appeared to be a fairly well concealed wall -albeit in the barest of senses - formed of felled tree limbs and patches of leaves and moss that obscured the innermost gathering of trees.
Skye startled when she realized that they weren’t just any trees, but Tono trees, a druid favorite as a conduit for wild magic. More than that, the arrangement was exactly as she’d seen of other druid circles, only with the aforementioned reinforcements. She slunk down beside a tree, studying what she was seeing with a skeptical gaze. To her knowledge, there wasn’t a circle here, but plenty of them had been planted and forgotten about over the centuries. Certainly, it wasn’t surprising that she’d found one in some random place in the forest, but it was odd that someone concealed the interior.
Beasts couldn’t see into the clearing thanks to the druid-craft used, so concealment wasn’t strictly necessary.
‘Unless they were hiding from people.’ Skye’s gaze sharpened at that, looking for any other signs of human habitation. Nothing in the small clearing around the trees indicated much, if any, human habitation. In fact, the only thing she could see were the footprints of the Phorus that led into the…
‘Wait, what?...’ The realization struck her that the trail led straight towards the entrance of the druid circle, something that shouldn’t happen. Technically speaking, a beast or monster could force their way into a circle if they were committed, but there wasn’t any reason why that would happen. Ordinarily, they would be affected by the craft within, losing interest or being unable to remember why they wanted to enter the area in the first place.
So, then, was the aberrant specifically attracted to this place? With how many tracks were in the area, it was clear that the beast frequented this spot, perhaps as a nest. That was incredibly valuable information already - the aberrant could ignore a certain strength of craft.
Skye looked around briefly before finding a large stick. She hefted it, measuring that it wasn’t all that heavy, but combined with its size would suit her purposes just fine. Moving into a throwing pose, Skye aimed carefully to hit the outside of one of the trees. Letting loose, the branch flew true, cracking against the bark of the Tono tree loudly before tumbling over several branches, making even more noise as it rustled down them and landed with a hollow ‘thunk’ on the ground. Before it was even halfway there, Skye retreated back into cover, watching for any response within.
A few seconds…
A dozen seconds…
Not so much as a shifting branch.
Skye gradually pushed up from the ground, walking forward but ready to dodge at a moment's notice. She touched the short sword at her side in consideration before she decided not to draw her weapon. Of the few things she knew, she was aware that Phorus did not take kindly to intruders in their territory, less so for those that drew their weapons.
Going into their nest with a drawn weapon? That would be even less wise.
Skye made her way through the opening, surprised to find that another layer of branches existed within, forcing her to move around to the opening of the druid-circle’s core. She slowly came around the corner, peeking into the inner shelter and stifled a gasp as she did so.
She expected a mere beast den, perhaps a few scattered bones, some piled sticks and soft material in a corner, perhaps a trinket or two that the beast fancied. What she didn’t expect was for the place to look nearly like a person lived there. The floor was carefully filled with a light covering of moss, save for some long, whittled branches that ran the length of the floor on either side, ending at the wall on the other side. Deeper in the middle, near the wall, she saw several pelts, some of which were gently pulsing with infused essence, as yet unpurposed. Each one belonged to a beast she knew quite well, the Ironback Badger, a menace and at times great danger to fledgling adventurers. They were highly durable, and could do a surprising amount of damage with their claws to an unexpectant defender. Their hides were incredibly valuable, especially if they were essence infused upon their demise. It was fairly rare for it to happen, yet she could see several here.
Skye found herself kneeling next to the largest one already, running her hands through the coarse but well cared for fur. If an experienced leatherworker got a hold of this, they could channel the essence in the skin and greatly enhance its durability. She wasn’t sure what grade this would be, but considering how much essence it was putting off, she doubted this was anything less than a gold grade hide. This was the kind of thing that needed money and connections to buy, and even then it was all down to luck. It would be worth quite a lot.
‘And gods is it comfortable,’ Skye picked up the hide, briefly forgetting herself as she rubbed her face against it. It didn’t even smell! Whoever did this was quite good at-
Skye caught herself with a tremor as she once more realized this was not a person's work. This was a beast's work…
“What the hell kind of aberration does this?” She broke out into a cold sweat, realizing that this went beyond the pale for anything she’d ever heard of. Intelligence was one thing, but as she looked around, she couldn’t help but feel anxious. There were plenty of beasts that were smart, and that only was enhanced when they contracted with a sapient partner. But with how much this one was already capable of…
There was a nest on the left half of the room. Crudely twined together vines and fibers braced branches together in a large circle with an absurd amount of leaves and moss forming the bed within. It was a bed in the truer sense of the word, and it looked comfortable enough to challenge even civilized accommodations. Beside it was a small collection of stones, each a different type, seemingly categorized at random. Her gaze was drawn to the other side, where what appeared to be a larder was in the process of being put together.
Flat stones lay against the far wall with more crudely woven baskets. They weren’t nearly good enough to sell, but for the purposes of holding the collection of nuts, berries, and roots that sat within them, they would do just fine. Moreover, she could see what looked to be jerky of an admittedly questionable quality sitting on more stone, and other empty receptacles beside.
She was about to retreat when she heard a twig snap behind her.
Skye grit her teeth, forcing every response her body came up with in that moment down. She wanted to turn quickly, drawing her blade. Another part of her wanted to dart away from the spot she was standing, moving as rapidly as possible.
But her years of training managed to just barely hold on, aside from the tremor of her legs that she couldn’t help. Instead she turned, slowly, clutching the hide closely to her chest with white gripped knuckles, forcing herself to hold it rather than go for her blade.
It was only because she knew it was a Phorus that she did this, otherwise she might have turned with a blade out, doing her best to get out of the nest before anything happened.
But Phorus were a rare exception to the rule. They didn’t like attacking people with their backs turned on the first meeting, unless they knew them to be threats beyond a doubt. She was an invader, but that didn’t guarantee she was a threat.
Skye almost couldn’t keep from gasping at the sight of the Phorus, though. She’d seen pictures, their descriptions, but it didn’t do the actual bird justice.
Its colors were very different from a normal Phorus; sapphire blue feathers dominated much of its body, it’s plumage a deep burgundy. It’s chest bore a criss crossing pattern that were sapphire feathers, instead of the deep burgundy feathers surrounding it. If she had to guess, it had fought for these pelts in traditional Phorus fashion - dead on and without relenting. Violet-purple feathers adorned its wings, and speckles of the three colors moved from there down its back and belly.
It was a gorgeous bird. If it weren’t for the furious glint in its clearly intelligent eyes, Skye would have been happier for the sight.
“Uh… hello,” she stated lamely, “I, uh… this is yours.” Swallowing hard, Skye gently shifted the hide in her hands to the ground, leaning down steadily. As she stood up, still being watched by the deathly silent, imperious Phorus, she did the only other thing she could think of.
She bowed, just enough that she couldn’t see the top of its head. She didn’t know whether or not this would work, and while she was confident enough in fighting to escape, she really had no interest in fighting the beast.
‘Here’s hoping it’s not too angry.’