The White Forest
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The forest was bright today. A cloudless sky left the air open to the fresh day’s light. That was how Fletch liked to think of it, that the light belonged to the day. He was just there to try to enjoy it, to experience it. Leaves rustled far above him, catching the wind, creaking and swaying the branches of the massive trees. White trunks rose like great pillars from the moss-covered forest floor. The same color roots stuck out from the green and velvet carpeted ground. They spread out like inverted streams.
Fletch clambered over one.
He stopped for a moment and stood on top of it. Easily six feet off the ground they were massive, as dwarfing as the trees themselves. This was Fletch’s favorite place in the Southern Forest, the White Glades. Patches of these sacred trees grew here. It was the only place in the world they grew.
The barest breath of air drifted through the forest, the last reaches of the billowing wind above. He followed a path that wandered deep into this particular grove. It was easy to get turned around, lost in the glade. Some never made it out. The White Glades were huge, but the Southern Forest, that was an endless see of interwoven trees and vines and brush. Fletch shivered, he could see it, wandering too far along a root, losing the trail. Not many came this way, people at least. The trail wasn’t marked well, unless you knew it already, and none were obscene enough to deface the mountainous trees. At least they didn’t live long if they did. Sacrilege, he spat. Just the idea of it twisted his stomach into disgust.
The black thoughts drifted away with the low draft, he had an easy time balancing. The white roots were huge. The trail he followed ran out in front of him, simple piles of rocks between the officious roots. Fletch leapt, his bare feet landed softly on the moss-covered ground, green and welcoming, soft. The White Grove never dropped a leaf.
The air was warm, it was all year in this forest. Fletch checked his pouch, he had to be careful with it. Just one more to go. He closed it tenderly. Fletch was a forest tender. He had wandered onto the job, quite literally. That was years ago, he still remembered it vividly. Lost hungry, crazed at the clutches of thirst and wandering between these very trees. Not anymore, he knew these pathways better than his own thoughts.
Quick feet carried him between great white trees, over their roots, each one an obstacle. These days he would no longer find himself lost. This grove, this sacred forest, was his home. Only the soft patter of his footfalls, and the low brushes of wind, caught his ears. Very little grew below the great trees. The forest was wide, and open, a sea of white towers. He knew well enough more than humans roamed the forest though. So, quickly, and quietly he ran. A shadow of the forest. A whisper of the land, forest tenders’ had a knack for it. Those that didn’t, didn’t last long.
‘Two quick ears, and quicker feet, keep a live tender.’ The old saying went, he hummed it softly as he ran.
In varying places, in the nooks and crannies of this forest grew the essences. Pieces of pure magic. Small seeds, pods, some even crystalline, those fetched the highest prices; these grew in small patches throughout the heart of the White Glades.
A somewhere close by a branch broke loudly, and echoed through the forest. A sharp reminder of what else searched for these bits. Gods that used to scare the skin off him. A snapped branch would have him skipping three steps and tripping over heartbeats. There were wild creatures that fed on them, like bears to honey. Of course, wild animals and forest tenders weren’t the only ones that prized the essences.
There were others that hedged away from mankind, from the civilized world; they lived deep in the Southern Forest, and were fierce in their secrecy. Best he didn’t find himself spotted. The Keepers, that was how they translated what they called themselves, it was how they saw themselves in relation to the White Glade. They were it’s keepers, its tenders.
Really Fletch was more of a treasure hunter than an arborist. He ran softly away from the noise, winding his way along the roots, staying low, never making a profile. He was a whisper in the forest. Over the years he had garnered an odd, distant respect from and for the Keepers. He meant to keep it that way, distant. Too often he’d seen the gruesome end of that respect. IT was the tender thing, that respect.
The essences were life, they held magic, the powers of this world, they were prized, valued, and fought for. The small peace he had found hinged on him, his way of tending. Some came out for full pockets, and hands, full of greed. Heads full of riches and fame. Heedless to the laws and nature of this Forest. Fletch chose carefully, three essences a trip. No more, no less. One more to go.
He came to a stop, the root he ran beside dug deep into the ground and disappeared, a rare opening in the forest floor. He strained his patience, and his ears. Listening. Absentmindedly his hand brushed across his pouch, a reassurance of its presence. Nothing, just the low passing of air, he waited longer. A soft scrape itched the quietness. Well, something was close, and it followed him.
These were the moments that broke some forest tenders. The seconds where a feeling of being hunted set in, where it really hunkered down and buried in a heart. Not Fletch. He smiled. A quick personal thing. He reached into another, smaller pouch. He could feel a slight warmth from what he pulled out, something round, small, it glistened for a moment before he closed a sweaty hand around it. With his eyes closed he breathed slowly, forcing a calm confidence to fill him.
The air seemed to pause too. The quiet grew palpable. Then what he waited for, another scruff. Fletch sprung into motion. He leapt onto the root, in a flash he stood atop it and looked around.
“C’mon, where are you?” He didn’t even know what it was, but it didn’t matter.
A growl touched his toes, so close it could have brushed them. He tumbled backward, off the root. Tripping over himself, falling flat on his back. His elbow cracked loudly, splintering a torrent of pain up his arm. The essence he held dropped from his hand. It tumbled just out of reach. He tried, his arm didn’t respond properly. He started to curse, but stopped. A Glade Eater climbed over the root. Horrific scraping and tearing, the sacred bark was rent and torn as the creature pulled itself up and over the root.
He pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the blinding pain that sprouted, he thought he heard another crack. He was standing, that was what mattered, one arm hung, desperately useless. What luck. He locked eyes with the Glade Eater, it held only hunger, a insatiable desire to consume. He shivered. The thing looked down, at the essence that had fallen from his hand. Another gristly noise escaped the grotesque creature, and carried with it a vile sensation.
He had to be quick.
He rushed forward, even as a crushing fear bore itself into Fletch. He needed that essence, he was dead without it. He might be dead with it. He felt the pinpricks that accompany the edges of things. Where fear mixed with adrenaline and an odd excitement was born. The Glade Eater sprung toward him suddenly, a massive burst of speed it hadn’t shown. Of everything this forest held, it had to be an Eater.
Two steps, then he lunged, arms outstretched, one excruciatingly so. Fletch ignored the Eater, he closed a hand on the essence. It crashed into him, the Glade Eater. Crushing him, he cried out as it stood on him. Sharp claws dug into his side, his leg, it opened its treacherous jaws, cragged, sharp teeth opened and closed quickly, clicking shut. Fletch could feel the air being pushed from his lungs, too much weight on him to breath back in. He could feel the hot breath of the thing, he could taste it, the rancidness. It screeched, an eerie, piercing sound.
“Ahhhh!” He shouted, rough, full of a raw desire to live.
He threw his shattered arm up as the thing bore down on him. More weight, he felt a rib crack, then another. ‘NO’ he shouted within. His arm blocked the first deathly bite aimed at his neck. It ripped into it, blood poured out, welling up and dripping heavily. Fletch ignored it. In his other hand he crushed the essence. It burned. The Eater tore at his arm, shaking it, mangling it. Fletch screamed and slammed his other hand and broken essence into its eye.
It had been an Illuminated Essence, light burst from the spot as he pulled his hand away. It burned brighter and brighter, the Glade Eater bellowed, a rankling sound. His hand burned. Suddenly, blessedly, the weight left his chest. He sucked in a rattling breath, sharp pain along with it.
The Eater crashed away.
Fletch, laid there. He sucked in another painful breath, then another. Finally, after long moments, maybe it had been hours, maybe he had faded in and out of consciousness, he stood. He checked his pouch, the two he found were still in it, unbroken. Fletch breathed a sigh of relief, even if it was excruciating. He looked out into the White Glade. The forest was still. As though it waited with bated breath.
He had one more to go. Three essences, no more, no less.
In the distance another pair of eyes watched. The distant respect grew, it found itself fostered in the moment that could have been Fletch’s death. A pair of Keepers watch him as he ambled off, broken, determined. He had fended of a Glade Eater, a small piece of renown bloomed, and would follow him sooner than Fletch could know.
From the tales of Rangforne. A world grows.