"Are you sure it's this way, Vali? We're not even on the path anymore."
Fennali turned her head to glance over her shoulder at the other girl walking behind her. She was gorgeous, as always, and the pale gleam of the jealous moon reaching through the trees as if to grasp and steal her away only amplified that beauty. Long, walnut-hued tresses fountained down from her head, only avoiding being caught by closely packed branches by the aid of the elemental magic she weaved around them both. Bathed in moonlight, both that hair and her perfectly smooth skin seemed to reflect the light with a silvery sheen. Fennali had been in love with Wysteria for ages now, it felt like, but like a favorite painting, or rather, a stunning mountain vista, the woman could never get tired of looking at her best friend and desire.
But Fennali didn't know whether Wysteria reciprocated that love or not. That changes tonight. It's why she'd asked Wysteria to accompany her on this brisk night, on a moonlit trek, to a destination only she knew. An old mansion atop this mountain, partially overgrown, was beholden to many secrets Fennali planned to share with Wysteria tonight.
"Trust me, Wys. Have I ever lead you astray before?"
Fennali's best friend sent a keen look her way. "Remember the time you guided our party right into a Rhino war camp? They were ready to trample us on sight, believing us to be Python spies."
"Well, I suppose that was a slight error in pathfinding, but I managed to get us all out alive, didn't I?"
Wysteria sidled up beside Fennali and gave her nut-brown shoulder a firm squeeze. "That you did. I hope you know that I appreciate everything you've done for us. You could have just as easily gone home. It's not like you were obligated to join our cause."
"Of course I was," Fennali replied quickly. You were there, after all.
"Oh, but be quiet; we're almost there." And indeed they were. Fennali could see the slope's flattening and the clearing of brush and trees that came with it.
Taking Wysteria's hand and marveling at its infantile smoothness, she broke into a run and crested the ridge, stopping right at the edge of the field. With no trees left to hinder it, the moon was able to douse the area in its full luminescence, revealing, in pearly white splendor, the scene before them. Ahead and to the left, nature had carved a spring into the ground, which sat pristine and tranquil, unbothered by human activity and iridescent in the lunar flush. The sky's vault was reflected in it, strange dark patches forming where lilypads broke the unwavering surface like a frog had eaten the stars right out of the astral lake in which they swam. Fennali knew that some elemental magic had formed crystals at the bottom of the pool long ago, which Fennali hoped to gift to her love when they deigned to take a dip. As they entered this rarely spoiled place, a doe lifted its head to regard them, its dark eyes surprisingly placid. Much to Fennali's surprise, the animal didn't bolt, not even when Wysteria went to approach it.
Is it the intrinsic magic of this place, or is this Wysteria's doing? she wondered. Well, either way, she wasn't going to complain. Wysteria crossed the clearing, her moccasin-clad feet bouncing ever so slightly on the springy moss, and reached a hand up to stroke the doe's wet nose. The animal leaned into the press, and Fennali couldn't help but imagine what it was feeling right now, and a spark of jealousy rose in her throat. Be patient, she scolded herself; it won't be much longer. You just have to get her in the house.
Wysteria didn't make her wait too long; only a few minutes later, she sent the deer bounding back into the woods with a gentle pat on the rump.
With a radiant smile spreading across her face, Wys turned back to Fennali. Hopefully, the dark-haired woman reached out an arm, bending it slightly, to make an oblong half circle. The sweet grin never faltering, Wysteria stepped into the arm and allowed Fennali to secure it around her waist. "I don't know what else you have to show me up here, or if you planned that encounter, but with the doe, you've already made up for making me trek halfway up a mountain."
Spirits above, I love this woman! "That was just a tiny taste, barely a morsel of the wonders I have on display for you tonight!"
Fennali reoriented herself so that she and Wysteria were facing the main attraction of the area.
The once-great mansion stood tall and composed as if it had chosen solitude, rather than having been abandoned, as if residents were a luxury it had forgone without anguish. Its walls stood firm, bolstered by the budding vines that climbed up its sides. The varnish that previous owners had brushed on the wooden steps had disintegrated years ago, and the planks on the porch had begun to warp and sag. Silky spider's webs hung in every corner, nearly invisible in the shadows their makers had cunningly hidden them in. But despite the spiders, the vines, the loss of glamour, and the darkness, the building looked no less dignified than it had all those years ago when its degradation had just begun.
"Welcome, Wysteria Morningsong, to the old house of Kadarr of the Nightwhisper," Fennali breathed into her friend's ear, not wanting to shatter the impressive tension in the air. "Come in; the best part awaits us indoors."
"How did you find this place?" Wysteria asked, her voice an awe-struck murmur, affected by the same commanding magnificence as Fennali had been.
"I have my ways," Fennali replied cryptically. Her 'ways' included a particular magical mentor who had once worked alongside the Nightwhisper, knew what she desired, and was willing to sell a few secrets to see Fennali's goals achieved.
That being said, the witch named Maccath Fireblood always had ulterior motives. Fennali had yet to discern what her mentor wanted to be done here, but, she hoped, it wouldn't hinder Fennali tonight.
She led Wysteria up the creaking steps, across the old, weathered porch, and inside to the foyer.
Wysteria blinked upon beholding the place. "It's immaculate," she breathed, shocked. "There's not a speck of dust anywhere!"
Despite the wizened exterior, Kadarr's mansion looked fresh and new within. All the dust was swept and disposed of, the paint on the walls new and unbroken. Family portraits hung on the walls, looking as if they'd been painted only days before, not decades. The trim and baseboards were freshly varnished and cleaned, and fixtures made of various precious metals had been polished to a reflective sheen.
Wysteria closed her eyes for a moment and cast her finger in an arc. "There's some sort of elemental presence here," she concluded. "I can sense several sources, most of them moving. But there's one dominant source that's stationary." She turned a puzzled gaze towards her friend. "What's going on here?"
Fennali shrugged. "I've only a theory so far, but from what I can tell, old Kadarr conjured up some magical servants of some sort and set them to maintain his house, and they haven't stopped working ever since."
Wysteria nodded slowly. "That would explain the elemental energy. Save the most potent rituals, the magic of the Arcane Manifest tends to die with its caster. But if he somehow bound elemental spirits to his will..." The glowing light of excitement filled her alluring amber eyes. "Vali, do you have any idea what sort of knowledge could be contained within this place? If we can find Kadarr's notes, maybe we can learn the basis of his spells. That magic could save so many lives! If druids can learn to force their will upon elemental creatures, rather than needing to wage deadly battle against them, it might change the landscape of the world forever!" She excitedly tugged on Fennali's arm. "Come on, let's go searching!"
Fennali stood openmouthed in shock. Of course, she should have realized that Wysteria would see the practical and life-saving implications of this strange magic rather than revel in its majesty. Fennali sighed. All she wanted was to show this house to Wysteria, maybe take her dancing in the ballroom, where an invisible quartet waited to play. In her pack, she had the makings of a homely but luxurious meal, one of Wys's favorites, which they would share on the hearth. Then, with this magnificent place all around them, Fennali could have charmed Wysteria and admitted the truths that had long been stuck in her gullet. Part of Fennali wanted to pull Wysteria back, tell her everything. Yet, the warmth in her smile and the positive vibrations Vali could almost feel emanating from the woman she loved more than life itself; it was more than Fennali could bear.
So the tall warrior woman just readjusted her pack, smiled wanly, and allowed her best friend to pull her along.
They started in the Hall of Repast, where Wysteria had noticed the first elemental signature. Fennali found it rather interesting that Kadarr had set bronze plaques above each door's threshold, giving a name to the room the most recent residents were about to enter. Within, there was an immaculate table with ten settings for a formal dinner. The white tablecloth fluttered as they entered, the waiting wind servant hastening to light the candles set out on the table and straighten the silverware.
Fennali figured she'd give one last attempt before giving into Wysteria's whims. "Aw, how sweet of them. They set up the makings for a romantic meal. I wonder if they can cook too?"
Wysteria laughed brightly. "I doubt there's anything appetizing in Kadarr's pantry. Hasn't it been forty years since he died? You can ask if you wish, but don't ask me to share with you if they come out with something green and odd-smelling."
Worth a shot, I suppose, Vali sighed tacitly. So be it. I'll just wait until she's slaked her curiosity. Then I can try my hand.
From the Hall of Repast, they found the Reposal Dwellings, or, as most people called it, the sitting room. As they crossed the doorway, soft strains of music flowed through the air, an old, slow piece started by yet another invisible servant. The Dormant Suites were well furnished but relatively empty. Only a few remnants of Kadarr's children, who had gone missing shortly after his death, remained. The elementals had fluffed their colorful pillows and maintained the integrity of the plush toys they'd once slept alongside. A long, scrutinous tour of the house led to no other significant discoveries. Kadarr's office was bereft of any notebooks or memos, and only sparse family portraits served to identify that this was in-fact the Nightwhisperer's old home.
"Well, I've tried pulling on every book and every bust, but to no avail," Wysteria said with a huff. "Mystery novels have led me astray once again. I was hoping to find some entrance to a secret workshop, or a lair of some kind, that might have anything to help us understand this mystery." She plopped down in the Repose Dwellings, onto one antique-looking chair. It creaked faintly beneath her but otherwise gave no signs of its age.
"Well, tonight might not be a total waste," Wysteria said, pointing at the hearth in the center of the room. "The last reservoir of elemental power is coming from there. I'm not sure what it could be, but it can't hurt to find out, can it?"
"Nope. And if it's nothing, we can still have a bite to eat. I don't know about you, but all this fruitless exploration has made me hungry," Fennali supplied, setting her pack on the floor. As if on cue, Wysteria's stomach let loose a prodigious growl. The two shared a sweet, harmonious giggle, and for a moment, it felt like they were children again, playing in the fields around Yiqi-Soire. Back when touching and holding Wysteria wasn't just an idle fantasy. Shaking off her misgivings, Fennali reached for the handle of the hearth.
Before she could touch the metal, Wysteria said, "Vali, I want you to know, even if this effort ends up in vain, I won't regret following you out here. It's been fun catching up with you, you know? I feel like ever since we became heroes, we never have time just to be us anymore. I'm grateful for this time to be with you, even if it's all we get."
Fennali blew her a kiss, wondering if Wysteria was even conscious of what she was saying. With a helpless grin, she returned to her task.
When her calloused fingers brushed the metal handle, she noticed that it was strangely warm to the touch. Not prohibitive by any means, but since the airy servants didn't light fires unless somebody entered a room, and no visible light or heat was rising from the hearth, it defied explanation.
Vali shrugged and wrapped her fingers around the steel bar, pulled it to the right and out, swinging the door open. Just as she'd expected, there was no fire, but the fireplace wasn't empty either. In the very center sat a palm-sized gem, dull orangey-red in color. Gingerly, Fennali scooped the jewel into her spread hands and brought it to Wysteria.
"I'll leave you to examine that. I think I saw a well out back. Hopefully, there's some potable water there. If so, I'll start up a pot of tea." Vali squeezed her friend's shoulder in passing and left Wysteria to her own devices. "Don't get too lonely without me."
"I'll try my best," Wysteria replied distantly, already examining the crystal.
As soon as Fennali's footsteps faded away, Wysteria delved into the multi-faceted stone with her magical energy. It was unlike anything she had ever seen. Not druidic magic, that was for sure, nor did she recognize any of the trademarks of arcane artifacts. But it was magical. It had an elemental aura all around it, and the stone emanated a faint heat. Only one last thing to try. Taking a deep breath, Wysteria loosed her soul and reached a tendril of spiritual energy into the crystalline stone. Some sort of control gem, perhaps? That was as far as she got before the jewel shattered and exploded in a concussive wave of fire and heat.
Wysteria immediately and reactively wrapped the elemental energy around herself, protecting herself from the brunt of the conflagration. However, now she was trapped, and it seemed the spirits weren't taking kindly to the interruption. The fire was alive, and her elemental protection could only do so much.
Fennali felt like a deer in the lantern-light, frozen in fear when the explosion went off, and the fire started to take over the house, faster than could be achieved without magical aid.
Wysteria is in there her brain supplied helpfully. Fennali secured the pot of water and turned around, dashing back into the house, calling out her love's name. All around her, the flames roared and howled, an empty cacophony of consumption, Glass shattered, and ravenous spirits swallowed the old, dry house with terrifying celerity. Heedless of the burns she was doubtlessly sustaining, Fennali dashed towards the core of the mansion, where she found Wysteria, crumpled on the floor, surrounded by cackling, burning spirits, apparently freed from their loathed servitude.
"Hey, sulfur-sacks!" Fennali cried. "Leave her be! I'm the one you want!" Luckily it seemed the servants were willing to comply and rushed at her as a looming pillar of flame. The closer they came, the hotter the pot grew in her hand, and she could feel her hair starting to singe. But she waited for the last moment before swinging the teapot and dousing their flames in a deluge of tepid liquid. The spirits hissed and sizzled, their bodies evaporating with the moisture. Vali didn't wait for their screams to diminish, leaping at Wysteria and scooping her into her arms. She wasn't moving. Don't let her expire. Get her out now! Jumping over fallen beams and fissures burned into floorboards, Fennali made her escape from Kadarr's mansion and back down the hill, stopping only after the light of the conflagration was no longer visible. She shook her friend desperately.
"Please, wake up, Wys. Don't leave me."
After what felt like a solid minute of shaking, Wysteria finally took a breath and started to cough up grey smoke. "I'm fine. I'll live now, thanks to you."
The fragile sweetness in Wysteria's voice was more than she could take. "Spirits, Wysteria," Fennali sobbed into her shoulder. "This isn't how I wanted tonight to go, not at all. Had I known that...."
"Shhhh, Fennali," Wysteria soothed, brushing the tears from her friend's face. "I know. I know."
"I love you, Wys. I love you so damned much. That's why I brought you out here tonight."
Wysteria chuckled weakly, which devolved into a smoky cough. "I wondered how long it would take you to admit it."
Fennali almost dropped her right then and there. "You knew? H-how."
Her best friend just winked. "I have my ways," she quoted slyly.
"By the Spirits, Wysteria! I wish you'd said something before. C-can we go home and start tonight over?"
"I would enjoy that, Fennali." Wysteria beamed sincerely. "I need a bath first, but then I'm yours. I promise."
Fennali searched for words but couldn't find them, so she just kissed her friend and love warmly on the mouth. "I can't wait. Let's go home."