Chapter 49: The Sylian Woods
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A/N: In which Mikael and Company finally make it to the Sylian Woods~

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The Sylian Woods. Each tree towers so far above his head it isn’t even funny. Craning his neck back, Mikael doesn’t think that the tops pierce the clouds… but he can’t even say for certain. He doesn’t know because all the way at the top, despite being spaced hundreds of feet apart, the Sylian Trees manage to form an immense interwoven canopy that blocks out the sky and lets through only the faintest natural light.

As a result, the Sylian Woods are dimly lit… but not SO dimly lit that he and his companions can’t see where they’re going. Especially since Mikael’s magic doubles as convenient torchlight, shedding teal illumination all around them as they carefully make their way into what can only be described as the land of giants.

Megafauna. That was what it had been called back on Earth, Mikael was pretty sure. But the term had multiple meanings as far as he recalled, especially whether you were talking about fictional versus reality. Still, he was keeping an eye out… somewhat worried that they might see a giant-ass squirrel skittering along one of the huge Sylian Trees. Or worse, there would be giant bugs. God, he hoped not. He really, really hoped not.

… At least they’d made excellent time to the border. It had only been two days since Foss Sangrey launched his attack on the Zuverian Empire, killing the Imperial Royal Family. He, Bula, and Avina had left the very next morning and foregone the use of horse or cart. Instead, Bula had carried their supplies while Mikael had carried Avina. Together… together they’d ran and ran, the land turning into a blur as it disappeared past them.

With his magic, Mikael was able to protect Avina from any ill-effects of such travel, though he also made sure they took a couple of breaks throughout the day. Still, moving under their own power at Bula’s top speed, they’d been able to reach the Sylian Woods in what had to be record times. If anyone in Zuveria or Ocreatha kept records like that.

And now here they were. Mikael felt like an ant, truth be told. He could understand why neither Ocreatha nor Zuveria had managed to successfully settle within these woods. The whole place was… unnatural. The size of everything made it seem like they were shrunken down, rather than everything around them being enlarged a hundred fold.

… He was pretty sure some of those fronds they were walking past were actually blades of grass, maybe. But he couldn’t say for sure, he wasn’t a botanist or anything. Thankfully, he wasn’t the only one feeling discomfited by their surroundings.

“This place is the worst. Bula, please tell me you know where we’re going.”

As Avina’s voice rings out, Mikael gives his Soul Mechanic a sympathetic look. He’d offer to carry her with his magic again, but she’d insisted on walking under her own power once they made it past the border and under the sheltering canopy of the woods. He wasn’t sure how much longer that would last though. To be fair, it wasn’t like Avina was some haughty, spoiled brat of a princess who’d never worked a day in her life.

In fact, it was the exact opposite. She’d spent two thirds of her life scrounging for scraps and quite literally living out of basements while using the sewers of Alether as her transit system for clandestine dealings. She was tougher than most in Mikael’s opinion. But… an outdoorsy type she was not. And more than that, she was definitely still the… softest of their party. Physically, she was the weakest and most vulnerable.

Bula, meanwhile, sniffs at the air and then huffs before nodding in Avina’s direction.

“Aye. I know where we’re going. Can feel it. Like a… tug. That way.”

The half-orc warrior points at seemingly nowhere in particular, save for that it’s definitely deeper into the woods. Which… yeah, Mikael could have guessed as much. Still, it’s better than nothing. Something Bula seems to agree with as she shrugs nonchalantly.

“Figure we just keep going that way and we’ll run into whatever fucker is calling me ‘home’. Yeah?”

Huffing again, Avina crosses her arms over her chest and nods.

“Yes, that seems like our best bet. Still, I hope it’s not too much further… you would think, given that the elves are said to be our size, that they would exist on the fringes of the Sylian Woods… not in its heart. And yet, we have seen neither hide nor hair of them so far.”

Looking around them, Mikael chuckles. They were several hours into the woods by this point. And yet…

“To be fair, does anyone really know HOW big the Sylian Woods even are, Avina? Sure, you guys told me that there were said to be a thousand of these trees that make up this forest, but where does that sort of number come from in the first place? If its ancient legend… then it’s more than likely that the Sylian Woods has grown since, right? For all we know, this could still be the fringes of the woods… could be that the edge of the woods lasts for weeks of travel for people as small as us.”

Avina’s mouth opens at that… and then closes shut as she lets out a shuddering breath, a shiver going down her spine. Her grey eyes narrow at him and she scowls.

“… I hate how logical that sounds. We’d better hope it won’t take us weeks to get to wherever Bula’s elves are. Doubt that the Order of the Rose can hold out that long…”

Mikael nods at the sobering reminder that they’re on something of a time crunch. Bula, meanwhile, huffs.

“Not my elves.”

Sensing a sore spot… and perhaps wanting to get back at Bula for all the mentions of her height, Avina smirks.

“Oh? You sure about that, Bula? We’re here because of you, after all. Hunting down Sylian Elves straight out of myth and legend… because of you. Following a path that only you can lead us down, because you’re currently sensing them reaching out to you right now. I don’t know… sure sounds like they’re your elves.”

A low growl of warning leaves Bula’s throat, but Avina is already done, simply leaning back with a smug smile as she wordlessly pats herself on the back for a job well done. Mikael, rolling his eyes at the interplay between two of the most important people in this world… at least so far as he’s concerned, sighs and looks for a way to change the subject. In the end, there’s really only the one thing on his mind though at this point.

“… I just hope whoever we wind up finding has a spare army lying around. I’m not sure why Bula is being called home, or what the connection the Knight-Superior saw between her and these woods even is, but I hope there’s something workable to be figured out here. Thayla’s father wasn’t wrong when he said we were looking in the unlikeliest of places here.”

Bula just shrugs again, not having any sort of answer to that it would seem. But then to be fair, she HAD been effectively tossed out of these woods as little more than a baby, left for the orcs of the Savage Lands to find and raise as their own. Taking that into consideration, perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising that Avina had more information in this regard, the freckled woman striking a pose that Mikael has come to regard as her ‘lecturing’ posture.

“Well, like I said before, there have been instances of incredibly large creatures coming out of the Sylian Woods over the centuries. The last one was actually a decade ago. Nowhere near Alether of course, so I only heard about it second hand, but the thing was said to be as large as two carriages. It laid waste to an entire village before Ocreathian Knights were able to put it down.”

Humming in thought, Avina gives a decisive nod.

“I figure if these Sylian Elves really are real, then they must have a way of taming these woods that we can’t understand. A magic, perhaps, that lets them domesticate the massive monsters that make the Sylian Woods their home. So… basically, it’s like you said, Mikael. The Sylian Elves might just have a spare army lying around.”

… That certainly sounded nice, though the more Avina had talked, the more Mikael found himself with a creeping sensation going up his spine. As his Soul Mechanic’s words continue to wash over him, he’s keeping his eyes on their surroundings, looking for any sign that something as large as what she was describing might be close by.

Glancing behind himself to make sure they’re not about to be ambushed, Mikael’s eyes gloss over it initially… but Avina’s words have put him on higher alert and he quickly does a double take before cursing loudly and spinning in place.

“Mikael? What is it?!”

“Tch! Enemy!”

Bula immediately recognizes that they’re under threat simply by Mikael’s stance. Meanwhile, Mikael is staring at a very large blob of soul energy hiding behind a tree hundreds of feet away.

“… Ladies, no sudden moves… but there’s a living thing behind that tree over there. A very large living thing.”

Bula grunts while Avina steps closer to his side. Mikael, meanwhile, begins calling on more of his magic. In hindsight, perhaps using his special brand of energy as torches was a bad idea. They were basically like a bunch of fireflies floating along the forest floor. Of course they were going to attract attention.

“What do we do?”

Avina’s whispered tone is strained but not fearful. She has full faith in him and Mikael finds that comforting. Bula, meanwhile, snorts derisively.

“We fight, of course. Mikael requires more power anyways.”

Pausing, Mikael gives the half-orc warrior a glance, but Bula just tilts her head at him.

“You have been wasting your true potential for long enough. Couldn’t use the undead because no souls. Couldn’t use the knights because they were allies. But these woods… these woods are teeming with challenge.”

Before Mikael can muster a response, Bula lifts her battle-axe over her head and lets out a roar.

“Face us! Fight us!”

Mikael blanches, but he doesn’t get a chance to quiet Bula down before the blob of soul energy slowly begins moving out from behind the tree. At least a quick glance at their surroundings shows no other blobs that he can see. But… that’s a small consolation prize, given what the blob actually turns out to be.

Bigger than a house. Covered in spines. Four legs. Claws larger than Mikael’s torso. Fangs dripping with drool and saliva. The monster that steps out from behind the tree is like some sort of fantasy dinosaur crossed with a saber tooth tiger. Mikael’s mouth goes dry, even as the creature’s eyes glow with verdant green light and it slowly prowls closer to him.

Beside him, Bula is growling in anticipation, all but ready to launch herself into battle. More likely, she’ll launch herself right into this thing’s maw. But Mikael won’t let that happen. And maybe she’s right. Maybe he’s wasted too much time in not building up power. Ever since Zadicus Quinn… he’s been resting on his laurels, allowing the evolution of his Soul Engine to carry him through and passively absorb the Weave from around him.

But to be fair, it wasn’t like Mikael wanted to go out and slaughter hundreds or thousands just to get stronger. That had never been who he was. That said… massive fuck-off monsters were a pretty good guilt-free source of fuel, weren’t they?

Mikael draws his sword and after a moment of thought, coats it in energy from his Soul Engine, growing the thing to be thrice as big as it would normally be, a blade of pure teal energy jutting out as he foregoes his shoulder altogether. A Buster Blade Lightsaber, Mikael finds himself absently thinking… even if he can’t quite remember where such words come from.

“Avina… stay behind us. Bula… I’m with you.”

With a growl of pure satisfaction and a big wide toothy grin thrown his way, the half-orc raises her battle-axe over her head and roars before lowering herself into a crouch and preparing to launch herself. Meanwhile, the monster has stopped about fifty feet away and seems to be readying itself for combat as well.

However, just as they’re preparing to do battle…

“Attack!”

A voice calls out that belongs to none of them, coming from above. Mikael’s eyes widen as his eyes dart up… but fortunately, the command to attack is not directed at any of them. As what look to be two dozen humanoid warriors, all with conspicuously knife-like ears, jump down from where they’d been camouflaged on the tree above, Mikael beats himself up for getting too caught up and focusing on only the monster and other soul signature as big as it. In comparison, the much more contained soul signatures of the Sylian Elves that had been hidden right above their heads had passed his notice entirely.

An inhuman, monstrous cry emits from the creature that had been stalking them, even as its spined hide is immediately perforated with a dozen excellently aimed arrows. Despite both Mikael and Bula being more than ready for battle… the fight is over almost immediately. Whatever those arrows are coated in works fast and whatever weak points the elves struck were very vulnerable indeed, because the green glow goes out of the creature’s eyes as they roll back in its head and it slumps over… dead.

Mikael just blinks, even as the elves all come in for a landing between him and his party and the creature’s corpse. He almost considers reaching out and sucking up the soul from the monster anyways… but holds off in the end. Best to not piss off the elves. No clue what they might think of someone like him with something like the Soul Engine in his chest.

Dressed in the most ostentatious armor, what can only be the elves’ leader turns to them all and narrows his eyes as he takes in their appearance.

“Greetings. I am High Executor Daylor Krislamin. And you all…”

Here, the elven man’s face scrunches up in distaste and frustration. His eyes slide over each of them, before focusing on Bula in particular. Finally, he bites out the words, though it seems to cost him dearly to say them.

“… You all are welcome in these woods.”

“It is you. You are the one calling to me.”

Bula’s voice sounds rough, raw, and uncertain as she points at the self-proclaimed High Executor. In response, Daylor looks like he’s bitten into a lemon, even as he inclines his head. His poorly concealed distaste is obvious, but he nevertheless fights back whatever way in which he truly wants to react.

“Yes. But it is not safe to talk here. We must move, now.”

And then, the High Executor’s face softens as he looks upon Bula with relief just as poorly concealed as the distaste had been.

“… Still. It is good to have a High Priestess Candidate once more. Very good indeed.”

Mikael and Avina exchange a glance at that, even as Bula wrinkles her nose at the title. Just what had they gotten themselves into now?

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Plug: The next TEN chapters of The Soul Engine can be found over on my Patreon at all times!
 

A/N: Foss Sangrey turned out to be a dick of biblical proportions. Timothal Dawnguard turned out to be an intense but good guy. What are the odds that Daylor Krislamin is hiding a heart of gold behind the poorly concealed racism? Hmmm...

Be sure to let me know what you think please!

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