Chapter 51: High Priestess Candidate
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A/N: The High Executor escorts our intrepid trio to a new location where Bula learns more about her past.

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“We are here.”

After dropping the bombshell that eight out of nine of the Sylian Elves’ city just flat out didn’t exist anymore, High Executor Daylor Krislamin had told them he had something else to show them. Mikael couldn’t say what was going through Avina or Bula’s heads at the moment, but at least for him, he followed the elven man in silence because he was struggling to wrap his head around the reveal.

This was the LEAST of the elven cities? It was utterly massive, stretching out in every direction. It also went up, with the city being multi-layered and taking advantage of the branches of the massive Sylian Trees. And yet… it sort of made sense in a way. This place… it wasn’t particularly hard to get to, was it? Less than a day’s travel from the border, in fact. And sure, he and Bula could travel a lot faster than your average human being, but it was still pretty close to the fringes of the Sylian Woods.

To have lost that many people in just eight years… even if Daylor was clearly a Dick with a capital D, Mikael’s nonexistent heart went out to the elven man. This was a civilization on the brink of destruction. Trying not to think too hard about that for a moment, Mikael focuses his attention on his surroundings. Where exactly has the High Executor brought them?

The room is a little smaller than the meeting room where they first spoke. Which is surprising, because the High Executor had led them into one of the Sylian Trees directly. Meaning they were standing in the middle of one of those skyscraper-sized trunks right now. It seems like a bedroom, but it’s sparsely furnished. There’s a small bed off to the side that can just barely be called more than a cot. Not even a desk or chair to sit anywhere from what Mikael can see. Meanwhile, dominating the center of the room is what looks a hell of a lot like some sort of ritual circle set into the tree’s natural age-rings.

Gesturing to the ritual circle, Daylor sighs.

“This was Renna’s room. And that… that is where she and every High Priestess before her has served The People for generations. Utilizing the circle, our High Priestesses bond with the God of the Sylian Woods, Syl himself. Through that bond, we are able to commune with the trees, with the forest… with the creatures within it. It is the only way we could survive. Without that bond, we have been blind. Spurned by Syl. And the Children of Syl have been killing The People ever since.”

The High Executor’s tone is grave as he looks at Bula.

“Should you be able to reach out and form a similar connection with Syl, then perhaps not all is lost. If you can take your mother’s mantle of High Priestess and forge a bond with the God of the Woods, then we will be ascendant once more. The People can begin to rebuild.”

Bula scowls and crosses her arms over her chest, glaring at the ritual circle as if it personally offended her. Then, she glances at Mikael, clearly asking for his input. Mikael hesitates for only a moment. While it’s true that they came here for their own reasons, to try and find allies in the fight against Foss Sangrey… this seems important.

Not just that though. Based solely on what they’ve seen so far, even as diminished as the Sylian Elves have become, they’re still a force to be reckoned with. He actually hadn’t caught a glimpse of a single civilian either on the walkways they’d traversed at this point. Mikael is pretty sure that’s just because they’re hiding them or keeping them safe elsewhere in the massive city. But that still means that he’s already laid eyes on hundreds if not thousands of Elven Warriors, and that’s just a small fraction of what a bustling city as big as this one seems to hold.

Basically, while the Sylian Elves are on their last legs, they can still help. And given their racism, right now might be the only time they could even be convinced to help. After all, if Bula is able to do it… if she’s able to bond with a literal Forest God and save the Sylian Elves, then surely they’ll be indebted enough to her and by extension him and Avina to be willing to help right? Even if it was begrudging help… it was help all the same.

With that in mind, Mikael gives Bula an encouraging smile and a nod, something he’s quite sure is not missed by High Executor Krislamin’s narrowed eyes.

“I think you should give it a try, Bula. It’s worth a shot, right?”

“Tch. Fine.”

It’s clear the half-orc warrior isn’t happy about it, but she unslings her battle axe from her back and hands it over to him all the same. Then, eyes narrowed in suspicion, she tentatively steps past the first ring of the ritual circle, only to pause when it immediately lights up under her feet. However, before she can pull back, her distrust apparent, Daylor gasps.

“The circle! It’s reacting to you!”

Growling, Bula glares at the elven man.

“What does that mean, exactly?”

Too excited to remember that he’s supposed to be disgusted by her appearance and annoyed by her disrespect, the High Executor actually smiles as he stares down at the lit outer ring.

“It means you truly are a potential High Priestess. There was no doubt of course, you would not have heard our call if Renna’s blood did not flow through you in the first place. But… there was a chance that Renna’s blood would allow you to hear the call, but not allow you to interact with the circle. For anyone else, this is nothing but a bunch of fancy lines. Only one such as you can possibly wield this power. Go on… stand in the middle.”

Bula huffs but does as she’s told, taking a few more steps forward until she’s finally in the very center of the ritual circle. With every step she takes, she passes another ring… and with every ring she passes, they each light up with glowing energy, responding to her presence. Mikael keeps an eye out of course, ready for this to turn out to be a deception of some sort. If, for instance, this is some sort of trap to sacrifice Bula to Syl or something, then Mikael won’t stand for it. He’ll destroy this whole damn tree if he has to in order to keep her safe.

But… no. None of that happens. While the half-orc looks irate when she finally comes to a stop in the middle of the Ritual Circle, she also looks unharmed. And most are just bemused as she looks down at herself and all around her, at the glowing circles surrounding her.

“Yes… yes! It’s working! Now… focus, child. Not on us, but on what you’re feeling. You must sense it. The power. The connections. Reach out for them, grab hold of them and pull them to you. Only then will you be able to bind with Syl properly.”

There’s a brief pause as Bula seems to consider those words for a moment. Then, nodding, she closes her eyes and furrows her brow, clearly trying whatever it is he’s talking about. Mikael wishes he could help her out in some way, but he’s worried that he’ll fuck it up. If this ritual circle has been operating for the Sylian Elves for centuries and maybe even millennia, then who’s to say how Mikael and his Soul Engine might… fuck with it.

Besides, it’s not like Bula really needs his help. In fact, after a brief moment the ritual circle even seems to glow brighter for a moment. Bula’s hands clench into fists at her sides and Mikael wonders if she’s found those connections that Daylor spoke of and is pulling them to her as the High Executor instructed. Only… a moment later, the glow of the lit ritual circle diminishes greatly and Bula opens her eyes and shakes her head with a growl.

“Tch. Felt something. But it slipped through my fingers. Like water.”

For a moment, Daylor Krislamin looks angry. And then the anger flows out of him and he’s just disappointed. However, after a moment his eyes alight upon Bula’s body.

“… It’s the armor. You wear too much metal, child. Remove your armor and try again.”

Bula looks down at herself at that and even Mikael has to admit to taking some umbrage with that order. After all, the half-orc warrior’s armor is… well, skimp would be one word for it. Metal Bikini would also be an excellent description. Frowning now, Mikael looks at the High Executor, trying to figure out if the man is actually a perverted lech of some sort.

“If she does that, she will be naked. I assume that your High Priestesses are not expected to commune with the God of the Forest in the nude or you would have mentioned it before.”

Giving him a decidedly unimpressed look, Daylor sneers and thrusts out a hand over to the bed.

“Pah! The High Priestesses wear garments woven of plant fiber from the trees themselves. You will find Renna’s dress under her bed. Retrieve it, don it, and try again. We are too close to concern ourselves with such banalities at this point! The fate of The People is on the line!”

Bula narrows her eyes but nevertheless leaves the circle, making her way over to the bed. Said bed, which Mikael had previously barely paid any mind except to note that it was barely better than a cot, is actually carved into the tree itself now that he gives it a second look. Kneeling down, Bula feels along the side of the bed… and seems to find some sort of catch or something, because she’s able to pull out a drawer that hadn’t been readily apparent at first.

For a moment, the half-orc warrior pauses at whatever it is she sees within. Then, reaching down, she pulls up a leafy-green garment and rises to her full height, turning to face them and holding it in front of her.

The thing is… small, to be sure. Clearly made for an elven body, not a half-orc’s. And while Bula probably isn’t as big as a full blown orc… there’s a reason she commonly refers to Avina as ‘little one’ and ‘small one’. And it’s not simply because of Avina’s own slightly diminutive height either.

Looking distinctly put-upon, Bula glances to Mikael once more. At her latest look, he can only shrug and offer an apologetic smile that he hopes gets the point across. Namely… if she wants to put an end to this, she can. He’ll support her if she decides she wants nothing more to do with… any of this. She’s a warrior after all, not a priestess. If this binding to Syl thing is a lifelong duty… he’s not sure she should go through with it.

But he doesn’t say that out loud because at the end of the day, he’s selfish. He wants to have his cake and eat it to. He wants all of his girls to come out of this not just alive… but as happy as they can be. Maybe he’s being naïve. Maybe he’s being stupid. But if it’s possible for Bula to take the reins as High Priestess so they can bring an army out of the Sylian Woods to reinforce Thayla and her father while taking Foss down once and for all… privately he thinks they should go for it.

He doesn’t say that either though. He doesn’t say anything, he just waits for Bula to make her decision.

She hesitates for only a moment more before sliding her gaze over to an expectant, impatient Daylor.

“Leave.”

The High Executor stiffens and then bristles.

“Excuse me?”

Bula huffs.

“I said leave. Your purpose here is over. You are not needed any longer.”

That might be true, but even if it is, Daylor clearly doesn’t like having it shoved in his face. Scowling now, the High Executor takes a threatening step forward.

“Now see here, child. You-!”

But they don’t get a chance to find out what he’s about to say. Instead, Daylor pauses… and then turns his head to the side and cups his hand against his ear in a strange gesture.

“Say again.”

It takes only a moment to realize that he’s partaking in some sort of magical communication with another elf. And not the rare, super special kind like Timothal had done back at the Citadel. This seems far more… casual. That alone is enough to pique Mikael’s interest if he’s being honest… and a glance in Avina’s direction shows that she’s interested as well. Certainly, the Soul Mechanic is curious about what sort of magic could allow for such a thing. Is it a device in the High Executor’s ear, or just a spell that’s semi-active at all times?

“Fine. I’ll be right there.”

His scowl not lessened in the slightest, Daylor looks at all of them for a moment before straightening up and pointing at Bula.

“I am needed elsewhere. You will continue to try and focus on binding with Syl. No matter how long it takes, whether it’s hours, days, or even weeks, you WILL become the new High Priestess. The People are counting on it.”

With that, the self-important elven man sweeps from the room without another word, leaving them all standing there for a moment in silence. Avina is the one who breaks it, of course.

“Weeks. We don’t have weeks.”

Mikael grimaces, nodding in agreement.

“You’re not wrong. Still… we can maybe spare a few days? Given how fast we managed to make contact, I’d say we can spare a week at the most before we have to head back, reinforcements or no reinforcements.”

Hesitating for a moment, Avina finally nods. Only to jolt as they both turn their heads to the sound of a clatter from the other side of the room. Bula grunts when they both stare at her, watching her remove her armor piece by piece and then shrug into the too-tight green dress her mother had left behind.

“Tch. A week then. Best get started.”

With a determined look on her face, the now ‘all-natural’ half-orc makes her way back into the center of the ritual circle and sinks down to her knees, closing her eyes as she begins to focus. Mikael isn’t sure if it’s a trick of the light or what, but he likes to think the rings of the ritual circle are glowing just a little brighter even before she starts trying to find those connections again. Just maybe.

Of course, no sooner as Bula started to get to work then Avina is in front of him, unbuttoning his shirt.

“No point in us staying idle while she’s working. I’m going to give you a check-up, Mikael. Make sure everything is working. Maybe a tune-up as well. Probably for the best that you didn’t get to try to absorb that Child of Syl’s soul… not sure that much power all at once would have been healthy for you.”

Raising an eyebrow as Avina pulls out her tools and pops his Soul Engine’s casing open, Mikael chuckles at her enthusiasm.

“I handled the influx from the Grand Melee just fine, didn’t I?”

Avina half-nods at that, before tilting her head to the side as she focuses on her work.

“You did, but that was a bunch of human-sized souls one after the other, not one massive monster soul all at once. And knowing our luck… we’ll wind up fighting some Children of Syl before we’re done here whether Bula manages to connect or not. So… better safe than sorry.”

Considering their track record… yeah, she was probably right. Still, Mikael isn’t going to let Avina off that easy. She was such a worrier, heh.

“Whatever you say… Princess.”

The look Avina gives him is funny enough, but even better is the soft snort of amusement from Bula over in the center of the room. That? That makes his day.

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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: Well now, it seems they have a plan at least. Help the elves so that the elves can help them. Just gotta get Bula to sit still long enough to become a High Priestess and everything will be all hunky-dory.

Unless not everything is as it seems...

Be sure to let me know what you think!

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