I froze as a twigged snapped somewhere off to my right. As I eased down into a crouch amidst the bushes and other flora strewn about the forest floor another twig snapped nearby, closer this time, too close. Glancing about, I couldn't help but mentally curse myself for not having prepared more sophisticated enchantments of clear sight. The near darkness that prevailed here beneath the canopy of the ancient trees was stifling. As it was I could barely make out the huge canine that loped through the forest not more than a hundred paces away. The hulking beast paused and turned towards me, its nose crinkling up as it tested the air. Shuddering, I let my eyes run the length of the beast. It was nearly as large as Shanna, the pony I had ridden as a small child. The canine's coat was dappled in brown and gray, the colors serving admirably to break up its outline against the tree trunks and bushes. Even with it standing there sniffing the air, all but still, I had a hard time seeing it. My eyes just wanted to shy around it. Caeanshaen, 'Forest Wraith', one long-dead author had named it. It was said that its jaws were powerful enough to rend steel and that it was as swift as the fleetest of horses. It seemed to me that perhaps it possessed some innate enchantment as well that helped prevent it from being seen. Fortune though, was on my side for the beast snuffled once more then turned and continued off into the forest where I rapidly lost track of its continued passage.
Looking about warily I stayed still a moment longer, my heart beating against my chest as if it were threatening to break free and leap into the air. Slowly, my breathing calmed and my heart returned to its normal rhythm. Reaching up with my left arm I wiped my cold sweaty brow on the sleeve. Taking one last furtive glance in the direction the Caeanshaen had left I stood, rising to my feet in one smooth motion and swiftly but carefully making my way into the undergrowth. As I pressed on I lost track of the passage of time, becoming aware only of the leaden feel of my arms and legs and the numerous scratches that adorned my hands and face. The hardships of the forest it were as unforgiving and as constant as the cold wind and steep slopes of the mountains near the Desert of Dreaming. At last I stopped to rest, exhausted. Holding my weariness in check a few moments more I activated one of my prepared enchantments, a watchweb, a net of energy filaments that would form about my immediate area, and that when disturbed would wake me from even the deepest slumber. As the net settled into place, I let my eyes close and fell swiftly into a deep and dreamless sleep.
I know not how long I slept there in the lee of that great oak, for an oak it was, its form and leaves still recognizable even though it was unlike those I had seen in the books back at the Order. Sitting there in those moments between sleep and wakefulness, with a touch of sunlight trickling down through the canopy to fall on my upturned face I wondered about the Order. I wondered how it fared, how it coped with the changes I had set in place, and my abrupt departure. It would probably be a long while before things settled into any real semblance of order again. A feeling told me that at the least they were safe for the time being, safe amongst those very winds and crags I had called to mind while trudging through thorny briars and dense thickets the day before.
Sitting with my back to the oak I bowed my head forward and slipped off the leather satchel that I had carried with me for the past month. In it were contained all but those worldly possessions I already wore. I was travelling light, having little need for food, and garments that were protected from mundane harm by enchantments carefully worked into the cloth's weave. I would miss my books though. Not the knowledge they contained, for that I had already extracted, but the feel of them and the pleasure to be had from them when combined with a warm fire, comfortable chair, and a cup of strong tea.
According to legend the Åelf ruled this majestic wood, but if they ruled here they were careful to be quiet in their passing. In the two days I had already spent in the wood I had neither heard nor seen any trace of them. To my eyes, it was a wilderness unblemished by the guiding or perhaps misguided hands of thinking beings. It was in part because of them that I had chosen a route that would take me through the Åelfwood, for great wonders of earth magic were said to rest concealed in its sylvan depths built long ago by the wood's silent and unseen guardians. Amongst these wonders legend held that a permanent waygate had been anchored to a great arch of stone, a natural outcropping of rock rising up two score feet from the forest floor. I had thought that if I could find it, I would be able to cut a month or more off my travel time by harnessing its power. The use of waygates fell out of favor shortly after they were first discovered, for it was found that only a mage with a great deal of talent could survive the flow of energies they were exposed to in passing through or opening such a gate. I was fairly sure that I would be able to survive the experience, if not entirely control my destination. According to a mage who had come across the waygate slightly over a hundred years ago by the name of Thealdan, it's destination was permanently set, or at least that if it was changeable, it depended on a different activation phrase. But perhaps that was a foolish notion, for if its creators were able to hide the telltale magic of such a large construction, then an Åelfên way gate might be sufficiently different from the theories I was familiar with to render my preparations all but useless.
Deciding that I would deal with the issue of the way gate when the time came, I settled my satchel across my shoulder and stretched briefly, my hands reaching up towards the sky until at last I heard a satisfying pop. As I stood I shifted my clothes about, settling them into the most comfortable configuration. Bending over I laced up my mud-speckled boots and set off westwards.
Once again the light about me began to grow dim, the sun floating high above beginning its slow descent over the horizon. As the world about me slowly fell into darkness, a chill settled about the forest floor and I pulled my cloak tight about my shoulders, gladly taking what warmth it might offer.
Twilight, it is said, is the most dangerous time to be out and about in the lands of the Åelf, or perhaps the most interesting as it proved to be on this occasion. As I pushed my way through the tangled vines that had insinuated themselves into the local undergrowth, I grew increasingly frustrated with the situation. I had begun to shove aside the plants and shrubs that blocked my path with a growing anger, when suddenly I broke free into a clearing. Surprised that I had not noticed it in my approach I quickly looked around, my eyes searching for any rustle, any movement that might signal something hostile lurking in wait for me or other prey. Nothing dangerous did I see, but instead something yet more disturbing. Turning around I was rather shocked to find that behind me there was no longer any sign of the thickets and underbrush that I had fought so hard to pass through, rather I was greeted by a ring of stately trees, and turning once more to face out into the clearing, I took stock of my surroundings.
The clearing was large and graced by the last rays of the sun filtering down through the canopy above to fall in bright dapples upon the grass and flowers that carpeted the ground. The center of the clearing was filled by a pool, crystal clear and graced by a series of ripples spurred on by a gust of wind that blew my cloak tight against my back. To one side of the pool stood an immense yew tree, its leaves rustling soothingly in the wind. As the wind ceased, and the waters of the pool regained their stillness, I caught a glimpse of movement reflected in their depths. Looking up, I saw a flash of tanned skin, and the glitter of gold before the clearing was empty once more. I could not help but marvel at the thought of one skilled enough to catch me off guard in my agitated state. Perhaps he, or she, was one of the Åelf, and perhaps it was their machination that brought me to this clearing. I cannot be sure, but I suspect strongly that they did have a hand in me finding that place.
Dropping into a crouch next to the pool I dipped my hand into the water. Closing my eyes I let my thoughts of the moment fall away. I carefully concentrated on the sound of my own heart as I had been taught so long ago. My breathing slowed quickly as I followed the sound to my heart, and then beyond, past the physical to stand in the calm at the center of my being. Only then did I open my eyes once more, and as I did so, I reached out with my senses both arcane and the more mundane. I could feel the soft earth beneath my feet, I could hear the fibres of the grass breaking as I shifted my weight from one foot to another, and more, I could see the dull radiance that infused everything around me, the magic inherent in life itself. The sylvan abundance of the forest lent it an entirely different character than the barren mountains and open desert that I knew so well. Not only was there more energy flowing free here, but it had a brighter character.
Slowly I let down my shields, peeling away the layers of defense and subterfuge that had almost become as a second skin to me since leaving the stronghold of the Order. A necessary evil when travelling in a strange land, amongst strange peoples and unknown dangers, but one that I was glad to dispense with for the moment. The balance here was delicate and I knew that should a new element be introduced to the ebb and flow of the energy about the clearing, I would feel it. As I let down the last of my defenses I felt the forest close in on me, taking me into itself for a brief moment as the magic of the place flowed to encompass me in its eternal dance, sweeping me away from thought itself for a brief time.
When I once again became aware of my surroundings I was sitting beneath the great yew, looking up into its graceful branches. The fatigue, and the frustration I had felt were but memories. The forest had provided me a precious few minutes of calm to wash away the tribulations of the day and left me alert and aware of the interplay of things around me, and newly able to appreciate it. All about me the air was filled with the sounds of life, the rustle of leaves, the whirr of an insect's wings, the pitter patter of tiny feet over the hardened earth. Rising slowly, I made my way over to the pool and filled a small vial of quartz with its water. Memory is a powerful tool of magic, and I intended to carry a tangible reminder with me.
It had been no more than an hour since I left the clearing and the yew, yet it seemed as if I had traveled many leagues, the forest around me shifting rapidly, becoming more vibrant as I pushed forward on through dusk. I felt drawn onward, almost compelled to continue despite the setting of the sun. For some reason I felt inclined to trust these feelings, pressing on even as darkness overtook the Åelfwood. As my ability to see lessened, my other senses slowly adapted, becoming more acute, amongst them my feel for the intangible pulse and power of magic. Though I had felt nothing just an hour ago, now I could feel a strengthening in the energy gathered about the woods as I walked. As the minutes passed, the feeling that magic was being drawn to a place that lay ahead of me on my path became stronger. Shortly thereafter I felt it for the first time, the unmistakable vibration in the magic around me that signaled a node. No more than a few more seconds passed and my pace slowly trailed off to a dead stop beneath an archway of rough stone. This was the place about which the energies of the local woods gathered, gazing upon it I was filled with a sensation of great depth, as one gets looking down into the dark waters of a lake.
Then it dawned on me, this was the waygate of the Åelfwood. And as I feared, it was in many ways unlike those with which I was familiar with from my studies. Where the others were stolid and orderly, utterly predictable in their currents, this one was in a state of flux, and the feeling about it was uncanny. It was almost like watching a living, growing thing. Its age, and the feeling of depth about it scared me and made me wary of testing myself against its workings, but at the same time it seemed to urge me on, inviting me to take part in some unknown and unforeseeable dance. In the end, curiosity won out over my rational side and I laid my hand to the stone arch.
"Ara'nasha'ia bequi'om anuun. Moaqul vashti ara'kovani. Duwei nasha'ia anuun." I intoned, speaking the words I had memorized, the words that were reputed to unlock the power of this waygate when backed by the potent will of a practiced mage. There was a feeling of sinking then, a profound queasiness in the pit of my stomach. All about me the world went dark, and as anxiety began to take hold I called to mind my training, once again tuning myself to the beating of my own heart, letting its rhythm overwhelm the worries and fears that clouded my mind. Regaining some small measure of focus, I was once again able to sense the undercurrents of the world about me. They were dominated by one sensation, that of speed, the speed with which the energies of the earth flow about her great bulk. I only hoped that my gamble was the right one, and more, that if it was, the waygate's destination had not been changed since Thealdan wrote of it over a century ago. Slowly becoming aware of, and almost as rapidly giving way to the incessant pounding of the energies about me, I drifted from consciousness.