The trap’s psychic howl snuffed the light of Olena’s mind, and she plummeted into oblivion.
* * *
* * *
She couldn’t call it silence, or darkness, because that would have been something. This was nothingness.
Still, she was aware of the void. Olena existed. She had died—she remembered dying—but something of her remained.
But where was she? Was she anywhere? Odran had told her about the Fugue Plane, where departing souls go on their way to join their gods, but could this be it? Or had the trap somehow ensnared her soul?
Help me, she thought. Oak Father, where are you? Your servant is lost!
But no answer came.
Silvanus! I am Olena, of the Valley! Please guide me to your home!
Ears or no, she strained for any reply. There, at the very fringe of her perception—a voice! What was it saying? She couldn’t tell; others were drowning it out. The voices were growing, in number and in volume, splashing over each other in a sea of cacophony.
She was somewhere. She still existed. All was not lost.
The void before her eyes had darkened to a more familiar blackness. She had eyes! She opened them…
She stood on a gray plain under a gray sky, surrounded by uncountable souls. The din of their prayers reassured Olena; she had come to the Fugue Plane after all. Soon, a herald would come to lead her and the Treefather’s other followers to the Deep Forest, where Silvanus dwelled.
Agents of Kelemvor herded the flock, weeding out the occasional soul. In the distance, Olena could see the Crystal Spire, a topaz-hued structure rising up from the gray City of Judgment. Those who followed no deity, the Faithless, would become part of the great wall surrounding the city. The False—those who had only paid lip service to a god, or committed terrible crimes in their lives—would be sentenced to slavery within. That would not be her fate; still, she thought of her brother, who had never cared for any talk of Silvanus, and a chill crept up her spine.
Her spine? Olena looked down at herself. She had a body—her body—and it felt no different, dressed just as she had been when she died. In fact, nobody looked dead. She’d never thought much about what death would be like, but she never would have guessed it’d be indistinguishable from life.
A burst of flame ripped the sky open, revealing a massive and hideous devil. Olena watched it fearfully, knowing that every soul on the Plane was doing the same.
Unfurling its great bat’s wings, the fiend raised a hand into the air, clad in a black gauntlet. An unholy green light coruscated in its hand, and souls cried out: “Bane!”
The eyes of a soul near Olena lit with the same emerald glow. The same thing happened to others loyal to the Black Lord; the energy grew ever brighter until they and the devil were gone.
Olena had balled her hands into fists without realizing. Malar was Silvanus’s greatest foe, but Bane was the antithesis to her own belief in freedom. If only the Black Hand had stayed dead! Someday Magsaid and his followers would suffer in Bane’s Black Bastion, but she found no comfort in that.
She shook her head. She couldn’t afford distraction; she had to get to the Deep Forest. She didn’t know if her prayers would bring a herald any faster, but what choice did she have? Clearing her throat, she chanted the Song of the Trees, a prayer which drew woodland creatures out to be healed. It was the first rite Odran had taught her, and still her favorite.
She moved through the crowd, singing her prayer, as the divine servants came and went, taking the faithful to their final rest. A spectacular phoenix collected some Mulhorandi; a party of Gondsmen left with a clockwork giant. She found a halfling ranger who joined her song, then a trio of woodsmen, and a centaur.
Olena lost all track of time, singing herself raw, until at last, a beautiful angel appeared astride a brilliant white unicorn. She knew at once that this was Silvanus’s herald, even before the oak leaf shimmered into view over the angel’s head. Her god’s essence poured into her, bringing a joy she had never dreamed possible, and all of her mortal concerns dissolved.
As the feeling subsided, Olena realized that she was no longer on the Fugue Plane.
Many gods lived in the House of Nature; the realm belonging to Silvanus was called the Deep Forest. Olena had never encountered such majestic oaks; the smallest she could find had a girth of over a hundred feet. It made sense that the Treefather’s house would have the grandest trees in all creation.
No light penetrated the distant canopy, but she saw well enough. She sensed animals all around her, some familiar, others alien. A dark-haired woman laughed as she darted through the woods, a dozen tigers racing to keep up. A bear which stood like a man spoke to a crowd of souls; amongst them, Olena saw a girl with white whiskers, and an elven man whose horns curved like a ram’s. The centaur she’d seen on the Fugue Plane bowed as he passed Olena to join the group.
Nowhere could she see a building, or a stone, or even a worked piece of wood. The Forest Father’s believers gathered in small communities, never altering the Forest’s beauty in any fashion.
It was not the Valley, but Olena felt like she’d come home.
In the distance, she saw a tree, older and greater than all others—and within its trunk, the image of a face, wise and kind like an old man’s. It was Silvanus himself. This was her god, the source of her strength and powers, now before her.
Olena’s heart sang, and nearby birds joined in harmony. She lifted her foot to approach him, but returned it to the forest floor. What would she say to him? What could she say, that he didn’t already know? Hadn’t he watched her all these years? How long had it been since she swore her life to his service?
And what had she done in that time to prove her love for him?
She’d seldom disturbed so much as a weed in the Valley. She and Kyrian had built a lean-to, but only from dead branches. They only took what they needed from the trees and bushes, and had always given thanks. She’d never eaten an animal’s flesh; once, Kyrian talked her into eating some honey, and she cried for hours afterward.
And she was raised from birth to defend the Valley. Until the violet crystal came to her home, there had been few real threats in her lifetime. She’d helped to kill a rabid bear that had wandered in; Dougal struck the killing blow, but she still prayed for forgiveness. She couldn’t let the creature harm her family, even if the bear’s madness, and the deaths it caused, were part of the Balance.
The Balance! Gods, how she’d struggled with it! Nature took care of itself—that, she knew well enough—but things like the violet crystal had nothing to do with nature. Not as she understood it, at least; not according to what Odran had taught her. Even if it wasn’t a threat to the Valley, as everyone had assumed at first, someone like Sulveig might find a way to use it as a weapon. Someone like Sulveig might burn the forest to the ground to possess it.
Someone like Sulveig might assemble an army of gnolls to devour and mutilate helpless people.
Sulveig had no respect for the Balance—no concern for anything but his own power. Olena was certain of that. Surely she could make the Oak Father see that her pursuit of the villain served the Balance!
Why, then, did she hesitate?
Was it because she’d abandoned the Valley in the pursuit? Was she afraid of what she’d felt when she fought the gnolls? Was she so sure that her god would see through her argument?
Or had she paused because another love had taken root in her heart, growing with every hour, until it threatened to overshadow her love for her god?
The next thing she knew, she was heading deeper into the Forest, far from the Oak Father’s gaze.
Olena was sitting by a stream when she heard someone approaching. She looked up to see a woman with an ageless face which had a definite elven cast. Her robe’s color matched the trees so perfectly that it might have been made of leaves. Olena was sure that the stranger was a druid.
“Well met, Olena,” she said, and her voice sounded like the stream. Returning the greeting, Olena started to get up, but the woman sat beside her.
“Isn't it beautiful?” said the stranger.
“Absolutely. Everywhere I turn, I see something wonderful.”
“I’m glad you appreciate it. I spend most of my time searching the Forest for people who do.”
A pack of black panthers raced past their view; among them, Olena saw the dark-haired woman she’d seen before. The woman looked at Olena and the druid for a moment, and Olena caught a glimpse of her lustrous green eyes, with pupils that were slitted like a cat’s. It was the loveliest face Olena had ever seen. Then, just as swiftly as they’d appeared, the pack had vanished into the woods.
“That’s the Cat Lord,” the druid said. “Every kind of animal has a Lord; she’s one of the better known ones.”
“Many people think so. I love all the creatures of the wild, but cats were never my favorite.”
“What’s your name?” Olena asked, turning to look at the stranger.
She looked surprised by the question. “I haven’t needed one for a long time. You may call me the Hierophant; everyone does.”
They sat together in silence for a moment. Olena finally said, “I couldn’t speak to him.”
“It’s all right. He understands.”
The druid seemed to enjoy Olena’s puzzled expression. The Hierophant raised the hem of her robe, slipped out of her sandals, and dipped her feet into the brook. A lazy smile spread across her face.
“I’m Silvanus’s proxy here in the Deep Forest. That means I’m his direct servant. He sent me to talk to you, but he told me everything I needed to know first.”
Olena returned her gaze to the stream. “I see.”
“Olena, faith is never an easy matter. Not for anybody. You saw the wall of the Faithless; that’s the price you pay to stay out of it.”
“How long have you been in the Forest?”
The druid shrugged. “Long enough, I guess.”
“Do you understand the Balance?”
“As well as anyone.”
Olena lay back and propped her head up with one hand. “How can I know if my actions serve the Balance?”
”You’ve always known,” said the Hierophant. “When that bear came to your Valley, you didn’t interfere when it killed other animals. But you knew that you’d never drive it away, couldn’t reason with it, had no chance to save it. And when it threatened the fey, you killed it. If you’d died, the Balance would have lost one of the only people working to keep it alive.”
“What about Sulveig? Was I right to leave the Valley to find him?”
The half-elf pursed her lips before replying. “That’s harder to say. The other fey should get along without you. What you should worry about is what you’ll do when you find him.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh, but you do. You thought that you and your friends would just charge into Magsaid’s stronghold and slay all the horrible monsters… but instead, you had dinner with them.”
Olena sat up, trembling. She’d put on a pleasant enough face at that table, but she still burned with shame and rage at the thought of it.
Seeing the effect of her words, the Hierophant continued. “Treating with evil is perilous. It was the most expedient path to free Demaris, but the hobgoblins are still out there. Had you known that they were devotees of the Black Lord, would you have acted any differently? Would you have persuaded your friends to do the same?”
“I don’t know,” Olena sighed.
“I didn’t think you would know. No one can be sure what they’d do in a situation until they’re actually in it.”
Olena stared at the Hierophant. “Then why did you ask me?”
“Because you still need to think about it. You will be tempted by evil—that’s its nature. That’s what it does.”
The half-fey burst out laughing, causing the druid’s eyebrows to rise. “You think you’re above temptation? Magsaid brought you to his table. You’ll face far more charming foes—and there are greater evils than they. Would you ally yourself to a lesser evil to defeat a greater one?”
Olena’s laugh petered out.
“You have to think about these things, Olena. I never swore myself to the light, but I have faced darkness, and I know what you’re going through, what you’ll encounter. Since the Balance swings from light to dark, it falls to you and yours to set it right.”
The Hierophant placed a hand under Olena’s chin, raising her face so their eyes met. Though no light reached the half-elf’s eyes, they gleamed.
“You have the potential for great wisdom, Olena. In time, with experience, you’ll find it.”
Olena regarded a butterfly that had landed on the back of her hand. “It’s not easy to be good, is it? I demanded that we show mercy to that ogre—and what did it do? Smashed Oren on the head and ran away, that’s what.”
“If it were easy, my child, anyone could do it.”
They stared into the brook until Olena said, “I shouldn’t be here, Hierophant. Everyone else has let go of their mortal worries—but I can’t.”
“I know. That’s because your friends are trying to bring you back.”
Happiness dawned on Olena’s face as she leaped to her feet. “Can they?”
The Hierophant stood. “Yes.”
Olena could feel that it was true—a strangely familiar warmth grew inside her chest. She was coming back from the dead! “When can I leave?”
The Hierophant shrugged again. “Time doesn’t mean much to me. Whenever, I guess. I should warn you, though, that you won’t remember much about your time here.”
“I won’t?” Olena said, crestfallen.
“It’ll all seem like a dream; the details will be gone. I’m sorry, Olena, that’s just the way of things.” As tears rose to Olena’s eyes, the Hierophant said, “But there’s one more thing you wanted to ask me about, isn’t there?”
Olena shook her head until the druid placed a hand on her shoulder. “Didn’t you wonder why Silvanus sent me instead of coming himself? It’s not because he doesn’t love you; he just thinks a woman’s counsel would be better for what’s on your mind.”
The half-fey’s face flushed crimson. “He’s right. I could never ask Demaris; she wouldn’t want to talk about it. Not with me, anyway.”
“That’s why I’m here. Even if you forget what we say, it’ll help you if you tell me. Now, tell me about Oren.”
Olena smiled at the sound of his name; her hands reached out, as if she was trying to pluck words from the air. “Have you ever been in love, Hierophant?”
The druid scratched her temple. “I guess I must have been at some point.”
“How did you know?”
Laughing, the Hierophant said, “You definitely shouldn’t need me to tell you that. I’m sorry, Olena; I don’t mean to embarrass you.”
But Olena didn’t seem to mind. “I never have. Been in love, I mean. But Oren has been so kind to me… I know he’s kind to everyone, but when he looks me in the eye, I feel like spring is blooming inside of me.”
“You want to be with him.”
“Every minute! But I’m so afraid to tell him. Why is that? Why should anyone with fey blood be afraid of her passions?”
“Because you’re human enough to worry about the consequences.”
“Right! What if he doesn’t feel the same way? What if his order doesn’t approve? What if he already has a lover—what if he’s married? It’d be a tragedy! And we might be traveling together for months, maybe years… I’d never be able to look him in the eye again.”
The Hierophant smiled. “I think you’re more worried about what’d happen if he does feel the same.”
“That’s true,” Olena admitted. “I don’t know what to say, or how to act, or what to do.”
“You saw the way Ligeia acted with your brother.”
Olena’s brow furrowed. “Yes.”
“Well, don’t act like that. The rest will come naturally. The most important thing is to be yourself, Olena. If he doesn’t love who you truly are, then he doesn’t love you.”
“He’s devoted to a different god, of course. We both love the light, but we have very different ideas about its role in the world.” Olena began walking in a tight circle, wings shivering.
“No relationship is perfect. Even after an eternity of service, the Oak Father and I don’t agree on every single thing.”
“I was also afraid that it might… interfere with our callings. He’s always saying he’s not much of a paladin; what if I pull him away from that? And what if it dilutes my love for Silvanus?”
“Don’t be afraid of that.” The druid’s eyes gleamed again, and Olena knew she was remembering a loved one. “Does your love for your mother change your feelings for the Oak Father?”
“Of course not!”
“What about your siblings?”
Olena froze in mid-circle. “Kyrian is my only sibling.”
“That’s what I meant,” the Hierophant said, looking away. “You love so much, Olena: your family, your freedom, your Valley, your god. Your heart has no limits. I’m sure you can find room in there to love a man without turning the rest upside down.”
“I hope you’re right, Hierophant.”
“You’re very selfless, my child. It’s no sin to want a little happiness for yourself.”
“Then I’ll tell him,” Olena said, smiling again. As she closed her eyes and focused on the warmth inside her, the Hierophant grabbed her hand, shoving something tiny and hard into it.
“Wait for the right moment!” the druid said, and the heat grew until Olena was sure she’d burn…
“She’s coming around,” said a voice that sounded like Barak’s.
Olena opened her eyes and regretted it at once. She was back in the village inn, in her weak, mortal body; she’d been brought back to life, but only barely. Some of the villagers were cooking soup, and it smelled wonderful. She had just missed the sunrise.
“Barak?” she croaked.
“I’m here, Olena.” He was already pouring more healing energy into her. Someone gave her a cup of water, which she sipped tentatively.
“Fa’ss’th and Yorick were knocked out by the trap, but you were the only one we lost. They’re here, too; I’ve got to give them some more healing as soon as I get you upright.”
“They’re fine. The three of us brought the three of you back to Rumero. We were out clearing corpses and doing whatever needed doing until my power came back.”
“Dead… I was dead.”
“Yes. Fa’ss’th brought you back.”
“Shush, now. Be still. You’re not making this any easier.”
She obeyed. Once Olena felt well enough to sit up, she risked it. She caught a glimpse of Nan outside the window, who offered a shy nod before disappearing.
What was in her hand? Olena brought it close to her face before opening it to reveal an acorn. Where had that come from? It seemed perfectly ordinary. Was it important? Somehow, she felt that it was, but she didn’t know why.
Soon, Olena was at full strength; thanking Barak, she gathered her equipment, slipped the acorn into her belt pouch, secured a cup of soup, and headed out into the street.
The heap of dead villagers had finally been cleared. She saw Demaris emerging from the remains of a villager’s home. Olena waved, and Demaris started towards her.
Further up the road, Olena saw four horses lashed to a hitching post. A pair of cows and some goats grazed in a nearby yard. Where had these animals come from?
“My lady!” came Oren’s voice from behind. Olena turned to see him astride another horse. “I’m so glad to see that Fa’ss’th was successful!”
She rubbed the back of her neck, saying “Barak did the rest. But the first thanks go to you and the others for bringing us back here to begin with.”
“Think nothing of it,” he replied. “The cave was too dangerous for us to remain.”
Demaris had reached them by now. “Did you get any?” she asked Oren.
“Right here.” He handed Demaris a few sacks of oats, which she slung over her shoulder.
“Have you seen the others?”
Olena answered, though the question had been meant for Demaris. “Everyone else is inside the inn.”
“Let me get this done,” said Demaris, indicating the bags, “then we can decide what to do next.” Without looking her in the eye, she told Olena, “Good to see you,” then headed back toward the horses.
Oren guided his steed towards the hitching post in front of the inn. Though his relief to see Olena was still palpable, she knew that something was bothering him. Almost at once, he recognized her distress, too. “Are you troubled, Lady?” he asked.
“I must be.” She hitched the horse to the post. What was this reminding her of? Their conversation on the way out to the cave? No. Well, yes, it did, but there was something else…
Oren dismounted. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“No. Not right now.” Wait for the right moment. That was definitely important. Where had that come from? Best not to worry about it now; they had plans to make.
Oren opened the door for Olena, and they walked into the inn.