Morning came, clouds obscuring the sky. Sunlight peeked through, silvery streaks lighting the day. Everyone parted ways after a hot breakfast- provided by Illyana and Violet. It struck the others as odd- someone so cold, uncaring even... going out of her way to help make breakfast? Maybe it was a Hin thing. but nobody was complaining- it was quite good.
Soon after, the six bade farewell to Illyana and her sons. The boys were blushing gently- Violet kissed their cheeks before leaving. Unspoken, the six decided to follow the beaten path they were already upon- and not double back to Albridge. After a couple of hours, pleasant grassy land turned into sparse trees, then a forest. Older growth dominated here- clearly, it was well cared for.
Everyone stopped just inside its edge- there weren't any defined paths leading anywhere. As people moved to discuss plans, Sera began investigating the area. It took her some time, but she waved a hand for attention.
"I managed to find some tracks. I'll lead us through."
Everyone nodded, and off they went. Sera did lead, with Asriel and Violet right behind her. Behind them, Jordan- then Silver and Thorin. Travels inside were pleasant enough- there were spots where Sera had to stop, reexamine, then moved on again. As the trek inside continued, the growth deepened- briar and wildflowers mixed in, sounds of the forest dominating, sunlight weakened.
"This is really nice. Ethereal, almost... I wonder what the center looks like." Violet was lost in the beauty of the forest- as were most others. Thorin and Jordan, however, noticed something she didn't: the red-headed Hin silently walking beside her. They grinned at one another, in amusement.
"You'll have to see it to find out." Violet's shriek made everyone laugh. They laughed harder when she flushed dark, glaring at them.
"Who in the Nine are you? And where did you come from?"
"I am called Laurelai. Been with ye for a while- should pay more attention, you know." This got the others laughing again- Violet merely glared, and folded her arms over her chest. Laurelai smiled. "Come now, it's all in jest; besides, we've been watching since you arrived. Ruth Ann sent me to accompany you, though your friend there is doing good."
"Sounds good. Anything we need to know going in?"
"Yes, actually. Do not touch the boulder in the clearing. For any reason."
"Alright, miss. We won't- that especially means you, little miss Ice Queen."
"Why would you think I would do something like that?"
"Penchant for mischief; all of you have an undeniable love of it, really."
"Right, the other thing. Don't offend the Hin- we care for all our own. And when provoked, can be quite the force to be reckoned with." Thorin wisely shut up after that- he caught the warning, and the glint in Laurelai's eyes.
"This place seems much more vibrant and lively- I want to say it connects to the Earth elemental plane."
"I believe so; Ruth Ann will know more than I about such things."
The rest of the trek went in silence. Along the way, the group spotted pixies, fey- perhaps a dryad's presence or two. Laurelai explained the God of nature found this place to be sacred- hence its name. Quite the fascinating lesson, actually. Just as Laurelai wrapped up her explanation, the clearing came into view.
Here, the biggest trees were hollowed out, for homes set within. Others lived in the tops- creating treehouse villages. In the very center stood a gigantic boulder, a pristine white not normally found in nature. Arcanic energy shimmered off of it- glittering white in the sun. Laurelai strode over to one of the houses- just as the door opened.
Out came an elderly woman, one who seemed to have lived a very long, yet happy life. Silver hair hung freely in gentle waves, all the way down to her knees. Despite the leathery and wrinkled skin hinting at her age, her emerald eyes glittered with a youthful attitude. Gathering her leather skirt in hand, the woman- with Laurelai's help- made her way down the stairs, and to where the six stood.
"I was wondering if you would make it here, but it seems I had no reason to worry. You're quite the capable young woman, Sera."
Sera blinked in confusion. "You know who I am?"
"Of course. I know a great many things, dearie. 'Tis still a shame, what they've done to you. At least you have Jordan to keep you company. Speaking of... Come here, let me get a better look."
Jordan did as he was asked, crouching down to her level; Ruth Ann took his face in her hands, studying it every which way. "Such a handsome young man you are! I'm sure you and Sera will have a long, happy relationship- or has that not been discussed yet?"
"Sera and I are long-standing friends. Nothing more."
"For now, at least." Ruth Ann smiled, with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. She turned from them, looking up at Asriel next. "You must be Asriel- word of your talents for telling tales has reached far and wide. I hope to hear some of them one day!"
Asriel nodded, surprised she recognized him. "Of course... I'll have even more, when... I return." She patted one of his hands, and turned next to Silver.
"It's been too long, Magnus. Really, you need to come this way more often."
"Magnus?!" The entire group looked at him, perplexed. Silver looked a touch uncomfortable, shifting a bit on his feet.
"...Yeah, it's the name I was initially given. I prefer Silver these days."
"My apologies, dear. Had I known that was secret, I'd have kept my silence." Here she turned to Violet. "And of course, you're Laurelai's new friend. I trust they're all treating you well?"
Violet merely nodded, not having any words. Ruth Ann smiled at her, then moved away. Her glance landed upon Thorin.
"About time you got out of there, Thorin. Life in a tavern never did suit you." At his sheepish nod, she went on.
"I know why all of you came- sadly, I've not the help you seek. Head to Tor's Hold- they've been having trouble; help them, and they'll assist you. Two, perhaps three score of able-bodied fighters will be lent to our cause. You'll know where to go, yes?"
"Aye, that I do. Meh parents wanted to settle here at one point. Didn't work out well for them, of course- ah well. What's a dwarf to do, eh?"
"Indeed, young'un. We're going to be doing our part in this war- but your talents better serve elsewhere. Once you're done, speak to Dar. He'll be of more assistance to you than we."
Thorin nodded, and the group began to move to leave. Ruth Ann gripped Violet's arm, causing her to look back in surprise.
"You've not told them yet, child. Do you ever?"
"I see not why I would, Ruth Ann. Secrets keep people safe; what they do not know will not get them even more hurt."
"Sealing yourself off from those you entrust your life with is foolish, little one. They followed you all this way, purely on your word. A letter they haven't even seen. Even though you isolate yourself, they care enough to let you lead them into your personal Abyss, K'iaela."
Violet's eyes went wide. She began to tremble, tears welling in her eyes. Ruth Ann drew her in closer. "None call you that anymore- not since the fateful day marked with a black stone. Even your family calls you 'Violet' now. Truly, I hope you find the strength to cast off the disguise, and embrace who you are."
"...I was that girl once; but I'm Violet, now and forevermore. Yet, I..." She trailed off, Ruth Ann brushing a tear away. No words were spoken, but the sentiment was well-understood. Violet smiled weakly, and she turned, running to catch up to the others. As Laurelai led the group back out, Ruth Ann could only smile. There'd be hope for her yet- if she could only find the strength within to trust.