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The Wise Man's Tree

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Whitestone stood guard over the North of Tal'Dorei in a manner unique to truly ancient castles: it projected itself across the valley, to all the denizens of the town below, and to any travelers passing in their rattling carriages, as a monstrosity. It crowned a crooked peak above the villages and farms, its spires white as sun-bleached bones, piercing past the mountain pines crowding the battlements. After a thousand years of vigilance, the pale walls showed no sign of crumbling or cracks. The fortress appeared natural and permanent, a fixture of the landscape, as if it were a glacier hewn into shape by the hand of some industrious god.

But the castle was built by human architects, of course – more specifically, the Lords and Ladies de Rolo. Or rather, it was not built, but evolved under their guidance, growing and mutating with each generation of its inhabitants. The de Rolo lineage produced a number of brilliant engineers, who grafted the products of their genius into the very walls of their home. Their inventions ticked away the centuries in the underbelly of Whitestone, like the mechanical organs of a giant golem. The de Rolos and Castle Whitestone were as one, unified from their birth, across generations, and perhaps the only thing older than the castle was the de Rolo name itself.

At the dawning of our tale, the time had nearly passed for such ancient things. Magic, in its grandest forms, began to disappear, the arcane energy of the world spent to the dregs. The powers of society and science, of gold and gossip, of train tracks and steam engines, usurped the need for standing armies and towering forts in the South. Emon was cosmopolitan; Syngorn had become civilized. The de Rolo family attempted, in solidarity with their larger Empire, to make their family home hospitable, but there was only so much one could do for castles on winter-clad mountains. Whitestone was too vast to be altered, too old to be influenced, and too ancient not to have accumulated a will of its own.

Of course, some things do not change over mere centuries. At the time our story begins, there were still invaders, as there were still castles. There was still Whitestone, and, despite the best efforts of treachery and tragedy, there were still de Rolos.

Well – there was one.

And he, like his parents before him, and their ancestors before that, stood on the brink of civilization and wilderness, on the edge of genius and madness, a modern man of reason in the very place where modernity and reason begin to lose their fragile grip.

--

“—But his invitation doesn’t make any bloody sense, sister.”

Lady Vex’ahlia of Syngorn propped her pointed chin on her narrow hand, and heaved an impatient sigh at her brother – though the jostling of the carriage quickly knocked her posture askew. Their sour mood was likely the product of the six-hour drive along Whitestone’s ill-kept cobble roads (neither twin could stand to be stationary for long), but their squabbling hardly helped. Across from her, Vex's twin brother Vax’ildan huddled deeper into his black furs, and tried, yet again, to articulate his suspicions of their host.

“It is too strange that we should be the first guests of Whitestone in four years,” he insisted. “Lord de Rolo and I are barely acquainted. You will not even grant me that much?”

“No, I will not. I know him better than you - and besides, I doubt we will be his only guests,” Vex fired back, crossing her arms. Her brother could be terribly melodramatic at times.

“He mentions no others.”

Vex frowned. True, the guest list was an odd thing to omit, but she could not bring herself to see it as sinister. Lord de Rolo's letter had been terse, barely spanning a complete page. In it, he requested the presence of both twins at Castle Whitestone, offering to lodge them for a week or more, depending on "whether they considered their tasks at Whitestone incomplete." It was the word "tasks" that had originally caused Vax to raise his hackles, and even though his sister persuaded him to respond to the invitation, he had not yet dropped his guard. Vex tried, yet again, to calm him. “Regardless, we must grant Lord de Rolo pity before suspicion. I doubt that he has many friends to invite.”

In response, Vax copied her irritated snarl. Any spectator would find their matching countenances, in that moment, uncanny. The twins shared a series of distinguishing features, inherited largely from their mother: thick, raven hair, worn long; broad, cunning smiles; pointed noises and slender profiles; and large eyes, uniquely prominent and black, constantly scanning their surroundings with the perceptual sharpness of conniving crows.

These similarities in their features masked a deep contrast of personality. Despite his generally good heart, Vax nearly always gave off an impression of aloofness. He spoke in brusque sentences and efficient quips, and dressed (so his sister would often tease) like an undertaker, wearing greys and blacks under dark dinner jackets, and conducting himself with either funereal solemnity or terse sarcasm. His close friends – Vex first among them, and few besides her – understood the incredible depths of his humour and kindness, but he made neither trait obvious upon introduction. Vex, by contrast, lacked the capacity for solemnity. Her sympathies were much more swiftly moved than her brother’s. She lived at constant extremes, always either broadly passionate or aggressively bored. She favoured the same dark colours that lent Vax his grimness, and yet her natural depth of feeling made her appear more dramatic than dour.

Still, both twins were impulsive, impetuous, prone to risk, and intolerant of pointless social protocol. Both remained unmarried at the age of twenty-seven, though their lack of attachments did not perturb them: Vax was quite solitary, and Vex had consciously sabotaged her father’s many attempts to wed her to men she found insipid. Their ill luck in love and friendship had only strengthened their allegiance, to the point where neither twin felt complete without the presence of their opposite. In the face of such fidelity, disagreements between them were always temporary, either forgotten or resolved in short order.

“I suppose I can only suggest that we be on our guard,” Vax finished.

“On our guard? Hah. Do you think Lord de Rolo is planning to eat his guests?”

Vax merely snorted at that, but his smile allowed Vex to deem the matter resolved. She tilted her head towards the window, peeking beyond its velvet curtains. Whitestone had been looming over the landscape for the last hour of their approach, and it remained in view still, imposing and immense, glittering. Perhaps she had permitted Lord de Rolo his rather bizarre invitation because the castle itself fascinated her so. Politely put, Lady Vex had an appreciation for wealth and grandeur. Looking upon such luxury summoned a thrill in her skin, one that crawled over her shoulders like a phantom touch. In the current season, only a gentle dusting of frost lay on the tips of the tree-boughs. She wondered how the castle would appear in the depth of true winter, with the Northern snows banked against its walls, and all the world around it just as white.

Her musings were cut short as the carriage turned onto an incline, and the black boughs of the pines swept in to mask the sublime vision of the castle above. In due course, the carriage took the travelers beyond the forest, through the castle gates – Vex craning her neck to gauge their impossible height – and past the pale walls. The twins disembarked together with their driver, who began to rush them towards the entryway of the keep. With the sun sunk low, the towers cast long, opaque shadows over the pale stones of the courtyard, giving Vex the impression of traversing a giant chessboard. The driver of their carriage propped the broad oak doors open to permit them entry, and once the twins took shelter in the foyer, he immediately excused himself to search for their host.

Thus Vex and Vax were left alone in the castle keep. Their sharp eyes traced the stone floor, and the pattern of pale blue carpets criss-crossing it. Then their gazes climbed the smooth walls, drawn briefly into a grand landscape painting, depicting a rugged mountain crag...and then, their eyes rose further, up to an impossibly high set of wrought-iron windows, to their peaked points and further, up, past the columns and cornices, up, until both twins were craning their necks at the cavernous vaulted ceiling. They drifted closer together, Vex reaching for her brother’s arm. Though the doors had sealed them off from outside, the cold would not dissipate, as if a subtle chill permeated every atom of the building.

Vex bit her tongue around an eager, anxious smile. The vast, empty hall simmered with the venerable silence of a cathedral. As the twins waited, they began to hear a constant, distant clanging, like a bell striking midnight. Vex managed to pinpoint the source of the strange noise – a steep spiral stairway on their left – just as there sounded a clean pop, a loud metal bang, and a series of muffled curses. Vax staggered back, but Vex immediately took flight, dashing down the steps, heedless of the warning cry “Vex’ahlia--!”

--And she stumbled into a lake of roiling smoke billowing up the stairs, black like pitch and near as thick, curling in tongues up the sides of the walls and around her ankles, boiling the snowflakes lingering on her cloak to wisps of steam. In the cloud loomed a skeletal head, beaked, with empty eyes. A pungent smell, ashy and chemical, stung her mouth and nose, and she staggered one step upwards, fumbling for the stairway rail. The image bent – distorted itself – began to tilt – as if the skeleton-bird was opening its maw to devour her – and then, her good sense returning, Vex realized that the demonic-looking creature was only a man wearing an oddly proportioned mask. He removed it, and fanned the last traces of smoke away. Vex recaptured her breath, recognizing him instantly: tall, slender, young but noble in bearing, with a bizarre shock of erratic white hair. He replaced a set of brass-rimmed spectacles on his rather prominent nose, and mute recognition crossed his face. Regaining her composure, Vex tottered into an unsteady curtsey on the stairway.

“My Lord,” she said. “Is everything alright?”

Lord Percival de Rolo tilted his head like a curious owl, his grey-eyed gaze betraying copious wit but little warmth. “Nothing to concern yourself with,” he answered, in a trim, even voice. “Do you often wander so intrepidly through strangers’ houses?”

Vex arched one eyebrow. “Only if I believe my host to be in danger of combusting.”

To her surprise, a wry smile curled the edges of his thin lips. “He is in danger no longer, unless one can catch alight from embarrassment. We have yet to meet under normal circumstances, Lady Vex'ahlia.” Lord de Rolo then tipped his head in cordial greeting, more of a nod than a bow.

Vex barely resisted a shudder of embarrassment herself – their last encounter had been a particularly strange one, and entirely her own fault. Instead, she managed an awkward smile, and a tentative response; “It certainly seems that way.”

In silence, he watched her for a short fragment of time, one that in her perception stretched to nearly endless length. The mathematical nature of his mind became clear: with his searching looks, he seemed to be factoring her into some kind of equation. She had quite forgotten the natural intensity of his expression, but the moment reminded her how frightfully severe Lord de Rolo could be. At last, he asked, “Did your brother not elect to join you?”

From the landing, Vax called down to them. “He elected not to descend the smoking stairwell, actually.”

Eavesdropping – typical Vax. Seemingly unruffled, Lord de Rolo ascended into the main hall, and Vex fell in behind him, bewildered. He spoke as he walked, not bothering to pause or turn. “A simple miscalculation on my part, and I believe I have taken care of the damage. You must forgive my appearance,” he said, and Vex noticed the young Lord was without a jacket or waistcoat, stripped to his shirtsleeves, and wearing some kind of heavy gloves akin to a blacksmith’s. “You’ve both made extraordinarily good time," he continued. "I hadn’t expected any of my visitors until after – oh.”

At last, he halted, and the rattled twins stopped just as abruptly. The light filtering in from the windows above was orange, fading to pink. Lord de Rolo squinted upwards at the colours, as if he found them displeasing, and muttered, “I quite lose my mind in that place, sometimes.”

Vex ignored her brother’s skeptical look - which proved to be a wise choice, as the young Lord instantly turned on his heel and addressed them again. “I must dress for dinner. I will have tea brought to the salon upstairs, if you care to wait there.” With another aborted bow, he vanished, disappearing down a long hall opposite them.

Vex and Vax stared until his footsteps began to fade. The moment they were alone once more, Vax rolled his eyes extravagantly and mocked, in a simpering feminine voice; “He’s not mad, brother, he’s just lonely.”

She rolled her eyes. “You're an arse.”

“Language, my lady.”

Vex whipped off one of her gloves and whacked Vax over the shoulder. The fur cape softened the impact, but not the message, and Vax flashed a teasing grin. “So,” he continued, “since our gracious host neglected to show us the way, shall we find this salon?”

With such a goal uniting them, Vex's cheerful, curious mood began to return. Despite naming the salon as their target, their exploration was not particularly disciplined, and they wandered, dawdling over the strange artifacts of the castle. On an otherwise unremarkable stairway, Vex found herself absorbed by the oily swatches of black and blue that composed a massive painting of a crumbling glacier. Vax, who always had a bad case of what the local louts called "itchy fingers", spent a good thirty seconds inspecting a particularly ornate lock on an otherwise innocuous door. At various points on the walls, they located all kinds of oddities - switches and pipes, strange sculptures on displays, bizarre tapestries and haunted-looking portraits. They kept their adventures to the second floor: a touch more inviting than the floor below, paneled as it was in a rich, dark timber. Still, the high walls and dim lamps lent the place a gloomy air, and Vex found herself giddily nervous when rounding corners, wondering if another smoking demon was poised to leap out at her.

Eventually, they located the salon, and the low table with five steaming cups of tea upon it standing as its centerpiece. A series of bookshelves obscured the wall opposite, while the wall on the right featured a map of Tal'Dorei, all its names and borders marked out by a meticulous hand. A series of bay windows set in the left wall overlooked the courtyard, and it was at the furthest window from the door that the twins found their perch, idly stirring their cups of tea.

At their angle, the twins could glimpse the arrival of each new carriage – and then, several minutes later, a corresponding guest would appear at the door of the salon, escorted by a servant or driver. The first to arrive was a uniquely short gentleman with nut-brown hair, a Mr. Scanlan Shorthalt, who eagerly shook both their hands in greeting and winked roguishly at Vex. Jovial and friendly, he immediately took to chattering away at their side as they waited, spinning wild theories and cracking absurd jokes about the other guests. An Ambassador Tiberius Stormwind, from Draconia, followed him by several minutes. The draconic races being a rarity, even in such a worldly city as Emon, caused Vex to immediately regard him with intense curiosity. In the dimming sunset, his scarlet scales flashed with fiery colour. He introduced himself with a shade more formality than Mr. Shorthalt, but still possessed a kindly (if somewhat bumbling) nature.

After several minutes of awkward introductions, Vex and Vax at last had the pleasure of recognizing an acquaintance. Sweeping into the room with his jewel-adorned hands clasped together, bright and broad in his purple dinner-jacket, Mr. Sean Gilmore stopped in the doorway and recognized the twins immediately. He called out a salutation from across the room, causing Vax to immediately choke on his tea and wheeze inelegantly until Gilmore approached and took his hand. “Good gods, what marvelous luck!” he declared. “Vax’ildan of Syngorn, and his darling sister!”

Vex accepted a handshake for herself, her smile broadening. Their friendship with Gilmore had formed only recently, but his generous nature inclined her to act as if they had known each other for years. Everyone in Emon knew Gilmore, and not a soul among them could attest to disliking him. His businesses were many, varied, and extravagantly profitable, but his connections were more formidable still. The ever-curious Vex asked, as soon as she was able, “Are you here for business, Mr. Gilmore?”

The answer came with a sly wink and a drawling “Perhaps, perhaps.” His pleasing baritone voice rose and fell like waves, fluid and full of dramatic inflections. “At this point, my dear, your guess is as good as mine.”

“Our host neglected to tell you?” Vex asked. If not even Gilmore could pry useful details out of the man, she reasoned, Lord de Rolo was utterly inscrutable.

“Oh, young Percival’s just a touch secretive,” Gilmore responded, with a note of warm-hearted affection. "I can't imagine it's anything serious." He waved one hand dismissively through the air, candlelight sparking off his ostentatious gold rings.

“It would seem you know him far better than we do,” Vax interjected.

To Vex’s surprise, the tone of her brother’s voice prickled with venom – and indeed, his countenance had become sour. Fortunately, Gilmore did not seem offended. “You can tell a great deal about a man by what he’s willing to pay for,” he said, with a wink. “But alas, I could not share such details in good conscience. I am an honest businessman.”

Sighing, Vex continued, “I wish Lord de Rolo were so honest. I’m starting to wonder for what purpose he has brought us here.”

“Indeed,” Vax agreed, darkly.

As the discussion continued, Vex began to collect the opinions of her cohort. It seemed that they, like her brother, were confused about the nature of Lord de Rolo's invitation. Most admitted to accepting out of sheer curiosity or fascination, rather than any sense of affectionate attachment. Even Gilmore was wary, inclined to dismiss "dear Percival's" dramatics as nothing remarkable. In the course of their exchange, Vex gradually found herself to be their host's sole defender, wondering aloud why they were not more charmed by the prospect of staying in such a beautiful old castle.

After several minutes of casual debate, the doors opened once more, and a woman stepped out from the hall. Her image immediately struck Vex to silence. Her yellow-green eyes flickered about like candle-flames, luminous even from a distance. She wore her hair loose, falling to her waist in a cascade of orange-red waves, decorated at points with strange flowers and feathers. She stood apart from the gathered party, hands folded on the brightly-patterned skirts of her jade-green dress. In the gloomy salon, she drew all eyes to her person, as bright and strange as a solitary orchid.

She spoke, her voice trembling; “Lord de Rolo has asked me apologize to everyone for his rudeness. He will be joining us shortly.”

Her curiosity overcoming her wariness, Vex pulled away from the group of guests to greet the newcomer. The strange woman panicked at her advance, and took two steps backwards into a hasty bow. Vex returned the greeting slowly, as if she were approaching a frightened animal. “Thank you for informing us,” she began. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced, my Lady. Vex’ahlia of Syngorn. You are-?”

“-Keyleth,” she interjected, looking relieved. “Just Keyleth, if you please, I am Lady – um, Lady nothing.” Vex could not resist a smile. The girl’s stuttering was somehow charming, and her nervous expression betrayed her relative youth. Leaning forward, Keyleth asked Vex, in a conspiring whisper, “The guests aren’t upset with him, are they?”

A reasonable question, to which Vex shrugged one shoulder. “Simply confused, I imagine. Didn’t you find Lord de Rolo’s invitation somewhat obtuse?”

Keyleth cocked her head, the beads in her hair clattering. “I wasn’t invited,” she replied. “I was already here.”

The sound of footsteps interrupted any further questioning on Vex’s part – instead, she looked beyond Keyleth’s shoulder just in time to see their host enter the room. He shut the door behind him and rubbed his gloved hands together, surveying his audience, who slowly fell silent in turn. Vex could not fault them for their awkward reaction, not entirely. Lord de Rolo had become something other than a person to his gathered guests: an entity composed of rumour and hearsay, a symbol of misfortune, the central character in a story so tragic that it must, at least in part, have been false.

And indeed, only a handful of facts were indisputably true: that the previous Lord de Rolo, his wife, and six of their seven children died over the course of a single night, five years past; that Percival had become the new Lord of Whitestone shortly afterwards, and retreated from high society; that he had traveled to Emon for a handful of meetings and social appearances over the summer, and then, out of the blue, sent the current company their invitations.

Such an unsatisfying dearth of detail could only sow the seeds of rumour. The superstitious nobility in Emon theorized that the de Rolos were struck down by a curse, or devoured by something ancient beneath their castle. Vex paid little heed to them – those sedentary duchesses with their plumes and pearls, who saw any wilderness north of Westruun as if it were fit only for barbarians or dire wolves. Still less credible, and still more repulsive, were those who believed the de Rolos had been murdered, and who, in subtle ways, accused the obvious culprit: Percival himself, the sole survivor of that tragic, bloody night, the ambitious second son.

Putting aside such thoughts, Vex suspected that most people, whether they thought him culpable or not, would still find Lord de Rolo eerie. His unnatural composure and his severe expressions did not invite friendly discourse or casual approach. He appeared stiff, brittle and pale, like an icicle. His spoken statements carried the calculated weight of a philosophical query or a scientific conclusion, but never the heat of human feeling. Even when he appeared pleased, there was always tension, always activity, always a mechanism clicking in his mind.

(And yes – Vex, like the others, found his presence unsettling, but a difference rested in her reasoning. She sensed an uncomfortable sympathy between herself an Lord de Rolo: Sorrow leaves a unique mark on every soul, yet it is always visible by those who have been likewise branded. Even without the virulent spread of rumour, Vex would have recognized the kinship between her and any orphaned son.)

Lord de Rolo spoke then, wrenching Vex from her thoughts – his voice calm, but almost artificially so, like a poor actor with a flawed script: “Greetings, everyone. Before we eat, I have something important to discuss with all of you. Please, sit if you wish.”

The guests organized themselves. Vex pulled Keyleth with her to a chaise, and they took their seats side-by-side. Her brother and the other gentlemen filled the couches and chairs, all moving in near-silence. Only the host himself remained standing. He paced in front of them, marking out a stage for his speech, rubbing his palms slowly, nervously, back and forth. “As I’m sure you gathered by the letter I sent, I have been harboring an ulterior motive for summoning you here. Now, by all means, we may continue as if this were any other social call, and spend the week amusing ourselves at will. But, should you be at all curious, I will now propose an alternative.”

Silence. His audience could not find the means to interrupt him. The nervousness of his pacing and the flatness of his voice had transformed, imperceptibly, to a kind of quiet authority. Time - and grief - had given Lord de Rolo gravitas. He continued, “As I'm sure you know, this castle has been in my family for a very long time. The de Rolos built it, in fact, almost a thousand years ago. And somewhere in its catacombs and passageways rests a vault, hidden and locked, its location known only to the living heads of the de Rolo family and their immediate successor. Or at least, it was.”

He paused again, his voice softer, reminiscent. “You must not think my late parents and brother short-sighted. Their deaths were – abrupt, and unexpected. But regardless, Julius, Johana and Frederick did not have the chance to pass this knowledge down to me."

“So then, I intend for us to find this vault. Whether we accomplish the task together or apart, the first of you to locate it will have your pick of its treasures – per my approval, of course. Desecration of my ancestry is not my target. I am happy to share what I do know of the vault with all who are interested, and more than pleased to entertain those of you who do not find your curiosity piqued. Well?”

The room remained awkwardly silent, but for an uncertain creaking of furniture. Disbelief and confusion passed across the faces of the guests, mingled with hints of curiosity. Vex looked to her brother, who shrugged. Keyleth tightened her grip on Vex's wrist, and pressed the fingers of her free hand to her mouth, staring openly at their host. “Percival,” she whispered, “are you certain?”

He stared ahead, and answered without meeting her eyes. “Yes, of course.”

To Vex’s surprise, her brother cut in next, half-rising out of his chair. “Begging your pardon, Lord de Rolo, but if desecration is not your goal, then why are you granting us such knowledge of your family secrets? I hope I speak for us all when I say this - we do not want to infringe on what is yours.”

“I did not take this action lightly,” Lord de Rolo admitted. “But the truth is that this castle was never meant to be mine. I am already a transgressor.” Realizing the darkness of his tone, he waved his hands, faking a moment of levity. “But enough about it. You need not worry about offending me, if that is your concern.”

“Well, my concern is something else,” Mr. Shorthalt piped up, his slender arms crossed over his chest. “Putting aside offense – what about our safety? Are we to be shaking up the bones of de Rolos past? Tampering with things we shouldn’t touch, perchance?“

Lord de Rolo smiled thinly. “It is only a castle, nothing more. Shake and tamper as you will, Mr. Shorthalt.”

“Somehow I find that less than comforting,” Mr. Shorthalt confessed. Mr. Gilmore drowned his voice out with another question, at which point Vex’s attention briefly dulled, and began to drift.

These interrogators, she reflected, were entirely missing the point. A thousand-year-old vault of treasure locked in a glorious, sprawling castle, and they quibbled about such mundane things – about courtesies, about safety? What of the nature of the objects in the vault, and what of the trickery masking it? Where were the questions of hidden passageways – of gold, of puzzles, of ancient, long-forgotten secrets? And of their host – of Lord de Rolo, who answered all their complaints with detached disinterest, and dry amusement? Why was the vault so important to him - important enough that he would breach four years of solitude and silence to ask them for aid?

In the midst of her furious evaluation, the Lord's grey gaze drifted to her seat, and settled on her face. “You have not spoken yet, my lady,” he observed. “Have you no questions?”

Vex stared at him, swelled to bursting with no less than a thousand questions, each more intense and burning than the last. His expression challenged her with the expectation of clever riposte – and yet she held her tongue. The others had revealed their hands - their weaknesses, their fears. If this week was to be a game, and if she intended to win, she would cling to her every advantage. She kept her face passive, but inside, she thrummed with emotion, with anticipation and curiosity. She folded her hands together on her lap. Their eyes met, and a wordless communication sparked to life between them, an electric transmission of perfect understanding, so that Lord de Rolo began to smile even before she voiced her response.

“Only one question, my Lord,” she said. “Where do you suggest we start?”

--