Soulseeking in the Wildwoods [Short story & Artwork]

This is the first league that I've managed to finish my entries for the talent competition on time, even before the rules were published. It's a short story with some images I've created using Midjourney (AI), so neither can be submitted for the contest. Nevertheless, I want to share them with you, kind exiles. :)

This is a short story featuring:
- Stormburst Totems Hierophant
- CI Cold DoT Occultist (you might know her from this short story:

Soulseeking in the Wildwoods
- How to totemance -

She had never seen a fighting style like this: the old man was placing small wooden poles on the ground, deftly choosing perfect spots that gave them just enough space to move and attack in unison. At once the little totems emitted a crackling energy, accumulating what seemed like an electric charge and releasing it soon after. Liquid lightning shot out of the beautifully carved tips of the three tree-like poles, raced straight towards one of the assaulting highwaymen and knocked him back a good length, only to proceed zapping between the other two attackers. The lightning left them screaming and tumbling to the ground. Fascinated and puzzled, she hid herself deeper behind a huge boulder. Then her look wandered from the totems to the man who had placed them. He was in his mid-fifties and wore a battered leather armour, his shoulders and arms brawny like those of a skilled fighter. Gathering up his totems with a few dextrous movements, he didn't give his defeated attackers another glance and went on.

Time and again, she was travelling to the city of Highgate and knew that the paths that lead there were bandit-ridden and dangerous. All of them led through an old, wild forest that kept its dangers well hidden. The wildwood had a dark and feral feel to it: beautiful but dangerous, predators like beasts and thieves lurked in the dark corners behind majestic oaks and stirred in the spiky undergrowth. Having mastered the art of ice magic, though, the witch didn't fear much and was astonished by the traveller she'd just watched. Especially his totems didn't want to leave her thoughts just yet, raising the urge in her to find out more about them. After some more minutes hiding, the ice witch shouldered her backpack and proceeded to cross the forest on the same mossy path that the totemancer would probably use. He was most certainly on his way to Highgate, too, and maybe she'd be able to catch another glance at his totems at nightfall when everybody in their right mind would have to make camp and kindle a fire to stay safe.

As the sun almost kissed the horizon and long shadows crept between the ancient, gnarled trees that lined the barely recognisable path, the ice witch had followed the traces of the totemancer and decided to watch him from a safe distance rather than approach him openly. People were generally wary if not hostile around here and you could never now if you'd survive an encounter if you showed your face. Thus, she sneaked up on him and kept herself hidden in the tangled brushwood.

The man had set up camp, his bonfire crackling merrily and his sturdy tent already in place. He was cooking something that smelled so good it made her mouth water, and the witch almost broke her stealth just to ask for a portion of his brew like a hungry fool. What sparked her curiosity even more, though, were the totems -four in total- that stood right beside him. He rummaged around in his bag, grabbed a bottle and poured a swig of some liquid onto each of them. The witch sneaked closer still as she couldn't exactly see the little wooden poles in detail and really wanted to know more about their functionality. They seemed to be a potent and easy to handle weapon she'd like to acquire for herself. She had heard of this kind of things before, but totemancers were rare in Wraeclast and she assumed that there had to be more to this than just a higher skill level in woodcarving. Just a bit closer, she thought, and allowed herself a few more cautious steps towards the majestic trunk of an oak tree that would make for a perfect cover. Now she could finally see that there was a fifth totem that stood slightly taller and had very intricate, glowing carvings all over its bark. The engraved patterns swirled and sparkled, giving the wood an artistic quality that captivated her to the fullest. The bark seemed so smooth and some liquid flowed visibly through the coiling lines, painting them in the colours of fall: a deep, rich red like wine of the ripest grapes, then an orange the colour of the sun at dawn, mixed with a golden yellow that glimmered like molten metal. Glowing from within, the totem looked striking and her look followed the intricate play of colours and multidimensional shapes.

All of a sudden, a sharp sound pulled her out of her fascination and she tried to focus on her surroundings. Her head felt like it was covered in cotton wool and her thoughts covered in honey, sticky and unable to move on. The beautiful totem drew her attention so much that she had to force herself to look away from it. Only then did she realise that all around her, chaos had broken loose.

Shaking her head to get rid of the gooey, slow thoughts she had experienced while staring at the totem, the ice witch instantly realised that this was no usual bandit attack but a breach in reality itself. Scourge demons, fierce beasts with otherworldly powers swarmed the place and were already wracking havoc in the surrounding forest. Just a few seconds had passed and trees were burning, the stink of sulphur filling the air with the thick, acrid scent of the scourge realm. Intuitively, the witch tapped into the energies that lay deep below the earthy forest ground, finding groundwater from below. She thankfully noticed some gusts of wind from the mountain range close by, and grasped hold of their frosty powers. Water started to crystallise rapidly in her wake. Sudden attacks by demons from the Beyond were not unusual, so she was used to react swiftly. Within seconds, she'd conjured an ice storm around her that gained momentum with her at the very centre. The cool air glittered with freshly formed snowflakes and she used her hands to push them soothingly through the burning trees into all directions. Her snow vortex pierced through the caustic demon smell and froze the bushes and ground solid where she walked. As a demon with spiky wings and a set of four sharp-edged claws charged at her through the whirling snow, she felt his presence already when it touched the outermost snowflakes. She instantly shot a bolt of solid ice in his direction, piercing his festering body. He dropped dead and shattered into icy dust. Two more of the creatures went down like this and the witch moved towards the totemancer's camp, unable to see through her own snowstorm, but aware that the scourge fire would need to be put out nonetheless. The heavy fight was draining her energy quickly and she was panting when she reached the campsite. Exhausted, she extended her senses into the woods and felt no presence of the demons anymore. There was still fire on some of the trees and she quickly send some cold snaps into their direction, extinguishing the flames.

"You!", the totemancer called through the steam that had settled over the camp after snow and fire had clashed. She let the snow cloud that still spiralled around her dissipate and finally faced the man. He was bleeding from his brow and tried to wipe the blood from his eyes as he approached her. "You spied on me", he grumbled. The witch was perplexed and looked to the ground in shame, only to see the former beautifully carved totem laying close to her feet. Its bark was scorched by the demon fire and the carvings had burned away almost completely, rendering the wooden pole seemingly useless. She picked it up and felt a flash of pain rush through her. Exhaling sharply, she dropped it and faced the old man who had managed to clean the blood from his eyes. He immediately picked up the burnt piece of wood and pulled it close to his chest, gingerly tracing the former carved lines with his fingers. The witch could tell just by the look of it that he was in pain while doing so. Around them, the lingering steam was blown away by the gusts that came down from the mountains. The full extend of the destruction finally became visible: the camp lay in shackles, the forest around was burnt and then frozen so that the trees looked battered, but lived. They would survive.

"You can do snow, but can you do water, too", he asked her out of the blue and she could make out desperation and pain in his voice. "Y-yeah, I guess", she responded, closed her eyes and reached into the groundwater with her mind, gently convincing it to gather in her open palms. "Here", he croaked painfully and held out the totem towards her. She poured the water onto the blackened wood and realised that suddenly the man that held the piece of wood relaxed a tiny bit. She splashed more of the cold water onto the totem, only now realising that the other totems had gotten caught in her icy vortex and had frozen solid. They were now thawing slowly. Still in pain, the stranger sat down on the now muddy ground and softly cradled the destroyed totem in his lap while digging up some earth with his bloodied hands. The witch rose an eyebrow and sat down. Maybe he was in shock, she thought, acting irrationally like that. Both the man and his piece of coal made a terrible impression and she didn't really know how to react properly, so she offered more water in her cupped hand because he'd asked for that earlier surely for a reason. The man nodded. Then he softly placed the burnt wood into the earth where he'd made the hole and covered half of its length with muddy soil.

"Why did it hurt me when I touched it?", the witch asked, genuine curiosity in her voice. "It really did?", he asked back. She nodded. "That's uncommon", he mused, "you shouldn't be able to feel its pain". - "What?", she said sharply, struck dumb be his answer and demanded: "Explain yourself!"

"Well, you deserve an answer for saving the woods and them", he said and gestured towards the four thawing totems. "But you still spied on me, so beg pardon but I'm not willing to explain anything to someone who sneaks up like a thief or worse." She cringed. Fair enough. "Sorry 'bout that", she mumbled in a low voice. "You can't tell foe from friend in those woods, so better play it safe." He nodded. "Agreed, but you don't seem to have any problems defending yourself, so why even bother with sneaking? Do I seem like someone who would carelessly attack anything that moves?" - "I don't care. Better safe than sorry." He nodded again. She was so exhausted that she leaned back against a tree and closed her eyes for a moment. Ice magic was very powerful but just as taxing for mind and body. She knew this well, alas, she'd paid a high price as she'd given a good part of her humanity to achieve mastery of it.

They were silent for a long moment. The rustling leaves of the oaks around them sang their calming song while the sun disappeared fully behind the mountains. "I can give you an answer in exchange for some more water, though", said the totemancer then, his voice tight. She knew he still had to be desperate and nodded sympathetically. "Here, if you manage to soak it fully, it might survive", he said and gestured towards the half-buried totem. The witch placed her hands a few centimetres above the pole and let conjured water flow over the blackened bark. "Wait, what do you mean, survive? This looks a lot like dead wood to me, charcoal even", she asked. "No", he exclaimed, "it's terribly hurt but its soul is strong. If we can just give it enough fresh water, I'm sure it can recover." She noticed the care and sorrow in his voice. He was serious about this.

"The water won't go through the soot", she claimed. "Touch it", he replied, "it shouldn't give you much pain anymore, but direct contact might help to guide the water." Sceptically, the witch laid her hands on the wood and felt a lingering ache pulsing through her, but nothing she couldn't manage. Guiding the water through the fibres indeed made it much easier to completely soak the totem. The witch found that she hadn't healed anything else than herself in ages and it felt good to soothe the burn of the... what exactly? He'd called it soul of the wood. Suddenly she felt a movement beneath her hands and jolted back, splashing water uncontrolled on the ground. "Something moved!", she cried out. "Well, you did a good job then", smiled the totemancer, "it even gathered enough strength to stir. That's a good sign." - "It... moves", the witch repeated flabbergasted, observing the soaked piece of charred wood closely. She could make out the slightest of movements in the lesser damaged parts of the carvings.

"Totems are living entities", he explained then, "and they do have souls, just like you and me. They have the mind of a tree, coaxed into a strong bond with the one who connects with them. That's why I felt its pain as if it was mine, as if the flames had burnt me instead." - "Ah", she said, "that's how you knew I was there in the first place, too." He nodded. "Not only that you were following me, but also that you got caught in its pull", he said and couldn't suppress a genuine smile. She snorted. "What kind of hex did you put on it? It's enthralling and well-made", admitted the witch. "It worked on me. How did you manage..." - "It's not a spell", he interrupted sharply, "it's the totem itself. If you raise them properly, they can do this." A bit of pride made his voice merry. "Raise them?", she asked, puzzled and intrigued. "Can you teach me?"

He laughed. "Teach you? How much time do you want to spend in the woods?" She frowned, realising that a long time was probably of the essence. "Totems, dear sneaky ice witch, are nothing else than trees, raised to become what they are. You need to find a sapling that is willing to connect with you, and raise it properly. This takes years. Only when it's grown enough can you take it with you, because before that, it's bound by its roots to the forest it was born in. To its family, in a sense." She nodded. "But how is it that the others shoot lightning and this one enthrals people?" - "Well, probably the same way you decided to cast ice spells: by seeking what most pulls you towards it and feels right. Some trees won't ever develop any interest in interacting with other species and some fancy a certain kind of connection. You need to find those who have a common interest with you." The witch began to understand. "What's the interest of the enthralling one, then?", she inquired sceptically. "You say that as if it was something despicable. When it was very young, I saw it growing bright red leaves instead of the usual green ones and tried I tried to connect with it. It just wanted to be seen and admired, and I was looking for a soul that would be able to attract attention and withstand a lot of damage, and feel proud in doing so. Its species is known for its quickly growing and regrowing bark and sturdy wood, so it was a perfect match. We made some compromises to get along. It's grown into a very strong and beautiful decoy totem ever since." - "How long did it take for it to leave the woods with you?", she wanted to know. He softly laid his strong hand on the hurt totem and she could see that they shared a deep bond. He smiled. "Seven full years." - "And the smaller ones?" - "A bit less, from three to five. You might not see it, but two of them are old souls, one even the first I've ever bonded with." The witch felt a bit uncomfortable now because the stranger told her such intimate stories. She'd never display her soul so openly, but appreciated the totemancer's openness. So, she asked another question: "How do you even... communicate?" - "How do you communicate with the water?", he asked in return and it dawned to her that this was not so different after all. "I call it, it calls me. But I've never heard a tree, let alone a sapling, call out to me." Now the totemancer nodded. "Yes, that's why there are so few totemancers in Wraeclast."


The forest was bathed in golden sunlight as the sun slowly came up the next morning. The witch and the totemancer had set up their camps close to the former campfire and after a night of well-deserved sleep, the witch curiously checked on the half-buried decoy totem. Its carvings had already become a bit more visible and some of the soot had given way to fresh bark. "You want some water?", she asked it aloud, not expecting any reaction, but an ever so slight movement assured her that her idea was correct. Carefully, she laid her hands onto the dry wood and called water from the crystal-clear reservoirs deep below the forest. It felt refreshing even for her and she thought that this must delight the hurt tree spirit, too. As the cool liquid poured over the wood, she could even feel how the bark smoothly leaned against the skin of her palms. "…Think I can find a sapling that would be willing to bond with me?", she whispered, her heart sinking. As she'd mastered ice magic, her soul had become cold and icy, leaving her with a lot of willpower and energy shield, but the bare minimum of a human soul. Which tree in its right mind would ever want with connect to her like that? Probably none, she mused and already saw that this would become a lost cause for her.

"Trees are in some ways wiser than we humans", the deep voice said, "because they are as much individuals as they are parts of a social system. They share their knowledge. Go and seek the northern forests where the fir trees are sturdy and used to the cold. They're much more likely to bond with you and your magic. Let me be honest, though. You have a soft heart, ice witch, even though my spell totems shy away from your... soul for a good reason. But just as we have our flaws and stories, there are trees that are drawn to your kind.” He gestured towards his decoy totem. “You've saved this one’s life and not just that - the water you shared was from a place no tree roots could ever reach, called from those depths for the purpose of healing. This one says that your intentions with it are as pure as your water. Fear not, even my spell totems are sure you will find a sapling that will find solace in a bond with you."

Thus, the witch went to Highgate, did her business, gathered her belongings and ventured into the fir-covered mountains and their icy forests. She knew just the place to stay for a good time and seek out the soul of a tree, and maybe even the lost parts of her own.
Last bumped on Feb 9, 2024, 1:34:21 AM
...and here are some images depicting different decoy totems grown from a variety of trees:

Nice story!
"Totems are living entities" - I always say that haha

Report Forum Post

Report Account:

Report Type

Additional Info