A Time Upon a Once

The breeze soughed gently through the towering trees. Their spring leaves and needles drank in the nourishing morning sunlight. The rays streamed brightly down from the heavens, dappling the forest floor with splashes of lucent, glimmering gold. Amidst the dense, tangled undergrowth, in the clusters of azalea shrubs and snaking, twisting and twining vines, was a sea of rich, variegated, precious life.

After spending nigh on a century held spellbound inside an amber crystal—a bleak and timeless necromantic prison—Orla Carling was positively luxuriating in the vegetal splendors of the mountainside woodland. She gambolled joyfully beneath the wide boles and leafy branches, her steps so feather light she seemed to float above the ground, her passage hardly disturbing the young ferns and blossoms sprouting beneath her feet. Everywhere she looked the trees and wildflowers were gloriously in bloom. She closed her silver-shot eyes and breathed in deeply the reborant air, thick with the sweet fragrance of primrose and bluebells, pungent with the tang of sap and bark. These were very familiar, very reassuring scents. The old-growth Alpine forest, so similar to her native Skeldergate with its mixture of holly, yew, beech and pine trees, brought her back to the warm comfort of her childhood in the Deepwood, and there was more than just beautiful fecund greenery all round, there was magic too. It was far fainter than when she had last trod the material plane, but still more than potent enough to register to her innate faerie sight.

Orla raised her two small hands, and, by right of her ancient mystical heritage, mentally drew a tiny amount of the magic through the ether and into her core like a butterfly might draw a sip of nectar from a flower. She blinked, and her serene smile slowly faded to be replaced by an expression of deep-seated sadness. Though she felt stronger and invigorated almost immediately from the personal infusion of raw nature magic, there was no divine connection to be found within the cordial energies, none of the former inbred and instinctive flash of understanding that she was a part of a much greater whole. The uncharacteristic emptiness of the sensation was a painful reminder that she was acutely alone. For she could no longer feel the presence of her goddess Fernoia in the Materium, nor empathically detect any of her fellow woodkin faerie elves.

According to her good and ever-faithful friend, Horo Inu, sometime during the past hundred years her people, along with their close dryad and sidhe cousins, had mysteriously all disappeared from the face of the land. Even the proud faerie kingdom of Kobrorus that had lain off the misty coast of Verden was said to be no more. As far as could be determined, Orla was the last of her people, and seemingly the last living fae of any species remaining in the mortal plane. She could not fathom just how such a terrible thing could be, but the staggering reality of it was incontrovertible. They who had dwelt on Aéran since the First Age and time immemorial were gone without a trace. Simply vanished.

Horo professed to have no knowledge whatsoever of just what had happened to them. Only Ceriden Malkaan, her erstwhile captor, appeared to have any inkling of the unknown catastrophe. However, Ceriden had been highly reluctant to be drawn on the subject, and the deeply troubled necromancer departed in great haste after assisting young Severos Aven defeat the great and infamous Arch-Lich of the Two Kingdoms, Galathus Kelmoran, whose remaining essence inhabited a dark tome called the Mortith. Orla had been previously under the impression that Ceriden and Kelmoran were both one in the same after a fashion—that they existed separate and independent of the other was all rather convoluted and confusing to her to say the least.

Shortly before the titanic showdown commenced, Kelmoran had inadvertently released her soul from its century-long imprisonment by Ceriden, allowing her to reconstitute her corporeal form once more. Following their tearful reunion, Horo pointed out to her that it was likely this same magical imprisonment had somehow spared her the fate of the rest of her missing kin, and Orla wasn't quite sure whether she should be grateful for, or aggrieved about, this fact. Raised in a profoundly spiritual milieu, she wondered if her survival might be preordained and she had been singled out for some larger destiny — an unknown purpose connected to the goddess's far-reaching master plans?

Surely, this had to be so, she thought, as why else would she have been left to languish in confinement all that prolonged time? The Avatar of Fernoia, Miss Xaulder, would have come for her, and must not have done so for a good reason. Unless... unless something had happened to the Avatar. Something horrible and unimaginable.

Long before the trauma of her captivity, mind you, the unimaginable had become fairly common place for her since meeting Horo, not to mention the bizarre group of visitors that emerged from the Omniversal Crossroads and nearly ripped asunder the fabric of reality. Had those rogues something to do with what had happened? Now the veil between worlds had thickened, the fae portals degraded. Everything was far less than what it once was, and that bit less kind.

With effort, Orla pushed her dark, pensive thoughts aside, knowing that there was no use dwelling on what she couldn't help, let alone even begin to understand. She stretched her delicate, ethereal, insect-like wings, and rose off the ground, fluttering up into the high crisscrossing branches above. She was regaining her strength, able to cast spells and fly somewhat, but she had quite a long way to go before she made a complete recovery—if she ever would. Her goddess had augmented her inborn magicks throughout her life and for the foreseeable future she would need to learn to do without that divine blessing.

She made her way over the forest, flitting from treetop to treetop, her wings propelling her along at a swift, but leisurely pace. She paused on top of a broad beech bough at the edge of the treeline and looked around for any sign of Horo. Snow-capped mountains loomed from the vaporous morning fog, majestically marking the picturesque horizon over the valley. The sky above was blue with fleecy white clouds and there wasn't a person in sight.

Orla spied a small millpond in the idyllic clearing next to the ruins of an old mill house, and she flew down to regard her reflection in the water. Her wheat-blonde hair was in a textured bob with swept bangs, a natural pixyish style she favoured before coming to Dalen's capital city and needing to appear more nondescript, more innocuous. Even back then faeries were a bit out of the ordinary, and viewed as pestilential creatures at best and potentially very dangerous at worst. She had been able to pass herself off as an unremarkable Verdish half-elf, and to the less perceptive, a human occasionally. She imagined that's how she would be perceived now that faeries were unheard of in modern times. Even Ursa, who was so savvy and magically learned, hadn't recognised or guessed at her true nature.

Poor Ursa. What had happened to that plucky girl? Again, Orla tried to rein her sorrowful emotions in. As if she didn't know what happened to Ursa who had so foolishly, if bravely, rushed headlong into the horde of zombies chasing them. Ceriden. Kelmoran. All those terrible undead things. That cruel village. If she ever wanted to feel like herself again she would need to purge that nightmare from her mind forevermore.

Orla's keen elven ears caught the footfalls rustling through the meadow, jolting her out of her melancholic trance. She stood and turned to see a tall, lean figure approaching across the clearing. It was Horo, who had certainly changed drastically since the last she saw him in the Two Kingdoms. Gone was the jovial, eccentric, rakish man of mystery she knew and loved. In that man's place stood a grizzled stranger who bore only some resemblance in personality to her old friend, and outwardly he was almost wholly unrecognisable. His scruffy fair hair had turned entirely grey and he wore it long enough now to reach his lower back. He had a terrific scar on his left cheek, another on his neck, and all his familiar features appeared altered, reconstructed. Even his eyes had strangely changed colour to a shade of chartreuse green. His fashion sense was completely different as well, from floppy-hatted foreign shopkeeper to something vaguely ecclestiastical or monastic. The several earrings he sported and the flowing black garments he wore clearly reflected the new Horo Inu, marked by the ravages of time, and, she feared, suffering. Orla suddenly felt selfish thinking so much about herself. The past century had not been kind to a lot of people.

She was still a little nervous and uncertain at Horo's dramatic transformation. As she dispelled her wings and walked to greet him, she fixed a wonderful warm smile on her lips that was only partially feigned. Despite how much he was unlike the old Horo, he was undoubtedly him, and it was a tremendous comfort to be by his stalwart side once more, especially in this harsh and far-flung era, that, without him, would have been unbearable.

“I see you’re finally up and about, sleepy head,” Orla said with teasing disapproval.

“Some of us aren’t early birds like you,” Horo replied good-naturedly.

“‘Tis too fine a day to stay in bed. I wanted to watch the sunrise. I've never seen it in the mountains.”

“How was it?”

“Absolutely beautiful.” Orla looked closely at him and saw the fatigue in his face and a lassitude in his manner that aroused her concern. “Are you alright? What’s the matter?”

“Nothing is the matter.” The breeze tugged at his robes and hair as he beamed fondly down at her. “These bones are just not as young as they used to be. Would you like some breakfast?”

Orla nodded, realising she was hungry. “Now that you mention it, I haven't eaten since yesterday and I'm feeling rather peaked.”

“Not surprising after your pre-dawn excursion, though I don't mind telling you I'm feeling a little peaked too. You really have to keep up your strength at these elevations.”

“Then what shall we have this morning?”

“How about that honey and raisin porridge you like and some good ol' Aelmerian tea to go with it?” Horo asked, holding out his arm.

“That would be lovely.” Orla slid her arm around his with another smile and they walked back to their nearby campsite. “Do you want any help making it?”

“The porridge? No, it's instant.” Horo poured the pre-prepared mixture into a pot and gradually coaxed their wood fire from the night before back into roaring life. “We can stick around here for a few more days if you want. I noticed the forest is a lot like where you come from. But where would you want to go next?”

Orla let out a thoughtful breath. “I think I should like to see Dalen again.”

“Dalen?” Horo said, with a wince. “Why?”

“To see how it turned out after a hundred years! The rebel faction Maelwin was connected to wanted to bring about something called a democracy. I wonder if they ever did?”

Horo chuckled ruefully. “Most of those idealistic fools got themselves killed a long time ago, Orla. Dalen was in shambles after the war with the Timber Crag and only got worse from there. Far worse.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Orla's little mouth twisted into a tight, sad frown. “What happened?”

“Basically, the whole place was overrun by monsters and demons of every shape and variety. Trust me, the less said about them, the better. If that wasn't bad enough, the old kingdom was carved up into more than a dozen petty little fiefdoms that are constantly at war with one another. Count Soldor's brat son controls a section of the former capital—or he did twenty years ago at least. I think Auriel and a committee still rule over where Radogast used to be. The rest of the warlords and strongmen were born since our time, so you wouldn't know any of them, but from meeting some I can personally tell you they're about as mean as Thierri himself.”

“As mean as Prince Thierri?”

Horo stirred the porridge. “I'm not exaggerating. Dalen is a truly dangerous and miserable place, and I never go in there anymore unless necessary.”

Orla shook her head in doleful disbelief. “How did everything become so... so terrible?”

“Oh, it's not all terrible! Aelmerian cuisine is still going strong, but I don't care for their new doo doo cakes,” he said lightheartedly, trying to brighten her spirits with a little humor.

Orla cracked a smile, for his benefit as much as hers. “Well, perhaps we should go to Aelmere next then. Or Varland.”

Horo considered. “Varland is nice this time of year, but a bit cold in the early spring.”


“Too hot. Or wait, I know!”


“Karavoss. We can pay a visit to our new friend Severos who has set up shop down there, and then after saying our hellos to the lad, go find a little beach to ourselves along the Karavossian coast. Have you ever seen the sunrise on the ocean? No? Then you haven't lived Orla, because it puts every other sunrise to shame. So how does that all sound to you? A seaside holiday?”

“Oh, it sounds marvellous!” she exclaimed happily.

Horo grinned. “Good. But right now, let's relax up here near the top of the world and enjoy the peace and quiet.”

Orla sat on a fallen log and stretched out her legs. “It certainly is very peaceful and quiet here, everything so still.”

“This is a fairly remote area. Did you see anything interesting out there besides the sunrise?”

“Well, there were these azaleas in a grove that must only grow up here in the Alps because I've never seen them anywhere else. They have tiny pink flowers shaped like bells that--”

Horo suddenly let out an anguished cry, doubled over, and staggered to the ground.

“Horo!” Orla leaped to his side and quickly knelt down next to him, her face full of alarm. “Horo, what is it? What's wrong?”

But he didn't answer her and she saw that he had lost consciousness. She immediately checked his vitals, placing her fingertips on the side of his neck as Miss Xaulder had taught her so long ago. His heart was beating but it was weak and erratic. Was it altitude sickness? Poison? She had some training as a healer but wasn't experienced diagnosing complex medical problems.

Horo convulsed violently and his lungs heaved to pull in a ragged gasp and then... they just froze. A chill of horror shot through Orla upon realising he had just stopped breathing.

Oh no! Oh no, oh no, oh no!

In a total panic now, her mind raced furiously to figure out what to do. She could heal minor wounds and eradicate run-of-the-mill poisons from a person's bloodstream with ridiculous ease, but Horo had no apparent injury for her to focus her efforts and her faerie sight sensed no apparent toxins or disease in his system; instead it was like his whole body was shutting down for no reason at all.

Desperately, she placed her hands on his chest and channeled positive life magic into him. His failing lungs instantly began to draw air once more but at the same time his heart started thumping rapidly and disturbingly loud to her acute hearing as if in extreme duress. Was he having a heart attack? Or was she somehow hurting him without knowing it?

“Oh, Fernoia, aid me!” she wailed, tears spilling from her eyes.

The elder Aeranian goddess of Nature and chaos did not respond to the sound of Her holy name echoing across the vast mountainside. However, Orla did not give up and she launched into casting a second and more powerful healing spell that called upon the divine forces of nature. It was the high-level type of woodkin magic she had been trained in for literally centuries and that still functioned to varying degrees, unlike so many of the numerous divine spells that called upon Fernoia and no longer worked.

A blazing blue-white eldritch light enveloped Horo and she saw his jaw move and teeth clench together as the waves of healing magic washed over his body. When the spell finished, she frantically put a hand to his chest again and felt his heart through his robes. To her relief, the tumultuous pounding had steadied into a softer and more regular beat, but he remained unconscious, his face ashen like death, his breathing shallow and laboured.

Orla stood up and absently grabbed the cooking porridge off the fire that was beginning to burn. She knew she had done just about all she could for Horo. She needed to get him to someone who had a far superior understanding of the healing arts than she did, as well as a better grasp of human anatomy. But where? Who could help? They were at the far end of the Dalen Alps and days away from the closest village across the border in Sarnia.

A crippling sense of fear began building inside her as she thought through her scant options. She could fly for only very limited distances, and even at her prime she could never have carried Horo aloft with her. Neither could she just leave him to go for help, lying here out in the open unable to defend himself; he'd be eaten by a mountain yeti or a pack of wolves or aught else that might happen to come along. She thought hard and remembered the dilapidated mill house down by the pond. It might possibly be able to provide Horo a modicum of shelter against the elements and predators, at least for a short time.

Small enough to be considered delicate, Orla lacked the strength to move her dying friend under her own feeble muscle power, so she cast yet another spell. The surrounding vegetation came to wriggling life, and in an uncanny manner the agglomeration swept over Horo, coiling about his body until he was secured in a mass of vines and creepers. At her mental command, they lifted him into the air and bore him bodily to the mill house where they brought him inside, depositing him tenderly onto the half-rotted plank floor.

Orla felt all of a sudden quite weak, and swayed on her feet. She had nearly depleted herself and her store of magicks. She slumped to her knees until her head stopped swimming in the mountain air and then forced herself back up. Her entire clan was gone. Her whole family. She could not lose Horo, too. Checking his recumbent form one last time, she exited the mill house and sent the conjured vines wrapping round and round the ramshackle structure until it was completely cocooned in thick greenery.

Was it part of the remains of an abandoned hamlet? Could there be any areas nearby in the Alps that were still presently inhabited? Knowing Horo's best chance lay in finding someone who was close at hand, Orla stretched out her mystical psionic senses as far out as she could and empathically scanned the local vicinity.

In just a few moments her hope soared as she detected the thinking minds of people no more than a league away. She urgently strove to establish a connection to one of them and plead for help, but strange magical emanations were causing interference across the ether and her mental powers were not strong enough to cut through it. From what she could glean from her faint impressions though she sensed at least one of them had mystical training. The knowledge heartened her. A mage was just what she needed!

Orla glanced over at the old mill house, confirmed it was bound up tight by the protective vines, and struck out toward where she might find emergency assistance.

(Co-written with LSP)

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