The Battle Joined

The forest was Orla's natural element and she moved through it easily, but the climb up from the valley floor was more taxing, the trees growing sparser and the granite cliffs engulfing her. From out of the brumous mist occasionally appeared disturbing rock carvings of beastly gods and demons, and she thought she recognised one in particular as the demon lord, Soularous, whose evil name had inspired terror and been uttered with dread back when the Two Kingdoms were naught more than a couple of small hamlets. The effigies presumably had been fashioned by their foul worshippers thousands of years ago. Given Horo's grim description of Dalen she wondered if not a few of these same monstrous beings might have returned to the world during the past century.

After finally reaching the plateau, she was greeted by the breathtaking view of an immense, yawning chasm stretching across her path, its steep depths partially obscured by the heavy fog. Beyond stood snowfrosted mountains and she espied a stone fortress sitting atop one of the nearby peaks. Was there anyone inside it who could help Horo? Something about the fortress struck her as familiar and as she stared at it a bad feeling began to twist her stomach.

The unaccountable moment was broken by the rush of wind over feathers and a huge griffin, riding an updraft, whooshing narrowly past her head. Orla gave a cry of fright and belatedly ducked for cover. She chided herself for not sensing its presence sooner and guessed that the creature had fortunately not seen her either due to the thick mist swirling around her.

She watched it for a few minutes wheel and swoop overhead, hunting mountain goats on the cliffs, and she soon abandoned any notion she had of taking flight herself across the chasm. The swift carnivorous beast would snatch her right out of the air and devour her whole. She would need to continue on foot and stay low and hidden so as not to be caught by its sharp eyes that were on the lookout for prey. Her heart sank knowing how long it would take her to get to the fortress doing that.

But perhaps there was another way – if she had enough magic.

There were some holly and tufts of grass growing on the plateau. Orla walked up to the largest tree and laid a hand upon its smooth light grey bark. She mystically reached out and touched its individual life force, feeling the coursing of the sap and the rustling of the wind in its leaves. When she had established full empathic communion with the tree she spoke a few secret words of Aetherian. As she softly murmured the last syllable, her hand passed into the bark.

Smiling, Orla took a stride forward and stepped then fully into the tree. Instantly, her material form was converted to a beam of unseen energy and her soul made one with the forested mountainside. She would have liked to savor this inimitable sense of peace and tranquility but understood she was shooting through the local ecosphere at terrific speed, and a lot faster than she probably ought to have been.

The magical journey was over in seconds and she materialised on the opposite side of the chasm, her body hurtling out of the bole of another holly tree. It was the first time she had attempted this spell in a over a century and she was evidently more than a little rusty. Before she had a chance of arresting her excessive momentum, she collided with the ground hard enough to black out.

When Orla slowly came to, her own shivering made her aware she was lying on her back in a frigid snowbank. Through her bleary vision, she saw that the sunny sky had been replaced with one that was grey and overcast. A storm had blown in and heavy snow was falling, burying her. She was fairly encased, with little of her that was not covered.

Gingerly, she sat up and found that she was numb and sore from head to toe, though no bones seemed to be broken. The snow must have cushioned her landing. As her cognitive senses gradually returned she tried to work out how much time had passed since she had left Horo. Was the storm making it appear later in the day than it actually was, or was it evening? She shakily pushed herself to her feet and began brushing the snow from her lightweight garments, her teeth chattering.

A noise penetrated her befuddled brain, a noise other than the roar of the wind. It was the clash of steel against steel ringing out from somewhere above.

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