The valley had been nestled in the deep shadows of the mountain for the past hour as a delayed dawn had broke across the heavily wooded landscape. The crystal clear air welcomed the light of the sun as it spilled over the nearby mountains. Shafts of light speared through the trees in the crisp, misty air. Immediately, steam started to rise wherever the early autumn sunlight touched. And with that, the forest had gained a magical quality that screamed of life and fertility. The earthy scents of moss, rich soil and the abundance of evergreen trees and their needle blanketed roots hung heavy in the gently warming air.
The small hollow that the twins had arrived in remained sheltered and had acted as a nest kept warm by the fire throughout the night. Tiffaniel stirred, stretching as she lay. She held her eyes closed, taking in the scents of the forest, all foreign to her, though strangely calming. She could feel warmth at her back, instinctively knowing it was her brother. She pulled back the thin blanket and rose, breathing deeply of the forest and the smokey scent from the fire. Standing, she stretched out as she looked around the clearing. The fire from the night before had burned down to embers that glowed red and dusty white in the shadows of the forest. She quickly glanced around; the last of the gathered wood had been placed by Groyven as she slept. Drawing her arms around herself she shivered slightly, their clothes were made for the heat of the Talkenerren coast not the mountains and alpine region they had been transported to.
She looked at her brother, his complexion was pallid and even sleeping he had dark smudges under his eyes. She remembered his words from during the night. Wherever they were, they had no way back for now. They may never get back. She remembered Selera’s words from the previous morning, discussing mirror universes or parallel dimensions, where things were the same, yet different. She remembered the look on Selera’s face as she mouthed the word ‘survive’, scant moments before they jumped. She looked at her sleeping brother again, he hadn’t just lost his elder sister, but the woman who had saved him and connected with him.
The edges of her mouth turned down, her lips barely lines as she whispered, ‘I’m sorry, Ven. Somehow I will make it up to you, I have been so terrible to you, and now we are here. Ven, I know Selera recognises you as the head of our family, that she feels you are ready. She is right, in my own way, I agree. No matter what you are challenged with, you take an approach that I can’t clear my head enough to see.’
She pursed her lips, ‘I am sorry, brother. Please, forgive me.’
She quickly turned away as he stirred lightly, murmuring in his sleep. She looked at him again, wincing. He had rolled over, dried blood was caked in his hair and smeared on his face. Tiffaniel looked down at her two part robes, long flowing leggings with a high waist and a vest under a fitted light jacket with loose arms and oversized sleeves to match. She shook them out and brushed off some leaves from the dark fabric. It was then that she noticed how still and quiet the forest seemed, like it was holding its breath. Apart from the sound of flowing water in the distance, the breeze in the top of the pines, the quiet sounds of Groyven’s breathing and the crackle and pop of the fire, she couldn’t hear anything else. There were no sounds of the forest awakening, no sounds of birds or animals venturing out into the morning, even after coming from the desert she knew that something was amiss.
She could feel it more than hear it, something large was moving in the forest. Something very large, the ground shook with a slight vibration accompanied with a distant sound of breaking trees and the rending of rock and compressing of soil. Tiffaniel tried to see into the gaps between the trees, the lack of forest life making her anxious. She prepared herself, focusing her thoughts, her eyes closed as she centred herself, drawing forth her command of elemental power. Illias had taught her to give names to her different skills or spells so that she could focus her intent rapidly and with precision. Her eyes darted nervously, she could feel something nearby, stalking and watching from the shadows. With a spell ready on her lips, she turned slowly, peering between two trees. The unexpected sharp sound of a twig snapping from behind made her jump. She turned quickly, shouting the spell, ‘Icel-gavail!’ with her hand outstretched in an attempt to aim her elemental powers of ice.
A burst of freezing wind, from the heart of a blizzard manifested from around her and shot towards the sound. Icicles quickly grew on branches and anything in the wind’s blustery path. She side-stepped, spreading the range and coverage of her cast. The arctic wind she guided whipped the loose strands of her black hair around her face. The last remnants of the fire spat cinders and hissed out. She glared through the barely controlled jet of freezing air and projectiles of ice. Dropping her hand, the gale subsided. Seeing movement amongst the trees she raised her hand again in readiness, the air swirling behind her as she started concentrating its velocity. She almost jumped as she heard Groyven’s voice close at her side.
‘Tiff, what is it?’ his voice sharp and urgent.
‘Over there, there is something behind the trees. It was watching us.’ she said back.
She felt his pat on her shoulder, ‘Stand down ice witch.’ she heard him say with humour in his voice, ‘You just attempted to turn our only ally into an ice sculpture.’
‘Ally? You summoned the great one? Hendosphyre is here?’ she asked as she realised his insinuation.
She looked at Groyven’s face, gaunt and dark under the eyes.
‘He is here, thankfully. I summoned him last night while you slept. He kept watch over us so we could both sleep.’ he walked towards the edge of the clearing and passed into the trees.
Within a few short moments Groyven returned, followed by the magnificent gryphon.
Tiffaniel came forwards to meet them, her hands held out apologetically, ‘Hendosphyre, are you, I didn’t mean to, Ven did not tell me.’
Hendosphyre came through a break in the trees, quietly stalking into the clearing, Tiffaniel could see the frost covering the wing he had shielded himself with, it hung low with the weight of sleet. The crusted ice cracking and falling to the ground with each step. He glared pointedly at Tiffaniel as she approached, keeping an eye on her as he turned.
‘I am so sorry, Hendosfyre! Last night we were almost attacked, and we are here, not where we are meant to be. And I could feel and hear something big moving in the forest. And then you scared me. I,’ she stopped as the gryphon clicked his beak at her.
She looked at him, tilting her head as he tilted his. Groyven smiled as he watched their exchange. Tiffaniel was just as good, if not better at reading the great one’s expressions and nuances. He tapped Hendosphyre’s wing, the ice heavy and through the feathers. Concentrating, he summoned his power, his hands rapidly heating, passing his hands back and forth, the ice started to melt. He looked to Tiffaniel as she laughed.
‘I did the right thing?’ she asked, Hendosphyre nodding in return.
‘I am still sorry.’ she said to him, ‘I haven’t seen you in over a year, Sphyre. Can I at least give you a hug?’
The great one turned to look at Groyven.
Groyven looked at him with a half-smile and baffled frown, ‘Don’t look at me, you don’t need my approval to hug Tiff.’
The gryphon stepped forward and hooked his other wing around Tiffaniel as she hugged his feathery leg.
‘Hey, stay still!’ said Groyven as he continued to thaw out the wing, steam rising from his hands as he ran them over the frosted feathers. Occasionally he would catch some of the melting ice in a hand and drink. As Hendosphyre released his sister, he looked back around to Groyven, clicking his beak.
‘I told you last night, we have only what is in that bag.’ he said to the gryphon.
Tiffaniel frowned, ‘I just grabbed some things from the room that might be useful; I am not sure, I was in a panic.’
Hendosphyre looked at Tiffaniel, raising his feathers and clicking his beak.
‘Show him, Tiff, the key, the device.’
Tiffaniel retrieved it from a deep pocket in her robes and held it out to Hendosphyre. He looked at it, immediately becoming talkative when he noticed the white and black dragons of the retaining mechanisms.
Tiffaniel looked up at him, ‘You have seen one before?’
‘Done.’ said Groyven as he finished with Hendosphyre’s iced up wing.
Groyven came around and stood with Tiffaniel. Hendosphyre tilting his head and looking at Groyven.
‘I know I look like a mess, when we find a stream or river I will clean myself off. Now, have you seen a dragon or a device like this before?’
Hendosphyre looked at him with a steady gaze.
‘He has seen a dragon, like the ones on the device.’ said Tiffaniel.
‘You investigated last night after I fell asleep?’ asked Groyven, his eyes narrowing.
Hendosphyre backed away a little and shifted a wing forward, uncurling it and dropping some fruits and berries that he had cradled there.
‘I trust you Hendosphyre, but there is no need to try and change the topic like that.’
The gryphon pulled his head back, pretending to not know what Groyven was referring to.
‘You did the right thing.’ said Groyven, Hendosphyre looking at him knowingly.
‘Come on, Ven. He even gathered fruit, nuts and berries.’
‘You found it, that thing that flew over us last night?’ Groyven watched as the gryphon nodded.
‘Is it the same thing that is moving around further down the valley?’ again Hendosphyre nodded.
‘After we eat, take us to where you saw it.’ finished Groyven as he reached up and stroked Hendosfyre’s beak, ‘Thank you for the food.’
Tiffaniel handed Groyven a fruit, somewhat resembling an apple and after he took a bite he spoke to Tiffaniel, ‘That spell of yours is getting more powerful, Tiff.’ said Groyven.
He nodded his head and gathered the rest, handing some to Tiffaniel and stowing others in pockets of his robes. Quickly retrieving their bag, he shouldered it.
‘Sitting here and waiting is not going to help us. We need to get moving.’ he looked at Hendosphyre, ‘Would it be safe to take us to where you saw it?’
Hendosphyre looked back over his shoulder, head cocked and listening carefully, he slowly nodded. Tiffaniel looked at Groyven like he had taken leave of his senses, ‘You want to, wait, you want to see?’
Groyven nodded, ‘We are stuck here. Even now we need to know what to fear. Whatever it is, it’s big. Hendosphyre would not take us near if he felt it too dangerous.’
‘But last night, you want to see the thing that had us crawling?’ said Tiffaniel, her eyes wide.
‘Yes, I do. If possible I want to see, so I can understand why I had irrational and crippling waves of fear hit me like its sole purpose was to drown me.’
In the distance they heard a dull crash of trees and a thud, a heavy vibration making the ground shake slightly. Tiffaniel looked to Hendosphyre as he focused on the distant noise.
‘Hendosphyre, which direction is the exit of the valley, is it a different way?’ she asked hopefully.
The gryphon shook his head, gesturing with a nod in the same direction as the noise. Tiffaniel groaned, ‘Ven, we are meant to survive, not charge headlong into danger.’
She watched as Groyven spoke quietly to Hendosphyre, the gryphon clicking his beak and tilting his head as he listened.
Groyven turned to her, ‘We will stay under the cover of the forest. Hendosphyre will carry the both of us. As soon as the beast is out of the valley…’
‘What Ven? What then?’ she asked.
Groyven looked to Hendosphyre who nodded, clicking his beak again.
Groyven met Tiffaniel’s gaze with an uncertain expression on his face as Hendosphyre started vocalising, ‘We will be safer in clear view.’
‘I know what he meant.’ Tiffaniel said to Groyven as she looked at the gryphon.
Hendosphyre clicked his beak sharply and set her with a stare.
‘Are you going to force me to go with you?’
The gryphon moved closer, a low rumble in his throat.
‘Hendosphyre?’ said Groyven, ‘Ahhh, he will if he has to.’ he finished hurriedly.
Tiffaniel looked to her brother, who seemed as equally shocked the gryphon’s sudden shift in behaviour.
She looked at the gryphon, ‘We get to ride on your back, and you will protect us?’
Hendosphyre nodded, once again listening carefully to the distant noises. Suddenly he looked from one to the other, nodding swiftly and dropped to his belly, allowing them to get on his back. As they settled themselves he stood and waited as Groyven hooked his legs in front of his wings. He turned his head and made sure the children were secure before slowly walking through the trees as he had done the night before, retracing his steps.