Winter flew along the edge of the crest of the mountain, allowing the rising warmer air of the sun on the valley to assist her flight, riding the thermals lazily as she felt a sense of elation sing through her being. The river of fear and anxiety she felt had been stemmed somewhat, slowed to a trickle in the revelation that she had been mistaken. The whispers had changed, the voice inside that was her, yet not her. The words were unintelligible, though they seemed at ease. She shielded her eyes from the morning glare as she started her descent, a slow broad circling that allowed her to view the ruins and choose an easy landing site. A smile came unbidden to her lips, remembering Antrandis’s concern for her current condition, she had easily conceded and agreed to his proposal. He would draw her into the dream-state and seek the voice that whispered in her mind, driving her to distraction. She felt that it was strange that the moment she agreed, the whispers were filled with anticipation, as if they were welcoming the idea. Dismissing the thought, she surveyed the ruins as she circled, spotting a favourable place to land.
Winter landed deftly in the ancient dwarven battlement, dust and debris sent flying in gusts, her wings working the air around her. She had seen it from above as she passed over earlier, the remains of a fresh, though recently abandoned campsite. She stood on the far side of the ruin, in the open area where the wall fell away to a cliff. She looked over the side at the sheer drop, seeing the trees of the valley below, the breeze pulling at her hair. Winter stood for a moment, looking out over the valley, aware of the swath of wreckage the great silver dragon had carved down from the crest of the mountain where she had met with Antrandis and Sian earlier. The faint scent of smoke still hung in the early morning air, a few errant wisps rising from the other side of the ruin. Winter tilted her head, listening to the rush of water that exited from what was the entrance to this section of the dwarven outpost. Watching the tendrils of smoke, she strode off among the smashed walls and battlements.
These ruins were familiar to her, from her distant past in another day and age. They had their own history, this was one outpost of many that exited on the arms of the great mountain chain. A once great dwarven kingdom was stretched beneath the mountains, now so lost to time that its name and existence was long forgotten among the mortal races. It joined the elven nations of the wilderelves to the dwarven kingdoms that were concealed beneath the mountain chain, through the land of Meliandra and the under-mountain fortress of Shadowfalls. During the fall of the world its disused corridors and expansive caverns became a subterranean haven, where the remnants of the dwarven and wilderelf kingdoms sheltered the survivors of the elven nations of the fyrelves and the deepenelves amongst the survivors of others.
These ruins were of one such outpost where the tunnels were collapsed to protect the inhabitants from the sickness that devoured the world. Many others were not so lucky as their life was stripped from them in the most heinous of fashions, by an unseen and undetectable assailant. The aftereffect of an explosive destructive force born from sci and tech that could destroy whole swaths of land in an instant, leaving behind a wasting sickness that took command of the air itself. A poison that ravaged anything that survived, unrelenting and indiscriminate in its pursuit of friend and foe. For thousands of years, a storm blanketed the world and blotted out the rays of the sun and moon, its rage scouring the world of the sins of its people.
Winter ran her fingertips along the remains of a low wall, the edges of the stone crumbling. She mused to herself; then her mistress came, the gods returned, led by the three sisters. In what seemed like days they banished the hellish storms and breathed life back into the planet. Or that is at least what the common tales depicted. She knew that at least several decades had passed as the new gods laboured to cure the sickness in the soil and air. To bring back the trees and grasses. To purify the tumultuous oceans. To resurrect the life that was and to safeguard the people from the folly that had brought about the end of the world. The three had found them and her, the languishing and forgotten spirits of the valkyries, chained and spiritually bound to the hand of their long-dead master. Looking over another low wall, she saw the running water and the centre lane that led to the smashed gates, now just rubble and the remains of two guard towers. Across the water she could see the campsite, glancing about she headed for the bridge, a solid stone walkway that was slung low over the water.
After a few more steps that took her over the river outlet, she passed along another heavily damaged pathway and into the area that was used as a campsite. Winter stopped and stood, taking in her surroundings, whoever these beings were, they were not concerned about being found as evidence of the night before was strewn about. She shook her head as she observed that no care had been taken to obscure their movements or actions, they were either blissfully ignorant, inept or brazenly confident. She smiled a little, and walked up to the still smouldering campfire, taking care in her own movements. She waved off some scavenging birds that were picking at the remains of a few cooked fish that they had dragged from the coals. Crouching, she disturbed the remains of the fire with a stick before a scrap of cloth caught her eye.
Stepping around the fire, she stooped and picked it up. It was insignificant, nothing more than a torn patch of natural linen. As she turned it over and flattened it out, the blotched stains caught her attention. The cloth was bloodied, maybe torn from an undergarment or shirt. Winter looked at it more carefully, it was not a stain, but caked blood. She carefully sniffed it, a faint suspicion grew in her mind as her acute sense of smell picked out elements in the scent of blood. She looked at it, eyes narrowed before bringing the cloth to her lips, wetting the blood with her saliva and running her tongue over it, tasting it. After a few moments, Winter opened her eyes, they were glowing as she could taste the remnants of life, forming a basic understanding of whom it came from. She spoke out loud as she tried to make sense of it.
‘A male, elven and young. A child, maybe?’ she looked at the cloth before widening her gaze.
Quickly looking at the ground, she focused her intent. Inspecting directly around the fire she picked out scratches, paw marks and footsteps.
He eyes widened as she took in the picture before her, ‘Two children?’
She widened her search, reading the tracks, searching for more footprints, within a few short moments she came to a conclusion.
‘Two elven children.’ she crouched, her fingers carefully brushing over scratches and monstrous paw-prints.
‘Two children?’ she said again, ‘I understand why Silvan would be curious.’ she touched a paw print. ‘But this, this is unexpected. A gryphon. Antrandis and I could make these prints out in the forest, but they were mostly obscured.’
She took stock of the claw and paw sizes, ‘A large gryphon. I have not seen one of such a size for an age.’ she looked about, reading the terrain, ‘Was it hunting them? Or is it a mount?’
She observed and followed the paw and claw prints, hopping up onto the destroyed battlement, noting the cleared rock, she looked at it carefully, placing her palm on the cleared rubble.
‘A mount and escort, you are protecting them. Keeping watch during the night.’
Winter looked out across the valley, resettling her wings after the mountain breeze ruffled her feathers, ‘There were only three at this campsite during the night.’
She glanced down at the destroyed gate, quickly noting the makeshift barrier and the disturbed stones and rubble from their ascent and descent on the path down to the road and the waterfall below. She crossed her arms as she thought, something in the back of her mind, but just out of reach teased her. Bringing the tattered, bloodstained cloth to her lips again she tasted it, closing her eyes, focusing carefully as the remnants of the boy’s blood dissolved on her tongue. Winter stood this way for a few moments, sucking gently on the cloth. It was nagging at her mind, this taste, the power she could sense. She opened her eyes, the steel grey growing into stormy orbs as she thought, the power she could sense. She stepped off the ruined tower and glided down to the edge of the campsite. Sweeping her vision, sensing the residual power that may have been used.
Winter cursed under her breath, the morning sun was too much, she re-positioned herself and spread her wings, casting a shadow. There was a hint.
‘It is still too bright.’ she glanced around, before raising a hand and balling a fist.
A jagged smile came to her face as her body rapidly grew sharp and purposeful. Her face became more angular and slipped into a guise of the undeniable otherworldly beauty of the Valkyrie. The hauntingly beautiful, yet terrible vestige of death over the battlefield. Within the dark steel depths of her eyes, small flashes of lightning flickered as she whispered to herself, calling on her powers.
‘Heed my command, darkness.’ she said with forceful whisper, smiling as the morning sunlight suddenly dimmed over the ruins, as if great storm clouds had blotted out the sun.
Within several seconds the darkness had grown into midnight, as if a god had cast an impenetrable shadow over most of the ruins. Winter smiled to herself, her eyes adjusting, her greatly enhanced vision picking out every edge, crack and detail making them glow with lines of white despite the oppressive shadow of midnight that she stood in. Calling upon her innate senses, she cast her eyes on the campsite again, the currents and residual flow of magic hanging in the air, visible like an artist had laid flourishes with broad strokes of a paintbrush. Winter sharply drew in breath as she looked around.
‘Who are these children?’ she said as she stared.
The dying embers of the fire were ablaze in lurid shades of crimson threaded with lilac. The ground where they had slept had a shadowy imprint of lapis blue and another of deep cinnabar red. Even around the small pool near the river there were shadowy traces of orange in fiery hues. Winter stood among the traces of elemental power, as they swirled like autumn leaves on a gentle breeze. She ran her hand among the vibrant colours, transfixed as she watching them shift in the movement. Suddenly it caught her eye as she moved around the fire, she looked back to the smashed tower where she saw the tracks of the gryphon. White, each paw print, every mark from its claws was limned with pure white, as if the artist had painted edges, or drawn outlines of every scratch and step.
‘What are they? So much elemental power. It is like it is bleeding from them in waves.’ she whispered to herself before waving her hand, banishing the darkness as her body rapidly reverted to its softened form.
She shook her head as the morning sunlight fell on her, warming her limbs and back. ‘And that gryphon, I think, no, I am certain I have seen this before.’
Winter made her way to the damaged path, unfurling her wings and gliding after passing the destroyed gate. Occasionally skipping on boulders as she made short work of the descent to the path leading to the waterfall. Walking now, picking her steps, she passed into the cove behind the falls. The water sheeting down, sunlight cutting through it, casting shimmering, dancing light onto the walls to her side. She glanced at the curved wall as she walked, observing the half obscured fresco and expansive stone carvings now mostly covered with moss. Exiting the other side she took in the pool that led to another fall that fed into the river that ran along the valley floor. In the grass and dirt of the path she quickly picked up the gryphon’s tracks and the occasional footprint leading to the overgrown walkway down to the valley.
Out of everything she had found so far, one thing concerned her, ‘Three of four souls. Where is the fourth?’ she asked of herself.