Crossing the mountains
The mist pushed in on all sides. Line of sight was perhaps ten feet. Slowly the army wound its way up the rocky sides of the Barrier Mountains. Each elf in the army kept a close eye on the person in front of him. Losing sight of the person in front of you could easily mean getting lost or breaking up the column and leading those behind you astray.
No one spoke much. The mist dampened all sounds until it seemed the person next to you was whispering. Even the clinks of armour and clops of horses were subdued.
At the head of the column Spires and Bob rode through the damp. The trail, such as it was, led up a narrow, steep sided valley. Shadows grew out of the mist to announce boulders and turns in the path. Here and there, a single rune was scratched on a boulder. Slowly, the sides of the valley became lower and fell away to the sides. The land flattened out.
Ahead, one of the shadows dissolved into a person. An elf was lying on a large boulder, one arm behind his head, the other held a piece of waybread. His hair was shaved except for a small top knot. A well-worn cloak, which had probably once been blue hung around his shoulders. He looked up as the column approached, a slight smile playing on his lips.
Bob halted his horse next to the elf. “Well met, Anlar’Sel. Walk with us as we move on. We don’t want to hold up the column longer then needed. Tell us what’s ahead.”
“Well met indeed.” Sel said. He jumped of the rock and started walking next to the horses. “Welcome to this lovely plateau.”
“You seem awfully happy,” Bob said.
“The weather reminds me of home. Except that, unlike in Narathia, the chance of a barbarian raid happening are next to non-existent. What’s not to like?”
“Right,” Bob dropped a small pause. “Well then, report. What’s on the road ahead?”
Sel darted in and out of the clouds floating past, easily keeping up with the horses. “Seen? Not much. In this weather, even a griffon doesn’t see much,” Sel said with a slight smile on his face. “As for the situation ahead, we’re on a small plateau here. The land drops away sharply to the left, that’s not the way to go unless you’ve grown wings since last night.”
“If we veer just right of straight ahead, then we have another short climb. That finds us on the ridge between this peak and the next, after which the land falls away into a valley where we could camp for the night. The way is slippery but passable.”
The mist became thicker as they moved forward. Soon Bob had trouble seeing Spires just ahead. The whole world turned into a white, wet blanket, were even seeing the head of his horse was hard.
Bob urged his horse forward just a few more steps. Then, like waking from a dream, the mist blanket was pulled away. In the blink of an eye, an otherworldly vista unfolded itself ahead of him. They stood upon a cobblestone road, which ran straight as an arrow. The sky was a dark yellow, almost orange, with not a cloud in sight. And instead of stopping at the horizon, which was missing, the sky simply continued on to pass underneath the road.
Ahead in the distance lay a fortress town. It was of grey stone, floating in the yellow sky. Like the road, the city rested on nothing. High towers with red roofs stood above the walls. In the middle of it all, a bell tower rose above the rest. The road ran straight at the town, ending at an arched stone gate. In the distance other roads could be seen running towards the city in a similar fashion. The city seemed the hub of a wheel with the roads running out of it as spokes. No living thing was seen anywhere. Not even a blade of grass showed between the stones of the road.
“Halt!” Bob shouted. “Turn around!”
Bob pulled hard on the reins to turn his own horse. He looked over his shoulder, and froze in place. Instead of seeing the wall of mist he had walked out off, the road simply continued on into the distance. It finished as a tiny speck at, for lack of a better word, the horizon. And it was filled with the legion that had been trailing him the mountains.
“Well, there is a sight you don’t see every day.” muttered Sel.
Behind them, the column came to a slow halt.
Bob looked towards Spires. “Any ideas?” he asked.
“It’s safe to say we’ve walked into a bubble. We could either go back, go forward or try sideways and aim for one of the other roads we see in the distance” Spires answered.
Anlar’Sel picked up a small pebble and threw it over the side. When it fell past the level of the road, he wandered over to the edge of the road. He looked over the edge to see the stone rapidly disappearing into the deep. “I think sideways is not an option, Sir.” Sel said. “At least not one I want to try.”
“I would say we go back then,” Bob said. “We’re bound to walk back into the mist that way sooner or later.”
“Unfortunately,” Spires answered, “that’s not how these reality bubbles work. Once you’re in one, you become part of its reality. The way we came in doesn’t exist here. And north and south don’t necessarily lie in the same directions. Or even exist here at all for that matter.”
“Well, what do you suggest then?” Bob asked.
“We should pick the option that makes the most sense in this bubble,” Spires said. “The one that gives us the biggest chance of finding a way out. There doesn’t seem to be anything to our backs. We could walk for days without seeing something. We might even just end up going in a circle and end up approaching the city from the other side. So, I say we go forward. We should reach that city sooner or later. There we can check for clues about where we are, if there is anything else around here and if we can perhaps find a way out.”
“Pass the word. We make for the city. Water is being rationed until we know if there is a source of water nearby. And tell the men to stay away from the edge. I don’t know how deep the fall is. And I don’t think anyone wants to find out.”
The sky turned from yellow into dark orange as the army marched on. Slowly the city grew larger. The army had closed perhaps three quarters of the distance. Finer details could now be made out on the city. Empty windows stared at them from the towers. No watch patrolled on the city walls. The gates showed a relief drawing hewn into it, depicting some great battle scene. They were still too far away to make out the exact story that was shown.
Then, a group of dots spread out from the towers. The birds circled around the city, picking up more and more members. Slowly they spiralled up around the central bell tower and formed into a ball circling above the tower. As the last of the birds cleared the bell tower, the flock changed course and headed straight for the army.
“High alert,” Spires commanded. “Be ready for defence. Prepare your weapons. But let’s find out what approaching before we do anything. We don’t want to threaten them and destroy an alliance before it even began. They could be friendly, or just curious. ”
“Let’s hope they are,” Spires added as an afterthought to Bob. “We certainly could use an ally.”
The birds quickly grew in size. Before too long Spires could make out that it was a kind of harpy that was approaching. The man-sized creatures sported large bat-like wings and eagle claws. They displayed a variety of snarling female faces.
The clamor of harpies passed over the front ranks. The warriors fidgeted, jingling armour and weapons, as the harpies passed overhead.
“Steady!” Spires shouted to the troops. “They could just be checking us out.”
The clamor passed over half the army, giving little indication of even seeing the elves. Then, by some unspoken command, the harpies dove down on a unit of rangers, picking up several of the soldiers, knocking over others. Several of the young elves were pushed off the road, both by the harpies and by their comrades who tried to get out of the way. Their screams could be heard for a long while as they fell.
“Bows!” Spires shouted. “Fire at will!”
The narrow road hampered the movement of troops, further increasing the chaos. The elves of the attacked unit tried to get away from the onslaught. A nearby unit of Armian axemen tried to move towards the fight. Another unit of rangers dropped their shields to bring their bows to bear. Several of the harpies started making off with some elven bodies.
A single black-shafted arrow sang through the sky. Anlar’Sel was already drawing for a second time when one of the harpies fell from the sky. His aim was true and his mighty bow from the west struck with the force of a ballista. From several other places around the army column similar arrows flew towards the harpies. One harpy fell, and then another. The harpies shrieked in high pitched voices as they were struck down.
The rangers and archers started adding their arrows to those of the Narathi scouts. The stream of arrows started to take its toll on the clamor of harpies. As more and more fell, the harpies started fleeing. First in ones and twos. But soon, the whole clamor was in rout.
The skirmish was over as suddenly as it had started. It had lasted perhaps five minutes in total. Warriors from the attacked unit slowly got up again a brushed themselves off. Order reasserted itself over the army.
“Get a report about the dead and wounded,” Spires said to Bob. “See how the unit is doing. We need to get moving again soon. We don’t want to stay out on this road longer than necessary. It’s safe to say they are not friendly. Let’s get to that city learn what we can.”
The stone gateway loomed up ahead of them. The relief printed on it showed not a battle scene, but a great hunt, where harpies descended on various groups of people. There was an army in one scene fighting a battle similar to theirs. But there were also scenes depicting merchants, women and children being hunted. The harpies didn’t discriminate when hunting.
Other scenes depicted groups of people coming to pay tribute and worship the harpies. Wagons filled with meats and prisoners were shown being carted into the city.
Both the gate and the wall above seemed unattended. Spires had seen no movement since the harpies had disappeared back into the city. But slowly a feeling of being watched descended on the army of Spires. A feeling that had increased as they had gotten closer as they neared the gates. Now, as they stood underneath the wall which was perhaps a hundred feet high, even the most hardened veteran shifted uncomfortably or looked over his shoulder.
“Let’s find a way in,” Spires said.
“We could try knocking,” Bob replied
“Ah, but who, or perhaps what, would answer?” Sel asked.
“Stop joking you two. And get those gates open.”
Bob and Sel approached the gate together with two other soldiers who stood nearby. Cautiously, they ran their hands over the stone door. A tap on it gave a small thud, but nothing more. Sel pushed harder against the left door. Slowly, without a creak, the door swung inwards. Surprised, one of the soldiers pushed against the other side of the gate. That too opened without resistance.
“That’s unexpected” Sel muttered.
Cautiously, the army walked forward through the gate. The wall was easily thirty feet deep and dark and shadowy after the eternal, directionless glow from the sky.
After a hurried march, the front rank emerged on the other side of the wall. Ahead, the road forked in three ways. Left and right, the road followed the curve of the wall until it disappeared around the bend. Straight on the road ran for maybe a thousand feet until it ran into a building where it split left and right.
As Bob, Sel and Spires emerged from the gateway, the feeling of watchfulness increased even further. Silence hung over the city like an aggressive blanket. It sucked up all sound until even their footsteps on the cobbles were muffled.
“I think we should split up,” Spires said. “That way we cover ground faster and have a better chance of finding where we are and perhaps a way out. Here at least, it doesn’t look like we should fear getting lost in mist.”
“I don’t like it,” Bob said. “What if one group falls into another bubble? Or if we’re attacked again?”
“I don’t fear the harpies much. They were too disorganised to do us any real harm. And now we know they are coming.” Spires replied. “As for other bubbles. I guess that’s a risk we have to take. If only one of us does make it out, remember the mission. The Prison must not fail.”
“Very well. But I still don’t like it.”
“You take the left road,” Spires said. “Take Anlar’Sel along with you. Nonchalantis, take the right. I’ll go straight ahead.”
Spires slowly advanced through the straight street. He still didn’t see any sign of life anywhere in the city. As they passed buildings, groups of soldiers veered left and right to inspect them. Doorways revealed little of use. No building was inhabited. But it was hard to tell if the buildings had been abandoned recently or ages ago. Spires didn’t see any dust or wear in any of the buildings. The few narrow side streets he passed contained no information either, showing only the same abandoned buildings.
Spires halted at the junction. The road split at straight angles left and right. In front of them, one of the towers they had seen from far off rose up.
Spires strode up to the arched door of the tower. As with the other buildings, it wasn’t locked. Spires pushed it open wide. And almost fell down into a void on the other side of the door. He quickly stepped back from the edge. Through the doorway he saw another world hundreds of feet beneath him. He looked down on a landscape from high above. Mountains, rivers and a whole coastline showed. A small white cloud drifted by.
“Say, that looks a bit like I imagine the Aldis coastline would look like from up above,” a soldier, looking over Spires’ shoulder said.
Spires pulled the door closed again. “No way down from here. Let us move on.”
They went down the right-hand street. It seemed to follow the curve of the outer wall. The situation here was the same as before. Spires saw no sign of life or habitation anywhere and the buildings contained nothing that could help them in their current predicament. They came to a right-angled corner which took them deeper into the city. Another left and a right again. The city followed a geometric pattern leading them to the centre of the city where Spires expected the bell tower to be located.
As they got closer to the centre the harpies started appearing again high up in the sky this time. First a single one passed overhead, flitting over the street to give them only a quick glance at it. Then they started passing in two’s and three’s. They were never visible for more than a few seconds and they flew out of range of even the mighty bows of the Narathi.
At last came a right turn which brought the bell tower into view. Straight ahead of Spires it rose up out of a cathedral, higher even then any of the buildings in Erinis. The cathedral stood in the focal point of a round plaza, streets leading up to it from all sides. Statues lined the periphery of the plaza and stood scattered all over it. A whole host of magical creatures was on display. Sphinxes and minotaurs stood beside griffins and gargoyles.
As Spires and his troops emerged into the plaza several hundred harpies took flight from the bell tower, joining the clamor already circling it.
“Be ready. Prepare for an attack!” Spires ordered. “Spearmen on the flanks, archers in the centre. We need to get a look in the cathedral. The building is different enough from the rest to offer the best chance of some real information. Get ready to cross the square. On my mark we march.”
“Mark!” Spires waved his troops forward. As they started across the plaza, Nonchalantis emerged from somewhere on the right into the plaza as well. They started moving on towards Spires and his troops.
Spires and his troops had closed perhaps half the distance across the square to the bell tower when the harpies attacked.
They came in groups, diving down on the soldiers from above at lightning speed. They picked off soldiers who strayed too far from their unit and soldiers in the middle of units where the soldiers lacked the space to move. Picking up their prey, the harpies swung back upwards and dropped the unfortunate soldier back to the ground.
Spires wheeled his horse. “Shields up! Keep formation! Archers lay a cover fire! We press on.”
Slowly, the column started moving forward again. The pace of the harpy assaults increased. “Outriders, set up distracting manoeuvres! Keep our flanks clear!”
Foot by foot, the bell tower loomed closer. Slowly the archers were starting to take their toll on the harpies. Arrows fletched with red and white feathers were thick in the sky. Whenever a harpy landed for a few seconds it was run down by a horsed elf.
They would make it. The bell tower was in reach. Nonchalantis and his troops were closing in.
When Spires had crossed maybe half the plaza, one of the bells high up in the tower rang out in a deafening peal. Battle forgotten, more than a few elves pressed their hand to their ears, trying to keep out the noise. The harpies screeched and wheeled away.
As the bell rang down, silence descended over the plaza. The whole city held its breath. Then, a crumbling noise came from one of the statues to Spires’ right. Stone grating over stone. One of the minotaurs stretched its legs. On the left a gargoyle flapped its stone wings. And then another statue started moving. And another. Soon, the square sounded like it was in the middle of an avalanche. Statues were stepping off their plinths left and right.
“Defensive formation!” Spires’ voice cut through the rumbling. “Armians, take the left flank. Outriders go buy us time!”
Brown horses flitted out from amongst the troops. They flew at the different statues, veering away at the last moment. The statues chased after the fleet horses, momentarily distracted from the troops trying to organise themselves.
This bought the colonial troops precious time to organise. Nonchalantis reached them in the centre of the plaza. The troops set up in a large ring facing outwards, one large wall bristling with spears, swords and axes.
Then the statues crashed into the red and white line. They struck like a force of nature. Any soldier unlucky enough to stand in the way was crushed underneath the impact of stone. The animated statues broke bones with a single sweep of an arm or claw. They swept aside elves as if they were leaves on the wind.
A couple of sphinxes half flew, half jumped into the middle of a unit of Armian axemen, squashing several of the hardy warriors. The remaining axemen stoically set to work with their mighty axes. They rained down blows on the sides of the stone statues, slowly wearing them down until they collapsed into the ground, turning to dust.
But it was too little. Slowly, inexorably Spires’ lines started collapsing. The stone statues were too tough to wound reliably and there were too many to evade them effectively. Each elven warrior who went down was one who couldn’t be replaced. The pressure from all sides pressed the ranks back one step at a time. Finally, there was nowhere left to retreat to. The circle had closed in on itself. Warriors stood back to back. Swords, axes and shields pointed outwards, like a giant porcupine, defending itself.
In the moment Spires’ line threatened to collapse under the pressure, a single horn rang out from across the plaza. Loud and clear it came in two long, drawn out notes. It brought memories of a crisp morning, untainted by shadow.
In answer to the horn came the thunder of a hundred hooves, growing louder and louder as the rhythm picked up pace and the horses closed in. Bob had come together with the Coradis Cavalry of the colonies.
The animated statues turned around to see what this new disturbance was. The momentary lapse in concentration was all the encouragement Spires needed.
“Forward! For the Ever Empire! For the Colonies!”
With that, Spires broke into a run, his long mithril sword raised high over his shoulder, charging the nearest stone griffon. Following their lord, the different regiments charged out en-masse, each seeking out the nearest foe.
The heavy Coradis cavalry charge impacted with the statues. The waves of horsed elves thundered past. They split around the elven circle and swept over the plaza. They lowered their lances and barrelled into the statues. Their magical lances, propelled by their momentum, pierced the stone hides of the monstrosities. First one and then another statue exploded in a shower of stones.
The unexpected assault tipped the balance in the elven favour. In moments, only a few isolated statues remained upright. Taking advantage of their now superior numbers and skill, the elves made short work of these.
Soon, it was all over as an archer picked off the last circling harpy. As it struck the ground silence descended upon the square. Here and there, wounded elves sat down, giving their tired legs a rest.
Bob dismounted and approached Spires, who leaned against the remains of one of the stone statues, drinking from a water skin.
“You could have come earlier, you know,” Spires said, a small smile on his lips.
“Here I come, saving your hide, and what do I get? Not even a thank you!” Bob replied, grinning.
“What took you so long? Did you find anything in the city?” Spires asked.
“Only empty buildings and wide avenues. The towers were weird, they offered a glimpse into a different world from above. One of my guys said he recognised some of the terrain from his travels in the lands of men.”
“Much the same as our experience then. We’ve had no more luck then you in finding a way out. The way I see it, there is one place left to look,” Spires said, pointing over his shoulder at the cathedral.
“Let’s set up camp here,” Spires said. “Get things organised, do a headcount and look after the wounded. After a hot meal, we’ll take a small team into the cathedral to investigate.”
Spires and Bob stood at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the grand entrance of the cathedral. Behind them stood Nonchalantis, Anlar’Sel and a handful of scouts. All stood looking up at the entrance with a slight trepidation. Anxiety over what they might find inside mixed with the hope of finding a way out of this bubble and fear that they would not.
Nonchalantis fidgeted with his coat. “Shall we get moving then?”
Slowly Spires looked around. “Yes, let’s see what we can find out.”
Spires led the small group up the stairs to the foot of the tower. Two oaken doors, the first wood they had seen in the city, rose to the height of two elves above them. Surrounding it were images of harpies. Above the door, a relief of a large cockatrice reared up between a pair of harpies, its scaled body offsetting the feathered harpies.
The door was sealed shut. Together, the elves slowly forced the doors open. An ominous creek accompanied the door opening.
The inside of the cathedral was dark and gloomy compared to the bright sky outside. The smell of decay was heavy on the air. As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they slowly started making out more details. Unlike the other buildings they had visited, this one was cluttered. Piles of debris lay scattered across the floor. On closer examination, the piles turned out to be bones. Whether they were elven, animal or other was hard to tell in the gloom.
Left and right, doorways showed stairs leading up into the building. Ahead of them was a long, open space, an altar filling most of the space at the far end. A large pit occupied the centre of the room. As they approached they edge, they could see a double ramp running down left and right along the edge into the dark, deep below the ground level of the cathedral.
“You go investigate the upper reaches of the building,” Spires said to several of the soldiers behind them, gesturing at the doorways left and right of the entrance. “We’ll investigate the ground level and head down below.”
Cautiously, the group circumvented the pit, working their way towards the altar while scanning the different piles for some useful clues.
A wailing screech rose up from behind the altar. It echoed of the chamber walls until it seemed to come from all around them. Then, slowly, with an otherworldly grace, a cockatrice reared itself behind the altar. It let out another screech.
It had a long, serpentine body, easily stretching longer than three or four elves. Its head showed a pair of intelligent, charcoal eyes above a pointed beak. As it reared up on its clawed legs it spread its wings which consisted of a blend of feathers and membranous bat-like stretches. The part of its body above the wings, around the head, was covered in bright, blue green feathers.
Two beats of its wings, disturbing the piles of debris around the altar, took it into the air. With another screech, it circled around the ceiling of the room. Banking hard, it dove at the elves standing below. With lightning reflexes, they jumped out of the way.
Another handful of wing beats took the cockatrice back up towards the ceiling. Anlar’Sel raised his bow and took aim. The long, black arrow flew at the beast and struck it just below its left wing.
The cockatrice screamed out in pain. It sailed down towards the opposite side of the pit, landing in a heavy thump.
The elves split up, drawing their weapons as they headed around the pit towards the wounded animal. Spires and Bob headed left and Nonchalantis and Sel took the other side. Cautiously they approached the cockatrice. It hissed at them in defiance.
Sel loaded another arrow onto his bow and let it fly. With a nonchalant flick of its uninjured wing, the cockatrice swatted the arrow away.
Swords raised, Bob and Spires came at the beast from the other side. Quickly dancing in and out of its reach, they dealt several small cuts across the side of the animal. A deadly dance unfolded. The cockatrice was too tough and too fast to wound seriously. Any hits the elves managed resulted only in minor cuts. The four elves worked together too efficiently for the cockatrice to be able to strike at any one of them reliably.
Suddenly, the cockatrice changed tactic. Instead of trying to fend of all the elves at the same time, it charged headlong at Spires in a mad, lightning quick run. It closed the distance between them in seconds.
Nonchalantis saw what happened. “No!” He threw himself at the cockatrice, driving his sword into the long, scaled legs.
Injured and distracted, the cockatrice missed Spires. Battle crazed, it rounded on Nonchalantis. It flicked out its beak and drew a long gash in Nonchalantis’ side. It placed its other leg on top of the elf’s chest slowly crushing it.
While the cockatrice was busy crushing Nonchalantis, the other elves charged in. They struck the beast with hammering blows, aiming at its head and the weak spots along its chest. The cockatrice was too distracted to get out of the way quick enough. Moments later the large animal lay dead on the cathedral floor.
Spires knelt down next to Nonchalantis, grabbing his arm in a strong grip and putting pressure on the wound with his other arm. “Quick, get a healer in here!” he shouted at Bob.
“I couldn’t let it take you” Nonchalantis said. “You. You’re what’s keeping the colonies together. They are the future of the elves.”
“Quiet. Save your strength,” Spires said.
“I hear my ancestors calling. Don’t weep for me. You already gave me a second lease of life. I couldn’t have asked for more.” A coughing fit interrupted Nonchalantis. “Lead the troops out, will you? You’ll need them at the end of the road. The Prison may depend on them.”
Spires held Nonchalantis’ hand, slowly feeling the wounded elf’s strength failing. A single tear ran down his cheek as he felt Nonchalantis’ life leave his body. “Safe journey, my friend,” he whispered. “May we meet again someday, on the other side, and share some happy memories.”
Spires laid down Nonchalantis’ body and slowly stood up. A group of elves came running from the cathedral’s entrance, Bob at their head.
“It’s too late. There is nothing that can be done for him anymore.”
Spires turned to the mage that was on Bob’s heels. “We’re going to look for a way out. Once we’re all on the way out, I want you to set off a flame storm inside this place. I don’t want to leave any of our dead to those beasts out there.”
With that Spires strode away towards the ramp leading down into the catacombs of the building.
Spires and Bob stood at the bottom of the ramp looking up. The ceiling was a distant pin-prick. Slowly the last of the colonial army move out through the arched gate and into the mists of the Barrier Mountains beyond.
After the defeat of the cockatrice, finding the exit had been relatively easy. The ramp in the centre of the cathedral had led down through rooms and along the edge of the pit, finally ending in a small courtyard with a single gate. Unbarring it, the elves discovered a mist covered landscape beyond. Spring grass ran down a mountain slope. The freshness of it hinted at the magical grass of Elmira.
Guessing this was their best bet to get out of the bubble, Spires had mobilised the army and brought it down here. And now, a few hours after first setting foot in the cathedral, the last of the troops were leaving the bubble.
After a last look up, Spires turned to the mage at his side. “Burn it.” With that he walked to the gateway and into the country beyond.
The grass felt springy underneath Spires’ feet after the cobbled streets of the bubble as he walked past his troops. Anlar’Sel was waiting for him at the head of the column.
“Anlar’Sel, send out your scouts. We need to find out where we are. And, just as important, when. I will take the army down the mountains. We’ll be heading south, as far as we can tell in this mist at least. Hopefully we’ll hit the Bitter Coast at some point.”
“Yes sir,” Sel replied. “I’ll have the lads report back as soon as they know something.”
The Narathi scout flashed some hand signals at one of his comrades and then darted off to pass on the order.
Spires waved his army into motion and rode into the mist.