Wings stretched wide, the great frost owl soared over the snow-clenched mountains. Sunlight warmed her wings and the rushing wind caressed her feathers, fitting tributes for a monarch of the sky. Gliding effortlessly on invisible currents, she surveyed the land below. Easy as breathing, the great frost owl glided above the lofty peaks, but to the monk-within, flying was ever wondrous, a glorious adventure, a breath-stealing boon of magic. Lenore gloried in every banking curve, in every updraft, riding the wind to dizzying heights. With a ten-foot wingspan, no other raptor could compete. She soared above the mountains with only clouds for companions.
The land spread wide below like a fine-stitched quilt.
Her keen avian eyes raked the countryside. The owl searched for a tasty meal while the monk looked for Darkness. From the lofty heights, the lands of Erdhe looked peaceful, but the monk knew otherwise. A red comet scarred the sky, foretelling the grim truth. The Battle Immortal had begun. Darkness wended its tentacles into the southern kingdoms, seeking to corrupt and conquer. The Kiralynn monastery stood as the last bastion of knowledge, a bulwark of the Light. In ancient times, the monastery had wielded many owl rings...now only three remained. As the lone guardian of the gateway, Lenore needed to be vigilant. Soaring across the Southern Mountains, she followed the trail to Drumheller Pass, searching for intruders. Rugged and forbidding, the mountain vastness provided a secret sanctuary, but the trail remained a weakness, a thin thread connecting the monastery to the kingdoms of Erdhe. Catching an updraft, she circled higher. Sunlight glinted on the ice below, reflecting an unearthly radiance. Glaciers and snowfields cloaked the tallest peaks, glistening in the midday light. Like a jagged line, the narrow trail zigzagged up the mountainside, climbing the heights to the pass. At the summit, a stony arch spanned a deep chasm, a knife-edged drop on either side. Hammer Glacier hung over the rocky span like a sapphire fist, a lethal trap for the unwary. Circling overhead, Lenore saw no sign of enemies, yet she felt uneasy. Heeding the warning, she followed the trail north.
Thousands of times she'd flown this route, yet she never tired of the gods-eye view. Gliding across the snowy peaks, she scanned the land below, matching details to her memory. Everything looked different from the air, patterns played out on a giant scale. Soaring on white wings, she saw the world from a perspective mere mortals could not fathom. Lenore marveled at the stunning display. Vivid colors swirled with intricate patterns as if the world held a grand design, a secret visible only from the air. She saw crystalline patterns stamped on frozen lakes, rocky cliffs embedded with colorful stripes, and glaciers carved with chasms that looked like blue glyphs. So often she glimpsed script in the patterns below, as if the gods had writ their very names upon the land. The elegant script teased her mind like a tantalizing riddle, written in a language she could admire but never decipher.
Banking left, she followed the trail north. Snowy ramparts of the lofty heights gave way to the deep green of cedar and pine forests. Rocky gorges cut the mountainsides, ripples of purple and brown carved like mighty sword strokes into the land. Waterfalls tumbled from the craggy heights, their spray billowing like false clouds. Rivers looked like ribbons, curling blue across the verdant land. Amidst nature's glory, men looked like ants, minor pieces toiling across the gods' chessboard.
Lenore pitied all those who were land-bound. Soaring higher, she delighted in the owl, yet duty never left her mind.
The trail snaked north, eventually joining the Great Southern Road, a paved wonder from another Age. The surrounding forest brightened to summer green, aspens and oaks appearing among the darker pines. Smoke rose in columns from cabins and holdfasts dotting the forest, proof the land was not empty of men. The dwellings were few and far between, most of them held by the Zward. Lenore soared above them without concern.
Farther north, the foothills smoothed to a dull flatness. Beyond the forest wilderness, summer colors embraced the lowlands, a patchwork of green and golden fields, ripening wheat rippling in the wind. Everything seemed at peace, yet a wary unease gripped her.
Catching a thermal, she spiraled higher.
The monk-within scanned the land, looking for the source of concern, but it was the owl who alerted her, instinctively spotting a rival raptor.
Mottled brown with distinctive tufts on its ears, the great horned owl flew south at a determined pace.
An owl flying in broad daylight...it was unlikely...it was unnatural.
Lenore banked left, intent on following. Gliding more than a thousand feet above the suspect owl, she kept watch till the shadows began to lengthen. Below, the great horned owl flew on an unerring course. A fat rabbit darted across its path, yet the owl ignored it. Never deviating left or right, it flew above the Great Southern Road heading due south as if it carried a message...or sought a hidden refuge.
An unnatural owl seeking to spy, the conviction thundered through her.
Swift as thought, she folded her wings, falling into a steep dive. Silent as death, she plummeted from the heavens. Death from above, she aimed for the great horned head.
A heartbeat from the kill, the enemy owl swerved into an uncanny roll, curved talons raised in its own defense.
A man's face snarled from the feathers! The thing was a horror!
The abomination appalled her, yet she did not falter. The owl attacked, hitting with all the power of the stoop. Talons extended, Lenore struck the malformed creature, hitting with the punch of a sledgehammer. The fiend should have been knocked senseless, yet it locked its curved talons with hers, the sudden weight turning her tight dive into a plummeting tumble. Wings batting against the sky, she struggled to fly while straining to kill.
The fiend rasped, "What are you?"
She might have asked the same question were she not in owl form. Talons entwined, Lenore grappled for position, fighting a fiend straight from hell.
Fear riddled the fiend's voice. "You'll kill us both!"
So close, she could smell its rotting breath. It stank of corruption, it reeked of evil. Horrified, she struck at it with her razor-sharp beak, aiming for the man's pale blue eye. The creature tried to twist away, but her aim was sure. It screamed as the eye erupted in gore.
Twisting beneath her, it disengaged one claw and raked her underbelly.
A searing pain ripped through her.
Lenore sought to drop the malformed fiend, but its talon remained tangled with hers. Locked in a death struggle, they plummeted towards the ground. The frost owl's instincts took over. Fighting with renewed frenzy, the owl-monk lunged for the fiend's throat, seeking to behead its rival. Her jaws snapped in a vice-grip, tasting feathers and sinew and bone. The fiend loosed an unearthly wail, struggling to break free. A clawing pain slashed Lenore's underbelly. The wound burned with a chilling cold as if infected with evil. Lenore shuddered with agony but the frost owl refused to release her prey. Clamping down hard, her curved beak worked to sever the malformed head. A cold wind buffeted against her, a warning that she fell in an uncontrolled tumble. Urgent with need, she renewed her effort. Her beak snapped shut with a satisfying crunch. A vicious twist ended the struggle. The gruesome head fell severed from the body. Lenore opened her talons, dropping the loathsome corpse.
Alarmed by the nearness of the ground, she spread her wings, seeking to soar, but a burning pain crippled her. Her left wing folded, flapping against her side. An upwelling of air gave her a moment's respite. Spying a pillar of smoke, she angled towards it, desperate for help, desperate to give warning. The fickle updraft abandoned her. Wounded, she fell, a tumbling plummet. The ground rushed towards her with frightening speed. She struck a tree, a searing agony spiking through her. Dazed with pain, she lost control of the magic. Light flashed bright, a nimbus surrounding her, and then she lost the owl. The forced change hastened her fall. Heavy with a woman's weight, she fell hard. Pine branches beat against her, snapping and crackling. Bruised and battered, she tumbled towards the forest floor. Clenching her fist, she refused to lose the owl ring. I must warn the others, malformed fiends watching from the sky! The ground punched her like a giant's fist. Her breath fled in a brutal rush, struck by a terrible agony. Battered and broken, she lay sprawled on the ground. Lenore struggled to move, to stay awake despite the pain, but everything dimmed to darkness.