Chapter 0.1. – The huntress of Mallevene
A solitary hawk flew over the forest of Mallevene, circling lazily and revelling in the cold morning wind. From its privileged position high in the sky, it watched as the first light of dawn brushed the treetops with gold. It was a magical moment and a very important one for the elves; it was when they could see the vastness of their forest, full of ancient Trees of Life that were over a thousand years old, even if it was merely an optical illusion. Later, when the sun had risen and the colours were real, all that remained were a few leafy treetops flecked with gold, a reminder that the links between the elves, the forest and the Magic of the Earth were getting weaker and weaker.
Sitting cross-legged at the edge of the cliff leaning back against a tree with her arms folded, Ayla Swanlake observed the bird of prey, eyes narrowed. There was no doubt at all that it was a magical being, and that whoever had summoned it wouldn’t be too far away. This was the only lead she had to reach one of the Chosen Ones, so getting as much information as possible was the priority. Where was the summoner? What was their purpose? None of her questions had an answer – yet.
Just under half an hour went by before the hawk spotted a herd of deer. The herd had just left the thickest part of the forest, and were beginning their way up the slope, passing through a clearing and following a river. A few seconds later, the hawk started to glide, descending slowly. This change in behaviour seemed suspicious to the Interventor. She stood up, ready to cast the spell that would allow her to follow the summoner’s trail when they tried to regain their consciousness. As her hands moved, leaving tiny magic symbols hanging on the air, she felt alive again, even though she knew that she no longer belonged to Endarth. She remembered the fox that she’d seen on the path, it was on the run, and she hadn’t been able to avoid it. The animal had passed straight through her without noticing, in the same way as her own hands had passed through the hourglass or the soul gems when she tried to touch them. She’d been upset at the time, but it had helped her to accept the truth: all that was left of her was a consciousness that existed between two worlds, neither of which she was a part of.
The magic rune was now complete, and it hovered in the still air. It was so easy to use the magic again, to enhance it with the soul of the forest and push beyond the thaumaturgical limits; she would have been the most powerful weapon in the next Great War. She smiled sadly and shook her head. No, that was impossible. She concentrated hard and cast the spell, which burst into an ephemeral cloud of splintered gold. She blinked and saw the hawk perch innocently on the branch of a tree and start to preen itself.
“Come on, come on, stop hiding,” she muttered.
As if it had heard her, the bird began to emit a slight bluish glow, and gradually, little by little, it became transparent and finally disappeared altogether. But Ayla already had what she needed. It wasn’t the first time she’d trailed a summoner’s consciousness, and she’d faced some truly terrifying summoners. This one was a mere apprentice.
Not too far away, Selynn opened her golden eyes, unaware of the presence that was spying on her. She was beginning to regain control of her body as the remains of the spell dissolved, and with it the urge to flap her wings. She muttered a prayer to Mother Nature, as you always should, and even more so when Mother provided her with such a comforting experience. And anyway, Selynn was happy. At last, after so very many days spent in preparation, the prey was on its way. Without missing a beat, she moved her hands, shoulders and neck in silence to bring the sensation back. Then she stretched out her legs a couple of times, feeling the tingle in her muscles as they tensed, ready for action.
Selynn was an elf, a huntress, and her senses were highly trained. And she was feeling uneasy. A dark premonition had stayed with her over the last few days, there was something out of place in the forest, something that jarred the harmony of nature. But she couldn’t put her finger on exactly what it was. She searched her mind again but knew she wouldn’t find any answers. She was still the best huntress in her village, and she was ready, just as she had been hundreds of times before, to bring down her prey, and she felt the magic of Mother Nature flowing through her veins. But there was something in the air, something that was out of kilter. And as Rahanna had so often told her, the elves of the forest were the first to perceive these things. Still, she tried to grasp what it was that was making her feel so uneasy, but couldn’t, it slipped through her fingers like dust. What could be wrong? The deer were heading straight into her trap, the arrows were planted in the ground at her feet so that she’d be able to move quickly. Even before summoning the spirit of the hawk, she’d cut the bushes that hid her with the dagger she carried, giving her the best possible shot.
“Focus Selynn!” The words of Rahanna, her mentor in the magical ways of Mother Nature came back to her. She’d repeated them to herself over and over again, and as usual she recognised the truth in them. It had been hard work tracking the deer and finding a good spot for the ambush. She shook her head. What she knew for sure was that she wasn’t going to let her prey escape today. So, she needed to concentrate, clear her mind, and feel the heartbeat of the forest within her.
“O gentle earth, pool of calm, so full of life and wisdom, help my prayer to reach Mother Earth. Warm sun, who lights my way; indomitable wind, who speaks and listens, help my prayer to reach Father Sky. We are all one, our destiny intertwined with life itself, our task is that of the proud chosen ones, powerful guardians, respectful of the denizens of these forests…” her lips whispered the words, but not for the first time the ancient mantra failed to reassure her.
She continued in a murmur until a few seconds later, she heard the deer in the distance. Instinctively, she tucked a couple of golden curls under her hood, grabbed an arrow, notched it in her bow, and gently pulled it taut. She was ready. Over the last few months prey had been scarce in the forests, and the Wise Ones were concerned. But of course, no-one had bothered to tell her anything. Being better with the bow than Stanna and more powerful than Rahanna with druidic spells didn’t count for anything, did it? Instead of counting on her to help deal with the real problem – she knew there was one – it was always “Selynn, you’ll become a better huntress with practice,” from Stanna, or the typical “Selynn, remember the need for a retreat in the forest to clear your mind,” from Rahanna. Without, of course, forgetting “Selynn, wisdom comes with age” from both of them. Although it was true that they’d taught her everything she knew about archery and magic, they still undervalued her. It was so unfair! Selynn was already one of the key members of the village community. And yes, it was true that she got a bit distracted at times, but the consequences had never been anything more than the odd minor accident. Apart from when one of her arrows caused a small fire (she hadn’t done it on purpose), or when she was left in charge of the granary and…
The deer trotted into the clearing. Selynn scolded herself for her lack of attention and quickly checked her surroundings: the wind was in her favour, the light at her back and all her muscles were tensed and ready for action. It had taken her nearly two weeks to decide on the best location, during which time she’d had to endure Stanna’s taunts when she came back empty-handed. And what had Stanna achieved, the great huntress of the village? The odd rabbit or game bird that was all feather and bone? Mere crumbs in comparison with the load of meat that she herself would take back to the village. She smiled in anticipation: today’s kill was important. Crops weren’t growing well and harvests were poor, game was scarce and trade routes within the Mallevene forests were almost non-existent. These were things she could do nothing about. But when it came to these deer, her arrows were going to make a difference. A big difference.
Completely unaware of the elf’s concerns, the animals came to within twenty metres of her, and started to graze. Selynn observed them with a critical eye. She chose a big buck who was more alert than the rest of the herd. It was a good idea to start with the lookout, because in this way the others would take a few seconds longer to react. Next, she chose a young female, the closest one. She pulled the bow taut. Breathed deeply, holding the air in her lungs to steady her hand. She could feel her ties with Mother Nature becoming stronger, filling her with a sense of calm, transforming her into the innocent spots of rain before a violent storm. She narrowed her eyes. Pulled her arm further back, aimed, and let the arrow fly. It hissed through the air, piercing the buck’s heart, exactly where it should, and with such force that he was thrown to the side. But Selynn was no longer looking in that direction. The adrenaline shot through her like a bolt of lightning. She stopped thinking, letting instinct take over. She leaped over the parapet, loading the second arrow and firing it at the nearest female while she was still in midair. The animal tried to flee, but the arrow hit home turning her flight into a stagger, and Selynn knew that she’d soon fall.
Selynn’s hand was a blur as she took the last arrow from the quiver. It was longer and heavier, and she tensed the bow to the maximum with a grunt. Dropped down onto one knee. Aimed at the animals who were now fleeing down the slope in sheer terror, narrowing her eyes and looking for the best angle of shot. But she didn’t find it. From this distance her arrows would only wound the beast, leaving it to die in slow agony over a period of days, a pointless death that would be of no benefit to her. She sighed. Harmony had to be maintained in Mallevene, and they, the elves, were its defenders, its tireless guardians. Selynn would not take a life in vain. She relaxed her hold on the bow. Sooner or later, the animals would return to the clearing, and the more of them there were, the better.
She stood up and put the arrow back into the quiver. The wind rose, tugging at her dark green cloak and bringing with it the smell of rain. Selynn saw that the female had fallen about a hundred metres further down the slope and wasn’t going to get up again.
The hunt was over, so she threw back her hood and let her hair flow loose in the wind. She walked quickly towards the buck, who was groaning in pain. Unsheathing her dagger, she killed it with one swift stroke. After saying a quick prayer of thanks to Mother Nature for the life she had just taken, she started to prepare the animal for transporting back to her village. She began by cutting it open and removing the vital organs so that the meat wouldn’t spoil. Then she swore under her breath – she’d prepared several sacks, but the deer was huge. And what’s more she was a good few hours away from the village, so the weight would be too much for her. She’d been totally blinded by the desire to take a good quantity of game back with her and hadn’t planned properly, overlooking a few details. Well, there was nothing she could do about it now. She’d get the two animals ready and leave them there in sacks, in the lake, tied to trees, and then she’d make a second journey to come back and pick them up. The cold water would preserve the meat as well as keeping it hidden from possible predators.
She felt pleased with herself. She’d arrive at her village with a good load of meat, and she’d ask them to prepare a feast while she went back to get the rest of it. That would be hugely satisfying! Even Rahanna would have to congratulate her of course: she’d used the spirit of the hawk, something she’d always been good at – although she did tend to stay in the air for longer than was strictly necessary, depleting her reserves of magical power – to carry out her plan. Nobody could deny that she’d made progress in the Druidic arts. Selynn wanted to learn as much as she possibly could and was showing how capable she was. Next would be the Wolf Spirit, and given the skill she’d already shown, that shouldn’t be too difficult for her either. And maybe they’d call her on the night of the bonfire, when tales of daring deeds were told before the whole village and ask her to tell the story of her magnificent hunt. No, there was no ‘maybe’ about it, of course they would!
She knelt, and went on working with considerable dexterity, immersed in thoughts which ran from what she’d say when she first got back to her village, to how she’d explain every last detail of the hunt when she had the whole community hanging on her every word. But after a few minutes something interrupted her reverie; something was stirring in the air. Birds took flight and there was a sudden rumbling in the ground beneath her. That same feeling again? Selynn looked towards the hillside in puzzlement and was surprised to see the deer again, this time running through the clearing as fast as their legs would carry them. In their mad dash, some of them jumped over the fallen female.
Why were they coming towards her? She was the huntress, and they were the prey. She’d never seen anything like this before. When she told everybody in the village, no one would believe her. “You must become one with the forest Selynn, because the hunter can become the hunted in the blink of an eye. Mother Nature shows us the way and we must go with the flow, adapting ourselves and accepting her wisdom”. Rahanna’s words rang loudly inside her head. But how should they be interpreted?
The terrified animals didn’t stop, they simply flowed around her like a river, passing right by her side at top speed. Her surprise turned into ice-cold terror when she saw three dark figures coming up the hill, moving fast. What the hell were these abominations? They were the size of a man, but the proportions were all wrong. Their arms were too long, their legs short and sturdy, and they hunched over as they moved. They were muscular, powerfully built, with slimy brown skin, and were dressed in pieces of toughened leather held together by bits of metal. And they were carrying axes and shields.
Ayla saw them too. But these monsters, these ‘stalwarts’ as her mentor called them, were unlike any that she’d ever known. They were aware, there was a spark of intelligence in their eyes, and they were organised, which made them even more dangerous. Up to now, Ayla had only come across the abductees, those unfortunates who crossed over from the other side, slipping through magical crevasses, mercilessly torn from their own reality and thrown into Endarth, almost always in the Wastes of Aresia or the Mandora Swamp. Those who suffered such a fate arrived with broken minds, little more than bloodthirsty beasts that relied on pure instinct. But these creatures were nothing like that, which was the worst news possible. She turned, looked at the elf, and shook her head. The taint of corruption was spreading rapidly. It would take a miracle for the young huntress to escape with her life.
The creatures stopped dead when they saw Selynn. They looked at each other and, uttering a war cry that made the archer shudder, started moving forward again, axes raised.
The elves of Mallevene, schooled in balance and harmony, can seem like peaceful, reflective beings – as long, that is, you mean no harm to Mother Nature. They watch you from a distance and might even take you captive to teach you a lesson, but they’ll never hurt you, unless they think that it will be easier to preserve harmony without you around. But Selynn sensed these teachings were rebelling inside her. She felt the agony of Mother Nature keenly with every step these nightmares took and was gripped by terror. She couldn’t run away. Although she knew a spell for speed, summoning the hawk had drained her mana. Her body took over, she grabbed her bow, fitted a heavy arrow and took aim. The beasts were devouring the distance between her and them quickly. Selynn felt her hands slick with the deer’s blood, her fingers slippery on the bow. But there was no time to do anything about it. She tensed every muscle in her body, drawing on every ounce of strength she possessed. Took aim at the one that was coming at her at the greatest speed. And let the arrow fly.
It struck the beast in the middle of the chest, piercing its armour and biting deep into the flesh below. The creature stopped in its tracks as if hit by a sledgehammer and fell to the ground with an agonised shriek. With a few swift movements Selynn fitted another arrow into her bow. She aimed more carefully this time, and fired. The arrow hit another of the beasts in the head, killing it instantly. But the last one was dangerously close. So close that Selynn could make out its twisted, misshapen features, the milky eyes with their red pupils that seethed with evil and were fixed on her, and for a split second she froze. Gritting her teeth, she pushed the terror aside. Loaded her bow and fired again a fraction of a second later. Again. And again. And yet again. The arrows had less force behind them, and the beast was able to deflect the next one. Another hit it in the thigh, and it stumbled. The next grazed its arm. And the last one slammed into its armour at shoulder height. But none of them were able to stop it. The creature shrieked at the top of its lungs and flung itself violently towards her.
Selynn felt her deep rooted ties to Mother Nature once again, the smell of the deer, the blood on her hands and the stench of her enemy. The axe slashed through the air. She raised her bow in an attempt to protect herself. Luckily the attacker hit her with the handle rather than the blade. The bow snapped in two, and Selynn was thrown to the side while the beast buried its axe in the ground, carried by the momentum of the blow. Selynn unsheathed her second dagger. Her enemy lashed out again with the axe. It passed within millimetres of her face. The huntress lost her footing and fell backwards into the pool of the deer’s blood. How ironic that she was going to die right there, next to her prey. But Mother Nature always found an end for everyone, no matter how sudden or cruel it might be. She hurled her dagger against the nightmare in front of her with a yell. The blade struck the creature’s face, leaving a slight cut on its cheek. The beast looked at her smiling, a trickle of dark blood running down its haggard face. With both hands, it raised the axe. Selynn’s connection with Mother Earth was becoming stronger. She was aware of the frightened birds, the gentle breeze rocking the treetops, the softness of the earth, wet with blood. The ground was shaking again: the deer were coming back, running towards her. Realisation dawned, hitting her like a punch in the gut. The monsters weren’t stupid. The herd of returning deer was smaller now and was being pursued by a handful of creatures similar to her attacker, but these were carrying crossbows. It had all been a trap, and she too had been hunted down. She wouldn’t be having dinner in her village that night. She wouldn’t be able to laugh in Stanna’s face. This was the end.
Her village! Her village was in danger!
With a cry of victory, the beast let rip with the axe, hitting her in the middle of the chest. And then it was all over.
Ayla screamed and fell to her knees while everything around her exploded, and then she was back in her log cabin again, her prison. She’d cast dozens of spells to try to halt the beasts, but it had been impossible. She had no existence within any dimension and could do nothing. This was where all her power came to an end, here was the final sign that her destiny wasn’t combat. She swore under her breath, feeling her heart thudding in her ears, and her whole body trembling. And then, to her surprise, her hands began to move, swiftly, frantically, leaving wisps of pure magic on the air. How unlike her, to be distracted by the death of a huntress. And right now, just when she couldn’t afford to fail. If her Mentor had brought her to this point, she couldn’t be wrong. Was it the right thing to do? Was it the best thing to do? She didn’t know, but she wouldn’t hesitate. Ayla Swanlake, last of the Interventors, was duty bound to prevent the Apocalypse. And it had started just now, she’d seen it with her own eyes.
She needed them, damn it. She needed them all.
Little by little her heartbeat started to return to normal and her movements slowed as the magic became more dense, more powerful. And just as slowly, one of the soul gems on the altar began to glow with a faint green light.