"So what is this City of the Fallen?" Nika asked Dorr.
They were walking beside a babbling brook where willow trees bent to meet the water.
It was early in the morning and the seven moons were slowly sinking into the hills behind them whilst the sun rose from the mountains before them.
"The City of the Fallen is a human outpost in the Angel Chorus Mountains. It's the safest place to hide from the Elemental's forces...such as those dragons we encountered." Dorr explained.
A thousand questions lay heavy on Nika's tongue but she spoke nary a word, for she had the good nature not to pester the faery.
"I fear that will not be the end of the onslaught, Dorr." Seera told him.
Dorr nodded absently.
Nika noticed they were heading northeast...at this rate they would have to change directions unless they wanted to misss the mountains entirely.
"Uh....Dorr? Shouldn't we be heading that way?"
Nika pointed towards the distant snowcapped mountains.
Dorr shook his head and replied, "We have to have transportation. It's too dangerous to try and reach the city by foot. I can't exactly fly both of you there by myself!"
Nika frowned and muttered, "What kind of transportation?"
Dorr halted suddenly and pointed across the brook which had become a wide river.
"That kind of transportation."
On the opposite bank, fenced in, were a strange menagerie of winged things.
From Nika's position, she could spot griffons, pegasi, cockatrices and even a few dragons.
Was that a pterodactyl as well?
Dorr took off running before launching himself across the water at a glide.
"Lucky." Nika muttered under her breath.
Seera waded calmly into the water and looked over her shoulder at Nika.
"Climb onto my shoulders. I'll take you across." She told her with a smile.
Nika mounted the knarled twisted roots of the birch Dryad, twisting her fingers into the smaller ones.
By the time she reached Seera's shoulders, sweat was dripping down her face.
Her legs dangled on either side of the pale blue haired head, her hands clutching to the giant's fingers - Seera had the decency to grasp Nika's hands before wading into the deeper water.
Nika had a childhood fear of drowning that surfaced again as they crossed the river.
Seera sank deeper and deeper into the water the farther she waded in.
Nika grew nervous as the water rose to her kneecaps.
Seera's head bobbed like a pale blue ball over the surface of the water.
And then they saw them.
Two horse heads appeared above the surface of the water and Nika gasped in awe, temporarily forgetting her fear.
They were green with strips of kelp for hair, big black eyes blinking lazily.
Razor sharp teeth glinted in their equine heads.
"Seera, get us out of here!" Nika screamed, digging her nails into the wooden palms of the Dryad.
Though Seera appeared to be trying, she wasn't moving any faster.
The two horse heads cut through the water like blades as they sped towards the struggling Dryad and human girl.
The clock was ticking.
Two roots surfaced from the water and curled themselves around two tree trunks on the opposite bank.
Nika's hopes soared as the strong roots hauled the birch closer to shore.
The horses were faster though and were soon too close for comfort.
For some reason, Nika wasn't afraid of the horses. A lulling song filled the air and she was entranced.
Come dive 'neath the waters
To the land of fish and mer
Come taste the ocean sweet,
New friends you shall meet,
Come with us...
Nika found her hand stretched out towards them....As Seera reached the shore.
Nika felt a longing in her heart like no other for the green steeds.
Giant smooth wooden hands set her feet on the sand and she looked up at the unearthly young woman.
"Marnoc." Seera whispered, but Nika didn't know what that meant.
So little about this world had been explained to her, how she got here, who was chasing them...
"Seera! Nika!" Dorr scrambled down the steep bank to the shore, worry pressed on his elfin face.
Nika rolled her eyes. Now he got here.
"I saw the kelpies." He told them lamely when he saw the look of fury in Nika's eyes.
"Saw them? How about fighting them next time?" Nika snapped, ignoring the surprised look on Seera's face.
She was cold and wet, and she could be snippy if she wanted to by thunder!
Dorr, in way of apology, offered her his arm and she took it with a wholehearted smile.
"That's more like it." Nika announced, smiling.
Together, they clambered up the bank with Seera in tow.
Atop the bank was a trading post, a side pen to the western style building holding the creatures Nika had seen earlier.
An old tattered sign hung from a wooden pole. It read, 'Sleem's Trading Post'.
Nika noticed that the letters were written in green slime that dripped off the bottom of the wooden sign.
Shivering, she hurried after Dorr and Seera who had gone on ahead.
The trading post building was designed like an old western style tavern, swinging saloon doors and all, which Nika passed through.
The inside was wooden and brown like the exterior, a long counter in front of her and shelves stocked with wares behind her.
Behind the counter was a monster - but Nika swallowed her scream.
He was a large man, a head shorter than Seera, with no shirt and only ragged muslin shorts with a scrappy leather belt which the flies buzzed lazily round.
The most interesting feature, however, was his face. The man had only one eye which was centered on his forehead.
"If it isn't the bowsman his-self, Dorr Dragonslain! What can I do for you?'' His accent was a peculiar mixture of cockne and southwestern American, Nika noted.
Dorr smiled....and someone cleared their throat outside.
Nika turned to see that Seera was unable to get in.
"I fear I am too large, kind sir."
Nika stifled her laughter as the Dryad tried to bend and squish herself through the door.
The cyclops laughed heartily and replied, "Sorry miss! Me trading post tweren't made fer ye kind."
"Furius, we need transportation into the Angel Chorus Mountains." Dorr cut into the friendly chatter.
Furius raised his singular eyebrow. He cocked one end in a questioning gesture.
Dorr sighed. "Woe betides the fallen star, which rests in yonder mountains. One day when war is no more the City of the Fallen shall rise."
Furius Sleem nodded at the odd phrase and clapped his meaty hands together.
"Right! This way!"
Furius beckoned them to follow and he led them out a side door to the animal pen.
Nika was delighted that several beasties gathered round her to nibble at her clothes.
She stroked the velvety nose of a pegasus as Furius showed Dorr the best of his griffon flock.
Nika looked around to see where the voice was coming from.
She looked down to see an exotic bird at her feet.
It plumage was the hues of fire, curlicue tail feathers.
"Beware the dragon slayer."
Nika was taken aback. No one had told her birds could talk here!
"Be wary of the green winged faery! Beware!"
The red bird launched itself into the air to land on Furius's shoulder and perch there.
Nika gave a sidelong glance at Dorr. Why should she be wary of the green winged faery?
She ran to Dorr who had called her.
He was standing by a magnificent hippogriff - half hawk half horse - and grinning.
"You and I can take this beauty to the City!"
Her face fell.
"What about Seera?"
Seera cleared her throat for the second time in a row and Nika turned to see her standing by the fence, on the outside.
"The sun is setting and Nika has had two sleepless nights in a row. Let us camp and spend one more night as a treo."
So, they did.
Furius let them camp in the backyard of the trading post on the soft downy moss with woven blankets he provided.
Seera would not permit a fire so they sat in the dark with the will o' wisps and fireflies for light.
"It is time we told you everything." Seera told Nika as she huddled at the base of the firmly rooted Dryad with Dorr.
"You came across the stars to our world in a sphere of stone, crossing from one world to the next. When you awakened in the heart of the Elemental Fortress, Dorr saved you. I know this because trees and Dryads alike share memories. We see all and know all.
The roots of an old oak were nearby.
The Fire witch, Serena, injured Dorr...and, well, you know the rest of that tale.
The Elementals control the four elements. They are evil dictators that must be vanquished.
Now, you must know that faery and man are at war. They have been for thirteen cycles. The City of the Fallen is a refugee camp for humans. That is all I know."
Nika had listened in silence to the account.
"That still doesn't explain why I'm here." She muttered into the blanket.
Her inquisition was met with silence.
Dorr gave her his best smile and Nika felt her spirit lift a little.
Turning his attention to the hevens, Dorr leaned back against the sleeping Dryad's legs and pointed to a cluster of stars.
"There's the Dancing Warrior," Dorr traced an outline in the sky, "And that's Moonwing of Irisbane...Oh, that's the Maiden of Gaia!"
Nika let the names roll around her thoughts.
"Do you know every constellation?" She murmured.
He shook his head. "Nay. Just those and the Long Tailed Bear." Dorr pointed to it.
It looked familiar to Nika....
"But enough about me!" Nika's thoughts were shattered by Dorr’s words, "What is your world like?"
She chose her words carefully to describe her world to Dorr so he would understand.
"Earth is...uh...a spherical pl-" Dorr raised a hand to silence her.
"I know what a planet is and that worlds are round."
Blushing, Nika nodded and continued.
"All across Earth are....er...Cities of glass and stone and metal, I guess.....The sad thing is, there are so many humans, we're destroying our world."
Dorr shrugged as though the matter was a flea.
"Of course. We are not made for the worlds we live in now. Besides, this reality is but an illusion to test us."
Nika bit her lip to keep from laughing...How could he believe in something like that?
Dorr seemed to read her thoughts, for he turned over and said a muffled, "Good-night."
Nika let out a sigh and folded her hands behind her head.
An owl hooted somewhere.
Soon, she found herself in her dreams.......
....Long trailing claws dug inky black marks in the white stone of the ledge, staining it.
The claws belonged to a cloaked figure, eyes flashing 'neath the hood.
"Is it that time already, Quorion?"
The speaker was unseen, in the shadows that pooled by the mountain side that the treacherous ledge was attached to.
The hooded figure clicked his long claws together and hissed.
"Never call me by that name!"
The voice laughed. It was an old, sad, weary sort of chuckle....more of a whispering breath.
"It was the name I gave you...but if you perfer Dark One...."
The figure slashed his claws through the air, "Silence!" He bellowed.
With one swift movement, the figure flipped back his hood as lightning arced against the moonless night.
His head was hairless, large fang-like teeth contorting his face into a hideous everlasting smile...if it could be called that.
Bluish-black veins pulsed sluggishly across his skull.
"This is what you have done to me!" The monster howled above the suddenly screaming winds, "What you made me!"
The shadowed person didn't reply.
And then, he stepped from the darkness.
Two massive white paws sliced the silence, disturbing a few stray stones as they fell.
A pitch black nose and broad snow white shoulders appeared.
When he was fully in the dim starlight, all could see he was a polar bear.
An oversized polar bear.
"Now, you die."
The bear didn't even react as his enemy assumed a battle stance.
He just smiled that curious bear-smile and murmured quietly, "Lord of the Stars, pardon they who fight below and their kind, for they are innocent."
With a murderous cry of rage, the hideous being surged forward, one set of claws raking upwards, the other raking across the bear's chest once the first was through.
Blood sprayed into the air and venomous laughter echoed all around......