Morgan Mackenzie was climbing a sheer rock wall, and having a far easier time of it than any self-proclaimed mountaineer or free-hand rock climber had ever been able to boast. Her magic made it as simple as climbing a ladder, and it was only getting easier the farther she ascended. Magic helped form the perfect hand and foot-holds sculpted directly into the rock as she went. Barely a third of the way up the cliffside, and notifications for levels in [Earth Sculpt] and [Earth Affinity] had popped up several times in the few short hours since she began.
The sun had begun to set, and the glow of the twin moons had begun to brighten the eastern sky with their pale, silvery luminescence. The fading light was no barrier to her eyes, not with her [Mana Sight] tattoo enchantment. The enhanced vision allowed her to angle her path away from larger cracks and crumbled sections of the cliffs. She could fuse them into safe, solid handholds, but it expended more Mana than she would like. She only had so much, and there was no way to replenish herself on the way upwards.
Morgan had debated internally about staying the night in the lowlands, but her experiences so far with the local fauna spurred her to push for higher ground immediately instead of waiting. The remains of what she was so far calling the Cycloceratops had been a grim reminder of the extreme dangers of this new land. As if the Shadowlynx, the Pack, the Tyrannorabbits, the Doomturtle and Hail-Hydra weren’t enough of a clue, she thought.
And so Morgan was climbing. Lulu had seemed to have had enough of getting jostled on her shoulder as she reached for one handhold after the next, and the scrubby had kept pace next to her as they ascended. The poofball’s attempts at napping had been constantly interrupted as Morgan reached upwards repeatedly, and it had finally given up with a huffy wurble.
She could have dug out a cave or ledge to rest, but decided against it. Her Stamina and body fat reserves were holding up for now, but excavating enough stone to yield a safe cave might possibly compromise her ability to finish the climb. Her [Athleticism] skill had gotten an impressive workout due to her efforts, gaining two levels in the long night hours it took her to close in on the summit.
Reach. Exhale. Mana flowing into her hand, out through her fingers. Mold the stone under her fingers. Pull while pushing up with feet, same smooth feeling of the Mana where her feet dug into the rocks. Inhale. Repeat. Less than a hundred yards to the top, and Morgan was in a determined trance. The light of the two moons as they slipped just past high midnight cast her shadow in stark relief on the stone.
Then, sudden darkness, instincts screaming in time with Lulu’s panicked warbling as the scrubby leapt frantically back onto Morgan. A thundering wind and a concussive impact that nearly dislodged her from the rocks, as massive talons slammed into the cliff-face around her before closing. The tips of the solidified knives of darkness left gouges in the stone and gave off sparks as she was gripped inhumanly tightly and yanked away from the wall.
She couldn’t breathe, so tightly did the thing squeeze her. The sharp ridges of the talons cut into her thighs and back and chest, grating through bleeding flesh to scrape against her crystalline bones. Each beat of the massive wings hammered the air with grim intensity as she felt herself lifted up at a ridiculous speed. She reached for her Mana in desperation, but could do nothing with it. Some sort of pressure kept it contained within those nightmare claws, the will of another imposed over her own magic.
Panicked struggling and half-choked screams led to [Spell Surge] and outrage together fueling a momentous effort that helped Morgan bring her own flames sputtering into existence. Fire laced with Lightning snapped outwards to illuminate a huge bird-like form, crafted of feathers and fear. The burst of magic bought her enough space for a mere handful of rapid gasps, pulling welcome oxygen into her lungs before the claws tightened even further. The tightened grip came with another wave of that other will, smothering her own power once again.
Lulu, however, had abilities that were most certainly not constrained by the bird’s magical presence. With a wurbling trill that was half panic and half rage, the loofah launched itself into the feathers on the oversized avian’s underside and began to exfoliate with all its scrubby might. Inky black plumage fluttered down as Morgan’s pet went about its macabre work with vehement enthusiasm. Her captor squawked like a truck-sized chicken on steroids as it suddenly tumbled down towards the craggy brush and trees that carpeted the top of the cliffs.
The loofah’s exfoliating abilities were second to none, and soon blood dripped down with the falling feathers as the disgruntled caws turned to agonized screeches from the tumbling giant corvid. To Morgan’s rune-enhanced sight, the blood hummed with sharp, potent Mana, and time seemed to slow as the glowing liquid flowed down towards her. And when the blood ran down to meet Morgan’s where it coated the talons that had so offensively ripped into her flesh, the two mixed with a crackling glittery glow.
And then it exploded.
Burning blood, feathers, a giant screeching bird, a warbling loofah and one screaming, bloodied sorceress were sent hurtling in different directions trailing smoke and indignation. Morgan’s [Regeneration] ability kicked in the moment she was clear of the dread crow’s overpowering magical aura, and a hastily formed [Wind Barrier] formed a sphere that let her roll across the ground without taking further damage.
The newly evolved [Regeneration] seemed even more efficient at the starting skill level than [Naked Recovery] had been once mastered, and while Morgan could tell she had dipped into her limited fat reserves to knit the wounds and replace her lost blood, it was nowhere near as bad as it could have been. As soon as she could stand, the young sorceress was back on her feet yelling for her pet puffball.
“Lulu!” She could hear excited wurbling making its way towards her through the brush.
Her scrubby hero had not travelled far, and had wasted no time at all before heading for its mistress. Loofah and sorceress were reunited a few moments later, the diminutive puffball once again checking Morgan from head to toe to remove all the blood, charred feathers, and dirt from her naked frame. The puffball returned to her shoulder after reassuring itself that she was all in one piece. The squawking caws turned to coughing in the distance, and then something else reached her ears…
“Is that… Is that words, Lulu?” Both sorceress and scrubby went silent, listening intently. “I think the bird is talking!”
Muffled words in a language that felt familiar, but just escaped Morgan’s understanding, drifted back through the trees, from the direction where singed feathers still fluttered. Most of them surely outraged swearing, if the tone was anything to go by.
“Cad é in ainm dia is an rud sin?!” shouted the now mostly human and definitely feminine sounding voice. And it was getting closer. “Bah! Ní féidir leat mo chuid focal a thuiscint, tá litriú agam!”
“I don’t understand a word you’re sayin’, lady! Why’d you attack me!?” shouted Morgan as she stalked angrily towards the other woman’s voice, a voice soon given form as an elderly woman draped in a cloak of black feathers picked her way through the trees toward the sorceress, aided by a gnarled root walking stick. “Do you speak English? Can you even understand me?” snarled Morgan, still wound up with adrenaline and outrage.
“Amhasóg!” the woman shouted, tossing a small stone at Morgan with a strength and speed that belied her apparent age. Less than a foot from her face the stone burst apart, the ensuing flash briefly lighting up the outline of a complex formation of runes spinning around her head. Before Morgan could even begin to process this, the runes snapped out of existence with a pop. She reeled at the sudden and intense headache that split her skull, but it was gone almost as fast as it had started.
“Of course I understand you, foolish child! If you had not fought, we’d be at my home sharing a meal and a lot of questions right now.” The woman angrily pointed her cane at the loofah perched on Morgan’s shoulder. “And what in the seven hells is that thing!?”
No way, thought Morgan. She’s a witch! And a bitch too, but definitely a witch or sorceress or some shit like that!
“Coulda handled that better yourself, I was only a little ways from the top and you could have waited! Or even thrown a rope or something! And this is Lulu, my loofah scrubby. Show a little respect!” Morgan had given herself over to her vehemence by the end of her tirade, aggressively stepping towards the older woman with more than a little anger and her Mana zapping across her fingertips in a sinister dance.
The old woman raised her cane a few inches off the ground, and then with both hands slammed the tip into the dirt. Morgan felt the ground ripple under her feet and then her Mana simply drained away almost completely, and her sudden anger with it.
“Good,” the witch stated with a humorless grin. “It’s nice to know the blood hasn’t cooled since I left the old lands. Tell me, little Worldwalker, how faires the Eire and old Britannia after all these centuries?”
Morgan was stunned speechless for several heartbeats before suddenly bubbling over with excitement. “Wait what!? A-Are you from Earth, then? Is there a way back? I don’t know what the eye-er or whatever you called it is, but Great Britain is doing just fine as far as I knew before I got here. At least I don’t think they were having anything more than the usual arguments in government that any other country does.” The bare-skinned woman seemed unable to make up her mind between freezing in shock and shaking with excitement, as her brain tried to shift into three different gears at the same time. “Wait! You said centuries!?”
“Slow down, girl. The Eire is just across the water from Britannia. When I came here, the High King had expelled Rome from the kingdoms a mere decade past. But enough!”
The woman turned and pointed through the trees with her cane. “My home is that way, and you should reach it by sunrise if you don’t dawdle. I’d carry you, but your Lulu-” she spat the name as though it were a foul oath ”-already made its stance more than clear on that particular mode of travel.” The old woman shook her greyish-white mane of hair as she shuddered at the memory. “Did the blood not burn true, I would have already eaten ye for that alone, but I suppose I can spare a meal for one of my descendants.”
With that, the woman turned and began to walk away, leaving a naked sorceress sputtering in confusion.
“What do you mean, ‘descendant!?’” Morgan called, staring at the woman’s retreating back like a deer caught in headlights.
“Just what I said, little naked one,” the older woman called back at her. “I left a whole pack of whelps in the old world, and your blood reacted with mine own. It pleases me that our line has not yet faded.”
WIth that the older woman proved finished speaking, as blackness rippled out from her night-feathered cloak to wreath her in shadows that twisted and spun as they expanded into the form of the massive raven. Wings of darkness stretched up before snapping down in a gust of thunder and bent trees as the great bird leapt into the sky.
“She seems like a total bitch, Lulu,” said Morgan, picking her way through the brush and shrubbery in the same direction the raven had flown. The scrubby seemed to mirror the opinion of its mistress, puffing up with a wurble as if it were turning up a non-existent nose in the general direction of the retreating avian.
Even with the moons beginning to set, her rune tattoo allowed her to see the raven descend in the distance. She set off towards it at a light jog, Lulu happily purbling on her shoulder once again now that the immediate danger had passed. It was well past midnight, and the higher elevation and its accompanying chill had begun to give rise to a low mist.
Within the hour the mists had thickened enough to blur the trees even to her magically-assisted eyes, so Morgan did not notice the signs of civilization until her bare feet slapped down onto the smooth paving stones of an ancient roadway. Trees and other flora had intruded upon the worked stone blocks, pushing them up and apart with their slow, inevitable expansions of roots. As she walked along the uneven path, faintly glowing runes and patterns became visible where two or more blocks still touched.
“I guess the enchantments helped the stones resist the trees, but not even magic lasts forever, Lulu…”
Close to a mile along the ruined road, the trees thinned out even more to give way to crumbling walls of actual buildings. The predawn light lent the mists an eerie beauty and a soft glow that played contrast to the looming shadows as Morgan padded deeper into the city. The residual power in the runes etched into the stonework grew stronger the further in she travelled, the workings showing more and more resistance to nature’s eternal assault.
“Whoa,” said the [Skyclad Sorceress], as the sun broke over the mountains and brightened the mists even further. Above the mists that still clung to the lower ruins, a city within the city rose out of the wispy cover. She could see a thin trail of smoke rising from behind the gleaming white structures that made up the ringed division between the two parts of the ruins. “That must be where the raven lady lives…”
The only trees this far into the empty stone settlement grew up from obviously intentional placements, ringed by low stone benches where the soil had been left unpaved to allow them to grow. Ivy and moss and other hard-scrabble plants had managed to find a foothold here, and even thrive in some places, but the interlocking enchantments of the stone construction still held fast this far inward.
The paving stones of the streets had so far been a dull grey, worked smooth but not exceptionally fancy. That changed as she passed under a massive gated archway into the inner district. The streets were alabaster white, comprised of hexagonal marble tiles joined so perfectly Morgan could not feel the gaps even with her bare feet. Most of the buildings here still had an intact roof, with stone shingles in muted tones of matte grey or light brown. She could feel the enchantments layered deep into every stone in the construction all around her. Rusted metal plates, hanging loops of chain, strips of tarnished metal trim -- all told tales of the empty doors and windows and other accoutrements of civilization, long since worn away by the ravages of time.
Heading for the rising wisp of smoke, she eventually came upon a small park -- or was it a monument? -- in the middle of a sort of roundabout that was encircled by a loop of the main avenue. Creeping vines and scattered patches of moss only partially obscured a central fountain, in the middle of which stood two life-sized statues of white stone that still gleamed with protective magics. A man and a woman, standing proudly side by side. The man bore a sword on his hip, with one hand resting on its pommel. The woman beside him looked into the distance, the staff held in her grip capped with a smooth orb, clasped by three metal claws.
Morgan stood before the statues, regarding the man and woman in silence for over a minute, before her contemplation was broken by an impatient tap-tap-tap of wood on stone.
“You’re late! Even without flight I would have beaten ye here, girl.” The old witch turned with a gesture, indicating for Morgan to follow while she continued her grumbling. “I thought I said ‘don’t dawdle!’”
“Well no, you said ‘if’ I didn’t ‘dawdle’ back there,” replied Morgan as she followed the woman into a simple but clean and orderly building that still had an actual wooden door.
“Lies! And slander too!” barked the cloaked magic user, obviously laughing behind the snarky demeanor. “It’s been centuries last I had an ear to complain at, don’t spoil my day with such accusations whilst I’m trying to enjoy the favored pastime of the elderly.”
“Centuries? How does that work? Will I live longer because of magic?” Morgan had so many questions she almost couldn’t decide which to ask.
The woman did not answer right away, instead filling two clay cups with water pulled up from a large cistern in the corner of the simple room. The table she set them upon was a simple but sturdy affair carved of a dark-grained wood. It was well-worn and had a feeling of age and antiquity about it, in similar fashion to everything else in the empty city, but it was clean and serviceable, as were the chairs and the bed. The mattress seemed to be simple animal furs laid over some sort of grasses.
The woman in the raven-feather cloak interrupted Morgan’s stares with a chuckle as she clucked her tongue and spoke. “You tarry when you should not, then rush right to rude questions when hospitality has been offered. Are the old ways truly lost in Breton?”
Suitably chastised, Morgan took a seat once the woman nodded and gestured at a chair. “I’m sorry, but who--” The rest of her sentence died as the woman held up a single bony finger with an irritated look. A magic far too complex for the younger woman’s understanding simply halted the words in her mouth.
“Names have power,” she said, her quiet voice filling the sudden silence. “Do not give yours away so freely. It be certainly rude to ask of mine, before even common courtesy be met.”
A hand passed over both cups left the water steaming hot, then the woman opened a small wooden box and dropped a pinch of what looked like crushed herbs into the liquid. “This is my home,” she said, “and even if the old ways are forgotten in your world, they will be respected in this place as long as I yet live.”
The enigmatic hostess turned away from Morgan to open a standing cupboard in one corner of the room. The inner sides of its compartment glowed with runes holding both Frost Mana and another type that Morgan could not identify, but whose purpose was soon revealed as the woman removed a cloth covered basket and placed it on the table. Another wave of the woman’s hand and delicious scented steam rose from the cloth. The witch pulled back the cloth cover to reveal golden-brown baked rolls of some sort.
The woman sat across from Morgan before continuing. “Eat, drink, and be safe at my hearth, girl. But mind your manners, or be tossed outside where we can resume our first conversation.”
The naked woman found herself once again able to speak, and she eyed the delicious looking bread with eager eyes as the other woman nodded and nibbled on one herself.
“I- uh, thank you…”
“One can learn, it seems. This is most pleasing.”
The warm drink gave off a minty scent and had a similar flavor as Morgan sipped the brew and chewed on a piece of bread. The bread itself was soft and fluffy and the tastiest thing she had experienced since arriving in this world. She ate three more of the delicious rolls; her hostess, two, both chewing with alacrity as if eager to be on the other side of the food. She turned down a fifth treat with a shake of her head and a murmured “Thank you.”
As the woman put the basket back in the cold-enchanted cabinet, Morgan had begun to let Lulu clean the sweet and sticky residue off her fingers. The witch gazed at the pair with curiosity as she sat back down across the table from the young sorceress and her pet.
“So that puffball has uses other than defending you in battle, I see.”
“Oh yes,” replied Morgan. “She cleans anything that’s dirty, whether that’s me or things around me. It seems to be her favorite thing to do, even.”
“Hah, what I wouldn’t give for one of my own then. Are there any more?”
“Well, she was the only one at first, she came alive the night I landed in the tree-”
The woman interrupted her then. “I saw the purple fire light the sky all the way from here. I knew I smelled the fruit of the Tree of Life and Magic in your blood. Amazing that you survived. Or maybe not so amazing...one other ate of the fruit and lived, long ago.”
“You mean the churples?” The confused expression on her conversational partner's face prompted Morgan to elaborate. "I didn't know what to call them, but they looked like something part cherry, and part apple, but purple like a grape. So I called it a churple!”
Her hostess scoffed at that. “Ignorance spawning humor? You certainly are an entertaining one! How many bites did you get down your gullet before the life-fire took you? Kings have been ransomed for a mere drop of the juice…”
Morgan blushed with sudden embarrassment. “Uh, um. I had just taken a skill that burned up all my body’s reserves, and I was starving. I ate the whole thing as fast as I could... and passed out.”
The woman’s face went entirely blank for several long moments save for a single twitching eyebrow. “Were I not able to tell a lie by the hearing of it, I wouldst kill ye for telling one. But you could not have known what you were so gluttonously feasting upon, and I think ye too stupid to make up such a telling.”
“I’ve done a lot of stupid since I got here. I don’t know anything! I’m just trying to stay alive and learn magic so I can find a way home!”
For the very first time, the woman’s face looked shocked. “What do ye mean learn magic? Did the blood not light the way long before ye came to be here in The Wildlands? You be of my line after all; the blood cannot lie. Ye should have been learning the Old Magics before ye first bled to become a woman!”
“What!? Old Magics!? Earth has no magic, it's just old fairy tales and-”
Her exclamation was cut off as the other woman jerked back to her feet with a snarling hiss and seethed, “What do you mean no magic!?!? There was always magic! Ye think I gained my power here?”
“There’s no magic I know of on Earth!” Morgan blurted out, leaning away from the other woman as her [Primal Instinct] slammed the sense of sudden danger into her mind with such power she barely kept herself from curling into a ball and weeping.
“Did the Romans slay our gods, then!?” The rage and grief and shock radiating from the witch was palpable. “We fought them off, were pushing them out of the old lands, until Gywin Hywar showed his traitorous nature at Camlann and we had to flee. The fool, always wanted the Sword. But the Knights…”
“I don’t know much history that far back. I’m not even from England, or Britannia or whatever you called it.” Morgan managed to sit back up as the witch made a clear effort to calm herself. “I’m from a place called America, across the ocean from there, practically on the other side of the world. My parents always said we were pagans or something like that, but we never worshiped any actual gods or anything.”
“So who is King in your lands, then? Does no one remember Pendragon, the High King and his Lady Guinevere?”
Morgan’s jaw dropped in shock. “No. Fucking. Way. King Arthur!? That High King? Excalibur, the Sword in the Stone and all those myths? I’m not sure- no, I know I must be dreaming now. I’m stuck asleep or some shit like that.”
The old witch burst out laughing. “Deny or not, the blood marks ye true. Three bastard whelps I left, with three different childless wives. T’was long before we came here, my King and I, and his Lady. My blood in thine own veins, lit aflame by the Life-Fire of the Fruit of the Tree. Believe as ye will, but ye stand near the heart of High Avalon, granddaughter mine.”
Power rippled out from the witch as she spoke, an assertion upon reality by an ancient will that gelled the air and silenced echoes as she spoke again, transfixing Morgan with a burning gaze:
“I am Moghren, of Clan Le Fay, daughter of Myrrdin himself. The power of my blood burns in thy veins, and it will not be denied.”