We had already criss-crossed the frontier forest itself as a pair, since the likeliest location of the danger was the nearest reaches of the wilderness. Having found nothing, we were tackling the larger region of the Highlands themselves. I flew beyond the hummock-broken sea of trees into the craggy hills westward, while Dilorè flew east.
The crags below had dense tree cover wherever they didn’t have nearly vertical cliff faces or rocky peaks. Small brooks weaved through the region, usually at the bottom of deep gorges, but nothing like a navigable river existed anywhere. And certainly no roads penetrated the murky forests and rocky peaks.
As I flew, I sensed many dangerous things within those trees, including creatures that could shield themselves from my senses well enough I could only vaguely locate them, and could not identify them. A few of them had been incredibly powerful. I had simply marked them in my mental notes and kept flying. While they were certainly powerful monsters, they didn’t seem powerful enough to be the threat that could make thousands of people vanish without a trace.
Yes, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I just knew it was worse than chimeras or trolls.
Despite the bright skies behind us, even the air had become dense, with fog rising from the treetops. That was due to the many mana springs scattered through this upland. Stray Water and Darkness mana gushing forth from them, if it had no local water-borne life to enhance, would condense in the air, darkening the forests. The Light, Fire, Wind and Aether that might have balanced it instead found flora and fauna to enhance, while the Earth absorbed into the denizens of the rocks and dirt. The result was mist and vapor constantly rising into the sky above the hills.
This is an immense wilderness, My Lady, Durandal warned. And full of terrible hazards. You should keep your cloak up if you can.
I shall, I promised.
I had tons of Darkness mana crammed into my core. I was far better prepared for it than I had been, back in Copen. In order to take advantage of my much-expanded core, I had found the deepest shadows I could find, to soak in hours of it. I had also spent brightly sunlit hours in the air, sucking up Light mana and Wind mana, and hours underwater, sucking in Water. While we were still in Ilim Below, I had also spent time in the entrance tunnel, sucking in Earth.
I was prepared for everything. I still needed to load up more Aether and Fire, but I was grabbing as much as I could, whenever a good source showed up.
An immense wilderness indeed. Despite being merely a northern extension of the Duchy of Pendor, it was large enough to be a county in its own right.
Although this was my first visit to my ‘homeland’ of Pendor, I– or rather, Tiana– had studied Pendor’s geography almost from birth.
A dukedom ruling a largely autonomous state is far too important a post to leave to just any caretaker. A marquess or count can only have barons as vassals. Other than the king himself, only dukes can have counts or viscounts as vassals. If Mother had to leave her position due to whatever unknown circumstance before her heir was old enough to take over, Tiana would have been the natural choice as regent, so her tutors had vigorously prepared her for the role.
Thus, I arrived here already aware of this place, since it was so remarkable in its own bizarre way, as the largest territory under the supervision of a mere viscount anywhere in the Kingdom of Orestania.
It was bizarre in itself that a little town like Oseri, probably holding only a few thousand inhabitants, even had a viscount. Such town would normally be a minor farming center, governed for a nearby baron by one of his bailiffs. The reason for the viscountcy was the sprawling wilderness I now flew above.
Lord Oseri received a royal subsidy from Mother to defend the surrounding farming country from the wild denizens of that wilderness, and his title of viscount recognized the importance of that defense, as well recognizing that, if he succeeded expertly enough, he would make his territory grow in population, becoming worthy of the title of viscount, or perhaps of count or even marquess. He only had to earn it.
He could do that if he found a means to exploit the resources of the broad Highlands, such as safely establishing mining or logging settlements.
In terms of land area, a marquessate wasn’t unreasonable. After all, his viscounty was larger than any county in Pendor, since it technically included the southern half of the Oserian Highlands. If he became a marquess, he would become independent of the Duchy and at that time he would probably receive the royal wild lands to his north, outside Pendor’s borders, as a result, just as East Pendor and Lower Pendor did, centuries ago. Their lords had fallen in rank since, becoming counts, but their ancestors had left my father’s duchy as marquesses.
Quite a lot of room for growth for a mere viscount. I hoped he was still alive to pursue it.
I wonder if the old Oser tribe left anything behind here, Durandal pondered, having his mind on a completely different subject.
It was difficult to imagine any sort of tribe in this place.
Is this Oser Tribe from your old days? I asked. Durandal was farther out of place in time than Diurhimath. Diur had missed the last three thousand years, but Durandal had missed four. The demonic [Cursed Blade] magic had driven him mad during the foundation of the Great Demonic Empire.
They are, indeed, My Lady, he agreed. They were a proud and dangerous clan that hid in these hills. They resisted the demons, surviving by raiding into demonic territory. Mizky and I lived with them for a time. Nobody else could negotiate these wilds like the Oser, not even demons.
Mizky was the warrior who had been carrying Durandal when he became cursed.
It’s hard to imagine anything mortal surviving four thousand years, I noted.
They are clearly remembered, Durandal pointed out. The town behind us wears their name.
That is amazing, after four thousand years, I agreed. And the name does seem too similar to be a coincidence, after all.
I said that, but there was a capital called ‘Camulodunum’ in Roman Britain that had absolutely no relationship to the ‘Camelot’ of Arthurian legend, despite the resemblance. But for all Tiana’s education, I have no idea where the names ‘Oseri’ and ‘Oserian Highlands’ come from, so I couldn’t say for sure whether or not it was this clan that Durandal remembered.
Lucy spoke up at this time. “Dilorè call!”
She and I had yet to master the spirit communication I could perform with Durandal. We were working on it.
“What is it, My Lady?” I asked.
“This tower I’ve found is quite fascinating,” Dilorè answered. “You should come see it, Your Highness.”
I frowned. “Could you be more specific? Fascinating how? What have you found there?”
“I’m entering it now,” she replied. “Come over here quick and join me. It’s on a great hilltop northeast of the town, about a thousand paces above sea level. It stands out quite prominently.”
“Entering it?” I yelped. “Dilorè, what is so fascinating that you need to spend time exploring a building?”
No answer came from her, to my alarm.
I had a rough idea where she was. At least, we had agreed to a pattern and we hadn’t yet deviated from it, so I could guess roughly. I abandoned my search and turned that direction. As I flew, I poured additional Darkness into my Cloak.
“Lucy?” I asked, stroking the spirit stone. “Can you sense where Dilorè’s contracted spirit is?”
“Closer!” she replied, which I think was supposed to mean, ‘we need to get closer’.
Then, after about another mile, she declared, “Go look!” and her little illusory image took off like a bullet, slightly north of the direction I was flying.
I turned that way, flying after ‘her’. The main body was actually still in my spirit stone. Lucy’s visual form is only a piece of her whole being. I have no idea how far she can fly away from her stone, but it isn’t infinite. So, I guessed her sudden act, just now, meant she had sensed Dilorè or her contracted spirit and it was within range for her to send her avatar to check.
My eyesight couldn’t penetrate the fog as far as where Lucy had flown, but I remembered Dilorè’s comment about the altitude and rose up, to get above the fog bank. The moment I did, I saw an eerie form rising out of the cloudy sea of mist.
Rather than a tower, it was a ruin, the base of a round tower, built of hewn greenish stone like pale jade. Just as Dilorè had said, it lay perched on top of a high bluff just barely protruding from the fog. On the high side, it rose thirty paces from its foot, but it had broken in a diagonal, and rose barely ten paces tall on the opposing side. Since it was more than thirty paces wide at the base, it might have risen far higher than its current size when whole.
Perhaps the remainder of the building lay scattered downhill on the low side, but if it was there, it was long buried under the dense tangle of plant life covering the hill.
Do you happen to recognize this place, Old Man? I wondered.
This part was taboo to the Oser, My Lady, he answered. They would not come here, nor would they talk about it.
I let out a low mutter of frustration in response and gave up on asking, but Durandal volunteered more.
It looks somewhat like ruins of the Ancient Fairy Age, My Lady. They can be found elsewhere in these hills.
I blinked in surprise at the term that had just appeared. ‘Ancient Fairy Age’, to the historians of Huade, referred to anything from before the so-called ‘Heroic Age’ that they roughly dated beginning eight thousand years ago. ‘Ancient Fairy Ruins’ are rarely more than a few unearthed stones or bricks carved with half-legible characters.
According to Tiana’s history tutor, the term didn’t necessarily mean that fairies ran things back then. It just meant that the places fairies built tended to be the only remains that scholars could still find. Based upon the legends and stories, mortal races had lived well at the time, until resurgences of demons ended the peaceful age and the first heroes began appearing in order to oppose them.
But as long-lasting as those ruins were, they were never this large.
Are ruins of the Ancient Fairy Age usually this big around here?
There are many that were around back then. Whether they still survive, I do not know.
That was a good point. Quite a bit survived from four thousand years ago in the present age. Eight-thousand-year-old ruins today would have been only four thousand years old at the time Durandal was remembering.
My philosophizing on the topic abruptly ended as Lucy’s little avatar came streaking back toward us as fast as she had left. If she had been any slower, I might have dodged out of reflex, but I didn’t, and she streaked like a bullet, straight into the stone.
In retrospect, I should have wondered how she found me, through Vampire Cloak. Of course, in retrospect I have the leisure to realize that her main body was in the stone, and only a fragment of her being was in the avatar. Cloak or no Cloak, she knew where she herself was.
“Lucy?” I asked, shocked.
“No!” she snapped without appearing.
“Lucy, what’s wrong?”
Was that the Imperative mood, or just a standard one-word Lucy-speak sentence? I couldn’t be sure.
She seems to be quite frightened, My Lady, Durandal observed.
“Lucy, did you find Lady Dilorè?”
“Find!” she declared. “Inside!”
Although I was about to ask more, I had to drop it as a massive wave of Wind mana rushed at me from the direction of the tower. It had the feeling of a massive hand, reaching out to grab me. It was following exactly the path that Lucy had flown.