An unrelenting wind billowed.
Pressing against us as we transitioned between worlds was a gale that seemed determined to rebuke us. It denied us our sight and stalled our breath that should have no longer been necessary to live. I feared we would be swept up in it if not for the firm grasp that held us along the way.
“I didn’t expect the transition to be this rough.” Elsa’s granular voice reached us over the howl of the wind. It carried the same maternal tenor as expected while she pulled us along. “The pressure difference of mana will even out in a bit, so bear with it you two.”
Ah, that would explain it. The mana in the sanctuary before had been so thick that I would have died via poisoning in mere moments. Such was the density of the concentration. The opening between the two worlds gave it a chance to flood out to the side with a lower concentration and we were caught in the flood.
The last time we had been pulled in without our consent. But that could have been the doing of the Higher Fire Spirit’s mote that we followed, the abnormal circumstances, or even the difference in the gateways. This time Elsa was pulling us through with the familiarity of one who acted as the gatekeeper, possibly softening it somehow or shielding us from the bulk of it.
The rushing torrent kept washing against us for what seemed to be an unknown stretch of time. It could have been minutes to mere seconds. Eventually, we felt as though we were pulled through a membrane of some kind and that pressure died down.
And we opened our eyes to a new world.
The forest clearing and its confines were no more. Gone were the deep viridian hues of the foliage. The curtain above that mottled the light of the sun was absent.
There was tall grass all around us instead, thin stalks that rose to our knees in thick bundles with slouching seed heads. There were tightly packed bushes scattered around, flowering but woody plants that rose to the height of our chest and had different hues woven into the greenery. There were distant trees that formed a row, smooth bark with phyllodes forming the canopy body as if to mark a boundary.
Then the wind blew. It was a harsh and wild wind that left the grass swaying at its motion while the bushes only slightly rusted despite its harshness. Strange.
<It feels really nice here.>
I imagine that’s because the mana here is aspected heavily towards your primary element, I noted while stepping off the gateway stone. It had gone inactive now that we had finished our passage into the Spirit Sanctuary. We should be able to leave the same way we came since the mana concentration was higher on this side.
Through the senses that Aeria and I shared, I felt cradled in the comforting atmosphere. It felt soothing. Calming. Were you uncomfortable on the other side?
<It feels nicer here than there, but I don’t dislike it or anything.>
Elsa looked to us and asked, “How does the sky look to you two? Does it seem turbulent? Or the concentration of ozone seems higher than normal? That’s a sign the Storm Spirit is around.”
I looked up to the sky and saw the different colors that made up the wind moving about and shifting without any signs of abnormality. The formation of storm clouds or anything that would indicate the presence of the Storm Spirit she mentioned were absent as well. It was a very clear day, with scant few clouds. “Nothing seems amiss above us.”
<It doesn’t seem too funny to me.>
“Then we’re in luck for now.” Elsa gestured to the grass around us before it began to lengthen and crawl up her constructed body, weaving itself together into something akin to a dress. Her dominion at work, though I failed to see the reason beyond modesty. “The ruins we’re going to are beyond the forest you see ahead of us. We’ll need to be careful of any monsters that we encounter since we don’t want to stress your membrane.”
I couldn’t say that estimating distances based on sight was my strongest point. But it was relatively far by all accounts. Then Elsa proceeded to move forward with a deceptive amount of speed. I hurried after her, following in her trail… far more quickly than I thought was feasible.
So much so that it seemed almost as if the landscape around us was zipping by. It seems the enhanced physiology of the spirit symbiosis was making it so that air resistance wasn’t hindering me. The burning in my lungs and limbs that would normally follow such exertion were far-off and barely notable. There was no perspiration or strenuous exhalation and I felt lighter than normal.
Like the wind itself running across the flatlands.
We continued our trek until Elsa abruptly came to a stop midway and held out her arms to signal for us to do so as well. We went from moving at our full speed to an abrupt stop, an act that caused the wind around us to carry on as if we had been dragging it with us. The moment it rolled past us and washed over the grass ahead of us to expose what was there, I spotted why Elsa had stopped us as she lengthened her fibrous digits into the ground.
Wolves had been lying in wait. Not just any wolves, but a monstrous breed that I recognized from my studies: Dire Wolves.
Predators of plainlands. Covered in bristle fur a deep shade of grey, easily thrice the size and mass of a regular wolf, sporting sharper claws that could gouge stone and fangs capable of crushing steel. They were also capable of herding normal wolves into a pack that obeyed similar to how the monstrous fly had commanded the insects.
For a monstrous breed, they were few in the region since they had been essentially driven to endangerment. The kingdom had a vested interest in protecting the towns and cities to collect taxes from, and so they had made an active effort to cull their numbers. It seemed that they were alive and numerous on this side of the gateway, however.
The grass surrounding them came to life just as our gazes met and they realized their ambush was foiled. Lengthening as they coiled around the monstrous canines, turning into fetters and muzzles, Elsa shackled the wolves. Their elongated claws tore into the dirt and harsh rumbles emerged from their throats as they tried to break free, but more grass replaced what was torn to overwhelm them.
“Sweetie, one escaped!” Elsa called out as the verdure gown she wove for herself bristled as if it were also alive. “Protect yourselves for a few seconds!”
The warning left my eyes to scour the grassland to no avail when I felt a sudden jerk that threw me to the side in an uncanny motion. The lightness of my body took away the usual sense of gravity so I couldn’t coordinate myself well. But it seemed the motion saved me as the Dire Wolf that escaped the failed ambush tore out a gouge of grass and soil where we had been.
<Sorry! I felt the air moving and got scared! I’ll stop it this time!>
I felt a tug in my stomach. Then I noticed the hue of the air around us shifting as it formed invisible shackles around the monstrous wolf. But it escaped by simply rushing forward before it could be locked into place, fangs bared and lunging for my throat. Thankfully, I felt as Aeria started jerking our gestalt form and went along with it, bounding further out as the wind pushed us along.
It’s too fast for you to lock it down like that, I briefed her as I drew the knife my cousin gifted me. It was fast enough that only distance and Aeria’s preternatural ability to sense the shifting air alerted us to the danger. Wait for it to approach us again and make the air around us as dense as you can as quickly as you can.
The tug from before was accompanied by the color from before bleeding out of our gestalt form. It must have been Aeria’s dominion taking hold of the nearby air, saturating the surroundings with her intention. I felt the change happen around us the moment the Dire Wolf charged, the air being transmogrified so that its lunge left it slowed as though caught in molasses.
I rushed in with the knife in my hand. The wind doesn’t slow us in this state. Especially not when it’s her magic at work. The freedom of movement allowed me to cover the distance and I aimed to drive it into its throat—
—birthing a cross between a whimper and a snarl as I plunged the knife into where I believed its jugular was in canine creatures and through its windpipe. It should have guaranteed death for the creature. But then there was a sharp, red hot flash of pain as its body jerked in pain and its claws found my shoulder. “Nnnghh!”
Reflex kicked in. I put distance between ourselves and it, the knife wedged in the Dire Wolf’s throat as the air returned to normal. The monster got back to its feet and shook viciously as it tried to remove the blade, only for the grass to take hold of its limbs to hold it steady. Then Elsa’s sinuous appendages lunged forward while covered in foliage that had been hardened to form claws.
It was an instant kill. They speared into its eyes and ears while it was forced to the ground, the body jerking a few more times uncontrollably before going still. Then the earth opened up to devour it and Elsa’s digits broke off, one of them wrapping around the handle of my knife and retrieving it as she hurried over to us. “Sweetie, let me see your wound!”
I pulled away the hand holding the place where it cleaved into us, expecting blood to flow and red to stain the green hue. But instead of torn flesh and red blood, there was instead a bright green sea of viridian. It seeped out motes of light until the wound hurriedly sealed itself closed and the pain vanished.
“Good. The damage wasn’t bad enough for the membrane to be torn severely. No chance of a cascading failure either. How are you both feeling?”
I tested the limb and found nothing amiss. It wouldn’t have been strange for an injury that severe to have caused profuse blood loss and immense pain. I could even feel it slip past the muscle and scrape the bone, yet the pain felt muted by all accounts. At least from my perspective.
It seemed Aeria did not share the same sentiment. <That really hurt!>
“Your current state balances both of you evenly, meaning you’ll feel about half of the pain Kowler would when the membrane gets damaged. But, in exchange, he can patch himself up just as quickly so long as it’s not a containment failure rather than bleeding out. But remember that repairing itself draws from your reserves, as does using your dominion. Now we need to keep moving just in case the Storm Spirit noticed.”
<Why did they even attack us in the first place?>
“You’re dragging the wind along with you when you run at full speed. Those monsters hunt the Tershrews and Jackalopes that are native to these grasslands and all the movement is scaring them off. It doesn’t take much to set off the monstrous species here and so they tend to attack the cause of whatever aggravates them—spirit or not.”
Jackalopes were a monstrous breed of hares. Not overtly hostile given they were herbivores and so they did not need to compete for food severely and thus preferred to scatter rather than fight to the death. But, if they were cornered, they would attempt to wedge their horns into the body of any predator that attempted to devour them as a last resort.
Tershrews were a breed of moles. They were considered pests on farmlands because they tended to have the capacity to shift modest qualities of earth in their search for insects, which naturally disturbed the crops being grown. Their claws were also fairly sharp and livestock that happened to get too close to a mound while grazing may be torn into by them on accident.
Even though they were classed as a breed of monster due to being larger than their mundane counterparts and inherent magical ability, they weren’t overly aggressive. The instincts of a prey animal were still within them, even if they could fight back far more effectively. Hearing so much of the grass rustle at once would cause them to bury themselves into the ground or flee to escape the potential danger.
The predators hunting them would either need to wait for us to pass or remove the cause of the abnormality. Since there was no guarantee that a wind spirit would move on from their hunting grounds at a reasonable time frame, and since predatory monstrous species tend to have some measure of heightened aggression, it was natural they would attempt to scatter the wind spirits. It would take time for them to reform so the grasslands would be quieted, and they could hunt unabated.
“I don’t think Aeria can’t control that aspect of her nature,” I vouched on her behalf. It was similar to how the mist constantly flowed down her back regardless of whether she wished it to or not. It was something that had to just be worked around rather than changed.
“I know.” Elsa assured us. “The only way to suppress it would mean letting your presence assert itself to the point where you may as well not be transformed at all, which is out of the question in a place this dangerous. Not to mention it would slow us down and if we linger too long a Dualis or the Storm Spirit might take notice of us out in the open, which is why we need to get to the forests—I can only do so much in this terrain and might not be able to protect you out here.”
<What’s a Dualis?>
“It’s a very big, very aggressive, very territorial apex predator of this region. They’re carnivores that hunt Dire Wolves and other monstrous species, which should give you a solid idea of just what kind of threat they are. And then they can strengthen themselves further using their inherent magic, even though the act of doing so will exhaust them to the point of collapsing.”
Anything large enough to hunt a Dire Wolf would likely need to be the size of a bear. It would also need to have hide thick enough to resist those claws that tore into us so easily. Adding those facts to the notion of strengthening itself via mana consumption, it could very easily kill us if we ran afoul of it.
“Needless to say, they are one of the many reasons I really didn’t want you two to come here. Especially not on your own. Things that were hunted into near-extinction or driven away from civilized places on the other side are still lurking about freely here. This place is not suitable for humans on their own, so stay close to me.”
As she began to venture ahead once more, parting the grass in the process, I couldn’t help but agree with her assessment. Not only was the fauna vicious due to evolving in such a mana-rich environment, which could easily overpower and kill humans, but the flora itself would be difficult to traverse. If not for the fact that Elsa consistently cleared a path with us and the hybrid state that I was in, I doubt I would have made it this far.
I suppose in a way this was representative of the world before the current era—during the age where humans and spirits lived in harmony. The spirits provided their aid and so man became able to build civilization after fending off the threats to them, while we aided them in dealing with their own perils according to the spirit within Alice. Yet…
At the same time, I think I can understand why things shifted to their current state a little better.