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The Emerald Queen
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Chapter II >

Book Two:
The Emerald Queen
Part One - The Crown of the Earth

Chapter I

Twelve hours after I’d accepted an invitation from Fang the murloc and Katy M the bull to join the Order of Sarvavidh, to become an immortal agent of the powerful and secretive Law, I found myself on the back of a mythical beast, flying a thousand feet above lands that no one dared travel, on my way to visit a race of beings which had disappeared from the world centuries before. A week, or a year, or a decade earlier, it would have all been too big a shock, too much to take. But Katy M was seven hundred years old, and Fang the Tooth of Far Far Away had been watching in at the window since before I’d been born, and black-clad assassins thought I was important enough to assassinate, and the Scourge Lord Varimathras, who had been locked safely away from the world for six centuries, was back: and I’d stood up to him at the top of an impossibly high crystal spike in the frozen northlands of the world and my voice, guided by the mind of another, had declared that I would be his downfall. So I took it fairly well in stride when M told me to hop on the back of a hippogryph so we could fly off to see the night-elves.

Katy M, trailed by my orange tabby Ajax, had followed the bottom of the rust-colored cliff to the north, walking for a quarter of an hour without looking back or saying where we were going. Then she fell to all fours and in the blink of an eye she was a cat: a lithe, black-furred panther, and she turned and disappeared into a steep ravine that cut into the cliff. Ajax turned and looked expectantly at me.

When I’d been a young calf, I’d taken a trip with my father. We’d gone east and then north, to a small town along the edge of the hills to the west of Crossroads. It had been for something – it hadn’t been of the world that matters to a calf of that age, and I didn’t remember – but the sights and sounds and smells had been wondrous to me, and the most wondrous of all had been the prides of lions lying in the sun: Their magnificent manes and lithe way their tawny bodies cut silently through the tawny grass captivated me. Then I’d watched them stalk and kill a striped zhevra, and although I’d cried and cried, when my mentor Hokato had told me to choose from among the stealthy animals of the world years later, I’d passed on the cougars that crept through the green grasses of my homeland and chosen to turn into a lion. My poor, horned approximation had left me burning with frustration, but, Of course I couldn’t turn properly into a lion, I thought now. By then, I hadn’t seen one in years.

I squeezed my eyes shut, playing my mind across every inch of my body, feeling how it lay and forcing it into its new shape. A moment later, I stood on all fours, a horned lion, my mane scruffy and not at all magnificent.

The ravine was steep and rocky, and M had climbed nearly straight up. I leapt as lightly as I could, following her from outcrop to rocky outcrop, panting and trying to brush rock dust out of my eyes. Ajax bounded from rock to rock below me, pausing from time to time to sniff at something, but keeping pace.

I clambered past a protruding vein of blue-green rock, and as the ravine grew nearly too steep for me, M poked her white, horned head back over the edge of the cliff, a bull again. I let out a frustrated yowl, scraping my claws against steep rock.

“You can do it,” replied M.

Then Ajax bounded past me. Wretched showoff, I thought.

I struggled up over the ledge, my paws bleeding and sore. It was merely a nook, a small flat area surrounded by another cliff, this one only twice my height. To my right was the wide opening of a dark cave, invisible from below. Standing on the stones above it was M, watching me calmly, Ajax perched on her shoulder.

It was an easier climb, and a minute later I joined her. Ajax leapt off of M, and I shifted back into a bull and picked him up. I was winded.

Thirty feet away along the top of the cliff, I could make out a traditional tauren hut with a blackened fire ring in front in the moonlight. Behind it was an ancient, scraggly tree, the kind that grew to the east. Behind that, the ground was flat and dusty, and then it disappeared. The darkened plains of Mulgore stretched beyond, a distant home’s electric light twinkling in the mist. This place is calm, I thought, and at peace with itself. Are we all bulls and cows that live here? Isn’t that an argument in favor of…

“The hut’s yours tonight,” M was saying. “This job you’ve accepted keeps strange hours, and you’re not used to them yet.”

“I’m not used to climbing cliffs yet, either,” I grunted, rubbing my sore hands.

“I knew you could do it anyway,” replied M gruffly.

“Was it a test?” I replied, with half-mock indignation.

“The first of many,” she replied. “Are you ready?” she said suddenly, keenly, with a new tone in her voice. I felt like she was on-script again.

“Ready?” I laughed. Then I laughed again, harsher, and said, “For what? No,” and suddenly I was on the verge of tears. “No, I’m not ready, and I have no idea what I need to do or why or how hard it’s going to be. Maybe the Law chose wrong, maybe it chose the wrong bull and I’m going to screw everything up and Varimathras will win!” I was shouting now, without quite meaning to. “What do you mean, can you possibly mean, am I ready?” I stopped, catching my breath, staring at the serene bull. I could feel a spark of desperation in my soul.

“I mean,” M replied gently, formally, “are you ready to do what is asked of you, fully in the knowledge that no matter how hard it might be, it wouldn’t have been asked of you if you couldn’t do it?”

I inhaled. “Wow,” I said. Her simple words had effortlessly lifted a tremendous weight off my shoulders. “Yeah, I guess I am.”

“That’s better,” said the bull, and the shadow of a smile passed over her face.

I looked at M piercingly. “You knew that was what I needed to hear, didn’t you?”

“Mm,” she replied. “The Law knew, at least. You should get some rest. You’ve got a long day tomorrow, and the next day, and all the days after that for some time to come. The Law asks a lot,” and for the last few words she was off-script again: she had spoken them with a heaviness that told of experience.

So, with the terrible specter of inadequacy lifted, the day’s long string of revelations suddenly caught up with me. The Law wants me, I thought, and for whatever it’s worth, M believes that it’s right to. Agents are centuries old. M is centuries old. She’s—

“You’re my great aunt,” I said, and shook my head. “That’s such a small thing, compared to the others, but I can’t get over it.”

“You know,” she replied, “that’s not really as important as it sounds. We came from the same town, and over the course of seven hundred years, everyone gets related to everyone, as little as anyone wants to think about it quite like that.”

“Right,” I said. “Fang said something about that. So I don’t have so much of your strength and druidic powers flowing in my blood?”

“You won’t need to,” she said. “You’ll have your own druidic powers, soon enough.”

At that, my eyes lit up and a powerful joy coursed through me. Growing up, I’d watched Hokato and the two other druids in Mulgore from a distance, I’d yearned powerfully for their powers, for their wisdom. When the Archdruid Hokato Runetotem, a friend of my father’s, had selected me for training, it had been the happiest day of my young life. When I’d run away from home, full of adolescent angst and rage, I had told myself that I’d never wanted any of it – but it had been a lie, and now, having cried my tragic folly out onto the green plains of Mulgore, I could dream again.

“Blood doesn’t really work like that, anyway,” M was saying. “Just brings air to your muscles. Now please, for your own good, get some sleep!”

* * *

Curled up on the worn cougar- and wolf-furs which covered the floor of the hut, Ajax fell asleep instantly, but I tossed and turned, excited and overwhelmed, for a long stretch of darkness.

Then I closed my eyes: And I was standing in a fog of nourishing water, and a mist rained down on me and although my hoof-roots could find no purchase in the slick, barren rocks on which I stood, the rain kept them moist, and I would not wither and die.

“You have spent ten long years wandering the world,” said a voice, thin but powerful, “wandering lost and looking for a place to put down your roots. But your roots will not grow in foreign soil, and nothing can anchor you,” and the slick, rocky ground disappeared, and I floated through the enveloping mist.

“You sought a berth, but what you have found,” and I flew out of the mist, “is a path,” although the warm rain still fell. “Now it is laid before you.”

And the path led over the hills and mountains and through rocky, fiery, terrible places, but beyond them, still beyond the horizon, was a faint, cool, soothing blue glow, and although it lay beyond the most terrible trial that I could imagine, it was everything that I’d ever wanted.

And a giant with fire for skin – Varimathras? Some nightmare vision of the power he would achieve? – reared up out of the dark mountains and struck me from the sky with his great, broken sword—

I jerked awake, my heart pounding in my ears. In the darkness at the arched doorway of the hut stood the great golden-eyed raven that had brought me my evil dream the night I’d run away from home, so many years ago. The dreams had come again from time to time, and always in them I’d futilely tried to put my roots down into dry, poisoned land, and as often as not, the raven had been there, staring, blinking at me when I’d awoken. “What are you?” I hissed, torn now between terror at this twilight apparition, and that kind of righteous anger that rears its head to cover for you when you’re terrified. I swung a fist at it, and it skipped backwards into the darkness. Then, blinking at me, it leaped into the night air and winged off.

* * *

The next morning, a sudden, loud thump and scuffling awoke me. I sat bolt upright, and ran out of the hut. M stood nearby, under the scraggly tree, and on the dusty flat beyond pranced a beast the likes of which I had only ever heard about in myths, in stories of the great dark northern mountains of Kali: four legs, with horse-hooves in the back and great bird-claws in the front – a body like a horse and a head like some graceful, dark-feathered bird of prey, with a long, dangerous black beak and black antlers like a stag. Its feathers shimmered in the morning light, orange and dark green and iridescent purple. Its eyes glowed a regal, magical yellow, and as I joined M beneath the tree, it cantered gracefully toward us. It was enormous. “What is it?” I breathed.

“He,” she replied, “is a hippogryph, and his name is Tamilin.”

“Wow,” I said, as the creature came to a stop in front of M. “Hippogryph. I’ve heard of them, but I didn’t think they were real. He looks kinda weird.”

M suppressed a smile. The hippogryph turned his dark head towards me and narrowed his glowing eyes. “You’re a cow with thumbs,” he said. “You should talk.”

“Ohh,” I said, and my nose burned red with embarrassment. “I’m really sorry.” How was I supposed to know the thing could talk? “I meant, weird in a good way,” I stammered.

The hippogryph tossed his head and screeched in what I thought was laughter at my discomfiture. “I assume you meant weird in the staggeringly majestic way, so we’re cool,” he said. I smiled uncertainly. His voice was like an eagle’s as well, piercing – but deep, and it had an easy lilt that seemed strangely out of place.

M turned to me. “Go pack your cat,” she said. “We’re going for a ride.”

I crated Ajax, shouldered my pack and returned to the tree. M had tossed a dead rabbit to Tamilin, and was tending quickly and skillfully to one of his front claws. “Thanks,” he said as she stood back up. “That’s been bugging me for weeks.”

She nodded. “Thank you,” she replied, “for coming. It would not be a pleasant trip by foot.”

“Yeah, no problem,” he said, and the fleshy edges of his beak turned up in what was clearly a smile. “I owe you from the time with the thing.”

M bowed at the neck.

“Well,” said the hippogryph, “if you want to see any of the north by daylight, we should head out.”

M nodded and turned to me. “You’ll be sitting in front.”

“Where are we going?” I said as I climbed onto Tamilin’s back. His feathers were as long as my forearm, and I settled in carefully to avoid bending any.

M climbed up behind me, and Tamilin flexed his wings majestically. “You want to be a druid, right?” she growled.

I nodded, though the dream had returned to me too recently to find words.

“So we’re going to get you some druid training,” she growled. “From the only place that can do it properly.”

Without warning, Tamilin charged forward, hooves and claws pounding at the dusty ground and then suddenly we soared out a hundred feet over the green plains. My stomachs dropped. A wide grin split Katy M’s face. I squeezed my eyes shut and gripped Tamilin’s neck as tightly as I could.

“Easy back there,” called the bird. “I won’t drop you!”

After a moment of centering myself, I called, “Where’s the only place that’ll do it properly?” My eyes were still squeezed shut.

“M, your friend asks a lot of questions,” said the bird as we veered suddenly about and soared north towards the distant ranks of mountains which marked the northern border of Mulgore. I gulped.

“He does indeed,” M cried.

“You gonna tell him?” called the bird.

“Yes!” I yelled crossly.

M laughed. “We’re going north,” she cried into the wind, sounding, for the first time since I’d met her, genuinely happy. “We’re going north,” she cried, “and we’re going to see the night-elves!”

The night-elves, I thought. Who no one has seen hide nor hair of for hundreds and hundreds of years. And me and an immortal bull and a talking hippogryph are going to go drop in on them for tea. I laughed, and decided suddenly that being bewildered was no longer a useful reaction to anything: so I nodded, and without another moment of bewilderment, I brought my mind back to the present.

The horrible, queasy present. My stomachs lurched mercilessly with each beat of the great hippogryph’s wings, and cold winds whipped across my face and stung my eyes to tears. But as we winged our way towards the northern edge of my homeland, the initial terror of being hundreds of feet above solid earth with nothing but a bird-stag-horse between me and certain death subsided, and I found myself, for the second time in my life, thrilling at the sensation. Soon, I was hollering at the top of my lungs and grinning joyously.

Then a bug flew into my mouth. I clamped it shut.

We rose rapidly above the cotton-puff clouds, and within a few short minutes we had crested the mountains’ steep cliffs. Beyond were rocky, rusty red-brown, boulder-littered slopes, rising ahead of us into a ridge of even higher mountains. It was more barren than the barren plains of central Kali – there were few grasses and fewer trees.

Tamilin glanced over his shoulder after a time, and said, “Those are the Stonetalon Mountains. There is a furbolgs tribe that lives there, in caves, but pretty much nothing else does. The whole place was clear-cut and strip-mined to death by the goblins centuries ago,” he added venomously.

M pointed ahead, towards the brown horizon. “Ashenvale,” she said. “Six hundred years ago, it was a thick, beautiful, dangerous, surreal forest, lorded over by nature itself and shepherded by the night-elves. The dry mountains ended with a wall of thick green vegetation, and within flowed streams of crystal-pure water.” She spoke as though quoting from a favorite poem. “The goblins got them, too,” she continued, her voice sad. “The orcs helped. Trying to drive out the elves. It worked.”

“Did you ever go there?” I said. “Did you see it before it died?”

“Of course not,” answered M, blinking stonily. “That was more than six hundred years ago.”

“Oh!” I said, and with a shock I realized what I should have found a way to ask before – that Tamilin the hippogryph was not inside the Order, was not in the know, and Katy M’s age was part of that secret. “Of course not,” I said lamely.

The sun rose higher in the sky, and miles of barren mountains passed beneath us. Here and there, wisps of smoke rose from what might have been campfires. I stared down at them, thinking thoughts of eternity and responsibility and fragile unity, but none of the thoughts went anywhere. Not yet, I thought. I have time to figure this all out, don’t I. Then I thought, is this all real? Did I seriously just get invited to join a don’t-ever-die club?

Ahead of us, brush began to sprout from the rocky slopes. A few trees, then more, then the rusty rocks had been replaced with an impenetrable canopy of wide-branched, wide-leafed trees. The dark mountains of northern Kali hid themselves away beneath them, and I stared down, trying to plumb their depths and learn what had so terrified us that none of us, no one in all of Kali, dared enter. But the forests breasted their secrets well. I asked.

Tamilin laughed. “All kinds of stuff,” he said. “The furbolgs don’t like outsiders” – and I thought back to Redbeard the dwarven missionary – “and there are stranger denizens of the forests, and of the lowlands away off to the east. You’ll meet some of them eventually, I’m sure, and there are others just plain don’t like being met.”

I nodded.

As the sun reached its apex, a single peak rose ahead of us, impossibly steep, impossibly high above the others. I pointed. “Mount Hyjal,” said M behind me. “It’s the stone glory of Kali’s mountains, the highest mountain in the whole world. There is a tree at its top, in its caldera, a very old tree – as old as all the mortal races of Azeroth. Az,” she corrected herself. “Its name is Nordrassil.”

“The Crown of the Sky,” translated Tamilin. “The proudest, most powerful, most magical tree in the whole history of the world. It was called the World Tree, because its roots and the roots of the world intertwined, and it had old magic on it. Kill it, and you destroy the world. True story,” he finished, nodding his horned head in the wind.

“It was a true story,” said M, “until its spells broke at the end of the Third War. Mostly it’s just a big tree now.” She sounded sad.

“The third war?” I said. I didn’t know my history very well, I thought, or maybe M just knew it better than anyone else. Which would make sense – she was seven hundred years old, after all.

“Yeah,” said Tamilin, “wasn’t that the Second War?”

M grunted. “It was the Third War in the east, and the First War you mean isn’t even counted or remembered there.” Tamilin snorted at this.

“About six hundred and fifty years ago,” continued M, “soon after the orcs arrived from their shattered world, a legion of burning demons followed them from the Nether. Their leader, a great twisted demon named Archimonde, led the attack. His target was Nodrassil: he sought to sap it, to use its magics and its life to resurrect the demons’ leader, the fallen Titan Sargeras, and destroy Az entirely. He failed,” she continued, “and the immortal spirits of the night-elves’ ancestors sacrificed themselves to protect the tree and the world. It nearly killed the tree, though, and broke its ancient magic. The elves lost their immortality.”

“So they sacrificed themselves to protect the tree, and the world,” I said dully.

“The spirits, and hundreds of orcs and humans and elves, and a few tauren,” she added meaningfully. “It was among the greatest battles of these past millennia.”

“Wow,” I said. Then I paused. “But the tree died anyway.”

“Well, it grew back,” said M. “But its magic was broken.”

I nodded. Then I shook my head. “Wait,” I said, “I still don’t get it. Archi-guy wanted to sap the tree’s magic and destroyed the world, so a whole bunch of people and spirits sacrificed themselves to save the tree and the world, and in the process, they sapped the tree’s magic. And didn’t destroy the world.”

M blinked. Then she shook her head. “I must not know the whole story,” she said.

“The lore-master is stumped!” crowed Tamilin.

“Anyway,” growled M, “now it’s just a big tree.”

Tamilin glanced over his shoulder. “Although the pool of water at its base is said to still heal the elderly and bring marvelous dreams,” he said.

“Sure it does,” growled M, her mood apparently soured.

“Well, you’ve been there,” said the hippogryph impertinently, “did you get young, or have marvelous dreams?”

“Hmm,” intoned M, without answering the question.

I shook my head. Giant trees and magic-sucking demons. My earlier resolution against bewilderment had crumbled again. “The world is a lot stranger than I thought,” I said to no one in particular.

The hippogryph screech-laughed. “You have no idea,” growled the bull.

“I’m hungry,” I added, as an afterthought.

“You’ll survive,” growled M, but a minute later she had produced a loaf of bread and a chunk of boar meat for me to munch on as we flew.

* * *

The great mountain passed to the east and away behind us as the hours passed, and the sun sank from its apex towards the western horizon. Tamilin had been heading west of north, and now he angled his wings and began heading north again.

“Why didn’t we just fly in a straight line?” I said.

M pointed towards the east, towards the north-western slopes of the great Mount Hyjal. I looked closer, and the thick trees took on a different color there, an aura – almost purple, I thought.

“The color is in the air,” she explained. “There is strong magic in that place, life-magic.”

“It’s Moonglade,” said Tamilin, “my homeland. The air makes it look like it’s always just past dusk. I’m taking us around it, to answer your question,” he added. “We don’t take passengers over our home.”

“Why not?” I said curiously.

“Well,” said the hippogryph, and he paused. “We pretty generally mistrust strangers,” he continued. “It’s a product of having so many of them try to enslave us over the years. That’s also the only reason we learn Common – so we can tell people to piss off when we need to.” He screech-laughed.

“How do you know M, then?”

“She helped me out one time,” answered the hippogryph casually. “She’s a good healer and a damn good traveling companion, too. Knows loads of stories. Wise for her age, I think.” I glanced at M, whose stony expression held firm.

I stared into the thick canopy of the deep, purple forest. Something about its mist and its deep, calming colors called me in a way that I couldn’t explain. I stared down into it, trying to pierce the thick canopy with my eyes, but the deep forest held its peace, mysterious and serene.

Then the deep forests disappeared off the edge of a steep cliff, and we were over the open ocean. A scattering of great white broad-winged seabirds were winging in from the north and west.

To the west was a small island, covered in gray-green trees. Something jagged and glittering rose out of the island’s forest – it looked like an enormous bed of crystals, rising out of each other, each reflecting the others’ reflections of the light of the setting sun. “What the hell?” I said.

“The crystal structure,” said M, “is a building. It crash-landed there centuries ago. That island wasn’t even a particularly noticeable island until that crystal thing flamed out of the sky and landed on it, and then a bunch of tall blue people came out, and allied themselves with the elves and the humans, and they fought in some wars, and then, once the wars were over, they disappeared. They called themselves the Draenei. Very powerful, very noble creatures. I can tell you more about them sometime,” she added quietly.

“The crystal building fell out of the sky and brought blue people?” I said, dumbfounded.

M smiled. “Yup,” she said.

“The world’s a lot stranger than I thought,” I said for the second time, and laughed. “I’ll believe anything now.”

“My father was a horse and my mother was an eagle!” cried Tamilin.

“Yeah, right,” I said, but then for an instant I wasn’t sure.

Tamilin could tell, and he laughed. “Gotchya!” he crowed. “They were hippogryphs. Dummy.” I wrinkled my nose at him in annoyance.

Soon, the island faded to the west and the mainland was nearly out of sight behind us. The sun touched the western horizon and lit the ocean up with fire. I squinted into it. What lies over that burning horizon? I thought. Who knows. Maybe that’s where Pandarens come from. I inhaled the ocean air and thrilled again at the wind and the feeling of flying free.

Ahead of us, lit up orange by the setting sun, a thick bank of mist rose abruptly out of the ocean. A few short minutes later we were winging into it: the ocean wind died, and I could barely see the tips of Tamilin’s proud stag-horns. “This doesn’t seem natural,” I said warily to M.

“It’s not,” she replied. “It’s there to keep prying eyes out.”

“Out of what?”

“Look,” she replied, pointing ahead. I squinted, and saw nothing for a moment: Then the mist began thinning, falling away behind us and to either side. The fog bank to the west was still lit, although fading, with the light of the sinking sun. The ocean still stretched beneath us. We had entered what seemed to be an enormous, miles-wide berth, held safe in a fortress of mist. And in the distance, at the fortress’s center, rising against the still-sunlit sky, was what M had been pointing at: an enormous tree, growing out of the ocean itself.

“There’s an enormous tree, growing out of the ocean itself,” I said, blinking and rubbing my eyes. “I’m looking right at it. It’s right there.”

Tamilin screech-laughed. “Well said,” he rejoined.

“It’s real,” growled M.

“What is it?” I said.

“Teldrassil,” said M, “child of the World Tree Nordrassil. Planted by the night-elves after the near destruction of its mother, in a bid to reclaim their immortality.”

The tree drew closer. It rose mightily into the sky, but it looked wrong somehow: its branches, greater in breadth than whole trees, or whole towns, were twisted around in each other in a hauntingly unhealthy way, and it seemed dark, its leaves a deep, brooding olive green.

“Did it work?” I said faintly.

M’s jaw set into a frown, and she stared at the darkened tree.

“Sort of,” said Tamilin.

“Its creation was an act of selfishness,” said M quietly. “The tree is not natural, its life not welcomed by the forces into which its roots tap. It grew from a healthy sapling into a giant, dark, twisted tree, larger even than its mother. It gave the elves their immortality back, but those that accepted it, they paid the price: as their endless years wore on, they slowly grew as twisted and darkened as the tree itself.”

“Oh,” I said quietly. The night-elves, as legend told, had been among the most graceful, most beautiful people in the world.

“They’re still the oldest and wisest beings on Az,” continued M, “and they’re still the only people in the world that can wield nature’s power, besides us tauren. But they’re hunched and bitter now, shadows of the proud beings who stood tall against Archimonde six hundred years ago.”

“That’s what they get, I guess,” said Tamilin, but he sounded sad.

“All but one,” added M.

“One?” I echoed.

“All but one,” she repeated thoughtfully. “Malfurion, the archdruid of Cenarius. He looks as he always did.”

“There’s no way he gets his immortality-juice from Teldrasil, right?” said Tamilin casually. “Didn’t he try to destroy it?”

M nodded behind me. “He flew into a rage and summoned a great storm, when he discovered that the tree had been planted. But something,” and she just barely emphasized the word, and it struck me that she knew what it was, “stopped him, and he let the storm dissipate and the tree live. Now he lives on at its crown,” she finished. “Archdruid over his fading people.”

Beyond the high wall of mist, the sun had sunk below the western ocean, and a few stars began to wink to life overhead. Above us and to the east and north stood half the white moon, faithfully following its new cycle of waxing and waning and standing guard over the night. The tree loomed ahead of us now, larger even than I had realized. As dusk deepened into night, pure, white lights flickered to life, lining its impossibly thick branches and rising up towards its sparkling crown. By night, the tree took on a new aura – one of beauty, I thought.

We winged in low, only a few hundred feet over the moonlit waves. Tamilin flapped mightily, and as we approached the tree’s impossibly thick trunk, we rose up among its lowest branches. A great platform appeared in the darkness, stretching from one twisting branch to another, studded with white lights and lined with what looked like magnificent stables, and with a last graceful arch of his wings, Tamilin brought us down onto it. M dismounted, and I followed suit, stretching my aching legs. “It’s a great honor to be born on the back of a hippogryph,” she whispered, “and a great insult to remain there any longer than you need to.” I nodded.

There were great bales of soft hay stacked inside one of the stables, and the floors of the others were spread thick with it. Each had an ornamented gate, and none of them had locks that I could see. Then a horned head poked out above one of them. “Tamilin!” it cried. “Ish n’ala!”

“Ish n’ala, Oshuro,” replied Tamilin, and other voices cried out and other hippogryphs stepped out of their stables, greeting him with joy. He spoke, tossing his head towards us periodically.

While he regaled the listening hippogryphs with whatever tales he was telling in whatever language he was speaking, M put a firm hand on my shoulder and guided me towards a narrow gap between the stables.

“But,” I said, glancing over my shoulder at Tamilin. He stopped talking for a moment and waved his head at me.

“It’s not the last time you’ll see him,” said M. “Come on, you’ve got things to do and people to meet.”

Through the gap, a narrow open stairway rose from the edge of the platform, lined with glowing white lights in dark wooden lampposts. It had a single guardrail, curving gracefully up towards the distant trunk, and it met another platform dangling from another twisted branch. M mounted the stairs gracefully, her hooves making a surprisingly deep noise on the thin wood. I hesitated, staring at the bottom stairs. It was narrower-across than my shoulders.

“It’s strong enough,” she said over her shoulder.

“But it’s not wide enough!” I cried. She sighed and shot me a look that said, If you can’t handle an open staircase, good luck with the rest. I gritted my teeth and set a hoof on the bottom stair. She’d been right – it felt solid as rock. I grasped the single guardrail tightly, forcing myself to keep breathing and not look down, and, slowly at first and then with confidence, I ascended.

Long minutes later, the guardrail ended and I stepped out onto the higher platform. M had disappeared ahead of me, and she stood waiting. Next to her, clad in a simple, deep-purple robe, stood a being – he was hunched, bent like an old man; his nose was long and hooked; his skin dark blue; and his two withered ears rose sharply from the sides of his bald head. His eyes were small black orbs sunk into his dark blue face beneath white, wispy eyebrows. He looked almost like a tuskless troll. I stared.

“Ish n’ala, Ashva,” said the creature to me, his voice soft and ethereal. “Welcome,” he breathed, bowing deeply, “to the Crown of the Earth.”

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