Adriana looked out of her hiding place in the library of the ruined temple of Apollo. This was the one place in her city, Valora, she was sure that none of the wild, painted barbarians would bother to pillage and burn. The smoke from the fires in the rest of the temple had wafted away, the ashes were all cold now, and the screams of the dying had faded away, too.
Seeing no raiders in the temple, Adriana carefully made her way up to the main balcony where the chief priests would call the city to morning prayers with great brass gongs. She peered out over the city, seeing only two other signal towers intact and many buildings burnt to the ground or collapsed by the raider’s cannons. However, there were no siege towers, no armies, and no fires, just ruins. Therefore, Adriana went back down to the library, then out of the temple to the street.
Adriana quickly surmised that she was alone on the street, likely the only person in the city who was not slain or captured by the blue-skinned barbarians. She walked through the streets, trying not to look at the bodies of her slain neighbors, and found the burned out shell of her family’s house. Its walls were blasted by cannons, its gardens turned to scorched, black pits, its shrine to the gods torn apart for its gold icons, and its well poisoned. Picking through the ruins of her home, Adriana was in tears, gathering what pieces of her family’s belongings as she could find in the rubble. She smiled through her tears though when she found a little doll she had played with as a child under what was left of her canopied bed. She picked it up and heard an unexpected sound like a dry leaf crackling. Pulling back the doll’s worn, sooty costume, Adriana found a crinkled strip of parchment rolled around the doll’s middle and sealed with a hasty splotch of wax. It smelled of smoke. It smelled of her mother’s perfume.
Adriana carefully snapped the wax seal and unrolled the strip of parchment off the doll. As she did, a small silver ring fell out of the rolls of ashen parchment. She picked up the ring and gazed at its intricate design of bent s-shaped bars braided together, then carefully set it down. She laid the parchment out flat and saw her mother’s flowing script in a hastily scrawled letter. She dusted off the ashes and soot that must have been blowing in the wind as her mother hid the doll, and read the note:
Your father died fighting the invaders. The barbarians are rounding up survivors and packing them in slave-wagons, and I know I will be captured soon. Take the ring, it belonged to your father. If you wear it, you will always know where your family and home are and be able to go there.
Adriana looked at the slender silver ring and slipped the band of silver bars onto a delicate finger. In an instant her mind flew across the burnt city’s ruins, over the scorched fields and orchards of the farms beyond the city’s blasted walls, down the River Argesse to Lake Willowmere, and up the River Tantrix to the thundering waterfalls of Mount Parimonce, over a hundred miles away. There, surrounding the banks of the Tantrix was the encampment of the barbarians. Thousands of warriors with their attendant slaves, war horses, supply wagons, and war engines, sprawled around the river and up the slopes of the surrounding hills. Further downstream Adriana saw barges pulled up on the riverbanks.
Adriana found her mother chained to a post with a group of other slaves, including people she recognized from her own ward of the city. A huge brute covered in blue war paint was tossing the slaves pieces of meat and bread. At least none of the slaves looked seriously hurt. “Of course not, ” Adriana thought, “they can’t sell damaged goods.” She scanned the rest of the encampment, looking at all the war-machines, counting the different types of troops, and learning the faces of the barbarian leaders. She watched the warriors deferring to their leaders, and their leaders taking orders from higher superiors. Then she saw him, the leader of the entire horde. It was so obvious, he stood out like bull in a heard of goats. He was a huge man sitting atop a platform of wooden planks on a crude throne of bones tied together, some of them with flesh still hanging on them. He was covered in blue paint and battle-scars, and all of his weapons were covered in gold and blood.
“There you are…” Adriana whispered. “You killed my father, you burned my city and my home, and enslaved my mother. But I can see you now, so beware.” The vision ended, and Adriana was yanked back into her body. She looked around her at the ashen ruins of her home and it hit her, she could never rescue her mother alone, let alone avenge herself on that brute of a warlord. She needed help, and she had no idea where to find it.
Adriana went out into the city, trying to find any survivors and salvage anything of value she could find. There were signs of people hiding, but nobody would come out when she called for them, no doubt too scared to leave their sanctuaries. She found a stray horse that had escaped capture, and found rations and supplies for the trip, and galloped off to the encampment of the barbarians. In a few days, she had caught up with the barbarians. She began scouting the area, trying to come up with a plan. The scribes at the temple where she sung with the choir had taught her a few magic songs to entertain and perhaps fool the gullible, but they were just the simplest forms of magic, mere cantrips. She needed a spell of invisibility or flight to get into the encampment undetected and she had nothing that powerful in her repertoire. She found a cave nearby to hide her horse and supplies, and watched the savage warriors from a distance so they would not catch her.
Starting a small fire to stay warm, Adriana ate some bread, hard cheese, and dried fruit, then started looking around the cave. It was empty except for some bats and a couple of small lizards, and unremarkable aside from an arch made of two columns of stalactites that separated the cave into two small chambers. On the floor of the cave, in front of the arching columns, was a single wilted flower. Adriana picked it up and smelled its last bit of perfume as she idly stepped through the archway of the columns. That was when everything changed.
In an instant the entire cave melted away and she was falling in an expanse of sky without end. She screamed in terror as she realized there was no ground beneath her, just an endless fall, and as she kept descending she kept screaming until she lost her voice, but even then she had not landed, merely kept falling and falling and falling. She looked around her, but saw nothing but clear skies with a few tiny clouds here and there, and she kept falling but could not see any end to the falling, just more sky beneath her, above her, and in every other direction. And as she fell, going farther and farther down into more sky, she just thought, “I’m dead, I’m dead, the world is gone, I’m dead…” and tears welled up and her screams were replaced by sobbing, but still she kept falling.
Hours passed as she fell, descending into the endless sky beneath her. Then suddenly, as if out of a dream, she heard something like music, and saw a flock of birds on the wing. She laughed, thinking her mind must have snapped, but she listened to the whistling birds until she descended out of range of their songs. She fell still farther, resigning herself to an eternity of it, and deciding such must be her fate, but grew calmer, and eventually even bored with the continual descent into nothing. “Well, at least there’s nothing to crash into…” she thought as she looked down into the pale blue expanse of sky beneath her. That was when she heard a sound like beating wings, and the neighing of a horse, and looked up to see a strange shape moving above her in the sky. “Adriana, ” she thought to herself, “you’ve completely lost it. You’re hallucinating. You’ve lost your mind. None of this is real…” And that was when the figure in the air above her swooped down and came up beneath her, catching her in big, strong arms and smiled at her. “Well, hello there,” he said as he pulled her onto his winged horse, “where’d you drop in from?”
Adriana was speechless as the warrior in gleaming chain-mail and a cloak of iridescent feathers pulled her on to the saddle of the winged steed he rode and looked up into the air from where he had caught her. “How long did you fall my lady?” he asked in a voice like music as his eyes glowed with soft blue and pink sparks. Adriana regained some composure and looked upwards, “It seemed like hours, I walked between two columns in a cave and the world disappeared!” The knight looked upwards, “Then we have a long trip. Where is your portal key?” Adriana looked at him, “My what?” The knight saw her hand clenched and said calmly, “What’s in your hand?” Adriana opened her hand to reveal the dried flower she had found in the cave, “I forgot I had this. I picked it up off the floor of the cave I was hiding in from the barbarians.” The knight took the flower and put it in a pouch to keep it safe. “You walked through a portal, a magical doorway to another world, that flower was the key to the door, and now you are in the Plane of Air, a world of sky with no land beneath. We shall find that door, and take you home.” The knight spurred his steed and it began flying upwards. Adriana held on to her saviour, still not certain whether this was real or a dream.
After riding swiftly upwards for what seemed like an hour or two, the knight pulled the flower out of the pouch on his belt and slowed his steed down before continuing. After another hour of riding while smelling the faint perfume of the flower in his hand the knight saw a shimmering door in mid-air open in a gap through a patch of clouds shaped like a short tunnel. He spurred his steed through the magical doorway, and the cave seemed to materialize around them out of nowhere. Adriana’s campfire was nothing but softly glowing embers and her restless pony whinnied when it saw the knight’s winged steed fly into the cave.