The soft swish of hurried footsteps was followed by short, panicked breaths. The trees were beginning to all look the same. Same moss, same lichen, same number of branches, leaves of similar color and size. Instead of causing him worry, the realization spurred his hope. He was getting close.

How badly he wanted to run, now that time was his foe, but he remembered the emphasized warning to avoid it once he hit the deep woods. “Hasten,” had been the suggested verb, but to run might mean missing vital landmarks.

“The forest is nearly identical in the area,” Coren had been told, the speaker’s voice rough and ragged. “Every ancient wood has a deep heart of belligerence, where there is no path, no obvious way. It will not offer its secrets. You must pickpocket them. Keep your eyes sharp. And your brain human.”

With reluctance, he had said he understood. And now he was glad he had abided. The instruction had fulfilled its promise, and the destination couldn’t hide anymore.

Coren kept his eyes so wide they began to smart. He had wanted to use his nose to guide him, but the order to keep his mind human had obliterated such an option. However, with his search nearing its end point, other senses began to aid his stride. He couldn’t discern exactly what sort of senses. Definitely not physical. Something else. Rather like intuition, but sharper. Insisting. Like a voice that shouted at him, or a hand on his elbow, firmly tugging.

His body started to seemingly navigate on its own. The dirt streaked feet now only needed to listen to the persistent instincts. And Coren followed, studying all around him. The thistles and thorns began to thin, dark green grass hatching and lengthening the farther he went. No longer did he hurry and swish. His gait had turned cautious, though in no way hesitant. He wanted, needed, answers, and nothing would stop him from procuring them.

Along with the thick grass came fuller, larger, more contorted and gnarled tree trunks. They took up the travelling space, crooked and looming, casting inky shadows on top of other inky shadows. Some trunks spanned the length of five mens’ arms, some ten mens’. All their branches lay tucked away high above Coren’s head, interweaving to create a leafy sky that let in no starlight. The scale, girth, and oppressive presence of the trees made Coren’s spine quake, and he chose to ignore them. They were mere trees. They could not harm him. Though, Coren had to admit he now knew not to quickly judge what can and cannot cause one harm.

No longer did he make noise as he moved. The pillowy grass cushioned his feet, nearly swallowing them whole before he pulled them up again. Of course, a creature of the brush had only to hear his ragged breath to know he was there. The darkness pressed upon him, but still he could see. He couldn’t help that part. Not everything was a decision.

Suddenly, just as the silence was close to injuring his ears, Coren heard a breathy flutter of shifting wings. Blurring, he whipped to the left and bounded into a copse of trees that opened into a small clearing.

Trees towered on all sides of him, creating a tight ring except for the entrance, but none grew more behemoth than the one in the middle. It’s trunk could engulf a cabin, its crown rising surely a mile into the sky, and perched on its lowest gargantuan branch was an owl. And the owl, keeping in tradition with the vastness of the tree, was nearly the size of two bears.

Coren and the owl spotted each other simultaneously. The great creature eyed Coren unblinking as he strode towards the base of its tree. And Coren, undaunted, stared back, his legs never faltering, moving as confidently as if the owl had been expecting him.

The boy stopped ten feet from the protruding roots, peering upward. The owl, balanced not so far away, exuded a quiet mightiness, the sort that lies dormant until needed, and then explodes in showers of fearsome strength and resulting nightmares.

Its eyes were dramatically wide, with harsh orange irises and big black pupils. They sat in a broad, tawny face, above a curved black beak. And that all was nestled on top of a plush belly, tan colored and streaked with black ribbons. Its massive wings, darker brown than its body, hugged its torso, bunched comfortably. Yet, there was an alertness in its gripping, feathery feet and tar black claws that couldn’t fool Coren.

Coren didn’t bother to explain his coming. The owl knew why he was here. It knew most things, anyway.

Their eyes locked, neither flinching, neither dissuaded, and Coren’s shoulders began to rise and fall as he heaved air in and out of his chest. And still the owl waited, with false serenity, in no hurry to get to the point. At last Coren could withstand it no longer, and released his tumultuous breath in one ferocious gush that carried with it the words,


The owl, unperturbed, replied, “Who?” Perhaps, as his own little joke.

“Don’t you dare act like you don’t know!” Coren rumbled, every fine hair on his limbs erecting. “She’s gone! She’s gone, you know where she is, and you’re going to tell me!!”

The owl regarded him with a level eye, the lids half closed, a chill emanating from the air around it.

“Tell me,” it said calmly, its flutey voice both menacing and masculine, “where might a world as grand as this one become if we all took it upon ourselves to go barging into random civilians abodes and shout accusations at them? No doubt we’d be plunged into a gray murk so bottomless and viscous that we might never arise again to meet the light, and will have to revert to tilling our gardens in the seaweed beds!”

Coren’s fury subsided enough for him to indulge in an incredulous scoff.

“You can’t fool me,” he snarled, puffing out his bare chest, a visage of assurance. “You might fool others, but not me. I rightly accuse you, and you can prattle on all you want in hope of diverting me. I’m not leaving until you answer my questions.”

Whether to mock or intimidate him, the owl puffed out his own chest, rife with plumage, each feather standing up straight to create the illusion of fluffy, impenetrable armor.

“Is that so?” he inquired, his owl eyes now spread and huge, swallowing Coren with their gaze.

“You doubt me?” Coren said, planting his feet wide and firm, his voice full of scorn.

For a moment, the owl silently considered the question, before hooting, “No, I suppose not. Despite that I’ve always thought you a doubtful person.”

“I don’t care what you think,” Coren retorted, all bristle and bite.

“Your presence speaks to the contrary.”

“I’m not here for your opinions! I want your knowledge!”

The owl’s feathers calmed, almost pensively, and his eyes momentarily glazed over in reflection. “My knowledge,” he mused. “My treasury would crush your frail skull. It would stoop your back like the aged man whose travels have burdened him brutally. It would wrinkle your skin and gray your hair and weaken the already fraying strings of your heart. My knowledge.”

“One portion!” Coren interrupted in exasperation, stamping one impatient foot. “Do you honestly think I want, or even have the time, to sit here and absorb your ruminations?”

“Not for an instant,” the owl confirmed. “I was simply marvelling out loud. The very idea that I would deem you worthy to learn from me. You claim I can’t fool you, but you are still a fool, and I don’t devote my attentions to fools.”

“I’m not a fool,” Coren said, his blazing eyes boring into the owl, who made a gravelly noise that might have been a chuckle.

“And yet,” the owl murmured. “And yet . . .”

“Yes?” Coren snapped.

“You are ensnared in a fool’s predicament.”

Coren snorted. “Another opinion,” he growled.

The large wings on either side of the owl rose and fell, a shrug of sorts. “My opinions are favored,” he said casually. “For they are often correct. Furthermore, when I say often, I mean that they never aren’t.”

“Well then,” huffed Coren, “how convenient. You can then tell me your exact opinion of where they have taken Lezille.”

A silence, thick and musty, pervaded the space. So heavy, it masked even the creaking of the trees and the whispering of the breeze. Pondering his response, the owl studied Coren, an edifice of resolve, and seemed to decide that further evasion was worthless.

“This,” he heaved musically, “I cannot do.”

A wave of rage gripped Coren, causing him to tremble. “So you admit it!” he shouted.

“Indeed, your instigation has been effective,” the owl said sarcastically.

“She has been taken!”

“She has.”

“Bring her back!”

“Back? Back to where, precisely? To that lovely little corn field she and you were squatting in? To that hovel of stalks and sailcloth you were calling a residence? Back to that pile of ash you and her would cook squirrels over every night?”

“To me!” Coren wailed, his skin jumping on his bones. “Bring her back to me!!”

“Oh, I see,” the owl said. “Well, this also, I cannot allow.”

Coren’s body grew rigid with shock, while the coils of his throat contracted, trying to pulley up a response. “You’re refusing?” he sputtered at last, the surprised tone mingled with outrage and fear.

The owl took a moment to ponder the question, for it seemed to carry more implications than Coren had intended.

Finally, the great beak clacked and said, “It seems I am. Although, I’ve never been one for giving trivial labels to complicated situations.”

“Complicated?!” Coren roared, guttural, like rolling thunder.

“Indeed,” the owl replied severely, looking down his beak at Coren with a slight sneer. “The present circumstances are far from simple, halfman. There are forces that take the privilege of choice out of my hands. To claim that I am deciding not to revoke a series of events set in motion by entities far above me would be the height of delusional grandeur. I do not draw the maps, I only steer.”

“You lie! You could if you wanted to!”

“You are full of folly,” the grand bird reflected, regarding Coren with an expression reserved for demoralizing those who haven’t thought things through enough. “First of all, desire and capability have very little to do with each other. Wanting something is in no way a bridge towards obtaining it. Ask any cripple. Or kindly jailer wishing to spare the reformed criminal of the hanging he has more than earned. Things don’t occur unless you have the power to make it so. Which leads me to two: I do have that power. And yes, I suppose if I wanted to, I could. But, I don’t.”

The boy’s winter wheat shoulders bobbed up and down slowly, livid, grazing his earlobes. He glared at the giant fowl, so fiery it might have melted its face, if not for the owl’s equally icy stare, which neutralized it.

“You hide yourself well, Laibroo,” breathed Coren. “I never before imagined you took pleasure in sowing cruelty.”

“Oh, honestly,” the owl, Laibroo, hooted, rolling his orb-eyes.

“You just revealed it. You have nothing to deny.”

“Tantrums are rather unbecoming on you, Coren. I would discontinue the practice immediately,” Laibroo said. “And what’s more, not that you deserve anything more, but you look ready to split in half, the intent of the current events is not to make you suffer. Though, it hardly surprises me that you think so, selfish fellow that you are.”

“Selfish?!” spluttered the boy in disgust. “Me?! After all that . . . And what of you?”

“Pardon?” Laibroo inquired icily.

“You all!”

“It’s all of us now, is it? Your childish tirade is getting insulting, Coren. I have never allowed myself to be lumped in with any group, whether mundane or exceptional. The girl has been taken away for her own safety. And, if this surprises you, then the void has swallowed you to depths more far and obscure than I had fathomed.”

The steady oxygen entering and withdrawing from Coren’s body finally took its relaxing effects, and he began to relax. The owl’s words crashed and capered in his thoughts for a moment, before he again met Laibroo’s gaze and murmured, “There’s less void than you think.”

Where eyebrows might have been if given the chance, Laibroo’s feathers quirked.

“And your false concern is unreasonable,” Coren went on. “She’s in no danger. I keep her safe.”

“You would think so,” Laibroo huffed with defensive superiority. “There is only ever tranquility for those within the center of the storm. Trust this sky observer, Coren. I can see all that your storm does; besides, your good judgement and my good judgement are no match for each other. I know much more than you, am far wiser, and I have seen this all before. Make no mistake, I am doing you a massive favor.”

The severe tone in which this statement was delivered made Coren pause, but only long enough to furrow his brow and wipe his sweating palms on his tattered trousers.

“No,” he breathed harshly at last, shaking his head. “You’re lying.”

At that, the fierce bird’s plumage erupted, enhancing his size twice over, lightning flashing in his eyes.

“YOU DARE TO SLANDER MY CHARACTER?!?!” Laibroo thundered.

“Your character,” retorted Coren, not bothered one bit, “is one of facts and how best to use them, not honesty.”

“Facts and honesty are often known to cling to one another,” Laibroo sneered, no less offended, his mass not shrinking, though his voice had lowered. “Their existence depends on the other.”

“Still,” Coren insisted, a hateful glint under his right eyelid, “wise doesn’t inherently mean pure.”

The words dawdled in the air for several moments, undefined, gently sticking to the skin. Until, after a moment, Laibroo set his armor to rest, and addressed Coren with a weighted thoughtfulness. “So, I’ve been corrupted, have I? Is that it?”

Words were not required to respond to this inquiry; the set of Coren’s jaw was enough.

“Doing me a favor has never existed in your mind. You want her for other reasons,” he whispered.

If the owl’s sense of dignity was provoked by this accusation, the only sign he gave was a minute shift of footing, which is hardly unusual for fowl, no matter their size, and could have meant anything.

“Alternative motives, is it?” Laibroo hooted. “Pity. I thought you might be more creative.”

“You want her,” Coren said, undeterred, “for the same reasons they did. You’re no different from them. No better!”

“And I take it you have hard facts to back up daring to pronounce me on the same ethical level as anyone else,” Laibroo declared sharply, though his feathers stayed flat. “The patterns of my spirit could never match those of anyone else on this planet, you snide thing. I follow orders, yes, but even then my wisdom was sought before the orders were ordained. Yet, here you stand, comparing me. And pray tell who exactly are these ‘they’?”

The identity, it seemed, was more than Coren could bear, and he turned away quickly, striding towards the middle of the clearing. He halted abruptly, running his hands over his cheeks, trying to wash away some torturous memory.

The owl watched, unmoved, but curious, as if observing the trivialities and meager sorrows of a lesser civilization, like an ant hill. He might have prompted for more details, but did not, either finding it not worth the energy, or knowing more would come in time, all on its own.

The hush ate at Coren, who, with no sounds or sights to distract his mind, was overwhelmed with reel after reel of a time not so long ago.

A time when greed glinted in eyes, when backs were hunched together, plots spinning in the air. Hard hearts and cruel hands, cold door stoops and midnight sprinting. A rope around his neck. Lezille screaming. Screaming. Screaming. Her dandelion hair yanked, her little body jostled, rain cascading down onto parched plants as she raised her hand skyward and begged for his life… Screaming, screaming….

Finally, the strain too great, Coren kicked viciously at a clump of barberry.

“Easy, little fool,” Laibroo warned from his perch. “You’ve already caused me enough unpleasantries tonight; I’d rather you keep your anger at bay so that I needn’t experience one extra.”

Below, Coren swayed from left to right, his knees buckling and unbuckling, his back taut. His fingers began to curl, digging into the soft skin of his temples. Most unnerving of all, the gossamer hairs on his knuckles began to puff with thickness and darker color. This slight transformation did not escape the keen eyes of the owl, whose wings grew rigid with what might have been disgust, or possibly outrage.

“Coren!” Laibroo hooted loudly. “Did you not comprehend me? Or are you being indifferent? I will not be ignored! Regain control! Do not be swallowed, not here, not now. I want nothing to do with your malformity.”

Whether it was the orders from the bird or a ballooning of his own energy, Coren suddenly stopped shaking and released his head. Laibroo watched him with apprehension, as if expecting the behavior to return at any moment. But the boy merely turned back around and regarded Laibroo with a hint of cold smugness. The memories that had been plaguing him had departed, lost to the frothing gray sea of Coren’s nethermind.

“How odd to find you afraid, Laibroo,” Coren remarked.

A derisive gurgle worked at the owl’s throat. “Afraid?” he scoffed. “Is that what you gathered?  I couldn’t be more offended. No doubt that creature nose of yours can smell fear. Tell me, do you catch nary a whiff?”

Intrigued, Coren indulgently sniffed at the condensed forest air, and immediately growled with disappointment.

“What did I tell you?” the indignant bird said. “I’ve meandered through this world too long to be intimidated by a beast as insignificant as you. Think I couldn’t defend myself? Hmm? Think you might jump up and bite my leg and I’d be done for? What have you been pondering in that vapid skull of yours all these months, Coren, anyway? I am certain it was many a self-congratulatory notion such as that. Understand, in the realm of oddities, you have many rungs to go before you reach the levels of the most dangerous.”

“Isn’t it lucky then,”Coren replied through his teeth, “that I don’t mingle with these individuals? I wouldn’t even have come to you if you didn’t possess information I need. And if I’m such a pathetic quandry, then your argument that Lezille has been separated from me for her own safety is rendered pointless.”

“And there you are sorely wrong,” Laibroo said. “To go up against me or a gentleman of the mountain is one thing, but to jump upon a slender village girl and tear her to shreds is quite another. Despite the enormity of her gifts, the poor dear was unfortunately not blessed with an effective defense capability. Unless, theoretically, she learns to manipulate lightening bolts to strike where she chooses. Alas, the weather doesn’t operate like that.”

“You dare to say I would ever harm her?” Coren spat. Perspiration spattered his forehead, and he wiped across it with his bicep. “You dare to shame me and spear my heart?”

“Such dramatics you’re given to, child. I wouldn’t dream to shame you for such a cause. Obviously you can’t control yourself. That much was just demonstrated. You are not a human of mild temper, Coren. No matter how much her presence may soothe you, the inevitable is bound to happen. And what then? Who are you then? Adoring lover or ravenous beast? If the girl was ordinary, I would naturally mind my own business. But as it was woven, she is far from it, and her bloody removal from the world must be avoided at all cost.”

“You claim to preserve the extraordinary,” Coren howled. “You don’t care! You never cared for life! You’re too old. You’ve seen the cycle too much to hold one life higher than another. You aren’t us, Laibroo! They didn’t care either! No one does! Only I do! You, them, everyone wants her for their own end! Everyone except me! She would be priceless to me whether she was blessed or not! I took her from them so they couldn’t manipulate her anymore! She isn’t a plow tool! She has a beauty, a soul! I am hers, she is mine! I’ve been her protector all this time, and just because I am different now doesn’t mean I can’t be still!”

“Tiny moron!” Laibroo trumpeted. “It has everything to do with it! Your idea of keeping her safe is as fragile and unreliable as string glass! On the run all the time, dusty roads everyday, see-through garments keeping her warm! Is that what you want for her? She is too valuable to be a fugitive. She has a destiny no one should detain her from. She is essential.”

“No!” Coren screamed. “You all are just greedy! You bring nothing but sorrow! You want things from her, not her. I want her! If you could separate her from the gifts she holds and confine those gifts to a soulless object then you would do just that and abandon her!”

“How presumptuous of you! You think we have no heart? That would kill her. You cannot strip away such things and expect it to exist singularly. Whether it be her or her powers.”

“But if you could?”

The question was thrown at Laibroo like a dart. The magnificent eyes glared blankly down at Coren’s furious face and declined to answer. A moment of oppressive silence sailed through, ending when Laibroo gave a sudden ruffle of his plumage.

“Such musings are pointless,” he trilled. “They will never be tested. You weary me, halfman. Our visit must meet its end before your red hot hatred turns into impossible to tame fury. Which will result in another sort of turn I haven’t the interest to endure. I know why you sought me, and I have given you as much an explanation as you can hope to obtain. You and her are no longer together to prevent any damage to her, for great things are in store for her that she cannot miss.”

“You spin a new truth,” Coren insisted wretchedly. “You brought her somewhere to use her, and won’t tell me because you know I’ll stop you.”

“Such humor, Coren! As if you could stop us. As if you have the might. Your vehemence is unnecessary because it will get you nowhere. I daresay a thank you might even be in order.”

“A thank you?” the boy hissed.

“Perhaps,” the owl nodded. “For preventing an unintentional end to the one you seem to treasure. At your own grieving hand, no less.”

Coren let loose an enraged roar. It echoed off the tree bark and bounced off the overhead canopy of leaves. Towards the very end, right before he ran out of oxygen, the noise incredibly resembled a howl.

“I would never harm her, ever!” he shouted. “I could never hurt a part of myself!”

“You are no longer yourself,” Laibroo reminded him. “I promise you that your new personality won’t care to distinguish the girl you love from a moor hare.”

“Love,” the stricken boy repeated, almost scornfully. “Love isn’t nearly a big enough word. It can’t trap everything I feel or know.”

“You know very little,” the tremendous owl told him, with what might have been a trace of sadness. “And do trust me when I claim that you don’t wish to learn.”

“The one claim from you I’ll embrace,” Coren sobbed, tears trickling down the grime of his face. “I refuse all others.”

Laibroo languidly accepted this. “It doesn’t surprise me,” he admitted, stretching out one talon and wriggling the toes. “I never had high hopes for you, Coren, especially now that a progressive future has been snatched from you, but I am still slightly disappointed. I thought perhaps you might take the high road and leave Lezille be. Go off on your own and unwind the rest of your miserable existence in solitary, rather than interrupt a great fate. But apparently you don’t have that gracious ability in you.”

“Whose fate?” Coren asked quietly, his fists once more balling up. “Yours? Your overlords, Laibroo? With their spectacular schemes? Gluttonous villains who would use an innocent maiden to move their mountains? Or more accurately, to flood their fields and whip their deserts into a frenzy?”

“Are crops all you humans really care about?” Laibroo inquired with mild astonishment. “This is why greater minds must take control. Our vision is always larger, better, than those who may have the power, but know not what to do with it.”

“Nothing needs to be done,” Coren cried, his muscles bulging from restraint. “We were fine. She was fine. Unbothered. What happened to me was an accident, but it changed nothing between us. She took me into her arms the same way I did to her. We were both abnormal now. Both unreasonable. Both hiding something beneath the surface. And it was all alright. Because our souls danced together. The long roads, the rainy woods, the cold and hunger and exhaustion, none of it mattered. Our souls kept dancing.”

Unable to stop himself, the owl yawned. “How touching,” he hooted. “Two minuscule lice wending their way in the world, hand in hand. Of importance to no one but themselves. What a lovely, typical story. I’m sure you would have loved for it to continue. But, Coren, there are greater thinkers at work, writing a more terrific story.”

“For yourself!” Coren shouted, unexpectedly reaching down and pulling up a sizable clump of earth and grass roots. In one blurred motion, he lobbed it at the owl, who, had he not been so giant, might have maneuvered out of the way.

The big clod struck him directly in the belly, and though it caused Laibroo no actual hurt, it did catch him by surprise. He flapped his wings swiftly to regain balance, his claws snatching and teetering on the massive branch. It took only seconds to right himself, but when he hurled his venomous glare towards where Coren had been standing, he discovered that the boy wasn’t there.

At once Laibroo was alert. Not frightened, never frighted, but alert. Even snakes, lacking arms and legs, could be a formidable wrestling enemy. The owl knew that Coren had not left the clearing, but his new location was shrouded from his all-seeing view. Disgruntled, Laibroo shut his galactic eyes and concentrated inward.

A confusing presence was in the field. Not quite new, not quite the same. An intermingling of existences, fighting for dominance in  a single space. And it wouldn’t keep still.

Laibroo sensed the strange being colliding from spot to spot, hastily, the rapid gait of a wild animal attempting to lead the chaotic mind of a human being. The owl couldn’t exactly pinpoint it, nor could he focus enough to predict its course of movement. Though still composed, unconsciously the down of his legs began to stand on end, as if it knew what was coming even if the individual it was attached to did not.

The black beak nipped the air in frustration as the presence, whatever it was, continued to allude Laibroo. Just as the realization of what it must be dawned on him, the being was suddenly close, hurtling towards the back of his head.

A pain rocketed Laibroo’s left cheek and he let out a screech of anger. Finally snapping open his eyes, he looked sideways at what had attacked him. There was a flurry of movement, of bristling brown fur and stone gray claws where fingers had been. Rows of needle teeth tried to crowd the short jutting chin, the legs obscenely long and thin, and the belly fuzzy.

Coren, or whatever Coren was fighting to become, didn’t stay long on Laibroo’s face. He let himself drop to his shoulder below, where he knew he would be safe from the hostile beating of the massive wings. Extending his tortured hands and claws, Coren swung his arm down and sunk them into what he was hoping was Laibroo’s armpit.

At once the bird bellowed his finest and began flapping his wings. Coren could feel waves of energy flowing off the master of the air, the admiral of the forest, and his brain faced madness and warping. Had it not been for the love rampaging through his cells, then this would have been his demise. But Laibroo had not accounted for the sheer breath and scope of love that housed in Coren’s writhing soul, and his power failed.

“WHERE??!!” Coren yelled his loudest, his voice garbled and full of mucous. Spittle dripped down between his teeth, the length of his jaw trembling, trying not to elongate. “TELL ME WHERE!!!”

“Horrid fool!” Laibroo yelped, not understanding why his power was taking no effect. Blood was now pouring out from amid his feathers, blood so potent and rife with ancient magic that any scholar would murder any and all in his way just to bottle it.

“TELL ME!!!”

“Remove yourself, louse!!!!”

“TELL ME!!!” Coren twisted his claws in Laibroo’s flesh, causing the bird to spasm and squawk in a most unbecoming way.

“You think yourself so heroic! You selfish mongoloid! Horrible miscreation! All you seek is death! They’ll never let you have her! They’ll never release her to you, or to anyone!”


Again Coren worked his claws, unlatching for a second before jabbing them into a new spot directly against the joint connecting Laibroo’s wing. A quaking shudder seized the fowl, bits of his torn flesh beginning to look slightly grey and ashen. As if they were burning.

“Very well then!” he gasped, trembling, confused as to why the pain was so searing. “Traipse to your coffin! Be dismantled and left for the vultures. I’m sure they will tell me you tasted vile. She is confined, in the Valley of the Inez!”

Coren gasped, his heart pounding, his golden eyes round.

“You’ll never make it there!” Laibroo coughed. “You’ll be denied anything they don’t want you to have. Foolhardy flea you are, Coren, thinking you could go up against a stampeding elephant.”

“Fleas,” Coren breathed, “can burrow in and cause disease. Doubt me not, Laibroo the Ageless.”

“I’d congratulate you on the metaphor if I didn’t so badly want to kill you right now,” the owl wailed. “Perhaps you will find a way. You weasel. You pathetic runt. I hope something larger than me steps on you and squishes you into a disk!”

But Coren was no longer there to listen. He had let go of the flailing monstrosity and was heading for the exit to the copse. His heart was in his ears and an image, both terrifying and exhilarating, was now floating between his eyes. Six enormous purple mountains, all thick with forest and rivers, snow capping their heights; and nestled in the middle of them, an expansive oasis. What lay there was a secret, heavily guarded. It made sense they would take his Lizelle there. Impenetrable, foreboding, unchallenged Valley of Inez.

Where he must go.

The last thing of Coren to be seen was a mess of haunches, paws, and a striped bushy tail loping into the forest, leaving in his wake a charred and crumbling trail.