The air was chilly but calm as Uteri cinched her bag tight. The grey elf tucked her staff between her back and her sack, making sure it would not impede her. She raised her hood; her pointed ears twitching several times from the contact with the wool lining. Content, she started her climbing pilgrimage once more.
It was before dawn and the moonlit stone of Mount Gneise was so cold it stung her fingers even through her gloves. The aspiring monk began to utter the mantra that had kept her warm while she hiked yesterday and the day previous. As the ancient words of a slumbering pantheon tumbled off her pierced tongue and past her lips, she felt heat stir around her.
Despite her faith specifically in Atheek, she did not see the magic nimbus as it thickened around her, though she could catch a glimpse if she moved fast enough. Visible or not, the spell's effectiveness was unmistakable as the snow melted around her booted feet with each step and her breath stopped rising like fog through her coiled hair and heavy shawl.
Continuing to chant, the grey elf crested the ridge she had stopped at the night previous and paused to take a break. The moment she stopped chanting, the chill returned as the spell unraveled. Her purple-eyed gaze flicked over the mountainside clearing. Something was amiss. Despite having marked the way to the temple's trail when she turned in last night, her marker was nowhere to be found.
The crack of a twig to her right was her only warning as a goat-boar sprang from the bushes. The creature was an ungainly combination, its legs much too long for the portly torso they were attached to. It looked like a fat, shaggy antelope. The tusks and horns though, they worked together quite well. Her years of training took over, reflexes making her jump out of the way before she had really even figured out what was attacking her. Like a squirrel, she darted up a nearby tree to escape and buy herself time to think.
The goat-boar stabbed and rammed the soft pine tree as it's bleating grunts echoed down the valley. She had to do something. At this rate, a much more dangerous creature would arrive and she would have to deal with that instead. Putting her pack and staff aside, the elf uttered a chant for durability and dropped from the tree onto the animal. Uteri grabbed the curved horns and tried her best to stay on the goat-boar's back. It snarled and snapped and made an effort to unseat her so that it could trample her. She had a skinning knife in a pouch on her belt, but even if the short blade were enough to deal enough pain to scare the creature away, she would have to let go to get it and that would definitely lead her getting stabbed first.
She halted her chant and began another in the same breath. As she exhaled, the words of domination clawed their way out of her throat, bringing the iron tang of blood to her mouth. Forcing her will on another mind was painful, even as one with an aptitude for such things. Between her knees, the creature's breathing began to slow, coming into sync with her own. Blood dripped off her chin as she continued to chant. The creature stopped struggling and stood there impassively. The goat-boar's mind opened to hers. Sure now this was a test, Uteri told it to go back into the woods and return to life as normal.
A wet cough shattered the chant and the animal jerked under her, sending her tumbling in the leaves and snow. The elf lay there until the sound of it crashing through the underbrush faded. She wiped her face clean and then clambered up to get her things. The moment she dropped back down, a rough and heavy shove sent her forward into the snow once more.
Two spear points pressed into her back. From the smell, her captors were Drachen. "To what end would a heathen like you be here, Yoteni scum?"
Uteni drew breath to speak. Were these any other foes, she would have been confident in the weight of her bluntest chant to disarm them and allow her to escape. Drachen, however, did not fear magic; an attempt to attack them would only guarantee her death.
The Drachen, as a people, had been created out of desperation at the height of the last conflict which had sundered the realm. Each had been born in an alchemical lab by infusing the egg of a drake with the blood of one like her; one who was connected to a god. The resulting creatures resembled their sires in many ways, especially the wedge-shaped heads, serpentine necks, and the deep green scales that covered them from head to toe. Designed to function as living-weapons, they had a physical presence that was impossible to ignore. Every Drachen that Uteri had ever met stood at least a whole head taller than her and all were too big around to grapple. Even if they were as lithe as she was, the mage was sure the average Drachen would still command attention because of their aura. Yes, just like drakes and dragons they had been stolen from, they also exuded a sense of fear. The effect was not very intense, people did not flee screaming, but it was enough to make unprepared foes falter.
"Speak!" The other one demanded, kicking snow in her face. "Your very presence desecrates this holy mountain."
"I have a letter," she said finally, her words free of the anger she felt boiling in her throat. "I'll show you if you let me up."
"A letter, eh? What sort of letter would be so important that it couldn't go by air—?"
"—but would also be entrusted to one who cannot be trusted in the first place?"
"It is a missive from my master, the Duchess of Embers," Uteni explained. "She is requesting an audience with Abbot Geoffstad on my behalf."
"A likely story, scum," the aggravated one spat. "A cat like her would never teach the likes of you magic."
This was the opening she needed. "If you know of her, then you also know that her reach is long and what she'll do if I am harmed."
There was a moment where none of them spoke and the sounds of the wilderness returned like water after the passage of a boat.
"Maybe we should at least let it show us the letter?" the other Drachen suggested. "If it's lying, we can still skewer it."
After a moment, the spears withdrew. "You may rise, elf, but be quick with your document."
"Otherwise, we won't be held responsible if one of those pointy ears happens to go missing..."
Although her magic was as useful as a shattered blade or a ruined shield, Uteri whispered a prayer to Atheek all the same as she pushed herself up out of the snow. A trickle of warmth ran down her back when she got to her feet. One of them, it seemed, had been a bit more forceful than the other. She turned to face her captors before reaching into her bag.
Her captors cocked the heads to the side, not unlike a pair of chickens, a regarded her with one eye each. Their pupils were so thin that the dark slits almost seemed to disappear into the golden color of their irises. The one on the left, the bigger of the two, flicked their wide tongue over protruding, pointed teeth that had been rounded somewhat by use. Uteri gulped at the wet sound of his jaw opening. She had seen the damage a Drachen's bite could do. She still had nightmares about it. Seconds of tense silence chattering When she produced the letter, she brandished it like a shield. Their faces were unreadable as they both regarded the letter and the seal pressed into the wax. Her right-hand captor flared their nostrils and Eventually though, one of them snorted and the duo turned their back to her.
"Follow us, Yoteni. We shall convey you to His Holiness..."