Solstice (Pt. 2)

They descended on the party and brought stories. From another world. From many worlds, perhaps.

Timeless tales. A strangeness in the air; as if anything could happen. The opposite of the days when Ryoka had looked up at the sky and seen only smog, seen nothing to do or dream of.

These folk were the times stories had been made of. They had walked among legends and watched the things that defined culture and imagination. And they had been great, greater than you could believe.

It was such a relief to see them. Even those who did not know who they are knew them.

The keepers of stories. Beings of myth and legend. Immortals of another world.

The fae folk.

Here, in a moment after the eclipse passed. Resplendent in every color, flitting about, grabbing treats or laughing. This was a day of celebration, after all!

The longest day. For a second, the mortal guests just stared, wondering how they had suddenly doubled their numbers. Realizing that someone had been there who had not been a moment ago. The fae’s entrance was so natural that it became all the more surprising when you realized it.

Then one of them spoke.

 

“The food! And drink! And dance and sights! How glorious! How wonderful! And all for us!”

 

The speaker was male, cheeks glowing with the same vibrancy as the voice. The listeners stirred—and saw him snatch a caramelized apple and bite into it. He chewed, laughing, and he was both immortal and very mortal. Savoring such a simple action, simple delights.

“Dead gods.”

Someone breathed. Tyrion Veltras started. He half-turned. And saw it was Jericha. She, like him, stared. As if waking from a dream into…

Another dream. Only, it was reality. The [Lord] of House Veltras turned, and as he came to his senses, he noticed the warriors.

There were two kinds of guest here. One was the court of the fae. A dancing, singing, laughing, impish mob of all sorts and stations. Some, as Ryoka had seen, were vibrant, realer, more powerful. But they were still of the same nature, here for the party.

The second kind were the warriors, like the armored thing of frost and metal who stood next to Ulva Terland and the laughing fae on the Golem’s lap.

There were…less than a dozen of them. A paltry escort! And yet—each one made Tyrion sweat. His hand was on his sword. But he did not draw it.

Hospitality. There was more than an [Emperor]’s will in this. Part of him sensed that to offer violence in this place, at this time, was unwise. Even so—he had yet to release the grip on his sword.

Did they even have faces? What were they? The silent warriors took no part in the delight. Their armor and blades were of no make or style he could name. They stood half-invisible in their stillness.

Warriors of the Faerie King. Some, like Lady Rie, Bethal, Thomast, had seen one of them for the last party. Now, there were seven.

Magic in numbers. They stood around the place marked out for the fae, sentinels. Interestingly—that was how the fae had appeared.

None in the streets of Riverfarm. None past the place made without iron, specially designated for them. It was as if they knew where they were welcome. For all that, they called out, to the stunned crowd, to the entertainers.

 

“We’ve come! Bring your gifts, sellers of things!”

“Aye, and your food! Yon pile of snacks! The delights of sweet and breads! Bring it here!”

“Dance for us! Dance with us! We were promised a party like no other! On this longest day—show us delights!”

 

They laughed. Their voices a chorus, indistinguishable in the mob. But again—they were not all alike.

And they were here. The fae! Ryoka Griffin stared about as one cartwheeled past her, laughing. She caught a narrow face, eyes without pupils, dark, glittering. Wings—

A pixie? Only, human-sized! She leapt, and gravity forgot to touch her. Flashing past a Level 40 [Tumbler] soaring through the air. The performer from Invrisil gawked as much as the fae, and nearly missed her landing.

“You did it, Ryoka. You did it!”

Someone cried out. Durene. The half-Troll girl looked around for Ryoka, crying out in relief. She had not known all of the stakes, but she knew enough. Ivolethe—Ryoka’s party. And the wounded friend.

She had worked so hard for this moment. And it had happened at last! She wanted to find Ryoka and hug her. She saw the young woman, standing at the edge of the party. Durene ran over—and stopped.

It was true. This was the day. Or rather—evening and soon night. But it would be the grandest of parties. Three heads of the Five Families. The Summer Court. A hundred small miracles to make one grand one.

Everything she wanted. The Wind Runner had it now, the opportunity of a lifetime that might never come again. The third great party of the fae in this world in living memory.

And now they were here at last? Ryoka Griffin swayed on her bare feet. She was shuddering, dead white. Durene stared at her.

Why?

She did not understand. Ryoka had realized in that moment that she had not known what to expect. What form had she expected the fae to take? Honestly—

A version of the Winter Sprites. Like Erin’s first party for the fae, where they had entered her inn and devoured her foods, in miniature form.

Not this. She had not been here for the second party, when the summer fae had arrived. She had not seen them and no one had spoken of it in that detail, thinking Ryoka knew.

But their appearances here—were far different than the Winter Faeries. And to Ryoka, they conjured half-forgotten horror.

They had only taken this form in front of her once.

She remembered a fire. Visitors on a Solstice day. Lost fingers.

Ryoka reflexively looked around. But saw no…shadows. No mist. In fact, shadows were practically banished among the light, the sound—

But it was this day. And for a moment, the Wind Runner felt it. This was a moment. A time when great good—or ill—could occur.

She stirred herself after another second, realized Durene was there. Ryoka blinked. And the dark memory was gone. The glowing fae were like a beacon against the darkness. So long as they were here—no evil could intrude. No poison or treachery suffered!

So long as you were here. Ryoka walked forwards, into the gathering of the fae.

 

—-

 

Across the world, the Blighted King, Othius IV, who had reigned for longer than most mortal men had been alive, even half-Elves, saw the grand ritual begin.

No great gathering had been assembled the second time. No hundreds of Rhir’s finest nobility, warriors, and witnesses.

This ritual took place in secret. Far underground. In a vast, empty space cleared of everything except the magical circle.

To any student of magic, it was a strange conjuration. It had no reason to it. The magic circle itself was the most complex spell in existence. Undead servants and living [Mages] had labored without rest to draw the incredibly complex, minute patterns. Not a single part could be wrong. And yet—the circle had completed itself near the end. Repairing small mistakes.

That was already grand magic. And it frightened the [Mages] because they could neither understand it nor decipher any part of it. It was not magic as they knew it.

Second—the ritual space had no base of power. Nor a perceivable target. Spells needed a source of power, just like fire needed fuel. This one?

Well, the Blighted King knew one source of power. He stood, impatiently, with only Nereshal beside him.

The room was empty. So empty it was frightening. He had not made this a grand occasion. This was like the first experiments, when they had tried to summon one. And, apparently, failed.

But the scale of this circle was ten times the last one. An exponentially greater ritual. It would deliver him his victory. Othius’ hands were slightly clammy. His regal garb askew; and no servants to correct it. He felt as though everything should be perfect for his triumph.

He would make do. The [King] raised a hand.

“Begin.”

It began with a sigh. There were only six people in the room besides the two onlookers. Six [Mages].

One of them was High Mage Laisa. Her hands still felt the biting pain. She still shuddered with memory of her…interrogation.

But her faith in the Blighted Kingdom had been restored. The demons must be destroyed. She had doubted, fled, become traitor with the other [High Mages]—half of whom had disobeyed their king with her.

—Yet after meeting His Majesty in person, she had realized the error of her ways. Laisa had seen reason and gone back to her work.

Still, the sigh escaped her lips. It was too late to stop. But she was afraid.

The [Mages] channeled their linked mana into the spell to activate it. Then? All they had to do was keep the connection. Open…something.

The [High Mage] feared what would come next. She had felt it both times before. A…tearing. Something opening she could not explain. This time—she feared what would occur.

But for now, she simply stood. Feeling her power activate the ritual and it slowly begin to change something.

The Blighted King and Nereshal watched. After a while, they sat down. The one thing they had learned from the last ritual?

Bring chairs.

It took a long time.

 

—-

 

“They’re here. They’re here. Break out the drinks! The food! Entertainers, to the guest area! Remember—keep everyone else out. Children, the folk of Riverfarm—remember the rules!”

Mister Prost and Lady Rie were directing people from the edge of the gathering. Riverfarm’s folk and the many from abroad stared at the giant ring where the mysterious visitors frolicked. The party was going on in Riverfarm’s streets. But clearly—there was an inner gathering as well.

Many people wanted to attend. But Beniar, the army, and the noble’s escorts kept most back. It was for their safety.

And already, the gathering had begun to move past simply amazing into…wondrous. Both foul and fair.

“Dance with me, won’t you, sir? Little lord of these lands?”

A laughing, beautiful creature appeared in front of Lord Ranga. Mystified, he looked at the person; she had fins and gills.

“Are you a Drowned Woman? Er—that is to say, I’d be delighted, Miss…?”

Ranga! I’m right here!

His wife slapped him. The [Lord] heard delighted laughter and the trickster fae leapt away. This time to go after his son! The younger [Lord] instantly took her hand and Ranga went after both—why, he couldn’t say. His wife went after him—until one of the other fae beseeched her for a dance.

The nobles were whirled into the crowd, forgetting their dignity as the fae asked for a dance, conversation, a partner to eat or laugh with. Not just the nobility; the bodyguards, servants, were singled out for reasons only the fae knew.

A few of the fae were clearly here to make the mortals suffer, if only with tricks and pranks like Lord Ranga’s family. Some meetings were darker.

“I…know you. Don’t I?”

Lord Tourant’s son stopped, abruptly. Brushed at his face. Then shuddered. The two laughing fae who had seized his arms giggled.

He stared at his missing fingers. Then at them.

 

“You promised us such things, boy! Will you not fulfill your promise?”

 

“I—I did. But I misspoke.”

They laughed, uncaring, tugging him fiercely. One whispered at him.

 

“Yet you promised us. And we are not some mortal women. You promised us. Make good on your promise.”

 

He shuddered again. But trailed after them. Part of his ear was missing too. And yet—he was half-longing, half-terrified as he followed them into the shadows.

And some simply…odd.

Child! Ah, a child after so long!”

A tall figure, nearly eight feet tall, bent down. His? Her? Face was long, closer to equine. Their legs seemed far longer than the rest of them, for that matter.

They squatted down as Eliasor stared up. The figure laughed and sat.

“Little ones! Shall we play games? Show me your tricks! Play with me this game.”

They pointed at the chess board and Grev’s scam. The figure saw the children back away, even Grev, except for Eliasor.

Part of the [Lady] was wary. But she looked into the giant fae’s eyes and saw—

“Excuse me, sir. But do you wish to play games?”

“Yes. It has been too long since we have walked among the little ones. Tell me your grief, child. Then—abandon it.”

Nothing but pure kindness shone there. The giant smiled and Eliasor burst into tears. She sat, and played a game as the fae listened. Then—forgot her sadness and began to laugh. The other children began to gather around and spoke of the saddest things they had felt.

The sadness produced tears—then vanished. Then they laughed and the fae laughed too, in delight. They ate greedily from the tables, and ran about in delight.

Lady Zanthia watched the tall fae warily. No easy trust from her. As did the [Witches]. But the giant figure paid them no mind.

“It took their grief like one of us. What is it? I cannot tell its species—a half-Giant?”

“I do not know. If we must battle it—does it have a grip upon the children, do you think, Eloise?”

The [Witches] stood together. Agratha, Eloise, Mavika, Hedag—it was Agratha who turned to Eloise and Oliyaya. The scarred [Witch] made an indecipherable sound.

There were [Witches] in this gathering, young and old. They had invited themselves to the noble’s fancy. But like [Witches]—the old had not forbidden the young, despite the danger. Agratha had wanted to. The others had overruled them.

This was a time of power. And the [Witches], even the young ones, were warier of the fae than the other mortals.

“If we must do battle—it would be unwise, sisters. But if we must, do not break the rules of hospitality. And that [Lady] will help us.”

Zanthia was striding towards the tall fae, but somehow, never managing to get there. It was as if the children were a hundred miles away, and she never got closer no matter how fast she walked, despite one of them running past her. Zanthia stopped, bewildered.

And growing angrier.

“Is it a thing of good or evil, then?”

Mavika turned her head, almost astonished to hear the question coming from one of them. Hedag had asked. She had taken the worn executioner’s axe out and was studying the tall fae with bright eyes.

Wariness in the air.

Then—the [Witches] saw something that made them all stir. Agratha’s jaw dropped.

Impossible! It can’t be! It’s—

The tall figure had fingers proportionally as long as its legs. As it sat cross-legged and Eliasor pondered her move, the [Witches] saw a long line of…grief…draw from one finger to another. A line of thread.

Thread. The figure’s fingers moved, twisting the thread. Without perception of how, it grew longer, from a thin thread into a wider band of cloth. Wider—longer—

The thread grew more complex. Weaving in, out. With different shades of grief. Some petty, some terribly hard to bear, like Eliasor’s. Before the [Lady] had made a move, the figure had created…

A scarf. One with a pattern so complex that it almost hurt the eyes. Of soft blues, like that of the pine of blue spruce, shades of darkness like the shadows in caves, and fragments of gold; bright as a match’s first illumination in a dark room.

“It spins like Belavierr!

Agratha cried out. Oliyaya just laughed and clapped her hands. Her voice was raw when she spoke.

“No. Better. What creatures are these? The oldest! Did she learn from it?”

The [Witches] saw Zanthia stumble forwards suddenly, and nearly kick over the chess board. She caught herself, and the oldest [Lady] present rounded on the tall creature.

“Excuse me, sir or madam. But Lady Eliasor is my ward. I do not believe I taught her to converse so readily with strangers of your ilk.”

“Lady Zanthia. I was only—”

Eliasor started guiltily. Zanthia faced down the tall fae, clearly wary of its intentions. The [Witches] stirred. They did not want to test its strength; not after seeing it match Belavierr’s Skill in a moment. And even she could not have taken that grief so easily!

For a moment, the tall fae regarded Zanthia without expression. Simply—judging her. Then, the long features turned into a gentle smile. It reached out, and—quite unbidden—draped the scarf around Zanthia’s neck.

“There. You should have done better, mentor. Bear it this night and I will reward you your kindness.”

It spoke, admonishingly. Eloise stirred herself. She saw the old lady stumble, as if the scarf weighed—

All their grief, spun into that thing. Zanthia nearly sank to one knee. But the fae had not misjudged her. Her head rose and her hand half-touched the scarf. She looked at the fae, then at Eliasor, who was laughing as Grev, also smiling despite his loss, pointed out a move Erin had taught him.

“Ah.”

She looked at the fae. It held out a single finger, and Zanthia clasped it once. The thing smiled—

They had an agreement. Zanthia turned away, as the children laughed. The [Lady]’s chin rose, and she walked away, bearing the heavy scarf.

The [Witches] sighed in relief. And in truth—they needn’t have worried. Of the mortals here, the fae doted on the children. There were those who did not, of course.

But they were not welcome here. And—there were rules. The watching warriors stopped the two trying to pull Lord Tourant’s son out of the bounds of the party.

 

“But he promised! We have the right!”

 

One of the colorful fae protested. Last time no one had stopped them! But this time?

Frost emanated from one of the dark visors. A hand reached out and winter’s chill covered the land for a second, despite the warmth of the evening, the bright fires. The fae balked; turned pale.

One was greater than the other two combined. Far more. It was—intensity. The two sprang away from the [Lord] who gasped in relief.

 

Fine! Curses upon you!

 

The other spat and scrabbled in the dirt to throw a clod of soil at the warrior. It bounced off. The visor turned; the fae fled with a scream.

Childish. Petty. Grand and mysterious. And that was one moment out of many. Each person found themselves talking to the fae, the center of their story for a night.

Ryoka Griffin felt it. Time was already strange here. She felt as if the fae had been there—as if some of those events had taken place before everyone had seen them here. Certainly, as she pushed forwards, shouting for attention, Lady Zanthia already wore the scarf as she summoned a pouting Eliasor to attend.

And Ryoka had shouted at once for everyone to listen to her. She waved her arms as people drew around her. Even some of the fae, wanting to listen. Ryoka looked around.

They were here! But where was—she turned to a figure standing to attention.

“Gamel, where is Laken?”

The [Knight] blinked. Ryoka stared at him blankly, confused. He was always by Laken’s side as a bodyguard! Gamel frowned at the oddity too. Then his brow cleared.

“His Majesty is occupied.”

“Where?”

“I—don’t know.”

Another frown. Ryoka stared at him. Laken was occupied? Okay. Well then.

She turned back as the [Witches] marched over, and Lord Tyrion and a dozen nobles walked into view. Then Ryoka’s head slowly turned back. Wait a sec.

“I’m sure…Laken…would want to be here. Gamel.”

The young man’s eyes crossed. He opened and closed his mouth.

“But he is—occupied—Miss Griffin. We should not bother him.”

But…Laken was an [Emperor]. And didn’t she need…? Ryoka’s mind struggled for a moment, but there was nothing to struggle with. It was like trying to fight nothing.

Nothing at all. Yet surely he’d want to—to—

Laken was not at the party of the fae. He was not here. He was occupied. Ryoka’s expression cleared at once.

Oh, of course he was. Well, the party would have to go on without the [Emperor]…why, exactly?

She strained. But it slipped away. And then—

 

—-

 

Since only one person from Earth was at the party, Ryoka summoned Riverfarm’s people, the nobility, and everyone else in earshot. She repeated the rules they had been told; this time with emphasis.

“Promise them nothing. Offer them nothing. Make no deals with them; there’s nothing to be gained here. Any [Merchant] who wants to sell your wares—if you want to wake up with a handful of flowers the next day, be my guest.”

The listeners stirred. Some of the [Traders] hesitated. The fae were flashing gold and gemstones at them. Ryoka felt the dream-like quality herself.

Listen to me. Just don’t give offense. Don’t promise anything. Step out of this party—go to Riverfarm if you feel like you’re getting sucked in. Beyond that? They have rules too.”

She saw Lord Tourant’s son walking towards Riverfarm, abandoning the party. A few people joined him. She thought they might be the ones with the most sense. Ryoka felt like she was forgetting something—but there was nothing else she could say.

She eyed Lady Zanthia.

“Their deals are seldom ones you’d enjoy, milady. You—you should take off that scarf.”

The old [Lady] raised a hand to the thing around her neck, then shook her head. She fixed Ryoka with a stern eye.

“I will not. Rather, young lady, it seems you are exaggerating. There are deals to be made for the better. But they carry their deal of risk. As do all trades.”

Ryoka hesitated. That was true. It was just—with the fae, you really were dealing with the highest stakes. You couldn’t renege, or negotiate.

“Just be careful. Especially [Merchants]. You could lose all your goods if you try to sell them here.”

“I heard the flowers are worth something, though.”

A [Trader] murmured. He was eying a heaping handful of gold one of the fae held out. The Wind Runner whirled.

“How do you know that?

Erin had never told anyone! But the [Trader] just pointed at one of the fae.

“They told me.”

The giggling figures offering the fake gold laughed as Ryoka turned on them. They flitted away, like naughty children. Ryoka shook her head after a moment.

“If they told you, then you know they’re tricking you! Don’t be stupid! You’ve been warned. Neither his Majesty nor I will recompense you.”

The man hesitated. He eyed the gold longingly, then shook himself and stepped away. The fae cursed and hurled the gold at Ryoka. Some of the people went scattering, picking it up. Ryoka just shielded her face and swore back.

That hurt! Throw them elsewhere! I know what they are! Ow! Stop it! Why the hell do they hurt?”

A sly voice in her ear. A tufted-ear fae winked at Ryoka and whispered with a voice unlike the others.

“They are not flowers anymore, but pebbles. The Winter Court said there was too much value in flowers. Ah, what tricks mortals play!

Ryoka turned to the figure. His voice didn’t have that…ephemeral quality some of the others did. A different species? His eyes were like an animal’s. The pupils—he winked and bounded off.

“It seems you have your visitors. Worthy of an [Emperor] indeed. Do you need…assistance, Miss Griffin?”

Lord Tyrion stiffly spoke. Ryoka turned; her cheeks bulged and she let out a laugh before she could help it.

The [Lord] had already been beset by the fae. They’d put flowers in his hair, draped a garland of buds around his neck, and tossed petals all over him. Jericha kept removing them; but somehow there were more flowers and he looked like a bouquet.

Tyrion did not quite look like a statue, but he was certainly stiff with cold indignation. Ryoka covered another laugh.

“I’m—sorry. They’re tricksters, Lord Veltras. And I think—”

She looked around.

“I think I’m fine. I have to do this. Alone, I mean.”

He nodded.

“Simply call if you need aid. Jericha—I will have a drink.”

“Yes, Lord Veltras!”

The flustered woman hurried off after him. Ryoka watched the flower-bedecked [Lord] for a moment and wished she had time to see all the hilarity. Certainly, there was that, and great meetings afoot!

The nobility’s titles earned them little here. The fae mingled with them with cheery good humor, out for their own entertainment, some with agendas. Now Ryoka stared at them, trying to find reason in the chaos.

Searching for the one or ones she needed.

It was hard. They all looked like, well, folk. Humanoid in shape, lithe, ethereal, possessed of that quality of half-Elves, but not diluted.

Beyond that? Ryoka could pin them down neither by the color nor nature of their skin, nor anything else. Some had feathers, others horns. Some appeared covered in fur, but the thing was—she couldn’t be sure of anything. If she stared too close, her eyes unfocused. It was fine to take in the fae, but to try and ask what exact shape their ears were? That was when the mind seemed to untether itself.

Three of them were different, though. As Ryoka had observed; there was an intensity about them. That was how you determined their nature.

Some were as close to mortal as you got. Others seemed realer than reality. They drew the eye. They had the quality of power in every inch of them, such that you knew they were something.

It was like an aura. The figure who had given Zanthia the scarf was certainly…more vivid than two thirds of the rest.

But not the most intense. There were three of them, who were even more there than the seven warriors.

Three, seven. Magical numbers. It made sense too; three for three.

Each one different. One was male, flighty, graceful and ethereal, like the Summer Court. The other, female, dangerous, serpentine. The last? Tall, venerable, stationary.

That was the feeling Ryoka got from all three. She knew—one of them was the one she sought.

She tried to get towards them. Walking through the crowd. But she had forgotten.

This night was not hers alone. And the fae had little interest in her, at least, most of them. Ryoka began to make her way after the three figures as they mingled, but people, meetings, events, got in her way. And each attracted the eye.

Ulva Terland was seated, her escort lamely trying to fend off a group of four fae guests who were ignoring them. None of them were willing to draw a weapon, and the Golems acted as if the fae weren’t there.

“I—I am Ulva Terland. Please stop putting flowers in my hair.”

The [Lady] protested weakly; the fae were planting beautiful blooms in her hair. Not like the nectar and sap-covered ones they’d besmirched Tyrion with. She was about to rise to get away when one caught her hand.

“Don’t go! Stay! Sit with us! We know grief! We know loss!”

He beckoned her to sit. The others chorused agreement. Ulva hesitated.

“But it is undignified. You are not nobility.”

“So? Sit and rest your burdens! We have dined with great kings and queens! You should bow to us!”

They laughed. Perplexed, but feeling like she was in some pleasant daydream, Ulva sat. She would never have said such things normally. But this was no normal time.

Ryoka stumbled past the group, and heard the one who had beseeched Ulva first speak. She looked sideways and saw—

An earnest face. Beautiful eyes and lips, focused on the [Lady] with real concern. Brushed features, as if carved by a master. A youthful countenance, swept hair so that the boy looked nothing past sixteen.

And then—

The stone held the [Lady]’s hand. Or perhaps—she held it. Nothing more than stone. No more artistry than what wind and time had given it. Ryoka stared at the thing made of pure, glowing jade and heard its voice in her head.

“You are so sad, lady! The King of Goblins cut your heart in two, didn’t he? And half your soul is lost. More than just a sister, she was, wasn’t she? Half of you.

Lady Ulva started. She looked at the fae—the young man—the jade being—with wide eyes. She murmured.

“Yes. H-how did you know? We were [Twin Virtues]. We—I’ve forgotten how to laugh. I’m so afraid of death. Of oblivion…she is gone. And half of me—”

“Put it aside. Eat. Dance! And be kinder to your children of metal and stone.”

The figure assured her. It indicated the still War Golem. The lights in its gemstone eyes were flickering as another of the…stone-fae hugged it, laughing. Ryoka walked past, wanting to turn back. But she could not, as Ulva was enticed back into the party.

A second exclamation, from the stage. The Players of Celum were performing now, and it was the performance of their lifetimes.

A Midsummer’s Night Dream. That was what Ryoka had assumed would be best. The [Actor] emerged onto the stage.

He was playing Puck. Unlike other performances where he was the lead actor, he’d taken the prankster’s role, having the talent for it. He emerged, laughing, the spirit of mischief on cue—

“How now, spirit! whither wander you?”

Puck turned to the Fairy, Act II, Scene 1, and the Fairy turned to him. Instead of one of the [Actors], Wesle saw a laughing face. Actual wings. She danced around him, giggling and replying.

 

“Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere!”

 

Wesle’s jaw dropped. In the audience, both fae and [Actor] alike fell over themselves laughing. Wesle barely managed to reply as the faerie spoke her lines, perfectly. He stumbled forwards until the arrival of the Faerie King himself and found instead of Kilkran, it was a fae, the audience cheering and hooting at the representation of their king.

They were taking part! But with a twist. The Faerie King spoke his lines; the laughing fae had put antlers on his head, the props, and the costume.

 

“Tarry, rash wanton: am not I thy lord?”

 

Then his eyes gleamed, and the fae threw down the antlers and smashed them with one foot.

 

“But I am not thy lord! Nor is this the King of Faeries! Enough! Begone with yon poor play! Give us other tales! But not this poor mimicry!”

 

The other fae in the audience cheered and the ‘Queen’ and ‘Fairy’ tore off their costumes. Some of the fae cried out.

 

“And give us parts! We want to be story and tale!”

“Yes, another story! Not this tripe!”

 

They were good-natured. But their will implacable. Emme scrambled, and soon had a cast with one fourth fae, who strutted onto stage reciting their lines poorly and arguing with the crowd, and [Actors]. Two plays, in fact, so the fae could become actors of their own as they wished.

 

—-

 

Ryoka breathed out hard when she saw that. That could have been horrible. She’d thought the fae approved of stories about them!

But not the Faerie King. His name—she nearly spoke it aloud. Was it that name? Surely there was some truth to it. Perhaps if she uttered it—

“O—”

Every immortal head in forty paces turned suddenly. And the merriment ceased. Ryoka bit the word off on the tongue. She saw them staring. Then they relaxed and went back to their pastimes.

Don’t say it, then.

On stage, the Battle for Invrisil, a cheap, Andel-written production that he’d dashed off in half a day, was taking place. Fae were enjoying hurling ‘daggers’ and attacking each other on stage. The audience was laughing at the slapstick as a more somber Othello played out on the grass on the second ‘stage’.

Fireworks overhead. Mage spells, rather. And the thing about mage spells was not only did they have the explosions, lights, and sound, but also smells. Ryoka smelled brimstone as a roaring Wyvern took flight, battling what might have been a Phoenix.

Ice and fire. She felt the cold and heat collide as people applauded below. Where were they?

There were too many people! Too many attractions! Ryoka kept catching sight of one of the three, but kept losing them.

Not just because of the crowds. It was how they moved. The fae had a grace no one, not even Thomast, or those with movement Skills, could match.

They flickered from spot to spot, whirling through the crowd, dancing as if they teleported. But it wasn’t teleportation. Ryoka saw one go through a crowd of bodies clustered around a tray of jam tarts. It was so much of a press that even Sammial and Hethon couldn’t squeeze through the gaps, and oh, the boys were trying.

Yet, somehow, the fae slipped through a gap between the bodies. Ryoka saw the figure twist, step—it looked so natural that Lord Ranga’s son tried it and slammed into the knot of people. As if you had never learned how to properly step sideways and if you only could, you could step through any crack in the world…

Ranga’s son and the group went down in a sprawl and Sammial and Hethon grabbed two tarts and were away, savoring the blackberry sweets with delight. So did the fae, who had grabbed three and was gobbling them down greedily.

The trick had impressed the two boys. They stared up at the fae. Hethon was content to gobble, having listened to Ryoka’s rules and those by the [Emperor].

But Sammial?

Sammial was Sammy. And he pointed up at the guest.

“What are you? Will you teach me how to do that?”

He pointed at one of the cavorting fae, with long horns and a nearly nude upper torso and…goat’s hooves? She winked at him. She?

Ryoka paused, panting, having run after one of the three and stared at the Satyr. She bent down, cloven hooves dancing upon some brickwork.

“I? I am me, little boy. I could teach you how to walk between the edges of things. It is not hard for us! But what will you give me if I do?”

Fae bargains. Ryoka uneasily turned towards him. But then she saw the shining dancer whirl past and tried to jump after him. She failed; he was gone across the dance floor in an instant.

Hethon licked his jam-covered lips.

“Sammy, I don’t think this is a good idea.”

Sammial’s brow wrinkled as he stared up at the horned woman.

“Give you? My gratitude as a [Lord]. Or money? My father will pay you.”

The Satyr blinked, took a bite of her jam tart, then sprayed crumbs as she laughed in his face.

“Hah! Gratitude? Naught for naught, brat!

She turned away, losing interest at once. Sammy wiped spit and crumbs off his face. Then he got mad.

“Don’t turn away from me!”

“Or what? What will you do, little lord who speaks like a lion?”

She mooned him, flicking up a tufted tail. Some of the other fae listening laughed themselves off their feet. Sammy turned bright red. Ryoka was hurrying back when she felt a familiar pressure.

Oh no. Sammy pointed at the Satyr and shouted.

“You will teach me. I command it!

The aura touched the female Satyr—and broke. Sammial stumbled backwards. Some of the watching nobility whistled. Pryde herself blinked as she turned, drink in hand, from talking with a faerie about gains in weight lifting.

It wasn’t that the aura hadn’t worked. It was that it had been blown away without effort. The Satyr’s eyes narrowed. She drew herself up as Sammial stared at her. And her voice grew deeper, a flash of annoyance crossing her merry expression.

“Command me? You are not my king or a king at all! I have danced in the courts of great kings of men. Go elsewhere with your trick, little boy. For you’ve offended my nature, demanding so. Not for the ransom of a Dragon’s hoard will I teach you, or ambrosia fit for—”

She hesitated. A word hovered in the air, unspoken. The other fae hissed softly around her and the Satyr caught herself.

“—for heroes and saints! Begone, bratling.”

And she shoved him upon the chest, so hard, Sammial fell on his rear end. Doubtless it didn’t really hurt, but he was up in a second.

“How dare you!”

Hethon tried to catch his brother, but Sammy darted forwards. Face red, he balled up a fist. The Satyr looked down and Sammy punched her in the leg.

The furry leg didn’t so much as shift. The half-Goat fae didn’t blink. And yet—Ryoka looked up as the mood around the young [Lord] shifted.

“You have breached hospitality, little boy. That was unwise of you.”

The Satyr slowly looked down. Sammy glared up at her. The glare slowly turned into uncertainty. And then…

A touch of fear.

The Satyr smiled. It was not a kindly smile. Her teeth were very sharp.

A harsh buzzing filled the air, and some of the nobles and people of Riverfarm groaned aloud to hear it. They knew that sound.

The fae around her abandoned their refreshments. They turned, eyes gleaming, turning…insectile? Predatory, at least. Their enjoyments and whimsy and kindness were one side of a narrow coin. On the other?

Cruelty and the delight in such things lay. The Satyr reached down as Sammial backed up. Hethon tried to bar her way. Across the party, Lord Tyrion and Jericha turned. House Veltras’ guards stirred.

“Stop.”

The Satyr stopped. Ryoka Griffin, panting, touched her arm. Just a touch.

The fae woman turned.

“You saw, windfriend. Did you not see him offend me twice, in word and then deed?”

“I saw.”

Ryoka wanted to curse Sammial. Why was he here? They should have kept him in Riverfarm! But of course he was attracted to this inner party. She kept her gaze on the Satyr.

“He’s just a boy. A rude one.”

“Then he should suffer for his tongue. I would only do that.”

The Satyr tilted her head. Ryoka half-nodded.

“He should. But his father won’t take kindly to the lesson. Please—”

Sammial made an outraged noise, but quietly. Ryoka looked at the Satyr, thinking what could be done to prevent a fight. Because if someone drew their weapon, she was sure one of the warriors would intervene. And then someone would die.

“—What do you want me to do to repay his insult, Lady Satyr?”

The fae’s eyes brightened. She looked at the Wind Runner, and then hugged Ryoka suddenly in delight. She smelled like, well, a goat, but not foul. Rather like a clean goat in a field of scented flowers. She smiled in delight, and then kissed Ryoka on the cheek.

“You know me? You know me! I did not think one of your ilk would remember!”

“Of course. Satyrs. I uh—Bacchus? Or Dionysus, if you prefer. I didn’t expect a Satyr to be here—do those words mean anything to you?”

“They do. But such things are not to be spoken of here. Well, someone remembers the stories!”

“Many people do.”

The harsh buzzing faded. The Satyr smiled; but she had not forgotten the insult. She looked Ryoka up and down and then laughed.

“For that, my anger is half appeased, little windfriend! If you wish to repay that boy’s offense, take it up!”

She pointed at Sammial. Ryoka licked her lips.

“How?”

The Satyr rolled her eyes as if it were obvious. She pointed at Sammial, then herself.

“Show me something I have never learned. Go on! Just as the boy demanded I do. Teach me something and I will forgo insult!”

“Ah.”

Shit. Ryoka’s mind whirled. She hated faerie rules. Because you couldn’t cheat like a Dragon. She doubted Pythagoras’ Theorem or some complex mathematical feat would be acceptable. Teriarch? It worked on him. The fae? They’d probably beat her to death.

How about how to be shot three times by a crossbow bolt and survive? Ryoka felt an urge to laugh. But this was serious. The Satyr was smiling in that way that said Ryoka had to answer now. Or the consequences would be the consequences.

Ryoka looked around. Think. Stories? No, but the Satyr wanted something. How to bake something? Make a trebuchet?

No, no, no. How about martial arts? But then—Ryoka doubted the Satyr didn’t know how to kick someone. Her eyes roamed the still area of the party ground, searching for inspiration.

She alighted on something held by a [Lady] watching with a [Chevalier]. Lady Bethal slowly licked the cupcake as she watched the drama. The frosting was red. Also? Glowing.

Ryoka stared at it. That was—she knew why the frosting was glowing.

Strongheart Sage’s Grass for a magical, glowing frosting. Some of the food, the recipes, had been supplied from Liscor. By an [Innkeeper] and her friends.

She should have been there. But she was not. Yet—this was why Ryoka was here.

It came to her in a moment. A memory, and the answer.

A memory of a little Gnoll, a farm.

A happy day.

Ryoka turned to the Satyr. Why was she wasting her time here? Because the fae were watching her. Even one of the three. Because it mattered. The party as a whole. This moment. Was it all a test?

The Satyr was smiling. She waited, expectantly. Perhaps waiting for Ryoka to fail. Some of the fae were, betting their fake gold against actual money with some of the nobility.

Ryoka smiled.

“Very well, Lady Satyr. May I at least try again if I fail?”

“I suppose so. But you had better try.”

She smiled at Ryoka. The Wind Runner took a few steps back and bowed.

“Thank you. Then—something even you have not seen before? A trick? Well, do you know how to do this?”

She took a breath. And before she could worry about it, she performed a trick.

Or rather, tricking. The Wind Runner ran and leapt, calling on the air and memory. She launched off one leg. And her other leg carried her up and around in an entire rotation. The same trick that had delighted Ivolethe.

A cork. But the wind carried her up. Ryoka rotated, spinning nearly three times the normal rotation, and landed, nearly falling over, but saving the landing. So…a triple cork in the air? She spread her arms and turned to face the Satyr and audience.

The fae stared—and then laughed. They applauded, shouting with delight.

 

Flew! She flew! Yet not a flip or a spin! What was that?”

Oho! The girl flips and turns and twists just so! Do it again!

 

The Satyr herself was laughing with delight. She hopped, trying to imitate Ryoka, and then gave up.

“A sight I have never seen! What trick of legs and acrobatics was that?”

“Is it new, then?”

“Yes, yes! Show me! What things you Humans come up with!

She pestered Ryoka, forgetting her fury in a moment. Ryoka showed her how she’d stood and did it again—minus the wind. The Satyr watched as Ryoka landed—then copied how Ryoka had stood.

She leapt and mimicked the Wind Runner exactly, cloven hooves and half-goat form twisting with amazing grace in the air. Ryoka’s jaw dropped as the Satyr landed.

Another!

The goat-fae demanded. Ryoka could have turned her down, but the Satyr and other fae wanted to see. And one of the three—

Ryoka obliged. Hethon and Sammial saw their father and Jericha arrive at last, through the party. All four watched as Ryoka spun and leapt, in amazing ways! Ways Hethon had never imagined someone could move!

The fae were copying her. Some with greater or lesser dexterity. But the Satyr kept pace.

So did the Level 40 [Tumbler], who was copying Ryoka’s moves. Moves from another world. All three were laughing; then the [Tumbler] performed a trick where she did a fast summersault-into-handspring. Ryoka didn’t even try that. You must have needed a Skill—

Or a Satyr. The goat woman copied the trick and the [Tumbler] gawked. The fae laughed, applauding Ryoka. And all was well.

Sammial Veltras was scolded by his father—then Jericha—and then Hethon punched him on the arm. Then came Ryoka Griffin, panting.

“Don’t do that again. Ever.”

She sat down for a second. The sullen [Lord] looked at her, glaring.

“I am a [Lord] of House Veltras! She insulted me! I was defending my honor!”

He was mad because he was right. His father always said to be a proud [Lord], but he was only angry now. Neither he nor Jericha had said more than Sammial was very foolish! The [Lord] was hopping mad and looking for Hethon to punch back.

Ryoka on the other hand just stared at Sammy blankly.

“You’re a [Lord]? So what? She could have bitten half your face off before Jericha or your father did a thing, or kicked your skull out of your skin. Don’t be stupid.”

The boy hesitated. This was not how adults normally talked to him.

“…She wouldn’t have done that.”

Ryoka gave him a long look that said ‘yes’. She sighed, and wiped sweat off her brow as she pointed back at the Satyr.

“They’re more important than you are. More important than me—or your father. You should be bowing to them. Think of it like that.”

Sammy’s jaw dropped. He stared at the fae.

“But they’re not! Are they?”

“Treat them like they are. Now, I saved you once. I’m not going to be able to do it again. Either promise to behave, or I’ll ask Jericha to lock you in one of Riverfarm’s houses.”

She glared at him. Belatedly, Sammial realized she had done all that for him and remembered his manners.

“Thank you for saving me, Miss Ryoka Griffin. I promise to behave.”

He muttered sullenly. Ryoka smiled briefly. She rose and stretched out her legs.

“You’re welcome. Do that again and I’ll hit you.”

“But I’m a [Lord] and you’re a Runner!”

Sammy protested. Ryoka stared at him again as if he had goat’s horns growing out of his head.

“So? I have a hand, too. Everyone does. Remember that. If you’re going to make people mad, you’d better have Jericha, at least. Now, I have to go.”

She trotted off with those words of wisdom in Sammial’s head. He’d never thought of it like that. He looked at Lady Bethal as she passed, laughing and wanting to try the tricks with Thomast, remembered the stories about her, and edged away.

Ryoka was panting after that moment. But she was glad she’d been there. She doubted the Satyr would have been kind. And no kid deserved to be hurt.

Well—but no. Not spanked, much less beaten. Or whatever the fae might have done. Sammy reminded her of herself. And if anyone had thought you could beat bad habits out of children, they’d have killed her long before anything changed.

People had done just that…

Ryoka shook her head. Then she realized—she was only a few steps away from one of her targets. The moment with Sammial and the Satyr had helped her, for the figure had stopped and looked back.

One of three. Ryoka stiffened. Her bare feet slowed upon the grass.

The eyes fixed her in place. Slitted pupils.

Depthless eyes. Ryoka felt like she was falling through the depths of them. Falling—falling deeper. She cried out, but the sound was lost.

She fell, through the air. Into a liquid made of the eyes. Deeper.

The Wind Runner gasped as the eyes shifted away from her. And that had been just a look. She looked again and saw—for a moment—an outline of something—

And then it was gone. And all that remained was the guest. She looked different. It was hard to focus on her.

Because it was not entirely her. Just a reflection on the waters. The young woman realized it in a flash of understanding. The Satyr was real. But this?

For all that, Ryoka made out more details as she stumbled forwards. She was…a Drake? No, like a cross between a serpent and a Drake.

A long tail, a longer neck—those slitted eyes. And when she looked down at Ryoka, her scales were a mix of onyx and byzantium. Her scales shifted as Ryoka spoke and she turned.

“Excuse me—excuse me. May I have a word?”

Ryoka halted as the head swung down and around. The sounds of the party faded again as those eyes—she looked away, shuddering.

She could not meet the fae’s eyes. Nor—as the being spoke, was Ryoka sure it was one of the fae. The voice was low, sibilant. The purest tones of—of—

It couldn’t be.

“Do you sspeak to me, little thing, to require an answer?”

The serpentine woman spoke, sounding increasingly offended with each syllable. She glared at Ryoka and the young woman froze as a mouse before a…snake.

“I—I only wished to talk. To ask you—”

The serpentine woman snagged a roasted bird of some kind and bit it—no, swallowed the entire thing. It might have been as large as a turkey, but it was gone in a bite. Again, Ryoka espied some kind of shape beyond this one. She flicked out a forked tongue.

“My words are not worthless as yours. Give me a worthy sacrifice and I will answer you.”

“Sacrifice? I only wanted to—”

The woman turned her gaze on Ryoka, and the impression of her annoyance at Ryoka’s stupidity left a mark. Ryoka wavered and the haughty woman explained with a hiss of impatience.

“This party is why I converse in polite words and deed. Were it not for that, I would say nothing else. For knowledge or favors, I require a worthy gift.

She knew Ryoka had a question for her. The Wind Runner hesitated. If she were to just ask about the weather or something, or how she was finding the food—

“The sky is clear. The light fading. I have known far greater dishes, but these amuse me. Worthless answers for worthless questions. Does it amuse you, mortal girl?

The two eyes bored into Ryoka’s head. Ryoka felt twin pinpricks of pain.

One of the Faerie King’s warriors stirred. At once—the serpentine lady shifted her gaze away. Ryoka raised a trembling hand. Touched at two—bloody divots on her flesh—

Her eyes. Ryoka reached for a potion, though they were just surface cuts. She drank it, then backed up.

Okay. The Satyr was like the warm-up. The smallest of hurdles. This was the biggest of them. Rethink. Remember the rules—

The Wind Runner approached the serpent again, as half the table of food disappeared into her mouth. The servers ran for the bags of holding with food, fleeing the guest’s approach. Ryoka herself felt like she wanted to pee—then hide in a hole.

But there was no hole in the world where you could hide from her. The woman turned.

“Well? Your gift?”

She knew Ryoka had one. But perhaps refrained from peeking in order to be surprised. Ryoka offered her a shining handful of coins.

“…Will you take four hundred pieces of gold, milady?”

That was her first try. The figure bent, her neck letting her head inspect the glittering gold. Her tongue flicked up—then she turned away.

“An alloy.”

“Worth something nonetheless, milady.”

“Not to me.

A warning tone in her voice. Ryoka gulped.

“Then how about…?”

This time, her handful made the glittering serpent eyes flick back in interest. Ryoka held what was worth less than four hundred gold—but purer.

Gemstones. A sapphire, two rubies, one glittering with inner magic, a topaz—a small orb of gold, and so on. Gemstones.

She had some, thanks to a certain Hobgoblin. But she had been holding onto them for the—well, other fae. However, this was the moment to use them.

“Small.”

That was all the serpent said at first. But her eyes were avaricious. Small or not, Pyrite had learned how to bring out a stone’s beauty. And small or not, she wanted them. Ryoka gulped, then made to put the stones away.

“If you don’t want them, milady—”

A hand caught hers. As swift as—and implacable in its grip.

“I did not say I did not want them.”

The smile was, predictably, needle-sharp. The guest loomed over Ryoka. She looked over the Wind Runner and then grinned.

“Sshall we play a game? The rules of hospitality shall be put aside for this. These are my conditions.”

She indicated the handful.

“Give me six, and I will answer one small question. Should you ask two, or what is worth more than your paltry gift, I will take what is owed.”

And here the stakes rose. Ryoka gritted her teeth. She saw the armored warriors watching. But the serpent had just bypassed the rules of hospitality.

“Won’t you offer me an answer without a game, milady?”

“No. Accept my terms or naught at all.

She was smiling. It wasn’t the worst bet. Ryoka licked her lips. Just—just be careful.

“I accept.”

Instantly, the woman plucked six tokens from Ryoka’s hands. The Wind Runner put them away as she motioned.

“Ask, ask!

She refused to be rushed. Ryoka took a breath. A small question. Anymore and she forfeited—she pondered her wording, and then went with it before she could lose her nerve.

“Are you a member of the Faerie King’s court, one who could ask him for a favor?”

The head regarded her. The lips twitched up.

“No. I am not.”

Ryoka hesitated. Then closed her lips. The serpentine woman came forwards.

“Give me the rest and I will let you ask another question. Go on. Give them to me, the precious little things.

Ryoka did. They were snatched away. She was nearly scratched by a claw, but there were rules. And clearly—the woman had to hold to them. Ryoka took a breath. Small question—

“Then—can you help me with my quest?”

This time, the serpent looked at Ryoka and her expression was gloating.

I cannot.

The Wind Runner looked at her. And the guest laughed in her face. Ryoka felt her heart sink. Then what are you?

“What—”

Too late, she realized what she was doing and clamped her lips shut. The eyes flickered, and the woman looked slightly disappointed.

“Don’t you have another question for me?”

Ryoka kept her lips shut. Of course she did. Hundreds. The first being—but she would not ask. She took a shuddering breath, seeing the woman toying with the precious little baubles. It wasn’t anything. She’d narrowed it down. Ryoka forced a smile onto her face.

“Okay then. Thanks. Pleasure doing business with you—enjoy the party. Please don’t offer anyone else your deals. They do not understand, and thus it probably violates the rules of hospitality and the Faerie King’s laws against interfering with this world.”

She gave the woman a beaming, false smile. It quite took the guest of the fae aback. She hesitated, narrowed her eyes, and glowered at Ryoka. The Wind Runner was already walking backwards, afraid to turn her back until she was well out of range. The other two—

“…Wait. Don’t you want to know what I am?”

The woman addressed Ryoka. The young woman stopped. She smiled again, this time more genuinely.

“I’m fine. And the game is over, milady. I thank you for your answers.”

The serpent looked…she advanced.

“But you do not know what I am. And you surely wish to know.”

Ryoka did. She spoke honestly, from the heart.

“Absolutely, Miss. However, I can’t pay the forfeit of that knowledge, I’m sure. I guess I’ll live the rest of my life not knowing who I met. Or of your august nature, milady. It’s a shame, but that’s the way life goes. I’ll take the question to my grave.”

On a hunch, she turned her back and began to wander back into the party. Ryoka determinedly thought—what a shame. Guess I’ll never know. And no one else will either.

The figure blocked her path. The Drake-serpent—no, the figure behind her spoke. And Ryoka heard the imperious flash in her voice.

I am a Wyrm, girl. Sikeri’val-Toreshio-Maresssui, or so it is in the plain, worthless tongue. I came for my half-kin who still walk this world. For this day of days, in this company. And for free food.”

Her eyes caught Ryoka’s. And the Wind Runner fell—fell—

And landed in the same place. She looked up, and there, behind the Wyrm.

She was coiled upon the ground, upon herself. No wings! No legs! But a being that could not be compared to insects or pathetic little worms. Half of her was Draconic—she was no worm, no Wyvern! She was a—

Wyrm.

Ryoka gaped up at her. And she looked around and realized; no one stood to the left or right of her, or behind. They kept their distance, as she moved around them. The woman bared her teeth and Ryoka’s soul quailed.

But. She had seen a Dragon. The Wind Runner held her position, though her knees shook. This was a Wyrm not born of this world. Of that she was certain. Slowly, she bowed.

“I have met one of your kin, milady Sikeri’val.”

I know.

The Wyrm hissed. Her real voice made Ryoka’s bones fidget in her body.

“I had thought to meet him. But he is not here. A pity. Still. This company came only for the trivial pleasures of it. So too, I. You have your answers. I cannot help you with what you desire.”

Ryoka nodded slowly. One of the other two, then. And she thought she knew which one. She began to back up—

Sikeri slithered around her, uncoiling and moving so fast that Ryoka barely saw her appear from the other side. She was so vast that a single bite could have swallowed many Ryokas whole. And yet she was smaller in this place—and still her size.

Time and space. The Wyrm spoke again.

“I also came for another reason. A prophecy. Don’t you want to know what it is?”

Ryoka felt a prickle on her spine. She glanced up into those eyes again—jerked her head away too late.

“N-no. I’m fine. Really. I’d better get going, milady…”

She edged away. Again, the huge form moved. Encircling her. The head bent low. And the whisper—this time Ryoka’s entire body shuddered.

“It involves you.

Ryoka’s head jerked. She stopped. Sikeri smiled once more. Ryoka saw a dancing tongue.

“The others, they will not tell you it even exists. Let alone what it is. But I am not of the Faerie King’s court. Merely a guest in his realm. I could tell you what it is. For a price.”

“Why do I think I couldn’t afford it, milady?”

Ryoka looked around for an escape. But none came and no one else would budge Sikeri. The Wyrm bent lower, until she was but inches away with her real form from Ryoka’s face.

“You can. And you would not suffer for it, believe me. All I want is a promise. A teensy promise for the future. It may never come to pass.”

The young woman looked into one huge eye. And she began to lose herself in the depths again. Ryoka tried to pull away. But it was so hard—

“Just promise me. And I will tell you what was spoken of you.

Her voice was so enticing. Ryoka’s hand clenched. Something cold froze her skin. Pain woke her slightly. She spoke, in a trembling voice.

“Great Wyrm Sikeri—I regret to say that you made one mistake.”

“Oh?”

The serpent blinked. Ryoka stepped back.

“Yes. I’m very tempted. But someone already offered me the same kind of deal. And I refused her first. Take it up with Belavierr the Stitch Witch. As for me—I refuse. By the right of hospitality, I ask that you leave me be!”

The Wyrm recoiled, hissing in sudden fury.

You dare deny me?

She made such a sound that the party went silent. Ryoka fell to her knees, holding her ears. She saw the seven warriors move. But the Wyrm was so furious even they failed to intimidate her. She reared back—

And stopped. The predatory fangs slowly retracted from their bared state. The giant serpent slowly uncoiled. She backed away further.

The second of the guests stood next to Ryoka. And he looked at the Wyrm and she slowly moved back. Not in complete fear, but warily. She hissed a curse and then—fled back to the buffet lines. Half of it vanished in a gulp, and the atmosphere calmed.

The warriors went back to their stations. Ryoka exhaled. She really needed to pee. But she looked up and—

Saw him. Or—it? The figure stooped. And like the one who had taken away the sorrow of the children, he was tall. But unlike that figure—taller still.

He put Moore to shame. He put the distant mountain to shame. He was taller than both, and with each step, he could have covered leagues.

And yet, Ryoka could look up at him without straining her neck. She was beginning to understand the trick of it. Representations. She looked up at the figure and he nodded to her.

“I came for the children. It has been too long since they played at my feet. Too long since I saw mortal delights. A fine temptation, child. But you invite more than the fair folk to such gatherings.”

He whispered. Ryoka heard his voice, like rustling. Like—

She looked up, sensing more of his nature. Then she bowed. Unlike Sikeri, this personage only instilled the greatest wonder in her. Instinctive respect, not danger. She saw only time in his eyes, not a malevolent depth.

But he did look tired. And old. And a bit sad, for all he smiled. Ryoka heard him sigh. And again—it was rustling.

Like a hundred thousand leaves blowing in the wind. And if she looked at his representation she thought his arms and legs looked gnarled. Like…roots…

Again, she bowed. And if Nalthaliarstrelous had been here, surely he would have fallen to his knees.

“Sir. Thank you. Thank you for…thank you. May I ask…?”

The great boughs moved as somewhere high overhead, the figure shook its head. It spoke, and it was an it, for all Ryoka had thought he.

“I am of the land beyond, wind’s friend, unlike the one who fled her lair and world past. But I do not have the ear of the King of Fae.”

“You mean…you can’t help me?”

Ryoka’s heart sank again. She looked at the figure and got a slow shake of the head once more.

Despair. And frustration. Ryoka looked around. The sun was setting! For all time was skewed here, it did pass. The one woman who could have made it stop—

She was waiting for Ryoka. The Wind Runner looked around, gathering her resolve.

“What if I said his name, then? Ob—”

Again. The power of the name filled her. And again—she was stopped. This time by a finger as gentle as the brush of a leaf.

“Do not speak his name here. Lest you wish to invoke his power.”

The personage spoke. Ryoka knew he was right. She sagged.

“I’m sorry. But—do I?”

The great tree shook its head again.

“If you seek to defy his will, you do not.”

He spoke ponderously, and yet, each word was so obvious it confirmed what Ryoka had half-known, or suspected. Reassuring. Yet still—she looked up at him and did not mince words. They had not the time to hold a conversation at length, anyways.

“Do you know about a prophecy with me in it?”

“Yes.”

“Will you tell me?”

No.

That was his kind for you. Direct. And his denial felt like a lesser tree had fallen on her. Ryoka stumbled with the force of it and knew she could not ask again. She looked at him, seeking safety in his words.

“What must I do, sir? Will you help me?”

He thought for a moment. Perhaps an hour. Perhaps days, in that strange time they shared. How long did a tree take to think? That long, exactly. Then he bent down and spoke once more.

“I tell you this because you are friend of the wind. And the wind and land are allies mine. I tell you this for what may be. I tell you for this day, and for the hospitality you have shown, for all you make merry upon the land cleared of my folk, upon the things made of our flesh and blood.”

She shivered. She was glad he was not wrathful with her. And suddenly—every bench, every wooden chair? She shuddered, but the hand was gentle as it touched her.

“The quick-lived are cruel. I would not bear all the grudges against you here. Yet I will aid you for that reason.”

His eyes were dark whorls in the trunk. His voice like the groaning of the trunk in the fiercest storm.

“I tell you this because you aided the ones who were guardians of this land. I tell you this because you will repay it tenfold.

Neither kind nor unkind. He looked at Tyrion Veltras. Ryoka forced herself to nod.

“I will. If I can.”

She led him over to the [Lord]. The Lord of House Veltras had been watching her, she realized. Had he moved when Sikeri did? Or had he judged his opponent and known he would be wanting?

“Lord Veltras? T-this is someone you should meet.”

Ryoka shuddered as the figure loomed behind her. She looked up and realized—

“I’m sorry. I don’t even know your name.”

The giant smiled. Lord Tyrion held out a hand, hesitating. The figure did not take it. But he did bend down and smile.

“I am, in your tongue, Silver Pine.”

Of course. Ryoka stared. His hair was the very color of—his skin the exact shade of—but was he all of them or…?

“Is that your name? Or your, uh…”

“I am what I am.”

That was all the tree said. He turned to Tyrion Veltras.

“We shall speak of those under your care, mortal lord of this realm. My kin long left land for sea. I would not see one of the last forests suffer the same fate.”

“Of course. Sir.”

Tyrion half-bowed, reflexively. He looked at Ryoka and she nodded to him in thanks. Not that either would have refused Silver Pine.

Satisfied, the figure turned to Ryoka and knelt. This time, he spoke directly to her. Payment, perhaps. A favor for a favor.

“The others will never let you to him. You must bribe or beg or fight your way to the true representative of the Summer Court. All those lesser ones could never grant you what you desire.”

He pointed. And there he was. The laughing figure who was of the Summer Court. Ryoka had always known it was him. But the tree spoke again, and she realized she had needed this too.

“You will have to ask him in the old ways. Nothing less will suffice. And even then—you will risk everything.”

She looked up at him sharply. He nodded.

“Will you help me with the words?”

Yes.

She spoke, and listened to the rustling reply. And the evening began to turn to night. Time was passing. And the glowing figure at the center of the Summer Court laughed with his kin, dancing, making merry.

Waiting.

It had been such a long time. Not just for them.

For the others.

 

—-

 

A man sat in front of Aaron Vanwell. He was looking at his hands. At his legs. At the seat upon which he sat.

He inhaled. And he smiled.

“It has been too long.

His eyes opened. And Aaron saw something like stars in the depths of his irises. Color within color.

He was much like Aaron remembered. But more—concrete. Aaron had tried to look up pictures of old [Archmages]. But he had not remembered…anything more than the vaguest of impressions.

This time was different. The personage before him was indeed dressed like…

A [Mage]? No, no, that was the wrong thing to think. He had the same stylings. A long robe, delicate limbs, the build of a man who might spend hours in a library rather than elsewhere. Even spectacles.

But he was no [Mage] in purity. Rather, they were copies of the idea of him.

Before Aaron sat a scholar. A historian. A teacher, a professor, and yes, a mage, a scientist—

The purest quill of all these things. He had no beard, but was clean-shaven. His smile was secretive.

He belonged to Wistram. Or Wistram belonged to him. Every time his lips moved, it was as if a thousand secrets were held behind them, just waiting to be heard. You wanted to listen to him…forever.

He spoke again, sighing. Delighted by the sigh.

“Too long indeed, Aaron Vanwell. But you have done exactly as I asked. Our pact has been honored. For that, and what will come after, I thank you.”

The guest smiled and held out a hand. As before, so now. Aaron grasped it gently.

“You helped me too, sir.”

The touch was light. But the grip firmed, with delicate strength. The stranger stared into Aaron’s eyes.

“Not sir.

“I’m sorry?”

“My name. You know it. Speak it for me.”

The voice was longing, insistent—and Aaron could not look away. He murmured it.

“Emerrhain.”

A sigh. The grip loosened. Aaron felt a tingle run up his arms, down his spine. The stranger, Emerrhain, smiled.

“Thank you.”

Aaron opened and closed his mouth. Emerrhain sat there, looking around. Eyes alighting on all things.

A small sculpture of Cognita. Books of magic. Wands, parts of his mage armor, little sample gears from Pallass—each and every thing he took delight in.

“What fascination. What wondrous shapes that fit together. Folk have always made such things and I know every pattern. But this! This is beyond what any have crafted in this world.”

He chuckled as he regarded the gears, discarding them, and picked up Aaron’s iPhone. He marveled at the construction, the circuitry.

“You were interested in it last time, weren’t you…sir?”

For some reason, it was hard to use his name. Aaron defaulted to ‘sir’. He frowned.

“But I thought you would have had time to investigate. After all—”

You’ve been here for half a year, haven’t you? But he had not seen his mentor since. The man turned.

“I told you then, Aaron. We would meet today. From that pact alone, certainty flows. Tell me now; have I not done as promised?”

“You have.”

It was he who had given Aaron the passphrase that opened the secret rooms. He who had helped Aaron figure out the link between magic and batteries. He who…

Had warned him about Feor. Emerrhain had known many things, some of which required an intimate knowledge of present events. The passphrase was one thing. But now?

Aaron had questions. Many of them. Would he stay around? Teach Aaron more? He had told Aaron—

“—That I could not teach you magic because you knew naught. Now is different. I shall teach you great spells, Aaron Vanwell. Help you find what was hidden here. After this day, you shall not want for knowledge. That is the pact we have made.”

The stranger finished Aaron’s sentence. The young man stirred. In the back of his mind—a little voice spoke up. At distance, at great remove. Aaron frowned, and then voiced it with effort.

“I—forgive me, sir. But why are you doing this? Why for me?”

Emerrhain’s smile did not flicker; but it deepened. With another layer of meaning. He sat there, on the bed.

“Because I chose you. Of all the ones I could have chosen. I chose you. And you accepted. You were the one I judged most worthy. Not all of my companions were so lucky. They misjudged their opportunities. I choose you. Perhaps there could have been one other. But she is lost to me. And we three had no idea what to give her. You?”

He looked at Aaron.

“You want to know. And that aligns with me perfectly.”

Aaron nodded. And yet—he shivered.

“I asked you questions, sir. And you helped me. But I didn’t promise you anything, did I? I just…took your hand.”

He said that, almost, almost pleadingly. Emerrhain looked at him. His smile never wavered.

“Yes. That was enough. Now, Aaron. There is something I would like you to do for me. Quickly. We have just today.”

He rose, as if they had said enough. Aaron rose involuntarily. He followed the figure to a place in his rooms where he could make a magical circle, if he knew how. The man stopped and Aaron did too. He had only one more question he could ask, before Emerrhain spoke. He was already tracing something in the air for Aaron to copy.

“How—how many others are there? Will you tell me that at least?”

Emerrhain head turned. He thought of this question. The answer hung behind his lips. Then he seemed to think Aaron had earned it.

“Of those that yet still matter? Five.

Five. The man laughed lightly as he drew, beckoning Aaron down to memorize it and copy it.

“There are more. A child. Lost ones. But six that matter, including I. And of we—only he and I succeeded. Time enough later, though. Now come, Aaron. The others pursue their business as they will it. You and I have work to do.

 

—-

 

The [Emperor] paced back and forth in front of the seated man. He had no details to work by. Just a beard. The outline of a figure, faint, in his vision.

The rustle of cloth. Laken knew—the man was in his late thirties at most. Still in a prime to sound by him, and by his figure.

Tall. Commanding by his nature. So again. So again.

They had said little thus far. And a lot.

“You have done well. And poorly. You abandoned your subjects and courted disaster. You took half of my advice.”

The voice was amused. Laken turned his head as he came to a stop.

“I did. Your advice was good. Not perfect, but good. Tamaroth.

The name hung in the air and Laken listened to how it sounded. The figure smiled. Laken knew it.

“You should have listened to all of my advice and heeded it unstintingly.”

Laken frowned. Same as before, the other man spoke down to him. Laken did not like it. He felt as though each word were from a leader to a follower. And he did not follow this man.

This…

“I took your advice, and I thank you for it. But let’s not play about with words. I listened to you, but it feels as though I gave you something for your free advice. Something I did not intend to give you. Especially if you show up here. Now. Today.”

“There was no other day I could have arrived.”

Tamaroth said simply. Laughter in his tone. Laken frowned.

What are you?

He wanted to ask. But he didn’t.

Couldn’t?

Instead, he switched topics.

“You said you and I are linked. That one other had found…a friend.”

“More than a friend, Laken Godart. We two are of the same kind. Leaders of men.”

“And women. And half-Trolls, [Witches], Goblins. Or is it just men?”

The figure shifted again. He sounded both amused and annoyed.

“What pedantic words you choose. You know what I mean. You should rejoice that I chose you.”

“Yet I did not choose you. I rather feel I’ve been tricked.”

Laken shot back. He paced back and forth. Yet not once did he confirm the man was there. Nor did he try to leave the room. He whirled.

“You took my hand.”

You tricked me.

Then. Laken Godart remembered it. For some reason, Durene and Gamel had not come to the door. He had been wandering around, trying to find something in the unfamiliar room.

“Is anyone there?”

And he had reached out, after falling and—

“I was a blind man, reaching out for my cane. For something to grab. I did not intend to seal a pact with you, Tamaroth.”

“Intention. You sound like him. Quibbling over words, details, the meaning of each. What matters is that you did.”

“So what have I made a pact with?”

He would not respond. Laken Godart’s hair rose. He threw himself back into his chair. This was not then. He was on his land.

“Why did you come? Just to dispense more advice? I will take that. Then you may show yourself out. And never return.”

He tried to enforce his will. But he felt nothing. Tamaroth laughed.

“After today? You and I will speak more. I came to you, my friend, to speak of your future. What you should do.”

“I will consider your words. But I am not your subject.”

Are you not?

The two faced each other, in a silent battle of wills. After a moment—the other relented.

“Let us not quarrel. Today is a day of great rejoicing. I hear the outsiders making merry. You should not have invited them. Make your festivities in my name. I told you to do so. It has been too long since I enjoyed any such delights. Have you nothing to drink here? To eat? Offer me something. I am parched of thirst. Starved of sustenance.”

A note of reproach. Laken decided he should have invited the entire realm of the fae in that case. He leaned forwards, tapping his cane on the ground.

“If you want to eat or drink, help yourself. I’m sure the kitchen’s larder is stocked. Or go outside and ask to join in the festivities. I’m sure the fae will be interested in you.”

“I will not.”

The voice was angered. Laken pushed on. He stood.

“Why don’t I ask them for you? I’m sure Ryoka would be interested in you.”

“You will not.”

Laken strode towards the door. He halted, his hand on the doorknob. He looked back once.

“What are you doing to me?”

“You will not. Sit back down.”

Laken stepped away from the door. He felt another sensation on his skin. Slowly, he walked back.

“I have never thought of doing violence to someone—at least not seriously. A blind man is a poor opponent even for a child. And yet—I still do not now.”

“Laken Godart. Must we be enemies?

“I prefer my allies to be honest. Men like Lord Yitton Byres or Lord Gralton Radivaek are better allies to me. Even Lord Tyrion Veltras.”

“Fine men. Lesser men. It seems our natures are too alike. I have ever chosen such. But a lesser man would not be worthy of me. Rejoice, Laken Godart. Rejoice that you and I do not find each other easy company. And listen to my wisdom, for it will aid you.”

Laken sat silent. He wanted to close his ears. Kick the figure out, call Gamel. Do many things. He just leaned on his cane and sighed, tiredly.

“What do you have to say? I will listen to that, at least. What would you do with Rie? Your advice…Prost is a capable [Steward]. Durene is my [Paladin]. Gamel my [Knight]. Nothing you have said has been a lie, at least. So tell me what I need to know.”

All things he had been told to do. Laken leaned forwards, listening, judging. Thinking. The figure sat back.

“Very well. We have some time still. The others may find what they wish as well. At least…one. The rest may go without.”

“The five others. And what do the other four lack? Someone like…me?”

“Yes.”

Satisfaction in every note of Tamaroth’s voice. Almost childish, in its gloating and smugness. Laken raised one eyebrow.

“I would rather you be one of those who had failed to trick someone.”

“You would not.”

The amused tone came back. Laken scoffed.

“From where I sit, this seems far worse.”

A chuckle.

“Oh no, Laken Godart. You are mine. That means this day? You are safe. You would not be if we were at odds.”

The [Emperor] felt his skin crawl. He had a terrible thought and half-rose.

“Ryoka? Stay away from her…”

“That one is safe from one sort of danger. But her guests may undo us all.”

The voice was dark. Then it changed, smiling again.

“But only her.”

Across the world. Across this longest day.

Laken wanted to throw open the door.

He could not.

He wanted to warn them.

He could not.

He thought of the other names. And his skin chilled. He sat there, listening for a while.

He could do nothing else.

 

—-

 

The last of the fae was moving in the cleared grass and ground, dancing. And he was grandest of them all, glittering like the rays of the sun themselves. Even the fading evening seemed bright around him as he laughed and danced—he had a partner, Ryoka saw.

Lady Wuvren.

They moved in the center of the dance, to a rhythm and music of their own. Around them leapt the other fae, graceful as the Satyr, with inhuman agility and beauty and presence.

The nobility danced too, some with each other like Bethal and Thomast, others with strange partners. But none could match the two in the center.

Not by half. Not by far. Lady Wuvren moved across dance styles with her partner—and time.

Each step she was different. Older, younger—Ryoka had seen Wuvren before, noted how she was always a beauty of a different sort. But never had she seen the transformations so fast! So instantaneous!

A young woman in her early twenties, practically Ryoka’s age gripped an arm as she was swung around—

—caught herself in her forties, matured, but beautiful, only, a deepened understanding, the flame of youth turned into calm surety—

—barely more than a girl, laughing, unable to even stand still—

—older, grey-steel of hair, but strong of jaw, eyes steeled with flinty resolve—

She slowed as the dancing faded. Hair, even the shape of her body changing. A hundred forms, a hundred Wuvrens to love. Each one for a different reason, for a different person.

A few caught Ryoka herself. Aspects of—the young woman heard the last guest laughing, almost panting, but merriment in his voice as he spoke to the [Lady].

“Oh, you love so well! So freely! You are more than a delight, milady! You dance half as well as some of my court! Across time and space! Old and young!

He kissed her on the forehead. Wuvren was swaying. She looked slightly pale.

“I’ve never—never done that before. I feel—excuse me, sir. You are too much for me, I think!”

“Ah, but that is true of all of mortal ilk. Well then, go! And my favor be on you.”

He kissed her hand, kneeling. Ryoka thought she saw Wuvren’s eyes shine for a moment. She gasped. Then he had lost interest and was grabbing ice cream, laughing with the others.

“I never thought I’d meet someone who I was so outmatched by. I—I need to sit down. Zanthia.”

An older woman murmured. She stumbled—and Lady Zanthia helped a [Lady] with less of the stunning allure towards a table.

“I warned you. What did he give you?”

“Seven years, he said.”

Power. The hairs on Ryoka’s neck rose. She looked past Wuvren at the bright figure.

Yes. If Silver Pine and Sikeri were the brightest lights of the rest of the fae and guests? This one was beyond them still.

She knew. The Faerie King’s representative of the Summer Court. He alone could help her. Let her meet Ivolethe.

Let her save Erin Solstice. Ryoka was not ready for this. She knew her gifts were paltry. Paltry, compared to one who gave time with a kiss. But her own moment would run out if she hesitated.

The Wind Runner walked across the floor. The words burned in her mind.

I crave a—

Her mouth opened and closed with the words. Ryoka halted, abruptly, as Jericha, whirling with a male fae, slowed. She saw the Wind Runner grasping at her throat. Trying to…speak?

“I can’t say anything.”

Ryoka murmured. Then grabbed at her throat.

“I can speak? Speak. I—”

She looked up at the glowing guest. And then down at herself again.

“Still speaking…”

Slowly, the Wind Runner looked around. She tested her voice, then looked at the figure. And only those words out of them all failed her.

Someone had stolen her words away.

Laughter. And suddenly, they bounded out of the crowd. Not pixies. Not Satyrs. Not the other kinds, like the Wyrm, or the trees. Their voices were like the rustling of spring. They brought the heat of summer, the vibrancy of life—

And all of summer’s wrath. Uncaring heat. Fire. All these things at once. They surrounded Ryoka.

The Summer Court.

 

“Look who comes! The Wind Runner, they call her! Windfriend! Foolish girl who sought favors from the winter!”

“She flew! She flew, and she called the wind! Now she throws a party for us!”

And yet. She forgets us.

 

One of them observed. Ryoka saw the cavorting stop. And the fae stood unnaturally still.

A guest tilted his head down and looked at her imperiously. The voice was regal, not as high and silly as the Frost Faeries had been.

 

“You beg boon, and yet you make no offerings. You go to the foremost of us and toss the rest of us aside!”

 

He snapped at her. Ryoka felt the simmering heat of anger in the immortal eyes. She raised her hands, slowly. Heart pumping.

Were they the Frost Faeries in another aspect or different entirely? They were so much more than the Winter Sprites had been! One was an impish prankster with a humble form. Sometimes you saw what they truly were—

But this was a bigger piece of that puzzle. A larger window. She quailed.

“I’m sorry. I did not mean to offend, fair folk. I only have business with—”

She indicated the greatest of them. The others snorted.

 

“You seek the favor of the Summer Court? Here we are!

 

Another nodded haughtily.

 

“One of us is not all of us. The Summer Court shall hear ye now, mortal! Speak or be damned to silence! Ignore us and we shall take your voice and bottle it for a year and a day!”

 

She made a snatching motion, to emphasize her point and Ryoka lost her words again. She had to replace them; she would never know what she had been about to say.

Wonderful. They were still petty.

Indeed, the Summer Court were like reflections of the Winter Sprites. No less magic, but subtly different. Arrogant, yes, but more…formal. Seemingly more preoccupied with station, and, at the very least, less inclined to flit about making lewd gestures and tossing snow.

Or perhaps that was their forms. Either way—Ryoka was surrounded by a host of the Summer Fae.

They had sharp teeth. And the faint buzzing was there. A reminder of the danger.

They might devour her or tear her apart if she angered them.

But she had not come all this way to turn back. And—she had a Dragon’s wisdom. Which was probably less petty than a Wyrm’s—

Pow. Even the fae gaped as something hit Ryoka in the head a second time. She staggered; a cupcake should not have that kind of velocity or impact. Ryoka saw Sikeri lower her hand.

“I heard that.”

Ryoka rubbed at her head. Then she turned to the Summer Court. Wyrms sucked.

They were laughing at her. Falling over themselves, some lying on the ground as they guffawed at her expense.

That was the fae. Both regal and silly. You could have both. They surrounded Ryoka, expectantly. It was almost an honor. Because they looked at Ryoka, expecting her to appease them. To fit into the stuff of stories.

“Forgive me, fair folk. People of the Tuatha Dé. I did not mean to offend the Summer Court. Nor ignore you all. If it pleases you, I would offer you gifts for the right to beseech the first among you here.”

They were not the rehearsed words Silver Pine had helped her with. But they came from the heart and they seemed to please the fae.

 

Ah, she knows respect! Good, offer us gifts! The first among us is too prideful!

“Not us! Give, give!”

“If it’s worthy, we shall let you pass and ask! If not—”

 

They made grimacing motions and clutched at their throats. Ryoka saw them now.

Was this what Ivolethe was talking about? She had once insulted some of the others. As young. As—lesser than herself. When they had all been Winter Sprites, Ryoka hadn’t seen the difference.

Now she did. Some felt older. The ones who cartwheeled about and shouted loudest—they seemed young, lesser perhaps, in both time and nature.

The older ones were no less mischievous, no less playful. But they were closer to Ivolethe’s nature, albeit paralleled across season.

They waited, eyes glittering with many facets. Almost like the Antinium’s…

Waiting for gifts.

At least the Dragon had helped her with that. Teriarch understood immortal greed, at least. And Ryoka had made preparations.

[Brewers]. She withdrew something, offered it to the fae. They clustered around, snatching it from her hand.

 

“What’s this? ‘Tis naught but a contract of ink and paper!”

 

One cried out, disgusted. The others fought over it. The buzzing grew louder—until Ryoka held up a hand.

“It is more than a contract, wise folk! It is a promise. From each [Brewer]—each maker of drink and libations, a promise—to tithe you drink and goodwill for a year and a day!”

The Summer Court rustled. Ryoka pointed at the contract. This was what Teriarch had suggested. It was ridiculous—and yet it fit.

 

“Drink?”

 

“Drinks. They will be left in vessels without iron, only for you! In winter, in summer, on specific days.”

It had not been easy to convince the mead and other [Brewers] to do that, until she’d come with gold in hand. For that matter—Laken’s own people had agreed.

Alcohol? The fae blinked, completely bemused by the offering. They whispered to each other, now poring over the contract rather than threatening to rip it to shreds.

 

She’s doing it again.

“This is not a grand gift! Where are the gemstones? Where the gold?”

“That greedy Wyrm took ours! This is not a grand gift!”

“But it is drink. See? A barrel? And if we were smaller…”

“Mortal drink. Paugh!

“I say it is good! It is funny! Mortal drink, where we have had none! An offering!”

 

They fought, quarrelling, shoving each other. Ryoka listened, heart pounding, but she sensed more were amused or delighted by the offering than not. At last, one of the more vibrant ones turned to Ryoka. And she laughed.

 

“I say it is well done! I will drink of it! Let the other gifts appease the court! But I give her the right!”

 

The others groused, or nodded, but soon all were nodding.

 

“Yes! The other gifts! What other two have you?”

 

They leered at Ryoka, grinning. Surely you have more?

Gifts always came in three.

Ryoka gulped. By now, more guests were watching. Like the Satyr’s wrath, like everything else this day—this too was entertainment.

“Fifty gold says she fails.”

Lady Pryde muttered to Lord Gralton. The [Dog Lord] snorted. Everyone liked to bet. But Lord Yitton and Shallel Byres did not. Gralton did not.

The [Witches] watched. Aloof from the fae. Silver Pines, Sikeri—

The second ‘gift’ was the pointing of a finger. The fae turned their heads as one. Ryoka had the crazy urge to just run past them. They could be as gullible as children. It might have even worked, if she only needed to grab something.

But she needed their respect. And what could she offer them more than—?

The statue of Ivolethe was far, far larger than life. She touched the marble plinth lightly, one heel and a foot striking the ground, wings spread. Laughing, as she had so often done.

Ivolethe, the Winter Savior.

Ivolethe, the friend.

The Summer Court fixed on the statue of the fae. And they murmured. Perhaps they had ignored the paltry thing of stone—but Ryoka’s finger travelled.

“There. And there. Do you see it?”

More statues. Some made of wood, by a crabby [Carver], others by [Sculptors]. Statues of the Winter Faerie.

 

She has a statue? But I am a Ritter!”

 

One of the Summer Court cried out, annoyance flashing through his tone. Ryoka looked at the fae.

“It is just stone, immortal folk. Just stone and wood, which does not last. But memory does. And whilst this empire lasts—so too will the statues and Ivolethe’s name!”

 

“What do you offer, mortal?”

 

One of the fae spoke, eyes glittering. He knew. Ryoka smiled.

“A statue for you. And a name, written down for us short-lived people to remember and wonder at. Does it suffice?”

She couldn’t tell how many stood there. They kept shifting. A dozen? A hundred? The Summer Court debated again. It was unconventional. But Ryoka was surer this time.

They wanted to be remembered. A statue for each? They flitted to her.

 

Made of gold? Jade? Precious metals?

“Diamond for me?”

“Bone and blood?”

 

“No. Just stone or wood. Painted, if you like.”

Sulking, the fae leapt back to their congregation. And again—they nodded.

 

We accept! Two gifts, we accept! Last one! Give us something wondrous!

 

They laughed and applauded her. Statues and drink! Well, it was hardly treasure, or a great artifact or deed, but they accepted! Their eyes fixed on Ryoka greedily.

And she thought—

Oh shit.

Because her last gift was not wondrous. Or grand. If she had had time, she would have tried to prepare a small mountain of Numbtongue’s gems. Something from the inn.

It had all fallen apart. So her last gift? It was more of an afterthought. Ryoka faltered.

“Er…generous folk, I hope this last gift will suit you well! For it is born of friendship and hard labor. A gift to match the first!”

Their eyes narrowed as one.

 

“It sounds like she hasn’t the greatest gift yet.”

“Should we accept it if it stinks?”

“Shh! Listen! Tell us, mortal! What have you to offer?

 

Ryoka took a breath. What had she to offer? To so many? Not artifacts. Not magical food. Not a great treasure; at least, one to them.

If Erin Solstice had been here, perhaps she could have swooped in. Stumbling into the fae, delighting them. If the [Princess] were here, the little Gnoll?

But they were not. And all Ryoka had was what she drew from her bag of holding. She offered it to them. They stared at it. Pryde nearly spat her entire drink out her nose.

Corn?

Corn. The fae stared at it. Then at Ryoka. The Wind Runner was sweating drops as fat as the kernels of corn. She…hadn’t anything else!

“Er—this is a gift of labor from a friend. He has agreed to provide it to you for a year and a day—”

 

Corn? She offers us corn?”

 

One of them shouted. Ryoka was really tempted to say that corn had once been called ‘yellow gold’, but she had a feeling they’d kill her if she tried that.

They were close to it, anyways. One snatched the ear of corn, still fresh, in its husk, and sniffed it.

 

“‘Tis not magic.”

 

Another peeled a piece of the husk off, eyed it.

 

“‘Twas not grown in the soil of blood, or over the graves of dead kings.”

“It was not tended by a hero, laboring as a farmhand. It was tended by an actual farmer.”

“Has it been lauded as the best food by this world’s greatest? No? Then what is it?”

 

They stared at Ryoka, baring their teeth furiously. She raised a finger.

“Um. Really good corn?”

The fae looked at her. One husked the corn, bit into it. The rest turned on her. Ryoka found a table, and unloaded ear after ear of corn, piling it up to build a wall between her and inevitable wrath.

The others snatched it. One muttered about shoving it through Ryoka’s head. Others had less charitable places to put it. The good mood of the fae turned to dark annoyance as they ate the corn.

Ryoka’s second plan involved asking the Players to create a play for all of the fae. But that was too much like the statues! Why hadn’t she remembered the rule of three? Stupid Wyrms stealing treasure! She tensed. She had to run and beg Tyrion for a favor. Or…?

 

“Huh. This is good corn.”

 

A thoughtful voice remarked. One of the fae, the one who’d taken the first ear, looked up. They had eaten the corn off the cob and were now munching on the cob itself. A second snack after the first one.

 

“It is! It was grown with love and care.”

“And cheating, to make it grow so fast. But good cheating!”

“Mm.”

 

The fae were eating the corn! In fact—all of it. One started with the green husk of the corn, munched that down, then the kernels, then the cob itself. Ryoka supposed in theory, all of it was edible. They looked at each other.

 

“A year and a day?”

 

“Yes. A year and a day. Offerings each harvest?”

The Summer Court huddled up. They glanced at Ryoka, muttering to each other. Ryoka dumped more corn on the table; they went for it. In fact, Laken’s feast had many products made with the corn. Popcorn, roasted, boiled, all kinds of it…

But corn? Bethal stared at Ryoka.

“That’s my corn, Thomast. I discovered it. Why do I have to share?”

“Bethal, dear. Please let it go.”

The fae were muttering louder. They looked at Ryoka. Argued, pointed at the statues, waved the contract with free beer about. Ryoka heard snippets.

 

“…Not what we…”

“Last time it was a sword that slew an immortal life! And such treasures as would make a thousand empires…”

“…Good corn, though.”

“So disappointing. Aught more did we expect from yon idiot, though?”

“I don’t see what Ivolethe sees in her! Prophecy or nay—”

 

One hit the other. It devolved into a fistfight. Ryoka stared as the fae broke up, reassembled. They stood in a circle around her. Grave. Also—disappointed.

 

“Your third gift mortal—we accept. Since we have expected naught from this world. Ye have splendidly met our expectations. Go, ask your boon.”

“You suck.”

 

One of them threw dirt at Ryoka. The fae milled about and broke up. One just kicked the ground all the way back to the buffet table.

And it was done. Ryoka’s voice returned. She stood there for a second. She’d done it!

Underwhelm them to victory. That was the Ryoka Griffin way.

Corn. Corn. The nobles were just as disappointed. The other fae were so let down they didn’t even bother watching as Ryoka approached the splendid leader of the fae in this realm. Pryde sniffed as she picked up an ear from the table. Gralton sniffed; and his expression was considerably more interested.

Just corn. Just…a simple product. Not real gold. Not gemstones. Not grand deeds. But hard work had gone into it. You could practically taste it.

It was not the best corn in the world. But someone had worked every day of his life to make this corn the best he had.

“It really is nice. Maybe I’ll buy some.”

From House Walchaís! We have the contract!”

Bethal snapped at Lord Pellmia. The [Lord] rolled his eyes, but covertly, turning his head. Tyrion bemusedly watched his two sons bite into the corn and their faces slightly fall, as if they’d expected it to taste different. They still ate it, though. It was delicious.

“It truly is good corn.”

He murmured. Someone else agreed. A man, one of the Terland’s security detail, two of the House of El, servants and nobles alike, were eating it.

“I’ve only had corn this good once before.”

The man murmured. Lord Deilan’s eyebrows rose.

I never have. And I have had corn from Noelictus’ fields and dishes made of the stuff prepared by excellent [Chefs].”

Corn. Somewhere, a [Farmer] napping woke up and wondered why in the name of Rhir’s hells he was leveling up.

 

—-

 

So it was done. The Summer Court watched as Ryoka walked across the ground towards the figure. He was laughing, lounging upon a chair, having eaten from the corn himself; one of the lesser fae had tossed it at him with complaints.

Waiting for her. The fae turned. Ryoka caught a flash of something.

She wandered across the dry, dirt road, her bare feet feeling the cracks in the ground where the sun had baked it. Yet it was not scorching. The sun beat down on her skin, threatening to kill her in time, without water or shade.

Yet in that moment, she felt the heat as a welcome thing. She looked past fields of growing crops. Wheat, and yes, corn, swaying in the breeze. She could have been in her world, and the sky was so blue it hurt. A vivid expanse as the wind blew—

Ryoka blinked. The image of summer vanished. She swayed, as she had before Sikeri.

Here sat summer. A fragment of it perhaps. But Ryoka knew two things in that moment as the eyes passed over her.

He was not the Faerie King. She had wondered, but he was simply an aspect. So much of one that even Silver Pine and Sikeri were lesser than him. Even Teriarch himself. But he was not the ruler of the fae.

And second—there would be no offering corn to him. That vision had been enticing. Yet merciless. All the warmth of the summer could be the wrath in an instant.

She wavered. Quailed for a moment. Because Ryoka was most afraid of—more than death, or the wrath of the fae—was failure.

She could fail here. She did not know what Sikeri knew, or the other fae. But Ivolethe had told her once that fate was a bunch of ifs. The fae saw what could be.

But nothing was certain. She opened her mouth—

And the figure beckoned her over. Ryoka hesitated, the words ringing in her mind. She knew the fae heard them. But he lifted a cup to his lips and drank, tossing the wine back.

“Sit. Before you speak, mortal, sit a while. You have words for me, which I will hear. My kin are displeased, but they should have expected naught else from you. I expect nothing at all. So sit. This company promises to entertain me for a moment.”

He gestured. And Ryoka saw the fae draw back. Out of the crowd, as if bidden, the first of the guests here summoned people to sit with him.

They were three, plus Ryoka. Five, including the shining figure. Each one…related to Ryoka in some way.

Lady Ieka Imarris, looking around, alarmed, stepping through the crowd against her will.

Mavika, oldest of the [Witches], approaching as her raven took flight and flew, to hide on a branch, still limping from a recently-healed leg.

And lastly…someone Ryoka only knew from today. But who fit here. A half-Elf, so old he was greying. Zedalien of the House of El.

The figure rose. In good merriment, he clapped his hands, and one of the fae danced attendance on him. Drinks were set. And food—including another ear of corn, placed upon the table.

“Come, sit! Each of you, for but a moment will entertain. A lady of this land who stole all she possesses. A witch who has forgotten her oaths! An intruder who disappoints my kin, yet has their friendship and speaks to the wind! And the son of whores.”

He bowed to them all, mockingly. The four, who had seated themselves without knowing it, all stiffened. Ieka Imarris’ eyes flashed in outrage. Zedalien stirred himself. Mavika’s eyes narrowed.

And Ryoka’s heart lurched. For she realized a third thing as the figure turned his summer’s eyes to her. He spoke, unbidden.

“Yes. I know Ivolethe, the name she gave you, friend of the wind. Intruder. I know why you have come here. I know what you seek. But first—we shall dine, as is fitting. You have not eaten or drunk at this moment. Such things must be done at any party.”

Ryoka had not, she realized. Not a crumb, and nothing since breakfast. She ate, suddenly ravenous, and Mavika plucked fat grapes from a plate. Ieka reached for a slice of cake; Zedalien helped himself to the roasted corn.

The figure watched them all, drinking, eating—he had a mound of cookies in front of him, frosted with all kinds…Ryoka gulped hard as she realized they were Erin’s designs. She looked at him.

“Thank you, sir. I don’t mean to offend.”

“You do so with every breath you draw. As do you, whoreson. The other two, less such. But I am a guest! Ignore my words.”

The figure laughed with bitter humor once more. And Ryoka knew she was not mistaken.

Unlike the other fae—no. Perhaps it was there, but in this one most of all. The others laughed and enjoyed themselves.

He did not. He looked up, and Ryoka saw the contempt in his eyes. For her—and Zedalien most of all. The half-Elf could hardly have ignored such a look.

“Forgive me, sir. But I neither know your name, nor why you insult me.”

He stiffly turned to the fae. The figure smiled.

“Ah, names. You are not worthy of mine. But—if you have to name me—”

He looked thoughtful for a second.

 

“Melidore. Call me that, whoreson.”

 

For a moment, his voice rang different than the others. Yet the insult still lay in those immortal words. Mavika and Ieka stirred. So too did the man he addressed.

Ryoka did not know Zedalien. But she saw the half-Elf’s eyes flash.

“Sir. I am no [Lord] of Izril. Nor do I know your station. But my mother was not what you name her. Retract your insult.”

He half-rose. Deilan and the others of the House of El had not seen Zedalien angrier in all the times they could remember. Melidore regarded him with calm eyes. Disparaging, and fearless. Such that even Zedalien wavered.

“Sit down, child. I did not insult your mother.”

Zedalien hesitated. The fae looked at him as the half-Elf lowered himself.

 

“I did not insult your mother. I insult you. Your mother. Your kin. Your entire race upon this world. If you would challenge me, I would gladly break every rule of hospitality and tear you to pieces before departing. Sit down.

 

The half-Elf went pale. He sat. Because to stand would be to die. Yet he looked at Melidore, confused.

“I do not know you. What have my people done to offend you, sir?”

“You do not remember.”

Melidore relaxed. He sounded…disappointed. Zedalien shook his head hesitantly, questioningly. The fae looked at him, then turned his head, dismissing the half-Elf without a second thought.

“‘Twas all I wished to know from you. You do not remember your guilt. Begone with you, then.”

The half-Elf rose, hesitating, face flushed. But confused more than anything. He looked at Ryoka; she paused with her mouth full, gulped.

“I’m sorry.”

“You did not insult me, Miss Ryoka Griffin.”

He walked away, back straight.

Mavika was next. The fae named Melidore turned to her, smiling. He raised his cup.

“Will you not drink with me for the old days, witch? Your people stay so far from mine!”

He indicated the [Witches], who had indeed been loath to go near the fae. Mavika spoke, her cracked, whispering voice was wary as Ryoka had ever known her. Even Belavierr had not provoked this in her.

“We do not know your nature, strangers. You call us friend. But we do not remember. I do not remember, and I am second-oldest upon this land.”

“Yes.”

The eyes flickered again. Mavika half-hissed under her breath. Melidore regarded her.

“You are old and young, witch. And your craft fades. Such is the nature of witches. As steel replaces stone, so it has always been. The next time I dance upon this earth, the last of the witches may have long passed.”

She went pale. So did Ryoka, blanching. Was that threat or promise? Mavika half-rose.

“A boon, then, stranger. What may be done to avert witch’s fates? Before it is too late?”

She reached towards him, beseechingly. The fae’s eyes held hers for a moment.

 

“On the day your craft ends and the last of witches draw breath, make your choice. And for those who will it, I will open this world’s gate. That is my promise if you cannot avert your fate. Now go.”

 

The [Witch] stumbled. She turned and left. And the other pointed hats followed her. Ryoka had never seen Mavika look so shaken.

The last were Ieka and Ryoka. The figure drank, and ate lightly with his fingers. Ieka cleared her throat after minutes had passed. Hours? Melidore was just watching the party go on around him.

“Have you nothing for me, Lord Guest?”

She addressed him politely, sneaking glances at Ryoka. The man turned. He looked at Ieka, as if he had forgotten she was here.

“No questions for you, landthief. Nor answers do I seek. Just keep me company, whilst we pass this day away.”

The [Lady] and Runner looked at each other. But the request was not hard to grant. Ryoka felt time was passing—albeit slowly—but it seemed to her only right that he should make a request of her.

So they watched as the Players of Celum performed My Fair Lady. Not an auspicious play; but the guests and nobles alike liked the singing, the interplay, even if some of the cultural nuance was lost. Ryoka and Ieka clapped as the [Tumbler] performed on stage; she was a famous performer from Invrisil. Over Level 40.

Here? She introduced herself, apologizing for her poor performance, for all her acrobatics were flawless. Like a child performing before masters at the craft.

Food was brought out. Treats of all kinds. An attempt at cotton candy; strands of the stuff, hardly actual cotton, more like spun sugar-threads which broke. Still well-received. Gnollish and Drakeish foods, which the Humans ate dubiously and the fae fell upon.

Treats from an inn. An ‘acid jello’. Cookies baked like paw prints. Ryoka tasted tears as she ate hers.

But she did eat. She and Ieka spoke lightly; Ryoka explaining some of the nuances of accents. Pointing out treats she knew were based on people. Melidore laughed and spoke.

And the fae did come to him, like children to the adult, asking him to resolve quarrels like fights over who got a statue where, over a pizza with flies—how had that gotten here?—and so on.

Twice, Melidore rose and the seven warriors stirred. Then the fae fell silent and the mortals likewise. Once, because a knot of quarrelling fae fought despite his orders to split the coveted pizza apart. The second time—when it occurred that Sikeri had ‘persuaded’ a noble to give her a vast amount of money and artifacts and jewels.

Both times, Ryoka felt his presence, harsh, terrible. And even the Wyrm quailed and recanted the promise.

Time passed onwards. The Skylights performed, and the fae swooped about the illusions, ridiculing the [Mages] until the [Illusionists] fled in tears at the ‘poor magic’. Some of the food was turned into a food fight that Hethon and Sammial took part in.

Eloise drank tea with Silver Pines. Grev won a game against three of the fae and they showered him with gold and lies for his victory. Ryoka rolled her eyes and Melidore nearly fell out of his seat laughing.

He laughed only that one time, to see the gloating city boy hoarding his gold which would turn to pebbles by morning.

He cried only once, as well. And that was when Barelle the Bard took to the stage to tell the [Innkeeper]’s tale.

Ryoka did not know who told Barelle what had happened. Perhaps he had gone into the inn itself, from Liscor. Or pieced together the events from those who had been there, like Delanay. Ylawes.

Nor did she remember the content of the story. It was one she knew; the nobles listened, to an abbreviated tale of The Wandering Inn and its [Innkeeper].

A false tale, really. Too glorious and exaggerated by half. Erin was some kind of cunning genius, who always had a trick up her sleeve. She wasn’t silly; every act seemed to be part of a greater plan.

That wasn’t Erin. But this was a story. And Barelle had captured some part of her. Part was artistic license. But when he spoke of—kindness—Ryoka wept.

She had not stopped weeping. For the [Bard] had begun the tale only so—a touch of the blue and orange chords.

Once, there was an empty inn upon a hill…

That was all. Ryoka began sobbing. All the tears she’d held back. She was not the only one. Ieka herself wept at parts. And the fae? Their tears fell. They rejoiced in sadness, glory, laughed at the [Innkeeper]’s tricks. Cheered her kindness for the Goblins, the Antinium.

Not everyone smiled. Not everyone agreed. But they listened. Because it was a true story.

Melidore listened too. He only wept once. And that was when the tale came to its end.

The [Innkeeper] lay on the frozen bier, slain by pettiness. The fae wept two shining tears which splashed onto the table and changed the wood forever. He looked at Ryoka and nodded to her as the guests applauded Barelle for nearly five minutes straight.

A standing ovation. Ryoka saw the fae sit back. One moment of laughter. Two tears.

“Enough. That is more than I expected. It was worth coming, this day. For this party, this moment alone, I thank you, Ryoka Griffin.”

He looked at her. The Wind Runner bowed.

“Thank you for coming, Melidore. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

The fae’s lips quirked. He looked at her and drank again.

“Enjoyed it? You mistake me. My laughter, my tears, this drink—are a small comfort to me. I did not enjoy this day. I have hated every second and fragment of time I stand here. I come here only because I must. But I hate this petty world. I hate what you have forgotten.”

And there it was again. Hate. The fae’s eyes flashed with such intensity that Ryoka and Ieka were left breathless. It was in the other fae. Something unspoken.

“Then why did you come?”

Ryoka asked, when she was able to summon words again. Melidore sighed. And that sigh was melancholy. His eyes met hers. And she felt that gaze of summer again. But tired summer. Weary and worn. The fading season.

“For nothing. To see nothing. That is all.”

A quiet chill ran down Ryoka’s spine. The words meant something. Something—

She looked up. The sun had almost left the sky. The longest day was ending. Suddenly, the food and drink that Ryoka had been partaking of felt heavy in her stomach. She rose.

Her time was nearly up. She had played the guest. And Melidore sat up.

“You may go, Lady Ieka Imarris. Go—and my thanks for this moment. Your guilt shall not touch you unless you continue; that is my favor.”

He nodded to her. The woman went dead white and she stumbled away, practically fleeing. Ryoka did not know what he meant. Nor, in this moment, did she care to know.

She rose. And the fae did too. He drank, carelessly tossing back the wine again as if it were putrid water and he had nothing else to drink. He looked at her.

“Now is the time to ask, friend of Ivolethe. What will you? You have dined and sat with me. You have entertained my kin, and given the Summer Court gifts that amused them. For all that, you are owed the right to ask what you will. So. Now.”

Ryoka’s blood tingled in her veins. She licked her lips.

“Lord Melidore of the Summer Court. I crave a favor. I ask—I ask for—”

She closed her eyes. Lips moving. The fae turned. Ryoka looked into those summer eyes. And she sighed.

“I—I ask for a way to bring back my friend. Erin Solstice, whom you wept for. That is what I wish to ask.”

Cold tears ran down her cheeks. The fae regarded her. He did not ask if this was what she wanted. Ryoka had made up her mind.

Slowly, Melidore turned. And the fae moved out of the crowd. The dancing Summer Court. Strangers from far. Sikeri, Silver Pine. The Satyrs. They all gathered. He stood in the center of them all as Ryoka looked at the statue of Ivolethe. And the first of the guests?

He looked at Ryoka and smiled.

 

“No.”

 

The word was like—Ryoka touched her chest.

“N-no?”

Melidore tossed down his cup onto the ground. Grass sprouted around it where it fell. He straightened. And then laughed. He looked at Ryoka with those bright eyes. That smile that spoke hate for the very ground he stood on, and shook his head.

“The Summer Court descends upon this world for the third great celebration of our nature. For this day! For nothing. To see nothing.”

His words were a rustle around the suddenly-silent party. The fae stepped left. He looked around.

 

“Some come for what may be gained.”

 

Sikeri glowered from the ranks of the guests.

Step. Melidore’s head turned.

 

“Some come for what might happen.”

 

Silver Pines bowed his head, with the sighing of forests. Wind in the branches. The fae inclined his head once.

Step.

 

“Some come only for merriment’s sake. And that is I. Nor will I help you break any rules.”

 

He turned to face Ryoka. And his smile was cruel as the sun. He knew her pain. He knew her tears. He knew why she asked. And he denied her.

“I am of the Faerie King’s court. Did you think I would break his rules so lightly, mortal?”

He taunted her. The others laughed. Some cruelly. Others shook their heads at Ryoka sympathetically. But no one was surprised. Melidore turned.

“There is your answer. Boon for boon. My kin. The longest day wanes. It is time to leave this empty place behind. Conduct what—”

Stop.

Ryoka Griffin stepped after him. Melidore’s head turned. He looked at Ryoka, then ignored her. She reached for him.

St—

Fingers covered her mouth. Lightly, gripping her throat. Laughter in her ears. She held still as Melidore walked away. Ryoka shouted, but she was bound fast. She called for the wind—

 

It is our friend too. You have failed. Failed!

 

A whisper. She fought, but the wind did not listen. Melidore was turning away again. And then the second voice spoke.

“Stop.”

The fingers loosened. Ryoka gasped. Melidore turned.

And there he was. Laken Godart stepped into the party of the fae.

Alone. And then—his folk fell in behind him.

Mister Prost. Lady Rie. Gamel, Durene, Wiskeria—they formed an army behind him.

“Who are you to give me orders, intruder who claims ownership of this land?”

Melidore stared at Laken. The [Emperor] ignored him. He nodded.

“Someone who believes in letting people speak. Go on.”

Ryoka tore free from the fae. She shouted. She had known it would come to this.

“Melidore of the Fae! Stop! If you will not help me, then I will ask you again. In the old ways.

He turned. And suddenly—the summer was harsh once more.

“Do not.”

The Wind Runner shook her head. She looked around and said it.

In the name of the Faerie King, I crave a threefold boon!

The fae went silent. Ryoka felt something heavy enter the party. A watchfulness.

The warriors stirred. They looked to Melidore. He lifted a foot, as if to step away, to be done with it.

But he could not. He turned back with a sound like fury. And his eyes—Ryoka refused to quail.

 

Speak. You invoke a boon? You dare?

 

She met his eyes.

“I do. By the right of hospitality, I ask you to help me.”

She gestured at the party. All she had done! And he had granted her only the right to ask and be refused? The fae nodded, uncertainly. Melidore snarled. Ryoka went on.

“By friendship and loss, I crave your favor.”

She appealed to the fae. Had they not seen her friend’s need? Had Ivolethe not died for her? More were nodding. But Melidore was unmoved.

So, the last reason. The greatest one, which she had only known now. Ryoka took a breath, and then pointed at him.

“By the will of the fates, I beg your aid! This boon must come to pass.

The sound that struck the air was like a bell—or something shattering—a distant roll of thunder—all these things at once. Ryoka’s ears rang and everyone covered their ears.

She expected the first of the Summer Court to rage. To strike at her. To fix her with those terrible, glorious eyes. But he did none of those things.

Melidore sighed. And the sound was like summer passing to fall.

“You know too much, mortal. And you invoke the old ways at your peril. Since you force me; I will listen. I must acknowledge the three. So. What is your threefold boon?”

He looked at her. Unfriendly. But listening nonetheless. Ryoka took a breath, and she felt like she hadn’t since she first spoke the boon.

“Th-three things. I ask.”

“That is how the threefold boon works. Ask.

He glowered at her. Ryoka nodded slowly.

“I ask for a way to bring my friend back from between life and death.”

Murmurs. Lady Ieka’s eyes widened. Halrac—Ylawes—heads rose across the gathering. Lord Tyrion Veltras dropped his goblet. If—

But it was only Ryoka who could ask. Everyone else was transfixed. More than spellbound. Ryoka went on.

“I ask for passage into your land.”

Narrowed eyes. Melidore whirled upon Silver Pines. The tree met his gaze, unmoving. He had told Ryoka what she needed.

To meet Ivolethe. To find the cure—Ryoka pointed at Melidore as he turned.

“I ask for the chance to meet with my friend, if she wishes to do the same!”

She felt the air twist. All three boons hung in the air, so real she could feel her words. Passage, aid, and a meeting.

They fit. Oh yes. The Summer Court, who had been so disappointed with her gifts, objected not at all now.

This was a boon worthy of them. All eyes turned to Melidore.

He could refuse, of course. But she had invoked more than just his personal feelings. She had involved the Faerie King, if not by name. Their honor.

Prophecy. And the fae knew it. He stared at her, greatly displeased. Then he shook his head.

“Ah, mortal girl. Windfriend. Favored of the Winter Court. You are a foolish one. You ask three where most would not dare one. You ask for gifts far beyond what you could ever give or pay for. And you would overturn the will of the King of the Fae.”

“I would.”

Ryoka was trembling. Melidore smirked; and it was unkind. He looked around, then raised one more finger.

“Since I am bound by the old ways. I say one more thing. You have reason. You have…right.

His eyes narrowed.

“But you do not have my consent. And I will fight your boon to the last. So. Persuade me. Give me one more reason.”

Faeries! Ryoka bit her tongue so hard she cut herself. But she felt him giving. He was sweating, trying to deny the threefold boon. Anyone else surely would have caved. She searched for a fourth reason worthy of the rest. And she had nothing. No Dragon. No Erin. She was only Ryoka Griffin.

A failure who…Ryoka’s eyes opened. She stared at Melidore and then looked around. She took a breath—

“A fourth reason? Very well. Because…”

The fae leaned forwards. Ryoka stared Melidore straight in his eyes.

“…it will probably be very entertaining.”

The fae’s eyes widened. His cheeks bulged. He tried to hold it in. But the laugh escaped him. And the Summer Court guffawed and rolled in mirth. They laughed and laughed.

Ruefully, Melidore raised his hand. He shook his head.

“Very well. Very well!

The laughter ceased. He looked at Ryoka, annoyed, impressed, amused, all at once.

“It has been long since a mortal bested me. I cannot gainsay it. Not for the three reasons. I do not promise any of the three. But I will grant you the chance. The second is within my power to grant. The first and third? Beyond me. But let it be done!

He turned, spun.

 

“There.”

 

One of the lesser fae stirred as the glorious member of the Summer Court pointed, seemingly at random, to them. She raised her hands, delighted, and Melidore nodded.

 

Give the mortal girl what she desires.

 

The fae, winged, green-skinned, eyes shining with insectile mirth, bared her sharp teeth at Ryoka. But it was complimentary as much as threatening.

She made a shape in front of her chest, holding thumb and forefinger out, two hands pressed together, one upside down to form a simple rectangle. That was all. It looked like a—a—

A doorway appeared in the sky.

Ryoka Griffin and the guests stared up. Even in Riverfarm—the outside party went silent.

The fading evening light was cut by a brilliant light. Foreign light. From another world. It split the air, high overhead.

Another world lay beyond. Ryoka saw—a glimpse of sunlight—her chest contracted hard.

“Dead gods.”

Jericha breathed. She saw no staircase. No frame. But still—the door opened, right over the faerie’s head. It cut through cloud. Through air. And it hung, a sliver thinner than any blade’s edge. A cut in reality.

Waiting to be entered.

“There is your door. Now, enter it.”

Melidore’s words jerked everyone back to reality. Ryoka looked around. Then she focused on the door again. The faerie still held her hands thusly. Ryoka looked at her. Then she looked at the door.

High in the sky, a mile overhead, directly above the fae and the party. Ryoka’s mouth went dry.

“W-wait. That’s all the way…”

The fae chuckled.

“You have forced my boon. But it is to me how I choose to grant it.”

She looked at him and the malicious smile would have fit a Winter Sprite to a tee. Ryoka clenched her teeth.

“I’ll do it.”

She didn’t have her wind glider. But—she turned. She would do it! This was her moment! She looked around—

And Melidore laughed again. Ryoka’s skin prickled. Chilled. What was so funny? She’d done it! She just had to—

Her skin went cold. Frozen. Frostbite set in on her arm. She felt the pain of the freezing air. The temperature—

From the blade of the Faerie King’s warrior. A thing of frost, armored in frozen metal, had drawn its sword. And it was advancing on her. Ryoka felt it at her neck, for all they were apart.

She froze. And Melidore’s voice was high and mocking. Petty, too.

“You attempt to defy the will of the Faerie King in front of his court? And his warriors.

Oh no. Oh no, no, nonono—Ryoka looked back at Melidore. He gave her a mocking bow. Insult for insult.

He would be wroth with me, if you succeeded. If thou wish’st to dare enter the land of fables, thou surely must create legend themselves. Show me the will that would defy your disgusting world. Or die.

The seven warriors advanced on Ryoka from all sides. The rule of hospitality? Broken, for the one who would defy their ruler. The fae watched. And their smiles turned from encouragement to sadistic delight.

This was a day of great meetings, of deeds, and wonder.

And death.

This day.

 

—-

 

Luan Khumalo sat in the single scull.

The water was like glass. The waves, the ocean—flat.

It was all there. The trees, the distant shore and Baleros’ jungles. But…

Silent. Still. The [Bounty Hunters]? Nothing moved in their vessel.

The flash of a [Fireball] hung in the air. And yet time was passing. Time was passing. And still.

The sun had waned since this strangeness had come over the air.

It was all because of the figure.

He sat on the prow of the scull. It should have overturned the lightweight craft. But he weighed nothing. The still waters moved; ripples from his feet.

Luan was afraid. His oars rested, half in the water. His palms were sweaty.

He had forgotten what day it was. But he had not forgotten the last time.

The Winter Solstice. Only this time—things were different. It had not been this stillness last time. He had paddled through fog. Through…to meet someone who begged for…

“You’re not her.”

That was all he said at last. He had sat there, perhaps for hours, refusing to speak. To even meet…his eyes.

The man who sat there was an idea, to Luan, the longer he looked. More than just features; he was the very embodiment of…passion. Passion, and love, and meetings.

To look at his smile was to want to talk to him forever. To stare into his eyes was to remember love lost and gained.

Luan wanted to like him. But his fear was a physical thing. He wanted to abandon his boat, to dance upon the waters. And he did not know why he wanted to do such things.

He remembered his family. And the stranger smiled.

“No. I am not. Will you speak to me now, Luan?”

“How do you know my name?”

Luan thought about raising the oars to strike the figure. But he did not. Could not. The dancing man smiled. Luan watched the ripples in the water. His skin pricked and goose bumps rose.

“I know many things. I know you fear me. You need not, you know. Would you not take a drowning woman’s hand? For shame.”

The [Rower] bristled.

“I nearly did. I offered her my oar. But she wanted my hand. And the more I looked—the warier I became. She was an old woman at first. Then a young one. Then in her middle years. She didn’t climb onto my boat. She didn’t take the oar. She wanted my hand.

“And you did not offer it to her. Wise, perhaps. But won’t you take mine?

The figure reached out. Luan leaned back, nearly overbalancing the scull. He righted himself; the figure did not lean over. Nor did he touch Luan, although they were close enough.

The man feared to fall into the waters. Just as much as he feared to touch the hand.

Something was down there.

“Oh yes. And they are desperate. More than I. If you were to choose between the two—choose me.”

“I would rather you go into the waters and leave me alone. What are you?”

The figure did not respond. He looked at Luan, disappointed.

“I thought you would like me more than she. I tried to find you last time, you know. But we three went to the first instead and had nothing to offer her. You though—you are surely mine, aren’t you?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m not anyone’s.”

Luan countered. He licked his lips, staring into the water. Was it…whispering to him? Something down there wanted him to dive into it.

Touch me.

“Yes, you are. You love your family.”

Luan’s head rose. His eyes blazed. His golden tattoo—he stared at it, and then at the figure.

“Don’t talk of them.”

“Why not? I know love. I know family. The love of a sister, a wife, a child—this is my domain. This is what I am. Love, friendship, passion. The arts are half mine, half his. I believe in art. You—won’t you even consider it?”

The truth ran in all of his words. Luan felt it. This man was joy in life. Experience; like when Luan had first felt that burning rush of adrenaline. The thrill of dancing with his wife.

All those things at once were in the hand he offered. And still. Luan refused to take it.

“She said the exact same things. Only—she was like looking at—”

He shuddered. His grandmother’s face had been hers. And he had forgotten how she had looked the day he laid her to rest.

“Oh yes. She is for those who have lost love. As opposed to that which tends only to what is lost. Both are a poor match for you. After all—you haven’t lost anything. And yet you have.”

“My family.”

Luan’s grip tightened on the paddle, and then he released it. Not a day went by that it didn’t hurt. And he wanted it to hurt. He was terrified of forgetting.

The smiling figure nodded.

“I could help you, you know. Soon, all will change. You will have need of allies. And I am far beyond any other.”

“No thanks. She said the exact same thing. Can you bring me my wife, my child? Not a false image. Can you help me be together with them again?”

Silence. Luan spat into the water.

“I thought so. My answer is the same. I do not care what you are. Devil. Demon. You won’t take my soul. I deny you.”

A sigh.

“Such harshness. You do not even know what I am. But we—all six of us would like you most of all.”

“Why me? How many more are you going after?”

Paige. Daly! Geneva! Luan wanted to row back the way he’d come. He had to—the figure laughed, lightly. Luan nearly laughed in reply. But he stopped himself.

“You? You are the greatest of them all, Luan Khumalo! A champion of your world.”

He gestured at Luan, who had been an athlete. The world’s best.

“If only in your strange sport. Why…rowing? Why did you return to it?”

Now the stranger seemed almost…peeved. He gestured around, at the still spell and [Bounty Hunters] on the water.

“You could have been anything here. Why this?”

“Because I’m good at this. The best. I don’t want to be a [Warrior]. Or kill.”

“How disappointing.”

Luan neither cared nor wanted the approval of…he half-turned, looking for a way out. As he did, the oar slipped and began to sink into the water.

Cursing, Luan grabbed for it. He reached down—

And stopped.

The grasping hand had nearly touched his. Slowly—the man placed the oar back on the scull. He looked visibly disappointed.

Tricks.

Luan whispered, through pale lips. He was sweating.

“We are desperate. I am sorry. But I asked.”

A small grin. Luan felt his skin trying to leave his body.

“Go. Away. Please.”

He whispered.

“I will not take your hand. Ever.”

For the longest time, the man regarded Luan. Searching him. Luan thought of his wife, the child he had yet to meet. He refused to move. To look it in the eyes.

“Do you not want…power?

The whisper at last. The figure looked towards the drifting sun. Time was running out. For which one? He turned to Luan.

“You stand in another world, Luan. One with such great powers. Do you not want…an advantage? Strength beyond what anyone else could claim? A head start? More?”

The athlete leaned on his paddles. He stared at the dancing man.

“You mean…do I want to cheat? I believe in winning fairly.”

“But there are no rules. No competition. Others are born with advantages. Do you not want to win?”

“Not the way you would have me do it. I say it again: begone, monster.”

Luan looked away. He felt…was that a wave coming? He gasped in relief.

But the eyes bored into his head. Now, the figure was angry. He rose, and stood upon the glassy surface. His feet began to sink into the water. Then his knees. His torso.

“I have failed twice. I shall not return for you. Nor have I time left. You disappoint me.”

He was up to his chest. Then his neck. Luan saw waves moving across the glassy ocean, towards him. He began to paddle towards it.

“You will not take any of my friends, you damned thing.”

He told the figure as its eyes stared up from the abyss below. Luan was not going to go out on the ocean for a month.

It was submerged in water, with the scraps of whatever lurked beneath. But both were fading. Going away. Luan was turning his scull when he heard the voice, through the water.

You make one mistake, Luan. You think there were rules to how we met. Rules for us. There are none.

Luan stared down. He heard the voice again.

You should have taken my hand.

The man turned. He cried out, a shout of mortal horror. How had he not seen? Had he been steered into—he tried to move left, or right. Then he r—

The [Fireball] hit the scull dead on. The [Bounty Hunters], who had been firing left and right of the boat to drive it to shore, stopped shouting abruptly.

“L-Luan?”

The leader stared at the burning wreckage. For a body. But it had hit Luan—he turned to the others.

“But it was going to miss! One second he was there and then—”

“A mirage? W-we hit him, boss. We were only supposed to…”

The Lizardfolk stared at the wreckage. They waited for Luan to surface.

He did not. The leader turned.

“Okay. We destroyed the boat! That’s what we’ll say. No truth spells—go, go!

They turned, paddling desperately for shore. Leaving the wreckage behind.

The others walked across the world. Searching. Searching for…

A friend.

 

—-

 

Or something more.

Liscor. The Summer Solstice was fading. The evening wore on, into night. But it would be a long day, still.

Lyonette du Marquin was weeping. She held Mrsha on Erin’s birthday. Selys was with them. Numbtongue huddled around, Bird, everyone squeezed into the private room in Timbor Parthian’s inn.

He had been kind enough to offer it for this day. They were all here.

It never occurred to them to go to the inn. Why would they stay?

They could not.

They had left this morning. So had the Workers. The staff.

The Wandering Inn was empty. Even Apista had left.

The only thing inside was a young woman. In a Garden. Lying frozen on the bier.

But she wasn’t quite there, was she? As the light faded, something opened the front door of the inn at last. It peered inside.

It was a lost thing. It was of lost things.

It was lost. And as such, she—the body called to it.

My, oh my. You forgot something, didn’t you? You lost it.

Your body.

The soul hung in a place between life and death. Separate. And where there were cracks—

Anything could creep in.

Slowly, almost hesitantly, it crept around the inn. Searching the tables, the walls, the kitchen. Devouring hungrily the food. But searching. It was running out of time.

Where?

There. The door creaked as it clawed at it. Trying to find a way in. The cold iron, the solid door—

Began to open. It could have held off armies and monsters. But not it. The figure was impatient. Desperate. They all were.

It had taken so long to find this place. Something had made it difficult. Almost…obscuring things.

What?

The door to the [Garden of Sanctuary] opened further. And there it was.

A little, moldy loaf lying on the grass. Dark as could be. Imperfect.

It would have worked, too. How silly! The door strained against something. But the inexorable force opened it further. Even this incomplete thing would have worked.

But there it was. A shining token. Brighter than the darkness. It had been kept so well. A promise to meet again.

The glittering coin in the desk drawer.

It smiled.

And the door opened further. Just a little more.

You wouldn’t mind it if you never came back, would you?

You would never find your way back. If you lost it.

A shadow, a memory, a thing crept into the garden at last. And looked up towards the hill. It crept forwards.

How sad. How terrible. There was no one here to say its name. No hand to take. But a body? A body would do.

The young woman lay on the top of the hill, surrounded by statues.

Tragedy. Despite all you did, look how you died, Erin Solstice.

You failed. You were not strong enough. Look. You’ve fallen and now they were coming for you. All you wrought would wear away.

You have fallen.

“…But you are not alone.”

The figure sat on the hilltop. His eyes were crimson. His skin was green. He looked down at the intruder.

The Goblin Lord sighed. Reiss rose. The figure stopped. A little ghost? It crept further, undeterred. It was more than a single ghost.

The ___ of the Forgotten, the First of the Lost, the Furthest Traveller, ________ ____…

Stopped.

An army stood in front of him and the vessel. Their eyes glowed crimson. Their skin was green.

Goblins.

Headscratcher looked left, at Bugear. His eyes traced the gaps in their number. Statues. Ghosts floating in place where their representations in stone should be.

Grunter. Orangepoo. So many were missing statues, memorials. Because she had not known them. But where the statues were missing—the Goblins stood. Or sat. Grunter waved. Orangepoo nodded, slightly miffed that Headscratcher got a statue.

Bugear rubbed at his ears, disconcerted to find nothing there. He looked ahead. Spiderslicer checked his side. Eater of Spears looked ahead.

Reiss looked left. And Garen Redfang rested a clawed hand on his shoulder.

“Why are we here?”

He looked blankly at his brother. Reiss didn’t know how to explain.

It was just a thought. If. If Shorthilt had—and Pyrite? Then perhaps…the Goblins looked down at the stranger in their midst.

“Because you are needed. For one last fight. Brother.”

The Goblin Lord rose. He took Garen’s shoulder. The Chieftain half shook his head.

“We had one chance. Should not have a second.”

He harrumphed, as if annoyed by the fact of existing. Reiss bared his teeth.

“Don’t be stupid. This…”

He pointed down at the shadow in the air.

“Must stop it. It will steal her.”

He looked at the young woman. Headscratcher knelt in front of her. He reached for her, gently. But his hands passed through her. He bowed his head. Then he looked up. His comrades clustered around him, so curious to see the strange Human.

“Like flowers.”

That was all Grunter said. The others nodded. Headscratcher looked up and wiped at his eyes. But there were no tears.

“It is coming.”

Reiss warned the others. The lost thing was coming up the hill. Garen reached for his side. But he had no sword.

“Redscar took.”

Spiderslicer. Garen grimaced.

“Good.”

Below them, the thing was angry. At the Goblins who stood in its way. Small and large! Cave Goblins, large Hobs. Redfangs, Flooded Plains Goblins. All those that Numbtongue had ever met or known.

Waiting for him. Those damned things.

Stubborn even in death. They did not remember the whole of it. But somehow, someway. They still fulfilled their oaths.

“Brother. We must hold it back until this day ends.”

“Good thing its longest day.”

Reiss half-laughed. Eater of Spears rumbled as it made a fist.

“We have no weapons.”

“So? You dead. Still coward?”

Spiderslicer poked him in the side. The big Goblin glared. But then he looked down.

“Weapons useless anyways.”

The Goblins nodded. They walked down the hill. The thing was coming up. But it would not reach her before the day ended.

They closed ranks. Something laughed. It advanced, looking down at the first little Goblin that blocked its way. A Cave Goblin, eyes filled with defiance. It reached down—

And stood. The Goblins looked at the spot where nothing remained. Nothing. They listened to it. At how it laughed.

They did not budge. The figure advanced.

“Brother. It is so good to see you again.”

“You too.”

Reiss and Garen held hands as they formed a circle around Erin Solstice.

Waiting for the day to end.

 

—-

 

Ryoka Griffin stood at the ending of the longest day of the year and felt the blade touch her neck. The warrior advanced on her. There was no mercy in the shadows of its visor.

Just—intent. She turned to face it.

She had come too far to give up. Death? She would risk it again and again for a chance to bring her friend back.

The doorway waited, high overhead. When the sun set, Ryoka knew—the fae would drop her hands and it would vanish.

She saw the sword rise. And knew she could not dodge it. Not from this warrior. She made a fist with one hand, as Melidore laughed.

Challenge!

The voice rang out across the gathering. The warrior turned. The cold chill at her neck faded away. Ryoka Griffin’s head turned with the others.

And there they were. Two of them. Lady Bethal Walchaís.

Thomast Veniral. He lifted the rapier in his hand and saluted the figure. It was he who’d spoken.

“What?”

Melidore was incredulous. So—seemingly—was the warrior of winter. Lady Bethal was smiling.

“He said, ‘challenge’, you pompous man. Or do your folk not know honor and duels? Leave Ryoka Griffin alone. My husband wishes to cross swords with your great warrior.”

The fae gaped. Then they laughed and burst into applause. They screamed, shouted with delight.

 

A challenge?

“He challenges the warrior of winter? He who rides with the Wild Hunt?

“Let him! Challenge! Challenge!

 

They cheered Thomast as the warrior pivoted, bringing up the two-handed sword. Melidore was furious.

“She defies the king!”

But—his words went unheard. The warrior had been challenged. Thomast looked past him, to Ryoka.

Go.

His lips formed the words. Ryoka stared at him. He was going to die! But—Bethal’s gaze was firm.

“Go. This is still under the rules of hospitality. Let it be a bout for the ages!”

She cried out, setting her rules. Ryoka half-exhaled.

Melidore was even more furious. She turned—and nearly skewered herself on six more blades.

The other warriors! They were advancing on her! One walked towards Thomast, who had taken a ready stance, eyes locked on his target.

Six more. Each of a different nature. One seemed to hold a blade made of moonlight—another was Melidore’s burning nature. Ryoka saw someone interpose himself between the warrior of moonlight.

“I challenge you, sir.”

Lord Tyrion Veltras. He wore the Shield of House Veltras on one arm, his dueling sword on the other.

Milord Veltras!

Father!

“That fool.”

Ulva murmured as the second warrior halted. Lord Tyrion saluted his foe, and the figure did the same.

Tyrion did not need [Dangersense] to feel the scope of his opponent. His nerves were buzzing. He—like Thomast—knew as the two lifted their blades.

They were outmatched.

 

—-

 

The first cut was fast, a testing blow. Perfect. That was all Thomast thought as he stepped back, out of range. It wasn’t that it had a Skill behind it. In fact—his footwork Skill had carried him away.

And it was wrong. Thomast slowed. He flicked his blade and the winter’s warrior severed the wind magic with a flick of the sword. A riposte—Thomast stepped out of the way again. And again—halted.

Wrong. He saw the way the warrior moved. Perfection in every line. It was like half-Elves, and the peerless ability they developed over their unnatural lifespans.

Only, even more refined. An age this warrior had taken to perfect their craft. Thomast struck out, in a lunge and it was knocked aside.

“What peerless skill.”

He murmured. He moved to [Flicker Step]—halted. The second attack nearly cost him his rapier and a freezing blade turned his arm numb. He cried out—switched arms. His left arm was dead.

“Thomast! What are you doing!”

Bethal cried out in horror. Thomast could have avoided it! But the [Chevalier] did not use [Flicker Onslaught]. [Double Cut], or any other Skill. He didn’t even use a Skill as he brought up his sword, saluting the warrior again.

He could have. But it would have been wrong. To use a Skill—in this moment, at this time? Thomast felt that it was cheating.

Somehow. Skills had been part of his life. But now, faced with true mastery of the blade, he was suddenly ashamed to have called himself a [Fencer]. He saluted the mysterious warrior.

Slowly—the winter fae did likewise. Thomast gritted his teeth. The cold—Bethal was haranguing him. But he had to keep the duel going. Stay wide of the range of that blade.

Give Ryoka Griffin time. He would have fallen by the third stroke, or the fifth. But Thomast had felt this once before.

When he had crossed swords with the Hobgoblin in the forest. He would not fall so quickly.

 

—-

 

Lord Tyrion Veltras felt the exact same as Thomast in that first exchange of blows. If not for his Skills, he would have been cut!

And yet he did not abandon his Skills. The moonlight warrior struck again, blade flickering—he cut from one side and his weapon appeared from the other! Unpredictable!

It was all that the [Lord] could do to stay on the defensive. He would have wished to match blades fairly, even if it meant his loss by the second stroke. But—

Beyond him, Ryoka Griffin was backing up as two duels commenced. The fae were cheering, surrounding the two. Tyrion launched forwards. [Lancing Hydrastrike]!

The furious blows, eight in total, rained down on the other warrior’s shield. Tyrion felt like he couldn’t have cut through the moonlight shield even if he’d tried.

Cut through moonlight?

He was sweating as he circled. Hurry! Hurry, Wind Runner!

 

—-

 

But five remained. Each one a sword at Ryoka Griffin’s throat, albeit from afar. If she moved, her head rolled.

Yet the two warriors had inspired the others.

Challenge!

Lord Pellmia roared at the same time half of the House of El’s guards, Lord Gralton, and dozens others did likewise. Gamel, Durene, Ylawes, and his father—if one fell, someone else would take up arms! Duel me! Duel—

The warrior of summer walked past Lord Pellmia without even looking his way. The [Lord] faltered. His outstretched sword moved to block the fae’s path.

“I said, duel me, sir! I challenge you t—”

The sword’s melted hilt wavered in his grasp. Pellmia went cross-eyed and recoiled. The summer fae did not even turn his helmeted head.

 

Hah! You think you can challenge one such as them so easily, mortal lord? Little man?

 

The fae laughed at Pellmia. He looked around, uncomprehending.

“Few warriors true stand here. In this pathetic world, not enough know the dance of blade and bone and blood!”

Melidore. And indeed, the other five warriors were ignoring the other calls to challenge. From the bodyguards, from the other nobles. Thomast and Tyrion, yes. But…

Ylawes stared as one of the warriors, armor covered in leaves and vines, walked past him. He lowered his sword, hanging his head. Gralton failed to block another.

Even Ylawes? Ryoka looked around, heart pounding. One of them raised his sword, a thing made of chitin rather than metal as he neared, long steps striding forwards. Wings on his armor—?

“Enough. If you will not take their challenges, then I challenge you.”

A female voice. The warrior halted. Turned his head. Then he lowered his sword. And slowly saluted…

Lady Zanthia. And beside her, a figure with a transparent sword. He saluted as well, and they stepped forwards.

A gasp from the nobility.

[The Eternal Partner] met the faerie warrior’s advance smoothly, without fear of death. They traded blows as Lady Zanthia watched, a mixture of pride and sorrow on her face.

Four. Melidore’s smile turned to a scowl once more. He looked about, but every warrior in the House of El and House of Veltras had been refused. From Jericha to Lord Deilan to…

“Challenge. I challenge you.”

The warrior of summer—stopped. The fae looked down. And down.

“Dawil?”

Ylawes choked. Falene was staring. The Dwarf stroked his beard, looking up.

The summer fae walked past him. The Dwarf stuck out a foot—and the figure stepped over it.

“Am I not good enough for you, kin?”

The Dwarf’s eyes were sharp. The helmeted head turned back. Then halted. The fiery blade turned. And the fae stopped laughing at the silly Dwarf.

Dawil had removed his axe. The [Axe Champion] lifted it.

“Will you not honor this blade? Even you? It was made by the greatest smiths in any world. For me. Will you not cross blades with it?”

Yes. The summer fae turned and the burning blade lifted. Dawil smiled and backed up.

“Could use some spells, Falene.”

And then there were three. Melidore’s eyes were blazing with fury.

“Take her head!”

Ryoka was running now, running the other way, the wind howling around her. Blow me up! She was looking for a table cloth! For…for something to use! A parasail, a kite! She’d take someone throwing her up there!

A mile overhead. A damn mile—she stumbled.

No, one of the blades had cut her across the leg. She went down, clutching at her leg. She saw one of the warriors wielding a weapon like—sound. It was the sound of a cut which had created the injury.

The swish of an axe through the air.

Dozens of voices cried out useless challenges. The sound of the blade met another sound in the air.

The clash of blades. The fae lowered its blade. Turned.

“I challenge you.”

Barelle the [Bard]’s shortsword was in one hand, the magical harp in the other. The fae gasped. Ryoka stared. The [Bard] looked past the warrior and smiled at her.

“Once more, it is time for [Bards] to shape the stories they tell for the better.”

Two. Now the Summer Court was applauding, shouting.

 

“Run, Wind Runner!”

“Run! Fly! Jump! Hop!”

 

They were all clustering forwards, blocking the warrior’s way, tossing mud and drinks on them. How quickly they changed sides! The warriors moved forwards, undeterred.

And then someone spoke.

Challenge! Challenge for favors won and memory!

The sixth warrior stopped and spun. This time Melidore howled in fury.

It was the Satyr. She’d seized a branch, and swished the stick, still with leaves on it. She slapped the armor of one of the warriors and the blade cut the air, leaving the air wounded and howling. But the Satyr just dodged away, laughing merrily.

Stories. The fae applauded—but no one else dared do the same. The last warrior advanced. And his armor was made of bone. His face—if it was a he—invisible behind the ivory bars covering it.

Ryoka Griffin faced him. She would never get into the air without getting past him. And no one else had challenged him.

A War Golem lumbered forwards. The bone warrior raised an axe and cut it in two. The Terlands gasped. It didn’t even slow the figure one beat.

Ryoka looked around for a weapon. Her eyes alighted on…

A piece of corn. Someone was offering it to her.

“Um. Not the weapon I wanted.”

She looked at the figure holding it. The man smiled.

“I know. I have only ever tasted corn this good once before. Do you know my friend?”

Ryoka’s eyes widened. She stared up at him. The magnificent armor he wore.

“Lupp?”

“That’s him. Well then. I challenge you.

The man walked past Ryoka. And the warrior of bone put up his axe. He saluted, and the man saluted back. Ryoka stumbled back. Ulva Terland looked past the Wind Runner, at one of her bodyguards. Her escort.

They changed his name. Ryoka remembered Lupp’s words.

An unhappy [Farmer]. Grew beets. One day—

“Eldertuin Terland. I challenge you.”

The Named Adventurer saluted his opponent. He carried a mace—and a tower shield. He was nearly Durene’s size!

Eldertuin the Fortress.

Eldert.

Lupp’s friend.

 

“Corn! Corn and challenges! What disappointment! What delight! Hah!”

 

The fae were hooting. Ryoka jumped—and went flying into a table. The wind was twisting. Dozens of fae were trying to make it throw her—or helping and not helping.

She just had to—Ryoka yanked a tablecloth off a table, taking all the dishes with it. She threw it around herself. The wind blew—she went up—

 

Enough!

 

The wind went still. Even it feared the voice. Ryoka landed in a heap. She got up, and Melidore was striding towards her.

He had a blade in hand.

“Oh come on. You too?

She pointed at him. He bared his teeth as they glinted in the fading light.

“You have offended me with your boon, Ryoka Griffin. Why should I not?”

He lifted the sword. And Ryoka felt the wind forsake her. Despairing, she looked around.

Challenge.

Melidore blinked. He looked around. A young man was striding towards him, silver armor gleaming, sword and shield in hand.

“Ylawes, no.”

“I challenge you, sir.”

“Me?”

The fae looked amused. He pointed and Ryoka’s feet rooted themselves to the ground. She could not move—could not speak. It was just a gesture. Melidore swung around.

“To a duel. Let her go.”

The first of the guests thought about it. Then he shook his head.

 

“No.”

 

Again, the denial was like a blow. Ylawes caught himself, gritting his teeth. Melidore spread his hands.

“Why should I match blades against a foe who cannot trouble me? I do not defend my honor, or seek the thrill of worthy foes. I only desire to humble Ryoka Griffin. So no. You have nothing to offer me, nor any other. Ryoka Griffin will not leave. Unless…

His eyes brightened. And a terrible smile came over his face. The other fae seemed to understand what he was thinking. They clapped their hands, chortling.

 

The bet! The bet of the knight! The tale of green and hubris. Yes, yes!

 

They cheered Melidore, begging him to do it. He raised a hand and silence fell. Then he looked at Ylawes, the group behind him.

“I will let any one of you strike me, and if I should not be able to reply, the mortal shall go. But if I stand the first blow—I shall strike you. Until one or the other falls.”

No. Ryoka strained to get free, but he was holding her in place. Someone had to beat him to free her! But this—Ylawes’ eyes narrowed.

“A blow for a blow?”

“You first. Whatever you wish. But be warned boy—I will strike second.”

Melidore flicked the blade carelessly. Ryoka strained to open her mouth. With all her will—she managed to turn her head.

“Ylawes. Don’t. It’s a trap.”

“Even I can tell that, Ryoka.”

The [Knight] shrugged uncertainly. But he didn’t know. A variant of the Green Knight’s bet to Sir Gawain in Arthurian legend. Ryoka knew so many tales with the same premise.

Yet still, Ylawes nodded. The fae cheered and Melidore smiled. Ylawes looked at Ryoka, and then addressed the fae.

“I will not hold back, sir. For I owe Miss Ryoka Griffin a debt of gratitude. And her errand is more important than your life.”

“You say so, silver knight? Then strike me.”

Melidore taunted him. Ryoka groaned aloud.

“No, Ylawes—”

Too late. The [Knight] advanced, dropping his shield, bringing his silver longsword up in a two-handed grip. Melidore raised his hands, not bothering to dodge or move. Waiting.

Ylawes!

The [Knight] uttered a Skill as his sword sliced through the air. Ryoka heard it. Heard the shout of horror from Yitton Byres and the others as they saw Ylawes—

—Cut through Melidore. Through arm, chest, torso! Out the other side!

Two severed arms dropped, one still holding the sword. The fae’s cheering stopped. A bloody torso and lower half fell—Ryoka stared.

Had the Green Knight survived that? Head, yes, but Ylawes had aimed for the arms. Try reattaching—the pieces lay on the grass.

Ylawes! What have you done!

Yitton tore free of Shallel and ran forwards in horror. He stared at Ylawes’ sick face. Ryoka realized—she could move. She took a step. Was it possible…?

Melidore laughed. Ryoka froze and Ylawes whirled. The fae stood behind him, brushing at the blood on his clothes.

“Well done, boy! Timeless bravery! Timeless foolishness!

“I—”

Ylawes paled. Then he dropped his sword.

“Do as you will, then, sir. Only let Ryoka go.”

Melidore looked at him. And those damned eyes were so cruel.

“That was not agreed. My turn.”

His sword, shining, like a beam of light in the evening, fell.

It cut Ylawes deep across the chest. Sliced his silver armor without slowing. Into flesh. Bone.

Ylawes stumbled. He stared down at his cut torso. He had taken countless blows in battle, perhaps even worse. But then he opened his mouth and screamed.

It was a shriek of pain. Yitton halted again, then ran as his son collapsed, howling, clutching at his wound. It sizzled and burned. Melidore flicked blood off his sword. Ylawes’ scream went on and on—and even the fighting duels slowed and those listening flinched away from the sound.

The shriek went higher—then cut off. Ylawes lay, golden hair lying on the grass. Yitton reached for his son as Shallel fell to her knees.

“Is he—”

He rose, reaching for his own hilt. Melidore spat at his feet. The spit ate away at the very ground. The fae turned.

I would not defy our king’s orders. He is not dead. Fix him with your cheap tricks if you will. But he will not rise until the dawn. Next? I will not be so kind the more I swing my blade.”

He smirked, swishing the weapon he held back and forth. Ylawes groaned—but the wound did heal as Shallel poured a potion on the wound. But he did not wake up.

And that had been kind? Ryoka stared at Melidore. The fae smirked at her.

At least Ylawes was not dead. But the voices of challenge had suddenly stopped. Even the bravest feared that scream. And—they had all seen Ylawes cut Melidore in two. What were you supposed to do after that? Disintegrate him?

No one spoke as Ryoka saw the sun setting. Looking up at the gap in the sky.

Then, a shaky voice. Rumbling. Angered.

“I will.”

Melidore’s head turned in delight. Ryoka groaned aloud once more.

Durene. The [Paladin] had her club, and her door-shield. Metal armor, not yet customized to her, with an eye emblazoned on it.

She was not Ylawes, in perfect shining armor. The fae laughed aloud.

 

“Half-child! The half-Troll challenges you, Melidore!”

“Brawn before brains!”

“Brawn without brains, to think she has a chance!”

 

The fae thought so too. He smiled at Durene, like a distant uncle to a cousin.

“Child, for kinship, I tell you do not try. I mean my every word.”

“Yeah? Well…I’m going to hit you.”

Durene didn’t have a snappy rebuttal. Melidore laughed and shook his head.

“Durene—”

“I’ve got this, Ryoka.”

“Until one or the other falls! Well then, little one! Try—”

Durene didn’t listen to Melidore’s words. She strode over and kicked him between the legs.

Ryoka saw Melidore’s feet leave the ground. Every male of every species winced at the blow. Melidore cried out. He doubled over—

And then straightened. Laughing.

This world does entertain!

Durene blinked. But she’d hit him harder than she’d ever—the fae shook his head at her.

“You tried well, little one. With creativity. But did you think you could overturn stories so easily? Ah—my turn. Gentleness, for the mortal mingling as rare as yours.”

He reached out and drew a cut along her chest, diagonally, down through her breasts to her navel. Cutting armor and her grey skin apart.

Durene screamed. Laken strode forwards and only his subjects held him back from Melidore. The fae laughed once, turned away as the half-Troll girl dropped her club, fell backwards, writhing in agony.

Ryoka closed her eyes as the scream went on and on and Durene’s howl—

Stopped. The girl’s fall backwards halted. Melidore turned. Durene had not fallen to the ground like Ylawes.

Someone was holding her up.

“Steady. Steady, girl.”

Hedag. Pryde. Wiskeria. Prost, Gamel, half a dozen others heaved and Durene stumbled back onto her feet, panting. Melidore stared at the place where he had cut—

The armor fell apart. But underneath, Durene’s skin was fresh. The scar remained. But it had closed in an instant.

Hedag lowered the potion in her huge hand. The [Witch] tipped her brown hat at Melidore.

 

Cheating!

 

One of the fae shouted furiously. Durene, panting, wiped sweat from her brow. Gamel and Beniar lifted the club back into her hand. She turned to the shouter.

“No one—no one said I couldn’t ask for help. Or use potions.”

 

“What? Ye art cheating! You—you half-Troll cheater! Ugly! Ugly and—”

 

The fae made a sound as Laken looked at her. Melidore was glowering too. But Durene just bared her teeth at them.

“It’s only common sense. You—did I hear it was a story? You should have brought a half-Troll to those stories. Now. My turn again.”

Melidore stared. Uncomprehending, simply disbelieving.

“That is not how the story goes. You cannot simply—wai—”

The club hammered him into the ground. This time—Ryoka thought it actually hit him.

The Green Knight’s fable broke. So too did the hold on her. The Wind Runner stumbled past the ranks of the fae, who were laughing their winged butts off at Melidore. A few looked like they wanted to stop Ryoka, or Durene.

 

“She’s cheating. What is it with mortals and cheating stories in this world?”

“That makes it funnier. Shh! I want to see him suffer!”

 

Melidore was getting up, wrath in his eyes. But Durene was banging on her door-shield.

“You said it yourself! You can’t kill me, or do anything that interferes! Go on! Strike me, little man.

Behind her, the Wind Runner ran. And she was laughing and running and leaping. The wind was dead! But please?

“Please?”

The party was in chaos. Seven duels! A challenge of strength! Durene cried out again and was healed. The fae were all about Ryoka. Some were watching, others trying to drag at Ryoka, keep her from entering. Others fought those that did, cheering Ryoka on.

 

Go! Fulfill prophecy, ye cheating cunt!

“Do not! You disobey the rules! You will die! We will hunt you!”

“Go! Go! Fly! Show us you can!”

 

Ryoka vaulted a table as someone bit her arm and took a chunk out. The buzzing was in her ears. She leapt—

And fell. The wind. The wind.

“Please? Come on. Just one time, can’t things be easy?”

She hit the ground. The fae laughed. The window above was closing. The fae holding it open was growing bored, her hands shifting as she watched Melidore raging, caught by the very story he had invoked.

“Miss Ryoka Griffin! Do you need help?

A voice roared in her ears. Ryoka looked up—

And saw a [Lord] sitting on a carpet. Lady Ieka Imarris and the first son of House Zolde hovered overhead.

On a flying carpet.

“It seems you have a date with destiny, Ryoka. Come and—”

The fae shrieked and leapt at the carpet. Those with wings assailed the [Lord]. Ieka yelped and raised a glowing barrier. Ryoka looked up.

She was not alone. She had done all this with help! She ran, shoving fae aside. She jumped as if tricking and the Satyr laughed—

She caught the outstretched hand. The [Lord] grinned as he hauled her upwards. Ryoka, Ieka, the carpet—

Flew upwards towards the door in the sky. The hot, summer’s air, the sweat, the cold fear running down Ryoka’s back fell away. She felt Ieka hauling her onto the carpet.

Below, the fae pursued, but even they were too slow to match the dizzying rate of ascent. The party dropped away below them.

“House Zolde owes you a debt! My brother and I will take you to this wondrous place!”

The [Lord] pointed. Past Ryoka, she saw a second carpet blocking the fae. She looked at the [Lord]. Memory stirred. But it wasn’t him. It was the other—

“You helped me twice. Thank you.”

“It is our honor. To the skies!”

He roared. Ryoka looked at Ieka and the [Mage Lady] laughed. Up! Higher and higher, towards that glowing door. Beyond it, Ryoka could see distant skies. Were those…flowers on the other side? Beautiful blooms? She reached out, and Ieka and the [Lord] did likewise.

They were so close. Ryoka poised to leap and Ieka did likewise. Ryoka saw the night sky, stars beginning to shine amid the fading blood red light.

And then…a color more vivid than midnight. Onyx and byzantium. A scale, larger than Ryoka was tall.

A vast, rearing body. A serpentine head. As large as—

Sikeri the Wyrm reared up. High—higher. Ryoka, Ieka, the [Lord] and the carpet were tiny before her. She hissed. And her smile was terrible.

“No.”

You should not have spurned me.

The great maw opened. The carpet swerved—Ryoka felt a lurch. Saw the head striking down—

Sikeri tore the carpet in two. The three fell to earth.

Ryoka Griffin fell. She heard Ieka screaming a desperate spell—

And the wind caught them. A foot from earth, she stopped in the air and then dropped the last foot. She heard the fae, shouting insults at Sikeri, laughing.

The Wyrm was gone. The representative of Sikeri smugly tossed the torn carpet down. Ryoka looked up at her as the wind went dead.

“You will replace that, Sikeri’val.”

Melidore’s eyes flashed. The Wyrm quailed, but her sidelong look was triumphant. It was the fae who had caught the three plummeting mortals with the wind.

“My carpet?”

The [Lord] stared at his broken artifact. Sikeri was glowering even as she seemed to hunt around in her pockets. Ieka just sat up, looked at all the way they’d fallen, and vomited onto the ground.

Ryoka stared at the spewing lady. At the smug Wyrm. She looked up.

The door was closing. Tears sprang into her eyes. She couldn’t help it.

“You—you—you suck.”

There weren’t words in any language for how much she hated Sikeri at that moment. The Wyrm was triumphant. Ryoka looked around. All of that! All of it for what?

They’d all fought so hard. But Dawil was lying on the ground, groaning. Thomast had dropped his sundered blade. Two of the warriors turned towards her, and Durene was at her limit.

Done. Done. So many people! So many moments! For this? Did it not matter? Why hadn’t he helped? Silver Pine just watched Ryoka.

When I needed you most, why didn’t you help? I can’t beat that alone! That—that snake bitch!

Ryoka pointed at Sikeri. The serpentine lady hissed back at her. It wasn’t fair! It was never fair! It was wrong to think the fae gave chances.

The Wind Runner stared up at the mile-high door to the land of the fae. Tears running down her cheeks. She looked at the closing doorway, the fae holding it open. At Silver Pines who had not helped.

Her tears…slowed. Sikeri’s triumphant grin wavered. Melidore turned.

Ryoka Griffin’s legs began to move. She began to run. The two warriors burst into a run of their own. But the barefoot runner ran. Sprinted forwards. She passed Sikeri, who reached out—

And Silver Pine caught her. Ryoka ran. Shoving fae aside. Punching one as she jumped. Hearing the laughter of the Satyr. Cheers.

Towards the fae holding the gateway. Just two hands pressed together in a rectangle, moving apart as the last rays of sun faded. The fae grinned.

Ryoka’s head turned. She looked at Melidore, straight in the eyes. Then around at the wondrous fae, the immortals.

“You all really suck.

The Wind Runner leapt for the true doorway. The warriors grabbed for her, and Melidore’s howl split the world for a second.

But too late. The faerie yanked her hands apart. The guests of the party, Laken Godart, Tyrion Veltras, panting, Durene, Silver Pine, the fae, Ieka, Bethal—everyone turned.

Ryoka Griffin was gone.

 

—-

 

It was done. The cheering that erupted afterwards was matched only by the roar of fury from Melidore and Sikeri. But it was done!

She had entered another world! The exuberance of the guests was blown away by the fae’s response. They went practically mad, screaming and dancing and shouting.

 

She did it! After so long! A mortal has done it!

 

The fae cartwheeled and leapt, overturning tables, laughing, crying out. They celebrated Ryoka’s triumph!

The sun set. Tyrion Veltras, panting, realized his opponent had lowered his blade. He stared at the cuts on the Shield of House Veltras. Felt his arm burning.

But Ryoka was gone. He had helped her, at last, truly. He only hoped there was a way back. He had no idea what lay beyond. What perils she might endure.

Yet this longest day ended in triumph. In hope! Tyrion straightened as his sons ran towards him, shouting in awe, pointing at where Ryoka had been.

“Father! Father! Did you see? It was just the fingers! Like this!”

Sammial was trying to copy the gesture, as if to open a doorway of his own. Tyrion was smiling. It was a victory! He knelt, hesitating, thinking to embrace them.

It was a good party. A good day.

This…day.

This day.

The laughing faces slowly drained of excitement. The applause, the cheering—were sucked away. The merriment, even the fury, turned to nothingness.

The fae and mortals turned about. Laken Godart opened his eyes in horror and his head turned. Even he saw them.

Four people stepped forwards, towards the boundary of the fae’s party. Four, not six.

To see them was never to forget them. Each one was different.

 

One was young, in the prime of life, bounding, restless, a huntress, a champion of causes. In her was the spirit to fight for all things. Youth and glory.

 

Another was old and young and all things in between. She walked and the world died and was born around her. She commanded such things, and she was terrible and lovely.

 

The third danced and belonged here, in merriment and love and all things of passion. He was friendship and companions and love and trust.

 

The last stood proudest of them all. In his gaze was the will to command legions, to use lives. To look at him was to give him the authority over all things, to lead you to…

 

Dead silence. The four stopped, at some invisible boundary. Behind them? Night had fallen. But even night had been swallowed by a blackness darker still.

Shadows moved around the boundary of the party. Riverfarm was gone, as if it never was. Only this circle of space. This party.

Silence. The fae were frozen. And fear—true fear—crossed their faces. Silence, until the bearded figure spoke.

Greetings on this shortest night. Is there no room for we four around your fire? Will you not ask us to join you, on this day?

His voice was real and not real. Tyrion ached to tear his ears off rather than hear it. Yet he was enticed nonetheless. He was frozen as the old woman came forwards.

Yes. We should be six. But two of us have business of our own. Friends. Dear friends. Will you not speak our names?

She addressed the fae. They stared at the four. Things moved in the shadows, at the edges of the circle of light and life. Tyrion heard a murmur. And then…a hiss.

 

“Begone.”

 

One of the fae spoke that. Which one? No one could tell. Then another spoke.

 

Begone, nothing. Nothing is here. Do you see anything, kin?

“Nothing. Nothing. Begone, nothing.”

 

They all took up the chant. It was a susurration, low voices. Growing louder, louder. All of them—Silver Pines, Melidore, Sikeri, the Satyr—they whispered it.

Begone. Begone. Be-gone. Be-gone. Be-gone, be-gone, be-gone, be-gone, be-gone, be-gone, be-gone, be-gone, be-gone, be-gone, be-gone, be-gone, be-gone, be-gone, be-gone, be-gone, be-gone—

The four sighed. They began to move forwards, pressing against something, ignoring the whispers. Reaching out to the mortal folk, as if asking them to…

Remember. Tyrion shuddered. He almost heard the voice. Remember. Say it.

Say what? He did not know. But on the four came. The fae began to chant louder.

Begone. Yet the darkness closed in. Longing for…longing to be…

Remembered.

 

—-

 

She leapt for the open gap between the fingers. Into that little bit of space.

And the world shifted around her. Ryoka did not hit the fae woman’s chest. She flew, into that tiny gap, into a point in the world so tiny you could never measure it.

Into an infinity beyond. Ryoka’s cry was one long, endless thing. And short as a breath.

She saw, in that fragment of reality, countless visions. Her mind recoiled from understanding. She was screaming, falling, flying—

And then she landed. Forgetting the aeon she had spent in between almost as she touched the ground.

Part of her never would forget. Never could. And yet—Ryoka’s breath left her. She hit the ground with a thud.

It didn’t hurt. She felt strange. Strange in her body. Strange in her skin.

Strange in the air. The world around her was changed. Ryoka felt it in the breaths she took. She scrambled upwards.

And there she was. In the world of the fae. She stood on a vast hilltop. And behind her were standing stones. An ancient construction of stone amid grass.

Forming a gate. It shone behind her. Ryoka looked around and saw more hilltops.

Hundreds.

Thousands.

Beyond millions.

And on this hill, flowers of every shape and size. A profusion without end. Ryoka inhaled their fragrance. Her eyes hurt so much to see them all at once she closed them.

Tears ran down her face, and she did not know why. The sky—the land! She looked around.

The land of the fae. The sun shone brightly here, high overhead. Ryoka looked around. She breathed. Or thought she breathed. She touched at the grass, wondrously. Then she called out.

It had been so long. Her voice trembled in the air.

Ivolethe?

She strained her ears to hear. But there was nothing and no one on this hill. Just the grass, the stones, and the blooms. Ryoka’s tears ran down her cheeks, from exhaustion, from relief, uncertainty and sorrow and reasons she did not yet know.

Then the wind blew from far away. It came countless leagues. Tugging at her sleeves, gently touching her cheeks. Blowing her tears away. And Ryoka heard it at last.

Her friend’s voice.

“Ryoka.”

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: The last chapter will be the end of Volume 7 if all goes according to plan. But I don’t know if it will be on Tuesday, next update. If it appears, all well and good.

If not? I’ll be working on it. Making sure it has everything. There is so much—and yet it will be done! Just be warned.

One more chapter. Or two. I dunno, things can go wrong. But you can feel it too.

And entire year’s worth of writing has gone into Volume 7. I am tired. I will be taking two week’s break at least after the end of Volume 7. I need two weeks, at least. My only desire is to make this as good as it needs to be! But we will see next chapter.

For today, I’ll leave you with that and some art. Thank you for reading.

One more chapter. Or two.

 

Today’s artist has the most fitting art. Dr.Replig8r, and…well, scary stuff. Even Gazi. Much love to them for the art!

Meetings and Fire and Foes by Dr.Replig8r

 


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169 thoughts on “Solstice (Pt. 2)

  1. I have a theory, tell me if any of you have heard of this, I haven’t.
    Erin is not human..She a changeling!!! When I get back home I will go over the part of the chapter that brought me to this conclusion.
    Happy holidays!!

  2. Amazing chapter! Also answers were given, there are much more questions rise. Passage into the fae land was unexpected but exciting. I hope Ryoka’s journey will be fruitful, fun, and nice.

    I have a theory, what if the information about the ritual was given by Tamaroth to the Blighted King? Even mages of Rier and their high mage are afraid of that ritual and don’t have the full knowledge of it. If the ritual was from past knowledge of the blighted kingdom, then there must be manual or at least some instructions and warnings. But this kind of grand ritual has too dire consequences and it is affecting the whole world, even two. Also it’s results are beneficial to the Tamaroth and their group of forgotten-nothing.

    Rest well, pirateaba, and thank you for the chapter)

  3. I was just thinking it was about time that you place a piller , a pin in a moment that will come to call for the world. Welcome home this is … well we don’t have a name for this narrative like discworld besides ‘the wondering inn. ‘
    It was a good thing to introduce them, as eldrich and fea. I don’t think people would of gotten it, archetypes? No , Hercules kinda runed that. Oddly, approaching this all as that they are not ___ is the best way to maybe get people to rethink.

  4. I like that the matter of Ryoka’s fate returns after so long.
    For those that have forgotten, Ryoka being a defier of fate and challenger of Gods was mentioned by the Faeries many volumes ago.
    One of the instances, at least the one I recall more vividly, is this one which happens when Ryoka is worrying over Erin’s safety and goes to Teriarch for help, the chapter when they tell each other riddles and the Fae even alter the way the chapter is told.

    When Ryoka asks the Fae for help and they initially refuse, she then asks them why they are following her. This is what the Faeries answer:

      • That is interesting. Though we saw them interacting with her and offering deals during the last Solstice. So maybe it’s not that they were avoiding Ryoka.
        Then again, Ryoka wasn’t able to conjure the wind las Solstice, so maybe there’s something qualitatively different about her now.

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