(The Wandering Inn will be back on the 9th of January! The 12th for Public Readers)
On the Summer Solstice, Ryoka Griffin ran into another world.
The darkness of the evening and the lengthening shadows, the clash of swords and Melidore’s roar of fury she left behind. She ran—fell—through what she could not explain. Across a distance she could never measure.
And then she was here. The air tasted different. The sky seemed off. The very grass felt—odd.
Not wrong. In fact, wonderful under her bare feet. Just different.
Like, well, it belonged to somewhere else. Such that everything made Ryoka blink and stare about, wonderingly. At the stones forming the ancient gateway. The hill. The blue sky, the long grass.
And the flowers. Of every kind, of such beauty and variety and color that Ryoka felt, instinctively, that she did not see how wonderful they were. If only she had an insect’s eyes! And even that would have revealed only a fraction of the spectrum arrayed here.
They were small, some of them, tiny little florets of color. Some, as tall as she was. Taller.
They filled the vast hilltop, one of many in this place. Ryoka kept looking around. So many hills, all, seemingly, with the same kind of stone structures on them.
Crude monoliths. Worn stone, giant boulders and menhirs, which created arches. Just rectangles, ovals, squares in the air.
But beyond each gate lay another world. That was what Ryoka saw, until her eyes rejected what she saw. Through each, a different sky, each one fading with the last rays of the solstice.
On this day, they were aligned. The young woman looked about again. At the flowers on this hill. More vibrant and beautiful and in more profusion than the rest.
She could have sat forever just admiring one. One—like a frozen blossom of turquoise, gently sweeping upwards in a one-sided arch, both elegant and yet static. If she just touched it, surely it would fall apart. So wonderful.
How was it said in that poem? Eternity and infinity were reflected in these blooms. And that was one of many.
Ryoka’s head hurt with all the sights assailing her in that first moment. Her mind stopped processing it, simply taking it in as a defense mechanism. To try to understand and remember all of it?
She stood in the land of the fae. And it had taken so long for this moment. Ryoka rose. She whispered the name.
It was carried away by the wind. Ryoka had half-expected to see the little Frost Faerie waiting for her. But there was nothing here.
Except her, the flowers, and the distant land beyond. Ryoka looked back at the gate—
But it was closed. Of all the gates, only the same air lay beyond. She realized she had not asked for a way back home.
Part of her felt fear. But she was here. Let her worry about the return once she did what she had come here to do. Ryoka looked around. She noticed there was a path through the flowers.
She would never have stepped on one. Never, ever, not even lightly. She would rather have starved to death than do that and Ryoka did not know why, only that they were too important to trample. She began to walk down the hill.
Two things confronted her in that moment. Tears—and the voice.
It came on the wind, from an immeasurable distance. But the voice was familiar. It whispered in her ears. The Wind Runner looked around. And she knew.
“Ivolethe? Where are you?”
No response. But the wind tugged at her. Onwards, down the hill. Ryoka’s legs moved her forwards, urgently now.
And stopped once more.
For there was the flower.
Not a flower.
The flower. Of all of them, it was the grandest. Not the tallest. Not even the brightest. Or even the most beautiful.
But it was the flower of flowers. Two, in fact. A twining thing of two profusions. One was radiant, the other subdued, but no less resplendent for it. Bright and soft. Cool and blazing.
Summer and winter? Ryoka felt something dripping from her cheeks.
Tears? She touched at them. They were coming from her eyes. She wept, to see the flower.
And she did not know why. Not yet. Only—Ryoka stayed a moment, staring at the flower growing on this hill. She wept. Then bowed, and continued onwards.
Into the land of the fae. Avalon, some called it. Was it the same place talked of in so many stories? Was it dangerous, or simply a heaven? Had she died to get here?
Where was her friend? Would she find a way to bring Erin back?
The questions bore Ryoka onwards. She walked down the hill, into the grass. And realized that there were roads.
Roads, made of dirt or stone or perhaps even metal, stretching from each hill to form a path. Endless this place might be, but there was a road.
And it led towards other parts of this land. Ryoka felt off-balance. She realized as well; she felt that dream-like quality heightening with each step.
This was the realm of the fae. And rules and everything were different here. Or was this a trick? Ryoka experimentally pinched herself.
“…Doesn’t hurt, much. Uh oh.”
Had Melidore beaten her? Ryoka’s eyes grew wide with alarm. She did not know she’d succeeded, after all! She looked around. Surely, if this was the land of the fae, it would be even more grand? The hills were numerous and strange. But this did not seem to her to be immediately the land of myth and legend.
“If I’m dreaming—”
Ryoka clenched a fist. Her right hand, with two missing fingers. She hesitated.
Then punched herself hard in the stomach. Ryoka doubled up. She sank to her knees.
Some of the lightheadedness faded. Ryoka curled up for a second. She’d hit herself as hard as she could.
“I’m here. That was—”
Refreshingly stupid. But it helped. The pain drove away some of her mind struggling to take everything in at once. Ryoka stood up, still clutching her gut. Focus. Focus.
The facts. Assume she was in a survival situation. That—that—
She had never actually struggled to gain her footing in…in…in the other world like Erin had. Ryoka had jogged into a city, Celum, and thus been spared Erin’s struggles. She had sometimes wondered how she would have done if she’d been in Erin’s place. Gotten roasted in the first five minutes by annoying Teriarch, probably.
But here? Ryoka looked around again. Ignore the hills, the flowers, the gates. You could be hypnotized by staring at them and she had no…
No time? Ryoka glanced up at the sky. Wait a second.
It was midday here. It wasn’t seconds before nightfall. The sun shone down across a blue sky, so beautiful that it hurt. Vast without limit. But it was midday.
“Time is different here. Or did it take a day to arrive?”
Ryoka shook her head. She glanced over her shoulder. Surely not. Behind her lay the gate where she had come through. And unless she’d somehow broken it—a bunch of fae lay in the world beyond.
A bunch of angry, really pissed off fae including Melidore. Ryoka gulped. The warriors of the faerie king. Would they pursue her even after she’d gone through into their realm?
Definitely. Melidore surely would. And Sikeri?
Now she had both a sense of time and urgency. Ryoka had heard Ivolethe’s voice, albeit without that quality she had possessed as a Winter Sprite. The wind blew at her hair and Ryoka’s head turned.
“Okay. Okay. Ahead, then. Before I run out of time. I might have more—but I have to go. Are you the same wind across worlds? Are you still friendly?”
A playful tug at her raven-black hair was the only answer. The Wind Runner took that as a ‘let’s not make me mad and find out, m’kay?’ And went on.
She walked down the path from the hill, seeing the other paths join the central one. It was not a yellow brick road, she was pleased to note. That would have necessitated a second gut-punch to check on reality.
What might she find here? How long had she walked? Ryoka turned and the hilltop was already far away. If she had to guess…
“That’s three miles away, at least!”
Ryoka checked the sky. She’d been walking. But the sun had not moved. Nor had she consciously registered the time.
“Faerie rules. Faerie rules.”
Time was different. Space was different. Remember how the fae looked? This place was not necessarily safe. Be on the lookout for…boggarts? Sprites? Gnomes?
Teriarch said his world had Gnomes, once. Would she run into Elves? Where were all of them? Ryoka jogged down the wide dirt road, head on a swivel. Remember that she was probably in the most danger she had ever been in, here. Find Ivolethe. Don’t be stupid.
Hard tasks for Ryoka Griffin. She really, really hoped—there weren’t things like Jabberwocks. Wrong story? But surely if Sikeri was a resident of this place…
Shit. There are probably more petty Wyrms about. Ryoka halted, looking around.
Nothing seemed to indicate they’d read her mind. She shook her head. This place with the hills and gates and flowers—seemed devoid of life. Perhaps it was the gateway area? The place where fae could enter other worlds?
“Right. Makes sense. Not an inhabited space. This is where I am. And where am I going?”
Ryoka looked ahead blankly. She realized she hadn’t asked herself where this central road led.
And as if her asking had created them, she saw more features appear on the horizon. The young woman stopped.
They had not been there a second ago. But Ryoka was sure—sure—that they had always been there, on the horizon. It was only when her mind asked to know that they became real, though.
Try figuring that one out. Ryoka didn’t bother. She stared ahead.
The road split. Ahead of her lay a forest to the left. A vast forest, with tall trees, and no end to the canopies of foliage she could see. To the right? What looked like a city.
A city? Ryoka squinted. She couldn’t make out many details, but she thought she saw what looked suspiciously like skyscrapers! Buildings—definitely stone or steel—and on the right side.
The road split at a crossroads without a sign. Just a fork in the road.
“…And I took the one that didn’t get me killed.”
Ryoka murmured. She felt, intrinsically, that this was all part of the rules of this place. Stories defined her journey. She defined her journey.
Left or right? Forest or city? Ryoka had to think.
“Logically, if I wanted to find Ivolethe, I’d go into the city. Because the city is where I’d find fae who knew where she was.”
She began to go right. Then Ryoka was jogging towards the split in the road again as she had another thought. She stopped—looked over her shoulder. But she’d just—!
“Wh—but maybe they know I’m defying the Faerie King. And Ivolethe is a faerie. So the forest is where she’d be.”
She didn’t like cold iron. So—Ryoka veered towards the forest. Then arrived at the crossroads once more.
“—But forests have monsters. Shit.”
The Wind Runner looked at the crossroads again. She ran left, experimentally, and found herself jogging towards the fork again.
“Make up your mind. Got it.”
Ryoka grabbed at her hair. No problem for Ryoka, the most decisive person to ever exist! Who never second-guessed herself! Erin would be skipping down one of the paths without a second thought. Mrsha? Already rolling into the forest.
Erin. Ryoka realized she was wasting time. Or was she? She looked up at the sun. It hadn’t moved. But was that just here or…?
Indecision paralyzed her. Someone, this diabolical architect of the crossroads, perhaps, was surely laughing at her. Ryoka half-screamed as she tried to figure it out. Right or left? Was there some kind of mythological significance in going left? The word ‘sinistral’ was based on the idea of left-handed people being more dangerous in antiquity. But would the fae consider a left-handed route more special because of the rarity of the direction? Or was she overthinking it?
Ryoka could not turn off her brain. It was like the fork in the road was driving her insane the longer she stared at it. It was like a trap. Or—
Or it was just a fork in the road and she was having a breakdown over it. The first great trial of the faerie lands lay in front of Ryoka! The trap of the mind! The—
There you are.
Ryoka Griffin’s head slowly rose. She turned from the rather mundane fork in the road and looked behind her.
Far away, a vast distance she had covered over hours, perhaps days, the gateway hills lay. And on one hill out of many—
Four warriors emerged from the stone archway. Four, looking towards her.
Four of the Faerie King’s guards. Ryoka Griffin understood, in a flash, that she had erred.
There was time here. And she had wasted hers. The voice in her head that had spoken was like malevolent intent. They had found her in a moment.
Intruder in the lands of the faeries. They began striding towards her, covering the ground fast. But they were far away.
There was time here, and there was distance. Just different. Ryoka felt the distant pinpricks of their blades, too far to cut her. She turned.
Left or right? Now, her heart was pounding again. Idiot! Fool! Find Ivolethe! And it was so obvious!
“Wind? Which way?”
She asked the wind. And felt it tug her left instantly. Ryoka began to run towards the forest.
…Then the wind tugged her right. Ryoka halted at the fork in the road again and nearly screamed.
“What do you mean, left and right?”
The tugging came both ways at once. Either one, you idiot! Ryoka started. Then, behind her, she saw—
Even without turning her head, Ryoka saw the four striding down the hill. Towards her in the distance. But she had such a lead. And a voice was calling fury—the four stopped.
Three turned back. They drew their blades and headed back through the gateway. Why? Ryoka heard Melidore’s voice, from afar. They dashed back up the hill, disappearing through the arched stone. The last figure turned—but the warrior seemed to regard Ryoka as important as well.
It came on, striding faster, faster.
The Winter’s Guardian. The one with a blade like frost, armor that reeked of cold. Ryoka saw the great sword pointing at her, a terrible fate promised in every particle of the weapon.
You should not be here. You defy the Faerie King’s will.
The second armored hand reached for something at its side. The figure was beyond a speck in the distance. And Ryoka still saw it clearly.
An ancient, engraved horn rose. She whispered, begging it.
“No. Please. Don’t—”
The faerie warrior blew upon the horn. And the sound echoed across the entirety of this land. It was a dreadful noise. Ryoka’s ears bled. She clapped her hands to her ears.
You are being hunted. Run.
She ran. She knew what the winter fae had called. She ran and ran, as more hunters joined the chase. Ryoka ran left. No thought for the city in the distance. Into the forest. Behind her, her pursuers began to close the distance. Slowly, but surely.
A moment had passed since Ryoka Griffin entered the world of the fae. A moment.
Four warriors had left. Three returned. It was as if they stepped out of the world—back into it in less than a heartbeat of time.
The frozen warrior was gone. Tyrion would have stopped that one. He would have stopped them all, continued the duel in earnest, to blood.
But he was frozen in place. They all were.
The words hissed around the clearing. The party had ended. The festivities gone silent. Darkness ate away the entire world. The sky. The ground.
There was only the cleared area where the fae and mortals mingled. And beyond? Just beyond that point on the ground?
Four out of six. So they had said.
They stood there, like ideas as much as physical forms.
The glorious hunter.
The dancing man.
The aged woman.
And the leader.
They stood together, and behind them Tyrion saw flickers in the darkness. Shadows darker than black. Creeping towards the light, but halting, afraid. Begging. Begging—he heard it in his mind. His very soul.
So said the huntress. She reached out, a smile, for Tyrion. Looking at him and countless others in a moment. Halrac. Tyrion. Ylawes. Durene—
Remember what? The [Lord] backed away from the smile. The figures were grand and ragged at the same time. They seemed so desperate.
“Friends. Old friends. Will you not speak our names?”
The leader looked at Tyrion again. Both he and the huntress had some…some…connection with Tyrion. He looked at Bethal, Pryde, Ieka, Gralton, Laken—most of the nobility.
They were his too.
The fae were chanting. One of them turned to the other and shrieked in a high whisper.
“What do you see, brother?”
He snarled the reply. The figures sighed. The words seemed to hurt them. The guests from elsewhere refused to look at the visitors.
And that was the difference. One group were guests. However much they played pranks, tricks, and had both malice and joy to them.
The others? Uninvited visitors.
“This day we hunger so. We starve for sustenance. Will you not share your fire? Your food and drink?”
The aged woman spoke to Tyrion. To Bethal. Again, to so many nobles. To Halrac, to Durene. To them all.
They were all hers. All, save perhaps the youngest children who had never known her terrible cruelty. Her ruthless kindness.
Tyrion thought he saw a flicker on the aged woman’s face. For a moment she was a woman—he closed his eyes. Gripped his sword’s hilt and clenched his teeth so hard—
“Speak our names, friends. We beg your hospitality. If not yours, then the host of this great event.”
The dancing man bowed to Laken. He looked at Laken. Durene. Tyrion. All those who had ever known love and passion and—
“Mortal man. Do not allow them entry. Deny nothing! Deny it!”
Melidore had roared his fury. Now—six of the fae warriors stood in front of the rest of the fae host and the mortal guests.
Sikeri, Silver Pine, they all stood behind the six. And the four hesitated at the edge of the boundary. Even the shadows fled the six bared blades.
Six for four. Laken Godart saw Melidore’s bright gaze fix him. He struggled.
Against two wills. The leader was looking at him. Tyrion wanted to shout.
All he could do was whisper.
Ieka made a strangled noise of affirmation. Zanthia was shielding Eliasor and the other young [Ladies].
She spoke, her voice as strangled as his. Laken Godart fought.
A whisper. The beseeching voices.
“Touch us. Remember us. _______ us. ____ to us.”
“Begone, nothing! We see nothing! We hear nothing!”
The voices made the four waver. They stretched out, begging, to the one who mattered. Laken Godart.
He was fighting something. Tyrion stumbled forwards. Past Hethon and Sammial, held in Jericha’s arms. The [Emperor] was forming the words in his mouth.
‘I invite you’. And trying to keep them from escaping. The first among the four was looking at him.
“Do not. Do not!”
Melidore hissed in his ear. Tyrion reached out. Laken gasped as the [Lord] grasped his arm. The blind man’s head turned. His eyes opened and closed.
He struggled to speak.
The four pressed their hands against something. Laken Godart gulped. Then his hands clenched. One hand dug into Melidore’s arm, the other into Tyrion’s shoulder, so tight they drew blood from both as Laken gripped them. His voice was stronger.
“Begone. Begone! You are not welcome here!”
Tyrion felt a weight leave his shoulders. Melidore laughed in triumph.
A note of fury from the leader of the four. The shadows drew back. Laken sagged, gasping.
“We are denied. Denied.”
The dancing man murmured, looking to the leader. With the same displeasure as the others. The leader of men stared ahead, eyes fixed on the young man. The shadows drew back. And Tyrion saw the shapes fade. The fae began to chant faster.
“Be-gone. Be-gone! Be-gone!”
A triumphant note. The wisps of nothing began to scream as they faded. The four stumbled forwards, pressing their hands against something invisible. Begging.
Dying? But they were already—
They began to rot away.
Ryoka Griffin ran. She ran into the forest, into the first layer of underbrush, and then into the heart of it. Tripping over roots, seeing the tree trunks rising higher and higher. And something peculiar happened in the first…hour…of flight.
First, it was all a rush. Nonstop running, pushing past the first stages of growth. The slowly-expanding forest, going further in, further, hearing the horn blow again and feeling the cold pursuers following her deeper.
She heard the wild cries. The shriek of horses and other mounts. And she knew—the wild hunt followed.
The story of winter, of the terrible hunters, who added some into their ranks and ran down any prey. Winter for winter, as Ivolethe had been.
She ducked, hiding behind a vast tree she couldn’t have put her arms around even if she were ten times as large. She heard crashing in the forest. Animals shrieking in fear as an unnatural cold enveloped the area.
Ryoka saw her breath—sensed something gallop past her, and nearly screamed at the horror of it. She saw her first animals in this place—a terrified hare leaping past her, as white as snow. And it was snowing.
Then she ran as quietly as she could, hearing more horns blowing. She tangled in briars and heard the pursuers turn, quick as a fox, detecting the sound. Ryoka ran, leaving some blood and cloth behind.
They followed that, and she gulped a healing potion desperately. Tossed down a scent-bomb—confused the baying animals. Then a thought struck her and she grabbed at her belt.
She had gear from her world! Maybe it was not the stuff of legends, but she had brought it here. And had they ever…?
A snarling figure twice as tall as she was crashed through branches. Ryoka threw the vial at it; heard glass shatter. She heard a howl and shouts as the stink-bomb detonated.
Ryoka didn’t turn to see if the creature had been stopped. If it hadn’t, she died in the next step.
She did not. She heard more howling, crashes moving towards her position. She ran and ran—
And then lost them.
What? Yes! Somehow, during the chase, she sensed them going off-track. Following the wrong trail. The pursuers of winter…lost her.
But the air was warming. Ryoka panted by a ring of toadstools in the forest floor. Faerie circle. She wanted to giggle at it. She peered around—but her pursuers had lost her.
The wild hunt? Maybe they were the ‘less-successful hunt’, because that did not square with the legends!
Either that or someone had really overhyped how good they were. Or had they never tracked quarry in their own lands? Never expected her to throw a stink bomb? Something else? Ivolethe?
Ryoka realized the wind had been blowing her scent away. Perhaps she had had help. She stopped either way, panting, clutching at her heart.
She did not know how far she’d run. Only that she was deep in this forest. So deep, the sky was…
…Sort of visible through the canopy. The trees were maybe sixty feet high? Ryoka squinted up at them. Sorta tall.
“Not very tall at all. Weird.”
Was this not the forest of the fae? Maybe it was a new place, like the city. Guest, Sikeri had been called. But Ryoka heard some cautious animals emerging. She saw the same white rabbit hop out of the trees and regard her, nose twitching nervously.
“This is so strange. Why are the trees so small? And…?”
The pursuers had been terrifying, what Ryoka had caught of them. But no more so than half the things that had ever tried to kill her. The horn dreadful, the giant wolf-hound a match for any Carn Wolf…
But only a match? Sixty-foot high trees? Ryoka craned her neck upwards. She was sure she was deep in the forest. But she had seen its limits even from afar.
“Is this really the world of the fae or are they messing with me?”
The thing was…Ryoka had expected many things of Avalon. The land of faeries. But this? This was just underwhelming. There were bigger trees on Earth! That was a rabbit! It looked like…well, a rabbit. There were Waisrabbits in the other world.
How to differentiate the three? Earth—the land of the fae and…the world where Erin was.
Innworld, then. Ryoka decided for simplicity’s sake. She could have called it any number of things, but that fit.
Innworld was grander in places than the land of the fae. Ryoka walked onwards, catching her breath, listening for the sounds of the hunt, but she really felt, well, safe. This place was too tame. Where was Ivolethe’s majesty, the flashes of the immortal she had seen while walking with her friend? The power to call avalanches in the winter? To freeze the High Passes?
Was this it? Was there no magic even here?
The young woman looked around, about ready to cry. She had just expected…the little ring of mushrooms, the underwhelming trees around her were the only things she saw. She looked at the rabbit.
“I just expected something more. Sorry.”
The animal wiggled its nose at her. Ryoka Griffin closed her eyes. And in the moment before she opened them, everything…
(Before going to next chapter, read Solstice Pt. 4-9. This is for users who do not see hyperlinks, such as those on mobile devices or WordPress’ Reader Mode.)