Chrysanthemum’s subtle scent blew upon the halting wind. A breeze which moved between the dappled light, spotted shadows traced beneath the sky of branches.
Green eyes, like the leaves of the very trees she stood underneath, opened. The young woman’s torn clothing ruffled in the breeze. A splatter of dried blood rendered scentless stained her upper sleeve, beyond which recently-mended flesh lay, like a pale scar between her royal blue tunic, sewn together and mended with the sigil of House Veltras in patterns around the edges.
Ryoka Griffin felt the wind shift her raven-dark hair and looked around to see an aged wall of bark in front of her. Wonderingly, she put her hand out and felt at the rough texture. The bark flaked away in her grasp.
She murmured, her voice slightly husky in the changed air. The changed world. The young woman studied the tree’s trunk. Then she looked around.
What had before been a small clearing in the forest had changed without sound, only in perception. A vast trunk lay in front of Ryoka, akin to a wall of wood. She stared at it. And realized that what had been before a tree was now—
The world’s tree stretched upwards, so vast it had a beginning and no end. The roots she could have run across, stumbling, scraping at her knees, feeling the rough bark of countless ages ascending upwards.
The tree towered beyond the limits of her vision. High overhead, leaves so vast as to be rooftops of their own betrayed the false sky with faint points of light.
And the branches continued to stretch across the sky. Reaching out, and then tangling with…
Other branches, like a spider web across the forest’s ceiling. Ryoka gazed upwards and a flash of insight revealed the truth: this was but one tree in a forest.
And yet, the one tree encompassed more than she had beheld the moments prior. The young woman started, and her heart caught in her throat, adding a wobbling cadence to her next words.
A slight exhalation of breath. Then she turned and saw how the land beyond lands had altered.
The ring of fungi had altered markedly as well. What had been slightly discolored, ordinary whitecaps or some other form of indigenous fungi had sprouted higher. Until Ryoka could safely walk under the vast caps of reds and violets, gaze upwards at the lines of the mushroom’s growth.
And see life, where life had not been before.
A profusion of webs caught her eye, scintillating lines of glittering silk spun with dewdrops and the remnants of prey. The young woman reaching out to touch the uneven mushroom’s stalk snatched a hand back.
For she saw the glittering eggs lining the trunk. And overhead, the interior webs splayed about the inside of the mushroom’s cap, eaten into the half-rotten vegetation.
Spiders, not Shield Spiders but of a stranger variety still, stared down at her. Hanging from strands of silk, some as large as her head.
Tens of thousands. The largest of them began to creep downwards and Ryoka leapt away from the fungi, a curse on her lips. She stumbled forwards—foot striking a shard of pain from a buried rock—
Into the heart of the faerie circle of mushrooms. The young woman halted as the wind blew again, catching an unwary foot as it drifted downwards. The tug was fierce and insistent, a physical barrier of air which resisted and pushed her back.
To safety. For Ryoka Griffin saw the grass had grown wild, in profusion, bearing plentiful, fat seeds, among wild flowers and plants of every nature.
No weed but grew in this forest, as there was no great gardener. Already, Ryoka had felt the prickling of weeds; a nettle’s faint kiss which made her swear and adjust her posture.
“What happened? This wasn’t here a moment ago.”
The confusion tangling her thoughts did nothing to change the reality she now found herself in. Indeed, Ryoka believed this circumstance more than that of a second ago. A second kiss of another nettle made her reach for the emergency boots she carried in her bag of holding.
Ryoka sat on the grass of the faerie circle, applying a balm which soothed the biting itch and at the same time put on socks and the enchanted boots she had taken from the Archmage’s mansion.
The worn leather was a tad bit too large for her and left room on her feet—but it was preferable to standing on the grass. She had used it to run over stone and rock, and Hedault had claimed they would be proof against the thickest of thorns. A wise investment to keep them, Ryoka reflected in that moment.
Still, the City Runner’s eyes were roaming the glade nonstop. Now she stood below a single tree, and this circle of mushrooms, however vast and home to inclement life, a footnote before the tree itself.
Life chittered around her, creeping spiders which she hastily stood up to avoid contact with, forest beetles, and, climbing the lesser trees craving for light, squirrels and other mundane animals.
Even there, though, Ryoka espied a difference. One of the squirrels turned a multi-faceted eye, yet still flesh rather than chitin, at her. Eight eyes where one should be. It was as long as her arm minus the ragged tail, and it regarded Ryoka as a possible foe, rather than danger. She backed up—
And the wind blew her foot back. This time the City Runner’s stunned mind focused on what lay beneath.
An egg. It was ovoid, glittering. The translucent membrane faintly orange crossed with strands of green and turquoise. A large egg, to make no mistake of it; as large as a stomach, or perhaps a basketball, half-sunken into a depression in the ground.
It lay perfectly in the center of the faerie ring. And Ryoka, backing up now, realized that the spiders, wildlife, all avoided the grass around this spot for about six feet. The wind had twice protected her from stepping on it.
For good reason, it seemed. The egg lay at a natural ley line between the mushrooms, which were so evenly spaced as to be unnatural, for all they had grown with the perfect randomness of nature.
The mushrooms were not in themselves anything perfect; for all they were vast titans to the normal fauna. Some were half-rotted. And Ryoka suspected each were infested by the arachnid populations, which consumed local wildlife, and no doubt cannibalized each other.
But through the imperfection of the component parts had come this ideal spot. And into it—the potentiality had begat life. Either that, the Wind Runner thought, or this place has sprung into being around this very egg.
She gazed into its depths and saw a shape forming within the translucence. If she had dreamt of a winged shape, or some sparkle of a glorious being, the Wind Runner was disappointed.
But only just. The budding spider glowed. With the same vividness of existence that Melidore had, a kind of supernatural aura below the skin that Ryoka sensed, by virtue of her own understanding of immortals.
To summarize then: she backed away slowly, feeling the building hostility in the caps of the faerie ring towards her. If she had stepped unwisely, it would have been her last gesture, she knew.
The wind had saved her from disturbing this spider. Its lesser kin had built nets around it, perhaps as a form of worship. Perhaps to be consumed, or led to some glorious future when it was born.
A single spider’s egg. Ryoka could not fathom what the adult of it would be—or if it had ever walked this world. All she knew was that as she hurriedly stomped out of the faerie’s ring, she crushed spiders covering the grass, and began to run before the adults took further umbrage at her intrusion.
A faerie ring. Trees so vast each one could have been a world’s tree in my world. Ah, I see it now.
The Wind Runner caught her breath sixty meters away from the ring of mushrooms. More strangeness; she felt the stitch in her side more keenly now. A sharp, ragged bit of pain.
She had not felt such in her flight from the Wild Hunt before. Nor, Ryoka realized with another gasp of insight, had she perceived the distance she’d crossed in any quantifiable form.
Here, she did, in every step across mottled grass, over more thistles her boots protected her from. She was realer in this place than before.
She had run past countless trees of the same ilk she stood under. Thus; she had no doubt crossed leagues upon leagues in her other perception.
“Perception is the key. Drink me. Alice in Wonderland syndrome.”
The Wind Runner chuckled to herself. Of course. Faerie rules. Alice in Wonderland syndrome, like the story it was based off of—and Ryoka’s experience to some degree—was when someone perceived things as being larger and smaller than they were.
Extend that metaphor to her current condition and Ryoka’s hypothesis was that she had shifted everything, not just her sense of scale. The humble trees had been here, instead of the forest a moment ago. Or…had they truly been so humble?
Questions without answer. The City Runner walked on, shuddering and brushing off a hanging spider from her sleeves. She could not say whether this was better, in truth. Now, she keenly felt she was in a forest without end, such that her only hope did not lie in simply running as far as she could. Even in this place, she would take countless days to find the edge, even if she retraced her steps.
Could she shift her viewpoint once more? The Wind Runner tried, but she did not quite fathom how she had done it to begin with. Perhaps it was unconscious. Or perhaps—
A noise stopped her, a rumbling susurration of vast lungs within the forest. It was so intense a sound that the spiders went silent, the other wildlife quieted, and Ryoka Griffin herself felt her heart stop in her chest, a flash of panic overwhelming her other senses and thoughts.
What was that sound? She glanced about her—and then saw the beast which had uttered the noise.
It was, naturally…the rabbit. But what had been a mere white rabbit, small, without noticeable detail was now…
A vast, raggedly-furred creature stared down at Ryoka. A torn ear near the left’s tip, brambles and thorns caught in the pelt of the lord of rabbits. Some ancient beast with eyes far too intelligent and cunning for a regular animal.
Teeth, as it yawned, that could tear her apart in a single bite. Its passage through the forest had left countless burrs and other markings on its fur, but a lance would have hardly penetrated its body.
It regarded Ryoka, slightly unkindly, but with indifference. She gulped and halted in her tracks, her bowels suddenly urging her to walk behind a tree.
She was too afraid to move. Ryoka’s flippant comment the moment before dried her mouth.
“I—I—I’m sorry if I offended you. Lord Rabbit?”
She felt as though this beast were not an animal, but akin to something far greater. At least it could have eaten Carn Wolves for breakfast. She saw one vast eye open, and the brown sclera, in itself a tapestry of complex biology, regard her for a second. She saw the untorn ear flick, and the great thing heave itself to its feet with a sigh.
The rabbit spoke. Ryoka felt her jaw drop; she had expected intelligence. Not vocalization. She saw the muscle and fur ripple—then it launched itself from its hindquarters.
The lord of rabbits or whatever it was, leapt out of sight. Bounded off a trunk—and vanished. The leap was so fast that the passage of air made her stumble. She felt the impact; caught herself, whirled—
And it was gone.
“I—buh—that was—did I—?”
Stupefied, the young woman stared at the flattened bit of grass. Then around at the forest of the fae. She felt grateful for having met whatever she had met. Then—terribly uneasy. She heard a chittering and realized that she had benefitted from more than one way by the white rabbit’s presence.
It had staved off the wrath of the spiders. Ryoka glanced over her shoulder as a wave of multi-faceted legs and eyes surged towards her. Shield Spiders and these magical ancestors alike. She ran, heart and legs pumping.
The strobing pattern of lights was growing harder to watch from the ritual. It seemed as though countless conceivable spells were melding together to form one complex, unknowable effect.
That was how it appeared to the Blighted King, Othius the Fourth. To the mages, struggling as they linked hands and forced magic into the ritual, the effect might have been different.
He was keenly aware of the flaws in the moment. The stone dust shaking down from the ceiling, possibly disrupting the intricate magical flows.
His own disorganized clothes, slightly askew. Twice now he had attempted to correct it and failed, given up for sheer annoyance. This moment should have been timeless.
Instead, Othius kept staring at Nereshal. The man was one of the imperfections. He kept exhorting the others. The [Chronomancer]’s job was to be such, but it still rankled.
“Maintain your mana flows! High Mage Lerid! Your output is faltering!”
As if he were coaching students. Othius bore it as a necessity. Still, he longed to tell Nereshal to be silent. As well as inform the man he has some spittle glistening on his chin.
But Othius had forgone his servants, his host of colorful and resplendent courtiers and accompaniment. This was to be secret.
For this ritual would differ in considerable ways from those past. Already, the scope was far different.
“Ten thousand souls we sacrificed for a bare handful, a fraction of that last time. This time shall be different. Even spread out as they may be. I will bring the Demon Kingdom down to its knees and purge Rhir before my end.”
The compulsion gripped Othius. Nereshal nodded.
“It shall be, my king.”
The Blighted King scowled, for he had not wished a response nor meant to voice that feeling aloud. But Nereshal at least understood part of Othius’ great burden, his determination like adamantine to do what must be done.
Ten thousand of Rhir’s children had been sacrificed unborn last time. This time…
High Mage Laisa cried out as the magnitude of the spell struck her again. She was only providing power, yet—yet something seemed wrong to her.
“Your Majesty! Please, let us lessen the scope of it!”
Othius snapped his reply. He had heard their fears. The spell was exponentially more powerful the more it was scaled up. The High Mages feared what it could do. But let it tear a hole between worlds! Let it bring him the armies the children had spoken of.
Let it be a worthy end, such that the world would ever remember his name. The Blighted King knew the incisive moment was still ahead. He waited, sitting impatiently, adjusting his clothing.
Laisa—Laisa felt something was going wrong. But she could not stop this. Not now.
After about four hours of trekking through the undergrowth, Ryoka had trusted to the wind to see her to safety.
Her connection to it was immeasurably stronger than it had been in her first stage of perception. She felt it carry her around treacherous cliffs disguised in the underbrush, towards some destination—Ivolethe perhaps—and most crucially, away from the myriad dangers here.
The spiders were only the first of them. Twice, Ryoka had spotted vast shapes moving through the lesser trees amid the world-sized ones. Once, a shape high overhead, and a call so terrifying she’d huddled under a root network in fear for fifteen minutes before coming out.
Flora and fauna were strange. She passed by a perfectly red tree, taking care not to touch the bark, and did not eat any of the fruits or drink from the water of any stream.
And still—she felt the pursuers at times. In this modality, they were like distant blizzards sweeping across tens of miles away. Still so cold they sent wildlife running. And this time—she was sure she would not outrun them.
Perhaps her humble place in the forest was just as well. But Ryoka still cursed as she saw another flat lake barring her way. The wind urged her to not even go around the shore, and Ryoka did not trust the serene, glowing yellow-blue waters.
Anything could lurk there. And yet, for all she had seen great beasts, even chased strange predators away with the stink-potions, she had not seen one of the fae yet. No living forms of sentience besides the rabbit, the pursuers, and the warrior.
Ryoka was beginning to believe she would never meet anyone. That was when she did. The wind blew her left—and she came upon a door set into one of the vast trees.
It was slightly larger than she, but a homey thing, with a cut, decorative opening lined with glass at the top. No sign or windows or anything else, but Ryoka thought it was a wonderful little door.
She did not knock. Nor did the wind urge her that way. In fact, the instant Ryoka laid eyes on it, it tugged her urgently back. As if the wind itself had not expected the door to be here.
Hardly reassuring. Ryoka backed up, licking her lips nervously. The wind blew her backwards—
And nearly into the…foot…Ryoka stared at a huge, cracked toenail. Fungus and dirt underneath. Yellowing, unclipped. A foul odor. How had she not seen it a second before?
The answer came as she looked up at the tiptoeing giant thing behind her. It grinned, three eyes focused on her. Its skin was off-yellow, its ‘hair’ long, a continuous growth from its spine to its neck. It exhaled fumes with the noxious odor of putrid meat and—
At this point descriptions needed to end because Ryoka was already backing up. She scrabbled for a potion at her belt.
The thing did not answer her. It bent down, down, as it took a step as quiet as the rustle of leaves. It was so large one finger was larger than her. But still, it had crept up on her.
That was all it said. Or—Ryoka heard a rumbling tongue. Words that hurt her ears. But she understood the meaning. She saw the hand dart forwards. She screamed, and tossed the potion.
The burning oil struck the hand. It didn’t so much as stop it. Ryoka saw the huge hand move towards her—
The wind blasted her off her feet. That saved her life. The giant had misjudged his strength; had he struck her, she would have been paste. As it was, she landed with a bone-jarring thump. The thing made a sound.
“Wind and mortals and hunting cold. Long have I hungered for flesh, since eight stars grew cold.”
…Is what the translation said. His true tongue she half-heard, a rumbling sound conceived before Humans had ever existed. She scrambled backwards, but it was so quick. It blocked her on one side, digging up dirt to form a vast wall—then did it again.
Like a boy would to trap a frog or mouse. Ryoka scrabbled for something that could harm this thing. Carefully, it bent, trying to squeeze her with two fingers.
From peace to death in an instant. This was the authentic fae experience. Ryoka cried out for the wind, and it assailed the monster, but it just laughed as the wind barely blew a refreshing breeze that moved the strands of hair slightly. Ryoka resolved to toss the pepper potion into its eye when it grabbed her when she heard a voice.
“Come inside. Or do you wish to let it eat you?”
Both Ryoka and the three-eyed giant looked over.
The door had opened. Someone stood in the humble, lovely little home. Ryoka’s eyes focused on a furry face. Two tufts of bushy hair that might have concealed ears.
Forest brown, russet brown, and a slightly rotund figure. She had…spectacles. And blinked up at Ryoka with a broom in hand. Ryoka thought she saw a pointed nose—but again, descriptions were not for this moment.
“Come in. If you wish to. But I rather think that your hunters and this one would eat you. I promise to do no harm.”
Ryoka hesitated. Above her, the giant was rumbling.
“That is mine! My mortal!”
“Away with you.”
The kindly woman waved her broom at it. He growled furiously and two beady eyes narrowed. Hers. His were locked on Ryoka’s. She looked at the woman, the door, and had a thought.
Brownie. Ryoka took a chance as the wind tugged at her. Between the giant and the woman?
She dove. The giant howled. Ryoka rolled past the furry, rotund figure. She saw a long tail, almost like a rat’s? And she realized the woman had been wearing an…apron…
Right before she shut the door. Ryoka leapt to her feet on the wooden, homey ground.
A roar shook the air just outside the door. A roar so loud the entire world’s tree shook. The giant voiced its fury—and then Ryoka heard a howl.
If one was a person’s fury, for all he was primitive and a titan—the other was animal. Primal. Ryoka heard a shout of fear, and then crashing footsteps. She herself quaked, but then there was only a kindly sigh and the door opened. A smiling woman walked inside with the apron and broom.
Brownie? Ryoka gaped. She had heard tales of the faerie folk who were helpers to mortals, fierce protectors if angered, but mostly just gave out food and were helpful guests or even servants for a time. But she had never dreamed of finding one of them.
“No, and you won’t, not thinking as you do. My, why did you want to see things this way, girl? And why did you come into the forest? The city would have been safer, even with the cold folk hunting you. Well, all’s mended now you’re here. Come, sit, sit.”
The woman swept past Ryoka in a moment. The Wind Runner whirled with the passing—
And she found herself sitting in a comfy, nature’s home. A seat made of a stump, a smooth table, a kitchen leading into the dining room, and two open windows that revealed nature without a guard of glass.
She looked around, and found she was holding a wooden mug and staring down at a plate of food. The woman smiled at her.
“Your wind is rather flighty. It should have taken you out of the forest long ago, but perhaps it feared the Winter Court more than what lay here. Silly wind.”
She blew something into the air and it swirled about before landing on the floor. Tea leaves? She also addressed the breeze around Ryoka as if it were one kind of wind.
“Of course it is. Now, eat. It has been far too long since your kind stepped foot in my home. I hope what you have is to your liking?”
Again, the woman spoke. Ryoka jumped; but like Sikeri…she peered into her mug. She saw a thick liquid, creamy, slightly yellow…she took a suspicious sip.
Eggnog? With nutmeg? That was what it seemed to Ryoka. She smacked her lips then stared at the pancakes and eggs with syrup on them that the woman had been cooking. Ryoka blinked at her cup, and realized it was the fifth one she’d had.
“I don’t know—excuse me, thank you for saving me.”
“Would you stop saying that, Miss Ryoka? It’s the sixth time, you know. Gratitude wears.”
A spoon tapped Ryoka on the head. Hard. The woman handed Ryoka another cup. The Wind Runner realized she was sipping—and she’d eaten part of the food in front of her! She put down the fork instantly.
“I—I shouldn’t do this. Eat food? Here? Thank you for saving me, but I don’t even know who—what—you are.”
She stared at the woman with trepidation. How had she sat long enough to have five cups of drink? The food? She was sure this woman didn’t know how to make fluffy pancakes and processed butter the exact way Ryoka liked them, and if they had factory-produced chicken eggs…
“Sit. My, you’re a strange one. So anxious.”
This time the bonk on Ryoka’s head actually made Ryoka see stars. She slumped into the chair and the woman tsked.
“When I invite someone into my home, they will partake of my hospitality. What you eat is what you desire.”
“P-pancakes and eggs?”
“More reassuring than some grand feast, I imagine. What a delightful little drink you have.”
The woman had a cup of her own, sipping it as if she had no idea what she’d served Ryoka. She smiled, and was sitting before Ryoka could blink.
“I know, I know, it’s all sudden and you’re terribly frightened. Mortals often are. Especially when they used to get lost in this forest. Those who met me—well, they were usually braver sorts than you. But you must have been special to get here. Even today.”
She looked Ryoka in the eye. Ryoka opened her mouth—
“Your friend? Ah, she’s not here.”
—Time fast forwarded again. Ryoka stared at the slight stain around a cup; sure proof that you needed a coaster. She stared up in alarm and the eyes twinkled at her.
Green, like hers, amid brown. The…brownie…if that was what she was, rolled her eyes.
“I know it’s impolite. But you’re in a hurry, so I thought you needed the content without the delivery. How do you feel? Another cup?”
Ryoka realized her bladder was empty, her stomach was full—but she’d been digesting it, and she felt relaxed. Her bug bites were soothed, and the chafing on her feet? She stared at the bandages wrapped around her bare feet, a primitive but effective foot covering.
“How long was I here?”
“Five minutes. And five hours. Would you like to sleep?”
“I ate faerie food—”
“We’ve been over this. Don’t start fretting. My, you panic about everything. Do I wash my hands?”
She snorted. Ryoka leaned out of the way of the spoon of wrath. She must have asked that. The woman waved a finger.
“This is hardly that food. If you meet the tricksters, don’t talk or take anything from them. But we could hardly all be getting about if all food was wondrous entrapments, could we?”
“I suppose that’s so. Um—t-thank you. Have I asked what you are?”
“And did you answer?”
Twinkling eyes were her response. Ryoka looked around the room.
“It’s a lovely home you have here.”
“I made it of the biggest tree I could find, but it’s still somewhat small. But that’s perspective for you. If I wanted, it could be vast. But I like keeping it here. Now, tell me more about this world of yours.”
Ryoka did, or thought she did. Another minute passed and she was sitting up on a couch, apparently hand-stuffed. The fabric…leather? Some hide, soft. Comfortable as could be.
“I see. I see. You’re from that place. Such a terrible thing. No wonder they hunt you so. So Ivolethe must be one of the Winter Court. They seldom come here. Your breeze tugged you in both directions because you want to go in.”
Ryoka leaned forwards. She blinked at the dishes she was washing. She must have insisted, because the woman was taking her ease, smoking a pipe as she watched.
“Of course. You came from the outer place. Gateways. The forest and city? Well, we’re closer, but you want to go at least one level further. That’s where the courts are.”
“By in, do you mean, a different level of…? Another plane? No—”
Blink. Ryoka had it, and wondered how long it had taken.
“Four minutes. You do know some things.”
Ah. She vocalized the answer.
“It’s all one plane. But instead of geographical distance, I’m travelling across areas. I need to go through the forest or city to get to the next spot.”
A beaming smile was her answer. Ryoka felt like she’d won a medal. The woman waved a paw.
“And now you’re rested and you have proper footwear for your journey! I’ll take you to the edge of the forest as well. All in less than ten minutes. Just as you wanted.”
Ryoka stood, and wondered if she had stayed here ten minutes or ten days. The woman seemed to be moving Ryoka through her time as she pleased. Perhaps that was for Ryoka’s benefit, but—
She stood, looking up at the two framed pictures. And knew they were not framed nor pictures. That was just how they saw them.
The sunlight was rising and her gracious hostess still abed. The Wind Runner looked up at them and then realized she had slept in the little one’s rooms.
“Yes, my dear. Even we die. Just not of age.”
Ryoka spun, guiltily. Her hostess was looking at her, tiredly from the opening.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
The Wind Runner spoke nervously. The woman shook her head as she walked past the two books Ryoka had read yesterday.
“I invited you into my home, Miss Ryoka Griffin. Now, rest. You must rest. You ran further than you know, from the cold folk. One more day…”
But as she looked up at Ryoka, the young woman knew her welcome was—
Memory flooded back. Ryoka looked at the stranger.
“I knew you’d figure out how to remember your stay. Sooner rather than later. Some never remember.”
“I don’t know how I can repay your hospitality. Will you take something, at least? Gold? Potions?”
The eyes lit up. Ryoka saw a moment of greed, or perhaps, simply desire in the woman’s eyes at last.
“Now those are things of value. Don’t give them away so lightly.”
“They are? I mean—they are. Because…”
Ryoka’s entire collection of items was set out on a table. The woman plucked three healing potions from the bag and looked at Ryoka.
“Of course they are. They’re from your world’s rules, after all. And each world has different rules. For instance…these? Very valuable. I will have three, if that is fair.”
She shook the best of the healing potions in the bag of holding at Ryoka. The young woman thought it was cheap—but she saw the hostess’ meaning.
“Of course, Nama. Take them. And if you want…?”
“No. You may have need of healing.”
The woman stopped Ryoka. Slowly, the Runner nodded and put them into her pack.
Twenty minutes. When she rose, Ryoka Griffin stretched. She felt light as a feather. The bindings on her feet? A second skin that neither thorn nor insect would pierce. She had never felt better.
She would remember her stay. Later. But she was in a hurry, so she turned and bowed. Nama tsked.
“Don’t be rid of me so quickly, Ryoka Griffin. I can at least take you through the city.”
“You don’t have to, Nama. Really—just to the city will do. You’ve been such a gracious hostess this…week?”
Ryoka tried. She saw the lips move upwards, and the fur ripple, as it did when she amused or delighted her hostess. The apron was still there, but Nama had changed broom for walking stick.
“You are so stubborn. Perhaps. I will at least take you out of the forest. At least you know this trick.”
Ryoka followed the older woman—so much older—to the door. Ryoka belatedly wiped her feet on the welcome mat, guiltily, and got a chuckle. She saw the door open—
And there were some trees, small, younger, some underbrush, and less than a hundred meters to the road. Beyond it lay the city.
“You have to go through it. Just the outskirts. But better than the forest.”
Ryoka stepped out hesitantly and stared about the landscape. This was not the forest where she had encountered the sneaking giant. She glanced at the door; Nama winked.
Ah. The same trick. Ryoka Griffin exhaled slowly.
“Thank you, Nama. I think I can go from here.”
“Are you sure? If you’re not, just call for me. As long as you’re here, that is.”
Ryoka was tempted. But at the same time she had a feeling that Nama wanted to be…here.
In her home. It was too much of an imposition to ask her to leave the memories behind, even for as long as it took. And Ryoka felt light on her feet.
“I’m good. See?”
She hopped up and down. She got a laugh again. Nama waved from the opening as Ryoka jogged for the road. The city beyond it—
What a strange encounter. Like this mode of thinking—a faerie’s story. Nama was right, though. In between lecturing Ryoka, she had told her she should have stayed with the mundanity of the first vision. She’d gone faster, then.
But Ryoka had wanted to see wonders. So, this had occurred.
Now she jogged out of the forest and saw the city in the distance. Only—
Something was wrong. She left the forest behind, travelling that road which was really just filler between places in a moment and a long time. Seeing the city approach.
But what had been just a city like one from home was…different now. Ryoka’s eyes widened.
“What…what is this?”
She came to a halt. Her bound feet uncertainly stopping on the dirt path. Ryoka looked ahead, to where dirt became stone. The city lay beyond.
But like the forest—she saw it for what it really was.
As she had first seen it, the city of the fae made sense to her as a city from her world.
In style. But every detail was changed.
Golden spires like skyscrapers. Strange, rounded buildings unlike the square design. Honeycombed entrances at every level, of every size, for people who didn’t need only one entrance on the ground.
Vast streets, lit by glowing streetlights like stars. Windows of substances more beautiful than glass. Architecture beyond mortal means.
It was like the capital of Khelt, the greatest of paradises in other worlds, but wrought by immortals rather than their lesser counterparts. It was the most wondrous city that Ryoka had ever seen, home for a people of every species in this place of eternity.
It brought her to her knees with awe. Or it should have.
But reality was different. That was what the city should have been. Ryoka Griffin looked up. And she saw the golden spire crumbling. Half of it destroyed. The other half lost to time.
The streets were broken. The lights fading. Unattended.
The buildings decayed, as if time had leaked in, unbidden. The windows shattered, materials like glass coating the ground. A few buildings burned with light, pristine against the backdrop of the broken city.
But the rest? The rest had fallen into disrepair.
Ryoka Griffin saw the world flicker. And suddenly, the glory of the trees was faded.