The fae’s voices faltered. The chanting slowed.
Even some of the mortals had joined in. But they stopped as the rotting figures revealed themselves. Yet even then—
The first of them crossed the boundary into the party.
It had been the bearded man. The leader of all. He reached for Laken.
“I will not be kept away by word.”
He reached through the invisible barrier, as if…following…an opening. And the others slipped through after him.
Suddenly, the shadows were among the party. The fae cried out, and their voices were filled with horror.
“They enter! How?”
“Begone! Be—flee the touch!”
Flickering shapes. Tyrion tore away from Laken and drew his sword. He ran for Jericha, who blasted magic at—
At what? Not even shadows. Just flickering thoughts. Voices. Ideas, that squirmed towards all those living here.
And the four of them, kindred, but still distinct, advanced on the fae, the guests.
Laken. Their arms were outstretched. Mouths open, begging, reaching for food, touch. Naught but rotting corpses now, revealed in the light.
The sword cleaved through one of the four. The warrior of summer hacked down, and the dancing man stumbled. But just like Melidore’s challenge—one second, the figure was falling, bisected—the next, reaching for the summer fae, who moved smoothly back out of range.
The six warriors were in motion! They drew their weapons and hacked at the four, the shapes. The other fae had drawn weapons as well.
The Satyr had the branch. Sikeri spat something into the shadows and Silver Pine struck down a flickering shape. Tyrion heard a shriek. Then a voice.
“Warriors. To arms! Nothing has dared to enter this place. On this day. So nothing dies.”
Melidore. He drew the shining blade and even the four stepped back. Suddenly, the fae had drawn weapons. The Summer Court advanced upon the shadows as the mortals formed an inner ring. The fae snarled, lashing out at the shadows.
The warriors of the faerie king and Melidore advanced upon the four. And now—now—Tyrion, warding his sons, saw true battle.
The glorious huntress was first. She drew a blade that hurt his mind to comprehend. The dancer, likewise. Figures, half-seen, moved around the aged woman, protecting her and assailing the fae.
Melidore struck at the leader, and was blocked. The fae warriors, who had been peerless in skill, struck and parried blows.
And they were equally matched against their foes. The four visitors fought with the same grace. The same immeasurable skill.
…But one side was rotten. One side was—
Again, a blade severed the huntress’ arm. She cried out—and in the next second, the moonlight fae was stepping back. He had cut her. But neither blood nor body remained so. The huntress attacked, and Tyrion could not tell who was winning. The fae, who had not been touched, or the…thing…which showed no wounds.
The fae did not let them touch even a hair of their forms. Melidore snarled as he struck the bearded leader a blow and was rewarded with a cry of pain.
Actual pain. The shadows rippled.
And yet—Tyrion saw fear in the eyes of summer.
Fear and hatred. The shadows danced closer.
She walked, weeping, among the broken city.
Once, she knew, this had been a place where legends dwelt. First had come those who settled here, in splendor, from every world and place and time.
Invited by the Faerie King. They had erected edifices fit for them. At some point, it had been a competition.
See from whence I hail. See what glories my world contains. See what will endure past even my comings and goings.
It had begun so small. She saw it, some history revealing itself to her unspoken. First had come the guests, and a great competition. A gathering that would last beyond their transient visits.
They had erected this city in honor of the fae, and in the glorious first days, the Summer and Winter Courts and all nature of fae had danced with the otherworlders. This glorious place had been the bazaar between worlds. A crossroads by which all might enjoy.
She passed by a broken building whose glass was so sharp that a single cut of a single broken pane lying on the ground would have never been healed. She walked past statues faded, their homages to great rulers and places lost.
Time had not wrought this. Time alone could not. Not here, in this place. To look upon some of these buildings, materials that would not ever fade or break—was to realize that something else had broken the buildings like rubble.
Loss. Neglect. The stream of visitors had slowed. The lives that had lit up this place abandoned it.
Something terrible had occurred. So terrible that the countless worlds ceased to pour hence. Then, this city had become what she saw.
A memorial of glory. The Wind Runner walked across it.
The silence was vast.
The city changed with each street. Hinting at what marvels must have been.
There was a terrible allure to it now, broken as it was. A different kind of beauty.
But not one that she could revel in.
She was being watched. The Runner shivered, and wished for the forest.
But everything had changed. And she feared to enter the forest once more. To call Nama’s name and see the true sorrow of her house. The two framed pictures that were not pictures.
Ryoka was rounding a corner when she heard…voices. They came from a ruined building. A street with more life in it than many others.
In the distance, a building blazed with light against the sudden dark. A perpetual gloom infested this city. There could never be glorious sun here. Not amid tragedy. Ryoka saw, ahead of her, figures entering and leaving…
Perhaps. A tavern, an…inn…
Just a building. A timeless structure, where all peoples came to mix and mingle and rest. Ryoka stumbled towards it, down another worn street, past buildings in disrepair. One had all but collapsed, and she saw, in the distance…
People. Some of them were singing. Others talking. A few walked in circles, as if confused. Just…passing time. Many more lay inside. Ryoka longed for someone to talk to her, for directions. She realized she’d have to pass by the ruined building, part of which blocked the street, to get to the pub.
It was so bright and alluring. Ryoka stared at the windows; they looked like there were hundreds, each one a glowing pane exposing the lovely refuge. An inn. Perhaps she might find…?
She was trying to climb over the rubble blocking the street. It was piled high, but there was a route leading up across the slope. A steep drop on the other side, she realized. Like a wall. Had someone done this? She saw the neatly-assembled rubble a second before a figure rushed at her out of the dark.
“Intruder! Begone! Begone, I say!”
A figure ran at her. Ryoka whirled. Nama had given her no weapons, just the foot wraps, but she had hinted Ryoka had useful items. The Pepperspray potion was in Ryoka’s hand. She had uncorked it to toss in the face of—
The little boy charged at her with the stick. His clothes were ragged, his face and body dirty. His ears were slightly pointed, but his face was twisted in surprising fury as he waved the stick at her.
Ryoka stared. She raised the potion—then held up a hand.
“Hold up. I don’t want to hurt you!”
The boy halted. He squinted at Ryoka suspiciously.
“Hurt me? You—intruder! Begone before I tear you limb from limb!”
He swished the stick menacingly at her. Ryoka raised an eyebrow. She had not expected this. But whoever he was, the street urchin’s seeming failed to alarm her.
“How dare you! What are you doing here, you, you—mortal?”
The boy did a double-take. He squinted at Ryoka. Then his jaw dropped.
The stick lowered, to the relief of no one but perhaps the stick. The boy blinked at Ryoka.
“A mortal? Here? After so long? Are the gates open? Hath the Faerie King’s great grief lifted? Her Majesty returned?”
Hope lit up his eyes. Ryoka blinked. Like Nama—she had the definite impression this boy was something else, but she couldn’t tell what it was.
“What? No, no. I just came here for the Summer Solstice.”
The boy tilted his head. His glittering eyes turned shadowed at once.
“Oh. An intruder. So it was you the Winter Court seeks with such passion.”
He grumbled, kicking at a stone. Ryoka saw it fly past her head.
“Watch it, brat.”
“Call me ‘brat’ again and I will kill you, eat you, and shit your remains upon my home for trespassers to find.”
He warned her, raising his stick. Ryoka’s jaw dropped slightly. That was a hell of an insult for a kid. Was he a kid?
“Well, you look like one to me. Sorry…young man? How old are you?”
“Old! Older than you!”
His voice wobbled uncertainly. Ryoka raised one eyebrow.
She was put in mind of Sammial Veltras at once. But the boy was young and old. He regarded Ryoka for a moment then snorted.
“A mortal. Well, if you must pass my lair, do so! I have no wish to deal with frost or a lone mortal on this day. You may pass, mortal, for the novelty of it.”
He pointed, bowing slightly and glancing up at her. Ryoka hesitated.
“…Thanks kid. So I just go over…?”
She pointed at the wall. The boy was immediately furious again as Ryoka climbed towards the pub.
“Kid? How dare you! You insolent—do you know who I am? And where are you going? That wall is there for a reason!”
Ryoka turned her head. Then rubbed at her ears. Was that a faint…hum beneath his words? Or from somewhere else? She pointed at the distant building all aglow.
“I’m trying to go in. By which I mean—”
“I know what you mean! Wrong way, fool! And don’t go over that wall!”
A tug at her arm. Ryoka nearly overbalanced. The boy dragged her back with surprising strength. She pointed.
“But the pub’s…there. See?”
Ryoka tugged at one ear absently. The boy stared at her. Then at the pub. His jaw actually dropped.
“Are you stupid or something? You want to go there?”
He pointed at the shining building. Ryoka gazed at the distant revelers. She shaded her eyes.
“Those are fae, right?”
They looked like the Summer Court. The boy nodded slowly.
“Then that’s where I want to go. It’s an inn…”
“Of kinds. But you do not want to go there, surely.”
“Yes, I think I do. Look, kid. I’ll just climb over and—”
He was urgently tugging her backwards now. Ryoka knew something was…off. The kid? There were no kids she’d seen before now, which told her he was someone else. Like Nama. But the inn was so inviting. So warm amid this city.
“You’re staring at it. Look away!”
“I am. See?”
She felt like the inn was the most beautiful thing she had ever wanted. Like she was a…a…moth.
“No, you’re not. Don’t climb over that—”
Ryoka climbed over the wall and wandered across the ruined street towards the inn as the voice became a buzzing in her head. The fae loitering around outside blinked as she approached.
“Hoi there! A stranger to dine and pass the time away with us? Come in! Come in, on this day!”
One called out, laughing. Another was puking outside, holding a wall for support. Normal pub behavior, in short. They waved at her cheerily—then, like the boy—did double-takes.
“A mortal? It cannot be!”
Jaws dropped. Ryoka waved, smiling.
“Hi. Sorry, I’m just passing through. I’m on my way in, you see—and I was hoping for directions. Is this an inn? Could I come in?”
She saw them glance at each other. Then laugh.
“A mortal comes on the longest day! And she makes it all the way here and asks to enter? Yes! This is an inn. Of sorts. Come in, come in!”
They giggled strangely, drawing Ryoka towards the building. She stopped to admire it. Behind her—the little boy was howling insults.
“Fool! Idiot! Get back here!”
He was standing on his little barricade, waving the stick. The fae chuckled. The sound was like buzzing in her ears. Actually…Ryoka rubbed at her left ear absentmindedly.
“You know yon angry one?”
“The kid? Yeah, he nearly hit me with his stick. You know him?”
“He guards his place, as do we. We do not bother him. ‘Tis a fearsome stick!”
“Yep. Why are you here in this broken city, though? Are you of the Summer Court? Is this where they are? I was told they were in.”
They laughed at this. More came out of the glowing building, and some opened the many glass windows to stare and point at Ryoka. The two fae who’d first spotted her nearly fell on the ground, they were laughing so hard.
“Them? We’re far from as grand as they are! No, we stay here to pass the time. We haven’t the heart to go in. But if you want directions, we’ll show you! Come, come. We’re eating. You may drink and eat with us as a favored guest!”
They were drawing her towards the door. Ryoka smiled giddily. But her ears kept…they were ringing. With the boy’s invocations. And…the buzzing.
The buzzing. That had been in her ears since she’d spotted the inn. Ryoka shook her head as she gazed at the many windows. At the fae.
“Hold on. I’ve already had something to eat and drink. A lot, actually. If you could just show me to where I want to be, that’d be great. Which way’s in?”
“Come into our home and we’ll show you. Come on, just a few more steps.”
The fae encouraged her. Ryoka hesitated. The boy was screaming.
“You stupid brat yourself! You deaf, daft mortal! Don’t you see? See, you idiot! See! By my kin, I command you! Look!”
Ryoka Griffin blinked. Something—the nature of his voice—she wavered. The buzzing was so loud. But beyond it—she heard the boy’s voice. What had he said? Kin? She heard—
A roar. So loud and vast. But she had heard a similar voice before. Ryoka’s head turned. She—
She saw a Dragon. His wings were vast and golden, but covered in the grime of this place. His den, the broken shell of a great structure. Behind her, the wall rose higher than any wall or structure humanity had ever conceived. He roared again.
The young Dragon howled as he breathed golden flame. Ryoka turned and—