And she was back. Nama spoke, insistently.
“Remember what you saw. That’s it. Back. Back and back and…there you are.”
Ryoka stood on the ground of the dirt road. Behind her, the forest lay, perfectly tree-like. No vast world-roots, though. Just trees. Sixty feet high, maybe.
The city lay ahead of her, more like a broken, run-down metropolis. Like…a nuclear wasteland’s version of a city. New York with about a week of anarchy.
The mob of fae were running too, like the Summer Guests, just more insectile. They shouted insults in normal language. Ryoka shuddered.
And here was Nama. The woman held Ryoka another second, then let go.
“There. All better? I didn’t think you’d run into them the first instant. Or you’d be so unwise as to not listen to sense.”
Ryoka hung her head. Then threw up. Nama tsked, and backed away. Ryoka, shuddering, looked at her. She wanted to cut off her feet rather than stand on the ground.
“I saw—the forest! The city! Everything is—”
“No it’s not. You just saw that.”
“I know what I saw. It’s all twisted! It’s all—why were you the same?”
“Why would I not be? You may see me as I am. Not as what your mind makes me.”
Nama smacked Ryoka on the head with the spoon. Ryoka clutched at her ringing skull.
Somehow, that made it better. She looked around.
“Then the forest isn’t a grove of flesh and insects and…?”
“Would I live there if it was? You just saw the worst nature of that lot. They’re not the Summer Court. Or the Winter Court. Tsk, tsk. Now you’ve upset them. You won’t get through the city. The forest it must be. And the winter folk have your scent.”
Nama sighed. Ryoka hung her head. But the hostess just adjusted her apron.
“Come now. I’ll take you. It seems I must. Stop crying and follow me. We can stop at my place for another quick rest. You surely need it.”
She took Ryoka’s hand and led her back into the forest. Ryoka kept looking behind her, fearfully.
“But—was that a Dragon? He was a child, with a stick. And then…”
“Of course he is. A brave child. He must have decided to go there rather than fight with the others for space in the forest, though.”
“But he had a stick—”
“I wonder what it was. Don’t you remember? Perception, Ryoka. Perception. What you see is half of reality.”
“And the other half?”
“Actual reality. Now, come along. We had better hope the cold hunters don’t find us. Even I won’t be able to keep you safe.”
Back into the forest. Behind them lay the ruined city. Ryoka looked at Nama.
“What happened? This is the land of the fae, isn’t it?”
“The one with your friend, certainly.”
The woman smiled sadly. Ryoka shuddered.
“But it’s so…what happened here? Why is it so broken? Why is it so empty?”
She had seen so few people here. Nama looked at Ryoka, and the answer came to the Wind Runner unbidden. The empty home of her hostess. The city. The young boy—who was also alone, his lair made among the ruins.
They had died.
The lands of the fae had seen tragedy too. The question was: why? How?
The answers lay before her. The Wind Runner followed Nama into the forest. They picked up the pace.
They had to hurry.
Time was running out.
But an hour had passed since sunset in Riverfarm. The Unseen Empire was dark. The party was ongoing in the village.
Of the special place? Nothing. No one crossed the boundary. Those who had a question for Emperor Laken, or business with any of the nobles, did not seek them out. They were busy. Obviously.
It was as if everyone had forgotten it existed.
A lot of weird things were happening. Not just the gathering of the…guests. Something was up. Worldwide.
Ulvama felt it. She kept staring at the sky. She went around, poking Goblins.
“Up! Up! Get pack! Get ready!”
She kicked Leafarmor and Raidpear, but the Hobgoblins were sitting. In depression. Ulvama made a tsking sound and then rounded on the Cave Goblin in the pot.
“Pebblesnatch! Get ready to go!”
The Cave Goblin said nothing. She was sobbing into her hat. Ulvama stared up at the sky again.
That power! And she felt uneasy at what she had forgotten. The party…? The [Shaman] felt the power of the day. She grabbed Pebblesnatch.
“We leave! Today!”
The Goblins didn’t respond. Grief had overwhelmed them. Ulvama smacked Pebblesnatch on the head, but lightly. The [Cook] didn’t even move.
The [Shaman] stormed back to her tent. She stared at the door, claws clenching and unclenching. It wasn’t open!
But she’d doubled the mana stones. She’d only get one chance—
Something was wrong on the other side. But this was the time when the power was strongest! The [Shaman] cursed, sweating. She wanted to be through. No matter what lay beyond. She stared up at the sky. Then at the shadows.
Anywhere else was better than here.
“Nearly done. Nearly…”
Aaron was sweating. But he leaned away before the sweat ruined the complex pattern he was tracing.
It wasn’t hard. And it was hard. He was just copying the design Emerrhain was showing him. But that was still intensely difficult, even broken down.
“What am I doing?”
“Hurrying. You must hurry.”
The wise man said. The scholar looked at Aaron and the young man kept tracing on the ground.
“Time is running out.”
The young [Mage], Blackmage, half-nodded as he continued the painstaking work. He thought about stopping. But he did not. He…
Thought about stopping.
Time was fleeting on this day of days for all. For all of mortality, the world passed by so…slowly.
Yet here, in this place, time was immortal. Seconds became days for those of other ilk. Only on the Solstice did time align. And then—only for other places.
This place in the forest was not a rotten graveyard. Nor beset by wildlife. It was a sanctuary. A place so powerful that the forest around it was peaceful, untroubled by any other, be it beast or person.
Stories. Stories made up this land, for all the stories of late had been so, so sad. Yet all stories flowed through this place.
The sword sat in the stone as it ever had. A blade beyond compare, of immortal make. Waiting for the hand to take it. Not any old sword in the stone, either.
The sword. The stone.
The young woman stumbled into the clearing quite by chance. She was panting. In the distance, for the first time in ages, the sound of battle broke the tranquil forest.
Frost lay on her skin. Behind her, the roar of a great protector battled the howling winds of the coldest foes. The young woman was panting. She saw the sword. The stone.
Three figures turned from their contemplation of the sword. The young woman blinked.
Ryoka Griffin saw a boy, barely ten in age, a young man in his mid-twenties, and a man near fifty turn. Each one was dressed differently.
One, in a squire’s tunic, hair frazzled. The second, in splendid armor, a crown on his head.
The third—armor broken. Blood, mortal wounds covering his body. His crown broken. It didn’t seem to bother him.
The three stood there. And they were all…similar. Hair the same. Features changed by age. But the same.
Ryoka Griffin stared at the sword. Then the men. One of them blinked at her. The oldest man coughed after a second.
“Greetings, stranger. Do you too come for this blade?”
He gestured at…Ryoka stared at the sword. The stone. She glanced over her shoulder. Nama’s battle against the Wild Hunt seemed far away. Each cry stretching out until she stood in a moment between such things.
“Oh no. This can’t be happening.”
She looked at the three-in-one. The sword. The oldest man with the broken crown raised his brows.
“What can’t be happening? Come, traveller. And tell us why the Winter Court hunts you so.”
He beckoned. Ryoka approached, staring, eyes wide. She stared at the boy. He waved at her. The young man looked her up and down. Then he did a double-take.
“…Are your feet bared? What curious customs some people have.”
Of all the—Ryoka gazed at him. Then she looked at the stone.
“No way. Just to be clear—hi. My name’s Ryoka.”
She was panting. She switched through her layers of reality. Mundanity, epic—even horror and despondence. She had the trick of it, now. Each one revealed nothing different.
Sword. Stone. The three. The boy held out a hand.
“Hello. We’re pleased to meet you.”
Ryoka hesitated. She shook the hand, very gingerly, prepared for it to turn into…
It was just a soft grip, soft in nature, the boy’s hands callused by work. The other two instantly held out hands.
“I apologize for my appearance.”
The eldest of them indicated his armor and wounds. Ryoka stared at him.
“Just to be clear. I’m a mortal. I’m just passing through. I—I’m being hunted.”
“You will be, the moment you leave this place.”
The young man nodded amiably. His eyes looked Ryoka up and down.
“Bared feet. But you are mortal, aren’t you? Strange. Few of your kind ever walk here.”
“That’s what everyone says. Look—please don’t mess with me. I’ve been having a bad day. You’re not King Arthur of Camelot, right? Right?”
Ryoka stared at the sword in the stone. She looked up—and the two men bowed.
“I am King Arthur.”
“I am King Arthur.”
“I’m just Arthur.”
The boy offered. Ryoka covered her face slowly.
“No you’re not. This is silly. It’s gone too far. That’s not Excalibur. I’ve gone mad. I drank too much and this is a fever dream.”
The three looked at each other.
“Why is it not? And that isn’t Excalibur.”
“That’s Caliburn. I will wield Excalibur when Caliburn breaks. I prefer this sword. I will have it in my glory, not my fading days.”
The young man pointed at the sword. Ryoka stared at him. Arthur smiled, looking excited for the future. The old King found a seat on the grass.
“It will last a while. But the worst is yet to come.”
The boy and the young man nodded to each other. Ryoka looked around.
“I don’t understand what’s happening.”
“Sit, sit milady Griffin. Time will not bother you here. It does not us.”
Like a knight, the young man and boy refused to sit until she did. Ryoka did, staring at the blade.
“Why are there three of you? What is this?”
“The sword in the stone. Where it always is. I have yet to pick it up. Or rather, I have. I just haven’t pulled it from the stone.”
The boy informed Ryoka, licking his lips nervously. He looked about.
“You see, I needed a sword for my brother who broke his. But I could only find this one. And Merlin—”
“Bastard. He tricked us.”
The old man muttered. Ryoka nearly spat out the stamina potion onto the younger King Arthur. He politely offered her a handkerchief.
“—He told me to take this sword. So I did. Now I’m here.”
“I lost my sword in battle. This was the moment before I returned the blade to the Lady of the Lake for the second blade. Did you say ‘Excalibur’?”
The young man was interested. The old man nodded.
“You will never lose with it. Which does not mean you will not suffer. I am the last Arthur, who releases my burden to Sir Bedivere that he might toss it into the lake.”
He touched at his wounds. Ryoka looked at him. The old Arthur smiled.
“I’m dying. Not a quick death. Long enough for me to order my loyal knight to return what is not mine. You’re going to have to do it three times, by the way.”
The younger Arthurs exclaimed at once. The old one rolled his eyes.
“He keeps coming back. But this time is the last. Ere it leaves my hand—that is me.”
He looked at Ryoka. Three Arthurs sat there. She rubbed at her face.
“So you’re the King of Knights. King of Camelot. King of Chivalry and Albion and…that Arthur. Each time you took up or let go of the blade.”
“Exactly. Have you heard of us? Then does the kingdom I must build endure?”
The boy leaned forwards. Ryoka looked at him.
Her mouth worked.
“I don’t understand, though. Why are you here, then?”
“We are all here at once. You see, it is a moment that defines us.”
It was the boy-Arthur who spoke to Ryoka in a lecturing tone. He was as young as he was that day. Ten years old. But Ryoka sensed…
That immortality. That age. He had been here forever. Listening to the other two. He hung his head.
“I confess. I am pondering my fate. It is a terrible decision I must make.”
“As am I.”
“I am not. But I come to tell the other two what may be. Each time. Forever.”
The oldest Arthur nodded at the younger two. Ryoka began to understand.
“So it’s a choice.”
The three nodded as one. The youngest pointed to the sword.
“If I draw it, I will become all you say, Miss…what was your name again?”
“Ryoka. Ryoka Griffin.”
“Yes. Miss. You have an odd accent. Were it not for magic, I would never understand you.”
The young King remarked. Ryoka realized that she heard his meaning—but the real language was incomprehensible. Welsh. Old Welsh, perhaps. She rubbed at her ears.
“I’m from the future. Well—a future.”
“Ah. Well, then you know my story. If you know my name. That gives some meaning to my life. I will have to build a kingdom. And get two stupid Dragons to help me fortify the ground of my castle.”
The youngest Arthur was self-satisfied. He looked at the young King. The oldest Arthur grimaced.
“Merlin will settle it. He tends to do most things—until Morgan gets him. You’ll do fine. Well…but for Mordred. And Lancelot. And…”
The other two looked downcast and he began counting off his failures on his hand. Ryoka shuddered.
“I know your history. Are you saying you do?”
The boy nodded gravely.
“I have been told all of it. I will be a great king. Form an order of knights who will do great things. We will save my kingdom to be, and make it great. But I will fail my wife. My friend. My son will be my end. I will die bitterly. All these things I know. So—I am debating whether to pull out the sword.”
He shuddered. Ryoka saw he believed in his fate. He knew what was coming. Still—the young King-Arthur’s face was set. The old one raised a hand.
“Wait a while. You can still wait. If the burden is too much…”
“If not me, then who? My kingdom will fall to ruin if I do not draw the blade.”
“Lancelot. If I knew…”
The three spoke at once, as if going over an old argument. The young king raised a rueful head and looked at Ryoka.
“You see, the instant I throw the broken blade—I will forget this. Only here, do I have the right to know my future and still choose.”
Ryoka Griffin looked from face to face. She stared at the blade.
“I see. So I’ve interrupted that?”
“You’re a welcome visitor. You see—we do like guests. Come, sit. But do not touch the blade. Our fate will be yours in part if you do.”
The oldest Arthur spoke. Ryoka stared at Caliburn. Then at them sharply.
She had not expected to be here. But—something had drawn her here in the mad flight, when Nama told her to run.
“Wait a second. Have you met…a young woman? Shorter than me? This high—she told me once—”
Ryoka had laughed at Erin, when she confessed about the dream and Ivolethe. Erin herself hadn’t believed it. But Ryoka was suddenly wide-eyed.
“Did she touch this blade?”
The three Arthurs turned to each other. One stood up, as if to inspect the blade.
“A young woman? Yes. Yes, she did. She came dreaming. She nearly took it out of her dream—but one of the Winter Court stopped her. Just as well. What was she?”
“An innkeeper. My friend.”
The oldest Arthur nodded.
“Then she would have woken as a King. Of…innkeepers. Or just a King. And the terrible fate of ours would be shared by her. In some other way.”
“But she didn’t. Erin was here?”
Ryoka stared about. The other three glanced at each other.
“Are you lost?”
“I’ve been trying to get in. But the Wild Hunt is following me and—this is so strange. You can’t be the Arthur of legend.”
“And why not?”
Ryoka clutched at her head. They were so—normal. Okay, she could see the entrails leaking out of one of them and the sword—but here?
Kindly, one of the Arthurs drew her down.
“Sit, Miss Ryoka. Sit. Time will not touch you here. Even the other fae are respectful. The Wild Hunt will not trouble you. I’ve ridden with them myself. What cause have they to hunt you? Pettiness?”
The young King assured her. Ryoka sat, despairing.
Meeting after meeting. She explained an abbreviated version of why she was here and the three nodded.
“Other worlds. Mine seems so small and insignificant, my kingdom so small at times. Yet—my legacy endures?”
The oldest Arthur turned to Ryoka, greedy for assurances. She hesitated.
“After a fashion, Your Majesty. You see—I don’t know if you ever were on my world. Historically? I’m not sure. But…they tell stories of you.”
The oldest’s face fell. Ryoka winced.
“That’s all they have.”
“Does Albion not stand in your world?”
Ryoka didn’t want to get into geopolitical events of Earth. But Arthur demanded to know. He raked a hand through his bloodied hair, dislodging the fragments of crown. Then he stood.
“Stories. I commanded the greatest kingdom the world had ever seen. The deeds of my knights struck awe and hope into the hearts of all who heard them and fear into that of all of Albion’s foes! And that is all Camelot…all my kingdom…”
He trailed off, shaking his head. The younger two watched him anxiously. At last, the old King laughed.
“Perhaps that is all I can hope for. My great kingdom was the seed of the next nation. Perhaps—stories are enough of a legacy for any man. So long as they remember chivalry and honor, let it endure.”
He reached for the sword. Ryoka felt a chill at those grave eyes, the sad smile. The oldest King turned to the others.
“I will not change my mind. That is for you two to decide.”
Ryoka felt so sorry for this man—who had a rough life despite all his triumphs. She longed to say something, but she didn’t feel she belonged here.
And yet—the three seemed glad of her presence. The young man frowned.
“If not me, then the burden will fall to someone else. I only wonder if I am the right one for this blade. If there is a better king—let them take the sword.”
“There are many. We are reflected across many stories. Or so the fae claim. And Merlin. But they’re tricky and he is a liar. I hate Merlin.”
The oldest Arthur sighed. The young King nodded, a touch uncertainly. Ryoka wanted to take notes. She had no notion that Arthur had ridden with the Wild Hunt. Or was it alluded to in some story? And Erin was here? Well, there were stories of mortals walking the worlds in dreams. Even so—and Erin had just grabbed the sword. Typical.
“I bet I couldn’t even pull that damn thing if I tried, but my friend got it out.”
The other Arthurs chuckled. The young King leaned over conspiratorially.
“You see, it’s actually not hard. Anyone can do it. It’s a twist of the wrist as you pull.”
“What? No way. Really?”
“Yes, I’m joking.”
King Arthur laughed at her dumbfounded expression. The old man and young King fell over themselves laughing and back-slapping while the boy gave Ryoka a long-suffering look of sympathy. Clearly, Arthur changed from time to time.
…Presently, they calmed down. It seemed this was their fate. When they drew the blade, they would rise once more to their fates. It was just this reflection of them that remained, to know all and choose forever.
It sucked. But that was the kind of thing old stories loved. Ask Sisyphus. Actually—if Ryoka met him, she’d break that stupid boulder. She doubted it, since it was the wrong mythology, but she’d always felt bad for him. And Prometheus.
“I think I have to go. Nama—my protector—is helping me go in. And she might get hurt. They found us, you see.”
“Mm. I don’t know the whole of it, but it seems a young woman such as yourself does not deserve the Faerie King’s wrath. He can be…capricious. Although I have heard he has lost his wife.”
“Er…she might have run off with a mortal again. She did it once, I think. There may be a story about that?”
The old Arthur coughed. The boy turned red as the young King rolled his eyes.
“And Guinevere is going to do the same? Wonderful. Maybe I won’t draw the blade.”
“It’s your fault. I mean, mine. And Mordred. If only we could undo it. Try to remember.”
The oldest Arthur seized the younger one, caught for a moment by fresh emotion. The younger one nodded, trying desperately to fix the knowledge in his memory that history might change.
What tragedy. Ryoka looked away for a moment and then had a thought.
“Listen. Guys. I don’t know if this is right to say…but maybe I can clear up your dilemma?”
The three Arthurs turned, eagerly.
“How so, Lady Griffin?”
Ryoka flushed at the attention.
“Well…there’s this thing called the time traveller’s paradox. Basically, if one of you is from the future, then he’s already done everything that leads up to him going back in time. So…there’s no point deliberating because you’ve already chosen. It’s…basic…logic…”
She trailed off lamely. The three were staring at her. And all three were glaring.
“If she’s my descendants of descendants or what humanity looks like after my reign, maybe I won’t pull the sword out. What’s the point?”
The boy kicked a clod of grass. Ryoka lifted her hands.
“Look, guys. It’s just logic—”
“Have you learned nothing? Logic matters little with such things here. I am choosing. And right now, I’d rather a drink.”
The young King leaned on the stone grumpily. Even the old one looked annoyed. Arthur gestured at the stone.
“I could choose not to. Even now. Even from whatever time you come from, Ryoka Griffin.”
She smiled, half-uncertainly.
“Yeah, but if you did—”
“I could choose not to.”
And then there was silence. Ryoka Griffin and time froze uncertainly as King Arthur stood over the stone. He looked at her. Her tongue was stuck in her teeth.
“I’m…I’m going to go. Sorry. Very sorry. I annoy everyone. Please pull out the sword. I’ll just…”
She walked backwards to the very edge of the clearing. Until time began to follow her, also running from that eternal moment. Also, kicking her in the back of the head for nearly unmaking reality as they knew it.
The two Kings and the squire looked after her. Slowly, they looked at each other. Murmuring. Ryoka turned.
“I’m sorry. I just want to find my friend. And I don’t want Nama or anyone else to die. Thank you—I’ll remember meeting you forever.”
She turned away. Knowing she would and wishing she could speak longer. Longer…she heard a voice calling out after her.
Arthur the squire stood by the sword in the stone. He shook his head.
“I’m but a boy. And he is a dying old man.”
He gestured at the old man, who glowered at the youngest Arthur. The boy returned the gaze, steadfast. The last King Arthur spoke.
“But I am the Arthur of your stories. You say they tell stories of me?”
“They do, King of Camelot!”
She shouted, tears springing to her eyes as he smiled by his terrible burden. The King nodded, pleased.
“—Then. Chivalry is not dead. Nor will it ever be. Nor is it now.”
She didn’t know what he meant. But then she saw the young man reach down. His crown shone golden. His armor gleamed.
He drew Caliburn from the stone. And raised it high overhead.
The world went still. Ryoka stared as the young man strode towards her. No—
King Arthur Pendragon. He held the blade aloft as the other two remained. Walking out of the clearing, into the forest consumed by a winter’s storm. Fearless. He saluted Ryoka as he walked.
“I have never left a maiden in distress. Nor do I fear the Winter Court. Come, milady. Let us find your friend and rescue your great protector.”
He offered her an arm to rest upon, in the fashions of old. Ryoka Griffin stared at him. She stared at the arm. She edged away from the arm, but then she bowed.
“Are you sure?”
The King of Chivalry smiled. He stepped beyond the glade and was engulfed in winter. Ryoka’s skin froze—the world became a howling snowstorm without direction.
The winter fae were everywhere. Great shapes; wolves of the end time bounding about the lone figure in the blizzard. Somehow, she was keeping them all back. Ryoka threw up an arm as her body turned to ice in front of the wind—
But the light of Caliburn protected her. The winter fae spotted her and the warrior in icy armor charged at her, lifting the blade no one had matched.
He did not see the young King until it was too late. Did not expect any foe but Ryoka. The blade swung up—and the winter warrior’s blade was blown backwards. The ringing sound halted the other figures in the blizzard. They turned as one, and saw the light.
Caliburn swung down, and the blow sent even the faerie king’s champion stumbling back. The King of Chivalry shouted, and knocked aside an arrow made of hoarfrost as it sped at Ryoka’s chest. He blurred as he whirled the sword around and the Wild Hunt charged him—and fell back.
Ryoka saw it now. It was a sword and an idea. It was a kingdom, the kingdom made then, and in the future, when the Once and Future King returned to reclaim his lost kingdom, when his subjects needed him most.
It was all those things. To break it, you would have to break all those things at once. And the immortal skill of the fae—King Arthur turned in the howling winds and locked blades with another warrior of the Wild Hunt.
The fae was pressed backwards. The man laughed. He had all the knowledge of his life, before and after! In this place—he looked at Ryoka as Caliburn’s light forced the others back.
“I’ll return it in time. But unless the Winter Court would try to slay the King of Knights, let them flee!”
He laughed into the storm as he advanced and the fae fell back. Ryoka saw Nama waving her spoon amid the snow and vast figures. She stared at King Arthur’s back.
Fairytales. Ryoka Griffin stumbled forwards as winter drew back. The King charged alone and scattered an army before him.
“For the King of Innkeepers who will never be! For honor time and time again!”
She would have followed him forever. But he was doing this for her. Ryoka turned as someone clutched her arm. Nama pointed.
“In! In! We are not far now.”
They ran, past trees and figures who poked their heads out of the trunks themselves—they were trees! Nymphs? Ryoka saw a few denizens of the forest come alive, wondering. The King of Chivalry was a sight even here. They stared at Ryoka.
“More mortals, today?”
Her head turned, but the gawking Dryad was just there a moment.
They ran and ran. And on this day of days, this day, amid meetings both foul and fair, as the faerie king’s warriors tried to keep her from breaching his will—
Ryoka Griffin ran out of the forest. Out of the second layer of the realm of the fae and deeper still. She heard the distant horns fading. The clash of blades disappear.