She walked out of the forest with Nama. Behind her, the wind howled.
The blizzard was beyond anything Ryoka had ever seen or could ask the wind to be. A storm that would herald the end of other worlds. An ice age in itself.
She left it behind her. Sheltered by her strange protector she’d met in the forest, and the King of Camelot’s sword.
The two had put the Wild Hunt to flight. Ryoka stared back wonderingly, then at the furry, slightly round figure with spectacles and the spoon which had laid low faerie warriors.
Perspective. She felt ashamed and silly. And relieved.
For all the land of the fae had horrible in it, like the truths revealed in the city, there were good people. Fair and foul, and indifferent.
She’d been rather foolish, hadn’t she?
Ryoka saw her thoughts leak out, like words. And Nama saw them too. She smiled widely as the young woman’s eyes widened.
“Yes, but few mortals do well the first time. Far harder than asking a bird to swim. Which some can do. Everything that makes sense to you is wrong, you see?”
She gestured; and flicked them forwards in the conversation, so that Ryoka understood and was nodding. That was what she had been doing the entire time.
Only, now, Ryoka was seeing it. Acclimatizing to this world.
“What funny words you people have. Words for everything. Or you try.”
The Wind Runner nodded. Then she made a conscious effort to…
Nama’s eyes fixed Ryoka and she adjusted the spectacles. After a while, she hopped over a stump, and flicked her tail.
“…Do you have something to say?”
Ryoka grinned. So that was how Sikeri had done it. She let Nama catch that thought and the kindly hostess harrumphed.
“Don’t be excited because you mastered your own thoughts, Ryoka Griffin. Beyond here—well, we’re in at last.”
The young woman’s smile faded. She looked up—and gasped.
In. Past the forest and city. Both things were locations in the realm of the fae. Outer realms. Ryoka understood there might be more. But she also knew this was where she needed to be.
Closer to the heart of the fae. Closer to the faerie king’s court. And thusly—
She stared across a meadow, towards an ancient, medieval farmhouse and fields of wheat. A lone tree sat idly upon the hilltop overlooking it all, and a stream passed by a slowly-turning water wheel. A village beyond.
“What is this?”
“This—is in. Past here, you will reach the courts of the fae. But this—look awhile. You know what it is.”
Ryoka did. A village. But she took Nama’s meaning and flicked across her perceptions. If she looked at it like…
Mundane. The tree remained. The village, the people, the farmer and his family moving around the fields? Vanished. Only the tree on the hilltop, and a little…
Toy set. Everything she had seen in miniature, a little plastic river, static figurines, dollhouses…Ryoka blinked.
Grand. The village sat there. The tree remained. People moved about; children fought, rather viciously too, in the mud. Laughter and quietus and…
Decay. The houses were empty. Run-down, long-abandoned. A few looked as though someone had tried to repair them. But weeds had overtaken the fields, time eroded rooftops.
Ghosts wandered this place, laughing, calling out. Ghosts of people. Humans. And the tree—
…Was a man, sitting on the hill, watching them play. He looked old. He looked like bark and root and like Silver Pine. Perhaps less august, but…
“Do you see?”
Nama was watching Ryoka approvingly. This was but one part of this place. And Ryoka looked past the village, towards great caves set into the mountainside. Something moved across them, some vast shape.
Another denizen. Another flash of insight.
“This place isn’t one thing, is it? It’s…the old world.”
“Many old worlds. You see it now, don’t you?”
Ryoka did. It was like…looking at a bunch of tiny states, or plots of land. Where the treant’s village ended—there was someone else’s domain. The giant mountainside and caves, a grassy expanse as far as the eye could see with grass like fire and a shimmering heat haze…
Ryoka looked at Nama for confirmation. Again, she nodded.
“More permanent than the city, in truth. One was meant for guests. This? This is what they brought. It was not here a while ago. Or half so large.”
The Wind Runner stared past the many linked places. Few strayed from their areas; and why should they? They had everything they wanted. But some did, talking, walking about.
It looked to her like a glorious place. She would have loved to walk through the village, eat and talk to the locals and know what their lives had been like. Not in some perspectives; the ghost-village would have been terribly sad and she feared to know what it looked like in horror. But here were legends and their homes.
But from another perspective? Ryoka looked again and saw…
“…This looks like a refugee camp. How many people have fled here?”
Nama leaned on a walking staff, which had replaced the ladle. She peered up at Ryoka, suspiciously.
“You say this as if you are surprised, Ryoka. Everything dies. So why not worlds? In the past, they did not come here. But of late, he has allowed them to flee here. Like that large thing which tried to eat you. But mostly, they behave.”
Another clue in place. That was why Melidore had offered Mavika and the [Witches] sanctuary. When their craft died and their time had come.
Ryoka shivered. It was merciful, generous even. But it was a downer on the lands of the fae.
“Yes, well, it is my home. And such is the mood of the place. When he feels happy, things will change.”
A tap on Ryoka’s head from the staff. Ryoka winced. Nama stared out, pointing ahead.
“You need to go in to find your Ivolethe. I would come with you, but…if I go, there will be conflict. Then again, maybe I should.”
She hitched up her apron, reminding Ryoka of her disastrous city expedition. Ryoka held up her hands.
“No, wait. I’m getting better, Nama. You’ve done enough. I can guard my thoughts and see better.”
“I suppose you can.”
The hostess conceded after she eyed Ryoka up and down. She didn’t look convinced, though. She stood among the trees—suddenly she and Ryoka were far apart.
“I’ll be right here! Call my name if you get into trouble! But only do so if you must—you will have to run twice if I venture forth!”
Because she’d cause a fuss? Or lots of fights? Ryoka glanced back at the forest. The blizzard still raged; she hoped the King of Chivalry would be fine. Then again…if he wasn’t fine, Ryoka was dead.
Tentatively, she jogged forwards into the old world. She would have stayed, wandered up to the treant, walked across every home and asked each person why they were here and their story.
But this was not a forever-land. Time…was ticking on. Time was running out.
Six times. Tyrion stood with his sword drawn, in the narrowing circle of safety. Beyond there—the fae fought. Not all of them, and not all with the same perfection of skill as Melidore and the warriors.
But they fought. Driving back the shadows. And the four.
Six times Melidore cut the bearded man’s arm from his shoulder. Each time, the shining sword severed something, and provoked pain.
Yet six times the figure came onwards, forcing the fae back with a sword of his own. They locked blades and Melidore forced the figure back.
But one refused to stay cut. Tyrion half-understood what Melidore was trying to do. Cut, and cut again until the arm stayed severed!
It was this moment. This time. With each step into the party, the four seemed more real. Less rotten. They were coming for the mortals, and Tyrion, despite himself, feared to challenge…
“My name is _______! Say it!”
The leader of men howled. The Humans and other non-fae covered their ears and screamed. Laken was holding up a hand, backing up.
Slowly, the circle narrowed. Tyrion wondered if this was a last stand. But why then did Melidore not order a retreat? He saw the fae looking up as he whirled to confront the dancing man. He repeated the gesture, and so did the warriors. The fae. What were they staring at?
The moons. They were rising overhead, both of them. And somehow—faster than they should have. So fast Tyrion saw its progress through the sky. Melidore was pointing upwards, beseeching the celestial bodies.
“Come! Come, fair ladies! End this wretched moment!”
The four advanced. And Tyrion understood.
It was a race against time. The shortest night. He stepped forwards with sword raised and cut at a flickering sight in the air.
“Until the day ends! Families of Izril! Until the day ends! Keep them back!”
The Flowers of Izril started. Laken Godart’s head turned and his face changed as he understood what Tyrion had seen.
Magic bloomed as the mortals began throwing spells, cutting and fleeing back into the lines of safety. Halrac loosed an arrow—
The huntress caught it. She put it to her bow and shot it through one of the faerie warriors. The figure stumbled, but refused to fall.
They whispered. They were getting more desperate. They advanced further, desperate. Tyrion saw Melidore snarl. He raised his sword and—
The second time, Ryoka sensed the giant tiptoeing up behind her. The malice oozed at her. She whirled and looked…up…
There he was again. A giant to make Zamea look tiny. Three eyes, staring. So large he might have been the same kind that had fought…other beings…in the age where he had come from.
“Mortal. Another mortal! The one that got away. My belly is filled today. Today is a good day!”
He was in a good mood. Ryoka blanched as she saw blood around his mouth. She backed up as the hands reached down.
Nama. Ryoka felt the name rise to her lips unbidden. She had walked through the amalgamation of worlds for hours, and the forest was distant behind her. She was passing under the shadow of the mountain and network of vast caves, each of which could have swallowed her, if not the titan.
No! Not yet! Ryoka remembered Nama’s warning. She backed up.
The hand reached down. Ryoka flung herself sideways and the wind blew her just past the fingers as they dug into the earth. The hand scooped up a huge amount of dirt and rock and rose. The figure sifted through it, then one of his eyes fixed on Ryoka.
“Quick mortal. Come here!”
She had to do something. Ryoka scrambled to her feet. And she thought—
Three rather lovely, sinuous ladies leaned on the windowsills and watched as a screaming young woman ducked—then straightened. They had a lovely mountain cottage; handmade, really. No, wait—
The mountain was just a foothill, and they’d built into it, carving the stone gently to make a home for the three of them. But the humble façade belied the interior, which was like a mansion any million—billionaire would envy.
Was that an indoor pool? Marble tiles—Ryoka’s head turned.
She saw an oafish man with three eyes and a club look around. He was…about eight feet tall. And looked rather like the giant, only in miniature.
Ryoka heard a cackle of laughter from the three sisters as they peered at Ryoka.
“Would you look at that? Darling girl! She has that idiot dead to rights!”
“How long has that fool been wandering about? And a mortal gets the best of him?”
The figure was scratching his head. he stared at Ryoka.
“You got large. Is this a trick? If it’s a trickster god, I’ll eat him and scatter his bones across the world!”
He waved his club around furiously. The three sisters sneered at him as he looked around, perhaps for some other presence. Ryoka stared at him.
Perspective. And the giant had none. He stared at Ryoka and then his face turned into a huge grin.
“More of you to eat, then!”
He raised the club and ran at her. Ryoka hesitated. He was still eight feet tall! Huge, like a wall of flesh running at her! She—
…Pulled out the Pepperspray Potion and tossed it in his face. The brute screamed, surprisingly high-pitched, and writhed on the ground.
The three sisters collapsed into gales of laughter as they emerged from their home. Ryoka stared at the empty bottle, and then the brute. She turned—
Unbidden, the world shifted back. The mountain sat above her, so vast it could have been one of the High Passes. The world was shaking.
Ryoka saw the titan writhing on the ground, screaming such curses the air itself turned black and fled his presence. She shook so hard her bones tried to vibrate out of her—
“Enough. Begone, you pesst!”
Someone hissed. The giant’s howl became a distant thing, for all he thrashed and the shaking stopped. Ryoka turned…
Three Wyrms peered down at her, each one smiling with so many teeth that their vast heads looked like forests of ivory unto themselves. They had emerged from the caves and were staring at her.
“How smart! Of all the trespassers who made it this far, none had the sense to look at him differently!”
“She smells of the forest. And the city. Did you go through both?”
“And strange and powerful meetings. She has protectors, this one. No wonder she made it this far. Will we let her go further?”
Ryoka heard the three voices speaking a sibilant tongue she could not understand. But meaning was clear. She stared up at the Wyrms.
Oh no, not more of them.
Fortunately, she caught that thought before it leaked. The three twined around her, moving over each other to form a circle with their bodies.
“Um. Hello! Honored Wyrms. I’m sorry about that. That guy’s been following me about—”
Ryoka desperately willed herself to see the three socialites and their mansion-home. But the oldest of them, with dark green scales mixed with chalk-grey, laughed.
“None of that now. We won’t be reduced so easily. Our perspective matters more than yours. What is your name, smart mortal?”
One of the vast tongues flicked. All three frowned. One of them turned to the others.
“Is she actually trying to lie to us? She’s managed to hide her thoughts.”
“Cheh. Mortals. And here I was beginning to like her.”
Ryoka wished the automatic translation in her head wasn’t so…normal. It made the vast Wyrms less awesomely terrifying—
And she should be terrified.
The smallest advised Ryoka. And small was comparative; her scales were dark red, fading to a kind of orange-green that would have fit luminous caverns of fungi in the dark. Ryoka had a feeling the Wyrms weren’t outdoor-types.
“I’m uh—Ryoka. Look, I’m just passing through.”
“We know. But we’re curious how you got here. We smell one of our friends on you.”
The others looked at each other, giant heads turning.
“Oh, the party.”
“That greedy-guts must have gone to an interesting one! I should have gone too!”
They sighed, then fixed Ryoka with more huge stares.
“Why don’t you come in? Tell us where you come from, girl. Tell us what you seek.”
“We’ll let you dine with us in whatever viewpoint you please!”
“And even help you. If you give us something in return.”
…Yep. They were doing the exact same thing as Sikeri. And Ryoka had no time for this! She had no time for the giant, either. She bit her lip.
“Honored sisters. I’m delighted by the invitation. But I have nothing to give you. And my business is er…actually, I have a friend coming you probably don’t want to meet.”
She had a sudden thought and smiled. The three Wyrms narrowed their eyes and twined a bit…closer together.
“Friend? We fear nothing, girl.”
“Not even your large protector from the forest. We are three and she is one.”
“You may have met Sikeri, but we are far more than she.”
Great. Super-Wyrms. But Ryoka remembered something. Wyrm they might be, but they were the same kind as Teriarch. And the boy in the city, for that matter. She licked her lips.
“This is all true, great sisters. Greatest of the Wyrms. Er—peerless beauties with a hoard even Dragons would envy and cry in shame to behold.”
The largest made a crooning sound and bent her head lower.
“Go on. I like you. I’d rather like to keep you.”
“Ah, but you wouldn’t. Because my friend is coming. And—you can tell I’m telling the truth, obviously. You won’t like to meet him. The King of Knights is coming, and he has Caliburn—”
The shriek turned Ryoka deaf. She saw—
The three sisters ran for their cottage. One of them hit a remote and steel shutters began to slide down in front of the entrance. They slammed windows shut, screaming.
“The King? You awakened him?”
“Begone! Get lost!”
“Don’t let him bring that wretched sword near us! Shoo!”
They threw things out the window. Vases, a painting—Ryoka dodged a handbag and decided her perspectives needed work. She ran on, wondering if it had been a magical force field in reality or if Wyrms actually invested in security. Probably. But who supplied that kind of thing? Gnomes?
Ryoka ran on as the Wyrms harangued her—then ran back and picked up the handbag. She ran off as they shouted every manner of insult at her for stealing it. But she really wanted to know what the hell it was.
She was journeying across the lands of the fae. And like Nama—Ryoka flicked through adventures that took hours or days. She stopped by a potluck filled with what she thought were feathered folk of all kinds. She travelled past the fields of grass and fire, and only Nama’s foot wraps kept her feet from being incinerated.
She bribed the Phoenix with the handbag to slow the Wild Hunt as the storm blew across the old worlds, angering all the denizens. Fire and steam and ice raged behind her.
Stories. Ryoka Griffin had only one more encounter of note. That was—an encounter of note because it was less wondrous than all the others which were all noteworthy, if that made sense.
She was nearly at the next place when she found six people wandering about, looking terrified. Ryoka slowed as they hid behind a rock, babbling to each other.
She was used to this by now and switched across the layers of—
An artificial glow illuminated the dark landscape. One of the figures turned—and Ryoka heard a crackle. She saw the other five react. Three brought up something in their hands. Ryoka stared and her jaw dropped as she saw the flickering visors. The machined armor. The guns—
She dove a second before they discharged. Flashes of light burned across the dis—
Pew, pew! The little toy guns emitted the blasting sound and light flashed across Ryoka’s torso. She landed and the figures panicked.
“Another one! Keep firing!”
They took cover behind the little rock, toy guns blazing at her. Ryoka got up shakily. She did not try to change perspectives.
It looked like six…adults…in plastic toy costumes. They were shooting at her, shouting with the crackle of a radio in the background as their toy guns played little lights off Ryoka’s torso.
“No effect! Commander—”
“Fall back! Fall back to Rally Point 12!”
They got out behind their boulder and started running. Ryoka stared at them.
“No fucking way. Hey! Hey!”
She ran after them. They were fast. Well-trained, and they all looked like soldiers. One turned around, saw Ryoka, and pulled—
She flinched as the plastic grenade landed next to her and exploded into confetti. The others kept running, shouting about ‘hit—no effect!’ On a hunch, Ryoka switched back to—
The dirt was still showering down and she jumped back from the glowing, red-hot crater of superheated stone and dirt—Ryoka saw plumes of smoke from the broken landscape. She saw another glowing flash—
Ryoka ducked. A nerf-gun pellet bounced off her chest. Was that a missile? She stared down at it shakily. Then she saw the others fleeing.
No way. But…they stared over their shoulders as Ryoka ran after them, shouting.
“It’s catching up to us at maximum velocity, Commander!”
“Hold! Turn and switch to close quarters weapons!”
They whirled and drew…plastic knives. Ryoka saw behind the visors, distinctly alien features—she held up her hands.
“Whoa! Hold on! Listen! I’m not going to hurt you!”
The six froze. One of them adjusted his helmet.
“—Can’t make it out, Commander. Sounds like some kind of sonic-based language. I can translate—”
“Doesn’t look dangerous. But we can’t tell.”
“Lower your weapons!”
The leader of the six held up an authoritative hand. Ryoka was scratching her head. She really wanted to switch back—but she had a feeling she’d gotten lucky those two times. If this was real—these people were packing serious firepower.
Which appeared to her to be toy guns and Halloween-costume armor. Which made sense if it was…
“Hey. Um. You. Can you understand me?”
She pointed at one of the figures, who jerked slightly. It raised a hand.
“Hold on. I don’t have enough of a sample, Commander. It’s definitely trying to communicate…”
Were they stupid or something? Or…Ryoka’s eyes narrowed. They all had big moon landing-type helmets on. She kept hearing the crackle of radios. She was certain this was all an…analogy to what they really were, but no one else had been unable to hear her.
On a hunch, she strode forwards, hands raised. Instantly, three of them brought up their guns.
Pew, pew! Light harmlessly played across her chest.
“Back up! Back—”
Ryoka grabbed the figure she’d pointed at and yanked the helmet off. He flailed at her, stabbing her six times with the plastic knife.
“Ow. Ow. Stop that, would you?”
She yanked off the helmet and shouted at the figure. If he’d gone hand-to-hand he would have hurt her. He was taller than she was, and she saw pale orange skin, some strange horizontal…were they even eyes?
He jerked back, shouting in alarm.
“Suit seal compromised! She tore off my helmet like it was—wait. What?”
Ryoka backed away as the others blazed their guns at her.
“Hey. Can you hear me now?”
The figure raised a hand.
“Cease fire! Cease fire! I just established communications!”
He looked around wildly.
“I’m—I’m not dead? I’m breathing—”
“Soldier! Restore your gear now before—”
“Can you tell her to shut up?”
Ryoka pointed at the commander. The soldier hesitated.
“Commander, are you getting any of what this person’s saying?”
He stared at her. And seemed to see her at last. Indeed, he looked around incredulously—then at his toy gun.
“What is this?”
“We don’t have any communications with this creature. Just the sonic communications which we haven’t translated—”
“Tell them to take off the helmets. They’re getting in the way.”
The…alien…stared at Ryoka. She stared back. He holstered his firearm, staring at the cheap toy, then at Ryoka.
“…How do I know this isn’t a trick?”
“Well, if I wanted to, I probably could have kicked all your asses. Your guns aren’t working.”
His eyes widened.
“You’re familiar with firearms? You have an understanding of technology?”
“Yes I do. What are you, wearing, spacesuits?”
“…You mean our battle armor? And our rifles…”
He glanced at the toy gun. Ryoka shook her head.
“What are you doing? You don’t bring technology into the lands of the fae! They’re toys! Are you—mortal? Are you from space?”
The stranger gave Ryoka a long, puzzled look.
“We’re all from space. Unless this place doesn’t have a stratosphere? Is it even a planet? Are you from here…Miss?”
“Nope. So you’re spacefaring people?”
“That’s right. What planet are you from?”
He was muttering into his toy wrist-radio to the others. Glancing at Ryoka. She saw a fake-looking scanner beam play over her and folded her arms.
“I see that. Stop scanning me!”
She snapped at one of the helmeted figures. He recoiled and the beam snapped off.
“But I was scanning her on a non-refractable wavelength—”
Ryoka wasn’t sure if the Kings Arthurs was crazier—or this was. The figure looked at her uncertainly.
“Your home star? Miss?”
“Um. I don’t know what it is. We just called it the sun. Sol? And I’m from Earth.”
Ryoka saw the alien look around. One of the others cautiously removed his helmet and gaped at her and then his suit and weapons. The alien raised a finger—one of eight.
Communication took about twenty minutes. Forty, before their commander removed her helmet. Ryoka was sitting on a rock, as they looked around, mystified.
“Perspective? Magic? Commander, this is clearly misinformation.”
One whispered through their crackling radio network. Ryoka threw a rock at him.
“If I’m wrong, why can I hear you and why are your guns as good as spit, huh?”
She flickered down the layers of perspective and—
–They were tall. Ryoka gulped as she stared up at one of the giant suits of armor and the half-translucent visor. It did indeed resemble something close to a moon-landing helmet. But set into the kind of battle gear that belonged in science fiction.
The barrel of one of the guns tracked her, glowing with unspent power. She saw one of the figures, helmet off, blink. The others reacted at once.
“Hold on. Now I’m getting all kinds of scans. Basic biology. Unknown dimensional compartment, but Threat Rating of Three—no advanced metallurgy, no dangerous chemical compounds—”
Ryoka switched back and the toy-armor and weapons returned. She took a breath.
“You’re in the wrong place for your kind of weapons.”
“I think that has become clear.”
The commander sighed. She had four eyes, each one unmoving and spaced around her head. Like…those security cameras, Ryoka decided. She also lacked a mouth; Ryoka wasn’t sure where the sound was coming from. Probably a translation.
“Ryoka Griffin. You resemble some of the peoples we’ve met on our travels in our…dimension. Can you explain where we are?”
“The lands of the fae. I told you.”
The others shook their heads. One was consulting a little hologram-display.
“We don’t know what that is.”
“Then how did you get here?”
The commander sighed.
“This is classified. But we’ve lost an entire Victory Company to this disastrous affair. Take a look at this. Soldier?”
She gestured and one brought out a primitive TV screen. Ryoka was sure it was more impressive, but she saw a cartoonish representation of planets, a bunch of aliens holding hands…
“This is our federation. We’re currently under threat with a second empire—and looking for options to turn the battle in our favor. We discovered this…gateway and activated it after sixteen years of research. The phenomena defied scientific understanding, so I was tasked with leading a Victory Company into this place to conduct research.”
“Er. You came on the Summer Solstice?”
“What’s that? Is she referring to a horological event? According to which star?”
The others muttered. The commander looked at Ryoka and shook her head.
“This phenomena occurs every sixty two years.”
She stressed it, as if years were longer for her than Ryoka. The City Runner shook her head.
“I guess time’s different for your place than mine. Look—you need to get out. The gates will close when the Summer Solstice day ends.”
The others looked up, suddenly nervous. The commander gave Ryoka a wretched look.
“We’ve been trying for the last eighty days, Miss Ryoka. What do you mean, it will close in a day? We’ve been wandering this place—our entire Victory Company was lost the moment we entered that damn city! We brought in enough firepower to level five planets and they ate our vehicles like it was paper!”
Ryoka felt bad for this person. If she had done poorly—they had no idea what to expect. The poor people had brought technology to a magic fight.
“How did you survive this far?”
“Our weapons worked on some opponents. Others? It was as effective as you. We were split up. Two entire strike groups made it out of the city while the rest retreated to our entry point. We made it here…but kept taking casualties. A giant…thing…devoured an entire strike team.”
That bastard with the three eyes. Ryoka gulped.
“How many people are in…a strike group?”
Ryoka blanched. The commander nodded.
“That’s about what we’ve been dealing with. We have no direction; our sensors are broken and we’ve been able to communicate with exactly three things before you.”
That made sense if they kept their helmets on. Ryoka patted the commander on the shoulder, gingerly. The alien woman blinked at the gesture.
“Look. You need to go back the way you’ve come. Keep your helmets off, be polite—um—”
They were never going to make it. Even if she could give them the crash course on fae rules, they were going to die. But Ryoka had a sudden idea.
“…If we can get to the forest, I know someone who can take you back.”
The commander looked at Ryoka warily.
“I’m not in the fashion of trusting strangers, Miss. But we’ll take any help we can get. However, my mission is to find something that will justify this loss—”
“Contact! My sensors just overloaded! Four hundred kilometers out—”
One of the soldiers screamed and Ryoka saw a bit of smoke emanating from his helmet. The rest scrambled to their feet. She raised her hands.
“What? What? Don’t do that!”
They had their toy weapons raised. One was shouting at the commander and she put the radio up to her ear.
“Energy signatures just broke my systems, commander! Threat Rating has no scale for this! Recommend evac!”
She looked at Ryoka, worried. The young woman looked over her shoulder. She knew who it was.
The Wild H—
The King of Chivalry walked across the ground, whistling, with his two companions. The young boy Arthur, the old one, and the glowing sword was resting on the young King’s shoulder. Ryoka gasped in relief.
“You could power half the stars in the federation with that thing! Our suit’s systems are shutting—aaah!”
Behind her, the other five were rolling on the ground, crying out. Ryoka looked at the commander. Helmet off—she put her face in her hands.
“…Is that what we’ve been doing this entire time?”
It was refreshing to meet people who were worse than she was at this. Really. Ryoka yanked off the helmets with the commander before Arthur walked the forty paces or so over. She made introductions.
“Milady Warrior, an honor.”
The oldest King bowed. The commander stared at him as the others muttered about ‘sensor readings’ and ‘no biological life signs detected’. But their leader had a more…adaptive mind. She bowed, copying Ryoka’s gesture stiffly.
“What happened to the Wild Hunt? Nama?”
The young King with the sword grinned with plain delight.
“They fled rather than fight, especially when they found you gone! Your great protector is safe. It would take the entire hunt, rather than a fraction, to bring her down.”
“Wait, that wasn’t the entire hunt?”
“Of course not. Did you think all of them would hunt you? It was barely more than a handful.”
Ryoka scuffed at the ground. That hurt her feelings a bit. But then she looked at the King of Knights.
“…Why are you here, though?”
“To escort you in. We’re going for a walk.”
The boy informed Ryoka with grave dignity. She could only bow to that.
“Can you help this lot too? They’re lost and I’m afraid they’ll never make it back to the gateways before the solstice ends. They’ll be trapped here. And definitely die.”
The six shuddered. The King of Chivalry nodded, gravely.
“Of course. Let us walk to the Courts of the Fae. Then—I shall return these to their destination.”
“Who…are you? Sir King? And may I ask—is that…war weapon something that could be obtained, here?”
The commander didn’t even seem to recognize his form of address. King Arthur Pendragon smiled as she stared at his sword.
“Only if you have the will to take its burden. I would not if I were you. But tell me of your troubles, warrior.”
And so the unlikely party marched. The three Kings. The visitors from another time far more advanced than Ryoka’s, clinging together in a tight knot and looking terrified as children.
Ryoka expected more trials. More travails. But in truth—her journey ended with that last eventful encounter.
All those they passed did not trouble the King of Albion. They bowed, or called out greetings, or slunk away rather than challenge him. He walked on, and on—
Until they came to the last place. The inner place, perhaps second only to the heart of the fae.
Here was the Court of the Summer Fae and Winter. Ryoka stared up at the vast, hallowed structure. Seeing where the countless miniature worlds, the patchwork of homes, ended.
There, on the border between things, before the land turned into the home of the fae—a place where anything was possible, the greatest danger still, perhaps—
Ryoka saw a group of people arguing.
They were all rather tall, slender, elfin without being exactly Elves. Somehow, Ryoka knew this. They were, in fact, like larger copies of figures she’d once seen in moving crystal and ice, or dancing among mortals in the party.
Her breath caught. Her eyes went wide. She beheld the arguing fae—each one adorned in the colors of their court. Not the lively, gay colors of summer.
The subdued magnificence of the Winter Court.
They were arguing loudly, fighting. Two sides, one smaller, trying to get away from the larger mob. Ryoka saw a female form being yanked back by the angry ones wanting her to stay.
“Forbidden! Absolutely forbidden! The Wild Hunt has her!”
“Hah! Ye foolish bastards. If they got her so easily, where are their ringing horns of triumph? Let go, I said! Let go!”
“He will be more wroth with you than he has any other for thousands of years! Do not do it for one petty mortal! Ivolethe!”
The figure strained as they dragged at her clothes. Then her head turned. The arguing fae at the border stopped. Their eyes bulged. King Arthur laughed as he rested on his sword and the other two bowed.
Ryoka stepped forwards as the female figure tore loose of the suddenly-slack hands.
There she was. Her skin was blue, like the very crystal and ice she had been when she met Ryoka. She was tall! Taller than Ryoka, six foot three, perhaps. She looked like a courtier at a noble court. Or—
A bunch of swooping faeries argued in the air, stupefaction lost.
“The King of Chivalry! He walks about? Why here? Why now?”
“Strangers from other worlds! More mortals? What fools they be, even today!”
“What happened to Melidore? Why did he let her through?”
They flew at Ryoka angrily. She moved her persp—
Each one was so old. They had the radiance of Melidore about them, each and every one. They were ideas, history, parts of stories all in one. Like condensed stacks of information and personality at the same time as being wondrous figures. Ryoka cried out in a pain, tearing at her eyes—
Someone touched her. And the overwhelming glory of the faerie court faded. Ryoka saw a gentle hand, two icy eyes. A familiar voice.
Not as high and ringing as before. And the figure certainly wasn’t as small. But it was the same cool touch, the same, half-mocking smile.
Ivolethe bent, and eyed Ryoka as the visions ceased.
“Ye great fool. Always, you have to look. Always, you have to ask questions, poke your nose where you don’t belong. Kick your bare feet into everything you see. You defied the will of our king, dared the Wild Hunt to come after ye, and walked into the land where no mortal belongs.”
She bent slightly, so they were eye-to-eye. Her wings shimmered at her back, her clothes moved as the wind blew gently around her. Ryoka Griffin looked into those eyes. At the smile.
“I—I—I did it for a friend. Because I really wanted to see her. Because I had to. That’s what friends do, right?”
A gentle snort. Ryoka felt a cold finger flick her on the forehead. And then, Ivolethe embraced her.
“You are my most foolish friend I have ever made among mortals, Ryoka Griffin. But you did come. Be welcome!”
The other fae muttered darkly. Some laughed, and applauded Ryoka, or stomped off in a fury, threatening to tell him.
Ryoka heard none of it. After so long, she had done it. She embraced Ivolethe. She had lost so many friends. Seen so many terrible things. At last, at long last…
She had gotten one back. And in that moment, Ryoka’s long journey ended.
Everything was well again.
If only for a moment.
Ryoka was smiling and crying when she let go of Ivolethe. It was a hug she had been waiting for, without knowing it, for so long.
“Ye crying child. How did you ever manage to get this far?”
Ivolethe said that, in a voice that was almost normal, not her magical fae voice. But she didn’t mean it. Her eyes were glimmering themselves.
And she was here. Ryoka could touch her.
The adventure had ended. She didn’t realize it at first. Ryoka breathed out.
“The Wild Hunt’s chasing me, Ivolethe. We might have to run. Even with King Arthur. And this is Commander…I can’t pronounce her name. And—”
“Shh, you silly girl.”
A cold finger pressed against Ryoka’s lips. Ivolethe turned and nodded to the King of Chivalry. The oldest nodded back as the boy bowed awkwardly, and the younger King inclined his head. He did not bow, even to the fae.
“Milady. May I leave Miss Ryoka Griffin in your care?”
“Yes. And I thank you, King of the Sword. We must thank those who helped this one. But we shall return to meet you again before the day ends.”
The three in one nodded. Ryoka blinked.
“But the Wild Hunt—”
“Forget about them. You found me. And now, you are under my protection.”
“But they’re the Wild Hunt.”
“And I am Ivolethe!”
The faerie snapped back. Ryoka opened her mouth, and then it struck her.
She had come here to find Ivolethe. The Winter Fae grinned.
“Yes. And whilst my kind prevented me from reaching ye, I bet them you would make it. Neither they nor the cold hunters will trouble you. Nor any other.”
She looked around triumphantly. The Wind Runner opened her mouth.
“…But you were trying to find me, weren’t you?”
The Winter Fae hesitated. She glowered at Ryoka and muttered.
“I might have grown nervous. Ye are a fool. I imagined you wandering off into a trap somewhere, or angering the prouder folks.”
“What, me? I’d never do that.”
The young woman scoffed. She avoided Ivolethe’s gaze as the faerie raised an eyebrow. Ryoka coughed.
“So what now?”
Her answer was a smile.
“Now? Now, we are here, Ryoka. We will talk! But first, we must do what is right. The King of Chivalry and yon children helped you get here. Did anyone else worth thanking?”
“One. Well, a number of people. A Dragon, a phoenix—some people gave me food—but one person in particular. Someone called Nama—she’s waiting for me at the forest’s edge.”
“Then we shall see her and thank her properly.”
Ivolethe decided. She pointed back the way they’d come. Ryoka protested.
“But it was so long. And I know time isn’t unlimited here, Ivolethe. I came here for—”
“Would you stop worrying for one moment?”
A hand took Ryoka’s and Ivolethe glared back at her, truly irate. She reached over and flicked Ryoka’s ear. The young woman swore.
“Well, good. I was too small to beat you properly all those other times! You need it! I told you: you are with me. And my friend will not come to harm.”
So saying, Ivolethe pulled Ryoka past the fae. They scoffed at her and she made a rude gesture in reply.
“Come find me, kin! Or does this mortal who walked here not merit a single moment of yer time?”
“Paugh! We will see, Ivolethe!”
They shouted her name, but that was not her…name. Just what Ryoka had come to think of her as. She heard Ivolethe’s true name, or a whisper of it behind the meaning in her mind and shivered.
“Time enough for names and all that later. Come, come.”
The faerie dragged Ryoka back the way they’d come. Ryoka feared they would run out of time. But the Winter Fae stopped and smiled back at Ryoka.
“My friend. Do you remember the lesson I taught you? Tell me. How do you fly?”
The Wind Runner stopped. Her heart leapt.
“You step into the sky—”
Her feet left the ground. Ryoka Griffin cried out in shock. But Ivolethe just laughed. And her laughter was magic. She took Ryoka’s hand.
And all that had passed before became the journey. This?
This was the wonder at the end of the rainbow. The moment she had won. Ryoka left the ground and flew after Ivolethe.
The eternal summer sky over the old worlds turned grey. Dark—but not depressing. Below, the peoples who had come to the land of the fae from their homes looked up.
Snowflakes began falling from the sky. Fat, billowing down, as the wind blew. And among the sky, two figures flew over the land.
Ivolethe let go of Ryoka and she was floating. Flying, without aid of the wind. Wonderingly, she flew after Ivolethe as the fae dove.
This was not the power of the wind. This…was a dream. The truest magic. Ryoka only had to think and she dove, skimming across the ground.
She saw all the way she had come flash past in a moment. The three sisters, hissing angrily up at her. The Phoenix, flying and raising a wing.
And the Wild Hunt. They were returning to the Court of the Fae. They looked up as Ryoka halted in the air. The hounds bayed. The warriors raised their weapons.
But they did not strike her down. They saluted her, the quarry who escaped. And they bowed to Ivolethe. She laughed as she flew over them, urging Ryoka onwards. The wind howled around them, delighting in the company, but Ryoka did not feel the chill.
The farmers and village people of memory pointed up to her as she flew overhead. Ryoka gaped down at them with much the same expression on her face.
Flying. This was Ivolethe’s power. Ryoka stared at her friend, flitting through the air as nimbly as she had as a Frost Faerie in the other world.
“Ivolethe. Who are you?”
The fae turned, laughing.
“I’m the same person I have always been. Your friend! Come—I see your protector. There! You met one of them?”
She stared. Ryoka gazed down. And there was Nama.
The little hostess blinked up, and smiled as Ivolethe alighted on the ground lightly in front of her. Ryoka realized the fae was barefoot too. Ivolethe bowed slightly.
“Ah, they call you Nama, do they not?”
“And your little friend calls you Ivolethe. Well met.”
Nama smiled as she saw Ryoka.
“You found her, child.”
“I did. Thank you, Nama. Ivolethe and I came back to say thank you. Truly.”
“Yes. We did. On behalf of the Winter Court, I thank you, Nama. You have done much for my foolish friend. Is there aught you desire for this deed?”
Ivolethe swept a more formal bow, which surprised Ryoka. She was speaking to…something much higher than Nama’s head. The little furry woman raised the spoon as she adjusted her apron.
“It was a pleasant thing. I ask for nothing but the memory of it.”
The fae nodded slowly.
“Then I thank you twice. As does my friend.”
She nudged Ryoka. The young woman started.
“Thank you so much, Nama.”
She blushed. She’d been trying to figure out—the woman smiled at her. Nama’s furry paws grasped Ryoka’s for a second.
“I enjoyed it. You have met your friend. Be well, Ryoka Griffin. If you ever come back here—visit me again. But I doubt it will be so.”
Tears sprang into Ryoka’s eyes. But Nama did not prolong the farewell. She gently touched Ryoka’s cheeks with her furry hands. Then turned.
Ivolethe whispered to Ryoka. The Wind Runner looked at her. Then she did, bowing her head. Ivolethe kept the bow. She looked at Ryoka as Nama walked back into the forest.
“You are luckier than I could have dreamed. To have met her.”
“She protected me from a giant. And—the Wild Hunt. And some of the lesser fae.”
“Aye. She could do that. You are lucky she was kindly.”
“Could she not be?”
The young woman felt a slight bit of unease in her chest. She gazed after Nama.
“She’s a Brownie, right? A type of…”
Ivolethe was staring at Ryoka. She shook her head slowly. Then narrowed her eyes.
“Ah. She’s fixed an image in your head. No Brownie could have held off the Wild Hunt. You silly…silly thing. Did you not ask yourself who could do that?”
“I…but she looks like…”
Exactly what she wanted Ryoka to see. She had never said she was a Brownie. Ivolethe nodded.
“What do you think I see?”
So saying, she reached out and touched Ryoka’s eyelids gently. And Ryoka looked up.
The forest of world trees rose higher than she could see, even if she craned back her head. Unimaginably vast.
The forest of the fae, where the Sword in the Stone rested. And all things could live there. Even—
“I chose the largest tree I could find. And it is still a bit too small.”
In the place where Nama had been, the vast trees shifted as something passed them by. Ryoka’s legs stopped working. Just as well she was kneeling.
“She lost her husband and her child.”
“Yes. No doubt she did. And she was still kind to you. Be grateful.”
Ivolethe bowed again. And then rose and took Ryoka’s hand. The young woman stared at her.
“This place is so wonderful. And horrible.”
“Would you have it any other way?”
She laughed at Ryoka. Then, Ivolethe pointed.
“Now we have thanked the one who matters. We will meet some of the others again. But it is time, Ryoka.”
Ryoka’s nerves hummed. She looked at Ivolethe. Yet her friend was just smiling.
“Yes. Time. Let us fly. I will show you the delights of my world.”
“But Ivolethe—I need your help. Erin—”
“Tell me about it.”
The faerie leapt into the air. Ryoka copied her, flying higher as the world disappeared below her. Ivolethe laughed, swooping around.
“Don’t fly like a straight line, fool! Fly like this!”
She dove corkscrewing about and pulling up out of the dive in a near-vertical climb. Like the Frost Faeries always flew. Ryoka tried to copy her. She shouted in delight and alarm.
“Tell me your woes! I know some of them! But tell me! We have time!”
Ryoka slowed. The Frost Faerie drifted back to her, sitting on the air.
“We do. You have won the time. So let go, my dear friend, and tell me everything. You have been gone such a short time as we count such things. So why did I miss you?”
She mock-glared. And then seized Ryoka in an aerial hug again, swinging her down, then letting Ryoka fly across the sky. The young woman caught herself and flew back. She tackled Ivolethe. And the two were laughing.
Their time was not unlimited. But Ivolethe had promised Ryoka and so it was. As night passed across the Summer Solstice of every world—the sun shone in Avalon. They flew across the many lands of the fae. They landed, talking, meeting folk.
Laughing, jesting, telling each other stories of what had passed.
For the shortest night—the briefest day. That was Ryoka’s gift for all she had done. Ivolethe took her flying. She called the wind and blew them like tiny leaves into the tallest tree imaginable. Taller than imagination, and perched upon the branches.
Ryoka ran across a single leaf, marveling at it, and Ivolethe made it fall. Ryoka rode it down, a natural rollercoaster flipping and dancing through the air to the ground.
They stole sweets from other fae, bringing back their gifts from other worlds. They danced upon frozen lakes, and then watched them warm and fled the angry behemoths in the depths.
There was no danger here. Not with Ivolethe. Even the King of Chivalry’s aegis couldn’t compare to her presence. She was of this land. A member of the highest court. The Winter Fae.
It was glorious. And too brief. Ryoka and Ivolethe paused, gasping, and Ryoka pointed at the fading sun, which had only begun to move when she had met Ivolethe.
“It’s not long enough! Even this is too short, Ivolethe!”
She wanted to weep, even as she was having the best moments of her life. The faerie shook her head, sadly, and happily.
“It never will be. That is what makes it so precious. That is why we envy you mortal folk, for all your pain and grief and suffering. It matters. Each moment you draw breath matters more to you than we.”
“We only have this short day to talk?”
Ryoka grabbed Ivolethe’s hands. The faerie scoffed at her words.
“Only a day? Yes! You did what few have ever done. Do you think it was a small feat? Do you think it changed nothing? You won a day in the land of the fae. Do not think you will ever be the same.”
It was true. Ryoka had no idea what would happen when she returned. Nor did Ivolethe. She was not all-seeing, all-knowing.
She was not a god. But she was powerful. Strong enough to command the Wild Hunt to abandon its chase. To defy the faerie king’s order. She scoffed at that last as they sat, watching a waterfall’s mists drift into an abyss.
“Anyone can defy his orders. From the lowest pixie to the greatest of our court. But no one can escape his wrath.”
“Was he angry with you?”
Ryoka turned anxiously, feet dangling over the drop into blackness. Ivolethe turned her head, her smile waning slightly.
“A bit. I interfered with your death. Such things are not done lightly. Let alone in your world.”
“Is mine special?”
“We have sworn not to interfere. So he punished me, yes. Most of it was just what you know. That we might never meet again.”
“But we are.”
“So we are.”
Ivolethe was so sanguine about it that Ryoka narrowed her eyes.
“I was punished. Part of it was prophecy. No doubt I will be punished again for meeting you. It is…whatever.”
She flicked her fingers, so casual that Ryoka knew it was not. She also knew her friend didn’t want to say what had happened. Ryoka’s fingers tightened on the crumbling stone cliff.
The Winter Faerie paused for a moment.
“Only a bit. We are immortal, Ryoka. I would have suffered ten thousand times that to meet with you.”
Ryoka sniffed. Ivolethe kicked her off the cliff. She shouted as Ryoka caught herself and flew back up.
“Stop sniveling! Today is a grand day! My friend has done what few could even dream! Let us laugh! Let us celebrate and not weep until afterwards! Let the consequences come! But this time is for you and me. I am proud of you.”
Ivolethe reached down and pulled Ryoka up.
“Of course I am, fool.”
The young woman smiled. She saw Ivolethe roll her eyes.
“You must hear something to believe it? You have the ego of a mole. I am proud of you, again. How many times do you wish me to say it?”
“A few more?”
The faerie took wing, snorting. But her voice drifted down to Ryoka as she flew off to another sight.
“I am proud of you. I am proud of you. How many more times…?”
They were alike. That was why they were friends. For Ryoka, Ivolethe happily defied the will of the faerie king, no matter what he might do.
“Be honest, Ivolethe. What could he do to you?”
“The worst of it? Do you really want to know?”
Ivolethe thought about this.
“For such as this…he might lock me in a place without light or sound or sensation. Take away my form and imprison me in a wretched body. Until a star was born and died.”
“He probably will not. That was a punishment for the old days. I think he will be wrathful, but not that much.”
Ivolethe hastened to assure Ryoka. She paused, and then her smile turned melancholy.
“I truly doubt he will be that wrathful. He will respect your journey. And he does not punish us as in the old ways so much. We are too few, these days.”
Ryoka looked at Ivolethe. The truth about the faerie lands—all secrets—they were one of the reasons she’d come.
“Ivolethe…I came for Erin. She’s—half-alive. Half-dead. Neither.”
“Aye. We will do something about that.”
“As much as can be done.”
“Should we—petition the faerie king for aid? I could do it. If it means he isn’t angry at you—”
Smack. Ivolethe hit Ryoka. With a fist, rather than a palm. Ryoka rubbed at her shoulder.
“Ow! What the hell, Ivolethe!”
“Are you stupid? You want to invoke the Faerie King? He’ll punish us both. You nearly did it at the party didn’t you?”
“I—ow! Ow! Maybe! I thought it might help?”
“Help? Does his name and the idea of mercy often join hands and dance about in your mind?”
Ivolethe had Ryoka’s ear and was shouting into it. The faerie looked delighted at being able to push Ryoka about; Ryoka remembered doing that to the little faerie. She winced as Ivolethe let go of her ear.
“Okay, bad idea. But we need help!”
“And I’m not good enough? He is too much! If you had spoken his name, even in your world…”
“But I don’t know his name. Only…well, one of the ones in stories.”
The Frost Fae looked disgusted. She thought for a second, floated off, then called over.
“Oi, Wind Runner of Reizmelt!”
“Hey you. You over there with the black hair! Ye cunt of an idiot! Do any of these names not fit you?”
“I get it! Fine! But what would have happened if I called his name?”
That was a better question. Ivolethe floated around, and found a stone on the ground. She tossed it.
“There. Which side did that stone land on?”
“Um…I’m going to assume that was rhetorical.”
Ivolethe grinned toothily.
“That was the aspect of him you would have summoned.”
“Exactly. You might have summoned nothing at all, most like. If the other fae watched you, it was to see what would happen. Perhaps he would have been all sunshine and rainbows, and pardoned me and given you ten thousand cures for your friend while dancing ye about! Or perhaps your entire party would have disappeared.”
Ryoka gulped. Ivolethe shook her head, disgusted. Then she turned and gave Ryoka a tiny look of approval.
“…I say this. But you did not say his name. And you bypassed the petty Wyrm and one of the Summer Court. That Melidore, I will make him suffer for his tricks.”
She growled, speaking his true name behind the half-name Ryoka heard. The Wind Runner blinked.
“You know him?”
“He is…about my station. Once, he was of both courts. These days? He only walks among the Summer Fae. He does not wish to visit your world in winter.”
“Really. But he was so powerful. Er—no offense, Ivolethe.”
Her glare told Ryoka she took all the offense. She put her hands on her hips.
“He took his form. I took the form of ice and magic. It was far weaker. Do I look weaker than Melidore here?”
She pointedly looked around. Snow began falling once more. Ryoka raised her hands.
“No, no! You’re—amazing. Magnificent.”
The Wind Runner hesitated. She lifted a finger.
“…But Ivolethe. I have to bring this up. I—carried you around in my pocket! I fed you snacks!”
She looked at the Winter Fae, who answered only to the Faerie King, and tried to conflate her with the petty little Winter Sprite who ate wasps and such and begged for treats. Ivolethe stared at Ryoka. Her mouth worked a few times in puzzlement.
“Ryoka. Answer me something, honestly. D’you not want to sit in a great huge blanket and eat snacks the size of your head all day?”
The young woman thought about this.
“I envy you so much.”
As their day drew onwards, their talk became more serious. Ryoka told Ivolethe of Erin’s condition and her history. The Frost Faerie was puzzled.
“Why did you come to this world for a cure for her? Your world has more miracles and tonics to revive her than this.”
“Really? More than the land of the fae?”
“More easily accessed, shall we say. You want a cure for death? There are many! But do you think they are easily gotten? Your world is…cheaper.”
That seemed like a polite way of saying it had wholesale miracles. Ryoka remembered how Nama had taken three healing potions as a gift.
“So my world…”
“The rules are bent in ways few are. Or do you think Skills make sense?”
Ivolethe’s eyes glinted. Ryoka nodded slowly.
“Will you tell me about why that is?”
“No. It is dangerous.”
“If you got back home—yes. And you are smart enough to know a bit of why that is.”
Ryoka did. Or she had suspicions. Ivolethe changed the subject abruptly.
“Before we think of ways to cure that fool Erin who danced in front of crossbows, let us talk about your failings, Ryoka.”
Ivolethe spun. She sniffed Ryoka, pointedly jabbing her in the neck and then plucking at her hair.
“You met a Witch. The Witch of Witches, who has in her nature the same immortality as a Dragon’s get. And you did not instantly run off? You also consorted with Vampires? Oh, the most safest of beings to deal with! And you cured one of their sickness!”
She screamed happily in Ryoka’s ear. She was enjoying chastising Ryoka. The Wind Runner was too, a bit.
“I did it for you! You daft cunt!”
Ryoka saw Ivolethe recoil. And then the Winter Fae started laughing. So did Ryoka. After a moment, Ivolethe leapt up.
“You could not stay away from immortal folk for two seconds, eh? Well, the Vampire child sounds less dangerous than the Witch.”
That reminded Ryoka. She raised a finger.
“Also a Djinni. Karsaeu-Dequoa wants to tell you that she misses you.”
“And we they. Poor slaves, they are. Fine. Ye met some of the old folk and acquitted yourself well. Sometimes.”
She raised an admonishing finger as she looked at Ryoka.
“But you don’t have enough caution! You are too weak to survive their wrath, for all you court their amusement and affection! Like a minnow who keeps the company of whales, ye are. For that matter—hm. Don’t take off yer clothes. But turn around. Open your mouth. Stick out your tongue.”
Ryoka blinked. She did, and Ivolethe flitted about her, peering intently. She cried out.
“Aha! I knew it! Ye have a thread on ye.”
Ryoka panicked. Ivolethe plucked something. Ryoka shouted.
“Not your hair. A thread. See?”
Ivolethe yanked a strand of hair out of Ryoka’s scalp. It came out with some blood and skin. Ryoka stared at it. It was indeed…thread. It glistened blackly.
“Oh no. Belavierr?”
“Mhm. She must have touched ye. That one lays plans like webs. However—”
Ivolethe briskly drew the thread up. Then she snapped it between her pale hands briskly. Ryoka gasped.
“Ivolethe! Can you do that?”
“Of course I can.”
The thread turned to ice and fell to pieces. Ivolethe drew them up with a pointing finger and blew.
“Return to your mistress with my gift! For my friend’s troubles, have at ye, you stupid Witch!”
Belavierr the Stitch Witch was at work on the balcony of the Necromancer’s castle when she stirred.
“What broke it?”
Az’kerash felt it too. He stopped his work, warily. He felt a chill coat his entire castle in a second, despite the layers of magical protections.
“Dead gods. What? Belav—!”
An avalanche of snow poured out of the sky onto the dark castle out of the summer sky. Belavierr raised a hand—
The entire castle was buried in ice.
“Ivolethe! What did you do?”
Ryoka stared. She had seen the power go through the frozen strands before it vanished. Ivolethe grinned and dusted her hands.
“I told you. I have power, here. I just warned that fool weaver what happens when she interferes with my friends.”
“Won’t you get in trouble?”
“I am already in trouble. Ryoka. Ryoka, Ryoka, Ryoka.”
The Winter Fae took Ryoka’s hands in hers. She looked Ryoka in the eye, the spirit of mischief and…honest friendship there.
“You came to me for aid. You shall have it. I shall break every law I can for you. After all—we are friends.”
Ryoka felt her skin prickling. But her smile was as wide as could be. No holds barred. Not on this day of days.
They were flying about, looking for the visitors from space. Ryoka was talking to Ivolethe about Melidore.
“He hated our world. He came to the party, he said, for nothing.”
“Aye. Do not hold his actions too much against him. I shall beat him until he is bloody, after all.”
Ivolethe nodded. Her gaze was sympathetic as much as it was annoyed with her kind.
“And he was different, an age ago. He was of one court, not half of the whole. He laughed; he was a merry prankster. He still is one of those things. But your world has made him bitter.”
“The one you came from.”
Ivolethe clarified. Ryoka blinked. Innworld alone had made Melidore the way he was? Ivolethe was nostalgic and playful as she pointed down; Ryoka saw the three Kings from afar, the six aliens—and some of the fae host, all walking through the city. She was sure they’d been untroubled.
“When he was of old? He would have been the party of parties! He loved mortals more than most of our court. Er…just as well he wasn’t his old self, then. In ages past he would have bedded a dozen and put a faerie’s child in all of ye. You would have born them a full year and day and woken with flowers and gifts and no babe…”
Ryoka spluttered. Ivolethe was looking pointedly over her shoulder as she descended.
“What, me? Give me some credit!”
“Are you saying that you would not have been interested had he come to you as such?”
“I have standards!”
“Yes. Mostly for those who live many times your lifespan.”
Ivolethe snorted. Ryoka was beet red as she touched down upon the ground.
“I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant—”
“Yes you would. And there would be a new faerie, in those days! You would have woken with gifts in your arms, and—”
Ivolethe’s face abruptly fell as she turned, from a dance into a stumble. Ryoka saw her laughter turn to sadness at once.
“—that was then. We do not have children anymore. None are born to the fae.”
“You will see before you go.”
Ivolethe’s smile had vanished. She looked—so sad. Just for a second. Then she turned her head.
“Later. Let us at least meet with this lot. King of Knights! Ryoka wishes to say ‘thank you’ more formally. My kin, we make for the outside.”
“So you intend to defy his will to the fullest, Ivolethe? He will take away your wings.”
One of the Court of the Fae cried out in disgust. They were not always summer or winter, Ryoka saw. They could be more things, here. They regarded Ryoka sternly. She ducked her head guiltily, but Ivolethe just kicked the speaker in a good imitation of Ryoka.
“Bah! You forget yourself, Eniav! You have forgotten what friendship means with mortals! It means—happiness! Passing delights! Breaking rules and burning down cities! Hah!”
She laughed wildly as the other fae scoffed. They weren’t the wild partying fae that Ryoka was familiar with. She suspected few of them went to become Winter Fae. Indeed—Ivolethe was the spirit of rebellion and flight among them.
She had never been as silly or capricious as the other Winter Sprites, by the same token. One of them stared at Ryoka with thinly-veiled annoyance.
“If you must do this—”
Ryoka missed the rest. The six travellers led by the commander had come over, anxiously.
“Miss Ryoka. We’ve been talking and we seem to be close to where we started.”
“If we survive the city.”
The orange soldier looked dourly around, his toy-gun abandoned. He looked ready for a fist-fight and his eight-digited fists were probably a better bet. Ryoka indicated the King of Chivalry.
“You’ll be safe.”
“Somehow, I’m sure of that. Which is odd because it makes no sense.”
The commander fretted. She looked—weary. No doubt if they’d been here for eighty days in their perception. She was clearly anxious to return home, but her fear caused her to grab Ryoka’s arm.
“Listen. We came here for a weapon. We’ve lost a Victory Company. Nearly two hundred ships!”
“You mean its two hundred ships you put through here?”
Ryoka half-screamed. The commander flinched.
“We came here under the assumption our weapons would work. I hope more than I think made it back. But…we need something. Is there nothing we could trade for?”
“You mean, with your weapons?”
Ryoka indicated the cheap plastic. The commander sighed. Ryoka thought. And her travels in this world…her eyes opened wide.
The fae, including Ivolethe, stopped arguing and pulling hair and kicking each other to peer over as Ryoka leaned forwards.
“I have an idea. I can’t guarantee it’ll work but—do you have gold? Synthesizers? Jewels? Treasure?”
“We…do. Or we could procure some. Why?”
The other aliens listened closely. Ryoka pointed. She had multiple people she could have directed them to, but she felt this was fair.
“A little ways in here there’s a…kid with a stick. Don’t go over the wall he has, and definitely beg Arthur to take you. But trade for the stick.”
The woman said faintly. Ryoka smiled.
“You might see it as something different if you put on your helmet. And it might be a stick—but imagine what it could do to, uh, battleship armor?”
A gleam entered the commander’s eyes. She whirled to her soldiers.
“Communicate with the fleet if we have anyone still at the gate. Get me all the—did she say a basic element?”
“Sounds like it. We’ll get jewels too. Thank you!”
The soldier saluted Ryoka. She hoped it helped. Also—that she was doing a good thing.
“Very smart. You would have been a good person to have in my kingdom. I wish I could take you.”
Ryoka started. She looked around. The boy-squire Arthur looked up at her.
“Your Majesty. Thank you. I think Ivolethe is going to take me away. So we might not meet…”
He nodded and extended a small hand to shake.
“I could not lift the blade yet. I’ll learn swordsmanship. And how to be a King from Merlin, I suppose. I’m not looking forwards to meeting him, from what the others have told me.”
Ryoka peered at the boy. He was earnest, wearing his squire’s tunic—
And old with the knowledge of what is to come.
“I don’t want to destabilize the time-space continuum, sire…”
The commander and her forces turned worriedly. Ryoka ignored them.
“…but are you sure about your decision?”
The young Arthur laughed. He was only ten, but he looked so old—until he laughed. Then he was the boy again.
“I think so. I must. If Camelot is to rise. If Albion is to be saved—I must take up the sword. I see the hour of my death.”
He indicated the old Arthur. The young Arthur Pendragon closed his eyes.
“…But that is a fine thing. Because I can choose it. And I choose to be more good than ill in this world. Is that not a worthy use of a life for anyone?”
He looked up at Ryoka. She knelt.
“Yes. I wish everyone thought like you. It’s just—heavy.”
Understatement of the year. The young Arthur’s lips quirked as the soldiers begged the older two to show them to the child living in the rubble. He watched them go, the shining Caliburn keeping all evil back, and turned to Ryoka. He hesitated.
“Can I tell you something?”
For a moment he was a boy again, anxiously looking at his older selves and standing on tiptoes to whisper. He deserved to be that, so Ryoka knelt and listened.
“Of course, Arthur.”
He nodded and whispered into her ear.
“I don’t like my older selves. They told me everything. My—second self I don’t like the most. He talks about his glories too much. Parties, his accolades. He talks about things like how many women he’s slept with. He says I’ll enjoy it, but it seems…not as important as making sure my people are happy. And when I die—”
The boy shuddered as he stared at the pierced armor, the bloody back of the King. He shook his head.
“It’s not that I fear it. Not…too much. But the old me tells me how I fail. Those around me. Lancelot will hang himself. My wife—Merlin—my son.”
He reached out to Ryoka, then controlled himself, squeezing his fists tight.
“I don’t want to make those mistakes. I am not afraid of dying, but failing. The only reason I would not bear the sword is if—someone could not make my mistakes. I wish I could take you—take this knowledge and do it right.”
“So do I. I’m sorry, Arthur. I think we all want that.”
The boy nodded miserably.
“But it’s already done, as you said.”
Ryoka’s heart broke for the boy. She should not have been there. It should have been the [Innkeeper] who would be King. Who might have taken his sword and told him something incredibly stupid like ‘let’s go together, do things right, and break the time space fabric forever! No Killing Goblins! Huzzah!’
But Ryoka was just Ryoka. She didn’t have any giant words of wisdom. Any simple grace. She thought of something to say. And she had a stupid, Ryoka-thought.
She half-smiled and dug around in her bag of holding for something.
“Arthur. I don’t think I can give you something to take with you. And I’m afraid of the…consequences if I could give you a note. But maybe…you could give me something?”
She proffered a square of white cardboard and a quill. The boy blinked at it. Ryoka held them out.
“May I have your autograph, Arthur? So I can show it to people and tell them what you wanted to do wherever I go?”
It was just a silly thing. Ryoka felt embarrassed just as she asked. But Arthur looked—pleased. He glanced over his shoulder at the place the two older Kings had been.
“Don’t you want one from them? They are the King of Chivalry. I’m just Arthur at this moment.”
Ryoka smiled. She didn’t know how to resolve the angst of doomed fate or failure—much less how to be a good friend. But she did know how to cheer a kid up. She shook her head.
“I’m sure it’s worth the most. For here is the boy who could be the King of Chivalry.”
His eyes brightened. And a true smile touched his lips. Arthur took the quill, and dipped it into the inkpot. He wrote on the cardboard.
It could have taken seconds, or hours. He labored on it. When he handed it back, Ryoka saw a splendid signature crossing the page. More artful than mere lettering.
“There you are. It’s not very good. I’m just learning my letters. But it looks nice, doesn’t it?”
Arthur looked up at her anxiously. Ryoka smiled and nodded.
“I’ll treasure it forever. Thank you, your Majesty.”
He beamed at her. Ryoka wondered what Welsh scholars would have made of that handwriting. She neglected to tell Arthur she couldn’t read the signature.
She was saying goodbye when she realized the two other Kings were standing beside her. Both of their arms were folded. Ryoka jumped.
The two Arthurs were staring at Ryoka. Haughtily. Time being what it was—the commander already had a stick and was swishing it about, talking about ‘unknown composite substances’ with her team. The oldest Arthur coughed.
“Have you no need for the signature of the King of Albion, Miss?”
Ryoka hesitated. The boy Arthur looked downcast. Ryoka produced two more cardboard pieces and the quill and inkpot.
“…Can I have one for some friends? Multiple, actually.”
She turned, and winked at the boy. And he laughed. Ryoka reflected that…she really should have waited for the three Wyrm sisters to throw more stuff at her.
She wondered what that handbag had been.
“You will drive your friend against the king of these lands, Ryoka Griffin. And she will never prevail against his wrath. She has already done too much. Tell her enough.”
After saying goodbye to the King of Chivalry and shaking the hands of each, Ryoka found the fae waiting. Ivolethe was standing apart, arms folded. Ryoka slowed.
“I would—but we’re friends. And she won’t be punished…that much?”
The fae raised their eyebrows. Ivolethe scowled at Ryoka.
“Ignore them. They know nothing of sacrifice!”
“She will not get away lightly. And believe us—even we suffer. Even we die!”
A male of the Summer Court warned Ryoka. The Wind Runner hesitated. She looked back at Ivolethe. Then she grew angry.
“Well, maybe I need help! Ivolethe is going to help me bring back my friend. My friend, who once nearly stole Excalibur from the grave of the King of Chivalry! My friend, who defends Goblins and once led an army of them! Who entertained your kin, sir! Erin Solstice! Remember her name! If you knew her, you would help too and damn the consequences!”
The Kings, the aliens, and the fae blinked as Ryoka pointed back the way she’d come. Ivolethe smiled.
“Sometimes we have to risk our lives. I did so for the chance to meet my friend! Isn’t it right to fight for what is just? When evil comes, will you simply turn away and hide here?”
Ivolethe’s smile vanished. The King of Chivalry hesitated. The young King raised a gauntleted hand.
“Miss Ryoka. I would watch your words.”
A buzzing filled the air. The Court of the Fae’s eyes narrowed. Ryoka blinked as their surprise turned to wrath.
“You dare to accuse us of cowardice? Us?”
The Summer Fae hissed at her, his eyes blazing. Ryoka gulped.
“I only meant—this cause—”
“Your petty, mortal cause? A single life? Should we march from our realm and bear arms for your war? Theirs?”
The soldiers flinched as a fae furiously pointed, her garments of frost shimmering in the fading day. She spat at Ryoka’s feet and frost bloomed around the spot.
“How many times, mortal? How many times should we do so? We have marched ten thousand ten thousand times for your ends of the world. Our kin have sacrificed themselves time and again for mortal friends. Do you think you are the first? We worry for Ivolethe because we fear what she will do for one life!”
Another piece of puzzle at the sudden wrath. Ryoka backed away.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
She whispered. The angry court of the fae advanced on her—then the wrath ceased, abruptly.
“You did not.”
The frozen fae, Eniav, shook her head slightly. Incredulously. She looked at Ryoka.
“You come from that world and you—no. Go. Go. I pardon you the insult once. Go. And see properly this time. Then, ponder what you ask Ivolethe to do.”
Her wrath had faded abruptly. Turning to sadness and realization. The others looked at Ryoka, and pointed.
They spoke. Ryoka stumbled back. She saw Ivolethe looking at Eniav, nodding her head, as if in thanks for sparing Ryoka.
“Let us go, Ryoka. It is time you saw.”
The day was coming to its end. And all that had been wrought—began where it ended.
Amid the gateways on the hills. And the blooms among the hilltops.
Ryoka flew back the way she’d come, blurring past the city and leaving all those she had met behind in an instant. And like stories—she realized something had been leading her into the land of the fae only so she could return.
Because the answer had been in front of her the entire time. She had walked past it.
The hills were there. Each one with menhirs, giant primitive stones like Stonehenge. Gateways to another place at the right time.
“The lands of the fae connect to all realms. Well—some gateways break. Some have no magic for them.”
Ivolethe pointed out a hill where the stones had fallen, the portals breaking. Ryoka saw the soldiers in the distance, making for their home. She raised a hand and they did likewise.
“In times long past, all folks came here. This was a place of great meetings. Danger—always danger, but it was so filled that on this day countless hilltops would be alive. Children would stumble deep into the lands of the fae. Travellers likewise! Heroes on great journeys! And even…gods.”
Ryoka jerked at the soft word. Ivolethe held up a hand.
“From other worlds. You understand?”
“I…I think I do. But there’s something I’m missing. This place is a refuge, now. Something terrible has happened. Why are no faeries born?”
“You know. Put it together. Here we are, Ryoka Griffin. As Eniav said. Look and see.”
Where it all began.
The hilltop where Ryoka and Ivolethe alighted was as Ryoka remembered it. And she had noticed something, the first time she looked around.
There were flowers here. In such profusion, in such number as to be incomparable to other hilltops. Now—Ryoka wondered why.
Some hilltops had no flowers. Others? One. Some, and these were rare even among infinity, many.
None with more than here. Here.
A dread understanding filled Ryoka. She looked at Ivolethe. And the flowers she would never, could never, step on.
The Frost Fae whispered. And Ryoka—