(It is the 5th Anniversary of The Wandering Inn, and in celebration (or something), Book 4: Winter Solstice is out on Audible, and as an e-book on Amazon! Also! Diana Gill’s Q&A from the Discord server can be found here!)
When they had first met, Hethon Veltras’ savior had not looked the part. Nor was he, sick, feverish, able to appreciate it.
What he remembered, in between [Healers] telling him to drink the vial in sips and feeling a rush of life, his fever breaking in less than ten minutes, was the bloody young woman they brought in. His father himself carried her in, but did not stay long; he went to hunt the other [Assassins].
Ryoka Griffin had not seemed like the person who saved his life, unconscious, head lolling. However, when Hethon thought of the moment now, something struck him.
Not then. Nor during the battle at the Village of the Dead…nor during the party with the strange guests in Riverfarm had he ever seen Ryoka Griffin shed tears.
She had taken terrible wounds. At other times, she had not wept; she hadn’t been hurt, but some moments had seemed just as dire. Her friends had never come out of the Village of the Dead, and Hethon had heard [Soldiers] weeping for fallen friends. Old and young, men and women. His father had told him, when he first saw it, never to belittle them.
You wept when you were hurt, or lost something precious. Although a [Lord] shed tears in private. Perhaps that was why Hethon had never seen his father weep; he took his own advice.
Even when the crimson lightning struck her out of the skies, Ryoka Griffin didn’t cry. She was unconscious, but in the days thereafter, she didn’t weep, even when her sweat ran with her own blood. It had to hurt, and she could barely crawl.
No tears. Of course, he didn’t think of it. Jericha and his father didn’t weep. Ullim didn’t really weep, except on the anniversary of his mother’s death and other times. He had seen Jericha once save him from cutting his hand when his belt knife slipped.
The blade had cut her right down to her tendons and she’d just made sure he was alright before tending to her wounds. Ryoka Griffin was cut of the same cloth, in Hethon’s mind.
He saw Ryoka weeping now, four days after she had been bedridden. She sat, shoulders shaking.
The two brothers of House Veltras found her in bed. The bleeding from every pore had stopped, but she was white as a sheet. The [Healer] took no credit; the man just told Hethon’s father, in private, that the spell was there to make Ryoka suffer, not kill her.
Lord Tyrion was out again, consulting another [Healer] or [Mage]. He’d ridden to First Landing itself this time. Hethon and Sammial were always checking on Ryoka. They’d found her like this.
Hethon couldn’t get the words out. He didn’t know what to say. Sammial had run off to find Jericha or Ullim, and Hethon was rooted there, unable to do anything, but unwilling to run while Ryoka wept. That was the difference between the two.
He saw her shoulders shaking. She could barely sit up; the pillows piled behind her steadied the huge, gulping sobs. She kept trying to suppress them, and that just made them more painful.
Hethon heard her voice. She was holding something. He edged closer, ashamed, curious, and heard what she was saying.
“What am I doing? Why am I here? She needs me. They…why…”
She made a bubbling sound. Wiped at her messy nose. It was not pretty crying, after all. Hethon didn’t know why.
Her little friend, a Gnoll, was gone. Her ward? Her child? It was unclear, but Ryoka had dragged herself out of bed before being confined. Why now? Had…had something happened to Mrsha?
No. Not that, after all. Ryoka Griffin held a crumpled sheet of paper in her hands. Specially transcribed, sent to her. Forwarded, really. It was a simple message, and it had bounced from three different locations with different addendums.
To Lionette, Oteslia, from Joseph, Invrisil:
LIONETTE. READ IMMEDIATELY. KEVIN IS NOT HERE, BUT THEY SENT IT TO ME. WHAT DO I SAY?
Lionette, Oteslia, to Joseph, Invrisil:
Please confirm this at once, Joseph. I am forwarding it to everyone we know.
Lionette, Oteslia, to Ryoka Griffin, Courier (Reizmelt):
Ryoka, please read this at once. I am getting Joseph to confirm this, but the Mage’s Guild believes it is accurate. The location matches. I do not know how, but it might be true.
All of that was preface. An attachment. Context. Ryoka had begun reading. Then she’d read it again. Turned to call for Ullim and ask—looked again. Wiped at her face.
Disbelieved, thought about it, wondered.
Then…believed. Dared to hope it was real.
That was when the tears had come.
His Majesty Fetohep of Khelt, the Great Servant, Fetohep the Faithful, Protector of the Realm of Jecrass and 19th Ruler of Khelt, Khelt, to Kevin of Solar Cycles, Liscor:
I shall keep this missive brief, as prying parasites so often infest such channels. You do not answer your speaking stone. In regards to your request for aid, I have decided to grant Khelt’s great resources in reviving your friend. By the will of Khelt’s rulers, it will be done, without cost or failure. I shall explain more in a private setting.
Know this, and communicate it to your friends: I have it upon the greatest authority and certainty that she lives. My means are opaque. Yet I am bound by no less than the individual in question to relay a message.
‘I’m only mostly dead. Sorry, just joking. Wait for me. I’m coming back. Please don’t bury me.’
Delivered verbatim. I shall call upon you as soon as my reply is received.
—His Eternal Majesty, the Sovereign of True Paradise, Heir of Khelta…
The list of titles and appellations went on for a while. Ryoka hadn’t read them. She had stopped when she realized what it meant.
So careful. So opaque. No wonder Joseph hadn’t been sure. Lyonette?
But what else could explain this? The out-of-context line that looked like silly nonsense—it was. Who else could write it? Why would someone like that lie?
“How? How did she…?”
It was too strange to be anything but truth. Let that be the case. Ryoka wanted to believe. She had.
Then she had begun weeping. Not because she had taken an injury that hurt too much, or the news was too bad, as Hethon thought.
Rather, the opposite. Because something had gone right for once. Ryoka had not cried when the Horns died. Even when Erin died, she had been numb, lost. She had shed tears, but…
This broke her. Because she lay in this bed, with Mrsha missing, and the first real proof there was hope, more than hope, that her great friend would live again.
And here Ryoka lay. The Courier’s eyes were blurred so that the gentle, comfortable guest room in Lord Pellmia’s mansion they’d put her in became one creamy brown color, sheets and floor melding together.
She heard birds singing outside. Felt the warm spring air wafting through an open window, and the distant smells of the orchard, earth and ripening fruit in the air.
Here she lay. Wasting time. Doing nothing.
“I should be helping. I should be—I have to be—they need me. Why am I so useless, even now?”
She had gone to the world beyond for strength and obtained a charge. The weight of the world rested on her shoulders, hers and all the others’, and here she was. Still helpless.
Ryoka Griffin cried, until a tentative figure made her look up. A hand touched her leg and jerked away. She looked up.
Hethon offered her a clean handkerchief. The Courier looked at the bit of cloth, and realized her entire face was a mess.
He assumed she was thanking him and stood back. Hethon watched Ryoka as she wiped, and slowly calmed down. Only then did he dare ask.
“Is it…is it bad news, Ryoka?”
He looked sidelong at the paper. Ryoka Griffin sat there and shook her head.
“No. It’s good news. I’m just so…fed up with being useless, Hethon. I have to do something. I can’t let them down again.”
He didn’t know who ‘they’ were. Or how Ryoka could see herself as useless. So the boy only nodded and stood there, awkwardly, until Jericha and Sammial came to see what was wrong. He saw Ryoka close her eyes and lie back, her features even more exhausted from the curse running rampant in her veins.
“I have to do something. Even if I die. This time…I have to do something.”
Hethon looked at her. He didn’t like that at all. Yet what could he say?
“If I—if House Veltras can help, Ryoka—I’m sure Father would agree. He still says he owes you a debt of honor.”
He saw Ryoka start; she had forgotten about him, and looked at Hethon. After a second, she shook her head.
“I…no. There are some things you can’t ask, Hethon.”
She held out a weak hand that shook like she had palsy and he fell silent.
“Especially if he’d do it. I just need…”
Her head lay back on the pillow and her lips moved.
“Not this time. I didn’t go there and back again to fail once more.”
The next day, Ryoka Griffin was better. Well, not sobbing her eyes out. She lay, weak, unable to lift her body out of bed.
At least she wasn’t crying tears of blood. The curse had drained her fluids, her energy, and her strength, and now it seemed content to immobilize her like this.
Definitely a curse. It was Ryoka’s first experience with being hexed, and apparently it wasn’t a common type of magic. Well, five days since she’d fallen out of the skies, fleeing Lord Tyrion’s romantic advances.
Hah. That felt like ages ago, to Ryoka. Five days of being confined to bed, delirious, with bad news—then amazingly good news hitting her.
Ryoka hadn’t been too lucid until the last day or so. Now, she grimly lay there.
“A powerful one. [Dispel Magic] does nothing, and I cannot even see it in you, Miss Griffin. Then again, hexes and the like are not traditional magic. You have a mortal enemy, it seems.”
“I already knew that. I guess I have more. Or one of them’s after me.”
Jericha just gave Ryoka one of her looks that said she wanted to know more, but was avoiding shaking it out of Ryoka. Barely.
“Do you have…any inclination to inform us which enemy this might be? We cannot help you without knowledge, Miss Griffin.”
“I know. And…no. I could take a swing at figuring out which mortal enemy it is, but some things I can’t tell you. It’s a matter of honor. Sort of.”
Jericha sighed, but nodded, accepting that to Ryoka’s surprise.
“Could you, perhaps, at least narrow down who it might be?”
“Let me think. Who might try to kill me? Well, there’s…”
Ryoka opened her hand. Raised a finger. Then three. Added another one after a moment. Another three for good measure. Then two more and realized she needed more fingers…Jericha stared at Ryoka, especially since it was clear Ryoka was serious.
Let’s see. It could be Persua, damn her. It would be just like her to hire a curse-specialist. Or it could be Az’kerash. Eye in the sky? Maybe. Or whoever I stole from. That’s my biggest bet since they said ‘thief’, but it could also be any of the six…enemies. Or Belavierr. Or, frankly, an angry fae like that Wyrm. Or…
She had a bad feeling she knew who it was.
“I uh…think it might be a new mortal enemy. Someone I don’t know. I’m…in a bit of trouble.”
“So I gather. Does this relate to the voice I heard claiming you stole something, Miss Griffin? It referred to you as ‘thief’.”
Jericha had reached the same conclusion Ryoka had. The Courier bit her lip. She squirmed, once again not wanting to give away anything.
To her great surprise, Jericha just sighed.
“I shall let the matter rest. For now—his lordship has returned, with a magic-user who might be able to help you. I also understand another specialist has come, a friend of yours.”
“A friend of mine?”
Ryoka Griffin was confused. She had friends? She craned her neck as two people came to see her.
Five days was a long time. Or a short time if you considered geography, and the distances involved. Tyrion Veltras, at top speed, could make it to First Landing and back in that time, and even then, only because his quarry had ridden out to meet him.
By the same token, five days was still not enough for Riverfarm to send their experts. So they’d called on an expert in the area.
“Hey, Ryoka! I came as fast as I could! Look who I bro—oh, no, are you dead?”
Charlay trotted into the room and did a double-take as soon as she saw Ryoka. The Courier gave her a frog-like expression. It switched to the [Witch] rubbing at her rear and waddling in.
“Next time I’ll damn well fly. But no, Mavika just had to mess with my broom.”
“I carried you all the way here, Alevica!”
The [Witch] scowled mightily.
“I want a saddle.”
“Don’t be horrible. Ryoka, look! Alevica’s here to help!”
The Witch Runner and Dustrider Charlay both appeared like some fever vision in front of Ryoka. Alevica? Ryoka stared at the [Witch] as she clinically inspected Ryoka.
“Hm. Wow. That’s ugly. Yeah, she’s definitely cursed.”
“You can tell, Runner Alevica?”
Ryoka saw a man, a bit less stiff than the wooden door he was standing next to, look down at Ryoka. Actually…there was an entire crowd out there.
Some people, like Lady Buscrei, were also a mystery. Lord Pellmia? Well, this was his land. Lord Swey? Lady Desinee El?
The Solstice-effect was someone like Fetohep calling Kevin out of the blue to send a message from beyond the grave that Erin was only ‘mostly dead’.
The Ryoka-effect seemed to be a bunch of people Ryoka knew watching her get hurt. Popcorn optional.
“Oof. She looks like a marsh bird I shot and lost in the swamps. Washed up six days later, looking a bit like that.”
Lady Buscrei was chomping down on a lovely peach. Betta, Pellmia’s daughter, gave Lady Buscrei a horrified look.
“What? It’s true.”
Buscrei leaned back in the rich, wood corridors of Pellmia’s mansion, the estates of House Quellae. It lay a stone’s throw away from the vast, bountiful trees laden with the summer harvest.
Fruits hanging plump on stems. Fat peaches, in the middle of being harvested, the bruised or rotten ones fed to animals and seeds re-planted. The air was rich with the smell of nectar and the sounds of House Quellae’s workers mixed with the buzzing of flies, or activities of the animals wandering about.
Like the Totwhisker Cat, or ‘Fruit Cats’, which lay on branches and occasionally deigned to swat a fruit down into a basket or onto someone’s face. Of course, inside the manor, the servants stood in awe of the gathering. [Witches], [Lords], [Ladies], oh my! Even a Centauress! Lord Tyrion Veltras and a sick [Courier]?
As Alevica ‘inspected’ Ryoka, which mainly involved poking her with her wand and saying ‘yuck’, and the second specialist stopped throwing up in the stables, a young man paced back and forth in his rooms.
“Yes! She’s here! The Wind Runner! And Lord Veltras! She’s been cursed. What do you want me to do beyond watch her? We are not calling a you-know-what here! Everyone would be wiped out before you could scratch your ass!”
Gilam Quellae was communicating the event and import to some very interested friends. However, Ryoka Griffin had no way to know about it, and it was not as important to her as the immediate concern of getting well.
“Yep. She’s cursed. Worst I’ve ever seen.”
Alevica made her diagnosis at last. Ryoka, Charlay, and Sammial all glared at her.
“…And? Are you going to make her better?”
The Centauress demanded. Alevica raised her brows at Charlay.
“Who, me? I don’t lift curses. I cast them. I wish I could cast something like this. I’ll report back to the others and see what they want me to do. Mavika herself might have to come out here, though.”
Ryoka groaned. Charlay buried her face in her hands.
“But I carried you for four days and nights straight!”
“Hey, I’m doing this as a favor to Laken.”
“I knew it. Sammial. I can’t move my arm. Slap my face for me.”
Hethon looked up as Alevica stepped back. That sounded like another idea only a sick Ryoka could come up with.
The slap of Sammial’s open palm hitting Ryoka across the eyes, nose, and center of her face made Alevica snigger. She adjusted her hat.
“Well, I’ve had my fun. I’ll send a [Message] off. Can I get some food?”
“This way, Miss Alevica.”
Jericha coldly pointed to the door. Buscrei sighed.
“Told you we should have tossed her in the Unicorn springs.”
“I believe the [Witches] may produce a remedy. It was they who cured my sons, Buscrei.”
Tyrion Veltras interrupted. He had patiently watched Alevica. Now he looked around.
“Is Magus Leireit able to attend Miss Griffin yet?”
“He may still be throwing up from the ride, Tyrion. I’ll find him.”
Pellmia excused himself. The [Lord of the Orchards] came back a few minutes later with a man who still looked green. Ryoka groaned.
Now here was someone who dressed like a [Mage] out of stories. He did not engender confidence, especially because he smelled of vomit and sweat.
“Lord Veltras. I believe I shall walk back to First Landing. Is this the fascinating case?”
The man, Leireit, queasily looked around. Sammial pinched his nose and Charlay tried to back up, and ended up blocking the entire guest room with her hindquarters.
“Let me just—excuse me—sorry—who’s this?”
She trotted into the corridor as all the non-Centaurs squeezed back. After all, no one wanted to be squashed by a half-horse person, or have their foot stepped on by someone of Charlay’s weight. The Centauress leaned on a table, and looked around.
Lady Desinee El looked astonished to be addressed so casually. Charlay had no idea who she was, and after a moment, the [Lady] whispered back.
“I believe that is Sir Leireit, an accomplished spellcaster from First Landing.”
Charlay wrinkled her face up. She tossed her head.
“Can he help? Laken made it sound like all the [Healers] and [Mages] are at a loss. [Alchemists] too.”
“They are, but perhaps Sir Leireit may offer a different perspective. Erm…who are you, might I ask?”
“Oh, Charlay. Nice to meet you!”
Lady Desinee stared at the proffered hand, again, not something that happened to [Ladies] of her station. She took it gingerly. Buscrei chortled.
“I like you. I’m Buscrei. That’s Swey.”
None of them mentioned their classes, so it was only when Charlay had dragged them all out to drink in a tavern later that night that she realized her mistake. By then, of course, it was too late. For the better. House Veltras liked informality, and Lady Desinee found it charming. From a Centaur City Runner, at least.
Again, it was a superfluous moment to the present. Sir Leireit interested Ryoka. And she clearly interested him.
He had a big, floppy hat that was sort of like a wizard’s hat, but had a weaker brim than you’d expect. It certainly sparkled with magic, but it was rather like a [Fisherman]’s cap. Appropriately so, since Leireit was a huge [Fisher] by hobby.
He had on robes, which had bunched horribly during the ride here, and he smelled of puke, but also pine needles. He had no spellbooks, Ryoka realized, nor a staff or other implements.
“Huh. Her mana flow is constricted, her life force is being attacked, and something’s in her. I can see how it would stump many of my peers.”
“Your diagnosis as to the spell, Sir Leireit?”
Tyrion was impatient. Five days of riding had better not have been for nothing. Leireit frowned.
“No clue. But I’ll bet it’s Tier 5 or Tier 6.”
“I’m starting to get tired of diagnoses by people who say they have no idea what’s wrong with me, but it looks bad.”
Ryoka snapped, and felt bad, but Leireit didn’t take offense. He adjusted his hat with a smile for her.
“Rest assured, Courier Griffin, I didn’t earn my honorary title and reputation by understanding magic. I’m not a [Mage] who’ll research this in a book of spells with ten thousand derivations of each spell.”
“What…are you then?”
He grinned and his eyes sparked, turning from their usual lime green to a glowing orange with violet inner light.
“I’m a [Sorcerer].”
Ryoka looked at him.
“Oh, fuck me.”
“It’s very simple. I’m just going to try and dispel the magic, but with my style and Skills. Ready?”
“No, no, what are you going to—”
“Alright, here goes!”
Ryoka Griffin lay in a bed outside of the mansion. She’d been carried out there at Leireit’s request. She tried to roll out when the [Sorcerer] announced his not-a-plan, but it was too late.
“Don’t worry, I’m a professional! I’ve taken down curses before. See? I even have backup!”
Leireit assured her. Jericha, Alevica, and two [Mages], one of Pellmia’s own employ, the other the strongest from the local Mage’s Guild, were all linked with him. Well, Jericha set up the link, something else Leireit didn’t know how to do without holding hands.
He was a [Sorcerer]. Untrained, a natural spellcaster who made up spells and didn’t study them like [Mages]. His methods? Well, they looked like this.
Leireit raised the stave he’d brought out, a glowing ruby atop mithril. The jewel flashed and he aimed it at Ryoka.
She glared at him as the magic settled on her, dispelled an anti-pain spell and a cooling spell put on her by one of the [Healers] and promptly did nothing else. Leireit looked at Ryoka.
“Nothing? Ah, thought not. Don’t worry, that was just to see what would happen and if I got any interference! Okay, trying again!”
“Father, um…do you think Lord Veltras found the best spellcaster for the job?”
Betta whispered to Lord Pellmia and her mother, well, step-mother, the woman who’d raised her since her birth, Keireen. Pellmia opened his mouth uncertainly, but Lord Veltras had heard. The [Lady] turned beet red as he bowed stiffly to her.
“Sir Leireit comes highly recommended, Lady Betta. His methods are unorthodox, but I have seen him work. Let us see his true attempt.”
She nodded and they all turned just in time for Leireit to shout again. This time he charged Ryoka and lifted his staff.
“What are you d—oof!”
The oof was from him planting the stave in Ryoka’s belly. Everyone winced. All eyes swung back to Lord Veltras, and he looked uncertain. He hadn’t expected that.
Ryoka would have kicked Leireit if she had any breath left in her—or strength—but the [Sorcerer] hadn’t struck her that hard. And indeed, his eyes had begun to glow. She began to try, anyways, when she saw the light.
It came from his open mouth, from within, from his glowing veins. A smell like pine filled the air. His voice became two octaves deeper and echoed like it came from a cave. Ryoka felt a magical rumbling transmit itself through the staff, the bed and her.
“[Dispel Magic: Mana Clash]!”
Her eyes widened. She stopped trying to kick him and saw, with her limited magical abilities, the mana race through him and the four [Mages] running support.
Keireen threw up her hands to shield her eyes. Tyrion frowned as if seeing something, and Sammial’s eyes went round.
“That felt powerful!”
Hethon muttered. Jericha, lost in focus, wanted to blink at him. Colorful?
The others just watched, seeing nothing but the light Leireit emitted and feeling it in the air.
Leireit was fighting something. He began shouting as Ryoka saw his mana start burning itself against something, like water trying to throw a boulder. It wasn’t efficient. It wasn’t smart, or calculated.
But, hells, it was working. Unlike every other attempt, which hadn’t even managed to target the spell in her, this was rather like putting out a fire by jumping on it and rolling around on top. Inefficient? Painful? Maybe, but it was a lot more direct than wasting time finding ‘water’, or something.
The only question was if Leireit and the other [Mages] had the mana or power, but he was adding to the fire.
“[Replenish Mana]! [Enhanced Casting: Tier 4]! [Enchanced Focus]! I said, enhanced focus! Hold on—”
“My mana is burning out, you maniac!”
Alevica bellowed at Leireit, but the [Sorcerer] was laughing, pouring their combined strength into the fight. Jericha bit her lip until it bled and the other two [Mages] groaned.
The unseen battle in the air was making Leireit sweat. Ryoka was shuddering, feeling something fighting in her. An incredible pressure was squeezing her from within. Just when she thought it would pop or she’d scream, it happened.
“Aha! I d—”
Leireit bellowed. Then there was an explosion. He went flying through the air, arcing and landing with a whumph nearly twenty feet distant. Ryoka herself was blown straight out of her bed. She crashed behind it as it turned over, and stumbled to her feet.
“Holy g—holy Oberon!”
Everyone stared as Ryoka caught herself. Her strength was back in a moment! Her head felt clear, she could move and stand—even her skin had regained some of its regular color! Ryoka stared at Leireit.
“You did it?”
Even Tyrion hadn’t expected success so fast. Leireit rose to his feet, swearing as he felt at his back. Then he raised his arms in victory.
“That’s a Level 40 [Sorcerer] for you! Hah! I’m levelling tonight! Fetch the wine! Fetch the pretty ladies! Er, those that think I’m quite impressive, not the ladies of bought company.”
Ryoka just looked at her hands, blown away. Level 40…?
“That actually worked? String me up and paddle my ass!”
Buscrei had snorted water all out of her nose onto the grass. Charlay nodded, jaw open.
“Yeah, y—wait, what did you say?”
“What did she say?”
Hethon and Sammial both turned around too, though they hadn’t said that. Everyone took a moment. Buscrei glanced around.
“Oswen tradition. It’s a bunch of fun. See, you draw lots and—”
“Such idiotic activities.”
“Who said that? I don’t make fun of idiots jumping off cliffs!”
Lord Swey, the [Lord] who lived on a plateau, raised his hands, frowning.
“Not me. I thought it was Pellmia.”
“Not me. Who said—”
Then they all froze. It was there again. The same voice.
“Damned [Sorcerers]. Do you really think you can get away? Stay right there.”
“Oh, you have got to be kidding—”
Buscrei whirled, but there was no one in sight. Ryoka was leaping and laughing about, going over to help Leireit up.
“Ryoka! Watch out! It’s—”
Too late. A hole opened up in the sky. And guess what flashed down towards Ryoka?
Crimson lightning. Ryoka Griffin looked up just in time to see it stabbing down at her. Her immediate thought mirrored everyone else’s.
Again? That was just so unf—
She couldn’t dodge it. It shot down at, well, the speed of lightning. Or close. [Lightning Bolt] and such spells were a bit slower than actual lightning, which was so fast as to be instantaneous, which was why anyone had a chance of dodging them.
Even so. Ryoka was flat-footed and it was faster than she was, even with the wind. She stumbled, hands going for her side.
The lightning touched the glowing shield, and a word written upon that famous crest glowed. The sigil of forests and beasts. One of the Five Families of old:
It bounced, ricocheting off, and hit a tree which promptly dropped all its apples, and then exploded. Lord Tyrion whirled his heirloom up, his sword in the other hand.
Only one man in the gathering could move that fast. There was a curse from above in a tongue Ryoka had never heard.
“You little pests! You will not get away, [Thief]—”
A second bolt of red lightning flew down, but this time it was blocked by a barrier in the skies. Ryoka and Tyrion whirled; Keireen, Pellmia’s wife, had lifted a hand.
“[Safety of the Home]. Inside!”
They ran, well, the target did. Jericha lurched to her feet after Tyrion, who shielded Ryoka as they charged inside. There was a split in the sky. A wrathful eye—
Lady Buscrei aimed her recurve bow straight up at it.
“[Counter Fire]. [Arc Arrows]. [Splinter Arrowheads]!”
She launched a volley of arrows into the air, looked up, and cursed.
“Damn. [Counter Fire] didn’t take. Worth a shot.”
The hole in the sky closed as fast as it had opened, cutting short a shout of frustration. Calmly, Buscrei aimed about, as Lord Swey, Pellmia, and the other warriors drew their blades. Hethon and Sammial didn’t see what happened next; Jericha had grabbed them and hurried them inside.
However, it was certainly exciting. And Ryoka was cured. So there was that.
Too bad that the next three times she tried to step outside, spells nearly killed her.
“What do you mean, you don’t know where the spells are coming from?”
It was an incredible statement. Not so anywhere else, but from House Veltras, Lord Pellmia, a powerful [Lord], and Sir Leireit?
Actually, Leireit didn’t count, but the fact that so many powerful individuals could be under attack by long-range spells that only went after Ryoka and not know even the vaguest direction they were bound from was…incredible.
“My lord, we are under attack by a very powerful [Mage]. The spells have almost no magical emissions. I cannot see their make, and there is no mana trail to follow.”
Jericha was pale as Ryoka peeked out the window. The Courier was staring at the innocuous sky. She winced as a [Healer] dug out a bit of wood from one arm.
The lightning had stopped after the second time she’d left. However, her mysterious assailant had decided to diversify the spells. Ryoka had walked right next to the second tree that exploded, peppering her with shrapnel.
“That was my favorite tree.”
Lord Pellmia grumbled, his sword drawn as half his household guard stood at the gates and windows, ready for a battle.
“You don’t have a favorite tree, my love. Don’t be dramatic.”
Keireen admonished him.
Ryoka Griffin saw Pellmia glancing up at the innocuously clear skies, furrows in his brow. He exhaled hard, his fingers shifting on the worn leather wrap on his hilt.
“That someone would attack a [Lord] of Izril—no, one of the Five Families in such a manner—”
“It seems to be a growing trend of late.”
Lady Desinee El remarked from behind her bodyguards. Ryoka Griffin hung her head.
“I’m sorry. It’s my fault.”
The Houses of El and Veltras looked at her, quite astonished. Lord Tyrion saw Ryoka’s entire posture sag. He hesitated, like a rock limpet trying to figure out how to give someone comfort, and with about as much success.
It was Lady Buscrei who grabbed Ryoka’s shoulder. She grinned, as the young woman started. Her teeth flashed a bit yellow, but with a wide, laughing smile.
“You’re one of us, Ryoka. A guest—no. Family. When someone attacks your family, you don’t let them gang up, you shoot them in the ankles and beat them to death!”
Everyone had to absorb that statement of solidarity for a second. Then Ryoka looked at Buscrei.
The [Lady] laughed. Then winked at Keireen, Betta, Swey, Desinee…they stared at her. Now? At this moment?
Well. There was never a wrong moment for plotting romance. Ryoka Griffin found herself guest of Pellmia Quellae once more. And this time?
At least she was conscious.
It was strange, going from fleeing romance and courtship on bended knee, to being zapped with a curse from a mysterious foe, to being trapped in a quite pleasant mansion with a bunch of busybodies who were both protecting you and trying to get you hitched.
“Want an oyster?”
Buscrei cackled so hard at Ryoka’s expression that she nearly fell out of her chair at lunch. It turned out everyone was eating oysters, though. The [Lady] had brought a huge catch north, and the folk of House Quellae quite liked seafood.
“It’s fruit all day, and our herds, of course. It’s what you don’t have, I suppose. I could look once at the most gigantic orange that other people just die for—it sells for gold abroad—but give me a clam chowder and I’d hand you the orange in a second.”
Keireen confided in Ryoka. The Courier stared at the treat.
“Um. I see.”
The complete lapse of any social cue didn’t faze the [Lady]. She smiled, gracefully as Ryoka blushed in embarrassment.
“I’m sorry, that must be a foreign idea to a Courier who goes everywhere.”
“Oh. No. I’m sorry—I haven’t actually visited many coasts until recently. I was around Liscor, and they have lots of fish. No saltwater creatures, though, and it’s only in the spring when it’s fresh.”
“I heard of that. Damndest thing. It rains and makes a basin, doesn’t it? Always wanted to see it…when we weren’t at war. Passed it once when we had the yearly fight, but we had to steer clear of the walls.”
“You mean, the continuation of our war at the Bloodfields, Lord Swey?”
The [Lord] glanced up. Lord Swey, one of the Veltras Family that Ryoka had met, lived on a high plateau of all things. If Buscrei was a [Hunting Lady], in general, not the actual specifics of her class, Lord Swey was a [Mountain Lord]. His people foraged and used the cliffs daily.
It showed. His hands were callused in different ways than regular [Warriors] and he was prying apart oyster shells with his bare fingers instead of a knife.
Tyrion Veltras’ icy glare bounced completely off his squatter cousin. Swey chucked the oyster meat into a bowl, to Desinee’s plain horror. Buscrei had brought out the oysters, and Keireen had been about to let a [Chef] have at it, but instead, Buscrei, Swey, and Setth, the [Lord] who lived in the forest with all the [Druids], had all gathered around and insisted on grilling and preparing the oysters themselves.
It wasn’t bad for House Quellae, and Betta was helping season the oysters as Pellmia saw to a deployment of his house guards. It was astonishing how fast they’d relaxed when it was clear only Ryoka was being targeted.
They had tested it out by having Sir Leireit run around outside, shouting. ‘Hit me, you coward!’ Well, he’d volunteered for it and nothing had happened.
Now they were eating. Cooking for oneself was something Keireen was clearly appalled by. On the other hand, while Tyrion didn’t participate in the grilling and arguing over sauce and whatnot, he was slicing open oysters in a fairly practiced manner with his belt knife.
Sammial and Hethon were watching with great interest. They enjoyed their cousins’ presence, it was clear, and the two boys were mixing a blend of spices, having been deemed too young to handle a sharp blade.
By Jericha, that was. Buscrei had handed them a dagger and told them to try not to cut off a finger. At any rate, Swey calmly answered Tyrion, picking up on the slight tension in the other man’s voice.
“No offense to the main family and the Five Families and whatnot, Tyrion. I went once. Never saw the point. Lots of angry Drakes and those Gnoll people. I’d be as happy to let them stay over there. If they come north, we can rally up.”
“You don’t have an opinion on the sabotage from the [Infiltrators] that came this summer?”
Swey frowned, plucking a hot oyster from the grill.
“Well, that’s bad.”
Tyrion waited. Swey chewed, swallowed, and nudged Buscrei.
She added a handful. After a few seconds of Tyrion staring, Swey recalled the question.
“What? Oh, yes. Heard about the poor dogs and Gralton and the rest. Let’s retaliate. We voted on that, didn’t we? They throw a punch, we throw one back. But as for the battles…no. Seems like we have that King of Destruction and the Deathless on Rhir to worry about. And that undead fellow…”
He was ticking off problems on his fingers. Ryoka actually forgot her uncomfortableness as she watched. It was tense, which of course made her back prickly, but it was a fascinating insight into a divergence of opinions in one of the Five Families.
The silence after Swey’s comments lingered, though Swey seemed content. If anything, Jericha, Tyrion, and two of his bodyguards seemed most put-off by the lack of support. An over-loud voice echoed around the room.
“I! I uh, I always wanted to go to southern Izril! I never went before because of the Bloodfields. Maybe I’ll go now there’s a road? And a portal door?”
Charlay looked about. Sammial started; he was still staring at the horse-lady, one of the few he’d met.
“Portal doors. Now there’s a handy thing. I wish we had one. Hey, Tyrion. Think House Veltras can bid on it? Imagine if we had one at your place. I could be eating fine over here one day, then head off to Swey’s, or hit the coast—all in the same day.”
“My, that would be something.”
Setth looked up briefly. He was less chatty than his two cousins, although he’d been more talkative in a more social setting when Ryoka had first met him. However, he did pull out a sauce to sprinkle over the second bowl being passed around. Buscrei instantly slapped it out of his hand.
“Don’t you dare touch my oysters with that crap, Setth.”
“Buscrei, it’s just sauce.”
“It’s mashed roots and crap. Not a bit of meat! Too sweet, too…I won’t have it! Not on good oysters.”
The vegetarian sauce was placed on the table, and Ryoka tried some. It was actually quite nice! It definitely lacked for the body of meat like many dishes and sauces she’d had, but it would have gone down a storm in any vegetarian restaurant on Earth. There was a tang to it, a taste beyond mere salt, sweet, bitter, or even umami that Ryoka had come to associate with magic.
“I like it!”
Sammial announced, slapping some onto his plate. Buscrei grumbled.
“Damn [Druids]. Don’t let them turn you into one of those non-meat idiots.”
“You should meet this [Druid] in Invrisil—”
Alevica, Charlay, and Ryoka all chorused in unison. They glanced at each other, and the [Witch] snorted and tugged at her hat, embarrassed, as Ryoka grinned and Charlay laughed.
“Nalthaliarstrelous. I’ve heard of him. Something of a radical in the [Druid] community.”
Lord Setth actually pronounced his name correctly. Ryoka’s eyebrows shot up. Buscrei rolled her eyes.
“Don’t let’s start on Invrisil or we’ll get into politics. Like the south—”
“Lady Reinhart and the Drakes? Such a concern.”
Desinee pursed her lips, feeling she had the first real lock on this conversation. Keireen nodded, frowning.
“I hope she’s well. I heard of assassination attempts?”
“You tell me when there’s not one, with the Reinharts.”
There were chuckles, some murmurs, but the topic was dropped fast. Tyrion turned to Swey after whispering with Jericha.
“We did, in fact, make an offer on the door in Liscor, Swey. Twice. It is not for sale, although we would bid heavily. I fear House Veltras would be up against worldwide competition, however.”
“What? Oh. Right. Just a thought. I don’t see anyone actually selling it.”
Swey replied absently. Tyrion stopped again, having clearly taken the off-hand comment as actual questions about House Veltras’ material concerns.
He was so much like a stone compared to his free-flowing, relaxed cousins…that Ryoka instinctively flashed back to some of her family gatherings where she’d been the odd one out. She cleared her throat. She nearly said she knew the owner of the portal door, but since that opened up a bag of depressing rocks…
Well, not anymore. What was she doing, eating oysters and chatting when so many things needed to be done? For a second, Ryoka wavered. But she was recovering, and they had saved her life. So she turned to Sir Leireit. The [Sorcerer] was sipping from a mana potion and wineglass alternately, watching the conversation with urbane amusement.
“Is this typical of First Landing, Sir Leireit? I met some of the other Five Families, but I thought Lord Tyrion’s House was more—relaxed—than others.”
The [Sorcerer] chuckled as all eyes swung to him.
“Hardly, Miss Ryoka—Courier Griffin? I apologize, I feel familiar already.”
“Ryoka. Don’t worry, anyone who stabs me in the stomach with a stave is already quite intimate.”
He nodded in appreciation. Betta instantly sprayed her drink out of her nose and mouth at the same time as her father. Leireit stared at them in confusion, caught the joke, and began laughing.
Tyrion didn’t get it, but his family did. Jericha looked appalled—and stomped hard on her own toe to stop laughing.
“That’s wonderful! You’d get tossed out of a gathering in First Landing. I’ve never been closer than a dinner table in formality, there. Well, there’s something for the way they do it; fine dining is a treat.”
“Oh, I’ve been to First Landing enough. Can’t zip around like the others, but they have lots of sights. Invrisil too.”
Ryoka nodded, grinning as Sammial demanded to know what was so funny from Lord Pellmia. Hethon had worked it out and had turned bright red. However, she looked at Tyrion then.
“Even Couriers can’t travel across Izril that fast. Most of the City Runners I knew had never been to First Landing. It was sort of a milestone—if you could make it there all the way from Celum—that’s a city just north of Liscor—you’d probably hit Level 30 soon. Same for the coasts; it’s too far even by horseback. Have you been to Port Isle?”
She carefully named one of the most remote ports on the eastern coast, so named because it was an isle; no shipping lanes except those heading to the east hit it. There wasn’t any continent to the east, so it really was isolated. Tyrion glanced up and seemed to unstatueify.
“I have. All the major cities.”
“There’s movement Skills for you. He can ride out, visit First Landing, and be back within a week. The rest of us take a month.”
Buscrei slapped Tyrion on the shoulder with some pride. He turned to ice once more—but Charlay and Alevica were reminded they were in the same room with the fastest [Lord] in all of Izril. And Ryoka wasn’t done.
“I’ve never visited myself. I wasn’t nearly as fast as a City Runner…and it’s not a profitable run, mostly. Unless they get a shipment from the islands, in which case it’s Couriers inbound.”
“Islands? Shipments? I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with this…Port Isle. I know the name.”
Desinee looked like she was a fish out of water, even more than Tyrion. Charlay nudged her, still as chummy as could be.
“Port Isle. It’s not a trade-city—except that there are islands out to the east. Lots of interesting stuff. Like Fabledust. Ever heard of it?”
“Isn’t that a rare alchemical ingredient? So that’s where it comes from?”
“Yep. Also, a few dungeons out there somehow. So every now and then, a huge shipment comes in and everyone wants it. I’m surprised Tyrion—er—er—Lord Veltras, I mean, has been there. It’s not common. And it’s weird. Or so I’ve heard.”
Every head swung around. Ryoka shrugged.
“I’ve only heard what Runners have. Fabledust is a strange compound and it gets in the air. Apparently it’s mined or something from a few islands. There’s so much of it from the ships it coats the city. It…does things to the people and area?”
Sir Leireit was nodding.
“Translocational magic. Dimensional stuff. I’m no [Mage]…nor have I been. The only person who could tell us is…”
Every head turned to Tyrion. He started, uncrossed his arms, and looked around.
“…It is a rather vivid city. One can get lost, there. Places…vanish now and then and need to be refound.”
He lapsed into silence. Buscrei slapped the table after a second.
“Well, don’t just end it there, Tyrion! Tell us more! What does it look like? What does it smell like? Details!”
“It is a rather vivid shade of purple at times, until the light strikes it—or moonlight—or it rains.”
It was like trying to pry answers out of one of the oysters. Tyrion scratched at his head, then he opened up, to his surprise and everyone else’s.
“Let me see. It was years ago when I visited last. They had a rhyme I believe the children sang. ‘Purple by day, and pink by night. Green come moonlight, brown when rain strikes.’ But they had other verses. There was a nuance to the colors. If it is merely purple, you see, it didn’t matter. But a…shade of purple was worrisome.”
The others blinked, interested. Tyrion frowned.
“I don’t know what it was. It was raining one day, and they told me it was wenge outside and to stay indoors.”
“What in the name of otters is wenge?”
“That’s a shade of brown, I think. See here, if it looks off, you’re in trouble? Imagine being afraid of colors.”
Swey chowed down on the roasted oysters. Everyone else realized they were done and began eating. They pestered Tyrion with questions, and he reluctantly, then with some enthusiasm, began to speak.
“I never saw a shipment coming in; I was simply travelling that way. However, I did see a building appear, once. Inhabited. The people inside were thought to be monsters at first; they clashed with the Watch, firing arrows from inside. They were a sight; they claimed they had been somewhere else for nearly twenty years. Their garments were strange. I expected them to be ragged, but…”
It was a fascinating tale, marred only by the teller. Yet he warmed to his task, and his two sons were as agog as the others. Even more so, perhaps. Tyrion had never told them this story?
He did so now, and was part of the conversation rather than in the middle of it. He still didn’t talk like his cousins, but he did talk. Ryoka listened, asking questions, in the thick of it.
She never saw how some of the others glanced at her and saw what she’d done, like Keireen, Setth.
Or Jericha. Keireen leaned against Pellmia and whispered.
“They are good for each other.”
The [Matchmaker] smiled. And here he hadn’t even used a Skill.
In some ways, Ryoka fit in with House Veltras. Oh, the sociability was new, but there were times when House Veltras was social—and times when they were not. Like Buscrei. She was all laughter and talk with the others. Then she’d just walk off, and go hunting for days on end, or relax by herself, socialization done.
There was something there that spoke to everything Ryoka was. In the same way, she talked with them, then they turned to figuring out their new problem of attacks. Pellmia frowned as he thought.
“Since you’re safe inside, I suppose we now have to figure out where those damned spells are coming from. I’ll contact some friends who know magic. Maybe it’s a trick. It seems like spells, but if it’s actually an arrow or some Skill…”
Ryoka sat in her rooms, feeling alive. She stretched, actually did a workout indoors, grateful for the ability to walk and move without bleeding sweat. Yes, she decided, it was time.
“I’ve had it up to here with whoever that is. I need…to figure this out.”
So she sat on the ground, and thought. Mystery assailant. She had to identify who her foe was, defend herself, and resolve the situation or she’d never help Erin and Mrsha.
The thing was…Ryoka thought she had the first one down pat. Well, it wasn’t hard deducing who was calling her ‘thief’. The exact who was a problem, but where?
“Fuck. I’m in trouble.”
Ryoka said it loudly just as Sammial, Hethon, Jericha, and Tyrion stopped by her door. Sammial instantly turned to Jericha.
“She says it! Why can’t I?”
Ryoka turned in her seat. She blushed as Jericha groaned and Lord Tyrion paused.
“Miss Griffin. Lord Veltras asked to speak with you. Lords Hethon, Sammial—”
“Stop making me go away! I want to talk to Ryoka!”
Sammial instantly began to pitch a fit. Tyrion turned to him, frowning, and Ryoka interrupted.
“I don’t mind. Unless…I haven’t thanked you, Lord Tyrion.”
There were a lot of reasons why they wanted to talk, and Ryoka felt the weight of her debt growing heavier. Yet Tyrion Veltras just stood there, awkwardly, until she offered him a seat by her bed.
“I wished to inquire about your situation, Miss Griffin. With respect to your privacy, I had not asked. Given the situation…”
The Veltras’ watched Ryoka squirm with some resignation by this point. The Wind Runner’s secrecy about almost all aspects of her life was as frustrating as it was intriguing.
However, Ryoka Griffin herself knew that it couldn’t last. She nodded slowly, avoiding Tyrion and Jericha’s eyes. She looked down at Sammial—he was giving her a hawk-glare, refusing to blink.
“I should have told you. I’m sorry—it’s just that I didn’t want to involve you and here we are. I’m…in a bit of trouble. Someone’s after me. I don’t actually know who, but I know why. I uh…”
This was hard. Ryoka forced past it. She still squirmed, a bit.
“—It started with the party at Riverfarm.”
“It seems many things began there.”
Jericha murmured. Lord Tyrion glanced at her, surprised by the interjection, and she blushed. Ryoka thought that was funny; Jericha was as close to a mother as the two boys got. But not quite. She glanced at Jericha and nodded, deliberately.
“Right. A lot happened there I can’t talk about. Really…I promised. But one of the things was…well, a lot happened. I went places.”
“You are so vague. Stop being vague.”
Sammial stared at Ryoka. She turned even redder as Tyrion snapped.
“Sammial Veltras. Control your tongue.”
“I stole something. Well, I tried to steal something.”
Ryoka blurted it out at last. The other four turned to her. Alevica and Charlay, listening outside the window, gasped.
Everyone inside stopped. They peered at the window, and saw a head rise, duck down, and Alevica’s whisper.
They ran for it, Charlay galloping off. Ryoka rubbed at her face. Tyrion regarded her.
“You stole something?”
“I tried to. My friend…it’s very complicated. I was trying to steal something that would—you know my friend, Erin Solstice? There was something we were trying to get.”
“Because she’s a block of ice?”
Jericha and Tyrion went to round on Sammial, but Hethon had let that one slip. He slapped a hand over his mouth. Ryoka would have ached at that a day ago. Today?
Well, it still hurt, but there was hope, so she almost smiled.
“Yes. Something that could definitely bring her back. I was sure of it. I made…a big mistake. I didn’t steal it.”
“You did not?”
Tyrion was surprised. He half-glanced at her side. Ryoka shook her head. She lifted the hilt of the Faeblade.
“This is a gift. What I stole—was trying to steal—I never got. But I must have been sighted and…sorry. I’m a criminal. So I suppose this isn’t an unprovoked attack so much as…catching a thief.”
She waited for something. Condemnation, anger, what, she didn’t know. Tyrion was still a long moment. Jericha was frowning, trying to guess who Ryoka had stolen from. Sammial was trying to put something together. Ryoka? Naked? No…what had he seen? Something that told him where…
Ryoka wondered if she should tell them. Before she could, Tyrion spoke.
“As Lord of House Veltras, Ryoka Griffin…my stance on thievery has always been clear. It is a crime, and cannot be countenanced under any circumstance. I have told Hethon and Sammial that; if a [Lord] or ruler of a land looks aside, the rule of law topples.”
Ryoka swallowed. Hethon and Sammial looked at their father in shock. Jericha closed her eyes. Oh no. The one man who would probably prosecute a dog for stealing a bone…Tyrion Veltras rose to his feet and looked out the window. Charlay and Alevica, staring from behind a tree, ran away again.
“I cannot countenance it.”
Ryoka nodded miserably. It was still a crime. She began to wallow in the filth of self-flagellation—right up until Tyrion spoke his next words.
“That is my belief. However. When Hethon and Sammial were sick, I thought, if I could steal the cure to their poison…I would have. No matter what the cost or consequence. I would have stolen it. It would have been a crime. Yet I would have done it.”
He glanced over his shoulder. Jericha’s open jaw snapped shut. She had never expected Tyrion to say something like that. Ryoka just blinked.
“I can understand the desire. If you are being pursued, perhaps the offended party can be reimbursed. That you did not steal anything lessens your guilt. As for these attacks? It comes on the land of noble families of Izril. Whoever this is has gone too far. We shall reach an amicable solution if possible, but House Veltras will still support the Wind Runner.”
Sammial and Hethon looked at each other. They pinched each other to make sure they weren’t dreaming. Ryoka stared at Tyrion.
“Uh. Thank you.”
That was…unexpected. Yet what had she thought? Even Tyrion raised an eyebrow.
“Miss Ryoka, I am grateful you chose to confide in us. However, I must ask. Did you believe we would think worse of you for your actions? For being a thief? You are the Courier who saved my sons’ lives.”
She flushed slightly and ducked her head. Ryoka Griffin mumbled.
“No. I mean…not just that. It’s just—”
She searched for words and they tumbled out, another surprise admission in a weird day.
“—it’s just that whoever tries to help me ends up dying or getting hurt. Everyone. And there’s so much that’s happening, I don’t want to pull anyone into it. These huge, important—and if I do something wrong—”
The Courier hesitated. They were all giving her a strange look. Lord Tyrion looked bemused.
Jericha was the one who finally came out with it, with an exasperated sigh.
“Miss Griffin. Begging your pardon Lord Veltras…but I have noticed this about you. You speak about almost everything as if it were the greatest calamity in the world. And only you can solve the issue. As if the world revolves around you. All of House Veltras stands here, but might not be enough to aid Ryoka Griffin in her quest. Whatever that actually is.”
Ryoka Griffin sat there, staring at Jericha. So did Hethon and Sammial. The words flowed from Jericha with a great deal of satisfaction, pent up as they had been. Even Tyrion gave her the side-eye…until they looked at Ryoka.
Beets were red. Blood was crimson. Plums were purple. Ryoka’s face encapsulated even more colors than that. She sat there, so embarrassed she couldn’t speak. She sat there.
“I don’t think th—”
“I mean, I only know Oberon and I just—”
She tried to get it out. But the truth was that Jericha was right.
Almost right. Ryoka raised her head, slowly. Embarrassed.
“I…I do act like that, don’t I? I’m sorry. But there is something big coming. I can’t say exactly—”
She saw Jericha’s hand twitch for her side and hastily clarified.
“War. A big war. A conflict…that’s what my friends said. The guests. A terrible war. And I guess I feel like I’m going to play a role. They’re…[Oracles], you see. Sort of.”
Tyrion’s brows rose. He looked at Ryoka sharply.
“I don’t know. But I do know this! I act like I’m important because I think I am. A bit. That’s arrogance. However, I do know this.”
Ryoka rose to her feet. She clenched and unclenched her hands.
“…I’m not the person who can bring people together. Who can create a miracle, and maybe stop or…or unite people. I know who that is. And she’s—waiting—for me to help her. If I can, I will. And as for who I pissed off? Well. I didn’t realize it, but…I tried to steal from Ailendamus. From their vaults. That’s who I made mad. There. I said it.”
The Wind Runner exhaled long and loud, and felt instant regret. Then relief. She looked around. She’d actually said it. She looked at Tyrion, Jericha, Sammial, and Hethon, smiling with a bit of relief.
…Right until she saw Tyrion’s expression. And Jericha suck in her breath. The two adults exchanged glances. Of all the things Ryoka could have said…
“Well, that’s not good. Hear that? She pissed off the fattest nation in Terandria. Told you she doesn’t do things halfway.”
Everyone stopped. They stared up. Tyrion snapped his shield up, but Buscrei just leaned over the roof’s lip. Swey, Setth, both jumped down. Pellmia got up from listening at the door with his daughter and wife. Lady Desinee replaced the amulet she’d taken out.
It was good that Ryoka had admitted what was on her mind, at last. Everyone could now agree.
She was in a bit of trouble.
House Veltras was powerful. Five Families of Izril? Martial house with the largest standing force? Famous [Lord] on that Top 5 list? There were only a few things that would even make them blink when they stood united.
Ailendamus…might need some eye drops. Of all the places for Ryoka to make an enemy of…yeah. Ailendamus.
“Couldn’t she have chosen, I don’t know, Calanfer, or something? I hear they’re getting spanked in the war. Or the Reinharts? We could use a good old scrap.”
Buscrei muttered to Swey and Setth. Lord Setth looked at her.
“What is it with the Oswens and spanking?”
“All I’m saying is that Ailendamus is…well, it’s like she threw rocks at one of the Four Great Companies or something. There are easier enemies to make.”
Ryoka Griffin’s mysterious nemesis made more sense, in that light. Of course, this was breaking information. Rumors had only begun to spread that the Wind Runner had been struck by mysterious lightning. Tyrion Veltras had outridden rumor itself—and Pellmia had kept the news under wraps fairly well—so her unexpected cure thanks to the power of [Sorcerers] had caught even her adversaries and friends off-guard.
Lyonette, for instance, would not learn about Ryoka’s plight until tomorrow, by which point she would already be far delayed from what was actually happening.
So perhaps that was why it was so ironic that when Jericha came striding over to Ryoka with a speaking stone, the first thing Eldavin said to her was about that.
“Ryoka, I have just been informed you are under attack by some kind of spell? Why did you not inform me at once, child?”
Ryoka’s eyes widened. She had known who it was the instant Jericha mentioned an encrypted spell, but she’d completely forgotten he was in Wistram!
“Are you returning? Where are you? I’m—”
“Yes, yes, still at Wistram. When did we last speak? Nevermind that. Someone’s been attacking you with magic? Outrageous. It’s not anyone in the academy; I would know. Listen, I’m tied up, but one of my faction is headed your way as we speak. Archmage Valeterisa. She says she knows you. We’ll have you cured and on your feet. Then we’ll discuss further plans for keeping you safe.”
“Um. Eldavin. I’m actually—”
“It’s not easy wrangling these eels at Wistram, but I am managing it. Fascinating how Wistram has gone to seed. There’s more of your kind here. I fully intend to whip the Academy back into shape, and I have been thinking it may be wise for you to visit if you’re being targeted by assailants. Is it that pest with the dark eyes? I’ll ask Valeterisa to analyze the spell—”
The nattering voice cut off. Ryoka stared at the stone. She had never known the Dragon to be this talkative, but it seemed this vacation had really done him good.
“Yes, my dear?”
“I uh—I’m better now. A [Sorcerer] from First Landing cured me.”
“A [Sorcerer]. Cured. Me. He blasted the spell right out of my veins. I’m still under some kind of attack, but…”
“You let yourself be treated by a [Sorcerer]? Why don’t you just snort mana dust or bathe in mana potions while you’re at it? One of those rag-tag…well, I suppose their solutions work, but dead gods, my dear! Tree rot and beetle eggs! You didn’t think to go to me, but one of them? I could have—”
Again, the Courier blinked at the stone. Wow, Eldavin really was getting into character. His outraged spluttering was familiar, though.
“Sorry, Eldavin. I know how you…don’t like to involve yourself with mundane affairs.”
He harumphed loudly in her ear. Then his voice became more circumspect.
“Ah. About that, Ryoka. I…I suppose I owe you an apology. You were right. So was that girl.”
“Reinhart, I mean. She’s pestered me for decades and I…well, you were right. It is hard for someone like me to admit, at my age, but this vacation cleared my mind. I’m thinking clearly for once, and you’re right. That pest, this entire situation in the world and Wistram…it’s time to shake things up. Fix everything I’ve let slide. No more. I’ve started a faction at Wistram. Terras, and I’ve let it be known you’re under my protection. Speak my name anywhere Wistram has power and I’ll make sure they give you aid.”
Ryoka actually had to slap the side of her head. That was not what she had expected Teriarch to say. Not in a million years.
“How bad is it at Wistram?”
That was the only thing she could think of. Teriarch harumphed.
“As you would not believe. [Mages] who forget true magic, who infight rather than using Wistram’s power like it should be. Did you hear about the Death of Chains emerging? Not that I’d blame her for taking a shot at Roshal, but that’s another threat. And Khelt destabilizing Chandrar.”
“Yes, but—I mean, about Khelt—”
Ryoka stammered. This…this wasn’t like Teriarch at all. Using Wistram’s power? What was his entire lecture about neutrality and…?
“What about Khelt, my dear? I’m working on all issues, don’t you worry. Establish power here—then we’ll sort out the issues one at a time. Earthers—that’s what they call your people—first. We’ll gather them up. You should join them; we can do better good with all the resources at hand, and protect them. I’d rather train your people than let Wistram use them like bartering chips. A shame what happened to your friend, but as I said, I’ll look at her. Khelt?”
“…No. I just saw it in the news, too. I um. This thing about my attacker came after the Summer Solstice. You remember, Eldavin?”
“Your guests or some such? Oh, what mischief did you get up to now?”
Ryoka slowly stared at the stone. Her spine began to prickle. Something was…very wrong.
“Oh, you know. The regular, with Ivolethe.”
“Who? One of your friends?”
Ryoka felt something icy grab her. Who was she talking to? What had happened to—
What had Wistram done? Replaced him? Had they found out? Had—
“Nevermind that, my dear. Let’s sort it out, one at a time, I’d better tell Valeterisa what’s up. Did you say you were still under attack?”
Somehow, Ryoka managed to communicate the facts. Just the facts, to Eldavin. He…spoke like Teriarch. He acted like Teriarch, but in a few different ways.
Firstly, as if he didn’t remember Ivolethe. Second? He was far too energetic. Third, he was far too…involved in the affairs he kept talking about. A faction? His plans? He sounded—ambitious.
That didn’t fit Teriarch at all. Yet everything else was there! Including his immediate insistance she go outside so he could sort this out.
“Just walk outside. Someone’s taking shots at you via long-distance spells? Hah. Aha. We’ll see about that.”
By now, Ryoka Griffin had a small crowd watching her stand in the hallway. Tyrion marched over with his shield, frowning.
“Ryoka, what is…?”
“My—Grand Magus Eldavin, from Wistram, says he thinks he can stop the attacks.”
He blinked at her. Jericha saw Sir Leireit’s head snap around.
“Did she just say…? I heard there was a half-Elf crashing around in Wistram!”
“That’s her patron. I don’t know how the hell she got him.”
Alevica folded her arms. Ryoka Griffin covered the stone. Her heart was pounding.
“I’m going to step out.”
“Then I shall accompany you. Just in case the attempt fails.”
Tyrion announced at once. Buscrei and the others went to watch from a safe window. Eldavin’s voice snapped from the speaking stone, muffled.
“We have a scrying spell on the area. Who’s that idiot who suggested that this would fail?”
Ryoka muted the stone with a finger. Then she looked at Jericha.
“I just…I just need to do something before I go out.”
“It’s perfectly safe, my dear.”
Eldavin unmuted the stone of his own accord. Ryoka jumped, swore, and fished around in her pocket. Without a word, she wrote something down and handed it to Jericha. And then she went to walk out the door.
The [Mage] looked at the note. She stared at it.
Please tell Magnolia Reinhart to contact Grand Magus Eldavin at once. I think she will be very interested. Please write it verbatim and indicate it as such.
She glanced after Ryoka, puzzled. Then the Courier walked outside. Right now, Ryoka felt like she had been struck by a bolt of lightning.
Even so, she hesitated and stared up at the sky before she left the house. Eldavin was reassuring her all was well. So Ryoka walked outside. Tyrion followed.
Ryoka stopped on the paved path leading out, and glanced around with trepidation. Nothing happened.
“Oh, wow. You actually d—”
Hethon, Sammial, and the others saw and heard Ryoka glancing down at the speaking stone a second before a hand whipped out of the air. It flicked a finger at Tyrion, and he blocked it—but the second hand grabbed Ryoka and tossed her two hundred feet into the air, screaming, in less than a second.
“She has terrible luck.”
Charlay watched, eating from a bag of spiced oats. Alevica and the others silently agreed.
Grand Magus Eldavin had prepared for magical interception. He stood in one of Wistram’s dedicated spaces for long-range casting. Magical circles he’d re-drawn and upgraded boosted his capabilities.
He was even linked to a number of new [Mages] in the Terras faction—and observed by spies of other factions, he knew.
Some were genuine, like High Mage Telim, Sa’la, and Valeterisa herself. She was on standby.
“We are going to trace whatever insolent rogue is casting spells from afar. Archmage, are you prepared?”
She had stopped in her travels to Ryoka’s location, a bit put out that she couldn’t learn more about de-cursing someone. However, the Archmage of Izril was eager enough.
“My area has been set up as per your instructions, Eldavin.”
She had another kind of waypoint, a magical sensor net, if you will, something the Earthers were actually more easily able to grasp than fellow [Mages]. The idea was that Valeterisa localized their spellcasting and also provided a second frame of reference. In that way, the scrying spells Wistram were using and their generalized detection spells would help them hone in on whoever was attacking Ryoka in a local and overall way.
“What will occur to the attacker once found, Grand Magus?”
Telim was interested. There was no ‘if’, but when. Eldavin stroked at his beard.
“We may fry them a bit, High Magus. One does not simply attack Couriers, let alone those under Wistram’s protection. Identifying them is the true stroke. Knowledge begets power.”
“Surely, you mean ‘knowledge is power’, Grand Magus? That is a very Earth-expression I learned. Quite catchy.”
“I do not see [Librarians] and [Historians] sitting upon thrones, do you, High Magus?”
There was some laughter, and the [Mages] tensed as, in the scrying view, Ryoka turned back from Jericha.
“Interception spells at the ready. We should be sensing it, depending on if she’s seen. Ah, if it takes time…”
Eldavin snapped his fingers with annoyance as he realized the assailant might have neglected to watch Ryoka every second, and could, in fact, strike later.
“Perhaps Valeterisa will have to set up permanent wards. Let us wait for five m—”
He was turning his head to address the disappointed [Mages] when the first hand appeared. Eldavin whirled.
“No magical contact! How did—”
Sa’la exclaimed, amazed. Wistram’s [Mages] weren’t slouches, even if they didn’t have Eldavin’s expertise. They had cast their own detection webs and the hand could have been…well, a figment of their imaginations. It had virtually no magical leak.
Ryoka went flying as a second hand appeared. Eldavin stared as Tyrion glanced up, the hands vanished, and the [Lord] went charging after her.
“Trace that spell! [Featherfall]!”
He cast through the spell as he roared. Ryoka’s downward momentum slowed to a crawl; the wind had already been arresting it. The other [Mages] scrambled to re-cast spells, hone in on…
“I…I don’t sense any mana whatsoever. A trace of it…it’s like grasping at fog.”
Telim spoke uncertainly. A [Warlock] was muttering.
“Not even…there it is again! Dead gods!”
The sky opened up.
“You little wretch! Do you think you can escape?”
Eldavin heard the voice. He saw another bolt of lightning stabbing down. His multiple detection spells barely pinged. The other [Mages] were slack-jawed.
“It’s like invisible magic.”
“Don’t just stand there. Cast—”
A barrier opened up in the sky and the red lightning cracked against it. Eldavin recognized Valeterisa’s magic. Her excited voice was in his ears as his lips moved soundlessly, casting with increasing speed.
“Almost no magical residue. I cannot tell how they are hiding the origin—can you, Grand Magus?”
“It’s…not a scrying spell.”
The half-Elf whispered. The other [Mages] turned.
“They’re not casting through a [Scrying] spell. That’s why we can’t trace the magic.”
They should have been able to see exactly where the spells were coming from, like someone following a string back to the source. But there was no direct [Scrying] spell pumping the other spells through, like Wistram was doing. That was why everyone from the [Mages] here to Jericha were as oblivious to the magic as Sir Leireit, the [Sorcerer].
And also because this spellcasting is adept. It’s…as good as mine. Eldavin himself could barely sense the spells as they materialized. A second bolt of red lighting shot down. Valterisa conjured a barrier from her location. The lightning curved around it, but Tyrion was there and blocked it again. A curse rang through the air.
I barely saw the adjustment to that spell.
“Then how are they aiming?”
Telim and the other [Mages] were miles behind Eldavin’s conclusions. He snapped, absently.
“Coordinates. They’re calculating each spell rather than reveal through the [Scrying] spell. Shut up—I have to—[Sylph Spark]. Bound to a counter…”
He called deeply on his mana reserves, and the links. A flashing light appeared. It flickered up—
A shock ran through Eldavin’s mind. At the same time, he heard the voice, sensed a shock like his own. In the air, two wills and spells collided as the [Sylph Spark] honed in on the magic up there and brought Eldavin’s web of detection and counter-magics into proximity with his opponent.
The [Mages] of Wistram saw Eldavin begin to chant, his hands blurring, the air lighting up around him with magical runes. They gaped as he drew on their mana like batteries, but the war was entirely of his making.
“What’s happening? What’s happening? I must see!”
Valeterisa was shouting like mad. No one replied.
Like a thousand invisible tendrils of kelp in the sky, Eldavin was throwing magical tendrils from his radial point of the [Sylph Spark], questing around, trying to touch the invisible magical web he knew was out there.
“Insolent little [Mage]. Begone, Wistram!”
The voice boomed in his ears. Eldavin saw something pluck at the [Sylph Spark], tearing it apart.
“[Mana Bubble]! I return you once anew, again reborn into a cycle eternal…”
Against all conventional magical logic of the modern world, the [Sylph Spark] refused to dissipate, though its entire makeup was pulled apart by the mysterious other spellcaster. It reformed, returning to its original space.
The shock in the air was a palpable thing. Eldavin had caught his opponent off-guard.
“Reveal yourself! [Aura Tracers]; [The Winding Lair of Solce’s Jellyfish]!”
Eldavin went for a large spell, and the air exploded with more tracers, these ones charged by his and the [Mage]’s mana. They’d react—strike back in a clash of power if they hit something.
They burned through two dozen spells, but a sneering retort blasted them out of the sky. Eldavin’s spark dodged another invisible slice of magic. The two unseen [Mages] grappled, Eldavin’s spark the one visible point; yet he was sure the other [Mage] was grounding his powers somehow in the air.
Both of them, wrestling, throwing elegant weaves in with crude tricks to identify, trace the other, block their magic at the source and thus cut off the power, had the same thought at once. Eldavin whispered.
“Who are you?”
His spellcasting, second to none in Wistram, became faster and faster. Yet, as the [Mages] of the Terras faction watched with amazement…
Eldavin began to fall behind.
“…What the heck is going on up there?”
Ryoka stared up at a zippy ball of faint green-yellow light. It kept dancing about. Tyrion Veltras stared up, frowning. He thought he could see…no.
“I have no idea.”
It was an exceptionally high-level battle, of such skill, not Skill but genuine mastery that no one could see it, and it looked exceptionally stupid if taken out of context. A dancing ball of light in the air. Even Jericha couldn’t tell what was happening; only Valeterisa had any insight.
And…Hethon Veltras. His eyes were round.
“What is that? What is that?”
He pointed a finger wildly at the air, but Buscrei, Sammial, Pellmia, and the others just stared at the empty air. Hethon turned.
“Don’t you see it? It’s amazing! I’ve never—they’re all over and hundreds and—”
They had no clue what he meant. Hethon pointed. Waved his hands. Are you not getting this? Charlay squinted.
“…You mean that bird over there?”
That damn bird was getting in the way! Eldavin snarled. The spells were fighting all over the air, and he was maintaining nearly sixty eight different lines of attack and defense. Two were going through the bird, which it only detected as a feeling of bad constipation.
His opponent—was winning. They had actually chained a spell through the bird, and they were casting faster than Eldavin.
More complexly, too. Eldavin’s own magical knowledge was being exceeded. How did you cast through a living being like—
A gap in his head? He faltered. He felt he sh—
The slash through his detection spells was like a physical thing. He staggered, and the loss of so much mana cost him the battle.
His opponent had more mana, too. An inexhaustible supply, if Eldavin and all the [Mages] couldn’t simply win a pure mana clash! Not that it would work; it would be like trying to arm-wrestle someone who could spin around you and throw an elbow to the back of your head.
This was true magic. And it—
“Begone, you little pest!”
The magical link in the scrying spell imploded. A spell raced back through Eldavin’s connection. He threw up his hands.
That saved his life. Even so, Telim and the other [Mages] saw something hit the Grand Magus in the chest, sending him flipping over the dais and crashing into the wall. Eldavin lay on the ground for a good minute.
When he staggered to his feet, the magical presence had fled. Leaving Ryoka Griffin alone. A victory…of sorts. Eldavin was in no mood to celebrate. Like a guppy which had finally seen a big fish, he was rattled. And angry. He didn’t even know why.
I am the best in this world. The certainty was in him, a kind of arrogance to match even an [Archmage] of old’s. So then. How…
How did I lose?
“…It seems your foe has retreated. Wisely; more casting gives more opportunities for tracing them.”
“You didn’t figure out who?”
The snap through the speaking stone made Ryoka recoil. She had never heard T—Eldavin speak like that. Then he moderated his tone.
“…No. I was unprepared, Ryoka. Whomever that is—is exceptionally dangerous. Do you know who it could be? Even in general?”
She glanced at Tyrion, who was ‘not eavesdropping’ as he kept watching the sky, shield raised.
“No, I don’t.”
“I see. Well, this is far more concerning than I believed. I will make arrangements; this will not happen again. You are clearly in over your head, Ryoka. You should come to Wistram; there is much that cannot be said. Even here. Our speaking spells may be intercepted after…with such a foe about.”
He was rattled. Ryoka Griffin would have agreed in an instant if Teriarch had said that. If…she said one last thing as he told her that Valeterisa of all people would come and cast ward spells, to make sure she was safe.
“Thank you. Thank you, Eldavin. I’m…I’m so grateful.”
“I shall attend to your friend, Erin Solstice, in due course. There is much to do, and even I must make…preparations. Upgrade my repertoire. Artifacts. If I hadn’t left my research laboratory in the High Passes…”
Research laboratory. It could have been code. Or…Ryoka Griffin swallowed. Her lips trembled.
“Y—of course. I know you must be tired, Eldavin. I cannot thank you enough. Before I go, have you heard from Teriarch?”
Her heart thundered in her chest. The pause seemed to go on forever. And then the half-Elf spoke, his voice…tinged with uncertainty.
“I see. Sorry, I thought you’d met. I—”
Ryoka didn’t know what she said next. She just dropped the speaking stone and sank to the ground when she stumbled into her room. Her head in her hands.
What was happening?
It was all…
Falling apart. She knelt like that, until she realized she couldn’t. No longer. Her head rose.
She had to put it together. Somehow.
It was a given that Ryoka’s friends, the people who knew her in any meaningful way, learned that the Wind Runner was not generally a calm person.
She had what could be described as panic attacks—although sometimes there were things to genuinely panic about—and she seemed to run around with a giant boulder named ‘stress’ strapped to her back at times.
She was not like her friend, Erin Solstice, who could happily spend a day rolling across a clean floor in her inn next to a little giggling Gnoll. Ryoka would discover termites.
If you liked her despite that, her secrecy, her tendency to run off and come back with more problems…there was a lot to still like.
Qualities House Veltras prized, since so many were included in the number of people who liked Ryoka.
Loyalty. Courage. A sense of adventure.
What was notable now, to people who had an inkling of Ryoka Griffin, was how calm she had suddenly become. After she returned to the mansion, she thanked everyone for their help. Took a deep breath and…relaxed.
All was not well in the world. However, if the floor turned to lava enough times, you learned to surf on the waves. That was how Ryoka felt now. There was a time for action, and a time for rest.
“This has been a fascinating little adventure, I don’t mind saying. Grand Magi, mysterious spells, and Couriers! And a [Witch]!”
Alevica scowled at Sir Leireit as he toasted a little party in Pellmia’s mansion with a glass of what Ryoka thought was champagne.
Although normal champagne was less glowy. And didn’t attract the Fruit Cats. They meowed, leaving their branches, demanding sips. Ryoka peered at them.
“They smell like fruit!”
“Totwhisker Cats. They don’t just smell like fruit, they use it. The little geniuses make alcohol, you know.”
Ryoka didn’t believe Pellmia. The [Lord] laughed in delight and his family, even the reclusive Gilam, all looked proud of the factoid.
“You see, they know how to ferment fruits. So they find a hollow, drag in fruits, and essentially create an alcoholic slurry. Something in their whiskers is like a natural yeast—it’s magical, of course, but that’s why they’re named that. Totwhisker. As in, ‘a tot of gin’? Good luck getting any of their stuff away.”
“…Is…is there some kind of natural biological reason for this? Is creating alcohol a defense mechanism?”
Pellmia thought hard, sipping lightly from his drink as a cat tried to climb up and steal some.
“I think they just like it. Can’t say I blame them, but they try to steal every drink. A houseful of natural drunkards. Ah, we love you, don’t we?”
He bent down and scratched at a cat’s ears. Ryoka laughed as the cat meowed in vain, opening its mouth. That was the kind of thing to treasure.
Hethon and Sammial were allowed a very watered wine, and offered it in vain to the cats, who sniffed at the drinks and turned away in disgust. However, it was a sight to see Lord Tyrion continually moving his drink away from cats that kept leaping for it.
Somehow, House Veltras’ formality, at least of the main family, had no power here. Charlay was talking animatedly to Desinee.
“You’ve never had an ale? Really?”
“I have had vintages and specific decanters of kegs…”
“We’re going down to the tavern tonight! Who’s with me?”
“That sounds great!”
Swey and Buscrei instantly volunteered. Alevica was watching Charlay with extreme amusement. She sidled over to Ryoka.
“That idiot doesn’t know she’s talking to a [Lady], does she?”
Ryoka glanced at Charlay, who was talking to Desinee. She must have taken the woman for…a guest? Desinee was in a summer dress, but the Centauress had completely missed her expensive jewelry.
And signet ring. It was probably Buscrei, Swey, and Setth that had thrown her off. Ryoka shrugged.
“Want to tell her?”
Alevica smiled wickedly.
“We shall provide transport back to First Landing, Sir Leireit, and our payment in full—I regret to say Lord Veltras cannot personally speed your journey.”
Jericha was taking care of business during the gathering. The [Sorcerer] nearly dropped his drink.
“Er, no need. I am honored, of course, but never again. I shall happily take an escort. I must say, though, that if I might find lodging, I wouldn’t mind touring the area and delaying my return?”
“Of course. Sir Leireit, you would be an honored guest. House Quellae is open to you.”
Keireen instantly turned and the [Sorcerer] beamed.
“Wonderful! And I should like to do some business of my own. Quellae’s fruits are a lovely gift when I return. First Landing has its amenities, but the countryside is…fresh. Such a beautiful landscape. Mind you, if you should ever come to First Landing or the northern cities, there is a time to be had.”
“Really? What kind?”
The other nobles were chatting. Ryoka saw Sammial and Hethon following the cats around, then glancing at her.
“Ryoka, now you’re better, can we go flying later?”
Sammial eagerly asked. Betta and Gilam looked around; the two younger adults were hovering on the edge of the ‘proper conversation’, although Charlay had her own informal chatter going on.
They were in that uncertain time when they weren’t quite old or authoritative enough to do more than add comments or steer the conversation. Gilam seemed to resent it more than Betta, and he kept glancing at her and Alevica. She supposed a Courier was more interesting and wondered if she should be social and engage them.
“Later, Sammial, I promise.”
Betta drifted over.
“What’s this about flying, Courier Griffin? I do apologize; I am Lady Betta Quellae, and this is my brother, Gilam of House Quellae. We did not have a chance to properly meet before the incident.”
“Oh—please excuse me. And uh, please call me Ryoka?”
That was an inversion of protocol, but Couriers did get to dance on the same field as nobility. Anyways, it made Betta smile. Ryoka was just explaining the flying trick to the two, who were fascinated despite it being ‘childish’, when she heard something catch her ears.
“You haven’t heard? There is the most splendiferous event taking place city-to-city. The Players of Celum. Have you seen them or heard of…?”
“You know, I have. Weren’t they down in Invrisil?”
Sir Leireit was talking to Pellmia and Keireen.
“They were! I didn’t see the plays there—they’ve migrated north. There’s a huge theatre in construction, but the plays are—”
He actually kissed his fingers and flicked them out.
“Beautiful. They’ve taken the north by storm, rather like that Singer of Terandria. Her songs are all over First Landing. Some of the styles aren’t for everyone’s taste—they’ve introduced a noise ordnance law for the young people. However, I can tell you the Players are acclaimed. In fact…here. I have a Flair of Esteem. It might help you gain a ticket…”
“A what, now?”
The [Lord] and [Lady] were quite interested by the fancy little letter, signed by…Ryoka glanced over. Emme?
“It’s one of the ways you can get a special ticket. You see, they’re intensely hard to get! Not the common seats, although there is a queue…but to see the best performance from the best seats or the opportunity to meet them? Nevermind an autograph or [Mage]-picture! I only have a Flair of Esteem—that’s something of a voucher that helps. Of course, one of the Five Families has a better shot at the best tickets. Even so, it might take a month or two.”
“Incredible. Are they that good?”
“There’s sound, blood, and you feel like you’re there, truly.”
“I shouldn’t like to see someone actually be wounded. I’ve seen enough of Pellmia’s blood in his sword practice, thank you.”
Keireen murmured. Leireit hastened to assure her there were comedies as well as the action stuff. Ryoka was astounded.
“The Players are already in First Landing? And they’re doing that well?”
She broke into the conversation. Leireit glanced over, surprised.
“Well? They have a theatre in Invrisil and I’m told one just opened in Pallass! First Landing loves them, and that means they’re the darlings of the city. Have you heard of the autographs? I suppose a Courier would. There’s even talk of them touring Terandria and other major cities! Although between you and me, the sea voyages are disgusting unless you get the best ships that can do it in under a week…”
The man beamed at Ryoka as she stared at him, all glittering delight in being the person to know about the hottest thing with the other nobles who hadn’t visited the big city in a while. Even Buscrei and the others were interested. Ryoka didn’t know how to break it to the man, so she coughed.
“I ah, do know about the Players of Celum. I’ve seen a number of their plays, actually. Back when they were in Invrisil and Liscor. Actually…I know the person who helped them start.”
Leireit was astounded. Pellmia, who had been smoothing his chin and trying to hide a smile, burst out with it as well.
“We actually had the honor of seeing Jasi, Wesle, and the rest at Riverfarm. A personal play. Isn’t that right, Desinee?”
“The Players of Celum? I believe I have a collection of autographs. Indeed. Quite charming. I should like to see them…again. To see how they’ve settled in.”
The [Sorcerer]’s puffed-up chest deflated, rather like the Plumed Inflemril losing wind.
That was a bird from Bird’s Column in the Liscorian Gazette. Ryoka knew that because she’d bought a copy of the newspaper when she’d last visited. Bird’s silly little column was a daily write-up.
She fetched it out now, to prove to the incredulous Leireit that the Players of Celum had once been a regular in Liscor. The little ad convinced him.
“And here I thought I was bringing news and you all saw an exclusive? I’m…simply embarrassed. You’ll be the envy of First Landing if you have personal autographs, Lady Desinee.”
The woman’s eyes glittered. The other nobility looked interested too—one-upping their peers was always fun.
Somehow, Charlay missed the [Lady] part, having trotted off to a restroom. She clattered back into the conversation.
“Autographs? I have some!”
She waved a few in Leireit’s face from the party in Riverfarm. The [Sorcerer] gaped up at the slightly worn cardboard card.
“Is that a kiss from Jasi on it? I will pay you—no, I’ll trade you a wand for—what are you doing waving that around? You should have a stasis spell on it! Do you know how hard those are to get?”
Leireit instantly latched onto the autograph. Charlay triumphantly waved it over his head.
The fortunes of the Players continued to rise. Ryoka smiled, genuinely happy about that. She saw Alevica looking very distressed.
“What’s wrong, Alevica?”
“…I didn’t get one of those damn things. I didn’t know it was worth money.”
Ryoka Griffin knew the Players of Celum. In fact, her signature was probably worth ten thousand Flairs of Esteem. It was just another fascinating thing about her.
The power of someone who travelled. It wasn’t unique to her; most Couriers could boast of the same thing. When you worked for powerful people, you could often say, ‘oh yes, I know them’. Call upon favors…
Charlay and Alevica were both City Runners because they had not broken through to the next level, yet. However, that night, one of them came a bit closer to that point, albeit through connections, not speed.
The Centauress dragged Desinee and some of the [Lords] out to the tavern. Ryoka thought it was fairly funny; Alevica did not, being content to eat and drink on Pellmia’s hospitality. If she had, Ryoka thought she might have a shot at being a Preferred Runner for some valuable clients.
“Fals was right. It’s about being friendly as much as it is running hard and seeing opportunities.”
She murmured to herself. Ryoka didn’t go into the nearby city; she had work to do.
One of those things was blowing Sammial and Hethon and a bunch of children around. They laughed, creating the sailboats and parachutes that children who had heard of the Wind Runner somehow telepathically learned to create in the exact same way.
Betta joined in, before being reminded she was a [Lady] by the scandalized [Housekeeper]. Gilam just watched, and Ryoka felt bad since she would have wanted to try if she was them.
She wasn’t, though, and because she was Ryoka, she retreated to her room after her hospitality bill had been partially paid. Not just to hide away.
“Eldavin. What happened?”
Ryoka could guess. But she could only guess, and speculate about a lot of things. Like Erin. Mrsha…her hands trembled as she tried to figure it all out.
“Fetohep of Khelt is a powerful person. I…I’m sure Khelt is powerful. But it’s distant. I’m in trouble myself. But Mrsha?”
Her stomach twisted. Her heart hurt, yet Ryoka was aware how far she was, even for her.
“Numbtongue is going after her. And Bird. Bird? I should be there. But…”
She had seen Drassi’s appeal on the scrying orb while sick. Ryoka had to believe that a continent-wide amber alert would help Mrsha. She had to believe that, or she’d go crazy and race after Mrsha.
And she couldn’t.
“I am under attack. I can’t drag Mrsha into this. Whoever that was beat Eldavin. Eldavin! I…”
Ryoka sat there. Then she sighed.
“Yeah. Ailendamus, huh? What kind of a spellcaster can beat Eldavin even if he’s….Eldavin, not Teriarch?”
She mused out loud. She hadn’t really stopped to consider just who was so mad at her. She had assumed everyone, and put it down to a [Royal Magician] or something, someone over Level 40.
However, Sir Leireit was Level 40, and what she’d just seen seemed five cuts above that. Ryoka was thinking clearly now she wasn’t oozing blood out of every pore. And what her mind told her, clearly, was this:
“That’s not normal. I really pissed off someone for them to go to this length. Let’s see. Unknown spellcasting that Jericha is stumped by. Superior magical quality. Really petty—I mean, I stole nothing and they are pissed. Superior magical artifact in a vault that can definitely help Erin. Powerful kingdom.”
Her brain was telling her something based on logical deductions and past experiences. It was a very, very obvious conclusion. Ryoka stared at her fingers, and waggled her two stumps.
“…No. It can’t be. That would be an unbelievable coincidence. Especially for me to just run into…”
On the other hand, it made a kind of stupid sense. How many immortals had she run into? Was it fate? Or…the fae?
“It would be just like me to be cursed to meet people like that. Ivolethe would laugh her frozen butt off.”
Ryoka sat there.
“No. It’s too stupid. I’m not the heroine of every story. This is just arrogance. This is just supposition.”
She stood up and paced around, but she kept coming back to the conclusion. Ryoka slapped her forehead and groaned.
She sighed and began to pull something out of her pack. The quiet guest room, decorated by fruit motifs on the wallpaper, was filled by the scents of the orchards again. It was so peaceful, yet out of any moment could come another bolt of lightning.
The Wind Runner had to do something about it. So. She sat down and pulled a strange, beautiful, metallic object off a belt loop and stared at it.
The Faeblade burst into life, a glowing pink blade trending towards ultraviolet. An edge so fine that you couldn’t see it. Ryoka handled it carelessly, knowing it wouldn’t cut her. She inspected the nigh-invisible grooves on the handle.
“Hm. Let me see.”
With one hand, she fished out the ultra-thin paper. She spread the instruction manual out, stared at the foreign language, and rubbed at her head.
“Okay. Press this, squeeze…no. Press this, squeeze—what is that?”
She stared at a little illustration of curved lines around a picture of her hand. This was written for children in pictographs and somehow she didn’t get it.
“If only someone could translate this. Someone could…just cast a spell. But that doesn’t exist.”
Ryoka cursed as the blade winked out again. She scratched her head, then froze, mid-scratch.
“Wait a second. Didn’t Ceria once say…? But everyone speaks…no way. No—I’m going to kill myself if it’s—”
She got up and paced out of the room.
“[Translation]? That’s a spell.”
Alevica and Leireit were sitting in the parlor, stuffing themselves. The [Witch] glanced down at a plate of lovely salami, then up. She met Ryoka’s bug-eyed gaze.
“What? You find something in Goblin or Drathian? Stop…staring at me like that.”
“It’s a spell?”
“Sure it is. Barely anyone needs it. Some people use it to translate the spellbooks written by those idiots who make other languages.”
“C-can you cast it for me?”
Ryoka was screaming inside, but she hid that behind a big smile.
Alevica wasn’t fooled; she could see emotions. She eyed Ryoka, and edged behind the oblivious Leireit who was happily chewing on seedless grapes.
“I’ll pay you. Look, I’ll give you a recommendation for the Players or gold…”
Ryoka dug into her money pouch. Alevica leaned back.
“Look, I can’t cast [Translate], Ryoka. I’m a [Witch]. Also? It’s not a spell I know. So uh, calm down and…”
Leireit glanced up.
“I don’t know it either. Fairly esoteric as spells go. Who did you know who could cast it?”
“My friend—a Wistram [Mage]. She was an adventurer.”
“Ah, they would know it. You sometimes run into specific dialects in dungeons. Old Drake writing, and so on. Any scholarly-[Mage] should be able to cast it. Maybe Miss Jericha?”
“I can’t cast [Translate]. What would you like translated?”
Jericha gave Ryoka a big smile. She peered at the object Ryoka had in her hand. Ryoka glanced at the mono-paper and tucked it away.
“…Nothing important. Say, um, does [Translate] tell you what the object says, or does it just translate for anyone?”
“It would have to go through me. I don’t know the spell, but I would be delighted to learn it. I can request the necessary spell information and most likely learn to cast it within the week. Would you like that?”
Ryoka stared at Jericha’s big, happy smile. She wondered who else she could ask. Not Ceria; Ceria was in Chandrar, another thing Ryoka could be helping with.
Valeterisa was in the area and would pay her a visit tomorrow or the day after. Ryoka thought about giving the Archmage of Izril the paper and the Faeblade. Knowing Valeterisa, she’d take it, and just run off with it.
So Jericha was somehow the better option. Unless, of course, the instructions said something like, ‘hey Ryoka, we’re so glad you helped us with our Dragon problem in the land of the Fae. We know you’re dumb as rocks so here’s instructions on how to turn the sword we gave you into a blaster. Also, we attached cold fusion instructions for you stupid primates.’
…It would not beggar belief. Ryoka covered her face.
“Why is nothing ever easy?”
“Life without trust often is, in my experience.”
Jericha gave Ryoka another praticed smile.
“Nothing, Miss Griffin. May I help you in any other way today?”
Ryoka was banging her head on the wall when Hethon peeked in on her in her rooms next. He was beginning to get worried about her.
“How can I forget [Translate] exists? Okay, Ceria only mentioned it once, and I supposed no one needed the spell but…okay. This is fine. I’m fine. This is good!”
She still gave her head a good thwaking for a few more hits. Then she sat down, buried her face in her hands.
“Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay…saving myself from being roasted or blasted by red lightning. Let’s do that instead.”
Hethon wondered what was going to happen now. Jericha had gone off to research a spell at Ryoka’s request, looking quite happy. Something was happening.
The Wind Runner was opening up. Or at least…asking for help, which was the same thing. Perhaps that was why Ryoka hadn’t closed the door to her room as she pulled something out.
“I should have thought of this too. I am so…let’s see. If this would have actually stopped me from getting cursed…who’s the best person? Alevica. Alevica—”
She charged out of her room and nearly ran over Hethon. The young [Lord] flushed.
“I was just—”
Ryoka took one look at him and knew he’d been spying. She tensed—then sighed, resigned.
“It’s fine. Uh—do you know if Alevica is still in the parlor?”
“I think she went into one of the other rooms to drink.”
“Huh. Thanks. I just need to find her.”
Hethon stared up at Ryoka’s head. His brows wrinkled.
“…What is that?”
He pointed up at the strange headband Ryoka was wearing. It looked like two strips of linen wrapped around her head. Which they were. He could have sworn they were the very same fabric that had been on her feet a few times.
Which they were, in fact. Ryoka gave him a very self-conscious look.
“I’m just testing something out. It’s…probably stupid. But don’t let that stop me.”
She jogged off. Hethon followed her, naturally. Who was not going to follow Ryoka when they heard that?
Alevica was getting tired of being interrupted by Ryoka asking odd questions, but this time she stopped decanting a rather fine wine with Leireit and looked at Ryoka, grinning with amusement.
“Wait, say that again. You want me to curse you?”
Ryoka nervously adjusted the footwraps given to her by Nama. They were tied around her head and she felt as stupid as could be, wearing them. Yet she was exploring all options at this point and she knew they were powerful.
“Yup. I’d…like you to hex me.”
Alevica exchanged glances with Leireit. The [Sorcerer] looked highly amused, and the wine only helped that.
“This is proving to be the most entertaining job I’ve had in a while.”
“I know. Alright, fine. Let me just—”
Alevica pulled out a wand. Ryoka realized she was going to curse her right now, and held up her hands as Hethon, Sammial, and Jericha all skidded around the corner. Not to stop her, just to watch.
“Wait! Wait! Not a powerful curse! I just want uh, a minor hex.”
“Oh. Say that sooner. I was about to give you a nasty one.”
Alevica glowered. She rolled her eyes up as Sammial strode over.
“What are you doing now?”
“Just testing some gear. I’m trying to protect myself and since all my anti-spell wards exploded last time I got hit—”
“Oh, interesting. Is that an artifact of protection? I’ve never seen something like that.”
Leireit glanced at Ryoka’s slightly-dirty footwraps. The Courier’s face turned apprehensive.
“Uh…maybe they aren’t. But they might help.”
“Lord Hethon. Are those the…footwraps Miss Griffin was wearing?”
Hethon nodded as Ryoka waited for Alevica to get ready, taking a few deep breaths. Hethon nodded, squinting at the footwraps.
“They’re weird. What is she doing?”
“I have no idea, Lord Hethon. That woman is an enigma. A maddening one. Sometimes I just want to shake the answers out of her.”
Hethon and Sammial could agree with that. However, they were surprised to hear Jericha say it.
“I have never heard you express yourself that way, Jericha.”
The woman glanced at Hethon, then turned. She actually leapt a foot in the air.
Lord Tyrion Veltras stood behind the rest of his family, watching Ryoka with folded arms. She was pacing back and forth in the carpeted drinking room, telling Alevica she didn’t want a permanent hex in front of the comfy, intimate furnishings, and the lovely velvet couches that Leireit and Alevica were getting crumbs all over.
“Lord Veltras! I…”
Jericha turned red as a beet. Hethon and Sammial were impressed for more reasons than just that, though.
“Father! Are you following Ryoka around too?”
Sammial whispered loudly. Hethon nearly laughed, but then he saw his father…twitch. Lord Tyrion smoothed at his mustache, glanced at Sammial, at Ryoka, and then coughed.
“…I was merely curious.”
All three jaws dropped. Then they saw more figures peeking out from the hallway. Pellmia and Keireen, Betta and Gilam having gone to join Charlay in the fun, were also following Tyrion.
“I must say, I feel like a young man again, sneaking around the home. This is quite fun.”
Pellmia whispered, a twinkle in his eyes. They had learned by now that if you followed Ryoka about when she was like this, she would do something highly interesting.
Of course, Hethon and Sammial were the originals who’d learned that long ago. So they all got a first-class seat to The Travails of Ryoka, a new play starring Ryoka Griffin as Ryoka Griffin where she let Alevica hex her.
The [Witch] aimed a wand as she gulped wine.
She waved it, and Hethon thought he saw a twisting flicker stretch out of her wand. It reached out, and passed into Ryoka through her throat, disappearing into her. Jericha frowned; everyone else waited.
“Ooh. Not bad.”
Leireit murmured. Ryoka blinked.
“Did it work?”
Hethon was again confused; hadn’t they seen that? Then he heard a sound.
Ryoka hiccuped, loudly. She put a hand over her mouth. Alevica snorted and spilled wine onto the couch. Keireen frowned at that, but Ryoka began to hiccup again.
“Oh, hic—it. I just—hic—hexed—hic—I?”
“Yep. You asked for a weak one. Good thing too. That bandana did nothing.”
Alevica chortled as Ryoka hiccuped. The Wind Runner sighed.
“At—hic—least it’s not that bad. I—hic—thought you’d do far worse, Alevica.”
The [Witch] smirked at Ryoka. She waved a wand and the hiccups stopped.
“You think so? If I left that on for eighteen days, you’d change your tune.”
Leireit shook his head. Ryoka shuddered at the thought. Alevica was as evil as they said. Sighing, Ryoka took off the headbands. She stared at them, then put them on her feet.
“Okay, maybe it’s the wrong place. Try again. And this time don’t—”
She gulped as Alevica performed the spell again. Hethon and Jericha winced. Everyone else saw Ryoka stop mid-sentence. And then she turned pale. She scrabbled at her throat and tried to stop—
Too late. Ryoka opened her mouth and belched out a frog, which landed wetly on the ground before it began to dissipate. She gagged and Alevica took another long drink.
“Ooh, another failure. Want to try again? I’ve got lots of hexes. Genital warts? I can do those too, permanent as well.”
Ryoka did not end up with permanent warts. However, six unpleasant hexes later, she learned that her footwraps…did not protect her from hexes.
Good to know. She sat with them on the ground. Nama’s great gift might actually have been…footwraps…
Ryoka rubbed at her forehead. She knew it was stupid to expect every little thing to have an ulterior feature like perfect magical protection, but it would have been nice. She stared at the footwraps for a long time.
“I know they’re powerful. Even Jericha saw it. Right, Jericha?”
There was a slight sound. Ryoka’s head rose. She turned.
“I know you’re there, Jericha. And you, Hethon.”
She’d spotted them following her around. Even so, Ryoka had to do a double-take as Hethon, Sammial, Jericha, and Tyrion all appeared. Pellmia and Keireen had joined Alevica and Leireit in having a drink of their wine.
“Ah. Miss Ryoka. I was passing by.”
Tyrion Veltras turned into even more of a statue as everyone turned to look at him. Ryoka looked at him, eyes wide, then recalled the [Lord] was still actively trying to court her. She glanced at the window, but decided against bailing out of it.
“…I just wanted to know what you were doing. Are those magical footwraps?”
Hethon answered after a look at his father. Ryoka shrugged, tiredly.
“They should be. I just…I don’t know.”
Hethon muttered. He stared at the footwraps. Jericha agreed, absently.
“They are powerful magically, Miss Griffin. The most powerful magical item on you. Not conventionally, but significant.”
“What does that mean, Jericha?”
Tyrion was intrigued. So was Ryoka. The [Mage] fiddled with her spectacles.
“Potency, not mana. I would describe it as…the keenness of a blade’s edge, not how large it is. Some objects and people are noticeable for the quantity of mana in them. It is a standard way of measuring power. This? It is powerful, but some [Mages] might not recognize it as such.”
“Interesting. That makes sense…they’re uh, a gift. From my travels. Someone powerful gave it to me. A friend named Nama.”
Part of the reason Ryoka might be so leery of giving away information was how people like Jericha treated it. The woman instantly went to note that down, and stopped as Tyrion glanced at her reprovingly.
“Do they possess any unique powers?”
“I don’t think you can break them. But they clearly don’t stop me from being hexed. At least, generally. Maybe I could block a spell with them?”
“I could cast a minor one if you would risk it.”
Jericha offered. Ryoka shrugged.
The woman promptly cast a teensy jet of flame at the wrappings. They failed to scorch the fabric. When Ryoka held it out for her, Jericha shot a bolt of lightning which dissipated onto the bindings. Tyrion offered his enchanted belt knife.
“I would dislike damaging the wrappings. Perhaps, though…?”
He carefully sawed at an edge, then, when it failed to leave a mark, cut with more force. Nothing. Ryoka smiled. That was reassuring, at least.
“I’ve tested them against far worse. Believe me, if they’re on my feet, I can barely feel a lot of fire. But…well. That’s a problem.”
She gestured. If she wrapped her feet in them, her feet were immune to a lot of things. She’d run through the Wild Hunt’s winter, and a field of flames without feeling a thing.
Yet Jericha, with a low-level [Flame Jet] spell, could blow flames around the thin linen wrap and burn anything not covered by them.
“Congratulations, Miss Griffin. You may have the most narrow shield in the entire world. You could protect…one forearm with it.”
Jericha drily concluded. It had resisted Tyrion’s dagger, which was a fairly good one, and even a Tier 3 spell, but it was just two linen wraps, after all.
“Invincible feet. That’s silly.”
Sammial agreed. Ryoka glowered at him.
“You try stepping on a nail, Sammy. I’ll take invincible footwraps, thanks. I wonder how good they are. Maybe I should try my weapon on it…but I don’t want to damage them.”
“The Windsword? I’ll hold the magic footwraps!”
Sammial was eager. Ryoka glanced at him.
“What? The Faeb—no, it doesn’t have a real name. Who calls it that?”
Sammial stared at Ryoka, incredulously.
“Everyone. Everyone knows the Wind Runner owns the Windsword.”
“How do they know that?”
“Lord Deilan El called it that. It’s a Kaalblade. That’s what the news said.”
“No, it—what? He said that, but everyone thinks…? Well, it’s fine, but—okay.”
Ryoka fished it out, but Hethon kept peering at the other strip that was lying on the floor.
Sure enough, Ryoka’s Faeblade/Windsword failed to cut the linen, much to her relief, but neither did it shatter like it did when striking magical armor. It just failed to cut, rather like it was dull and the linen were…linen.
“That is strange. I wonder. It would be problematic if it did cut, but…”
Tyrion Veltras slowly unsheathed his sword. Jericha turned, her eyes going huge in her head.
The blade of House Veltras? The sword looked like plain steel as it left the equally simple scabbard. Until it cut the light. Hethon had seen it many times, though never been allowed to touch it.
The Sword of Veltras could cut the rays of light in half where blade met air. There was a line like the way dawn broke on the horizon across the perfect edge, and the air behind the edge looked a tiny bit darker than the rest of the world.
And that was only when it was not being swung. When it struck a foe and used its magic, then, and only then could you see the tracing on the blade. The words proclaiming the heirloom’s history, the sigils…Tyrion had once told Hethon it was because a good blade did not have to scream it was fanciful or powerful.
“Lord Veltras…are you certain?”
“Only if Miss Griffin would risk her bindings.”
Ryoka licked her lips. One of the most powerful weapons in all of Izril, a relic of a weapon, caught the air, a slight bit of metal unsheathed from the scabbard. After a second, she gingerly, gingerly, let the fabric dangle.
Lord Tyrion Veltras accepted the fabric. He performed a simple test. As a boy, he had once seen his father slice a block of wood by laying the blade down and dropping the block of firewood on top of the edge. So he gingerly laid the very end of the fabric on the end of the blade; it could slice wood like paper, and paper like…
The linen lay on the end of the Sword of Veltras like…cloth. Jericha choked on her own spit.
Tyrion started. Then he slowly, without asking, tossed the linen up. He unsheathed his sword in one movement, and slashed at it. Ryoka yelped, but the cut was high and away from everyone else.
The linen floated—then caught on the sword, it was flung to the ground in a little tangle of fabric. Everyone else stared at the slightly dirty, white cloth.
It was not cut. Tyrion and Jericha turned to Ryoka. The Wind Runner blinked, then turned to Sammial.
“So? Think they’re not cool now?”
Sammy’s mouth was so wide open he could have swallowed both footwraps. The Wind Runner laughed at him.
She laughed. Her teeth flashed and her face lit up. Ryoka Griffin’s darker skin and black hair stood out among the other Humans. Even Charlay. When she laughed, though, she was like everyone else.
Her green eyes lit up. She stood, barefoot, as tall as the long-legged Veltras family, and laughed. Sammial began grinning himself, with awe at the footwraps. Jericha and Tyrion were surprised, but they smiled too.
This felt…good. Hethon looked up for a second.
It had been too long, so long that moments like this felt almost unfamiliar. But Tyrion himself chuckled, looking at the footwraps ruefully and at his own sword. Too long, but oh, how the two boys longed for this.
A better moment than silent dinners, without Tyrion many nights. Laughter, from both adults and children. Ryoka Griffin caught her breath after a moment.
That set off another round of laughter. Jericha began giggling, and it was so extraordinary that she blushed, but everyone laughed harder.
“A sword that cuts everything but magic and footwraps stronger than armor. If you could use that sword—”
“Or if I were a [Martial Artist], or [Kickboxer]…what a waste!”
Ryoka’s greatest weapons were weird as she was. She calmed down after a moment, and nodded ruefully.
“At least I know they’re tough.”
Then Hethon spoke up.
“They’re so strange.”
He was kneeling, staring down at the footwraps on all fours. Peering at it. Well, that was obvious. Yet something about the way the young man said it…Ryoka stopped chuckling.
“They are odd. But good.”
Hethon nodded distractedly.
“No. I mean…”
His face drew closer to the wraps, which did smell a bit of feet and dirt. They weren’t clean; they were smudged and used. Jericha bent down.
“Lord Hethon, they aren’t clean. I could have them washed…”
He didn’t reply. He bent lower, frowning.
“So weird. Father. Father, do you see it? Look.”
Tyrion Veltras raised his brows. He squatted down and Sammial crowded around.
“I don’t get it. They smell of feet.”
The boy complained after a moment, but his father wasn’t so quick to dismiss them. He frowned.
“I…are you seeing something, Hethon?”
“Yes. Right there.”
Hethon pointed. Lord Tyrion leaned forwards until his nose was practically touching the footwraps and began squinting. Ryoka stopped. Jericha?
Jericha was concerned.
“My lord…Lord Hethon…”
They were so close their breath was moving the cloth. Far too close to a piece of footwear for her comfort.
She wanted to say, ‘please stop staring at a bunch of dirty linen recently covering Ryoka’s feet.’ Or, if she was more honest, ‘please let this not be an undiscovered fetish’. Then again…it would explain far too much.
That wasn’t what Hethon and Tyrion were staring at. Rather, it was Hethon.
His…eyes. Tyrion glanced at his son, and then strained his own gaze to see.
Some of House Veltras had eyes like hawks. Buscrei had peerless vision that could magnify itself. Hethon? Hethon had, on his first tilting attempt, hit a moving target at extreme speed.
He had also seen…something…when even the other [Mages] hadn’t during the magical war in the air. Jericha gazed at the son of House Veltras and her lips moved at the same time as Tyrion.
It struck the two at the same time. But then Tyrion saw what his son had noticed, that no one, not even Ryoka, had.
The curious qualities of her footwraps. No, not the dirt. Not the fact they’d been on Ryoka’s feet. Rather…here was something interesting.
The footwraps were dirty. But the dirt wasn’t in the cloth. It rode on top of the fabric. The dirt rode on it, but at no point had it ever dug into the thread itself, melding itself with the fabric. That wasn’t uncommon for enchanted clothing, of course, but the stitching was odd too.
Normal fabric had a rather typical weave. Of course, the individual stitching grew quite fine, but there was a logic to how you put together everything from pants to handkerchiefs. The fine skill of sewing had been developed into an art, in fact, a mathematical equation that even non-experts heard now and then.
There were unique derivations, of course. Clever ways to adjust fabric. But this?
Hethon had never seen this kind of stitchwork. At first, it seemed just…interestingly odd. The individual lines of thread, what seemed like just plain, exceptionally high-quality cotton threads without loose fibres were coming together…diagonally. They had a vertical loop through the center, but then the thread disappeared through the other side.
It perplexed Hethon.
Who would bother with this kind of style? Was there a point? It seemed needlessly complex.
Here was where it got odd, though. The linen was tangled up, so you could follow the thread about as it was looped into the seamless cloth. All right and proper, right?
Well…Hethon was having trouble. Sometimes, for fun, he’d watch how a thread continued through cloth. He couldn’t do it, here.
He kept trying to follow the thread as it looped through the fabric and kept…losing it. It went through the diagonal criss-cross, through the fabric…out the back…but where was it?
Hethon could see where another part of thread began. Yet the sewn footwrap weave had no beginning or end. Even at the edges.
“I can’t figure out where it begins. See? It vanishes here and should come through here, but…”
Hethon was pointing to his father. Ryoka and Jericha traded glances.
“I can’t see! Jericha, do something!”
Sammial protested. The woman raised a hand.
Tyrion and Hethon both clapped their hands to their eyes as the view enhanced. Jericha raised her own hands.
“My [Lords], I am so sorry—what is that?”
She saw what they had been staring at before. Ryoka bent down, and saw the magnified stitching. All of them gazed at the fabric, at first confused, then nonplussed, then fascinated. Sammial was the only one who didn’t get it.
“What’s so special about that?”
What was special was…Ryoka’s skin tingled. She knew what this was.
There was no way to complete the loop. It was…an optical illusion, but made into reality. Like the image of a staircase that completed itself such that you could ‘walk’ up it forever. Something that only worked as a trick because there was no way to actually create it in the real world.
“Penrose stairs. An impossible object.”
Ryoka muttered. Tyrion was tracing one line over and over…
“This is impossible. It must be dimensional magic.”
“It is not, Lord Veltras. I am sure I would sense that. And even if I couldn’t…that would mean each time it loops, tens of thousands of times in this fabric, there is a little pocket dimension that—this—this is truly impossible.”
Jericha was unnerved. She looked up—and saw Ryoka’s eyes dancing. Hethon glanced up at the Wind Runner’s smile.
Ryoka was smiling with delight.
That was all she said. It made sense. Oh, how clever.
No wonder she’d believed they were special. No wonder Nama had told her they wouldn’t wear out. How could you break something with no beginning or end?
Fae tricks. Yet, it was such a simple trick. An impossible one for anyone on Earth to ever actually create, but in the logic of the fae? This was probably as simple as they came. Yet in their simplicity, they created a fabric that not even advanced alien tech or actual magic could tear.
It was amazing, unreal, and simple and clever! Ryoka wondered if this was how the fae fought.
It was beautiful and simple.
“Thank you, Nama.”
Ryoka gathered up the precious little footwraps her friendly protector had given her. She glanced at the Faeblade, hanging at her side. Weapons of a strange kind, for a strange Runner.
The wind blew, and for a second the orchard whispered. Hethon saw the tops of countless trees dance in delight, in response to Ryoka’s smile. He looked up and fell a bit in love with that.
Tyrion looked at Ryoka too. She stood there, at peace.
“Those are the gifts you received from the visitors? Truly unsurpassed gifts.”
He remarked, softly. Ryoka Griffin patted her side.
“I have one more. Not a weapon. Just a gift. Something valuable.”
She stood there for a second. The others nodded—but then Ryoka realized her mistake. She dug, exceedingly carefully, in her belt pouch, and came up with a folded scrap of paper.
“I’m sorry. Here. If you want to see it, take a look. It might be more valuable than the Windsword and the footwraps, though.”
The Veltras’ crowded around. They had to see this. Hethon stared as Tyrion slowly unfolded the paper. He saw a scribble of ink and was disappointed. Then he looked up, as Jericha reached for him.
“Lord Hethon? What—”
Hethon blinked. Then he realized he was on the ground. He stared at his knee, and the other one placed just so. He was…kneeling? He glanced at Sammial, who caught himself. Then Tyrion, who had not knelt, but stopped himself. What…
Hethon looked at the words again. There were just two, and they made no sense. Well, proper names didn’t. He wondered why they mattered, for surely they did.
A slightly clumsy scrawl, unpracticed, even a bit badly done, as if someone had yet to fully master his letters. Hethon could have done better himself. The ink was plain, the paper…paper. Yet when Ryoka Griffin took it back, she looked at it, and her eyes sharpened. She took a deep breath, as Tyrion Veltras looked at the Wind Runner.
“What is that, Ryoka?”
She nodded at the signature and stared at it again. Ryoka Griffin closed her eyes and murmured as she thought of the boy waiting, beholding his destiny, yet still…drawing the sword.
That night, Charlay raced back into House Quellae’s mansion and hid in the stables.
“I didn’t take offense. Please come out, Runner Charlay.”
Desinee convinced her to stop trying to pretend to be a horse. Charlay peeked over the lip of the stable.
“I am so sorry, your ladyship!”
They came into the mansion, slightly unsteady, a bit drunk on cheap ale and good times. Buscrei and Swey were both falling over tables, and Setth was keeping them upright.
It was a convivial, good night. In other times, Keireen and Pellmia would have had to help the group to bed.
As it happened, there was no need. The drinking party came to a stop as they heard and saw something interesting.
Ryoka Griffin was sitting in the living room. She sat by the fire, so her shadow was long across the cobblestone chimney, made of magical stones with flecks of crystal or other glowing light across them.
It glowed faintly, and the wood and carpet flooring contained two little boys sitting there, right up by her feet. The grand chairs were also filled by none other than Lord Pellmia, Keireen, Betta, and Tyrion Veltras himself.
The others halted. Not for that alone, but because they realized…there were more than just the nobility.
Alevica watched from the shadows. Sir Leireit was seated, but there were servants, even the off-duty guards and children all gathered about. Listening quietly, standing from the hallways, but they were allowed to be here.
Ryoka had asked for it. Jericha hovered with them rather than go forwards, noting Gilam also standing with reserve, albeit alone. Yet they were all listening.
“What’s all this in aid of?”
Swey whispered as the others slowed. He got a response as Ryoka spoke.
“The Wind Runner is telling a story.”
Their heads turned back to Ryoka. Of all the things…storytelling from Ryoka Griffin? It didn’t fit her.
But then, they had never seen her with the fae, and the Stone Spears tribe. She had done this once before. And this?
Ryoka held something in her hands. Three signatures. Of course, she had more than three; you asked for copies. But these were the three, and one was the very same one she’d gotten first.
From the brave boy. He who would be King of Avalon.
King of Chivalry. King of Knights. King of Camelot.
“The great [Wizard], Merlin, had foreseen his own demise. You see, some people say that he moved through time…backwards.”
Sammial’s voice piped up. He was shushed, but Ryoka tried to explain.
“You see, he could see through time. So it didn’t matter when he was; he knew Arthur to be the [King] because it was all the same. In the same way, Merlin knew his fate at the hands of Morgan le Fay, the [Enchantress].”
“But if he knew what was going to happen, why didn’t he do something?”
Tyrion’s voice was quiet. Ryoka smiled.
“Well, sometimes you let things happen. I don’t know why. Maybe he couldn’t change it. Maybe he thought it was for the best. Maybe…”
She looked past them all. The audience shivered as Ryoka’s eyes changed.
She was not the best [Storyteller] to grace Lord Pellmia’s mansion. They had known [Bards], great amateurs and experts alike. Naturally talented men and women. Those with Skills.
Barelle the Bard himself had come here, once. Yet Ryoka Griffin had something that even he lacked. Or rather, something only Barelle could even match.
She was not perfect. She made mistakes and people interrupted. She didn’t remember the story perfectly, and hadn’t practiced it.
Nevertheless…she looked past them all at three solemn faces. A sword in the stone. When Ryoka told the story, you believed it.
The greatest storytellers had lived the very moments they recreated. So Ryoka told them about the bravest boy she had ever known. The man who had made many mistakes, yet the origin of so many tales. The timeless, tragic, glorious legend.
King Arthur of Camelot.
It was the tale that echoed in Terandria now, whether they knew it or not. The heart of every [King] and brave [Knight]. Ryoka Griffin had met him.
Some day he would return. It was one of Earth’s greatest stories, in its many forms. Perhaps because you could keep telling it.
Hethon and Sammial scooted forwards to the warm fire, their stomachs filled by snacks brought out, hot milk. They sat on the carpet as they listened to Ryoka’s low voice, echoing around the room.
She could be proud of that. Ryoka spoke until her voice was hoarse. She sipped from potions, accepted wine, and told the story.
Whatever else might be done after this—she had told them of Arthur. Not just of his heroism, but the way she saw it. The boy who accepted the crown for the good of his people. She was satisfied; there were not many tears, but it moved them. Tyrion Veltras himself listened, his face going distant as she spoke of Arthur’s sacrifice, his loss.
So ended the first day Ryoka Griffin truly spent in House Quellae’s manor, as a true guest, not an invalid, flighty runner or target of [Matchmakers]. She lay down in the soft bedding and fell asleep, content. Even smiling.
It was, as Pellmia would later say over breakfast the next day, one of the best guest experiences he’d ever had. And he was the host.
Ryoka was just a bit proud of that. She saw her friends, and the busybodies interested in amusing matchmaking looking at her differently the next day. As if Ryoka had made it harder to shove her into a closet with Tyrion.
Well, as if she were a person, not an interesting diversion. Ryoka Griffin stood taller. She smiled. She exchanged farewells with Alevica, who went off with a lot of looted food, and Charlay, who had a job from Lady Desinee, much to her delight.
“I don’t know where she comes from, but she is a fascinating girl.”
Keireen remarked to Pellmia in private as Ryoka took sword-lessons from Tyrion, let Sammial ‘jump’ from the mansion with a worried Jericha watching, and walked about the orchard. They came back with a basket full of cherries, and Pellmia smiled.
“Yes. Quite. Every time I think I won’t be surprised…well now. There is the Courier, the Wind Runner of Reizmelt.”
Keireen peered at Ryoka, and laughed and nodded. Ryoka was beginning to fit her title.
They got a second, almost full day out of it. A day where the world was not right in many places, but Ryoka Griffin just relaxed, content to take the moment for once. By nightfall, she was joking over dinner with the others, and writing replies to Lyonette, who had confirmed Fetohep’s words.
Ryoka was waiting for Magnolia’s response, and anticipating Valeterisa’s arrival tomorrow with some dread. She turned in, composing ways to tell Magnolia without telling her if she wanted clarification or…figure out what to do. Night fell over House Quellae.
Then Ailendamus attacked.
As Ryoka had known they would.
“To arms! To arms! Lizardfolk!”
The roar was one sound over the din of explosions, horses screaming, people screaming, and the ringing of metal on metal. Lord Setth pointed at the figures.
“Lizardfolk? Are you mad, man? They’re Centaurs!”
Buscrei screamed back. She loosed an arrow and saw a Centaur fall. Setth grimly placed himself at one of the doors. He realized what it was at the same time as his cousin and they chorused.
It didn’t matter who, in truth. They came out of the orchards, nearly four hundred of them. Quellae had raised the alarm scant minutes before the forces arrived.
They were definitely mounted. Even under whatever Skill or spell it was, Buscrei didn’t think the now-Dullahans could move that fast. She saw them as huge, striding shapes, but when she loosed an arrow, she saw the shapes change to a prone Garuda and a running cow.
Mounted warriors. They still fell. But…she ducked as an arrow thunked into the wood by the windowsill.
They were good. They stormed around the mansion, seeking to break in. They might have, for all House Quellae was not undefended. Keireen’s protective Skill couldn’t keep them back for more than a minute and there were some who were clearly high-level.
They might have, but for House Veltras.
The first armored figure burst through one of the windows. He or she whirled, saw a screaming [Housemaid]—and lowered the blade.
“Where is the Courier?”
The figure demanded. The [Housemaid] fled, shrieking, and they cursed. They whirled, sword going up—
Lord Swey grabbed the arm, as the two plowed into a wall. The armored figure cursed and sought to bring the sword down.
“Do not force me to kill you, si—swine!”
The insult didn’t move Swey one way or another. The warrior yanked their arm back—or tried to. They could not.
The [Mountain Lord]’s grip was like a band of steel. And…the warrior stared at their gauntleted arm. They felt the enchanted metal begin to crunch as Swey’s hand closed. The same hands that climbed the cliffs around his home—
More figures were galloping around the sides of the mansion, seeking to break through at another angle. They saw a squad of fourteen figures braced.
“Spears. Watch out—”
Their leader was cautioning the others as they turned. Then they heard a shout.
“[Porcupine’s Onslaught]! [Extended Reach—”
One of the warriors shouted just before a wall of spears struck the warriors off their armored horses. They hit the ground, stunned. Just in time to see House Veltras’ bodyguards charging at them. They’d hit them from nigh on forty feet away! The warriors rose to their feet, drew their blades.
House Veltras’ bodyguards were storming into areas; an entire squad joined Buscrei and began downing warrior after warrior. The attackers were dismayed.
After all, they were [Knights]. Yet they were running into some of Izril’s finest.
Then the [Lord] appeared on horseback with Jericha by his side. He looked around—and pointed.
“There. Take out the commander.”
He rode down on the leader in the field. The [Knight] had to stop himself from saluting, with regret. Their mission was secret.
They had come from far away, over sea, at fastest speed. Failure was not an option—yet they might fail to take the mansion by force. In fact, with each passing second, it seemed more and more grim. Still, the warriors fought on, cloaked by spell, dragging their fallen back.
They just had to buy time.
“Is this Ailendamus? They must be mad! Even if they hide it—”
Pellmia was in the mansion, not sortieing with Tyrion. He longed to, but his wife and family were here. Keireen whirled.
“They’re hiding it. They must not know we know, and even if we do—they’re not trying to kill us. Not yet. Where’s Ryoka?”
The [Lord of Orchards] realized who their target was and cursed his idiocy.
“The guest rooms! To me!”
His bodyguard and Pellmia charged there, but only found an empty room. Armored figures burst through the wall, and Pellmia raised his sword. Where was Ryoka?
The real attackers did not make noise. They slipped into the mansion while House Veltras and Quellae were distracted by the noisy [Knights].
Invisibility spells. Localized teleports. Shadow-jumps.
Half didn’t make it. Veltras’ [Bodyguards] around Hethon and Sammial’s rooms killed a squad appearing there, but Ryoka was not there.
Lady Betta Quellae screamed as one of the figures appeared in front of her. The wand rose. Hesitated. She was a [Lady], and not—
“Betta! [Gorecut Step]!”
A blade slashed through the figure. Blood sprayed everywhere. Betta flinched as hot liquid struck her face and dress. She lowered shaking hands. How—who had—?
Her brother lowered his sword. He panted, eyes alight—then froze as he realized she had heard his Skill. Then both turned, before they could unpack that moment.
“Lord Sammial! Come back!”
Bodyguards were bellowing. Sammial was shouting as he ran past them.
“They’re after Ryoka! Hurry! She’s—”
Figures swept towards Sammial and the bodyguards clashed with them in the corridors, calling Jericha and Tyrion back in. Sammial ran on, ignored by the combatants, as Gilam thrust Betta behind him and raised his blade, snarling. Yet everyone’s quarry wasn’t here, as Sammial was shouting.
Ryoka Griffin was outside the mansion. Sammial had seen her jump out the window before the [Bodyguards] dragged him away with Hethon.
Now, he ran out of the stables, as fighters swerved around him. People were shouting his name, but he followed the…sense he had. Where?
Ryoka Griffin was standing at the edge of the cherry trees, where she had picked cherries this morning with him and Hethon and his father. Sammial slowed, clutching at his burning chest.
The Wind Runner had her magnificent blade in one hand. Her footwraps were over her off-hand, her right hand, like a martial artist would wrap their hand. A kind of basic buckler.
Four figures had come out of the trees. One was behind her, and the Wind Runner was adjusting her posture. None of them focused on Sammial.
“—call it off. Are you here to kill me?”
She was speaking. Sammial saw her tense, and the wind was ominously still. But not dead. Charged. One of the figures shook a helmeted head.
“We have orders not to kill any of the nobility or guards if possible. There shall be no slaughter.”
“Then are you going to kill me?”
Silence. At last, one of the figures shook their head. She spoke, as she planted her sword.
“Upon my honor, we have no such orders.”
Ryoka Griffin stared at the armored [Knight]. Then her eyes swung sideways. The attackers were in retreat.
Sammial saw the Faeblade turn off. Ryoka swung it down, attaching it to her belt, and raised her arms. He didn’t know what was happening. What was she doing?
Ryoka put her arms up as the four ‘mysterious assailants’ advanced. They kept changing in her perception, but she saw them for who they were.
Perhaps it was the land of the fae that helped her. Ryoka stared, and her eyes found reality among lies.
Two [Knights], two figures in masked clothing, dark black. [Assassins] or [Infiltrators]. One seized her arm.
“Lord Captain Dutraic, we have the Courier. We are taking too many casualties. Please signal the retreat.”
They barked into a speaking stone. Ryoka saw one of the others draw something from a belt and clasp it around her. Cuffs. She felt herself grow weak, but they didn’t even bother with grabbing her sword. All the magical items she wore had gone dead.
Except for the wind. It blew around her, unconcerned, tensed. Good. Ryoka heard a response from the speaking stone.
“They are already falling back. Prepare to ride ahead. Eight teleport scrolls are authorized per individual. Assign four to—”
Ryoka’s mind was whirling. She supposed she shouldn’t be able to hear this either; if she didn’t concentrate, she heard a bunch of gibberish. But then she did hear something, clear as day.
“No. You will not waste time. Take the thief here at once.”
A second voice broke in, without concealment or alteration. A familiar voice. Ryoka gritted her teeth. At least it hadn’t told them to kill her.
The Lord Captain’s voice broke off. Then returned.
“Your Grace, I beg you to reconsider. I have thirty two [Lesser Teleport] scrolls ready for action. My ship is prepared to set sail. We can return to port in no less than four days if we burn wind spells nonstop—”
“Unacceptable. Do not argue back! Activate the scroll—now! I wish to lay eyes on this mewling thief without more time wasted!”
The Lord Captain began to argue. The [Knights] and [Infiltrators] looked at each other. Ryoka Griffin just waited.
“We have the scroll, Lord Captain. Shall we employ it?”
The [Knight]’s voice shook slightly as she went for a sealed case at her side. There was silence from the other end.
“As Ailendamus wills it. Let it be done. Activate the scroll.”
The Lord Captain sounded like he was in pain. Ryoka Griffin saw the female [Knight] motion to the others.
“The charge can barely sustain four. I shall take her alone, for safety.”
“Are you sure, Dame Eclizza?”
“She is cuffed and surrendered. It may be the scroll will not burn itself out. Stand clear. Hold them back; they will sense it for the first five seconds.”
The [Knight] turned. She took Ryoka Griffins’ arm. Still, the Wind Runner did not move.
They had her. This mysterious attacking force, and the impatient voice wanted her to go to him now. Oh dear, how could this happen? Who could it be?
Ryoka knew. It was Ailendamus. That was obvious even if she couldn’t see their crest. They might be able to deny it; it didn’t sound like whoever was ordering this cared.
Your Grace. Someone important? Wasn’t that a royal term?
Ryoka didn’t know. She was braced, but she had left her room, gone out to tell them to pull back, to avoid more people dying. Of course she’d suspected this. Someone who didn’t back down when Eldavin and all of Wistram and one of the Five Families was backing her wasn’t going to stop at anything.
The Wind Runner saw the scroll case open. Yet she was still calm. So long as she was being pursued, she couldn’t help. And this?
Oh, let Fetohep of Khelt find an easy way to save Erin. Let her be alive. Let her come to life and me waste all of my time.
But if not? Ryoka Griffin remembered what Ivolethe had said. This scroll. That was the surest way.
Ryoka was a continent apart. She stared as a familiar, glowing spider web of magic appeared on the ground. The [Knights] falling back through the trees and [Infiltrators] groaned when they saw it.
“A Scroll of Greater Teleport.”
The [Knight] looked at Ryoka. Her voice was flat.
“Rejoice, Courier. This has already cost A—my land more than you know.”
Her grip was steel, but Ryoka never moved. The Wind Runner met the visored glare.
“I’m not your enemy. This is a mistake. I’m going to sort this out.”
And get closer to what Erin needs. Her heart was pounding so loud in her chest, she barely heard the whine of the air moving. The golden sigils were moving about, opening a portal across the world.
True magic. Grand magic. She saw the air split. In the distance, there was shouting, the ring of steel. Tyrion?
He was too slow. Even with proper time to activate the scroll, unlike the Horn’s desperate flight from the Village of the Dead, it was barely fifteen seconds as the predetermined coordinates activated the magic.
The world split in half, and Ryoka felt herself and the [Knight] being carried into a world apart. A world where distance lost its meaning. They began to flicker out of reality for a heartbeat—
“No! You can’t have her! I command it! Ryoka!”
She heard a familiar voice. Her eyes widened.
A little boy charged out of the thicket. The [Infiltrators] and [Knights], focused on the [Lord] rampaging towards them, hadn’t even spotted the non-threat. He charged past a pair of gauntleted hands that tried to grab him. Ryoka thrust a hand out, but the [Knight] was dragging her back.
He grabbed her leg. Ryoka Griffin’s cry cut off. Tyrion Veltras burst into the clearing as the warriors fell back just to see his son and Ryoka Griffin—
The remaining three warriors looked at the spot where Ryoka and Sammial had been. One of them spoke a single curse.
That was not…good. Disastrous.
It was just well that no one knew who they were.
Ryoka froze, mid-transit. So did Sammial, and the [Knight]. They were spun into the aether, like two-dimensional figures in a three-dimensional world. Only, with more dimensions.
Ryoka felt it. It was…familiar. Familiar, but she still wanted to scream. To throw up as she was twisted in ways she should not have been.
It was a moment of transit. Probably only a second. It stretched into infinity because Ryoka was, unfortunately, able to process the experience, even in a limited way.
It just added to her suffering.
She screamed, or tried to, as the moment stretched and she felt the world around her breaking.
This was taking longer than it should. Ryoka felt it first, but even Sammial and the [Knight] began to sense it.
They cried out, but sound was strange here. What was happening? Something was wrong. Something was—
Ryoka saw something in this space, this world, moving with them. It was the only real thing. It was…
A pair of people. They materialized out of the whirling confusion, almost as confused. Then—Ryoka saw them.
A vast being of ideas and magic barely constrained by mortal form. A glowing woman, a rainbow of colors bearing a sword and shield that remained constant.
A half-Elf, shining with magic, her body half-destroyed, yet shining like a beacon of mana.
They were travelling the same way! And—astonished as the three mortals.
“Someone else is using [Greater Teleport]? Significant—”
Ryoka Griffin locked eyes with the Death of Magic. Silvenia. The Death of Chains herself was shouting as the dimension twisted her being. Yet the half-Elf [Archmage] moved, keeping herself…real…somehow. She grinned at Ryoka.
Then pointed. The Wind Runner saw a flash—then the [Knight] holding her shrieked.
She vanished. The ray touched her and she disappeared. It vanished into the whirling confusion. Silvenia shifted aim. At Ryoka and Sammial.
Ryoka shouted, but she couldn’t dodge. There was no air here! No—
The Death of Chains grabbed the half-Elf’s hand. She was staring at Ryoka, and the cuffs on Ryoka’s wrists. Chains. At Sammial. The boy clung to Ryoka’s leg, eyes wide. Silvenia snarled. She took aim again and the Death of Chains roared—
They parted. The world didn’t tear them apart; rather, it pulled them back into reality. Ryoka saw light, the rule of gravity and—
She stumbled. The Wind Runner fell to her knees, onto an intricate pattern of marble tiles. She heard Sammial screaming, the roar of magic exploding around her as the scroll blasted itself apart. Then…shouts of horror.
“Dead gods, Dame Eclizza! What has she—”
Blood and pieces of armor and flesh rained down around Ryoka and Sammial. The [Knight]. Ryoka heard voices, the ring of steel, and then a voice, booming above it all.
“Silence! The thief did nothing. That was…that spell is headed to Rhir. The Death of Magic.”
Exclamations. Ringing footfalls. But that voice—that familiar voice was shouting.
“Leave me. Do not argue!”
Something flung one of the people arguing across the room. Ryoka didn’t hear. She knelt there, then felt something splatter over her shoulder.
Sammial. The boy was throwing up. Ryoka nearly did herself. She reached out, unsure of how to move her arms, if hearts should beat.
“Sammial? Sammy, you idiot. I meant to do this. Oh no. Oh…”
She held the boy. He was crying. Ryoka clutched him tightly. Why did everything she do—
“What is this little pest? Can they not even capture one wretched thief properly?”
Footfalls. Ryoka looked up into the face of her nemesis. A man with a pointed goatee, harsh features, regal clothing, stared down at her and Sammial in disgust. He shone with magical power, and his eyes were flinty. Cold.
Jade green, like hers. For a second, she was uncertain. They should be mismatched.
The Duke Rhisveri laid eyes upon Ryoka Griffin in the flesh. He glanced at Sammial.
His finger rose. A similar spell to the one Silvenia had cast flickered in the tip. The Wind Runner shouted.
In the empty grand auditorium, within one of the many grand chambers in the capital of Ailendamus, the Duke stood alone. He had dismissed his helpers, the lesser [Mages] and [Strategists] and [General] devoted to this plan.
After all, what threat could the Courier pose? He aimed a finger at the boy who had tagged along, uncaring.
The air moved. A gale of wind blasted the Duke off his feet. He went flying, struck the ground.
He scrambled upright, clumsily, confused. How had…? He saw a bright flare. But no magic.
Ryoka Griffin leapt forward. She was still cuffed, but she held a shining blade in her hands, against all possibility. It was not magic. The Duke aimed a finger.
The Wind Runner cut off his hand. The blade swept around in a clumsy arc, but just like Tyrion had shown her.
Rhisveri’s hand hit the floor with a wet thump. The Duke stared at his stump of a wrist. Then—the tip of the shining blade.
Ryoka Griffin stared sickly at the blood jetting from the stump. Yet the tip of the Faeblade aimed at the man’s face. She was wrong? Was she…? What had she just done?
Rhisveri looked at his stump of a hand. Sammial was on his knees, still throwing up. The Duke’s face was pale. His lips moved as blood ran onto his robes.
Ryoka Griffin heard the small, annoyed sound echo in the room. Her eyes widened. Her heart restarted. She saw him move—raise himself up—then growl.
“What an annoyance.”
He raised a hand, glared at Ryoka, and then his eyes rolled up and Rhisveri collapsed backwards onto the ground. He stopped breathing. The blood stopped pooling.
He was dead.
Ryoka Griffin was not fooled. She raised her sword overhead. The Faeblade caught the air, shedding pink light around the new room, built in ancient style, raised within two simple generations.
A palace so vast the ceiling was four hundred feet high. A monumental room. Suspicious.
The wind howled around her. The Wind Runner felt it blast through the room, sending the blood flurrying into droplets in the air. Running around a shape—
There. She whirled. Something moved. Ryoka swung her blade as she shouted.
The unseen presence stopped. It was stunned. Confused.
How did she—? There was no way! No one could know! No one could—
The Wind Runner charged, blade raised. It shone, without magic. The wind blew, though she had cast no spells. A young woman charged by the King of Faeries. Who had gone to lands before. Three worlds. She swung the sword. The Faeblade struck something in the air, a weapon of the future.
…And shattered. The pieces cascaded around Ryoka Griffin. She froze.
Something struck her. A huge claw pinned her to the ground. A voice roared, monumental, far vaster than the previous voice, but the same tone, just deepend, magnified.
The wind turned off. The room was suddenly silent. Unseen, high overhead, Ryoka felt a gust blast down. Rancid, foul.
Breath. Not hot, but acrid. She gasped, but her chest was compressed, her ribs screaming. She had thought…had…but she was right. She muttered it again.
There were few coincidences. And this—this was the thing of stories. The fae. Ryoka grinned. She laughed. Then the voice echoed again.
“Dragon. Dragon? DRAGON? Did you just call me a petty, worthless, arrogant Dragon?”
A voice roared in her ears, so loudly that her bones shook. Ryoka froze. But—but she thought—
A figure began to appear, the air rippling. Sammial tried to look up and passed out, falling unconscious as some magic struck him. Ryoka saw, nigh four hundred feet overhead, something begin to appear.
Far larger than Teriarch. Yet…nowhere near as broad across. A long shape. Sinuous. Like a…a…
No. Ryoka realized what it was as Rhisveri, the true Rhisveri Zessoprical, appeared. ‘Duke’ of Ailendamus, the glorious kingdom on the rise.
It all made sense. Ryoka thought back to one meeting. One…little meeting, not so long ago. When she had met Sikeri’val-Toreshio-Maresssui. Her eyes traced the huge, coiled form, up, up, towards jade-green eyes, glowing with fury.
‘I came for my half-kin who still walk this world’.
She had thought Sikeri meant Teriarch. Yet—think of it a different way. Time. Prophecy. Ryoka Griffin muttered. The very same words she had spoken to that damn fae. That fugitive who lived in the lands of the fae.
“I have met one of your kin, milady Sikeri’val.”
So she named him, as the figure swept her up. Kindred to them. Half-kin, perhaps. Yet all the same, the great, sinuous cousin of Dragons bent down as the Wind Runner whispered.
Rhisveri halted. The vast Wyrm appeared, his scales flashing. Not obsidian or purple like Sikeri’s had been, but a brilliant, even beautiful jade, like his eyes. His underbelly shone pale white, and his vast eyes, slitted, flicked down to Ryoka.
Confused. Enraged. Curious. He sniffed long, as his body, which ran around the room, armored walls of flesh, coiled inwards. The Wind Runner met his gaze. Rhisveri snarled.
“Correct. What are you? How do you…?”
He sniffed her again. Recoiled. Sniffed.
“A Dragon. Of course. Which one! And…”
He turned curious.
“…Is that a female Wyrm I smell? But they’re all…”
Ryoka Griffin stared up at him as the claw lifted. She looked up as Rhisveri recoiled, and then rubbed the top of his massive head against his scales. Like someone smoothing hair on his head. Her jaw tried to dislocate.
Sometimes you thought you were the protagonist of every story. The lead in a comedic romance you really didn’t want.
Rhisveri stared at Ryoka. He hesitated.
“Why are you covered in mating pheromones?”
Sometimes, it turned out…you were the [Matchmaker].
Author’s Note: Did you see that coming?
I wrote too much. I was trying to rest, but I decided I could still finish a plot-heavy chapter. I stretched too far. This is exceptionally fast writing. Book 4 is out on e-book and Audible! Also, Diana Gill’s Q&A in the Discord is linked below!
And somehow, I also wrote the chapter. Did you see it coming?
The reveal with Rhisveri, I think many people could get. That he was something? Most people. Wyrm? Many.
That last part…well. We shall see. I have not written teh Relc chapter yet because I’ve been trying to rest, but the Patreon side story will come out! Then one more chapter…then I’ll probably take my break early August. I am burning through all my reserves and I don’t even have the coherence to end this author’s note properly. But I hope you enjoyed it.
Thanks, and check out those links! Book 4 is out! Thanks for reading!
PS: I’ll put the monthly Patreon poll up soon. Just…so…busy…
Bird’s Column by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!