Questions. They woke him in dreaming. Normally, he dreamed of nothing, not even ambition. The world ended in between the time his eyes closed and opened. Rarely, he had dreams.
In this one, he was chasing something. Fighting through dark waves breaking on an endless beach. Chasing something. An idea.
Something—which, in his dreaming state, he knew was ungraspable. It was like a thought experiment. How could you conceptualize something you had never seen? But via dream logic, he knew that if he saw it, caught it, he would understand all that he could not.
Onwards he ran, though he did not truly run. He wriggled, he dove, his body coiling. He flew, chasing after it, and realized what it was the closer he got. That damned Human, black hair blowing in some storm, hanging onto her glider. Not her. She was carrying something.
He reached for it, trying to swallow her. A vast Wyrm, chasing after…what? A shiny bauble, an orb, like a memory. Something it contained was so very precious. He stared at it and realized it was a people.
His people. Some kingdom he had never fathomed, an empire no mortal species could encompass. Rhisveri Zessoprical realized, remembered—
He had only ever met Wyrms related to him. True Wyrms, that was. The only adult Wyrm he had ever laid eyes on was his mother, and only in death. But that kingdom—
Rhisveri dove and woke up. The Wyrm jerked to wakefulness in the palace of Ailendamus. A rare nap. He uncoiled as he looked around, tensed—then realized he was squeezed around his ‘bed’.
Which, to be clear, was nothing as depraved as a bed of gold and artifacts. You crushed valuables that way; even gold got dirty. No, like his…as Rhisveri had found, he slept easiest when coiled around something.
In this case, one of the support pillars of this section of the palace. It was quite reinforced with his own magic, so even he couldn’t simply pull it out. Rhisveri was actually amid a sea of pillars, huge, towering columns stretching up to the vast ceiling above him.
The rare visitors felt it resembled a maze—and it did—but they had no notion of why you would make something like this. The upkeep in cleaning alone! All this empty space—for what? Encouraging giant spiders?
It was a Wyrm’s home, that was why. Cleaning? That was what magic was for. Idiots. Rhisveri grunted. Normally, he demanded a certain cultural magnificence from any additions to the palace, but this was just lightly crenellated stone in circular pillars of granite. Each one reinforced by magic, yes, and worn smooth in places since no [Masons] were called to maintain them—in a few places they had crumbled downwards and the stone removed.
Why, though? They weren’t even symmetrically placed about, some grouped together, others conspicuously alone. A strange palace.
When I die, if I am not revealed, perhaps some fools will repurpose this like the Dragonthrones. Claim it was some kind of magnificent art-piece, or use it as an actual maze.
The thought amused him. Rhisveri uncoiled from the largest pillar and began navigating his resting place. Why all of it? Well, the answer was clear if you saw him.
Rhisveri snaked left and right, his massive, hundreds-of-feet-long body, taller than any Human by multiple times, zig-zagged along through the pillars. He struck, undulating his body and shooting forwards like lesser snakes, and climbed, twisting himself around the pillars, using friction to maneuver in three dimensions.
Fast. A figure on the ground moving at a full gallop would have been caught off-guard by how fast Rhisveri moved. In fact, there was one now. A shimmering figure that looked like a [Knight], weaving left, right—it recoiled as Rhisveri’s head shot in front of it, blocking its path. Instantly, the illusion cut left—and Rhisveri struck from the side.
Wyrms fought like that. They were far larger than Dragons—at least when they aged to Rhisveri’s size. Although Dragons could shapeshift…Rhisveri hunted more illusions, then dashed through the maze, shooting from pillar to pillar, even diving, dodging imaginary threats.
He was panting after thirty minutes of it. Rhisveri was pushing himself, such that every now and then he smacked into a pillar or misjudged his timing and fell, ungainly, and, often, swearing like a [Sailor].
“Dragons damn it—!”
The whumph of a Wyrm hitting the ground was a minor earthquake, but the floors were proofed too. Rhisveri put another ten minutes in, then stopped.
“I have work to do.”
That was his excuse. Yet the truth was, he did do this at least four times a week. There had been a time when he had not, and he’d paid for it in harsh truths when he stared at a mirror. Keep in shape. There was no one to motivate him but him. After all, you couldn’t tell if a giant Wyrm the length of a skyscraper breathing phosphorus all over your face was a prime example of its species—or severely out of shape.
Rhisveri was in decent shape. Let it be known! Not that he went to anyone for advice. Or made an effort.
Fithea vouched he looked fine, and her half-remembered scale tonics seemed fairly good. Rhisveri puffed along as he went to his customary resting place, closer to where his fake body, the Duke Rhisveri, slept. Maybe he could put in a good hour—two hours every day. Not that he was going to war, but…
Female Wyrms. He could still smell it. That damned—Ryoka was tracking it all over his palace. Rhisveri had profound admiration for this unknown lady—
And a growing suspicion she was some kind of depraved manipulator. Well, that was what Wyrms were allegedly supposed to be. Rhisveri…wouldn’t know. He had read every book in existence, but he wouldn’t know. He had only ever met his family. And they could all tell you that their relationship had always been…well. Wyrm-like.
When he took control of the Duke Rhisveri, the Wyrm himself devoted much of his ‘self’ to the image. Not everything, but he certainly didn’t try to split himself up. After all, you heard stories about the mind-traps you ran into going all-in or too far removed, and Sophridel had all the anecdotes. Human Rhisveri functioned well because he was close to the original body.
Rhisveri’s main body lay there, occasionally moving about to eat or do whatever it pleased…much like someone lying on a metaphorical couch and watching television might pass an entire day without a conscious thought. However! It wasn’t slothfulness!
Not entirely. He had important tasks to fulfill, even if some were beneath him, and so, when Duke Rhisveri strode out of his spartan rooms, undecorated, only so his body didn’t get a crick in the neck, he picked up the first object, scrutinized it, sighed dramatically, and waved his hand.
Fifty-eight done, and more all day. Well, he’d pick the rest up. They flew into his personal bag of holding and he was off.
Thus began Rhisveri’s day. The first thing he did was call to him every report of Ailendamus’ intelligence, war front news, political, economic, and otherwise, and sort through the most pressing ones himself while Wyrm-Rhisveri read the other parts more slowly.
The Wyrm was displeased. Oh, the war was going well in some senses. Calanfer was under threat and Gaiil-Drome with it now they’d pushed up to the pass, and there were three [Princesses] under siege in that nothing-fort too. Excellent.
Tyrion Veltras and Izril? Annoying. Inconvenient! The Pride of the Wellfar ended the naval blockade and was a threat.
But if it comes up close enough, I’ll head out myself with Visophecin, Fithea, and Sophridel’s best mask. The four of us could probably do it alone if they’re sailing without escort.
Imagining a Citadel-class ship in Ailendamus’ armada made him happy. It wouldn’t be easy, but The Pride of the Wellfar, a Dragonship killer, was only lethal when it knew what it was fighting. If they had no idea Rhisveri was there, and if they didn’t activate their best defenses? Free ship.
Honestly, few things actually worried Rhisveri in terms of military consequence; you lost battles, and he hated that. But Ailendamus won wars because of the sheer numbers they brought to bear.
For instance, the ‘glorious, last-minute triumph’ of the Order of Seasons? Well, a third were now on the lam, under pursuit from one of Ailendamus’ Great Knights and the Order of the Hydra, who had split and were harrying the others back towards Pheislant. Well done for surviving one battle with two legions of Hydra [Knights]. How about four more?
Four more were marching towards Pheislant with a fuller army to check any notions of bravery from that side. The same with the Dawn Concordat. They had stalemated Ailendamus’ regular armies for a while while bleeding hard—right until a Great General knocked on their door.
And she…she could probably take Calanfer by herself. Rhisveri nodded as he strode along out of the royal wing, deserted compared to the rest of the palace. No, he didn’t fear the Five Families either—not in terms of overturning this war. Tyrion Veltras was a nuisance.
If I throw his son at him, maybe he’ll leave. He should do that, but—Rhisveri’s brows crossed.
Ah. Yes. His real headache, who had even invaded his dreams. But he put that aside just for a second.
There was…well, there were a few things that did actually rate on his ‘possibly concerning’ scale. The first one was Khelt. The second was anything to do with the Antinium, and the third was the King of Destruction, with an honorary place for A’ctelios Salash.
Three for Chandrar, one for Izril, and that’s partly Rhir. It just went to show which continent had the most old dangers aside from Terandria.
Khelt was…well, a kingdom with a lot of powerful relics, undead armies, and now at least three Revenant powers waking up for no good reason. Enough to halt a modern Terandrian crusade in its tracks without sweating. Rhisveri didn’t like it, but on the other claw, Khelt was far away, and if they did attack, all of Terandria would unite in their face.
Flos Reimarch was more dangerous because he could do what Ailendamus was doing and unite a continent’s worth of power. Fortunately, someone had turned him into a fried salamander and his capital was under siege. Rhisveri grinned savagely.
The Antinium? Not much news burning his ears, so he let it lie. And A’ctelios?
“…Someone should fill the entire thing with acid. Travellers warned to stay away? Who visits to begin with?”
They were acting…off. And that was not a good thing when people who knew the infamous Shield Kingdom said that A’ctelios was giving them bad vibes.
As long as it doesn’t start blinking, we’re fine, and Khelt can arguably deal with it. Yes—that’s a nice idea. Khelt can definitely check A’ctelios.
Well, that was it for modern news. Rhisveri did not care about petty drama. He refused to watch Wistram’s annoying network and let Itorin deal with those matters, which he was eminently capable of doing. His concerns were now towards Ailendamus for the day and her—but he actually had more work besides that.
Duke Rhisveri barked. And there was one. The Duke was a famous presence in Ailendamus, and so the instant he had emerged, almost like clockwork just past dawn, a few people with [Nerves of Steel] and [Implacable Demeanor] Skills had squared up for one of the least-envied jobs in the palace.
No less than a [Cogwork Bureaucrat] was first in line. A very interesting class…which Rhisveri had cultivated after understanding its benefits. The man looked like most people’s image of a slightly fussy official, and Rhisveri wondered if it was the class.
“You’re the competent one.”
“Yes, Your Grace?”
“Good. Get these to the forest up north. The one with all the damned centipedes in the wood. These are the scrolls Fithea has been bothering me about. I’ll give you the rest later.”
He waved a finger and fifty-eight scrolls appeared out of his bag of holding and clattered into a pile at the man’s feet. The [Bureaucrat] saw a few other [Servants] stare at him, wincing, but all he did was bow.
“At once, Your Grace.”
And that was it. He didn’t say ‘what, how?’, or ‘how should I organize this?’, or ‘why me?’. That last question would have gotten him booted out a window.
[Cogwork Bureaucrat]. A class for someone who fit into Ailendamus’ system and kept it running. He knew where the servants to pick things up were. He knew how to look up ‘the forest up north’ that was suffering from a plague of wood-eating centipedes who were driving the half-Elves insane.
And he knew how to contact the [Druids] and adventurers to use the scrolls of [Insect Bane], the officials to organize the extermination with regular militia and [Knights], and get a [Message] out informing them a Courier or fast City Runner was inbound with the scrolls.
He was a handy man, and Rhisveri had done him the great honor of remembering he was one of the competent ones. Presumably, he had a life, a family, ambitions and passions, and he very helpfully did not ever tell Rhisveri what they were or bring these problems up when the Duke needed something.
Rhisveri’s contribution to this internal affair was the scrolls. Normally, he’d make someone else deal with it, but Fithea…and so he was spending his mana pool and time mass-producing [Insect Bane] scrolls. Boring, but about a week faster than if they made an academy or their scroll production facilities do it, and it was trees.
You had to humor the others on things like that. With Fithea, it was trees. Sophridel, his Court of Masks and those damned plays which he wanted so badly. Rhisveri was paying for plays, but not to ship the Players of Celum all the way out here—even if they could be bought!
Culnous, leader of the merfolk, demanded pure water, which was fair since he had to swim in the stuff. Everyone made sure Visophecin and his family got their deliveries on time, since there was nothing like hungry Lucifen for a bad mood. Gilaw, the newest one, got, uh…extra-large feather combs?
The point was that each one mattered, in a way that concerned Rhisveri more than anything else. They were all that mattered, in a sense. Ailendamus’ secret heart. Rhisveri mattered most of all, of course, but that was the trouble. Fithea wanted answers. She was taking Ryoka’s side.
Ah, Ryoka. Now it was time for the annoying part of his day. The Duke looked around.
“Prepare the Thief—the Wind Runner for a conversation with me. At…midday. Knock before entering. That is all. Unless my brother wants me. No? Then go.”
He strode along, on one last errand before he dealt with her. Memories of yesterday flooded in and Rhisveri shook his head.
“Just disgraceful. Mortals. Let me see. Let me see…”
He reached his destination, pulled something out, and raised his voice.
“I have the book. Here it is. Goodbye.”
The Duke slapped a book down on a table as he walked into one of the private libraries. He glared at a cool-eyed figure standing there, and backed away. Damned things. He never should have created public libraries.
[Librarians]. It was too much of a bother when they were on you for missing books. Not that they were avenging warriors of death and destruction when you failed to return a book—they just shouted like that. They didn’t have that overwhelmingly powerful Skills, but some were incredibly inconvenient, like the ability to teleport to said book and grab it.
He’d had to squish three over the course of his long life, and felt vaguely bad about it.
Not in Ailendamus, of course. Rhisveri huffed back the way he’d come, still mad about having to return the book in the first place. He just erased their memories and they founded a library in a city somewhere else. But…it was something. He hadn’t actually clashed with that many of his kin, but a few times he’d done great battle over treasures in a hoard with another immortal species.
But [Librarians]? You killed them, then you took their library and felt a bit bad and kept dusting off the books. Depressing.
“Although the one who could cast spells from the spellbooks in his library without being a [Mage] was a threat.”
The [Librarians] of Ailendamus were not there yet, but Rhisveri had high hopes. Classes, that was the thing. The thing he would never have was varied, unique, and interesting. He sighed. Then focused on the problem.
“Your Grace. Your Grace, I require a word.”
Rhisveri was nearly back to his sanctuary from the annoying people when one of them caught him. He turned, ready to bark at them to get lost, but it wasn’t some hanger-on or noble who thought they could befriend him. He hesitated, because this was no less than Queen Oiena of Ailendamus herself.
“Your Majesty. How may I…help you today?”
The Duke grudgingly slowed and even sketched a bow towards her. He had to. She was, in theory, the [Queen].
This had better not take long. He did not particularly like Oiena. Well, it had been a political marriage, and the woman wasn’t some harridan or a fool. She and Itorin seemed well enough to have children who looked vaguely healthy, and that was all Rhisveri wanted.
But she didn’t know who he was, and sometimes it showed. Perhaps she knew something, because she had given up trying to get to know Rhisveri—but she was even smarter then because she didn’t inquire.
She’s no Reinhart, but she has a decent network from Taimaguros and occasionally she makes use of it. [Assassins] and [Spies].
She probably had other power from there, but she hardly needed it most of the time. She was still the [Queen]…so what did she want? Probably to know if he could magically cure wrinkles or mend her daughter’s favorite dress. Dead gods, had he missed a birthday? It was someone else’s job to buy presents and if they’d forgotten, they would be swimming in the palace’s lake!
“I have a matter of great seriousness to speak to you with, Rhisveri, and I believe it falls under your purview. I did not get the chance yesterday…will you walk with me?”
“It would be my exalted honor, Your Majesty.”
Rhisveri was rolling his eyes when Queen Oiena turned and glared at him. Her bodyguard and servants fell back, and the [Queen] and Rhisveri both employed passive safeguards for conversations, but she still lowered her voice.
“Don’t take that Taima-damned tone with me today, Rhisveri. I haven’t forgotten what you and Viscount Visophecin did the other day! But for that—you heard what I told the Viscount? Be told. The same applies to you, special bond with my husband or not!”
The Wyrm stared down at a finger aimed towards his nostrils. He retreated a step, affronted.
“I didn’t do anything. That was entirely Visophecin’s matter—and I believe he’s made amends.”
“Has he? Well, at least he has some composure. I never expected it of him, but it proves one cannot know who to trust! Perhaps it is a misunderstanding and we shall see. I will ask Courier Griffin myself, but the Viscount and you are under my eyes, understand?”
I could teleport her into the stratosphere.
Rhisveri thought it, but he deliberately did nothing, ducking his head after a moment.
“Just as you say, Your Majesty. Was that what you wished to bring up?”
Oiena eyed Rhisveri balefully. He hadn’t known she was so fiery. She was a demure wife with Itorin in the banquets…the times he walked over to talk to Itorin about something important and…wait, that was about it.
He didn’t know her. Two of Ailendamus’ [Queens] before Oiena had come from Taimaguros as well, hence the ‘ancient ties’ between the two kingdoms. This entire conversation was more than Rhisveri had spoken to one of them. She would one day die.
They all would. But for now, he played along since it was the kingdom that mattered. They kept walking. Oiena looked around in silence, then broke it once more.
“I wish to bring up the—incident from yesterday morning. With the Courier and her guards?”
Rhisveri blinked. He had been reflecting on that just now. Well, well, well. He smiled, but internally. It seemed that Oiena had gone from championing the Wind Runner to his position of ‘she was a damned nuisance’. He put on an air of grave concern.
“Ah, yes. Your Majesty, I think we are on the same page. I was just thinking of how to reprimand those [Knights]. Embarking on behavior like that while said prisoner is in their custody.”
Oiena looked slightly flushed, as Humans…Terandrians in general did when discussing matters like that.
“Exactly. I’m glad you understand, Your Grace. You are handling it, then?”
The Duke nodded.
“I intend to make a request of their [Knight Commander] in the capital to replace them at once, reprimand them for unduly conduct, and issue a severe punishment for fraternization with a prisoner.”
“Yes, although the Courier admits she initiated it—but yes. It’s simply unacceptable.”
Rhisveri nodded, warming to his anger. The young boy hadn’t even been much affected, much to his disappointment, but Oiena had kicked up a commendable fuss. He’d happily watched the Wind Runner dashing about, but the Knights of the Thirsting Veil bothered him.
“On duty. I don’t care if she was a [Seductress], they’re [Knights]. It’s a disgrace! They’re one of the three peerless orders of Ailendamus and this is how they behave in the palace!”
Oiena was nodding. Frowning, but nodding.
“Yes, and they’re women. Not that it wouldn’t be bad enough if it had been four men—and they surely cannot guard a female prisoner, but my daughter saw it!”
Duke Rhisveri paused, mid-nod. He felt there was an inconsistency between the things he was complaining about and what she was.
“Er…well, four men in that situation wouldn’t have been that graphic in the same poses. Improper—what’s gender got to do with it?”
Queen Oiena slowed. She eyed Rhisveri and the Wyrm’s puzzled jade green eyes met her brown-yellow ones, topaz mixed with bark.
“Your Grace! It’s one thing for [Knights] to indulge in such acts, but women? I—that is to say—”
She looked at her escort again and moved them back with a flick of the wrist. She stood there and turned a bit red. She eyed Rhisveri, but his blank visage made her curse.
“Oh, Gura-damnit and Taima-damnit. Your Grace, you surely know how outrageous it is?”
Ah. The Duke frowned. Terandrian ideals. He sighed, folding his arms.
“I’m well aware, Your Majesty. My concern is that our elite protectors are compromised—but we are on the same page.”
Rhisveri began to get a second headache. He exploded, but mildly.
Queen Oiena looked around again, as if they were discussing having a head of state assassinated.
“I have never brought it up with you, Your Grace, so let me be blunt on the subject. I do not know your feelings on the matter, but—such things? Such…intimacies?”
She stared at Rhisveri, turning redder, and looking outraged that perhaps he wasn’t looking uncomfortable. Which he was, because this conversation had taken a strange turn, but Rhisveri was a master of facial muscles.
“Yes. I understand what you mean, Queen Oiena.”
She smoothed at her dress and if her hair had been braided, maybe she would have given it a damn good tug.
“Well. Well, it’s not to be condoned, naturally. Naturally! But if I were to hear of such things in private from someone in parlance of gossip…? Girls explore things. It is unacceptable if it were to be made public, of course. Much less the things they do in Baleros and Chandrar.”
He was at sea in a leaking boat. Rhisveri saw Oiena take a deep breath.
“—But not when revealed. Princess Oesca saw it, and Ivenius, although he thought they were just sparring, somehow. I regret the entire affair—doesn’t she have door locks?”
Rhisveri bit his tongue. But Queen Oiena went on, concluding simply.
“My guards and I have seen it. Young Lord Veltras saw it. So I am glad you are taking matters into your own hands. When will you strip them of their class?”
The Wyrm looked at Her Majesty of Ailendamus.
“Strip them of their class?”
“Their knighthood and membership in the Order of the Thirsting Veil. If you are minded to send them to the front—that would also be necessary, I suppose, but I am not asking for that. Either one, when…?”
Duke Rhisveri looked at Queen Oiena. Instinctively, reflexively, he crossed his arms.
“Never. What are you talking about?”
The two members of the royal family gave each other another look like distant lighthouses just missing each other. Queen Oiena frowned.
“You are minded to punish them?”
“I am. Probably digging ditches in some posting along Noelictus’ border for six months after, I don’t know, a lashing. I actually don’t know the Order of the Thirsting Veil’s methods. Maybe a mudding.”
“Where you throw stones at someone? Only, with mudballs? The commonfolk enjoy it. We could allow them to add rocks and sticks. Most don’t, even then.”
The Queen looked at Rhisveri.
“Yes, I agree, that would be acceptable, but I saw them, and my bodyguard, and servants, Duke Rhisveri. If I could have quelled their tongues—I cannot. My daughter knows they are there.”
“So…you want me to take their classes. Strip four [Elite Knights] of Ailendamus of their class, or send them on suicide charges to the front?”
“—I thought we understood the matter, Duke.”
Oiena’s face was not hostile, let alone guilty, just blankly confused. Rhisveri on the other hand…he looked at her.
“No. Do you know how long an Order of the Thirsting Veil [Knight] has to train? We induct them sometimes as young as eight as [Pages], from noble families with strong bloodlines or gifts. It’s a decade from [Page], to [Squire], to [Knight] before they qualify as junior [Knights], unlike the Order of the Hydra, and it pays off. [Elite Knights]? They crop up in less than one out of a hundred regular [Knights] in their training, and we put them through intensive training. Those four hit that class—which is a minimum of Level 25—before they turned twenty five.”
He began counting off figures on his fingers.
“The amount of gold I—I mean, Ailendamus has invested in them? Why would I waste that?”
“Duke Rhisveri, I do not discount their cost—”
“You had no idea how long they trained! Do you think we just pull [Elite Knights] out of a hat?”
“Rhisveri! They have embarrassed the crown. Remove their classes and either exile them or send them to the war front, or I will petition the [Knight Commander] to do so myself!”
Oiena snapped. Rhisveri looked at her. He felt something sinking over him, something that had nothing to do with arguing with a mortal woman, or the [Knights]’ actions with Ryoka—no, all in this reaction. He spoke slowly, enunciating every word.
“—Just so I am clear. The reason they must lose their classes, and be banished until their likely deaths or never to step foot in Ailendamus again, is not because of their impropriety as [Knights]. Nor—nor is it your own personal objection, but because they were discovered, not the act itself.”
Queen Oiena looked at him, gravely.
“I take no pleasure in it, but yes, Rhisveri. If other nations learned of this, the scandal? Now, Courier Griffin is both prisoner and guest, and I shall have words with her. But as you said, it is one thing for her, another for [Knights] serving the crown itself and in the palace…”
Her words didn’t trail off, he just stopped listening. Rhisveri looked at Queen Oiena and a terrible weariness descended over him.
He knew how Terandrian morality played. He knew their customs and secrets, and, oh, there was a lot they said, which they did otherwise behind closed doors. He should have cottoned on to what Oiena meant earlier, but…the Wyrm sighed. He looked Queen Oiena straight in the eye and smiled politely.
“I will do no such thing, Your Majesty. Those four [Knights] will be duly punished, but I do not throw away useful people on a whim.”
She actually recoiled, astonished.
“You—did you not hear what I just said? The consequences—”
“It will not come out. Or if it does, we will simply deploy [Bards] and deny it.”
“My daughter saw it!”
“Then explain to her what you just said to me. Now, I am leaving. I must deal with that nuisance myself and I shall inform Ryoka Griffin just how much she makes the lives of everyone she meets distinctly worse. Good day, Your Majesty—”
He was walking off when Oiena blocked his way.
“Rhisveri! Do not make me go to Itorin! This is ridiculous to quibble over four [Knights] of no repute. If I must, I will tell the [Knight Commander]—”
“You will not. I will overrule that order.”
“You will what? Itorin will hear of this! And when he does—”
Rhisveri had had enough. He spun around. Queen Oiena stopped as he pointed a finger at her. Her [Bodyguard] moved—and bounced into a barrier. Rhisveri snarled as he pointed at Oiena.
“You’ll tell your husband? Go ahead. And I will tell him this is my affair and that will be that. Don’t touch them. Waste four [Knights]? They are mine. This conversation is over!”
She was staring at him, but Queen Oiena of Taimaguros had an instinctual reaction from her homeland, which was to stomp on his foot with a heeled slipper at once. Rhisveri stared down at his foot.
Oiena stared down at his foot. He calmly, and without changing his expression, lifted his foot, shook her heeled shoe off—which had left an imprint in his own shoes and flesh—and turned.
He blurred away. Her Majesty was left staring at his back. What had he just said to her? How dare…? She turned and stormed away, but shaken.
What a stupid conversation. What a waste of seconds of his life. He was an immortal being, who might live millenia or beyond that into aeons, and he begrudged the three minutes she had stolen from him.
The Wyrm boomed as Rhisveri stopped in the grand, seemingly empty room where his true body lay. Rhisveri was so annoyed he slapped his tail, slithered about.
“Who cares which ones do it? Who cares how many or which places? It doesn’t matter. Do you think Selphids care? Does Sophridel care?”
There were species and people and ways of life out there that Terandrian courts with their high-minded, idiotically close-minded ideals could never dream of. Male. Female. What did Drakes call it? Turnscales?
Rhisveri was furious. Then…he lay there, staring at the hallway he had come through, and was tired.
They had no idea. No notion how ridiculous their mating ways seemed to him. To a Wyrm. If only they knew…
“[Message] to Sophridel. Those four [Knights] guarding Ryoka Griffin are not to be harmed or relieved of their posts. I don’t care if the [Queen] herself tries. Inform me.”
He lay there, angry, furious that he was expending emotion on something so stupid. So…the Wyrm paused, and the Duke’s Human body swivelled around.
A [Servant] was coming.
“Where is the Wind Runner? Move her audience up. Now.”
Duke Rhisveri snapped. The [Servant] froze—it was only the Human Rhisveri she saw, but that was bad enough.
“Duke—I am terribly sorry, but she is not in the palace—”
“She’s escaped? She seduced all four?”
Instantly, Rhisveri went back to raging fury. The [Servant] stared at him, uncomprehending.
“Escaped? No, Duke. I was told—forgive me, it was Viscount Visophecin! I understand he, Lady Fithea, and some others went to his estate andhehadyourapprovalIamterriblysorryIdidnotknow!”
She backed away. Rhisveri stared in dead silence at her. Then the Wyrm-him calmly and carefully disgorged the bile rising in his throat and melted a hundred feet of floor tiles.
Ailendamus was large. House Shoel was far away from the capital’s heart, having been established later into Ailendamus’ admittedly short reign, and granted new lands, which they had managed for what were now multiple generations.
These factors meant that a ‘jaunt’ across the vast nation with a landmass equivalent to the Great Plains of Izril was generally impossible unless you were a Courier, or used the relays of horses and carriages that allowed people to travel at great need. Or you had a pet Griffin or magic on par with Wistram.
Since Viscount Visophecin had all these things, they got there. It was surreal, to ride under a mass [Haste] spell.
Even the horses were freaking out a bit, checking their own legs to make sure they were still attached given how fast they were going. The people?
The Order of the Thirsting Veil’s [Elite Knights] bodyguard was in full freak, with a possible addendum on panic. They were under no illusions on what came next, but they were still under oath, so they rode in a kind of subdued conversation. When they returned…
Ryoka Griffin was ahead of them, riding on a horse next to Viscount Visophecin. The old Ryoka charm struck again—which was simultaneously attracting immortals from the Devil himself to Fithea, Gilaw, Menorkel, and five of the Merfolk awkwardly riding horses—and making other people’s lives worse.
They were going to lose their jobs—possibly worse. Ryoka was petitioning Visophecin for help—which was a risky move given who he was. However, the Viscount just looked blandly amused.
“This would normally be something I would call a favor. However, in lieu of everything else—I do not think Rhisveri would object.”
“You’re sure? The Queen—”
Had cussed them out with language Ryoka hadn’t heard from even Wailant, while shielding her daughter’s curious eyes. Sammial had just given Ryoka a look of mild betrayal. Now, Ryoka felt Visophecin’s eyes on her.
“Rhisveri is a practical being. He dislikes waste, and the Order of the Thirsting Veil are highly valuable warriors. The ones stationed in the capital most of all. If anything, I am curious how you managed that…event. That would normally fall under my purview.”
He smiled, darkly amused. Ryoka was beet red.
“It wasn’t anything graphic!”
Nemed tried to ride forwards. The Merfolk young man was exceptionally interested in this conversation, although he sometimes forgot you moved your feet independently of one another and not like a giant flipper, and so fell flat on his face. Visophecin’s head turned and the young man decided to ride in the back.
The only person not on horseback was Menorkel. Even shapechanged, he was too tall, being a half-Giant in appearance. So he was flying ahead on a sulking Griffin, black, silver, and blonde-feathered, the largest Griffin that Ryoka had ever seen.
Gilaw. Visophecin was not impressed, so Ryoka went back to trying to explain in circuitous terms what had happened.
What had happened? Well—exactly what Ryoka had once offered. Which was the fight club. The ‘line up to punch Ryoka for things she’s done or said to you’ free-for-all. She had thought there was a market there and sure enough, when they realized she was serious, Dame Chorisa, Lacres, Indella, and Aine, the four on Ryoka babysitting duty, had agreed to settle things.
Mainly by engaging in a one-on-one fist-fight, no armor, no Skills, not to the death or anyone getting maimed. Still fairly violent, since healing potions would cover most wounds.
Ryoka had gone through some serious deja-vu in regards to getting floored. She hadn’t been under any illusions. Skills or not, they were [Elite Knights] and it had gone about as well as when she challenged Calruz and Yvlon to fist-fights.
Good times. Stupid times. What had possessed her to do it again?
Maybe the sense that they really wanted to hit her. This time? Ryoka didn’t strut about claiming how good she was. She did put them in arm-bars, and gave one a damn good kick—
Until she learned that the art of pugilism was taught by the Order of the Thirsting Veil fairly well. They didn’t grapple much, only knowing how to put someone down and hold them if they were a criminal, but they were tough.
Anyways, four asskickings for Ryoka that didn’t go entirely one way and then they just got to talking as they patched each other up. It was as they’d sat about, asking Ryoka about her ‘odd’ fighting techniques, that her missing fingers came up. And Ryoka asked how Chorisa had a scar down her midriff since they’d taken armor off to fight.
They were warriors. Young or not, they’d fought in wars. Chorisa had even survived running onto a pike in a charge. So they told her their stories and Ryoka told them some of hers. You had to respect that—they only half-believed her tales of the High Passes and escaping the Goblin Lord’s army until she told them the other ones. For her part? Ryoka respected the heck out of someone who took a pike to the chest, then kept fighting with the haft sticking out of her armor.
Mutual admiration. As for how things evolved? Well—Ryoka had a suspicion. She had intimated it, half jokingly, but when she thought about it, was it that strange?
You had the Order of the Thirsting Veil, who were raised from girls throughout puberty while being told that even touching a boy outside of sparring might ruin your ‘knightly virtues’. To both be maidens and warriors and refrain from extraneous affairs that might ruin your dedication to serving the proud nation of Ailendamus.
And if they were like her, they might say, ‘message understood, chief. I get what you’re putting down. The lads will not be a problem. We’ll handle it internally.’
The point was…well, the [Queen], Rhisveri, Sammial, Oesca, and all the others hadn’t seen too much. It hadn’t gotten there. It was just highly suggestive of what was happening next.
Ryoka hung her head. She hadn’t said all of that, but she was rewarded with the most amused look she had ever seen—Visophecin turned his head, but she could have sworn he was holding back a laugh.
“Quite…impressive. Quite entertaining—but improper.”
He caught himself, and Ryoka sighed. This was not the moral compass she needed right now. The Lucifen smiled wickedly.
“That you were discovered is the error. Terandrian customs will complicate matters, but I will prevail upon Rhisveri myself. Perhaps the four may be reassigned. House Shoel requires warriors to manage monsters and keep order.”
“Thank you, Viscount. I—that’s just how I do things. I make a mess.”
The Viscount glanced at Ryoka’s expression thoughtfully. Then he looked ahead.
“Perhaps. But aside from the impropriety of [Knights] guarding you…and they were quite certain you would not escape, having a hold on you in a physical sense.”
His slight smile grew wider as Ryoka turned into a plum. Visophecin went on, his expression smoothing to that curious blankness.
“Terandrian ideals are a matter to challenge and change. Later.”
“You…don’t support their beliefs?”
Ryoka glanced up sharply. The Devil raised his brows.
“It is not ideal for a nation without flaw to bother about such issues. I care not. Among my kin? They care not. But our views are influenced by those such as Sophridel, who is of…varied pasts. Some among our kind have strict views, such as Lady Paterghost. In truth, House Shoel accedes to our fairer kin whose views run entirely contrary to Terandrian values.”
Ryoka’s skin went into goosebumps at the name and implications. Visophecin noticed it, and he nodded, eyes on her face. The instant she had heard about the others, she had wanted to meet them and had arranged this visit astonishingly fast.
“Yes. I trust you will understand they are different from I. They can be…”
He searched for words.
So this was how it ended. Not with a sword, in a duel, or a lost battle or life, or even an insult to a foreign power, but with a kiss.
Dame Chorisa of the Order of the Thirsting Veil reflected on her failures. Which were that she should have locked all the doors, not just the one to their rooms. Then they should have moved faster once the Duke left, rather than laugh about it.
“I will take full responsibility to the [Knight Commander]. I hope you will keep your postings, although I expect we shall all be moved to the front or borders at worst. I am sorry. It was my responsibility.”
“Dame Chorisa, it was all our…”
Dame Lacres hesitated. Failings? She trailed off.
“I don’t know how I would say it to my mother or family.”
They looked at each other; the party had stopped at House Shoel, that reclusive, famous noble house in Ailendamus. Any other time they would have been agog, to learn of the secrets within. Honored by the company of so many odd and notable figures from Ailendamus, all for the Wind Runner.
Right now? They looked at each other and saw the thing they had dedicated their lives to, all their emotion and sacrifice, vanishing.
For what? It was not fair, and they very deliberately said it without saying it.
“…We are on duty. Assume postings.”
Dame Chorisa said after a moment. The [Knights] nodded. They were, of course, invisible and muffled, since they were bodyguards—ostensibly to make sure Ryoka Griffin didn’t run off, but also to guard Ailendamus’ people.
The manor of House Shoel was nothing like Chorisa’s image of the Viscount, who dressed in dark style. There were colorful reliefs that brightened the mood rather than severe gothic architecture, a veritable sea of flowers and delightful plants in the open garden with the path leading up to the manor, and half the trees about the estate were fruit-bearing, some non-native to Terandria.
The children and servants looked, well, plush. Hale and happy. Chorisa thought it reflected well on the Viscount, but she understood why he might not advertise his family’s home. That stately Viscount did not fit into…
“…Is that a statue of a Sariant Lamb?”
Dame Chorisa’s lips moved silently as she stared up at a noble-looking lamb in what seemed like a cemetery. There were piles of flowers over the grave of…a ‘Ser Tubeliges’. A noble Sariant Lamb who had saved the life of…
Dame Chorisa wondered if this was all a fever dream. She put a hand on her head. Yes, that made sense. The Wind Runner, all the odd things that had happened—yes, that was it. She’d fallen sick and she was raving in her bed and she’d wake up soon.
She was so engrossed by the Sariant Lamb statue, not to mention the carved headstones, one of what looked like a goldfish, emblazoned with the names of beloved pets, that she completely missed Ryoka Griffin meeting House Shoel’s folk.
Half were like Visophecin, stately, reserved people who keenly watched Ryoka. If Chorisa had been able to see past their illusions, she would have noticed grey in their skin tones, horns, and delighted smiles—especially the more uncomfortable she got.
The other half? She jumped as someone spoke.
“Ah, you must be the [Knight] that Visophecin mentioned. Such a shame. Such silly business. I hope you like our cemetery. We have one for people, but the children should have their own place to remember their friends.”
Dame Chorisa whirled about. Who had snuck up on…? She saw an old man with…odd eyes wheeling forwards in a chair. There was a strange air about him, and he was very tall and looked strong—but frail, as if he had wasted away.
He was also clearly bound to the wheelchair, and had the too-healthy palor of someone who was not. Dame Chorisa was startled—firstly, because she wasn’t sure who this was, as he did not resemble Viscount Visophecin at all. Second, because his eyes had two pupils in each, one of which stared sideways at any given time. But they flicked to her, changing which pupil focused on her in the most unsettling way. Yet his smile was welcoming.
And he saw her. He had no apparent rings or amulets, but he looked straight at the invisible Chorisa. She slowly toggled off the invisibility spell and bowed.
“I beg your pardon, milord. I am Dame Chorisa of the Order of the Thirsting Veil, on attached guard duty to Courier Griffin.”
“Ah, yes. Thirsting Veil. I am Uzine. Lord Uzine of House Shoel, though you will not stand on ceremony with me. Viscount Visophecin is introducing Miss Ryoka to the others, but I had the energy to move about today. I am a bit tired…will you help me back inside?”
“Of course, my l…Lord Uzine?”
“Uzine. You sound like many of the new ones who come here. We do not stand on ceremony, Chorisa, and I know all the staff by name.”
Chorisa blinked as she took the man’s curious wheelchair—a concept she did not see often—and moved him back along the garden. He was instantly friendly, and, despite herself, she took to his chatty demeanor at once.
“It is rare Visophecin brings visitors. I imagine all of your [Knights] will have to eat and socialize—we will find them. Do not worry about safety. Not here. An army couldn’t take this place normally, and with all of Visophecin’s kin and mine here? They’re all curious to meet this Courier. Affairs of the state, you understand.”
Somehow, Chorisa found herself in the manor, staring at walls with children’s graffiti ranging from drawings to little inscriptions.
Lord Uzine and Tored were here.
The Agelum waved over a [Housemistress] somewhat urgently.
“Herea. Herea, I have a guest.”
“Lord Uzine! You shouldn’t leave without telling anyone. I was beside myself—thank you, Lady Knight. Do you wish to meet the Courier?”
“Not now. And I won’t need a minder. I will have a chat with Dame Chorisa—but see to it she has something to eat? I am full.”
Herea instantly turned to Chorisa, who bowed slightly.
“I am content, Lord Uzine, Miss…”
“That is what [Knights] say. Herea, there are refreshments out, aren’t there? Chorisa, have some gelato. The delicacy we buy in bulk, given how much the children love it. Or other confections. The sweet stuff isn’t all for me, but we have treats from across the world…”
That was how Chorisa found herself staring at a cone of ice cream, gingerly licking it as she pushed Uzine along, then sat awkwardly in a chair as they talked. She couldn’t gainsay him as he was of the Viscount’s family—and he was pushy!
“Marvelous, isn’t it? Some kind of battered ‘cone’ and ice cream. The children love it. Apparently the Wind Runner suggested it.”
“Fifteen minutes ago. Our [Chef] is one of the best in the region and they had been experimenting—I think she told her the recipe, which will be a savings. A remarkable young woman.”
His eyes flickered left. Chorisa bit her tongue. Who was she? But then…part of her job was not to ask.
There was a split in House Shoel that any visitor could see. Uzine, the wheelchair or even bed-ridden folk with bright smiles, and the stately, reserved group with Visophecin. Cousins?
They were noticeably different. The Lucifen walked past the children, said curt ‘hellos’ to the cheery servants, and only truly interacted with each other—and the Agelum. They were respectful to the Agelum, although now and then Chorisa saw a few expressions slip out.
“Paxere. Come meet Dame Chorisa. Have you seen the ice cream cones? The children love them.”
A young woman in a dark suit stopped, looked at Uzine, and smiled. She nodded to Dame Chorisa.
“Thirsting Veil. Excuse me, Uzine. I must meet the Wind Runner.”
“Do take an ice cream cone. And introduce yourself to the staff—you hardly visit.”
She smiled, but Chorisa saw the faint exasperation in her expression. Resigned, tolerant—she nodded politely and moved on.
Such a curious place. Uzine was no fool, but he smiled, content with the exchange. Then he swivelled one eye to stare at Chorisa.
Only one eye. He had complete control over both. He saw her jump and smiled.
“Forgive me. As you can see, my family was exposed to magic radiation long ago in our bloodlines. We suffer for it. Our cousins, Viscount Visophecin chief among them, take care of us.”
“I see, my lord. I…I’m sorry. Is it…?”
She didn’t see any children, only the adults, all of whom had white or pale hair, regardless of skin tone. Uzine gave her a smile.
“We are the last ones. I don’t believe we’d want to inflict this on children, would you? We’re quite plentiful enough, even so. It’s simply how life is.”
Now there was a conversation-ender if ever she heard one, but Uzine said it straight off, without blinking. It was, and somehow it made things easier to hear it directly.
“It is my delight to spend my days among Shoel’s folk. And, frankly, we keep up with the news and help Ailendamus as best we may. I am glued to that scrying orb, and I was reading newspapers the instant they came out…we also make small recommendations the Viscount passes along.”
Chorisa gulped. There was a reminder that this was an important person. Who wanted her…Uzine gave her a keen look.
“You are in some difficulty at court over yesterday, aren’t you?”
Chorisa turned bright red. She began to bow.
“My lord, I cannot—”
Uzine leaned forwards, searching around for children.
“Well done. A Courier down? I knew a lad who told me he’d bedded a Courier, Named-rank adventurer, and was trying for a [Prince] to complete the set. Even had hopes of running away. Poor fellow. He died in a duel, and I never found out whether he managed it. They used to put Archmages on that list, but it was too hard, so the trinity was those three. But if you add [General], [Grand Magus], and [Captain], that’s six.”
Dame Chorisa stared at Uzine, wondering how close to death the real Chorisa was. Sunburst fever, that was what she had. They were probably preparing her family for the worst.
“Sir…? I don’t take your meaning.”
“I’m sure you do! There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Ah, is it me? I know I’m quite old, but I was young once. I won’t embarrass you further, though I have stories I could tell. I just wanted to tell you that Visophecin will have a word with Duke Rhisveri and smooth things over. If there is trouble, you will come here. Love should not matter in affairs of state or gossip. Let alone be a cause for censure. You are a [Knight] of Ailendamus, and you should be stealing kisses from whomever you please.”
He looked at her. Chorisa felt weak in the knees and was glad she was sitting down. Uzine smiled as she searched for words.
“I know it is unconventional, so I tend not to go to court—as if I could, regularly. But I have never cared, and no one in House Shoel will bother others on that. Or we’ll throw mud at them. Lucifen—that is, Visophecin’s side have their laws. We have ours. You would have done well if you’d grown up here. Many [Knights] have. Eclizza did, and I think she mentioned a Chorisa once. Hence me seeking you out.”
The young woman’s eyes widened. She looked up.
“You know—kn—knew Dame Eclizza?”
Uzine smiled sadly.
“I did. I did not know she passed until recently. The crown has not announced it. A tragedy. She grew up in these walls. Come—we will go and find something.”
A girl had once scrawled on these very walls. Chorisa had already been misty-eyed, but then she did weep to see it—especially that Eclizza had spelled her name wrong. Uzine patted her hand, still smiling.
“Forget this silliness over who was found in whose bed. Go back and romance half your Order, Dame Chorisa. Then—train. Then, live. If you must come here, you will be welcome. And then, you will hunt down the thing that killed her and bring it to justice.”
She looked at him. The Agelum’s eyes were bright.
“The Death of Magic did this, so I am told. Well then, Dame Chorisa. Be it you or any other, Ailendamus shall not forget. Level and live. For its sins—even Death shall die.”
Chorisa sank to one knee. She took his hand, and if he asked her to, she would have sworn herself to his service in a second. He smiled like the sun—no, like a tempest of light. Burn out bright and hot.
The Agelum scared the ever-loving hell out of Ryoka. Even more than the Lucifen, and they scared her to bits.
The idea of a devil, even as a species, was one thing. But the Agelum? She looked at them, from Gadrea to Razia with their vaguely…biblical names. She heard voices as she shook their hands and they teased her.
“How many [Knights] is enough in one bed, eh? Four? To be young again—”
“So you’re the girl who had Visophecin all riled up? Visophecin, tell us again—don’t be so coy! I think we may actually make him blush.”
They were her own voices that whispered to her. But it came out in the first hour of interactions with the Agelum. The Lucifen were reserved; they watched Ryoka like hawks watching an interesting prey, and she thought she understood them.
Predators of people. Humanity’s natural, only counter. Curious and dispassionate, like Visophecin was. Incapable of empathy, but not thoughtless; highly intelligent and moral in their own way.
They certainly bowed and fussed over Fithea, listening to her respectfully and going as far as to fetch things for her themselves.
Nemed and the Merfolk were wary, but jested with a few younger Lucifen who they knew. Interestingly, Menorkel and Gilaw hung back, and the Lucifen were more rival-ish with them, asking how Menorkel’s ‘training’ was going and suggesting they race Gilaw. There were younger members of the Lucifen—none of the Agelum.
Ryoka could see why. The Agelum were weak; not dying—not more than anyone was—but distinctly mortal for some reason. Too weak to stand, though some did to shake her hand before they were forced to rest.
Yet they were far, far scarier to Ryoka. She looked them in their odd eyes, thought of the original forms of Angels in mythology…and heard voices.
Be not afraid. I bring you tidings of great joy.
Given what she knew of…dead things…they were scary as shit. But not just that. If they could but stand, if they were healthier—these were the people Ryoka could see leading an army to war. She even felt it herself. If ever a crusade were to march on hell, the Agelum would lead the charge.
Only, in this version of hell, the Lucifen would probably have already opened the gates and set out tea and snacks for everyone. Ryoka felt dizzy.
“I would have thought both, uh, families wouldn’t get along.”
Her first unguarded comment to Gadrea, Visophecin, Razia, and two polite Lucifen after all the introductions and the ice cream recipe was revealing.
Instantly, the two Lucifen traded a glance. Gadrea raised her eyebrows, and her odd, deep blue veins in her pale skin moved as she raised a hand.
“So you do know of us. You have legends among your people? You are not of this world, so Agelum and Lucifen exist in others, even as ideas. Do we exist? Or are we stories? We were stories, but we’ve erased even those. And we did hate each other, until it became clear neither one of us would survive alone and possibly not together.”
Ryoka’s jaw opened. She’d pulled that from a one-line sentence? Her teeth clamped together and the Viscount gave Gadrea a slow look of warning.
“Gadrea, Ryoka has expressed a desire for secrecy. It is a delicate negotiation.”
One of her eyes swivelled to him; she had a tri-pupil eye and a dual-one.
“Visophecin, you play too many games of subtlety. This is the only time I will get to meet Miss Ryoka, in all likelihood! It may be secret—but surely she will trade answers with me. Have you played ‘Twenty Answers’, Ryoka?”
Oh dead gods. Magnolia Reinhart swam in Ryoka’s mind. First the fist-fights, now this. She bit her tongue.
“It’s…I’m sorry to say that there are things I don’t wish to reveal, Lady Gadrea.”
The Agelum frowned. One of the two Lucifen, who looked like a couple, leaned forwards. She had dark, wavy, red-black hair, a piercing stare, and long fingernails. Visophecin had introduced her as ‘Azemith’.
“Given how interesting she is, and how essential you described this moment for Ailendamus’ future, have you not considered asking more pointedly, Visophecin? We could…break for two hours. I would happily go to a private room and inquire with Miss Griffin, then come back and report.”
She bared her teeth. Ryoka edged over in her seat as the other Lucifen chuckled. Visophecin fixed the two with a flat look.
“Azemith, Igolze. Courier Griffin is a guest of Rhisveri. A prisoner of the crown and emissary from afar. Make it clear to the family—again—that no one is to compromise Ailendamus’ position.”
Azemith replied without looking at Visophecin. She was studying Ryoka, like someone might study a fascinating handbag in the store.
“I could be sweet. Although it’s far swifter to be direct. She has no classes. It would take no time at all.”
“And I would object, cousin. Let us not come to blows; Ryoka is my guest.”
Azemith pursed her lips and she and Gadrea locked eyes. It had to be said, the Lucifen, for all her imposing power and poise, was always going to lose a staring contest with an Agelum. Visophecin cut the hanging tension like a sword through a noose.
“That is one issue, Azemith. The other is that Courier Griffin is represented by powers. Who she could name. I believe you would regret it if you pushed her to that point.”
The Lucifen both eyed Ryoka, and Azemith’s eyes flickered. She smiled, but drew back a bit.
“Ah. That does make it interesting. Well, I will put the offer forwards. If Miss Griffin wishes it, I would happily make an opening in any day or night.”
Ryoka stared at her. Yeah. Wow.
She was still far more scared of Gadrea than Azemith, but that was something alright. And yet…Ryoka looked at Visophecin.
See, this was the trap she fell into last time with the Viscount. If you run, or don’t slap them in the face, they will go after you. Because they are your predators. So, Ryoka pushed.
“I’m not looking for anything involved after the last incident so soon, Lady Azemith. Also, not you, with respect. We mortals have unpresuming standards, but you might want to change tacks if you ever tried that in the Court of the Winter Fae.”
She was rewarded with a slack-faced expression from Azemith—right before her husband/partner smiled, and Gadrea and Razia started howling with laughter. Azemith’s eyes narrowed, but even Visophecin was amused. She stared at Ryoka, then sat back.
“Well, that’s new.”
Ryoka Griffin was vibrating with nervous energy, but she turned. The thing about mistakes was…the thing about the past and growing was…you tried not to make the same mistakes. So she took a breath, thought fast, and went.
“Let me see. Satan is one. Abbadon, Mephistopheles, Asmodeus, Beelzebub, uh, and, um, Chernabog? Those would all be names of famous Devils—which is what we call the Lucifen. Oh, Lucifer is also a name associated with the Devil, which is how I knew Visophecin in a moment. You may want to reconsider that given how they’re viewed across worlds. Does any of that sound familiar in your history?”
The smiles and laughter stopped. Visophecin sat up. Ryoka Griffin smiled nervously. The shots were fired. Fithea’s head rose from her corner.
Let’s dance. Ryoka Griffin was a striking cobra, a weaving reed in the wind. A…okay, that was an exaggeration. But anyone who had ever known her would have to have a lie down. Because the tea?
The Titan looked down. He was rewarded with a wet Lucifen glaring at him. He’d tipped half his cup onto her head.
He began to apologize, but he kept looking at Ryoka as she kept talking. Because she had the immortals by the gonads, assuming they had any. Ryoka Griffin sat, shifting with nervous energy. And this is what she said, for the first time ever in Ryoka-history.
“We have legends of Angels and Devils in my world. Devil, really. Some people think there’s only one, so they’d call a number ‘Demons’, maybe. Heaven and Hell. Good and evil. But they are legends. Mythology. It’s completely different from stories of Griffins or Dryads or even Titans. A different…”
“…culture. Different cultures, which I suppose you understand. You have the genuine article. Manticores, Griffins, Hydras. We have stories about them.”
They looked at her, some wide-eyed like the Merfolk, others focused on her like a laser, like Fithea, desperate to know. Menorkel was like that; Gilaw was just curious, scooting closer, wide-eyed.
The Agelum were whispering. Half the Lucifen, Visophecin included, were taking notes on sheets of paper. They were fascinated.
“So we are only legends in your…world?”
Gadrea stumbled over that last bit. Ryoka was glad to see it, because it meant they were just as amazed as she had been. She nodded.
“Yes. As far as I know. Which, now I’m beginning to wonder about. Magic is a myth there, too.”
“Then how does anything function? No magic? You mean, no spellcasting, right, or is the entire place just a void?”
Ryoka Griffin pretended to think. She glanced up.
“Well…we do have legends. So that implies perhaps there’s a truth to them. Maybe they could be there if there’s no magic?”
A withered voice. Fithea, sitting forwards.
“Not in a void. Some creatures—my people do not need it to live, but our great forests would never grow to fruition. Not without something. The trees of ages would produce more, but without a drop…”
Visophecin glanced at her, but the Dryad barely blinked. Ryoka memorized that. Yes, she was dancing. Bob and weave and duck.
“So, we are so common as to be known by all of your people?”
Azemith asked, eyes searching Ryoka. The young woman hesitated.
“Not by all peoples—I know Devils and Angels specifically. Which is why I associated Visophecin with danger. I would have thought you two would quarrel. And that you would have your own place. Heaven and Hell—but not Rhir. Unless that’s literal?”
“No. The oldest of us told us that in ancient memory, once—”
Razia broke off. Ryoka exhaled, but kept her face blank. Yes. Yes.
Last time she’d done this, it had been the other way. Magnolia Reinhart vs Ryoka, newly come to this world, and it had been a disaster. Ryoka had been too paranoid to say anything, and what she refused to say might have put Magnolia onto…everything.
This time? She spilled the tea. She said all the words they wanted to hear. She told them the stories of Angels and Demons and their own myths, from Griffins to Rocs, and how people didn’t believe them in a world full of Humans.
What Ryoka gained from this was what they said. So, Agelum and Lucifen had lived somewhere else. And—Ryoka Griffin kept speaking. The next person to press her was Visophecin, and he did it far better than the others.
“Is there evidence of any common link between your world and mine? Does yours have a name? We have many for ours, but they are what each people calls it. Simple names. The land. The world. Firmament. Others have specific names…such as the Drakes. The Fraer-folk. And now I wonder why some have names and others not.”
Ryoka Griffin smiled. That was a loaded question full of careful traps. So she answered.
“I don’t know. Aside from stories? Everything that is a story in my world is real in yours, but different. For instance, I was led to believe when I came here that a Devil stole souls.”
“Well, that sounds just fascinating.”
One of them called out. There was laughter—and Ryoka saw Visophecin quell it with one hand. Clever. The problem was he had an audience and he was realizing that was a mistake. Ryoka went on, blithely.
“—It might honestly be we know something of this world from a common link. After all, the Fae have gateways to both. They have gateways everywhere, so the truth being legend in another world could be just as likely as us having tons of extinct or hiding people.”
“I see. Yet how did—”
Visophecin broke off as Fithea leaned forwards.
“Ah. That land! The Farthest Travellers! So the gateways remain?”
She was so hungry, so desperate, everyone else had to sit back. Ryoka met Fithea’s eyes.
“They exist. But the gateways…they’re broken or closed. I think they can open them from their side. Not us from ours. There may be another way, but I only know one surefire way to cross.”
“And you can open it. What would it take?”
“Fithea. This is a discussion for later.”
Nemed and the Merfolk looked at Fithea, who was vibrating, and Visophecin. They stirred. Some of the other Lucifen sat up, and even the Agelum.
“We’d like to know more! This concerns all of us, Visophecin! The—this other place. There are only Humans in your world, Ryoka, but there are more of us over there?”
Hungry eyes. Ryoka exhaled, for even Visophecin was listening.
“Countless thousands. Perhaps millions or billions.”
She didn’t know. The strange land where the refugees from other dimensions gathered was like that. Ryoka told them earnestly, telling Fithea she hadn’t seen other Dryads—and only one for a moment—but she hadn’t stayed in the forest long, and her description of the trees?
“World trees! Each one! Each one a tree of ages! They must be there! They must—”
And what she was doing was telling them the truth. Fulfilling a desire they didn’t know they had. That they were known. And, at the same time, she dodged. Every question about the voids in her story, that Visophecin and a few others saw.
She said Heaven. She said Hell. She never said ___. What she did…
“Legions from Hell. That’s the story about the end of the world. The final day. Reckoning, where Hell’s demons would battle the armies of Heaven.”
“Hah! What a glorious war! If we were mortal enemies—yes, us on one side, our kin on the other.”
“Needless strife. I don’t see the point.”
Azemith sniffed and some of the Lucifen nodded. Uzine, who had entered to listen, clapped his hands.
“Of course, but the scale of it! It is the old tales!”
He gave Ryoka a hungry look. She smiled at him.
“I didn’t know what to expect, honestly, Uzine. Angels…some people think Angels are, well, rather like you are. Humans with wings.”
“That’s a Garuda. Or a Human with Skills. Although it’s…”
She saw glances between the Agelum who didn’t have wings…as far as she could see. Ryoka went on.
“Some called Angels more, um, abstract. Many eyes, little children—some aren’t even humanoid. Six wings, or a blazing ring of gold with eyes—”
She saw the Agelum looking at each other and her skin tingled. Uzine sat back, glancing at Visophecin.
That came from Paxere, one of the younger ones. Ryoka shrugged.
“Some would say they’re Humans with, uh, bat wings.”
Ryoka laughed. She actually laughed and Menorkel snorted. She looked at Paxere.
“Others would say they’re huge, red-skinned monsters with whips of fire and, yes, bat wings. That’s closer to a Demon—gigantic beings who live amidst lava and have dark legions…dark magic, too. Pacts. Secret lairs which they raise armies from…”
She saw most of the Lucifen fail to react, but a few of the younger ones had a tell, which was they gave her too-blank looks. Lost all emotion and became neutral and, when juxtaposed against their more savvy elders…
They hurried off that topic as Uzine and Visophecin both pressed Ryoka about Earth and how she had come to the lands of the Fae. She, in turn, went to the Merfolk and began recounting stories of Atlantis and…Aquaman.
A knock on the door broke Ryoka out of recounting the stories of the Titanomachy and Titans from Greek legend. Every immortal’s eye was on her, but the woman, the [Housemistress], Herea, made them all go silent.
“I am so sorry to interrupt you, lords and ladies…Viscount, you have a guest.”
He rose smoothly, and Ryoka broke off.
“By all means continue, Miss Griffin. I will not be long.”
She had a feeling…it could have been anyone, but she had a feeling. Ryoka went on. Drawing them in.
All she told them were their stories. Menorkel’s face fell when he heard only about the Titans overthrown by ‘the next powers’. Ryoka tried to tell him about Norse mythology, but then she remembered the Frost Giants and such were, uh, not great role models either.
Even so, Fithea kept interrupting, dragging the questions back to the lands of the fae.
“They exist. There are different…systems out there. See?”
That was when Ryoka held out a glowing obol. The Lucifen focused on it like crows staring at a shiny marble. The Agelum murmured.
“How much for one? I will trade you any artifact you wish for.”
Paxere announced instantly. Someone kicked her in the back.
“You idiot, do you know how to bargain?”
A glaring Lucifen young man. Paxere glared back, suddenly looking dangerous, and Ryoka made sure she had a tight grip on the obol as she showed it around.
“I am prepared to negotiate. But, uh—there was an incident with Rhisveri. So I hope we can establish good ties. I can’t promise on behalf of the fair folk, but I can make good-faith offers. I just need to clear my name and I am willing to pay for it. There’s something else I want to negotiate over, but I could tell most…tell all if we reach that point.”
They looked at her, keenly interested. Fascinated, wanting to know everything and more and…Ryoka saw a reflection of herself and luxuriated in the feeling.
For a second. Then Gadrea frowned.
“Ah, that would tie back to the incident bringing you here. Too costly. It goes back to one person though, and the most difficult of all. Rhisveri.”
A sigh ran through the room. The others conferred.
“Perhaps. He is still one of us—”
“He considers himself above mere votes. Yet if every single one were to…not just the Waterbound, not just Shoel, Fithea—”
The old Dryad was nodding fervently, and Ryoka remembered how much she had savored the obol when they had met.
“Sophridel will listen. I assure you. Ryoka Griffin committed an offence, but she is able to pay for it. The only thing else she desires is…”
“What is mine. I am glad that no one is foolish enough to promise that.”
A harsh voice broke into the room of chattering immortals. They fell silent and Ryoka looked up into what was now a familiar pair of vexed green eyes. Rhisveri and Visophecin stopped at the doorway of the room. The Duke looked at Ryoka.
“I did not give you permission to leave the palace, Ryoka Griffin.”
“That was upon my insistence, Rhisveri. We are negotiating—”
“On behalf of Ailendamus? This…this snake is playing you for a fool, Visophecin. You and your family! I am amazed. I thought you of all would handle her better, but it seems I alone appreciate how truly, incredibly inconvenient she is!”
Rhisveri stormed into the room, parting the others like minnows before a shark. He pointed at Ryoka. She was still wondering if the ‘snake’ comment was a compliment or not, given his nature.
“You have not only caused countless incidents in the palace, now you are throwing into jeopardy sworn servants of the realm, simply because you cannot keep your undergarments on your body for five seconds—”
Ryoka turned beet red as Rhisveri jabbed the Finger of Poking at her chest. He stopped dead, or rather, jerked to a stop as someone caught him.
“Come, Rhisveri. Don’t castigate youth for doing what is natural. We are quite glad you’re here; you can reassure those four [Knights] they will not lose their positions. Which they will not.”
Rhisveri glared down at Gadrea, but he didn’t yank free instantly. He harrumphed.
“This matter has gone before the [Queen], and she is displeased.”
“Then, she will remain so. But this is our guest, and we quite approve. Next time she can record it.”
Half the Agelum laughed. Menorkel turned beet-red, and Gilaw rolled her eyes as the Merfolk were split. Some thought it was a great idea. Ryoka was red and Rhisveri gave Visophecin a pained look.
“…I am going to settle this now. You wished for an audience, Ryoka Griffin? You have it. Now—”
He turned to grab her, and froze. Because Gadrea had a hand on his arm.
“Rhisveri, I must insist we have her lovely company for a while longer.”
She smiled, planting her feet in the ground but never rising from her wheelchair. Rhisveri’s eyes narrowed dangerously. He pulled at his arm.
“I am not going to be gainsaid by—you are dangerously close to—would you let go of me?”
Ryoka’s eyes widened. Was it just her or…? Gadrea had locked the wheelchair with her feet, and she was holding onto Rhisveri’s arm. He was pulling—but she never budged. Ryoka didn’t know how strong his fake body was, but she doubted it was as ‘weak’ as a regular Human.
Gadrea never stopped smiling—until a sudden look of pain crossed her face. Visophecin was there in a moment.
“Gadrea. Unhand Rhisveri.”
She let go, and Rhisveri jerked free. Gadrea lay, a bit limply, but came round after a second. She flexed her hand, and then smiled in amazement.
“I am feeling better. I could go for a run. Barefoot.”
“Spare Ailendamus a plague of foot-mold and dirt.”
Rhisveri growled. However, he looked around, and the Agelum gave him their bright smiles.
“We must insist, Rhisveri. We have already learned quite a lot of fascinating tales about us. Ryoka, surely you have legends about Wyrms?”
Um. Ryoka gulped as Rhisveri glared at her. The truth was?
She did not. Not about Wyrms. Of all the species present, from Merfolk to Devils to even Paterghost and Nube, the mimic and enchanted armor, Ryoka had stories, or at least anecdotes of ‘adventurers’ traumatized by mimics in popular culture.
But Wyrms? There were few parallels in western mythos that weren’t more ‘dragon-like’. In the east…well, there were the Chinese dragons in similar appearance, but they were a bit different. The only ones Ryoka could even associate would be Ouroborous, the eternal serpent which ate itself, and Jomungandr of Norse legend—and even then, they were odd examples.
Oddly, that vaguely seemed to please Rhisveri, who snorted in derision when she explained that. He had remained, although he stood near the back, refusing snacks and refusing to participate in the asking. He made one comment.
“It is simply like Dragons to hog attention, even in legends. Only they would be foolish enough to get up to half their antics, anyways.”
“Like…instead of kidnapping [Princesses], kidnapping Couriers is better?”
That snarky comment came from Paxere, who was now Ryoka’s favorite. The Lucifen wore a pointed smile—until Rhisveri turned to stare at her. She met his gaze coolly, before bowing her head.
“No offense meant, Rhisveri.”
He stared at her. And continued to stare as Paxere looked away. The Lucifen played it cool, but after eight more minutes of Ryoka clarifying anecdotal points with Fithea on the existence of satyrs, who were apparently sort of bastards in either world, Rhisveri had not looked away from trying to bore a hole in the side of Paxere’s head.
“I believe we should break. Let us convene amongst the mortals.”
Visophecin announced, glancing at Rhisveri’s dangerous stare. The others grumbled, but the Agelum were quick to have the Lucifen wheel them outside.
“That is not the only thing the Wind Runner brings. You said you knew how to play the other games. Baseball, football—and you know ice cream. Perhaps the [Chef] is done translating the other things you mentioned?”
Rhisveri looked up as Uzine and Gadrea towed Ryoka outside. He looked at Visophecin, and Azemith, some of the other Lucifen, and a few Agelum including Razia all stopped. Fithea hadn’t noticed, swept up in the ‘follow-Ryoka’ crowd, but Menorkel, hanging back to stuff more snacks into his pockets, heard voices.
“She refused to answer how she came here. Which implies that the Farthest Travellers did not bring her here to begin with, Rhisveri.”
The Duke nodded.
“Those two sports. ‘Bicycles’. You remarked it was odd, or—was it Uzine?”
“Uzine did. He said a game with such nuanced rules was odd.”
“…She isn’t alone. That’s what she’s hiding. I will find out what else.”
Menorkel’s heartbeat spiked. He stared, then shuffled off, surprisingly quietly, to tell Gilaw and Nemed.
She wasn’t alone?
Ryoka had known she was going to have to reveal a lot. Once she’d made her pact with Visophecin, she’d sat down and given it a lot of thought. Then she’d hopped into ‘hey, ever done a massage?’ with the Thirsting Veil [Knights], but at least she’d done the real thinking first!
She was getting them on her side. Which, really, seemed like the only move you played with immortals. You never ‘won’ games of tag, fist-fights, or anything else with them.
You never outran the Wild Hunt. You couldn’t out-fight even the minions of an evil Necromancer.
…But you could get the King of Camelot to stall them, and Nama. You could pay off a Phoenix with that handbag Ryoka really wished she had, or knew what it was, to hold them off.
And you could get an angry Dragon to play pingpong with Venitra. So in the battle to sway Rhisveri, Ryoka felt like getting an Agelum and Lucifen on each shoulder might be her best move yet.
Nor was it hard. The Agelum liked her. They liked her story about her idiotic run to the High Passes. The time when she challenged the Assassin’s Guild to save Sammial and Hethon.
“I stood up and applauded, you know. I will have an autograph and frame it—or you can sign a wall, but we have to recoat them every generation. A tragedy—but I sometimes make them replace the walls so I can save them to look at. An autograph lasts longer. That was the stuff of real Couriers, though. Fighting [Assassins]—a Courier should be nothing less!”
Uzine was beaming as Ryoka, incredibly embarrassed, raised her hands.
“It was the stupidest thing I’d ever done. I nearly shattered every bone in my body with the glider.”
“Then you would have done it living larger than most.”
Yes, the Agelum were ride-or-die, 120-percenters. And it seemed the incident with the [Knights] was actually the thing that fully won them over.
The Lucifen, on the other hand, were harder. Visophecin was on Ryoka’s side because it made sense to be. The others?
Ryoka thought she had her way in with them. Which was playing to their vanity.
“So…you must find the Lucifen less than impressive, given your stories of the ruler of all Hell.”
Paxere commented too-casually to Ryoka as the games outside became an impromptu baseball game. Servants and children lined up as someone fetched a ball. Uzine led them, setting himself up as a catcher no less.
“I don’t think you’re anything less than incredible, Lady Paxere.”
Ryoka answered truthfully. The Lucifen searched her up and down, and raised her brows.
“No indeed? But we have much to live up to.”
“Well, the Devils are only the most important moral figures—or nightmare in the Human imagination. Expecting legions of servants and castles and whatnot is too much to ask.”
The Lucifen narrowed her eyes. She looked vexed, and so did a few others in earshot. That was the ticket. They were competitive with their imagined selves. And…they wanted to know more. They had not liked hearing about the land of the fae, because they were self-important and smart enough to realize they’d just been guppies in the pond seeing the sea.
Two sides. Yet Ryoka was also purely fascinated with their abilities. And baseball, ironically, was a good showcase of that.
The Lucifen were average baseball players. No, really. They were, uh…okay.
Ryoka could take, put them against your average Division 3 college baseball team, and they’d win half their games. However, think about what that meant.
Lucifen, all of whom had never swung a bat in their lives, were fit, coordinated, and fast enough to challenge a level of player who was arguably in a prime most people would never experience, and who played baseball well enough to do it at the college level. But that was a far cry from Division 2 or 1 or the major or minor leagues.
However, if Ryoka had been there when baseball first came to this world, she would have seen a true all-star team. On a grassy patch outside of Celum where adventurers, [Guardsmen], Antinium, Gnolls, Drakes, and Humans swung a bat.
A lot had been worse than the Lucifen. But the Gnolls had been very good. Relc? Typhenous’ magical fastball? What they lacked in skill they could have put on par with the best of Earth…mainly because most batters would probably blink at a hundred-mile fastball on fire or invisible.
Ryoka hadn’t been there. She had been for football, or soccer, or football. But this moment, as children swung bats and ran around, laughing as Agelum cheered them on?
It was meant for there. She watched—and then saw something interesting.
Which was Uzine. The Agelum pushed their reluctant Lucifen counterparts to play baseball, and they did, for exactly one run, often swinging for the fences so they didn’t have to wait at-base. They were quick, adept, and prone to stealing bases.
What they weren’t was superhuman. Fierre was faster and stronger, at least, out of the sunlight. And that was super interesting.
Visophecin didn’t play, so Ryoka didn’t see the true adults trying hard, but she wondered. What was most fascinating, though?
Uzine. He sat in his chair, playing catcher. Which seemed like a bad idea because the pitchers and batters weren’t professional, so he had to do a lot of catching. But here was the thing.
He couldn’t pick up the ball easily if it bounced around the batting cage, which was really just some actual fishing net strung up, so he’d roll over, pick up the ball, and toss it—which was fair because the laughing children would run and scream, and it was just a game.
However, that was only when the ball went terribly wide. When someone threw the ball?
Paxere threw the ball hard against a Lucifen batter—then Nemed. She struck both out. Three strikes, three swings each time, much to their loud complaints. She didn’t have perfect control; sometimes they went up or down or sideways around the strike zone, and the batters swung on everything, forgetting they could walk a base.
Uzine caught everything. They were decently fast balls, too! Ryoka thought she would have fumbled at least one, but he caught each one perfectly. Then, as Paxere was strutting about, he called out.
“Paxere? Throw a ball for me! Nemed, hand me that bat, would you? I’m too invigorated to sit still.”
Instantly, all the older Lucifen, the [Housemistress], and the servants began objecting. But Gadrea and the other Agelum encouraged Uzine. He reached for the bat the reluctant Nemed handed him and stood up, rather fluidly.
“Nonsense. Three swings.”
“Uzine, this is unnecessary.”
Visophecin appeared, as he was wont to do, but the Agelum waved him off with a frown.
“I will happily lie in bed all day, but I feel strong enough. I will compromise—Nemed can run the bases if I hit the ball, agreed?”
Visophecin exhaled, but nodded. He looked at Paxere and she set herself. Ryoka saw him murmur and her nod, though he wasn’t audible at all…
“I think he ordered her to strike Uzine out. So he doesn’t connect and hurt himself.”
Gadrea remarked. They were all sitting together on the grass; Gadrea had left her chair to sit on a blanket. The Agelum smiled brightly as Ryoka looked at her.
“Which is worse, swinging the bat three times or hitting the ball?”
“Oh, either is just tiring. It’s not doing, it’s the effort. But Uzine won’t rest until he’s had a good swing, so Visophecin is right.”
Indeed, Paxere looked resigned as she tossed the ball up—and Ryoka saw it drop faster than gravity should allow. The Lucifen’s body began to accelerate.
Ryoka guessed. She saw someone nod. Fithea. The Dryad was watching, resting in the grass, her illusion being a short Dwarf woman while Gilaw lay with her head in Fithea’s lap; she had refused to play.
So had Menorkel. Both watched as Uzine swung the bat twice, then decided he was ready. Paxere stepped back, and this time she pulled her arm back, going for the pitcher’s throw despite never having practiced. When she let go, the ball flashed across the ground.
A magical pitch. Ryoka didn’t even have time to process it because Uzine swung so fast she only heard the clang—a shout of alarm from Paxere who ducked, too late—
And the sound of a crack as the baseball hit a tree, and promptly exploded. As did part of the tree. Everyone stared at the broken tree as Uzine scratched at his head. Nemed hesitated…was he supposed to run around or what?
The servants, four Thirsting Veil [Knights], and Ryoka all stared at Uzine. The Agelum sat back down in his chair, and with a broad smile, wheeled himself back over to the catcher’s spot.
“Ah, if only I could do that all day. I may have to rest.”
He looked tired but exuberant. Ryoka stared at him, and then at Visophecin’s resigned expression as he regarded all the mortals.
Well…no wonder they’d survived this long. Lucifen with magic and cunning. Agelum?
Dream team baseball players.
Ryoka Griffin watched the others play baseball. She even joined in, pitching and doing a run around the bases with a lucky hit. Uzine’s phenomenal hit took the top charts until Menorkel was asked to step up. Everyone backed up far for him, but the Titan just sighed.
“Are you sure?”
“Just one hit!”
Nemed pleaded. Menorkel reluctantly swung the bat. The crisp ringing of the metal bat echoed for a long time.
They never found the ball. Gilaw claimed it was ‘there’, but she just pointed at the sky. Menorkel walked around the bases and then shyly retreated in front of the stares.
However, that seemed more in line with him being a ‘half-giant’, and so attracted less attention than Uzine had. Even the Thirsting Veil [Knights] were coaxed into playing, and they were top-tier players. Especially because when Ryoka played second base and saw an armored boot sliding at her at top-speed, she decided it wasn’t worth losing her ankles over and ran for it.
The Agelum had bought the baseball set, incidentally. They had footballs, horseshoes, enchanted playing cards, and every other toy in existence. And…they demanded Ryoka tell them everything that was fun or interesting.
Which she did not. She had to hold onto some capital, but she told them about the most sinful, dangerous thing she could that might well ruin Ailendamus. A recipe which they would one day rue.
“…What is this called again?”
Viscount Visophecin had to have lunch with the others, and he politely stuck his fork into a bite and stared at it. Part of it dripped down, and Ryoka stared at the Lucifen, devils, holding bowls of…
“Um. Mac and cheese. Macaroni and cheese. That’s literally all there is in it, although I think there’s sausage and bread crumbs?”
He looked at Ryoka. Slowly, Visophecin took a bite, smiled, and ate half his bowl.
“A delightful meal. I am sure it will be much enjoyed by all.”
Ryoka thought he could taste the food—he just didn’t need to. The Agelum ate with good humor, seeming to enjoy the expressions on the other’s faces as much as the actual taste. Ryoka exhaled.
There were other foods she could mention, but the [Chef] had asked for something simple yet enjoyable. That was the entire Agelum thing. And she found she was enjoying herself.
“You know, this has been one of the most delightful visits. Menorkel is too shy to speak, and the Waterborn seldom leave. Visophecin, prevail on Ryoka Griffin to stay for us.”
Gadrea announced, and the Agelum agreed. Ryoka smiled; it was tempting despite knowing how much she had to do. Then the Agelum winked at her.
“We can prepare a secluded room for you. With one of the [King]-sized beds? For you and your guards.”
On second thought, I want to leave now. It was like having an Agelum cheering squad for…Ryoka stood up hastily.
“I’m going to get more to eat.”
The Lucifen grinned with wicked humor; this was something they could appreciate from their cousins. As Ryoka was walking with red ears to the buffet table, she saw something.
Amid the laughter and all of it, the immortals looked like they were smiling. Oh, not all on the same levels, not all for the same reasons. Fithea was reserved, and simply chatted with the oldest Lucifen and Agelum, who were deferential to her. Menorkel was shy, but he listened to some children singing, and his face was wistful.
Gilaw? Gilaw ran about with a bunch of younger children, seldom-talking, but sometimes making her odd bird-calls. The Merfolk kept together, but they clearly had friends among the Lucifen like Paxere.
Yet who was missing? Well, Sophridel, Paterghost, and, Ryoka suspected, more immortals she had never met. But…she looked at Visophecin, who sat politely with Uzine, Gadrea, and the others, and he did not seem unhappy. At worst, he tolerated the moment and when she saw him with the Agelum…
You big, fat liar. ‘I can’t understand empathy’ my missing fingers. He might not have understood it in other people, but for his kind, the immortals?
All of them. All of them in some way were here and enjoying themselves. Even the [Knights], who looked almost overwhelmed by the Agelum’s response and support. Even Ryoka.
Except for him.
Duke Rhisveri Zessoprical stood there, watching the festivities, refusing food, in the shade of a tree. He glared at everything and everyone, and when a Sariant Lamb—the flock of whom went around begging to be petted, fed macaroni and cheese, or bathed in their regular soap baths—came over, he leaned down, and said something that sent it running into the manor.
Ryoka saw Rhisveri’s expression. At last, it came to her. Like a revelation from heaven—not anyone else, just heaven—itself. Like a beam of insight from a celestial source.
She knew what to do. She had half-succeeded on the rest. Standing up to him, scaring him with Oberon, tempting him with the obols, earning his respect by flying?
All half-measures. All the wrong thing for Rhisveri the Wyrm. Yet now—Ryoka had been playing against a top-tier opponent. A Level 80 [Wyrm Of No Good Humor] if he had a class. Well, this was her field, and now he was a Level 10 [Party Pooper]. And she?
“Rhisveri. Do you not enjoy this kind of thing?”
“I prefer solitude. Especially over…what are you eating?”
Ryoka Griffin approached with a bowl of macaroni and cheese. She showed it to him and his expression said it all.
“Mortals with stomachs that need to be filled. Is that…they aren’t maggots covered in sauce? I swear that one moved.”
Ryoka stared down at her bowl and wasn’t hungry any more.
“No. Just food. You don’t see anything you want to take part in?”
“Should I lower myself to playing your games? Do you think I’d enjoy that, Ryoka Griffin?”
He dared her to say yes. But Ryoka shook her head.
“Honestly, no. It’s probably why Menorkel doesn’t feel like playing. He’s too good.”
Rhisveri hesitated. He nodded once at the young man, whose true form was hidden behind a half-Giant with a mop of brown hair.
“Precisely. He cannot even unveil his form, even smaller, here. They make concessions for you. Some…enjoy it.”
He looked at the Agelum. Ryoka nodded.
“This can’t challenge you, even if you were in your real form. I understand. Are there any games that…your people play?”
He frowned at her. Rhisveri’s eyes flickered.
“Games? Do you think we…play games for fun of this mundane variety?”
“Surely there are some. I did wonder. There are more than just three…Wyrms in the lands of the Fae. I wondered what they did all day. It must be difficult, being peerless.”
Ryoka watched Rhisveri carefully. His face slowly changed. The Wyrm looked at Ryoka, around House Shoel’s manor, and muttered.
“Pit nations against me. That is…true. Pit nations against my intelligence and drive, because no mortals rise to it. Not in this era. The Deaths of Rhir? Perhaps. But no others. The true rulers of this land are these and perhaps…”
He looked at Visophecin, then Fithea, then…Menorkel.
“I am first of all. First without match. You are right there, Human.”
Then his eyes were tired. For a moment, before he caught himself, glared at Ryoka, and conjured a bowl of the food to sample and then frown at. He did his best, but Ryoka Griffin stood there.
You poor soul. It was no longer his game or battle. He was a mighty Wyrm, but he was a Level 15 [Macaroni Critic] up against a Level 200 [Depression Spreader].
Ryoka Griffin, call if you want to feel sad.
Amidst the Agelum and Lucifen, who treated each other with exasperated, annoyed, sometimes disagreeable affection, Rhisveri looked at Ryoka and hesitated.
“…You shall return to the palace and we shall speak tonight. I do not care how; have Visophecin send you if he awaits you here. Prepare yourself.”
He glared at Ryoka. She nodded. Rhisveri turned, and she felt the magic around him build, a tingle in the wind. He hesitated once, and glanced over his shoulder.
“How many were there?”
“How many Wyrms?”
“I don’t know. I saw…at least eighteen.”
“Eighteen. All of the same size?”
“Some larger, some smaller.”
“And they existed together, communally?”
His tone was beyond disbelieving. Ryoka met his eyes.
“I think they had no choice. They were all refugees, Duke Rhisveri. I think—they had nowhere else to go. They were not all from the same place. They were all female—at least, the four I saw were, and I couldn’t tell the others’, uh, genders.”
He looked at her. And suddenly his eyes were bleak. Rhisveri took a breath.
He stood there. Hesitated as children ran over to beg Ryoka to let them fly, saw Rhisveri, and stopped. Rhisveri ignored them. He looked at Ryoka, and his eyes were suddenly far away.
“That makes sense.”
Then he vanished. Ryoka Griffin stood there, uncertain of what that meant. Yet she did not have long to wait. As evening fell and the sun set over the glorious palace of Ailendamus, a Wyrm and Runner met for a long awaited conversation.
When you go to speak with Wyrms and Dragons and immortals’ get, how did you prepare? From experience?
No. It was a mistake to rely on that alone, just as it was a mistake to forget your lessons. Ryoka Griffin did her best. She reluctantly forgot about Dame Chorisa and the others. Visophecin offered her a door to the palace.
She stood in a world of blackness, walked through a place with no air or sound or…the Devil watched her, but Ryoka Griffin held her breath and crossed the void in an instant. He raised his brows, but she never looked back except to thank him.
All of it could come later. She…had to focus.
The times Ryoka had met someone of Rhisveri’s scale, she had always been dying. She had run the High Passes, seen her friend sacrifice herself to slow a horror of undeath…run the lands of the fae.
These things had terrible cost. So she expected it, not least because this was the angriest immortal yet. Ryoka Griffin prepared in several ways. She had the Faeblade, the Windsword as Oesca and Sammial kept calling it, hanging at her side.
She was under no illusions on how well it would do against a Wyrm. Ryoka had pulled out the instructions Jericha had translated and stared at them, but they were still somewhat complex.
Oh, the things I don’t do and instead…no. No, it was better to court the Agelum and Lucifen. Better, somehow, perhaps, to be running around with a Devil chasing you. The ‘being caught in bed’ part she wasn’t sure about, but the truth was this was no battle.
If it was a battle—she was dead. She had seen how fast Rhisveri moved, and he weighed probably as much as an entire skyscraper. He didn’t have to dodge and weave with her; he could roll over and she’d be a goner, wind and alien tech or not.
Her preparations came in other forms. Strange, and, yes, perhaps incredibly stupid. Ryoka had spent an entire hour writing down riddles in the form of slam poetry.
Just in case. She had stretched, and gone to pee five times. She had thought of every lever she could wield.
But the truth was, when she walked through the open doors into that vast chamber beyond and saw the Wyrm sitting there, head raised high to the ceiling, she had no idea what to expect.
He rose upwards, scales shining like green jade running across every variation of color, brightest at his tail and dark with age near his head. His underbelly was pale moonlight from Earth’s moon. His eyes were also green, but had tiny flecks of color within each iris, like distant, swimming fish, glowing.
Vast eyes. The Duke, the Human man, was not here. Only the Wyrm.
And Ryoka Griffin.
She looked at him, legs shaking a bit. How would it go? The Wyrm looked down at her, eyes narrowed. Then his mouth opened. He could have swallowed a truck whole. His fangs dripped with that acidic venom, and his tongue flicked out as his head lowered, so many times Ryoka’s size, one eye fixing her with a long stare.
“Sit down, Ryoka Griffin.”
She blinked. The Wyrm’s eye swivelled and she saw something was placed in front of him. She had missed the simple chair with a backrest and padded cushion. It looked like someone had simply taken it from one of the hallways.
Slowly, Ryoka walked over. She eyed the chair, and then sat down in it. Rhisveri seemed surprised. He slithered out of his coiled position.
He was so long. Ryoka saw his head move around the room, followed by his body, and he blocked the entrance of the room, all four corners, and wound inwards.
Not ominous at all. His head returned to the same place, staring down at her. The Wyrm spoke again.
“No witticisms? No insolence this time? Would you like to give me a nickname?”
Ryoka bit her tongue.
“Not this time, Rhisveri Zessoprical. Thank you for agreeing to an audience. How should I address you?”
The question patently surprised him. He recoiled back a few dozen feet, then narrowed his eyes.
“Rhisveri will do. Etiquette from you would be a painful, tedious thing.”
She nodded. Rhisveri slithered around again, drawing inwards like a slow spiral. There was something…off about him. He was too calm. No…he spoke, slowly.
“I am minded to hear you, as not only His Majesty, Itorin II of Ailendamus, but my personal advisors, from Fithea to Visophecin, think it wise. You are a thief. You have insulted me to my face. Yet…”
He sighed as Ryoka’s heart beat wildly.
“…I have been convinced you should be thought of as an ‘emissary’ as opposed to a mere common criminal. Therefore, I will accord you some politeness. We will come to your theft. We will come to the…item you attempted to steal, and we will have a reckoning.”
Closer still. Now he was so close she could smell his breath. It was—odd. There was definitely a breath quality to it, but not stinking meat. If anything, it was like juniper and elderberries overlaying the fumes of chemicals, and the sheer exhalation of any person. Rhisveri’s snout was now only a dozen feet from Ryoka, and two vast eyes stared down at her.
“But first you will answer a question for me.”
Ryoka Griffin waited. Rhisveri’s eyes flickered. He blinked sideways, a thin membrane closing over his eyes like a snake, vertically, not horizontally like other people. He hesitated, and Ryoka saw a strange expression come over his face.
It all made sense with a single question.
“The Wyrms. The ones you referred to in the land of the Farthest Travellers. This…Sikeri’val-Toreshio-Maresssui.”
He breathed the name and Ryoka heard how he said it. So curiously. So longingly. Rhisveri caught himself and looked at her.
“Tell me about them.”
Oh. She’d known she had done something at the Agelum’s gathering, or they had—but Ryoka still blinked. She hesitated.
“I only met them briefly, Rhisveri. But—from what I remember—Sikeri wore a Human’s guise for most of the party where I met her. The same with the others. When I saw her in truth, she looked like a Wyrm two hundred feet tall. But I think even that was a copy. Her scales were…”
Her mouth worked, and Ryoka was glad she had prepared this.
“…byzantium and onyx. She had a crest and perhaps even fins, running down her body. One on her head, and then along her sides. They were a darker red, like crimson or blood. Her sisters looked slightly different. One of her sisters had that; the others were different. One had six legs, the other had something like fur on her underbelly. The first sister had a yellow—bright yellow scale pattern, like a mushroom, running down to earthy—loamy brown—”
Rhisveri listened like a hungry man staring at a plate of food as Ryoka tried to use adjectives. Sinuous, serpentine—she nearly said ‘Draconic’, but caught herself. How did you describe a Wyrm in a term another Wyrm might like?
Coloration made him interested, but he did a little wiggle when she mentioned the fins, so Ryoka began describing nuance, like the tinted claws on one of the sisters’ legs, like they were made of colored glass, or, now she remembered it, the tips of Sikeri’s teeth being a brighter orange.
She was just getting into trying to encapsulate their vocal range and was trying to figure out how to describe how they moved when Rhisveri broke in.
“Yes, yes. Enough about their appearances.”
Ryoka bit her tongue. Had she bungled it? But Rhisveri didn’t look annoyed as he lay on his claws. He only had two, but they supported his upper torso. He rested his head lower, frowning at Ryoka.
“Beautiful. I am sure your words do them little justice, but I am also sure they were all striking. Enough. I am not a fool. You do not need to describe their sheer…physicality.”
He shuddered again. Ryoka eyed him, and Rhisveri shook his head a few times, left to right. He glared at her as if it were her fault and exhaled again. Once again, that smell hit her. It was faintly familiar. She frowned, but then Rhisveri looked at her.
“That is not what I wished to know. I merely asked because—those Wyrms. The ones you saw, however briefly. Did they seem…happy?”
The Wind Runner stared at Rhisveri. Oh. Oh.
She had done her job very well. He was quite different from the Dragon she had met. Angrier, and, she thought, younger. More active, and far more involved—at least until recently. But that expression.
They all had it. From Fierre to Ivolethe to Rhisveri. That weary melancholy.
The weight of immortality. Ryoka swallowed.
“I…don’t know. They were living together, squabbling, the three I met. Sikeri was after something so she was focused? She ate quite a lot.”
“Hm. You say you met three. Sisters? Tell me again.”
So Ryoka did. She related in brief part of her journey to the lands of the fae as it pertained to the three sisters. Rhisveri snorted.
“So they appeared to be…women? Living in the same home until you saw them differently? Strange rules for a strange place. What was the handbag?”
“I don’t know. They did claim they were kin to Sikeri, but even greater than she.”
“Fascinating. Yet they feared the…the man whose signature you so carelessly show around.”
Rhisveri eyed Ryoka’s bag of holding. She touched it and he spoke.
“Do not show it to me. It—bothers me.”
She nodded. Rhisveri went on.
“So they approached you and made you an offer. That hardly speaks to their happiness.”
“No. I’m sorry.”
He blinked once, in that snake-way, and then flicked his tongue up. Was that a shrug?
“It is nothing I would expect you to glean from a chance encounter. A mountain filled with Wyrms. Living in…harmony.”
His tone sounded disbelieving. Ryoka sat on the edge of her chair.
“Wh—is that surprising? Why are you concerned with their happiness, if I can ask?”
“Is it not appropriate to care for your kin?”
Rhisveri gave her a huge frown. Ryoka opened her mouth.
“Uh, I’m s—”
She saw his scaled cheeks bulge. Then the Wyrm barked a huge blast of air in her face.
He snorted. Ryoka caught herself, arms windmilling as the chair nearly toppled over. The Wyrm wheezed a few times as he laughed, writhing about. Then he coughed, and went back to staring at her.
“I was only curious. You see, I cannot imagine Wyrms, even with a vast amount of space, could ever truly co-exist without quarrels. Let alone in a single mountain, no matter how big. This…ruler you once invoked here must keep order.”
She nodded slowly.
“That he does. I don’t think they’d violate the laws of hospitality in his domain.”
“Yet they are guests. You said…refugees. Fleeing from worlds apart.”
“It’s only a guess. But…yes.”
“And all female?”
Once more Ryoka nodded and Rhisveri closed his eyes.
“Yes. They’re probably all female. Yes…”
He sank to the ground. Ryoka saw his eyes close and that sense of oddity struck her once more. She was standing up and peering around on a hunch, calling on the wind, when Rhisveri’s head snapped up.
“And fighting like cats and Wyrms all day and night! Dead gods, but I cannot imagine the petty squabbles and politics. If they can’t kill each other, they must make each other’s lives a living nightmare.”
“Perish the thought. What an aberration of events for that to occur. The only thing I could imagine is worse in that entire kingdom would be the Dragon colonies. If there are Dragons.”
He looked at Ryoka. She blinked. Rhisveri nodded.
“You saw some?”
“I—yes. A child.”
He swore under his breath.
“Multiple Dragons in a single place. All…a child? But that implies you suspect there were more. And this king, this…that one rules them all? Such that they only fought you or aided you, but not one another?”
Ryoka nodded. She saw Rhisveri shift uneasily.
“I don’t think this is an invading kingdom, Rhisveri. The fae…”
“Of course not! I know the Farthest Travellers. Fithea has told me enough.”
He snapped. But he seemed relieved. Rhisveri coughed, and then went on, more calmly.
“No doubt that child could not even coexist with others of his kin. Wyrms, for all we might fight, can present a unified front. Dragons?”
He spat to the side. Ryoka saw a glob of something hit the floor and sizzle. She and Rhisveri stared at it eating through the floor. He sighed.
His tail slapped somewhere in the vast room, and the acid bile vanished and the floor began to mend, closing together. Ryoka was almost positive by now what was going on, but she was curious too.
“What do you mean about Dragons? Do they quarrel too?”
“Ah, so you’ve only met them individually. Interesting. Even in this world?”
Ryoka hesitated. Rhisveri looked gleeful, but then waved his tail.
“Hmph. It matters not. You think Wyrms can be petty? Dragons also. We fight with each other, but Dragons—they quibble by color, tribe, rather than individuals.”
He glared at Ryoka as her mouth opened.
“Yes, that’s an oversimplification. They’re all individuals, but my limited observation and understanding from texts was that, while they fought within their groups as any society does, they truly clashed en masse. Frost Dragons versus Earth Dragons. Flame versus Void, and so on.”
Ryoka’s train of thought trying to run ahead of this conversation and play for what she needed suddenly derailed. She leaned forwards.
“Wait, Frost versus Earth? So they are elemental types, aren’t they? Was that just an example or is it usual? Why would ice and earth fight? Would it be, um, Frost Dragons versus Flame Dragons? And would they all have the same scale color? Because I’d expect fire Dragons to be red.”
But Teriarch was brass and he breathed fire. Rhisveri gave Ryoka such a supercilious look that she instantly flushed. He bent lower.
“I can see you haven’t talked to Dragons overlong, or one would have corrected you. Why would they adhere to a simple system like that? Frost hates fire? That’s so…reductionist.”
“What? Isn’t it logical?”
He went pft in her face. Ryoka braced herself against the exhalation of wind. Rhisveri rolled his eyes.
“Spare me. If anything, fire would find frost a rival because the elements oppose each other. A worthy rival or a diametrically opposed point of view. Flame would dominate earth and metallic elements while finding rivals among lightning and other energies—and while they would have an advantage, their greatest allies might be Earth Dragons, as one grows from the other. Of course, under your schema—how would you distinguish a Dragon with crimson scales to one that has, say, bronze scales if both breathe fire? Gold?”
“I—would assume that they’re all part of the same fire element, I guess. Or maybe that different scale colors, uh, mean different ranks or perhaps temperaments? Gold is nobility?”
“Gold is nob—are you one of those Humans that ascribes superiority to skin tone?”
Rhisveri glared at her.
“Well, you seem to have a very jaundiced opinion of how other species are valued by color.”
Ryoka was so appalled she couldn’t respond. Rhisveri grumbled.
“Gold is superior. Hah! I can see you haven’t thought this out. I should have liked you to meet a red-scaled Dragon, vouchsafed your ignorance, and had said Dragon breathe a blood mist all over you. Heh. That would be amusing.”
He chuckled to himself.
“Blood mist. Blood Dragons. It’s red so it must be hot. Hah. Hahahaha…”
The Wyrm’s head rolled over and his entire body slowly began to rotate as he chuckled, laying on his side. Ryoka Griffin stared at Rhisveri, and now she was dead sure. She stood up, incredulous.
“…Are you drunk?”
Rhisveri’s head snapped up. He turned to her, and she caught another whiff of his breath. The fruit scent! Rhisveri hesitated.
“But—I—this is an audience!”
“So? It’s a pain in my entire being. I had to waste an entire day watching idiots hit balls with sticks, clean up a forest filled with bugs, and had a mortal woman harangue me about your mess. Did you think I’d sweep aside my entire schedule for you? That this is the most important thing I have to do all day?”
He slapped his tail for emphasis. Ryoka saw his expression shift, and his tone grew defensive.
“What kind of immortal creature would not partake of every kind of comfort and luxury available? Yes, I drink. I also bathe, exercise, and enjoy fine literature and the arts. What, should I wallow in my own filth and count gold coins all day like a Dragon?”
Ryoka bit her tongue. Rhisveri eyed her, and his expression grew amused again.
“…Does the Dragon you know do that? That’s so typical.”
He laughed to himself. Ryoka waved a hand. She felt like this conversation was getting away from her.
“Rhisveri. I have come to you on behalf of—I have come bearing coin from a foreign land. I know you think I am a thief, but I honestly wish to make amends and ask—ask if there is anything I can do to purchase or trade for the object I tried to steal. It is something I need. Will you hear my petition, seriously?”
It was like she’d tossed a potion of sobering into his mouth. As soon as she mentioned the artifact, the scroll, Rhisveri grew still. His head rose, and his eyes turned back to her, suddenly sharp again.
“Ah. So the pleasantries end. Just as I thought your company was almost tolerable.”
Ryoka met his gaze.
“I’m sorry to spoil the mood. But I thought…”
The Wyrm looked at her once more and he sighed. He sighed, grew visibly angry, furious.
“Yes, you tried to steal it! You snuck into my treasury, bypassing my guards, all to steal—if you had, do you know what I would have done? I would have destroyed Izril. Destroyed your precious House Veltras, and raised every army against you. Do you know what you tried to steal?”
He rose higher, his voice booming. Rhisveri snarled—looked at her expression—and hesitated.
“You don’t. Do you? Even now, you don’t know. You found out, somehow. How?”
“I…the Fae aided me. It was a kind of prophecy. That was what could help me save my friend. The surest, best way.”
The Wyrm cursed.
“Prophecy. [Oracles]! I have warded every means—except for the Farthest Travellers. No wonder. Well, it is safeguarded a hundred times over. You shall not have it. And before you ask—you could never pay for it. Not you.”
Ryoka spilled some of the stones from her bag of holding as she reached for a handful. Rhisveri snorted.
“Coins. I know their worth. But they are still coins. Do you think what you tried to steal was cheap? You have no idea! You have…”
He caught himself. Ryoka saw his lips quivering. He wanted to tell her. In that, he was like Teriarch, pointing out his own hoard.
“What could be so valuable? At least tell me what it is.”
She tried to coax him. The Wyrm glared.
“Do I look like a half-wit? That object—its value? Why would I tell you its worth? What would that gain me, except more danger, especially if I let you live? Especially if I know you cannot pay for it?”
“Could I pay to know…?”
Ryoka reached for the autograph, the obol. Rhisveri laughed in her face again.
“Everything you own wouldn’t be enough for me to risk telling you!”
Her skin prickled. That…that told her something. Ryoka wasn’t a fool. She had thought long and hard about what could possibly be used to help Erin. She had a few ideas, but they were all ridiculous. Impossible.
Except in a world that followed the rules of a game.
The Wyrm read her expression. Somehow, he grew calmer still.
“Yes. Yes, that’s right. Do you understand? That is the most valuable object in my entire treasury bar none. Somehow, you went for it. Terrifying. Infuriating. It has cost me and Ailendamus the lives of brave—of useful tools. Of a Great Knight. I put that death between us. And you cannot even pay me that cost, even with the strange objects you hold. For I value it higher.”
Ryoka waited, heart sinking. Rhisveri looked at her and thought of the Agelum and Lucifen. His head bowed deeply. He spoke.
“And yet. You will learn of it. For I have a reason. You, who have beheld Wyrms, who have spoken with Dragons…you have come from a world apart. A world I can scarcely imagine. There are worlds out there, aren’t there?”
He looked at the ceiling as if he could see the sky above. Ryoka whispered.
“I knew it. But only in a vague, vain sense. Fithea told me stories. Never did I dream it would be possible to walk across reality. What a strange thing. How dare you come into my kingdom and make it smaller?”
Another glare, but Rhisveri was settling. His voice grew deeper, so she felt it in the marrow of her bones.
“I will tell you because I have held onto this secret for ages. What good is worth if only I know of it? For my own appreciation? No, no.”
His eyes glittered as the light in the room waned. Rhisveri began to draw into the shadows, but the light caught in the jade of his eyes, those little, swimming flecks, still glowing. He spoke.
“It is worth too much for you to ever have, Human. Mortal. After all—I paid the highest price for it. I fought in a life-and-death struggle for it. Do you know, Ryoka Griffin, that I am the last Wyrm I know? The last, truly, of my kind?”
“I…didn’t know that. Are you sure?”
He grinned at her in the darkness, a bleak smile.
“Perhaps there are others. Just like Dragons, we would be in hiding. It is all too probable, but I am all but certain no more will be born. Dragons might hide their eggs. Wyrms lay no eggs, and there are no female Wyrms left in this world that I know of. I think I would have sensed them, and I have travelled to every land. One laid her musk on you and it will last another twenty years. I have never smelled another, except when I was young.”
Rhisveri saw her splutter and then look at him.
“So there might be male Wyrms, then?”
“Perhaps. But I suspect I am the last of them. I know I am the last on Terandria. Because there were two, thousands of years ago. My brother and I. And I? I killed him and ate him.”
The Wyrm bared his teeth and Ryoka felt a chill. His head moved and she lost track of the eyes. He was all over the room but she saw nothing, only heard his voice.
“I slew him in battle and devoured his corpse. You do not react.”
She slowly turned, searching for a sign of him, but it was pitch-black. Ryoka tried to conjure a ball of [Light]. She saw his head for a moment, to the side, then the magic winked out. The air was dead in the room.
“I…don’t know what to say. I assume you had reasons.”
“Yet you don’t react. Is it because I am not Human? If I were, I suspect you would be outraged. Afraid. You would react, then, but I am a Wyrm. A monster. Even a Dragon you would hold to higher standards, but not me.”
His head appeared in a moment. Ryoka saw his eyes staring down at her, inches away.
“Isn’t that so?”
She hesitated. Rhisveri looked at her—then drew back.
“Well, you are right. We did not have to do battle! But we did, for each one of us coveted the other’s treasures. I knew what he owned, and it was the very scroll you sought to steal. Like you, I stole it from him, and to do so I murdered him. Kinslayer. That is what Wyrms are.”
His voice grew, growing louder, fiercer. More triumphant. Ryoka Griffin saw him rising to the top of the room, and part of her wanted to run and hide and quail. But all she did was ask a question.
“Did it have to come to that?”
Her voice was…Rhisveri twitched. He looked at her in the darkness and saw her face. Not blindly sorrowful. Not empathetic for a Wyrm she had never known. He would have raged at her for that. Just…
He uncoiled. The light in the room returned. Rhisveri lay in front of Ryoka, suddenly tired again.
“Perhaps. Perhaps we could have made amends. But he and I were younger. We fought for so many reasons. Primarily, that we knew of each other’s existence, and realized it was a weapon one could use against the other. Would we come to blows? We felt…I think we felt our territories would clash, especially if both of us stayed on this continent. We had our ambitions. Mine was kingdom; his was less grand, but each of us bided our time, gathered resources, strength and acumen. When we fought, it was for everything.”
He looked at Ryoka.
“One of us could have fled and ceded it all, of course. But the possibility of victory lay between us, and we wanted what the other had so badly…so we fought to the death. No quarter. No mercy. If I had offered it, he would have come back for vengeance or revealed me. Perhaps he would not have. I never gave him the chance.”
The Wyrm stared at a distant memory. He turned his gaze from that to the present.
“Now say your judgement, thief. Ryoka Griffin.”
She spread her hands, slowly.
“You murdered your brother. I can’t hear that and not be appalled. If I look at you like a Wyrm…I can understand it. Because that’s the stuff of stories. Legends. If I look at you like a person…”
She stared at him. Rhisveri smiled.
“But that is the heart of who I am. I am not playing for sympathy, Ryoka Griffin. Nor do I grandstand. I am this. And you are right. As a Wyrm—it is in my nature. My brother was not the first of my siblings I slew. I killed sisters and brothers before. Now, I wage war and I care not for the dead mortals. Only kingdom and desire. That is what a Wyrm is.”
“Is it? Or is it just an excuse?”
Rhisveri Zessoprical hesitated. He could squash her in a second or devour her, melt her away, or cast a spell to eradicate her. He wanted to, because the flash of rage—
But he didn’t, because it wouldn’t destroy the question. Bitterly, Rhisveri spoke.
“An excuse? For what? For doing what all species do? Conquer and kill each other? I am simply not lying, Ryoka Griffin. Or are the other immortals you have met so much more moral than me?”
He pointed his head at her, waiting for a rebuttal that did not come. Rhisveri spoke angrily.
“Dragons love to pretend they are so much better. So I killed my brother. So what? They duelled over incredibly petty matters, burnt cities down for insults, enslaved mortals and each other. Wyrms devour each other as they spawn, if measures are not taken. Dragons do not. So what? We are the same in nature—it is just that my kind does not pretend so long as it pleases us.”
“The Dragon I met did not pretend to be better. He told me he was done interfering. That every side had its reasons.”
Rhisveri looked up.
“Yes. And I am willing to trample others to get my way. Perhaps your Dragon is not. But I will not apologize nor relent. I can be rational. I can think. But I will not be some savior, some high-minded pretender. And I call your Dragon a hypocrite, though I have never met him.”
Rhisveri bared his teeth.
“No one who lives long does it without blood. We are both dead, this Dragon and I. The last members of a dead species that will never return. Not in this world. Yet what terrible irony it is that even if the last Dragon and Wyrm should meet, I think we would do great battle. Even in this fading world of mortal make. No. No, I say it is fitting! Our species have gone proudly to their end. For what should I change who I am? There is no disaster to forfend. Only the last to stand, the last to die. And that is a right I desire. I will never say mercy to mortals, though I could offer it to them. They will serve me, and I will kill them for aught I desire. I have every right to think nothing of them. You were not born when the first crime against me was committed. Nor your mother’s mother’s mother. You did not even come from this world, but I hold a grudge, Ryoka Griffin.”
His voice rose, and Ryoka Griffin saw him staring at something. Now…her skin was prickling.
“Why? Will you tell me? So I am not ignorant, at least?”
Rhisveri looked down at her. His expression was distant. Then, after a long wait, he nodded.
“Yes. To understand Wyrms, understand this: there is a reason I drink and laugh. The first is that Wyrms are dead. And I knew Wyrms were dead in this world until you came. I knew it—because I am the last Wyrm and believe it, hidden kin or not. You see…I knew the last adult female Wyrm. She was my mother. I knew the last female Wyrms; they were my brood sisters and they died by blade and infighting and monster and to me as we aged.”
The Wyrm spoke, and Ryoka felt the wind blow at her hair. He looked through the walls of the palace, through time.
“Eleven thousand, four hundred and thirty…no, forty one years ago, the last Great Wyrm died. They called her Zessoprica, Sovereign of Sands. She ruled Zeikhal. She fought upon Baleros with Nagas serving under her. Even Zeres paid allegiance in years past, for she was more ancient than I. A legend of old. But they found her in Terandria, with no more allies. No more places to hide or run, and slew her.”
Ryoka Griffin felt cold. She shivered, and a blanket dropped on her as Rhisveri spoke. He never looked at her, but he seemed to recite this for the first time ever to someone else with such ease.
Because he had told this story many times to himself.
“I killed one of my own kind the moment I awoke. That is how Wyrms breed; a clutch of young, live-born. We look like serpents; we are not. Just as Dragons are not truly mammals. When Dragons bear young, they are in eggs and can wait for thousands of years if they must. When Wyrms spawn—we kill each other and the strongest grow. There is a difference in our natures. So I killed and killed in that first hour. Then…one of us spoke.”
His voice changed.
“They will kill us all. Who said it? My brother always claimed it was he. Perhaps it was another, or the message repeated. You see—we were not fools, even newly-born. Dragons are born far less intelligent—we were born cunning. Do you understand what had happened?”
Ryoka thought she did.
“Your mother. They killed her. But you…”
“Yes. We were inside her. So the hunters and celebrating armies had no idea as they began to take her body apart. We heard them. And so we stopped fighting. When those adventurers and soldiers and triumphant fools let down their guard and pierced her side, we came out. Six days. Six days of plotting and growing on her flesh. We died by the score, but an army perished. The very ‘heroes’ who slew my mother returned too late, for we had fled.”
Rhisveri smiled. He looked at Ryoka, at her pale face. Now there was sympathy.
“Do you know what I did next? What would you do, Ryoka Griffin?”
“Exactly. I did not.”
She stirred. Rhisveri laughed quietly.
“They killed her. I realized—many of my kin realized—we were no match. So we dug into the loam. We hid. Some decided to flee for the water. Others hid elsewhere, or decided to fight. I think many died, but those that were found gave the rest of us time to hide. I dug deep, with an alliance of my brethren. Deep, so deep they would never find us. And then…we hatched a scheme. We would never live if we went above, not newly-born. But Wyrms are immortal. So do you know what we did next?”
“You bided your time.”
“Yes. So clever. We did exactly that. We tunneled, made lives in the deep, learned how to fight, even cast magic, and stole knowledge where we could. We fought each other, made pacts—we lived down there. I did for a thousand years.”
Rhisveri nodded. He coiled around himself, staring around the vast room with a sudden distaste. He shuddered.
“A thousand years. Do you know how long that is? How long, eating things in the dark? Knowing there was a world above? Many of us went mad and surfaced, or simply turned into animals. A thousand years.”
His voice was shaking.
“I grubbed in the dirt and tunneled like a mole, like an insect for a thousand years. Do you know how it feels, to know I had forever to wait and to spend every hour fighting like an animal, because I feared what lay above? Yet I knew—I knew I had to grow in strength. Time passed so slowly, but it was there I learned patience. I learned fear and caution too, because there were things down there even Wyrms feared. After a thousand years, I surfaced, and then I walked under stars and continued my journey. I lived, and only a handful of my kin lived so long, because we had the will to hide so long.”
Ryoka’s mouth was open. She knew Wyrms were probably subterranean to judge from how Rhisveri’s body moved, but for a sentient being? She looked at him and realized.
It was him. Not Humans. Not people in other stories. Rhisveri was…the blessed child. The one given every gift, but with the world pitted against him. The one who had trained in secret for a thousand years, surviving to claim his birthright.
“After that, I roamed the world. I learned magic—I met others. I fought Dragons and my own kin, and I took wounds and made mistakes. I had great triumphs. By the time my brother and I fought, all my kin were dead and we were great, fed on thousands of years of life. So now you understand—when I say I am the last, I truly am.”
Ryoka’s heart hurt. Rhisveri stared at her and looked away.
“But—I came with—what about Sikeri’s offer?”
No wonder he cared for nothing, was even annoyed by the Lucifen and Agelum and Ryoka’s own relationships. Rhisveri snorted. He looked at Ryoka. By all rights he should have seen it as the last miracle, the greatest temptation ever offered, and Ryoka was, uh, Visophecin: offering him a chance to meet his own kind and sire another generation.
He laughed cruelly.
“You have no idea. You, Visophecin—it isn’t your fault. But oh, it is funny. This Wyrm—I can smell her on you. A beautiful creature from the sea. So intoxicating. She offers me the chance to mate. To repopulate. Do you know what the joke is? Guess. You must be able to guess. Think of all I have said. Understand that a Wyrm is cruel and savage, and guess. What is the catch?”
Why did he laugh like that? Why was he drunk? Ryoka Griffin’s eyes flickered. It was something primal. It wasn’t about personality or will…it went to the very heart of species. Of biology. If he wasn’t like a snake…no.
“Yes. Say it.”
He bent low, his expression eager. Wanting her to voice it. Ryoka’s lips rasped together. Instantly, a cup of water appeared. She hesitated, wet her lips. Looked up at Rhisveri and guessed the joke.
“The…when a Wyrm mates with another Wyrm. What…what happens to the male Wyrm?”
A grin. Pleased as could be.
“It will be the most rapturous moment of my life. The last. When two Wyrms meet, the male dies and the female devours him that life will spawn.”
Oh. Ryoka Griffin sat there and Rhisveri giggled, laughed at her.
“Perhaps she thought I wouldn’t know! Or that I would be so tempted. And I am! I have never felt such desire! But I am no beast! I have mastered myself. I want, but I will not fall. It would be a glorious thing. Wyrms beyond counting. You talk of her like she is a legend as great as any Wyrm of this world. And I? I am the mightiest Wyrm, even by old days.”
He preened himself, rubbing his head against his scales. Ryoka saw Rhisveri sigh.
“The more powerful a Wyrm is, the more spawn they create.”
“What? How does that work? That’s not…”
“Oh, what would you know? Do you think Dragons and Wyrms have normal, mortal biologies? You probably have no clue how you make children. You are aware you can’t make any with females, aren’t you? That you contain the seeds of life within—”
“I’m aware I have ovaries, yes! I know I have eggs!”
Rhisveri recoiled. He stared at Ryoka.
“Ah. Other worlds. Well at least one of them has an adequate knowledge of biology…ahem.”
“Dragons and Wyrms do not have what you have. How could we, as old as we become? We match and mingle essences. A female Wyrm can create new life—but she requires a source and energy for it. Where does that come from, the other half of the equation?”
“The male Wyrm. So it’s mandatory.”
Rhisveri smiled bleakly.
“Exactly. With the power I sense from her and my own? It would be…”
His body trembled.
“Beyond counting. Our spawn would be no hundreds of thousands. Millions. Tens of millions.”
Ryoka felt a chill in her bones at the thought. Those were…and if they came from the lands of the fae and got to the gateways?
World-ending numbers. Multiple realities with Wyrms growing, entering through gateways…Rhisveri saw her expression and laughed.
“So you see, it benefits neither you nor me. And you had no idea, believing you had temptation.”
“I…isn’t there another way? Surely Dragons and Wyrms—”
“Experimented? Of course, I would bet they even achieved success. But if so—they did not care to bring countless false or temporary lives into this world, just to watch them die. What parent wishes to watch their children die, again, and again, over countless aeons? That is the flaw in our reproduction. Not that I die—not that alone. Simply because we grow too old.”
He waved his tail.
“Enough. Enough. I am tempted. You bring me fair distractions and I would like to meet this other Wyrm…but not die.”
“Not die. I am no altruist. I am selfish, willing to do what I must to survive, and Wyrms are superior to Dragons. We grow without end. They only grow in magic. We populate like grains of sand on the beach and we are born strong and deadly. We even have powers that Dragons must work to match. Perhaps that is why Crelers took so much from us.”
“Crelers? Crelers are made based on—”
The Wyrm nodded. His expression was filled with distaste.
“I do not know when, but I remember the Creler Wars. I did not believe it at first, but now I know—sometime after my birth, one of my siblings found their way to Rhir. Somehow—their corpse, or perhaps they themselves, became the foundation of Crelers. They are too similar. The way they grow, their numbers and strength—and lastly, the old have my gift.”
One eye swivelled towards Ryoka and she blinked.
Why, the gift of a mind, of course.
Telepathy. Ryoka Griffin stared at Rhisveri. The Wyrm nodded.
“Something lurks down there. I will purge it, but that is a battle for Ailendamus in the future. Mark me well; I knew Rhir when it was abandoned, and Rhir before the Blighted Kingdom and their nonsense about Demons. I know the truth and I will find what has plagued the world and slay it. That is a battle worthy of me.”
Her lips moved. Ryoka Griffin saw Klbkch in front of her, Xrn, and hesitated. Don’t say—
Don’t say it? She looked Rhisveri in the eye.
“If that day comes when I’m alive, I will do everything in my power to help you. But what’s down there is mightier than even you. Even so. It needs to die.”
His eyes widened. Rhisveri stared at Ryoka.
He shook himself. Looked at Ryoka and drew back.
“Even now, you surprise me, Ryoka Griffin, thief. You bring temptation. News of another world. A name, a terrible presence contained in a single name. Stories and secrets. You know, I am tempted. I would meet with this lovely Sikeri, or her sisters, I would. I do not want to die, though.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I…”
Rhisveri’s eyes glittered. He was smiling. Ryoka Griffin felt a surge of unease. The Wyrm chuckled.
“I do not want to die. And here we come to the heart of it. But Ryoka—I could go there and surrender myself to the bliss of a lifetime. I could create children and a new kingdom—well, perhaps not in my world. I wouldn’t trust them. Maybe until they were a thousand years old, but after that?”
He reconsidered. Ryoka Griffin looked at him, her suspicions mounting. Rhisveri flicked his tongue up.
“—Regardless. I could do it. You understand? I could mate and die. And come back. Because I have a treasure beyond imagining. Oh yes. The very one you tried to steal. Now we come to it. Now you know.”
He bent low. Ryoka Griffin staggered back, and her back hit the chair. Rhisveri saw her face go white.
“A…a scroll? A scroll that—”
“Yes. A Scroll of Resurrection.”
His body shivered. He writhed with the sheer joy and pleasure of saying it aloud to someone else after so long. The Wind Runner looked up at him.
Somewhere, the fates were laughing. And then she knew how Erin would live again. It was so easy.
It was so…
“You will never claim it.”
Rhisveri broke her out of her reverie. He looked at her, coiling back on himself. He was conversational now, but the radiant exuberance of being able to tell, to brag, was all over him. It made him calm, even friendly.
“You must understand. This is no mere Scroll of Raise Dead, which would work on mortals, at cost. This is a genuine…it’s not even a relic. It’s beyond a relic. I don’t know how my brother found it. I think—in a long-buried tomb of a kingdom. It can revive me if I perish for any reason. So you understand. Why would I part with it?”
“I—I understand. But it’s real?”
“Oh, yes. The power in it? I tested it with all my knowledge. I even showed it to an [Archmage] before he died. It is the real thing. Now I have one last question for you, Ryoka Griffin. Knowing I have this scroll worth more than you could ever offer me, which would tempt even my allies, and send armies marching upon me without end to claim it—why did I tell you? Why do I laugh? Why do I weep?”
Oh. We’re here again. Ryoka Griffin stirred. It was never the same, but it had echoes.
A riddling game. Was that what she’d been playing the entire time? The Wyrm waited. Understand me. She thought about all he had said, how he presented Wyrms. A monster—or so he claimed, writhing in the darkness. Brother-killer. Born of a dead mother. Ruthless…
“I think I know why you laugh, Rhisveri Zessoprical.”
He smiled, with more admiration than he had ever had towards a mortal. Even the [General] he had trained himself, the Great General who marched to bring Calanfer low. He waited. Ryoka Griffin looked at him and her eyes…they pierced his scales with truth. His truth, which he had patiently explained to her over this long conversation.
“The scroll is the most valuable thing in the world. The most valuable. But…it does you no good if you have no one to resurrect. And if you want to be saved—you need someone you can trust. And you trust…”
The Wyrm began to laugh. It grew in him, not a conversational laugh, altogether like a person, but a deep rumbling that grew high in tone. A shriek, a roaring shriek like glass grinding against itself, glaciers of glass breaking. Hysterical laughter.
“No one. Yes, that’s why he laughed, my brother! Even as I killed him! He knew what he had, and he knew no one would bring him back! He would never use it on another. Nor I! We love no one! And we have no one to trust. Do you see?”
She saw. The Wyrm rolled about in his despair and mirth. Then he looked at her, panting.
“If there was one. If there was, I would be safe. But I have none. Who would I love? A mortal?”
“Why not? Is it impossible, Duke Rhisveri? Is there nothing in any of us—in any part of the world that you couldn’t admire or love?”
Rhisveri snorted. He snaked his head down to her.
“Perhaps there is. I admit that you folk have qualities I could find attractive. I could pretend I was a smaller man. But I am not. You cannot understand what I am, and any relationship would be imbalanced. But even then—perhaps I could love someone. Respect them.”
Ryoka saw Rhisveri shake his head.
“Why would I give my heart away to someone who will die and break it? Even if I resurrected them, if I had a thousand scrolls. No. No, if it is true love, I will not waste it on a mere century. I could only love someone who walks time without age. Who could challenge and push me. I could only love…”
An immortal. And now Ryoka saw a kind of design in the air. She looked at Rhisveri.
“Is that why you made Ailendamus? To find other people, other immortals in hiding? Not Wyrms but…someone you could love? Trust?”
He jerked. The Wyrm whirled his head around and stared at Ryoka. She had seen too much. He blustered.
“Nonsense! Do you think I would trust Visophecin or his lot? I have kept the scroll secret because they would stab me in the back for it, even Fithea. Especially Fithea.”
“So why are you telling me? To mock me? Because you want me to know? I want that scroll, Rhisveri. Does that mean there’s something you want from me in return?”
Ryoka felt it happening again. Now came the [Geas]. Now came the bargain. But Rhisveri just smirked.
“No. No, I told you—you cannot offer me anything. I know its worth. Even useless—a hundred thousand Ryokas could offer nothing close.”
Then why risk it? The Wyrm had a gleeful look in his eyes. Why tell Ryoka if he didn’t intend to let her have it or bargain? Ryoka frowned.
“I must have it. My friend—”
“I know. Don’t you think I know? Everyone wants a scroll like that. Most believe it is a figment, but it is not. I know you will not relent—and you are an emissary. I cannot kill you.”
Rhisveri slithered back and forth. Ryoka felt her stomach sinking. And yet…his tone was sinking ominously. What was going to happen? Mind-erased? A spell?
“I am a friend of the Fair Folk of Avalon, Rhisveri Zessoprical. I have wronged you, but I will do everything I can to defend myself. I remind you of that.”
The Wyrm hissed. His body was coiling inwards, now, no longer giving her space. Closer and closer, walls of scales.
“Oh, I know. You threaten me in my home. You persuade me with every factor, from greed to passion to fear. You want what I am not willing to trade. Not to you. But you are dangerous. You know what hides in Rhir. You have things I want, but you and I both have a point where we will never cross. And I cannot force you…or can I? Go ahead. Try and stop me. I could pull your mind apart. Turn you into a dancing puppet. I could sell you to Roshal or simply kill you. Go ahead. Stop me. Say that name.”
Ryoka was shuddering. But—why was he threatening her? He had not seemed as wrathful at her. She thought they had understood each other, or at least, she him, and he had appreciated it.
She refused to. The Wyrm was so close now she felt the coils constricting her. If he so much as sneezed she would be squished. He opened his maw, and venom pooled there. Ryoka waited, tensed—and then Rhisveri uncoiled. He moved his head back and laughed softly.
“You would be far better if you were of our nature. Mortality is wasted on you. Alas, you play too well. Do not flinch, brave Courier. I will still win. Or did you forget? I have a voice, the same as you. So I say it. Oberon.”
Ryoka Griffin recoiled. Her eyes went round. Rhisveri’s tail flicked and something flew through the air. It landed, scattering about, then reforming. She saw broken stones—familiar stone, from the very heart of the palace, rising into the air. Forming…an arch.
The Wyrm looked at her. His mouth opened wide. Do you see it yet?
“You can offer me nothing. But perhaps…Oberon! I invoke you!”
The stones rose, hovering in the air. The Wyrm raised his head as the Wind Runner shouted. He threw his head back and roared to the heavens.
For a moment, nothing happened. Ryoka, even Rhisveri, froze, sweating, hearts pounding in tandem in fear as he said it. Ryoka—nothing would happen, surely? He had never been there. The gateway broke! Nothing would…
She felt something happening. A strange sensation at her side. Ryoka Griffin slapped a hand to something odd. She had never felt that—she looked down and froze.
Her bag of holding was…rattling. And she felt the obols inside of it shaking about. Then the room began shaking. Rhisveri’s eyes flickered in unease, but he smiled. Staring down at…
The portal. Blank air. Nothing but old stone, even a bit moldy, written with ancient words. Nothing but his magic keeping it aloft. Ryoka stared at it, shaking. Then she realized something. She looked up slowly and made a squeaking sound. Rhisveri followed her gaze.
The stone archway collapsed as he let go of the magic. It was just old stone, after all. But that tiny, infinitesimal tear in the fabric of the world? It opened a fraction wider and the Wyrm turned pale.
Who was saying his name? Why was he risking it? The fool! The—
Five figures fled from Terandria as fast as possible. It was a possible opening! A place to invade—they made tracks. It was—they hid in the dark sea. There was just one of him, and they were—
They avoided that gaze and the touch of fall itself. They weren’t afraid! It just wasn’t time. Not yet.
It would be death, this time. The Court of the Fae waited. One of them stood alone, amid fading colors.
The Court of the Summer Fae was over. Fall and winter ruled, and, thusly, they changed. All but he. Like her—like Ivolethe, who now stood among the first in the Winter Court, he refused to change.
Melidore. One of the eldest of the Fae. One of the first of their number. It was not said lightly. He stood by the King of Fae himself, and his expression was thunderous.
Did that girl think this was done lightly? A door was closed and sealed. Sealed and closed—and only one in all of the lands of the fae could do it.
Oberon. Now, he had to reopen it and he did. Why? It was not a monumental task, but it took his strength. Melidore did not know why, but he knew it would be death this time.
If the answer did not suit him, he would violate hospitality itself. Not to go to that damned land and give another weapon to the Enemy’s hands. No.
Rather, he would go among the terrified women standing before the throne. They had been summoned, of course.
Just like last time. They had been called, and the court convened. They were all here again.
Three Kings, young, in his prime, and old, bearing the true blade which echoed across realities.
A bevy of proud folk, escorting a little child who had sold his stick for quite a lot—as he saw it. Their wings furled and unfurled with impatience as they eyed the terrified group of women with a disdain only reserved for family, albeit distant.
A Phoenix, preening his feathers with a handbag around his neck.
Ivolethe, of course, and the younger Fae who had known her.
And in the center, facing the throne as the doorway opened—Sikeri’val-Toreshio-Maresssui. The Wyrm saw Melidore staring at her, hand on a sword. She avoided his gaze, staring at the opening rift.
Not just her, though. All of the Wyrms had been summoned. All came, despite their arrogance. They quailed before this throne. And Melidore’s wrath.
If the answer displeased him, he would go among them and slaughter them all. No matter the punishment. Enough.
The door opened and there she was. Ivolethe sighed as Ryoka Griffin appeared. But it was not she who had said the name thrice, with intention and daring.
Rhisveri Zessoprical saw the figure on the throne and quailed. But then his eyes spotted the women. They looked like women, Human women, with different shades of skin and hair styles—until you looked at them differently. Ryoka Griffin saw…
Her knees shook.
Wyrm gazed upon Wyrm, and the lone male Wyrm between two worlds raised his head proudly. He bowed it, first to the throne, then to his kin.
“King of the Fae. I am Rhisveri, Ruler of Ailendamus. I thank you for—meeting with me. I have an offer to place before the lands of the Farthest Travellers.”
“You invoke his name lightly, Wyrm. Speak your reasons and be they well. Or you shall die.”
A radiant figure warned him. He quelled his tongue as the Faerie King lifted a palm, but that calm gaze of fall made Ryoka and Rhisveri shake.
Yet the Wyrm spoke. He looked at Ryoka, and, even now, the cunning glance made her search ahead of his words. Understanding…
“I have been offended by your subjects and Ryoka Griffin, who claims friendship with your lands. She attempted to steal something that belonged to me. An object beyond any value I can name. I am minded to forgive her—and that is a petty squabble. But the Wind Runner, Ryoka Griffin, desires that which I cannot use. Which I will not trade for any value she possesses.”
The Fae listened. Rhisveri spoke. And something floated in front of him. A simple scroll, this one long, with a wooden handle. Ryoka shivered as she saw it. It felt…warm in her very soul. She felt alive, and the Faerie King said nothing as Rhisveri lifted it up for all to see.
“I know not if you have the like in your world. Or if it is mundane. I think not. I have one object in my possession. It is called a Scroll of Resurrection, and it can revive any being. Even me.”
The Court of the Fae had been rustling, the Wyrms nervously murmuring, the Dragons—even the Kings three waving to Ryoka. Suddenly—they went silent.
All eyes fixed on the scroll. Disbelieving. Incredulous. Magic, bottled like that? Melidore choked. That was not—
But the rules there. Nama’s grip touched one of the simple healing potions Ryoka had given her. And suddenly—she was staring at the scroll too.
“One life. One life—even your own if you have someone you trust. But if you have none? No one can afford it in this world that I know. Nor would I risk it.”
Rhisveri looked at her and Ryoka knew. You clever bastard. You—
She leapt, the wind rushing behind her, but he lifted a hand and she fell. No. Rhisveri watched as Oberon sat there. And even he looked at the scroll.
“Everyone has someone. Everyone but a Wyrm. I offer it. For a worthy price. If it can be paid, if you will accede to part of the trade—I will exchange it for something of equal value.”
The Wyrm smiled and Ryoka sank to her knees. Because he was right. She looked into that vision of another place and at them.
The three Kings of Camelot. Who had loved and lost and who had left their kingdom. Who would one day return. Their eyes were fixed on the scroll.
The Dragons, eyes opened wide, pointing, striding forwards to be blocked by the Faerie King’s guards.
The Wyrms, who stared at Rhisveri with admiration and lust for the magnificent bastard play, even by their standards. Sikeri blew Rhisveri a kiss, and he preened slightly.
Even Nama. Nama, who had once told Ryoka her home was empty because…
Ivolethe and the Court of the Fae were silent. Staring at the scroll. Ryoka’s best friend looked across the divide and gave Ryoka a sad nod.
It is never easy, is it? Ryoka Griffin knelt there as Rhisveri smiled. Oberon’s lips moved. He lifted a hand, and the gates began to close. But—oh, dead gods. Dead gods and fae and cunning Wyrms. Even the Faerie King. Ryoka stared at the empty throne, and Rhisveri laughed in delight.
For the greatest auction in any world had just begun.
Ryoka Griffin did not speak to Rhisveri after that. He offered her food, put the scroll away, and was the very model of a host. Would you care for a drink? A game of chess? I am so indebted to you—why don’t we forget about the thief incident? Full pardon.
She was sick. She stumbled towards her room, ignoring Visophecin, face white. Rhisveri had stopped her on the way out of his chambers.
“Miss Ryoka Griffin? You are pardoned. I will consider your attempted theft mitigated for the price of…mm. Ten of those coins.”
She dropped them on the ground, face blank. He smiled and levitated them up. They flashed past Ryoka, and Rhisveri nodded.
“You are free to go. We will discuss Sammial Veltras later—given House Veltras’ attacks on Ailendamus? He is a prisoner still. I invite you to join the bidding, although I do not think you’ll win—or how it will take place. But I am content to wait. Years if need be. I do not think it will be so long. Oh—and look at this.”
He lifted something up.
Someone had tossed something before the gates closed. A…handkerchief. From no less than Sikeri herself. Ryoka stared at the huge, house-sized blanket. Rhisveri patted it against his head.
“It feels quite nice. Yes, indeed, I think I won’t regret the trade. But just so we’re clear.”
He smiled at her.
“If you try to steal my scroll, I will kill you. If you tell the others—you will know my full wrath. There will be no next time. Have a good night. I would be quite willing to chat with you another day, but you seem tired.”
Ryoka had stumbled away. She had to steal that damned scroll. She had to…
He had it under guard. Would someone pay for it? What would they trade? What could they trade?
No stick for him. They’d trade the lever to move the world for it—and she just bet they could. She…she…
Would Ailendamus fight Rhir? Would they truly be allies? But for Erin. But for Erin…Ryoka closed her eyes. But for Erin, how evil were they? That lonely giant snake. The strange goodness and wrongness of Ailendamus.
She sagged against a wall as Visophecin strode in to ask Rhisveri what had happened and get no answers. Ryoka stumbled through the palace.
It was near nightfall and everyone was smiling. Some people wanted to say ‘hello’ to the Wind Runner. Queen Oiena of Ailendamus herself spotted Ryoka amidst the gathering and celebrations.
“There you are. I was told you were with Viscount Visophecin. Has he returned? Fortuitous, but you, my Gura-loving girl, will speak to me. And I will—”
She hesitated. She was back to being ready to kick Ryoka out a window, but one glance at Ryoka’s face and the [Queen] whirled.
“Someone fetch a [Healer]. Has the Viscount done something? Fetch me the Royal Guard—”
“I’m fine. Visophecin didn’t do anything. Look how good I am.”
Ryoka put her head down. Queen Oiena reached for her, but her bodyguard stopped her.
“Your Majesty, she’s either sick or hexed or about to vomit.”
Ryoka was probably number three. Queen Oiena looked around.
“Get her out of the way, then. We might as well not ruin the moment…”
The Wind Runner heard something weird as a [Healer] strode over, took one look at her face, and found a barf bucket. She sat there, breathing in and out and trying to make sense of it all. What about no scroll? What about asking Visophecin—what would happen? Ryoka messed up everything. The consequences? She couldn’t even imagine it!
What if Nama got her family, though? Even just one? What if King Arthur returned? What if…
What if it brought back Titania?
Ryoka’s head slowly rose. A thought. No. What if…
Oh, Erin. Her heart hurt. Ryoka was so overwhelmed and distraught, she didn’t even hear it at first. But then she did, because it sank into her head. Cheering and laughter—she looked around as Queen Oiena patted her hand.
“Is that…language? Courier Ryoka, we should take you away.”
Queen Oiena gestured, but Ryoka stared about. Everyone was gathered around—she didn’t see Itorin–but even a lot of important people who might attend the Court of Masks, Oesca and Ivenius, both so excited they’d missed her…
What was this? Baron Regalius was leading a small procession, beaming, and there was music and everyone looked thrilled. But why though? And anyways, it was totally the wrong music for Ailendamus.
Not enough pomp. Way too fast-beat. Way too…peppy. Ryoka Griffin paused.
Then she heard it. A voice, singing amidst instruments that this world had never known until now. Ryoka slowly rose, and she saw it. A dancing procession, coming in. A figure on a moving platform, glittering like magic and artifice and celebrity.
She heard a voice, singing a familiar song, and the audience cheered. Ryoka Griffin’s mouth opened as the [Popstar] of Terandria, the Singer, Cara O’ Sullivan, blew a kiss and entered Ailendamus’ capital. She turned, waving, and Ryoka Griffin saw her eyes alight on the Wind Runner.
Cara winked and raised the microphone to her lips, and began to sing as she spotted the young woman.
This one’s for you, batman.
Author’s Note: That last line lacks a lot of context. Also, it’s weird that that’s a plot thread. Like—you could say that and get a lot of weird looks, but say that to a reader of The Wandering Inn and…you’ll still get weird looks.
27,000 words, roughly. I was really tired since I had 0 days off since last chapter, so I said—I said, pirateaba, go for 22,000 words.
Eh, 5k margin of error. I’ll try for shorter and more impactful next time. Or does this not have enough pact? Let me know, but we are moving! I am moving!
…I want a teleporter. Thanks for reading and see you in a bit!
Flos Reimarch, commissioned by IKEA Furniture!
Bird Pictures by Lanrae!
Manaforge and Pawn vs Belavierr by Mg!