May 12th, 2017. A day that was almost overlooked for a year. It would later become a timestamp synonymous with conspiracy theories, governmental coverups, and a worldwide crisis. Its nickname would be simply—the Melbourne Incident.
The Melbourne Airport’s logs would show—once they had been leaked by whistleblowers and people panicking over what they’d seen—the inexplicable.
Eyewitnesses would come forward to testify what they hadn’t seen. Which was their friends or people around them disappearing.
Young people. The logs on all the surveillance showed it too. One second they were there—then nothing.
No glitches. No ‘blips’ on the footage. Even someone with a phone, recording the incident by chance, just saw a person move past a young Japanese man, Kenjiro Murata, for the briefest second.
Then he was gone.
This was not the first incident, but what had been put down to some human trafficking incident or runaways, kidnappings with no ransom note, or worse, a serial killer or cult, quickly refocused itself. In an airport, with undeniable mass-evidence of what was going on, public opinion quickly focused on the event.
It transpired just as fast that a number of media organizations had known of the incidents, but they had been forcibly prevented from breaking the story. Multiple nations had covered up the incidents and looked into them. They had found nothing—or so they claimed.
But at this point, who would believe them? There had always been conspiracy theories. This—made every crack theory look like logical musings as internet sleuths, panicked rumors or false information—even faked videos and images—spread along with a true and genuine abduction of the young.
It had so many elements to it. Young people, but not children, were abducted. In a specific age range. Yet it didn’t matter how ‘safe’ they were. They all vanished, from the rich to the poor, to those who were in the company of protectors to ones who went for a walk.
In their own homes. Going to the bathroom. Worse, there was no one to blame. Oh, pundits and politicians and everyone blamed everyone else, but there was no proof. None of them returned.
Ryoka Griffin was considering how that must have all been. Then Rae mentioned the pandemic.
Oh, just something akin to a worldwide disease like The Black Death—albeit far less lethal—sweeping the world. Made far worse because now people suspected this was Phase 2 of some kind of plot or invasion. The Illuminati capturing children for a new generation and wiping out the old world?
Aliens seeding the way for a landing? The Rapture?
“Conspiracy theories are everywhere. It was insane. Even videos made for fun—do you know the Mandela Catalogue?”
“Oh. Right. Someone made that, but people were convinced it was real. No one trusts what any news organizations are saying because half of them knew. So people were sharing that. Forget about masks. Everyone I knew thought the government was putting something in them.”
So you had a worldwide disease made worse by a refusal to comply with restrictions. Multiple nations all accusing each other of knowing…something. Actual abductions of the young people.
What interested Ryoka was that Rae, the bassist and one of the latest people to come from Earth in the year of 2021—had a better understanding of the economic impacts of all of this than most.
Greg, who was from 2019 and as annoying as Cara had pretended to be with her [Alter Ego] Skill, just talked about the ‘vibe’. Rae, however, had a father in the IRS and a mother who was a nurse. And she had gone to church.
“The hospitals are flooded. People start dying because they’re full up. At the same time, some groups are making all the money.”
Ryoka sat in the crowded wagon of Cara’s band. Every Earther was present, staring at her, but letting Rae catch Ryoka up to speed. Cara had introduced Ryoka to everyone, but the Singer of Terandria was the only one not present.
“You can talk with them. I’ll get to work.”
Cara didn’t need to hear all of what they had shared again, but there was a visceral relief on the faces of the other Earthers in sharing this. They’d all hugged Ryoka—or tried to, in Greg’s case. They liked her before having met her, which was an unexpected feeling for Ryoka, and one she was disinclined to break by talking too much.
Because to them, she was like Cara. She was the Wind Runner, an Earther who’d become a Courier. She’d made it.
Anyways, back to Earth. Rae grimaced.
“Self-defense, arms manufacturing—everyone, I mean, everyone is buying something. ‘Give every young person a gun, just in case.’ They nearly passed a law letting people from 12 and up carry firearms.”
Oh heck, that is going to be a problem. However, if the gun lobby had new teeth, guess who else had more converts than they had since the actual Crusades?
Every religion in the world, even the weird ones, had gained in followers. Some had literally doubled their numbers, and they did not help with the many prophecies and laws that had been broken in the modern era that might spell divine judgment.
Worse…Ryoka was gnawing at her lip as Greg interjected.
“People are saying they see things. No one believes that. Yet. There’s a famous CEO who says he saw the messiah himself beckoning him to the last war against the Devil. Everyone he was with swears they saw it too. But that’s the weirdest part of it.”
No one had thrown a single [Fireball] through the portal between worlds, and yet Earth was practically tearing itself apart. Well—practically.
No one had started a world war yet. The Earthers chattered, and Ryoka, to distract herself, let them catch her up on less important news. Like all the movies that had come out, despite the calamities. New songs, even drama. She drank it in hungrily because it was home.
Would they ever go back, though? And if they did—
Would she want to?
Cara O’Sullivan, if that were her real name, asked hard questions. In fact, that was pretty much the only type of question she asked.
Ryoka Griffin, it could be said, had very little chill. She got anxious, she worried, and she snapped.
Cara, in that case, had anti-chill. She thought about the world with a depth of cynicism Ryoka admired.
However—they were two radically different people. On the same side! But they approached the issue of Ailendamus, where Ryoka was, and everything else from fundamentally different points of view.
For instance, the first thing Cara had asked Ryoka on their walk back was…
“After this, if you can be free, what will you do?”
And Ryoka was paralysed because she didn’t know. Go home to Izril? Well, assuming Erin woke up—go and find Mrsha. But if Mrsha were safe, she had to rally help against the six. Or—or talk to Eldavin. Or return Sammial to Tyrion and—
Then Cara jabbed her with an elbow and reclarified. Not that. If all were well in the world, what did Ryoka Griffin want to do? Go home? Find more Earthers? Just…live in peace?
If she could go home, would she?
Any one of these questions could have given Ryoka a full blown existential crisis where she jogged along the beach and thought about them for a day or two. Since there was no beach nearby, Ryoka just hyperventilated.
She didn’t know. By contrast, Cara did.
“I’m creating Safety. Step two is to get everyone where they want to be. In their class. Step three? We go home or send a message back. Failing that? We need to find a nation, a cause, a group, and create something safe for us. It’s nebulous as feck, but I’m touring Terandria to find somewhere I believe in. The Kingdom of Keys might be good—if they let us in. I’m genuinely considering Khelt, to be honest. Or the House of Minos. Paradises. You’ve met Minotaurs—what’s your impression of them?”
To that, Cara had rolled her eyes. She had an Irish accent when it slipped, but she had training, so she often adopted a different accent depending on who she spoke to.
She was prickly around Ryoka, but the other Earthers thought of her as trustworthy.
“She’ll bite your head off, but she got me out of jail. Everyone thought I was trying to cast a spell on them when I landed, and I was in there for two weeks. She rolled in and got me out.”
Thien assured Ryoka that Cara was on the up and up. Abebi, from Nigeria, was also confident in Cara.
“Safety is great. I hope you can visit. But no one’s going there until we’re well clear of Ailendamus. Cara told us all to be careful. What…what is the situation here with you?”
Ryoka gave her a winning smile.
That pretty much described everything. When in doubt, that was the answer. But the truth was, Ryoka was glad Cara was here.
Because Cara’s other goal, besides possibly breaking Ryoka Griffin out of trouble, was to end the war with Ailendamus and the Dawn Concordat, specifically Calanfer. Ryoka Griffin considered that between keeping her out of trouble and that—
Cara had a better shot at ending the war. And Ryoka would help her. She had supreme confidence in her ability to sway Ailendamus’ true power. Right up until she heard that Tyrion Veltras was carving a path through Ailendamus’ forces.
And then that House Wellfar had entered the war. Guess who was to blame for that? Someone knocked at the door to the Earthers’ secret conference, and everyone went silent immediately. Ryoka opened the door and saw a [Knight], Dame Chorisa, taking off her helmet.
“Chorisa, can it wait? I’m a bit bus—”
The Thisting Veil Knight stepped aside and showed Ryoka about twenty [Knights], from the Order of the Hydra to Drell [Knights]. One of the [Royal Knights] gave Ryoka a stiff bow.
“Excuse me, Courier Griffin? Duke Rhisveri would like a word with you.”
While Ryoka Griffin was being escorted to meet with Rhisveri, Cara O’Sullivan was singing. Yes, Ryoka was being marched off under guard, but when was she not? It was what the Wind Runner wanted, anyways.
Ryoka had a belief that in order to change things, like this war, you had to go to the top. There was a great story, great fate and destiny at play, and she wanted to be an important part of it. To move Ailendamus, one person, one Wyrm mattered. Maybe some Devils and Angels and a Dryad and Elemental or two were thrown in for good measure, but only them.
Cara—no. Cara took a different view, and it was that everyone was the protagonist of their own story. Ailendamus was made up of people, and it was people who changed things. So she put the magical microphone to her lips and sang.
“I~, I have a secret. And it’s you.”
The song was unfamiliar to her, but she was a quick study, and it had the same cadence as a modern song. It needed a bit of rearrangement, the melody and maybe the beat, but it was an amazing copy of an electropop song. Yes, some of that would make it work.
There was a brief moment of pause as someone inhaled. Then a voice quickly sang in a wonderful baritone.
“I~, I know it’s never just me alone.”
A bit of hesitation. Pure nerves in the voice singing with her. But just as Ryoka had said—Cara looked sideways at the half-Giant named Menorkel, or ‘Menor’ to his friends.
My should-be-dead gods, he’s a great singer!
The beginning of the duet was nervous, and Menorkel looked like he might pass out on the other admirers around Cara, but he quickly rallied as they began to sing the song that Ryoka mentioned he’d written and dearly wanted Cara to look at.
He’d nearly run away when she came to meet him, but Ryoka had told her Menorkel mattered. Of course, Ryoka meant it in the connection of immortals and Menorkel’s true nature.
Cara didn’t know any of that. What she saw as she looked at the half-Giant, swaying despite himself and singing his heart out with one of his heads, was…talent.
A kind of passion that made her feel artificial at times. She listened to the lyrics as they went on. Oh, yes, it even had the spirit of the song.
“I~, I have a secret. And it’s you.
I~, I know it’s never just me alone.
It’s been gnawing at me for so long
Because I’m not honest with them all;
It’s not one, but two.”
He’d written an entire song after hearing her. Yes, it was unpolished. Yes, it was a copy of the many different artists she herself was pretending to embody.
But his height! The half-Giant had a kind of casual style, and his insane height wasn’t as intimidating as that Great Knight Gilaw or other half-Giants that Cara had met. He wasn’t as tall, and he had that lanky look of a young man in his late teens.
Cara felt it. Her [Popstar] senses, which had never tingled, were screaming at her.
A nine-foot tall singer with a voice as sweet and deep as a barrel of molasses and the ability to project it as loud as she could with a mic. Winsomely awkward yet brave enough to sing with his idol.
If he were on Earth, I’d bet my entire fortune on him being a sensational singer. Or part of a boy-band.
I want him in my band as an actual singer.
If Cara had known he actually had two heads and could have gotten over the shock of it and the secret cabal in Ailendamus, she might have tried to abscond with him right then and there. As it was, Menorkel looked like he was dreaming as Cara lowered the mic after the song ended.
“You. Are. Beautiful. Menorkel, that song is genius.”
She reached up, took his arm, and he nearly fell on a [Lady].
“Y-you think so, Miss Cara? Singer Cara?”
“Call me Cara. Yes, I do. We need to work on accompaniment, but my [Manager], Abebi, can mix music. Some kind of melody—but the lyrics? They are spot on. How did you come up with them?”
The half-Giant began to stutter, still looking like he wanted to pinch himself. Was this real? Cara just beamed up at him, genuinely smiling. This young man had a talent. More talent than she did. If nothing else, she was going to hone that.
Ryoka had dumped Menorkel in Cara’s arms, in a figurative sense, because it might matter. Cara decided to devote as much time as she could to the young man because he had a dream. And if there was one thing she could get behind, it was chasing any dream you wanted until you found yourself on the big stage.
The only trick would be explaining how Abebi used the computer to mix electronic tracks—but he didn’t need to see that. Cara flicked up her hair and winked at him.
“Do you know any other songs of mine? You have a superb voice. Are you trained? I noticed you have trouble hitting the high notes.”
Menorkel gulped. Cara looked around at the envious faces; there were a lot of her most devoted fans, but she rarely sang with them. She even spotted a huge…armored figure…
Cara froze as she saw Gilaw perched on a window ledge, staring at her like a hawk. The Great Knight made no move, and Menorkel babbled on happily.
“I know almost all of them, Miss Cara! I would love to sing—er, Miss Cara?”
“Um. Who is that, Menorkel?”
The Titan turned, spotted Gilaw, and made a frantic go-away motion.
“That’s just Gilaw. Great Knight Gilaw, Cara. She’s a friend of mine—Gilaw! Go away! She might be listening. Maybe she likes your songs? She listens to mine.”
The strange woman with dark skin and a mane of hair refused to go. Cara hesitated—then put on her best smile. She bowed.
“Knight Gilaw? You’re welcome to listen closer! If she’s your friend, I’m delighted to sing for her, Menorkel. What if we did a duet? Some song…how about Don’t Stop Believin’?”
His mouth dropped open at the famous song with, naturally, a male and female part. Edited a bit for comprehensibility. Street lights made sense, for instance, but trains and whatnot needed changing.
Cara realized she was going to have to further edit every song for lyrics about…Ryoka’s biggest worry.
Wonderful. But then she put the mic to her lips and motioned at Menorkel to sing. He went pale, but she was his backup. Cara winked at the half-Giant, and he looked around wonderingly.
Like the young hero entering the high point of his own movie. The star of his story. That was how Cara saw it. And besides—
She did love to sing.
Duke Rhisveri of Ailendamus did not sing. He did croon, though. That was the tone of his voice. Very ominously friendly.
We’re all friends here. I’m so happy. I’m not thinking of melting you.
That was the…tone of his voice. A kind of forced good mood that revealed the simmering core of molten rage in his eyes. The smile was rather like that too. Corpses had more genuine rictus grins than his bared teeth.
“It seems Archmage Eldavin and House Veltras have both decided to enter the war against Ailendamus. And House Wellfar. Just what is your relationship to Tyrion Veltras and the ‘Archmage of Memory’, Ryoka? Personal? Intimate?”
She turned beet red.
“None of your business. I’m sorry they’re…attacking, Rhisveri, but you did abduct me.”
“Yes, yes. I abducted you. After you stole from me. And this is my comeuppance. Itorin is not happy. The [Generals] and [Strategists] are whining to me and holding me accountable. Which I deserve! It is purely my fault. And I will pay for it. Right after I vent my frustrations onto you.”
The Wyrm opened his maw in the private audience he had summoned Ryoka to, and she inhaled the sickly-sweet smell of his gullet. Not actually that bad. But she did see the acid preparing to spray and thought she actually saw the acid-ducts.
Anyone else, possibly even Cara, would have frozen in response to immortal wrath. Even Erin?
Well, Erin would have dodged. But Ryoka knew Rhisveri. And while she could fail to charm a starving duck with a full bag of bread crusts…she raised one hand.
“Do you use mouthwash or something?”
Rhisveri’s eyes bulged in an amazing sight on the giant Wyrm’s face. He closed his mouth, and then his cheeks puffed and he spat acid to the side.
“Hah! Don’t make me laugh! How did you know that?”
He growled, trying to maintain his anger, but Ryoka lifted her hands.
“It sort of smells like that. Seriously. You do use mouthwash?”
“What am I, a barbarian? Do you not cleanse your mouth? Don’t answer that. I think I can smell it coming off you. I suppose this is the point where you remind me you’re a guest of the Faerie King, and etcetera, etcetera.”
Rhisveri grumpily rested his head on his only forelimbs and stared at her over his claws in such a Human way that she nearly laughed. Ryoka had known the odds of him blasting her were remote, but she kept going.
“No, because you know that, Rhisveri. I won’t insult your intelligence. But I will ask for a meeting with all the immortals in the capital.”
“Amazing. You waste so much of my time, and now you want to waste everyone’s? Why would I possibly grant that request?”
The Wyrm raised his brows. Ryoka lifted a finger.
“Firstly, you do realize two—three powers are in this war because of me? It probably makes sense to try and make one or all of them withdraw.”
Rhisveri frowned darkly.
“We can win. Wistram, House Veltras, House Wellfar? None of them dare to send more than portions of their might. Ailendamus can crush all three. Or do you think your precious Archmage is my equal?”
He balefully eyed Ryoka. She gave him an innocent smile.
My friend, you have no idea what Eldavin is.
What she said was far less confrontational.
“Of course you can…but do you want to at this moment? You’re a logical man, Rhisveri.”
He rubbed his head. Since he had no claws capable of reaching the top, the Wyrm rubbed his head against one wall, which seemed to be polished, as if he did that now and then. Wearily, he looked down at her.
“I am a logical Wyrm. Don’t insult me by bringing me onto your level. And you would be so generous?”
Rhisveri gave Ryoka a skeptical look. She shrugged.
“Haven’t I settled my debts with you? I’m willing to talk them down if possible. You have Sammial—if you let him go, Tyrion might relent.”
“He wants two million gold coins. For that, I was tempted to send him a trap in the [Message] spell. Very well. You’re speaking rare sense. But why would I allow you to talk to the others? Speak to me. I am in control here. The others are lesser peers. I will make the final decision.”
Rhisveri narrowed his eyes dangerously. Ryoka just sighed. She reached into her bag of holding and produced a handful of glowing stones.
“…Because I’m willing to pay you if you answer my request. You and the others. Not just for Tyrion and Eldavin to withdraw. Duke Rhisveri, Great Wyrm of Ailendamus…how much would it cost for you to abandon your war against the Dawn Concordat? You see, I—”
She got no further because Rhisveri’s gust of laughter as he exhaled and rolled over, slapping his tail in the far distance, nearly blew her off her feet. Ryoka caught herself as the Wyrm laughed for a good twenty seconds, then, chortling, looked at her.
“You what? End the war for—you have your audience. I will call the others after this banquet. They have to hear this.”
He laughed at her as he dismissed her, but she wasn’t dead, and even if he laughed—he did listen to her. Ryoka wiped at her brow. Rhisveri was a difficult person to persuade, but she took this time to jog off and find Visophecin, Sophridel, or Fithea. Visophecin and Uzine first and priority.
If there were any chance at all, Ryoka was going to take it. In some ways, she was very unlike Cara in her limitless, boundless confidence in her ability to do things. Like persuade a Wyrm to stop a war. Ryoka thought she had a shot. This was before Eldavin’s battle with the Lucifen, so her spirits were uncharacteristically high.
What Ryoka and Cara agreed on was that they had to try and end this conflict. Cara knew someone in Calanfer.
“Princess Seraphel du Marquin.”
“You know a [Princess] of Calanfer?”
Ryoka’s tone was frankly disbelieving. Cara gave her an odd look.
“…Yes. Because I landed in Noelictus, where she was being betrothed to the [Earl] of Ovela. That ended poorly, but I got to know her. She’s a decent sort, even for a royal. She has had too much shite piled on her lap.”
“So you just—know her.”
The Singer’s eyebrows raised.
“Yes. And you just happen to have met the 6th Princess of Calanfer after she ran away. Who works at an inn in the middle of the continent. Which one is more coincidental?”
“Um. No, I get that. It’s just—so you’re trying to end the war for her?”
Cara rubbed at her brow. She took a swig of healing potion mixed with a tonic for her voice; she’d just spent an hour and a half singing with the starstruck Menorkel. And about thirty seconds of hearing Gilaw try to copy them at a dead screech. But she’d made an impression on the two immortals.
Ryoka was actually sort of jealous. She walked over to the window and closed the shutters. Gilaw couldn’t hear them, but she was peeking through the glass at Cara, the new target of interest. Menorkel pulled her away and hurried her off.
Of course, Cara was the Singer of Terandria. But Ryoka was the friend to immortals. Ahem. The Wind Runner coughed and saw Cara giving her a long look.
“I’m not ending the war because I know Seraphel, Ryoka. I’m ending the war because Ailendamus is an imperialistic, expansionist nation that aggressively annihilates any smaller nations. They make Rome look peaceful. People are dying in this war, and if I can—well, you were the excuse to come here. We haven’t a shot in hell, but I’ll try. Hand me that brush?”
Ryoka did, a bit shamefaced.
“Uh, right. I think it can work. But are you sure we need to stick to your plan?”
She was antsy. And embarrassed by Cara reminding her of the obvious. Ailendamus did attack other nations.
It was just…Ryoka saw why. Part was Rhisveri’s greed, but the immortals genuinely thought they were making life better. The Agelum did. The Lucifen were more obsessed with order, but Ryoka also knew it was self-preservation.
Mortals killed immortals. There was a part of her that got why they were doing this.
And another part that realized how dangerous all of this was. Yet despite herself, Ryoka didn’t hate Ailendamus. She might fear it, but she knew Itorin, saw the people here…
Cara did too, but again, her perspective was far different.
“Ovela and Afiele. I don’t know what you think you’re seeing, Ryoka, but I’ve seen their worst. Hiring a [Necromancer] to assassinate an entire family—children and all—is what some of the rats in this nation will do. However, they’re not all evil pieces of Creler crap?”
She turned to Ryoka, and the Wind Runner nodded.
“Some are reasonable. Like I said, there’s ways to make an impact.”
They’d discussed that, but the imminent banquet was the first thing. So Cara just nodded.
“I’m sure you’re right. That’s who we’re impressing. No one’s all good or evil in a nation. So we’re doing this—as long as you’re not going to run off on me.”
She strode to the door as Ryoka hesitated. She really wanted to make a break for it, but Cara cracked the door open.
“Abebi, time? How are we looking?”
Ryoka heard the [Manager]’s reply.
“Everyone’s good, Cara.”
“Define ‘good’. I just saw Rae throwing up over there.”
Abebi glanced over her shoulder.
“She’s good. I’ve got it. Just get ready for your part.”
Cara nodded and shut the door. She had the amazing ability to not worry about everything and delegate, like letting Abebi get the band ready and everything set up. All Ryoka could do was fly.
The Singer of Terandria was at full strength here, as the chattering guests flocked to one of the giant courtyards where food and drink were set up against the darkening sky. No less than His Majesty would be in attendance—but casually.
This was the Singer’s first big concert, and Ryoka realized she had really thrown Cara off what needed to be a spectacular moment. Everything aside, she was contracted to perform in Ailendamus for at least a week, and her reputation was riding on this.
It turned out this would not be a broadcast concert; Cara didn’t like Wistram’s mages rebroadcasting her for good reason. She got enough press, and trust issues aside, part of her sales were the uniqueness of her events. The rise of mass-media would take away some of her value.
“At least until I get royalties. No royalties, no system set up to accredit people for their work. Fame is literally their only payment, and we’re all worth more. That’s the one thing I agree with Ailendamus on. Okay…what are you doing with your clothes on?”
Of all the questions—Ryoka jumped.
Cara pushed a bundle of clothes the [Costume Tailor] had worked up in a frenzy into Ryoka’s arms.
“I’ll turn my back. But if you’re going to back off and run away—now would be a really good time for me to know. We’re on in fifteen.”
She glanced out the window, and Ryoka’s heart began to judder in her chest. Now she had second thoughts and third thoughts and fifth ones that told her maybe this wasn’t a good idea.
How had Cara talked her into it?
“I…are you certain this is for the best?”
Cara turned to Ryoka.
“Ah, there’s the last-minute objections. No, Ryoka, you don’t have to do this.”
“Oh, well then—”
The Singer continued like a freight train rolling over a foot.
“I’d just have to improvise with fourteen minutes to go. Again. Here—get changed! Let’s keep talking. No, you don’t have to do this. But we both agreed that you’re well-known in Ailendamus. I’m not. I have my reputation, but people know you, so this is the best way to help me. Which we want to do. Your scars…”
She had just seen the scars from Ryoka being shot in the back. The Wind Runner saw Cara hesitate, then go on briskly.
“Don’t worry about anything other than what we rehearsed. Do we need to go through it again?”
“I’ve got it. I think. I just walk around and then use the magic to fly up. I can do that. It’s not hard. I mean, I control the wind, but if I make a mistake—”
“Breathe, Ryoka. In and out. Don’t worry. Even if you make a mistake, I can improvise around you. Got it?”
It was true, the costume would, uh, attract attention. On multiple levels. And Baron Regalius, Itorin II, even Menorkel, Rhisveri, and people from the Court of Masks and more knew Ryoka. Viscount Visophecin—she knew a lot of powerful people.
She just really, really didn’t want to do this. Ryoka rubbed at the fabric. It wasn’t polyester or modern fabric. Had they actually gotten hide or something? She bit her tongue.
“I’m committed, Cara. I’m not going to leave you behind. It’s just—I really don’t want to do this. I’ll do it! But—will it really end this war? I know you’ve got a plan, but you don’t know the leaders of Ailendamus.”
She could not tell Cara the truth, even if she wanted to. Yet the Singer’s eyes were, if not purely confident, resolved.
“I have…a few variables, Ryoka. And among them is just tipping the scales. If it’s one of two people who switch from supporting to hesitating, or better yet, opposing it, we can maybe grind this war machine from annihilating a country to something before that. There is always a point where enough is enough. Enough blood, enough dissent…I want to push to that point if it can be done.”
It was well said. But Cara didn’t know that a Wyrm ruled Ailendamus. Ryoka wondered…what Rhisveri’s tipping point was.
The two said all of this as Cara helped Ryoka put on the rest of her costume. Then their serious moment turned to hesitation. Cara bit her lip, and Ryoka saw her holding in a smile. The Wind Runner checked herself in a mirror and sighed.
Ivolethe would laugh herself sick if she saw this. Even Cara’s lips quirked, and Ryoka heard people in the band laughing when she exited the trailer.
“Holy shit. Are we doing this?”
Greg stared at Ryoka until Thien elbowed him. Cara turned to Ryoka as the Wind Runner peeked at the banquet and saw the Agelum in the audience. Oh, great. They seemed to be looking for her. And—was that Sammial Veltras standing with Oesca and her friends?
Why yes, yes it was. Cara put her arm on Ryoka’s shoulder.
“[Performer’s Grace]. Breathe, Ryoka. Are you breathing? In, out, in, out…”
“I know how to breathe!”
Ryoka snapped back. Cara didn’t even blink, but Ryoka relaxed slightly as the Skill worked on her. The Singer kept talking as she steered Ryoka towards the backstage, behind the curtains. Ryoka wouldn’t be taking part in the first few songs, which made her even more nervous. Someone was announcing Cara—it sounded like Regalius?
“…the illustrious Singer of Terandria, who graces our noble kingdom with…”
Abebi hurried over and whispered to Cara. It must have been rather dramatic to the audience watching, but backstage it was all chaos as Rae nearly threw up from nerves again, then took her place. Greg was fiddling with his guitar and tightened it too much—the snap of a string breaking was muffled by the applause. Cara turned to stare at him, and Abebi ran for a [Repair] spell. The Singer turned back to Ryoka.
“I know this is out of your comfort zone, Ryoka. This is me pushing you hard, and we both know it. But if there’s a chance this helps, this is about thousands, hundreds of thousands of lives if we can change anyone’s opinion. This is bigger than us, so your comfort zone does not exist right now. The question you need to answer is—will this help?”
Ryoka spread her arms helplessly, and the costume which had gone over her windsuit spread. She looked into the crowd and saw a bored Rhisveri yawning and popping prawned shrimp into his mouth. She imagined how he might react.
“Okay then. Wait for your part.”
While Cara went out, Ryoka heard her performing from behind the stage. She saw less of the stage effects, only the flash, reactions of the audience—and the [Mages] casting the spells and Abebi coordinating everything frantically.
It was the backstage Ryoka saw, and she saw that Cara knew her stuff. She also sang wonderfully.
She had a wide range from peppy pop to, more recently, a harder rock, even treading into metal. It was her persona—the Singer of Terandria was like an amalgamation of different celebrities into one.
Cara could do it because she was acting each part. And when she was on stage—she greeted the crowds and thanked Itorin II for letting her perform, every bit the [Popstar], a bit breathy, even nervous, delighted by the honor of performing.
She was good. But Cara had one fatal flaw, at least insofar as impressing Ailendamus’ true elite was concerned, and it was this:
She was lying. She had anti-truth spells, anti-appraisal rings, and all of that, but she didn’t fool the immortals. Rhisveri watched Cara with a look of pure boredom on his face during the charming greeting. He did tap his foot to some songs, and Cara had some of the immortals hooked.
But only by the quality of her music. Menorkel and Gilaw were dancing in what was close to a mosh pit at the front. So were some of the Merfolk and maybe other immortals.
The Agelum liked her music…the Lucifen did not. At least, Visophecin, who Ryoka saw while peeking around the curtains, was only politely interested. This is entertaining? Let’s institutionalize it, or create systems by which this can inorganically organically emerge.
Fithea wasn’t even present, which made sense for a Dryad used to birds singing or something. Sophridel watched, but with less passion for this.
None of them were taken in by the Singer’s charms. They saw through artifice. Ironically, Ryoka’s raw, onion-like depths of pure Ryoka might be…Ryoka, but it was all her. That was why immortals liked her, if that made sense.
Cara had a thirty minute lineup, cut down because she knew her audience had a limited attention span. In truth, it had only been twenty-four minutes, with the four being her intro and outro speeches. But she’d added in a ten minute gap for two songs with breaks.
After twenty minutes, it was Ryoka’s turn. She barely heard Cara announcing her.
“—in honor of a new friend, and a daring Courier, a new song and style I hope won’t offend my esteemed guests. It is a bit more…aggressive than my other songs, but it fits the one and only Courier to defy the Assassin’s Guild of Izril. The barefoot Wind Runner, the—”
Ryoka really didn’t want to hear this. However, as she emerged onto the stage, she saw the effect was instantaneous.
Itorin II spat out a mouthful of food as he saw her. She waved at him as every head turned. Baron Regalius blinked, and people gasped at the outrageous…
Smile on the King of Ailendamus’ face. Because they knew each other. Even Cara gave Ryoka a quick look of disbelief. She hadn’t known that in Itorin II, there was a kindred spirit to Ryoka.
Someone who dealt with immortals. As for the immortals? Rhisveri took one look at Ryoka’s costume, sat up, and began to laugh. He didn’t stop laughing.
Visophecin just eyed Ryoka as Gadrea, Uzine, and the other Agelum began applauding instantly, cheering her look. Menorkel and Gilaw pointed, Menorkel with envy and awe.
Gilaw with something like approval. Sophridel just eyed Ryoka, and she wanted to explode. Literally explode or turn invisible.
She was never, ever going to live this down—but it was working. Everyone saw how Itorin smiled, how Cara knew Ryoka. The Singer took a breath.
“And now—in honor of the Wind Runner of Izril, my newest hit—The Phoenix.”
Thien was the only member of the band who actually played, Ryoka understood. Rae wasn’t confident enough, and Greg couldn’t. So the drummer’s playing was mixed in with the rest of the track.
Cara sang. Ailendamus’ court was introduced to the concept of…rock…and realized Cara hadn’t lied.
It was an aggressive song. Ryoka had it on her playlist, which was why Cara had agreed with it.
The Phoenix, by Fall Out Boy.
She knew her role, which was to stand in the center of the stage in her costume. Cara had attached it to her windsuit; the blazing feathers made Ryoka look like the very mythical bird that Ryoka had met in the lands of the fae.
A literal Phoenix, who would be very offended if it saw Ryoka cosplaying. Then again—maybe not? Ryoka had paid it off with a handbag.
She even had a beak-like helmet that she was grateful for—she couldn’t see as much of the audience as she strutted left and right, raising an arm to the cheering. Cara was all around her, head bobbing as her hair flew, the sky was filled with flames, and Ryoka saw Rhisveri trying to hold himself up on a table and laughing so hard he was crying.
Then Cara’s moment came, and Ryoka spread her wings and flew up. Some of her feathers came loose with her ascent, but it only added to the effect. The crowd gasped as Ryoka flew. She looked down at them all and really hoped it mattered.
The laughing Wyrm, the Agelum cheering her, the nobles and mortals and royal family. Ryoka descended to mad applause. By the time Cara launched into the second song, everyone watching could see that Ryoka’s face was almost as red as the costume.
But it did work. Both Cara and the Wind Runner were now friends. Publicly, and Cara was even more interesting to the nobles of Terandria. His Majesty had publicly smiled and laughed at the performance, most crucially of all. And Rhisveri had needed to be carried out of the banquet because he couldn’t stop laughing during the speeches.
The next day, Ryoka Griffin lay with her head under her pillow. She had tried to go outside, but one of the [Knights] guarding her had begun humming one of the songs, and she’d fled inside.
She only came out when Sammial kicked the door open and began freestyling his own take on Cara’s song. Then she had to face the music. Sammial Veltras trailed after her and so did Princess Oesca, who had put her foot down and ignored her tutors in favor of not missing anything interesting ever again.
Mind you, not everyone liked Ryoka Griffin. One person in particular considered that maybe all these problems would just…go away if someone took a crossbow and shot her in the back without missing. An [Assassin] had missed with a crossbow. Just—embarrassing.
And it would save so many problems from happening now.
Queen Oiena of Ailendamus had mixed feelings on Ryoka Griffin. The poor girl had won her sympathy with the Viscount’s idiocy. She had also somehow impressed Itorin but assured Oiena she was not in any way trying to seduce her husband—and Oiena believed her.
The Queen had a soft spot for a young woman who’d made Courier by doing brave runs. Ryoka Griffin was impressive—
But she was also a terrible nuisance. And a bad influence on Oesca. Queen Oiena had heard from her daughter’s [Nursemaids] that Oesca had demanded trousers.
…Which was fine for anyone but a [Princess]. The problem was, Oesca was not like other young women her age, even the nobility. She had to go to her lessons, and that Veltras boy was the worst example of all with his unchecked aura.
More than that, though, Oiena was simply aware of Ailendamus’ war with the Dawn Concordat. It was far from the capital; you had to seek out news of it. Oh, battles won and such were talked of nonstop, but the exact, military nuance?
That was something she kept abreast of so she understood how bad House Veltras being in the war was.
“They are tearing up all our Taima-damned forces, do I have that right?”
Oiena summarized the map of red marks where Tyrion Veltras had struck. He fought, according to the [Strategist] apprising her, incredibly well with his small force. He took out enemy commanders, was here, there—a perfect supporter to the Dawn Concordat.
“Yes, Your Majesty. And House Wellfar has sent a fleet to support their Citadel-class ship. We…are unable to pressure Pheislant. Indeed, we are now forced to battle purely on the land corridor. A secondary fleet has moved to engage Wellfar, but it will be skirmishing; we cannot take The Pride of the Wellfar in an open battle, so Pheislant and Wellfar’s fleets will fight under its aegis.”
And Ailendamus does not have overwhelming force at sea, yet. Their land armies were, in Oiena’s opinion, second to none if by weight of their numbers alone, added to the quality of their [Knights] and [Soldiers]. But at sea…
So two of the Five Families and Wistram were all in this war thanks to one Courier. Oiena knew the Five Families were, and she had information that put Eldavin as Ryoka’s benefactor. He had said as much in Wistram.
Yes, a great army was heading down through Kaliv, but complications were not desirable in a war, and Ryoka was responsible for all of them. Oiena didn’t like it.
She wasn’t Itorin. The [Queen] had debated bringing it up with him, but he seemed to like Ryoka. So she…debated taking other action.
The thing about Oiena of Ailendamus was that she really did feel like it was Ailendamus she had loyalty to. She was from the Taimaguros Dominion, a marriage that had sealed their alliance, but she hadn’t actually expected to marry Itorin.
The Taimaguros Dominion was—a bit odd. It was not like what a typical Terandrian kingdom, and even Oiena could admit that. For instance, she was actually a [Princess of Gura]. Who represented one half of the two parts of Taimaguros.
Gura and Taima. Hence their pithy oaths. Oiena had not been considered, as Taima had been in full power when the marriage was proposed, and she wasn’t even the first among Gura’s eligible. However, it seemed the previous [King], Itorin I, had seen something in Oiena, because she had been hand-picked as the candidate.
Oiena thought it was a good move, and that wasn’t even bias. There had been…less suitable characters. Another [Queen] might have literally only been there to raise children and appear at formal events.
Queen Oiena had more talents. For instance, she did have her own network of agents and informants. She used them at times to make sure things that needed happening in Ailendamus or abroad…happened.
For instance, on the latest list of her achievements she would never speak of was crippling the Circle of Thorns in Izril. Ryoka had helped with that, and Oiena was grateful.
But do I need to deal with her?
In truth, Oiena laid a lot of the blame for this mess at a certain Duke’s feet. Rhisveri. She didn’t know what to make of him.
He had always been odd, but she had put Itorin’s tolerating his presence down to brotherly love. Lately, though, she’d noticed how—authoritative Rhisveri was.
That confrontation over the [Knights] had been bad enough. She was the [Queen]. She tried bringing it up to Itorin, but he had told her to leave it.
“Rhisveri is particular about these things, my love. If you can tolerate it, let him have the [Knights].”
So Oiena dropped it. She was annoyed, but she had more things to do.
Like this morning, spending time with Oesca. Oiena had decided to read her a fairytale and talk to her about her duties as a [Princess]. She made time for such things, and Oesca was happy enough when they sat together.
“Your tiara is made up of ancient metal, Oesca. Don’t let it leave your head; it is one of the most powerful protections on you. It is customary for [Princesses] and [Princes] to have such jewelry, you see. For instance, each Princess of Calanfer has a magical circlet that protects them from harm.”
“Mine does too, Mother?”
Oesca had never had to use it, so she touched the silver metal with a hint of sky blue—concealing its true appearance—with wonder. Oiena smiled.
“Yes. There is a point to your dressing and attire—which is why we must carefully talk about how you dress!”
One of the [Nursemaids] sighed in relief as Oiena pointed out the value in Oesca’s current attire. The [Princess] puffed out her cheeks.
“But Mother…I understand the tiara, but can’t I try on pants?”
“Maybe in private. But a tiara does not mesh well with pants. Let us go back to the story, and you may understand the significance. You see—your tiara comes from the traditions of old, when the first Hundred Families created their royal attire. Their crowns came from the chainmail of the last Cloud Giant. He was so large that the greatest [Enchanters] took his armor and, from the giant links, forged a hundred circlets and crowns to protect the royal children of Terandria.”
“Wow. Is that my tiara?”
Oiena shook her head, smiling as Oesca touched the tiara on her head wonderingly. Oiena, smiling in the private, royal quarters and dressing room where they were having a late breakfast—
Heard a snort. Someone kicked past them, grabbed a book from a shelf, checked it, slapped it into a bag of holding, and turned. Duke Rhisveri laughed at the [Princess] and [Queen] as he passed by.
“Hardly. Those relics are long gone, and they were definitely not each forged from a single link in a Cloud Giant’s armor. Do you know how big they are? Chain armor on a giant? Each link wouldn’t block any regular arrow! It’s all hyperbole. And enchanting doesn’t work like that. What, did they snap the enchantments to re-enchant each crown? Ridiculous. I’m going to have that tale stricken from the records.”
He stalked off as Oiena stared at him. She twitched as Oesca’s look of darling wonder turned to skepticism. She gazed up at her mother, then hopped down.
“…I’m going to go with Sammial to see what the Wind Runner is doing, Mother. I promise I’ll study more tomorrow!”
She ran before Oiena could decide whether to forbid her. Oiena put two fingers on the bridge of her nose and began cursing.
It was just as well one of the [Nursemaids] could shield Oesca’s ears from Taimaguros’ pithy phrases. The woman nervously approached the mother.
“Your Majesty, should Princess Oesca be with that young man? He could be one of those ravishing lords.”
She did not mean that in a good way. Oiena looked up and glared.
“Oesca has enough magic on her person to obliterate that boy. Just—go after her.”
She fumed as she got up. Rhisveri. The worst part was that he was important. Oesca might not have the ancient relics from the inception of Terandria’s kingdoms, but her tiara could probably eat a Tier 6 spell. Or better.
Not that she had ever needed to try it. Indeed, now that Oiena thought about it…Itorin had told her that Rhisveri had enchanted the tiara.
As if that were a good thing! It was one thing if he said, ‘our [Magi of the Old Ways] have created an artifact to safeguard our precious daughter’. Quite another to say, ‘my brother enchanted this, and it is going to keep Oesca safe’.
Was he truly the greatest spellcaster in all of Ailendamus? Oiena had never heard where Rhisveri studied. She was…realizing there was more and more about Rhisveri she did not know, and Oiena didn’t like that.
However, in the interim, she put him aside to help mitigate the cost of his blunders. Tyrion Veltras and the Five Families threatened all-out war if Sammial Veltras were harmed or not returned.
The thing was—Oiena had been keeping abreast of the negotiations, and not once had anyone proposed sending the boy back. She somewhat understood; it had been a mistake to kidnap him. Now they had him, though, they wanted to negotiate from a position of relative strength.
“But does no one understand he’s a boy? Have a [Mage] from Wistram tour the palace. And make sure he sees young Sammial, alive and well. Possibly even in Oesca’s company.”
She gave orders as she rose for the day. One of the [Chamberlains] hesitated.
“We do have a [Mage], and Wistram as a whole is willing to take the broadcast request at a substantive fee, Your Majesty. It’s only…”
Queen Oiena was willing to pay the fee to reassure everyone that Sammial Veltras was well. Showing Tyrion he was unharmed—even precocious—was an intelligent move.
But again—she heard Rhisveri’s name, and this time her teeth ground together.
“Duke Rhisveri has mandated that no [Mage] from Wistram will walk the palace unescorted. In addition, when the televised scrying began, he informed us that under no circumstances would anyone be allowed to scry the palace. Only His Majesty and royal events pre-approved would ever…”
Was he just controlling or paranoid? Oiena didn’t know either, and she had no context for why Rhisveri might be very worried that a [Mage] might…see something…without a chance to censor it.
So she snapped.
“I am Queen Oiena of Ailendamus. I overrule my cousin’s orders. Have the [Mage] tour Ailendamus.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
It was an order she would have serious cause to regret. But Oiena couldn’t have known that at the time.
Someone else who didn’t like Ryoka—or rather, Cara—was Sophridel. The Elemental of Masks found Rhisveri and Visophecin as they prepared for their meeting with Ryoka.
Interestingly, the Elemental was quite agitated. Which meant that his emotionless voice had the slightest note of distress in it.
“You must resolve this issue. I have given commands, but I have been ignored. It is Ryoka Griffin and the Singer of Terandria.”
Rhisveri rolled his eyes, impatient.
“Have they disrupted the Court of Masks again? I’ll resolve it. Let me see. [Nonlethal Lightning Bolt]. I’ll be right back.”
He strode off with his finger crackling with bright power, but Visophecin stopped him.
“What, exactly, have they done, Sophridel?”
The Elemental of Masks led them to the central, hidden place where they could see a distant gathering in the Court of Masks, where all could debate and speak equally. His voice was frustrated, indignant, and covetous at the same time.
“The Singer of Terandria. She refuses to wear a mask!”
Cara didn’t even know Sophridel’s desire for people to wear masks. She just refused because she was Cara.
She stood in the gathering of people who had no discernable gender, voice, height, or other features. Indeed, even Sammial, Ryoka, and Oesca looked alike.
All they could be known as were their masks. Respectively, Cracked Raven, Sunburst, and Oesca’s new identity…horrifying bat-yeti-man. With sapphire, staring eyes and two pinpoints of unholy light for the pupils.
Yet Cara refused to be anonymous. In fact, the original discussion had come from the people here arguing with her that she should wear a mask. But the Singer had multiple faces herself, and she presented herself not as the charming [Popstar] and occasionally [Rockstar], but a debater.
“Why should I hide my identity?”
She challenged a winking bear mask, who retorted with some irritation.
“All are equals in the Court of Masks. We rise or fall in each other’s esteem by the virtue of our argument.”
Cara frowned, and it was Sunburst who raised a finger. Sunburst, who many people thought they knew, and who had made a name for themselves in their dramatic entry.
“Ah, but are we equal? When we leave, we are still who we are. Reputations earned here are earned by an investment of time as much as sound logic. For someone like Miss Cara—surely she has no chance of being taken seriously. The Court of Masks, in that sense, is like an exclusive club that rewards loyalty and participation as much as sound reasoning.”
A murmur swept through those listening, which was the majority of those present. Cara had chosen her tactic well to attract attention, and she had a Devil in the wings.
Which was Ryoka, queen of trolling and antagonizing people. Cara just glanced at Ryoka, but it was like a wink.
‘batman’ lived up to her reputation. And Cara was no slouch either. She faced her masked audience and bowed.
“I am willing to stand and be heard. Even should His Majesty hear it—I am against war with the Dawn Concordat. I hope you will listen to my reasoning.”
Amusement ran through the crowd as Rhisveri, Visophecin, and Sophridel, each disguised themselves, came to listen. The Wyrm rolled his eyes, but he held his tongue. He hated not being known himself. Visophecin enjoyed it.
“Do you object to the war itself or our reasons for waging it?”
“Both. It is a war of aggression against a sovereign nation that has not provoked the war in any way.”
Cara retorted, and someone laughed.
“Calanfer has not attacked Ailendamus, but they are hardly a nation without flaw. You may wish to research the very nation you defend, Miss Singer. Or are you not aware of Calanfer’s peculiarities? It is known, publicly, as a nation that actively pits other nations against each other. I have never witnessed a court of snakes worse than Calanfer on our continent—House Reinhart may be its equal! The ‘Eternal Throne’ has pitted nations into wars that it benefits from more than any other nation in the last thousand years.”
Ryoka’s heart sank as she turned to listen to the speaker. Someone else chimed in.
“It is not a perfect nation either. If you study the nation’s policies and see where its economy flows—which I have done, I might add—you will see that if you calculate the sum total of its expenditures, over 60% of its annual budget flows not to people or anything else but the capital, the throne itself. Calanfer polishes its own jewel while its people suffer, especially in times of famine.”
Cara was listening, face impassive, as the others chimed in.
“Consider Kaliv as well. It is a fair nation of brave warriors—but the lowlands and highlands are sparse. Starvation is not unheard of in a kingdom during terrible famines, for all they have strong ties to Gaiil-Drome. But then—the half-Elves’ kingdom puts little of its forest to use. It sells expensive fruits and relies on Calanfer to manipulate the markets to enrich both.”
They were listing out the faults of each nation, and Ryoka winced as someone brought up the Thronebearers.
“More concerned with pageantry than defending the common folk. We have seen how ineffectual they are in war; Ailendamus has strived not to let a single citizen starve. All three nations of the Dawn Concordat say, when shortages occur, that those who die do so in service to the crown. They cannot protect those they are sworn to. Why should we hear any defense of such nations?”
Ryoka had a few choice responses, but hers were generally provocative and sometimes mixed personal insults into the debate. Cara, though? She waited until they were all turning to her for a response and spoke with a calm, clipped tone.
“Pointing fingers at each nation’s flaws can be done of every kingdom, empire, or city-state in the world. Even paradises have failings. What I know is that Calanfer has never declared war in the last two thousand years, only joined in the defense of other nations. Sometimes to its own gain, yes! But it is no warmonger. And I think that is a title that might fall at Ailendamus’ feet, if you will excuse my rudeness. Is this a war to benefit all, or to enrich the Kingdom of Glass and Glory?”
A short silence fell over her retort, then someone remarked thoughtfully behind a golden bat mask that Ryoka would have traded hers for.
“If the end result is that the people, from high to low, regardless of birth, are enriched over time, is that not an outcome for the better?”
Ryoka could see the faces behind the masks thanks to the trick she had taught Sammial—and now Oesca.
Viscount Visophecin watched Ryoka and Cara. The Singer turned to him with a smile.
“An interesting point, sir or madam. You may think you can rule Calanfer’s people better. Let us assume they are treated worse than Ailendamus’ folk. I do not know if this is so, but I will allow it for the sake of argument. Let us assume that after a year in Ailendamus, they find that they are better fed, the laws are more just.”
Visophecin nodded. Cara looked at him.
“…Even then, if you asked them, I believe they would choose to return to Calanfer. If you asked a poor [Farmer] or any citizen in Calanfer, I believe they would laugh in your face and choose their home over foreign rule. You may, of course, force them to a life of better treatment. But when they rebel because you have killed their family and friends, will you put them down with swords and spells?”
Ryoka really liked Cara. Visophecin seemed to as well, from the tone of his voice and the smile behind Sophridel’s mask. He paced left, and it seemed like Golden Bat was well known because people let him debate her.
“An interesting question. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that a nation fails its people utterly. They starve in service to a crown that has neither law nor order, let alone prosperity. Is it not acceptable to invade as a, pardon the expression, humanitarian act? It may be despised in this generation, but what about in three?”
That was imperialistic talk, and Ryoka tried to speak up, but Cara got there first.
“Why must you invade? If you truly believe Ailendamus is better, why not be the shining nation that other people flock to? There are more ways than just violence to change countries for the better. If you see other people’s nations starving—why not send them food, clothing, and medicine?”
“For what gain?”
Rhisveri’s voice, which earned him disapproving glances from all. Cara calmly retorted.
“Does there always need to be a gain?”
But he was cut off, much to his pique. However, Ryoka jumped in eagerly.
“That’s exactly right. Ailendamus does not need war with the Dawn Concordat. What about subversion by other means? Economic pressure. I don’t mean destabilization, but that kind of thing like unified trade embargoes are part of Ailendamus’ tactics already. But short of war, you could still possibly have bankrupted Calanfer or destabilized them to the point where—”
Cara walked past Ryoka and kicked her in the shins so fast that Ryoka shut up. She thought Cara had cracked her shin!
Visophecin looked very interested by the proposals here. As Ryoka hobbled away in her mask, she decided Cara could do what she wanted. Someone took her by the arm, and she looked at Rhisveri. He eyed her.
“Well, I can see you’ve made your argument. Come. You’ll have your audience.”
They left Cara and dodged Sammial and Oesca as Rhisveri and Visophecin made them invisible. Cara could try and convince the mortals.
Ryoka had another target.
The meeting was short, and Ryoka presented her offer to a group of immortals, some of whom she knew, others she did not.
Menorkel was not here, nor Gilaw. But Fithea, Sophridel, Visophecin and the Lucifen and Agelum and some others she had never met had joined Rhisveri. Among them were two of the Merfolk’s leaders.
It was Uzine who summed up Ryoka’s request.
“Stop the war with the Dawn Concordat. You’ll talk down House Veltras and Wistram, and we pull back our forces. Our fee will be sixteen obol-things.”
The immortals looked at each other, then they burst out laughing, even the Lucifen, chuckling and hiding smiles, for the next two minutes. Rhisveri choked out words between guffaws.
“I told you—you had to hear it—”
Ryoka turned red, but she was used to the amusement of immortals, so she held her ground and waited. She knew it was a terribly long shot. But she had to try, and she had a few chances, or so she felt.
“I know it’s not worth what I’m offering.”
“A Dragonthrone for sixteen coins. Hah! You really understand nothing. That Dragonthrone is sanctuary and safety and more.”
Rhisveri stopped laughing and growled at her. Even the other immortals nodded. One of the Merfolk wore a Human guise for the sake of moving about on land. She smiled at Ryoka.
“Young woman, you may not understand it, but we crave safe places. Especially our kind. There are projects in the works, but the Dragonthrone does not belong to mortals. We could inhabit it without fear of being seen.”
“Among other uses.”
That was Azemith’s sly comment. Ryoka turned to her.
“I thought Calanfer was awarded it after the Creler wars.”
Rhisveri waved this off.
“Awarded because the last Dragons with a claim to that particular one died. Those Dragons just pawned it off. I want it.”
Ryoka and the others noticed how he said that. She turned to Visophecin and the Lucifen present.
“So you’re spending many lives and earning the ire of a continent all based on wanting something you can replace? A trophy? Is that practical? You must know that the other nations see what you’re doing. The Dawn Concordat might be the last straw that breaks that camel’s back.”
The immortals went quiet, and someone spoke—Sophridel.
“A reasoned argument. I have been against wars without need for the next few hundred years.”
“We’ll stop after Calanfer, then! But we’ve begun this war—are we going to retreat? That’s weakness, and we will not invite that.”
Rhisveri snapped around the room. Ryoka lifted a hand.
“Not if Ailendamus is persuaded to relent. Is it weakness to show mercy? And besides—you might not care, but Ailendamus’ children and the Dawn Concordat’s are dying. Is that worth a trophy?”
Now she turned to the Agelum and saw troubled looks from Gadrea and Uzine. Igolze nodded slightly, and Visophecin glanced at Ryoka, interested.
“That is not a claim without merit.”
“Forget it. We are being offered nothing to halt this conflict when we are poised to win.”
“That’s not what has happened thus far, Rhisveri. House Veltras has pushed back our armies, and so has the Order of Seasons. Now Wellfar at sea? We will lose our fleets, and Wistram and Pheislant will push from the west until we muster another force. This Human is speaking sense.”
A gravelly voice from someone Ryoka didn’t know, who looked like moving stones behind their illusory spell of a Dwarf. Fithea hadn’t said much, but she watched the obol Ryoka held. Yet it was an affronted voice, echoing slightly, from the suit of armor that sat with arms folded that addressed Ryoka next.
“I do not agree. Calanfer is the most strategic threat. They have long been manipulating bad will against us. We do not yield the field of battle without ceding honor. I say we continue.”
Lady Paterghost and the thing that moved her armor, the mimic Nube, voiced their dissent. Or at least, one of them. Ryoka had the distinct impression that the immortal did not like her.
“I cannot compensate you all—but I do offer you currency that even Rhisveri has acknowledged. Another world—another nation’s favor, and this one extradimensional. These are obol of the Faerie King. Whose name, even spoken, is powerful. Sixteen—and the magic of them is powerful, unique. You might all learn something from it. I mean, Rhisveri has some, but I doubt he’d share.”
The Wyrm froze as he lounged in his chair, and glared at Ryoka. Instantly, every eye swung towards him, and Ryoka hid a smile.
Got you, you greedy Wyrm.
The only way to sway the immortals was to divide them. The Agelum and Lucifen could see the rationale of her arguments, and Sophridel seemed like he was anti-war in general and a lover of the arts. But Rhisveri’s greed was Ryoka’s ally.
“Interesting. You didn’t mention that, Rhisveri.”
A woman with slitted eyes spoke up from the back. Rhisveri grunted.
“Well, it’s mine. She paid it for attempting to steal my treasures.”
“Then you don’t intend on sharing it.”
Visophecin remarked. Rhisveri shifted.
“…I will consider it. For an appropriate—”
“This is exactly the problem. First the spellbooks, now this!”
The gravelly-voiced immortal spoke up. Rhisveri pointed around.
“Do not question how I use my treasures! I don’t demand you yank out gemstones from your body and hand them around, Igrith!”
“Well, why shouldn’t we take some of the obol this Wind Runner is offering? Considering that we only have to stop fighting, it seems we get something, don’t we?”
The other Merfolk leader looked at a glowing stone of water. Ryoka held her breath as a real argument began, and lifted one stone that glimmered like the very nature of grass itself. A breeze, forever blowing through the boughs of a great tree.
She looked at the stone Dryad, Fithea.
“I am prepared to give them to you. They are irreplaceable, and I will never get more. But I am willing to. What do you say?”
Fithea was her last ace in the hole. The Dryad looked at that stone with all the longing in the world—but she jerked her head.
“I…I cannot say we should change our entire nation…for a stone.”
Ryoka’s heart sank. Damn it! Fithea sounded reasonable, as much as she kept glancing at it. Rhisveri exhaled and Ryoka saw his head snake around, counting opinions. He glared at Ryoka, but almost with a bit of respect.
“You won’t be able to shift an entire nation with a few magic pebbles, Wind Runner. We have sent our Great General of the Ages to battle. She will not lose.”
“But she will spend what will never return, Rhisveri.”
Gadrea murmured, and Rhisveri’s eyes flickered. For the first time, Ryoka saw him hesitate. The other immortals went silent, and Ryoka looked around.
“This…Great General is an immortal?”
Half of them answered it instantly, but Paterghost murmured.
“Second only to us. She has the respect of all those here, and she sacrifices for each battle she wins.”
“I offered her retirement. She refused.”
Rhisveri retorted, but uncertainly. Sophridel whispered.
“Four hundred years of peace. Let her rest, and another generation take up her mantle when we are stronger. Four hundred years to build upon the bones laid.”
“Just one more battle. Calanfer is nearly broken.”
“Against House Veltras, Wellfar at sea, and an Archmage?”
“None can stand against her. The Griffin Queen and that quasi-immortal [Prince] could take the field and they wouldn’t stop her.”
It was odd. Rhisveri had a note of—was that pride? In a mortal? Ryoka’s head rose. She had never heard Rhisveri talking up anyone besides himself, or Ailendamus as a whole. But he looked around, and the discussion shifted.
Yet she sensed she was failing, and her heart sank. It had always been a long shot. Ryoka was trying to think of whether bringing up Rhisveri’s auction was sound—or would get her killed. Probably the latter, since it revolved around the scroll.
Then, Azemith, about to ask Ryoka something, flinched. She looked down, and Ryoka saw a flash of dark light. Almost black-light, if that made sense. Her ring lit up, and Visophecin and Igolze both checked amulets that turned dark.
Uzine and Gadrea had more—direct—warnings. Two screaming sirens emerged from Gadrea’s ring and Uzine’s earring. The Agelum shot up in a blur.
“Home is under attack.”
Ryoka had never seen a group react like this one. Instantly, Paterghost drew her sword and pointed it at Ryoka’s neck.
“We must return. Visophecin, your door!”
The Lucifen was opening it as Rhisveri rose.
“Who? What? Where—damn, I know where. I’m taking control of my body! Tell me who! Don’t all go, damn it—”
The Merfolk leapt up.
“I have prepared teleportation. Do not leave. Stay together!”
What Ryoka saw was a blur as everyone, from Fithea to Sophridel, moved with speed. With the instinctual, practiced motions of people who feared for their lives.
Who had been hunted before. Ryoka froze as Paterghost pressed the tip of the sword into her neck, but someone grabbed it.
“Don’t be a fool, Paterghost. You, girl, with me!”
Rhisveri stormed out of the room, and Ryoka ran after him. He was shouting at Visophecin to come back, but gave up. He snapped his fingers—
And half the immortals and Ryoka blinked into the Wyrm’s personal chambers. Rhisveri’s true body rose as he began searching for what was happening.
Of course—they would be too late. The Lucifen young battling Eldavin only activated their alarms when he engaged in combat with them. And it was a short battle.
Rhisveri took time first checking in on the manor, then tracing the magic back to the battlefield. It took him about ten minutes to decide to allow the Lucifen and Agelum warparty to go—they were already en-route.
“I will head there myself. But how did he teleport them out of their manor? I’d have trouble doing that. Any Archmage should fall to the Lucifen—they can cast Tier 6 piercing spells.”
He was pacing back and forth with his Human body as the first Lucifen young began to arrive, battered, but alive. But of course—
“He’s got Paxere. He saw us.”
One Lucifen was so badly scorched he looked like a ball of ash—like a cartoon character, but his skin was flaking off. Fithea was casting healing spells as Rhisveri listened.
“He knows Five Alchemy magic? Those are high-tier elemental spells, but that last one—how much mana?”
“Second only to you or Visophecin. One second we were winning, the next—it was a Skill or something.”
Ryoka was frozen in shock. Eldavin! Teriarch! What had he done?
“I’m going after him. I will slay him—Visophecin, two of the Agelum, and you, Rhisveri. We can kill any foe.”
Paterghost announced. Sophridel spoke, having no limbs but floating masks, which edged forwards, like an arm.
“I will send four of my strongest masks if it matters.”
Rhisveri overruled Paterghost, much to Ryoka’s relief, but not out of caution. His eyes were narrowed as the Wyrm cast magic.
“He’s fortifying up as we speak. What…that’s a Tier 7 ward. How does he know that magic? No one living should…”
His eye flicked to Ryoka, and she felt a shock run through her. Rhisveri alone knew who she had met. And she saw the instant paranoia and fear run through him.
But here was the funny thing. They didn’t know. They weren’t certain. The immortals recognized strength, but they were not sure. It was almost funny—Ryoka as a mortal could recognize the nature of immortality better than the immortals. Eldavin could have actually been a powerful mortal.
Or one taught by an immortal.
“If we attack now—”
“We would have to destroy the Season of Summer and Summer’s Champion, countless [Mages] of Wistram, and this Archmage on his home ground. He survived an ambush that would have killed half of us. All it takes is for him to reveal Paxere.”
The immortals were worried, frightened as Visophecin stepped through the doorway. He and Rhisveri spoke as one.
Rhisveri looked down, and Ryoka recoiled. She saw Visophecin’s eyes burning, and the smell of metal and oil were strong on him. Were his fingers more like claws? Was his shadow…vibrating?
She looked into his dark eyes and saw a little, bright red light glowing in the depths of his pupils. Uzine was panting from standing for so long and collapsed into a chair.
“Hold, Visophecin. Hold—”
He coughed and wiped the blood onto his pants. The Lucifen instantly turned to him as Rhisveri addressed him curtly.
“Don’t change here, Visophecin. I’m speaking to this Archmage. I’ve issued a warning. If he reveals Paxere, we fall on him. We’re negotiating.”
In the tense silence, every eye fell on Ryoka Griffin. It was Fithea who looked up from one of the Lucifen she was tending. Eldavin had pulled his punches…sort of. The Lucifen’s protective gear was shattered and they were alive, but one had stakes of wood that were rammed through her body—another had lost almost all their layers of skin…
Eldavin had done this? Ryoka had seen the wrath of a Dragon only once, but it had been directed against Venitra, who definitely deserved it, and the Necromancer.
She looked up as Fithea murmured. She looked for one spark of hope or understanding. But even the ancient Dryad’s gaze had gone dark. A spark of magic shone in the ancient stone of her face, but it was an implacable forest. And withered trust. She whispered it into the air.
“So this is the one who came here. You may have brought death to us after all, Ryoka Griffin.”
The Wind Runner stood there as the hostile gazes of the immortals fell upon her. So Ryoka looked around.
She felt bad for Calanfer, she truly did. And the Dawn Concordat. But her only tie was with Lyonette. She was horrified in an abstract way. She didn’t know them.
She did know Ailendamus’ immortals and mortals. In a sense, Ryoka was on Ailendamus’ side. She loved the immortals, the last of their kind.
But she could see the worst of them in the Lucifen’s contempt for humanity. In Rhisveri’s greed. In the way they manipulated those with shorter lives into living and loving a lie. Into a war that threatened people Ryoka did know.
Tyrion Veltras had led his family into war. Buscrei and Swey.
And Grand Magus Eldavin—no, Archmage Eldavin—he had brought the future to this world ahead of time. Super-soldiers wearing armor.
A war that Ryoka Griffin was culpable for. Now?
Azemith walked over to Ryoka and handed the Wind Runner something. The Lucifen mother didn’t worry or grieve as openly as others. Igolze, standing behind her, just held still, his back open to the portal to nothingness.
Ryoka looked down. She held out her hand, and the Lucifen put something into it.
A burnt finger. Ryoka dropped it and leapt back. Azemith fixed her with a red-eyed stare.
“If Paxere dies, I will take more than two of your fingers.”
Gadrea pulled her back. The Agelum and Lucifen watched Ryoka Griffin breathing in and out. Staring down at the finger.
Ryoka Griffin almost laughed.
“That’s the second time someone’s handed fingers to me.”
Even Rhisveri’s head turned. The giant Wyrm’s mouth moved, silently mouthing…‘what’?
But Ryoka just stood there, feeling the weight of the choices she was making…or wasn’t, by her inaction. She looked at Paterghost, at Rhisveri, who was eying her, and at the watching Lucifen.
“I didn’t ask Eldavin to go to war for me. But he’s here because of me. At least in part.”
Ryoka looked at the others. She took a breath and met Azemith’s gaze. Then turned to Rhisveri.
“I’ve paid every debt to you, Rhisveri. So you’ve said.”
“I am beginning to reconsider that statement. But functionally—yes. That does not absolve you of this issue.”
The Wyrm hissed at her. Ryoka instantly shook her head.
“I’m not making excuses. But there is something I can do. So…will you hear me out?”
The gathering of Ailendamus’ ageless looked down at Ryoka with suspicion, curiosity, hope, waiting for her response. As if there were ever any question. Any one of Ryoka’s friends could have told the immortals, anyone who knew Ryoka at all.
When trouble came, when the worst happened, when there was dire need. Even if the sky fell down, or she came to another world. If she was facing a terrible foe, or doing a great deed. If someone proposed to her or she couldn’t bear the care of others or her mistakes, there was only one thing for Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner to do.
Cara O’Sullivan found two children waiting for her along with a number of people after leaving the Court of Masks. Exasperated, she realized Ryoka had left Sammial and Oesca in her care.
She waited for the Wind Runner while defending herself with as much eloquence and charm as possible. She didn’t think Ryoka would run away after daring the concert…so where was she?
“Excuse me, do you know where Ryoka is?”
Cara eventually stopped a [Knight] hurrying towards her. She had an eye for faces and as ‘Greg’ she had seen Dame Chorisa. Ryoka’s bodyguard came to a stop.
“Courier Griffin is—unavailable at this moment, Miss Cara.”
“Where? She just left.”
“She always does this!”
Sammial threw up his hands. But Princess Oesca addressed the [Knight], and Dame Chorisa instantly bowed.
“Your Highness, I am not able to tell you fully—but Duke Rhisveri has apprised me that all is…acceptable. I was sent here to inform you all that she will not be returning immediately.”
“She’s leaving. Again? Where? House Shoel? That’s a nice place, Oesca. You should go. But where is she?”
Sammial alternated between chatty and exasperated. Oesca lifted her chin.
“We will go meet her.”
Dame Chorisa hesitated, and the two children and Cara realized something was off. [Princess] or not, Oesca was royalty. But Oesca made one mistake.
She still assumed Ryoka was on the palace grounds. Sammial blinked, and his eyes opened wide as Dame Chorisa replied.
“I believe…Your Highness, that will not be possible. It is my understanding that the Wind Runner has headed south. She is flying towards Kaliv. Duke Rhisveri has informed me she had better be—she will be back by nightfall.”
Oesca’s lips moved as she processed that. But Cara was already dashing to a window. She leaned her head out of it and said eight words that Sammial decided to memorize and use forever.
Baron Regalius followed Cara’s gaze out of the window and shaded his eyes. The [Baron of Ceremonies] breathed as people looked up and pointed.
“Now that’s a Courier.”
Southwards, the wind blew. It was a quiet breeze around the great palace of Ailendamus, the heart of the capital. At first, it was gentle as it departed one of the spiral towers, each tile laid in a dancing color as the sun faded in the blue sky.
Over neatly tended palace grounds and people pointing upwards, the wind blew, accelerating. What was a breeze became a gale, and it passed over the capital city, bustling, flashing over the paved roads in a moment.
Orderly new stone and wood gave way to lush land, and then a forest where half-Elves looked up from their timeless retreats in the Kingdom of Glass and Glory. A breeze blew across their dwellings. They looked up and caught sight of the zephyr made manifest.
Squall, then gale, then tempest. Over another city, rattling shutters, but passing too high to do more than touch the rooftops and hanging gardens below with its passing.
The flags of Ailendamus snapped in the breeze, and word caught up with the wind as it blew southwards, outracing it by magic, but only just. [Message] spells flitted through the air and told people to look up. They spotted the wind, and some waved, racing along, trying to build the little sailboats of cloth and wood and resolving to catch the wind when it raced back. The rest just pointed up.
They had seen Couriers before. Great Runners who galloped or ran using magic or other methods. But this one was different than even Garuda. So people stopped and gazed up at the wind and figure.
It wasn’t often you saw a Human fly.
Ryoka made the mistake of opening her mouth once. Her lips immediately tried to catch the wind and tear her cheeks out of her face. She needed a helmet and goggles.
She added it to her list. But then reconsidered as the wind blew around her, changing so it didn’t tear her face off.
She flew in a slipstream of air, her wingsuit’s arms spread. Like a giant flying squirrel, or a skydiver of Earth. The only difference was—Ryoka didn’t need that much altitude to begin her wild journey.
Nor would she ever land. The wind blew her ahead, keeping her from dropping. Ryoka didn’t know how fast she was going. Wingsuits could propel you at a hundred miles per hour. Absolutely insane speeds that no creature could match—and instant death if you so much as grazed anything.
Ryoka was going faster. Fithea, Visophecin, and Rhisveri had cast weather spells to clear the way. Even she, friend of the wind, wouldn’t risk this mad acceleration normally.
But she let Ailendamus disappear below her, a mad blur. Thankfully, Ailendamus’ capital wasn’t in the center of the nation, but close to where it had originally been when the nation had been smaller, bordering Kaliv’s north.
It would still take hours to reach her destination, even at her insane speed. And she had two places to visit.
A Courier crossing Ailendamus was not without risk. Especially one who might be opposed to Ailendamus. Most of the army couldn’t do squat, if they even looked up in time to see Ryoka coming, but Ailendamus had altogether too many forces capable of at least making Ryoka’s life uncomfortable.
If she was their enemy. If she was trying to flee Ailendamus? Ryoka saw [Mages], or their auras, who were briefed on how to stop a fragile, flying object.
Mostly by casting a barrier spell and letting her slam into it high up. Ailendamus also had [Griffin Riders], albeit not many. But no one stopped her. Rhisveri had cleared her path, so Ryoka zoomed over an army of several hundred jogging [Knights] who cheered her.
The Order of the Hydra pointed up at the Wind Runner and shouted in mild outrage. The very same [Knights] who she had met in the capital shook their fists at the Wind Runner who had just covered the same distance they had in about two hours.
By this point, Ryoka was using her wing-glider and clipped into it. Mainly because spreading your arms in a wingsuit’s dive got tiring after thirty minutes, much less two hours. The exhilaration had faded a bit, but she felt free.
Free…except for that magical arm-bangle that was glinting warningly on her right arm. Rhisveri had let her go, but he hadn’t taken off the tracking device. He had let her go, but given who she was heading to, he’d taken precautions.
It was enough time, even with the power of the wind at her back, even flying, to think. Ryoka Griffin saw a mountain range coming up, not the High Passes for certain, but so high she began looking up at them.
Her entire journey was actually long and somewhat boring—certainly cold. But it had certain highlights, from people waving up at her, spotting the Order of the Hydra she recognized, heading to war…
And attracting the attention of the forces engaged in this war.
Ryoka blew past a squad of thirty Griffins, massive beasts with giant talons and beaks. Big enough for multiple people to ride on. The ‘small’ ones were just large enough for lighter riders, but any one of them could just land on a horse and kill it.
And Halrac’s team hunted these damn things? Ryoka angled past them and then realized the Griffins had saddles.
Also, riders. One whirled, and a figure raised a sword.
“Halt! Who are—”
Ryoka shot around the Griffin Queen of Kaliv so fast she didn’t hear. She did see the Griffin Queen hot on her tail, though.
A gigantic Royal Griffin and a woman with a huge spear—even longer than regular to let her attack from the back—dove after Ryoka. With her Skills, she actually nearly caught up.
“Who are you?”
“Courier! On a mission! Sorry!”
The two women screamed at each other. Neither one heard through the rushing wind. The Griffin Queen waved her spear. Slow down!
Sorry, I’m busy!
The Wind Runner waved her hand. The Griffin Queen’s mount was struggling to keep up, even with whatever Skill she was using; her escort was floundering, trying to catch both. Ryoka looked down and saw an army besieging a city on a plateau. They were camped far out of range, but giant bows were hammering the walls.
The Griffin Queen of Kaliv was fighting for her homeland. What she wanted of Ryoka was anyone’s guess, but she did not look like she was used to people telling her no, even Couriers.
She lifted her spear warningly, and Ryoka hesitated. Whatever the Griffin Queen was about to do never happened, though. Mainly because of the thin, crimson beam that shot through the sky and quickly targeted the wing of the Royal Griffin.
It danced on the wing as the Wind Runner, and the Griffin Queen, stared at it. Not just a red dot like a laser pointer. The entire beam was visible. It didn’t seem to do much, but Ryoka’s face turned waxy. Hadn’t she seen something like that before? It reminded her of Magnolia Reinhart when the [Assassins] and the ‘Great Mage Nemor’ had tried to kill her.
When she’d used her ring t—
The Griffin Queen dodged the railgun of energy. A blast of fire and energy hit the air as the wind itself screamed, and Ryoka went tumbling down. The Griffin Queen flew away, and Ryoka saw the ground coming up.
She pulled at her parachute, but she was clipped to the glider! And the wind—
Slowed, and she felt her body suddenly drift downwards. Ryoka, in free-fall, suddenly drifted, dangling as the [Featherfall] spell left her falling. Down, down…
Towards the army of silver and purple and green, ranks of [Knights] standing to attention, horns blowing, halfway down the pass while a keep stood, under siege in the distance. Ryoka Griffin drifted down and saw the person who had fired the spell riding towards her.
Great General Dionamella of Ailendamus had been expecting Ryoka Griffin. The half-Elf was so old that Ryoka realized Eldavin and Archmage Feor were both pretenders.
True age was…her.
Ryoka realized the first moment she saw the General of Ages what Dionamella’s power was. How she fueled the ability to accelerate or stop time for an entire army.
“Rhisveri, you bastard.”
She whispered, and Dionamella tapped her on the head with her staff. Ryoka flinched, but the Great General just smiled.
“I intended to let you pass, but the Griffin Queen accosted you. I understand you are bound to speak with Tyrion Veltras and possibly negotiate their retreat. Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner.”
An entire army had halted around her, and Ryoka saw the Great General’s bodyguard not-so-casually aiming their weapons at her.
Her real bodyguard. Not the [Knights], even, but two dozen half-Elves.
Just…half-Elves. Like Falene, Ceria. Oh, but they looked middle-aged and like they were career soldiers. So they had been warriors for how long?
Ryoka held up her hands, but Dionamella just pointed.
“Your quarry is somewhere to the south. We do not know exactly where he is, but the Dawn Concordat is set to assail us here. So. You will find him there.”
“Do you—are you—?”
Ryoka looked around at the others and realized this was not the spot to ask if Dionamella knew the nature of Rhisveri and the other immortals. But the half-Elf just eyed Ryoka and gave her a timeless smile.
“I may see you at the capital if you remain. I understand you have caused quite the stir. Hurry onwards, Ryoka Griffin. And pass on a message from me to the two you’re trying to convince: consider retreating. I was taught by Rhisveri and Fithea, among others.”
That was all. But the calm confidence scared Ryoka more than anything else. She scrambled to her feet, leapt into the air—
And smacked the ground so hard everyone winced. Just a face-first impact, without trying to break the fall. Ryoka got up, stunned, and Dionamella hesitated.
“Ah. We march under a different time. Lightly. I’m sorry—try again.”
Ryoka turned, nose bleeding, and felt the wind pick her up. It carried her up, out of the Great General’s aegis, and Ryoka suddenly felt very nervous.
She could calm the wind itself in her aura?
Tyrion Veltras looked up, and there she was.
Unexpected. Unlooked for.
Possibly unpossible too. How was she…here? He had just been thinking of what to say to her, and then the wind had whispered.
And Buscrei had screamed in his ear to look up.
The Wind Runner landed with a bloody nose as House Veltras’ forces flagged her down. Or rather, Buscrei had nearly winged her with a glowing arrow as Ryoka circled, searching for them. She came down, and Tyrion had to ask.
“Ryoka Griffin. Are you injured? Is someone following you?”
“I landed on my face.”
Jericha, Swey, Pellmia, Buscrei, all looked between Ryoka and Tyrion as they exchanged the first words since Ryoka’s disappearance and the attack on House Veltras. Lord Pellmia whispered a prayer without target or faith.
He did not have the levels for this.
[Avert Disaster (Verbal)] activated in the first minute of the two just looking at each other. Half-starting to speak. In the end, Ryoka Griffin just looked at Tyrion.
“I’m sorry. I’ve caused you all a lot of trouble. I never expected you to come…Sammial’s alive. He’s well. Unharmed. Too well, in fact. The [Princess] of Ailendamus is learning a lot of bad lessons from him.”
Tyrion let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding for the last month, and Buscrei muttered.
“That’s something. Are they letting you go? No—that’s not jewelry, is it?”
Tyrion noticed the bangle on Ryoka’s arm. The Wind Runner shook her head.
“No, but they’re not hostile. It was my fault—they attacked because of something I did.”
“Something you tried to steal.”
Jericha murmured, and everyone looked to her. Ryoka hung her head.
“Yes. This is all my fault, and I came to tell you that Sammial’s alive. That you don’t need to advance. I will make sure he’s safe and returned. So—don’t join the battle. They sent a Great General of Ailendamus, and she’s dangerous.”
Perhaps why Tyrion Veltras liked Ryoka was because she spoke as eloquently as he did. The problem was, there were two with the same level of social grace. But Lord Pellmia’s lips moved as Tyrion considered what he could say. And the [Lord], thus saved by the world’s finest wingman, said this to the Wind Runner:
“I did not go to war against Ailendamus just for you, Ryoka Griffin. My son was kidnapped, one of the Five Families attacked by a foreign nation. House Quellae’s folk endangered and blood drawn. Nor am I ignorant of the Dawn Concordat’s plight. Three sovereign nations have been invaded, and I am not foolish enough to think Ailendamus will halt at the shores of Terandria. I did not ride against Ailendamus for you.”
Buscrei covered her face in one gloved hand, and Tyrion went on.
“You were part of my reason. And so long as you are a captive, I will continue my advance. For you and Sammial. You make my sons laugh. I would not see you imprisoned or harmed. I…do care, though we have not known each other long.”
Ryoka Griffin looked like she was ready to fly up into space and stay there. But it was not a disastrous statement. If anything, she seemed relieved by him explaining the very true reasons why he had already been considering the war. It wasn’t about her.
Even so, Pellmia slapped the side of his head. That was the best he got from his new Skill? He wondered how bad the original had been.
Ryoka had no such benefit.
“You have to turn back. I don’t want you all to die.”
She said that, bold as brass, to House Veltras, House El, and Terland’s folk, who had all gathered around. The [Lords] and [Ladies] shifted.
“You speak as if you believe there is no chance we’d win. The Dawn Concordat has mustered the greatest army, and their champions. They are not far behind Ailendamus in numbers and we will be joining them.”
“You haven’t got a chance. Not against that Great General. I know it sounds like I’m lying, but—”
Tyrion Veltras nodded thoughtfully and stopped one of House El’s [Ladies] from kicking Ryoka in the back.
“I believe you. I can sense her from here.”
Ryoka Griffin looked up gratefully. But the [Lord] just rested a hand on the saddle of his horse.
“Yet I will do nothing if I cannot see Sammial. If I do not hold him—if he is not returned to House Veltras, I will go to battle. And I include your freedom in that demand, Ryoka Griffin. I assume you have been sent to discuss the matter? We will negotiate the rest—that is my demand. Ryoka Griffin and Sammial Veltras’ return under oath from King Itorin himself, witnessed. If I have that before the battle draws to a close, I will speak to my allies. Perhaps convince them to turn back.”
If he did not do battle, the Lightherald’s attack would be disastrous. Tyrion still weighed the very real aggression of Ailendamus in the balance.
However, if Ryoka Griffin and Sammial were freed—he would withdraw from this battle.
If not the war.
That level of duplicity was so cunning—or just unexpected—that Ryoka Griffin just took it at face value. And so did everyone else. She nodded to Tyrion and turned.
“I—I can do that! I think I can talk the people down, and I’ll make sure they do. I think someone in Wistram is even showing Sammial. They’re doing a tour—check your scrying orbs!”
She turned, and Tyrion caught her.
“Where are you going? You should sit, talk. At least tell me how Sammial is eating. Has he caused…incidents?”
“And we can wipe that nose. That is the ugliest nosebleed I’ve ever seen.”
Buscrei added. But Ryoka was shaking her head.
“I have to stop—Archmage Eldavin. I’m sorry! I need to catch him, and he’s all the way in Pheislant.”
“There’s no way you’ll reach Pheislant by nightfall. There’s two nations between here and the coast!”
“I’ll get a teleport! The Great General can send me.”
Tyrion Veltras saw everyone recoil and added that to his list. So the Great General was not only able to send that spell that nearly killed the Griffin Queen into the sky—a Tier 6 spell?—but also teleport Ryoka two nations across.
That definitely factored into Ryoka’s offer. Pellmia nudged Tyrion as Ryoka turned, arguing her way back to Ailendamus’ lines.
“Don’t you have to say something? She’s about to leave.”
“I’ve said everything—”
“Go, dead gods, Tyrion!”
Then he found Pellmia shoving him forwards and the others stepping back. Ryoka turned, and her blind apprehension and worry was like a reflection of how he sometimes felt.
“Er…Tyrion. Lord Veltras. I, uh—we didn’t get to bring it up, but about your proposal. The thing is—I’m going to have to decline. And I don’t want you to think—”
Swey covered his eyes and Buscrei’s. They’d forgotten about the proposal. But Lord Pellmia clasped his hands together like a man looking for a miracle. Tyrion Veltras looked at Ryoka, and the list of injunctions like, ‘don’t try to kiss her’, and ‘no marriage offers, don’t talk about expected children’, floated through his mind.
What he said was all he’d decided over all the thinking, in the background of his mind.
“I withdraw that. I was clearly in error.”
Ryoka relaxed slightly, and Tyrion heard someone sigh.
Tyrion nodded slowly.
“I know you may not be interested, or what I ask was far too direct. I understand this. I hope, Ryoka Griffin, that you will simply visit us again. You saved my sons’ lives. I think you give them something I have forgotten how or never had. That is what I hope you will consider, once this is over and we are returned to Izril.”
Ryoka Griffin froze as Pellmia clutched at his chest like a man sensing a class consolidation. She inhaled sharply and then looked at him.
“I…could do that.”
He watched her fly off, without anything more. Not much was said, in truth, but that was how Tyrion best communicated. He saluted her with a sword as Pellmia collapsed into Buscrei’s arms in a dead faint of relief.
“Someone find me a scrying orb. I will watch for my son.”
And he did. Tyrion sat, feeling light and relaxed, waiting to see what the future held. Pellmia’s head rose, and he bellowed.
“[Lord of Love and Wine]! It’s a miracle!”
Tyrion Veltras actually smiled. He was in the middle of toasting Lord Pellmia Quellae, the hero of every lost battlefield—in love—when Jericha rushed in.
“Lord Veltras. The Wind Runner is on the orb.”
Tyrion turned and dropped the goblet as he saw Ryoka Griffin meet Archmage Eldavin.
The goblet rolled upon the ground in the silence.
Author’s Note: I have an assistant. I’ve mentioned it in Contacts, but I now have a fanmail and inbox for business too. If you need to reach out, rest assured I have a Salii. Does that mean I’m Orjin? No…no. My arms are too weak. Anyways–
Day 3. My stream-watchers can testify…I’ve just paused after about 6 hours of writing for today. I don’t want to cut it here, but I think I have to.
It’s about quality. In a regular chapter, I’d just continue tomorrow, but I am writing another chapter tomorrow.
So here it has to end. I could push, but I’ll lose my energy for the week and the ending will be rushed.
I’m now behind my schedule. But we’ll see if I catch up tomorrow or what. Anyways, each chapter has ended with a cliffhanger…but I am now getting to the cliff, then jumping off.
The Wind Runner is on the move once more. Did you enjoy it? Let me know and just wait. I have four more days to see how far I get.
Thanks for reading.
Teriarch, Irurx, Crusader 57 and more by Gridcube!
The Soup of War, Apista…?, and Grimalkin by LeChat Demon!
Rhisveri by Aerialist_2020!