Ranari glanced around to make sure nobody was watching before ducking through the open walkway. This close to midnight it would be hard to spot her cloaked figure, and most elves had no business with the upper floors anyway, but it didn’t hurt to be cautious. Especially since these floors were forbidden.
Their world was dying. The magma vein from the nearby volcano had receded, and with it the only habitable zone on their icy rock. A few of the scholars thought that other veins might remain, but the temperatures outside Fir’dha would freeze even the most hardy amongst the grin’fey within hours. Thus the winter elves had watched and waited inside their icy tomb, hoping the magma would return. Instead, their numbers had slowly dwindled until there weren’t enough of them left.
The topmost floor of Fir’dha held the metal spires that allowed travel to other worlds, but the Elders refused to entertain Ranari’s suggestion of leaving. So she came here, to the ritual chamber beneath the portal, to discover for herself how to achieve what the Elders would not.
She allowed herself a tiny bit of light, just enough to see with her enhanced vision without it being visible outside the room. The first thing she noticed was the strange lack of dust. While Ranari and her older sister were growing up, this room had been used for all the important rituals and ceremonies, but with the loss of the masters, all of that came to an end. No one had used this chamber in years, yet it appeared freshly cleaned.
Most of the space in the room was taken up by a large six-pointed star engraved into the floor. Each point of the star represented one of the six elements, but the tips of the points were missing. Instead, a curved mirror stood behind where each of the respective casters would stand, completing the pattern. Beyond that, the room was bare.
She surveyed the star pattern, studying the markings. As she ran her fingers over the symbol for Wind, she channeled a thread of magic into the stone. In response, the corresponding point of the star lit up with a brilliant white light. The tip of the point was clean, unbroken, her magic filling in the missing piece.
She broke the flow and the light faded. It made sense now. The Elders were reluctant to use the portal to escape because they couldn’t. No one remaining alive could wield Life magic, and without all six, the star could not be made whole.
As her eyes readjusted to the darkness, she belatedly realized with all the mirrors in the room, her experiment might’ve been visible to the outside. No matter, she was ready to leave.
She had scarcely taken a step when the star suddenly flared to life. Six colors lit up the room, forcing her to shield her eyes. A light hum filled the air as the energy flowed through the engraving. Then, as quickly as it had arrived, the magic faded, leaving only an afterimage of the glowing star behind. A complete star, perfectly shaped around all six points.
Ranari staggered out of the ritual chamber, made her way along the outer wall to the stairs. She needed to get away from there. Someone had definitely seen that. Yet, she hesitated. The energy from that ritual had been flowing up. To the portal.
She climbed the stairs two at a time, racing towards the top of the pyramid. If the Elders caught her here, she would be sanctioned, but the portal had lain inactive for nearly ten years. If something came through with the power to open it again, her people could flee.
She reached the top of the steps and came to a halt. The stone pyramid of Fir’dha had a flat top, a square about four meters wide. Eight metal spires ringed the middle, evenly spaced around where the portal would appear.
In the center of it all lay a teenage girl. A human girl. No one else was around. It had to be her. But why a human?
Ranari watched the sleeping figure, the girl’s hair partially covering her face. She was tempted to leave the human for the Elders to find, but she needed to learn more about the girl’s magic.
And that meant she had to carry a human home.
“Tae’lin and the rest of the Elders are losing patience.”
An elderly woman stood in the hall outside Ranari’s destination. Just from her voice, Ranari recognized her as Kagami, the Elder that had trained her sister. Madaya had been one of her favorite students, and the two retained that close familiarity decades later.
“I am sure she means no harm.” Her sister’s voice was gentle, like water trickling down a creek. “Even if she can be…overly persistant.”
“You have your reputation to consider as well,” Kagami replied. “If she disrupts the ceremony with another short-sighted…” The woman let out a sigh loud enough to be heard around the corner where Ranari was hiding. “Please. Promise me you’ll talk to her.”
The elder woman seemed to relax and Ranari pictured her motherly smile. A smile rarely aimed in her direction of late. “Rest well. You’ll be there soon.”
The young elf waited impatiently for Kagami to leave, swearing the human girl was getting heavier by the minute. Finally, when the last echoes of the Elder’s footsteps faded, she risked peeking around the corner. Seeing all was clear, she hurried the girl into her home.
Families in Fir’dha were given large rooms to share. Most families decorated their rooms with plants and flowers and colorful blankets. Ranari and her sister had little of that. Oh sure, Madaya still had a few potted plants she liked to tend, but not like before. Not since she married that human. The one that abandoned her.
Ranari glanced over at the white sheet they had hung up to partition the room. Both of them had spent time among the lesser race and things would never be the same. Once, the shared space was comforting, now they often found it confining. While she spent her time practicing her flute and her magic, her sister preferred to sit in front of her mirror and stare and weep.
Ranari dropped the girl down on the couch and took a deep breath. Despite her reclusive melancholy, Madaya was still her sister. And way better at dealing with humans. She watched the girl stir while she struggled with how to explain the human teenager laying in their quarters.
“Ranari, is that you?” Madaya’s voice came from behind the partition.
“Yeah, I’m home,” she replied. Don’t mention the portal!
Ranari looked up only to find her sister standing there in her nightgown, the dark blue one she liked, embroidered with lots of little snowflakes. Madaya shifted her gaze from the couch to her sister and arched an eyebrow.
“Oh, uh, I brought a guest.”
Her sister glanced back down to the unconscious girl. “You brought a…guest?”
“Yes, what of it?” Ranari slipped her hands under her cloak so her sister wouldn’t see her fidget.
Without replying, Madaya walked over to check the door. Satisfied it was locked properly, she turned her attention back to Ranari and smiled, but not her gentle big sister smile. “And what’s our guest’s name?”
They both looked at the girl sitting up on the couch. She stared back at them, then glanced around the room in confusion. “Where am I?”
“Our home,” Madaya answered. “The dwelling of the grin’fey.”
“Oh.” Retsy looked disappointed. She stood up and smoothed the wrinkles out of her dress, the motion sending pillows tumbling off the couch. “I was trying to go to Land King Hall.”
“You know Cythera?”
“I’m a student at the magisterium there. Well, the one at Pnyx.”
Madaya rushed forward and grabbed hold of Retsy’s hands, startling the girl. Her eyes burned with an intensity Ranari hadn’t seen in years. “Do you know the Ronin? Is there any news of Flynn?” she demanded.
“I…” Retsy looked helplessly between the two elves. “I’ve heard of the Ronin and maybe saw one once when I was a kid but…” She tried to back away, but stumbled on one of the feather pillows. “Nobody has seen them in years.”
Madaya’s face fell. “I see,” she said quietly, the light dimming. She faced her sister and Ranari braced for another lecture, but instead Madaya turned away and disappeared behind the partition.
Ranari and Retsy stood in the sudden silence, the human glancing nervously between the elf and the white curtain.
“She…really wanted to meet the Ronin, didn’t she?” Retsy asked, picking up the feather pillow she had tripped over.
“She married one.”
“He hasn’t contacted her in six years.”
“He’s probably dead now.” Ranari shrugged, bending down to toss the other pillows back onto the couch. “Humans do have such short life spans, but I guess we’ll know soon enough.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Retsy frowned.
“The solar eclipse is in two days. For a time, the barriers between our world and the Spirit World will weaken, and we can visit with our ancestors and loved ones. If he is dead, she’ll be able to find him there.”
“That sounds awfully morbid.”
“Better than living in fear.” Ranari brushed the hair out of her face. “Imagine living day after day without word, not knowing if the reason he won’t come back is because he can’t.” She grabbed the last pillow out of Retsy’s hands and tossed it aside. “Or because you’ve been replaced.”
Retsy gave the white curtain another glance. “I’m beginning to see why your sister prefers being by herself.”
Ranari lifted the curtain leading to her own partition. “People might claim my sister is the intelligent one, but at least I was smart enough to stick to an elf.”
The curtain fell back into place, leaving the elf alone with her thoughts.
Every morning Ranari rose to play the flute, and this morning was no exception. “Music cultivates magic,” her teachers would claim and it was the one habit that she kept. Even now, long after her lessons had ended.
A wasted effort? Pointless? She had mastered wind, but she was no more capable at ice than she had been eight years ago. A consequence of ditching her lessons to go chasing after her sister and getting entangled in a cosmic adventure.
But the music helped calm her mind, focus her thoughts. And maybe, just maybe, a small part of her hoped her sister would hear and join. Like she used to.
The melody ended, the last notes trailing off into silence. No song from Madaya today.
Ranari carefully set the ivory flute on its stand and rose off the bed. She combed her silken hair, attached her favorite crystal blue teardrop earrings, and donned the leather trousers and chemise she liked to wear because it annoyed the Elders. She could already picture Tae’lin’s scowl.
“Those clothes are unbecoming one of the fey,” she said in a deep voice while miming one of his overdramatic gestures. “You should behave more like your sister.” She snorted as she lifted up the curtain to the main room. “As if we need another moping oaf.”
Ranari’s mirth was cut short when she realized she wasn’t alone. The human girl was watching her from the couch. Startled, the elf quickly dropped her hand and tried to assume a more regal expression.
“Talking to yourself is a sign of instability,” Retsy said, sitting up. The movement caused one of the pillows to fall to the ground and she leaned over to retrieve it.
“Well, sounds like you’re fully recovered,” the elf retorted. She glanced at the hanging partition. No sound from Madaya’s side of the room. She was probably going to sleep late again.
Ranari turned back to the girl on the couch. There was no sense wasting the morning. This human possessed power lost to the elves, and one they desperately needed. However, Retsy was clearly not built like an elf, and a non-elf wandering around would draw attention.
“Put this on.” She tossed her cloak to Retsy and waited impatiently as the girl struggled to fit the hood around her head. She eventually managed to get everything situated, but it was obvious the cloak was made for someone smaller.
The elf checked to ensure nobody was outside her door before leading her charge down the hall. They passed a dried-up fountain surrounded by empty stone recesses. Once this had been the site of a small indoor garden, but as with most things in Fir’dha, there were simply not enough of the fey left to maintain it.
Ranari stepped out onto the walkway bordering their floor. She paused briefly for her eyes to adjust to the light before making her way to the stairs. Only once she started climbing did she realize her charge was not with her. Retsy was still clutching the doorway, a stunned expression on her face. Ranari scowled and turned to see what the girl was staring at, only to find her gawking at the outer wall. What was so interesting there? After a moment, it dawned on her that this was Retsy’s first time seeing Fir’dha.
The elves resided in a large square pyramid shaped from stone. Each of the floors had a special purpose, the portal and the ritual chamber being examples up at the top. Since space was limited inside the building, the stairs were built on the outside at each corner. The pyramid itself was built on top of an underground river that flowed through the bottom floor, the source of their fresh water, and the lifeblood of the vegetable gardens and fruit trees. But the unique aspect of Fir’dha, and the feature that had Retsy’s attention, was the outer pyramid.
The world outside was cold and harsh. The ancestors that had shaped the stone temple they stood upon had also created an outer shell. A pyramid of ice thick enough to insulate them and to keep the bitter winds out. Most of their habitat was underground, buried among the snowy mountains, with only the peak exposed to allow in daylight.
Growing up, Ranari had learned about the sun and how the soft yellow and white runes on the outer pyramid amplified the daylight so it would illuminate the interior. But she had never quite understood just how artificial her concept of a morning was until she visited other worlds. Places that had no need of magic to bring about morning.
She had been to Retsy’s world, that Cythera. People there didn’t freeze and shiver, huddled around a geothermal vent for heat. They played outside, under the warm sun, where the greenery was limited by the coastline, not a seamless wall of ice. This place, bright as the runes might make it seem, was far more dim and dreary in comparison.
“Come, we mustn’t linger,” Ranari said, grabbing Retsy’s sleeve and pulling her towards the stairs. They hurried upwards, taking the evenly-carved steps as fast as they could without running. While it was unlikely they would be noticed, Ranari preferred not having to explain herself to one of the Elders. Kagami was nice enough (at least in front of her sister), but Tae’lin…
The morning light managed to illuminate the mostly walled-off ritual chamber, perhaps through a trick of the mirrors. The broken star lay undisturbed on the ground. And just like she had suspected last night, there wasn’t a speck of dust to be found.
“Well, get on with it,” Ranari said, standing to the side.
“Get on with what?” Retsy asked. The human girl was standing bewildered in the center, staring at all the engravings.
“That spell you cast yesterday. Do it again.”
“Directed Nexus?” Retsy’s eyes lit up in recognition. “Oh! You want me to go home!”
“No, you can’t leave yet. Just cast your spell.”
“But…” Retsy looked confused. “Well, okay.” She closed her eyes and concentrated for a moment.
A really long moment. This ‘Directed Nexus’ must be some powerful high-level human ritual if it required that level of concentration and power, though even the best human mages couldn’t compare to the elven masters.
Ranari tapped her foot while she waited. Why was it taking so long? She was about to yell at the girl when suddenly the life node lit up in a brilliant green.
“Yes! That’s it!” the elf cheered.
“But I don’t think it worked,” Retsy said, opening her eyes. She saw the glowing arm of the star and stepped off the mosaic with a yelp. The glow immediately began to fade as the connection broke, and within seconds the star was dark once more.
“What was that?” Retsy asked.
“Hope,” Ranari said. She almost wanted to hug the girl, but she settled for grabbing her arm instead. “Come on, let’s go tell my sister.”
“Tell your sister what?” asked the imposing man in the doorway. “That you’ve been trespassing where you don’t belong?”
Head of the Elder Council, Tae’lin was the eldest fey alive. His tall, winnowy frame and thinning hair belied the strength he could still wield. Or the fury of his temper. A temper Ranari thought was often unfairly directed her way.
“And just what is it you’ve been up to, hm?” Cold blue eyes scrutinized her, forcing her to take an involuntary step backwards. He shifted his gaze to Retsy and blinked in surprise. “A human?”
“Um, hello?” Retsy clasped her hands in front of her and chose to stare at her feet.
The scowl on Tae’lin’s face vanished. “Interesting. The council will have many questions for you, I’m sure.” He glanced back at Ranari and the scowl returned. “And I think we both know what they are going to say to you.”
“House arrest?” Ranari protested.
“Think of it as a time out.” Madaya didn’t bother to hide the smile on her face as she easily ducked the feather pillow hurled her way. “At least they didn’t toss you in the dungeons.”
“We don’t have any dungeons.” The younger elf sank grumpily onto the couch, knocking the other pillows onto the floor. “They’re just overreacting, like usual.”
“You took the girl to the ritual room.”
Madaya let out a long sigh. “Ranari, that place is sacred to our people. If the sigil were damaged–”
“–we would lose our link to our ancestors.”
“And to other worlds.”
Madaya rolled her eyes. “That’s not possible anymore, not since…” She didn’t have to say it. Everyone remembered the accident that took away their last Lifebringer. Especially Tae’lin. It had been his daughter.
“The human has life magic.”
Madaya blinked. She opened her mouth to speak, but it took a few tries before any words came out. “She has what?”
“That’s what we were there to find out. Somehow she can activate the Life Node. Just like she did when she arrived.”
A flash of emotions crossed her sister’s face as she considered the possibilities. “Does Tae’lin know?”
“He didn’t exactly want to hear anything I had to say.” Ranari kicked at the pillows on the floor.
“Did you tell him?”
It was Ranari’s turn to roll her eyes. “Easy enough for you. Everyone listens to you. They’d rather just ignore me.”
“If you want to be heard, you need to give them a reason to listen.”
Ranari sat up. “You know what this means, right? You could go see him again.”
“I’ll see him during the eclipse.”
“But what if he’s not dead?”
“I’ll see him tomorrow,” Madaya repeated. She snatched her cloak off the hanger and wrapped it around her shoulders. Without waiting for a reply, she rushed outside, letting the door slam shut behind her.
“I don’t get it,” Ranari said to herself.
If Flynn was still alive, wouldn’t she want to know? The way she talked about him, fawned over him, Ranari was sure her sister still had feelings for the Ronin. Didn’t she want to find out why he never came back to her?
Or maybe that was the answer. If he wasn’t dead, why didn’t he come back? If Retsy was able to bumble her way in, surely the Ronin were capable of travelling here as well. And if they didn’t, if they chose not to…
Ranari sighed. “This is why you don’t entangle yourself with humans!” She scooped one of the pillows off the floor and lobbed it across the room.
House arrest. While the council was busy learning all they could about Retsy, she was stuck here by herself. She wanted to learn more about the girl’s magic. Why did the life node react? How much power could she wield, and for how long? A portal required sustained effort to stablize it, and if the girl was as inexperienced as she looked, she would need to be whipped into shape.
The elf stared at the white curtain. White sheets, white pillows, white walls, this whole place was lifeless and depressing. There was no way she was going to learn any answers here, and if the Elders were all occupied with the questioning, no one would notice if she stepped out for fresh air. Just for an hour or two.
Her mind made up, she put on her shoes and slipped out into the hallway.
The door to the council room were closed, like she had feared. Even worse, Sasugo, the Elder Stoneshaper, stood watch in front of a crowd of onlookers. A human in Fir’dha was unheard of, and it seemed half the tribe had come to catch a glimpse.
Muttering obscenities to herself, she backed away before anyone could notice. The meeting hall had no windows, and if the Elders had taken the rare step of posting a guard, Ranari suspected they would have magically sealed the room as well. She stationed herself in a small alcove a short distance away and waited. If she couldn’t hear the Elders question Retsy, she’d just have to ask Retsy after they were done.
It was well into the afternoon when the meeting ended. The doors opened and Elders began filing out in pairs or threes. To Ranari’s surprise, her sister was among them, engaged in a conversation with Kagami. If Madaya had sat in on the meeting, maybe she could wring answers out of her sister. But the two women were headed the opposite direction, and who knew when her sister would be back home. The young elf returned her attention to the door.
Tae’lin was out front, conversing with the gathered crowd. It was a ruse. There was no way the Elders would go through the effort of a sealed meeting only to parade the human among the tribe. There, slipping down the side passage, Sasugo was leading a hooded figure away from the group.
Ranari followed them down to the lower level. Most of the rooms here were abandoned; the housing upstairs was far better furnished. Sasugo led the girl into the northernmost room, closing the door behind them, only to emerge alone a few moments later. The Stoneshaper hesitated and for a moment Ranari feared he had sensed her presence, but he merely rested his hand on the closed door and sighed. Looking rather forlorn, he trudged away.
Ranari waited until the sound of his footsteps had faded before making her move. With no one else around, it was a quick jaunt across the center chamber and she was at the door. She carefully tested the handle and was pleased to find it wasn’t locked.
Retsy looked up as she entered. The girl had removed her hood and was sitting on the edge of a plain-looking bed. The room was sparsely decorated, though clear of dust, with the high window the only source of light.
“It’s like a prison in here,” the human girl complained.
“Nonsense, you’ve got pillows and a view,” Ranari said, quietly closing the door behind her. She plopped down on the bed next to the girl and promptly discovered it was firmer than it looked. She clenched her teeth and tried to pretend she wouldn’t have a bruise in the morning.
The elf rolled her eyes at first, but sure enough, there was no pitcher in the room. “That’s odd. At least they could’ve given you one of the river rooms.”
“Yeah, the river runs under this floor, but can be accessed by the fountains placed in the guest rooms.”
Retsy glanced at the bare wall. “Not this one apparently.”
“Sorry, my magic can’t create water out of thin air.”
Retsy turned back to the elf. “I liked your flute.”
“Thanks.” Ranari shifted uncomfortably. The room fell back into silence all too quickly. “I um…was hoping my sister would join in. She used to sing along.”
“Why didn’t she?”
“You’ve seen her. You can figure it out.”
Retsy picked at the wrinkles on her clothes. “Can I go home now?”
“Not yet. What did the council talk to you about?”
The girl scrunched up her face. “They didn’t really want to talk to me at all. Most of the time they just argued with each other and lamented the lack of some catalyst.”
“Oh.” That’s right. This would be the first eclipse without a Lifebringer.
Ranari turned to the confused girl and explained. “In the past, the Lifebringer could help the living cross over into the Spirit World during the height of the eclipse. That’s how we can interact with the spirits of the departed. Without one, I suppose all we’ll get is a vague manifestation if we’re lucky.”
“You’ve been to the Spirit World?”
“Once.” Ranari looked down at her folded hands. “I wanted to learn who my parents were.”
“Did you find them?”
Retsy waited for the elf to elaborate, but she didn’t. As the silence stretched on, the girl began fidgeting with the hem of her dress, until she finally asked the question on her mind.
“Do you think I could see them too?”
“You want to meet my parents?” Ranari scowled.
“No.” Retsy blushed. “I meant my spirits. Like my brother.”
“Oh.” It was Ranari’s turn to fidget awkwardly. “Maybe before, but probably not anymore.”
“It’s a dangerous ritual. The Spirit World does not like to give up those that enter its domain. Ten years ago, during the last eclipse, there was an accident.” The elf looked up and met the girl’s gaze. “And now there are no more Lifebringers.”
The two of them stared at each other in silence, unblinking. Until the sound of rustling feathers made Ranari jump to her feet.
“What’s wrong?” Retsy asked, pushing herself off the bed.
“I thought I heard my sister.” Ranari peered up at the window, but was unable to spot any movement.
“Yeah.” When the human girl continued to look mystified, Ranari realized she wouldn’t have any way of knowing. “Some of us were gifted with an animal form. My sister’s is a snow falcon.”
“Does this mean you have one too?”
Ranari was a little unnerved by the girl’s sudden enthusiasm. “I…well…of course. It runs in the family.”
“Can I see it?”
The elf had to take a step back to maintain her distance. “No.”
It wasn’t that big of a deal. She didn’t have to sound so crestfallen.
“Well, it would be…difficult to transform here.”
“May I know what it is?”
Ranari turned away. “You’ll laugh.”
“I promise I won’t.”
The elf let out a deep sigh. It wasn’t a big deal, right? She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to ignore her warming cheeks. “It’s a dolphin.”
Even though Ranari couldn’t hear it, she was sure the girl was laughing. She steeled herself and whirled to confront the teenager.
Retsy was looking at her, but her eyes weren’t filled with mirth, rather they sparkled with…wonder? “So why can’t I see it?” the human girl asked.
Ranari glanced pointedly around the dry room.
“Oh.” Retsy sank back onto the bed.
“Ridiculous, isn’t it?” Ranari exhaled, letting the frustration and anxiety seep out of her. “What use is a dolphin on a world with scarcely any water? The others all get useful forms like birds or felines. I get to splash in the river.”
“I think it’s a neat gift,” the girl remarked. “You get to swim under the waves, free from the weight of your burdens. You could drift in the ocean, with nobody to complain about you messing things up or getting in the way. I’m jealous.”
“We don’t have an ocean here.”
“We do on my world!”
“I know,” Ranari said bitterly.
“You could go visit.” The girl was grinning. “Then you can splash around all you want, and I’d get to go home!”
Ranari looked at the girl next to her. “You really want to go home, don’t you?” And I want nothing more than to leave mine. The elf rose to her feet. “Well, I suppose it beats being locked in this stuffy room.”
“Will you help me?”
She paused at the door. “After the eclipse tomorrow. When things calm down. Then we’ll see if we can get you home.”
And the rest of us off this dying ball of ice.
Ranari was so absorbed in her thoughts it took her a moment to notice the two men standing in front of her.
“Enjoying your house arrest?” Tae’lin asked in a dry voice.
She jumped back with a yelp. She tried to quickly recover, smoothing out her trousers and putting on the best totally-not-guilty face she could muster, hindered somewhat by the blush in her cheeks.
“There’s a perfectly good explanation for this,” she said.
“Oh?” The Elder arched an eyebrow. Behind him, she glimpsed Sasugo folding his arms.
She had an excuse ready on the tip of her tongue. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t believable; they wouldn’t believe anything she said. All she was to them was a shadow of her sister. So why did she hesitate?
It couldn’t be because of the human girl watching her from the bed, the one she had just promised to help go home. She wouldn’t be worried about upsetting a human’s feelings.
“If you want to be heard, give them a reason to listen,” her sister’s words echoed back to her. Today wasn’t the first time she had been confined to her room. She could picture her sister standing beside her. “Start with the truth,” she would say.
Ranari took a deep breath, the excuse crumbling away. She looked up at the towering man in front of her, locked eyes with his impatient gaze, and began with honesty.
“We were in the ritual chamber earlier because I was trying to find out how she activated the Life Node.”
“She did what? Tae’lin frowned.
“She can wield Life magic! Don’t you see? We can finally use all six elements again!”
The Elder’s eyes widened as he mouthed the words. She saw the emotions flash across his face as he considered the ramifications of her revelation. When he finally could speak, his voice was unsteady. “That is…most interesting.”
Ranari almost thought he sounded excited, and why shouldn’t he be? This was the first time the tribe would have access to Life magic since the passing of…
Tae’lin turned to Sasugo. “Take her to the river suite. Perhaps there she’ll learn what confinement is supposed to mean.”
“Wait!” Ranari protested as the other elf seized her arm. “This could be our only chance!”
“Indeed,” the Elder agreed. He fixed his pale blue eyes on the human watching from the bed. “It seems I have some matters to discuss with our visitor after all.”
Ranari huddled on the bed, trying to ignore the dim light filtering through the window high above.
Her guest suite was a much nicer room than the one they had given Retsy, but that was to be expected – she was one of the fey after all. There was a couch, a table, a fancy rug, and a large stream bisecting the room, the source of the room’s name. The Stoneshapers had deepened and widened the stream so guests could bathe and relax in the then-warm river water. The frigid wasn’t much comfort now, but it was still one of the nicer accommodations they had to offer.
The ornate door was locked, magically sealed from the outside. The window was too high to climb, and her attempts to stack the furniture had failed miserably. If this had been a human prison, she could’ve found handhelds in all the imperfections in the wall, but the stone of Fir’dha was shaped too smooth.
That left the river. There was a magical barrier at the exit of the room, normally used to prevent contaminates from polluting the river. Unfortunately, it treated her as one. She had attempted to bust her way through, but the ice-cold water had sapped her strength, and she had had to give up before she succumbed to hypothermia.
“You are an embarrassment, Ranari,” she said through chattering teeth. “Master of ice and you can’t even handle a little cold water.”
Her attempt to freeze the stream had failed just as spectacularly. The water was moving too quickly, so instead of shattering the walls with expanding ice, the water froze slowly enough that it simply spilled out across the floor, and now she couldn’t cross the room without getting her feet wet.
This was her fault. Of course Tae’lin would choose his dead relatives over his people. It was the same with her sister. Hiding in visions of the dead instead of wanting to find a new reality. So part of it was their fault too, but Retsy wouldn’t be in danger if she had gone with her first instinct.
“I can never be like you,” she said to the air.
“I never wanted you to be,” the air replied.
Ranari jumped to her feet. Madaya was standing on one of the chairs – she must have noticed the water – brushing off a few stray falcon feathers.
“You startled me!”
“I can see that,” her sister smiled. The smile turned to sorrow. “I wanted to…” She paused, seeming to struggle with finding the right words. “Spend some time together.”
“We live together.”
“Yes, well…” Madaya sighed and sat down, folding her legs. “We don’t get to talk very often.” Madaya saw her sister open her mouth and rushed to cut her off. “I suppose that’s partly my fault. As we grow older, we change, and the things that once interested us no longer bring any enjoyment.”
She plucked at the little snowflakes embroidered on her sleeves. “I guess what I’m trying to say is I’ve changed. And while it might seem like I’ve been avoiding you, I really did treasure our time together.”
“Wait, what’s going on?” Ranari hopped down and approached her sister, wincing at the cold water splashing around her feet. “Madaya?”
“I’m going to miss you.” Her sister’s voice had been calm and collected until now.
“What are you saying? Did the Elders–?”
“They aren’t attempting a portal.”
“But the human can–”
“I know.” She pinched her sleeves. “But there’s no place for us out there.”
Only now did her sister meet her gaze and Ranari saw that she had been crying. “We are the last of the grin’fey, our numbers too few to continue. Rather than spend our waning years as exiles, we have decided…to join our departed brethren, so that we can be with them at the end.”
“We? Was this the tribe’s decision or the Elders?”
“The Elder Council makes the decisions that are best for the tribe.”
“Why?” Ranari bit back tears of her own. “Why are you giving up?”
Madaya’s voice softened. “This may be our last chance. If we leave, we may never find another bridge to the Spirit World. If we stay, Fir’dha may not last another ten years.” She clasped Ranari’s hands and pleaded. “I have to try.”
Ranari pulled away. “I can’t believe this! Throwing away your life just so you can be with your dead husband?”
Madaya let her hands fall limply to her lap. “And everybody else I’ve ever cared about.”
“And your otherworldly friends.”
“They’ll join us when it is their time.”
“Assuming it even works for humans like that. None of the others went through the marriage ritual.”
“I suppose that’s true.” Madaya sighed. “I know what you’re trying to do, Ranari, but my mind is made up. I only came here to say goodbye.”
“Goodbye then.” Ranari retreated to her bed and faced the wall.
Her sister was quiet for a long moment. Then following a softly-spoken goodbye, she flew out of the room.
Morning came, the artificial glow filtering through the small window. Ranari groggily reached for the flute on her nightstand, but her hand grasped only air. Confused, she sat up and rubbed her eyes.
She was in a river room. Today was the day of the eclipse.
Retsy, the ritual chamber, Tae’lin, her sister’s visit, it all came back to her in a rush. The Elders were going to expend the girl’s life to bring all of the fey into the Spirit World. Permanently.
Ranari bolted to her feet. If she wanted any hope of getting off this icy rock, she needed to save the girl.
How much time did she have? The eclipse would occur two hours before noon, but the angle of the window made it impossible to tell where the sun was. The light was slowly growing dimmer as the sun moved towards its apex.
The door was still locked. Not that she had expected it to open, but was a reminder that she was powerless to act. She slammed her fist into the door, but no one came. All that earned her was an injured fist.
She turned to face the room. Was there something that she had missed? Her magic wasn’t strong enough on its own. Without her flute…
The girl had said she liked her flute playing. Praise from a human made Ranari a little uncomfortable. It was the same when they talked about her dolphin form.
Ranari glanced at the stream running through the room. It looked deep enough, albiet narrow. But maybe she could squeeze in.
She stepped to the edge of the water and took a deep breath, clenching her teeth against the cold liquid around her feet. It had been years since she last transformed. The magic returned to her easily, but the sensation was unfamiliar.
It was a tight fit, but she managed, her short stature a benefit for once in her life. She could propel herself forwards and backwards, the latter at great effort, but most importantly, her animal form dulled the cold. With renewed determination, she launched herself at the barrier, battering it again and again, each strike more exhausting than the last, but each blow dimming the barrier runes little by little.
That faint hope drove her, even while she had to stagger out of the water to rest. Swimming as a dolphin was not part of her regular practice routine, she mused as she lay panting on her back. Part of her wanted to stay like this a while longer, but an incessant voice in the back of her head kept urging her onwards. She had completely lost track of time while underwater. The room was as dark as evening now, but surely that much time hadn’t passed. That could only mean the eclipse was nigh.
Reluctantly, she rolled over and crawled back to the stream. Even in dolphin form her movements were growing sluggish, but the barrier runes were flickering faintly. If she could just…
She rammed the barrier again, but instead of forcing her back, it abruptly gave way. Surprised, she found herself carried along with the current, through a dark and twisting passageway. The stream curved twice, then suddenly she found herself in the middle of the river. The water brightened as she exited out from underneath the temple and the current slowed to a crawl.
Ranari heaved herself up onto a bank, gasping and sputtering. She was in the fruit orchard, the river continuing on to the outer wall. Not for the first time, Ranari envied her sister’s mastery over shapeshifting, and her ability to retain her clothes during the transformation.
Crawling out from under the trees, Ranari looked towards the ceiling. The sky was as dark as twilight, but the sun was visible above. The eclipse hadn’t happened yet.
There was still time.
It was a simple matter of grabbing a fresh chemise and trousers from her room. With most of the fey indoors preparing for the ceremony, she had been able to slip back undetected. Still, this detour had cost her precious minutes. Just as she was turning to leave, she paused, then grabbed the ivory flute off her nightstand.
She hadn’t noticed it earlier from being drenched in cold water, but the air was colder than usual, as if it was already night. She took the stairs two-at-a-time, racing towards the upper floors. Her destination in sight, she glanced at the sky, only to see a dark circle blocking the sun. The upper part of the ring shone briefly as if it was a giant diamond ring, before the light faded, leaving only the illuminated contour of the moon.
The eclipse had begun.
“No! Not yet!” Ranari screamed in frustration as she reached the ritual chamber floor. Her feet carried her along the outer hall. The entrance was just ahead, a few more steps. She reached it, rounded the corner, and came to a halt as a bright flash of light blinded her.
Arm shielding her face, she blinked away the tears brought about by the searing light. It was several long seconds before she could see again.
She was in a room, but not the ritual chamber room. The walls and floor were a solid black, visible only due to the glowing white lines delineating every corner. The lines appeared to vibrate, giving off small wisps of pale smoke that mixed with the hazy mist drifting across the floor. Above, directly overhead, she could see the eclipse. A black circle outlined by a ring of white fire.
She had been here once before. This was the Spirit World.
“Tae’lin!” she shouted, but she knew it was futile. The Spirit World was vast and navigating it was different from the regular world. Her only hope was that her need was strong enough for the spirits to guide her. Then maybe they could find the girl together, before it was too late. Before she…
A lump on the ground drew her attention. Ranari hurried over and found the human lying unconscious. She was still breathing, but her pulse was faint. The elf scooped her up, lifting the girl onto her back. She seemed much lighter now, far easier to carry, but that was disconcerting. Either the girl was dying or unable to fully cross over.
“I need my sister,” Ranari said. Madaya had the healing touch. She would know what to do.
Glancing around, Ranari was disappointed her sister hadn’t also appeared out of nowhere, but of course it wouldn’t be that easy. She needed something to draw the two of them together, something to connect them. She shifted Retsy’s weight and the motion made her flute dig into her side. Her fingers grasped the ivory, feeling the holes and ridges.
Perhaps music was the answer.
It was a little awkward playing while carrying the girl on her back, but she stuck to the simpler melodies so she didn’t have to move her hands as much. The flute’s sound was sharp and clear, penetrating the hazy fog billowing around her. She walked while she played, letting the music guide her steps, letting her mind recall memories of playing with her sister.
Why did she have to leave? Why did her sister take such an interest in the human’s world? Didn’t she know what it was like to be left behind? Left alone?
She wrapped all those emotions into her playing, let the whistling of the flute carry them out across the vast emptiness around her.
She was so caught up in her melody, she didn’t realize there was a response. Only after a moment did she hear the singing, a light, airy voice entwined around the melody.
Ranari lowered the flute. Before her stood her sister.
“I’m sorry,” Madaya embraced her.
It was a little awkward with the unconscious girl on her back, but Ranari managed to return the hug. “I’m sorry too,” she said as her sister wiped away her tears. “It’s just –”
“Then why? Why did you leave?”
“I needed to.” From this angle, Madaya’s hair blocked Ranari from seeing her face, but she could still feel her sister’s steady breathing. “You feel it too, don’t you? The stasis here was stifling, everyone is just waiting around to die. I needed to see if there was something else for me out there.”
“I may have made a few mistakes,” Madaya continued as the two sisters separated. “But the biggest one was not bringing you along.”
Ranari realized the three of them were alone. “Did you not–?”
“He’s not here.”
Ranari couldn’t tell whether her sister was relieved or disappointed. Perhaps Madaya didn’t know herself.
“Then that means?”
Madaya closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. When she opened them again, Ranari saw some of the fire her sister used to carry restored.
“I’m going to find him,” her sister said. “Whatever it takes.” She extended her hand. “Will you – and your friend – come with?”
“She’s not my–” Ranari fell silent before finishing. She did make a promise to the girl, and the girl was a rather important key to getting off this world.
Her sister chuckled. “Well then, I suppose we had better have a talk with Tae’lin. And sooner rather than later.”
Ranari took hold of her sister’s hand. How many years had it been since they had last been together like this? How long had it been since they had last gone forth?
Another very good example of world-building. From the tag at the bottom, I take it this is part of the Retsy series you mentioned previously. I’m curious what form the others will take.
Also, this makes me think of the tragic fact that the Kul’Shar Legacy was never finished. That really is kind of a shame.
I wanted to tag it "The Retsy Chronicles" as that's the name of the series, but there's a 15-character limit. This is actually the second entry; the first one you've already read.
I actually don't like how this one ended up. It was supposed to be about Moonshadow and Retsy, but Ranari was begging to be the protagonist. That much was okay, but after the rewrite the focus shifted too much to the sisters and Retsy got sidelined. In future installments, Retsy needs to have a bigger role.
I did use Moonshadow's notes from KL3 (did I post those on Discord last year?), so the temple and many of the physical descriptions are from that, but the notes were also incomplete so I've probably butchered a lot of what she intended. There also wasn't a whole lot of lore about the grin'fae or plot from KL3.
It's also far harder apparently for me to write a <10k story than a >20k one. I'm just forced to skip and cut out so much stuff, it doesn't feel like I get enough space for character arcs and plot thread resolutions.
Wizard last edited by
I wanted to tag it "The Retsy Chronicles" as that's the name of the series, but there's a 15-character limit.
There is a way to change it, so I put it up to 25 chars. I'm betting you can edit the tags in your post and have it update. Not sure though.