Drifting dust caught the light filtering through the canopy, sparkling like stars and enflaming my allergies in the same measure.
But I didn’t worry about that. For far in front I could see towers and chimneys, walls and roofs, all ruined and collapsing at the speed of time. Granaries and barns like frozen miniatures bravely stood amidst sapling-choked fields and fogs of vines, and the fences that had once protected them had long since broken and routed against the overwhelming trespass of the forest. Even the rivers of loose cobbles connecting the islands of civilization had begun to dissolve and corrupt itself under assimilating grasses and flowers of dull grey.
Between the looming hills and slope of Mount Narnil, the remaining skyline of the city breathed its last few years of resistance, as only the proudest turrets still managed to pierce over the crumbling walls, and even fewer, those last marvels of engineering, were able to retain any dignity in their height. Ithin Narnil had clearly been a larger city than the village inscriptions had implied, with a size roughly around a quarter of Minua’s capital. Uneven rows and ad hoc neighbourhoods spilled out of the safety of the walls, and the church’s bell tower spiralled impressively into the air. What had surely once been fantastic halls and grain filled silos were now but rubble and standing stones.
Scenic rubble, to be sure, but rubble nonetheless.
Old houses and empty hearths were a common sight in the kingdom as far as I knew, symbols of a slow collapse as old as the age itself, but I still found them sad to look upon. And when an entire town like Ithin Narnil suddenly reached out of the fog with its decaying fingers of stone and brick, I couldn’t help but feel like the state was an inevitability for Verol. As if the entirety of the population would weaken and disperse without even the glory of some terrible war or magical cataclysm to fell it. It was the same sort of feeling one got when they looked out into the black of space and remembered their own size.
On those lonely tracks of thought and road, the three of use wandered towards the walls, two on colg back and Fredrick astride. A certain uneasy restlessness had plagued our nights for some time now, and conversation had turned from a staggering regularity to a tiresome test of focus that we rarely bothered with. Auro had seemed to be hit with the worst of it, and she had spent countless days snoring against my back, and at the worst of it I had slipped into the same.
Now, however, a recent sighting in the city had energized us, and all the three of us stood at alert.
Camp smoke, at least forty fires worth, floated above the city.
“I’ve been thinking about it since we first saw it.” I said. “But couldn’t they just be reclaiming the place? If they were malevol… eh, bad, wouldn’t they be burning smokeless tinder?”
Smokeless kindling wasn’t hard to find in Verol, and especially not in Fangpeak. And while the forest closer to the city looked to be mostly the broadleaf trees that burned black, it had to only be a ten minute walk from the walls to find more clandestine wood.
“They’re not Fangpeakers if it is.” Fredrick said. “They'd never build on their ghosts, as they’d call it.”
“Probably why Fangpeak sucks so much.” Auro said. “Not reusing something is almost a cardinal sin in Minua.”
“Same in the Arguin.” Fredrick said. “But I can understand the Fangpeaker perspective too.”
I couldn’t really say the same. Or rather, I couldn’t be bothered to understand it at the moment. Whether we could pass right through or we’d have to go around the city was a much bigger concern to me.
“Are the Fangpeakers the only group around here? Surely the duchies aren’t that homogenous, right?”
They were governmental separations, after all. Even Minua’s coastal people were subtly different from its valley-folk in culture and practices.
Fredrick shook his head.
“I can’t say very much about that. I’m hardly a scholar, and that goes double for Fangpeak.”
“There’re things even Fredrick doesn’t know? Why, I didn’t think I’d see the day.”
She laid her head on my back and giggled again, and I exchanged an uneasy glance with Fredrick.
Auro had been behaving rather strangely the last few days, but I still wasn’t sure why. She didn’t acknowledge anything was different, and it had started well after she’d taken the injury. Nor could I remember anything sounding off before the ambush. We were half scared that she’d gotten some disease or infection, but there was no sign of it on her arm.
“Should we risk it then?” I asked. “Taking the way around might cost us another day.”
“They could be ambushers.” Fredrick pointed out. “It’d be decidedly unwise to go through, so my mind says we go around and waste the day…”
A silent ‘but’ appended itself to that statement in my mind, so I just waited.
“…but it seems tedious to go around, so I kind of want to just go through it anyway.” Fredrick frowned. “That’s strange. I don’t know why that’s even coming up in my consideration. It’s not even the extra time, but specifically the effort…”
Fredrick grew quiet, and his uneasiness spread over to me like a greased tick.
His feelings echoed much the same as my own, actually. The thought of going around all secret-like felt like a marathon of work, much more than it probably was. Was this just laziness? I thought I’d purged much of that after I left the academy, and yet it still decides to poke it’s head up now.
I bit my lip.
The old demon paranoia began to creep up my spine again. Our whole trip here was planned, right? I’d definitely wanted to come here ever since I heard about the possible Lmenli, right? There was no way I’d imagined that.
Or… had I? Demons could implant thoughts and memories, I’d seen that well enough with the ‘Efmor-whatever thing back in the capital. It wasn’t a sure thing that all of this hadn’t been fabricated. Perhaps all of our emotions and thoughts were manipulated without our knowing
I hugged the colg’s neck and sighed.
“Demons are such a pain.” I complained.
Fredrick nodded approvingly.
“Ah, so you are of the same mind, then? You’re right, this fatigue cannot be benign.”
A small wave of relief washed over me. If Fredrick thought it too, it probably wasn’t just my paranoia. There was something stalking us in these woods, and I had felt it close by at that cabin.
“So I’m not crazy?” I chuckled. “It seemed to fade for a while after you linked up with us, but it’s been getting worse as we’ve gone on.”
“You think that’s why we’re so tired?”
“Among other things.” I said. “You seem particularly susceptible.”
“Perhaps a history of laziness amplifies it.” Fredrick mused.
“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?” Auro asked.
“What I said. I thought it was fairly clear.”
Auro turned away from him with a huff and leaned against me again.
Ahead of us, a new road split off away from the city, and my colg slowed.
“We will have to make the call soon, it seems.” Fredrick said. “Into the city as this potential demon might plan, as well as risking those campfires. Or around it all, missing only some time and effort.”
Personally, I was still a fan of going in despite the threat. We were fairly strong now, so unless it was something powerful like the Izavelo I was pretty sure we could beat it. And if there truly were people in there, they obviously weren’t attempting to hide themselves and were unlikely to be cut of the same cloth as those ambushers.
I said as much to Fredrick, and he frowned.
“I suppose the lazy motivation could be a simple side effect, but it still rubs me wrong. What reason could we have to want to risk it anyway?”
I had grappled with how to answer this very question for days now, and even now I didn’t truly know how to answer it. Curiosity wasn’t a valid reason, nor was safety at this point. And I still couldn’t very well tell him about my desire for skysteel, because that would open up a thousand new questions even more dangerous to answer.
But wouldn’t it just be easier to tell him everything?
Everything? How would he even take that? That he was talking to a fraud, a ghost that’d possessed his friends body… or would he even consider Saphry a friend? Surely that was Ryder, not her, right? Fredrick had only ever known the Earthling.
Ryder is a troublesome persona. It’s easier to be Saphry.
I frowned. There was a good point in that. Was I even still Ryder at this point? I haven’t thought about my old life for weeks at this point, only about finishing that alchemy ritual Silst set up. I suppose that could be attributed to how busy it’d all been, but wasn’t it a little strange to be so focused on something you never thought about?
Fredrick’s voice brought me back, and I found we had stopped in front of the crossroads. Fredrick looked concerned.
I squeezed my eyelids shut for a moment.
I still had a family waiting for me back home.
“I think we should go towards the city.” I said. “If there is truly a demon stalking us, would it not be better to take care of it now? If we let it follow and continue to drain us, it might just end up catching us in sleep. Better to ambush it in the city were it can’t hide behind leaves and hills.”
“And the people?” Fredrick asked. “What do you say towards them?”
“I doubt they are hostile. They might help us.” I looked away. “And if they are… well, we’ll be leading a demon right to them.”
I held my breath while he thought, hoping that was enough. There could be no compromise when it came to getting to Earth. I couldn’t let myself be swayed by dreams of Saphry.
“Fine.” He said finally. “Let this be our salvation, if the Everstar wills it.”
We travelled until almost nightfall, at which we set up camp some distance off the road in an abandoned farmhouse. The city was just a mile or so further over the next bend, but we had decided that it would be better to ride in with daylight before us rather than dying at our backs.
I nodded by the window as I kept watch on the snowy road below. I’d been unlucky in our drawing, so the first watch had gone to me. Even now the two of them shared the same blanket, though more out of necessity than any kind of bond. It was simply too cold for anything else.
This really was the sort of weather you’d want a fire burning next to you as you slept. Or at all times, actually. The fact that we couldn’t risk one had been a tough pill for Auro to accept.
Not that I minded too much. The cold didn’t bother me much at all anymore, especially with the forest blocking the worst of the wind. The only downside was the claim everyone seemed to have that I was unusually warm, and only because of the personal space violations that inspired.
Thankfully, we’d managed to find a building with both walls and windows intact to rest in, so I found it almost calming to sit and watch the snow slowly drift down.
As I watched and waited for anything to move, my mind wandered back to those I had earlier.
I had wondered for quite a while at this point, but where was my home?
Earth was an easy answer. Chicago, in particular. I had always liked the city and it was where my college was, so it seemed almost forgone at first. The only thing was… I don’t know if it could be that simple.
Chicago was a good city and Earth a great planet, but I had never been entirely too popular there. Yes, I had people I called friends and family, but ever since we had arrived to Minua I had began to question really how accurate those labels had been. The friends I had in college would never charge a Phoenix Knight with me, after all, or delve into the nest of some Glass monster in search of me, or even make the climb down from the academy to talk to me like the ones I had here had. In reality, what I had back on Earth had been mere acquaintances, not friends. The kind who would pick you up when your car died on the highway, but wouldn’t keep in touch when you moved away. I doubt the old Gideon would’ve even gone as far as Fredrick or Auro had, or even my parents for that matter.
It was shallow.
Everything about it felt like that now. The days I’d wasted, the jobs I’d worked, the connections I’d forged, even the relationships I’d accidentally sunk. All of it had just been to live for the next week, the next video game, the next event. What about that life was so tempting that I wanted to jump back?
Why would I want to go back when Saphry was so much more interesting?
Sure, it was boring most days. Sure, I had to crap in a pot. Sure, the red surprise each month was not ideal. But at least I was working towards something real. A goal I actually cared about. But what would happen when I reached that goal? When I finally got back and hugged my parents? When Gideon got to see his little sister again?
A week of them crying, a week of excitement. And then a life of magical federal prison, an execution, or perhaps a quiet, hidden life if we were lucky and the government was more reasonable than I assumed. There would be no more adventures, no more grand goal. It would be smooth, and soft, and colourless.
Did I really want that?
Before I had come, Saphry had been the same as me. She had lived with no friends, no family besides Marcolo, and no life ahead of her. Was it possible that she was even happier with this turn of events? What if she didn’t even want to come back? I had used her life selfishly, after all, thrusting her into a world rife with death and risk, all so that I might return. Was it possible she had done the same with my life back on Earth, only to find the same satisfaction that I had here? If only it were possible to ask.
That is, if I didn’t just delete her soul upon coming over. I still didn’t want to think about that possibility too much.
It’d be easier on everyone if I just stayed.
A noise like boots on rock came from outside, startling me from the fog of thought. I leaned my chair back from the window and stared down the road.
Out of the drifting snowflakes, a small group of cloak-bound soldiers stamped down the road. Red runes of heating shone brightly on their flanks, and their hoods were drawn tightly over their faces. They had a variety of masks lowered over their faces, but most of them were shaped like either the [rabbit]-faced langier or four pointed stars, and I could see whiskers of fur coming out from their backs.
I had heard of some of the higher altitude duchies issuing insulating masks, but this was the first time I’d actually seen them. These soldiers were obviously equipped well, though whether that implied locals or the royal retinue was unclear.
Regardless, it was obvious they were barely awake as they marched with dragging feet and gentle nodding. Even the winter chill couldn’t seem to wake them, nor did the captain in front look much better.
They began to pass silently, not even turning to look towards the farmhouse. As they did, the crests on the back of their cloaks became clear, and I started.
The crest of Ostip and Lord Agos was emblazoned there.
I held my breath as they passed, only letting it go when they had at last disappeared into the twilight fogs.
They must be doing something big in there.” I said. “There’s no other reason they’d be burning brown wood.”
The three of us sat around in the farmhouse, a rough map of stones and twigs between us. In the back room I could hear the colg rooting around in boredom. A slight downwards tug pulled on my eyelids.
Despite falling asleep immediately upon changing the watch, I hadn’t been able to get any good rest after spotting the patrol. Nightmares of being shaken awake by royal soldiers and spears had plagued my conscience, and I still felt tired because of it.
“Demons and Lord Agos… An unsurprising combination.” Fredrick said.
“I should’ve known as soon as Saphry said it!” Auro agreed.
“But what could he have to gain from this one?” I asked. “Seeding the capital and blaming Andril making sense, as does attacking Minua, but a random stretch of the Fangwood? A specific town, even? Not to mention that he has his own soldiers stationed here and suffering under its effects.”
To be honest, I even felt it a little strange that he had happened to meddle up here just as we’d come through. Or had he been meddling for a while? I had too many questions that didn’t have answers yet.
“Who knows. It means we can’t travel through the city though. I imagine we won’t always be as lucky as we were last night.”
“And yet, Lord Agos is spending a lot of resources up here.” I said. “It can’t be cheap to send whole patrols up from Ostip, and in the middle of the winter no less! That means there’s something here he wants, and it’s something he wants badly. And if it’s what I think it is, then that’s a search we need to stop.”
Only a singular object popped into my mind as a clue. After all, what else was Ithin Narnil known for?
“Normally I’d agree, but it is probably less important than…” Fredrick froze.
“Exactly.” I said.
“Wait, what?” Auro asked.
“You can’t be serious… that’s merely a legend. And a poor one at that.”
“Apparently it’s real enough to send a small army up here to look. And he’s somehow convinced the Duke Cantres to let him do it, too. I can’t even imagine what he’s promised him…”
“If he’s seriously pursing a Lmenli then I’ve completely overestimated his intelligence.” Fredrick said. “He’s in the middle of a civil war, Saphry. He wouldn’t be devoting any resources to investigating children’s tales and digging for gems.”
“It’s a long shot, I’ll admit-“
“A long shot? Saphry, forgive my blasphemy, but humanity will never find those again. In all likelihood they are too deep, and it has been too long since they’ve flown. It would be like searching for a cloudfly in a blizzard.” Fredrick sighed. “And I would assume Lord Agos knows that. We’d be better served by thinking about what else he could want with Ithin Narnil, or better yet bypass it entirely.”
A part of me knew that Fredrick spoke the truth here. It was incredibly unlikely that Lord Agos was searching for the Lmenli, let alone having a serious chance at finding it if he was.
But something told me this was all too convenient to be coincidental. Ithin Narnil had a very specific myth associated with it, and it was in the middle of nowhere civilised.
The subtle tug of exhaustion pulled at my eyelids.
“Fredrick, how common is demon summoning?” I asked. “Specifically the extremely powerful one we fought in Minua?”
Fredrick was silent for a moment.
“There’s a huge difference between that and this.” He finally said.
“How so? Lord Agos is obviously in possession of knowledge few in Verol are. If he had chanced upon a way to break open a portal large enough to summon that beast in Minua, why is it so far-fetched that he found a way to locate the Lmenli? Perhaps they are even related.”
It still wasn’t a great argument. Hell, we weren’t even completely sure that Lord Agos was behind the demons. But if he were, and he was searching for the Lmenli, it was all the more important that we found out.
Not to mention the chance of finding skysteel if Agos was right.
Auro pulled on my sleeve as Fredruck considered my words.
“Ah, so… what exactly are we talking about?”
“Oh, sorry. The Deeper Lmenli.”
“Oh, ok.” Auro nodded calmly, only to look back again once that processed. “Wait, a Lmenli? A real one? They exist?!”
“If he’s got an operation up here, Duke Cantres or one of the larger clans has to be helping him.” Fredrick said. “I suppose figuring out which one would be important evidence. If it’s the Duke, walking into Ithin Sele would be a mistake.”
Fredrick suddenly cursed.
“And Breale is walking right into it! Pitch it, this could be worse than we feared…”
“I’m sure the survivors are smart enough to figure it out. We’re out of range to help, in any case.”
Fredrick grimaced, apparently not so trusting.
“Yeah, we can trust Breale!” Auro said. “And Luis and all the ones with her. I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
“…Fine. It’s not like we have very many options anyway. We’ll scout around, see if we can find out who’s helping his forces up here, and then we’ll head to Ithin Sele. Is that fine?”
“And if we find they are digging for the Lmenli?” I asked. “What then? Surely we’ll have to stop it or steal it.”
“Again, he’s not.” Fredrick said. “Why would Lord Cantres even allow him to dig for it anyway? If he thought such a treasure was here, there’s no way he would want I to find it himself. Letting Lord Agos have it would be like selling the duchy to the Burgund.”
“It could be that Cantres doesn’t believe he could find it.” I pointed out. “He might be using it as an easy concession.”
Politics we’re something I had used to try to stay clear of back on Earth, but that ideal had been impossible to uphold while in Elys, and especially Minua. Every interaction and move made in that city had some ulterior motive, even if the noble doing it didn’t quite know it himself. And from what I’d heard, it was a hundred times worse in interactions between higher lords.
But nor did Lord Agos seem like the kind of man who’d go digging around for something like a Lmenli without guaranteed results. Especially not when he needed all his actors working to stop Prince Andril.
A bizarre thought came to my mind.
A Lmenli was divine, wasn’t it? The gems forged for the Everstar itself were said to be able to control the very fonts of magic, after all. If the legends were true, Lord Agos might even become somewhat of a demigod himself, able to lash the element of the deep onto all of humanity as the dwarves had supposedly done with the Lmenli of Fire.
Didn’t that seem like a better reward than winning a civil war?
“Actually… isn’t it possible that we’re wrong about his motives?” I asked. “Maybe the Lmenli isn’t for the war, but the war is for the Lmenli.”
The others fell silent.
“You think he planned the war? As an excuse to dig?” Fredrick scoffed. “He and the senate seemed plenty eager to stop Andril from escaping.”
“Getting to Minua was difficult.” Auro agreed.
“I have no doubt the senate tried.” I said. “Lord Agos, however?”
There were a few things that still confused me about our days in the capital and following it. Lord Agos had spent quite a bit of effort trying to capture me, as well as in elaborate and grandiose plots against Andril. But none of those plots had truly worked. In fact, they had all stopped just short of killing the prince. The orthungs, the attack on the palace, senate arrest attempt, the demon attacks… it was like he wanted Andril to survive all of them. Andril hadn’t been particularly hard to reach in any of them, after all, so why hadn’t they worked?
It could be that, if one was a conspiracy theorist, they were meant to enrage Andril and put him against the senate. If so, it had worked very well.
“I wouldn’t say such a prize wouldn’t be worth it.” Fredrick said slowly. “But surely there are better ways to go about such things? I wouldn’t ascribe so much foresight to the man.”
“I suppose that’s a little ‘out there’.” I agreed.
“If he did find it, however, he would immediately become the most powerful person in Verol, nay, the western world.” Fredrick continued.
“He could become another Gryphon!” Auro added.
Well, I didn’t think it would go that far, but it was hardly fair to correct her. We didn’t know the exact powers a Lmenli gave you, but for some reason I doubt it put one on the same level as an actual god. That is, if the Gryphon actually existed. The jury was still out on that one.
“So he could be using the unrest as an excuse to get his people up here.” I said. “Maybe. All of this is conjecture at best.”
“Undoubtedly. We could be getting ahead of ourselves by a farlength. It’s incredibly unlikely he found a way to find one of them, after all. It’s not the first time someone’s tried.”
“But a Lmenli, though…” Auro’s eyes sparkled. “Imagine what we could do with that! We could… I don’t know, do something huge!”
Auro practically jumped in place, her short hair bouncing up and down like a bobble head. Even the demon’s exhaustion seemed far from heart as I watched her. She was always cute when she was excited.
“Regardless of its truth, however…” I said. “Wouldn’t you say it’s worth checking out? At the very least we need to sneak in and verify if the Lmenli is really what they’re looking for. If it is, and they’re close, this is much more important than our old mission.”
Still, Fredrick looked reluctant.
“I still worry about Breale.” He admitted. “She’ll need my help in Ithin Sele. She’s hardly good at politics, and most of the papers she’ll need burned with our wagons.”
“I’m sure Breale will do fine enough. Silst is with her, after all.” I said. “This is more important.”
Of course, my true feelings on that matter were much more complicated, but I couldn’t have Fredrick being flaky now, not when we were this close. That Silst and Breale couldn’t speak to one another, that Breale was in all probability a poor politician, and that they were likely walking into a hostile city… hearing all of these things would only serve to demoralise him, even if he knew all of them already.
At the very least, I knew Silst would come back alive, and I had faith that Breale would be able to spot a trap before she walked into it.
He stared at the map for a minute before he spoke again.
“Even then… how do you suppose we get inside?” Fredrick asked. “I'm the only one who can blend in easily, and Auro doesn’t have the build to crossdress. And you’ll stick out like a sore thumb, Saphry. You’re… incredibly loud. Visually and otherwise.”
“What were you imagining…” Auro muttered.
“Then we go in under the cover of night.” I said. “I think I know a spell to help, and we’ll sneak around and see if we can find something.”
“Saphry, that’s hardly…”
“We’ll be careful, of course.” I said quickly. “They’ll never know we were here. Unless we need to blow something up.”
Of course, that last part was almost a given. What kind of infiltration didn’t end in something exploding? Only the lame ones.
Fredrick eyed me for a few moments with distrust. I held his gaze, and after a another few moments he sighed.
“Fine. But we’re getting out at the first sign of trouble.”
“Let’s just hope it’s not actually what we think it is.” Fredrick said. “Otherwise Verol might not stand a chance.”