103. The Guardian of Truth
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Mixed emotions swelled within me as we came upon the entrance to the mine. Anticipation of our Lmenli prize, and excitement at the thought of holding its skysteel, was far overmatched by the crawling fear of the unknown, and of the demon we suspected to lurk inside. The others stood beside me with their own hard expressions, unreadable in the dim light of the twin moons. None of us made the first move forward, and none of us spoke.

 

The mine was a dreadful sight. The entrance was now small and pitiful, as if it were carved by goblins in search of copper, not kingsmen in hunt of the divine light of a Lmenli. The barest remains of metal tools from decades back, hardly more than flakes of rust now, clung together in snow-covered piles near the maw, and the supports looked to sag dangerously. To the right, fresh piles of broken stone were piled up against the walls of a storehouse. It was a bizarre mix of stout ancient supports and pillars made of hastily hewn wood, adding yet fear- that of collapse- onto my laundry list of dangers.

 

One might think that I would be used to the pre-mission jitters by now. Surely even soldiers got used to the fear of combat, right? But every time since I had first met Andril, I have hesitated. Baulked and figited, wasted time when I could’ve just gone forward. 

 

Why was that?

 

It went away when the horror started, that only made sense. We needed a clear mind to act quickly and rationally against foes we understood. Freezing didn’t help you when you were fighting for your life. So why did it paralyse me now? What benefit did that bring? Waiting wouldn’t make it any easier. In fact, it made it harder, if what Fredrick had proposed about the soldiers was true.

 

Suddenly thinking very silly, I opened my mouth to take the lead, only for Fredrick to cut me off.

 

“There’s no sense in waiting around.” He said. “We should get this over with before we get tired.”

 

A small wave of relief washed over me as he stepped forward. 

 

Right. Fredrick can lead. He’s never let me down. 

 

We walked in, Fredrick in front and a spear-clutching Auro in the back. Fredrick rested his sword on his cloaked shoulder, but I kept mine sheathed. Instead, I held the lantern and my wand.

 

Unease walked with me as I passed under the eave and into the mine. The brisk sound of the outside wind quickly faded and died, and the natural moonlight went with it. The tunnel yearned on and on in front of us, and I felt the weight of the mountain slowly settle over my head.

 

The echoing padding of boots on stone joined us, sounding to me much like ethereal doppelgangers that didn’t quite sync up perfectly. The gentle hum of the underground fell in gently too, coming up with the disturbed dust to gnaw at the edges of my mind. 

 

No longer were we in the world of the Star, that was for sure.

 

“It’s much creepier than the church in the capital, isn’t it.” Auro whispered.

 

“It certainly feels like a place a demon would hide out.” I whispered back.

 

It felt right to whisper. As if too loud a noise might summon forth demons from the walls, or perhaps trigger some cave in.

 

“That is not surprising.” Fredrick said. “It is said that the depths of Elys are the home of the abyss. That is why we build on the mountain sides, it is the furthest from the dark we can get. And given how this is on the base, we will be significantly deeper than we were in the capital.”

 

“And now we’re heading right on in.” Auro muttered. “Oh, Celrion help me…”

 

We passed under another set of ancient stone pillars, carved intricately with fading images of the Sainted Stars even deep into the mine. A lighting rune upon its surface had been scratched out by some wandering animal, though it would’ve run out of magic long ago even if it hadn’t.

 

“I’m growing a sudden pity for miners.” I said.

 

“There's a reason it's called the unhallow profession.” Fredrick said.

 

Really? I can’t imagine it would be fun to have a terrible job like mining and be discriminated against for it. Must be how garbage collectors feel.

 

We fell into relative silence after that, and the tunnel seemed to stretch further and further into eternity. 

 

The lantern quickly grew heavy, but I kept it in hand rather than clipping it to my belt. Tension kept me paranoid as we walked, the threat of every shadow and turn being carefully investigated so that I wouldn’t miss some hidden ambush site or lurking demon. But as the minutes stretched to the better part of an hour, nothing came to disturb us.

 

Thankfully, the mine had a relatively straightforward layout. Branching tunnels extended no more than twenty or thirty metres off the main, always terminating suddenly for seemingly no reason. A few times, we came across areas that might’ve stretched further than that, but every single one ended in either a pile of rubble or some kind of dead end. It felt like we had walked for over an hour when we came across one such offshoot, this one ending in long length of standing water that disappeared beyond our light.

 

Auro held her lantern over the water, and the barest hint of brown was visible.

 

“I think that way might be open, actually.” She said. “Should we swim over and check?”

 

I peered into the murky water, but the light didn’t penetrate deeper than a few inches. Only an ominous blackness stared back. It did seem stagnant, however.

 

“Eh, I’m not sure if that’s safe.” I said. “I’d rather we just go back.”

 

Groundwater was always a dangerous thing, and nowhere was that more true than deep in a cave. Random currents, darkness, and sediment all meant you’d be swimming blind if you went under for some reason, and you could never tell how deep a cloudy pool actually was. It’d be just my luck to step out thinking it was shallow just for it to drop off into some other crevice. It wasn’t like we were travelling particularly light, either.

 

And ever since the Battle of Sinel, I really, really hated the idea of drowning. Especially in the dark.

 

“But I can see the other side. And we can all swim.” Auro said. 

 

Fredrick shook his head.

 

“Sap’s right. I doubt its down that way anyway.”

 

I looked up at ‘Sap’s’, but he didn’t seem to notice.

 

Has he ever called me that before?

 

Auro peered down the tunnel, as if looking harder might unlock some sort of night vision.

 

“Why not?” She asked. “It’s not like we have a map. It could be anywhere.”

 

“Branching tunnels typically don’t continue downwards. And I suspect the soldiers would have a dry path to it.”

 

Really, I’ve only had Breale and Auro call me that until now, probably because they weren’t worried about it being taken wrong. Not that a nickname meant anything, of course, but I know all too well how it could feel from the other side.

 

I frowned. 

 

Other side? 

 

“I suppose…” Auro said, sounding almost disappointed.

 

Before the capital? Perhaps it was a phase I went through in Andorlin, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was. If you ignored the Battle of Sinel, it’d been years since I’d last stepped foot into Summark. Maybe I could ask Cor-

 

A hand appeared on my shoulder, shaking me from my thoughts.

 

“Are you coming, Saphry?” Auro asked.

 

“Eh, of course!”

“Halt.”

 

Fredrick stopped abruptly, almost causing Auro and I to bump into his back.

 

He stared straight forward like an alert langier, and his sword slipped into a vertical position off of his shoulder. Ahead of us, however, the same empty black rock continued until the end of the light. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, nor did any new sound penetrate the soft hum of the shifting earth.

 

I looked between him and the cave, but nothing continued to happen. And then, it happened some more.

 

“Do you feel something?” I asked, resisting with all my being the impulse to make a joke.

 

He hesitated before responding.

 

“I think… I think I smell grass.” He turned to me. “Do you smell that?”

 

Auro and I did the customary sniff, but nothing seemed unusual. Only dust, a damp cold, and rocks met my nostrils, and certainly nothing like grass.

 

I shook my head.

 

“Can’t say I do.”

 

“Me either.” Auro said. “Are you sure?”

 

Fredrick looked stunned.

 

“I thought you had a good nose, Saps?”

 

What? 

 

“A good… nose?” I asked. “Where’d you pull that from?”

 

I suppose it was aesthetically good, if I do say so myself. Though I was a bit biassed there, because I was pretty sure I was just a good looking person in general. It was a little unfair, actually, for the Star to combine such a pretty face with my smarts and impressive array of skills. 

 

Well, Silst might have something to say about those last two, but he was also a thumbless troll.

 

“I just… nevermind it. We should see soon.”

 

His surprise was completely gone by the time he had turned back around, and he continued on without another word. Auro an I exchanged a look and followed close behind.

 

Ahead of us the tunnel took a steep turn downwards, curving downwards like a spiral staircase. Fredrick continued down unabated, but I held my wand ahead of me with a sudden nervousness.

 

“Wonder why they cut it like this.” I muttered.

 

“I wonder…” Auro said.

 

As we continued down, I saw a reflected light appear on the rock. The sound of wind came with it, along with a strange warmth. And sure enough, the smell of grass.

 

“By the starlight…” Auro muttered, no longer afraid. “Is that…?”

 

We passed around the last few metres, and the source of the light became clear. 

 

The cave opened up around the corner, spilling out onto a hill overlooking what looked to be a sprawling world in the midst of spring.

 

A bright blue sky sprawled like an infinite carpet of clouds into the horizon, pin pricked with a scattering of faint day stars shining through the sunlight. Rolling hills of green and yellow grass were painted upon the landscape like the gentle waves of the Arguin, and I could smell the crisp scent of freshly harvested grain. To my left, an endless forest of short broadleafs were shedding a blanking of yellow leaves onto the land, and a stout wind served to pull them up and over the landscape to match the clouds above. I could see a short range of mountains amble off into the distance, though they looked almost small enough to be large hills to me.

 

Even more surprisingly, however, was the air.

 

A tightness came to my chest as I breathed in, and I felt the beginning of a headache begin to creep in. It was much warmer than it had been in the cave, almost twenty or so degrees warmer. More alarmingly, the air seemed even heavy to me, and even just breathing in was somewhat labouring for me.

 

“What in the abyss.” I said. 

 

How had we ended up outside again? Did I just dream that whole descent? Did we somehow climb down the entire plateau? But how! Ithin Narnil wasn’t anywhere near the ends of the Verol! It wasn’t even particularly close to Doux-Burgund! We’d have to walk for days, not hours!

 

“What’s-” Auro began.

 

A coughing fit cut her off, and she took a second to lean against the cave wall. A pained expression came over her face, and I felt my own headache flare up around the same time.

 

“By the Star…” I groaned.

 

“Are you two alright?” Fredrick asked. “What’s wrong?”

 

“Is something… wrong with the air here?” I asked. “Gas?”

 

Had we walked into the wrong cave? I didn’t know what sort of gas could inspire such a grand illusion, but the physical effects were actually rather terrifying.

 

I grabbed Auro’s hand and pulled her back into the cave and up the stairs somewhat, until finally my headache began to pass. Then, we both fell to the ground in coughing fits with watering eyes. My throat burned and my chest still felt tight, but gradually these too began to lessen. Fredrick joined us soon after, unfazed.

 

“My god.” I gasped finally. “If I die of gas poisoning, I won’t be happy.”

 

“I don’t think there was any gas.” Fredrick said, sounding mightily confused. “That just felt like outside.”

 

“So you saw it too!” Auro cried. “I thought I was struck mad!”

 

“No, I saw it as well.”  I said. “Yellow hills and a forest below us, right? And it was so warm!”

 

Too hot, in fact, for my tastes. I seemed to remember getting [sunburned] rather easily, though that memory didn’t really seem familiar anymore. 

 

Even the word seemed strange.

 

“It looked like one of those lowlander paintings.” Fredrick said. “Like Tresti, I think?”

 

“It looked like Argestland to me. Like the plains south of Cyrstil.” Auro said. “Or maybe even Solland in north Brepoli.”

 

“That… doesn’t make any sense.” I said. “Tresti? Brepli? Cyrstil? Those are all at the very least a month of travel from Fangpeak. I thought for sure this was some delusion.”

 

“It might still be.” Fredrick said quickly. “Though more likely it's the effect of the Lmenli. Perhaps it tunnelled not just through the mountain in its fall, but through space as well?”

 

Auro looked up, excited despite herself.

 

“You mean the cave is a portal somehow?” Auro said. “That would explain the air then. It’s lowlander air!”

 

“Lowlander air?” I asked, only to understand a second later. “Ah! Like the air pressure, right? Though I was certain that it took hours to sink in, not seconds.”

 

I’d always known Verol was pretty high up, but it wasn’t really obvious from inside just how high up. The Lmeri plateau was huge, after all, and covered in even taller mountains to boot. That still didn’t entirely explain the reaction, though. Altitude sickness, and presumably the opposite version, didn’t happen instantly. Potent allergies were probably the driving force here, not the air pressure.

 

Though the fact that the pressure difference was even noticeable was rather impressive. It was as if the pressure only started averaging out in the ten or so metres from the cave mouth.

 

Auro tilted her head.

 

“Air… pressure? What do you mean?”

 

“Eh, the air’s ‘heavier’, isn’t it?” I asked. “So it affects your body differently.”

 

The two of them looked at me dumbly, and I began to wonder if I’d just made the whole concept up. ‘Heavy’ air sounded stupid, didn’t it? Would ‘denser’ be more correct? 

 

“Isn’t lowlander air just poisonous?” Auro asked. “I’ve heard you can get used to it after a few months, but it can’t be healthy in the long term. It’s part of why they all fell to the Gryphon so easily, I think.”

 

“Toxins settle in low places.” Fredrick confirmed. “The Lmeri just live high enough that we don’t have to worry about it.”

 

That didn’t sound right to me, but then again it probably wasn’t worth debating this right now. I’d have to look it up after we got back to somewhere civilised.

 

“Poison air… that’s a scary thing.” I said. “But what do we do now? We can’t go further this way, can we?”

 

“Nobody said that.” Fredrick said quickly. “We should at least check that out a bit more, shouldn’t we? I’ve heard the poison is not deadly, but merely harmful.”

 

“I’m not sure that sounds any more pleasant, to be honest.” I said. “What would we even look for? If a Lmenli was there it's gone now. That bluff wasn’t very hidden.”

 

Actually, that brought up another question: If this portal was in such an obvious place, how come I’d never heard of it before? If it truly went to hostile lands like Tresti or to a lesser extent Brepoli I am sure it would’ve been used as an invasion vector by now. And it would be guarded, at the very least.

 

And even if you ignored that, a Lmenli wouldn’t be left sitting somewhere on a cliff in lands the Gryphon nominally controlled.

 

Not to mention the headaches, sore throat, tightness around the chest… Actually, was it possible to get the [bends] like this? Was the difference large enough? I don’t know if I've ever heard of a situation like this. Of course I’d never heard of getting altitude sickness coming down, either, so there had to be a first time for everything.

 

I blinked. 

 

[Bends]? Where had I gotten that term from?

 

“It might not be as bad the second time.” Fredrick said. “Perhaps we just have to get used to it.”

 

I smoothed out my skirt as I thought about it.

 

“That takes much longer than a few minutes.” I said doubtfully. “Nor was that really the main problem. A Lmenli wouldn’t just be lying around baking on a hill for a few millennia.”

 

“We at least need to check out the surrounding area. What if we get lucky?” Fredrick said.

 

I glanced towards Auro, but she was nodding in agreement.

 

“And this needs to be documented.” Fredrick continued. “Even if the Lmenli isn’t there, should we confirm that this actually does lead out of the kingdom?”

 

True, a goddamn portal across the world did sort of warrant that. The idea of finding a Lmenli in a bush seemed sort of anti-climatic, however.

 

I sighed.

 

“Fine. But not for long. And if the effects get too bad then we’re heading back.” I said. 

 

Fredrick offered us each a hand.

 

“The acclimation time is probably overstated.” He said. “It might even be fine after a few minutes.”

 

Rolling my eyes, I grabbed his arm and pulled myself up.

 

“I’m fairly sure it won’t, but sure.”

 

Still, I reluctantly let him lead me back down to the cave exit. The same sight greeted us outside, and I prepared to feel quite a bit of pain, closing my eyes as we approached the threshold.

 

We passed out into the sunlight, and the air grew heavy.

 

The symptoms came swiftly again, growing over the next couple minutes into a splitting headache and burning throat. We broke into coughing fits, and I felt my eyes water up as if I’d dunked them in sand.

 

“This… is why I hate plants.” I said between coughing fits. “At least blizzards are honest about wanting to kill you!”

 

Auro laughed, only for it to quickly degrade into another coughing fit.

 

We stood around the cave for a few minutes, unable to do much more than suffer. Just when I was beginning to think it would be better to just go back inside, however, the feeling suddenly began to subside.

 

My throat soothed, and my eyes stopped watering enough to open them. When I did so I found the other two wiping the last tears from their eyes and beginning to stand up.

 

“See? It goes away quickly.” Fredrick said.

 

I stared at a nearby flower and then at my hands in disbelief. 

 

I’d never known allergies to just… disappear. What was going on?

 

“That’s a relief.” Auro said, relieved. “The Summars always made it sound like it lasted forever.”

 

“Tales get exaggerated.” Fredrick said. “Should we look around?”

 

“Agreed!” Auro said. “Lead the way, Fredrick!”

 

A portal that led off the plateau at the bottom of a cave, allergies that vanished after a few minutes, all where a Lmenli was supposedly resting? The old tales had never told of anything so strange.

 

I sighed. 

 

If only Silst was here, he’d know what was going on. Or at least he’d have read something that tangentially offered some convenient rumours that pointed us in the right direction.

 

“So now what?” I asked. “Wander through… wherever the pitching hell this is?”

 

If we were truly off the plateau, wandering around was potentially dangerous. While the south and north land were relatively safe, the entire east was led by Faling kings who weren’t particularly friendly with the Lmeri or the other people of the Star. I’d heard enough horror stories to make my skin crawl, even with the knowledge that ninety percent of everything was overblown.

 

Fredrick didn’t respond, but instead looked out over the landscape again, eyeing something specific. We joined him, and soon enough I saw what had caught his eye.

 

Emerging from the forest was a small column of colg-mounted troops wearing blue and white cloaks. They carried a dark blue banner with them, and a white falcon holding a four pointed star was emblazoned upon it. They were closed enough to make out individuals, and I saw a few glints of light off gauntlets as they waved towards us.

 

It didn’t take long to recognise that device.

 

“There is no pitching way it’s that convenient.” I muttered.

 

Fredrick didn’t say anything, but Auro popped up on my right like a startled iren.

 

“Summark?” She asked. “How?”

 

The men looked to be well equipped and numerous, with about fifty armoured men following a duo of leaders in front. On one of the smaller of the leaders, a large bird sat with him in his saddle.

 

“The banner’s not quartered.” Fredrick noted.

 

“Andorlin, too?” I said. “The Star really is watching us right now, isn’t it?”

 

Auro hopped from one foot to the other, clearly excited.

 

“That’s your father’s men!” She cried. “And those two in front, could it be…?”

 

I looked closely as they approached, finding that it wasn’t a bird in the saddle, but a dragon. Nor did they wear helmets of the same kind as their soldiers, but a type with small loops of silver on the top. Crowns.

 

A wonderful joy rose up inside me.

 

“That’s Corto!” I shook my head in amazement. “And Father and Derizvelo, too. They were supposed to be fighting in the lowlands. Maybe we actually did teleport?”

 

What were the chances that we’d teleport directly in front of my close family in the middle of potentially hostile territory? 

 

“This is not how I anticipated I’d be meeting the Markee again.” Fredrick said.

 

“They might know what’s happening, though.” Auro said. “We should wait for them! Ah, Saphry’s family…”

 

“Probably for the best. I for one would rather not leave the sight of the cave.” I said.

“Little sis! Little sis! Just where do you think Andorlin actually is?”

 

Corto and Father walked up the last few steps with genuine joy on their faces, exactly as I remembered them the last time I’d seen them all those years ago. Their colgs and their men were busy setting up a small camp at the foot of the bluff. Derizvelo the dragon walked beside him, his scales shining like a perfect gem in the sunlight. Father kept his eyes focused over the hills to the south, probably searching for a warband.

 

Their resemblance to me was obvious, with both having short whitish hair and no facial hair. Their eyes were a spectacular blue, and they wore smiles easily on otherwise serious faces. Corto was only an inch shorter than Father, but he had less wrinkles, and he had some bangs that came down to his right eyebrow. Short swords hung on their right hips, and each had a small bow sitting inside a quiver on the opposite. Navy blue cloaks covered chain shirts and silvery gauntlets, but their boots were stained green from crushed grass.

 

“I guess I got a little lost.” I said with a grin. “Road signs are a little hard to come by in the Arg-”

 

Corto ran up the last few metres and lifted me off my feet in a crushing hug, cutting my response into a surprised squeak. 

 

He put me down and pushed me to arms length with a massive grin.

 

“What are you doing out here!” He shook his head. “No, how did you get out here! And all by yourself? What’s gotten into you the last few months? Did Marcolo change your diet?  Was that rumour about the demon in Minua true?”

 

“I-”

 

“And what were you thinking about when you headed to Minua? And getting involved with Andril? You should’ve gone back to Andorlin!”

 

I waited as he asked me question after question, shaking me a little with each one. 

 

My brother had always been good-natured, but he’d also been somewhat of a busybody, so it wasn’t really surprising that he’d be so concerned. Well, anyone would be concerned at finding a family member hundreds of farlengths from home, but Corto was especially prone to it.

 

Derizvelo made a small barking sound, and Corto seemed to exchange a few thoughts with him. Then he turned to Fredrick and Auro, apparently just now realising they were there.

 

“Eh, and friends! Is that the Prince Frederick Maverack? And… Naila Belvan?”

 

“A-Auro.” She stuttered. “Naila’s one of my cousins.”

 

“Ah, apologies. It has been much too long since I’ve last met with our northern neighbours.”

 

She waved her hands in front of her frantically.

 

“No, no, I’ve never been to Summark so it’s not your fault!”

 

“Ah, but that’s no excuse!” Corto laughed. “I should invite you to Andorlin as a small forgiveness, though it will unfortunately have to wait until we get back. And speaking of getting back…”

 

“There’s a portal in that ca-” I began, only  to stop when I glanced towards the cave in quesiton.

 

It was no longer there.

 

Auro, Fredrick, and I all stared at the blank stone wall for a few seconds.

 

“Pitch it.” I muttered.

Our line of colgs trotted gently across the skysteel-green plains of Tresti, a month early spring breeze blowing through my braid, easily pushing away the sun’s heat.

 

We rode in a rough diamond shape, with our colgs right behind the scouts in the front. Fredrick and Auro shared the extra colg to Father’s right, while I rode with Corto right behind them. I could feel a hundred curious eyes behind us, all of them wondering just how they’d come across a group so unexpected.

 

“A portal from the bowels of the Forest of Claws.” Corto said sceptically. “Chasing an actual Lmenli untold distances away from the mainstream suspected landing site. And all of that after you signed up to join a diplomatic expedition through one of the most treacherous routes in Verol; a massive bounty being on your head the whole time. Not only that, but right after participating in the first naval battle on the Arguin in literally decades where you managed to single handedly sink a vessel with a special font of magic only used by the Falings. Which, might I mention, you displayed no prior ability to use all the time I’ve known you.”

 

“Yeah that kind of sums it up.”

 

Corto fell silent for a moment.

 

“Are you pulling my leg?”

 

“Nope.”

 

“Then the demon story from Minua was true?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“All by yourself, huh.”

 

“Kind of.”

 

As I was sitting in front of him, I couldn’t see the expression he was making, but I couldn’t help but grin at the image that popped up in my head.

 

He started laughing

 

“Saphry, were you possessed by some ancestor hero or something? What happened to my little bookworm of a sister! You make it sound like you’ve lived half your life in the last three months!”

 

“It feels like I’ve lived the whole thing in that time.” I said truthfully. “It’s hard to even remember anything that happened beforehand.”

 

They did say you only remembered the important things, but the gap in my memory was pretty egregious even then. Wasting all those years in the capital had even managed to suck away most of what I remembered about Andorlin.

 

But if there was one person I remembered, it was Corto. He’d been more than a brother: he’d practically been my only friend growing up. Even just talking to him again made me nostalgic, made me feel like the whole trip to Fangpeak had ended up being worth it.

 

“Well, those times have ended!” Corto said. “Father had decided to recall you from the senate anyway, what with all the violence going about Verol recently. Why, we had even sent a company to collect you in Minua, if you would believe it.”

 

“Actually, I did meet them. They were the reason we even sailed out to Sinel.”

 

“Aye, I did hear something about that, actually.” Corto shook his head. “To think that it went how it did… The reports made the fighting sound barbaric. Nothing like how a proper naval action should go.”

 

I nodded.

 

“We were surprised, too. Didn’t expect the shields to be able to hold up against so much magic.”

 

Corto paused as we passed a massive hill to our left. Soft grasses blew through the wind.

 

“We’d been preparing for something like that, actually. Father had the whole navy restructured after a few big wargames a couple years ago. Didn’t think we’d get a chance to use those tactics, though. Almost wish I couldn’t seen it.”

 

I shivered as I remembered the day. Of the dark clouds and the brilliant streams of fire, and of the screams and clashes of iron on chain. The sounds of rams smashing into wood still plagued my dreams every once and a while, and it returned now.

 

“It was horrible.” I said. “Beautiful in the moment, but terrible in the remembering.”

 

“Most battles worth fighting are.” Corto agreed.

 

I pushed the battle from my head and looked around at the vast plains around me.

 

“Is that what you’ve been doing here? How far into Tresti are we, exactly?”

 

“Incredibly. Which is why we were so surprised to see you guys out here! Why, we’re past Tonot, even.”

 

“Tonot!” I attempted to whistle, only to fail. “I have no idea where that is.”

 

“All those books and my sister is still useless at geography…” He sighed. “Tonot is placed where the Wespin and Oslskin merge. We’re just south of the Kaifwood.”

 

I nodded in understanding. I knew what the Kaifwood was, at least. Vaguely. Well, I’d heard the name before.

 

“I’m assuming those first two names are rivers?”

“You’re hopeless.”

 

“That be as it may… What are you doing so far north?

 

“On campaign! We captured the ruins of Tonot just a couple weeks ago, and we were just scouting out the coming terrain. Father thinks Tresti might sue for peace soon.”

 

Wait, what? How was this the first time I was hearing of this?

 

“Sue for peace!” I cried. “We were at war?”

 

“We’ve always been at war, Sister.”

 

I jabbed his thigh,though it felt cushioned under the magical fabric.

 

“We’ve finally pushed them and Falia out of the Stillwater Gap.” He continued. “I’m not sure what broke, but something did. First in Falia and then Tresti. Even the raids have almost entirely stopped.”

 

My head swam. For as long as Summark has existed the kingdoms of the east had raided and threatened us. This was true even before the Age of Ice, when they were still good Everstar kingdoms of man and not corrupted by Faling conquerors and demons of the Gryphon. But Summark’s defences and its mountain fortresses had never failed us, not even in the most disastrous times of the Lmeri Empire. But surviving was different than riding out and winning, and I had never heard of Summark doing such a thing, even in our times of recovery.

 

“How long have you been in Tresti then?” I asked. “Is this permanent?”

 

“Nothing is permanent.” He chuckled as Derizvelo glared at him. “Well, I suppose the both of us have a good shot at it right now. Regardless, I’m confident we can hold this for a while. We intend to push forward can capture the rest of the Wespin to liberate the last of the Trestians. Father hopes to arm them as a buffer between the rest of the east. Falia is being reorganised by our wardens as we speak.”

 

I grinned.

 

“Lofty goals, isn’t they? Does that mean you’ll be spending more or less time in Andorlin?”

 

“More time, of course.” Corto said. “Mom wouldn’t forgive us if we spent the rest of our lives marching ever further into the infinite east.”

 

My throat went dry. Hazy images of a friendly woman flashed through my mind, the face blurred and incoherent. A sudden tightness pushed against the glass tiara in the back of my skull.

 

“...Mom?” I asked.

 

“Yeah, she’s been staying in camp the last few weeks even.” Corto laughed, not noticing my distress. “Tries to convince us to stay every time we go to the gates. Even I can’t help but feel a little guilty…”

 

Mom. What did she look like? Why couldn’t I remember her face? Why was there such a particular gap in my memories? Why, why, why…

 

“I.. I can’t even remember the last time I saw Mom.” I said. “Is she alright?”

 

“Oh, she’s strong as always.” Corto said. “Strong enough to demand to come down into Tresti, hah. You should see her before the end of the day.”

 

A deep longing rose up in me, strong enough to catch the breath in my chest. I had to see her again. Nothing else mattered more. 

 

“Corto, what does she look like?” I finally asked. “I…I’ve forgotten.”

 

He snorted.

 

“Forgotten? Come on, you jest. You’ll recognise her well enough when we get to camp. I doubt she’ll let you go for quite a while, too!”

 

An unusual shiver went down my spine at that, and I didn’t respond.

 

Auro suddenly turned around from her conversation with Father with a dazzling smile.

 

“Saphry, Saphry! Did you hear that? I can stay in Andorlin when we get back!”

 

Why did she sound so excited about that?

 

“Eh, great.” I said.

 

“You might have to share a room.” Father said apologetically. “All the spares are filled with diplomats right now, I’m told.”

 

“That’s more than fine!” Auro said.

 

“Eh, don’t we have spare guest rooms?” I asked. “You couldn’t even conceive of sharing a room back in the capital.”

 

She waved her hand dismissively.

 

“That was before the academy. Wouldn’t you say its so much more exciting to have a roommate?”

 

I thought back to the room I’d had back in the academy with Hosi and Breale.

 

“I can’t say it's horrible I suppose…”

 

“Isn’t it!”

 

She turned back to the Markee, fidgeting excitedly.

 

“Father’s right in that. Almost all of the spare rooms have been quartering visitors recently anyway.” Corto said. “Might be a while before it’s all calmed down.”

 

I glanced back at him.

 

“Calmed down?”

 

“Ever since Falia surrendered we’ve had countless people going through the city enroute to Tresti.” He explained. “I think there might even be a company of Blue Dwarves there now. Peculiar times, these are.”

 

The company slowed down to ford a small stream. It was stagnant, and the water was murky and dark. Still, it only went up to the ankles of the colgs, and it didn’t look like any of them had any trouble with it.

 

“Victory in the east and Mom…” I muttered. “It sounds almost too good to be true.”

 

“Reality can be joyous, rarely.” Corto said.

 

Really, wasn’t this situation perfect? Summark was stable and could help Andril now, and I was back with my family again. There was nothing more I could possibly want.

 

So why did I feel like I was forgetting something?

 

We continued trotting through those idyllic plains, the sun gradually beginning to set from the sky.

 

“Derizvelo has been impressed with you, apparently.” Corto said after some time.

 

“Eh? Why?”

 

“Silst’s been sending letters about your exploits. His praise for you have known no bounds.”

 

Really.

 

“Really?” I asked.

 

“According to him, you’re a veritable genius when it comes to learning how to fight. And though I personally find it hard to believe, he says you have become a very intelligent noble. Particularly with your mastery of the scientific philosophies.”

 

Silst wrote that? That sounded more improbable than the portal had. He knew all the same principles as I did, and even worse, he knew that I was even cheat-

 

Cheating? How could I be cheating? What was I thinking about…

 

“So once we get back to camp we’ll take everyone back up to Andorlin.” Corto continued. “I’m sure the matter with Andril and the senate will work out too, and then we can return to how we were before we’d all left.”

 

I felt the same nostalgic yearning rise up within me, of the simpler time when I was young.

 

“Life can continue forever, as peacefully as it should with all the people who matter.” Corto said. “Us, Mom and Dad, Auro, and even the Maveracks. Hopefully, we’ll never have to leave Summark again.”

 

The thread of nostalgia suddenly snapped.

 

The previously hidden part of me welled up like an exploding geyser, bringing with it a sudden clarity of thought that cut through the fog that had settled upon me. It brought with it a listlessness, and a deep sadness that permeated deep into my soul.

 

Stay in Summark forever? Reunite with the family, with Mom and all our friends?

 

Why would I want to stay in Summark?

 

That was never my wish. That was never the goal I’d worked towards all this time. I had never gotten up and prayed to go back to that perfect city, to put everything back in the place it had all fallen from so long ago. A shattered sculpture could be glued back together, but it would never be the same. Nor should it. 

 

Because turning back the clock was never my wish.

 

That was the old Saphry’s wish.

 

And as easy as it would be to forget, there was another truth I couldn’t let go of. 

 

I was not that Saphry.

 

The realisation struck at my heart like a ton of bricks, and I kneeled over the saddle in front of me. I felt my breathing accelerate, and the weight of the air seemed to press upon me like a weight.

 

“Sis?” Corto asked fearfully.

 

Forgotten memories flooded back into my mind, of names and battles that shouldn’t exist in this world. 

 

How had I ever forgotten? 

 

“[Jesus Christ].” I muttered. “[Fucking] hell.”

 

“Saphry?” Corto asked.

 

I was in deep, wasn’t I? Gideon will have a field day once I tell him. Who knew I was such a great method actor? So deep that there practically wasn’t any difference anymore? Now that was a feat! 

 

I sat up and found that the entire convoy had stopped to stare in concern. I looked between them, eventually settling on Frederick.

 

“Ryder, actually.” I said. “And you’re some kind of dream demon, aren’t you?”

 

There was Saphry inside me, of that I had no doubt. Some people thought that memories made a person, and I had experienced a good percentage of Saphry’s life, and her fears, and her dreams.

 

But I was still Ryder.

 

“What?” Fredrick asked, concerned. “Are you having a heat stroke?”

 

“You made a bajillion mistakes, thankfully.” I said. “It seems demons aren’t as perfect as I feared.”

 

“Saphry, what are you talking about?” Auro asked.

 

“Number one.” I continued. “You never mentioned the demon once we got inside the mine. Isn’t it strange that you blamed all the weirdness of that portal on the Lmenli? It makes me feel stupid that I fell for it to begin with! A portal to Tresti? Ha! Even stupid alchemists know how impossible teleportation is! A portal working perfectly without soul-scarring someone or doing something totally inconvenient is way too big of a plot hole.”

 

“Wha-”

 

“Number two. You keep pronouncing Fredrick’s last name wrong. And I think you got his first wrong too. It’s Fred-rick Mav-er-rick. A ‘rick’ in each. At least get that right!”

 

“I suppose I’m sorry?” Corto said, bewildered. “I haven’t seen-”

 

I violently twisted around to point at Corto’s chest

 

“And YOU!” I cried.

 

“Me?”

 

“You’re too perfect.” I said. “There is no older brother in existence who’s that friendly! None! And your story of how we’ve defeated Falia and Tresti? That’s way too out there! Be more realistic when you’re making an illusion! You practically took Saphry’s idealistic childhood fantasies and made it real, can you really not see anything wrong with that? Be real! Saphry’s stupid, but even she’s not that stupid! [Christ], it's like you’re a total amateur!”

 

He stared at me blankly, as if I’d gone insane.

 

“And I’m sure there’s a ton of small things that I didn’t even notice.” I continued. “Like in what universe would Gideon actually compliment my intelligence? Ha! You obviously didn’t think about your characterization! The only thing you seemed to get perfectly was the environment, because even you were surprised at how realistic it was! Like, Frederick wasn’t even ill the first time we went out, but somehow was the second time? Come on!”

 

I swung my leg over the colg and slid to the ground. Then I stomped over to Frederick's colg and stealthily unsheathed my wand.

 

“You were right about one thing, though.” I said. “I want to go home. And though I’m not sure where exactly that is…”

 

“Then-” Frederick began.

 

I raised the wand to his chest.

 

“I at least know it isn’t in Andorlin. Mitio.

 

A spear of ice exploded out of my wand tip and into the Prince of Cice, sending him whirling backwards through the air. He landed with a soft thud and didn’t move again.

 

The others looked at me in horror, but I just stowed my wand and unsheathed the sword I carried. The sword that Corto had never mentioned.

 

“Sorry Fake Auro.” I said. “But you’re about to see a lot of blood.”

11