“Now, surrender, or perish,” the leader said, her bow ready to fire at a moment’s notice.
Emiko flinched as Atsui tensed, and she hugged her bat even tighter. Noticing the dangerous situation laid out before her, Isla quickly flew to Emiko’s ear.
“Be careful how you address elves, Emiko,” Isla whispered. “Most are fickle beings who will take the smallest of slights with the point of an arrow, though you will find some who are as kind and gentle as the wind that surrounds us.”
Emiko gulped and nodded her head, her eyes wide and her body still thrumming with the anxious energy of the fight with the kerberos. “H-hi,” she said shakily, “I-I’m Emiko… I… don’t speak very well anymore… but… we are just passing through…”
“Hm…” The leader shook her head. “We are sorry, but we cannot allow that.”
“Out of the question.”
To Emiko, it felt like she was being stabbed in the gut multiple times with each following rebuttal she received. Her stomach churned and she began to feel like something was squeezing her brain behind her eyes, and she tried to take deep breaths.
“Please…” Emiko gasped. “I… we need to pass to reach the Valley of Change—“
“You would reject our kindness in turning you away?” the leader asked dangerously. Her bow twitched, and Emiko’s breath caught in her throat. “Or will you remove yourselves from our forest peacefully?”
Emiko felt hot as something wet built up in her eyes. “I-I—“
Isla flew in front of Emiko, her arms crossed as she leaned in with a frown. “This forest is ours as much as it is yours, elf.” She shook her head. “And why should we, a peaceful party of a familiar to a human youngling, and a fairy guardian, yield to you, when you have not graced us with your name?”
The leader’s impassive face twitched. “This does not concern you, faerie. As it were, I would revise your situation if I were you.” She motioned to the mangled carcass behind them all. “Were you not successfully repelling a blight of the land just moments ago?”
“As it were, elf, it does concern me. Very much so, for Terra herself has decreed as such.”
The leader tightened her grip on her bow. “The earth mother of this world would bless you with one of her messengers?” With the slight narrowing of her eyes, she asked, “Do you think me a fool?”
Isla scowled. “Watch your tongue, elf. You address Isla, guardian spirit of lower lights. If you need proof, the blessing which my charge carries should be enough.”
“Do not play tricks with me, faerie. I know of your kind, and the power of your names.” She glanced over at Emiko, who shrunk from the gaze and tried to hide behind the bat she carried. “All I see is a human who has wandered too far from her grove. Her aura is indeed clear, but I see also a taint that has rooted itself to her very essence. Shall I remove it for you?”
The air around Isla grew warm, and she uncrossed her arms to turn her hands into fists. Her red glow grew two shades darker, and Emiko felt like she was starting to get trapped. “You will do no such thing, elf, and if you do so, you will feel this earth mother’s wrath.”
The leader’s lips turned downward slightly. “Hollow words from a false faerie.”
A hot wind began to blow. “Dangerous claims from a haughty woodlander.”
The elven leader had her bow pointing at Isla in a flash. Nearly as fast, her two lieutenants did the same. “You dare?!” The elf hissed.
“I do, elf. And I should hope you and I both know the consequence of unworthiness in invoking Terra’s name.” Isla wagged a finger and folded her arms. “Do you really think that such would occur and I would not be punished? Think carefully on your next action, lest you suffer the same wrath as all who have sundered the name and dignity of the earth mothers of old.”
Emiko held her breath as the elves stilled, and after a long moment, they removed their arrows and replaced them in their quivers. “Have care how you speak to me, Lady Isla. I am Uris, daughter of Soris, who is sovereign over this desolate forest and the land round about.” Uris sighed and folded her arms before closing her eyes. “Though I appreciate your warning. I must apologize for my harsh treatment of you. We must remain vigilant in our watch, and you are the first souls we have seen so far that aren’t blights to this land we now call home.” She bowed slightly, along with the other two elves. “It was not our intention to offend, but we will not apologize for being forceful in our questioning.”
“Uris, daughter of Soris,” Isla said, testing the name. “Wonder and beyond, hm?” Emiko released her breath at the human reaction Uris displayed with the faintest dusting of pink on her cheek. “It certainly shows your disregard for our purpose in traveling.”
“Blame my father for wanting a daughter who would surpass him in recklessness,” Uris said calmly. “And I should make you fully aware that my lieutenants are his, and not mine, so they shall report this entire meeting in confidence to my father. Do not be alarmed if he asks for your audience.”
Emiko felt her breathing quicken once more, and the world started spinning beneath her. “I-I… w-what?”
Uris turned to look at Emiko with a look that spoke of pity. “You may be meeting with the ruler of New Foriden, my father. If your reasons truly are pure, he may entertain your plea for passage.”
Emiko’s head was swirling, and she felt her nerves fall through her feet. Her stomach was flipping and she couldn’t tell up from down. “I’m… g-going to meet other… people… again…”
Atsui began growling and stepped forward, effectively shielding Emiko with her body. “Emiko! Are you okay?” She took a step towards the elves, who tensed in response. “I’ll wipe them away if they hurt you!”
Isla floated in front of Emiko and held her face gently. “Emiko, breathe.”
She tried to take deep breaths but it felt like a weight was crushing her chest. “I… I don’t…” A cold sweat broke on her head, and she could feel the warmth leave her face. “I’m not…” Emiko tried to focus her faraway gaze on Isla, but it was so hard. Her eyes widened and she shook her head slightly as her mouth opened and closed with no words to say.
“Emiko, look at me. Focus. You are having an attack.”
“Your name is Emiko? A beautiful name. Please, do not worry so much about this—” Emiko heard Uris whisper, and she choked on the air in her throat.
Her knees gave out, darkness claimed her, and the last thing she heard before the world fell from beneath her were five shouts of concern, and a rush of warmth.
“…worst of it is…”
“…they have already…”
With a start, Emiko shot out of her position lying down, heaving in mouthfuls of air. She frowned as she wiped away the sweat that had collected on her forehead and stared at her hands. She then realized where she was, and realized she didn’t know where she was. Looking around, she felt herself calming as she saw the figure of Atsui resting her tiger head on the bed Emiko lay on. Running her hands across the sheets she’d found herself in, Emiko marvelled at the fineness of the material.
“Where am I…?!” Emiko asked, only for it to turn into alarm. Gasping, she reached for her throat and rubbed at it, trying to feel for the itch that had persisted since the first week of Kodoku. “What the—“ It was missing. “I can talk normally?” She whispered, but the end result was the same. Emiko realized she could speak full sentences again. “I can—I can speak again! Normally!” She then frowned as she thought about what this could mean. “W-what happened?” she whispered to herself.
Atsui stirred beside her, and she smiled softly as she reached over and stroked her familiar’s head. “There, there, Atsui. You’ve been so good to me… Thank you for protecting me.”
The tigress began to purr in her sleep, and Emiko smiled a bit wider. Emiko then looked around, searching for the entrance. Above a cabinet filled with jars and salves she couldn’t begin to name, was a flickering lantern. She didn’t see her bat, or any trace of her wagon, anywhere, and Isla was missing. Her heart skipped a beat at that.
One archway held a door with light leaking from the bottom, so she figured that must be the exit. Carefully, she pried herself from the sheets and Atsui’s heavy head. Petting the tigress’ head once more, she moved quietly to the door until she was able to reach it without waking her familiar.
Opening the door, she looked from side to side and was surprised to see a surprisingly modern hallway greeting her. “What is…” Her question trailed off as she looked backwards toward her now-vacant bed and Atsui. Making her mind, Emiko nodded slightly to herself before stepping into the hall and slowly shutting the door. She wanted to get down to what was happening, and she knew she would need to find out where she was.
The last thing she remembered, she had been feeling incredibly anxious and fatigued after meeting with the elves. With no warning, it had felt like the whole world was imploding on her, and Emiko found it hard to remember what happened after that. Emiko slapped her face in embarrassment and tried to hide behind her hands. She groaned and leaned against the wall.
A brush of wind had her snapping to attention. She frowned as she looked around the empty hall. “Isla…?” She implored. Emiko was sure she had felt something just then, but she couldn’t see anything. Humming suspiciously, she started moving as quietly as she could. The halls were exceptionally well kept compared to the decay she had been seeing since Kodoku began, and she wondered as she dragged her hands across the walls.
Looking around the small hallway, she found some stairs. Climbing a couple flights up, Emiko heard the soft echo of voices, and she stilled.
“…you know? There’s…”
“…happens. I guess…”
She tried to creep even more quietly than she did before, and she winced with every ruffle of her sweater and crinkle of her jeans. The echo of her shoes on the tiles were like gunshots in her ears, but she pressed forward. Opening the door to the hallway the voices had come from, she peered and looked on either side. Satisfied that there didn’t seem to be anyone anymore, she slipped through and tiptoed to a room that had a flickering light on.
“Isla?” Emiko whispered, her eye furrowed in fear. “A-are you here?”
There wasn’t anyone in the room, but she quickly realized what it was when she saw barrels, baskets, and trays of knick-knacks and food. She sighed in relief as she saw her wagon was intact, and she rushed over to scour through it. Pulling out a frame, she leaned against the shelves and sighed as she looked at the photo in her hands.
It was a picture of Emiko, Daiki, and a few of their mutual friends from before high school. Before the rest of her support had crumbled away, leaving her with a single pillar to sustain her. Emiko thumbed over the faces of her friends that had moved away long ago, and stared at the smiling face of her brother. It was a simple photo, really. A picture of them eating out at a park; but it was one she cherished with fondness as one of the last times she had truly been happy.
Hugging the photo close, Emiko looked up and gazed into the fires of the torch above that waved in an unseen breeze. It was mesmerizing,. As the flames danced, she swore she could hear faint echoes of a memory that had long since passed.
A deep and gentle voice threw her out of her thoughts and elicited a gasp from her. “I do not often see people lurking in the storage area,” the voice said.
Emiko turned to look at the silhouette of the being that stood at the door of the room. She tried to squint as the blue spots from staring into the torch still persisted in her vision. Backing herself up and trying to make herself as small as possible, Emiko continued to stare at the being.
“Do not worry, little one. I am but a harmless old elf, far too old to be living.” The voice, the man, stepped closer into the light. Emiko quickly noted his sleek grey-black hair, his stark green eyes, and his pointed ears. “Though, you may call me a friend. My name is Pulric. What is yours?”
“A f-friend?” Emiko asked hesitantly, still unused to her own voice. “I-My name is Emiko.”
“Emiko. A lovely name.” Pulric bowed. “What brings you to the storage area today?”
“I was, well; I woke up.” Emiko sighed and took in a few gulps of air. “I was, I wanted to know…”
Pulric raised a hand, and Emiko stilled. “Peace, child. I mean no harm. I see you are in distress, and wish to help. Whom are you looking for?”
“Whom…?” Emiko bit her lip. “I, well; There was a fairy, beside me. Her name’s Isla, and, I-I don’t know where she is.”
The wizened elf hummed and nodded. “A fairy, you say? Yes, I think I have seen her around. Would you like me to help you find her?”
Not knowing what else she could really do, and with nothing to really lose, Emiko nodded her head quickly. As Pulric made to leave, he saw her quickly stuff the frame back into the wagon, and tried to hide it as much as she could. With a sad smile, Pulric turned back and said, “You may bring your possessions with you. I did not wish to part you from those memories you hold dear.”
Emiko gripped the side of her wagon as she froze. “I-No! It’s, I mean, I was just—“
A soft chuckle stopped her jumble of words. “Do not fret. Bring your wagon. It is yours, after all.”
Emiko nodded sharply, not questioning her luck any further, and grabbed the handle tightly. The elf smiled a little wider and turned, walking off into the hall. For a moment, Emiko wondered if she should really follow him, but the moment passed and she knew she would be lost otherwise. Pulling her wagon along, Emiko felt a little safer knowing she had nearly everything that belonged to her.
The only thing that was missing was her bat.
The old elf’s strides were long and frequent, and Emiko almost had to jog to keep up with him. As they continued to move, she realized that they were traveling on the first floor of whatever building the place had once been, meaning she had been placed in the basement. There were stairs, but they passed by each of them with nothing but a glance.
She flinched as the first pair of voices echoed close to where they were walking. “Do not be alarmed,” Pulric said. “Where we are going, there are more than a few souls. I will take all the attention. You need not worry. Is that alright?”
Pulric waited until Emiko nodded hesitantly. Nodding back, he swept his robes in a flourish and continued onward. Emiko soon found his promise to hold true as they passed by two guard-looking elves holding spears. They bowed to Pulric, and he nodded, holding out a hand in peace. They then snapped to attention and paid no mind to Emiko.
Following Pulric once more, she frowned slightly at the confusing display she had seen. Was it because he seemed old for an elf? Or was it something else? Either way, Emiko’s suspicion had been roused, and she knew she needed to know. Since she was already following him, Emiko was sure she would find out soon.
“Are you—Are you sure you know where Isla is?”
Pulric nodded. “Yes. Your familiar has also awoken and has been directed to where your friend is. I am leading you there now.”
“R-really?” Emiko questioned. “Thank you! But… how do you know Atsui’s awake? She was asleep when I—when I woke up.”
Pulric’s smile was small as he put a finger to his lips, “That will remain a secret, hm?”
The halls began to be more crowded, and Emiko found herself hiding behind Pulric’s shadow. Elves of all kinds passed by and greeted Pulric with grace and a bow. All looked at her curiously, but none asked any questions, to which Emiko was gratefully. Frankly, she had no idea what she would do if one happened to have a question for her.
“Pulric, why—“ Emiko breathed. “Why are they, I mean, why are the elves so respectful of you?”
They neared a large set of conference doors, and Pulric nodded at the guards on either side. They moved to open the doors, and the old elf turned toward her. “I am afraid I have been less than forthcoming with you. My name in full, is Soris Pulric.”
“Soris…?” Emiko rolled the name around in her memory, wondering where she had heard it, before her eyes snapped wide open. “A-as in…?”
“Yes. I am Pulric of the Soris plains, and sovereign of New Foriden.” The doors opened and Emiko could see the rose-gold glow of Isla and the form of Atsui. At the end of the room was a regal throne of beautifully carved wood, and Uris, one of the elves that had saved her. Emiko’s attention, however, remained fixed on the old elf before her; the king before her. Pulric sighed. “I did not lie when I said I meant no harm, Emiko. I wish to be your friend. Please remember that.”
“I-I… okay…” Emiko locked her jaw as she nodded and smiled tightly at the wizened ruler. Pulric smiled back wearily.
“Come. Your friends wish to greet you.”
“Friends…” Emiko whispered to herself, and she stepped into the room. Immediately, Isla and Atsui rushed over to look her over, and she almost felt overwhelmed at the outpouring of love and support.
“My Lady—I mean, Emiko! Are you alright! You were gone when I woke up!”
“Emiko! It would appear as though they have taken care of you. Did the king handle you with care?”
“Y-yes, he was more than nice,” Emiko said shyly. “He was kind.”
“Your voice has returned, Emiko! You sound as beautiful as you look!”
With a pained smile and a pink dusting to her cheeks, Emiko said, “No, Atsui. I-I can just speak a little more clearly, and a little faster. This is nothing.”
Atsui didn’t seem to care and quickly flashed into her kitten form before pouncing on her leg and rubbing against it. “I can’t wait to hear you sing!”
“I must admit… I am glad they fulfilled my request,” Isla said. Emiko looked at her with a slight frown, and she smiled softly. “I had implored them to heal you fully, including your voice. I knew how much pain you were in each time you spoke, and I wanted to free you from that burden.”
“This was, it, it was you?” Emiko asked with wide eyes. “Y-you did that for me?”
“But of course,” Isla said proudly. “I am your guardian fairy, after all!”
“Th-thank you,” Emiko said.
“Well, this is all nice and fun, but we do have matters of import to discuss,” another voice said. Uris bowed to her father as he stepped up to the throne, and she stepped down. “My father was kind enough to escort you here, whereas I was tasked with calming and bringing Atsui to the court. Let us begin with—“
“Uris,” Pulric called, “Be still. Let them acclimate. We are the trespassers here.”
“But, father!” Uris turned. “We still have our patrols to fulfil, and we rightfully laid claim to a land that lay unoccupied! It is our right—“
“As long as a single human of this world remains, it is not our right to execute judgment,” Pulric said quietly, though his words filled the hall. “Emiko remains, and so she has jurisdiction and priority, even above one such as I. Let us not argue on this point any further.”
“I-It’s alright, your highness?” Emiko placated. “I, uh, thank you for, for reuniting us.”
“We are friends, remember?” Pulric reminded. “I would love for you to address my by my name as I do you.”
“Oh!” Emiko squirmed uncomfortably and rolled her wagon in front of her protectively. Atsui climbed onto it, and Isla rested on her shoulder. “S-sure, ah, Soris…” After a beat, she realized what name he intended for her to call him, and she said, “I mean… Pulric?”
“Thank you, Emiko,” Pulric said. “I appreciate your candidacy in addressing my daughter on her patrol. She appreciates your efforts in besting a blight for her.”
“We finished that blight ourselves, father,” Uris grumbled. Pulric ignored her.
“She tells me you seek passage to the Transient Valley. Is this right?”
Emiko blinked, not quite sure how to respond, when Isla patted her shoulder softly. “You have to respond, Emiko,” she whispered softly.
“Yes!” Emiko blurted. “I mean, yes, we’re looking to pass through so I can… So I can…”
Emiko trailed off as she tried to explain why she wanted to go. Why she had left her house. The reason she had traveled so far. The reason she took in Atsui and accepted Isla. The fact that she didn’t know. “I…”
“You do not need to tell me why, Emiko.” Pulric nodded. “Your heart is pure. Indeed, I dare say it is more pure than even a dragonscale’s shine.”
“Surely. you jest, father.” Uris laughed. “She is marked with the same taint the blights carry.”
Soris sighed. “The blessing of the Dragons and a heart full of love outshines any shadow she possesses, Uris. Surely you can see the taint she carries is a result of her tribulations through the crucible of this world.”
Uris’s gaze bored deep into Emiko’s, and she turned away nervously. Atsui leapt off the wagon, transformed midair into her tiger form, and stepped protectively in front of Emiko. With a growl, Atsui watched Uris frown.
“I suppose you are right,” Uris said after a moment. “I was wrong. I apologize once more.”
“I must apologize for Uris’ treatment of you. Quite frankly, she is going through her rebellious phase, and it has only been a couple hundred—“
“Father!” Uris hissed. “We do not speak of our age!”
Pulric chuckled softly. “Sorry, Uris. You must forgive your father for attempting a crack at humour.” He turned back and bowed. “I would ask forgiveness for my impropriety.”
“Oh, oh no, th-that’s alright,” Emiko said. “I’m, ah, sorry as well for coming unannounced…”
Pulric nodded gratefully before his expression grew somber. “You have suffered many things already on your journey here,” he said. “Cursed blights, a broken voice, and the loss of your kin.” He nodded. “Yet you have gained many things as well: Friends, familiars, knowledge, and strength.”
Emiko felt a jab at her heart at the last comment and shook her head. “N-no, I’m not strong… I can hardly do anything, your high—I mean, Pulric. I’m… I’m useless…”
Isla sighed sadly. “Emiko…”
“If you cannot do anything, then I am not a king,” Pulric responded simply. “You have been through much for a child. More than I can say for Uris, at least.” He ignored her indignant cry. “You have experienced something I cannot even begin to fathom, though I have an inkling of what it may be like. My people are much like Isla’s, though we chose to escape, rather than it being forced upon us.”
“Your people are nothing like us,” Isla stated.
“But we are of the same nature in this world,” Pulric said. “People finding solace in a world left to the mercies of magic and might. Only the original inhabitants of this world have higher authority, and we have the last one standing before us.”
“Please, sir, Pulric,” Emiko began, “I’m-I’m not the last. I… I’m going to find out what happened and I’ll bring everyone back! I-I know it’s going to be hard, but…” Emiko wrung her hands and stared at the floor. “I’m…um, I need help to, uh, get to the Valley of Change.”
“Lift your eyes, Emiko. When you are in the presence of friends, you are their equal. There is no danger here. You are in a safe space.”
“We’re in our safe space again. We’re okay.”
Emiko choked as she heard words she hadn’t hoped to hear in so long. Those same words she remembered hearing the night of Kodoku… she felt her vision blur. Isla and Atsui started fretting over her as she let the tears fall. Emiko tried to wipe them all away, but to no avail.
“O-okay,” Emiko whispered. She looked up and met Pulric’s eyes. Eyes that spoke of understanding and acceptance. With all the gratitude she could muster, she nodded and tried her best with a smile. “Thank you.”