“Now tell me, Emiko,” Pulric began, “What it is you wish for us to do for you.” He motioned to himself and the entire room as if there were more than just them in the room. “At my command, all of our people would be willing to help you.” He sighed. “Not everyone would do so willingly.”
“I just, I need help to get there,” Emiko said. She sniffled as she cleaned herself up and rubbed her eyes. “I’m trying to, to find out why all this happened. Why it happened to me.” She wrung her hands together as she stared at the ground in front of her. “I, I’m scared. I…” She glanced upwards at Uris, and back to Pulric. “I was terrified. I-I didn’t, didn’t want to come here. I didn’t want to, to leave my house. My home. My life. But, I, I didn’t know…”
Emiko looked towards Atsui who had settled at her feet and rested her head on her feet, while Isla floated close by. Her lips curved upwards as a warmth filled her chest. “I, I didn’t know what to do, but now I have help! And… I’m just, I’m…” Emiko took a deep breath. “I’m a nobody.”
“A nobody who stands before a king,” Pulric said. “I suppose when you are the last of your kin, that truly does make a nobody.”
Emiko felt her heart skip a beat. “I know, and, and I’m grateful for your offer, but… I don’t know what I would do. I-I don’t know what I would ask for, or what help I would even begin to need. Just that, that I need to get to the Valley of Change.” Emiko sighed and bowed. “And, and thank you, for healing my voice. I feel like I can finally speak since… since Kodoku.”
“As I keep saying, Emiko, we are friends,” Pulric implored. Emiko straightened and nodded quickly. “And as your friend, I want to help. I want to keep helping. You have been through so much in such a short amount of time. ” He rubbed his chin and looked at her thoughtfully. “If you cannot make up your mind, then I shall make it for you, if you are alright with that?”
Mulling the idea over, Emiko quickly nodded. “I, I think that will be alright.”
“Are you sure about this?” Isla asked Emiko. “We may not be able to return any boons we receive from King Soris.”
Atsui cocked her head. “He smells nice. Nothing like Uris! I think you can trust him, Emiko!” She pads in a circle before settling down and resting her head on her paws. “It feels safe. Maybe we can stay here?”
“N-no,” Emiko said. “As much as I, as this place is nice, I want to, I need to keep moving.” She took a deep breath. “And I believe in him, Isla. Even if he’s an, an elf, he’s been nothing but kind to me.”
Isla nodded. “Then I will trust your judgment.”
“Thank you, Isla,” Emiko said quietly. “I appreciate it.”
“It is decided, then?” Pulric asked. Emiko answered with another nod, and Pulric smiled softly. “If that is all, then I shall dictate what we can provide for Emiko and her party. Uris, are you scribing?”
“Of course, father,” Uris said simply, clicking the pen she wielded and tapping her notepad. “I have been doing so since Emiko and her entourage entered the room.”
“I am proud you are not excluding your own remarks,” Pulric said, and he received a cold glare which made him smile a little more. “Then it is as such: Emiko shall have free passage through these forests and whatever lies beyond, now and forever. She shall be tended to with all her needs until she leaves our domain, at which point she shall be accompanied by one of my greatest warriors as added protection, and as an additional teacher!”
Pulric waited until Uris finished. “This warrior and teacher, determined by mine own wisdom and power, shall be my daughter, Uris! Trained in an array of weapons, and swift on her feet, she shall be an asset in your survival as you trek the Transient Valley.”
He closed his eyes as Uris wrote her own name down before she froze. “F-Father,” Uris addressed as calmly as she could, “What is the meaning of this.”
“You are already acquainted with her. I trained you personally in every form of combat I know, and you best all who come to spar with you. You will keep Emiko safe until the end of her journey—“
Her grip on her pen tightened. “I must apologize, father, for I cannot acquiesce to your command.” Uris looked up to Pulric and began to shake. “I must protect my, our, people. Our survival requires this. You must understand—“
“Nothing will change the past, Uris. Your dedication to your work is commendable, but it is time we moved on—”
“What makes her so different, then?” Uris spat. “This girl, Emiko, who seems she can strut into our abode and make demands! After we so graciously accept and heal her and her entourage? Even after considering the danger she brings by her very essence? She, who reeks of a true Dragon’s magic and thinks to reverse her wish with scant a clue as to how she would go about it? Why must I accompany her to heal her wounds when I was never able to do so on my own?!”
Pulric looked long at his daughter for a few moments. “So… that is why you are so cross with them.” He slammed his hand against the arm rest of his throne and pointed at Uris. Uris flinched. “You will accompany them, Uris, daughter of Soris!” Pulric boomed. Emiko yelped quietly, and dropped to try and hide behind Atsui. “I entreat you, not as your father, but as King Soris, your superior and sovereign, that you shall learn from, protect, and teach Emiko!” Pulric announced. “Do this, or face your disobedience with the elven laws that follow all who betray the people’s trust!”
Uris looked like she had been physically slapped, and Emiko pulled her hood over her head and pulled the strings, trying to make herself as small as she could. Resting against Atsui’s warm fur, she felt her heart drop as she heard Uris’s quiet voice. It was singularly the most fragile Uris had sounded than Emiko had heard since she had met her.
“You would… do that to me, papa?” Uris asked quietly. “You would suffer your daughter to—?”
Pulric paused for just a moment, but Emiko could tell by the silence that he didn’t want to. He really didn’t. Emiko flinched as his voice rang through the hall. “I would, my child,” Pulric said resolutely. “You do not understand what this does to me, but—“
Uris said, with steel in her voice, “Of course you do not understand.” Emiko slowly pulled herself out of her little cocoon and watched as Uris straightened and nodded lightly. “I… will fulfil my duties as required. I shall accompany Emiko and her party to the Valley of Change.”
“And beyond,” Pulric added. “To the Mount of Stars.”
“Would you have us all killed?” Uris snapped. “Not one of our elves has made that trip yet. We do not know what dangers it may entail, the perils we may face!”
“And would you not come out better for it?” Pulric asked. “What might you learn about the nature of this world, and of the Dragons themselves? Do you not think it would be beneficial for New Foriden, that you would gain valuable knowledge on your journey?”
Emiko blinked as Uris’ cheeks tinged pink, and she stared at the ground. “…If it would truly benefit us, and it would please you, father… then I shall go.” She brought her gaze up and met Pulric’s eyes straight on. “But know that I am not pleased with this decision.”
“Not every opportunity is one that is enjoyed,” Pulric said softly. “Thank you, Uris. I did not want to have to discipline you.”
“…” Uris huffed and put pen back to paper. As Pulric nodded slowly, Emiko eeped as his attention turned back to her. She hid behind Atsui, who perked up at Emiko’s faint distress.
“Emiko,” Pulric called. Slowly, Emiko rose and withdrew the hood from her head. She gazed back nervously at Pulric, and he smiled. “There are some things you will not be able to learn right away. And you are in a perilous position, where you have a place you must reach, but no tools to help you reach it. Thus, I have deemed it necessary to allow you the use of a magical artifact.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Isla said suddenly. Emiko flinched at the sharpness of her tone. “Those are dangerous. They can corrupt as much as they comply. You cannot give one to Emiko.”
“And you would speak on her behalf, Isla?” Pulric asked. “You do not know if one of our artifacts is compatible with her.”
“If one is compatible, then I will consider it,” Isla conceded, “But I shall be monitoring the nature of these artifacts you present. I cannot, in my capacity as her appointed guardian, allow you to endanger her so easily.”
“You insult me, Isla,” Pulric whispered. “I would not harm such an innocent child, to whom many injustices and grievous trials have already come to pass. I see what you see. I see a soul as white as snow. You cannot believe I would do something to taint that.”
“Um… I-I’m right here you know…” Emiko meekly said. “What are you talking about?”
“We are discussing the option of giving you a tool to help you use magic faster.” Isla crossed her arms and frowned. “I am telling King Soris that artifacts are incredibly dangerous when they are not used by the right people. He knows, and yet he persists.”
“I would rather she had a tool and a weapon than to send her off empty-handed,” Pulric argued. “Surely you see it too—“
“Wait,” Emiko said, and she shrunk as they both turned to look at her with sharp eyes. She gulped and gathered her courage. “I’m… I don’t want anything other than my bat. It was, it was my brother’s.”
“Your brother’s bat?” Pulric asked, his disposition shifting to one of realization. “Of course.”
Emiko was confused. “What…?
“No,” Isla said. “You cannot do that.”
Pulric frowned. “And if it is the only way?”
The red fairy vehemently shook her head. “I will not endorse such a barbarous act. To not only take her treasured weapon away from her, but to imbue it with the properties that would consist of a magical artifact…” Isla wagged her finger at Pulric. “Have you no shame?”
Emiko bit her lip and hugged herself as she watched two of her friends continue to argue. Should I step in? Emiko thought wearily. What if I mess it up? She squeezed her eyes shut. I just want my brother to keep protecting me…
“In the forest,” Pulric explained, “We do what we must to survive. We cull hostile entities. We hunt, scavenge and forage for those we protect. We learn magic and other forms of casting. We remain cautious, and in return, we are rewarded with safety.” The king sighed. “Can you not see, Isla? I am trying to prevent a disaster.”
“I sense it as much as you do,” agreed Isla, “But that does not grant you the right to do as you wish with the belongings of Emiko!”
Emiko’s eyes shot open and she peered worryingly at Isla. “W-what? Do you know where my bat is? I just want to know it’s safe! Please, I, I need to know!”
Staring into those tearful, soulful eyes, Pulric’s will melted. “Emiko, your bat is in a safe place. I made sure it was handled with care when we unarmed you, and…” He glanced at Isla, who nodded. “I wished to enchant it, so that you could properly wield it as a medium.” Pulric sighed and let his years roll of him and into his throne. “I only wish to protect you, Emiko. I see your turmoil. Your infinite sadness. The terror.”
Wide-eyed, Emiko stared at Pulric. “H-how? I mean, why do you, why do you care? I’m just, I’m not even a person worth anything. I… why?”
“Simple,” Pulric answered. “Because you deserve it. You deserve to be treated well. You deserve to have yourself taken care of. You deserve to know that there are people still in this world who will watch over you. Not just for a moment, but until the very end.”
Her breath caught. Emiko choked back a sob, and she grabbed at her chest to try and grab at the warmth that was filling her. “I-I don’t know why I’m so—Why I’m feeling this way. Why? Why? Why?”
“Because we care about you,” Atsui’s voice echoed. “We know you’re in pain, Emiko. I want to help you too, as your familiar!”
“Which brings me to the final reason as to why I refuse your action,” Isla stated. “Atsui has chosen to act as Emiko’s medium. As her familiar, she has no need for any other.”
“That’s right!” Atsui agreed. “Even before I could speak with you, I knew what Isla was asking of me.”
“…Truly?” Pulric asked, a weight seeming to lift off of him. “Thank the earth mother. Isla, you have relieved me a burden, of which I am grateful. She is safe, then.”
“Was that ever in doubt?” Isla asked.
Pulric shook his head. “There is nothing wrong with being more cautious when facing the true Dragons.”
Isla nodded. “Indeed. And as I’m sure your lieutenants informed you upon Uris’ return, Terra has already appeared to her. You need not worry for the protection of the earth.”
Emiko watched Pulric widen his eyes, which was as much shock as she had seen on him yet. “This world’s messenger,” Pulric whispered. “You are sure?”
With another nod, Isla affirmed him. “She is the one who commissioned me. I, Isla, guardian of lower lights, have been tasked with protecting, teaching, and escorting Emiko, until she fulfils her journey, or until I perish.”
“D-don’t say that, Isla,” Emiko pleaded. “You’re not going to die for me. N-no one is. I’ve already lost everyone. If anyone else is disappearing… it’s, it’s going to be me.”
“You must not say such things either, Emiko. Your life is more valuable than you think.” Pulric closed his eyes and sighed. “I’ve seen many of my own kin perish because they did not fully realize the lives they had. You must remember, Emiko, that every thing, every being in existence, has a purpose.” He opened his eyes and looked to her. “You may not know of what that purpose is to you right now, but you will. Mayhap you shall find this on your journey.”
“…Maybe,” Emiko finally said. With a nod, Pulric straightened in his throne and clapped his hands.
“Then, if that is all, I shall bestow the final gift upon Emiko!” He stood and walked to the edge of the platform his throne stood on.
“Finally,” Uris muttered. Atsui growled at her, and she merely went back to scribing.
“Unto Emiko, who has traveled far to reach the Valley of Change and the Mount of Stars, and unto her familiar, I grant the old elvish blessing of the spirits!”
Isla stared. “He doesn’t mean…?”
A soft glow began to envelope Emiko and Atsui. Emiko stared at her hands, a strange sense of calm washing over her. She recognized the feeling of the spell as similar to the one Isla had cast on them. Looking back up, she was shocked to see Uris rushing up to her father with terror and outrage on her face. Isla could only watch as the spell started taking effect.
“Father!” Uris yelled, “What are you doing?”
“I am giving them the same blessings I have bestowed upon you,” Pulric said calmly. “They are not capable of surviving your company otherwise.”
“This, this is a breach of conduct!” Uris cried. “How can you betray the elves by giving our secrets to someone without the forests?!”
“Truly, your hard head is dulling your senses. She has been blessed by the earth mother! She is as much one of us now as you are, so be still!”
Uris recoiled, as if slapped, and Emiko found herself reaching out to her with a cry on her lips. Her heart plummeted at the defeated look on Uris’ face. Emiko hated that look. She had seen it too many times on her own face. Catching Uris’ eyes, she watched in sadness as Uris quickly recovered, but not without casting one more glare at Emiko.
Pulric started chanting, and an ethereal breeze picked up around Emiko and Atsui. “By the ancient powers of this world and beyond, grant me your power to share it with others! Strengthen them and give them power to change! By the gods above, let it be so! Spirit Arts: Duality!”
A rush of energy flooded through Emiko, and she swore she could feel something about her very begin to morph and change. It felt like a spring, coiling itself around what she thought was her soul. It was almost as if she were transforming into something completely different, yet all the same. Emiko felt she was being freed.
“I feel funny,” Atsui announced tiredly. “As if I don’t fit in my own fur.” Emiko nodded in agreement, as she felt the same way. She found that she could almost read Atsui’s thoughts now, and it was as if she weren’t just broadcasting her thoughts anymore. Looking down at herself, she felt a strange sense of airiness and uneasiness with herself. Closing her eyes and shaking herself out, the feeling subsided, but it still nagged her in the back of her mind.
The energy dissipated. Pulric staggered lightly, and Uris rushed to his side. “I apologize for my dishevelment,” he said tiredly. “That was my first cast of this kind of spell in this world.”
“You really just used a Spirit Art?” Isla asked quietly. Emiko perked up at the mention of something new, and she frowned.
“I am fully aware of what the risks were,” Pulric responded, “And I was well prepared to pay the price.”
Emiko watched as Isla crossed her arms. “You do not fully know what you have just done,” Isla whispered. “You have fundamentally changed Emiko’s destiny.”
Emiko widened her eyes and felt a chill run through her, and she began opening her mouth to ask when Pulric laughed breathlessly. “You and I both know destiny is but a thought.”
Isla shook her head. “Then we both know there is nothing else to be said.”
Pulric nodded. Emiko looked between them and pulled Atsui close. “What… what are you two talking about?”
“This is where we part ways, Emiko,” Pulric said. He gently eased himself off of Uris, who stepped away and turned her back to her father. He looked on for a moment, and watched as his daughter placed her scribing materials down meticulously and walked off. “It is time for your journey to begin,” Pulric said. “Far away, at the Mount of Stars in the Valley of Change, you will find what you are seeking. You are now well equipped and protected. Your bat will be returned to you, and your wagon will be stocked until you leave our domain.”
Pulric walked towards Emiko until he was in front of her, and he bowed. “Thank you for gracing me with your presence, Emiko. You are an example to me, and to my daughter. I hope she will soon learn as such.”
“T-to use your own words,” Emiko whispered, “Please, get up. You’re, you are my friend, Pulric. Thanks for everything. For blessing us.”
With a soft chuckle, Pulric straightened and rubbed Emiko’s head. “You are a good child, Emiko, and you are already learning to be bold.”
With a face flushed red, Emiko pouted. She didn’t mind it at all, but she hated it just as much because… it reminded her too much of how her brother treated her. She closed her eyes and fought back the surge of memories she knew would come. “S-Stop, Pulric. I’m not a kid.”
Pulric nodded. “Of course.” He instead rubbed Atsui’s head and acknowledged Isla with a short staring contest. “Take care of her, Isla.”
Isla scoffed. “I was her guardian before you chose to bring yourself in.”
“And take care of yourself, hm?” Pulric turned back to Emiko, and the kitten who was slowly dozing off in her arms. “Little Atsui will be your sword and your shield. Protect her, and she shall do the same.”
“Anything… for Emiko,” Atsui mumbled, and she finally drooped into the world of oblivion. Emiko nodded at Pulric, and continued to pet the kitten as she moved to her wagon. With utter care, she tucked Atsui into a blanket covered in different stripes and tree designs.
“I will have one of my retainers lead you to the exit,” Pulric said. “Stay safe, Emiko. May the gods and the worlds beyond be on your side.”
“…” Emiko didn’t know how to respond to that remark. As she started to pull her wagon and follow the elf that had entered to escort them, she frowned. It felt too much like a farewell, and when she looked back, she could see the despair that clung to Pulric’s eyes. Trying for a smile, she gave a small wave. She then felt her heart lighten as Pulric smiled and waved back. “I’ll, I’ll see you again!” Emiko called as she pulled her wagon past the threshold to the room. As the doors swung shut, she saw Pulric bow his head and mouth, but she never found out what he said.
As they traveled through the now bustling halls, Emiko was shocked to see the amount of elves there actually were. The closer they got to the gate, the more frequent the elves appeared, and the more she had things added to her wagon. From food, to medical supplies, to glowing bottled liquids (Potions? she thought), and well wishes. Emiko was surprised to see how one meeting, despite happening behind closed doors, could already change the attitude of the entire population of New Foriden.
The retainer brought them to the exit of the compound, and they stepped outside. Blinded for a moment by the sun, Emiko looked up behind her and saw the decrepit and crumbling visage of a building she couldn’t begin to identify anymore. It was spacious and wide, and Emiko gasped as a blur of viridian leapt from the third floor and fell gracefully next to them. Rubbing her eyes, she realized it was Uris with a dour expression on her face, but present all the same.
“You decided to come after all,” Isla said.
“Isla, stop,” Emiko said. “If she’s, she is traveling with us now, I need you two to get along.”
“I dislike you,” Uris said bluntly, tying her own knapsack into the wagon. Emiko flinched at her tone as she armed herself with her quiver and dagger, checking all the straps on the armour she wore. All the while, she never faced them once. “I am only coming out of necessity.”
“Then your presence is as much a waste as it is a help,” Isla said simply. “A gift given with ill will is no better than a gift retained.”
Seemingly satisfied, Uris began to stretch. “Do not spare my your ideologies, for I will not listen,” she said. “I have no interest in making nice. I only came because my father willed it. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“Uris…” Emiko whispered. “Why, why do you hate us, hate me, so much even though we don’t know each other?”
There was along beat of silence as Uris finished her set and stilled. Emiko then noticed as Uris clenched her fists and trembled.
“Because,” she said through gritted teeth, “You remind me of myself.”