It had been a rough week! Between Annie and the monster army and what had happened at the Fortress, it was hard to stay optimistic. But Annie was feeling at least a little better now, the army was gone, and the tremendous sense of looming death that she’d been able to feel all around her had vanished. It seemed the worst was over.
She did feel a little anxious even thinking that, but that was just Annie’s influence.
“Keri!” A familiar voice called her name and she blinked as Shayma appeared, for once not literally, coming into their room at the manse set aside for the convalescing. Usually Blue just teleported her everywhere, which was handy but pretty surprising on the other end!
“Shayma!” Keri replied, and was glad to get a hug. That meant that whatever brought Shayma by wasn’t too dire. There’d been far too much of that recently!
“What’s going on?” Annit seemed to have noticed something Keri had missed, her eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“I’m not sure if you were told, but an army from Nivir has invaded Tarnil.” Shayma answered. Keri winced. She preferred Tarnil now, true, but she still liked her homeland. Aside from some of the people there was nothing wrong with it! If there was anything wrong it was the issues Tarnil was having, since that had cut off so much trade. What else was Nivir supposed to do?
“What is Queen Iniri planning to do about that?” She asked anxiously.
“She won’t do much of anything. Blue is handling it.” At Keri’s expression, Shayma gave her a reassuring smile. “He’s just going to put them back on the border. There’s no need to kill them since they aren’t really a threat to him. But we do have to talk to them and some of them had your last name and Cheya said you might be related, so we thought you might want to be present. Or even help convince them to just go home.”
Keri made a face. She left to get away from family! And probably the exact same kind of family that would come along with the army! But it wasn’t like she hated them to the point that she wanted them to die, which they probably would if they didn’t take Blue seriously and accept that they needed to just go home. Especially if it was Uncle Gerum.
“Tekaomi is with them too,” Shayma added, which perked her right up. She’d have to talk to some of her cousins or something, sure, but Tekaomi had been her hero for forever! It’d be so amazing to be able to meet her!
“Who is it? I mean, who do you want me to talk to? Is Tekaomi going to be there?”
“She’s probably the one you want to talk to anyway,” Annie muttered. She didn’t have that great a view of Keri’s family, and not entirely without reason, but Keri shook her head at Annie anyway. They weren’t bad people, really.
“Mellin and Gerum Esox are the names,” Shayma told her, and she nodded.
“Cousin Mellin and Uncle Gerum. They’d be King Virn’s brother and nephew. I’m glad Blue isn’t going to kill them! I mean, they’re not the nicest people but they aren’t bad! Not like the mage-kings!”
“Would you two come so I can talk to them, then?” Shayma invited them. “He’s just going to bring them here. Unless he can’t with Tekaomi, in which case he’ll put us there, but he’s pretty confident.” Keri nodded. Tekaomi was very powerful but she wasn’t a Power, and besides she was mostly a defensive caster.
“Where are we going?” Annit asked.
“Oh, Blue set up a more, um, intimidating version of an audience chamber. Just to drive things home.” Seeing their expressions, Shayma lifted her hand. “And you’ll be my side, so it shouldn’t be too intimidating to you.” Annie looked profoundly skeptical, but glanced at Keri and shrugged.
“Let’s go then! Are they there waiting?”
“Not yet,” Shayma said. “He thought it’d be better to give you time to prepare.”
“Oh, um.” She really didn’t know what she was going to say to them. Other than to listen to Blue because he was pretty scary powerful! At least he wasn’t that scary when it came to other things. “Shouldn’t you be speaking for Blue?”
“Oh, I will be, but sometimes people are stubborn and more likely to listen to someone they know than someone like me who will be treating them like naughty children.” Keri giggled at that, imagining someone treating Uncle Gerum like a child.
“I’ll just tell them to listen to you,” she decided, grabbing Annie by the arm. “It’s been ages since I saw them anyway, they might not even recognize me!” She gestured at her clothing, the adventurers robes and cloak and staff with her Primal Source.
“Oh, I’m sure they will,” Annie sighed. “I’ll let them know we’re stepping out for a bit.” She ducked out the door and Shayma looked at Keri inquisitively.
“Some of my family caught up to us at Wildwood after we left Nivir,” Keri explained. “They wanted me to come back, but they couldn’t make me, not in Wildwood. The Grandmaster wouldn’t let them, but that didn’t stop them from being very rude to my Annie! Not these two, but still.”
“Hold them to being polite this time,” Shayma said, ears flicking as she listened to Blue talk. “You’re with me on this one, so you’re with Blue and he won’t stand for rudeness.”
“Oh.” That was a little weird to consider. She’d sort-of thought of Blue as not really having much more to do with them ever since Annie turned him down, but it was good to know he still thought well of them! Shayma gave her a look.
“You’re both still part of the team so long as you want to be, so don’t look so surprised! Maybe once things settle down we can actually go back out to Wildwood.” Shayma offered her a wry smile. “I’ve gotten a bunch of Skills and levels but I haven’t actually properly fought with them.” Keri nodded as Annit returned from her errand, and Shayma flipped her hand in a gesture that probably wasn’t magical but worked anyway. The room vanished around them and was replaced by a large blue crystal and a void.
It wasn’t blackness or whiteness, just a sort of vague blurry nothingness, with no particular details. The only visible features were the platform they were on, which surrounded the crystal and had railings and chairs, and three platforms below that seemed to be unsupported. They were smooth black rock with a strange blue patterning, something that looked almost organic in the swirls and loops, not at all like the rock that was in evidence everywhere else. Calling it an intimidating audience chamber was right.
“Wow.” Annit seemed to appreciate it more than Keri did, studying the lack of anything with interest. “I’m glad we never earned this sort of thing. Even the wind is silent here.” Keri had to agree. Being stuck on one of those platforms would be awful.
“Blue’s bringing them in now,” Shayma said, and Keri looked to the platforms. It was still very strange to see such casual teleportation, but sure enough two people blipped into view after a moment, followed a second or two later by the third.
Tekaomi was the last arrival, and she looked only mildly put off, brow wrinkled and eyes narrowed as she looked around. By contrast, the first two, her cousin and her uncle, looked haggard to begin with. Gerum’s normally immaculate straight black hair was tousled, the clothes perfectly tailored for his over-tall frame rumpled and stained. Mellin was a shorter, stouter, younger copy of Gerum, the same pinched mouth and broad forehead, which made Keri glad she took after her mother’s side of the family instead.
Gerum whipped out his sword the moment he appeared, staring around, and Mellin lifted his hands, the gauntlets there shifting into armor in a fraction of a second. She couldn’t remember either of their Classes, if she’d ever known them, but they looked pretty dangerous. At least, to normal opponents. Shayma lifted her hand, the blue ring on her finger flashed, and a sudden sense of presence rolled outward, like something vast and ancient stirring and opening one curious eye. It shattered the Skills Mellin and Gerum were holding but Tekaomi appeared unruffled, and the presence vanished as quickly as it appeared.
“No harm will come to you if you remain peaceful,” Shayma announced. “So start as you mean to go on.” Her family members looked uncertain at that, but Tekaomi suddenly lifted her head, staring up at Shayma.
“It’s you!” She said. “You’re the one that’s confused our men.”
“Not me,” Shayma told her. “The one I represent. The Power named Blue.”
“Never heard of him.” Gerum said instantly. Shayma glanced sideways at Keri, and she took it as her cue to speak.
“Please listen to Shayma, Uncle Gerum!” Keri told him, voice pitched loud since sound seemed subdued in the weird not-place. “You can’t fight Blue! Well, you can, but it’s a really bad idea! And you don’t need to either!” Mellin frowned over at Gerum and prodded the nothingness surrounding his platform with a foot. Gerum frowned at Keri, then gaped.
“Keri? What are you doing here?” He didn’t wait for her to answer, switching his stare to Shayma. “If you think that holding my niece hostage is going to–”
“Oh, shut it.” Annie snapped, and Keri looked over at her, a little shocked by her outburst. But only a little; Annie really didn’t much like the rest of her family. “We’re all up here, that means we’re allies, and you’re down there, which means you’re in big trouble for invading Tarnil and annoying Blue.”
“And I’m not hostage!” Keri added, glad that Annie hadn’t talked like that to the last set of Esox nobles that they’d run into. “I’m actually trying to help you!”
“What, by telling us to do whatever a hostile force tells us to do?” This time it was Mellin, scowling thunderously. On Gerum that expression was intimidating but on Mellin it just made him look like he was ill.
“You’re the one who marched an army into Tarnil without even a war declaration!” Annie shot back.
“Ladies, gentlemen.” Tekaomi spoke for the first time, her voice commanding even without Skills. “I do not believe this is the time to argue.” Keri couldn’t help the big stupid grin on her face as her personal hero took control of the situation. Tekaomi looked from one Esox to the other. “It’s clear we are dealing with something that behooves us to tread cautiously. Do not trust, but at least listen. I don’t want to tell Virn that you two died because you mouthed off to an ancient dragon or something.”
“Oh, we have a dragon around here too, but she’s not currently involved.” Shayma said with a grin. Annit grimaced, clearly remembering how overwhelming Ansae was to be around. It was like a more powerful version of whatever Shayma had done to get Gerum and Mellin’s attention. “Blue is something entirely different, and he is protecting Tarnil.”
“Since when?” Garum growled, and the look Shayma gave him was exactly the sort Keri had imagined when she’d mentioned treating him like a naughty child. But she did answer his question.
“Recently,” Shayma said. “Not that it matters. You are in Tarnil’s territory, not your own, and that demands a response. Fortunately for you, Blue is inclined to merely send you back to the border with Nivir. So long as you give up on your designs on Tarnil.”
“I don’t believe that for a minute.” Gerum crossed his arms. “What are you really up to?”
“Mostly, Blue doesn’t want to have to deal with a hostile nation on his borders,” Shayma admitted. “He could destroy the entire army, but why bother when it’s so clear you have no chance against him?” Her ears flicked as Blue whispered something to her. Keri sometimes wondered what he actually sounded like. “You’re assaulting a position far more fortified than you thought. He’s not sure what the rules of warfare are, but he’s giving you a fair warning and a fair chance.”
“Which we appreciate,” Tekaomi said, leaning on her staff. “But why did you bring me here? Oh, I’m important, certainly, but I’m not in charge of the army.”
“Because you’re reasonable!” Keri couldn’t help herself, and she knew she probably shouldn’t have said it, but Shayma didn’t object. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt even if Nivir made a mistake.” Mellin sneered silently at that, but didn’t have the audacity to actually say anything in reply. Tekaomi sighed.
“I don’t know about reasonable,” she said reasonably, “but I do think that Blue has very well demonstrated that our army is no use against him. It would be madness to continue without taking that into account.”
Gerum gritted his teeth. He clearly didn’t want to admit it, and Keri almost said something. Instead she just willed him to think for once instead of reacting, hoping hard he wouldn’t be an idiot. He was clearly conflicted and, just as he was about to open his mouth, Tekaomi reached out with her staff and bopped him on the back of his head. He scowled at her, sighed, and turned back to Shayma.
“I suppose we don’t have a choice,” he said, forcing each word out.
“Then Blue will return you and your men to the Nivir border,” Shayma said, and waved a negligent hand. Mellin shouted something just before he disappeared, but the teleport interrupted him mid-syllable. Annie snorted in amusement.
The nothing faded away once they were gone, leaving just a small chamber with the three platforms barely raised above a bare floor. Tekaomi sighed, relaxing now that it didn’t seem she was suspended over a void, and Keri had to admit it had been wearing on her, too. Blue trying to be intimidating really worked!
“What about me?” The elderly healer asked wryly, leaning on her staff.
“Queen Iniri wants to chat with you about what’s been going on in Tarnil,” Shayma said. “I think she trusts you’ll be more likely to convey things properly when you talk to King Virn.”
“Mmm.” Tekaomi hummed thoughtfully at that. “I hope she realizes that I’m not exactly on her side here. Nor do I know what she hopes to accomplish.”
“I can’t speak for her,” Shayma said. “I do suspect that she’ll want to discuss normalizing relations now that the mage-kings are gone. I’m sure you’d like to see trade resume.”
“Like you, I can’t speak for my liege.” Tekaomi shrugged. Shayma shrugged then looked over at Keri.
“Also, I think Keri wants to talk to you. She’s a healer as well.”
Tekaomi looked over at her, and Keri just grinned a big, silly grin.