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Chapter 3

Kyri sighed as the crowd of refugees were herded into Nalya, for Prithvi was standing on a branch above with her face in her hands looking authentically frustrated and helpless, and Prithvi didn’t get to the point of looking frustrated and helpless easily.

From the corner of her eye, Kyri noticed the half-elf named Rotebi watching the little girl she was leading by the hand. He didn’t seem to notice Kyri until she looked directly at him. At that point, he mouthed, Thank you, to her and went back to concentrating on whatever Kolkil was saying to him.

Saraelye arrived to help find shelter for everyone. She seemed to have an eye for who would refuse to leave the side of whom and avoided such conflicts. She urged people about with gentle nudges and a sweet coaxing voice.

"There are… so… many…" Prithvi commented in disbelief.

"It’s less than half of what I was hoping for…" Saraelye said, sighing.

"Less than—?!" Prithvi stuttered. "Where the hell would we have put twice this many?!" The surrounding faeries looked at her incredulously, as she never would have spoken like that to Saraelye if she had been in her normal state of mind.

"I don’t know… but these are peoples lives we’re talking about…."

* * *

It wasn’t long later when Aikel spotted Saraelye and Prithvi on a platform which served no purpose save for the five bridges that connected to it. He ran awkwardly across the nearest swinging bridge to meet them, while Flenn followed behind with even more trouble. Pegasus, who had been introduced to him just recently, hovered around regarding him curiously. He rarely spoke to Flenn but often stared at him as if waiting to be spoken to instead. Flenn was content to edge away uneasily.

"Oh, did you want something?" Saraelye asked Aikel as he approached. If she noticed Flenn, she showed no sign of it, but Prithvi raised an eyebrow at him as he stumbled and crashed onto the platform.

"About that Orb…" Aikel began, innocently enough.

"One thing at a time, dammit!" the sudden force of her voice made him jump back. "This day is already long enough, and I’m tired, and today… today… today… might be a good day after all…." Her speech had been unusually rapid lately, but she slowed it now as she considered. "Yes, yes, there’s enough daylight left, and…" the rest melted into hurried mutters addressed only to herself. She seemed to be carrying on both sides of a small argument. She stopped very suddenly, grinned, and turned back to Aikel. "Yes, good day! I can take you there myself! Good boy, for bringing it up! You’re not tired at all, are you? Of course not, I’ve never seen you look more refreshed. Go find Kyri; tell her what’s happening. Off you go!" She grabbed his shoulders and twisted him around to shove him toward some random direction in which she assumed Kyri could be found.

He met Kyri, along with Unicorn and Gelrini, on the next bridge. Saraelye flew over and landed on the other side of them, leaving Aikel to wonder why he’d been sent at all.

"Two hours is enough rest for you to recover from this, no? Good, start now. Go, um, sleep somewhere. Ask Prithvi for help if you’re too lost. Do you have friends around? Who can fight? Tell them to rest, sharpen their weapons, whatever—PRITHVI! Get them Raga potions!" she yelled toward the origin of the bridge. "How many will you need? It’s one per person. Go tell Prithvi how many." With no regard for an answer, she went over the bridge’s rope railing and flew down to check on something below. Even Prithvi, back at the end of the bridge, stomped her foot in frustration.

After everyone took a moment to absorb the meaning of her rapid speech, Kyri’s response was "What?"

"In two hours she’s going to take us to find the Orb of Meadows," Aikel said, avoiding eye contact.

"What?!" Kyri repeated more frantically.

"Get some rest now, I guess…. She seemed to like the idea of bringing other people—like Himeki—along, so if Himeki doesn’t mind…."

"We can’t ask something like that of her!"

"Now, I bet if you casually mentioned it, you couldn’t get her to stay here for anything. Same for Yousei, I think."

"She said friends who can fight…" Kyri said. "I guess those two are all we have…."

"What about me?!" Gelrini broke out suddenly. Aikel and Kyri jumped at the sudden reminder of her presence. "Aren’t I your friend?" She looked like she was about to cry, despite her dominant emotion being anger.

"Uh…" was all Aikel could come up with.

"Of course you’re our friend," Kyri cooed, bending over to be closer to Gelrini’s height. "That’s why we want you to stay here; so you won’t get hurt."

"Hmph!" Gelrini stomped around to face the other way with folded arms and a head snobbishly held high.

Aikel sighed. "Well, we need people—grown-up people—" he specified, only drawing another hmph out of Gelrini, "to help us. Me, you, Pegasus, Unicorn… Saraelye too, I guess…. Even with Yousei and Himeki—if they come—we might not be strong enough. Saraelye seemed pretty hesitant for awhile…."

"I don’t think we’re strong enough," Unicorn offered. "Especially with so little rest."

The movement of the bridge had suggested another person moving along it for some time now. Flenn, taking the distance one inch-long step at a time, was just now approaching the center where Aikel and Kyri stood.

Kyri leaned a bit closer to Aikel and whispered, "Can he use that sword?" In addition to having a sword on his hip, his torso was covered in chain mail, and a hard leather shoulder guard was buckled onto his left shoulder.

Apparently satisfied with how far he had traveled, Flenn took his attention away from his feet and gave it to Aikel and Kyri. At first, he looked slightly disturbed and shocked, but he relaxed a bit upon seeing Gelrini and Unicorn. "Er… why are you looking at me like that…?" he meekly asked of Aikel and Kyri.

"As long as getting there doesn’t involve too many rope bridges…" Aikel commented thoughtfully.

"It’s still not enough…" said Unicorn.

Kyri held her up to her own eye level. "What do you remember about the person we’ll be facing…?"

Unicorn clenched her eyes shut and flattened her ears in frustration. "She can fly."

"That’s all?"

"Yes…."

"Female. Flight," Aikel summarized. "Not much to go by…."

"Give her chocolate," Flenn suggested cluelessly. "All women like chocolate, even the ones that fly."

Aikel shook his head. "We’ll have to explain this more to you later."

"Need more fighters…" Unicorn grumbled as a reminder.

"Yeah, yeah, I…" Aikel began.

"Hey…" was the quiet syllable that made him stop. After everyone on the bridge traded looks only to determine that none of them had been the one to speak, it occurred to them all at the same time that they should look up.

The bridge passed by a huge tree, and one this tree’s branches hung perpendicular over the bridge’s center. Rotebi sat on this branch swinging his legs forward and back with no regard to the fact that the flimsy and narrow rope bridge was the only thing below him for the next fifty feet.

"What?" he demanded upon seeing the annoyed expressions of those below him. "I’m not eavesdropping because I was sitting here before you came. If you really didn’t want me to overhear, you should have talked somewhere else or at least ask me nicely to leave. I would’ve moved."

"Yeah, whatever…." Aikel rolled his eyes. "Did you want something?"

"Yeah, sorta." Rotebi rolled his eyes back. "Well, me and Kolkil … you see, there aren’t many things we like less than, like, owing somebody for something. Kolkil may be able to pull of this ‘Well, we didn’t ask for their help’ thing and kid himself, but I can’t really. And since you helped us, and you apparently need help now…."

"Fighting ability required," Aikel said flatly before attempting to ignore him.

"So? That’s no problem." He said this like a saying common fact, and there was no touch of either humility or arrogance in his voice. Yet he saw that Aikel clearly didn’t believe him and calmly continued, "We're tougher than that battle made us look. Even the greatest fighters in the world can be defeated sometimes."

"Do you know what the risks are if you're defeated this time?" Aikel demanded.

"What were your risks of being defeated when you were helping us?"

Aikel only growled in frustration.

Kyri sighed. "Sure, Rotebi. We'll appreciate your help." Aikel looked at her like she was crazy, while Gelrini emitted a growling sound. Rotebi looked authentically gleeful. "But," Kyri continued, "Kolkil hasn't said yet that he'd help, has he? You shouldn't promise for him."

"Don't worry about it, you can count on him," Rotebi said confidently. "I can talk him into anything if I'm determined enough." He stood up on the branch and jumped off. He hit the bridge, which created such a disturbance that only he and Gelrini didn't frantically grip the rope for balance, and sprinted until he was out of sight.

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