The music stopped and everyone stared up at the section of the barrier that glowed from the impact.
“That old fool,” the King stated in the silence. In the next moment, a sound I never thought I would hear on Huade began calling in the distance, from the direction of the mortal settlement between us and the valley entrance.
Air raid sirens.
I was hearing air raid sirens.
A second blast struck the barrier. Before us, knights and warriors were rising from the forest to face the threat. I realized I was without any kind of a weapon, and looked over at Oberon.
“No,” he said flatly. “I can guarantee that the idiot on the other side of that barrier is targeting you. You should not join in.”
“If someone is targeting me, I want to have my sword, Your Majesty,” I told him bluntly. “I’m going to fetch it.”
I didn’t wait for his reply. I took off and poured on the speed.
As another blow struck the barrier, I noticed a familiar presence approaching me. Looking back her direction, I asked, “Shouldn’t you be joining the Guard?”
“My job is your security, Your Highness,” Lady Serera replied as she caught up with me. “Anyway, it will be a while before the King orders the barrier dropped. He’s going to let the old goat wear himself down a bit first while we prepare the defense.”
“Why would the King order it dropped?”
“To limit damage, of course. A valley barrier forcibly broken open can cause serious collateral damage, Your Highness. Better to drop it and avoid that. We’ll keep it up while the defenders get themselves sorted and the King gets ready for battle.”
“The King will fight?”
“He won’t let anyone else face the guy that is doing that to the barrier,” she stated as we arrived at the front portal to the palace.
The guards had leveled their weapons as we approached, but came to attention, their spears striking the floor in unison, as they recognized us. We dashed in, making our way quickly to my suite. It was a combo of running and flying, depending upon the space we were in at the given moment.
As we hurried, Lady Serera asked, “Are you going to fetch your sword?”
“Obviously,” I replied.
“Your Highness, I will not object to you arming yourself for self-defense, but please understand, the King is expecting me to keep these people away from you.”
Another massive blow hit the barrier, with an accompanying flash like lightening, and more glowing aftereffects. The special effects were frightening, but I didn’t get a sense the barrier was getting weaker yet.
“You speak as if we know who it is.”
She laughed. “Because we do, Your Highness. There’s only one man with a motive who is able to attack. And we had warning from our people that he intended to come.”
“Who is it?” I asked.
“Lâsin,” she declared. “Mára’s husband. The Lord of the Old Grove clan. He has the skill to bring a large group through the travel restrictions. Very few possess that ability.”
We arrived at my suite as she finished. I entered to find Reben, the catman who was working as my footman, waiting in the foyer with my sword harness in hand. Before I could say anything, he bowed and prepared to help me gear up.
“Wait, I need to change into some decent clothes,” I protested.
“No,” Amana declared from the doorway behind us. “If a daughter of Deharè is planning to face a clan chieftain, she has to be bold and beautiful. You shall not hide yourself in a daytime dress.”
I guess she had been in stealth. I hadn’t noticed her following us at all.
Fairy-think was beginning to drive me nuts. I turned my frown toward her. “Esteemed Sister, these flimsy things are hardly fighting clothes.”
“What ‘Esteemed Sister’?” she demanded. “I told you to call me ‘Big Sis’!”
Okay, actually, I was saying ‘Salnedo‘ and she wanted me to shorten it to the informal ‘Salne‘. Everyone speaks Fairy here in the palace.
“It’s just one syllable,” I groused.
“You aren’t going out there to fight, Little Tiana,” Amana replied to my previous words.
“It looks like you are,” I pointed out, glancing pointedly at the object in her hand, a silverwood flute with mithril decorations. I was reasonably confident she wasn’t planning to play music.
The object couldn’t be anything other than a magic focus. When she was being serious, my sister pursued the same fascination with magecraft as our mother.
She pressed her lips together, then noted, “I’m nearly a thousand years older than you, child. We adults have a responsibility to protect the children. We nearly failed that responsibility the other day when we underestimated Mára’s intentions. I’m not letting you go out unprotected again. Serera and I are your guardians tonight.”
A thousand years? Mother was older than I realized, if my sister was nearly a thousand years old.
I don’t actually know how old Mother is, you see. I just know she’s been around for centuries.
“Your Highness, that is not quite correct,” Lady Serera noted. “I’m the royal knight here. If you go out with us, then I’m the guardian for both of you.”
“Your Highness…?” Reben prompted, hefting Durandal and the sword belt.
Are you ready to go? I tried to transmit mentally to my sword.
Sometimes he can’t hear me unless I speak out loud, but it got through, this time. Hahahaha, I’ve got my blood up after that fight the other day. Let me at them!!
You don’t have blood, I thought back at him. I don’t know if my retort got through or not.
“That gown wouldn’t have been my choice, but I have to admit, it gives you a regal and intimidating look,” Amana declared. “It’s perfect for this situation. Put on your sword so we can go.”
Since it was clear that she wasn’t actually stopping me from going out there, I nodded and let Reben put the harness around me, and supported the scabbard in place while he buckled the belt and adjusted things.
“Do you still have that writing brush, Your Highness?” Serera asked.
As Reben stepped away and bowed again, I produced Talene’s Starfire Jade Writing Brush from my belt wallet.
“She says it’s on loan to me until I get my fan back,” I told her. “Apparently it’s a spare.”
Satisfied, Serera turned to Reben. “I’m certain you heard the alarm. Why are you not in the shelter?”
He bowed again. “I sent the maids ahead, My Lady. I had to wait for Her Highness.”
“Go,” she ordered.
He glanced at me. I nodded, indicating for him to get going, so he bowed one last time and left.
“Let’s get going as well,” Amana stated, and turned for the door.
“Your Highnesses are both behind me,” Lady Serera said firmly, stepping in front of Amana.
With a smile, my sister gestured graciously for the Fairy King’s royal knight to lead the way.
As we left the palace, another flash and accompanying thunder struck the barrier. The sky above the southern side of the valley was full of both Fairy and Mortal forces by the time we rose into the air. Hippogryph-mounted mortal magic archers had joined the fairy troops already in the air.
A rather incredible sight floated among them. It had a head something like a sea serpent, but it was no animal. That head was the prow of a boat.
Rather, it’s not a boat if it’s flying in the sky, I think? My memories from life as Sirth came back to me as soon as I had that thought, and I amended, not on Huade, anyway.
It was not much larger than the pinnace Sirth commanded back then, during her last journey through the sky. And it looked nothing like any aerial vessel she would have recognized. It had no masts or sails. Instead, enormous oars that looked a bit like elongated fish fins stuck out from each side, gently skulling through the air, and a rudder that looked like a fish’s tail stuck out the tapered stern. At the top of that stern, I could see a human figure, but my fairy sight told me it was some sort of golem. It appeared to be standing at a ship’s wheel.
The five living occupants of the boat all appeared to be mortals. As I got closer, I recognized three of them. Prince Manlon stood on the higher deck in the rear, bookended by his disciples. He carried a staff, as did the fourth and fifth persons on board, standing near the prow and the center, marking them as additional mages.
“I am uncomfortable with that, Princess Amana,” Lady Serera commented, looking at the same thing I was seeing. “Can you persuade His Highness to take that mortal contraption to safety?”
“I doubt it,” Amana replied, with a amused voice, “He rarely listens to my advice. Would you like us to stay close and protect him?”
“Absolutely not! We’re already breaking regulations having you and Princess Tiana staying so close together. There’s entirely too much royalty gathering in this sky.”
We were still flying that direction though. Another strike lit up the sky like lightning as we approached.
Serera finally amended, “But… perhaps we should have Princess Tiana join him, so that you can place yourself further apart and I can guard him? I apologize for leaving you on your own, but…”
I began to object, but Amana immediately said, “It sounds good to me. Child, go join your uncle.”
Every once in a while, Amana develops this parental tone toward me that really rankles me, and I have to remind myself just how extremely much older she is. It wasn’t a good situation to have an argument, so I went ahead and landed on the deck of the boat.
While I went through greeting noises with Manlon, who had me stand between himself and his disciple Pasrue, Amana flew to a position to the west of the boat, while Serera placed herself out in front, setting herself up as defender for both Amana and the boat. I could see a few other royals had also sallied, and they all had knights escorting them. Except for in the sky ahead and slightly above us, where one royal stood in front of everyone else, alone.
Oberon was in full regalia as the Fairy King. He had changed into the same outfit he wore when I first met him, with the crown of golden hind antlers clearly marking him as the authority. He was equipping a massive scepter with an orb at its head, which was almost certainly his magic focus, but looked like it was durable enough to serve as a weapon as well.
He used neither raiment nor wings. He simply stood in a square stance in mid-air, in his royal vestments, floating with no visible means of support, staring out at the attackers with his arms crossed.
I tried to suppress the surge of pride I felt at that sight, but the corners of my lips lifted a little in spite of myself.
After looking left and right, he raised his hand.
“Father is about to order the barrier dropped. He’s waiting for the next strike,” Manlon commented.
The magic archers raised their bows and fairy knights and warriors drew their swords. The strikes had been hitting on a regular interval, and Oberon had timed it correctly. The sky blazed with yet another hit as if on queue.
As soon as the glow faded, he dropped his hand.
Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.