Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Jerica clenched her fists and forced herself not to move. Guild Master sorted through memory after memory. Squabbles with her cousins. Various ways Biryn had hurt her. The missions she’d been sent on as King’s Assassin. Memories she didn’t want to still have, but which were hers nonetheless.
At long last, Guild Master stepped away.
Jerica swayed, shoulders sagging. She was exhausted. Her brain felt thick. Emotions raw. Body fatigued and heavy. She panted to catch her breath, opening her eyes. She swallowed hard as she pushed herself to her feet.
“Katima,” Guild Master said. Jerica still didn’t know what it meant. “It is clear to me that you place great value on doing the right thing. That you strive towards it and feel deep remorse when you go astray. You are exactly the type of person that belongs in Kyrkkyni. And if you so choose, we would be happy for you to join us.”
Jerica felt an odd sense of accomplishment bubble up in her. She hadn’t done anything. Not really. But to know that the Guild Master had looked at her deepest, darkest secrets and still decided Jerica was worthy of joining the Guild. That felt nice. Even though she was still unsettled from the vetting process.
“Come,” Guild Master said, gesturing towards the direction she’d come from when she came out to meet them. Jerica stepped forward and walked beside her. The men fell into line behind them. “You were right when you likened the Guild to the Ranger Corp, but that is a gross over-simplification. Ordinary Rangers must submit to their king. Rangers of Kyrkkyni submit to the will of the Elders.”
“The Elders?” Jerica asked, pushing aside some vines as they got to the edge of the cave.
“Yes,” Guild Master answered. “The wisest of all who have come before us and who remain with us even now. Dragons and sages. Their wisdom guides the steps of our Rangers. As long as you walk in the will of the Elders, you will always do the right thing.”
“And… how will they tell me what I need to do?”
“Through the power of your conscience,” Guild Master explained. “It’s why I must vet all Rangers so thoroughly. To see your heart and know that you strive for truth and justice. Your spirit is already aligned with the will of the Elders, you simply lack their insight.”
The cave opened to a small meadow. The air was warm and humid. Off to the right was a waterfall with rocks lining a pool at its base. To the left were several fallen logs with moss growing across them. There were trees straight head. And stretching between everything was a soft bed of springy grass.
“If you choose to join us, the Elders will share their intuition with you.” As Guild Master spoke, her wrist lit up with the same blue outline that had shown up on Aerik and Zander’s wrists up on the mountain. “And you will have their wisdom to lean upon when you are faced with a difficult circumstance.”
Guild Master led her to the waterfall and peered into the basin. The pooled water was crystal clear and small fishes swam beneath the surface. Peaceful.
“I… don’t understand,” Jerica admitted. It was too much to grasp. How was she supposed to ask the Elders for their advice? And who was in charge? Was Guild Master one of the Elders? “I answer to all of the Elders of the Guild?”
“Yes and no,” Guild Master answered. “The Guild will assign you a role – and, from time to time – give you specific tasks to accomplish within that role. But we don’t hover over our Rangers. We trust you to make the correct decisions – with the help of the Elders’ insight that joins your conscience.”
It seemed like the longer Guild Master spoke, the less Jerica understood. It was all so nebulous. Like a job offer that didn’t actually tell you what the job was. And she still didn’t comprehend what piece she played in all this. “What will I do?”
“You, my child, are the cause of a revolution.” Guild Master hesitated. “Well, the justification, anyway, for a long overdue reform. Simply by existing. But I have no doubt that you will also play an active role in the matter, once it’s time.”
“What?” Jerica was bewildered.
“There’s no easy way to explain – or to stomach – this, so I suppose I’ll be direct.” Guild Master turned towards Jerica and locked eyes with her. “Beirania is not the only realm, Katima. There are dozens. Hundreds. All existing in parallel with one another.”
Jerica blinked at her.
Her brain wouldn’t even begin to comprehend what Guild Master had just said. Multiple realms? Hundreds? It felt like her brain threw itself into a stone wall every time she tried to contemplate the possibility.
“What?” she asked at last.
“Think of it in terms of countries,” Guild Master said. “Atraya and Nykeria and Alheren and all the others exist in parallel with one another – separate, but adjacent. Each has its own economy. Its own language. Its own government. But they exist at the same time, side by side, in Beirania. Yes?”
That much made sense. “Yes.”
“In much the same way, Beirania exists parallel to other realms. Each realm has its own… flavor, if you will. Most have multiple countries, such as Beirania. Some have a centralized government that rules the entire realm from a singular seat of power,” Guild Master explained. “But all exist at the same time, in different spaces.”
“Okay…” Jerica felt like she should just agree at this point. She still didn’t understand, but she was starting to get the feeling that she wasn’t going to. At least not now. She needed time to sit back with her thoughts and process everything she’d been told.
“Kyrkkyni guards them all,” Guild Master explained. “Our Rangers guard all of Beirania. And also, all of Lirtira. And all the other realms as well. We are many, and our oversight is vast.”
Guild Master was insane.
That was the only explanation that made sense. Jerica rubbed her temples, as if that would make her head stop hurting. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. None of it. And yet the men seemed to be going along with the madness. So, she must be dreaming. Or hallucinating.
Jerica folded her hands and pinched the tender flesh between her thumb and index finger, hard. It hurt. She wasn’t sure what to do with that information. There was no chance that any of this was the truth… was there?
“And then… how do…” Jerica couldn’t seem to think of a proper question. “How?”
“There are Portals that allow people to pass between realms,” Guild Master explained. “Zander was in a different realm only this morning. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Zander answered.
Jerica turned towards him as he stepped forward.
“That’s why I showed up in Kaidren’s cave.” Zander explained, looking at her. “There’s a portal there.”
“The blue thing.” Her mind flicked back to the shimmery curtain in Kaidren’s cave.
“Aye,” Zander agreed. “That’s the portal to Earth.”
“What’s Earth?” Her mind was spinning.
“It’s a shithole, honestly,” Zander said. His gaze snapped up to meet Guild Master’s, then he sobered and averted his eyes. “Sorry.”
“No one likes Earth,” Derik echoed.
“Then why were you there?” Jerica was trying so hard to give them the benefit of the doubt. But they were making it hard.
Derik and Zander exchanged a look.
An uncomfortable silence passed.
“Tell her,” Guild Master said at last. “She’s been vetted. And this secret involves her. It’s only fair that she knows.”
“Yes, Guild Master,” Derik and Zander murmured.
“It’s a family matter.” Guild Master said, then turned towards Aerik. “Come, dear.”
Jerica watched as Guild Master wandered away with Aerik next to her. Then Jerica turned back towards her uncles, a fresh wave of uneasiness settling in her stomach. Zander started pacing. It was clear he was agitated.
“So…?” Jerica asked.
Zander huffed and looked at Derik. “You tell her.”
“We are going to tell her.” Derik’s tone was firm. “Don’t forget that this was your idea.”
“This.” Zander gestured around them. “Was not my idea.”
“This.” Derik gestured at Jerica. “Was your idea.”
Zander sighed again.
Jerica gawked at him, perplexed. “What was?”
Derik took a deep breath. “I need you to trust us, Jer.”
“I do,” she answered. He knew that she did.
“You’re going to feel betrayed by what we tell you,” Derik said. “There’s no way around that. But I need you to believe that every single thing we did was to protect you. We love you a lot and would do anything at all to keep you safe. And I need you to trust that.”
Nervousness bubbled up in her. What could be so important that they were both acting like this? They’d never betray her. That was just silly. But they seemed to think whatever it was would shake her to her core, so it must be big. Though she couldn’t even begin to imagine what they’d been keeping from her.
“Derik uprooted his entire life to keep you safe,” Zander said.
“Which I don’t mind,” Derik cut in. “Not one little bit.”
She looked between them, confused. Zander was being defensive. Which almost certainly meant that he agreed with Derik that whatever it was, was definitely his fault. Or, at least, his idea. Derik was just confusing her. She took a deep breath. “What?”
“We’re not from Atraya, Jer,” Derik said.
She stared at him. That was the most absurd claim yet. Of course, they were from Atraya. Not only that, but they were the Royal Family. “That doesn’t make sense. We’re—”
“We’re not Ainsleys,” Derik said. “You, me, Rek, Zander. None of us.”
Jerica laughed. This was absurd. They must be trying to lighten the mood with some humor before they said whatever it was that they didn’t want to tell her. They weren’t Ainsleys? Ridiculous.
They weren’t smiling.
The smile faded from her face as her amusement was replaced with sheer bewilderment. Her mind refused to process what he said. “What?”
“Lirtira is one of those alternate realms that Guild Master mentioned. That is where we’re from,” Derik explained. “It’s the oldest of the realms, but it’s much like Beirania. We have the same weapons. A bit more magic. Fewer dignitaries. Lirtira is a single country ruled by a single royal family and balanced by a Council, that is equally powerful to the royal family.”
Jerica rubbed her face, as if that would massage the information into her brain. She was trying to believe them. But it was sounding more and more outlandish with every moment. She sighed and looked at Derik, deciding to latch on to the only part that she felt like she could actually grasp. A monarchy. “Do you… know? The royal family?”
“We are the royal family,” Zander said, stopping his pacing to look at her. His expression was gentler than usual. “Of Lirtira. Not Atraya.”
“I—But – I…” Jerica trailed off, too stunned to think of what to say. “What? Then why do we live in Atraya? And why are we… why?”
“That’s complicated,” Derik said.
“Don’t,” she snapped. They weren’t going to play that game right then. She wasn’t going to settle for any ‘it’s complicated’ excuses or diversions. It was time for answers.
“Lirtira is governed by both a Royal Family and a Council,” Zander explained. “Our family is progressive. Father made many important changes, and Mikkel is making even more. The Council is… not.”
“They…” Derik pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Are stuck in the dark age. Half of them were probably born then. They are secretive and manipulative and govern solely based on a collection of Prophesies that some old crack-pot came up with hundreds of years ago. They’re fairy tales.”
Then why are you telling me about them? Her confusion was morphing into anger. This wasn’t real. None of it. It couldn’t be. They were trying to make her feel foolish. And it was working. “Okay?”
“One of the archaic Prophesies.” Derik took her hand in his to give it an encouraging squeeze. “Reads ‘Quandaries come in counts of four; quench the evil, else it haunts forevermore.’”
“Why are you telling me riddles instead of answers?” Jerica snarled.
“Because that riddle has endangered your life since you drew your first breath,” Zander sighed. “The Council cares more about their stupid little prophesies than they do humanity. They want you dead.”
“So what?” Jerica spat. “So does everyone else. They’re not special.”
“But they are,” Zander argued. “If they found you, you’d be dead in an instant. And there wouldn’t be anything that Derik or I can do to stop it. They’re dangerous people. And they’ve been hunting you.”
Jerica stared at him for a long moment, the silence stretching until it became tense and awkward. How was she even supposed to answer that? To process the fact that some mysterious council wanted her dead for some reason that she still didn’t understand? She took a shaky breath and sat down on one of the rocks next to the pool of water, pulling her knees up to her chest. This was too much.