Jerica hit her knees a moment after they landed. She fell forward onto her hands and vomited, arms trembling. The residual tingling of the Transport throbbed through her entire body. She spat and took a shaky breath.
“Ah, I forgot about that.” Zander bent and helped her up. “Sorry.”
“I didn’t.” Derik strode forward and handed her a rag. She wiped her mouth, then watched as he pulled a small canteen off his belt and offered it to her.
Aerik looked between them. “Ah, that’s unfortunate.”
Jerica rinsed her mouth and spit the water on the ground, then turned a scowl on him. “It’s not my fault.”
“Never said it was.” Aerik shrugged. “Plenty of people can’t stomach Transports.”
Jerica grunted and rinsed her mouth again, then took a drink of the water. She still felt unsettled, but nausea never lasted long after a Transport. She took a deep breath and looked around as she got her bearings about her.
They were standing in the middle of a forest.
Off to her right she saw a cave with a huge mouth, with vines hanging across the opening. There were various moss-covered logs strewn all around her. Little red mushrooms grew on top of them. The trees around them were huge. Most had trunks so big she doubted even two people would be able to reach all the way around.
It was clear that this was an ancient forest.
“Where are we?” She looked back towards the men with her.
“Kyrkkyni.” Zander took a step towards her. “We’re going to take you in to the Guild Master. It’s vital that you do exactly as you’re told when we go inside.”
Jerica nodded. “Okay.”
“Exactly as you’re told,” Derik reiterated, giving her a serious look. “No arguments. No questioning. No delay. No matter what.”
Jerica glanced between them, unsettled at their austere demeanors. “Okay. I will.”
“No matter what,” Zander said sternly. “Do you understand? If Guild Master tells you to stab me, stab me. It’s that important.”
“I’m not going to stab you!”
Zander sighed and turned a sour glare on Aerik. “I told you this was a bad idea.”
“No one is stabbing anyone,” Derik cut in, tone soothing as he looked between them. His gaze locked on hers. “But it is that important, Jer. You can’t be…”
He hesitated, looking for the right word.
She already knew it.
They wanted her to go against everything that she was as a human. To be perfectly obedient. Submissive. To kneel before authority and not question what she was told. And of all the people she’d interacted with so far in her life, these three men knew her well enough to know that this was an almost impossible task. “Me?”
Derik sighed and looked past her.
“Princess,” Aerik said gently, stepping forward to take his turn. “No one is asking you to pretend to be anything other than who you are. But if you want answers to the questions that you’ve been asking me, then you need to join Kyrkkyni. And you must obey what Guild Master says, or you’re not going to be inducted.”
Jerica swallowed hard. This was becoming an increasingly impossible task. And she still didn’t understand why. Or what the Guild Master might ask of her. Or why all three of them were so loyal to this Guild Master that they’d be willing to die for the cause. “Okay.”
“This is your only chance,” Derik said, drawing her attention. His eyes locked on hers, bright and serious. “There are no do-overs on this one. If you decide to run your mouth or pull one of your antics, it’s over. Forever. This isn’t Levin and Biryn – Kyrkkyni actually matters. Do you understand?”
Jerica took a deep breath, then glanced towards Aerik and then Zander. All three of them had the same serious expression and were looking at her almost-pleadingly to keep her mouth shut. She didn’t trust this Guild Master that she was about to meet. But she trusted these men, so that would be enough. “I do.”
Derik looked at her skeptically for a long moment.
“I understand what’s at stake,” Jerica said. “I can handle it.”
Derik looked at her for another moment, then exchanged a silent glance with Zander and Aerik. He turned back towards her and nodded. “Good. Follow our lead when we get inside. And for the love of the gods, keep your mouth shut.”
“Okay,” Jerica murmured, dipping her head.
Zander and Aerik started towards the opening of the cave. She and Derik followed behind. She could hear her heartbeat in her ears, palms sweaty even though she hadn’t done anything taxing. She forced herself to take deep, even breaths and focus her attention on her surroundings instead of her uneasiness.
The cave narrowed once they got past the vines hanging over the entrance. In less than twenty meters the cave went from broad to so narrow it was only barely comfortable for two people to walk shoulder-to-shoulder through. The air was damp and musty. And she took care not to brush the side of the tunnel with her arms as she trod along beside Derik.
Then, the tunnel opened up a bit more to a small clearing, still in the cave.
Straight ahead of her was a stone wall with several torches attached, burning brightly to illuminate the area in front of them. The light contrasted sharply with the darkness enveloping Jerica. It looked like the tunnel curved around towards the right and continued. But Zander and Aerik stopped head of her. So, she looked around in silence.
There was a raised platform directly ahead, and a small table sat on top of it. A book was opened and sitting on top of the table, well-illuminated by the torch – but she still couldn’t see what it said. There was –
Someone appeared ahead of them to the right.
There was a swish of a cloak, but the person was still shrouded as much darkness as they were – all of them outside the glow of the torches. Jerica looked at the person – then realized that Zander and Aerik dropped to their knees. She glanced over and saw Derik on his knees as well. His fingers curled around her wrist and yanked her to the ground next to him.
Jerica looked at him, and saw that he was staring at the ground in front of him. Zander and Aerik were as well. She sent the briefest glance towards the mysterious person approaching. Then she bowed her head and stared at the ground as well. Her chest felt so tight. Like she was waiting for an enemy to approach, but couldn’t even watch them as they got nearer.
“What a pleasant surprise!”
Jerica looked up, shocked as she heard a feminine voice. Guild Master. A… woman? She hadn’t expected that. Was the Guild Master one of the women Aerik had fought? She shook away the thought, forcing herself to bow her head again.
“Guild Master,” the men all murmured at once.
Jerica swallowed hard.
“Zander." She inclined her head towards him, then looked at Aerik. "Aerik. We’ve been squabbling, have we? Does that Oath have anything to do with why you’re here now?”
“Yes, Guild Master,” they murmured in unison.
“I see.” She stepped between them to get nearer to where Jerica and Derik were kneeling. “Derik. It’s been a while.”
“Yes, Guild Master,” he answered.
“And who is this?” Guild Master asked, stepping nearer to her.
Jerica wet her lips, not quite sure what she was supposed to do. ‘Yes, Guild Master’ didn’t seem like a sensible response, but it was all she’d heard anyone else say so far. She swallowed hard and looked up.
Guild Master was an elderly woman – Jerica couldn’t have guessed her age if she tried. She was tall, and very lean, and had silvery gray hair that she had tied back in a braid that she had tossed over her left shoulder. She’d let the hood of her cloak fall back now, revealing a sharp, angular face, rich brown skin, and soft purple eyes.
She gasped as she locked eyes on Jerica.
Jerica cringed. So, Guild Master knew who she was after all. Of course, someone like Guild Master would know who the mighty King’s Assassin was. But she wasn’t sure why her uncles brought her here if their boss hated her as much as everyone else in the Realm did. But she forced herself to answer, “Jerica Ainsley. Ma’am.”
“You brought one of the children?” she asked, looking between Derik and Zander, then back at Jerica without waiting for an answer. “Oh, sweet child. You look just like her.”
Jerica swallowed hard. That was a fact that people had neglected to mention to her up to this point in her life. And she was feeling unsettled at her mother being brought up so many times in such a short period of time. It made her homesick for a home she’d never had. How did it feel like she missed parents that she never actually had?
“You knew my mother?” Jerica asked.
“Knew?” Guild Master hesitated, then looked down and met Zander’s gaze. “You haven’t told her.”
There was a moment of silence before Zander answered, “No, ma’am. We thought it was best to wait until after we brought her here.”
“Mm,” Guild Master hummed for a moment. Then she looked at Derik. “Katima?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Derik murmured.
Jerica watched the interactions, bewildered. Zander didn’t tell her what? That Guild Master knew her mother? How did Guild Master know Mama anyway? And what was Katima supposed to mean? Did it have something to do with the Lirtira that made Zander so angry? Jerica looked back at the Guild Master.
“I can see the questions in your eyes.” Guild Master met her gaze.
“Yes… Guild Master,” Jerica answered, feeling strangely vulnerable. The old woman didn’t seem intimidating, even though her gaze was unsettling. But the fact that she had Derik and Zander and Aerik so cowed made Jerica uneasy.
“All will be explained in time, dear child,” she said, taking a step nearer. “Your uncles no doubt brought you here so that they could share secrets with you that they could not until you join Kyrkkyni. Do you know who we are?”
Jerica took a shaky breath and glanced towards Derik, but he didn’t meet her gaze. She looked back at Guild Master. “You’re the Ranger Corps… but for the whole Realm?”
Guild Master looked at her thoughtfully for a moment. “That’s a decent parallel, though over-simplified… we are the protectors. Defenders of those who are weak. Challengers of those who use their strength for evil purposes.”
Jerica swallowed hard but nodded.
“I know that that is a vague, unsatisfying explanation,” Guild Master said. “So let me tell you what your option is now. If you choose to, you can be vetted by me and then hear an explanation of what the Guild is. At that point, I will tell you what you can expect if you join our ranks. And then you can decide. Or you can ask to be taken back home right now, no questions asked. It’s your choice, Princess.”
Jerica hesitated. Even that explanation was unsatisfying. How would she be vetted? And what would she be vetted for? And what kind of information would she be given before she had to decide whether to join? And what would it mean to –?
The silence was growing too long.
Jerica inclined her head. “I would like the explanation.”
“Wonderful.” Guild Master took another step forward, then reached her hands towards Jerica’s head. She cupped her hands around either side of Jerica’s face. Jerica forced herself not to move. Guild Master looked down at her. “Now, I’m going to take a look at who you are at your core. It will feel a bit unsettling. But it won’t last long. Okay?”
Jerica nodded again; this time the motion awkward against Guild Master’s hands.
“Good. Now, close your eyes and relax,” she instructed. “Try not to fight it.”
Jerica took a deep breath and then let it out, forcing the tension out of her shoulders. She still didn’t understand what was about to happen. But this was it. Her one chance. So she closed her eyes and focused on the faint humming pulsing from the Guild Master’s fingertips.