It’s been week after week of dodging troops, both Roland’s and Gastark’s. Even as the blood runs through the streets of Nelpha and Runa and Estabul, even as the citizens of Roland cheer it on, Ryner and Ferris dodge patrols and battles alike in their quest for the magic eye users, spiriting them away in the dead of night. It was going well.
It couldn’t last.
“Take the kids and go!” Ryner called over his shoulder to Ferris. “I’ll hold them off!”
“I’m not leaving you behind!”
This was never the plan. Tiir’s contacts had put the fighting several leagues north of this small city. It was supposed to be easy – in, grab the kids, out, then rendezvous with Tiir to pass the kids on.
“What I seek are the burning fields! Kurenai!”
Ryner had just seconds to throw up a barrier. When the flames cleared, Ryner spotted several fighters inbound.
“The town is almost surrounded. If you don’t go now, the kids will be trapped. Go! I’ll cover your escape!”
Ferris hesitated just a second more before she began herding the kids to their getaway route.
“I’ll never forgive you if you rob me of my dango eating partner!” she shouted as she left.
Ryner dodged another Roland spell, realizing with a sinking feeling exactly who he was probably dealing with.
And the looming presence in his mind gave him a good idea of what was driving them.
“Surrender, taboo breaker!” a woman’s voice called. “We are taking you into custody!”
“Thanks, but no thanks!”
The taboo breakers were always a… complication. Lear and Moe tried to tag team him, but Ryner countered their spells with their negative. Then Lach came from behind with his blade. Ryner managed to dodge him only to find himself tangled in Luke’s thread. And where the taboo squad went…
…their captain was sure to follow.
It was good to see her again, even like this. The naked relief on her face lead him to believe that Sion had told her the same tripe story he had fed to Ferris about Ryner’s death. Ferris hadn’t believed it. Had Milk?
And even a few months of war had wrought a change in her. Her face was more drawn and serious, even as the sparkle returned to her eyes as they met his. The whole squad had done away with the gaudy capes, their armor darker, as befitting a strike force.
Ostensibly their goal was still to track down taboo breakers, but Ryner and Ferris had heard the stories. It was hard to think of his childhood friend as the terror that lurked in the night, but he didn’t doubt the stories. Not with Sion behind them pressing his blade to their necks.
He was doing this on purpose, forcing Ryner to confront them. Sion knew about Milk, knew that Ryner could never bring himself to harm her.
Playing dirty. The new Hero King of Roland would use any means.
There was only once choice for Ryner. There was always only one choice.
“Who are you again?”
There were tears in Milk’s eyes and the sight made Ryner’s heart squeeze, but better temporary tears than Milk being used forever as a hostage. If Ryner could just convince Sion that Milk meant nothing to him…
Where the hell was Ferris?
“Please Ryner! Come back with us. Lord Sion has guaranteed your protection if you come willingly. We can figure this whole thing out-“
“Thanks but no thanks,” Ryner said, sagging in the golden thread. “We finally got all the way here and now you wanna turn around and go back? Sounds like a pain to me.”
“Ryner, I need your help. There’s something… wrong… with Lord Sion, but no one else seems to notice.”
“You should forget it too,” Ryner said. “For your own safety.”
“I can’t! I’ve promised myself that I would protect Roland, no matter what. Together, we can figure out what is going on, stop this war-“
Sion’s pet wolf was lurking close. If Sion found out what Milk was planning…
Then Ferris was swooping in, like an avenging angel. She forced Luke back and Ryner slipped out of the now loose threads. A strong fire spell cut off the rest of the squad, leaving Ryner alone with Milk.
“I don’t understand Ryner. Isn’t the King your friend? How can you let him do this?”
“We’re trying,” Ryner whispered, hopefully too low for Lucille to catch. “It’s a work in progress, but we’re getting there.”
“Time to go, Ryner!” Ferris called, tossing Luke into a building.
“Stay safe,” Ryner managed to say, resting a hand on Milk’s head for a moment.
“You too,” Milk said in response. And then she smiled for him.
Ferris lead the charge and they hacked their way through the troops that had appeared out of nowhere. They found the kids where she had left them, and together made it to the rendezvous point.
“We need to accelerate the plan,” Ryner said to Tiir.
“Why? Did something happen?”
“No. We just need to hurry.”