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Solstice Party

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A beautiful spring evening, a path he’d never traveled before, and the prospect of new sights – Larathen needed nothing else for a pleasant journey. Crystal chittered, as though sensing his good mood, and Larathen reached up to scratch her head. He’d been dubious about leaving Grace and Gadzooks behind, but Crystal had been a more than suitable replacement for the doglike alphyns. Brave and loyal, the blue pygmy gemdragon had sent several suspicious characters running despite being small enough to easily ride on Larathen’s shoulder.

Larathen had let Dapple choose their path, and the pinto pegasus (being Callisto-born) had brought him to the coast. Dapple could probably get him back to somewhere familiar within a day or two, if necessary, but for now Larathen was content to let her fly free and walk along on his own two feet with Crystal for company. The path he was traveling had to lead somewhere, after all, even if it hadn’t seen much use in a while, and there might even be a meal and a bed for the night at the end of it.

He turned a corner and stopped in his tracks, staring in astonishment at something off in the distance that he hadn’t expected. There had been a time, several centuries ago, when many older magi had taken pride in owning their own keep, but the practice had already been falling out of favor by the time Thane had become archmage. The idea was sound, but it took deep pockets to tend to the typical magi’s extensive menagerie and maintain a building large enough to hold them all. Most magi now left the majority of their creatures at the Keep and lived or traveled with a select few.

As a result, most of the keeps had fallen into disrepair over the centuries, though a few remained inhabited. Larathen had visited a few abandoned keeps during his travels, sometimes accompanied by a tour guide (not always human) who explained the history and the family crest and sometimes by himself as he walked through ruins and tried not to put his foot through a rotten board. On one memorable occasion, he’d misjudged and had needed to be hauled out of a hole by two bemused centaurs and an annoyed lycanthrope.

This keep looked to be in good repair, or at least intact enough not to be in immediate danger of falling to pieces. With luck, it might be one where whoever was currently in charge gave tours. Larathen had always enjoyed the tours, even if he did always half-expect one of the previous owners to appear out of nowhere and accuse him of trespassing.

Larathen whistled Dapple down. No point in wasting time walking to the keep when he could fly there instead.

As Dapple drew closer, Larathen could see that the keep was still inhabited, and not just a well-maintained relic. Larathen had Dapple land a short distance away from the main gates, which were being guarded by a young centaur. “You’re new around here,” she said, maintaining a careful grip on her bow. The Silvian alphyns by her feet were also looking suspiciously at Larathen.

Larathen had been prepared not to receive a particularly warm welcome. The few surviving smaller keeps – and this one was very small indeed – were insular and often wary of strangers, perhaps due to having been a little too determined to get away from it all. “I’m just passing through,” he said, giving the centaur his best cheerful grin. “I heard about places like this when I was a student at the Keep, but I never thought I’d get the chance to see one at its prime.” He was wearing comfortable traveling clothes instead of the traditional magi robes, but the presence of Dapple and Crystal would help to prove that he was in fact a magi.

Now, the centaur was looking at Larathen as though he were either sunstruck or a very bad liar. He was probably the dozenth unexpected visitor that day. She had to be sick of curiosity-seekers who treated the keep and its inhabitants like some particularly elaborate interactive museum exhibit. Finally, she sighed, rolled her eyes, and waved him through. “Whatever you’re up to, you might as well enjoy the solstice party. Welcome to Seacliff Keep.” Larathen hadn’t realized that he had been on the road quite that long, but counting up the days made him realize that yes, the next day would be the first day of summer. He had never heard of Seacliff Keep, which just meant that it had never made it into the official records, as most of the small keeps hadn’t, or was perhaps just too new to appear on his maps.

Larathen’s first stop was the stable. He would be keeping Crystal close by, of course, as pygmy gemdragons were small enough to be easily spirited away by some unscrupulous individual, but Dapple might as well have the chance to make new friends in the stable while Larathen enjoyed the party.

One of the stablehands, a boy in his mid-teens, gave Dapple an approving pat. “Can’t say I’ve seen one like her before, but she’s a beauty. We’ll take good care of her, so don’t worry.”

Larathen wouldn’t have thought that pinto pegasi were particularly rare. Then again, he had studied at the Keep, so his ideas of rarity were definitely skewed. “I’ll leave her in your capable hands, then.”

The mystery was solved as soon as Larathen reached the courtyard. If he could have his pick of crystalwing companions, he’d probably never bother learning about other creatures, either. From where he was standing, Larathen could see more than half a dozen different varieties of the crystalline bird-dragons, including some of the rare elder crystalwings, their long, slender bodies clearly visible from where he stood.

The crystalwings were just the start of it, too. Hybrids, even ones where the parents commonly shared ranges, were generally rare to nonexistent in the wild. Given that crystalwings commonly lived in the mountains and rewins lived near the ocean, their ranges only overlapping during migration, one could live near the sea their entire life without seeing so much as a scale from a pygmy gemdragon or crystalwing. Seacliff Keep, though, had hundreds. The sheer number of crystalwings, in combination with the crystals embedded into walls and scattered everywhere, meant that the sun created enough sparkle and glimmer to be almost overwhelming, even this late in the day.

Crystal chirped eagerly. Larathen could hardly deny her the chance to mingle with so many of her kind, so he gently shooed her off his shoulder and watched as she flew (with scarcely a backward glance) in the direction of the nearest small flock.

Given the welcome he had received from the centaur, Larathen decided that he had better find whoever owned the keep and get their permission to be there. After asking around and wandering through a courtyard far larger than he had expected, given the apparent size of the keep, Larathen was directed to Lynissa, a tall, gray-haired woman in dark blue robes. Smiling, he held out his hand to her. “My name’s Larathen. I’m a magi from the Keep. Sorry for intruding, but I happened to be passing by when your banners caught my attention. Your gate guard said it would be okay if I came in. May I stay and enjoy your party?”

Lynissa shook his hand. “From the Keep? You’re some way from home, then,” she said, giving him a tight-lipped smile.

“I do travel off the beaten path a lot,” Larathen explained. Larathen didn’t exactly look the part of a Keep magi at the moment, so he could understand some of Lynissa’s skepticism. His belongings were back with Dapple, so unless he wanted to go back to the stables to retrieve her, he had only one way he could prove he was in fact a magi. Larathen put two fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle. Lynissa winced at the noise. Before long, Crystal landed on Larathen’s outstretched arm and chirped inquisitively.

Lynissa looked closely at Crystal, who trilled and tilted her head. Larathen held his arm out to Lynissa, in case she thought Crystal was some sort of clever fake. Lynissa nodded. "All right. I apologize for my suspicion, but we do have reasons to keep to ourselves out here. Not a lot of travelers make it out this far, which suits all of us just fine. We're a close-knit group around here. Still, now that you're here, you're welcome to enjoy our hospitality."

That all sounded a little ominous, though Lynissa’s tone wasn’t unfriendly. The sort of magi determined to get away from it all wasn’t generally the kind who greeted unexpected guests with a smile and an offer of shelter for the night. Still, he was there now, not to mention outnumbered. The pygmy gemdragons alone could easily carry him away if they set their minds to it. “Thank you,” Larathen said.

“It's been years since I've been back to the Keep,” said Lynissa. “Did you ever have Joloran for a teacher?"

“He died of old age quite a few years ago, well before I started at the Keep,” said Larathen. “Rykian told me once that it was amazing the man let something as mundane as death keep him from teaching Intro to Magical Theory.”

Lynissa’s smile was a little more genuine this time. “That does sound like Joloran. I didn’t think he had been that old, though. Is this Rykian your mentor?”

Larathen nodded. “Yes, I was the first student he mentored. He was glad I shared his love for travel, but I think he’s always been disappointed that I didn’t decided to specialize in curse-breaking like he did.”

Lynissa looked at him sharply. “And what sort of specialty do you have to bring you all the way out here?”

Before Larathen could answer, someone else interrupted. “Now, Lynissa, don’t monopolize the guest.” The speaker drew him away before Lynissa had a chance to respond. She was a middle-aged woman most notable for the bright-eyed avraels perched on each shoulder and the amberspice mice peeking out of her pockets. Larathen wondered if she had ever met the Keep’s self-proclaimed Squirrel Whisperer, who had everything from dragonfly-winged avraels to striped ikantans as companions.

The woman smiled at him. “I’m Elanira. Sorry about Lynissa. She’s a little on edge at the best of times. Thinks everyone is out to steal her research. I thought Karildan might mellow her a little bit after he showed up unexpectedly last fall and she took a liking to him, but no such luck. She still thinks everyone who took a wrong turn at the Callisto Islands is a dark magi out to get her.”

Larathen, though curious about Lynissa’s research (and whether he should have admired Seacliff from afar and just kept going), knew better than to ask. Elanira seemed friendly enough, but he was a stranger to Seacliff. Besides, crystals – and Lynissa’s research could hardly involve anything else, given that Seacliff Keep had enough crystals to rival the Caves of Nareau – were not particularly useful except as a light source. With sufficient crystals, a magi could presumably work a few spells, but it wasn’t really worth the effort. Instead, he and Elanira chatted about their creatures, always a safe topic of conversation among magi. Like everyone at Seacliff, she had a small army of crystalwings, though she preferred avraels. Avraels were trouble on wings, but at least she didn’t have to spell words out so they wouldn’t understand what she was talking about.

“You should go introduce yourself to Karildan,” Elanira said at last after yet another avrael anecdote, pointing at a thin, dark-haired man standing nearby. “He’ll be glad to meet another traveler.”

Karildan did indeed perk up as Larathen approached, though he seemed nervous. “It’s hard being new in a place like this, isn’t it?” Larathen said after introducing himself.

Karildan nodded. “I’ve been here for months, but half of them still act like they expect me to steal the best silver and vanish into the night.”

Larathen gave the man a sympathetic smile. “I’ve been through a few small villages like that. If your grandparents weren’t born there, you’re just an interloper.”

“Where did you get that pygmy gemdragon, anyway? I thought Seacliff Keep had a monopoly on them,” Karildan said with a slightly nervous smile.

“Crystal was a parting gift from my mentor before I left the Keep,” Larathen explained. Crystal had returned to her new friends as soon as she was no longer needed, but nobody in the courtyard could have missed hearing Larathen’s whistle. “She’s been my dedicated bodyguard ever since.”

“The Keep, huh?” said Karildan. “Never been there. Magic’s always been an interest of mine, though. No formal training, but I’ve picked up a few things along the way. Stumbled across this place a few months back and thought, well, maybe I could learn something.” That wasn’t completely unheard of, especially if Karildan had been born somewhere like magic-averse Theia, but people like Karildan usually wound up at the Keep first or somewhere like Synara City, instead of beginning their search for magical knowledge at out-of-the-way keeps. “So, that’s me,” Karildan continued. “How about you?”

Larathen shrugged. “I spotted Seacliff Keep on my way to nowhere in particular and thought I’d take a look around. For Crystal’s sake alone, I’m glad I did.” Crystal was easy to spot in the crowd, as she was the only gemdragon not wearing a bracelet, tail band, or other decoration. She had found a new friend, too – a male purple pygmy gemdragon. Larathen was already planning what he would do if, as seemed increasingly likely, the two proved inseparable when it was time to leave. If the purple pygmy gemdragon’s owner wouldn’t accept money, then perhaps they would accept a crystalwing or two as trade. This far from the Keep, they might never have seen one of the platypus-esque lesoni crystalwings.

Karildan looked at him. “Pure chance, then? Well, if Seacliff Keep’s hospitality gets to be too much for you, I know all of the good hiding places. There’s a nice cave not too far from here. I always keep enough driftwood there for a good fire.” He pointed off toward the beach. “It’s a decent walk, but worth the effort.”

Larathen honestly wasn’t sure if Karildan was trying to get rid of him or trying to be considerate. “Thanks, but I’m used to large gatherings.”

Karildan shrugged. “Well, I warned you. This might be more than you can handle.”

“I’ll take that chance.” Larathen politely excused himself and went back to mingling.

Everyone seemed to be having a good time, with one exception. At first, Larathen had thought that the rather sour-looking woman, wearing dark robes that suited her apparent mood, was another like Rykian. Larathen’s mentor only attended large parties under duress and always made it clear that he would rather be elsewhere. A closer look at the woman’s face changed Larathen’s mind, though. Larathen looked to see what might be inspiring such hatred and saw Karildan. If other people felt like this woman, then it was no wonder that Karildan tended to flee gatherings.

Hoping to provide a distraction, Larathen stepped forward. “Hello, I’m Larathen,” he said to the dark-robed woman. “I don’t believe we’ve met yet.” He smiled and held out his hand for the woman to shake.

The woman just looked at Larathen, her expression unpleasant. “Much too late for kindness now.” She turned and left without a backwards glance.

“Don’t let Rilaine get to you,” said Elanira, who had been standing nearby. “She’s never been a ray of sunshine at the best of times, and especially not now. Rilaine thought – well, we all did – that Lynissa would choose her as her successor now that she’s finally thinking of stepping down. Then Karildan showed up a few months ago and, well, I think we were all surprised. Even Lynissa. Don’t worry, though. Rilaine might glare, but she won’t do anything worse than that. She just doesn’t have it in her.”

Larathen wasn’t quite as sure about this, having seen the expression on Rilaine’s face. Despite Elanira’s reassurance, he still found himself keeping an eye out for Rilaine, even while enjoying the buffet-style dinner. Crystal and her new friend had each chosen a shoulder at the first sign of food and took turns gently nipping an ear until he handed up scraps of fish and the occasional fruit. Once the food was gone, they flew away, leaving Larathen alone again.

As the sun set, large crystals placed on poles began to glow, bathing the courtyard with ethereal light in half a dozen different colors. Once the last crystal had lit up, Lynissa and Karildan climbed up onto the elevated stage that had been set up near the edge of the courtyard.

Lynissa began to speak – something about naming Karildan as her successor, but Larathen wasn’t paying particularly close attention. Instead, he scanned the crowd until he found Rilaine, whose hands were clenched into fists. As yet, though, she wasn’t causing any trouble.

Larathen returned his attention to the stage in time to hear the tail end of Lynissa’s announcement. “… take this crystal, to signify your new position as master of this keep.” Karildan accepted the crystal, easily the size of his head, with a triumphant smile.

The crystal glowed, soon eclipsing the crystal lanterns. No, that wasn’t quite right. It was pulling the light into it. Larathen could almost see the light from the lanterns bending toward Karildan’s crystal. Larathen shook his head, suddenly dizzy. His vision distorted and the ground rippled as though there were a small earthquake. Other people in the crowd were starting to cry out, so it wasn’t just him being affected.

Rilaine seemed the only one able to act. As Lynissa slowly crumpled to the ground, she ran up the steps and sent a spell at Karildan. The resulting shockwave shattered the crystal and flung Rilaine off the stage onto the hard stone below.

Karildan collapsed, making a high, inhuman scream, as crystals all over the courtyard began to shatter. Other people were trying to approach the stage now, moving with as much effort as though they were knee-deep in mud.

In the confusion, Larathen hardly noticed when the first pygmy crystalwing fell to the ground, but nobody could have missed the revived crystalwing when it took to the air with an unearthly shriek, larger in size and greatly changed. Its tea kettle yowl was soon answered by others from around the courtyard, including one particularly loud cry from the stage. One corrupted crystalwing fell near Larathen, and even with the chaos and strange quality of the remaining light, he still got entirely too good a look at its blackened body, with glowing orange markings where crystals should have been. He only hoped it hadn’t once been Crystal.

The courtyard now rippled and distorted like a bad fever dream, with the stage simultaneously close enough to give him splinters and far enough to be halfway to Synara City. The people around him – those still standing – rippled and faded to the point where he could see the rest of the keep through them. Unable to take even a single step forward, Larathen fell to his knees, hoping not to be trampled. He closed his eyes, which didn’t really help with the vertigo or with blocking out what was going on.

Then, with a jolt, everything went silent and the shaking stopped. Larathen cautiously opened his eyes, no longer dizzy. He was kneeling in the middle of a barren field, the ocean visible not far away. No keep. No people. No corrupted crystalwings. Not even a splinter of a crystal. Dapple stood nearby, the normally placid pegasus looking ready to trample anything that looked even remotely threatening. Crystal was harder to spot, but Larathen finally found her curled up in a whimpering ball not far from Dapple. Larathen carefully stood up and made his way over to Dapple, scooping up Crystal on the way. He checked both over carefully, but they both seemed unscathed – physically, at least.

Larathen had suspected he was being watched from the moment he opened his eyes, but checking on his creatures had been more important. He turned around and wasn’t terribly surprised to find Rilaine standing nearby – or Rilaine’s ghost, given that Larathen could see through her. Larathen was less surprised than he might have been to find that he must have spent part of the previous afternoon and evening reliving the past. That was the only way for a number of small details, each insignificant on their own, to make sense – the stablehand’s unfamiliarity with pinto pegasi, Lynissa's surprise about Joloran, who had passed away from old age years many years before Rykian's student days and would have been quite venerable during Lynissa's time at the Keep, Seacliff Keep itself and how it had seemed to have come from a different era, and the lack of certain recently-discovered crystalwings. Hexapo crystalwings were too bulky for keep life, true, but where had the komainu or iwan crystalwings been?

Rilaine stared out into the distance, seemingly unaware of Larathen’s presence. “I killed them,” she said. “I killed all of them.”

Rilaine was acting as though, like most ghosts, she were no more than an echo of some past event, but Larathen knew better. “That was quite a show you put on,” Larathen said calmly. “I don’t think you would have bothered to go to all that trouble for the local wildlife or the surviving crystalwings, so what can this chance-met magi do to help you?”

“Remember,” Rilaine said, finally turning to look at Larathen. She said nothing more, despite Larathen’s attempts to get her to go into more detail.  Larathen finally dug a journal and pen out of his pack. Rather than trying to pressure someone who could easily vanish at will, he might as well do as Rilaine had requested.

By the time Larathen had recorded everything he could remember about the party, the sun was well overhead. He stood up and stretched. “You know, it’s a shame,” he said. “I arrived so late in the day that I only got to meet a handful of the people at the party.” And that he had been able to interact with them at all raised some interesting questions. “If I got here first thing in the morning next year, I could probably fill an entire notebook.”

“And perhaps change the outcome in the process?” Rilaine said, laughing bitterly. “Believe me, it doesn’t work like that, or I would be long gone. The past can’t be changed. I’ve tried.”

“What did happen there at the end?” Larathen asked. “Your past-viewing spell was starting to break down by then, so I was having a hard time seeing what was going on.”

“Oh, that wasn’t the spell,” said Rilaine. “Lynissa had been using crystal magic for years to cram far too much keep into far too little space. I always told her it was a bad idea, but there was no convincing her, of course. When those spells started to break…” She pressed her hands together as though crushing something. “I tried to stop Karildan by taking away his ability to use crystals, but I wasn’t thinking clearly by that point, so the spell came out wrong. Then it got amplified by the crystals. The spells all broke. Everything broke. You know the rest.”

Larathen sighed heavily. “I’m sorry. I can’t bring Seacliff back, but with my mentor’s help, maybe you can find peace at last. He won’t judge. Neither will his partner. Let us see what we can do next year.”

 “I... would welcome even the attempt,” said Rilaine. “Until next year, then.” She faded from view, clearly considering the conversation to be at an end, and Larathen made no attempt to call her back.

Larathen had plenty to think about on the journey back to the Keep, including the bronze pygmy crystalwing egg he found Crystal curled around one morning.