Ryoka Griffin stood on the top of a snow-covered hill, facing the wind. Her arms were spread out, and she raised her head as the cold winter winds blew around her. The snow-flecked breeze tugged at her light clothing, a shirt and loose leggings, wholly inappropriate for the season. But the young woman paid no attention to the cold. In fact, such was her body heat that the snow had melted around her bare feet, exposing flattened grass underneath.
She was completely still as the air ruffled her long hair. Ryoka breathed in and felt the cold in her lungs. But she let not one muscle move; made no concession to the elements. Her breathing slowed, and Ryoka became one with nature. She was one with the world. One with the cosmos.
After another minute Ryoka opened her eyes.
“This is stupid.”
She dropped her arms to her side. She twisted her neck and heard a crick. Wincing, she rubbed at her shoulders and looked around. Then she glared at her midriff.
“Hey, Ivolethe! Did you hear me? I said this is stupid. It’s not working.”
Somewhat predictably, Ryoka’s midriff did not respond to her comment. But after a second, one of the compartments in her belt rustled, and a small head poked out. The tiny crystal head had bulging cheeks, and as Ivolethe flew out of the pouch she crammed the last bit of dried sweet fruit into her mouth.
“What’s wrong, Ryoka?”
The young woman paused and eyed Ivolethe. The naked faerie was just as ignorant of the cold as Ryoka was, but she had clearly been feasting in Ryoka’s pouch while the young woman tried to commune with the wind. The faerie was covered in bits of dried fruit; the sticky sweets clung to her like leeches.
Ivolethe didn’t seem to mind. The faerie peeled a bit of raisin off her stomach while Ryoka pushed at her hair distractedly. She spoke with waspish exasperation, but trying to moderate her tone.
“This isn’t working. I’ve been here for over an hour doing what you said, and all I have to show for it is wet feet and sore shoulders.”
The faerie eyed Ryoka skeptically, and then flew around her in a quick pattern. When she stopped she looked disappointed.
“You feel nothing? Even after taking in the wind?”
“Aside from the need to pee? Nothing.”
Ryoka sighed as the faerie scowled. She spread her hands.
“I don’t know. What should I be feeling?”
The faerie gave her a look as if Ryoka was insane. Ryoka gave the faerie the same look.
“I’ve been feeling the wind. But I don’t feel a connection to it or whatever. Look, is there something else we can try?”
“I suppose we must try something else, then.”
Ivolethe screwed up her face in concentration. Ryoka began stretching her sore legs, watching the faerie think.
In theory, they were right now studying faerie magic. That was to say, Ivolethe was trying to teach Ryoka how the Frost Faeries conjured snow and moved faster than anything Ryoka had even seen in the world. Trying was the optimal word here, though.
“Are you sure this is how you teach people faerie magic?”
Ryoka paused as she grabbed her foot from behind, stretching the muscles in her legs out.
“What do you mean, ‘no’? I thought you knew what you were doing! You told me to stand here and listen to the wind!”
The faerie glared at her.
“And I thought it would help! No wonder ye heard nothing, though, since all ye do is jabber on with your complaints!”
“I’m doing my best. But I don’t even know what I’m doing! What part of the wind are you talking about?”
Ryoka’s head turned as the faerie shouted. All she saw was a bit of grey sky. She turned back to the faerie, scowling. But Ivolethe didn’t look like she was pulling a prank on Ryoka. She flew up swiftly into the sky, over a hundred feet in seconds, and then flew in a twisting, downwards spiral around the hill. The human girl watched her, entranced by the graceful motion.
The faerie flew past Ryoka in a rush of air, and then stopped. She looked down at Ryoka, smiling. Ryoka had to smile back.
“Did ye see it?”
Ryoka paused and frowned.
Ivolethe’s smile faded and her face went slack. She gestured.
“The wind, of course! Did ye see as I followed it?”
“I saw you flying. That’s all.”
The tiny faerie slapped her forehead and shouted curses at Ryoka. The Runner listened, slightly impressed at the variety of insults.
“Look, clearly I can’t see what you can. You might be seeing something by magic or with your sense that I can’t. Can you try showing me whatever’s so important another way?”
Ivolethe grumbled and folded her arms as she thought.
“Perhaps. But this is the most obvious way for me.”
“It is not as if I have practice teaching magic to mortals. The fey come into existence knowing magic. Teaching you magic is like trying to teach a fish to swim.”
Ryoka opened her mouth to reply and paused. She frowned, raised a finger.
“What do you—”
Ivolethe rolled her eyes, annoyed.
“No one teaches a fish to swim, fool! They either know or they do not.”
“Ah, right. Well, try thinking like a bird, then. Show me how a fish would teach a bird to swim or something. I don’t feel anything so far.”
A glare was the only warning Ryoka got. Ivolethe flew up, and then the wind changed. Ryoka felt that, and she saw a wall of white snow swirl upwards and then rush at her like a wave.
The gust of wind and snow blew Ryoka off the hilltop. She tumbled down the slope, cursing and shouting. When she sat up, dizzy and bruised, Ivolethe flew down and grinned at her.
“Did ye feel anything?”
Ryoka threw a snowball at Ivolethe. The faerie laughed and flew out of the way. She conjured a snowball of her own and Ryoka raised her arm before it collided with her bare skin. The Human and faerie continued in this vein for several minutes. In the end, Ryoka stopped because she hadn’t managed to tag Ivolethe once, and she’d taken six snowballs to the head.
“I’m tired. And the magic soup is wearing off. Let’s go back into the city and try again later, okay?”
The two began to move, Ryoka starting at a jog and moving faster, Ivolethe flying high overhead, laughing in the cold. And though she’d made no progress, Ryoka felt better. She looked at the faerie flying high above her and smiled.
It’s an odd thing. A precious thing. Friendship, I mean. I feel like every second I’m going to make a horrible mistake and ruin things forever. But I don’t. Instead, it feels like every time I’m about to get into a fight or say something I regret I find a better word to say, or a better way to act.
I didn’t lose my temper with Ivolethe. Okay, I shouted and threw snow, but that was because I knew she wouldn’t care and I wouldn’t hit her. She isn’t like Erin. I can tell her exactly how I feel because she’ll do the same for me.
It’s so odd. Is Ivolethe a friend? Erin’s one, I’m pretty sure of that. But can I be friends with a faerie after only two days? It feels like it, but I’m not sure.
And how would I know? I’ve never had a good friend before. I’ve had ‘friends’, but that’s just a word. But someone who’s there for you even if it means risking their life? That’s new. And Ivolethe is about as good an example of that kind of friendship as you can get. She’s fearless, brave, and she’s quite open about the fact that she’s breaking rules to hang out with me.
Because that’s the nature of Frost Faeries. They’re the type of beings that go all-in with whatever they do. If they want to do something, they just go for it. And I like that about them the most.
Ivolethe and I return to the city in good time. I really only left it to practice her faerie magic, and since that was a bust we get back before it’s even midday. The stream of people leaving and entering Esthelm is still busy, but I make good time.
For two reasons. The first is that I’m a Runner, and I can essentially ignore most of the lengthy customs process the [Guardsmen] subject visitors to. The second is that I have a Frost Faerie sitting on my head, and news from yesterday has already gotten around.
It’s a strange thing. If I were in the United States and I walked around with a dangerous creature like a Frost Faerie, I’d probably be tossed in jail in a heartbeat. But in this world, I’m just treated like a high-level [Mage], or any Gold-rank adventurer, really. If Ivolethe causes trouble I’ll be held accountable. Aside from that, I’m free to do whatever I want, and people give me a wide berth as an added bonus.
The Runner’s Guild being destroyed would normally get me locked up and fined, but thanks to eyewitnesses seeing Persua and the other Runners grabbing Ivolethe, I got off scott free. That may also have had to do with the fact that the Frost Faeries were busy raining ten kinds of hell on the Runners as they ran indoors, and the local Watch didn’t want to paint a target on their heads.
“Where are ye going?”
Ivolethe’s voice is small, but perfectly audible in my ears, even above the voices of the pedestrians shouting and clogging the streets. I run past them, finding less-crowded streets to turn down.
“I’m going to visit Erin. Then I’ll see if I can find Garia. I need to thank her for yesterday.”
“The big girl with the heart of a mouse? Sounds boring.”
The faerie jumps off my head and flies into my pouch even as I dodge around a laborer lugging a sack of something along. She’s so nimble! I can feel her rummaging around in there, and make a mental note to buy some more stuff for her to eat. I’ve got the coin, and it shuts her up and keeps her happy.
Here’s how it stands. Since yesterday, Ivolethe has pretty much been by my side day and night. She says it’s interesting and I won’t complain. She sometimes leaves, when I sleep for example, but other times she seems perfectly content to stay in my belt pouch. Especially when we’re indoors. I tried to convince her to leave, but she bit my thumb once. She’s agreed to stay in the pouch if I’m indoors, though, and a steady supply of food means she won’t break that promise.
I slow as I pass by the Runner’s Guild on my way to Octavia’s shop. A crowd of people, as well as a group of sweaty men holding shovels and pickaxes is gathered around the ruined building. The men are trying to excavate the building one shovelful of snow at a time, and not having much luck.
Some of the people watching this catch sight of me. I speed up as one of the [Receptionists] gives me a dirty look. Oops. I’d better not rub salt in the wounds. At least Persua’s not there—I heard she was being kept by the [Healer] for rest overnight, even though potions mended most of the wounds I gave her.
I shake my head and continue onwards. So many problems, and I don’t have time to dwell on that. Erin comes first.
Octavia’s shop is as chaotic as ever, but I immediately notice Erin’s presence as soon as I push the door open. Ivolethe pokes her head out of my pouch; she feels safe enough to do that here.
“Something smells good. Is the innkeeper girl making more food?”
“Looks like it.”
I walk into the shop and hear voices arguing with each other.
“I told you—no, look at that! You’ve ruined it with the potion!”
“It doesn’t look that bad! Stop complaining—I told you Ryoka will pay for the potions, and I want to see if it does anything!”
“I’ll waste gold, that’s what will happen! And—can you smell that? It’s burning!”
Cautiously—I’ve seen how Erin experiments by now—I edge into what should be Octavia’s kitchen. Instead, it’s been transformed into a second alchemical workplace, and two girls are bickering over a stew that’s mostly green with something bobbing in the thin liquid. I clear my throat.
“Erin? Octavia? Everything going okay?”
They’ve got good synchronization. I raise my hands as Octavia tries to complain about Erin using her potions in her cooking, and Erin offers me a taste of whatever vileness is cooking away.
“I’m not here to eat anything. I just need more of that Corusdeer soup, Erin. It’s wearing off again.”
Erin frowns and goes over to an open cupboard. It’s stocked with a half dozen jars of thick orange soup. Octavia rolls her eyes and calls after Erin.
“I told you that the soup was too thin this time! Too much carrot; not enough pepper!”
“It was worth a shot! Here you are Ryoka.”
I eye the mixture in the pot.
“Do I want to know?”
“I think this one’s a dud too. But we’re getting close; I can feel it! I’ve already figured out how to make mana soup!”
The girl with stitches folds her arms and snorts.
“That’s just a mana potion that’s slightly more edible than the rest. What’s the point?”
“It tastes better than your stupid potion!”
As the two begin to bicker, I edge out of the store. Erin seems…happy. At least, happy to keep doing this. I wonder why? I’m willing to foot the bill for her project, but I’d go nuts if I had to keep making failed potions all day. Or if I had to listen to Octavia for more than ten minutes straight.
“Got your magic drink?”
Ivolethe pokes her head out of my belt pouch, staring at the orange drink. I look at it as well; it’s just soup, but I feel like I’m holding a potion in some kind of videogame. Even long after it’s been bottled, the Corusdeer soup is warm to the touch; it’s magical, and if Erin can make anything else like it, I’ll shove gold down Octavia’s throat as long as it takes.
“Soup. And yes, I’m good. Let’s go find—”
“Is that you, Ryoka?”
Someone calls out to me as I leave Octavia’s shop. I whirl in surprise, and then smile.
The tall Runner steps out from the wall he was leaning against. I walk towards him, smiling. Why am I so happy to see him? Maybe it’s because it feels like forever since we last spoke.
“What are you doing here?”
“Thought I’d find you; someone told me you were hanging out here every day. How have you been?”
I hold out a hand to shake his, and then pause. Fals looks down and sees my two missing fingers from my right hand. His face freezes—and then he clasps my hand gently as if nothing’s the matter.
It’s strange how I don’t have to explain it to him. Fals nods at me, face growing serious.
“I’d wondered where you went. I heard you were at Liscor from Valceif when he came back this way—then nothing. Did you finish the delivery?”
“I did. Traded two fingers for it.”
“But you did it. A good Runner never falters, and I’ve never seen you even hesitate.”
The compliment makes me feel better, even though I didn’t know I’d been feeling bad. I nod at him, and he smiles slightly in return.
It’s so strange. The last time we spoke I still hated everything about him. But now we’re—okay. I look closer at Fals and see that he’s changed a bit as well. He looks tired, and maybe not as happy as before.
“How have you been? Are you here on a delivery?”
“I was. Had to drag over a freshly-made sword for some Silver-rank adventurer in the city. It was a pain to track her down, but it was good coin. I was going to stop by the Guild, but apparently you had something to do with it being closed?”
“Don’t worry about it. One of the Guild workers filled me in.”
Fals shivers a bit as the wind blows harder. He stares at my t-shirt and barefeet.
“Dead gods, you’re making me cold just looking at you. Is that part of your friendship with the…Winter Sprites?”
“This? No, this is a potion.”
I feel Ivolethe rustling around in my pouch. She’s paying more attention now that Fals is talking about her.
“Are they going to press charges after all, do you think?”
Fals shook his head.
“No; everyone knows how stupid it is to mess with the Winter Sprites. Besides, ah, there’s some concern about what would happen if they did charge you. At the moment you’re banned from the guild in Celum, which isn’t saying much.”
I feel the pouch at my belt open. Fals blinks as Ivolethe flies up. She lands on my head, grinning at me and him.
“Who’s the shivering mortal, Ryoka? A lover of yours? Or just a prat?”
“Shut it, Ivolethe.”
“Ivolethe? Is that the Frost Faerie?”
Fals squints at a point just to the left of my head. I’m intrigued—even when she’s sitting, Ivolethe’s glamor works.
“All I see is a blur.”
Gingerly, Fals nods his head towards Ivolethe, staring to the right of her.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Miss Ivolethe.”
“Hah! A mortal with manners! Too bad ye can’t hear me, eh?”
Ivolethe laughs and flicks a bit of snow at Fals. He splutters and wipes away the snow with a grin.
“Not fond of anyone but you, are they?”
“Sorry about that.”
I flick Ivolethe off my head, making her shout in outrage. She hits me on the head with an icy pebble before retreating into my pouch. I grimace as Fals chuckles. He stops when I glare at him.
“You seem like you get along with her. I wish I could hear what she says—I assume she speaks?”
“If we go indoors you’ll be able to see and hear her. And believe me, you’ll wish you couldn’t.”
“Well, as much as I’d like to, that’s dangerous for her, isn’t it?”
Too dangerous, especially for an immortal. I can’t believe Ivolethe would take the risk, but again, she goes all in. Death might matter to her, but she’d risk it for a friend without a second thought.
Fals notices my expression and grows serious again. He clears his throat as he shifts his weight from one leg to another.
“I’m sorry about Persua, Ryoka. I’m not saying thrashing her was the right thing to do, but I know what she can be like.”
“Yeah…I was surprised not to see you there, though. It looked like she was having a party; were you busy?”
He shakes his head, making a face.
“Hardly. I’ve been staying away from Celum on purpose. Ever since she got the [Double Step] Skill she’s been taking away the jobs from all us City Runners. We can barely find any work. I tried talking to her, but—she wouldn’t listen.”
That’s surprising. I frown at Fals.
“Not even to you?”
“Not to me or anyone else. It’s funny, but you were right, Ryoka. Persua used to be part of the team, and we’d help her and she’d help us if we needed a hand on a tough delivery or someone got injured. But the instant she was better than the rest of us? She left us behind.”
His expression is—unhappy. Fals shakes his head and stares at his worn shoes, looking more worn and upset than I’ve ever seen him. I stare at him, not sure what to say.
Part of me wants to mock him, to ask him what he expected. But I don’t. Fals is a good Runner, and he believed in working together. That Persua threw him and every one of her friends under the bus the instant she rose above them doesn’t surprise me.
What does surprise me is how quickly Fals was replaced in the Guild’s hierarchy. He’s the most senior Runner, and up until me and Persua, he was the best in the local area. Does that mean nothing to them?
What should I say? I think for a second, and then jerk my head.
“Come on, let’s get a drink.”
He’s surprised, but accepts after a moment. I lead Fals at a quick jog down the street. Another good thing. Runners don’t walk if we have a choice, so we get to the Frenzied Hare in a third as much time as it would take if Erin and I went*.
*Especially because she’ll stop and talk to everyone she knows. Oh, hey Wesle! How’s being a guard? Hey Agnes! Out for a stroll? Hey Mr. Dog! Why don’t I stop for five minutes and scratch you between the ears!
Agnes recognizes me on sight, and in a moment she has one of the barmaids find me and Fals a table. I order a mild ale and he chooses a ‘Firebird’, which is some kind of a local drink. It’s quite a bit stronger than my drink, which makes my eyebrows shoot up.
“You’re not planning on running today?”
“I don’t fancy going to another city for requests, and the Guild here is all messed up.”
Fals shakes his head as he downs half of the fiery drink served to him and drinks from a glass of water quickly. He shakes his head as I sip my drink.
“Not having a good day?”
“Try week and a half. Ever since Persua got her Skill.”
“Huh. I’d have thought you’d be glad to be rid of her, even if she did abandon everyone here.”
“I suppose that’s the one upside. She’ll be running cross-continent deliveries if she makes Courier, and even if she doesn’t, she’ll probably move up north where there’s more work.”
Fals sighs as he sips at his drink again. His face is a bit red, but he still looks…morose. Yes, that’s the word for it. He looks morose, beaten down, depressed. After a few more minutes, he tells me why.
“It’s just a bit frustrating. I’ve been running and leveling up as a [Runner] for the last…must be sixteen years already. I was the best in the area until you showed up, but you trained to be as fast as you are, so I don’t mind. All my Skills are stamina-based and defensive, anyways. But Persua gets lucky one time and suddenly she’s a better Runner than I am.”
“Isn’t that the way the system works?”
“Yes. No. There’s always chance in how the Skills get assigned, but there’s a pattern to things! You put in the hard work, you get more Skills. But sometimes people can just get—lucky! And it’s not fair, damn it!”
He waves for another drink, jaw set. I feel for him; he’s going through what I felt not too long ago. What I struggle with now, to be honest. It just bites him harder, because he’s in the system and still not getting rewarded.
“I’d say relax. Don’t worry about it. Soon Persua will be gone, and you’ll be the best Runner again. Well, aside from me. The Guild will be fawning all over you soon enough.”
Fals stares at me and then laughs.
“It’s odd hearing you be the voice of reason. But you’re right. It’s just depressing seeing Persua of all people become so successful. If it was someone like Garia, I’d be cheering her on. I wish it had been her, to be honest. She could use the help.”
I frown over my drink. It’s not even half empty and Fals is on his second tumbler. He’s really upset. I guess I can listen; I was going to find Garia anyway, and she might be in here later.
“What’s wrong with Garia? Is she hurt? Or is it something else?”
“She’s had problems of her own. Garia’s a good Runner, Ryoka, you know that. She can haul as much as a horse around, but she’s slow. And sometimes—she gets lost.”
The young man in front of me shakes his head, shoulders sagging. His words make me sit up in my chair.
“Lost? What do you mean?”
He waves towards the window. Ivolethe rustles around in my pouch and I order a bowl of nuts to dump in there to keep her calm.
“It’s the snow. Everything looks the same to her—she loses track of the road. Her eyesight isn’t as good as yours or mine, that’s the problem.”
Eyesight problems? Why would—oh. They don’t have glasses here. Or do they?
“Isn’t there a—a spell that could help her out with that? Improve her vision?”
“Oh, it’s not a matter of how far she can see.”
Fals flicks his wrist dismissively.
“If it were, there are spectacles—although it would be hard for her to wear those clumsy things while running—or she could buy an enchanted pair. Pricey, but she could save up. Her problem is that she can’t tell the difference between white and grey, you see? If she’s on the road and it’s just snowed—”
Color blindness. Oh. I close my eyes. There’s nothing I can do about that. Fals nods wearily.
“Everyone’s got problems, Ryoka. Garia’s a good Runner, but winter is tough for her.”
“Sounds like it.”
I sigh. I haven’t been a good friend—a friend at all to these people, have I?
“I should hang out with her more. Talk to her. I know she’s wanted to go on a delivery with me; I could do that now and then.”
“Would you? She’d love that. In fact, she’s invited me over to stay at her parent’s farm—thanks for helping her out after she got injured. I’d go, but…it would be better if two of us went rather than just me.”
He pauses delicately and I consider the invitation. He’s saying he doesn’t like Garia, which is fair enough, I guess. It’s not as if he has to like her, and he’s still a good friend to her. And as for me?
“Why the hell not? I’ll tag along sometime. Can I bring a friend?”
“Interesting way of putting it. I’m sure Garia wouldn’t mind the company, and she tells me her folks are just as friendly as she is. I’ll ask her about it when I see her.”
“She might come walking in here soon enough. She usually eats here—more often now that there’s a new cook. Were you waiting for her?”
“What? No, I was going to see you.”
Fals pauses, cup touching his mouth. He lowers it and smacks his head.
“What? Oh, of course! Dead gods, I’ll start forgetting my own name soon enough.”
He puts down his drink and leans across the table to me, smiling. Suddenly I remember that Fals doesn’t like Garia. He likes me. At least, I think he did at one point. Fuck. What’s he going to—
“You know those adventurers you were hanging out with? The ah, Horns?”
My thoughts freeze. I focus on Fals.
“Yes. What about them?”
“I was just in Ocre, and I heard of a big celebration that was thrown in Remendia. I missed the festivities—but apparently the city was celebrating a group of adventurers who just completed a dungeon crawl. They came out with a lot of loot. And guess what they were calling themselves?”
I sit back in my chair, too shocked for words. The Horns of Hammerad? Gerial, Calruz, and—
No, no. They’re dead. It’s just Ceria now. I remember that Erin told me she’d formed another group with Pisces, Yvlon, and one of the Antinium. But I didn’t realize—
I’m standing before I know it. Fals looks at me, concerned. I stare towards the door. Rememdia? Not too far. It’s only midday—not even that. I can make it by tonight.
“I—I’ve got to go. I have to—can you tell Garia? And Erin?”
I look at Fals. He nods at me, understanding.
“I’ll let Garia know. But who’s Erin?”
“She’s the other innkeeper here!”
I shout at him as I run out the door. I’m already picking up the pace as I run down the street.
It’s too late now. They went through the dungeon and survived. Fals said that. It’s all over now; why am I running? But I have to see.
The last time I left them, they were all dead when I got back. All dead. I never said goodbye. But this—
They did it. I just have to see that. I have to look Ceria in the eye and congratulate her. I—
They really did it. I’m smiling, but my eyes are stinging as I race out of Celum and run through the snow.
The young woman ran through the snow, dashing through snow banks, feet flashing across the ground. She ran fast. Well, comparably fast. To the faeries flying high overhead, she was as slow as a falling snowflake.
Oh, if pressed the faeries would admit that Ryoka ran faster than the snow in a literal sense. But to their eyes she was like a rolling stone, or a scurrying rodent, or the slow orbit of the sun. She moved, yes, but she ran against the wind, blundering through nature. She did not dance upon the world like they did.
And the faeries did dance, or fly, or maybe both at the same time high overhead. Ryoka ran on, not hearing as they flew and argued with one of their number.
“Why are you following her? She’s done naught interesting for days, sister!”
One of the faeries complained to a faerie who flew closer to Ryoka than the rest. She sounded aggrieved, but the faerie in question—Ivolethe—just flicked her wings at her sister as she flew.
“Ah, buzz off if you feel like it! What I do is my own concern!”
“It’s ours if you want to give away our secrets!”
Another faerie called out, voice high and challenging. She was younger than Ivolethe—ancient by mortal standards, but younger in a way only the faeries would count. She flinched as Ivolethe glared at her.
“‘Tis my business! Interfere and I’ll pluck out your eyes you stripling whelp!”
She flew aggressively at the other faerie and the young one flew away, squeaking. But other faeries flew around Ivolethe, and they were not afraid.
“It is our business, sister. You pay too much attention to her.”
“I have cause.”
“An ‘if’ on the sea of possibilities is not enough. You risk too much—death, even!—for a mortal. It is not as if she is prophesied.”
“My life is my own. Or are ye a king of mine, to order me about?”
“Not I. But what if I was to tell our king of what ye do? What then?”
“Yes! Stop following the mortal like a silly pet! You stay in her belongings like a kept thing! Stop!”
More voices urged Ivolethe. She snarled and flew at them, but the faeries just flew around her, shouting.
“Yes, come away!”
“You went into the place of iron! Fool!”
“It was my choice! My risk! And ye hardly helped!”
Ivolethe roared at them, her voice lost to Ryoka as the girl leapt over a frozen log below. She pointed at the other faeries, accusing.
“What was that tripe ye brought to revenge me? Destroying a building? Throwing snow and ice at those fools? ‘Twas hardly an hour passed before you forswore vengeance and flew off as if naught had happened!”
One of the faeries laughed at Ivolethe’s anger.
“You went into the home of iron uninvited. You dared them and struck first. If you had died, we would have called for vengeance. But you are alive and only your pride is injured, so be content with that! And because of you, the mortal has a dire oath sworn against her, a prophecy of vengeance and blood!”
Ivolethe sighed. The faeries grew silent then; they respected oaths and vows of vengeance more than they did lives. After a while, the other faeries began to fly off. The ones around Ivolethe urged her to join them, but she just shook her head.
“A little longer. A little longer. What is time to we?”
“Careful, sister. Do not wait too long.”
“Teach her if you will! But there will be consequence and dire reckoning!”
Ivolethe nodded, watching her sisters fly off. She flew lower, and whispered the words.
“There always is. But it will come no matter what I do or do not.”
Then she flew next to Ryoka and had fun creating patches of ice to trip the girl up.
Ceria Springwalker was not a half-Elf for whom socializing came to naturally. She could not be a social butterfly, or social squirrel, or social anything, really. She had friends, and she could enjoy a night at a bar or one of the parties in Wistram easily enough, but she’d grown up solitary, and gotten used to being alone once she’d left her home.
Most half-Elves were like that. And so while Ceria was perfectly content to have people fawn over her and buy her drinks (or have her buy the bar a round of drinks), she eventually had to retire from the crowds and go to her room in the inn.
Below, she could hear the party still going on. Pieces and Ksmvr were busy entertaining the mass of people crowding the tables below, and she knew they had to be drinking heavily even now. Pisces could put away a surprising amount of liquor despite his thin frame, and Ksmvr seemed to be almost immune to the stuff.
The world swam in a not-unpleasant way as Ceria lay on her bed and grinned. Some people would say that drinking before the sun had even set—in the winter, no less—was unacceptable. But those people hadn’t just cleared an ancient dungeon and come back with treasure, now had they?
It had probably been a bad idea to drink the last two…three mugs, though. Ceria was just contemplating a nap when she heard a commotion on the stairs. She sat up warily, and her eyes flicked to the door. She had no gold on her—rather, she and the other Horns of Hammerad had a letter of accreditation magically sealed, allowing her to draw the coin she needed from the Merchant’s Guild if need be. It was useless to thieves, but they didn’t know that and already twice the bouncers at the inn had caught people trying to break into their rooms.
Were they now going for a more direct assault? Ceria focused on the [Ice Spike] spell although she really didn’t want to kill anyone. Maybe a blunted [Ice Shard] spell? Or just set their clothes on fire? She heard someone shouting, and then pounding feet. She raised her hand—
And Ryoka burst into the room. The young woman’s hair was a mess, and she was breathing heavily. Sweat ran down her forehead, despite her light attire. Her eyes fixed on Ceria, and the two young women stared at each other.
Ceria stood up slowly. She heard someone shout, and then Ryoka was tackled from the side. Ceria ran out and shouted at the men trying to wrestle Ryoka. She heard faint shouting, as if someone tiny and far away was trapped in Ryoka’s belt. It was almost like a buzz. But Ceria had no time to wonder what that was.
“Stop, stop! She’s a friend!”
She shouted at the inn’s security and eventually managed to get them off Ryoka. Ceria pulled the Runner up, surprised at how warm Ryoka felt. Then she managed to soothe the [Innkeeper], and got Ryoka into her room before she could start any more trouble.
“Bring up a tray of drinks, please. Something strong to take the chill off.”
Ceria closed the door and pulled a seat out for Ryoka. The taller Human girl sat, looking around. The room Ceria had been given was huge, the biggest in the inn, meant for a couple. She was alone in it, befitting of her role as the team’s leader. In truth, it was too big for Ceria but they weren’t planning on staying in the city for more than another night, and it was perfect for talking with Ryoka.
That was, if either of them could speak. At first Ceria was buzzing with questions—how had Ryoka heard they were here? How was Erin doing? Had she heard about the Goblin attack? What about Rags? But then she found herself tongue-tied, unable to say a word.
When had they last sat together in a room, the two of them? Ceria could remember it clearly. It had been the day they’d left Esthelm, the day Ryoka had unwisely picked a fight and the Horns of Hammerad and the other adventuring groups had gone to Liscor. So long ago. A lifetime ago.
Ryoka was thinking the same thing. She sat, looking Ceria up and down. Ceria saw her eyes linger on her skeletal hand and smiled just for a second. That had to be—
The words slipped out of Ceria in a gasp. She stared at Ryoka’s right hand, at the two healed stumps of scar tissue where her fingers should have been. Ryoka started, and held up her hand. She smiled, almost ruefully.
“I keep forgetting how many people haven’t seen this. Yeah, I lost my fingers.”
“How? Where? Was it on your delivery?”
“Yeah. The one south. It went…south.”
Ryoka laughed a bit while Ceria stared at her hand. She looked away, but then deliberately held her hand out to Ceria.
“It’s not exactly as bad as your hand, although I wish I’d kept the bones.”
Ceria gently reached out and touched Ryoka’s hand. She didn’t know what to say. Losing fingers was normal for an adventurers—it was all too easy to lose body parts when a monster was in your face. But it was never easy, not with a friend—
“It happened. There was nothing I could do to stop it.”
“A monster did it?”
“Goblin. Bit them right off.”
“Goblins—you mean, the ones that attacked Esthelm?”
“Sort of. It’s a long story.”
Ryoka’s expression closed off a bit. She looked pained, older. Ceria saw her shake her head.
“I’ll tell you later. I’m not here to dwell on my mistakes—and I’ve got a lot. I just had to come here, to see you.”
“You certainly did it dramatically. Couldn’t you have asked to see me rather than run up the stairs?”
The young woman grinned and shrugged, abashed.
“You’re a celebrity now. They were turning away everyone who wanted to talk to you. I don’t think they would have accepted my word that we were friends.”
Ceria laughed, and the hardest part was over. She looked at Ryoka, marveling.
“Not a day’s passed since we got out of Albez, and you find us. How?”
“A friend of mine heard a rumor about some Silver-rank team that cleared a dungeon. I raced over here, and every person on the street knew where you were staying.”
“Oh? So you know what we’ve been up to?”
“A bit. Just the important details. Although to hear other people say it, you guys went into the Ruins of Albez and slaughtered every monster you saw until you found a treasure vault.”
Ryoka grinned at Ceria. The half-Elf had to laugh.
“Hardly. We were digging around in that place aimlessly for over a week! If it weren’t for the map Olesm found—dead gods, there’s so much that has happened! Did you see Pisces and Ksmvr in the common room?”
“I did. They didn’t recognize me, though. Of course, they were both drunk.”
“Even Ksmvr? I might have to go down and see that.”
“He’s still drinking. I’m not sure if the Antinium can get alcohol poisoning, but you might need to stop him.”
“They’ve got antidotes for that. I’ll go down in a bit. For now—”
There was a polite knock at the door. Ceria broke off and got up. The [Innkeeper] himself was at the door with some drinks for her and Ryoka. She took it and thanked him before sitting with Ryoka at the table again. The young woman shook her head as she eyed the stiff beverage.
“They treat you like royalty, don’t they?”
“Anything for the heroic adventurers. I haven’t felt this pampered—ever.”
Ceria sighed as she stared at her drink. She should have ordered water, not more alcohol. She paused, and looked at Ryoka. The other girl was staring at her.
“Nothing. It’s just—you guys really did it, didn’t you?”
She looked at Ceria, something in her eyes. Ceria Springwalker shook her head, smiling, feeling something in her heart move.
“It wasn’t nearly as easy as the rumors make it out to be. We nearly died several times. Yvlon is getting bits of metal cut out of her arm as we speak. We’re not even sure if we can remove the armor without damaging her arm…”
“But you did it.”
“Yes. We did.”
How she wished. How she wished she could have said that to Ryoka at another time, in another place. In an inn in Liscor, laughing with delight as the other adventurers celebrated down below. But that moment would never come.
And yet, she knew that Ryoka was thinking the same thing. Seized by a sudden impulse, Ceria grabbed her mug. She lifted it.
“To the old Horns of Hammerad. We did it.”
The two clinked mugs and then drank. Ceria gulped the strong alcohol down and then sighed.
“It doesn’t feel real. I keep pinching myself, and I still can’t believe we’re alive.”
“You’re telling me? I just heard about all this, and I’m still in shock.”
Ceria laughed lightly.
“Well, we’ve had a day. I just keep thinking I’m going to wake up in the pit again or—”
She paused, and ignored Ryoka’s inquiring look.
“Anyways, the rumors are partly true. We’re rich, we’re famous, and we got out of Albez with a load of treasure and some magical artifacts. Pisces and Ksmvr are trying to get rid of it all today, but we’re set for a long time.”
That was all Ryoka said, but Ceria heard everything she meant in it. She nodded, and then remembered.
“I’ve got money for Erin too—we talked, and there’s forty gold coins waiting for her.”
Ryoka whistled softly.
“That’s a lot more than she said she lent you.”
“We’d give her even more, but we don’t have that much gold to toss around.”
“The rumor I heard coming into the city was that you and the others were set up for life.”
The half-Elf has to laugh at that, ruefully.
“We were. We pulled in nearly a hundred pounds worth of gold and gems, did you know? That would be enough to outfit us in style or pay for our retirement—Pisces, Yvlon and Ksmvr’s, at least, I’d run out before I died of old age—but we spent it instead.”
“On what? Magical equipment?”
“No. It’s going to the people who died in Liscor.”
Silence descended again, but not for too long. Ceria explained.
“We’re giving them each a share. If we can, that is. Direct family—lovers—it’s hard to confirm, but we’ll give all the relatives of the dead what we can. It’s not enough, but it’s something.”
“Noble of you. Not sure it’s practical.”
“Neither am I. But Yvlon’s said she’ll forfeit her share of the magical artifacts if need be. I’m not sure it’ll come to that, but she’ll have last pick at any rate.”
“Artifacts? You mentioned those. You came away with more than just gold and jewels?”
“In a sense.”
Ceria grimaced as she explained what they’d recovered.
“Burnt and mangled, mostly. But they’re powerful. The trouble is, we can’t figure out what they do or if they’re still dangerous.”
“I can see that’s a problem. Can’t you hire another [Mage] to analyze the stuff, though?”
Ceria shook her head.
“Not in this city. There’s no one high-level enough to tell us what the items do, or whether they can be repaired. Pisces and I have had a look at the enchantments, but the more complex a spell is, the harder it is to…untangle the individual spells I guess is the best way of putting it. And since they’re all damaged, it’s even more of a mess.”
“Magical weapons, huh?”
“And a bag and the pack of a dead adventurer. Frankly, I suspect those two might be the more valuable pieces of loot. I’m sure the bag is actually a bag of holding, and if that’s the case, who knows what could be in there?”
“But you haven’t opened it?”
“Too risky. The bag and the pack are both trapped, at least, so we think. There’s a binding spell that prevents both from being opened—or damaged—and I don’t want to mess with either one. If the wards are anything like the dungeon we just went through, I wouldn’t want the bag opened even if I were on the other side of the city.”
“Was it really that dangerous down there?”
Ryoka looked inquiringly at Ceria. The half-Elf hesitated. She didn’t want to lie, but she didn’t want to tell the truth either. Even remembering the ordeal made her shudder.
“It was—bad. Very bad.”
She didn’t press for details, but Ryoka’s expression told Ceria she would listen. And Ceria knew she had to tell her. Slowly, she began to relate the entire tale to Ryoka, skipping over only the parts that were too hard to tell her, the details of the pit.
“Near the end, I think we were all a bit insane, even after the spell had ended. We made a lot of bad mistakes, and we lost the majority of the treasure because we made a mistake.”
“It wasn’t your fault. None of you were thinking straight.”
“That’s true enough, but we should have fallen back. If we’d just taken the time…”
Again, Ceria had to make herself break off. There was no use going over the moment again and again. She turned the topic away from the past and onto the future instead. She made her tone lighter.
“After Yvlon gets treated and we’ve had another day to rest, we’re going to have to think hard about what we want to do next.”
“As adventurers, you mean?”
“Not that. I mean, not yet. I think we’re all in this now; we’ve been bit by the adventuring beast. But we need to improve ourselves first. We all leveled up from that dungeon—several times actually! But if we want to continue, we need to get those artifacts analyzed. They’re the difference between us being Silver-rank and Gold-rank.”
Ryoka nodded, thinking hard.
“Any idea how you could do that? I have one idea, but it would be…risky…”
“No need for risk. I know how to get everything looked at. It’s just a matter of time and effort.”
Ceria drained most of her mug, grimacing as she remembered it wasn’t water she was drinking.
“One place where we know we’d find people able to dispel the magic and maybe even repair the artifacts is Invrisil.”
“The City of Adventurers?”
“Everyone just has to mention that.”
The half-Elf rolled her eyes and laughed with Ryoka. But then she grew serious again.
“Yes. It’s one of the most famous cities on the continent for a reason. It’s the center of the Human lands, and famous teams pass through there all the time. If there were any place aside from Wistram where we’d get the gear looked at, it’s there.”
“Sounds good to me. Only one problem though—isn’t Invrisil over four hundred miles north of here?”
“Six hundred? Something huge. Anyways, none of us want to make the journey, but that’s the place we have to be. A trip would take weeks—maybe as much as a month and it would take far too much coin and time, not to mention the danger if people knew what we were carrying. But…”
“Well, we were talking about it last night. This morning, rather, while we were getting over our last hangover. If it’s too much time and effort for the four of us to go north, why not hire someone who can get there faster? Someone we can trust? They could take the gold and get the gear analyzed, and then send us a [Message] spell and ask what we want to do and bring the gear back. Of course, we’d have to have complete faith in the Runner brave enough to do all that…”
At first, Ryoka’s expression was intent, but then her face went slack with surprise. By the time Ceria had finished, she was shaking her head.
“That’s a lot of trust to put in a Runner. I wouldn’t trust anyone like that, myself.”
“Are you sure?”
Ceria teased Ryoka.
“You’re the person who saved the original Horns of Hammerad all that time ago. And you went into the crypts to rescue me. I’d trust you with our gear and coin, and so would Yvlon. Pisces is on the fence, and Ksmvr just doesn’t know you that well. But if we got you an escort—another Runner who can fight maybe—the real issue is how you’ll carry all that gear without attracting attention.”
The young woman’s expression was bemused.
“I…may have something that could help with that. But before we go to all that trouble, I might have an even better idea. I happen to know a local expert in magic myself.”
“I’ll introduce you.”
To Ceria’s incredulous surprise, Ryoka unbuckled her Runner’s belt and laid it on the table. She called out, and to Ceria’s astonishment she saw one of the compartments was moving.
“Hey. Ivolethe. You can come out here.”
The large pouch vibrated and Ceria leaned back as she heard a voice! It was a voice, but something was very strange about it. She heard someone speaking, that much was obvious. And yet—
She heard the words. It sounded like—‘are ye sure?’. But it couldn’t be. Ceria rubbed at her ears; the sound was almost ethereal, if that could apply to a voice. It felt almost as though she was hearing the words in her mind, like a stray thought. Then Ryoka opened the pouch and something flew out.
A Frost Faerie, a Winter Sprite, one of the beings of winter Ceria had seen every year, flew into the air, whirling as vapor trails formed behind her. Ceria gasped and pushed her chair back in instinctive surprise. And fear. She hadn’t forgotten how the faeries had attacked her last time she’d met, and all half-Elves had learned very early on that the Winter Sprites were not friendly towards them.
But something was different about this faerie. She wasn’t the half-blurred form Ceria saw in the sky. Ceria knew the faeries had their own glamor, an illusion she could only partly see through thanks to her Elven heritage. But in the confines of the room, the magic that kept her from being seen and heard was gone.
She was—real. So real and delicate and wondrous that Ceria couldn’t believe her eyes. But what her eyes saw made her stare even harder.
She saw something else, behind the form Ryoka saw. She saw a flash of color—a face, far larger than the tiny faerie’s wrinkling her nose at Ceria in displeasure. The elfin being flicked her hair—
And then the image was gone. The tiny faerie flipped her hair, flipped Ceria off, and then jumped up onto the mug with the drinks. She dunked her head in it and drank, lowering the level of the liquid quite a bit. Then she sat on the cup and glared at both Ceria and Ryoka.
“I do not wish to speak to the offspring of whores and slatterns.”
“That’s a rude way to say hello.”
Ryoka glared at the tiny faerie whom she introduced as Ivolethe. Ceria just stared, awestruck. When she finally found her voice, all she could do was stammer.
“How did you—do you know what—Ryoka?”
The young woman was grinning like a child holding a huge sweet.
“She’s a friend of mine, Ceria. A Frost Faerie. And she’s teaching me their magic.”
Ceria’s eyes turned back to Ivolethe. The tiny faerie made another rude gesture.
“Don’t stare at me so, bastard-daughter!”
The words stung and brought Ceria back to earth. Ryoka frowned hard at the tiny faerie and pushed her into the cup. Ivolethe spluttered and shook liquid off her wings, shouting in outrage.
“Stop that. Ceria’s done nothing wrong. Why do your people hate her so much?”
The faerie sneered at Ryoka.
“We don’t hate her, fool! We hate what she has become, what her existence means! Ask her about her people and their sin!”
Ceria bit her lip as the faerie spoke. She didn’t know about sin—but she knew what the faerie meant. Ryoka glanced at her face and scowled at Ivolethe again.
“Stop being rude. I asked you to come out because I thought you could help, not shout insults. Calm down.”
“Would you like a drink?”
Ceria offered her mug to the faerie. Ivolethe snorted and kicked the mug back.
“I won’t drink from your cup, half-breed!”
Ryoka’s eyes narrowed.
“Ivolethe. She offered you her cup. That was an act of good faith.”
“I piss in your good faith!”
The faerie shouted at Ceria, but Ryoka flicked her back into the mug again. When she came out shrieking in outrage, Ceria just sighed and spoke to Ryoka.
“I don’t think it’s worth it, Ryoka.”
“I do. And if Ivolethe is my friend, she’d heed my request.”
Something about the way Ryoka phrased her statement spoke to Ceria. It certainly had an impact on Ivolethe. The faerie stared up at her, incredulous.
“Ye’d invoke our friendship? For her?”
“Absolutely. She’s my friend as well. And all I’m asking is if you’d consider looking at her magical artifacts.”
“No! Nae! Never a million times over!”
“Never a million times and one!”
Ceria stared at the two arguing and rubbed her eyes. She stared at her mug and decided she wasn’t doing any more drinking, possibly ever. Ryoka kept pressing the insistent Frost Faerie.
“Ivolethe, I’m asking you as a friend. Unless your friendship with me isn’t worth that much?”
Ivolethe’s eyes narrowed dangerously, and her voice deepened far more than should be possible.
“Play no games with me, mortal. Friendship is not a bargaining tool.”
Ryoka actually looked chastened. Ivolethe fanned her wings out, sniffed, and then seemed to relent. She didn’t look directly at Ceria, but her tone made it clear she was speaking to both girls.
“Even if I did consent, my help would avail ye naught.”
“Why’s that? Can’t you read magic? I thought faeries knew more magic than any mortal.”
“True, but what we understand is not your odd system. I could read the flow of magic within such objects, but knowing the ken of such strange things is beyond me. The wh—the halfling is right. Find a proper spellcaster to do your work rather than bother me.”
With that, the faerie jumped back into the pouch and closed it in a huff, pausing only to drink Ryoka’s cup dry. Ryoka stared at Ceria and shrugged.
“Well, it was worth a shot.”
Ceria stared at her friend and shook her head very slowly.
“You’re going to have to explain what happened to you while I was away.”
The young woman grinned.
“I can do that. It’ll take a while, though.”
“We’ve got time. You could tell all of us over dinner. We could visit Yvlon then hear it from you.”
“Good idea. And while we do, I can talk to you about Erin.”
“What about Erin? Is she okay?”
“She’s in Celum right now.”
“I’ll tell you the entire story, but the long and short of it is that she needs an escort. And we also need for Pisces to track down Toren—the skeleton.”
Ceria’s mind raced ahead of Ryoka’s answer and she groaned even as Ryoka told her.
“He’s done it. Pisces actually—no, maybe he just made one that could think. But that crazy fool actually—”
Ryoka frowned as she followed Ceria out the door. The half-Elf stomped down the corridor, suddenly in a foul mood.
“What’s he done? What’s this about Toren?”
“We’ll get Pisces to explain right now. If he’s not sober I’ll freeze him until he is. It’s his stupid idea with the undead. It goes all the way back to when we were at Wistram.”
Ceria paused as she reached the stairs leading down. She halted Ryoka silently. The young woman looked at her, and she had the presence of mind to whisper.
“What? What’s wrong?”
The half-Elf frowned. She lowered her voice to a whisper as well.
“Pisces and Ksmvr were down there with half the city drinking and having a party.”
“Why’s it so quiet?”
They exchanged a look. Ceria raised her skeletal hand, calling magic into it. Ryoka pulled a bottle from her belt. The two crept down the stairs.
The two were ready for anything—bandits, a crazed mob, enemy mages, monsters—even an evil undead skeleton. But neither of them had expected the smartly dressed, professional [Butler] that stood in the middle of the common room, waiting for them to come down.
He was the odd thing out in the world of celebration and cheer. Pisces, Ksmvr, and the many, many guests in the inn were all paused in the midst of their reveling, staring at the man in his black uniform and trim mustache. He bowed to Ryoka, arm over his stomach as she descended, staring at him.
Ceria looked over at her friend as every eye turned to the Runner. Ryoka had a dark look on her face as she stared at the man. She crossed her arms.
The [Butler] straightened and gave her a dignified nod of the head. His words were crisp and precise.
“My name is Reynold, Miss Griffin. I am a [Butler] in direct employ of the Reinhart house. I have come here at the orders of Lady Magnolia.”
Ceria had never wanted a [Butler]—she’d never considered even having one before now. But now she wanted one. She stared at the man, mind buzzing with the implications of what he’d just said. Lady Magnolia? She wanted Ryoka? Why?
Ryoka’s face was completely hostile as she stared at Reynold.
“Oh? And what does Magnolia want with me?”
The man gestured towards the door. Through it, Ryoka could see a carriage, sitting horseless on the street. But it was not a simple carriage. It had to be one of the nobility’s carriages, the kind pulled by magic creations similar in nature to the fire construct she’d faced in the dungeon.
“The coach awaits you outside. If you will come with us, we will bring you to the estate of Magnolia Reinhart.”
“And if I refuse?”
Ceria stared at her friend in shock. But Ryoka looked quite serious. Reynold nodded once.
“I will not force you to come with us.”
Ryoka sneered down at the [Butler]. He raised one finger, cutting off her next words.
“However, I must caution you that Lady Magnolia did not send just me.”
Outside the inn, the doors of the carriage slowly opened. Ceria saw someone emerge from the carriage, but it was not Lady Magnolia. Not Magnolia, and yet a tiny bell in Ceria’s head—her [Dangersense]—rang the instant she laid eyes on the woman.
Ressa, the head [Maid] in Lady Magnolia’s employ, stepped through the doors, staring around the room full of silent people as if they were specks of dirt and she had a dust cloth. She stopped, her black and white dress swirling around her as she met Ryoka’s eyes across the crowded room.
The older woman did not smile. She didn’t frown either; she just looked at Ryoka with cold eyes, weighing her up and down and finding her wanting as before. Ressa’s face was implacable as she looked Ryoka straight in the eye and spoke.
“Lady Reinhart is expecting you.”