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I actually like to eat green apples more than red ones. Hi everyone, I'm pirateaba, author of Pirate Blog and writer of books! One book, so far. Anyways, all I do revolves around a strange girl with a sword: Pirate! Check out my daily blog or if you're so inclined, my writings about Pirate both as a fully-fledged novel or as free short stories! http://www.amazon.com/dp/B017WV4FRS https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/595416

3.05 L

The day after Ryoka’s encounter with Persua and the day before everything else happened, a [Message] was sent to Celum addressed to Ryoka and Erin. Two spells, actually. They were duly recorded and when Ryoka remembered to stop by the Mage’s Guild, they were delivered to both girls at the counter with no incident.

Erin and Ryoka stared at the short piece of paper and the neat, clearly legible handwriting of the scribe. It was a short message, but hit all the points Erin had been privately worrying about.

 

Erin, Mrsha is with me and Olesm is keeping an eye on your inn. M is worried, but adjusting. All is well; do not get stabbed by Goblins. I have told Klbksctch and Relc. Stay safe,

–Selys.

 

Erin breathed a sigh of relief as she looked at the message while Ryoka looked at the short reply she’d received from Krshia.

 

We will await the delivery. The others will abide until then.

 

The other girl didn’t exactly sigh in relief, but it put her mind at ease. Both young women left the Mage’s Guild without sending a return message, and met with Ivolethe and Garia to go about the rest of their day. While the situation was not ideal, Erin and Ryoka agreed that things would keep a little while before they would need to return.

However, all those in both Celum and Liscor had omitted one person in their exchange of messages. Selys had completely forgotten about her while attempting to deal with a restless and upset Mrsha, and Krshia was too busy taking care of her nephew Tkrn who was lying in bed moaning about his paw. Erin was too busy thinking about Toren to remember, and Ryoka didn’t really care. Thus, no one had mentioned the last small detail left unresolved in Erin’s inn.

They had all completely forgotten about Lyonette.

 

—-

 

Lyonette sat in the empty inn that belonged to Erin Solstice and stared at the shuttered windows. It was dark. The room was empty and quiet and the falling snow outside did not disturb the suffocating stillness of the building. Nevertheless, Lyonette stayed still, refusing to move. She was not crying, and she wasn’t having hysterics. She was above such common reactions.

But she was afraid. She could see snow falling between one of the cracks in the shutters. It was the only one not fully covering the glass windows. She knew she should get up and close it fully, but she didn’t want to. Fear held her down.

Lyonette, or Lyon as she now grudgingly answered to, watched the snow slowly build up outside. Flakes fell down from the overcast sky, disappearing into the blank landscape. She watched the snow fall and wondered when it would stop. Part of her wanted it never to stop, as if time was tied to the snow. So long as it fell, time wouldn’t pass and she wouldn’t have to confront the truth.

Erin Solstice was gone. She had left her inn one day and never come back. She was gone, and now so was the cute little Gnoll child named Mrsha. Ryoka Griffin, the surly Runner girl had left too, and all the guests had stopped arriving. Now the inn was deserted, save for Lyonette. And if the Goblins came back, she would just be a corpse. Or worse.

In the growing cold, Lyonette shivered. She hadn’t dared light a fire, even though the winter chill meant she had bundled herself in every article of clothing Erin had given her. She had even dragged a blanket downstairs and she was shivering in it. She could see her breath sometimes in the air—if she held her breath and then slowly breathed out, she could see it as a small vapor trail.

This was a new discovery for Lyonette. She had seldom been in any place where she was this cold for this long. She had always been taken care of by a bevy of servants; exposure to potentially lethal cold like this was unthinkable.

But her servants were on another continent and Lyonette was alone. And Erin, the only person who had taken care of her, was gone. She might have been killed by the Goblin army. They had gone north, hadn’t they?

At that thought Lyonette shuddered uncontrollably and nearly fell out of her chair. The Goblin army. They had come through Liscor’s path, a huge army of them, just like those led by the Goblin Lords of the past. She hadn’t seen anything like a Goblin Lord, but the army had been enough to give her waking nightmares.

She remembered that night vividly. She had been sleeping in her bed the day after Selys had taken Mrsha. Lyonette hadn’t been sleeping well; she’d barely gotten to bed after the female drake had finally dragged the Gnoll forcibly out of the inn, ignoring the howls and shrieks of distress the Gnoll cub had made. And then she had heard the high-pitched shouting, and woken from her slumber. A minute later Lyonette had realized it wasn’t shouting she was hearing, but the Goblins.

An army had marched out of the darkness, through the falling snow, hundreds, thousands of them. Some had been holding torches, but the vast mass of their number had been mostly shadows, rapidly traversing the deep snow, laughing and shrieking as the torchlight glinted off of metal.

A Goblin army. The bane of civilization. Lyonette had been too afraid to count and see if there were really hundreds of thousands of them like those that had marched in the last Goblin King’s army. The instant she had realized the Goblins were moving towards Liscor, she had barricaded the door and fled upstairs to her room.

Lyon had hid in her room on the second floor of the inn, hiding under the bed with her heart hammering out of her chest as she heard the Goblin host marching past. Her first thought had been that the Goblins were attacking Liscor. But they hadn’t. Instead, the Goblin army had moved around the city on the eastern side. They were headed north, to the Human lands, and that had forced them to bypass Liscor.

The Goblins had passed by the walls of the city in one mass, loosing arrows up at the defenders while the [Guardsmen] held their ground behind the battlements. A few volleys had been loosed in return, but the main deterrent had come in the form of a glowing orb of crackling lightning that had formed over the southern wall. It had sent bolts of lightning shooting down towards the Goblins, who had scattered and retreated to a safer distance.

Lyonette had recognized the wards of course. They were standard among most large cities that faced regular monster attacks. And they were a sufficient deterrent for the Goblin army, for the mass of monsters didn’t stop to retaliate again and disappeared down the northern road. Lyonette had watched the dark shapes vanish and waited even longer until the last eerie howls had been covered up by silence. But she had hid in the inn until the morning, and many hours after that.

After that—silence. Lyonette had stayed in the inn for two more days, only opening the door once when a strange Drake she vaguely recognized tried to enter. He hadn’t said much—his name was Okresm or something and he had left as soon as he realized Lyon was still living here. Rather, she had chased him out.

Now Lyonette was regretting that, however slightly. It had been days since the Goblin army had passed, and the young woman had heard nothing about Erin’s whereabouts. For all intents and purposes, she had vanished.

What had happened? Ryoka had left with a few curt words saying she was going to look for Erin. Then Selys had decided to take Mrsha into the city and they’d gone. And then—

Nothing. Where was Erin? Had Ryoka found her, or was she still looking? Lyonette was in the dark about everything, and with only her fears to speak to her day after day, her paranoia had mounted.

Erin was never coming back. She might be, but she could be hurt, or wounded. What if a monster had killed her, or her skeleton? Maybe it had shown its true colors and stabbed her when her back was turned, or simply abandoned Erin in the middle of nowhere. She could be dead! Or eaten! Or—

Lyonette imagined Goblins doing all the horrible things her [Governess] had told her about, or what she’d heard when eavesdropping on the palace staff. Erin might have run into the Goblin army. She could be dying right this instant.

That didn’t inspire Lyon to go out searching for Erin like that rude Ryoka had done of course. She wouldn’t know where to begin, and the Goblins had probably eaten her. Besides, Lyon didn’t owe her anything. Erin Solstice was a rude peasant who treated no one with respect and was too trusting for her own good. Anything that befell her was probably her own fault.

But Lyonette had to admit, the inn had never seemed so dark when Erin Solstice was around. And it had never been quite so…

Empty.

It was as if the life of the inn itself had gone with Erin. The day after she’d left, all the guests had stopped arriving. That may have had to do with the Goblins and the lack of any lights in the windows—Lyonette had stopped lighting the fire in the common room of the inn—but in an instant, the bustle of the building had ceased completely.

At first Lyonette had been impatient, waiting for Erin’s return. Then she had been afraid. Now, after many days, she was just…quiet. Lyonette sat in the inn day after day, only leaving now and then to fetch some water to drink or use the outhouse. But the longer she sat in the dead building, the more she knew something had to change.

It wasn’t a quick realization. If anything, it was a thought born out of several nights of sleeping with her back to the door, wide-eyed, flinching at any random sound in the night. It was finding Erin’s little money stash and realizing most of her gold coins had been given away to the Horns of Hammerad or on Erin’s person when she disappeared. It was staring at the empty pantry and feeling the small hole in her stomach where food should and always had been.

Lyonette had cried herself to sleep the first night she’d gone to sleep with her belly writhing with hunger; the next she’d just slept, too exhausted to even weep. Six days after Erin had vanished, Lyonette knew what had to be done. She looked up and watched another wisp of warmth vanish into the dark room of The Wandering Inn. She knew.

Erin Solstice wasn’t coming back. Or if she was, it might be tomorrow, a week from now, or months. Either way, if she was gone for even a little while longer, it would be too late. So. Lyonette knew what had to be done while Erin was gone.

She had to work. Or she would starve.

It was a foreign concept to Lyon in many ways, a hateful one. Demeaning. But it didn’t change the facts. She was running out of Erin’s coin, and she had even less food in the building. She had to work. Erin’s inn had sustained itself by selling food to customers; she had to continue that.

There were no other options Lyonette could think of. She couldn’t envision herself making her way north through the snow, and the Goblins—no. And she was banned from the city, so that left only the inn.

Again, this wasn’t a conclusion Lyonette came to willingly, but after two days of eating the last crumbs of frozen cheese and equally hard bread that was the last of the food in the pantry, Lyonette was desperate. That was how she found herself waiting at the door when Olesm, the Drake, cautiously broke his way through the snow to her inn.

“You! You there, Drake!”

He nearly jumped out of his scales when Lyonette threw the door open. She had seen the Drake come by the inn every day, or every other day at the latest. He usually just peered hopefully through one of the windows for a few minutes before leaving, usually quicker if he saw her face.

“Oh. It’s you. Um, Lyon, wasn’t it?”

Lyonette gave the Drake a big smile and deliberately refrained from correcting him on her proper name.

“That is right. And you are…Olesm, correct?”

“That’s right.”

The Drake coughed and looked into the dark inn hopefully.

“Is uh, Erin not back yet?”

“No. She hasn’t returned.”

“Ah. I see.”

The Drake hesitated.

“Well, I won’t be getting in your way. I’ll ah, drop by tomorrow, then.”

“No! Don’t do that! I mean—why don’t you stay here?”

“What?”

Lyonette opened the door a bit wider. The Drake blinked into the dark room, and Lyonette realized that he probably couldn’t even see inside.

“It’s a bit dark, but I’ll start the fire. You can stay and—and order something!”

The Drake looked doubtfully at Lyonette as she smiled desperately at him.

“But Erin isn’t here right now. She’s the innkeeper.”

“Yes, but I’m still here, aren’t I?”

“I guess you are.”

“Well then. Why not come in? Erin’s inn—is still her inn even without her, isn’t it?”

“That might be true?”

Olesm frowned. He looked backwards towards the city as if he was considering leaving, then he reluctantly shrugged.

“I guess I could stay for a bit…”

“Good!”

Lyonette nearly gasped with relief. She opened the door and the Drake stepped in. He shivered; the inside of the inn was scarcely warmer than the outside.

“It’s freezing in here! Why isn’t the fire on?”

“I…forgot.”

Lyonette pretended to fuss with some kindling in the fireplace. Then she struck some sparks with the flint and steel and the fire flickered into life. Olesm watched the small flames consume the shaved wood and begin to eat away at the larger sticks Lyonette had arranged in the fireplace as he stared around the empty building.

“It’s so dark. And gloomy. Uh, not that that’s a bad thing. I guess when Erin’s not here…”

He cleared his throat.

“Did—did you say you had something to eat? I wouldn’t mind a snack.”

“Food? Oh, now that you mention it—”

Lyonette turned as casually as possible and gave Olesm her best contrite expression.

“I’m sorry, but I forgot—there’s nothing left in the pantry. With Erin gone, there’s no one to go shopping.”

“Not you?”

The Drake frowned at Lyon. She hesitated.

“I can’t go into the city. I’m banned.”

“Oh yeah. Right. You’re the thief.”

“I—”

Lyonette hesitated. Then she slowly closed her mouth. She was the thief, even if she didn’t have the [Thief] class. She hadn’t seen herself as one, but the Drakes and Gnolls thought of her that way. She had to humor him.

“I am. That is right.”

She tried to look apologetic as possible.

“It’s all my fault, of course. I would go shopping, but I can’t. So there’s nothing to eat here.”

“Ah.”

The Drake just stared at Lyonette. She cleared her throat again.

“I don’t know what I’ll do without food. If I can’t serve people, how will I keep the inn open until Erin gets back?”

“You? You’re going to keep The Wandering Inn open?”

The look Olesm gave Lyon was full of disbelief. She gritted her teeth, but nodded.

“It’s my job. I am a [Barmaid] after all. And I’m Erin Solstice’s employee. She said so herself. And what sort of…help would I be if I didn’t keep her inn open and earn her money while she was gone?”

“I suppose that makes sense.”

Olesm frowned as he scratched at his chin. Lyonette nodded, the desperate smile still fixed on her face.

“So I need someone to help deliver food to the inn while Erin’s gone. I’ll pay of course—and you can eat here as well!”

“Wait, what? You want me to bring you food?”

The Drake sat up in his chair and frowned hard at Lyonette. She nodded, keeping her eyes on him.

“You have to. Not cooked food; I’ll sell food here like Erin did. But you have to bring the supplies here so I can cook it. Or else I’ll starve. And you wouldn’t want that, would you?”

The Drake gave Lyonette a look that wasn’t quite as reassuring as she’d hoped. But he eventually agreed to find a way to get Lyonette more food.

“I guess I can make a few trips—but how will you keep the inn open? Without Erin, doesn’t this place lose a lot of its ah, attraction? Why would anyone come this far?”

“Why, because I’ll cook fine food of course, and serve people with grace and decorum!”

“Really? You?”

Olesm looked completely unconvinced. Lyonette ground her teeth, but she smiled at him.

“I do have a Skill in cooking.”

“You do?”

“Absolutely. And I’ve waited tables for nearly a month. You just bring the ingredients, and I’ll cook it. In fact, why don’t you bring some right now? I have money and a list right here…”

“Well, it’s sort of cold out—you mean now? What about—”

Olesm blinked as Lyonette thrust a sheet of parchment and some coins into his claws and practically pushed him out the door. She stared anxiously at him in the snow as he stared at the inn, and then watched him trudge slowly down towards the city, heart pounding all the while.

She’d done it! But the real test would be if he came back. Lyonette stared out the window at the faint shape of Olesm as he walked into the city, and then she sat at the window as the air in the room slowly warmed, staring fixedly at the gates.

It felt like forever and a half before she saw a burdened figure leave the city and start walking her way. It felt like even longer before the Drake struggled up the hill and exhaustedly dropped the packs full of ingredients on the doorstep as Lyonette flung open the door.

“Thank you so much for bringing everything here!”

“What? It was nothing. I mean, it was a bit heavy—I don’t suppose you have anything to drink?”

“I have to cook first.”

Lyonette was already busy opening the ties on the pack. Olesm nodded as he sagged into a chair.

“In that case, I could definitely use a bite to eat. Something hot.”

“Oh. Now?”

The Human girl stared at the Drake. He stared back.

“Yes. I mean, you are going to make food, right?”

“Of course. But—”

Lyonette hesitated.

“—I have to work on a few recipes first. Why don’t you come back two days from now? Then I’ll probably need some more ingredients. Or—you could return tonight if you want to buy something.”

The Drake looked indignantly at the bulging pack of supplies he’d brought.

“What? My meal’s not on the house?”

“No!”

Lyon glared at him. The Drake glared back.

“Okay, I guess I’ll come back later. I mean, if you’re not busy.”

“You do that. And remember, I’ll need more food soon! And tell your…friends. The Wandering Inn is open again!”

Lyon barely heard the door slam as Olesm walked out. She was too busy staring at the wonderful contents of the pack. Eggs, carefully wrapped to avoid breaking, fresh cheese—flour—her stomach growled uncontrollably and Lyonette’s hands shook.

Half of her wanted to scarf down everything raw, but she made herself drag everything into the kitchen and put all the ingredients away first. She had to do this right.

Almost mechanically, the girl pulled out ingredients and set them on the counter as the fire she’d started in the kitchen began to warm the air here too. She blew on her hands, ignoring her empty stomach as she prepared herself. She was going to cook. She, Lyonette du Marquis, was about to make a meal.

Hot shame and burning desire stole over her in waves, but the emptiness in her stomach quashed all other feelings. Lyonette stared at the ingredients and imagined something basic. Pasta. She remembered the lovely, buttery noodles Erin had served to her and the other guests in the inn one night. She could do that, surely?

Lyon had [Basic Cooking] as a Skill now, a fact that filled her with shame and privately elated her. It was the skill of a peasant, yes, but it was her Skill. It was hers.

That was how she found herself cooking with the flour, salt, eggs, and some water in the kitchen. Lyonette first mixed flour and salt together, and then made a divot in the mound of powder to add a beaten egg. Then she mixed in a beaten egg and squished the sticky mess together until it began to congeal. As if by magic, the disgusting mess of egg and flour became a different substance. Dough!

It was dough, the very thing Lyonette had seen bakers turn into golden loaves of bread! She stared at the small ball sitting on the counter of the kitchen and stared at her flour-covered hands in amazement.

That’s how it’s done? It’s so…easy!”

She’d expected there to be some laborious process required, or a convoluted mix of ingredients. But this? Barely a few minutes of effort and she was nearly finished with her cooking! Part of Lyon was elated, the rest indignant that people paid [Bakers] and [Cooks] so much. There was nothing to it!

But Lyonette quickly realized she wasn’t done as her Skill prompted her to keep going. She had to knead the dough for several minutes, until Lyonette’s weak hands were cramping up a bit from the effort. Then, she had to find the rolling pin in one of the drawers and smooth out the dough. And then Lyon had to cut the dough into long strips, and then boil water.

That was actually the hardest part. Lyonette had of course gone to fetch water many times in the past for Erin, but she’d hated the duty and had done it as slowly as possible. Since she was making food for herself and she was alone, Lyonette had no excuse. She had to make two trips for water, and she was exhausted by the time she watched the water boil over the fire.

Then, Lyonette added the pasta and a bit of salt and watched the noodles swirl around as she stirred the pot anxiously. After only two minutes the pasta was done. Lyonette dumped the water outside and scooped the rest out of the pot, shaking it to dry the last of the water. Then she put it in one heaping mound on her plate and dug in.

In the lukewarm inn, by the flickering fire, the young [Princess] used a slightly-bent fork to lever the first mount of noodles into her mouth with a shaking hand. She bit, chewed, and swallowed, scarfing down the food almost too quickly to taste it. But she tasted the second bite, and the third, and her face fell with each new forkful of her pasta.

It couldn’t be. But it was. As the aching feeling in her stomach subsided, Lyonette slowly chewed the slightly watery noodles and knew the truth. Her food wasn’t great. It wasn’t even good. It was bland. No, worse, it was simply mediocre. True, she’d made noodles thanks to her skill, but they were a far cry from what Erin could now do.

Lyonette had been famished, but even she couldn’t finish the huge mound on her plate. After about two thirds of it she just sat back and stared at the pale mass of noodles, disgusted and disappointed in equal parts.

It wasn’t the same at all. She could remember the wonderful noodles Erin had made not so long ago—buttery and hot, and delightfully fragrant thanks to some herb. It had been delicious even without the meatballs. Lyonette’s mouth watered just remembering.

But this? This was just pasta, barely serviceable. It was a disgrace to any inn, and worse, it had come from a Skill. Lyonette’s Skill. Was this all she could do, even with [Basic Cooking]?

Lyonette wanted to cry again. This wasn’t fair. Why was her cooking this bad? She’d remembered ordering one of her [Maids] who had [Basic Cooking] to make her a snack, and while it hadn’t been great, it hadn’t been…this. What had she done wrong?

Then she remembered what one of her tutors had said on the rare days she’d been paying attention. Skills could improve one’s ability greatly and even give them the means to do things they would never be able to do normally, like fish, work metal, or even fight. But a Skill improved on what was already there.

If two [Warriors] with the same Skills fought, the one who had trained longer and had more actual combat experience would inevitably prevail. Similarly, even with [Basic Cooking], if Lyonette had never made food, all her cooking would be just that: basic.

For two minutes Lyonette just stared at the cold plate of noodles, and then she heard a knock at the door. Instantly her body went rigid with fear and apprehension, but Goblins wouldn’t knock, would they? This wasn’t a monster, this was a guest. A guest!

She scrambled to her feet and flung the door open. Her mind was racing—was it too cold inside? She should have opened the windows to let everyone know the inn was open tonight! What about cooking? She couldn’t serve food to—what should she say? What was that Erin had always told her to say to new customers? ‘Welcome, please have a seat?’ or was it, ‘let me take your coat’?

The person standing in the doorway as Lyonette yanked the door open had no coat to take. A massive drake—far bigger than Olesm—blinked down at Lyonette as she stared up at him. After a moment, he coughed.

“Hey…you.”

“Um, welc—do you have a seat for your coat?”

“What?”

Lyonette turned red. The Drake scratched awkwardly at the spines on the back of his head and looked past the young woman into the inn. His eyes noted the single plate and dim fire before they returned to her.

“Is Erin back yet?”

Lyonette gulped. She vaguely recognized the Drake; he was Relc, the one Erin had thrown out of the inn earlier. But he was also a guest, wasn’t he? She tried to smile as welcomingly as possible as she opened the door a bit wider.

“Not yet. But would you like to stay and have something to ea—”

“Nope. See ya.”

The Drake turned before Lyonette had even finished her sentence. Desperately, she threw the door open to call out to him, but her breath caught in her chest when she saw the black Antinium standing next to the Drake in the snow. He’d been so still, so silent, she hadn’t even seen him at first.

Klbkch stared at Lyonette for a second and then turned to walk away with the Drake. Lyonette stood in the doorway, staring at the two [Guardsmen]’s backs. They waited until they were a few paces away from the inn to start speaking, but the wind blew their voices up the hill towards her.

“Looks like Erin’s not back yet.”

“Indeed.”

“But who was that Human? I’ve never seen her before, have you?”

“I believe it was the thief that Erin Solstice employed.”

“Who?”

“The one who burned down Miss Krshia’s shop, I believe. The one exiled from the city.”

“Who?”

“The Human girl.”

“There are a lot of—”

“The one who called you ‘scaley oaf’.”

“Oh! Her. Hey, can I go back inside and beat her up a bit?”

Lyonette shrank back in the doorway, but the other voice stopped the first.

“That would not be wise. If Erin Solstice comes back and finds you have attacked her staff, she will most likely ban you for life.”

“Damn. Are you sure?”

“Very. You will have to give her your apology gift later. Although, you will first have to buy her a gift.”

“Hrgh. I know, I know. But what do Human females like, anyways? Should I get her some meat? Jewels? I don’t have that much money on me, you know.”

“I recommend we ask about. There are Humans in the city. Let us ask them.”

“Sure, I guess. If we have to. Hey, where should we eat tonight…?”

The voices trailed off as the wind changed directions. Lyonette shivered as she stood in the open doorway a moment longer, staring out into the dark snow. Then she closed the door. She felt…bad, even though she didn’t know why. But the inn was full of light, especially when she opened the windows and added more fuel to the fire. It was warm and bright and it almost felt like before, even if dinner had been bland. But it wasn’t the same.

It really wasn’t.

 

—-

 

Someone else came by that night. Lyonette was in the kitchen, trying to work out what would make the pasta taste better when she heard the door open. She hurried into the common room and saw a man wearing a worn, serviceable dark cloak shaking snow off of it as he looked around. A dagger at his side was his only weapon, but he walked as if he only needed his piercing glare to kill anything that might accost him.

Lyon recognized him as well. The man looked as annoyed as ever, and perhaps even more so today. His expression was grim, and he reminded Lyon of the oldest and grumpiest of the kingdom’s soldiers. She knew who he was—a Gold-rank adventurer. That made her defer to him slightly, even though she was royalty. It was certainly not because she was afraid of him. Well, maybe a little.

“W-welcome sir! Miss Solstice isn’t back yet, but if you’d like to stay, I could make you some pasta—”

Halrac’s piercing gaze froze Lyon in place. He looked at her, and then around the inn. He shook his head and grunted irritably.

“Hmph.”

He turned and left without another word. Lyonette watched him leave through one of the windows as the adventurer stomped back towards the city through the snow. She didn’t know what to think about that, but she imagined how much money a Gold-rank adventurer might have spent and felt even worse.

All in all, it was almost a relief when Olesm dropped by. The Drake was still irritable, but he came by for dinner by himself. He grew much more cheerful when Lyonette served him pasta and told him he wouldn’t have to pay for it; his expression immediately changed when he bit into the over-salted batch she’d made this time. He ate four bites and then pushed his plate away and didn’t touch it for the remainder of the time he spent in the inn.

Not that he took that long anyways. Olesm only stayed long enough to tell Lyonette about the Goblin army’s sacking of Esthelm, the news that Erin was alive in Celum, and that she wasn’t coming back any time soon. She badgered him with questions, but the Drake had no answers.

“I don’t know when she can come back, okay?”

He snapped at her as he drank some of the hot water she’d boiled and grimaced at the taste. It was the same water she’d used for the noodles, and he pushed that back on the table as well after another sip.

“But—when will she return? Can she?”

Lyonette wrung her hands. Olesm just shrugged, looking unhappy.

“It’s dangerous on the roads, and frankly, it might be safer where she is. After everyone’s [Dangersense] got triggered in the city, Zevara’s put the entrance to the dungeon on permanent watch with every spare [Guardsman] she can muster.”

“The dungeon?”

Lyonette had no [Dangersense]; she hadn’t even realized the entrance to the dungeon had been uncovered. Olesm nodded as he exclaimed.

“None of the adventurers want to go in. Griffon Hunt hasn’t even gone through the entrance yet, and all the other groups are staying put. No one’s sure what will come out—if anything. Someone’s got to go in, but until one of the groups works up the nerve, it’s another threat along with those Goblins that the city has to be wary of.”

He sighed and stood up. Lyonette watched him anxiously. Olesm looked at the food and water and shook his head briefly before digging in his pocket.

“Here.”

He put a few bronze coins on the table and nodded to them.

“For the food. I’m not that hungry, I guess.”

“You’re going? Already?”

Lyonette was surprised at the tone of her own voice. Normally she would have welcomed silence, but Olesm was the first person to even enter the inn since Erin had left. The Drake nodded, looking tired.

“I’ve got to plan some stuff out with Zevara and—well, I’m busy. I’ll stop by tomorrow, though.”

“But why not stay here? For a little while longer, I mean?”

Olesm paused, looking awkward.

“I’ve really got to be going. I still need to ea—I mean, I’ve got a lot…”

He stopped and stared at something in the corner of the room. Lyonette’s eyes were drawn to the ghostly chessboard on one of the tables. None of the pieces had moved since Erin had left, but the Drake’s eyes fixed on them for a few seconds. He looked back at Lyonette.

“You wouldn’t happen to play chess, would you?”

Lyon shook her head reluctantly. She remembered it being the latest trend in court, but she’d never picked up the game. Olesm looked disappointed.

“Oh.”

He left soon after, despite Lyonette’s attempts to entice him to stay. Afterwards, Lyonette stared at the bad pasta and hurled it into the fire along with the plate. It made a horrible mess and stunk terribly as the fire consumed the pasta. Then Lyon just stood in the center of the room as the smell of burnt food filled the inn.

She was lost. For a few minutes Lyonette desperately tried to suppress her tears, but then they came forth and she just stood in the empty inn, letting them roll down her cheeks and drip onto the floor.

It was all over. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t cook, and no one liked her. Lyonette had known that—she’d even relished the knowledge before. But now, she knew it would be her death. No one would buy any food. She’d starve to death and Erin would find her bones in the inn when she came back.

She was a failure. That’s all she was and would ever be. The pitiful third daughter of a small kingdom dying alone in an inn that wasn’t hers. She was nothing.

The girl curled up on the floor as the embers of the fire glowed and faded. She stopped crying because even that was no use, and lay there, waiting to die. She grew still as she rolled herself up into a ball of misery. Then the door opened, and the Antinium walked in.

 

—-

 

Pawn didn’t know why he went to The Wandering Inn. It was just where his feet carried him. The Antinium had no idea what to do or where do go; he just knew that he might find the answers he sought if he could listen to a certain young woman for a while.

It had been a long time since he’d gone there. In fact, this morning he’d intended nothing of the kind. Pawn had woken up sitting in his small sleeping spot and believed today would be like all the rest. Empty and uncertain.

The Antinium do not lie down to sleep. It’s not that they can’t, but their backs do not curve like mammals. Pawn’s own back resembled a beetle’s in many ways, and he disliked the rocking that occurred when he tried to lie down. Thus, both Workers and Soldiers alike slept while sitting. It was the most economic use of space, and in the huge barrack-like sleeping area that held five hundred Workers, Pawn had had an adequate six hours of rest.

That was how Pawn’s day began. He would pull himself out of his small cubicle of dirt with his four arms and file into line with the other Workers as they left the room at the same time to receive their morning nutrition.

It was easier for Pawn to do this today than it had a few weeks ago. He had regrown all but a few digits on his hands, and his severed limbs had nearly fully regenerated thanks to the unique healing substances the Antinium used. As he stood behind a Worker, Pawn flexed his digits and marveled a bit at how the simplicity of that action alone made him feel so much better.

The Workers ahead and behind Pawn did not look at their hands, or even move except when they walked forwards. They were not like Pawn. They kept their gazes straight and did not talk. And they gave Pawn more room than strictly necessary.

He was the odd one out. Pawn knew that, but he tried not to take advantage of his position. When he stood in line the Worker gave him the same amount of brown-grey paste as the other Workers. Perhaps if he’d asked for more, he would have received it, but the calculated ration was enough to sustain him throughout the day. Besides, no one would ever ask for more of the Worker’s food than normal.

Pawn stood in the food consumption area and slowly ingested the muck he had been given. There were no seats for the Antinium to eat at; they simply collected their rations on earthenware bowls at ate as efficiently as possible before depositing the bowls to be used again by more Workers filing into the room.

Workers and Soldiers ate separately. This wasn’t because one group ate better quality food than the other—they all ate the same highly-caloric mush, but Soldiers just ate three times as much as Workers, and thus used different containers, necessitating a separate room to feed in. Pawn stared at the brown clump of mushed up…something…as he put it between his mandibles and chewed. The food went down easily, but the taste—

He had grown used to it. Even so, it was never what one would call easy. The Workers ate the food quickly, showing no signs of disgust, even though Pawn knew they had to be tasting exactly what he did. If they had gag reflexes—or an alternative food source, it might have been a different matter.

But food was food, and there were no alternatives. Except at Erin’s inn. Pawn could remember having delicious meals there, and he had to force himself to eat the rest of the mush. He crunched down on something on his last bite. Something hadn’t been fully processed? He swallowed it anyways. It was a nice interlude from the rest of the mush. Perhaps it had been a bone fragment.

Then, as soon as they had finished eating, the Workers moved as one out of the large cavern used for food preparation and into the tunnels to begin their daily duties. Pawn followed them, not pausing to duck even though the ceiling of the tunnel was barely a foot over his head.

That was another feature of the Antinium Hive in Liscor. While some of the cavernous rooms were indeed quite large, designed to hold large numbers of the Antinium, many parts of the Hive had been optimized for space. Thus, the tunnels used solely by Workers were barely large enough to accommodate them. They had only a foot of height as they marched through the cramped corridors built to accommodate exactly two Workers at a time. And such was the flow of Workers going to their daily duties—

Well, any creature with a hint of claustrophobia would have suffered greatly. Pawn didn’t mind; it was what he was used to. He walked with hundreds of other Workers as they walked through the tunnels and around each other in a perfect, synchronized flow of traffic that never halted or wasted time. Hundreds of Workers moved in every direction, going aboveground to work for the city, or below to dig or shore up collapsed tunnel walls, fulfill other tasks around the Hive, and so on.

This was only one of the shifts of Workers that worked throughout the day. Pawn was one of the Workers who slept from just before midnight to around dawn, so he considered himself close to a ‘normal’ sleeping habit. But there were other Workers who would sleep in the middle of the day. It didn’t matter; all time was the same in the Hive.

Pawn walked down the narrow Worker corridors until he came to a main intersection in the Hive. Here, traffic diverged and more bodies entered the ceaseless cascade of motion. Larger Soldiers marched in huge columns down the massive highway of bodies, going to reinforce weak spots in the Hive, to eat, or just to rest until they were called on again. Here the Workers joined other flows, moving deeper into the Hive, or up above.

Pawn walked forwards, following the Worker ahead of him until he came to the split in the traffic. There he paused, uncertain. The Worker behind him paused, and so did the Worker behind him, and behind him and so on. In an instant, thousands of bodies stopped for one crucial second until the Worker behind Pawn awkwardly walked around him. The Worker behind him followed the motion and so did the Worker behind him and behind him…

Instantly, the flow of traffic resumed. Unlike traffic in Erin’s world, the Workers did not hesitate. They moved in perfect synchronization, so that after the initial pause, traffic flow resumed without any pileups as it were. Even so, the incident had cost all the Workers following Pawn a precious second of inactivity. Pawn knew he should feel guilty, but he didn’t.

He stared at the bodies walking around him. Here were Workers, going to their duties. Across from him, another stream of Soldiers was rapidly advancing down the hallway, nearly running. They might be off to fight monsters.

Part of Pawn wondered what would happen if he walked in front of them. Would the Soldiers just trample him? They did that to other Workers who accidentally got in their way. But would his status as an Individual mean they’d avoid him?

He decided not to test this theory. Instead, Pawn resumed walking, resulting in a micro-second of delay as he rejoined the flow of Workers. He walked upwards, up towards a special room built near the surface of the Hive.

A large room had been sectioned off and given a new purpose. Instead of acting as another feeding room, the low-ceilinged area had been filled with cushions, small rectangular wooden boards filled with pieces, and even the odd chair. Antinium, all Workers, sat around these boards, playing chess.

They all paused when Pawn entered the room. The Workers looked up at Pawn, and then resumed playing. He stared around the room, looking at all the seated Antinium playing chess.

In truth, the dirt ceiling was too low to really allow any Workers to sit on the chairs. They sat around the chess boards on the dirt instead, completely ignoring the cushions that had been piled neatly in one corner of the room and never been used.

There were around sixty Workers in the room at the moment, all engaged in a board game. None of them looked up from their games, and they moved at very regular intervals. The rhythmic click of wooden pieces gently tapping on the board soothed Pawn. But he did not sit down at an empty board as he usually did. If he had, he would have had an opponent in seconds. But Pawn didn’t want that today.

Instead, he sat with his back to one of the dirt walls. Pawn stared ahead, not really at the chess players. They were all new Individuals, the few that had survived and not become Aberrations like the rest. They had chosen names, and they were all learning to play chess, as per the recommendations Pawn had made to Klbkch.

But they were not…like him. Pawn knew that. These new Individuals were not like he was. Nor were they like the original Individuals, the original Workers that had chosen names.

“Hah.”

Pawn chuckled out loud at the ridiculousness of that thought. Instantly, every Worker in the room paused in their chess playing and looked up at him as one. He froze in place, unsure of what to do. After a second the Workers returned to playing as if nothing had happened.

That was it. Pawn closed his mandibles and made sure not to make another sound as the sounds of chess resumed. These new Individuals had names, but they didn’t have what he and the others had. They still obeyed orders like any other Worker, and they didn’t express their opinions. They hadn’t developed personality like he, Bird, Belgrade, Anand, and Garry, the only surviving original Individuals had. It wasn’t these new Individuals’ fault, of course. They had been forced into the choice, they hadn’t made it themselves. They didn’t have…Erin.

Things had been simpler a few months ago. Back then, the Hive had made sense to Pawn. There were Workers and Soldiers, the Prognugator, and the Queen. That was how it had been. But now there were Workers and Soldiers yes, and the Queen, but they had a Revalantor who also acted as a Prognugator in the form of Klbkch. He had kicked the former Prognugator who was also the new Prognugator, Ksmvr, out of the Hive. And there was a new group of Antinium.

The Individuals. Over a hundred Workers who had chosen names and been tested for individuality without becoming Aberration. But in that group of Individuals, there were five…leaders.

No, not leaders. Five exceptions. Five of the original Individuals who had become so of their own volition, to save a Human named Erin Solstice. They had been the chess club, her chess club, the Workers who had played at her inn every few days. And they had given their lives, almost all of them, to protect her from the undead.

That was the real change in the Hive. Five Antinium had chosen and become Individual, taking classes and names and true personalities. They had begun to level up rapidly like any other species, and they had become…

Unique. And it had to be said, of the five, one in particular stood out.

Pawn.

He was the first. Pawn knew that. He had been the first to choose a name, the first to choose. Because of that everyone treated him as if he were special. Klbkch, the Queen—they gave him no duties, no responsibilities. They just watched him to see what he would do. And Pawn had no idea what to do, so most days he just walked up to the chess room and either played games or sat like this.

He didn’t do much. Pawn just sat here, day after day. Thinking, really. That was all he could do. He was no gifted warrior like Bird, and nor was he particularly interested in other classes like Garry, Belgrade and Anand. Already the other four had begun to specialize in their roles just as his Queen had hoped. Bird had begun using a bow to harvest a large number of his namesakes even in the wintery climate, and Garry had learned to fry them and make a palatable snack out of their carcasses.

Belgrade and Anand had continued to improve in their [Tactician] class. They had already fought numerous engagements against the dungeon monsters in the tunnels below. They were all becoming assets to the Hive. But Pawn was different.

All the Workers knew it. Pawn knew it. He was different. He was the Worker that Erin had first spoken to, the first Worker to choose his name. Even the other four treated him differently. Because he was first. He was special. He hadn’t just chosen, he had been chosen by Erin.

He was unique. But Pawn had no idea what that meant.

He knew what his Queen wanted, what Klbkch wanted. They wanted him to become a useful warrior, or an asset to the Hive. They wanted him to specialize, to level up in a class and surpass normal Antinium in that way. But Pawn hadn’t done that.

Yes, he had the [Tactician] class. But he wasn’t that high-level in it. In fact, he’d stagnated his growth weeks ago. Pawn still loved to play chess, and he was the best player among the Workers by far. But like Erin, he had ceased to level.

And he had no interest in using a bow like Bird. He didn’t like to cook, only to eat, and he had no burning desire to do anything else in the Hive. Pawn was sure that if he walked anywhere in the Hive—save perhaps the Queen’s room—he could find something to do.

There was always work to do in the Hive. Since he had been allowed aboveground, Pawn had learned something of the customs of other species. Apparently boredom was something their peoples had to fight against. It was an alien concept in the Hive.

Were you done with your assigned duties? In that case, there was always time to be spent processing the nutritional paste the Antinium ate, chewing food up and regurgitating it into a vat to be mixed up with long poles. Or you could be sent to guard against monsters attacking from the dungeon underneath Liscor, supporting the Soldiers in their tireless battle.

And if neither of those two options were viable, you could be assigned to monitor the larvae, or maybe dig. There was always time to dig. You could dig out a collapsed tunnel, dig a new tunnel, dig a deeper tunnel, widen a tunnel, dig out a room, dig into a promising mine shaft, dig out a hole for excrement…

Occasionally, the Workers would build something. That was a refreshing change of pace. They would make wooden load-bearing supports to hold up the titanic weight of the dirt overhead, or fashion crude arrows out of wood. But even that grew tiring after hours of monotonous work blended together.

It wasn’t for Pawn. He knew that. He knew he wanted something different. And perhaps he had found it. Perhaps.

But he was no longer sure. The certainty, the faith that had filled him weeks ago had long since departed, and now Pawn could only rely on uncertain memory to fill the hole in his heart. Had it really happened? Was it true?

Was he really an [Acolyte]? What did it mean?

“I don’t know.”

Another pause, and the Workers looked up. This time Pawn stared back, just to see what would happen. They looked down as one, and he went back to thinking.

Once upon a time, an Antinium had been questioned. He had been asked who he was, and he had no answers. He had wondered why his…friends…had all died, whether it was all for nothing. And he had been given an answer. A ray of hope.

“Faith.”

So the girl had told him. She had reached down into his despair and offered him something to hold onto. She had spoken to him of something beyond his understanding. A God. And a place…a place where the dead might go to rest. A wonderful place.

“Heaven.”

Pawn sighed, and clenched his still-healing fist. He stared at it. Yes, that night he had believed. And his belief had become reality! He had gained a Skill, and a class. [Acolyte], and the Skill, [Prayer]. It had meant something to him at the time, he had been sure.

There was a God. There was something to believe in. But in the days since, Pawn’s faith had wavered. He had not leveled again, and neither had he prayed. Because…because he was afraid.

There was a God. Erin had told him that. Not just a God, though. Gods. She had talked about a God who was born and died in her world, but apparently that God wasn’t the only one. Other people believed in a God who was the same, but different, but who had never said certain things.

“Are you even there? Will you answer me? Am I worthy of asking you such things?”

No response. The Workers looked up at Pawn and down at their chessboards. He looked up at the ceiling, in the direction Erin had told him heaven probably lay. He saw only dirt.

Heaven. Faith and Gods were all confusing to Pawn, but the idea of Heaven, the idea of forgiveness and a place to be happy was what he had clung to. He had believed in that, and so been rewarded. But if he was to pray, as his Skill seemed to indicate, then to who? To Erin’s God? Only…he wasn’t her God. That’s what she had said. So then, who did he pray to?

And for what? Why? What would it do? And would anyone answer? Would anyone care, or would his words go unheard?

Pawn didn’t know. He hadn’t known for the last week, and he was no closer sitting in the corner of the chess room. Part of him didn’t want to know. Another part told him to talk to Klbkch and his Queen, tell them of his new class. But the last part wanted to believe. It wanted to know of this God, and to put his self into believing in that God. To reach that place called ‘Heaven’.

But he was afraid. Afraid of knowing the truth. So Pawn sat in the chess room instead, wondering what would happen if he prayed. Would nothing happen? Or would something, someone answer? Which would be worse?

Pawn didn’t want to know. But he wanted to, desperately. He was afraid that if he went back to Erin, she would tell him he was wrong. That his class was a mistake. That God only existed in her world. Or—

Or that there was a God, but not one for him.

That was his greatest fear. There was a God. Probably. The class he’d received seemed to indicate that. And Pawn wanted to believe in a God. But what if God didn’t want him? Pawn was too afraid to ask.

So as the day passed, he sat quietly in the chess room, thinking. His mind spun in the same circles, over and over again. Workers walked into the room, played chess, walked out. They had their duties. But Pawn had nothing. Not a thing. He only had a question, and an answer he was too afraid to face.

And then, just as soon as he’d woken up, it was nightfall. Pawn knew this because of the clock in his head and the Workers on duty, not from any change in the ambient light. He stood up, stretched; the other Workers waited for him to do or say something. But Pawn just walked out of the room.

This time he went up. Up, to the city above. It wasn’t his choice; Pawn just felt his feet carrying him that direction. He went up, out of the tunnel that was one of the entrances to his Hive. He walked out into the streets of Liscor, around Drakes and Gnolls and Humans who gave him a wide berth in any case. He walked out of the gates of Liscor, and through the snow, up towards the small inn whose windows shone with inviting warm light.

He had to know. He had to ask, at least. Pawn had felt the certainty in his bones, he had. He had gained a class and Skill and that meant something. There was a God. But would God accept Pawn? He had to know, and so he had to ask Erin. She would know what to do. She always did.

But Erin wasn’t there. Pawn knocked at the door and then opened it, and saw the girl lying on the ground. She looked up at him, and she was not Erin.

“Excuse me? Is Erin Solstice here?”

“Erin?”

The girl had been curled up into a ball. Now she sprang to her feet and wiped at her face. Her cheeks were wet, and her eyes were red.

“What are you—you’re that Antinium, aren’t you? Pawn?”

“That is so. Is Erin here? I would like to speak with her.”

“Erin? You haven’t heard?”

The girl laughed almost hysterically. Pawn would have frowned if he were able.

“Heard what? Has something happened to Erin Solstice?”

“She’s—gone.”

“Gone?”

Pawn listened incredulously as the young woman explained what had happened. Erin had vanished? How could this have happened? How could anyone have allowed this?

Part of him longed to run out the door, to gather Bird and Garry and the others and immediately search for Erin. But she was safe? In another city?

“She’s safe. But she’s not coming back yet. I don’t think she can with all the Goblins around.”

The Antinium’s mind raced as he considered the implications. Goblin armies. Of course Erin’s safety came first, but if she couldn’t come back—should someone send an escort? Did Klbkch know? He must, but would he send the Soldiers out to guard her? What if—

“So…are you here for something?”

Pawn looked back at the young woman in surprise. Yes, she had stayed here, hadn’t she? Who was she? Someone new?

Lyonette. That was her name. He vaguely remembered Erin hiring her, but hadn’t she been a bad employee? Now the young woman was alone. She wiped at her nose as she pointed at the kitchen.

“Do you want…something to eat?”

Pawn’s first instinct was to refuse, but that would have meant he had to leave the inn. And he wasn’t ready to go back down into the Hive. Not yet. So he nodded, and told Lyonette he could not digest gluten. That threw her for a loop, but she eventually offered him eggs and bacon.

Pawn was under the impression such food was reserved for breakfasts, at least according to Erin, but he accepted. He still had the coins Klbkch had given him to spend. Enough for many meals.

The Worker sat at an empty table as Lyonette rushed into the kitchen and began to bang things about. He stared at the wooden grain, trying to think. Everything was chaos in his mind now.

“Erin is gone.”

There was no one to answer his question. Pawn felt immediately relieved, and then horrible at once. He was no closer to his answer, and the question was tearing him apart. If Erin could not answer him, then—

“Here’s your food!”

A plate was shoved in front of Pawn’s face. He stared at it, and the hand holding it. Lyonette looked anxiously at Pawn as she put it on the table in front of him.

“Sorry. It’s a bit—”

The bacon was slightly burnt. The eggs hadn’t been fully cooked and they ran a bit. Pawn poked at the food with a fork once Lyonette remembered to give him one. He cautiously took a bite of the greasy bacon and chewed.

It wasn’t like the paste the Workers ate at all. It had been so long that Pawn had nearly forgotten the taste of hot food. And salt! Pawn finished the plate and a second helping when Lyonette offered.

Then he sat in the inn, watching the fire fade. It was funny. He had come here searching for answers, and found none. But even without them, he had found an answer of sorts.

Erin was gone. She might be in trouble, but there was no way Pawn could help her. Not as he was. He was useless, a Worker alone. But if there was a God—

There was no Erin. So there was only one person he could ask. One person who might know what this all meant. Klbkch. He had been assigned to watch over Pawn, and it was Pawn’s duty to inform him of any new classes he obtained. He had not done so before, because he was unsure. But now? Now was the time.

He would tell Revalantor Klbkch about his class and ask him what it meant. Perhaps Klbkch would know of Gods. Pawn dug at the belt on his waist and left what he thought was close to an appropriate amount. Usually Erin told him the meal was on the house.

Slowly, Pawn walked out of the door and into the snow. He was no less lost than before, but at least there was something warm inside him. He stared up at the clouded sky. He couldn’t sense heaven up there. Nor could he tell if there was a God.

But maybe there was one. And if there was, Pawn would find him. Slowly, he began to walk through the snow, back into the city, to his Hive.

Gods. Heaven. He tried to believe. This time, Pawn thought he might have succeeded.

 

—-

 

Lyonette watched Pawn go, silent, walking into the snow as he stared upwards. The Antinium had said barely a few words to her all night. He had sat, staring at the fire. But he had also eaten two of her plates and left—

She stared down at the pile of coins on the table. Silver and bronze coins glinted in the moonlight. Trembling, Lyonette scooped up the pile of coins. She counted them. Once, twice, again.

It was enough. More than enough. With this, she could feed herself for several more days. And if he came back—

Lyonette’s heart skipped. Part of her wanted to shout in revulsion at even touching something the Antinium had touched. She still remembered stories about what they had done, what horrible atrocities they had committed. But this one—Pawn—he had paid her.

Maybe it was just one time. But Lyon remembered the Antinium coming into Erin’s inn like clockwork. And they weren’t picky; they’d even loved the bees, disgusting as they’d been. They were a stable, profitable source of income. If she could stomach serving them, maybe, just maybe, she’d survive.

The [Princess] stared out the window at the Antinium’s lonely form as he walked back to the city. She could do it. She could live until Erin got back. She would do it, and she would show Erin she was capable. She would run this inn, and it would be her castle, her sanctuary until Erin came back.

All would be well. Lyonette had to believe in that.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

3.04

When I came down with Ivolethe on my shoulder Erin freaked out.

Oh my god! A faerie!

She doesn’t do subtle. As every eye turns to me I glance at Ivolethe. The small fairy is just sitting on my shoulder, looking around with keen interest.

She’s not even that cold; she’s definitely part ice, but she’s not giving me frostbite, which  I think is a definite improvement. To be honest, it’s like having a miniature air conditioner on my shoulder. Not ideal in the winter, but I’d pay anything for one on a hot summer day.

“How’d she get in? Don’t cause an avalanche again! Please? It’s not even my inn!”

I have to smile as Erin tries to shield herself with a serving tray as a shield. She really, really can’t do subtle. I wait for someone to ask what Erin’s looking at—

Until I realize they’re still staring. Everyone. Agnes, the guests, the two barmaids—everyone. And they’re looking directly at Ivolethe.

Slowly, I look at the faerie on my shoulder. She looks like normal, but—

“Hey Ivolethe. Can the others…see you?”

The faerie shrugs as she looks around the room.

 

“Perhaps. There is much iron here. Too much for a glamour.”

 

She looks at some of the gaping faces.

 

“Yes. I think they can, or they would not gape like buffoons.”

 

“It talks!

Agnes exclaims in tones of ringing horror. Yep. They can hear Ivolethe, too. I stare at Erin. She stares at me.

“Wait, where are the rest of them, Ryoka?”

I look around the room. Everyone’s still staring. This is amazingly awkward.

“I’ll uh—explain in a bit. Can we get a seat, Erin? Agnes?”

That breaks the spell. In a few seconds I’m seated in the center of the room, while everyone tries to cluster around me asking questions. I hate it. I try to relocate to a corner of the room, but Erin won’t hear of it and Agnes is beaming. She probably smells another attraction for the inn.

Ivolethe looks unconcerned as well. She stares up at the Humans around us, older men and women mostly, mostly married couples or travelers, and sniffs. I’ll say this for her and the other faeries; they’ve all got the air of little queens, with the arrogance to match.

 

“Well? What are ye staring at?”

 

No one moves. Even Erin’s staring with fascination at Ivolethe as she sits on my shoulder. I clear my throat.

“She’s right. This is private, so if you’d all leave now?”

 

“Yes, begone or I will curse ye with faerie magic!”

 

No one moves. Ivolethe scowls. For my part, I’m at a loss. Normally my…charming disposition helps scare away even the friendliest busybody, but these people are too fascinated by her. One of them, a burly man with massive forearms, speaks.

“Is this really a Winter Sprite? Truly?”

“Yup! Doesn’t she look cool? I guess faeries can’t disguise themselves when they’re indoors, huh?”

More confusion and looks among the other onlookers.

“Faeries? What are faeries?”

I open my mouth at the same time Erin does, but both of us pause. This world doesn’t know about the fae? Even though there are actual faeries that visit regularly? Ivolethe sits up with indignation on my shoulder.

 

“Welp! Ignorant fool! I am a member of the Winter Court! I demand respect!”

 

The man just looks at her curiously. I sense…trouble.

“They’re the creatures that bring winter each year?”

“And throw snow at us from the sky?”

“And torment the animals?”

Some of the other onlookers look closer at Ivolethe. To her credit, she shows not a whit of fear. Can faeries even feel fear? When have I ever seen them even acting afraid? Oh yeah. When they were facing down a fire-breathing Dragon. Shit.

“I don’t think annoying her is a good idea.”

Erin looks scared. She told me the faeries once threw an avalanche into her old inn when Pisces bothered them. I…don’t want to see that here.

But Ivolethe appears remarkably restrained despite her clear ire. Why? My analytical side takes less than a second to give my unhappy brain a response.

Normally, any of the faeries would have thrown snow or frozen the people around us if they were this mad. But Ivolethe hasn’t done that because she can’t. Cold iron saps a faerie’s strength and makes them mortal. She can’t use her magic here.

What she can use is her mouth. So she does.

 

“Leave me you fool, or I will make you suffer! A faerie’s oath on it!”

 

That’s bad too! I open my mouth, but the big guy isn’t impressed any longer.

“You can’t do anything. You’re just like one of them Fraerlings in Baleros. Tiny.”

He cautiously pokes her where her breasts would be if she had nipples. I open my mouth and shove my chair back, but Ivolethe moves first. Her tiny mouth opens and bites.

The scream is immediate and loud. Ivolethe might be tiny, but she’s still big enough to take a chunk out of the man’s finger. Not just a chunk; she bites so far down that I see bone as he yanks his hand away. Her teeth cut threw his flesh like nothing.

The man screams again as he holds up his bloody finger. Everyone, including me, stares in horror at Ivolethe. The faerie looks supremely unconcerned as she turns her head and reveals bulging cheeks. She chews, swallows, and grins at us with bloody teeth. Then she waves at Agnes, whose smile has frozen on her face.

 

“Innkeep! Your finest meat and drink! I am a guest here, am I not? I want service!”

 

The onlookers desert our table in seconds. The big man might have come back for vengeance, but Agnes drags him away with promises of a healing potion. Erin and I stare at Ivolethe as she hops off my shoulder and onto the table. After a while Erin looks at me.

“So…Ryoka. Introduce me to your friend.”

I nod. Ivolethe triumphantly leaps up as one of the barmaids comes hurrying back with some stew. Erin must have made it ahead of time, because it smells delicious. The faerie leaps into the bowl as if it were a hot tub and immediately begins chomping down on her immediate surroundings. I carefully move the bowl into the center of the table and clear my throat.

“This is…Ivolethe, Erin. She’s one of the Frost Faeries that’s been following me around since I met them. And she is my friend.”

“Right. That’s what I said.”

“No, I mean, she’s my friend. I am friends with a faerie.”

Did I say that with too much reverence? Maybe. But the words that I speak aloud are magical in their own way. A faerie. I really have one of the fae sitting in front of me, chomping down on a slice of potato the size of her head in a bowl full of soup. My friend.

“Oh my gosh.”

Erin finally gets it. She puts her hands on her cheeks in delight.

“You made a friend! Ryoka made a friend! I’m really pleased to meet you, Ivolethe! Any friend of Ryoka’s is a friend of mine. I’m sure we’ll get along great—”

 

“No.”

 

“Excuse me?”

Ivolethe doesn’t even look straight at Erin. She takes another bite of the potato and squishes it into a ball with both hands. Then dunks the potato into the gravy and scarfs the rest of it down. Her eating is both disgusting and fascinating to watch.

 

“I will not be your friend, Human. I have made one friend, and she is the reason I entered this place of iron and sacks of flesh. I do not need another, and if I did, it would certainly not be ye.”

 

Erin’s face falls. I don’t quite look at her, and I’m not quite smiling behind my hand. Looks like she’s met someone she can’t instantly charm. Hah!

“What? But you guys like me, right?”

 

“Why should I or any of my kin like a thoughtless waste of space like ye?”

 

“I…I made that big feast for you all! You loved it! And you paid me in gold, which turned out to be fake flowers—but you said it was a great meal! You did!”

I cough.

“I don’t think Ivolethe was there, Erin. Not all the faeries stayed around your inn. Some were with me the entire time.”

“Oh. But I did make food! Magical food! I even got a Skill from it!”

Ivolethe looks slightly impressed. She stops eating to study Erin from head to toe, at any rate.

 

“Truly? A faerie’s banquet? I was not there, but my kin spoke of it. My answer remains no.”

 

I interrupt Erin before she can try again. I’m not sure how Ivolethe would react if Erin pushed the matter—and I don’t want her losing a digit.

“I’m sure Erin respects your decisions, Ivolethe. But she’s my friend as well. My best Human friend. I uh, was just wondering if we could talk. Unless you’re busy?”

Erin gives me a betrayed glance, but Ivolethe just shakes her head. She sinks deeper into the bowl of soup; I notice the steam has already stopped rising, and it looks like the gravy is starting to congeal thanks to Ivolethe’s freezing presence.

 

“If I had aught to do, I would be doing it. And we are already talking, fool.”

 

Yikes. Ivolethe may call herself my friend, but she’s clearly going to be the kind of friend who uses words as barbs no matter how close we are. I always wondered what having a friend like that would be like.

I wondered what having a true friend would be like, too. Maybe that’s why I can’t stop smiling. Erin’s looking at both me and the faerie oddly.

“You look so creepy right now, Ryoka.”

“Shut up, Erin. Ivolethe? Why can everyone see you indoors? Is it because of the iron?”

Ivolethe sits up a bit in her bowl as two more come for Erin and me, complete with soft, warm sliced bread. She stares around at the other tables, and the other guests instantly look down at their food.

 

“Hmf. It is the iron. Too much of it interferes with our magic. Outside it would not matter, but indoors is like a cage in a way. I cannot use my spells. But I can bite.”

 

She grins at me again with those sharp teeth. Erin shudders.

“Interesting. But Erin and I can see you no matter if we’re outside or not. Why is that?”

A tiny shrug.

 

“I do not know. If ye had the eyes of a cat or god—or ye were great masters of magic like Myrddin, it would make sense. But ye aren’t.”

 

Erin looks confused.

“Who’s Myrddin?

“Merlin, Erin.”

“Oh. Oh. Merlin! He’s real! What’s he like? Does he have a cool staff? What kind of magic did he—”

I cut Erin off, although I really want to know as well. The thing about faeries is that you have to stick to one subject and keep bothering them about it. Get sidetracked and they’ll lead you down a merry trail of breadcrumbs, but never get to the truth.

“We don’t have that kind of magic, Ivolethe. So how else would we see you? Are they any ways mortals can see faeries?”

She shrugs again.

 

“Plenty. If you stood in the right place under full moon, or caught us dancing without glamor—if you had the secret drink of the fae, you would be able to see us, but I would know if ye were taught thusly.”

 

“Drink? Of the fae?”

Erin looks confused…again…so I explain it to her. How does she not know any myths about faeries?

“The faerie’s drink would be given to people trusted enough to enter a faerie mound. They would be able to see the secret world with it. Could it be that?”

A rude snort.

 

“Hardly. Ye cannot simply make the faerie’s drink by chance. Ye would need the essence of countless gases and things not known to ye humans. Poisons and humors of foul natures beyond your ken.”

 

“Such as…?”

Ivolethe sighs dramatically. But there’s a wicked gleam in her eyes.

 

“Ye truly want to know? Then, grab as many insects as ye can, Humans! Crunch them up in your mouth, for one of the ingredients is the shell of bugs that may be used to create blood out of water.”

 

“Ew! You have to eat that?”

Ivolethe nods in satisfaction as Erin wrinkles her nose. But I pause. Blood out of water? That sounds like part of a riddle; probably the rhyme to the faeries’ drink they’d tell people. Blood out of water. A dye?

“When you say insects that can be used to create blood out of water…do you mean carmine? In that case, Erin and I have eaten lots of that already.”

“What? We have?

Erin turns horrified eyes to me. Ivolethe looks up sharply as well. I nod.

“Carmine is a big ingredient in anything colored red, Erin. Skittles, lemonade…if you’ve had anything like that in the past, you’ve eaten ground up insect shells.”

Just a little bit, in truth. But Erin turns pale and Ivolethe looks…

 

“Well, there are many other things that go into the brew. Not just…that.”

 

“Maybe we’ve eaten all the ingredients before.”

“Really? Like bugs?

“We eat countless bugs each year, Erin. They’re all ground up in our food. And companies use a lot of preservatives…”

I think out loud as Erin makes gagging sounds over her meat.

“The U.S. government started putting fluoride in the water decades ago. And we breathe in any number of pollutants that we didn’t in the past. Add that to whatever they put in most foods in the form of preservatives and to change the taste…Ivolethe, what else goes into your brew?”

 

“As if I’d tell you! The brew is secret to all mortals! And ye’d never guess in a million years!”

 

“Really? Let me just list off a few things and you let me know if I’m getting close. Sodium nitrate? Propylene glycol? Uh…what’s it called…olestra? Monosodium glutamate? Sodium benzoate?”

She glares at me.

 

“I do not know half of these names! You must be making them up!”

 

“Really? Well, sodium benzoate originally came from benzoin, a resin found on trees. It’s an ingredient in incense—”

I see Ivolethe’s eyes widen. Just for a fraction of a second, and then her head spins away.

 

“I-I don’t know anything about such things. This talk bores me!”

 

Erin and I exchange a glance. But Ivolethe’s mouth is clamped shut. Erin leans over to me, looking slightly green.

“Do you think it’s true?”

“What, that we ate all of the ingredients of the faerie brew? It might be possible. We eat a lot of weird stuff, Erin.”

“Not that! Do we really eat bugs?

I sigh.

“Yes. We do, Erin. You know about all the stuff food companies put in candy and fast food. Why are you surprised?”

“I thought they were just chemicals and poisonous stuff! If I knew bugs were in Skittles, I’d never eat any again!”

“That’s not—why would you be okay with…? Okay, never mind Erin. Ivolethe?”

 

“You shall get nothing from me! I will not reveal my kind’s secrets so easily!”

 

The faerie sinks up to her ears in the cold soup. I raise my hands.

“I’m not going to ask you any more questions. I was just curious. Why don’t we talk about something else.”

“Yes! Let’s!”

Erin grabs her milk and drinks deeply from it. With a little coaxing, I get Ivolethe to come out of her stew. She dries herself off on a slice of bread, and then she sits on the table with Erin and me. And we talk.

“So, what did you do after I left you, Erin?”

“Oh, I just made some stuff at Octavia’s. You know, more experimental stuff.”

“Huh. Where’s Octavia now? I’ve never seen her eat—does she do it at her home or should we invite her here now and then?”

I think that would be the polite thing to do, but Erin shakes her head.

“I don’t know, but Octavia won’t want to eat today. She’s in bed with bad food poisoning.”

I pause.

“How bad?”

Bad.

“…And how did she get so sick, Erin?”

The other girl doesn’t quite meet my gaze.

“I uh, fed her something that didn’t come out as well as I’d hoped.”

“I see.”

 

“I would like to try it!”

 

“Oh no, it’s impossible. I threw it out—it was starting to stain the pot. It was just another failure.”

Erin sighs. I eye her.

“You’ve been going over to Octavia’s every day. Still trying to make new recipes?”

“Yup! I don’t want to go back to Liscor until I figure out how to make more cool stuff.”

“What about your inn?”

“What about it? Mrsha’s safe with Selys, and I don’t know where Toren is. My inn can stay where it is, right?”

“But Lyonette’s in it.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

Erin smacks her forehead lightly. I shake my head. Erin hesitates.

“She’ll probably be okay. I really want to stay here for a little while longer, though, Ryoka. I can experiment with Octavia all day, and I can help Agnes out at night!”

“And you’re not bored? You’re okay with that?”

Erin looks at me blankly.

“Yeah. Why not?”

Ivolethe and I shrug at the same time.

“Doesn’t matter to me.”

 

“‘Tis your choice to die of boredom.”

 

Erin scowls at us, but then she smiles widely at Ivolethe again.

“Soooo…Ivolethe! You must have lived a long time, right?”

The faerie eyes Erin suspiciously.

 

“That is obvious.”

 

“And you met all kinds of cool people—like Merlin and King Arthur, right?”

 

“Perhaps. What of it, mortal?”

 

Erin throws up her hands.

“Tell me stories! Tell us all about Merlin, and the knights of the round table.”

Ivolethe considers this, one tiny hand on her chin.

 

“No.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“I do not want to.”

 

“Please?”

“Erin…”

 

“No. Such tales are too grand for the likes of you.”

 

“But—”

I put a hand on Erin’s shoulder.

“You heard her, Erin. Ivolethe doesn’t want to tell, so you should respect her wishes. Besides, she probably didn’t see any of the good parts.”

 

What?

 

Ivolethe sits up in outrage. She leaps upwards and flies towards my face.

 

“Ye think I did not witness the legends in person?”

 

“Well, you don’t want to say. So I just assumed—”

 

“Fool! I was there when the boy became a king! I witnessed the instant the true king fell, and I have seen countless miracles besides! I saw the three kings die to each of Lugaid’s spears! How dare ye!”

 

“I’m just saying, you talk big, but if you’d care to share a story that you remember—”

 

“Hah! I will recount to you a legend beyond all else!”

 

Ivolethe flies into the air and raises her voice.

 

“Behold! I will tell you for the one true king of Camelot! His sword still sits in Avalon, waiting for his hand to draw the ancient blade! Listen well mortals!”

 

All heads turn as the small faerie begins to declaim. She has an amazingly loud voice, and the story—

I’m going to get to hear King Arthur’s story. I feel like a kid again. This is amazing.. Erin gives me a delighted look, and I wink at her. What can I say?

I do know a bit about faeries. Or at least, this one in particular.

 

—-

 

The next day dawns bright and early. Or so I suppose. For once, I’m sleeping in.

So is Erin. And the rest of the guests in the inn for that matter. In fact, some are still snoring as I walk downstairs and find them lying on the tables or ground.

As it turned out, Ivolethe did know the stories of King Arthur, the entire story. The true story. And she told it to us last night, with many dramatic flourishes and a whole host of embellishments it’s true, but it was true. Every word of it. Faeries don’t lie, and to look at Ivolethe as she was speaking was to believe.

It was true. And if I were an author I would have tried to capture every word she spoke on paper. Or maybe that would have been an impossible task, because her story was one of the greats.

In the end, we just all fell asleep listening to the tragic end of the tale of the King of Knights. His kingdom in ruins, his knights dying on the field, and only the hope of his eventual return to keep spirits strong in the dark times to come. Thus, the King of Camelot closes his eyes and breathes his final breath.

And here I thought I was being smart by ripping off the poets of my age. No wonder faeries looked down on us mortals for not creating stories that can match that level. If you’ve got forever to live, your standards for good storytelling rise accordingly.

Of course, that was last night. In the light of the day, all I want is for a hot meal before I go running. But with Erin so tired, that might be asking too much.

She has [Advanced Cooking] as a skill, but apparently you need to be at least moderately conscious to make it work. Or else not even that skill can fix dumping a bag full of flour onto an iron griddle. At least I got the pan off the fire before the flour combusted.

Mandatory near-death experience for the day completed, I finally make myself eggs and let Erin snore in the kitchen. I open the door—

And find Ivolethe waiting outside. The faerie grins at me, hovering in the crisp winter air. Honestly, I hadn’t even realized she’d left when I dragged myself into my room upstairs.

“Ivolethe. How are you doing?”

 

“Well, mortal!”

 

She flies immediately to my shoulder and lands on it. Then she fidgets, and flies up to my head. I stare up at her dangling legs and sigh. But I make no comment.

As I begin to walk down the street a tiny frozen leg kicks me on the temple.

 

“So, what are ye doing today? More staring at books and cursing? Or will ye run about like a snail once again?”

 

“If you’re bored, you can leave. You don’t have to follow me all the time.”

 

“Bah. I might miss something interesting. Besides, there is much to do that will amuse me in the meantime.”

 

I shrug, but feel a bit better. I try not to smile so openly; it doesn’t feel natural.

“Suit yourself.”

It’s a short jog to the Runner’s Guild, but I pause at the door. Ivolethe senses my intentions and tenses, but she makes no move to get off my head.

“I’m going inside. Do you want to wait somewhere else?”

 

“I will stay right here.”

 

“The iron won’t bother you?”

 

“Not overmuch. It is simply a shackle indoors, not a needle in the skin. Even if it feels so.”

 

Huh. I wonder how uncomfortable it is? Are faeries allergic to the metal, or is it like kryptonite?

“If you don’t want to go inside, that’s fine with me.”

 

“I shall stay.”

 

“No, I really don’t think you should go inside.”

After her last interaction with people other than Erin and me, I really have a bad feeling about letting Ivolethe inside a building. But she bends down to glare at me.

 

“I insist! I do not fear the iron!”

 

I sigh. For a being that calls herself my friend, Ivolethe doesn’t seem capable of yielding on any point. Or maybe she considers her stubbornness part of friendship.

“Just don’t cause trouble, okay? And…can I persuade you to hide in my belt pouch?”

The faerie is silent on my head for a few seconds.

 

“Mayhap. Is there food in the pouch?”
“Let me get some.”

That was how I found myself stuffing fried meat and sticky-sweet jam buns into a belt pouch, much to Ivolethe’s muffled delight as I walked into the Runner’s Guild. I close the pouch; Ivolethe assured me she wouldn’t suffocate inside if I did, and I’m honestly not sure if faeries breathe.

I’ve got a Frost Faerie in my belt pouch. Well, there’s that. I walk into the Runner’s Guild and stop when I see a familiar face.

“Garia!”

The broad-shouldered girl turns and gives me a big smile. But then her expression changes to one of dismay.

“Ryoka? I didn’t know you were here…today.”

I walk forwards, frowning. Garia seems nervous. And then I look over her shoulder and see a crowd of people, Street and City Runners alike, clustered around one person. She has a familiar face. Sallow, I would call it, although pinched is the more accurate word.

“Persua.”

She’s standing in the center of the room, surrounded by a huge number of people—everyone in the Guild, in fact. Even the [Receptionists] have come out from behind their counters, and an older man is standing by Persua’s side. I think…he’s the Guildmaster. I don’t know. He normally never comes out of his small office.

Persua is basking in all the attention, talking loudly in her shrill voice and laughing often. When she laughs, the others laugh with her. It’s like how she normally interacts with her posse, but now everyone’s doing it. She’s so engrossed she hasn’t noticed me yet, and from the way Garia drags me to one side of the room, maybe that’s a good thing.

“What’s going on?”

I whisper to Garia as I look back at Persua. She doesn’t look that different—new clothes and running gear maybe, but she’s just the same unpleasant person who once had my leg crushed by a wagon. My fists itch to break a few of the bones in her face.

I don’t see Fals. He’s normally in the same room as Persua, mainly because she tends to follow him about wherever possible. He’s not here today, though, and his absence is somehow conspicuous.

“Ryoka, why are you here? Didn’t you hear what was happening today?”

“No, I did not.”

I frown at Garia as I take a seat at a far table from the group. No one tells me anything. Mainly because I don’t listen if it’s an invitation to hang out or hear the latest gossip. But this…I probably should have paid attention to.

“What’s going on, Garia?”

“It’s Persua. Today’s her going-away party. She’s going to move to Invrisil, or—some other city up north. She might come back this way, but she’s not going to be around here so everyone’s having a party for her!”

Persua? Going north? Best news I’ve heard all day, and I’m barely awake still. I smile at Garia with genuine pleasure.

“What’s wrong with that? If she’s going, I’ll congratulate her as well and help her on the way out.”

Garia doesn’t grin at my response. She doesn’t like violence anyways, but she looks worried. There’s an odd emotion in her voice I can’t quite place. She lowers her voice even more.

“Ryoka…she’s going to be a Courier.

What?

I can’t believe my ears. Persua? A Courier? She’s not nearly fast enough to be one. I should know—I saw Valceif and Hawk running, and they’re like lightning compared to me. Persua’s barely quick enough to be a City Runner, and she’s lazy to boot.

But Garia’s eyes are deadly serious as she nods. And I remember that moment where I swore she passed me on the road earlier—

No. It couldn’t be. Could it?

“How?”

“She leveled up and got a Skill, Ryoka! A rare one—she’s not even Level 20, I know that for a fact, but she learned a powerful movement Skill. Everyone heard about it! Ever since then, she’s been completing deliveries so fast none of us can keep up.”

A Skill. Of course. I feel a bit sick. Persua’s got terrible form, bad endurance, and she’s got no incentive to train or push herself. But give her a Skill and suddenly she can outrun anyone.

“Was it just luck? Or—how do you get Skills?”

Garia looks miserable as she shrugs. No, not just miserable. Jealous. That’s the emotion I’m seeing in her.

“Normally the good ones come up every ten levels. But you hear stories—some of it is chance, and Persua got lucky. Really lucky.”

“Okay, what skill did she get?”

“[Double Step]. It’s one of the core skills most Couriers have. That and [Quick Movement]—those were the ones Valceif had, remember? If you get those, people say you’re already two thirds of the way to becoming a Courier!”

Fuck. I remember Valceif running as if he was taking two strides for every one of mine. Garia’s right; get even one of those skills and there’s no Human from my world that could touch you. That is…completely unfair.

“Why’s she going north, then? It sounds like she could stay here and make a comfy living.”

“Well, Couriers make way more money and have more respect up north. And, Perusa has been doing just that! She’s completed almost half of the requests in the guild by herself. They’ll have to make her a Courier soon, or we’ll all be out of work!”

I drum my fingers on the table, good mood completely forgotten. Persua the Courier. I wanted to be one, but I can’t run fast enough. Valceif told me that I might be one if I proved myself, but Persua? Before me?

It’s really, really pissing me off. But—and I have to think of the plus side here, at least she won’t be bothering me again. And if she’s taking high-level requests, maybe someone will put a hit out on her and she’ll end up dead. I can only dream.

But for now, I think I’ll get out of the way before I have to deal with Persua again. I’m about to ask Garia if she wants to join me at Erin’s new inn so I can drink the bad taste from my mouth when Garia makes frantic gestures. I don’t even have to guess to know that Persua is coming my way; it just makes sense. When I step in crap while running, oftentimes there’s a second pile waiting for my other foot*.

*Translation: When it rains it pours. Plus, Persua’s a spiteful little monster, so she’ll take any opportunity to try and piss me off.

“Why Ryoka, I didn’t see you there! Come to congratulate me on my special day, have you?”

Garia freezes, and goes pale. I stare at her, considering my next move. I don’t turn around. I don’t change my expression.

“Hello, Persua.”

“Good morning to you too, Ryoka! How are you today? You were gone for so long in Liscor, I thought you were dead. But you aren’t. Did you get a lot of deliveries done while you were away? Or did you just like sleeping with non-Humans that much?”

Is that an insult? I shrug. I’m not giving Persua anything, even if she’s not apparently the best Runner around.

“I had fun.”

I still refuse to look her way. Persua’s shrill voice goes up an octave as she grows frustrated. She walks around me and I catch a glimpse of her pale, sharp features and her pursed lips that compliment her sour expression.

I don’t like her. I hate her guts. But I’m also smart enough to know that she’s goading me in her hour of triumph, hoping to get me in trouble. And you know what?

I’m not going to do a thing. It’s time for the ultimate Ryoka skill: acting impassive. Guaranteed to annoy anyone with an ego.

“I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but I’m going to be a Courier now. Isn’t that wonderful?”

The old man who’s probably the Guildmaster clears his throat nervously.

“Actually Persua, that’s not decided yet. You’re a wonderful Runner of course, but a Courier—”

He brakes off as Persua gives him a vicious look. She turns back and gives me a big, fake smile. I just grunt.

“What do you think, Ryoka? Won’t I be a wonderful Courier?”

“Mhm.”

She blinks at me, and then frowns. I look slowly around and see the other Runners standing and watching us. I know some of them by face, if not name. They’re City Runners, the people who band together and pat each other on the backs. They follow the leader or the fastest Runners, like Fals. Some of them are Persua’s people, but most are just like Garia; afraid to cross someone like Persua.

The others are Street Runners, desperate to suck up to anyone for a bit of help, a leg up, anything. They’re standing behind Persua as if they’re afraid she’ll blast them to ash if she gets unhappy. Garia is frozen in her seat, and I’m at the center of this maelstrom. No way out but deflection. Bring it on, Persua.

“Don’t you want to say something to me? Before I go?”

“Not really.”

I wish I had a drink so I could sip it calmly. I study Garia’s face as Persua’s fake smile turns into a frown.

“You know, I saw you yesterday. Well, I think I saw you. You were moving so slow, I thought, ‘that can’t be Ryoka’. But you were gone so fast—it’s hard, being the fastest Runner around.”

“I’m sure it must be.”

Another scowl, covered up again. Persua might have all the abilities of a weasel, and the ability to backstab people and even orchestrate attacks, but she’s not that good at concealing her emotions.

“You know, I’ve been taking all of the deliveries recently. I just…do them. One after another. It’s so easy.”

Some of the City Runners shift at that, which makes me privately happy. They don’t like Persua much, and I’m sure they’ll be glad to see her back. But I don’t let my features change for an instant.

“Good for you.”

Persua grinds her teeth audibly. I keep my hands on the table, calm, cool, collected. I’m wondering if I can get her to storm off or throw the first punch. I would enjoy that.

But she doesn’t blow her lid. I see Persua pause, and then her eyes flick to the tabletop.

“I notice you’ve lost something. Did you leave your fingers behind on one of your runs?”

The other Runners go silent. I feel the spike of emotion in my stomach. My fingers. Garia gasps in horror as she notices them for the first time, but I refuse to react. I look at Persua coolly, meeting her evil little eyes.

“Are you going to stand around or do some deliveries, Persua? Because if you’re just going to stand around talking, then do it in another corner of the room.”

She blinks at me. I don’t blink back. I hold her gaze; I’ve beaten her in a staring contest before and I’d love to humble her again. But she doesn’t play my game. Instead, she smiles and looks back on me.

Crap. I shouldn’t have reacted. She knows I was annoyed. No help for it.

“I’m so sorry if my little party is bothering you. I suppose great City Runners like you are too busy to socialize, right? Too good for us lesser Runners?”

I shrug.

“Pretty much.”

Persua’s face goes flat, and little pinpoints of rage appear in her eyes. She smiles at me again.

“It’s just—and I know you don’t mean to be rude, but you are—you haven’t told me how happy you are. And I know you wouldn’t want to be rude, would you?”

She wants me to congratulate her? I meet her gaze steadily.

“Come on. Don’t you have anything to say?”

No. But she might go away. But no and never and not in a million years.

“Can’t hear me, Ryoka? Did you lose your ears as well as those fingers?”

“I heard you. Congratulations. Piss off.”

The words pop out before I can stop them. I hear an audible gasp from the peanut gallery, in more than one place, and some titters of laughter as well, quickly silenced. Persua’s pale face blushes and blotches in places.

That was a mistake. I just humiliated her, and instead of backing off, she’s going to try and make an example out of me rather than lose face. I know how the routine goes. I grit my teeth and wonder how I can deal with this.

Maybe if I just walk out? But no, she’ll just call that a win or block me from leaving. And I don’t run from bullies. Let’s see what she does next.

Persua looks around, and meets the eyes of some Runners around her. Her personal posse, the ones who kissed her ass even before she learned her fancy Skill. She jerks her head and they move out from the crowd. I count them. Four—six…seven…

“That is such a rude thing to say, Ryoka. And on my special day as well! Here I am, Courier-to-be and you—you’re just a Runner. I think you should apologize. In fact, I insist on it.”

Oh? She’s going to get her friends to beat me down? I’m impressed; most girls wait a few months before they get that nasty. But then, this is another world and Persua’s a demon wearing crappy skin.

The other Runners step back when they see what’s about to go down. The old man tries to interject, but his voice is wavering with nerves.

“Persua, I really think—”

Her head turns and the Guildmaster goes silent. I feel a moment of sympathy for him; he’s probably not going to get much respect once she goes. Everyone’s going to remember how she walked all over him. But then I remember that he’s supposed to be in charge, and that he’s a coward. The other runners flank me, as if they’re a local mafia boss’s thugs and I’m the cringing victim.

“Well? I’m waiting for my apology.”

Persua faces me, supremely confident because she’s got a few Runners behind her. Oh come on. They don’t even have combat classes, most of them! I’m taller than all but one of the guys, and she’s seen me take down a Bronze-rank adventurer.

Okay, there are ten of them. Plus Persua. But I’ve changed a bit since we last met as well. The first day I found Erin, I had Octavia refill all of my potions and alchemical bags. I’ve got two of everything ready to go, and I know several magic tricks as well.

I keep still. Not exactly a power play, but I’m not going to react to her stupid little posse.

“I’m not apologizing for anything. And if you don’t get your obnoxious little cronies out of my face, they’re all going to suffer.”

Of all the things I know Persua was expecting, she wasn’t expecting that. Her face goes slack, and I feel the people around me shift. Garia’s looking at me as if I’m insane and trying to signal me to say I’m sorry, but I’m calm.

If they want a fight, I’m completely ready. Persua might have a Skill that makes her faster, but I’d love to see if she can dodge a pepper potion to the face. If she tries anything I’ll use [Flashbang] and then hold her down while I pour the potion in her eyes. I’m just hoping she takes the bait.

She doesn’t. Persua eyes me, her companions, and then decides not to risk it. She tosses her head and turns away.

“You’re not even worth my time.”

“Coward.”

I toss the insult at her back and see it stiffen. I don’t know why I said it; my mouth just won’t stop in situations like this. Persua turns back, a smile full of hate on her face. We don’t even try to pretend towards civility now.

“Fingerless insect. My back is all you’ll see of me from now on.”

“Beats looking at your face.”

“How many mutts and lizards did you sleep with in Liscor?”

“Oh you know, one or two. More people than you’ll ever sleep with in your life.”

“I wouldn’t touch one of those mongrels or scaly freaks with a stick.”

“They’re just run away screaming when they saw your face.”

“Whore.”

“Bitch.”

“You’ll be stuck here forever, you pathetic, classless slug.”

“And you’ll never be a proper Courier in a thousand years.”

We meet eyes for one last moment, and then Persua turns away. I let her walk to the other side of the room, followed by the group and don’t make any move until she’s laughing loudly with them and not looking at me. Then I sigh and turn back to Garia. She looks like she’s swallowed her tongue.

Well, that was fun. Now I’ve got to warn Erin about Persua as well.

I hate my life.

“I’m out of here. Garia, do you want to join me in the Frenzied Hare? I could use a drink.”

Garia starts and stammers as she looks at me.

“I uh—I—”

She doesn’t want to get on Persua’s bad side. Fine. I sigh and stand up. My heart is pounding fast, but I got the better of Persua in that one. No matter how hard she laughs—

I’m halfway across the smooth wood floor when I sense a blur. Persua seems to blink across the room, and then I feel her foot tangle with mine. She moves too fast for me to react; I trip forwards—

And catch myself, thanks to an ungainly wind milling of arms. I’ve been tripped before, and I’ve got a good stance. Nevertheless, I stumble forwards and hear Persua’s mocking laughter.

“How clumsy of you. What happened, Ryoka?”

I turn and look at her. She’s smirking off to one side, daring me to say something. I consider my options, and decide it’s not worth it. That’s her small victory; if she does it again she’s dead.

I walk on, adjusting my belt pouch. Persua’s still laughing, but I just make sure she didn’t grab anything from me. Potions? Check. Teriarch’s bag of holding? Check. Belt pouches?

One of the pouches is undone. I feel at it, and find cold, greasy meat and jam-covered crumbs in the pouch. Nothing else. My heart skips a beat. I whirl around—

 

“Vengeance!”

 

The shout springs from the tiny Frost Faerie that flies at Persua’s face. The girl only has a moment to scream before Ivolethe is all over her. The faerie flies around Persua, shouting triumphantly as Persua screams and people shout in surprise.

 

“Take this! And suffer that, ye mortal wench!”

 

She rips at Persua’s hair, tearing out strands and bites and scratches at Persua’s face. The girl is screaming, flailing at the small creature, but Ivolethe is everywhere. But then Persua’s hand connects with the faerie by pure chance, and Ivolethe is flung to the ground.

“What is it? Kill it!”

Persua shrills as another Runner dashes forwards and scoops Ivolethe up. She yells at him and tries to bite, but he has a finger under her chin. Everyone goes silent as they see for the first time what Ivolethe is.

“What creature is this?”

“Is it—it’s not a monster? A Fraerling? It’s too pale! And it has wings!”

“Let her go.”

I stride forwards, but Persua and her cronies immediately block my way. She stares at me, blood dripping from the scratches on her face and the places where Ivolethe yanked away skin as well as hair.

You did this.”

I ignore Persua and look at the Runner holding her. He’s uncertain, but his grip on Ivolethe is strong and no matter how hard she struggles, she clearly can’t break free. And neither is she freezing him either; she must not be able to without her magic.

“That’s not a monster. That’s a Frost Faerie. Let her go, now.”

“A Winter Sprite?

He looks at Ivorethe, stunned. She tries to move her head, but his fingernail is under her chin. She glares and dripples spit onto his thumb, but that’s all she can do.

“Kill it.”

Persua hisses at the other Runner. He hesitates. My heart constricts, and I raise my voice.

“Harm her, and I will kill you. My word on it.”

The Runner looks back to me. He’s one of Persua’s flunkies, but I know my eyes are serious. I mean every word. Persua looks at me, and then at the faerie. Then she smiles evilly.

“Is this your friend? Do you have to make friends with monsters since no one else likes you?”

I ignore Persua and hold out a hand.

“Give her to me.”

“Don’t listen to her.”

Persua interposes herself between the Runner and me. She gestures, and now her posse steps around me. I don’t even look at them; my eyes are on Ivolethe.

“I’ve never seen a Winter Sprite before. Is this what they really look like? They must be the rarest of all monsters; how did you catch this one?”

I try to tune out Persua’s words. What can I do? If I grab for her, what if Ivorlethe gets hurt? How can I talk Persua down peacefully? No—it’s the Runner who’s got her. Focus on him.

But Persua blocks my view of the Runner. She looks at me, and now I see the hatred shining in her eyes, pure and simple. She turns to look at the other Runners.

“Have any of you ever heard of a Frost Faerie being captured? No? I bet that if we sold her to a [Merchant] or an [Alchemist], they’d pay hundreds, no, thousands of gold coins for her.”

The Runners around me shift. The mention of that kind of money changes their eyes, and some of them slowly walk over to the crowd around me.

Shit. This is bad. But I have to let Ivolethe get free. I look past Persua and raise my voice.

“If you harm her, you will suffer for it. I don’t care how many people you’ve got; I’m not letting you take her. She’s a living being.”

“She attacked me!”

“So?”

Persua hisses with fury. She takes a step forwards, and her arm jostles the Runner holding her. Instantly, Ivolethe shouts, her voice ringing in the Guild.

 

Sisters! Sisters, hear me call and take retribution—

 

Her voice cuts off as the Runner reapplies pressure on her chin. But the damage is done. I see the other Runners looking nervous and try to capitalize on that.

“Did you hear that? She just shouted for her sisters. You’ve seen the Frost Faeries and what they do when they’re mad. What do you think will happen if you kill one of their own?”

That makes the Runners think twice. Some of them shift and edge back a bit. No one wants to suffer the vengeance of creatures that bring the winter, no matter how much they might earn.

Persua looks uneasy too, but she’s too stupid to think straight. She whirls and screeches at the Runner.

“Shut her up! Squash her already!”

“Don’t do it.”

The Runner holding Ivolethe hesitates. His hand shakes and the faerie is gasping, but he doesn’t let go. I step forwards.

“Let her go. Now.”

“You coward! Give it to me! I’ll do it!”

Persua’s patience snaps. She reaches for Ivolethe, but the Runner pulls away from her as well. I step forwards again, thinking he’s seen reason, but he raises her up. I halt, hand outstretched. Persua stares at the Runner, eyes flinty daggers.

“What are you doing?”

He licks his lips. But he’s staring at me now. He opens his mouth and croaks a word.

“Coin.”

“What?”

“You—you want her back, you’ve got to pay for her.”

I stare at him incredulously. He can’t be serious. But oh, yes, he is. He pauses again, but he holds onto Ivolethe tightly as he looks at me.

“We all know you’ve got a lot. Well—give it over. And then I’ll let her go. Otherwise—”

He squeezes a little harder and Ivolethe cries out. My blood boils, but Persua’s all smiles now.

“That’s right! Just hand over your belt pouches—and your potions—and we’ll call it even. Okay?”

Those greedy bastards. But the Runner’s eyes are serious, and Ivolethe is in pain. What should I do? If I give them Teriarch’s gold coins—but Ivolethe—

I stare at Persua. I stare at the Runner. I stare at Ivolethe, and come to a swift decision.

“Fuck it. [Flashbang]!

The world and sound itself explode into confusion and chaos. I closed my eyes, but the sound wave still hits me like a physical thing. My ears ring and go silent; but I’m already charging into the Runner, body-checking him to the floor.

There’s no time for thought or anything else. I reach for his flailing hands. I have to get Ivolethe free. Get her loose. Grab his arms. Break his bones. Bite his fingers off. I punch him repeatedly as I search for the small blue shape among the dancing spots in my vision. Where is she?

Nowhere. Gone. She’s free! I see a blue shape flying towards the door, and then someone strikes me from behind.

Persua is on top of me, fingers clawing, biting, kicking. She’s like a wildcat, and some of her friends try to batter me as well. I roll over, and pull out one of Octavia’s potions.

The pepper potion would be better as a spray. But one good toss still gets it on a lot of faces and eyes, including Persua’s. I shield my face and feel the hot liquid stinging as it reacts with my skin, but the screams are worth it. I stumble up and see Persua stumbling away from me, shrieking as she rubs at her eyes.

Something in me snaps. Her little insults, her tripping me, my crushed leg—and Ivolethe—all explode outwards in a fist that catches her on the cheek and sends her to the ground. Persua tries to get up, but I kick her down and then mount her as she flails and begin to punch.

Punch her. Hurt her. My ears are ringing, but now I hear the roaring of blood, and all that I want in this or any other world is to bash her face in. I hit and hit and hit, until something drags me back. I struggle, fighting, but whoever’s holding me is too strong.

The rage hammering every inch of me subsides after a while, and I stop struggling. That’s when I hear and see and think again, and realize I’m being held by two strong arms.

“Garia?”

I look around and see my friend, her nose bleeding furiously, holding me back as Persua lies on the floor. People are still shouting in pain—I see Runners clutching at their eyes and more raising their voices, deafened. Two people are with Persua, and then I see the girl herself lying on the ground.

Her face is—I only now begin to feel the pain in my hands. My fingers hurt terribly, and I feel small lacerations and bruising on my skin. I see the echoes of their impressions on Persua’s face.

It’s already swollen. I can barely see her features, and there’s blood. A lot of blood. I broke her nose, even parts of her face. She’s crying, and shaking, and the [Receptionist] holding the healing potion barely knows where to start. But as the swelling reduces a tiny bit, one of her eyes swivels towards me. And I hear her voice.

“You.”

She struggles, but the two women hold her down. Persua’s face is filled with blood and snot and tears and who knows what else. But her voice is intact. It’s a trembling mess of emotions; not a shriek, but a warbling, piercing whisper.

“I’ll kill you.”

I’m near enough to Persua that I can feel her spitting as her malformed lips form the words. Her eyes fix on me, wild, and the words pour forth, hatred in each syllable. Tears run through the blood on her face, but she still stares at me.

“I’ll kill you. I swear it. I’ll have you raped and killed. You’ll die screaming.

“Ryoka—”

Garia tries to pull me back, and the [Receptionists] try to force us apart. But Persua thrashes and I refuse to move. She screams.

“I’ll kill you! You’ll die horribly! There won’t be pieces left of you! I’ll kill you and everyone you love, you—

The [Receptionist] tries to jam the potion in her mouth, but Persua just spits out a broken tooth with the potion as she continues shouting at me.

There’s a crazy look in her eyes. Garia holds me back as I stare at Persua. She continues speaking, half-sobbing, half-cursing. There’s nothing I can say to her, nothing to reply with. So I just kick her in the stomach and watch her puke before Garia pulls me away.

 

—-

 

Two hours later, I stand outside in the cold snow. I barely feel it, even though I haven’t had any of Erin’s soup. I feel the cold air blowing my clothes and don’t care.

“Ivolethe.”

The faerie hovers in the air next to me, looking uncharacteristically serious. I’m dressed up, and she’s naked. But I feel like the colder one. My heart is very cold. Very still.

I slowly sit down in the snow, and the faerie flies down next to me. The snow is wet—I don’t care. I don’t have anywhere to be, and I can’t stand. Not right now.

After a while, the faerie speaks.

 

“‘Twas an unexpected encounter, was it not?”

 

I look at her. Ivolethe looks back.

“What the hell am I supposed to say to that?”

 

“I am not sure. But did it end how you expected?”

 

I laugh, shortly.

“What do you think? I’m banned from that Runner’s Guild—maybe all of them right now. They might press charges, or make me pay for what’s left of the building.”

Shortly after I left, the other Frost Faeries appeared. They crashed an avalanche of snow into the building. If it hadn’t been deserted—as it was, it destroyed nearly everything inside. The last I saw, the building was so full of snow that people were having to chip away at the compacted ice.

“What a mess.”

The short version of what went down is that Persua went to the best local Healer around to get treated for the injuries the potion couldn’t fix. The Runners scattered, mostly thanks to the other Frost Faeries pelting them with shards of ice, freezing them, and so on. I think the Guild staff would have liked to hold me accountable, but when they saw the faeries literally destroy the entire Guild in one go, they had second thoughts. So did the Watch, which is how I found myself politely asked to leave the city now rather than be kicked out.

I probably could have stayed. But I didn’t want to be anywhere near Persua, not even in the same city. I still remember the look in her eyes.

It’s not over. I’ve never seen anyone look like that, but I know without a doubt that she meant every word she said to me. Part of me wishes I’d gone back and taken my knife and stabbed her right there and then. She’s never going to forget. But I’m not a murderer.

No matter how close I got back there.

“What a mess. What a horrible, terrible…”

The faerie looks up at me. I stare down at her. In a way, this is all her fault. Persua would have left me alone if I’d just walked on. But I can’t hate her for what she did. It’s what I’d do for Erin, the exact same.

“From now on, I’m not taking you inside ever again. Got it?”

She nods.

 

“That is fair.”

 

I shiver. Now I’m feeling the cold again, but I stay seated, cross-legged.

“I’m just glad you’re okay. If that Runner or Persua had tried—would they have killed you?”

Another nod.

 

“Better that you had let them. If she had slain me, her death would have followed before the next moon rose in the sky.”

 

Chill from within, chill without. I stare at Ivolethe.

“Who would have killed her? The other faeries?”

She shakes her tiny head.

 

“Not my sisters, no. There are others among the Winter Court who move in matters of death. And they are far more terrible than we.”

 

I don’t want to know. I don’t. Ivolethe’s face—I don’t want to know. Some things about the fae terrify me.

“It’s better that you didn’t die.”

 

“Perhaps. But that girl—she swore a dire oath against you. Such things can only be resolved in blood.”

 

“You’re probably right.”

I know she is. But I can’t think about that now. I can’t, or I’ll have to choose between killing her now or—

“She’ll be a Courier. And I won’t see her.”

 

“Bah. That one would give up all for vengeance. Her blades will find you no matter how far apart ye are.”

 

“I guess I’ve just got to outrun her, then. Although she’s faster than I am now.”

 

“Mm.”

 

We sit in silence for a while longer. I bow my head. Ivolethe just looks at the still landscape.

“I was jealous of her, you know. Just a bit. I don’t like Skills and Classes but—I’m so slow and weak without them.”

Ivolethe looks up at me silently. I avert my gaze; look at the gray horizon as I try to explain.

“It’s always the same argument. I think I’m giving away something by leveling up. Or—or I’m compromising, taking the easy route to success without any effort. But there is effort required, and what’s the harm in doing what everyone else is doing? It’s only logical.”

More silence. Ivolethe just listens as I externalize my struggle and confess.

“But it’s hard. I want to be strong. Erin’s—she’s stronger than me in so many ways. But I thought that would be fine. I could do things my own way, become a Courier even—I had Octavia’s potions, and I can even do magic. But it turns out I can’t even do magic that well.”

Some snow blows off of the ground and into the air. I watch it whirl upwards and away.

“I can’t do magic. And I’ve hit my limit physically. I could—try altering my body, I guess. Teriarch mentioned that. But that’s cheating too. I just wish there was a way to be faster. Just faster. If I were faster, I’d be happy with the rest.”

 

“So what is it ye wish?”

 

Ivolethe turns to face me in the snow. I look down at her, and feel that same sense of envy.

“I wish I was better. Just…better.”

 

“‘Tis a tall wish. Even a King could not grant your request. Why not be content with your self as it is now? You are brave and quick; is there aught else you need?”

 

I know she’s right, but at the same time, she’s wrong. I shake my head and shiver.

“Who I am isn’t enough. I want to become more. Is that too much to ask?”

For a while Ivolethe studies me. Then she smiles, teeth flashing in the winter sunlight.

 

“It is. But mortals have always wished for such. That is why you spread like wildfire while we remain, timeless.”

 

She looks rueful and sad, and happy at the same time, like an adult watching a child play. My heart aches.

“I don’t know what to do. What would you do, in my place, Ivolethe?”

She looks at me from head to toe.

 

“What is it you’ve dreamed of, Ryoka Griffin? What do you wish for with all your heart?”

 

It’s an important question, but I know the answer in a second. I just have to think back to the day I started running. I speak my reply to her and the cold.

“I always wanted to run like the wind. I felt it once, when you led me and Mrsha away from the Goblin army.”

I remember the rushing air behind me, and the sense of weightlessness I felt. Each step was forever, and I watched the world fly past me. For a second I was wind, and I lived my dream.

 

“Well then, I would search for that. I would seek to run as the wind, for that is my dream. If I did not chase such things, I would not be mortal, no?”

 

“How?”

I have to laugh.

“Even a Courier couldn’t run like that. At least, not Val or Hawk. And certainly not without levels. How would I ever get that fast, when I can’t even outrun Persua?

Ivolethe spreads two tiny hands.

 

“We are friends, are we not? What do friends do but help each other?”

 

She grins at me again, and I pause.

“What? How could you help?”

 

“You want to study magic? To become better? I told you once; you will not find what you look for in a book. But perhaps it is because ye haven’t seen what magic truly is.”

 

I know what she’s hinting at. But I have to hear it out loud.

“What are you suggesting?”

Slowly, Ivolethe flies upwards until she sits in the air in front of me. She looks me in the eye, still smiling.

 

“I’ll teach you the ways of the fae, not the tricks mortals use. I will teach you to listen to the wind and run like we do. That is what a friend does for a poor mortal who wishes to be better than she is.”

 

My heart is thundering. My breath catches in my throat.

“Can you do that? Isn’t it against the rules?”

 

“No one has made rules against this. No one has been mad enough to try. But for you, friend, I would try. It’s worth a shot, eh?”

 

I look at her. Ivolethe grins at me, a tiny, mad faerie. My friend. I stare back at her, a shivering, depressed Human girl who dreams of flying. Slowly, I offer her a hand.

“If you’d be crazy enough to try it, I’d be forever in your debt.”

Ivolethe wrinkles her face in disgust and slaps away my hand.

 

“Bah. Do not make such promises so lightly. Nae, I offer you this: I will try to teach you to run like the wind for one thing.”

 

“Name it.”

 

“Friendship.”

 

She offers me a tiny hand. I don’t hesitate. I reach out, and her grip is like melting ice, winter’s thaw, the moment of tiny warmth in the frozen heart of the world. We shake, and it is done.

A faerie’s bargain. A friend’s promise. A child’s dream.

The wind blows, and my heart races off with it.

To run like the wind.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

3.03

Some call me a messenger. Others call me a barefoot runner. And crazy. Some call me a deliverer…of messages. A few people know me as [batman]. I think of myself as reasonably sane, but most people disagree. They have a lot of names for someone like me. But the little monster blocking my way just barks.

Dogs. I hate them so much. The mangy dog with off-white fur and brown spots barks again, showing his teeth. There’s a definite growl in his tone—he’s not just warning me, he’s telling me he will attack given an opportunity.

That’s fine. If he goes for me I’m kicking him and damn the consequences. I’ve always wanted to kick a dog. I’m not an animal hater, I’m just a dog hater.

Consider my position. I, Ryoka Griffin, am standing in the snow a few miles out from the lovely city of Celum, holding a small wrapped package in my hands as I face down a dog blocking the way towards a house. It’s not my fault I’m here; I’m on a delivery. And I don’t want to get bitten.

I’ve been bitten by dogs before. Twice, in fact. Both times while I was running. Back home, in my world that is, some people like to think their dogs don’t need a leash. I respect their opinion, and invite them to share it with the local animal control officer. Dogs who aren’t on leashes chase moving objects like me. And they bite.

Maybe it’s just my genetics, or something in me the dogs don’t like. Or maybe it’s because I’m often a sweaty, adrenaline-filled unknown threat invading their perceived personal space at high speed that triggers their instincts to chase and attack. I don’t know. But all I know is that every person who runs hates loose dogs.

Plus, I’m a barefoot runner. That means I’m even more anxious about bites, because I have what is for all intents and purposes, ten bite-sized snacks for a dog to rip off. The same problem goes for my hands, although I only have eight available snacks for a dog to chew on. A Goblin bit two of my fingers off a week ago. Fun story. I’m not keen to repeat it.

The dog barks at me again, and this time growls loudly. I hold still, meeting his eyes as he crouches, hackles bared. He’s in my way. I need to get to that house to deliver my package, but the owner hasn’t come out and I think shouting will make the dog run at me. So. What do I do?

Kick the dog. That’s what about 90% of me wants to do. The other 10% is arguing that the dog is only defending his home and he’s innocent and that I should practice restraint. I’m not inclined to listen to that opinion, but a fight in the snow against a dog isn’t what I want right now. He’s not a big dog; that is to say, not as big as a mastiff or a great dane, but he’s not a poodle either.

He’s just a dog. He deserves mercy.

But I really want to kick a dog. He’s going to try and bite me the instant I move. Kick first, ask questions later.

And if I kick him, I’ll have to hurt him badly which won’t go down well with the owner. Not a good idea.

On the other hand, he, or possibly, she, is in clear violation with my longstanding agreement with nature* and I have no desire to find out if he has rabies. I’m still not sure if healing potions have the ability to cure diseases.

 

*The Ryoka-Nature Accord reads as follows: Get in my way and I will kill and eat you.

 

This is how my day starts. On the whole, I’ve had better days.

 

“Hark! ‘Tis a mutt and a lying Human-thing!”

“Girl versus dog! As good as girl versus Dragon! Will there be more riddles?”

 

And my day just got worse. I glance up as I hear the familiar, high-pitched voices from overhead. Spiraling down out of the grey skies overhead, small, winged creatures laugh and point at me and the dog.

I guess you could say they look like small versions of Humans, scaled down, painted blue and given wings. But that would completely, utterly fail to describe these beings. Because they are faeries. The fae. And they cannot be compared to us so easily.

Yes, the Frost Faeries or Winter Sprites as they are known look humanoid. But their bodies are part crystal, part ice. And they have wings, but they are closer to an insect’s set of wings than an  angel’s. And in every facet of every line that makes up their beings, they are breathtakingly beautiful.

Not just beautiful; otherworldly. To look at the Frost Faeries is to believe in magic, because that is the whole of what they are. Even as I watch, they fly around me, laughing and speaking in voices that are also part real, and partly immortal.

 

“Look, sisters! The dog defends its home!”

“Let’s eat it!”

“Nae, let us give it a charge! The power to destroy any invaders!”

“Are there any cats?”

 

They fly around me and the dog, poking, throwing snow into my eyes and raining it on the poor mutt. Oh yeah. I sometimes forget, but the faeries helpfully remind me—immortal wonders they might be, but they’re also annoying as hell.

Only, in this case the faeries’ arrival has an unintended benefit. The dog takes one look at the faeries and runs yipping into the house. I don’t know if he can see the Frost Faeries—they’re pretty much fuzzy blobs to anyone in this world thanks to the magic they wield—but he knows better than to stick around where they can get to them.

I’m not so lucky. The faeries fly around me, laughing, calling me names, teasing me. Some land on my hair which immediately freezes stiff, and others throw snow at my eyes. One drops a frozen beetle on my head.

I think they like me. I’ve experienced them not liking me, and this is still preferable. But it is annoying. I curse and swat at them with my injured hand. The one with three fingers.

“Get lost! I’m working!”

 

“Ooh! Scary! And what if we don’t?”

“Yes, threaten us! What would ye do?”

 

The faeries know I can’t back up any threats, so I don’t bother making them. I sigh and take my hand away from my belt. I had been grasping another bottle with my finger on the cork while facing down the dog. If kicking didn’t work I was going to hit it with a potion full of eye-destroying pepper concentrate, although that would have been animal cruelty.

I can hear the dog that fled inside the house barking in fear, and now he pokes his head out the half-open door he first charged out at me from. The faeries throw snow at him and he whines in fear, but, credit where credit is due, he still doesn’t want to leave me alone.

“Barky!”

A young voice shouts from inside the house. The door opens wider, and now a girl runs out. She’s maybe eight or nine, and the dog anxiously runs out after her, circling around her. The girl takes no notice of the faeries, but stares at me.

“Who’re you? Are you trying to hurt Barky?”

Instantly I regret my kicking-dog thoughts. A bit. The little girl stares at me with big, round eyes that creep me out.

“What are you here for?”

“I’m a Runner. Are your parents around?”

“A Runner?”

She looks doubtful, so I reach into my pouch and pull out a small Seal of my own. The magic metal and stone forged into a circle glints as I show it to the girl. It’s proof I’m a City Runner; without it she would be right to be nervous.

“A Runner!”

“That’s right. I have a delivery for your father. Is he here?”

“No—but I have a Seal! I’ll go get it!”

The girl runs inside the house. The dog takes one look at us and runs in after her. The faeries and I wait as I shift from bare foot to foot in the snow. After a few seconds the door opens again and the girl runs out.

“Here, Miss Runner!”

“Thanks.”

I hand the package over to the girl. She takes it carefully; it’s bulky and wrapped heavily. I have no idea what’s in it, but at least she won’t drop it.

“Alright then, take care.”

“Goodbye Miss Runner!”

The girl beams at me, and the dog barks. I try to smile; fail. Then she looks at my feet and gasps.

“Aren’t your feet cold?”

I look down at my bare feet. They’re resting in the snow which practically covers them, melting the cold ground, but I barely feel a thing. I grin at her.

“Nope. I’ve got magic feet.”

“Really?”

She gapes at me, and I make tracks before she can ask any questions. The dog barks a few more times as I leave, but I’m willing to give him that. So long as he doesn’t chase after me. I check my shoulders a few more times, but he stays with the girl.

Good dog. The faeries on the other hand aren’t quite so well behaved.

 

“Hah! The waif has a loyal dog! Like the king and the Hound of Culann!”

“What was that she said? Magic feet?”

“How? Where did ye get them, mortal!”

“Yes, explain! Explain!”

 

They begin jumping up and down on my head as I pick up speed. I try to ignore them.

Despite the cold air and deep snow, I barely feel the chill as I run away from the farmhouse that I was making a delivery to. In the distance, the relatively tall walls of Celum beckon me. It’s just past dawn and I’ve got more deliveries to make. And I’ll make them in record time thanks to—

 

“Explain!”

 

Someone pulls at my hair and I grit my teeth.

“Stop that! I don’t have magic feet. I drank some soup, okay? Magic soup.”

 

“Oh.”

 

The tiny voice on top of my head sounds disappointed. So do the rest of the faeries. I guess magic feet isn’t as cool as magic soup. But then I hear another voice.

 

“I want to try some.”

“Me too!”

“Give us the soup, Human!”

“The soup! The soup!”

 

They begin harassing me again. I try not to pay attention as I run back towards the city.

Magic soup. Yeah.

Did I mention I was in another world?

 

—-

 

After the dog incident, I make good time running back to Celum. It’s not as if I was that far away from the city, and I only had two more deliveries to make in the outer suburbs.

Fun fact: unlike the Drake cities to the south, Human cities may have walls, but their actual population likes to live outside the walls in lovely suburbs that nestle right up against the walls in some places. It’s that old medieval-style method of building that allows cities to house a much larger population. If monsters attack, people just run inside the walls until they’re gone and rebuild if they have to.

I wonder how well that worked in Esthelm. Given that the entire city was pretty much razed, I’m guessing there might be a teeny flaw in this system.

But it’s not my job to give architectural advice to people. In fact, the only words I speak are when people open their doors.

“Do you know how early it is? Who’re you?”

“I’m a Runner with a delivery. Do you have a Seal?”

“What? You’re a Street Runner?”

“City Runner. I’m doing local deliveries. Do you have a Seal?”

“That’s…quick. Normally we get messages late.”

“So I’ve been told. Your Seal?”

Eventually I get the Seal and hand the letter over to the person at the door and run away. That’s what my job is all about. The talking and dodging dogs—that’s the worst part. I’m just in it for the running.

Too bad everything seems to get in my way. Of course, that’s my unbiased opinion; what could be more important than me delivering letters to people? Guardsmen on patrol? Merchants and farmers with their wagons?

Bah. All of that is less important than the almighty Runner. I dodge and weave around pedestrians, run down less-crowded back alleys and avoid the hell out of any carts rumbling down the wet streets, all the while being followed by my annoying entourage of faeries.

I must admit, for all I hate their fascination with me, they do help clear the crowds. In this world, the Frost Faeries are simply known as strange creatures that help bring the winter each year. Because they can’t be heard and barely be seen by the people here, they’re generally treated like natural hazards to be avoided at all costs.

Too bad I can see them. I’m still not sure why, but that’s led to me striking up an odd relationship up with the faeries. Namely, they annoy me and follow me about hoping I do something entertaining.

Like slip. I windmill my arms, but I still smack hard into the ground. The faeries—and some of the Humans walking by—chuckle, but I get back to my feet without a word and keep running. I swear that ice patch wasn’t there a second ago.

 

“Did you enjoy your fall? Be more careful next time!”

“Take care not to slip, Human.”

“We tripped you! Hah!”

 

Damn faeries. I keep running, ignoring them as best I can. People give me odd looks if I start talking to the air in any case.

 

“Ooh. So busy! Too busy to talk!”

 

One of the faeries on my head slaps at my head to get my attention. I grit my teeth and ignore her, although it hurts. Then she pulls at my eyelid.

“Screw you! Off!”

I slap at her and she flies away, cheering. I guess getting me to react counts as a win in her books. Another faerie swoops down and flies around my face, obstructing my vision as she laughs.

 

“This mortal is so busy. Not too busy to play a game of riddles, though!”

“‘Twas not a fair game, though! She used numbers and lies instead of trickery! Shame!”

 

The other faeries jeer and yell at me. I keep a straight face, although the fact that I’m being berated by these obnoxious idiots for playing unfair is hilarious. They’re the most unrepentantly vicious, mischievous, and deceitful creatures I’ve ever met, and those are the qualities I like about them.

The Frost Faeries continue to call me names as I run back into the city proper. I get the sense that despite their obnoxious tone, today they’re a bit more annoyed with me than usual. How do I know? A bit more ice mixed in with the snow they toss on me, and a bit too many pinches and pokes than usual.

Normally the faeries respect—well, they’re equally parts helpful as annoying. Twice as annoying as helpful, but they do have limits. But I think they were disappointed in my game of riddles with Teriarch, the Dragon a while back.

Yeah. A Dragon. I can barely believe it, but I did meet him. I keep telling myself that, although my only proof is the bag of gold at my side and the book of magic spells. Gods, I still can’t believe I walked away with part of a Dragon’s treasure.

It was a wonderful, magical encounter. But the faeries got mad because instead of having a proper Smeagol vs Bilbo game of riddles, I instead hit Teriarch with logic puzzles from my world. Apparently that doesn’t count and they’re mad about it.

Or something. I finally get rid of the faeries as I go one place they can’t stand: indoors. As I run towards a familiar building, all the faeries hiss and leap off my head. They throw snow at me as I open the door to the Runner’s Guild and slip inside. The building is made with nails of iron and it has iron in general inside; ergo the faeries don’t feel welcome and don’t follow. Their rules are bizarre, but I’m glad they exist.

“Done with the deliveries.”

The [Receptionist] at the counter looks up and gives me a smile which I don’t return. I hand her the Seals I’ve been given and she confirms all my deliveries are done.

“That was quick, Miss Ryoka! I gave them to you just an hour ago, didn’t I?”

I shrug. I was given five different locations. I got to them all, and got the seals. And I did it fast, too.

“Yep. Got any more?”

The [Receptionist] glances awkwardly at the board of deliveries. I look over there too, and notice some other Runners congregated around it. Only one or two today, though.

Normally, longer deliveries are posted on the board – these would be city-to-city runs, the kind I normally do. But there aren’t many requests or many of the better type of Runner that can avoid or outrun bandits and monsters—City Runners—around. That’s because of the Goblins. No one wants to run into them, even if none have been spotted on the roads as of yet.

“I’m afraid we’re all out of Street Runner deliveries. You and the other City Runners—”

I glance over and see where the receptionist is looking. The Runner’s Guild has tables and places to sit, and they’re occupied by an annoyed-looking group of younger Runners. They’re all Street Runners, by the looks of them. They’re not as quick as City Runners, and though they might know the streets well, I and the other city Runners can still beat them in speed. We’ve been cooped up in the city, and so we’ve been poaching all their regular deliveries.

Do I feel bad? No, not really. Running, doing deliveries, it’s all a competition in a way. I run fast, and so I get paid more. Maybe I’d try to give them some work if I intended to stay here for a while, but I think this is my last day of running solely around the city.

I turn back to the receptionist and nod.

“Fine, I’ll come back later. Is Garia Strongheart around?”

“Miss Garia? I haven’t seen her yet. Do you want to leave a message for her?”

“Just tell her I’d like to talk to her if she comes in. That’s all.”

“I will do so. Have a good day, Miss R—”

I’m out the door before the [Receptionist] finishes speaking. Was that rude? Yes, it probably was. She was only trying to do her job, but I didn’t want to exchange pleasantries. It’s a bad habit of mine, and I’ve been getting better recently.

But today? Today’s a bit…frustrating for me. Scratch that, I just woke up so I can’t really say it’s been frustrating as of yet. More like I’ve been having problems for the last few days and today it’s just…

I jog down the streets, keeping an eye out for Frost Faeries. They’re probably bothering someone else right now, but I want to get to my destination before they come back to check on me. Sure enough, I spot the familiar building and push the door open.

Unlike the Runner’s Guild, I hear a babble of voices and find a full house the instant I walk in. Barmaids—three of them—bustle about the room, filling mugs and tankards and serving food to the room full of people eating breakfast.

That’s pretty normal for an inn. But this inn is special, if only because it’s under new management. The evidence of that is clear when I stare at what one of the barmaids is serving to the guests.

“Crepes?”

Yep. They’re crepes alright, complete with sprinkled sugar, and lots of butter. Not any syrup; I guess it’s too expensive for this inn’s budget. But eggs and bacon make this a filling meal—and food choice aside, I can see that each crepe is golden brown and cooked perfectly.

The small inn I’m staying at, the Frenzied Hare, is packed today, just like it was yesterday. Although we’ve only been in the city for a few days, word has gotten around that there’s a new [Innkeeper] who makes great food, and so every day the common room is packed full of people.

Again, thanks to the new management. I’m not sure if she owns the inn, but she acts as if she does and everyone goes along with her because frankly, she’s pulling in money by the bagful. I walk into the kitchen and see the mastermind behind today’s breakfast flipping a crepe into the air. She holds out a plate to catch it, and it splats into the bowl of batter. I block some of the splatter with my hands as she exclaims.

“Ew! I guess [Advanced Cooking] doesn’t help with that.

She wipes some of the batter off her apron and licks it. Then she looks around and sees me.

“Hey Ryoka! Want a crepe?”

I wipe the batter on my hands and shirt off onto an apron, suddenly realizing that I probably shouldn’t be walking in here with my wet and dirty feet. Oh well.

“I’ll have some food, Erin. Do you want to have breakfast together or have you eaten?”

“Um…I’ve made breakfast, but haven’t eaten. Let me just make one last stack—I think everyone out there is mostly done! I’ll be with you in a bit.”

“Gotcha.”

I walk back out into the inn and try to find an empty table. One of the barmaids who’s name I keep forgetting comes over with a plate of crepes.

“Anything you want to drink, Miss Ryoka? Or is it just hot water again?”

“Hot water. And Erin will probably have milk. She’ll be out in a bit.”

“I’ll be back with your drinks in a second!”

The young woman smiles at me and moves over to another table. I start cutting my crepe apart and eating it. It’s delicious, and the eggs and bacon I manage to get another barmaid to give me are just as good. But my eyes are on the kitchen, and soon enough I see her come out of it.

Erin Solstice. The inn doesn’t exactly stop for her, but somehow she makes her own impression on it. As soon as she comes out she looks towards me. I raise my hand, but she’s intercepted before she even sees me.

The actual owner of the Frenzied Hare, Agnes, has a plate of food in one hand and a huge smile on her face. She’s acting as a barmaid rather than as the innkeeper, but she couldn’t be happier judging by the look on her face as she sits Erin down at a table. She chats animatedly with Erin and other guests come over.

That’s part of Erin’s charm, I guess. She’s friendly, open, and frankly interesting. As an [Innkeeper], I gather she’s quite high-level, especially at her age. You could call her a prodigy without exaggerating, at least by how this world judges things.

Erin has many Skills in the [Innkeeper] class that makes her useful in any inn she walks into, and in a fight. She’s also got great charisma, which is why I finish two plates of food and Erin’s drink of milk before she even finishes her first plate. She’s so busy chatting with Agnes and some other people that I have to wait a few minutes before I can even get her attention.

“Oh, hey Ryoka! Sorry, I must have missed you! Agnes was just telling me I should stay here and help her run the inn forever!”

The woman chuckles as she sits next to Erin, eating the crepes.

“It would be lovely if you would. You’re such a good cook and frankly my dear—you have such a way about you that even Ronald would be jealous of. He’s still so sick—but even when he gets better I could see you being the real manager of the inn. Why, you’re like a second child to me—not that I had a first. I’d so love it if you gave it some thought.”

I roll my eyes as Erin smiles and says something polite and friendly in reply. A second child, sure. One that can do Agnes’ job and her husbands’ without even needing them. Erin is a golden goose and they just want her to stay here and earn them tons of money forever. Even though she’s splitting the profits with Agnes, they have to be earning more in these few days than they would in a month.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. Agnes looks genuinely happy to have Erin here, and so do the other people. But I’m not going to wait until they finish their chat about banal things. I clear my throat.

“Erin. Do you have a minute?”

She looks up at me and nods, while the others look disappointed.

“Sure, Ryoka! Let me just eat one last crepe…mm, this is good! You want another?”

I shake my head and wait until Erin finishes stuffing her face. Of course, that doesn’t mean she and I get to talk right away. Agnes, hovers around while Erin chats with her…and then some of her guests…and then finally has time to talk with me at a table in the corner.

“What’s up, Ryoka? Did you finish your deliveries?”

“A while ago. But I was thinking today you and I should do more planning. We still need to get you back.”

Erin’s smile, present on her face since the moment I saw her today, fades. She looks at me seriously.

“Right. We still need to get back. But didn’t you say that was dangerous? You told me yesterday that leaving wasn’t a good idea.”

I nod. Erin and I are in Celum, a Human city on the continent of Izril. And while we’re surviving well enough here, this isn’t where Erin belongs. She needs to go back to Liscor, a city a hundred miles south of here, and that is an undertaking which has been bothering me since I found her here.

“Right, leaving earlier wasn’t a good option. The gates were locked for the first day, and we were still getting word of what happened yesterday. But there aren’t any reports of large Goblin groups on the move today, so if we’re going to look into getting you back to Liscor, we should start now.”

Liscor is Erin’s home. At least, that’s where her inn is. And her friends. She belongs there, in a sense, and both she and I know it,  no matter how much she might enjoy being here.

Erin frowns as she nods and drinks from her cup of warm milk.

“I want to go back, Ryoka, I really do. I know Mrsha must be so worried! But Selys can take care of her, and I really do want to finish up my experiments with Octavia first.”

I frown at Erin. She keeps saying she wants to finish her experiments, but over the three days we’ve been here, she’s gone to the [Alchemist]’s shop nearly every day.

“Aren’t you done yet? Or can’t you finish your work in Liscor?”

“Maybe…but I need Octavia’s help, Ryoka! She knows all kinds of rare alchemical stuff and she helps me with the food.”

Magical food. Only Erin would think of it. But it works—she made a soup that can give me partial immunity to the cold. I clench my teeth as I think.

“If I had to choose between you going now or later…there are [Alchemists] in Liscor, I’m sure, Erin. And maybe we could get Octavia to come with you? She’d do anything for gold.”

“Maybe.”

“Either way, I want to know that we can get you back, so I wanted to visit places with you if you’ve got time before you go to Octavia’s. There’s a market full of magical items—I want to see if there’s anything you or I could use in case we got attacked on the road—and the Adventurer’s Guild might have a party we could hire to escort us back.”

Erin’s eyes light up at the sound of magical items. She’s still not over magic existing in this world, and neither am I, in truth. She nods eagerly as she finishes her drink.

“I’d love to come along! Agnes says she can handle lunch, so as long as I’m back for dinner—I’m sure Octavia wouldn’t mind if I came by an hour or two late.”

I’m sure she wouldn’t. I nod briskly as Erin waves at Agnes to let her know.

“Fine. First we go shopping, then we’ll ask about an escort and visit Octavia. Sound good?”

“Great!”

“Oh, and by the way, the Frost Faeries are back.”

“Oh. Um…”

It takes us a while to leave the inn, but by the time we do, thirty more minutes have passed, and the faeries are waiting for us as we leave.

 

“Oh look! It’s the duo! The food maker and the story teller!”

“Let’s hit them with snow!”

“Nae, let’s demand food and a story!”

 

Erin blinks up at the faeries as I groan. The other guests that came out to talk and socialize with Erin immediately decide to go back in as the tiny faeries begin swirling around us again, pulling at hair, laughing, conjuring snow—

“Hey, do you all want a crepe?”

They blink. I blink. But the steaming crepe is in Erin’s hands and she tosses it up to them. Immediately, all the faeries begin to fight over it.

 

“Give it to me!”

“No, me!”

 

In an instant the crepe is whirled up into the air and bits of it fall down as the faeries fight and devour it, ripping head-sized chunks away and gobbling them down like starving…ladybugs. Well, they’re bigger than ladybugs by a good bit, but you get the idea.

While they’re fighting, Erin and I walk off. I see the door open behind us, and to my surprise, a plate heaping with steamed crepes is placed outside. I see Agnes waving at Erin before she closes the door and the faeries descend on the food.

I stare at Erin as she smiles, walking beside me.

“Did you plan that?”

“Yeah, they like food!”

Why didn’t I think of—I walk along with Erin, shaking my head slightly. Bribe the faeries with crepes. It’s so obvious, and so easy!

That’s the thing about Erin. It’s never boring when I’m with her. In fact, she might have an even crazier life than I do at times.

 

—-

 

“So, all of these things are magical?”

Erin and I stand in what I can only call a cross between a flea market and a shopping street, staring at a merchant as he displays a small selection of old-looking rings, amulets, and even a few neatly tied scrolls.

Like all markets, supply is often matched by demand, which is why finding anyone who sells magical items in Celum is actually a harder task than it might seem. There are very few shops that do permanent trade in solely magical items, and most such merchants roam from city to city to find their clientele.

Erin and I were lucky enough to be pointed towards this [Merchant], a man of good repute who offers lower-grade magical items. He’s a richly dressed man wearing countless rings and jewelry that sparkles and gives the impression of magic—although I doubt the rings do much more than emit pretty colors. The effect is nice, though, and the man himself is quite the salesman, trying to get Erin or I to commit to a purchase.

Frankly, I’m not sure I’ll buy anything today. I’ve got Octavia’s potions which are quite useful, and I don’t have any glaring needs for magical artifacts right now. I’m just browsing. Also, from what I understand of how much any kind of enchanted object costs, I can only afford a very basic item even with the eight hundred gold pieces I received from Teriarch.

The man sits on a small wooden chair, watching us with a smile on his face while his two guards watch us and everyone coming near the display with considerably less cheer. Erin stares with fascination at the rings; they just look old and uninteresting to me, except for one ring that’s visibly sparkling with red light. I guess most magical items are designed not to attract attention.

“Ladies, what would you two like to buy? I have quite a small selection today—I was cleaned out a while back, but I believe I have a number of trinkets that could help you with all your needs. In fact, I even have a little potion for romantic—”

“We’re not shopping for love potions. I’m looking for protection.”

I don’t want to know if there are actual love potions in this world. The man blinks at me.

“Protection? Unless you need a weapon—no. Are you a Runner?”

“Well observed.”

I lift one bare foot. The [Merchant] is eying my un-frostbitten toes, and I can tell he wants to ask about them.

“I’m looking for a ring of protection or something similar. Anything that can help me survive a run-in with monsters or bandits.”

The man smiles thinly at me, and from the way the two guards shift, I can tell they’re amused as well.

“Ah, I’m afraid you might be under a bit of a misapprehension, Miss. Protection is a very general term. There’s no such thing as a ring that simply guards against everything—at least not outside of an artifact worth hundreds of thousands of gold coins—but let me show you what you’re probably looking for in your line of work.”

The [Merchant] gives me a not-at-all condescending smile that makes me want to deck him as he selects a ring from the items in front of him. He shows me the ring; a slightly cracked circle that feels like it’s made of stone.

“This is a wonderful little trinket that I could sell you—for six hundred gold coins, say? It will deflect arrows for one minute when activated. Arrows will swerve as they fly towards you, perfect for a Runner like you to make their escape.”

“Why’s it cracked?”

Erin peers at the ring next to me. She touches the ring along the crack and the man practically snatches it back.

Please don’t touch that. The magic on this ring is slightly—faded. Hence the discount. But I can assure you it will last quite a long time if not subjected to undue pressure.”

“Like an arrow?”

He ignores Erin and smiles at me.

“How about it? You could weather any storm of arrows—especially ones shot by Goblin archers. I’m sure you’ve heard about the attack on Esthelm? Tragic. But in your line of work, you can’t afford to stay behind city walls, can you? This ring will allow you plenty of time to escape.”

“For a minute.”

“A minute. Yes.”

Erin frowns as she stares at the ring. I keep my face straight and try to sound disinterested—I know how to haggle. But I’m more interested in seeing how Erin deals with this [Merchant]. I’m pretty sure I don’t even want that crappy ring, but I do want to see the show. Erin points to the ring as she questions the man.

“A minute doesn’t sound like much. How long does it take to recharge?”

He grits his teeth, although he’s still smiling.

“Two days. But you can always recharge it if you have the gift, and I assure you—”

“—And what did you mean earlier? Arrows ‘swerve’? Does that mean it doesn’t really deflect them? Wait a second, why would anyone want a ring like that anyways?”

My lips twitch, and I even see the guards grinning a bit. The [Merchant]’s voice is testy.

“It’s true that the ring doesn’t send arrows in the other direction, but it does repel them from your person. If you are running, I’m confident the arrows would fail to hit their mark. It would take someone with a Skill to bypass the protection this ring offers, and again, let me say for five hundred and seventy gold coins, this ring is a bargain.”

“I bet Halrac could shoot an arrow that could beat your ring.”

“Who?”

“Halrac! He’s this guy—a [Scout] that I met at my inn. He’s really good with a bow, and he’s got tons of Skills. What would happen if he shot an arrow at this ring? Would it work?”

The man stares at Erin, brow furrowed.

“Halrac? You mean…Halrac of Griffin Hunt? The Gold-rank adventurer?”

“Yeah, that’s him. He’s a friend of ours. Do you know him?”

For two seconds the [Merchant] stares at Erin. Then he glances at something on his wrist. I look down. One of the gemstones on the man’s bestrewn hands is glowing softly blue. Oho. A truth spell on a stone?

At once, the man’s demeanor changes. He spreads his arms wide, all former irritation gone in a flash as he stands up, now trying to be very welcoming towards us.

“If you know Halrac, that’s different. You know, he bought a very nice amulet from a friend of mine just last year? I’d be very grateful if you’d recommend my wares to him. And for a friend of Halrac, I could certainly offer you…ah…”

He’s clearly trying to figure out what kind of discount and pitch he should give us when I hear familiar voices and groan through clenched teeth.

 

“There she is! Found her!”

“She can’t run away this time!”

“Ooh! Is she looking at magical items? Look how shiny they are! And how weak!”

“They barely glow of magic!”

 

Erin looks around, frowning. I’ve already spotted the Frost Faeries—they’re rising in a cloud over one of the roofs. Neither the guards nor the [Merchant] can hear the faeries of course, but they see us looking away and spot the faeries. They’re probably only glowing blurs to them, but all three react when they see the Winter Sprites.

“Not them!”

The [Merchant] exclaims in a loud voice, and one of the guards shouts a warning. Surprisingly, every single shopkeeper on the street suddenly begins to scramble, shouting as they grab at their wares and try to get everything inside.

The faeries fly down, laughing at the chaos as the man grabs at his magical rings and amulets, face suddenly hunted. Erin looks confused.

“Hey wait, where are you going? I thought you were going to sell us that bad ring!”

The man turns to us, looking frantic.

“Look, we’ll do business when the Winter Sprites are gone, alright? If I keep my wares out in the open they’ll scatter my goods and chase away all my customers!”

He rushes towards the nearest door, his guards grabbing the rest of his goods. Other shopkeepers do the same and the pedestrians scatter indoors as well, fearing the wrath of the fickle nuisances. In seconds, the street is deserted except for two humans and the faeries.

Erin and I stare up at the faeries. They stare back as they hover in the air, watching us. One of them waves.

 

—-

 

After our short shopping trip in the market, the next place Erin and I decide to go is indoors, where the faeries can’t follow. And where we find ourselves is the Adventurer’s Guild. Erin and I stare around the big room as she whispers to me.

“It looks sort of like Selys’s guild, but not, don’t you think? I mean, this place is bigger. A lot bigger.”

I nod as I stare around the Adventurer’s Guild in Celum. This place is certainly a lot bigger, and the room has space for up to six receptionists at once, rather than the single desk for two in Liscor’s guild. I tap on the desk for the receptionist as I ask about hiring a team. She directs me towards the adventurers sitting in one corner of the room. Apparently, hiring an escort is done by contacting the adventurers directly, not through the guild here.

I stare at the groups of adventurers sitting together. Some are Bronze-rank, most are, probably. And others are Silver-rank, whether individually or in teams. A lot of them look tired, cleaning their equipment after some mission, and others look like they’re just here to socialize.

Damnit. Which group should I talk to? What’s the standard rate for hiring them? Can I trust a Silver-rank team? I know none of this.

Neither does Erin, but she has an almost insultingly cavalier attitude towards this.

“Let’s just ask them. If any of them say they can take us to Liscor, let’s try it!”

“You want me to just walk over there and ask them about escort duty?”

I hate talking to new people. I hate starting up conversations, and this is practically my worst nightmare. But Erin just shrugs at me. I grind my teeth.

“What do you expect me to say? ‘Hey, we’re looking for a group of adventurers to escort us to Liscor. Know anyone who might be interested?’”

“That sounds good. Why not?”

I stare at Erin. Well, it might work.

“You say it. I think it’s best if it comes from  you.”

Erin nods and begins walking over to the nearest table where two brawny warriors are sitting and drinking together. Halfway there she turns back and looks at me with a smile of realization.

“You know who’d be great, Ryoka? The Horns of Hammerad! Why don’t we just ask them?”

I blink. Oh. Of course. That would save costs or they could redirect us. I walk over towards Erin, but then one of the adventurers sitting at the table raises his voice?

“The Horns of Hammerad? Aren’t they all dead?”

Erin beams at them.

“What? No! No, they’ve reformed, didn’t you hear? After they uh—they lost people at the Ruins in Liscor—”

One of the men snorts. He’s in his late twenties by the looks of him, and he’s got day-old stubble on his face.

“I heard about that disaster. Four adventuring teams dead and only a handful of survivors thanks to a bunch of incompetent Captains. You’re telling me someone’s stupid enough to keep the name after that? They should have quit being adventurers before they ever went on another mission.”

I stop in my tracks and bite my lips. Erin pauses, and the smile on her face freezes. The second adventurer looks at his companion.

“Who survived? I heard everyone got slaughtered down there.”

“At least two made it out. The half-Elf and the Silver Captain.”

“Ceria Springwalker and Yvlon Byres? I wouldn’t join a group with those two even if they were the last team on the continent. Anyone stupid enough to work with them is going to get killed like their last groups.”

Don’t punch them. I know that. Erin’s voice is flat.

“They’re both great adventurers. They’re my friends.”

The two men shake their heads at her.

“They’re idiots and cowards who got good folk who trusted them killed.”

“You might think they’re on your side, but mark my words, girl. Trust them and you’ll end up with an arrow in your back.”

They don’t even bother lowering their voices. People at other tables look up as they hear the two men begin to argue with Erin.

“That’s not true! Ceria’s really brave! So is Yvlon!”

“The half-Elf? I bet she turned and ran the instant she got into trouble. She’s a coward. Calruz was the only real fighter in the Horns of Hammerad.”

“Take that back!”

Erin’s getting mad, and I’m eying the two men seated at their table. They look a lot tougher than the adventurers Erin got into a fight with at her inn. And they’re just talking, not sexually harassing anyone.

But my blood is still boiling. The Horns of Hammerad don’t deserve this. They were all brave, and I could tell them that, but what would be the point? The two sneering men clearly don’t want to listen; the best thing I could do is kick them both in the face.

I could start a fight—

But I close my hand and feel the stumps of my fingers. No. Not here. Not now. We need the help of some adventurers, even if it’s not them.

I put my hand on Erin’s shoulder. She’s tense and glaring.

“Come on, Erin. Let’s talk to someone else.”

“If you want real protection, Miss, you’d best ask us or a real Silver-rank team. Not a bunch of half-wits that can’t even slay a few undead.”

I have to drag Erin backwards. She glares at me, but I manage to pull her back successfully. Five steps. Then I run into someone.

“Oh, sorr—”

I pause as I stare into a familiar, beat-up face. An adventurer pauses with four of his buddies as they walk towards the receptionist’s desk. All of them look beat-upon; the result of a bar fight they were on the losing end of.

The lead adventurer certainly recognizes me.

He takes one look at Erin and begins edging towards the door. Too late. As my grip slackens, Erin pulls herself away. She walks back over to the table with the two adventurers and smiles at them as she puts her hands on the edge of the table.

“You should take back what you said about Ceria and Yvlon. They’re my friends and they did everything they could to keep everyone else alive.”

“We said exactly what everyone else was thinking, Miss. The Horns of Hammerad—both past and old—are a team of fools.”

Erin takes a deep breath. Her eyes are wide and she gives them a big smile.

“Okay. Fine. If that’s the way it’s gonna be then—table flip attack!

On the whole, I sometimes wonder if Erin’s the more violent one between the two of us.

 

—-

 

“Well, now we’re banned from the Adventurer’s Guild. At least for a while.”

I sigh as Erin and I stump along down the street, followed by a cloud of faeries. I’m resigned to them by this point. They fly after us, laughing about the fight. Erin walks behind me, frowning.

“I don’t regret a thing! Those guys were jerks!”

“Yeah, they were. But now they won’t help us if we need to get back to Liscor.”

“So? We’ll just get the Horns of Hammerad to do it. Ceria and Pisces and Yvlon and Ksmvr can probably defend us against anything we run up against.”

“Maybe. But we don’t know where they are. I can try and make a trip to Albez—or put the word out I’m looking for them in other cities, but it’ll take longer.”

“That’s fine.”

Erin nods, and I glance up at the faeries flying overhead. They look…slightly bored, actually. They’re still laughing and one of them is dropping a steady stream of powdery snowflakes into my eyes, but the rest are just following along, quiet for once.

Huh. I guess even faeries get bored. I shrug and keep walking.

“I’m going to do another delivery—to another city probably. I’ll be back tonight unless something comes up. You okay until then?”

“I’m gonna blow something up.”

I grin.

“That sounds like fun. Just try not to piss Octavia off too much, okay?”

I try to drop Erin off at the [Alchemist]’s shop, but to my surprise Octavia herself runs out, waving one of her arms at me as if it’s a club.

“Ryoka? Ryoka!

Erin walks happily into the shop as the stitch-girl confronts me. Octavia looks stressed out, sort of understandable given that she’s going to be babysitting Erin all day today. Again.

“Hey Octavia, Erin wants to blow something up.”

The young woman’s dark skinned face goes pale as she looks back at Erin in her shop. I feel a bit bad, so I try to reassure her.

“She probably won’t. She’s looking forwards to experimenting with new food recipes, Octavia.”

“Absolutely not! Do you know how much she’s cost me already? One day was in our agreement. I could see two days, maybe three in light of our past arrangements and for future business’s sake, but four? Erin’s already cost me a small fortune in ingredients, not to mention all the time I could be making my own potions. If I’ve got to keep helping her out I insist on some kind of reimbursement. I know we had a bargain, but this—

I have to take a step back as Octavia shouts and waves her hands at me. Looks like she’s hit the end of her patience. Damn. What should I do?

I hesitate, then take the most expedient course of action. Octavia’s ranting slows and stops dead as I start pulling gold coins out of the bag at my side. From the looks of it, it shouldn’t be able to hold all the gold that’s in there, but it’s magical. There’s a massive book inside as well, and that still amazes me.

“Fine. I get it. Here’s more money for Erin, okay?”

I pour the gold into Octavia’s hands as the [Alchemist] gapes at me. Twenty golden coins—pretty darn heavy and glittering in the light, wink up at the girl as she looks from the money to me.

Twenty gold coins. Yes, it’s a lot, but it’s only a fraction of the money I got from Teriarch. And by the way Octavia goes silent, it’s a lot more than she thought she’d get.

“So. Is there a problem with Erin?”

“Erin? What? Of course not!”

Octavia beams.

“Erin, my favorite customer. I’d be happy to—let me just say that as long as she wants to keep working with me, I’d be delighted to help out. Her achievements really are stellar, and let me tell you that I think she’s onto a real breakthrough—”

“Glad to hear it. Just get her whatever she wants, Octavia.”

I let the [Alchemist] practically skip back into her shop and walk off, shaking my head. The faeries follow me, half imitating my shaking head motion, the other half debating whether it would be more enjoyable to watch Erin blow something up in the shop.

I don’t know. I’m glad that Erin’s happy, and I’m fine with leaving her alone to cause havoc in Octavia’s shop. She’ll probably be fine with Octavia to stop her from doing something too insane.

But—

I’m just a bit tired. At the end of my rope, you could say. It’s not that I don’t have anything to do; I’ve got too much to do.

Time to go on another delivery. I start walking in the direction of the Runner’s Guild again. I might not be feeling at the top of my game, but at least I can always count on running to take the stress away.

 

—-

 

“I’m looking for a delivery to another city, but I can’t find any requests. Do you have any?”

The receptionist in the Runner’s Guild looks up at me and frowns. She taps one finger against her lips and nods at last.

“We…have the daily letter delivery for Wales if you’re interested.”

Her hesitation is warranted. No one likes that delivery. I make a face.

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing. Sorry Miss Ryoka.”

The [Receptionist] shrinks back slightly in her seat as I stare at her. After a minute I nod.

“Fine. Give me that delivery.”

 

—-

 

I run through the snow, and then onto harder, slippery ground that’s been frozen over and not thawed. I frown and run back into the snow. It might be more constricting, but thanks to Erin’s soup that I took another drink of before I left, it’s easier to run through the grass underneath the snow than the slippery road.

I’m doing the bulk letter delivery to Wales. It’s…well, it’s not exactly anything to write home about. Or anywhere else for that matter.

Bulk delivery. Just like the post office, letters are taken in and a huge bag full of them is sent off with a City Runner each day to the other cities. It’s a standard delivery, and since it’s so easy, it pays next to nothing.

I haven’t done it since I started working as a Runner. Where did all the big deliveries go? Do people just not need anything during the winter months? No, that can’t be true. Must just be a slow day.

But, like always, I’m not alone. A cloud of faeries flies around me, watching me with heavy-lidded eyes as I run at a good pace through the snow. But all the faces of the faeries aren’t filled with their usual calculated expressions of glee or anticipation. Instead, they all look bored.

It’s actually sort of bugging me. I glance around at the faeries. Some are frowning, and I rarely see them do that. Why haven’t they gone to bother someone else? But then one flying furthest from me speaks, and I hear her voice clearly over the rushing wind.

 

“No. This is boring. I don’t want to do it anymore.”

 

That’s odd. I stare at the faerie who said that. She has a very unhappy expression on her face. She flies into the center of the herd of faeries and raises her voice as she points at me.

 

“You’re boring now. Boring. Mortal, do something interesting.”

 

“I’m no one’s monkey. Get lost.”

I wave at the faerie as she flies around me. She blows ice fragments into my face, making me curse and nearly trip as she shouts at the other faeries.

 

“See? She does naught! I won’t follow anymore. Not even if a Wyvern flew down and dragged her screaming into the air!”

 

All the faeries look up hopefully. So do I. Nothing. The faerie makes a disgusted sound.

 

“I am done. There are other places to be, other mortals to watch and bother. Not her.”

 

That sounds completely fine to me. Why wouldn’t the faeries go annoy someone else if I’m not entertaining them? They’ve done so before.

But this time, the faerie’s words seem to have a lot more significance to them. The other faeries exchange looks, and then begin to argue overhead.

 

“But she wants—”

“Nae, I don’t care as well! We’ve done this too long!”

“Yeah! She went to the Dragon and nothing happened!”

“I’m going!”

“Me too!”

“I’m staying. No. Wait. I’m going too!”

“Let’s go bother a King! Or a Queen!”

“I want to eat berries in the jungle!”

 

The faeries…begin flying away. They flutter upwards in a storm of flashing wings and movement. I stare up at them, my heart beating out of my chest for some reason.

They’re going? Forever? Or will they come back? What they said—

I don’t mind. Not at all. If the Frost Faeries leave me alone, no one will be happier than I…

I stumble on something in the snow. When I raise my foot, I see blood. Cut my skin on a bit of rock. Damn.

Then I look up, and they’re gone. The sky is clear, and the faeries—

The Frost Faeries are gone. The winter they brought remains, but the magic has left. I feel empty. Relieved?

No. Not relieved. They’re gone, and I don’t know why.

I turn back to my run. Don’t think about it. Why would they do that? What did they mean? How was I boring? Was it something I did? What was so wrong about the game of riddles with Teriarch?

A flash of liquid ice to my left. My head snaps around so fast I hear a crick.

They’re not all gone. I see a pale blue shape flying in the air beside me. A Frost Faerie, easily keeping pace with me as I run through the snowy landscape.

One of them is still following. Just one, flying up and to my right, sitting in the air as her wings beat disproportionately slowly to the speed she’s going. Just one.

For some reason, the tension in my heart eases. I feel a bit lighter, although I don’t know why. I stare at the faerie and nearly trip again. She waves at me and grins.

Why is she here? I open my mouth to ask, and then see something to my right. Something closing in fast.

Instantly, I reach for a potion at my belt and slow as I fixate on that, forgetting completely about the faerie. I see a blur—something racing through the snow, and—is that laughter? And I see a pale, pinched face, and catch a glimpse of someone for just one second before she’s past me, speeding down the frozen road at a pace I could never match.

I come to a dead stop in the snow, my feet melting the snow I stand on as I stare at the already distant figure running past me, towards another city.

No way. It can’t be. But I say it out loud anyways.

“Is that…Persua?”

 

—-

 

I have no idea. I think it was Persua. She has that same sallow* face and annoying complexion as ever, and her running form was crap.

 

*I know sallow isn’t the right word, but I’m still using it for her. Pinched is probably a better word, but I like sallow.

 

But the way she moved! She was moving faster than I was—way faster. How? No, I know how. A Skill. But can it really happen that fast? Persua was the slowest City Runner I knew, even slowly than Garia because she took regular breaks. And now—

I shake my head as I sit in the small room I’ve rented in the Frenzied Hare. Erin’s got her own room for which I’m grateful; I need the alone time right now.

I finished my delivery. It was an easy thing; I don’t even have to track down the individual recipients myself with a bulk delivery. I just hand it over to the receptionist at the local Runner’s Guild and get my pay.

Easy. And now I’m relaxing in my room, using the few hours I have before dinner to do some studying. Not dwelling on Persua; studying.

I sigh and look back at the massive tome in front of me. A book—a magical spell book lies on the table in front of me, so big there’s nowhere else on the table for me to put anything else.

I’m studying magic. That’s what I’ve been doing every day, while Erin causes havoc in Octavia’s shop and generally runs about the city. I’ve cut back on doing my deliveries to make time for this.

Learning magic. Learning spells from the tome of wonders that Teriarch gave me. And how many new spells have I learned today?

Well, none, actually. And how many did I learn yesterday?

None, again. In fact, ever since I opened the book to this page I’ve been…

Stuck.

I stare down at the page covered with words that are part magic, part language. They shine at me, spelling out secrets in the magical language that I can only comprehend at a snail’s pace. But I can read the words—

I just can’t accept what they say.

I raise my hand, and take a breath. It’s not that warm in my room; there’s not exactly central heating in this building, although heat does come up from the ground floor. But it’s chilly even so, and I opened the window to let some air in, despite the freezing cold outside. None of the windows in this inn have glass, so either I keep the shutters closed and suffocate, or face the weather.

Ignore that. Concentrate. I fix all my attention on my hand and try to push an invisible force into the right place. Let it condense, like rainwater. Make it into a current and push—

“[Water Spray].”

I say the words, and try to use the magic. But nothing happens. I stare at my hand, and say the words again.

“[Water Spray].”

Again, my hand and the air around it are completely still.

“Damn it.”

It’s not working. I look back at the page in the book and clench my fists. Another failure.

“It makes no sense. It’s not—”

I take another breath, and try to exhale slowly. No. It’s really not working, is it? I can’t figure it out. This—

This isn’t working.

I stand up and walk slowly around my cramped room. Yeah. I’ve been trying to put off this conclusion for a while. Day after day I’ve done this, but I’m no closer to the answer than I was yesterday. I have to call it. I have to say it.

“I can’t do it.”

This is the real reason why every day hasn’t been great. Stress, Goblins, all of my worries are one thing, but I think I could have handled it all if it wasn’t for this.

I can’t learn magic. I thought I could, but I can’t. I got this book from Teriarch, a complete beginner’s guide to spells that should allow me to learn every spell easily and quickly. Hell, I mastered one of the spells in the book in minutes! But I tried reading more spells before I delivered the book to Krshia and its…just not working for me.

The first two spells were easy. I learned a basic telekinesis cantrip—the ability to lift things up like Ceria and Pisces do. Nothing fancy, and I’d have to really work to lift more than the few snowflakes off the table, but it was easy enough to grasp. And then I figured out how to blow air around, another fun trick. But then I started reading another spell—[Water Spray], a very simplistic spell that’s probably Tier 0, and I got stuck.

I stare down at the page again. There are no pictures, probably because magic isn’t something you can just describe in words. But I look at the meanings described on the page and I know exactly what must be done.

 

Let the magic condense, coalesce into a liquid, a real thing. Let it pool and grow, into a current and ocean of its own. Hold it, and then let it manifest as you push it outwards into the shape you desire. Magic is like water, a rushing thing to be guided, but never forced. You cannot force the sea to move, but you can give it a channel—

 

Why can’t I get this? Well, because I can’t believe it works. Simple as that. I understand how the spell goes and how I conjure water out of the air but—

I can’t do it. It violates the basic laws of physics. To cast [Water Spray], I need to turn magic into water, anchor it in a form and then use magic to spray it out. Simple.

But I know that it’s impossible. Magic into matter? It doesn’t work like that. It violates the laws of thermodynamics! What about conservation of energy? The water dissipates fast, but does it evaporate or turn back into magic?

And what about fire? How is it mimicking a natural reaction if it’s burning…magic? Would it still burn in an airtight room?

I clutch at my head. This is all wrong. It should be easy. I get how it works, but now—

I can’t believe it works. That’s the problem. All the science I know, all the laws of my reality I’ve grown up with—they’re telling me what I’m trying to do is impossible, making me doubt what I’m doing and ask questions this book can’t answer.

And magic is partly faith. It must be. If I don’t believe what I’m doing will work, it won’t work. And I don’t believe I can cast this spell. I suppose I just didn’t think about it with the [Light] spell and even when I learned to make fire. But making water out of nothing just doesn’t—

The problem becomes a loop of errors in my head as I struggle to convince myself that I can conjure water out of nothing. But it doesn’t help. I can try to do the spell, but it won’t work. I have to know. I have to understand, and I think…

“I can’t do this.”

Not with this book. I stare down at it, wanting to throw up, or throw it through my window. It’s so easy to learn with this book. It should be. But because I went to school and studied all these damn lessons about how the world works, I can’t believe in these spells.

“Education ruined magic.”

I don’t want to believe that’s true, but I’ve been stuck on this one spell. I can’t move on until I complete it—I just can’t. Even when I look at other spells, all the doubts that popped into my head from this one follow me from page to page.

Maybe if I stare at it longer, something will click. [Water Spray]. Magic turns into water, water appears. I can’t—

Damnit.

I’m so miserable and angry at myself I want to put my fist through something. A wall, maybe. I clench my fingers on my right hand and stare at the deformed fist I make.

Something else to add more depression to my day. I stare at the book and my hand.

Today wasn’t a bad day. Not really. I did some deliveries. I got to see Erin punch an adventurer in the face. I saw Persua—

And the faeries think I’m boring. They left.

All except one.

I look out my window. The sky is gray and the rooftops are filled with snow. But is she out there? Or has she gone too?

She’s out there. I didn’t even realize it at first. But I see something hovering just outside my window. A faint blue shape, holding so still in the air that I didn’t even realize she was watching me.

A Frost Faerie meets my eyes as I stare at her and nearly tumble out of my seat. She laughs at me as I stare at her and feel the wind blow into my room.

“Hello?”

She smiles at me, and floats forwards a bit. The wind is blowing hard, but she doesn’t even seem to be affected by the air that blows my hair about and flicks the pages on the spellbook. She’s in a little world of her own, but she stops at the edge of my windowsill.

Oh. Right. I stare at her and the room I’m in. Faeries are a bit like Vampires. They can’t enter unless invited. Do I have the right? I don’t own this inn—

But I am renting this room. I cough and clear my throat.

“Come in. If you want.”

The faerie stares at me for a second, and then nods in agreement. She alights on my windowsill and dances into the room, twirling and leaping onto my desk with effortless grace. Her feet leave frost on the wood wherever they touch, and I can sense the chill from her.

The faerie shivers, although I don’t. She looks around the room darkly.

 

“Too much cold iron here. ‘Tis not a good place for true magics, or my kind. But then, ye can’t even master a few tricks, so the iron doubtless hinders ye little.”

 

It’s the first words she says. Not ‘hello’ or ‘how are you?’ or even ‘sorry I was spying on you this entire time’. She just jumps into the heart of the conversation like that. I like that about faeries.

“You mean iron interferes with spells? Is that why I can’t master this one?”

The faerie shakes her head at me as she scoffs at the large tome on my table. She steps on one of the pages and kicks the parchment with a foot.

 

“Pshaw. The magic yon book teaches is only a fragment of true magic. Ye should know that.”

 

“I do. But I don’t know real magic. A fragment is better than nothing.”

The faerie nods, and looks at me.

 

“True. But you cannot learn even that, can ye? I’ve been watching you, and a toad would pick up that spell faster than ye can.”

 

I bite my tongue. But she’s right.

“I can’t figure it out.”

 

“And neither will you. You think too much and feel far too little. You look for rules where none exist, and make your own to hold you back. Ye won’t learn magic like this.”

 

I don’t want to hear that. But the faerie’s words ring true. I clench my teeth again, but—she’s not trying to be rude. Okay, she’s doing it without much thought, but I know enough about faeries to realize she’s being direct with me, and as helpful as she can.

“Thanks for the advice.”

She inclines her head regally. I know I shouldn’t ever thank a faerie, at least according to legend, but she doesn’t seem malicious. Hell, the faeries know my full name and they haven’t done anything to me.

What do they want? I clear my throat awkwardly again as the faerie looks around my little room. Here I am, with a faerie in my room. I should…she’s the last one. I need to ask questions. First though, make her welcome.

“Can I offer you anything? Something to eat or drink?”

 

“Do ye have anything?”

 

“…No.”

 

“Then don’t offer, fool.”

 

Okay, off to a bad start. I stare at the faerie as she leaps up into the air at eye height and sits there, as if there’s an invisible cushion under her.

“Why are you here? By yourself, I mean. All of your friends flew off.”

 

“They did. They grew bored of ye, and went to find excitement somewhere else.”

 

A straightforward answer. But I still don’t get why.

“Is it because of Teriarch and the game of riddles I played with him? Is that why they all left?”

 

“In part.”

 

The faerie nods as she scratches at the bottom of her foot with a tiny digit. She yawns widely, showing me sharp teeth.

 

“My sisters think ‘twas ill done. They dislike the trickery of numbers, but it is just as good as the trickery of words to me.”

 

“You disagree?”

 

“I like such things now and then, and it was well done to win even in losing. We are not all alike, my kin. Does it surprise you that one of us would like the dance of thoughts as much as the dance of tongues?”

 

No. I should have known not all fairies were alike. I just—okay, maybe that was fairly racist. Speciesist? Why is it that the immortal species, Dragons and fae, tend to leave me thoughtless and speechless? It’s like all of my cynicism and complex questions fade away in their presence. There’s no doubting their presence when they’re in front of you.

The faerie points at something close to falling off the edge of my desk. The bag of holding and golden coins sits innocuously; just large enough for a handful of coins at best, certainly not large enough to hold this magical book. But it can hold a huge amount of space—all my bed covers and two chairs besides, I’ve found. After that it just acts like a normal bag until I start pulling stuff out. I haven’t yet found the courage to put my head inside.

 

“Yon lies your prize for a Dragon’s duel. Golden coins and a magic bag to hold them. ‘Tis every mortal’s dream, isn’t it? Or did you want something else from the old scales and smoke?”

 

“I don’t know. Did I?”

The faerie flies forwards and smacks me on the nose before I can blink. I  yelp and touch my frozen flesh—she glares at me.

 

“Either you did or ye didn’t. Don’t answer a question with a question, ye prat.”

 

Again, I have to restrain the urge to punch back. I’d probably lose, and I know the faeries are prickly. And she’s right. Sort of.

“Sorry. I don’t know what I wanted from him. Maybe I could have asked him to teach me magic.”

 

“He would have said no. He’s a lazy oaf, that wyrm.”

 

“Maybe. But I got most of what I wanted.”

She nods, and I fall silent for a second. The real question is burning on my tongue. I have to know, so I ask it.

“Why did you stay when the others left? What do the fae really want with me? With this world?”

She looks at me archly.

 

“Why ask a question you know I will not answer? You want to know more than you should. You ask a question I could not answer with ten thousand words as if it were a simple thing.”

 

“Sue me. I’m curious. Is what I asked too broad? Why are you following me?”

The faerie sighs with exasperated patience.

 

“Why do I follow anyone?”

 

“I thought you said not to answer a question with a question.”

This time I’m ready and I swat at her as she flies at my face. The faerie flips over my hand with nimble grace and kicks my forehead. For a small creature she hits hard.

 

“Smart as an ass, aren’t ye? I follow and watch ye in case you do something of worth. You told me and my kin stories, and dared to defy the fates. You bargained with a Dragon, and met one who rules over death. Is there any other mortal I should bother following that’s done more?”

 

When she says it like that…I almost blush. I clear my throat. It’s so awkward, but the faerie doesn’t seem the least bit embarrassed, and that just makes me embarrassed. She doesn’t lie; she just says what she thinks.

“You’ve been following me for a while, haven’t you? I thought you were familiar—have I spoken to you specifically before?”

She nods and flashes me a smile.

 

“Oh yes. I followed you with the others as you ran, and I was the one you struck. I listened to tales of Humans from your world, and it was I who warned you of the armies and led you through the forest. I was there when you cast the bargain, and I accepted the second price. I am surprised you noticed; most beings cannot tell us apart.”

 

I thought so. For the longest time I just thought of all the faeries as one and the same, but this one—she and I have spoken more than I thought. I stare at the small faerie, and feel a sudden connection with her.

“So all of your sisters are gone because I’m too boring and you’re still sticking around. What do you want?”

 

“What do ye think I want?”

 

The faerie looks me in the eye, practically daring me to point out her evasiveness. I don’t do that this time. Instead, I think. She’s not answering me because she can’t. Or she doesn’t want to. So what’s the answer?

“Maybe…because you want something of me. Or there’s something I can do for you?”

The tiny faerie rolls her eyes.

 

“Hah!”

 

Okay, that’s not it. Then there’s something I can do for her. Or—

“Could it be you just want to see what happens next?”

 

“An obvious answer. I suppose ye are right.”

 

The faerie shakes her small head, disappointed. I feel guilty, as if I’ve failed an easy test. But what could she want?

I wish Erin were here to answer. She’d have the damn answer in a second, somehow. She’s better with people than I am. She’d be making friends with the fae in a heartbeat—she could probably befriend a rabid bear.

But then—even she’s had problems with the fae before. She told me about their scam with the fake flowers. I’m really the only person who’s dealt with them for a long period of time. The faeries have hung around me, and I even managed to gain their respect.

And this one has followed me a long ways. Even when her friends are gone she’s stuck around? Why? That’s almost like…

Like…

“A friend.”

The faerie looks up at me. She’d been busy spinning around in the air, but now she pauses, completely upside down and stares at me.

 

“What?”

 

“Is that what you want? A friend?”

It’s a stupid question. And a stupid conclusion to make. We’re not in a kid’s tv show, but maybe—no.

Yes.

 

“Friends? Ye would be friends with the fae?”

 

She scoffs at me, mockingly. But the tiny fae face isn’t as genuinely annoyed as normal, and I see what looks like a smile twitching around the scowl. I grin at her.

“Maybe. I wouldn’t mind having one of you floating about. I know of a certain hero that did that for quite a long time.”

 

“I’m no pet, mortal.”

 

“No, but you are interested in me. And if you’re going to follow me about, why not get to know one another?”

The faerie lies down sideways on the air and props her head on one hand as she stares at me. Seriously, this time.

 

“Do you know what would happen if ye dared to mingle with the fae? There are laws, mortal. Ones that shouldn’t be crossed.”

 

I hesitate. Now I feel like I’m being tested. But I can only go on what I know of her. I’ve seen so much of the fae, and I think I understand the answer to this question. I nod at her, just as serious as she is.

“There are consequences. I know. Dire ones. But wouldn’t a friend be willing to risk anything for another friend? I’d be honored to get to know you, if you’d let me.”

For a second the faerie’s face is blank. She stares at me from head to toe. And then she grins at me.

 

“Good! You finally understand a bit. You are such a fool, you, that I thought ye’d never figure it out.”

 

I blink  at her. But the faerie flies closer, and smiles again.

 

“I’ve grown interested in your kind again, after so long. If you want to talk with me, I suppose a friend would be better than strangers, eh?”

 

I can’t believe it. But suddenly my heart is beating fast, and I feel a surge of passion and life in my chest. I feel alive again.

“I—of course. I’d be honored, as I said. My name is Ryoka Griffin, but you know that. Can I ask your name or is that wrong?”

The faerie considers this.

 

“My name—my truest of names—is a secret to all. And ye would not be able to pronounce it even so. But you may call me…Ivolethe.”

 

Ivolethe. The name rings in my ears for a second. But the faerie isn’t done. Carefully, she extends a small hand towards me. It’s such a small hand, but I extend a finger and let her shake that. For a second, the briefest second I feel coldness, the deepest chill, and at the same time a wonderful cool, a refreshing breeze and the taste of winter on my skin. It’s not at all unpleasant; I could have experienced that forever. But then the touch is gone.

But the faerie remains. Ivolethe flies back and stands on the table. I stare at her, and see her grin again. Pointed teeth, and a gaze older than the world. Her insectile wings fan out, and she begins to freeze the wood under her feet. But she’s here, and she and I are friends.

I’m friends with a faerie.

Suddenly, everything’s okay again.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

3.02 H

Ceria Springwalker stared down at her skeletal hand and for a brief moment, wondered what would happen if she cast [Ice Spike] at point blank range at her face. She’d probably die instantly; in the worst case scenario the shard would lodge in her flesh and brain but fail to kill her.

It was just an idle thought, but she was half-contemplating it. Even horrible mutilation would be preferable to the current situation.

She looked up at the other two members of the Horn of Hammerad sitting around the small fire they’d built. The hazy smoke drifted up, a beacon to any monsters looking for a hot meal. Hopefully none would come; Ceria had tried to camp far enough away from the Ruins of Albez for that, but nasty surprises were always an adventurer’s concern.

Across the fire, Pisces sat on the ground, mumbling quietly to himself as he reviewed his personal spellbook full of notes and spells he was studying. His robes—never too clean at the best of times—were filthy, and he reeked. In fact, he smelled so bad that even Ksmvr, who didn’t really have much of a sense of smell, was sitting far away.

The Antinium had no need of flame. In fact, Ceria thought the fire bothered him a bit. Despite the cold winter weather, the former Prognugator sat with his back to the fire, scanning the landscape. He wasn’t sleeping as he kept watch, but he was so still that he could have been a statue.

Neatly laid out by the Antinium’s side was a shortbow and arrows planted in the ground, ready to be fired. He had one of Erin’s kitchen knives on the ground in front of him, and the enchanted iron shortsword next to it. It was like Ksmvr expected an attack at any moment.

Ceria sighed. Then she stared back at her skeletal hand again. It didn’t hurt. Not anymore. But it felt like it was still covered in flesh, sometimes. But she had to use magic—let it flow into her missing limb—to make it move. And when she touched things, that was the worse. Then she felt as if she could feel something, but it was just her imagination.

The fire coughed and Pisces sneezed into it. Ceria made a face as a wisp of smoke drifted her way. Pisces really did need a bath. She could probably conjure some water out of the air, but it would be a waste of mana. Plus, if she was going to clean him she might as well start with herself.

Ceria wasn’t a stranger to roughing it. She’d spent countless nights outside before she passed her second decade, and she’d gone on countless expeditions with the original Horns of Hammerad, tracking monsters, preparing for dungeon dives, and so on.

But she couldn’t remember camping out ever being this pitiful. Ceria knew that she smelled about half as bad as Pisces, and dried sweat, grime, and unwashed clothing was making her own personal experience unpleasant.

At least they weren’t camping in the snow again. Ceria and Pisces had cleared the ground of the stuff, and it wasn’t snowing like it had last night. Normally Ceria would have liked to camp in a cave, but the Ruins of Albez were part of a natural depression in the ground far from any helpful mountains or hills. The ruined building had sunk into the earth, and so any normal group of adventurers planning to stay in the area for more than one day brought tents.

But they didn’t have any, because they couldn’t afford them. In fact, the Horns of Hammerad hadn’t planned on staying long in any case. They’d brought enough supplies for two days.

This was their eighth night. All of them had yet to eat.

Ceria’s stomach growled and she made a face. Hunger was also something she’d gotten used to when she was young, but she couldn’t ever remember really running out of food in the Horns of Hammerad. For all his temperamental issues, Calruz had been a good soldier and leader in keeping his group fed and outfitted, and Gerial had always left a margin of error when buying gear.

Her heart twinged as she remembered them. Ceria stared back into the fire as Pisces clicked his tongue. Her stomach growled again.

Only—that wasn’t a growl. That was the faint crunch of something in the snow. Ceria instantly looked up and began focusing mana into her skeletal hand. She saw Ksmvr grab his bow and an arrow. Pisces sat in from of the fire, oblivious as he nibbled at a dirty fingernail.

Pisces.

Ceria kept her voice low as she hissed at him. Pisces took no notice. Ceria was about to snap at him even if it meant warning whatever what approaching when she heard a voice.

“It’s me, Ceria.”

Instantly, Ceria relaxed. Ksmvr lowered his bow as Yvlon approached. The armored woman walked towards the campfire and tiredly slung a pack to the ground.

“Food and another shovel.”

She tossed the shovel on the ground as well, nearly hitting the fire. Pisces looked up and sniffed at the tool. Then he went back to reading.

Yvlon eyed the mage, and then laboriously sat down. She began trying to take off her silver armor, equally dirty from time spent outdoors. Ceria went to help; she’d helped her fellow adventurers more than once and she knew how it was done.

Ksmvr came over too. He sat respectfully away from everyone else, which was probably for the best.

“Comrade Yvlon. Does our team have permission to reenter the ruins tomorrow?”

Yvlon barely paused at Ksmvr’s odd address. She nodded tiredly.

“That’s what the City Runner said. No team wants to go to the ruins; they’re all busy with local requests or getting ready to enter that dungeon in Liscor.”

“I see. That is optimal.”

Ksmvr nodded several times. Ceria’s face didn’t really smile; her lips just sort of twisted. Yvlon was making the same face.

“Apparently, the [Dangersense] surge we felt came from that dungeon. No word on whether something else happened; mages would have gotten a message if something nasty came out.”

“Still. That’s some danger in there if that’s what happened from just opening the front door.”

Ceria muttered as she helped Yvlon take off the breastplate. The other woman nodded.

“More teams are coming down from the northern cities. Big names. Griffin Hunt and the Halfseekers are going to have competition if they don’t clear the dungeon soon.”

“Mm.”

Ceria had too many emotions and feelings about the new dungeon to put into words. Yvlon clearly felt the same way, because she didn’t elaborate. Ceria had just finished helping her take off the last of her armor when she exclaimed in annoyance.

Pisces! Get your hands out of the food!”

The young man paused as he lifted a sausage out of the bag Yvlon had brought. He sniffed at Ceria.

“I am feeding myself, Springwalker.”

“We’ll make food for everyone in a little bit. Your hands are filthy.

“I am hungry.”

Yvlon didn’t say anything, but Ceria had to seriously stop herself from blasting Pisces with a spell there and then. She modulated her tone only slightly.

“We all are. But we eat and work together as a team. Put the food back.”

Pisces held her gaze for a second, and then made an irritated sound. He tossed the sausage back at the bag and missed. It landed in the dirt next to the fire.

Yvlon twitched. But she didn’t say anything. Ceria counted to five before she picked the dried sausage up and washed it off. A stream of water flowed from her skeletal fingertip and over the sausage, cleaning the dirt off.

“How far did you have to walk to get to the Runner, Yvlon?”

“Four, five miles? She wouldn’t come any closer.”

Five miles?

Ceria ground her teeth. Yvlon only shrugged tiredly.

“Makes you wish Ryoka were in the area, doesn’t it?”

It did. City Runners were notorious for refusing to get near monsters or dangerous areas when delivering resupplies to adventurers—they were useful because they could save a day or more of travel, but they charged high prices and inconvenienced the adventurers who had to go and meet them.

“If I’d known you would have had to walk that far in the snow, I’d have sent Ksmvr with you.”

“Then the Runner would have just run away.”

Pisces unhelpfully interjected this as he stared at the bread and other food Ceria had purchased with their dwindling coin. The half-Elf scowled as she pulled out a block of cheese and stared at it.

“I told them half a block of cheese. Who’s taking down messages in that damn building?”

The custom for adventurers was to use the [Message] spell to send requests for gear, supplies, or even potions to the local Mage’s Guild or similar buildings in cities. Depending on the urgency of the request (which naturally raised the price of the delivery exponentially), the guild would deliver the request to the local Runner’s Guild where someone would hopefully fulfill it.

Really, it was a gamble sometimes. Prices were very high for deliveries, but most City Runners didn’t like to take the risk of getting near a hotspot for monsters anyways. And when they did, they often waited far away from the actual requested delivery site, shining bullseye lanterns to let adventurers know they had to come out to pick up their package. And the cost—

“How much do we have left, Yvlon?”

“Do you want the good news or the bad news?”

“Good news.”

“We’ve got one gold coin left.”

Yvlon lifted up the empty money pouch and shook it. Even Pisces looked dismayed at that.

“That’s it? How much did the Runner charge?”

“About average. But we didn’t have that much to begin with, and this was the only way to get the food quickly.”

Ceria ground her teeth as she accepted the money pouch from Yvlon. That was the last of their coin, which meant their future was pretty straightforward.

“We’ve got food for two more days, then. If we can’t find what we’re looking for by then, it’s over.”

Over. Ceria watched her three teammates react differently to the news.

Yvlon had the best reaction. She was a seasoned adventurer and a former Silver-rank team Captain. She just nodded, resigned to the outcome. She didn’t like it clearly; her eyes were tight, but she knew that they had no other choice.

Ksmvr was interesting. He didn’t even look that bothered by the news. He just nodded, and went back to studying the landscape. Didn’t he care? Or did he put all his faith in her decisions? Either way, Ceria would have liked more emotion from him.

And less from Pisces. The young man’s eyebrows snapped together furiously.

“Then what? We just give up?

“If we have to. We don’t have the coin to keep searching, Pisces.”

“Then what do we do, Springwalker? Do we go back and start taking other requests?”

“Maybe. If we have to. Unless you’ve got another idea?”

Pisces stared at her. He was grumpy, tired, and hungry. In short, he had the exact same mood as everyone else in the group. But he was also annoying, and he never hesitated to make his opinions clear.

“I don’t know if I would wish to continue my association with this group afterwards. I have as of late begun to question the merits of lending my services to this team.”

Yvlon frowned, probably trying to decode Pisces’ comment, and then out of genuine anger. Ceria didn’t rise to the bait. She just nodded.

“Fine. You want to quit? Do it after tomorrow.”

Pisces hesitated.

“Our searching would be much improved if you took my opinions.”

“We tried that. Didn’t work.”

Ceria pulled a knife out of its sheathe at her side. She began slicing the sausage into chunks and getting a meal ready. Ksmvr came over to help her as Pisces scowled and kept talking.

“One mistake hardly disqualifies my methods. We might have found the secret rooms by now if—”

“We didn’t. And we’ve checked a lot of damn places. Drop it, Pisces.”

“I came here under the assumption that we would find—”

“So did we all.”

Yvlon interrupted. She stared hard at Pisces. It was the first time in a while that Ceria remembered the other woman taking an active stance. But even her patience had limits. She glared at Pisces, but the other mage was hardly impressed.

“We all took a risk on this expedition, Pisces. If it fails, it’s no one’s fault. We just had bad luck.”

“Inefficiency, perhaps.”

“You think you could do better than a group of four?”

“If I had undead—”

Yvlon’s brows drew together. Ceria interrupted as she finished squishing some of the cheese into the hard shell of the bread with the sausage.

“If you did, the local Watch would have shot you full of arrows at Esthelm. And even if you got them here, those Shield Spiders would have eaten your leg before your shambling zombies got close enough to pull you out of their nest.”

Ceria glared at Pisces. She was tired of his constant complaints. It hadn’t been bad at first; he hadn’t been annoyed until around day four. But then, it had been another burden to bear. But this last day he had been incessant.

The half-Elf and unhappy Captain of the Horns of Hammerad rubbed at her forehead, searching for a moderately diplomatic response.

“We’re all tired. We’re all frustrated. But only you keep complaining. Why don’t you keep quiet for a while, Pisces?”

Even Ksmvr nodded. He carefully handed the sandwich he’d made to Yvlon. The human woman hesitated, but accepted it reluctantly. She eyed the sandwich and paused for a good few seconds before biting it. Ceria saw Yvlon glance at Ksmvr, but the Antinium didn’t seem to notice.

“Ksmvr. Do you want another sandwich?”

“I will have just cheese on mine if that is acceptable.”

“Fine.”

The Antinium immediately loaded up his sandwich with a double-helping of cheese. Ceria, taking his example, added twice as much meat to hers instead of cheese. Ever since the Antinium had gotten past his allergy to cheese thanks to the magical charm he’d been eating cheese almost exclusively.

Pisces hadn’t made a sandwich yet. Ceria began assembling one, even though she privately would have rather made him do it. But then he might eat more than they could afford for the night, so she did it anyways. Pisces observed her working and commented with an acerbic tone as she was nearly done.

“Just so you know, I would never animate zombies to begin with. They are an inefficient use of mana, unless used as immediate shields. Ghouls or skeletons would be—”

“Dead gods, Pisces! Shut up! Just eat and we’ll talk about this tomorrow, alright?”

Her fragile temper snapped. Ceria hurled the sandwich she’d made at Pisces. He stopped the flying food in the air with a hand and an affronted look. But he did shut up.

The food was cold, somewhat hard to chew, and could have benefited from some time near the fire. But all four adventurers were so hungry that they scarfed down the food in seconds. Ceria could have used a second helping, but she knew that was all they could afford to eat.

After that, they just sat around. Miserable. It really was miserable. Everyone stank a bit, but no one wanted to wash in this freezing weather. They were tired and uncomfortable, but at least they’d had something to eat.

It wasn’t so much a spoken word, but sheer exhaustion that made all four begin grabbing their blankets. Ceria shivered even when she wrapped the cold, rough fabric around herself. She moved closer to the fire and saw that Yvlon and Pisces had done the same.

No one talked. Ksmvr neatly unpacked his blanket and then paused. He looked around at the other three, two humans and one half-Elf.

“It appeared that our preparations were decently sound. And our objective had much merit. Our approach was correct, and we have taken many optimal approaches. Yet we have thus far failed to achieve our goals. What went wrong?”

No one had an answer to that. They curled up in their blankets or in Ksmvr’s case, sat with it draped around his body. It was a cold night.

 

—-

 

The next day dawned cold and early. Ceria woke up shivering in her blankets. She should have used an ice resistance spell she reflected, but she needed to conserve mana. Plus…she’d never really studied those in Wistram. Ironic, really.

Yvlon rolled out of her bedding at around the same time Ceria got up, and Ksmvr was already awake, if he’d ever slept. Only Pisces snoozed on, incredibly ignoring the cold weather, which suited the others just fine.

“Hot porridge. No spices, no fruits.”

Yvlon handed Ceria a bowl. The half-Elf warmed her good hand as she held the food and shrugged.

“I’ve had worse. Want to look over the map as we eat?”

The Human young woman made an unhappy face.

“I guess so.”

Ceria dreaded looking at the map too, to be honest. It was like staring at a piece of pie held just out of reach. Everything looked perfectly simple at first glance.

See the treasure? See the secret rooms? There’s the treasure. But finding it—

“Okay, we tried digging around the ruined dome building yesterday, but there’s nothing that even remotely resembles the other structures on the map. So we have to assume that area’s lost or completely buried.”

Ceria pointed to a section of the map where a familiar dome-like structure was connected to what she could only see as a secret room. Yvlon nodded as she and Ksmvr stood around the map, staring hard at the places Ceria had marked.

“We have attempted numerous times to visit the second secret location in vain. It may be this section was also already claimed by previous searchers.”

Here was the problem: they had a map. And it was a good one; it showed Albez as it had been, a sprawling city complete with the secret passages and rooms that surely contained treasure. But the map did not reflect current reality.

The three Horns of Hammerad stood on a small bluff overlooking the ruins. Unlike the tidy map of the city, the ruins were, well, a mess.

Dead soil and dried-up vegetation was the landscape that made up Albez’s tomb. But the city itself had not fallen to magic or sword as far as Ceria could tell. It had simply…disappeared into the earth.

Maybe a mudslide had covered it. Or an earthquake had engulfed the city. But it had sunk below the earth, becoming covered by time and dirt until some expedition had uncovered it. Since then, the entire area had turned into a basin filled with half-buried walls and lovely pitfalls that connected a subterranean landscape with the rest of the world. And after all these many hundreds, thousands of years, everything had changed.

Parts of the ruins had shifted in the earth, somehow. Entire passages had moved out of place, and some of the buildings on Ceria’s map were in the wrong places. Worse, some were in the right place as far as she could tell, which made searching even more confusing.

“We know the passage here leads to a secret room. But if we follow it, we get nothing. Just rubble and dirt. We might be able to find the room if we had a team of [Diggers] and [Miners], but we don’t.”

Ceria crossed out another potential treasure site with a bit of charcoal on the map. She eyed the remaining spots they’d pinpointed nearly a week ago. Honestly, it felt like a lifetime. All that hope they’d had had quickly dissipated as they’d gone from spot to spot, digging in the crumbling soil for traces of something they’d never found.

Yvlon squinted at a ragged piece of blue cloth tied to a wooden pole. She pointed.

“We found that marker right around the room marked here. See? I think someone must have claimed that spot.”

That was probably true. Ceria nodded glumly. Searchers often marked their finds with flags or magical signs only they could read in case they’d stumbled onto part of a larger haul.

Ksmvr looked confused. At least, Ceria assumed he was confused. He certainly sounded like it.

“How would someone locate a secret room without a map such as this? Or have other groups obtained similar information sources?”

“Not necessarily. They might have had a [Treasure Hunter]. It’s a rare class, but a high-level one might have had a skill that located a major haul.”

“Are we to assume all the places here have been looted, then?”

Both Ceria and Yvlon shook their heads instantly. If that was the case, they wouldn’t have risked so much on this.

“Even someone with Skills can’t find everything. Especially if the places are guarded. We’ve just been unlucky, or hitting places already searched. We need to go somewhere else today.”

“How about over here? There’s several rooms that belonged to some sort of complex. And a passage here and here…worth a shot?”

Studying the places Yvlon had pointed to, Ceria had to agree that it looked like there was a secret passage over there as well. She nodded.

“I think that spot matches that depression over to the east, don’t you? We’ll head for that after Pisces wakes up, then.”

It took a few kicks for the mage to wake up. He was grumpy when he found only a bit of porridge was left for his breakfast, and even unhappier when he found they’d decided on the next place to search without him.

“I thought adventurers considered all opinions and made informed decisions, rather than rashly coming to conclusion without all input.”

“We’d do that if you woke up earlier. If you’ve got a more likely spot to search, find it.”

He couldn’t, which only made Pisces more grumpy. The Horns of Hammerad struck camp and began cautiously picking their way across the snowy ground towards the ruins, letting Ksmvr take point.

Even as they were moving across the ruins, the group moved slowly, keeping an eye out for anything moving in the snow or strange sounds. Monsters were common around magical sites and the ruins were a known dangerous spot.

However, aside from a nasty run in with a small nest of Shield Spiders, the Horns of Hammerad hadn’t run into many monsters. That bothered Ceria. She didn’t like not having trouble, especially here.

The Horns of Hammerad under Calruz had gone on four different occasions into Albez, looking for treasure like all of the other Silver-rank teams in the area. It was practically a rite of passage; if you could survive Albez, you were ready for harder requests.

But even during the easiest time they’d had here in the past – running into a Mothbear and then a group of Yellow Shamblers – Ceria couldn’t ever remember the ruins feeling  this…empty.

She cleared her throat as Ksmvr stopped on top of a slanted block of stone and scanned the area, shortbow in hands. He looked over at her and Yvlon and Pisces stopped to listen.

“Keep your eyes peeled for monsters. We don’t want anything creeping up on us.”

It probably didn’t need to be said again. Pisces certainly snorted and kept walking. But Yvlon and Ksmvr nodded and moved forwards with even more vigilance.

And then they were at the designated search site. Ceria stared down into a collapsed room and tried to compare the dimensions of the rubble to one of the rooms on the map. It was…a rough fit.

“Looks like we should be able to hit another room if we move a few paces up. See?”

The others crowded around the map, trying to find a good point to break into the supposed secret tunnel. It was supposed to lead out of one of the rooms—residential chambers by the looks of them—into another, larger room. It looked exactly like a secret room, in short, but finding that exact spot would be difficult.

By now of course, the four knew what to do. Yvlon and Ksmvr both grabbed a shovel and chose spots apart from each other before they dug down, hoping to hit a stone roof or other part of the building.

Ceria watched them work, keeping an eye out for danger. Part of her optimistic. The other half—

“We will not find anything this way.”

She looked over to her left. Pisces stood with her, staring at Yvlon and Ksmvr with a disgusted expression on his face. On the first day they’d all taken turns digging until their fingers were blistered. Now the stronger two dug until they thought they’d found something, in which case Pisces and Ceria would pitch in.

“You do realize how deep the secret rooms could be?”

“I know. Normally we’d have hired a digging team, we’d have twice as many adventurers and maybe even joined another team. But we don’t have the time for that—and any other group would demand equal shares of the treasure, maybe even try to take it all. And…neither Yvlon nor I have the credibility to persuade anyone to join us, anyways.”

Ceria grimaced. They’d encountered a…bad reception in Esthelm. The other adventurers they’d met had either had words of sympathy or outright contempt and anger for her, but especially Yvlon. All the local adventurers had known someone who’d died in the crypt.

“So instead we have two inexperienced hands and two mages not specialized in earth magic? Hardly better.”

For once, she couldn’t refute his statement. Ceria grimaced.

“We went haring off without a plan. We should have prepared more, planned for this.”

It was the excitement of finding the map. It had overtaken their good sense and made even Ceria and Yvlon ignore their instincts which told them they should have prepared for at least a month and had three times as much coin as they’d borrowed from Erin. But they’d hoped.

Pisces nodded dourly. He had a fresh porridge stain on the neck of his robe.

“I blame myself.”

“Oh, do you really?”

“I should have predicted this outcome. And insisted we use my creations to expedite the process.”

“Pisces. We’ve talked about this.”

“We have. But you have not listened properly as of yet.”

Ceria sighed. She’d gone several rounds with Pisces before, but this time he looked like he had dug his heels in. He was practically impossible to budge in this state.

“You know how Yvlon and I feel about the undead.”

“I know.”

“Summoning the dead is a crime up north unless you have an agreement with the local cities—which you don’t.”

“All true.”

“Well?”

“Without my undead, we will never dig down deep enough. All we will do is unearth previously found structures like we have all week. You need a tireless workforce; I have the means to create one. All that is getting in the way is your distaste.”

It was a rational argument, delivered in a calm, cool voice. It was so like the old Pisces that Ceria had to glance sideways at him.

Yes. If you looked past the dirty hair and clothing, there were traces of the young man she’d known. Still traces. She wavered.

“Still.”

“Springwalker, I can sense the bodies below us. There’s enough for me to animate several skeletons at least. Probably quite a bit more if need be.”

Pisces looked Ceria in the eye like he used to. His eyes were focused on hers, and he had that old intensity, the old half-manic stare of utter determination in his eyes.

“What is more important, Ceria? Your pride or success here?”

That settled it. Ceria closed her eyes and raised her voice.

“Yvlon!”

When the other adventurer came over Ceria explained Pisces’ point in curt words. Yvlon’s face closed off and she looked at Pisces. He returned the gaze steadily.

“Pisces has a point. We kept unearthing emptied ruins. We might have to go deep and we’re out of time. His undead might be our only shot. What do you think?”

The golden-haired warrior looked unhappy. She hadn’t been overtly hostile towards Pisces on the journey, but then, she hadn’t let him summon any undead either. She pushed some of her dirty hair out of the way.

“You are the Captain, Ceria. If you think it’s worth a shot, I’ll put up with it.”

Her tone and stance made it clear that she did not want Ceria to say yes. But Ceria had already made up her mind.

“Okay, Pisces. Do it.”

Pisces nodded. He stood up and raised his hands. He made no audible gestures, and didn’t showboat. But Ceria sensed his mana gathering and probing down below. She shuddered, knowing what he was looking for.

“Ceria? Is he doing anything…wrong?”

Yvlon’s voice was quiet, but her eyes were intent on the half-Elf’s face. Ceria knew how Yvlon had to feel—it wasn’t like either of them had liked undead before the ruins. And now…

“Nothing wrong, at least magically.”

“And you’re sure this is the only way?”

“The best we have. I don’t like it either. You know that. But it’s his main class, Yvlon. He’s a good mage, but he was always best at his passions. As a [Necromancer], he’s powerful. Let him do this once.”

The former Captain’s lips twisted, but she clearly didn’t want to dispute Ceria’s decision in public. She shook her head and planted the shovel in the dirt.

“I’ll stand watch with Ksmvr. If he’s pulling up the dead, we might as well let them work.”

Ceria nodded gratefully, watching as Yvlon picked her way over to Ksmvr. After a few seconds of discussion they walked off to keep a lookout, leaving her with Pisces.

“Rise. Rise from the place where you rest to do my bidding. Claw through stone and dirt to where I stand and obey my orders…”

He was speaking to the earth, his voice lower and audibly infused with the echoing tones of someone casting magic. Ceria shook her head as she sensed the magic leaving him and entering the earth.

“Is that necessary? Can’t you just cast [Raise Dead] and have done with it?”

Pisces shuddered and blinked as he came out of the trance he’d entered to cast the spell. Ceria caught him before he overbalanced and let go immediately. He blinked at her and then nodded once.

It was so…hard sometimes to act normal around him. At least this time Pisces didn’t sniff obnoxiously.

“It’s not that simple when you don’t stick to set spells. You should know that, Ceria. I told you, if you cast a spell the same way each time, you don’t learn anything.”

“Fine. So you improvised. I assume you cast multiple raise dead spells at range?”

“[Raise Skeleton], in point of fact. They are the most cost-effective, or so I’ve found.”

“Oh good.”

Pisces pointed at an area of ground ahead of them.

“There is a considerable group of dead bodies below us. That might indicate a secret room is indeed down there.”

“It might mean it’s already been looted.”

“Perhaps. Or that it was found but never successfully entered. Either way, I have summoned several skeletons that will assist with the digging.”

Ceria stared at the ground. She didn’t see the normal tremors of dirt or hands clawing their way out of the soil that preceded a zombie bursting out to try and eat her face off.

“Something taking them a while? Or did you just tell them to take it easy?”

Pisces scowled at the needling, and Ceria immediately regretted the words. It had been a powerful spell; she could see him sweating a bit in the cold.

“They must find their way up from a considerable distance. A shame you couldn’t remember where the Lich was, Springwalker.”

“You can’t animate a Lich, Pisces.”

“Maybe not from scratch. But if I had the bones of one—”

“You could animate it? Really?”

“Perhaps. I should like to study the spell animating it at least.”

The half-Elf eyed her once friend as he mumbled to himself. He thought he could create a Lich? Or learn the spell to make one?

That was…concerning. A Lich wasn’t the highest-level undead; not by far. But it was powerful. Powerful enough that if Pisces could animate one by himself, he was stronger than Ceria had given him credit for.

“What level are you by now? In your [Necromancer] class, I mean.”

The mage stopped muttering to himself. He turned to stare flatly at Ceria.

“What do you care? Didn’t you tell me last time we parted ways that you never wanted to hear from me again?”

“That was then. Somehow we’ve ended up working together again.”

“Yes. I suppose I should thank Erin Solstice for that.”

“Maybe you should. Or will you curse her for it?”

I had no objections to working with you, Springwalker. But you were the one who told me you didn’t want to travel with me.”

“Yeah. I did.”

Ceria dearly wished she used a staff like Sostrom used to carry around. True, it was cumbersome, but it would have been so nice to lean on. She contented herself with sitting on a rock.

“I haven’t exactly changed my opinion of necromancy since then. You do know that the undead killed my team, and Yvlon’s? I saw a lot of friends die thanks to them.”

Pisces just shook his head.

“The undead are mindless. Or rather, most are. The ones under my command are not the same as those roving creatures.”

“Some would say there’s not a lot of difference. If you lose control or get killed, they’re still mindless.”

“Only if I don’t realize my goals.”

“Still going on about that? I’d have thought you gave up by now. You certainly don’t seem to have made much progress.”

To her surprise, Pisces grinned rather than grow defensive at her jibe. That made her cautious. But he glanced over at the ground and she heard the sounds of dirt scattering. The first of the skeletons was digging itself out of the ground.

“Oh good. The diggers are here. Get them to work, will you?”

Both Yvlon and Ksmvr watched from their posts as five more skeletons dug themselves out to join the one Pisces had summoned. Two grabbed shovels; the others just got to digging in the earth with their bare hands.

Yvlon turned away as the skeletons with glowing eyes started working. Ksmvr just watched with interest. Ceria took a seat on a rock next to Pisces as they chatted in the cold.

“It seems odd that Ksmvr wouldn’t be a better digger.”

“He was not built for it, Springwalker. He may share the same body, but he clearly lacks the experience.”

“All things to their intended purpose, eh? Surprised to hear you of all people say that.”

“I am not suggesting it is effective. I am simply stating what is. Do not misconstrue my words.”

“…Sorry.”

They sat in silence for a while, watching as the skeletons got to work. They moved with commendable speed in the cold, and despite being weaker than Ksmvr and Yvlon, they were tireless. Ceria already wondered why they hadn’t used them earlier, until she remembered exactly why.

“They look like they’ll get a good way down before the day’s over. Maybe this will work.”

“One can only hope.”

Pisces grunted as he stared at his creations. His stomach growled audibly in the wind. As if in answer, Ceria’s did likewise.

“Isn’t it funny? A few years ago we’d be in the banquet hall, stuffing our faces over a book of spells.”

“True.”

“…Do you miss it?”

“Of course.”

His voice was soft. Pisces stared at his undead, remembering just like she was.

“But it is the past. I gave it up for my passions. There is no use looking back.”

“To you, maybe. I wonder what would have happened if—you were a better mage once, when you didn’t practice Necromancy.”

The words were still bitter and from a dark place inside Ceria. But she couldn’t help them coming out. This time Pisces didn’t snap at her. He just shrugged tiredly.

“Some thought so. But I was a generalist then; a jack of no masteries. Necromancy was ever my passion. I might have had the dregs of popular support, but only that. Who would applaud a mage without a master or a calling?”

I respected you. So did Mons and a lot of other people.”

“Ah.”

There wasn’t anything he could say to that. Pisces stared at the flying dirt and two skeletons trying to lift a large stone out of a hole they’d dug.

“Mons. Yes. What happened to her? I didn’t hear of another mage joining you when you left Wistram. Did she…?”

“She kept studying in Wistram. Who knows? By now she might be a better [Mage] than you or I.”

“Hah. Perhaps. She certainly knows more spells by now at least.”

They both laughed at that. Then they grew silent. Ceria could sense what was coming, but her tongue kept leading her onwards.

“You know, even if you had become a [Necromancer], it might have all been okay if you hadn’t…”

“I told you, it was to a purpose.”

“But you didn’t even ask permission.”

“I didn’t need it. Cognita said as much. The rules they made—”

“It’s the principle of the thing, Pisces. You spat in their faces and said—”

The other mage cut her off. His face was tight and drawn, and Ceria knew he was reliving the same moment, just like her.

“I…erred. But I did what I thought was best. It is the past, now. Continuing the same argument would be pointless. You fail to understand my position as you have in the past.”

“I guess so. But you have to admit, it didn’t end like you’d hoped.”

“No. It didn’t. I realize that now.”

It was the first time she’d ever heard him admit he’d been wrong. Ceria looked at Pisces in surprise.

“You do?”

Shrug.

“Recent events have given me cause to…regret the ending. That is all.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Neither of us are exactly earning Wistram rates, are we?”

“No. But I was astounded to receive a message from you. I didn’t even know you were still on the same continent. What made you decide to come here?”

“I came to Izril to earn money. To become a better adventurer, since I couldn’t stay in Wistram.”

“Why not Baleros or Chandrar?”

“Too far and too violent. For both, really. I didn’t want to join a Company; I wanted to make my own choices.”

“Hmm.”

Ceria looked sideways at Pisces.

“What about you? Why did you decide to become an adventurer? Didn’t you swear to me you’d pursue your own path?”

“I…need to be a higher level. That’s all.”

“Really? But you won’t level up that much from just casting mage spells.”

“True. But…well, perhaps I’m also looking for something else.”

“What?”

“One last chance.”

“For what?”

He hesitated. Pisces stared at the ground, as the cold wind blew his robes around him.

“To—”

Below them in the ditch they’d hollowed out, one of the skeletons raised its shovel and brought it down on a section of ground. The earth around it collapsed, and the undead disappeared.

The earth rumbled as dirt and stone shifted. Instantly, Ceria and Pisces stepped back, feeling the ground under their feet shift slightly.

Collapse! Get clear!”

Ceria shouted to Yvlon and Ksmvr as the tremors grew. She stumbled back, looking for safe ground, grabbing Pisces as he tripped after her.

Collapses were a big danger in older dungeons and in places like this. It was all too possible to be swallowed by the earth. Ceria saw Yvlon and Ksmvr running to a large section of stone, hoping to find a safe place on the solid rock. She tried to run after them.

And then, as soon as the horrible rumbling had started, it stopped. Ceria turned shakily and found Pisces getting to his feet. He brushed dirt off of his robes and then turned to stare as well.

“Tree rot. Look at that.”

A huge gaping sinkhole had opened up where the skeletons had been. Ceria could spot two climbing up, but not the other four.

“Trap spell! Get down!”

Pisces shouted it and Ceria immediately dove back into the soil. She saw Yvlon and Ksmvr who’d been running over to them do the same. She turned to look and saw what had alarmed Pisces.

Giant ribbons of flame that writhed and twisted around like snakes were burning around the fallen dirt and stone. The flames weren’t red and orange; these were blue, and already they were melting stone and turning the dirt into smoke that began to billow up from the hole.

“Pisces. Is it aimed at—?”

“No. Let me see.”

The other mage raised his face out of the dirt and focused. Two of his skeletons approached the pit.

“I’ve lost three of my skeletons. Two were incinerated; the other crushed. Last one’s trapped under some dirt. The other two aren’t being targeted—looks like we set off an area trap.”

“Thank flowers for that.”

Ceria sighed and let some of the tension ease out of her body. She’d hoped for something to happen, but she hadn’t expected that.

“We just dug straight into that secret corridor, didn’t we? And by the looks of it, it leads to a [Mage]’s quarters.”

“Looks like it.”

For a second the two mages stared down at the dancing flames. Ceria was already trying to analyze the spell; the amount of mana she could sense in the flames and the way they were instantly burning through the huge amount of stone and dirt in the way told her that it was a seriously powerful spell they’d tripped down there. What Tier? Tier 5? 6?

“Ceria! Pisces! Are you two alright?”

Yvlon’s voice echoed and Ceria realized she and Ksmvr probably couldn’t see what she did. She scrambled to her feet and waved her hand at the two prone forms that were slowly crawling towards them.

“It’s fine! The skeletons broke through the roof of a new area! The falling stones must have set off some of the magical protections. Stay clear, everyone!”

Yvlon and Ksmvr got to their feet. They made their way over to Pisces and Ceria as the two tried to dust themselves off.

“We just heard the rumbling when the earth began to collapse. Good thing we weren’t standing closer.”

“Indeed. That would have most likely resulted in our painful immolation.”

Both humans and the half-Elf fell silent as they stared at Ksmvr. He stared back.

“Unless Pisces or Ceria know powerful anti-flame spells?”

“No.”

“Nope.”

“You’re probably right, Ksmvr. Thank you for sharing that.”

All four adventurers turned their attention back to the pit. Yvlon whistled.

“Those flames are still going? That must be some trap spell. Who were they expecting to kill? Named Adventurers?”

“Ah. It—”

“It’s probably—”

Ceria and Pisces broke off. Both of them had spoken at once. They shared a look and then Ceria explained.

“We hit the binding matrix of the spell. That’s why it’s still going. All the mana is being depleted and it’s not going to recharge after it’s over.”

“Oh. I see.”

Ksmvr looked down into the pit.

“May I ask what the nature of this spell is? It appears to be mainly aimed at close-range magic. Is there any unusual component to it?”

That was what Ceria had been trying to figure out. She rubbed at her chin.

“I’m not sure. That’s some kind of pyromancy trap for sure. But blue flames? It looks like a variation of that [Flame Snake] spell we read about, remember?”

Pisces nodded absently.

“An upgraded version. Clearly evident from the blue flames and extreme heat.”

“Clearly. Probably be practically impossible to block if it suddenly came at us.”

“Indeed. The walls were probably reinforced to avoid sudden escape. Would a trap wall have blocked any retreat?”

“Maybe…”

Yvlon looked at the two mages.

“What’s the verdict?”

Ceria nodded.

“Good. That’s a powerful spell. And it was fresh. No one’s triggered it before or we’d see the scorch marks. There’s a good chance no one’s explored this place before. And best yet—”

“What they’re guarding could be just as valuable.”

Pisces smiled, and so did Yvlon. Ksmvr just moved his jaws slightly.

“This is good, correct? Should we descend once the flames have ceased?”

“Definitely. Get ready everyone! We’re going in!”

Suddenly energized, Ceria began calling more mana into her skeletal hand as she reviewed spells. Yvlon put on a helmet and began swinging her sword lightly. Ksmvr armed himself with the shortsword and knife for close-quarters combat. Pisces recalled his two skeletons.

The mood of the group had completely changed in a few seconds. The pressure of imminent death—but more importantly, the thought that they might have found something truly important—had given them the same burning hope they’d had at the beginning. Ceria could barely contain her eagerness as they waited for the spell to end.

“Don’t go in for at least thirty minutes after the fires have stopped. The heat down there is intense.”

Indeed, the smoking stones were radiating an intense heat that completely ignored the cold air. Ceria was already starting to warm up even far as she was from the sinkhole. Pisces stared down at the entrance to the tunnel, barely able to conceal his excitement.

“I could cast [Frozen Wind] to expedite the cooling process.”

“Save your mana. We don’t know what’s down there. In fact—let’s get started on the trap dummy. I was going to use the mud ball method, but why not one of your skeletons.”

“Right. Let’s.”

Even Yvlon didn’t object as Ceria and Pisces got to work on one of the skeletons. Only Ksmvr was confused. He stared at the two mages as they started handing the skeleton items and muttering about enchantments.

“Excuse me. What is happening?”

Ceria paused as she handed the skeleton a hefty rock to hold. Pisces was busy with a torch he was trying to light.

“Oh. You’ve never seen adventurers entering a trapped dungeon, have you, Ksmvr?”

“No. What is the purpose of equipping the skeleton thusly?”

This time it was Yvlon who explained. She gestured at the skeleton as Ceria cast an enchantment over it. A ball of light hovered around the skeleton’s head, radiating light that added to the flame of the torch in its other hand.

“When we go into dungeons, we’re always wary of traps. They claim more lives than monsters most of the time. If we had a [Rogue] or [Scout] we could rely on their trap-sensing Skills but we don’t have one. And even then, it’s extremely risky for anyone who goes in first. Most of the adventurers who take point—don’t survive.”

Ceria nodded grimly. She’d buried more friends than she cared to remember who’d gone in and received the business end of a trap or monster’s claw. Yvlon had the same expression as she continued.

“So. We find ways to trigger traps beforehand. One common way is to shoot an arrow at an obvious tripwire or pressure plate, but a lot of traps are magical. So adventurers will roll something down a suspicious corridor—we use mud balls if we can’t use anything else. But a lot of traps have more sophisticated sensors.”

“Hence using the undead. They might not trip detection for living beings, but by giving them a heat source and the weight of a normal adventurer, this one will probably trigger most traps. And the magical enchantment also activates a lot of sensors.”

Pisces explained as he made the skeleton walk towards the edge of the unearthed corridor. Ceria nodded.

“Hopefully we’re not dealing with an experienced trap maker. If this is a mage’s personal quarters—well, they’re pretty bad at differentiating the activation mechanism for spells. We might get all the traps this way.”

“Excuse me. I am confused once again. I thought this was a dungeon. What was this about a personal mage’s quarters?”

“It’s…hard to explain, Ksmvr. We say ‘dungeon’, but that doesn’t mean this place was originally built underground. I think Albez was actually a city that sunk into the ground over thousands of years.”

“Oh. I see.”

The Antinium considered this.

“So we are, in fact, likely breaking into a deceased individual’s personal quarters?”

Ceria, Pisces, and Yvlon looked at each other.

“Pretty much.”

“Hopefully.”

“Or a treasury owned by a guild or rich person. Those are always nice.”

“Then why all the traps? The spell we just witnessed seemed excessive?”

Ceria shrugged.

“Paranoia. It’s usually because people have something important they don’t want stolen. And a powerful mage around Level 50? They’d have a lot of enemies, a lot of artifacts and valuables over the years. Their homes tend to turn into miniature gauntlets by the time they die.”

Yvlon nodded.

“In some cases, the protections are justified. Consider what powerful items a mage might own? On the other hand, artificial dungeons—ones that people make for the exclusive purpose of guarding something really rare—are the worst. This is more like a few private wards on a home. But dungeons designed to kill a huge number of invaders? Those are real deathtraps.”

“Indeed? How so?”

Ksmvr barely had to get the others started. Even Pisces had stories of the horrors adventurers had found in ruins.

“I heard in one dungeon the creators placed an invisible poison mist trap at the entrance. So while the adventurers were clearing the dungeon they were slowly dying. Hundreds of teams would go in without problems, but none ever came out.”

“What about the acid showers? Did you hear about that? It triggered five hundred meters in and flooded each corridor. If it didn’t have such a long reset time it would have wiped every team that went in there.”

“I heard of one mage who just teleported the people in the trap into a pit in the middle of bedrock. They had no way out and they’d just starve to death.”

“I heard of that one too! The [Miners] who eventually located the trap—didn’t they find some adventurers still alive in there? They’d eaten all their friends and were living off their boots.”

“That’s just a myth. No one would have the air to survive down there.”

“I heard they had a charm.”

“True, but even so—”

Bemused, Ksmvr glanced around at the others.

“You seem unusually upbeat for such a dire circumstance we might be facing ourselves.”

“That’s part of what being an adventurer is, Ksmvr. We risk everything, so we might as well chuckle a bit in case the worst does come true.”

Ceria laughed. Even Yvlon grinned at the Antinium.

“We’re building morale before we enter. Don’t worry—we’re all nervous. But it’s better to tell jokes than to wait in silence.”

Ksmvr considered this, and then nodded.

“I shall learn from this experience. Thank you for explaining it to me.”

That was weird, but it just made the others laugh harder. Because it was weird and they were about to enter a place where they might die. Soon, Ceria judged the hole to be cool enough to enter, and after sending the skeleton in first, the others slid down the melted rock and entered the abandoned tunnel.

 

—-

 

“Okay, that was a nasty arrow trap. Pisces, you’re walking in front from now on.”

Ceria eyed the deadly poison-tipped bolt that had neatly passed through the skeleton’s ribs and shattered on the far wall. She didn’t even want to touch the arrow in case all of it was toxic.

Pisces shook his head. He pointed and the skeleton obediently trotted forwards again.

“I will stay behind the two warriors, thank you. They have armor. I do not.”

“You have that ring. It probably would have saved your life.”

Ceria watched as the skeleton advanced fifteen more paces into the darkness and rounded a bend. The tunnel they’d found was long and winding and this was the second trap they’d run into. The first one had been an easily-triggered trap that had unleashed the dreaded spray of acid when Ksmvr had fired an arrow at it. The second the skeleton had triggered and Ceria was only concerned there might be more.

Several hours had passed since the Horns of Hammerad had entered the tunnel. Despite that, they’d gone less than eighty paces. This was due to the excruciating care all four were taking to check for traps every inch of the way.

All of them had long sticks they used to poke at the wall, ceiling, and floor, and Pisces regularly sent his other two skeletons ahead to stomp or bang on walls in hopes of triggering something. Even when they thought it was safe, the Horns of Hammerad went in line, one at a time, letting Ksmvr or Yvlon go forwards a good ways before the others cautiously caught up.

“The tunnel can’t be that much longer. The map shows it leading to a good-sized space ahead, right?”

Ceria didn’t even have to look at the map in her pack. She nodded.

“That’s right. Hopefully we get there by tonight. Otherwise…we could set up camp there.”

Again, it was Yvlon who had the calm acceptance of this fact; she’d probably expected that to begin with, and Ksmvr who deferred instantly to her leadership. But Pisces scoweled.

“Camp here? But this corridor is wide open! We should endeavor to get to the end before nightfall—I don’t want a monster cornering us in here.”

“Better that than rushing, Pisces.”

The scowl Ceria gave Pisces was returned with equal value. She hated how he balked at every decision she made. She knew he was eager—she remembered the same feeling and even the same conversation. But she’d seen what happened when they rushed.

Pisces clicked his teeth together as Ceria replied.

“We don’t risk anything. Even if it means two days—even if we had to leave this place and come back with supplies rather than risk going in without moving safely, I’d do it. As it is, we’re still way too close to the trap radius if we hit something large. We’re risking a lot as it is, Pisces. I won’t just walk us into death.”

He clicked his teeth together a few more times, clearly upset. But then Pisces sighed.

“Very well. I defer to your experience.”

That surprised Ceria; she’d been sure he would have fought her more on this.

“Really? Good.”

“Yes, well—”

Pisces paused and clicked his teeth again. This time Yvlon scowled at him.

“Would you stop doing that? It’s distracting?”

“Me? I’m not doing that. I thought Ksmvr—”

They all looked at the Antinium. He whirled. His mandibles opened as the clicking suddenly grew louder and they all realized it wasn’t coming from them.

Attack!

Something hurtled out of the darkness and knocked the trap-finding skeleton to the ground. Ceria caught a glimpse of whirling scythe-like legs, biting mandibles and pinchers, as she pointed.

“[Ice Spike]!”

She fired the spell at the same time Pisces threw a ball of fire. The spells did not comedically connect and miss—first Ceria’s ice spike blasted into the creature, hurling it backwards, and then Pisces’ flaming ball of magic struck the skeleton. The splatter of flames didn’t touch the creature, but it did illuminate it.

Ceria saw long, almost spider-like legs coated in armor, and a squat, elongated form. But this was no shield-spider. It had too many legs, and barbs on those legs. And it was…dripping. The red and purple carapace and exposed internal organs shifted as the creature opened a maw with rows of circular teeth. It crunched the piece of skeleton it had bit off as more emerged from the darkness.

“Aw hell! Crelers!

Ceria screamed the words as she pointed at more Crelers. The small creatures scuttled around the corridor, leaping for the adventurers, trying to claw, bite, dig their way through their enemies.

“Cover me!”

Yvlon rushed forwards, sword slicing down at the lead Creler. Her blade battered the creature down, but even her sharp steel could only cut through the exposed organs of the creature. The rest—hard chitin and other bone-like substances—was too strong and the creature tried to scuttle up Yvlon’s leg.

“Perish.”

Ksmvr used his three arms as the other two Crelers came towards him. He grabbed one, ignoring the sharp edges that tore into his hand and began slicing with the other two weapons in his possession. Like Yvlon he couldn’t immediately cut the creature in two, but he had the leverage to slowly pierce the creature’s body with his blades as he sawed at it.

The other Creler tried to jump onto Ksmvr’s back, but Ceria blasted it off with a precise spell. She covered the other two, launching rapid [Ice Spikes] that despite throwing the Crelers back, failed to inflict crucial damage.

“Springwalker! Behind!”

Ceria dove out of the way. Pisces raised his hand, and a gust of icy air froze the Creler that had leapt at him. It fell to the ground, stunned, and a skeleton rushed over. It began to stomp.

All three skeletons were fighting, Ceria saw. They’d grabbed stones and were trying to crush the Crelers to death. But they were almost all blades and sharp edges. You had to have a mace—Calruz had killed most of them himself with his axe!

“Freeze them, Ceria!”

She heard Pisces yell, but then a Creler was jumping at her face. Ceria jerked backwards, and the razor-mouth stopped a foot in front of her face as she seized it with her skeletal hand. Instantly, the Creler tried to bite  through her bone and Ceria reacted.

“Die, damn you!”

It wasn’t so much as spell as concentrated ice magic. Instantly, the air around her hand froze and Ceria felt the extreme cold as her skeletal hand froze the Creler in her grasp. It screeched  and writhed, but she refused to let go. The monstrosity’s legs and claws waved about, threatening to score her flesh even as she held it far away as possible. But after five seconds it stiffened up and died, frozen to death in her grasp.

Shaking, Ceria let go. But she didn’t have time to wait. She spun and began blasting the Crelers trying to swarm Yvlon’s armor. The other woman took the impacts as [Ice Spikes] deflected off her armor—she hurled a Creler to the ground and stepped on it to an accompanying shriek.

Ceria ran forwards and blasted a Creler with an [Ice Spike] dead on. This time the force of the impact broke the creature; it collapsed, several legs breaking off its body as yellow slime exited the wounds. Ceria shuddered and spun, searching for another target.

In another second it was over. Pisces threw fire onto the last Creler being held down by his skeletons and Ksmvr finished smashing the second one with his enchanted iron blade. The Crelers twitched and made bubbling sounds where they lay, but they were too far dead to move.

Ceria stumbled backwards, gasping as sweat poured down her face and the exertion of using so much magic caught up with her. She grabbed onto Yvlon and the other woman stumbled.

“Yvlon. Did they get you?”

The golden-haired Captain was also gasping for air, but she shook her head.

“They didn’t get into my head. Think some cut into my breastplate, but didn’t get my skin.”

“Sorry about the [Ice Spikes]. Did I hurt you or pierce your armor?”

“A few dents. I’m okay. Thanks.”

Ceria nodded. She could have pierced Yvlon’s armor and killed her if the [Ice Spike] spells had been at closer range or hit a weak joint. But better that then let a Creler at Yvlon’s exposed head. It would have chewed its way into her armor through the stump of her neck in second.

“Well, that explains why we haven’t run into more monsters or undead recently. Crelers.”

“Dead gods.”

The two women looked over at Ksmvr and Pisces. Pisces was unharmed, if pale and shaken, but Ksmvr had been wounded. They went over to look.

“It is nothing. My hand is lacerated in several places, but Pisces has bound the injuries. It will heal.”

“Are you sure?”

Ceria peered at the already green-stained bandage Pisces had wound around Ksmvr’s hand. The Antinium nodded.

“I am fine.”

“Crelers have toxins in their bites and claws—”

“It will not affect me. Thank you for the concern.”

“Dead gods, Ksmvr! I’ve never seen anyone hold a Creler down to kill it! Are you insane?”

“I just fought as the Antinium do against them. I am relieved they were only small.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Pisces, you alright?”

“I—I hate those things.”

Pisces shuddered as he stared at a twitching Creler. Ceria nodded. So did Yvlon. And Ksmvr.

“Dead gods. Crelers. Just imagine if there had been a few more—”

“Those skeletons saved us. The Crelers went for us, but they held them away. Got chewed up. Look at that one—”

“Shh. Shh. Are there any more around?”

At once everyone fell silent. Ceria listened to her racing heartbeat, but Ksmvr shook his head.

“This group we awakened, but there are no more nearby. But the evidence is clear; there is a nest nearby.”

He indicated the dying Crelers on the ground. A skeleton had seized a rock and was industriously smashing each one to bits.

“These are in their first stage of life. If an adult Creler were in our proximity it would already have attacked. I recommend immediate extermination.”

“Exterminate? A nest?”

Pisces looked at Ksmvr in horror, but the Antinium only nodded. He was deadly focused.

“They are a threat. A menace. If they remain here unchecked, some will grow to adult size. That cannot be allowed to happen.”

Ceria completely agreed, but she didn’t want to be the one to hunt Crelers.

“Normally we get a bounty for reporting them in. Hunting a nest—plague fungus, I don’t want to think about that, Ksmvr. There’s a big bounty on them, true, but—”

“I believe there will not be more than this number. And they would be in their larval form rather than their attack form.”

Yvlon cleaned her blade, staring at a Creler claw that kept twitching.

“Might be doable, Ceria. One good thrust kills them if they’re in their larvae form. We take them by surprise—”

“No! Have you seen what they can do to flesh?”

Pisces was pale, shaking. Ceria looked at him, and then Ksmvr.

“I think Ksmvr’s right, Pisces.”

What?

“Do you want a bunch of Crelers at our back if they get hungry or wake up? If we keep going they might hit our backs at the worst moment. We’ve gotta take them out.”

“I—fine. Fine. But the skeletons go first!”

Their group moved on. It took only a few seconds for them to round the corridor and spot the part of the wall that had been tunneled out for Crelers to climb out of. It was a big hole that lead to another naturally forming bubble in the earth. And there they found….

“Dead gods.”

Yvlon whispered it as the four adventurers and three skeletons crept into the heart of a Creler nest. In fairness, it was a tiny one, but Ceria spotted no less than eight Crelers in their larval, incubating stage.

When they weren’t all exposed organs and vicious, lacerating limbs and teeth, Crelers looked like horrible, fat, red caterpillars glowing faintly from within. Inside their semi-translucent ‘skins’, Ceria could see yellow lines and discolored organs moving around within. They were growing. Just as Ksmvr said, if they were allowed a few months and food, they might turn into adults, the nightmares even Gold-rank teams didn’t want to fight.

One of the Crelers was on the wall nearest to Ceria. She edged further into the nest, trying not to move or even breathe. Yvlon tiptoed forwards, face a mask of disgust, sword ready.

The glistening, translucent red sack oozed slowly towards them, drawn by the smell of their meat and blood. Ceria held her breath. Any sudden movement might alert them all. They had to be killed before they could turn themselves inside out and move into the deadly attack form.

She held up three fingers so the others could see and began counting down. Pisces’ skeletons stood at the ready, rocks in hand and Yvlon raised her sword, aiming at the nearest Creler.

Now!

Instantly, Ksmvr stabbed two blades into the Crelers he was nearest to. Pisces threw fire at another, screaming curses as Yvlon stabbed hers. The Crelers reacted, making horrible gurbling sound as their fleshy outer red sacs tried to pull back and expose their vicious innards. But it was too late.

In their softer forms they were far weaker to attack. Ceria shot an [Ice Spike] into one Creler and watched blood and its yellowish guts explode inside the balloon of its body. The three skeletons smashed their Crelers with rocks, hammering with feverish frenzy as yellow juices splattered everywhere.

Ultimately, only two managed to transform into their attack modes and they were swiftly smashed by Yvlon’s gauntleted boot and one of Pieces’ skeletons with a rock. Ceria stood with the others, panting as she watched the skeleton repeatedly hammer the twitching Creler until it was in pieces.

“Let’s never do that again.”

Ceria panted as she and the others walked out of the nest. Yvlon and Pisces nodded, and even Ksmvr shuddered a bit as he wiped his blades clean. No one liked fighting Crelers. And underground dungeon full of deadly traps and the possibilities of cave-ins was one thing, but Crelers?

Not Crelers.

 

—-

 

“That’s the door.”

Ceria whispered it triumphantly as she and the others peeked around the last corner in the tunnel. It felt like forever had passed, but they’d gone no further than twenty paces looking for traps—it seemed time had triggered another one by the smooth melted parts of the wall and scorch marks—and seen the door.

It was a plain, wood door, innocuously set against the frame of the dark stone. Ceria didn’t trust it one bit. It could be an illusion, a trap, any number of things. But upon trying the handle the skeleton had only rattled the doorknob futilely. It had even tried to bash the door in, to no effect.

“Just a magically enchanted door? I’m not buying it.”

“Well, it could be laced with any number of traps. We’ve got to either knock it down or open it some other way. But if we’re in the line of fire—”

“Cast spells at it from range?”

“Could work. My [Ice Spike] spell might do some damage.”

“It’s the best option we’ve got for long distance. Unless you picked up a better spell, Pisces?”

“No. Do it.”

Ceria nodded. She poked her finger around the corner as the others moved back, shielding herself against the wall. The trap skeleton watched impassively as it stood next to the door, a casualty to whatever was about to happen.

Okay. [Ice Spike] and then get ready to run if need be. Ceria took a deep breath, and then cast.

“[Ice Spike]!”

The magical dagger of ice shot from her fingertip and broke against the door. Ceria tensed along with the others, but nothing happened. Slowly, they relaxed.

“Maybe just fortifications?”

“Probably. How’s the corridor?”

“Skeleton’s gone over it three times.”

“I volunteer to test it.”

“Ksmvr, don’t be silly—”

“We have been sitting here for an hour. We must try something. Allow me.”

“Wait—”

Yvlon reached for him, but the Antinium stepped out into the corridor. He paused, but no spell came. Slowly, he walked over to the door.

“Nothing. I shall attempt to break it.”

He raised his enchanted sword and stabbed it into the wood. The door resisted the blow, just as it had the [Ice Spike]. And it didn’t trigger a counterspell.

“What is your opinion?”

Ksmvr returned to the others as they conferred. Ceria pulled at her hair, trying to figure out if this was a devilishly clever trap, or just a door made to last forever.

“It might only activate once we break through.”

“Possible, possible.”

“We need to get near, Pisces. We’ll analyze it at close range, and then back away and try from a distance, okay?”

He nodded. Ceria and Pisces exchanged a glance, and then all four Horns of Hammerad crept towards the door.

Nothing happened. They sighed in relief, but Ceria warned Yvlon and Ksmvr.

“Okay, we’re just going to inspect the spell binding the door. If it’s a high-Tier enhancement spell, well, we might have to find another way in. Break through the rock maybe. But don’t touch it until we’re done, okay?”

The other two nodded and readied themselves. Ceria looked at Pisces, and then they reached out and magically inspected the door. Both frowned at around the same time.

“Odd. Look at how delicate this enchantment is, Pisces.”

He nodded as he traced the shimmering symbols and magical currents only they could see.

“Indeed. This is not ordinary reinforcement. There is a trap here. But what’s the trigger?”

The magic shimmered in front of Ceria. Or rather, not shimmered. It was impossible to describe how the magic looked to her with mere words. It was feeling as much as anything else. She delicately looked at the magic, and felt something odd.

“Is it…shifting?”

It was. The stationary spell was moving, reacting. Ceria’s heart immediately skipped a beat and she stood up to back away from the door. Yvlon lifted her shield instantly.

“What’s wrong? What’s happening?”

“Oh no. Oh—it’s reacting to us looking at it. Run! Ru—

She’d just turned when something whined and engulfed her. Ceria blundered forwards, and then crashed into something which broke.

Bones.

A skeleton? Pisces’ creation?

No. Not Pisces’ skeleton. Bones. Piles of bones.

Ceria looked around. They were in a pit. A pit with filth all over the walls. Yvlon, Ksmvr, Pisces—not the skeletons. They looked around, scrambling to get up.

“What happened?”

“We were teleported! A trap! Get ready!”

Ceria whirled around, looking for movement, a deadly spell, a monster, anything. But she saw nothing.

Then something glowed. She turned and saw something on one of the walls. It was…flickering at her. She stared at it. A word? Writing?

No. A magical rune. Ceria instantly tried to look away, but it was too late. She’d already seen it! She tried to close her eyes, but—

“Nothing?”

She stared around. Nothing had happened. She looked over at Ksmvr. He was staring at the magical words. Then he looked at her.

“Ksmvr? Are you okay?”

He hesitated. Then the Antinium nodded. And then he shook his head.

“What?”

He paused.

“I—I am an Aberration. No. I am Antinium.”

“What do you mean? Aberration? Ksmvr?”

He hesitated.

“I—I—I—I—”

He kept repeating the word. Ceria stared at him. Was something wrong? But that was how Ksmvr always acted, wasn’t it? Yes? No?

Why was she talking to an Antinium?

Suddenly, someone grabbed her from behind. Ceria screamed and turned, but it was only Pisces. He stared at her, eyes furious.

“Pisces, what’s wr—”

What are you doing in bed, boy?

He screamed the words at her, spittle flying, face red. Ceria jerked backwards, but Pisces had a death-grip on her. He shouted in her ears.

“Fencing practice begins at dawn! Get moving, and I swear, if you shirk I’ll tan your back!”

Something was wrong. Something was right. Ceria knocked Pisces’ hand away and scrambled backwards. She looked around. Yvlon. What was a Yvlon?

“Who are you?”

She was looking down the tip of a sword. A tall, blonde woman stared down at Ceria, chin tilted imperiously upwards as she aimed the sword at Ceria’s nose.

“Explain this uncouth behavior at once. What have you done with me?”

“You? What are you—Yvlon?”

“Ylvon? That is my niece, child. I am Yenelaw Byres, and I demand to know what you have done. What sorcery is this?”

“I don’t know. I—”

Ceria hesitated. Something was wrong. Something was right. Wrong. Right. When two wrongs make a right, who was the shipwright?

“Get moving!”

Pisces howled at Yvlon, pointing his finger at her. She shifted her sword to him and he danced back, suddenly on guard.

“Oh? Angry, are you? Testing me? You’ll have to do better than that, brat.”

“I am Yennais Bryres. Who, pray, are you?”

“I—I—I—help me—I—I—”

Ksmvr was clutching at his head. Pisces and Yvlon were shouting at the same time. Someone had to do something! Ceria opened her mouth, but then realized something dreadful.

I’ve forgotten how to breathe.

She had to tell the others. But she couldn’t breathe! Ceria scrabbled at her throat. She’d tear it out! Then she’d be able to breathe through the hole!

Ksmvr stumbled over to her, head in his hands. Her hands?

“i reJEct. aBErRation Is NoT—I am Antinium. I ReFUSE. i—”

Pisces tapped Ceria on the shoulder. She gasped for air and then stared in horror at the man-sized Creler wearing dirty robes.

“Fencing is a noble art, young man. Don’t you agree? Well, we shall see you master the forms or you will go without dinner tonight.”

A butterfly made of steel turned to Ceria and opened its mouth into Erin’s smiling face.

“What am I doing here? Answer me! You there in the frock!”

She had to do something. Stab them! Stab herself! Didn’t she have a skeleton somewhere around here?

Ceria reached for a dagger, but she’d forgotten what her hands were too. She stared at the pulsating flesh-thing on her hand and tried not to scream. Her palm opened up, and little eyes with twig-like legs started crawling out of the hole in her body.

Everything was normal. That was it. Her head twisted—almost of its own volition and stared around the dark room.

What was that on the wall? It had flashed in her mind so quickly she hadn’t had time to read it. As the rest of the world melted away, Ceria saw the shining light again. This time she understood it perfectly.

[Insanity].

The word was insanity, written in magic, pulsating into Ceria’s brain. She smiled at it and then threw up. Her vomit turned into dancing little bugs which tried to eat her until she smashed them with her feet.

Of course.

It all made sense.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

3.01 E

Day 13

 

I am an [Emperor]. That is fact.

But I don’t know what it means. After an entire day of speculation and worry, Durene has no more answers for me. Myself, I’m just content to find out.

I guess it’s because of my class that Durene is freaking out so much. To me, it’s just a title that doesn’t mean much; something that happened to me because I tried something new. But to Durene, that class automatically makes me royalty.

No—isn’t an [Emperor] even higher in status than a [King]? A king might rule by virtue of lineage, but an emperor could in theory rule over multiple countries, and thus kings.

Huh.

Wow.

I guess it’s a huge deal, but again, I’m only Level 1, and all I have is one odd skill. When I told Durene, she said she couldn’t see anything like an aura about me, but Skills don’t work all the time necessarily. Some, like her [Enhanced Strength] skill are essentially permanent passive changes, but others have to be used.

As far as I can tell, there’s no word or catchphrase that activates [Aura of the Emperor]. Believe me, I tried and probably looked quite silly doing so. Whatever it is, the skill like my class is a mystery that will have to wait.

I sigh as I carefully walk across the dirt forest path near Durene’s house. It’s been a while since I’ve been by myself, and to be honest, I needed this break. My lovely host has been fussing over me all day, and she didn’t even want to let me go out on my own.

That was an argument she was never going to win. Her concern is touching, but I’m hardly a quadriplegic; I need to stretch my legs and I hate being chaperoned all of the time. It’s fairly easy to keep track of the dirt path, and I’m hardly about to wander off that far. Durene showed me the route, and I have it memorized.

“What a mess.”

It really is. I’ve gotten used to living in this world thanks to Durene, but now a bunch of questions are circling around in my head. How can I get back home? Is it even possible?

Durene is convinced that whatever happened to me was the result of magic. I tend to agree, but if any normal spell could teleport me across worlds, I’ll eat my hat. No, something big happened that dragged me here, and I need to find out what.

And I won’t be able to do that in Riverfarm. I need to go out into the world. A lone, blind guy in a world full of monsters and magic.

That would be my death. But it’s different for an [Emperor], isn’t it? What’s the difference between a blind man and a blind [Emperor]?

Maybe everything. Because one of them is an [Emperor].

Norton I of America. Do you know why I loved his story? Because he was the Emperor of the United States in his head, and nothing could take that away from him.

Being blind sometimes sucks. For me it’s normal, but there are days when I grow frustrated. Frustrated because other people can do things so effortlessly that I struggle to do. I’ll never catch a ball, or drive, or even paint. I can’t experience some of the things people talk about.

It’s a bit unfair. And when I was young, I hated the way I was treated. Sometimes, yes, sometimes, I felt like less of a person because people thought of me that way. Here’s a blind kid. He can’t appreciate this, or do that. He’s different. Not the same.

But I am blind. I have my own worth, regardless of whether people acknowledge that.

I stop walking. Here I am, in a forest I can’t see. In a world totally different from my own. Some might say that it’s not that different for someone who can’t see, but I can sense the difference in every step I take. I feel the same wonder when I hear a new bird’s call, or touch Durene’s hands and know that she is different.

I am an [Emperor]. No one can take that from me. I may have gotten that class easily—just by declaring myself so. But I believed in it, even so. I believed. When you are blind, sometimes the world is uncertain. I have to trust when I get up and walk around my house that everything is the way I left it.

I trust the things I touch with my cane, just like a seeing person trusts their eyes. But I am prepared for the times when I miss a branch or something with my cane and walk right into a shrub. I am ready, in short, to walk off a cliff some days because I can’t ever be 100% certain something is right in front of me. But I have to believe I’ll step onto solid ground.

So believe this: I am an [Emperor]. I should start acting like one rather than worrying about what it means.

What should I do, then? What would an [Emperor] do? I think for a while as I continue my slow amble through the forest.

“I am an [Emperor]. Ergo, everything I want to do is what an [Emperor] would do. There are no wrong choices.”

But are there even more right ones? I remember studying Charlemagne’s history. The man was an imperialist; as far as I can recall he was more or less personally involved in wars of conquest. And yet, he also instituted huge reforms across his empire.

So did Norton, at least in theory. He wanted to abolish Congress to safeguard his empire, and rumors have it that he actually stood in front of a mob to protect Chinese immigrants during race riots. Regardless of whether that’s historically true or not, an [Emperor] has a duty to his empire and those he rules over. He keeps them safe, protects them; makes them better.

I would like to do the same for Durene. If she is my one subject, then what can I do for her? I walk and think, and only stop when I notice Durene not-so-subtly trying to shadow me in the forest. She really can’t hide at all. But she does care, which is why I like her.

I do like her a lot. I just wish she’d tell me everything.

 

Day 14

 

What would any good [Emperor] do? What would any sensible person do when finding themselves in another world, much less a game world? Today I asked Durene countless questions about Riverfarm and the world. I’d asked her a lot before, but today I compiled it all together in my head.

“So you’ve never really gone further than a few miles outside of the village?”

“No. Never.”

Durene and I sit together, sipping from some home-brewed mint tea. It’s quite strong since we’re using actual mint steeped in hot water. It’s a shame we can’t add some honey or sugar, but Durene has neither.

She’s not rich. That much is clear, although I have to dance around the topic a bit.

“So you earn a few coins from selling your crops and animals now and then. But you’ve never gone with the trading cart to town?”

“No.”

She shifts in her seat and slurps from her tea. She’s uncomfortable. I sigh.

“You know, Durene. I don’t really care if you’re a bit different from other people. You’re a nice young woman; regardless of who you are, I won’t judge you.”

Silence. Then, her deep voice quavers.

“Do you—? Did someone—?”

“No. But I am smart enough to know you’re hiding something. But I won’t ask until you’re ready. I do hope you know you can trust me, though.”

“I do. I do! It’s just—”

It sounds like she’s on the verge of tears. I reach out and touch her mug instead of her fingers. Durene laughs as I make a face and find her huge hand.

“Take your time. I’m not going anywhere. Now, tell me. What’s it like living here? Do you ever see any monsters?”

“Well…”

Monsters. I can’t even imagine what one of them would be like. According to Durene, they’re not that bad around here. Goblins are the only real nuisance, and the village immediately sends for adventurers to root them out if they’re spotted nearby.

But—yeah, there is a huge difference in the amount of danger people in this world have to live with. I might worry about bears in parts of the world, or muggers, or war, but never horrible little green creatures with teeth like knives.

God, they sound creepy.

“It’s bad when Goblins come. Everyone has to give money to raise a bounty on them, but it always takes the adventurers a few weeks to arrive, and I don’t know what we’d do if a Goblin Chieftain ever showed up.”

Goblins are apparently a bigger threat in the north part of Izril than they are the south. It’s about population density, or so I’m guessing. Humans occupy more of the north than the south which belongs to Drakes and Gnolls and something called the Antinium. So monsters accordingly spring up more near the north since there’s more to eat. Odd; I would have expected them to be more plentiful in places where Humans are less common, but then, these monsters aren’t prey, but our predators.

Riverfarm isn’t that far north—it’s decently far away from the High Passes—a huge mountain range similar to the Himalayas which divide the continent in two. Apparently the biggest city close to us is Invrisil; the city of adventurers, so named because they have the largest population of adventurers active and retired on the continent.

“They’ve got Gold-rank teams there. You can even find Named Adventurers passing through sometimes! And they say the markets are filled with magical items and wondrous things, like the parts of dead monsters and rare gems and artifacts.”

Durene’s voice is filled with wonder as she describes the city. I have to confess, the image sways me as well. Of course, the adventurers that Riverfarm can afford are a far cry from those elites.

All of the villagers, including Durene, are frankly poor. Durene is especially poor, but the villagers aren’t exactly rolling in wealth either. They earn a few gold coins every year when the weather is good and the crops are plentiful. At best. During the worst times they’re subsistence farmers, or they’re starving.

“Folks save their coins. Mister Prost saves all his coins for instance; he only spends money when he has to buy new tools or fix his wagon. He’s going to have to buy a new plow horse soon; I help out, but Evera—the horse—is old. And they want to start raising pigs, but that’s an investment, and they could always use more coin to fix up the house…”

“Is anyone rich in your village? The [Blacksmith]?”

“Not really. He doesn’t have that many levels and you know, he’s still a [Farmer] as well. There’s another [Blacksmith] in town that has more levels. Occasionally some people from other villages come by with work, but never for more than a few silver coins at best.”

“It sounds like your village does fairly well for itself.”

“Some years. Last year was okay, but the year before that was hungry. If we have a bad harvest or if winter comes early, it’s very hard. The villagers do their best, but sometimes bad things happen. And ever since they took me in—”

She breaks off. I think I understand this bit. Durene is huge. She’s not necessarily fat; she doesn’t let me touch her, but I know that she can move about with surprising speed, faster than I can. So she’s probably not fat, but she is big. She eats roughly four times what I do every meal, at least.

“I try to help out a lot. But I can only pull and lift stuff. I don’t have any Skills.”

“You said you were a Level 6 [Farmer], didn’t you?”

“Yes. I’m not too low-level for my age—some people are around Level 15, but I didn’t even apprentice and I taught myself so I leveled up slower.”

“What about your father? Your mother? What did they do when you were growing up?”

Durene hesitates. I wait in silence, the empty cup of mint tea in my hands, shedding the last vestiges of warmth. Then her voice mumbles.

“Mom died when I was four. I never met my dad. He’s dead too.”

 

Day 16

 

I think Durene is still depressed after our last conversation. We don’t talk much—that is to say, not about important things. I spend most of the time helping Durene finish up her harvesting. Most of her plants are fully grown, and we pull up several pumpkins today.

She wants to get ready for the winter, although it feels perfectly fine to me right now. Then again, I don’t know this world so weather could change a lot quicker around here.

I also sense that Durene is wrestling with something in her head, most likely whether to tell me about her past. It feels like it’s on the tip of her tongue sometimes when she pauses in talking with me.

But not yet. I abide. I’ve learned patience, and in the meantime I can teach Durene some things.

“So, your heart sends blood across the rest of your body. From your head to your toes. So you could lose an arm or a leg if you made sure to stop the blood loss, but your heart is essential.”

Durene scratches at her head.

“But doesn’t the heart get tired? I get tired from walking all day. How can a heart keep beating all the time?”

I grin.

“It’s the strongest muscle in our bodies. And it does get tired. People have heart attacks—times where the heart stops—as they get older. There’s a reason we can’t live forever; our bodies start breaking down as things stop working.”

“Oh. That makes sense.”

“I don’t know how old people get in this world, but the oldest people from my world are around a hundred years old. Rarely more than that.”

“A hundred? That’s a lot! Old man Schnel died when he was 62, and he was old.

“Well, some things affect how old you’ll grow. Some of it is just chance or your body, but what you eat, how you live—all of that can affect your health. Like food. Remember what I said about a balanced meal?”

“Um…”

It’s fun teaching Durene the basics of biology, science, and so on. I didn’t really feel like math was that important and her speaking skills are good—she can’t write though, and I can’t help her with that.

No one taught her. But I will. Not everything will be necessarily that practical, but I hope some of it will help. Durene drinks down all of my lessons like a sponge as we harvest and cook. Helping her grow is something that makes me happy. It’s what an [Emperor] would do. What I will do.

 

Day 17

 

More harvesting. Apparently, the other villagers are also making their last harvests of the season. They might get one more yield from their crops, but maybe not. We’re storing a lot of Durene’s goods in the cellar.

…I had no idea her house had a cellar, but she has a rather large root cellar outside! That’s one of the things that blows me away; I would have never guessed there was a trapdoor right over there.

 

Day 19

 

I leveled up last night! I am now a Level 2 [Emperor]. What triggered the change? Durene has no idea, but I think I know. She’s my subject. Teaching her and tending to this small cottage which I claimed as my own is the same as improving my empire, all of it in fact. It’s all about perception. Perhaps there is a limit to how much exp I’d get this way, but for now I’ll take what I can get.

No idea what the extra level will do for me, though. I haven’t gotten any skills and still haven’t figured out the [Aura of the Emperor] yet.

Hmm…

 

Day 20

 

I wake up when I hear the oddest sound. Footsteps; Durene’s. Crunching.

Now, footsteps are generally easy for me. I can tell some people apart by how they walk. There’s a tempo to their pace, and of course weight makes their footsteps sound different too. Durene is clearly distinct.

But what is she stepping on? It can’t be what I think it is.

“Snow?”

It is snow! Apparently the entire world decided to up and change as I slept. Durene tells me the Winter Sprites must have brought snow to the region, which makes me wonder if she doesn’t understand how the weather works.

But no—apparently in this world, weird dancing lights known as Winter Sprites can manipulate the weather. They’re also a bit of a hazard, according to Durene. They’ll throw snow at you if you bother them or play tricks.

That doesn’t quite make sense, but the important thing is clear: it’s winter. And oh boy, it’s cold!

I help Durene strike some sparks into the fireplace of her cottage. She had to run outside for some firewood early in the morning.

“I usually keep a pile inside, but I forgot to this year. The wood’s a bit wet, but I think it’ll light.”

Durene sneezes after she says this. She sounds cold. And there’s an unpleasant amount of chill in her house without a roaring fire in her fireplace. I said her home was cozy, but it’s apparent that Durene could use a better house, like the ones in the village perhaps.

Frustrating. That’s what it is. I help make a thick soup while Durene clears snow, brings in chopped firewood and so on, and we have a hearty meal. But I can’t help but feel like I am a drag now that snow is making it practically impossible for me to find my way around outside.

It takes a while for the fire to start, but once it does we’re warm again. Durene claims she can chop enough wood for the winter and she’s hopeful about food—she says she had a good harvest, but this is living closer to the edge than I’d like. There are no supermarkets here.

At least we have some winter clothes. The villagers sent some clothes up with Prosts’s wife, Yesel. She came by around midday, with some coats and other garments for me. Good thing too—I was getting tired of my one set of clothes.

Etiquette demands we offer her something to eat and some of the now wonderfully warm mint tea. I chat with Yesel; she’s quite happy to chatter on with me while Durene listens. It’s very nice, but I sense the way she talks to Durene. And the way she hints to me.

“We’d be happy to put you up in our home for a few days. Just until the first chill goes away. The children could squeeze together in one room I’m sure.”

She’s not even really hinting. She’s flat out telling me she wants me to go back with her into the village. And Durene’s clearly unhappy about it, but she doesn’t want to object.

I sip my tea calmly. What’s the best answer here? Well, clearly: no.

“I’m sorry Miss Yesel, but Durene’s made such a nice place for me—we just got the second cot set up. I’d love to join you for a meal or two later, but for now I feel I should stay here. I’d hate to be out on the road in my condition, you know.”

“Oh yes. I’ve made a good spot for myself, Miss Yesel. And I can get everything Laken needs here—”

“I’m sure you have, Durene.”

Yesel interrupts Durene politely. I get the feeling she’s not actually smiling, but her tone sounds friendly as she reaches out to touch my hand. I jerk and she takes her hand back. I hate it when people touch me without  warning me.

“Do excuse me. But I’m sure we could get Durene to pull the wagon if you don’t want to walk. It would only be a few minutes’ trip.”

So polite. So friendly. I can feel the invisible looks she’s giving Durene. My skin prickles, but I smile in her direction.

“Nevertheless, I’d truly hate to take over your rooms. Kids should have a lot of space, and I wouldn’t want to cramp you all.”

Now she’s hesitating. I know for a fact that my poker face is perfect; but she can’t quite tell if I’m innocently being obtuse or refusing her. Now she takes a different tact.

“Well—the Beetrs have also said they’d be delighted if you came over for dinner. And they have an empty room after their daughter sadly passed away last summer. You could join them. What do you think?”

“Mm…well…”

“It would be so much larger than here. I know Durene has done her best, but isn’t this a tiny bit too small for two people?”

“I—I could sleep outside! Or in the root cellar. I’m fine with—”

“I actually like the closeness, in fact.”

This time it’s my turn to interrupt Durene. I smile placidly, although I’m getting more and more annoyed by the second. I can sense Yesel reacting across the table.

“I think I’m fine, I really am, Miss Yesel. Durene is an excellent hostess. She’s helped me out immeasurably and I have every confidence that she will continue to do so.”

Durene’s silent, possibly embarrassed, and Yesel is quiet. Then she speaks to Durene directly.

“Durene? Why don’t you go fetch us some more firewood? I’m sure Mister Laken is feeling quite chilly.”

I bite my lip as Durene rises without a word to do as Yesel says. Mister Laken is feeling fine, thanks. And Durene shouldn’t have to obey someone else’s order in her own home.

But because Yesel is giving us a gift and because I don’t have the full picture—not yet—I listen. Yesel leans forwards to talk to me as I hear Durene moving about outside.

“Durene is a good child, Mister Laken. Sometimes. But we put her out here so she wouldn’t cause trouble if—has she told you what she is?”

“No. I believe she will tell me when she feels comfortable.”

“Yes, but—I think you don’t quite understand what the problem is.”

I raise one eyebrow.

“Problem? I haven’t had a problem with Durene, Miss Yesel. Unless you think otherwise?”

“No…”

She says it, clearly meaning the opposite. I hear a slurp, and then her voice again.

“But some of us in the village—Durene was wonderfully good about taking you in, but she’s not someone that should be kept cooped up with you—with someone like you—all winter. It would be better for everyone if you stayed in the village. We’d love to have you.”

And I’d probably hate it there. I listen to Durene lifting something with a grunt, and then shake my head.

“I have no problems with Durene, Miss Yesel. I will stay here.”

Now frustration enters the other woman’s voice.

“I really don’t think that’s wise. Durene is—”

“—Is Durene. I think that’s what you meant to say, Miss Yesel. Please don’t say anything else. I prefer to let people keep their secrets.”

“But—!”

This has gone on long enough. I stand up.

“Good day, Miss Yesel. Thank you for the clothes.”

There’s not much she can say after that. I practically chase her out, and Durene, covered in snow and bewildered, barely gets to say goodbye.

Okay, maybe it was rude to bundle the woman off so fast, but she was being incredibly rude. I know Durene has a secret, but why wouldn’t they trust her with me? I’ve slept under her roof for over two weeks now without a problem.

It’s cozy and warm in Durene’s cottage after Yesel leaves. I’m perfectly content, and Durene is almost pathetically relieved that I’m staying. She keeps chattering nervously about everything but what that conversation meant.

It occurs to me later what the problem is. I don’t have a problem with Durene, no matter who she really is. But Yesel and the other villagers don’t like that I don’t care.

Not one bit.

 

Day 22

 

I’ve just begun to adjust to the new circumstances of freezing weather. It’s impossible for me to really find my way around outside without Durene, but we can still go walking in the snow. Of course, I have to be bundled up like a sausage, but that’s okay.

And it’s not like we lack things to do inside. There’s still so much that no one ever taught Durene—whether because this world doesn’t have any standard of education or because no one taught her specifically, and I enjoy talking with her.

But sometimes we do crave the outside, if only to perform vital tasks. Despite the decent construction, Durene’s outhouse freezes all my bits the moment I try to do my business. That makes everything slower, but she waits patiently for me as I attempt to speed up my natural body processes.

That’s when I hear the laughter, and the malicious voices. Children—the village children—come running up the path towards Durene’s cottage as I sit in the outhouse.

“Freak! Come out, Freak!”

“There she is! Get her!”

It’s like listening to a movie, only I’m sitting in a freezing-cold movie theatre and I don’t have a bag of popcorn. And this is real, so my heart immediately pounds harder when I hear Durene’s voice.

“Ow! Stop!”

What’s happening? I hear paffs, the sound of snow hitting—

Snowballs. Those little bastards are throwing snowballs! From the sounds outside Durene isn’t doing anything, just trying to shield herself. But the children are laughing.

“Get her! She’s a [Witch]!”

“She’s tricking the blind man! Let’s slay the Freak!”

“I’m not! I—ow!

More laughter, and the sounds of more snowballs being thrown. I fumble with my pants, trying to think of what to do as the situation outside escalates.

Those—there’s a difference between having fun and being malicious little demons. I have to do something. But what?

For a few seconds, I worry about consequences and repercussions. Durene has her own relationship with the villagers. Who am I to interfere with that?

Who am I?

An [Emperor].

Oh.

Of course.

How could I have forgotten? This house is my empire; Durene is my subject. And those annoying little brats are harassing her. I have a duty to her.

I don’t quite kick the outhouse door open, but I do push it out with more force than normal. Frankly, I’d hate to break the door even in my anger. No one wants to have wind and ice flecks blown right at their private parts in the midst of an intimate moment.

The laughter cuts off as soon as I step into the snow. I turn in the direction of the kids.

“Hey. You lot. Stop that.”

Not exactly fighting words, but I’m deadly serious. And these are just kids. I hear uncomfortable shifting, and then voices.

“What should we—?”

“He don’t know nothing! He’s blind!”

“Yeah! We gotta chase away the Freak!”

I point in their direction.

“I don’t appreciate bullying. Keep away from Durene. If you little bastards throw snow at her again, there will be consequences.”

For two seconds I think that will work. Then one of the children laughs uncertainly. He jeers at me.

“You can’t do nothing! You can’t see!”

“Yeah! He likes the Freak more than real people!”

“Get him!”

Something flies past my face and I flinch back. Crap. Suddenly all the animosity of the gang of children is transferred at me. A snowball filled with ice bursts against my coat and I wonder what I should do next.

Stop that!

Something huge interposes itself between me and the children. I feel Durene protectively shielding me.

“Look! The Freak’s in the way!”

“Get her!”

“Throw these! Eat pinecones, Freak!”

Something bounces off Durene and she yelps. That’s when I lose my temper.

Enough.

I push Durene aside and the word comes out of me like a shout. But it’s not quite a shout. It’s…something else.

The rage burning in my chest ignites, and it attaches to the word. It bursts out, and I feel it leave like a physical thing.

What happened? What did I just do?

I hear screams, and then the sound of someone throwing up. Then I hear footsteps, running, confusion, screams—

Then silence.

“Durene? What’s going on?”

I reach out and touch a thick back covered with cloth. I feel Durene’s cold skin shivering, and then she takes my hand with her callused palms.

“Laken? I—I don’t know. You did something just now. The kids—they’ve all run off!”

“I did that?”

I must have. And it must be—

“[Aura of the Emperor]. Durene, tell me what happened.”

We stand in the snow as Durene tries to relate what happened. According to her, it was suddenly as if I shouted and something hit the kids. She felt a presence—and sudden fear. But what I did wasn’t aimed at her, so it was brief.

The children clearly had a more violent reaction. They made tracks. I don’t know what I did, not exactly, but I can guess.

“I was angry. Seriously pissed. I must have used that to scare them. The aura—I might be able to use that in other ways as well.”

I can remember the sensation. It was physical; like sending part of myself out into the world. It was amazing, and terrifying. I’ve never felt like that before, but I’m glad.

Yes, I’m glad I did it. And so is Durene. In her own way!

“You shouldn’t have done that. You shouldn’t have! There will be trouble—”

“If there is, we’ll be causing the trouble. Those children had no right to harass you.”

“But that’s just them being…”

“That’s them being intolerant idiots. I won’t let anyone do that again. It stops now.”

How? All I know is that I mean every word as Durene and I dry off. How would I stop those kids, outside of using that skill again?

Fence? Too hard, and they’d just climb over it or get around it somehow. Bear trap? Probably not.

“I suppose we could just bury them in the snow head-first next time they come by. I’ll hold their legs; you dig the hole.”

Durene giggles nervously, and I smile as I tell more jokes to make her laugh. But I can’t help but feel like I’ve started something.

I’m right. Not thirty minutes later, I hear someone approaching. Durene tenses up and she tells me Prost has come by. We invite him in, and he gets to business in a matter of seconds.

“The kids say you did something Mister Laken. They weren’t hurt none although they’re fair terrified. But we’d like to know what happened.”

“Oh, you know Mister Prost. I heard them throwing snowballs and pine cones at Durene and had a word with them. We can’t have children going around attacking people, can we?”

“No, I suppose not. Still, that was a bit of a thing to do over a little thing like that, wasn’t it? I’m sure the children didn’t mean nothing by it. They tease Durene, but there’s nothing in it.”

I keep my voice light and friendly, like a calm before the storm.

“I’m sure you’re right, Mister Prost. I’m sure they didn’t meant anything by the snowballs. Or the name calling.”

He shifts, and I hear Durene swallow.

“Mister Laken, you seem like a nice enough young man. But there’s something you don’t know about Durene.”

“So I’ve been told by you, the children, and your wife. I thought I made it quite clear that I don’t care.”

“Nevertheless, sir. Durene’s different.”

“Mister Prost—!”

I can almost feel Durene shrinking back. And now I’m even angrier than I was at the kids.

“Stop that. Yes, you, Mister Prost. Durene has been nothing but friendly to me since I arrived here. Your children on the other hand attacked her, and then me.”

“I know that sir, and I’ll make sure they remember it. They won’t be walking straight, you have my promise. But Durene—”

“What is your problem with her?”

I snap. I can’t help it.

“Durene is different. I get that. But what does that matter? She’s a friend. My friend. If she has a secret, she will tell me herself. Now, I think it’s time you leave.”

Prost hesitates, but he doesn’t get up.

“You might think Durene is fine, but you don’t see her like we do. Now, Durene, you’re a good enough girl, but—”

I stand up.

“Enough. I think you should leave, Mister Prost. Now.”

The other man stands up. He’s angry, now.

“You don’t understand the situation, Mister Laken. Durene’s our village’s problem, and she was easy enough to manage before this.”

“I—”

I’d almost forgotten Durene was in the room. She sounds like a mouse—a big one—as she tries to speak.

“I’m not doing anything! I just want to help Laken!”

The other man’s voice is flat as he replies.

“You don’t belong with our kind. You help—but we keep you away for a reason. Remember your father? If his kind came back or you lost control—you’re not like us, Durene. And Mister Laken doesn’t know that!”

“He likes me! He doesn’t care! Why is that so bad?”

For once Durene is arguing back. I don’t respond and let her raise her voice. But now Prost is shouting.

“Don’t you raise your voice to me! Who do you think took you in, fed you? We risked our necks for you!”

“You only did that because my mother asked you to! And you gave me scraps! I had to sleep in the barn with the other animals! I never—never ate with you all! And now you’re trying to take away my only friend!

Now it comes out. Durene’s voice is filled with emotion, and I can hear her hands cracking the wood of her table as she grips it. There’s a crack, and I feel the table I’m sitting at break.

Prost knocks over his chair and retreats to the door. Durene’s on her feet—not advancing—but I get up before anyone can act.

“That’s enough. Prost, it’s time for you to go. I’m staying here with Durene, and nothing you tell me is going to change that.”

“But you don’t understand!”

It sounds like Prost is nearly tearing out his hair—if he has any—in frustration. But he’s afraid of Durene as well, I can tell.

Durene’s voice is cold.

“If that’s what Laken says, he stays. I’ll take care of him here. Now, you’ve gotta leave Mister Prost. This is my house, and you’re not welcome here any longer.”

She advances, and I hear the man rush out the door. I follow Durene out, and hear Prost’s voice. He’s far away from us but shouting.

“Do you know what she is!? She’s a monster! A freak!”

My pulse is boiling in my veins. I glare in his direction.

I don’t care. Go away and stop bothering us!”

“You don’t know anything, boy! She’s tricking you by acting friendly, but her kind can’t be trusted! She’s a monster. She’s not Human she’s a—”

“A Troll!”

The word doesn’t come from Prost’s mouth. It comes from Durene, a shout. My heart skips a beat, and then I hear her shouting.

Troll! There! I said it! Troll, Troll, Troll!

Her voice is huge. Huge and deep, and it’s so loud I swear snow is falling from the trees. She screams at Prost, leaving the man speechless.

“Why can’t you let me have this? Why did you have to tell him? What harm would it have done if I—”

Durene is crying, sobbing as she shouts as loudly as she can. She rails against Prost, cursing him. I hear an impact and sense she’s fallen to her knees. In the next silence I listen and hear distant crunching in the snow.

“He’s running.”

Coward. My heart is beating too fast, and I feel something clenching at it. I’m furious, but right now Durene is more important.

Slowly, I step forwards towards her, reaching my hand out. I touch her—and her rough skin slides under my fingertips. She makes no move; only sobbing as I slowly touch her.

Arm. Rough arm, practically bursting the seams of her clumsily-sewn clothing. And then up to her shoulder, twice as broad as mine. Her muscle is as dense as a rock, and her skin feels like an elephant’s hide.

Then her neck, her head. It’s like a Human’s but big enough for her body. Her nose is…wide, and she has eyebrows. And hair. Long and coarser than Human hair, but not by much.

That’s the secret. That’s what she feared. Her terrible, meaningless, sad secret. But she told one lie, and as I touch her face, I know. I see everything.

I murmur the words into the snow as I touch her tears.

“Half-Troll.”

 

[Emperor Level 4!]

[Skill – King’s Bounty obtained!]

 

Day 23

 

Troll. What do you think of when you hear that word? I’m told that movies have wonderful images of Trolls, but I have obviously never seen them.

So I can only work off the descriptions of Trolls I’ve read in stories. When I first read The Hobbit, my notion of Trolls were these slightly bigger-than-average Humans with cockney accents and weird names. One of them was called Bert, for goodness sake!

But then I listened to The Lord of the Rings movie, and my idea of Trolls was different. The idea of some massive, grey humanoid creature that roared and swung a club around fixed itself in my head. Even when I read the descriptions of green Trolls with noxious odors, the image of the Troll with stone-like skin and savage, dimwitted rage stayed with me.

That is not Durene. So when I listened to her, I threw away all the notions and preconceptions I had about Trolls. All of them. I put the stories I’d heard in a box and tossed it out, because she deserves to tell me who she is rather than have me judge her before I know her.

And I do know Durene. She isn’t violent. She isn’t angry. And from what she tells me, neither are Trolls.

“I didn’t know my father. He was—he was a wandering Troll, and I think he met my mom during the Spring. He was hungry and she was living by herself and—”

Trolls are monsters. Everyone considers them as such, apparently. They don’t have a civilization like Drakes or Gnolls, but they are smarter than your average monster. Smart as a Goblin, which might not be saying much. I don’t know. But not all Trolls are violent.

“He must not have been hungry, because he didn’t eat my mom. Not all Trolls eat…people.”

We sit together in Durene’s home as she tells me everything. The fire crackles, but aside from that, everything else is quiet. I sit silently at her broken table, listening as Durene’s low voice speaks into the silence.

She’s done crying. All the grief and fear of last night is gone, and now the truth comes out of her. All the things she wanted to tell me, spilling out. I can feel the fear in her voice, that I’ll judge her, run from her. Fear her. I listen to it all in silence.

“Mom was living alone, away from the others. She’d been married—I think she’d had a husband before, and another kid. But she lost both so she had a small farm by herself. And Dad was hungry, so she found him in her fields. And I guess she must have liked him, or gotten to know him somehow, because a few weeks later she was pregnant.”

“That’s how they met?”

Durene shifts.

“I don’t know. Mom never said, and the villagers just said that Miss Yesel came up one day and found her pregnant and alone. And Troll tracks nearby. I think that’s how it happened. I hope it is. Otherwise…”

Otherwise, her mother was attacked by a Troll. And Durene will never know which is true, because her mother is dead and none of the other villagers were there. But they speculated, and Durene probably grew up hearing that speculation.

“Anyways, they let Mom stay, but an adventurer heard about a Troll and came to kill it. He—he did. And afterwards, he wanted to kill me too, but Mom wouldn’t let him.”

“Did she raise you alone?”

“She tried. But after I was born she was so weak because I was too big—and she never fully got better. She died when I was four. After that, the village took me in, but I didn’t really have a home.”

Sleeping in a barn. Fed scraps. I can only imagine what it was like.

“When I was bigger, I made my home here, where Mom used to live. I’ve been living here since, and the villagers only call me when they need help. I was alone, and I’d hide every time adventurers came by. I hid from other people too, in case they thought I was dangerous. Until I met you.”

I get it. The crying in the woods, the hope that I wouldn’t immediately judge her, the villagers wanting to separate me from the potentially dangerous half-monster.

It all makes sense. It’s such a predicable story in some ways.

And it’s such crap. Durene doesn’t deserve any of this.

I choose my words carefully in the silence after Durene’s confession. I really don’t know what to say, but I know what not to say.

“Durene. I’m sorry all of this has happened to you. But it doesn’t change anything for me.”

She gulps.

“Laken. I—I’m sorry I lied.”

“That’s okay.”

“No. It’s not. I should have told you. And you don’t have to—to say nice things. You can leave. I’ll bring you into the village and apologize.”

“Why would I do that?”

Pause.

“What?”

“I’m staying here. With you.”

“But—”

“You being half-Troll doesn’t change anything. I told you that, remember? I got to know you, and that means I won’t run away just because you’re not Human.”

“I—you don’t understand. I’m half Troll. Adventurers would kill me on sight. If I were in a town or a city I’d probably have a bounty put on my head!”

“Probably. But that doesn’t mean I’ll go. It’s okay, Durene.”

“No! Stop being so nice!”

“Durene, calm down. I’m not upset.”

“I know! But—it’s not nothing! Stop being so nice to me! What I am—I’m not Human! I’m not normal! Don’t pretend you don’t care!”

“I care. But I know you.”

“No you don’t. You can’t see—you’d never trust me if you could see.”

“That’s what the villagers have told you. But they’re wrong. They look at you and see a monster but they are wrong. They. Are. Wrong. Do you understand that, Durene?”

“…I can’t. No.”

“Durene? Where are you going? Durene? Durene!

I’m on my feet as the door slams open. The cold winds of winter rush in, and I hear massive footsteps thumping away. I run after her, shouting.

“Durene!”

Only after I’m outside does it occur to me that maybe I should have given Durene more space. She’s right; I was treating this like nothing. I should have shown more of the surprise swirling inside of me.

But I didn’t want to hurt her feelings and I still meant what I said. How could a girl that nice and caring be a monster?

And now I’m running through the snow, without my cane. I slow the instant I realize that.

Oh shit. The snow is deep around me, I can’t see, and there is nothing like a path that I can follow.

I’m lost.

For a few seconds I just turn, trying to look for my tracks in the snow. But I can’t find them. I shout for Durene, but she’s not coming back. I’m by myself, and I can already feel the cold piercing my clothing.

This is probably a blind person’s worst fear. Without any tools I can barely find my way around, and without people or landmarks in this freezing weather—I’m so dead.

I start walking forwards, trying to feel for anything that reminds me of Durene’s cottage. I don’t have a choice. Either I could stay and hope Durene comes back—and she could be gone for hours—or I try to return to the cottage.

I only ran a little bit outside. But that distance could be miles as far as I’m concerned. This damn snow! It’s falling from the skies and making everything unfamiliar. Even my tracks—I try to kick up as much snow so I can find my way back.

Okay. Let’s go…ten steps this way. No? I feel nothing familiar, so I try to retrace my steps. I find my tracks and get back to roughly where I thought I was before. Now this way. No?

…Where did my tracks go? I spin around, confused. The snow—it’s too thick! I bend down, but my hands feel only the same level of snow around me. It’s as if I never started walking in the first place.

Oh no. I’m starting to panic. I stumble forwards, feeling my way ahead.

Gah! Damn it, I just ran into a tree. That’s bad. I’m in the forest. I try to turn back, but I’m not 100% sure I’m not going further into the forest.

Another tree. And now I’m trying to listen for anything that can help me find my way to Durene’s cottage.

I might die out here. I take a deep breath.

“Durene! I’m lost out here! Can yo—”

I trip. My world shifts and I hit the ground hard. Something just caught my foot! Not a tree root—

I scramble back towards whatever it was in the snow. I’m praying that I tripped over one of Durene’s plants and I’m in her garden.

It’s not a plant. It’s not anything like a plant. Instead, as my aching foot could attest, the object is heavy and partially buried in the ground. I feel at it.

Not a rock…the outside is rough and coarse. A bag? Yes! I can feel the opening here, and two drawstrings. Curious now, despite the cold, I undo the strings.

Is this some kind of bag of fertilizer? But no, why would that…

Hold on. My fingers encounter something hard in the bag and jerk away. I touch again. Something clinks as I shift it.

Round, hard, circular objects. Lots of them. I feel them, lifting one up and dropping it.

“What the hell…?”

Clink. Clink.

There’s only one thing that makes that kind of beguiling, attractive sound. And the weight of it! I pull at the bag, but I can’t even get it to shift in the frozen ground.

Is this what I think it is? Really?

Laken! LAKEN!

I hear someone shouting my name in the distance. Immediately I stand up and bellow back.

“Durene? Over here!

Immediately, I hear crashing through the woods. Branches splinter off Durene as she crashes towards my location, showering me with snow. I splutter and then feel two arms around me.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I didn’t realize you were out here!”

“It’s okay! Durene! You’re squishing me!”

Immediately she lets go. I gasp for air—I’d heard of a bear hug, but this is the first time I actually felt someone literally squashing me.

“Sorry!”

“It’s okay. I’m really glad you found me. Durene, I’m sorry.”

“No, I—”

I grasp her arm. She falls silent, and I do too. For a few seconds, I just listen to my heart beating, and hear snow softly falling in the background. Durene’s skin is rough under my palms. Rough, but not unpleasant.

“This is the first time I’ve really touched you, you know.”

“Really?”

“Really. You’ve helped me along, but I normally grab your clothes.”

And she never let me touch her before that. I feel Durene gulp as I hold her.

“Oh.”

We stand like that in silence for a little while. Then I feel the chill seeping into my bones.

“I guess we should go back.”

“Right! Let me carry you.”

Durene wants to lift me up, but I shake my head.

“I found something in the ground. Can you pull it up?”

“In the ground? Where?”

It takes me a few seconds to find it. Durene covered it when she ran over. But when I show Durene she lifts it up. It sounds like she’s uprooting a huge amount of soil and I cover my face as some of it flies at me.

“What’s this bag? I’ve never. Oh.”

Her voice goes silent all of a sudden. I feel around, and then find the bag in her hands. I reach into the open top and pick out two of the heavy little circular things within.

“Hey Durene. Would you mind telling me what you see? I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but…”

I tap the round object against the second one and hear that delightful chime of metal on metal. Each coin is heavy, and as I weigh them in my hand I notice the rough, smooth stones in the sack as well. Well, well, well.

“I could be wrong, but I hope I’m not. Because unless I’m very much mistaken, this is a gold coin. And this would be buried treasure.”

I’m remarkably calm about that bit. That is, until we get back to the cottage and start counting.

“It’s all gold!”

Durene exclaims as I place another coin on the careful stack of five on the table. I have to move carefully so as not to knock over my stacks, but with Durene’s help we’ve tallied the contents of the mysterious sack at last.

“One hundred and forty one gold coins and eight gemstones.”

I sit back in my chair and reach for the mug of tea. Durene pushes it into my hands and I savor the warmth. I still feel a bit cold after my little exploration outside.

“It’s a fortune. A huge fortune! Where did it come from?”

“I have my suspicions.”

I can sense Durene’s curiosity. I smile. The treasure I found managed to calm Durene down. She forgot about her woes to bask in the radiance of gold. Myself, I can’t see the appeal. It’s just heavy metal to me, but I’m told it’s quite valuable.

And in this case, it’s literally more money than Durene has ever seen in her life. By her estimates, I could literally buy Riverfarm six times over. At least. She has no idea where the money came from, and I tend to doubt that someone would just leave a fortune in the ground like that. But there might be another explanation for my good fortunes.

“[King’s Bounty]. It has to be my Skill.”

It tickles my sense of humor a bit that I got a skill probably meant for [Kings]. I didn’t really have time to even wonder what it meant, but this is a pretty good sign of what the Skill does.

“You mean you got money because of a Skill?”

“Perhaps. It might be that I can’t be poor if I have [King’s Bounty] as a Skill. You know, like how a [King] should never be poor? Haven’t you heard of something like that happening before?”

“No. Never! But—I have heard of [Treasure Hunters] that can find buried treasure. But why would an [Emperor] have that skill?”

“Perhaps because any ruler should have money? Doesn’t it make sense that the Skill would be doing this?”

“Yes, but Skills aren’t normally this powerful! Not at early levels!”

“Right. You mentioned that. Normally people received weaker skills the lower level they are. Only when they’re above Level 30 do the skills become powerful, right? But maybe this is a crummy skill for an [Emperor] by comparison.”

“I can’t believe it. I can’t.”

“It’s certainly useful, although I wonder how we’ll spend it. There’s not exactly a lot of shops around here.”

We?

“I told you Durene, I’m staying with you. And you helped me dig this thing up. Without you, I would have frozen out there in a few more minutes.”

“But—”

“Durene.”

I reach out and touch her. This time I get one of her sides. She freezes, but I trace my hands upwards. I find her face, and feel her trembling.

“Durene. I’m going nowhere. And I don’t care if you’re half-Troll or half-Goblin or half-Frog. You are who you are, and I like you for that. You can run, and I might not be able to follow you in the snow, but when you come back, I’ll be waiting. So why not just stay?”

I feel silly, and I’m sure what I said didn’t make too much sense. But Durene trembles, and I feel wetness at my fingers.

“I don’t know what to do. I want you to stay, Laken. I do. But what if—what will the others say?”

“What they say is their business. Not yours. I’m asking you if I can stay here, Durene.”

“Yes. Please.”

“Then that’s settled, then.”

“But you and I. I don’t know what I should—I must be so strange to you.”

“Only a bit. But that’s because I don’t know you just yet. I know a lot but…Durene. Will you let me touch you? I can’t see, but I want to get to know you.”

“You—what if you hate me?”

“I never would.”

“Then—can I touch you?”

“Of course.”

A rough hand, a finger gently brushes against my face. It feels as light as a feather. I feel at Durene’s face, tracing the contours of her features, trying to understand her in my own way. She touches me, gently, as if she’s never touched another living thing before.

Slowly, I work my way down from her face. Durene shivers, but her touch is just as light. I am curious, and so is she. There’s no words, but I think we understand each other completely in that moment.

No more secrets. No more hidden truths and untrue and unkind words. Just a light touch; an intimate question whispered from one person to another.

And there’s more touching, but I won’t talk too much about that. The snow falls heavily, as inside, Durene and I explore one another. We are who we are. No more.

No less.

 

Day 24

 

I feel like I shouldn’t share much of this day either. Let’s just say that today the pile of gold and jewels went nearly completely untouched, until we accidentally knocked the table over. Turns out gold coins hurt when they’re dropped on your body.

 

Day 25

 

Mm. More of the same, really. But we talked about the future. We talked, and I made her laugh. As we did before. As I hope to do.

 

Day 27

 

A bunch of kids called out for Durene as she and I were having breakfast. They needed help; a roof had collapsed in the village under the weight of the snow and the villagers needed Durene to lift a beam.

I told her not to go. Durene wanted to help. In the end, I waited for her to return. When she did, she was upset.

Tears, hot and wet, fall on my fingertips. Durene’s skin feels a bit like cracked stone as I brush against her cheek. Swords or arrows would have a hard time piercing her skin.

But words? Words cut deepest of all.

“I don’t know what to do. I’m not a monster! But they just think I’m like my father. I don’t know what to do. Laken…”

Neither do I. But I can’t bear to see her crying.

“I can’t do anything. Just lift things. Like an animal. That’s all I do. I can’t build or cook. I can barely grow things—”

“Shh.”

It takes her a long time to get to sleep, but eventually it happens. I sit up, anger and sadness fighting like snakes in my belly. What can I do? What could—

What could I do for her?

And then I have it.

 

Day 28

 

“Is it like a [Knight]?”

“Almost. But better. After all, any ordinary monarch can make a [Knight]. But only an [Emperor] can give someone this class.”

Durene shifts next to me. I hold her hand, and feel her quiver.

“I’m not sure I’m a warrior.”

“Are you a [Farmer]?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“Then try this. They weren’t always warriors. Culture just interpreted them that way after a while. Before that they were just servants. Great warriors, true, but they served Charlemagne in more ways than just in combat. I think.”

I haven’t actually spent that much time studying the etymology of that class, even though I once played as one in a D&D session. Oh well.

“If you want to be one, I’ll make you one.”

“Just like that? It sounds too easy.”

“It’s not. I’m the only [Emperor] on this continent; only I can choose who is worthy of this class. And of all the people in the world, there’s no one I’d want to be with me than you, Durene.”

“I—please. I don’t want to just be a [Farmer].”

“Then, kneel.”

I feel her bend down in front of me. I reach out and place my hands on her shoulders.

“I knight you, Durene. I name you as my [Paladin], my foremost champion who will protect and serve me. Will you do this?”

“Yes.”

She whispers it, then says it louder.

“Yes!”

Something changes. Just a bit. I bend down to Durene and give her a kiss. On the forehead, then elsewhere.

“Is that part of being a [Paladin] too?”

I have to laugh.

“It would be a surprise if it was.”

She rises, and I feel something different about her. It’s subtle. But it comes to me as I’m sleeping. Perhaps it’s not confidence; not yet. There’s no marked change in her, no sudden shift. But there is one thing she has now that she never had. And it’s growing slowly, like one of her seeds.

A purpose.

 

Day 29

 

“I’m…I’m a [Paladin].”

So Durene says as I wake up. I smile, and hug her, and then she laughs and shouts it.

“I’m a [Paladin!]

 

Day 30

 

A lot can happen in a month. In the weather’s case, the atmosphere changed from a nice, pleasantly warm fall to a blizzard-filled winter almost overnight.

Even now, it seems like the snow won’t stop falling. Twice Durene’s gone out to clear a path. She does it quickly and efficiently—even the deepest snow tends to go flying if she exerts herself.

A lot can change in a month for people as well. A young woman who would run from children and names has turned into someone else. Someone confident enough to chase away the obnoxious little monsters who tell her she has to help out a village full of idiots and bigots. She walks and speaks with something else in her now.

And I, I changed quite a lot as well. For one thing, the young man named Laken Godfray suddenly became an [Emperor] and found someone to love. That has to be worth something.

In a small cottage a few miles outside of the village of Riverfarm, I sit. I am the Emperor of the Unseen, Protector of Durene’s House. I have one subject—or should that be consort? She is a half-Troll, a young woman named Durene.

And she is beautiful. She was a [Farmer]; now she is a [Paladin]. And what that means neither of us know. I have a bag of gold, and a village full of fools that can’t accept Durene for who she is.

I have no sight, but I have a dream. A grand one, where Durene and I leave this place that she could never call home. Or maybe we change it. But either way I know we will do it. I am an [Emperor], and for her, I would change the world.

And so we shall.

Together.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

3.00 E

I don’t dream of seeing. But I do dream of adventures. I think every boy does, and I never forgot that dream even when I grew older.

Yet it’s one thing to imagine being transported into another dimension or to another world, and quite another thing if it actually happens. Upon reflection, I think I would have rather eaten my quiche instead before I left, but we can’t have everything.

 

Day 1


When I found myself in another world, I picked up on it right away for a number of reasons. First: I’m pretty darn sure that a food court doesn’t have grass inside of it, or trees. Second, it just felt different.

The air smelled strange to me immediately. You think I would have noticed the sun on my skin, but it was the stark difference in the way the wind smelled to me that stood out first. It’s like…honestly, it’s like the difference between living in a polluted city like New York – no, scratch that, somewhere really polluted like Hong Kong or Beijing – for a few months and then going somewhere where the air is pure and clean.

There is a quality to the air. In bad places like airports, it smells sterilized and stale, and that goes double for airplanes. In a polluted place, it’s more pervasive than anything else; after a while you get used to it, but then the fog is in your lungs, making even breathing harder than it should be.

The difference between clean air and polluted air is tangible even to people who don’t take that much notice of it. But the difference between the relatively clean food court and the place I was now in?

Unimaginable.

I look around, the bacon quiche still in one hand, my walking stick in the other. I feel like I should be freaking out but honestly, I don’t want to start running about. I can’t tell what’s around me right now except that I’m now standing on the grass, and I’d hate to run into a tree, if there are any in the area.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m blind. That’s not legally blind, of which there are many variations. I mean I see nothing. Not blackness, not a distinction between light and dark—nothing. That’s fine by me, but most people I’ve met make a big deal about it.

Normally, I get on just fine no matter where I go. I have good friends, my parents are overprotective, and I can always ask for directions or help in a pinch.

Which would be now. The only problem is, I’m getting the distinct impression I’m alone. My best friend Zoe is not sitting at a table a few feet ahead of me, and I can hear birds.

I sweep the ground cautiously around me with my cane, pausing as I feel dirt at the tip and grass. That’s definitely not ceramic tiles. Either someone’s playing an amazing prank on me or—

“Hello? Zoe? Is anyone there?”

No response. This is like a bad dream, the kind I used to have as a kid where I’m lost in a huge building with no cane and no one around me. Only then I kept imagining something was sneaking up on me and it was dark.

“Hello?”

This…place is clearly somewhere in the light. I can feel sunshine on my skin, and I’m pretty sure it’s early morning judging by the dew on the grass. I know that because I’ve sat down.

Some people freak out when the unexpected happens. If I were someone else I might run around screaming, or panic. But being blind means that you learn bumping into things at high speeds is a bad idea. Plus, I still have the quiche in my hand.

I rest it on my lap as I sit to think. Well, I’m somewhere else. Not in the mall. I might have suspected a prank, but Zoe isn’t nearly that cruel, and it’s not as if I’ve blacked out or been distracted. I literally just took a step and found myself…

Here.

“Is it a forest? Or a meadow? A hiking trail?”

I touch gingerly at the grass and ground. Yep. That feels like morning dew. The grass is long and uncut—another sign? I’m not on someone’s lawn here. And then I find a flower.

It feels soft under my fingertips. The petals nearly stick to my skin, and I recoil when I realize the head of the flower is wet. What kind of flower is this? Has a bird or something pooped on it?

“…No. Nectar.”

It smells sweet and odd, and like nothing I’ve ever smelled in my world. Already I’m at the other world conclusion, but this time I’m pretty damn sure.

The flower smells spicy-sweet, but also dark if that makes sense. It smells dark like I imagine the shade appears to people—not that I’ve ever seen it for myself. But I can imagine the shade—a wet, creeping thing as wide as an ocean that sucks up sunlight. That’s closest to the smell of this flower.

It’s like nothing I’ve ever smelled before, and I have a good memory. I’ve visited huge greenhouses and even flower gardens across different countries in the world – the Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands were my favorite – and never come across this unique smell.

Cautiously, I reach down and pick the flower. I feel a bit bad, but I have to touch it, feel it. I’m aware it could be poisonous, but I don’t care. I smell it again, and this time realize the center of the flower was indeed sticky with that nectar.

Do I dare taste it? No, that’s probably too risky. But that adds to my theory. I am somewhere else, and something…strange has happened to me.

“Magic? Teleportation? Some kind of ultra-vivid hallucination?”

It can’t be real. But some part of me whispers ‘yes it is’. Yes it is.

This is real. You’re in another world.

And that makes me smile. Even if the curtain falls down in the next second or it turns out I’m being tricked. For a second I believe.

The air smell different. Cleaner. Sweeter, even. For that matter, even the sunlight feels…odd. I could have sworn it was quite warm in San Francisco—warm enough that Zoe and I went into a mall to cool down. But today feels like a crisp autumn day.

A breeze ruffles my hair. I smell grass and that strange otherworldly smell of flowers I’ve never seen before. And I hear a bird warbling off in the distance. That at least sounds normal.

It’s such a pleasant day. I could get up and walk into uncertainty, but right here the grass is soft. It could be I’m sitting right at the edge of a cliff and I’d never know. But here is nice.

How long did I sit there, holding the quiche in my lap, just listening to the wind and birds? An hour, maybe. I sat and listened and grew more and more convinced that I was somewhere else. Somewhere special.

That’s when I heard the voice. It was distant at first, and then grew louder, accompanied to the sound of branches crackling. Something wails and I hear a thud off somewhere behind me and to the left.

I get a bit worried. Okay, stepping into another world is a jarring experience, but I was keeping calm by rationalizing it as a Platform 9 and ¾’s experience. But no one wants to meet a monster.

Or a bear. Forest + large thing = bear in my mind. But this bear has a voice. And it’s upset.

Behind me, I hear the thing stop, and then hear what sounds like sobbing. That’s reassuring for me, but then I practically feel something punch something else. It sounds like a tree from all the branches rustling from the impact.

Is it a person? I listen hard. Contrary to public belief, being blind does not confer supernatural senses to me. I just use what I have more efficiently. I can sort out the sounds—yes, someone’s crying. They’ve got a deep voice which is why it sounded so odd. And they’re hiccuping.

I already feel a bit sympathetic for this person caught in their grief, although the thumping aspect I don’t like. If they’re hitting that tree, then I’m listening to it splinter from the impacts.

But there’s no helping it. I stand up and raise my voice.

“Hello? Is anyone there? Are you okay?”

Immediately the crying stops. I hear what sounds like the intake of breath. I call out again, turning towards where I heard the person.

“I think I’m lost. I’m sorry, but could I ask you for some help?”

“Help? I’m coming!”

It is a person! I never thought that would be the highlight of my day. But not only is it a person, it’s apparently a female person. At least, that’s what she sounds like. But she has a very deep voice; not that I object to that. Her voice sounds soothing.

Immediately after she speaks, the mysterious person runs over to me. I hear her crashing through branches as she makes a beeline in my direction.

“I’m here! What’s the prob—oh!”

Her footsteps make the ground tremble just a bit as she walks closer. I hold my ground and sense her as best I can.

Heavy. She’s definitely that. And big; that’s my general impression. And she smells. Not bad per se; but she smells…not exactly normal, I guess is the best way I could describe it. She’s certainly perspiring a bit, but that’s not unpleasant.

And then she speaks again, and I hear the worry in her tone. Her voice is deep but smooth, and she has good diction; it’s rare to hear someone enunciate as well as she does.

“I’m here. Are you lost, stranger? Are your eyes hurt? You have them closed.”

“What? No. I’m—”

I lift my cane a bit and I can feel her recoil backwards. I hear her take a step back. Did she think I was going to hit her? I lower the cane and raise a hand.

“I’m sorry. I’m blind. This is my walking cane.”

“You can’t see?”

The voice sounds shocked. She didn’t recognize my cane, either. It’s pretty universal—am I really in another world?

“Not at all. I can’t see you, but I can hear you.”

An intake of breath. I feel like whoever’s standing in front of me is huge; or at least their lungs are.

“You can’t see my face?”

“No. Is something wrong?”

Silence. And then—

“No. Nothing’s wrong.”

I smile. I’m not sure if I’m smiling at her, but it helps. It always does.

“That’s good. I heard you and didn’t want to interrupt, but I am in a bit of trouble. My name is Laken Godart.”

I offer my hand, and I sense hesitation. But then a hand engulfs mine.

A big hand. But it gives my hand such a delicate squeeze that I barely feel a thing.

“My name is Durene. How did you end up here, Mister Laken?”

Mr. Laken? How odd. Is there any country I know of that uses that kind of title? I smile ruefully.

“I’m not quite sure how I got here. I was at a mall, and I must have turned the wrong corner? Something happened because I was suddenly walking around here.”

“Mall? I’ve never heard of that town. I’m sorry.”

My eyebrows shoot up. Either she’s a brilliant actor and this is the greatest simulation of all time, or she’s serious.

“Can you tell me where I am?”

I think she nods. I’ve been told people do that a lot although I only understood the gesture after someone showed me exactly what they were doing with their head.

“You’re near the village of Riverfarm. In the forest, actually.”

Riverfarm? At least I was right about the forest bit.

“Is that near a city? I was in San Francisco just now and I have no idea how I got here.”

Another pause.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know where that is. Is it a big city?”

“Very big. What’s the biggest city near here?”

“That would be Bells. It’s over thirty miles away, though.”

“…Is that anywhere in America?”

“America?”

This is probably just a dream. Or a mental breakdown, although the psychiatrist my mom hired gave me a clean bill of health for the last few years. This is any number of things, but what I really want, a tiny bit, is for this to be real.

“Sorry Durene, I’m going to go out on a limb here, but…could you tell me what the year is? And what nation I’m in?”

“Nation? Year? I—don’t keep track of the years. I think we’re around 22 A.F.? And, um, we’re not in a nation. No one rules Riverfarm but the village head.”

“Oh my god. I am in another world.”

“What?”

“I must be. Durene, do I look…unusual to you?”

A pause. I can feel her drawing slowly closer. I can’t tell, but I think she’s looking me over.

“Well…you dress a bit oddly. You have unusual clothing. There’s a strange symbol of a triangle on your shirt. It looks…colorful.”

I smile, a tiny bit. Being blind means my fashion sense is a bit skewed. I know I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt, apparently with a logo of the Illuminati eye on it. Zoe told me it looked good, but I have reason to doubt her fashion sense.

“Have you ever seen anything like it before?”

“Not so vividly. Are you a noble? A merchant who sells fabric?”

“No. I’m just blind. And I think—yeah, I think I’m very far from home.”

“Oh. I’m so sorry.”

I shrug.

“It’s not your fault. I think. If it is, I’d love an explanation?”

“What? No! I’d never—”

She’s so easily distressed. That makes me feel a bit guilty.

“I’m sorry. It was a joke.”

“Oh.”

What to say? I’m usually a decent conversationalist. Or at least, I can always find something to talk about even if it’s not well received.

“I heard you crying. Are you alright?”

“Me?”

I’ve heard of a blush as well. Based on people’s descriptions and the one time I touched someone while they were blushing, I imagine heat filling their face. That’s certainly how it feels to me, and I suspect, Durene at the moment.

“It—it was nothing. I was just upset, that’s all. I didn’t think anyone was around.”

Her voice is rough with emotion. I pause, but why not follow this? There’s nothing to be gained from holding back. I learned that a long time ago.

“It’s fine if you don’t want to speak about it. But if you want to talk—”

“No.”

I nod. But I can feel her hesitating. So I wait.

“Someone called me a name. That’s all.”

“Ah.”

So many years, so much feeling can go into a single word. I face in her general direction, and I know she’s looking at me. And then I hear something funny.

Rumbling. Gurgling. A massive stomach. And I remember I do have something in one of my hands. I smile even as I sense Durene shifting and presumably, blushing.

“Durene, would you like to share this quiche with me?”

“Are you sure?”

“Why not? Let’s sit and talk. You seem like a nice person.”

I sit down on the ground. After a second, I sense someone sitting next to me. I don’t have a fork, but it’s no trouble to lever the quiche out of the tin container and break it apart. I give the bigger section to Durene over her protests and we eat and sit and talk.

That was how I met Durene, and my introduction to another world. As I said, I would have liked to eat my quiche first. It was only lukewarm at that point, but at least the company was nice.

 

Day 2

 

When I woke up, I once again confirmed that I was in another world. I didn’t freak out.

That mildly surprised Durene, when she found I was up and quietly exploring her house. She lives in a rather large house next to a stream. I can’t imagine it as a whole yet, but my exploration and her descriptions of the building give me the sense of a building of wood and rough stone, but carefully patched to avoid the elements or nature getting in. The stone floor is only slightly rough on my bare feet, and the lone window has no glass.

In short, this is a medieval building, and from what Durene told me in our hours-long chat yesterday, this is a medieval world. With magic. And only a limited grasp of technology. She was amazed to see my fiberglass cane; she exclaimed over the material as if it were alien to her world, which it was, in a sense.

Now I sit at a table, feeling like a midget in the chair Durene put me in while she clatters around the kitchen. I can smell something cooking, and it sounds like she’s making eggs. The scent of warm bread is already filling my nostrils.

“Here you are, Mister Laken. I’m sorry it’s a bit burnt.”

“It smells delicious. And call me Laken.”

I hear and feel the big plate being placed in front of me. Cautious exploration with a fork she hands me finds the eggs—only slightly runny—and the toasted bread. Yes, it’s crunchy, but it is quite good, and I tell her so.

“Thank you for letting me sleep here. I think I took your only bed. I’m sorry about that.”

“Oh, no! It’s nothing. And I like sleeping outside.”

“Pretty liar.”

Well. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever startled someone into silence so quickly. I hear her shifting, clearing her throat, and then she bursts out.

“Aren’t you worried?”

I raise my eyebrow. I have no idea if it looks good, but friends assured me it did, and I fell in love with the idea after reading a story where the main character did it to great effect.

“About what?”

“Well, you said you’re lost. Alone. In another…another world? How are you so calm?”

That makes me smile. I may act calm, but I spent a good bit of last night while Durene was snoring outside freaking out and trying to affirm I really wasn’t hallucinating. I have a sore arm from all the times I’ve pinched myself.

“What’s the point of freaking out? I’m more excited than anything else, actually. I’m in another world, one with magic. There’s no magic where I come from.”

“But you told me you have so many strange things. Like these ‘cars’ and ‘malls’. It sounds amazing.”

“I’m surprised you believe me, to be honest. If I heard someone talking about my world, I’d assume they were crazy.”

“But you make it sound real. And that stick you have which folds up—”

Another miraculous invention by her standards. I think it was actually that which convinced Durene I was from another world. That, and my iPhone. I think Siri scared Durene more than anything else.

Yes, it turns out I have no wireless, and without battery I turned Siri off to save energy. But having an iPhone, even one with limited power, is amazingly useful in a survival situation, which is what I find myself in.

So is having a friend. I smile at Durene.

“I don’t think my world is that special. But I am glad you found me, Durene. I’ve always found that I can trust most strangers.”

Another pause. Another hypothetical blush.

“Really? But you can’t even see—and you just trusted me to help you. I could be—”

She pauses.

“Someone bad.”

“But you’re not. And I have a good sense for people, or at least, I like to think so. You seem like a very nice person, Durene.”

“I—thank you. But you can’t see—

I smile wryly.

“I do notice some things. For instance, I know you’re taller than me. And stronger. And you have calluses on your hand, your table is cracked here—and you have a big appetite.”

It’s hard not to notice her chomping down her food, to be honest. Durene shifts in her chair, making the wood creak.

“I’m sorry.”

“What? What are you sorry for?”

“Um—”

“I quite enjoyed the eggs and toast. Did you make it yourself?”

This time I think she nods, because there’s a bit of silence before she speaks.

“Oh! Yes! I eat a lot. So I have a big garden and I um, raise chickens and pigs and other animals. But I can’t cook well because I don’t have any Skills.”

“That seems rather harsh. Your food tasted good to me.”

Silence. And then—

“Thank you. But I have to buy a lot of food anyways. The villagers sell me lots of things I can’t make by myself.”

“So you live in a village? How many people live there?”

If it seems odd we didn’t cover that yesterday, well, there’s a lot of explanations and confirming to be done when you think you’ve ended up in another world. Another part is convincing a scared young woman that you haven’t trapped a person in your iPhone.

Is she young? Durene sounds like she’s a bit younger than I am. Of course, I’m terrible at judging ages so she could be anywhere from my age to still in her teens. Girls grow up quicker than guys, after all.

Back to the conversation. Durene apparently lives in a small village of around sixty souls, most of whom live closer to each other. They inhabit a lovely area of farming land fed by a river, hence the name Riverfarm. The people there grow crops and raise animals—they have a blacksmith, and a dedicated person to go and trade for them at a town, that person having the most skill at buying and selling.

The people in this village live together in large families. The children often go out to learn jobs in other towns as they grow, or manage the family business. It’s rare to see a single new face in a month, let alone a group of people aside from adventurers or Runners now and then.

Oh yes, this world has adventurers and the weirdest postal service I can imagine. But what stands out to me in all of Durene’s explanations is an odd…lack of detail. Namely herself.

Durene doesn’t live in the village. From what she says, the only other people who live alone are bachelors or bachelorettes or those who have lost their partners. But Durene is far too young to fit either criteria, and she tells me she’s never met an adventurer, despite them being popular with all the kids.

I smell a rat. And Durene. She still smells…off. If I met other people I might understand what’s different about her, but until then I just keep the conversation going and tell her a bit about where I come from.

That’s me Laken Goddart, blind son to two fairly affluent parents, one a lawyer, the other a businessman. I’ve travelled more places than Durene’s heard of, and I’m blind. That’s a basic description, but the key to selling yourself is embellishment.

And all too soon, I find that Durene’s big breakfast has affected me in another way. I clear my throat politely.

“Uh, Durene? Can you help me get to the bathroom again?”

Yes, it’s embarrassing to have to ask someone you’ve just met to help you out, but I’m used to it. Don’t want to walk into the ladies’ room now, do I? But then, they’ve always been quite considerate the two times I’ve done it by accident.

Anyways, it’s always easier if I ask for help, especially since any door could be the wrong one. And Durene is happy to help.

“No problem. This way—oops! Let me just push this aside—the door’s over here.”

She’s very considerate. Normally people have a hard time directing me, but she’s gotten the hang of it quite quickly. She lets me grab onto her arm—I can feel her muscles rippling every time she shifts—and she walks forwards at a reasonably fast pace.

It’s not as if I have trouble moving around, and I can sense whether she’s walking up an incline or stepping around something. It’s natural to me, and once I explained that to Durene she got the trick of it quickly.

Her bathroom is an outhouse located outside of her home and a ways away from the stream. She has to wait at a respectful distance afterwards, but I don’t take long. There’s only one problem.

“Do you have any toilet paper? Uh, anything to wipe with?”

“I’ll get some leaves!”

“Leaves? Hello? Durene?”

It turns out toilet paper is a luxury so rare Durene’s never heard of it before. But the leaves she gives me are serviceable, and my butt doesn’t complain too much.

The outhouse is definitely an outhouse in the sense that I know there’s no water below me as I toss the leaves down. But it smells nice; Durene’s put some fragrant herb there to chase away the smells. I say as much as I leave.

“Your home seems very nice, Durene. I’m envious.”

“It’s nothing special. It’s really not. It’s—crude.”

“I don’t think so. But uh, do you have anywhere I can wash up? And some soap?”

“Soap?”

It takes me a while to get across the basic idea of hygiene to Durene. That’s my first worry. But she boils some hot water for me and when I’m reassured it’s not scalding, I use that.

“You really need to wash your hands, Durene. In my world, countless people died in the past because they didn’t keep themselves clean enough.”

Really?

It’s amazing, flattering, and humbling how Durene takes all my statements at face-value. I tell her about the Black Plague, and within minute she’s swearing up and down to buy some soap the next time someone goes into town.

Before I know it, it’s lunch-time. I could certainly use something to eat, and Durene takes me around the garden, letting me feel the growing plants and the bunch of potatoes she yanks up.

But then we hit a problem. Durene goes into the kitchen to cook them while I sit outside and listen. But after twenty minutes I know something’s wrong. I can hear her trying to be quiet, but the clattering and the burnt smell can’t be so easily hidden.

“Is everything okay? Durene?”

“I—I’m sorry.”

There’s a catch in her voice when she comes out and tells me she’s ruined the potatoes. I don’t get it, but if there was a fire alarm in her house it would be blaring. She doesn’t even let me inspect the ruined food; apparently it’s so burned she just dumped it outside for the pigs.

“I can’t cook potatoes. I’m sorry. I normally eat them raw.”

“Well, we can’t have that. Let me help you.”

“Help? But you—”

“I can’t see, but I can cook. Come on!”

I reach out and touch her arm. It’s a big arm, and she recoils instantly. But I soothe her and guide her back to the kitchen.

It’s an odd thing, cooking while mainly instructing someone else. Odd, but fun. Only for me at first, but then Durene gets into it.

We make sautéed potatoes. It’s an easy recipe, but I have to show Durene how to cut properly at first. I hear her cut herself twice before I realize her form is off.

“Like this, see? If you’re cutting leaves like this rosemary—do it like this.”

Durene gasps, but I place the knife at my knuckles and roll it across the cutting board, slowly slicing the herbs into small slices.

“Easy as anything. Don’t worry; even if you can’t see, there’s no way to cut yourself like this, see?”

“I do! That’s incredible!”

“It’s not. Really. Now, let’s get to work on the rest of those potatoes, okay?”

“Okay. The chopped potatoes are…here. We boil them?”

“That’s right. Is the water boiling? And you added the salt? Put them in. They’ll go there for about four minutes, okay? Now. Where’s the pan?”

“I put the oil in.”

“Now the potatoes. Flat side down. There. Doesn’t that sound good?”

The sizzling oil makes my stomach wake up. I smile as I hear Durene clumsily sliding the sliced potatoes around the pan.

“Is it crispy golden brown? Okay, let’s reduce the heat. Now…a bit of butter. Just a bit…and the rosemary…doesn’t that smell delicious?”

“It does! It does!”

Success. We sit down and Durene eats her food as if it’s the best food she’s ever had. Apparently, it is.

“I’ve never cooked anything like that before. Do you have a Skill? You must!”

“I wouldn’t call it skill. I just learned from a great chef.”

Thank you Gordon Ramsay. I might not be able to see them cook, but I do love chefs who tell me exactly what they’re doing.

“Are you a [Chef]? Is that your class?”

That’s an odd way of putting things. I shrug, a bit embarrassed.

“I wanted to be a professional chef, and then a professional food critic when I was younger. I gave up on that when I found out someone else had already become blind Masterchef. And, it has to be said, I’m not that good at cooking.”

“But this—”

“It’s not nearly as good as something professional chefs can make, believe me. And you did all the hard work.”

“You know so much, though.”

I want to squirm a bit with embarrassment.

“I just studied a lot of different professions, that’s all. Chef, food critic…at one point I wanted to be a billiards player, but that’s not actually possible. I wanted to do anything that wasn’t boring, so I tried a lot of things.”

“That’s so amazing. So much better than I am.”

I think she’s staring at me. I can feel her proximity towards me. Her voice is also much more intent—she sounds fascinated. I can’t help but smile.

“You’d be surprised what you can pick up if you work at it. Forget cooking—I once disassembled and reassembled an old computer by hand. That’s…like a complicated device.”

“I wouldn’t know. I…I only have the [Farmer] class.”

There it is again. Class? I frown.

“Classes? Do you mean jobs? You mean, you get assigned a job?”

“No. I’m just a [Farmer]. Level 6. Do you not have classes in your world?”

“Oh wow.”

Is it obvious? Did I not notice it because I can’t see? But Durene assures me she doesn’t have her class and level floating above her head like an MMORPG. Even so, my mind is blown because now I realize I’m in a video game. Or something like a video game.

“You mean, you played games with the fates of people?”

“No! It was all just pretend. But it’s exactly like how you’re describing your world.”

“Oh.”

We sit together, in her garden, talking. By this point Durene and I are comfortable enough to sit closer than before, and yes, she is tall. I’m not short myself; apparently I’m around 184 cm, or around 6’1 for people using the horrible US measuring system, but Durene is at least a head higher than I am. Possibly bigger; she hunches over as we talk.

And she is huge. And conscious of that; she treats me even more like a glass object than people who just know I’m blind. I am grateful in her case, though; it does feel a bit like a giant is keeping me company.

Hmm. A giant?

One last detail: Durene’s skin is rougher than normal. Her inside palm is fairly smooth, if callused, but the few times I brushed against the outside of her skin, it was surprisingly rough and even felt cracked in places.

Odd. But she is a great listener, and we sit together long into the night. I tell her stories, and she tells me of this world. Magic and adventurers and a gaming system.

Dinner that night is marinated mushrooms, again thanks to me marathon watching Ramsay videos. It’s good that I remember so many vegetarian dishes; Durene likes meat, but it is apparently a rare delicacy for her, despite the pigs she introduced me to earlier today.

We don’t have any vinegar, but Durene’s garden is plentiful, and everything is so high quality that we barely need any seasoning to make it go down. Fresh water from the stream completes the meal, and Durene eats four times what I do. Good thing we made a lot.

Sometimes I wish I could see. I have no idea what it would be like, and usually I don’t ever care. But when I’m having a bad day or I’m frustrated and wish things were easier, I wish I could see.

But now, I just want to see her face. Even though it seems like Durene is self-conscious about it.

I wonder why. I wonder as I tuck myself into her bed and listen to her snoring outside.

At least I know she’s not a Troll. The ones from the Hobbit turn into stone in the morning, don’t they? Maybe people just grow really big in this world.

Maybe. But she’s still a good person, regardless.

 

Day 3

 

Apparently, one of Durene’s obsessions is fish. Understandably so; she can’t catch much game and she sells most of her pigs rather than eat them. Her occasional chicken only comes when one dies, and as I’ve observed, she has trouble cooking even the most basic of meals.

But fish? Fish is hard to get wrong, and Durene has a crude fishing rod that she tries to catch fish at the stream with almost every day. Apparently, she has little success and I figure out why quite soon.

“You need some bait that wriggles. Worms are better. And you’re moving the line too much. Let the fish bite before you pull it out of the water. See? Patience is key.”

It’s amazing. But no one’s ever taught Durene this, and she observes me fishing with rapt attention. I feel—

I feel happy to teach her, and supremely annoyed no one ever taught her something as simple as this. Do people in her village not know how to fish?

Or is there another reason why she lives alone?

I get half my answer after I yank the second small fish out of the stream, much to Durene’s delight. I hear voices, laughter; the sounds of several children. And then I hear the voices.

“Freak! Come out, Freak!”

Beside me, on the grass, Durene goes still. I pause, the crude clay mug Durene gave me half full as I scoop water out of the stream.

“Where is she? Freak!”

I hear merry laughter, running, shouts of joy at odds with the words and tone in the children’s voices. It doesn’t take them long to find us.

“Freak! Freaky freak! Fr—who’s that?

I turn my head as the sounds of running feet stop. I counted…six kids? All young; probably around ten. Mostly boys, although there’s one girl in there. They pause uncertainly.

“This is Laken. He’s a stranger to these parts.”

Durene tries to explain. I smile and introduce myself, but the instant the children discover I’m blind, respectfulness vanishes.

“He’s blind!”

“A freak! Freak’s gotta friend!”

“Freaks!”

Is there something in the water here? Or is it just them? I frown at the kids.

“That’s not a word you should be using about Durene.”

“But she’s a freak!”

One of the boys protests. Then I hear a yelp and the girl speaks.

“I think he don’t know. He can’t see her!”

“That’s right!”

More exclamations.

“You should run, Mister! Durene’ll eat your heart out!”

“No I won’t!”

“Aah! Run from the freak! She’s gone mad!”

Durene stands up in anguish. And then I hear her yelp. Someone’s tossed a stone at her! I hear it plop into the stream.

“Eat dirt, Freak!”

Okay, mudballs. Another one flies. Durene’s not doing anything to defend herself, so I stand up. The mug of water is still in my hands. For a second I’m tempted to hurl it but—that wouldn’t be right. The children go silent. What should I say?

“It’s nice to meet all of you. Cheers, mates.”

I raise the mug of water in their general direction and then drink from it. Honestly, it tastes a bit like clay. I look at the kids, or rather, in their general direction I hope.

“Now piss off.”

Silence. I keep my face still. I’ve never actually stared anyone in the eye mainly because I could miss, and I can barely keep my eyes open for a staring contest in any case. My eyes still get watery even if I can’t see.

But I am good at holding still and remaining calm. The children aren’t. After a few more seconds I hear them retreat.

I sit back down next to Durene. She’s trembling.

“You okay?”

I keep my tone light as I reach for the fishing pole again. I can’t find it, but then Durene silently presses it into my hands.

“Do you know what I meant when I said ‘cheers’? It’s an expression from another culture. It means, well, it’s something you say before you have a drink, or at a party.”

“Really?”

Her voice is quivery, but it is curious. I nod and smile.

“I met an Australian guy once who could make that word sound like a threat. He said it to a bunch of soldiers who were bothering us and—well, it’s not always polite. It’s all about nuance, you see?”

More silence. I hear Durene gulp.

“I—I’m sorry. What they said—”

“—Is none of my concern. Those little wankers were being obnoxious anyways. They’re too good to be called brats. Do they harass you often?”

It’s nice to know more than one culture. It helps when you want to add to your repertoire of insults. Durene laughs shakily, then goes quiet again.

“Sometimes. I mean, they come by sometimes but they don’t do more than throw things.”

“Like rocks?”

Silence is my answer. I clear my throat.

“They’re miserable little monsters; don’t listen to them. Anyways, they’re just kids, aren’t they? Can’t you chase them off?”

“I couldn’t do that! I might hurt someone, and then—”

She sounds genuinely shocked. And afraid. Is she worried about the mob of stereotypical farmers with pitchforks? But that had to come from somewhere. Maybe she’s right to be passive.

“I’m sorry if I got you in trouble. But I couldn’t stand by and let them harass you.”

“It’s okay. I think. Yes, it’s okay. But I’m surprised you weren’t angrier when they called you a freak. You’re not.”

Again, her tone suggests…what? Depression? Low self-esteem, certainly. But the clues aren’t all there yet, even if I know most of what’s going on. As for me…I shrug.

“I used to be a lot angrier than this. But I’ve gotten calmer now; I don’t lose my temper that much. I’ve been called names too.”

“Really?”

I smile again, but this time with an edge.

“Everyone gets called names. I’m just an easier target since I can’t see anything coming. Then again, I get it. When you’re a kid, anything weird is a target. Anything different or scary…it’s easier to shout insults than get to know the person. That doesn’t mean I think what those brats did was right, of course. Next time one of them calls you names, hit him. Or just call him names as well.”

“I couldn’t hit anyone! And I’m not good with insults.”

“What? Insults are easy. Come on, try one. Call me something.”

“I—I don’t know. What would I even call them?”

“Unexploded pimple? Pitiful asshat? Cowardly mushroom? Insults can be anything you want them to be.”

The laugh that comes out of Durene is more like a bark of amusement, but it’s genuine and real.

“Tell you what. Let’s grill up these fish and I can teach you some of the really pithy insults I’ve heard of, okay? You might want to cover your ears though; some of them could make a sailor blush.”

She laughs delightedly and I smile again. It’s a better day, despite the kids. And the fish isn’t even burnt this time.

 

Day 5

 

I find myself spending almost all my time with Durene day by day. She’s an open person and easy to talk to; she likes listening more than she likes speaking, but she can break down this strange world into easy-to-understand fragments for me.

She’s in the middle of giving me a history lesson about some version of Alexander the Great when I hear a shout. I’m ready for the kids this time, but to my surprise, only one comes running.

“Durene! The wagon’s lost a wheel! Come and lift it, our Da says!”

“What? The wagon? I’m on my way!”

Durene jumps to her feet with amazing agility, and then hesitates.

“I have go to help, Laken. Will you be okay? I can take you there—”

“I’m fine. Go. I’ll be okay until you come back.”

Again, being blind is not like being porcelain. I let Durene run off with the kid and think of what to do. Twenty minutes later, Durene thunders back to the cottage looking for me.

I’m fishing.

“Durene. You’re back. Is everything okay?”

She smells a bit of hay and some other animal scent. And a bit more of that musky odor that’s probably her sweat. I hear her clear the stream in one jump.

“Everything’s fine. I helped Mister Prost with his wagon; that’s all. The axle of the wheel broke, so he had Finnon go get me.”

“Huh. Do they always call on you for help? It seems like they’d need a team of people to move a busted wagon.”

She shifts next to me. Uncomfortably? It’s surprisingly easy to tell when someone’s hiding something even if you can’t read their face.

“Oh—it wasn’t that hard. I just had to help lift it up a bit, that’s all.”

She doesn’t even sound winded. But she ran off and came back in less than ten minutes and helped a farmer put a new wheel on a wagon?

Odd. Odd, odd, odd, odd…

“You do repairs often, then? That’s pretty handy of you.”

“Well, I don’t have a class. But if they need help lifting or, you know, raising a barn—”

“Gotcha. So how bad is the damage?”

“They’ll have to fix it later, but it looks like it was just the axle that went. I just got the wagon back to their home so they could give old Evera a rest. She’s their plow horse and she gets tired quickly.”

Okay, so she pulled a wagon which might or might not have been full of produce an unspecified distance. Hmm.

It could just be her class. Durene said she was a Level 6 [Farmer], but she has one [Enhanced Strength] skill already. Apparently that makes her way stronger than normal; when I asked her to demonstrate, she lifted me up with one hand as if I was a feather.

But the skin? And the things those kids said? What could that—

Bah. What am I, a detective? The answer is no, because I can barely solve a Sherlock Holmes mystery, let alone figure out those stupid wire puzzles. And Durene deserves respect from me, if no one else.

She’ll tell me when she’s ready.

 

Day 6


“I need a class.”

That was what I told Durene when she woke up in the morning. I get up before she does; not that either of us are late sleepers. We’re both morning people actually, although I tend to function just as well in the dark as in the light for obvious reasons.

But I do like to hear the birds sing and feel the sunlight in my face. I don’t mind relaxing for an hour or two by myself in the mornings. As Zoe once told me, I’m the chillest blind guy she knows, which is to say I’m the only blind guy she knows. She knows a blind girl—Teresa, but she and I don’t get along.

I hate Teresa.

Durene is silent for a long moment after I tell her this. We made doughy crepes this morning and added some wild berries, but she stops eating them now.

“Why?”

“Isn’t it what people do in this world? You told me no one you know didn’t have a class.”

“That’s true. But…”

I wait, yet no further thought comes. I explain myself while I try to see what’s making her upset.

“I’ve put a lot of thought into it, and I need to have a class to survive in this world. I can’t just rely on your goodwill forever.”

“But a class—that means you’d go and get a job, right? You’d…leave.”

Oh. Oh. I feel like an idiot.

“I don’t want to be a burden, Durene. I’m already making you sleep outside and now you have to feed two mouths.”

“That’s not a problem!”

The table shifts as Durene moves. She apologizes, and then her tone changes, becomes more pleading.

“I don’t mind the grass! I don’t! And you eat a lot less than I do. I wouldn’t mind you staying! I…like having you around.”

What do I say? What do I do? Whatever it is, it must be something that won’t break her tender heart.

“You know I have a home, Durene, and a family. They’re probably worried sick about me. I want to get back to them.”

I can almost feel her drooping at the other side of the table. I clear my throat and go on.

But I do enjoy staying here with you. If you’re sure I won’t be a burden, I’d love to stay here. I just mentioned a class because it’s fascinating, really.”

“You’ll stay here? You’re sure?”

It’s not pathetic how eager she sounds, how hopeful. It’s heartbreaking. Who left this girl alone? I nod.

“I doubt there’s many jobs for a blind person in your world anyways. Unless I can learn magic? I’d love to learn that.”

“I don’t know. I’ve heard of spellbooks, but I don’t know if mages learn any other way.”

I make a face, mildly outraged as I eat more crepe. Even in this world I’m handicapped by a lack of braille books? And I very much doubt there’s any kind of audio spellbook.

“Well, that idea’s out. I guess I’ll have to sleep on it.”

Then I have another idea. I suggest it to Durene as I help her wash the pottery dishes. She doesn’t use soap, but hot water works pretty well. She can tolerate the heat far better than I, though. But her hands are clumsier, so we both work slow.

“Why don’t you show me around your village?”

Durene nearly drops the cup she’s holding. I push it back into the bucket of water just in time; the splash gets water all over my clothes.

“What’s wrong? I haven’t introduced myself, and I’m sure they’re curious about me.”

“I—I wouldn’t want to bother you.”

“It’s fine. I like meeting people. Besides, I have to meet them sooner or later, don’t I?”

“I guess.”

 

Day 8

 

It takes me two more days for me to convince Durene to take me into the village. She resists, stonewalls—not so much out of reluctance to visit on her behalf, but for fear of how the villagers will treat me, I think.

And how do the villagers treat me?

With kindness.

Oh, they knew a stranger had moved into Durene’s house, but no one had come by. I think they were more apprehensive than curious, and Durene herself might have told them to steer clear before then. It isn’t as if we are always together; she made several trips into the village prior to my arrival, and I can only speculate I was the topic of gossip.

When Durene finally lets me into the village, I hear a few mutters, but Prost, the [Farmer] who Durene had helped out a few days ago, is the first to shake my hand.

“You’ve got a fine grip, son. You’d be a good farmer.”

“Ah, but I’d keep trying to milk the bull, and that wouldn’t end up well for anyone, would it?”

A joke, a laugh, and I change from the scary unknown to someone approachable, even likeable. One mother smacks her son for calling me names, and soon I’m introducing myself as a traveler from far off, sidetracked by a spell and relying on Durene for help.

That bit of fiction is met by approval from all the villagers, but later on Prost takes me aside as Durene helps lift a few kegs for one of the farmers.

“I wouldn’t say much about Durene—she’s a good helper in times of need, but she’s a bit—”

“She seems like a nice, normal young woman to me. Wouldn’t you agree?”

I shut him down in an instant. I don’t want to know. Not from him. Not from someone who isn’t Durene who’s chosen to tell me. That ends the conversation; it’s awkward for a few moments until I ask about farming around here. Turns out that these farmers have quite the variety of crops, and they’re fascinated when I talk about greenhouses and crop rotation. Some high-level [Farmers] have Skills that approximate those effects, and soon I’m actually giving out vague advice on farming techniques I half-remember. Too bad I can’t give them a combine harvester.

Durene hovers around me anxiously at first, but then relaxes as time went by. The other villagers treat her—well, I guess. They have a huge mug of milk for her, and she helps drag a huge tree that had fallen out of the way. But—

We leave the village after several hours, with invitations for me to call on various families for a meal and conversation. I can tell stories about the places I’ve been to if I omit the parts that they wouldn’t understand, and in this small village I’m the equivalent of a celebrity, or a novelty.

The villagers like me. I think I can say that with confidence. They think I’m kind, charming, and okay, mad as a loon. But Farmer Prost’s wife Yesel gives me a basket full of goods to take back to Durene’s home—or rather, she gives Durene that, and I met a good deal of people that day. All in all it was a success.

I just wonder why they dislike Durene so. Or maybe not dislike? She’s clearly known them all her life. But there’s a wall between her and them, and no matter how kindly the villager are towards her and no matter how hard she tries to be as helpful and meek as possible, they still keep their distance from her. I hear it in their tones and observe it through their actions.

It makes me hate them, just a little.

 

Day 11

 

I woke up knowing what class I’d have. I was so antsy that over breakfast I nearly put my hand on the frying pan in distraction. I broke the news to Durene as we ate cheese on scrambled eggs; neither of us could do omelettes.

“I think I’ll become an [Emperor]. Do you know if I have to declare that? Or is it just doing something that gives you the class?”

Durene choked on her eggs and I had to listen to her splutter for a while before any coherent words came out.

“That’s impossible! Laken! What are you saying?”

“I’m going to be an [Emperor]. It seems like the easiest class for me to take, and perhaps I’ll gain some useful skills.”

Honestly, it was the first class that came into my mind as a viable option. But Durene told me flat out it was impossible. I told her she was wrong.

“You can be an [Emperor], Durene. You can, and I can.”

“It’s not possible! To do that—you’d need a kingdom, and a palace and white horse and—and—”

Her voice trails off, unable to even describe my folly. I can only smile.

“But you can, Durene. I know of a man, an ordinary man, who became an Emperor. All by himself, although he was poor and he had no palace or horse.”

“Really? Who?”

There’s skepticism, but curiosity and eagerness in her voice in equal measure. She always loves stories from my world. This one puts a grin on my face even as I speak.

“He was known as Emperor Norton the 1st of America. He was a real man who became an Emperor just by calling himself one. I always loved his story.”

“Emperor? But you said America has no rulers. Only someone with the [President] class.”

My explanations of how my world works might have gotten a bit jumbled. I shake my head.

“That’s true. But Norton didn’t care what the rules were. One day, he declared himself Emperor. And he lived and died acting as one.”

It’s an amazing story, and one I have to struggle to do justice to. How can I explain to Durene the tale of Joshua Norton, a failed businessman who one day woke up and sent letters to every newspaper in San Francisco proclaiming himself as the Emperor of the United States?

Well, sort of like that, actually.

“He made proclamations and sent orders to the army—none of which were ever obeyed—and he even made his own money. I know it sounds ridiculous, Durene, and I’ll just bet you’re smiling, but here’s the crazy thing: it worked! The people let him go around calling himself Emperor, and in time they began treating him like one.”

“They didn’t.”

“They did. Not all of course, but he eventually made his own money and became known throughout the city. The people of San Francisco accepted his currency, and he dined in the finest restaurants and went to famous plays in the theater where they would hold a seat for him. When he died, over thirty thousand people went to his funeral.”

Durene listens in silence, rapt with attention. I can only imagine it myself. His story captured my heart.

“Some say he was a madman. And maybe he was; he probably was, honestly. But he also dared to dream. And that’s something I’ve always admired about him.”

He dared to dream. There are worse things to be remembered by. And unlike the rich businessmen and famous stars and politicians of the day, Norton I is still marked in history as the first and only Emperor of the United States. It may seem funny to most people, but I think he’s the one laughing in the end.

“If one man can declare himself Emperor, I don’t see why I can’t follow suit. Kings might be born to rule, but the first kings were just men with an army who made themselves crowns. I might not have an army, or a crown, but it’s worth a shot.”

“Maybe.”

As impressed as she is by the story, I can hear the doubt oozing from Durene’s every word. But I just grin.

“I’m in another world, Durene, and from what you’ve said, classes rule this place. Why not take one of the best ones if I can? So. You can be my witness.”

I stand up dramatically, praying I don’t hit anything by accident as I gesture grandly.

“Hear my words, that they may be passed down for posterity. On this day, I, Laken Godart, declare myself Emperor of the Unseen, sovereign lord and ruler of all I survey. Not only Emperor; I declare myself Protector of Durene’s House as well.”

For a second I hold the pose, and then hear Durene giggle. It sounds amazing coming from her deep voice. I smile and sit back down.

“You can’t do that! What if someone heard you?”

“Well, then I’d demand that they show me the proper respect I deserve. And ask for their taxes. You owe me a tithe, I believe. I demand your finest crepe as your [Emperor].”

Giggling like a girl, Durene passes me one. I eat it with an air of triumph, and tell her several more jokes that make her laugh.

And that’s good. That alone is worth the crazy attempt. But as I sleep that night, I can’t help but think that it would be nice if I could be [Emperor]. I’d make the world a better place, or at least, try to.

I’d like to hear Durene laugh a lot more, and make it so she never has to cry herself to sleep another night.

In my heart, as I let sleep overtake me, I do believe I could do it. I believe. That’s what I learned to do. I believe I can be something more than people expect of me.

My eyes close. I breathe out. And then I hear a voice in my mind.

 

[Emperor Class Obtained!]

[Emperor Level 1!]

[Skill – Aura of the Emperor obtained!]

 

“Das war ja einfach!”

 

Day 12

 

Durene is in a state of panic; I’m calm.

Sort of calm. I’m freaking out, but in a good way. Durene’s just freaking out.

I blink as she tromps past me, nearly hitting my leg. Her voice is strained as talks out loud.

“It can’t be! You don’t have any fancy clothes! How can you be an—an—[Emperor]? It doesn’t make sense!”

I don’t know. But I do know, at the same time. I sit up straight. I can’t tell how this new Skill I’ve received works, but I feel a bit…different. A bit more secure in myself. I was right. I dreamed, and I was right.

“Durene. Is an [Emperor] simply defined by his clothes? A king is still a king in rags, after all. It may sound silly, but in this world people become what they believe, I think. You haven’t become a [Cook] because you don’t think you can be one. But I? I think I can do anything I want to. And I think you can too.”

She stops mid-step. I can sense her facing me.

“I—I have to go. I have to—go.”

She practically knocks the door down trying to get away. I sit and think in her house, trying to figure out what it means. Something. What can an [Emperor] do? What could my skills do? Is it even practical? How can I get home?

Someday, I want to go home. Even if Durene is here, I…

I need to find my family again.

When the door opens again, Durene comes in silent, but no longer panicking. She avoids the topic of my class and I do too, at least for a bit.

“You have a nice home, Durene. But I’d love to visit a town someday, or a city.”

She hesitates.

“I—I want to too. But it’s tricky…”

I don’t ask why. Instead I just nod.

“You’ve said there are other continents in this world, filled with all kinds of different species.”

“…Yes.”

“Where are we? What continent are we on?”

“Izril. We’re on Izril.”

“Huh. Sounds almost familiar.”

 


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