She sat on a grassy hilltop and slowly picked a fuzzy dandelion. Seeds scattered in the wind and she gently raised it to her face to blow the rest into the air.
Caught by the breeze, the seeds scattered across the grassy landscape. Below Erin, the white clusters of dandelions stood out among the grass.
Odd grass. Erin shifted, and realized it wasn’t nice and soft like the grass on suburban lawns. This grass was short, tough; crabgrass. In places, the grass grew tall, or so high they would go up to her knees. Small rocks filled her hilltop, a danger to her bare feet.
This was nature. Not just a thing to admire, and it had thorns. Erin stared down at the forest sitting at the bottom of the hill.
The trees were gnarled, some of them. Others were tall. So tall that they were at a level with her hill. Dark shadows flitted through the forest, and Erin thought she saw hooves.
Suddenly, the forest began to grow. Erin sat back as the trees suddenly shot up, until they were far taller than her small hill. They towered above her, and the forest grew, expanding until it covered the grass and her.
Erin sat up, and found herself sitting in a dark forest glade. The canopy was so high overhead that when she looked up, she couldn’t see more than patches of sunlight, filtering down from thousands of feet overhead. She felt lost, tiny, and alone on her small grassy mound.
She got up, and began to walk. She had to find something. It was why she was here. Why go somewhere unless you’re trying to find something? Or be found.
Was she lost? But no—Erin saw a sign. It sat at the foot of an ancient, crooked tree. Only a few dark leaves clung to the branches, and the trunk itself seemed to curve over with age. But still it stood, and below it, glowing words had been carved into a place bare of bark.
A sign, and a stone coffin sitting below the tree. How had Erin not noticed it? She looked down. It was rough granite, and unadorned. But still, it was special. So was the sign. Erin read it, and felt a chill.
Here is Albion. Here lies the King of Knights. Resting, until the day of most dire need.
Erin looked around. The stone coffin had been nearly swallowed by the tree sitting behind it. Roots covered the front of the coffin, but she thought she could still move the lid. Should she? If—
The girl hesitated, and then put her hand on the lid. She began to lift it, but then a voice, a real voice, spoke in her ear.
“It is only a dreaming thing. What you seek is not just in your head, mortal.”
Erin looked around. A tall lady dressed in silver robes stood behind her. She looked at Erin expressionlessly; perhaps only a trifle of impatience coloring her features.
The lady waved her hand at the coffin. She was…hard for Erin to understand. She was neither beautiful nor ugly; not striking in any way, nor tall or short or anything at all. In fact, the more Erin looked at her, the more confused she became until she ended up speaking to the air behind the woman.
“‘Tis only a dreaming thing. The true King still sits on the battlefield, dying of her wounds. The King has sailed away. The King walks among you. He has risen—he never was. Only your dreams may make the truth of it.”
Erin understood this even less. But the dreaming self in her knew exactly what to say.
“So he’s only a story?”
“A story made flesh. In this world, and others. How many times will you mortals tell it? Ah, but they are all worthy in their small way. But he is not here for you to wake. Not in dreams, anyways.”
Erin stared down at the coffin. She wanted to say something profound, but the words escaped her,
“Maybe we need him. Now, I mean. More than ever.”
“Mortals always think so. Perhaps he will come. But that would be a miracle, and you are only dreaming. If he comes, it will be in the waking times, not now.”
Erin sat on the coffin. She felt guilty, but it was just a fake thing. The lady seemed to approve, and sat with Erin.
“An odd mortal, you are. Odd, to listen deep enough to hear our voice. Odder still, to walk into this place, even a small fragment in dreams.”
“I can’t help it. I think it’s a Skill.”
The lady snorted in a very un-ladylike manner.
“If the game of Gods were all it took to meet us so, we would be long dead. No. Even if it was something taken from them, the start of it came from you.”
She prodded Erin, and it hurt even in the dream. Erin frowned and rubbed at the spot.
“Why are you so mean?”
“Why are you so dull?”
There was no helping it. Erin decided not to talk, which suited her companion. For a while, they sat together as the forest grew and darkened around her.
“It is past time to go.”
At last, the other woman said it and Erin nodded absently. She felt…like she was melting into the dream. Becoming part of everything and nothing. She received another prod, and this time didn’t even look around.
Erin obediently began waking up. The world began to dissolve around her.
The woman leaned towards Erin, and she grunted. The woman was suddenly intent on her, and she spoke into Erin’s ear.
“Will you give me something for naught? A gift?”
“I would like all the sugar in your kitchen. May I have it?”
The woman smiled, and vanished. Erin looked around. Everything was fading away, and she felt herself leaving. But it felt so disappointing to her. She might never come back.
Stuck by a sudden impulse, Erin reached out and moved the lid of the coffin aside. The inside of it was empty; just a dark hollow. But when she reached down, her hand grasped something far below.
Erin grasped the hilt of the sword in the stone, and pulled at it. It came loose, and she held it aloft. It was just a dream, but it shone with a light unlike anything she’d ever seen.
Erin stared at it, and felt a tugging at her ear—
“Give it back!”
Erin opened her eyes, as someone pulled hard at her ear. She yelped, and let go, and then sat up.
In her dark kitchen, something flashed with golden light, just for a second. Erin blinked, and then it was gone. She looked around, and realized she was awake just an hour before dawn.
But she was not alone. A gentle blue light filled the room, radiating from a small body that hovered just in front of Erin. The girl looked up into the face of a scowling Frost Faerie.
“Are ye a thief as well as a fool? You are not a king, but you would be, and twice damned to take what is not yours!”
Erin blinked at the tiny face, head full of clouds and her dream and stupidity.
The faerie made an exasperated noise and flew off. Erin watched her settle on the counter, and then realized she was grabbing at something. The tiny faerie was shoveling something…into her mouth? She looked like she was standing at the foot of some massive dune.
Then Erin realized the ‘dune’ was white, made silver by the moonlight, and that it was in fact her sugar. All of it.
Erin shot to her feet. The faerie looked at her and fluttered away as Erin ran over to her sugar. What had—? The faerie had somehow managed to take the bag of sugar out of one of the cupboards and spill it onto the counter. Already, she had consumed over three times her body weight and the rest of the sugar was covered in small ice crystals.
Erin stared in horror. Then she rounded on the tiny faerie, who was flying about the room merrily.
“Why did you do that? That’s stealing! Who said you could come in here and eat anything you wanted?”
The faerie looked at Erin as if she were an idiot. She pointed to Erin.
“You told me I could have it, you silly fool!”
With that, the faerie landed on the pile of sugar again and began to gorge herself anew. Erin wanted to swat her away, but the faerie turned and hissed at Erin and the girl backed away hurriedly.
She’d never said anything like that, Erin was certain. Only…
She remembered her dream. It was already fading, but parts of it still stuck with her. She’d—no, that had been someone else. Right?
Erin hesitated, and it was enough for the faerie to keep eating. She kicked some sugar off her feet, and flew into the air, shedding the particles like dust.
“I am finished. It was a tasty snack.”
She grinned at Erin, revealing sharp teeth, and flew out of the kitchen. Erin watched her go. She really, really wanted a flyswatter.
She had faeries. It was like having bedbugs, or lice or…crabs. Not that Erin had ever had any of those, but she thought she might prefer an infestation of bugs. At least they could be killed.
The thing was—the reason Ryoka and Erin didn’t try to frighten them or swat them was—it was simple really, but sort of embarrassing. It was just that both girls were scared spitless of the faeries, or at least, Erin was.
They were…scary. Really scary. Just as Ryoka had learned, Erin was aware that the faeries might actually be able to kill her. Well, not ‘might’. They could probably do it quite easily. In fact, super-easily. One big avalanche and her inn and everything in it was toast.
If cockroaches could start earthquakes, there would be a lot more of them crawling around regardless of how horrible they were.
Maybe the inhabitants of this world treated the faeries like pests, but Erin remembered being buried in that avalanche of snow and ice. She’d thought she would die more than once before Toren managed to dig her out and Pisces melted part of the snow. Afterwords, he’d said not a word, but left the inn. And he’d stayed far away from the faeries ever since, not even coming near the inn when they were around.
But still. Erin stared at the mess of sugar and rapidly thawing ice and glared at the faerie. There were limits, even if Erin had given some sort of…permission.
“How did you eat all of that, anyways? Your stomach should have exploded. Are you hollow or something?”
This time, the faerie just sniffed at Erin. She flicked her wings up, raising a cloud of sugary dust and spoke to the air instead.
“I do not suffer your questions, mortal. Go ask a rock if you have so many useless things that need speaking.”
Again. Erin ground her teeth. It seemed like whenever she asked the faeries a personal question, they got offended and left. Why? They asked her questions all the time. It wasn’t fair.
But she’d been down this road before, and now she knew some things. The faeries were little jerks, but they did have some rules. So Erin changed tact. She called after the faerie as it flew off in a huff.
“You know, it’s rude not to talk to the host.”
The small creature paused, and then turned at the door. She was scowling, but she did turn.
“‘Tis rudeness we seek to offer to you and your kind, human. But I shall talk to you since you insist of it. We are guests and we will do as we must.”
That was good! Not the rude part, but Erin had finally, finally gotten a response out of them without having vital bits frozen off! She felt like doing a little dance.
But instead she suddenly had to worry about what to say. The faerie floated back in front of Erin, clearly waiting, and she realized she might only have one question. Quick, what would Ryoka say?
“Why do you hate us so much? Humans, I mean. Or do you not like all mortals?”
The faerie looked surprised for the briefest moment, and then rolled her eyes.
“Hate? We hate you as we hate the changing of days or lichen on trees, human. You are pests, nothing more! But we do not obey your commands and you will know it!”
“We don’t command you. I mean…”
Erin paused. Okay, they didn’t order the faeries around, but did telling them they had to talk to her and bothering them count? The faerie clearly thought so; she stared at Erin with one eyebrow raised.
“Okay, maybe we do. But you were really mean to Ceria, too! How is that fair when she’s my guest?”
Again, the small creature shook her head.
“Ye aren’t that smart, are ye? The fey answer to no one, mortal! We speak and bestow our gifts as we please, and none may command us! No god, no king, no lord or master. Have ye not heard the words? The fey obey no one, and we bow to none either. So what if we offended your honor? We do as we please. So long as the worthless child was not a guest we could do as we wished. Now she is your guest.”
It was an infuriating speech with so many holes Erin wanted to point out. But the faeries were a bit like children; they had odd rules of their own that they stuck to like glue.
“But now she’s my guest, you’ll leave her alone?”
The faerie looked insulted.
“Of course. She has guest right as do we! And we will obey your stupid rules while we remain within your place of power. But we are guests, not slaves. Ye would do well to remember that.”
“Right, right. Um, I gave you food. And this is an inn. You can sleep wherever if you pay me…?”
The faerie sneered at Erin. She did it quite well; it was a Snape-worthy level of sneer, which showed just how expressive the creature was.
“Paltry food, you gave us! Cow’s milk days old and sugar plucked and ground together by filthy hands! And we would not sleep in your inn when beds of fresh snow are ours for the taking outside! If you want our favor, ye’d better try harder.”
Erin did not want the Frost Faerie’s favor. She wanted them gone, and Ryoka back. But her ears pricked up nonetheless at the words. Being an innkeeper was all about selling stuff, after all. And she had [Advanced Cooking]. How hard could feeding a faerie be?
“Well, what would you like me to make? Do faeries like…milk? Sweet things like syrup?”
That’s what Ryoka had said, and Erin vaguely remembered stories about faeries eating that kind of thing. But the Frost Faerie just looked insulted.
“Do you think we are Brownies, or Pixies, to be bought with a bit of churned milk or tree sap? We are not foolish children; we stand high among our kind. We bring the Winter; ours is a duty entrusted to us by our King himself!”
That sounded important? Erin frowned.
“But what do you want?”
“Anything, so long as it is pure! Naught touched by filth, and that which is closest to our nature. Especially nothing from your smoky, polluted world. Figure it out!”
That was a typically annoying faerie answer. Erin thought hard.
“Do I get anything in return?”
Another look that told her she was stupidity made mortal.
“Of course. Did you not already receive one favor? For your bowl of milk and sugar. ‘Twas a paltry thing, but we repaid the debt in kind by chasing away the scaley-headed oaf.”
That was true! Erin wondered if the faeries worked on a favor economy or if they had actual money. But maybe then she could get them to leave Ryoka alone?
“Does that mean I get another favor for my sugar?”
“The sugar was a gift, was it not?”
The faerie looked pointedly at Erin, and the girl bit her tongue. Words. Ryoka had warned her to watch her words around faeries. She supposed this was a good example of that.
“Fine. No favor, then. But if I make something good, I get a favor, right? A big one?”
“If it is worthy. But deliver us more waste and we will braid your hair into elflocks and freeze your doors shut!”
As threats went, it wasn’t high on Erin’s scary list. Until she wondered exactly how tightly her hair would be tangled, and how much ice would be freezing said doors.
The faerie paused. She seemed to think, and made another face.
“…I suppose ye are owed the tiniest gift for the sugar. Ask, then, mortal. What small token would you wish of me?”
That sounded like a test. And now that Erin was getting in the swing of things, she realized it was probably very important that she not ask for too much. The faerie watched her as Erin thought. And then Erin knew what she wanted.
It was stupid. Silly. There were a hundred things she could ask for instead, should ask for. But Erin really, really wanted this.
Tentatively, she pointed at the faerie.
“Can I…touch you?”
The small Frost Faerie blinked in surprise. Complete surprise, painted openly across her face for the first time Erin had ever seen. Then she slowly nodded. And smiled with the barest hint of malice.
“If that is your wish. Come then, touch of me.”
Slowly, the faerie floated towards Erin, and suddenly the girl could feel the cold radiating off the small body. It was always cold around the faeries; in complete disregard for the laws of thermodynamics (if they even applied in this world), they seemed to radiate cold like fire did heat.
Only now it was cold enough around this one faerie to make Erin shiver. And when she tentatively raised her hand towards the faerie, she felt the air chilling her to the bone. And as she reached forwards.
It hurt. It was like the worst winter days in Michigan, when it would hit -10° Fahrenheit, or around -20° Celsius. The cold wasn’t just a biting thing that hurt more as time went on, it was thrusting knives piercing Erin’s hand and twisting.
But the faerie was waiting. She looked at Erin expectantly, a smile playing on her lips. Erin hesitated—the skin on her hands were already white. But she wanted to know.
So slowly, she moved her hand forwards. Her fingers covered in frost, and her arm felt a shock as pain made Erin bite her lip hard. But she kept moving.
Slowly forwards. Ever so slowly, as if she were touching a butterfly or frightened animal. Because for all of her danger, the faerie was still a small thing. And so beautiful. So beautiful.
The pain made Erin’s vision go grey. But she moved slowly, ignoring the cold. Her hand was already numb. What kind of damage was this…?
But she had to try. Because it was a faerie. Because she would regret it forever if she didn’t try.
The faerie stared. The tips of Erin’s fingers lost all feeling; her hand was pain and ice. But then her flesh touched the faerie’s arm, and it all stopped.
The cold melted away in seconds. Erin felt coolness under her finger and stopped biting her lip. She stared.
The faerie’s skin was smooth. It felt like neither flesh nor glass nor crystal, but some kind of fluid combination of the two. If you could turn ice to skin, if you could bring life to frozen air and capture it with magic, that would be what it felt like. Just the touch brought tears to Erin’s eyes. It was like Ceria, only far stronger. She was feeling something not of this world, not of her world. Something—
And just like that, it was over. The faerie leaned away, and the contact was lost. Erin lowered her hand and clutched at it, but both frost and the terrible numb pain was gone. She stared at the faerie.
“It doesn’t hurt anymore.”
“Of course not. ‘Twas only a touch.”
The faerie shrugged her shoulders, but Erin was sure she was supposed to have given up when it got too cold.
“Was I supposed to give up and complain about the cold?”
It didn’t hurt to ask. The faerie just grinned as an answer; the little creature wagged a finger of her own.
“You have grit, fool child. Perhaps the cold was just a test. But even to touch the fey is a price of itself. You are lucky.”
For once, Erin was in complete agreement. She remembered the touch, that slight sensation on her skin, and knew she’d remember it forever. A piece of a larger mystery. And finally she found the right question to ask.
“What are you?”
“We are that we are.”
The words were familiar to Erin. But the faerie gave Erin no time to stare. The small creature flew into the air, and around Erin’s head.
“Well! Brave Human that ye are, will you keep me longer? Or will you feed me? If not, leave me be! I have snow to bring, and clouds to chase!”
“What? No I—thank you. But can I ask one last question?”
“If ye must.”
Erin stared at the faerie. She remembered the feeling in her hands. And she wished with all her heart—
“Do you think—I could do something magical? I mean, Pisces told me I couldn’t do magic and Ceria thinks so too. I’ve got a skeleton, but…could I ever…?”
She didn’t know why she was asking a Frost Faerie of all creatures. But it was magical. It was something else, and—yes, Erin began to wonder if it was actually the wisest creature she’d met so far in this world. A miniature female Yoda?
The faerie scratched at her head and shrugged, unconcerned. Erin backtracked on the Yoda bit. But then the faerie laughed.
“Magic? Why ask when you should already know? The fools who call themselves mages in this world talk of magic as if it is something had by few. But you have tasted of it; how else would the bag of bones move except not for you?”
Erin’s heart began to beat faster. She tried to quell the excitement in her chest.
“But that’s not magic, is it? That’s just a bit in me; not enough to do any spells.”
“Spells? Pah. Are ye an old man walking back through time, to be concerned with such things? Who needs spells? Is magic so petty to be all sparkles and muttered words?”
The faerie laughed, and the tinkling sound lifted Erin’s heart. Slowly, the faerie flew towards Erin, and pointed towards the door. She cast no spell, uttered no sound, but the door opened as wind blew from the inside. The faerie grinned at Erin.
Then she flew out the door and disappeared. Erin stared after the faerie, and listened to the beating of her own heart.
It was loud in her chest.
That was how they found her. Toren walked in from outside, and Ceria came downstairs to find Erin sitting on the table, staring at her fingers. The girl looked up as they approached and smiled and made the right noises, but still the two hesitated.
Toren had no words to speak with, and so he left that to Ceria. But he stared around the inn, as he carefully placed a bag of coins on the table. He’d labored through the night to clear up the rest of the detritus left from Erin’s concert outdoors, and although he’d had to make a mound of discarded clothes, trash, and miscellaneous junk, he had come away with several useful items.
Ceria had slept poorly until just past midnight, dreaming of faeries and worrying about Ryoka. But she added Erin to her list the instant she saw her face.
“Oh, sorry Ceria. I’ll have breakfast out in a bit.”
Erin got to her feet as the half-Elf peered at her. Ceria shook her head; not in a denial of breakfast, but to reassure Erin. She hesitated.
“Is…everything alright? You look different, today.”
“What? No? No. No, I’m fine.”
She didn’t look fine. But she didn’t look bad either. She just looked…different. To the half-Elf and Toren, it was as if Erin was far away and here at the same time; almost sleepwalking.
Erin felt the same. Her heart was racing, but her mind floated on a sea of calm. There was something in her. Words, and wonder, but something else. Something…magical.
She was herself, and not at the same time. Erin remembered only bits of the dream now; distant memories that drew away with each breath she took. But it had done something to her, that dream. It had made her remember.
Nothing important. Nothing life changing. Just…childhood. Erin remembered walking through the snow, jumping into a huge mound and getting stuck. She remembered playing with a caterpillar with a stick, running away screaming happily. She remembered—
Believing in faeries. Believing in Santa. Believing in magic and waiting to turn eleven, hoping for the owl.
When had she stopped? Sometime after she’d learned to play chess. The magic had disappeared and the game had taken her in. But now Erin remembered.
And so she thought. And when she spoke, it was to Ceria and Toren both.
“I need a favor.”
Ceria looked up and paused as she shoveled porridge into her mouth. The half-Elf ate fast and with less table manners than might be hoped for, but at least she ate a lot.
“I want to make something for the Frost Faeries. Something to eat.”
The half-Elf frowned at Erin.
“If it’s poison, count me in. Otherwise, I’d prefer it if you didn’t attract them here. Guest or no guest, they still hate my guts.”
“I know. I know, but—I—”
She’d had a dream. A true dream. And for a second she’d held—
Magic. Magic is.
Erin spread her hands out helplessly.
“They didn’t like the milk and sugar. Well, they did, but they said it wasn’t good. But if I can make something they love, they might leave us alone or—or give us something. I want to try. Will you help me?”
Ceria sighed and rubbed at her face. She looked at her bowl, and began chomping down on her hot food twice as fast, talking around each bite.
“Fine. I owe you a lot, anyways. But if you’re serving, I’m leaving tonight. I’ll stay with Selys, or at an inn if I have to.”
Erin nodded absently. Magic. Could she do it?
The half-Elf hesitated, and exchanged a glance with Toren.
“Okay, food for faeries. What do you need me to do?”
“Flowers. I need lots of them. As many as you can find, okay? Big ones, small ones…if you’ve got some that are, y’know, wide enough to hold something, that’d be great.”
Erin was still thinking hard as she said it. She was trying to go back to the past. Yeah, as a child she had made meals for faeries. And if she was going to do it, wouldn’t it be…?
She realized something was wrong when Ceria took too long in replying. Erin looked over and realized Ceria was frowning at her.
“Erin, just because I’m a half-Elf, doesn’t mean I know where flowers are at all times.”
Erin blinked. Oh. Oops.
“Sorry. Was that racist? Species-ist…?”
“It’s nothing. I mean, we get that a lot. But most half-Elves don’t even like nature that much. We take on the cultures we’re raised in, so…”
Ceria waved a hand awkwardly. Erin nodded, disappointed.
“So you don’t know where any flowers are?”
“—Well, I suppose I could find some. Rot. Yes, of course I’ll go look. But just remember—!”
“Elves don’t like flowers. Got it. Sorry.”
Ceria opened her mouth, took a look at Erin’s face, and shook her head. Next, the girl turned to Toren, who stood up straight. His strange, new purple eyes burned bright in his skull. He seemed eager to accept his first new orders.
“Toren, I want you to get mushrooms. From caves, in forests…just don’t go near the city or anywhere too dangerous, okay? But I need lots of mushrooms by tonight.”
The skeleton immediately nodded and turned towards the door. Erin watched him walk out. Did he know the difference between poison mushroom and edible ones? Probably not. But if what she was thinking was right, it might not matter.
Think of faeries. Don’t think of them like people, but like stories.
“I’m going into the city. I need to buy things.”
Erin reached for her coin pouch and hesitated. She took a handful of gold coins Krshia had helped her exchange and added them to the pouch.
“A lot of things.”
Ceria followed her out the door for a little bit, and then left. Erin walked through the snow, barely noticing the fact that she’d forgotten her second layer.
She’d held it in her hands, just for a second.
She was sure of it.
A huge crowd of Gnolls and Drakes was gathered in front of the Watch barracks when Erin passed that way towards Market Street. She paused, long enough to realize that something was very wrong.
All the Gnolls were growling, or facing the barracks with fists clenched or claws extended. Their hair was standing up, and they were very still.
Standing in front of the entrance was Watch Captain Zevara, and at her side was Relc and Klbkch. The two heavy-hitters. Yes, something was wrong.
Erin listened to the shouting as she walked past. The Gnolls wanted in, and the Watch wasn’t letting them.
“Go back! Disperse! We’re holding the Human until a trial can be set up. Tomorrow! No one gets in or out, got it?”
Zevara was shouting above the howls and raised voices in the crowd. Not just Gnolls were angry of course; several Drakes seemed to be out for blood, but they were definitely a scaled minority in the crowd.
What had happened? But she had to follow the vision in her head before it was too late. Erin walked on, and noticed Klbkch’s head slowly turning to follow her before he focused on the crowd.
Keep moving. Keep walking. She had the vision.
But Erin stopped when she reached Market Street. Because of the fire.
It had swept through the street again, only this time there had been people close by, able to contain the blaze. In fact, the flames had only destroyed one place. A stall. One Gnoll’s stall, to be precise.
Krshia sat on the ground in front of her burned venue, staring at the rubble and ash. Nothing remained of her goods, not the wooden stall, not the carefully organized supplies—nothing.
It was gone. Erased. And somehow, Erin knew that insurance plans hadn’t been invented yet in this world.
The street was very quiet. Gnolls and Drakes gathered around Krshia, giving her space, watching silently. Erin didn’t know what to do. But she approached anyways. The crowd stared at her with little warmth, but they let her pass.
The Gnoll barely looked up as Erin walked over. She sat very still, staring at her stall.
“Erin Solstice. It is a dark day, no?”
What else was there to say? Erin paused, and then sat down. She stared at the ruined stall and part of her heart broke. But another part saw grass growing out of the destruction, a tree pushing its way past the cracked cobblestone, into the sky.
If she could do magic, then maybe—
Krshia told her in a soft voice. It was the thief. Some human girl who Krshia had set a trap for with the other shopkeepers. It had worked, but the girl had a ring that cast a spell which destroyed her shop.
She was alive. The girl, that was. Scratched, bleeding, but alive. Krshia had turned her over to the Watch however reluctantly to face trial. That was the law. But the law wouldn’t restore Krshia’s stall, or her livelihood.
Erin didn’t know what to say. This was the way of the world. That was what her brain told her. Bad days, death, violence. It was all over the news. Bad days, for everyone, everywhere, never ending.
But it shouldn’t be this way. Erin looked at her fingertips. She could still feel it.
“If I can help—”
“Not now. Maybe we will talk. But now—”
Krshia sighed, and all the boundless energy she seemed to have went out of her. Her ears lowered, her tail drooped. Erin reached out to pat her shoulder, and someone shouted.
“It’s their fault! These Humans caused this!”
She looked around with the crowd. A Drake was standing several feet away, pointing angrily at Erin. She recognized him.
“You see? This is all because of Humans! Twice now, they’ve destroyed parts of our city! First, when they unleashed the undead and now, an upstanding shopkeeper’s livelihood has been destroyed!”
His voice was strident as he gestured towards the burnt stall and Erin. Krshia stirred, looking at him, and Erin slowly got to her feet.
Why him? Why now? But misery followed misery. Lism continued, shouting to his audience who was far more receptive than Erin would have liked.
“Adventurers keep coming into the city, merchants shortchange us, and humans steal from our most respected citizens! When will it end?”
“Lism. Shut up.”
Krshia said it quietly, but there was an edge in her voice that made the Drake hesitate. The Gnolls around Krshia were silent, but they were on her side.
But those further out in the crowd and many of the Drakes…Erin looked around and stood up.
Someone whispered to her. Selys. The Drake’s scales were slightly pale, and she looked around as if she was worried. Krshia turned her head slightly to Erin.
“You came here to shop, yes? Go. We will speak. We must speak. But now is not the time.”
“If you’re sure—”
The Gnoll looked at Selys. The younger Drake had tears in her eyes as she stared at the ruins of Krshia’s shop.
“Selys. You will go with Erin, yes? Help her.”
Erin stood up wordlessly. She walked through the silent crowd, ignoring the stares. Lism had backed off, but he was still shouting and arguing. He yelled something at her as she passed.
Selys tried to hurry Erin along as she snapped at Lism, but the girl paused. Her ears were ringing a bit. She stopped in front of Lism. The Drake looked alarmed, but then he looked around at the crowd and seemed to draw strength from the onlookers.
“Well? Are you going to attack me too, Human? Go ahead. Prove what a menace your kind is!”
Erin stared at him. Then she shook her head. She was aware other people were staring at her, so she raised her voice as she addressed Lism.
“You are not a nice person. Olesm’s nice, but you’re not. If everyone was nicer, I think we’d get along. But I don’t like you.”
She stared him in the eye, and walked off. Selys hurried off after Erin. After a minute, she heard him shouting in outrage.
Erin didn’t care. She left the street behind and walked on. Sometimes, sadness was too much to process at once. Why did bad things happen? Why couldn’t everything be good?
“I don’t—scales and tails, why did it have to happen like that? Poor Krshia. What will she do after that? Almost all her goods were in that stall, and it was warded for goodness sake! What kind of spell could tear through that?”
Selys was talking rapidly as she walked with Erin, upset. Erin nodded once or twice, but then she had to ask.
“I’ve got to go. I’ve got—something very important to do. A guest. I need to buy ingredients.”
“Guests? Now? Erin…”
Selys hesitated. She sighed.
“I can help, I guess, but Krshia’s…look, who’s it for?”
For two long minutes Selys just gaped at Erin, searching her face slowly. Erin stared back, heart calm, heart racing.
“The—are you sure?”
Selys hesitated. She looked at Erin again, searchingly, and took a deep breath.
“Okay. Since it’s you, okay. You look—explain it to me later? What do you need?”
Erin nodded. She felt grateful.
“Milk. Cream for butter, and…new cow’s milk.”
“Cream I can do, but new cow’s milk? What’s that supposed to be?”
“Is there a baby just born and a mother…who hasn’t given milk yet? That sort of thing?”
Selys had no idea. But she knew a Drake who knew a Drake who knew a Gnoll who said that there was a [Farmer] in a village north of the city who had a cow who was expecting a calf any day now. Two farmers, actually. One had definitely had a calf a week ago; the other might still just have a pregnant cow.
That was enough for Erin. She asked Selys for more help finding bags of sugar. The Drake gave her a very odd look when Erin bought two big bags with much of the gold she’d brought, but she just stared at Erin’s face and shook her head.
“I’ll get the shopkeeper to send a Street Runner to your inn. It’s close enough and she should do it with how much you’re paying her.”
Erin thanked Selys, and wandered away. She was still thinking. Yes. A half-Elf was pure, wasn’t she? Pure enough. And if you were going to gather dead and rotting things, why not a skeleton? It made sense, in that childish way.
As for milk…
Erin had to ask for directions, but eventually she left the northern gate and found the village. It was a small gathering on top of a large hill—it had to be a large hill to hold the houses and barn. In, fact, it was closer to a plateau, just with a gradient for a slope. Upland. That’s what the right word was.
She found the farmer’s barn and house a ways away from the village. Erin stared at the boars in a fence, and wondered why. Then she looked around and found an older Drake, tending to a calf still sticky and wet as he scrambled to his feet.
She’d arrived just in time. The Drake jumped when Erin approached and grabbed at a pitchfork, but she was unarmed and besides, he’d heard of her.
When Erin explained what she wanted, the Drake gave her an odd look, but Erin offered him a gold piece and he took it. It was hard to milk the cow; the mother clearly wanted the calf to suckle, but in the end the Drake had two buckets of…milk for Erin. He told her the calf needed the rest, and that was fine.
Erin stared at the buckets as she carefully carried them back to her inn along the snowy plains. Was it really milk? It looked…yellower, and thicker than normal milk. But it was a cow’s first milk. She’d asked, and yes, this was the first calf the cow had had. This was the first milk the cow had given.
It was what she needed. But—more. Erin was sure there was more that was important. Ingredients were fine, but they were only one piece of the puzzle. To make it special, you had to do things. You had to have ritual, a bit of…
Erin found her way back to the inn and separated the two buckets. One would be for tonight. The other she had to put into a butter churn.
She didn’t have one. But Selys had brought one with the delivery of cream. Erin thanked her, and then realized Toren was coming back.
The skeleton had a huge basket filled with odd mushrooms in his hands, but he also had a dead Shield Spider he was dragging behind him. Selys screamed a bit when she saw it, but Erin had an idea.
She took the mushrooms, and told Toren to milk the spider of venom. She had no idea how to do that and neither did the skeleton, but Selys had seen it done once and helped figure it out.
Erin missed the process. It was apparently messy—enough so that Selys left in distress, covered in spider insides. But she took the shell, or rather, had someone come to get it.
Toren gave Erin a small bottle full of clear liquid. She’d expected the venom to be green, but then, Erin didn’t know what it was supposed to look like. It was fine. Deadly; Selys had said it was dangerous, but fine.
If Erin drank it, she’d probably die. But maybe…
“‘Double, double, boil and trouble…’”
Toren looked at Erin curiously, and she shook her head. Witches did it. What would faeries eat? The trick was to abandon common sense. To imagine the stupidest—no, that was wrong. To dream. That was what children did. That was what Erin had to do.
Dream. And turn it into reality.
Erin went into her kitchen and stared at what she’d brought. She had lots of sugar. It was grown further south, where Winter sometimes never arrived, but even then, it was costly to ship and make. Erin had two big bags and she’d spent a lot of gold on both, but it wasn’t right.
Not pure. That was what the faerie had said. Maybe it was an offhand comment, but…
How would you make something pure? How would you put magic into sugar? Erin thought. Her eyes fell on the white sugar. Somehow, even without modern refining equipment, the skilled laborers managed to create sugar as white as salt or…snow…
Erin stared at the sugar. Yes. That was it. Snow. And snow was more beautiful in the moonlight. Moons. Dancing in a glade in a forest as the moonlight shone down.
She took the sugar, and mixed it with snow in a large bowl. Then she set it on a table facing a window where the sun could shine in.
Then Erin set to churning the cream she’d bought. She knew what had to be done thanks to her [Advanced Cooking] skill, but it was still hard work. The handle moved easily at first, but after a while it grew harder and harder to move.
Still, she was strong, again thanks to a Skill. Erin finished churning the butter and found a sieve. She separated the wet butter from the buttermilk and put each in a separate container. Then she started making bread.
Toren returned with more mushrooms, some spotted with odd colors, a few simply brown and drab. Erin took them all, separating the good ones from the rotting and washing them carefully. She put them on a plate, arranging them carefully.
Ceria came back after another hour, muddy, cold, wet, and grumpy. But she’d found the flowers. The half-Elf had gathered quite a variety of flowers, most of them squashed and dying. But among them was something that looked like bluebells. Erin took the flowers and placed them around the table like cups.
She went back to work. Ceria helped set up the tables, arranging flowers and small dishes, but when she was done and the sun was starting to set, she found Erin, exhausted, using normal milk to make more butter and more sweet milk, just in case.
“Why do you think they’ll like all this? And why do you have to make the butter yourself? You could just buy it, with how much money you’re spending.”
Erin paused in churning the butter long enough to shoo Toren away again. He kept wanting to take over, but she wouldn’t let him touch the handle.
“Virgin hands. Fresh butter. No death. Except on the mushrooms.”
Ceria stared at the display, and nodded slowly.
“When I was a child—the elders said that once, a long time ago, the faeries were supposed to get along with Elves. Well, sort of. It’s just a story, but maybe…”
She trailed off, and Erin thought she understood. It was silly. Half of what was being done made no sense, but…
They were faeries. Fables brought to life. Who was to say what was right or wrong. Erin had to believe. Her heart was full of doubt, but the faerie had said it.
“Are you sure it will work?”
“It has to. And it should.”
Erin gave Ceria several gold pieces and the half-Elf went into the city. She came back with what few fruits she could buy, and more news about the thief and Krshia.
“Apparently, the girl’s a rich daughter of some kind. She won’t say whose child she is, but she had enough magical artifacts on her for a Gold-rank team of adventurers. Can you believe that? Nearly all of them are out of magic, though. It seems she’d been using them non-stop for nearly a month to steal and survive.”
Erin labored over a last loaf of bread as Ceria talked. She was trying to bake fruits into the loaf, and it was working thanks to her [Advanced Cooking] skill. Erin had no idea it was even possible, but she’d thought of it, and so she was doing it. It would go lovely with the whipped cream. The vanilla beans had cost a fortune, though.
Ceria paused, clearly waiting for another reaction. But when it didn’t come she went on.
“Well, the Gnolls want her blood. Literally, her blood. Krshia’s the most calm headed of the lot. She wants the thief on trial. If she has people who will send payment, or the artifacts can pay off the damages…it’s not likely, given how much destruction the girl’s caused. But if she can’t, well, it’d be bad for relations to execute a human outright for theft, but I think exile would be a death sentence, don’t you?”
Erin stared out the window in the kitchen. Ceria nodded.
“Exactly. She’d die before she reached another city—even if they gave her supplies is my guess. I got a look at her, and she seems too pampered to last. But that’s what the Gnolls want. They’re talking about a blood-debt, so they’re pushing for exile if it means she dies. It’s a mess out there.”
The girl barely heard Ceria. She wondered how Krshia was doing. She was the important part of the story. Erin would go help her. Or come when the Gnoll called. But not yet. She understood. When she’d been hurt, she’d wanted to be alone to mourn.
Erin put the dough in the stone oven and walked out into her common room to check on the bowl of sugar and snow.
Over the course of the day, the snow melted and mixed with the sugar. Erin stirred the bowl until it was nearly completely mixed, and syrupy, heavy liquid lay in the bowl. As the moon rose, the light shone down into the cloudy mixture, making it glow.
Ceria helped some more, and even made food. Erin had forgotten to eat, but she was treated to some egg…yolks in a bowl and bread. With sugar. She ate it mechanically, still in a trance.
It had to work. Please, let it work.
The bowl was glowing by the time the two had finished. It looked like it was glowing. The moonlight was caught in the sugary water and reflected out, a mirror to the dark skies.
Maybe it was just a trick of the light. But it was enough. Erin took the first milk of a cow and mixed the moonstruck sugar and melted snow into it. She took the bread she’d made herself out of the oven. It was still warm, and she wrapped it in a towel to keep it warmer. Then she placed the hard-churned butter next to it.
Anything else? Erin set up another table with the alcohol she’d bought. Almost all of the profits of the concert had gone into this. A keg of rum, and another of mead; by now, Erin’s arms were tired. But she had one last thing to do.
The shield spider’s venom was still in the little bottle. Erin stared at the clear liquid, and then placed it next to the toadstools and mushrooms.
There. It was done. Erin blinked, and woke from her trance of labor. She was in pain. Her arms were screaming; her back really hurt. But it was done.
Ceria looked around the room. A bright fire burned in the fireplace, and candles had been lit at each table, giving the atmosphere of the room a close, intimate setting. Tables had been set up with different themes as Erin’s imagination had dictated.
A table of mushrooms and spider venom; a table of death. It sat on the opposite side of the central table with baked bread and fruit and sugary milk and whipped cream and everything Erin could make that was sweet and savory.
On the other side, she’d placed the special concoction. The cow’s first milk, mixed with the moonlight sugar water filled several huge bowls, and Erin had also added the special butter she’d churned and buttermilk as well.
Mead and drinks on another table—Erin had melted freshly fallen snow as well. It felt like a bit of magic; an innkeeper’s magic ritual to her. She stared around, and felt just a hint, just a glimpse—
Was this magic? Or just her imagination?
“Looks like all we need are the guests.”
Ceria stood to one side of the room, looking around as Toren entered, dragging in one last basket of bedraggled mushrooms. He hadn’t been allowed to touch most of the things in the room; only Ceria and Erin had done the arranging.
Half-Elf for purity, virgin for double-purity. It made sense in that old-fashioned sort of way. Faeries weren’t unicorns, but wasn’t there something to that story?
Erin didn’t know. But she knew it was time. Any longer, and she’d lose her nerve. She’d avoided thinking of the consequences of this all day. It had to work. It would work.
Believe. That was part of magic.
“How will you call them? I haven’t seen a single Frost Faerie all day.”
Ceria looked worried, but Erin wasn’t. It was the last part of the child’s story, the old fable.
Slowly, Erin walked over to the door. Now, how would it go? Oh, yes. The fair folk were special. They knew when things happened, didn’t they? So they would already know, at least in a story.
But they had to be invited. Erin had put all of the iron in cupboards, deep in the kitchen. She opened the door, and stared out into the night sky. Nothing moved in the snowy landscape. Her breath misted in the cold air as the warmth rushed outside.
The words. Erin raised her voice, only slightly, and spoke.
“Frost Faeries. Bringers of Winter. I invite you in. I open my doors to the Fey, and offer you this simple banquet.”
Her voice was lost in the darkness. Erin stared out, heart pounding. For a minute, she waited. Then two minutes.
Wait for it. It was how stories worked. It would work. It had to work. It—
Five minutes. Ten. The room grew colder.
Ceria was at her shoulder. Erin sagged against the door. No. But that was how it worked, wasn’t it? She remembered making tea parties for faeries as a kid. They’d never showed up. Even when she’d turned her back, the little acorns had stayed in one place. The faeries weren’t coming.
Twenty minutes. In despair, Erin let Ceria pull her inside. She and the half-Elf turned—
And saw the faeries.
They hovered in the air, a shroud of them. A swarm—a herd. That was what a group of faeries were called. A hundred bright, glowing bodies. A hundred silent eyes and still faces.
Ceria went very still. Toren was standing, uncertain, staring up at the faeries. They were so silent. But then one flitted down in front of Erin. The girl recognized her from this morning.
“Human. Mortal. Ye have called us, and so we have come. For what reason do you summon the fey?”
Erin’s mouth was dry. She swallowed, and spoke.
“As guests. I offer you my hospitality. And I have made food which I hope will suit you.”
The faeries looked around. Some moved, swooping over the food and talking to each other. Yes—some were more excitable than others, and for some reason Erin thought of those faeries as younger.
“See what the mortal has made! Oh, see, see!”
“A first milking! And sugar mixed with snow in the moon. How strange, how odd!”
“Look! Poison she give us! A spider’s bite made drink, and mushrooms of every kind.”
“Death and life! Bread to eat and sweet creams and sugary treats!”
The first faerie raised her hand, and the others quieted and stopped in place. She stared down at Erin, and for a second, Erin thought she saw a smile.
“Strange. ‘Tis an odd banquet, but you have brought mead and made food. It has been thousands of years since we were treated to thus; and this place was built without iron. We shall accept.”
Ceria was wide-eyed. She stared at the faeries as they slowly descended to the tables. Erin paused. There was one last thing, and the faerie in charge seemed to know it as well. She flew over to an empty table.
“You offer us food, and we as guests must offer you a fair price. So do I give you the treasure of our kind.”
She flew around the table, once, twice. The third time, the air—Erin blinked. Something had happened. Where the table had been bare and empty, suddenly there was gold.
A pile of gold coins filled the groaning table, stacked haphazardly but filling every inch. It seemed as though with each moment the pile of gold would shift and spill onto the floor, so full was it.
Erin gaped. The light of the candles shone off the gold, and illuminated the room. She couldn’t take her eyes away from the sight. Each coin seemed to have its own luminescence, and the sight was so beautiful—
The faerie hovered above the table, grinning broadly at the mortals’ stupefaction.
“Will ye accept this as just payment?”
Erin almost instantly said yes, but part of her had to go over and touch it, make sure it was real. She walked over to the table, feeling that each step was a dream. Carefully, Erin picked up one coin.
It was gold. As Ceria picked up a piece, she stared at the coin. Erin knew it was gold too, but there was something different about these gold pieces, compared to the ones she used.
“It’s…pure gold. Pure.”
Ceria breathed the words as she held the coin up to the light. Her face was full of wonder. Toren glanced at the pile of gold, and to Erin and tilted his head. She didn’t pay attention; she was too busy staring.
“Well? Never let it be said the fey folk are not generous!”
The faerie laughed and swooped around Erin.
“Do you call it a fair trade, human?”
Toren clattered his jaw, and several faeries shot him dark looks. Erin quickly shushed him and nodded vigorously.
“Um, yes. Of course! Thank you!”
The faerie grinned. She raised her hand towards the ceiling, and suddenly the room was full of tiny cheers.
“You hear it, sisters? The bargain is struck! Fair payment, for a meal! Now, let us feast!”
It was as if she’d unfrozen time. The faeries immediately burst into movement. They descended on the food Erin had put out, chattering, laughing, so full of joy and lust for life that even Ceria and Erin were caught up in the sudden outburst of celebration.
Only one person in the room wasn’t happy. Toren. He clattered his jaw and jumped up and down on the ground, pointing to the gold coins. He swept some off the table, holding them up in front of Erin.
“What’s gotten into you? Stop it!”
She scowled at him. Toren dropped the coins and they clattered to the ground. He looked around, seemingly frustrated, and then ran at the faeries, waving his arms. Was he having some kind of fit? A malfunction? Erin pushed him away as the skeleton ran at the faeries, and grabbed Ceria.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with him. Can you…?”
Ceria nodded and Erin pointed towards the half-Elf.
“Go with her, Toren. That’s an order.”
The skeleton froze in place. Then, very slowly and obviously reluctantly, he nodded, and turned towards the door. The faeries laughed as he went.
Erin was relieved; she would have hated to ruin their mood. As Ceria left, Erin seized the small bottle of venom and began pouring it into small flower cups as faeries floated towards her. She felt like an awkward maitre’d, but she was determined to give the faeries the service they deserved.
She swept into the mood of the party in an instant, filling drinks, laughing, listening to the faeries chatter. Unlike when they spoke to her, Erin couldn’t make out a single word these faeries spoke. Their voices were totally incomprehensible to her—not in the way another language was. Erin had heard Spanish or French and could even guess some words because they shared the same ancestry as English. But even Mandarin or Arabic was more comprehensible than this. They were still human languages, but the faeries—
They spoke words Erin’s brain couldn’t even begin to process. But it didn’t matter. They laughed with her, and whirled in the air, drinking her sweet milk, quaffing alcohol out of the tiny flowers Ceria had brought, tearing hunks of bread out and eating them, despite the fact that it shouldn’t have fit into their stomachs.
And there was magic in the room. At some point, Erin’s bottle of spider venom ran out. She hadn’t even questioned how the faeries drank the deadly liquid like water, or how they were still flying even though some of them were clearly drunk. They were enjoying themselves, and so was she.
In a different way than the concert. That had been all noise and ceaseless energy, but this was different. Yes, the faeries could be raucous, but there was something else in the air that captured the feel of the room.
Erin felt it in every wing beat, in the strange way the fire kept going without any fuel. She felt it as the faeries danced, creating wondrous patterns in the air that glowed as each candle slowly went out. And she felt it in her, as well. She had made this.
She had done it. Magic.
Look, she wanted to say. She wanted to run out and shout it to Pisces and Ceria and Ryoka and the world. Look, look! I can do it too.
And as the faeries danced through the air, Erin smiled and cried a bit. Out of happiness, out of relief. Out of joy and the wonder of it. And in her heart, she hoped these moments would last forever.
But all too soon her inn was deserted, and Erin stood among empty plates and discarded flowers. She stared around the inn, and felt in every bit of it how lonely it was. And she vowed it would not be this way ever again.
As Erin sat down slowly in a chair, every muscle aching, every bone weary, she looked at the table heaped with gold. And she smiled. It wasn’t all that was important.
But it did help.
Then her eyes closed, and the voice spoke in her ear as she slept.
[Innkeeper Level 25!]
[Skill – Inn’s Aura Obtained!]
[Skill – Wondrous Fare Learned.]
When Erin woke up, the magic was still in her. It lifted her out of a dreamless sleep, and back into the real world. She could be excitable and full of boundless energy later; but right now she still wanted to linger in this feeling of tranquility.
Erin breathed in the smell of the morning, and thought about last night. She’d leveled up four times, and gained two skills. Two…important skills. One was very important, she felt. She had no idea what it meant, but the word made her smile.
Magic. She had it. She had magic, and the favor of faeries. What more could she ask for?
And the gold—
The gold. Erin looked over, but instead of the shining pile of pure gold coins, she saw…flowers.
Flowers? No. Erin’s heart stopped. But yes, that was what sat on the table. Not a heaping pile of gold worth a king’s fortune, but a mountain of bright flowers, bright and cheerful in the sun.
Yellow flowers. Golden, really, but flowers nonetheless. They were small, and piled together neatly on the table. They were quite pretty, really.
But they were flowers.
Erin’s brain came to a complete standstill. She staggered out of her chair, and stared around the empty room, looking at all the expensive, hard-to-gather things she’d made. The empty bowl of cow’s milk, the crumbs left over from the bread she’d made, the butter, the empty bowls that had held mushrooms, spider’s venom, sugar…
She noted the complete absence of any faeries, and then stared at the table where her gold was supposed to be.
The magic ended. Erin stared at the wilting golden flowers. Her left eye twitched. She took a deep breath.
“What the fu—”