The Stone Spears Tribe was not the largest Gnoll tribe in the southern half of the continent of Izril, nor the wealthiest or most powerful, not by far. They occupied the northernmost lands below the Blood Fields, and mainly roamed the rocky slopes close to the mountain range that separated the continent in two.
It was sparse living so far north, with far fewer animals than down in the rich flatlands or populated swamps. And the dangers of the mountains could not be ignored; Grisrith, the mountain range revered by the Gnolls as a place where legends and myths still roamed high above the sky, often saw deadly monsters descend the slopes to find easier pickings down below.
And yet, the tribe lived and even prospered in their own way here. They had made a good living prospecting for gemstones and other valuable minerals in caves and on the slopes; the constant avalanches and shifting geography meant that it was possible to find the gems close to the surface, and they had many Gnolls in their tribe who specialized in [Miner] classes.
Everyone loved shiny objects. Gnolls did, Humans did, and Drakes really did. Their shared ancestry with Dragons meant that the Stone Spears Tribe could sell their uncut gemstones to Drakes in cities at a steep price, which paid for food and supplies when shortages occurred.
But it did mean that much of the tribe had to spend all their time digging or prospecting for rocks, away from their main camp. It was too dangerous for their young and elderly to venture up the slopes, so most of the adults and warriors would leave on long trips while the young and a few experienced warriors stayed behind with the tribe in safe territory.
That was where the Stone Spear Tribe was now, in the center of a snowy patch of ground far from the distant forest or bottom of the mountain to the north and west. It was exposed land, which meant the cold wind could be harsh, but the sturdy huts the Gnolls had built kept away the weather, and besides, this way they could see any approaching dangers from miles away.
The small camp bustled with activity even this early in the day. Older Gnolls were busy tanning hides, tending the cooking fires, or fletching arrows and skinning dead animals in preparation for later processing. Nothing went to waste in a Gnoll tribe.
Young Gnolls, awkward furry creatures that scampered around on all fours as much as two legs and nipped and got into trouble all over the camp were the only exception to this efficiency. They had pretty much free rein to do what they liked…so long as that didn’t involve getting in the way or into too much trouble. Gnoll adults and elders were quick to cuff an errant child and send the unfortunate troublemaker whining back to play with the others.
There were the Gnolls, working, busy, living out another normal day. They had organized their tents in a rough circle to help mitigate any sudden winds, and closer to the center, the largest tent stood, a place for the entire tribe to eat and gather at, or where important decisions had to be made. The fire in front of it was large, but guarded by stones so that none of the flames could jump into the tents made of hide and wood.
And there, in front of the fire, sat a Human. She stood out in the bustling camp, not least because she had no fur, but also because she looked like she had been through a war.
Ryoka Griffin sat on a rough woolen rug, shivering and looking at nothing in particular. She stared ahead, gaze empty. Eyes tired. She was very, very…
Over a week had passed since the day Ryoka had left The Wandering Inn. And it was not the same Ryoka who sat in the center of the Gnoll camp now as the one who’d left.
She was injured. Ryoka’s face, her neck—all of her exposed skin not covered by clothing was red and raw. She’d taken off her heavier layers to expose her arms and legs, and they were cut in places and yellow, black, and purple in other places. She had stings on her right leg and shallow, thin cuts on the left side of her body and face. Her face looked like parts of her skin had been rubbed right off.
And she was exhausted. Ryoka’s eyes were deeply shadowed, and her gaze was sunken, marked by desperation. She barely looked up as the Gnoll Chieftain of the Stone Spears tribe walked over with a bowl in his hands.
He bent, and sat cross-legged next to Ryoka as he placed the bowl at her side. Ryoka glanced over disinterestedly, and saw a strange grey-brown paste with flecks of red mixed with what looked like…a fish?
Yes, it was a fish, a trout or whatever this world’s equivalent was. It looked like a normal trout, cooked and still steaming in the cold air. The Gnoll indicated the fish.
“Here. Eat while I apply this.”
Ryoka hesitated as she looked at him. She’d only met this Gnoll thirty minutes ago when he’d helped dig her out of the snow. His name was…Urksh. Ryoka had to struggle to remember. He was the Chieftain here, and he’d offered her food and shelter. She’d been too tired and hurt to refuse, but—
“Thanks. But you shouldn’t be doing this. I’m being followed.”
“Mrr. By the Winter Sprites? Yes, you have said. But they will not bother you here, I think. And hospitality has been offered; it would be wrong to refuse, yes?”
Ryoka shrugged. She eyed the paste as the Gnoll dipped a large, furred finger into it. He reached for her arm and she pulled away.
“Healing ointment. It is not a healing potion, but works well either way, yes? And it is better than wasting a potion.”
“And the fish?”
“Food. Eat. The ointment does not make it taste worse.”
Ryoka eyed the Gnoll for a second, but then picked up the fish, ignoring the heat that nearly scalded her fingers. She was starving, and she quickly began to tear into the fish, spitting bones into the fire.
Urksh raised his paw and carefully took Ryoka’s right arm as she ate with her left. She winced, and he adjusted his grip to hold her as lightly as possible.
“Apologies. But it must be done, yes?”
Ryoka tried to ignore the stinging pain and burning that cooled as the Gnoll began to spread the thick paste over her arm. It felt wonderful; she’d been running with the pain for so long, the absence of it was pure release.
Urksh frowned as he studied Ryoka’s arm. He looked at the circular red bumps on her arm and the unnatural swollenness of her flesh that began to recede as the ointment did its work.
“Wasp stings. Odd to see in the winter.”
Ryoka shrugged, winced, and snapped a fish bone with her teeth. She remembered, and tried not to as she spoke around a full mouth.
“A colony wasn’t quite dead when the faeries woke them up. Got me before I could run away.”
“I see. And the skin? It is too red, even for Human flesh.”
“Snowballs. Lots of snowballs.”
“Hrm. And this?”
Gently, Urksh spread the ointment over the cuts on Ryoka’s face. She flinched a bit, but kept still, chewing on the hot fish.
“Ice shards. They made a bunch of icicles explode as I ran past. ”
The Gnoll sat back and frowned. Ryoka sighed as the pain radiating from her arms and legs began to ease. She wondered if he was going to ask her to take off her shirt and pants so he could treat the rest of her body; she was certainly bruised enough, but she had no idea if Gnolls even acknowledged Human nakedness.
But Urksh was more interested in the skies. He looked around, searching perhaps for the Frost Faeries. There was no sign of them in the sky overhead, but Ryoka had learned they were always nearby. He shook his head as he studied Ryoka’s injuries.
“We know the Winter Sprites. They bring snows and sometimes sleet. But though they play tricks, never have we seen them attack like this. Defend, yes, and cause trouble, but never cause such misery.”
“Well, I’m special.”
“Hm. Evidently so, yes? What did you do to anger them? Even those who shoot at the faeries with iron do not incur such wrath.”
Ryoka grinned, or rather, bared her teeth.
“I hit one.”
The Human looked at the Gnoll, and the Gnoll looked at her with both furry eyebrows raised.
“It is a story, this.”
Ryoka sighed. She’d explained some of what had happened when the Gnolls had rescued her from the snowdrift, but now it was time for the rest.
“To put it in a sentence…I was defending a friend from the Winter Sprites and I hit one to make them stop.”
“Interesting. Your friend, this was a half-Elf, yes?”
“Yes. They don’t do well with Frost Faeries.”
“No. This is known. But their dislike of you—it is concerning, yes?”
Ryoka closed her eyes.
“Yeah. It was a mistake.”
A mistake. That was an understatement. Ryoka shuddered and she tried not to remember again. Urksh looked at her sympathetically.
“How long will they pursue you, do you know?”
“A month? A year? A thousand days and one? Until they get bored, I guess. Or until I die.”
Silence. The Gnoll stared at Ryoka as she sat by the crackling fire. Warmth. She’d nearly forgotten the feeling after so many days of running through the cold.
“That does not seem fair.”
“It’s not about being fair. They want vengeance and so they’ll have it. Rules and mercy…they could care less about what other people think. They do what they want, and they want me to suffer.”
“I envy that kind of mentality.”
Again, the Chieftain of the Stone Spears paused. Ryoka knew he was important—at least, as much as any Chieftain was. How important he might be compared to say, Zevara, the Captain of Liscor she couldn’t tell, but she didn’t have any diplomacy left in her at the moment. Just exhaustion.
“We of the Stone Spear tribe have offered you our protection, and you shall have it. Many of our warriors are gone to mine in the mountains, but our tribe is strong, and we have fire and iron.”
“It won’t be enough. Seriously just—if the faeries come back, don’t bother them. You can’t even see them right?”
“It is…faint. And they smell of nothing. But we have promised—”
“I respect that, but you can do nothing.”
She stared at the fire, remembering now. The Frost Faeries. They had chased her the day she’d left Liscor without mercy or pause.
“I’ve been running for over a week now, nonstop. All the way from Liscor.”
“Yeah, but guess what? On my way down here, not once have I been bothered by a single monster. Not one.”
“Not so odd. It’s the Frost Faeries. They’ve scared away every creature around me for miles.”
Urksh frowned at Ryoka, as if he wanted to doubt her.
“I did not know they had such power. They are spirits of winter and can bring cold, but many things here are dangerous.”
Again Ryoka laughed, bitterly.
“Have you ever seen a Wyvern get taken out by a herd of faeries? They froze the damn thing two miles up in the air.”
Ryoka had just heard the terrifying shriek overhead when the half-dead creature had crashed into the ground a few feet away from her. The Wyvern had been a humongous beast, nearly three times as tall as she was – a lesser Dragon without claws and dark, purple scales.
She had no idea how it had even been able to lift off the ground; the impact the Wyvern had made as it hit the earth had thrown her off her feet. Worse, the faeries hadn’t actually killed the beast, and as it slowly regained consciousness and mobility as the frost dissipated, it had looked around and realized there was a nice snack nearby it could eat to warm itself up.
“I’ve been running from them and only them. I can’t get away from them, though, and they don’t want to kill me. They just want to see me suffer.”
Yes, suffer. The Frost Faeries delighted in Ryoka’s anger and annoyance. Ever since she’d hit one. Ever since then, her life had been torment.
Ryoka had known she’d made a mistake after hitting that faerie in Erin’s inn, but what should she had done? She had been defending Ceria, and she wouldn’t regret that. Besides, she was on an important delivery for Teriarch anyways.
So she’d run. Run out of the inn and through the snow, as fast as she could. At first, the faeries had just followed her, pelting her with snow, shouting in her ears, freezing her skin. Annoying and painful as it had been, Ryoka had felt relieved that was all that was happening.
Then it got worse.
She’d passed through the frozen landscape quickly, running past the Blood Plains after four days of being struck by snow at random times. The first night, the Frost Faeries had dumped cold water on Ryoka as she slept. It had lowered her body temperature so quickly that she’d had to practically lie on top of the campfire to get warm.
The second night, they somehow managed to lift the burning coals of her campfire into the air and toss them onto Ryoka as she slept. She’d healed up her burns with spare use of her healing potions, but in the following days she’d stopped using them – if she had healed every cut and bruise she’d received, she would have used up her small supply by the end of the second day.
Each day, Ryoka had gotten up, eaten, and run, all the while being harassed by as few as one, or as many as forty faeries at once. They threw snowballs – that seemed to be their default mode of torment when they were out of ideas – but they also got creative. Some used twigs to poke Ryoka endlessly, while others blew wind in her face, or found horribly smelly things to drop on her.
As Ryoka ran, she encountered every miserable winter weather pattern imaginable. Blinding flurries that led her off course and into patches of briars, pelting rain that took away her precious body heat, hail—and sometimes, blessedly, the faeries would get bored and stop bothering her for a few hours. But they’d always come back with some new prank.
Ryoka had tried to ignore them, tried to run on. The stone Teriarch had given her was pointing her further south and far to the west of the Blood Fields, and so she’d followed it despite the faeries’ interference, running through a winter wonderland.
It was a beautiful world Ryoka saw, even tarnished as it was by the flying ice bugs. Here was a landscape never industrialized or paved by machines. And everything was so vast! The forests she ran through were full of towering evergreens far taller than any Christmas tree she’d ever laid eyes on, and she had run through open snow-covered fields that a farmer could have driven a tractor over for an entire day and never reached the end.
On her sixth day, Ryoka ran across a vast, frozen lake so large that she actually had to make camp on it. She didn’t even realize it was a lake until her campfire actually melted the ground underneath it. The Frost Faeries hadn’t done anything to her that day, but they’d blown away all the snow when she woke up so that the sun’s rays made the ice slippery and treacherous.
Nearly ten miles of running on frozen ice had left her sides a mass of bruises. But it was just one misery on top of many.
From the lowlands Ryoka had begun to climb, following the stone, up rolling slopes, higher and higher. The near daily ascents were no worse than some of the runs Ryoka had gone on, but it meant that the faeries could play even more dangerous games. They’d form massive snowballs and roll them down at Ryoka—the powdered snow would hit her hard enough to send her tumbling backwards. Worse, sometimes the faeries would freeze a particularly difficult gradient so everything turned to smooth ice. Ryoka would find herself sliding all the way down, screaming curses that made the faeries laugh and clutch their sides in the air.
That was not the worst though, no. One night Ryoka had woken up just as the faeries dropped a black, squirming mass on top of her. They’d collected every single insect they could find, and the mass of unhappy bugs had covered Ryoka, biting or just trying to crawl into her mouth.
But Ryoka refused to give up. She kept moving, kept running, trying to avoid depleting her stock of healing potions. She kept going, gritting her teeth as the faeries undid her boot strings, or tied the laces into knots. She ignored their insults, their continual assaults on her dignity. Until she was nearly at the breaking point.
It had come one day when Ryoka had found the faeries had stolen all of her clothing during the night and hung them on a particularly tall tree. She’d—snapped.
Screaming, throwing rocks, blistering the air with as many foul words as she could think of. The faeries had laughed and flown around her as Ryoka tried to smash their little heads.
Afterwards, Ryoka had just given up. She sat on the ground, desolate, convinced that the instant she tried to climb up for her things the faeries would just blow her off the tree, or snap one of the branches she was on. She’d given up and just sat in the snow, ignoring their remarks and their attempts to get her attention. And then something miraculous had happened.
The Frost Faeries went away.
Perhaps they were bored, perhaps – unlikely but perhaps – they had had a shred of mercy for her, or most probably they’d seen something interesting. All Ryoka knew was that they had left, and when she was sure they weren’t just hiding to betray her hopes, she’d gotten her things and began running, blissfully unhindered.
The faeries had come back when she was feeling better, three days later. And when they did, they’d been unrelenting as before. Ryoka had run on though, running and running until the day when they decided to drop as much snow as possible on her, burying her in a huge mound. She’d thought that was the end of it, until she’d heard the scraping and seen a furry face peering down at her curiously from above. The Gnoll had growled something, and then had come more sounds, light and warmth and—
Ryoka snapped out of her memories and looked around. Had she dozed off? She was sitting in front of the fire in the Stone Spears camp, only it was later, the bowl of ointment was empty, the fish was blackened bones in the fire and a small Gnoll was sitting next to her, staring curiously at Ryoka’s face.
The young woman blinked as she laid eyes on the young Gnoll. It was young, and it was a Gnoll, unless there were Gnoll dwarfs as well. But Ryoka suspected this was a child anyways, because the young Gnoll had that mix of curiosity and boundless energy that appeared in some children. And she was looking at Ryoka.
The Gnoll reached out and gingerly poked Ryoka in the side with one finger. That wasn’t bad, but Gnolls had claws, even the young ones. Ryoka twitched, and the Gnoll jumped back a bit.
Either the Gnoll child didn’t understand her, or didn’t care. Ryoka saw the Gnoll move out of sight, but refused to turn her head. She stared back into the fire, and then felt something prickling her back.
Ryoka’s left eye twitched. The young Gnoll looked delighted, and she reached out to poke Ryoka again.
The young Gnoll’s questing paw was suddenly seized as Ryoka spun round and grabbed her hand. The Gnoll looked at Ryoka wide-eyed.
Ryoka stared down into two frightened eyes and felt like a monster. She released the child. All the hair on the young Gnoll went up and it—she fled, yipping like a dog.
“Hrm. Apologies. Mrsha is young and she does not know boundaries yet.”
The girl looked up and saw Urksh approaching, another bowl in his hands. This one was full of some kind of flatbread and lentils. Ryoka’s stomach growled and she stood up, legs pins and needles to speak to the Gnoll.
“I’m…sorry about that. I didn’t meant to scare her.”
The older Gnoll shrugged.
“Better to be scared than to be unwary, yes? She will return sooner than you will like. But her curiosity did some good this day, I think.”
Urksh pointed, and Ryoka looked across the bustling camp. Mrsha, the young Gnoll was hiding around one of the Gnoll tents. She disappeared when Ryoka met her eyes.
“She was the one who found you, yes? The young ones, they have the best noses. She smelled you while others were gathering food.”
Ryoka frowned as she saw a bushy tail poking out from behind the tent. Apparently that nose was good enough to smell Ryoka underneath five feet of snow.
“Well I’m…grateful. Ah, did the faeries…?”
“We have not seen them since they first left you. Do not worry. Here; eat. You must regain strength.”
The Chieftain handed Ryoka the bowl, and sat next to her. Ryoka ate awkwardly and tried to chat. She had many questions and the Gnoll Chieftain was a good host, but after only a few minutes Ryoka felt a prickling on the back of her neck.
That wasn’t unusual; most of the Gnolls stared at her back. But only one of them was actually brave enough to poke at her neck with an experimental claw.
Mrsha froze as she reached up towards one of Ryoka’s ears. Urksh growled and said something in the Gnoll’s language—Mrsha fled again. Ryoka turned back to the Chieftain and accepted his apologies, but five minutes later the young Gnoll was back, this time hiding behind a drying hide and watching Ryoka.
She was insatiably curious. Not just about Ryoka’s skin, but her hair and clothing as well. Gnolls were light dressers even in the winter, and so Ryoka’s layers of padded clothing were fascinating to the young Mrsha.
“Apologies, Ryoka Griffin. Her parents, they are both warriors and guarding the [Miners], yes? We must watch her and she is very interested in you, I think.”
Urksh sat back down at the fire after chasing Mrsha off. Ryoka nodded. She’d gotten a good glimpse of how the Stone Spears tribe lived, but she was curious about Gnolls in general.
“Do all Gnolls live in tribes?”
The Chieftain looked surprised at the question. He hesitated.
“Some do not. They live in cities, yes? They have given up their tribe and are outsiders, but we do speak with them. Why?”
Why? Ryoka nearly smiled. She was full of good food, warm, and not being hounded. And she was sitting next to a species like Humans but unlike them in so many ways. Why? Why everything. She wanted to know all there was about Gnolls and how they lived.
But Ryoka was so tired that after finishing the food her head was already nodding. Urksh smiled.
“There is time for talk tomorrow, yes? For now, accept our hospitality, Ryoka Griffin.”
He led her back through the camp, towards a tent the Gnolls had set up for her. It was a tall, circular construction and reminded Ryoka much of a Mongolian yurt. She stumbled inside, and fell asleep at once.
The next day, Ryoka woke up to a rough sensation—almost like someone was rubbing a washcloth over her face. She opened her eyes and sat up—only to find two brown eyes staring into hers.
“What the hell?”
The Gnoll cub jumped and fled as Ryoka sat up. Her small room was completely trashed, and as Mrsha pulled back the flap, Ryoka realized the Gnoll child had taken some of Ryoka’s things. More accurately, she was wearing some of Ryoka’s things.
“Give me back my bra.”
Mrsha peered back at Ryoka with the bra hanging loose around the Gnoll’s own chest. She’d somehow gotten it off Ryoka during the night, along with all of the clothes Ryoka had fallen asleep in. She’d gotten off all of Ryoka’s clothes and it was only a small mercy that she hadn’t gotten to Ryoka’s underwear.
“Mrsha. Give. That. Back.”
The Gnoll hesitated. She looked at Ryoka, at the tent flap, and Ryoka, and yelped as the girl charged at her.
The Gnolls of the Stone Spear tribe saw Mrsha dashing out of the Human’s tent early in the morning, and then saw the Human in question a second later. Ryoka dove out of the tent flap and seized Mrsha as the young Gnoll tried to escape.
It was hard to wrest the bra back from the young Gnoll without breaking the fabric or hurting the young Gnoll, who was clearly expecting to be thrashed by the way she was struggling to get away. But after a minute Ryoka had her bra, and stood up…only to realize that she really should have put on another bra and some clothes before going after her missing one.
Half of the young Gnolls in the camp stared avidly at Ryoka, as well as some of the older Gnolls, although some were polite enough to look away. But all of the adults chuckled, aside from Urksh, who scowled and chased after Mrsha as she fled.
Ryoka stomped back into her tent and emerged fifteen minutes later, fully clothed, much to the disappointment of some of the Gnolls. Urksh was waiting for her, with a sulking Mrsha helping to debone fish under the eye of a watchful old Gnoll.
“Apologies again. I hope your sleep was not interrupted until now? Our sentries saw no signs of anything during the night, and we have lit more fires. They should keep away the sprites, yes?”
Perhaps. Ryoka could only shrug. She didn’t know anything that would keep away the Frost Faeries, aside from not being invited in somewhere. Erin had said Pisces had tried to scare them off with fire and they’d nearly buried the inn.
“You should eat. Here.”
Again, the Gnoll handed Ryoka a bowl, this time of fishy soup and a side dish of dried beef. She ate it gratefully, although Ryoka was tickled by the inclusion of a meat side to go with fish. Did Gnolls consider fish to be the equivalent of a vegetable or something?
Ryoka had just finished scraping the bottom of her bowl with a wooden spoon when she heard sniffing. She saw Mrsha at her side, sniffing at Ryoka’s hair curiously. The Gnoll backed up on all fours in alarm when Ryoka turned, but the girl just sighed.
She wasn’t even that mad at the young Gnoll. Ryoka sighed as she tried to grind away at the tough, dried meat. She didn’t hate kids; it was just that she couldn’t deal with them. So she ignored the Gnoll as best she could as the youngster prowled around Ryoka, sniffing, touching, poking, and even licking once.
Ryoka pushed at the young Gnoll, and felt the heavy body shift only a little. Even Gnoll kids were heavy. She frowned at Mrsha, but then realized the child wasn’t looking at her for once, but upwards.
And so was every Gnoll in the camp. They’d all gone still, the entire Stone Spears tribe, over fifty Gnolls all staring at the sky. Silent. Watching.
Ryoka froze, and then felt the happiness of the day leave in an instant. She turned, and saw them.
They were circling in the blue morning sky like vultures, and even as Ryoka watched, the clear skies suddenly grew darker as clouds formed above her head. She stared upwards, eyes empty, and dropped the piece of meat she’d been chewing.
“So much for a break.”
When she’d started to run, Ryoka had been full of defiance, ready to ignore and endure whatever the faeries could do. But they were beings of forever, and she was just a mortal. In just a week they’d nearly shattered her spirit.
She had a mission, a job, a delivery to run. But it was so hard. Ryoka was just tired. So tired, she wanted to give up and go home. Only there wasn’t really any home, was there? Just an inn, and Ryoka couldn’t go back. Not empty-handed, and not with…
She looked up into the sky. The Gnoll’s fire hadn’t warded off the faeries long, if they’d even been bothered by the flames. One day of respite. That was…enough, she supposed. The faeries were descending, and now Ryoka could see the expressions on their tiny faces. For once she wished she didn’t have 20/20 vision.
They were smiling. For some reason, Ryoka couldn’t even get mad at that. This was what faeries were; fickle, tempestuous, but not evil. Just…themselves.
She stood up. The Gnolls were still watching the Frost Faeries warily, but she could see several, including Urksh, holding weapons. She couldn’t let them fight. The faeries might not kill – or maybe they did – but they’d destroy this camp in seconds.
So Ryoka stood up. She looked at the faeries.
“Come on then. What are you waiting for?”
All of her belongings were in the hut. Ryoka could probably grab them in a few seconds – hopefully the faeries wouldn’t scatter them to the far winds. Then she’d be out of the camp and running. That way only she’d go through whatever the faeries were planning. It would be wrong to get the Gnolls buried by an avalanche, especially if they tried to interfere.
Ryoka felt a churning in her stomach at the thought of more days and nights being hounded. But that was life. That was her life and it was how things were. Maybe this was hell. But it was probably just punishment. For everything.
One of the fairies spiraled downwards and looked at Ryoka.
“Having fun with the dog people, mortal? We do not fear their fire and their camp is open for all. But you know, if you grovel, we might relent and not bury everything in snow.”
Ryoka stared up at the faerie, vaguely surprised. That wasn’t how they normally greeted her. An insult and a face full of snow was more customary.
She waited, but the Frost Faerie didn’t attack. Instead, the little fey only frowned a bit.
“Are ye sure? If ye bow yer head a little bit we’ll relent.”
Now that was suspicious. Ryoka narrowed her eyes upwards. Her brain, inactive for so long from running and just surviving, began to spin back into gear.
“I’m not doing anything. And if you were going to attack me, you wouldn’t care what I did. What’s stopping you?”
The faerie hesitated.
“Naught but a little thing. But we decided that mercy would be best, even for a useless mortal like you.”
Ryoka just raised an eyebrow. The fairy pouted, blowing up her cheeks.
“Well, we owe a small favor. A tiny favor, really. We promised to forgive your attack, and so we shall. But a bit of groveling would help, mortal.”
The mortal fool ignored that while her mind raced. What had the faerie just said? A favor? A faerie’s favor? That was incredible, odd, and suspicious all at once. But the fey didn’t lie, or if they did, not often, and Ryoka assumed they were telling the truth. Then who would be able to get them to stop bothering her and how…?
Her eyes narrowed. Ryoka looked up at the faeries.
She did it. I don’t know how, but she did it. Erin managed to earn the favor of the fey, and I…
Damn me, but I’m jealous.
And weary. Bone-weary. I just wish I could rest.
The faeries left me alone after that. Oh, they tried to get me to bow down and beg for forgiveness and dance for their amusement, but it seems like my punching one of them really is forgiven. Whether that means I’m immune to their normal pranks is different; I already saw them lift an arrow out of a Gnoll’s quiver and use it to spear one of the caught fish and carry it off.
Should I leave the tribe? Urksh tells me everything’s alright and maybe it is. But I’m still tired.
Some days…are like that. In fact, most days back home felt very much like today. It’s the emptiness that I remember. It was that empty void in my chest; that lack.
The lack of anything to live for.
How can I describe it? It’s like being tired, but only in my heart. My body can feel as fresh and rested as I please, but there’s nothing in my mind, no burning passion in my soul. There’s nothing I want to do and nothing I want to strive for.
That’s what I remember most about growing up.
There’s a void in my heart, an empty little hole that sucks feelings into it. It waits, a small little creature growing bigger by the day until it will devour me entirely. The great beast of not caring.
Or perhaps it’s the whisper of my despair. Greater yet.
I am worthless. It’s true. Undeniably true.
I am in a magic world, but I still can’t do anything. I can’t learn any new spells, I reject the system of classes, I can’t kill or help my friends…
All these thoughts are because I’m tired right now. Tomorrow, maybe, I’ll feel better but right now I’m depressed and I know it. It makes nothing better. Because I can feel the same bad cycle in my head.
It’s the same as my childhood. It’s the rhythm I run to; the beat of my life.
Stay lonely. Fight with friends. Ignore my parents. Rebel. Cause trouble. Stay alone. Live in my head. Wish other people were dead.
Something like that.
And now, as I sit here next to a warm fire in a place of sanctuary with a hot belly full of food, I still despair. Because I can look up two inches and see the limit of my abilities floating next to my head.
One of the frost faeries waves at me and flicks a bit of snow at my face. It melts on my skin. I glance over at that shimmering creature of crystal and ice and magic and see wonder. And despair.
Here sits an unsurpassable wall. It’s ridiculous, but as I look at the faerie, I can’t imagine myself ever defeating one of these things. I punched one, once, and I nearly lost my hand to frostbite. Their bodies are ice, but their nature is magic. How could you even begin to destroy one? Maybe Teriarch could do it, but I am no Dragon.
They can freeze a Wyvern in seconds, conjure snow and ice, and they’re practically invisible and untouchable. That’s right. One of these little overgrown ice wasps is far, far stronger than Ryoka Griffin can ever be.
And now it speaks to me, in a voice that makes my earwax want to vibrate out of my ears.
“You should be grateful, oaf. Were it not for your Human friend we would have chased you out of this place and hounded you to the ends of this world.”
Funny thing about faeries; they never say hello or goodbye, or any of the pleasantries Humans use. They’re direct and to the point, another thing I admire about the bastards.
And they’re speaking to me, which is rare but not unusual. Sometimes they do that. When they’re bored of making my life a living nightmare. They float alongside my head and chatter to me, although when I say anything to them they refuse to answer.
But today’s different. My pride is exhausted, so I look over at the faeries.
“What did she do? Erin, I mean.”
The faerie narrows her eyes at me, as if she’s wondering if she should deign to respond. But then she raises her small chin, like a queen.
“She did what few mortals remember to do in any day and age. She honored us. She followed the traditions. But most wondrous of all: she made food fit for the fey.”
I stare at the faerie. Part of me, a large part, wants to ask how hard it is to slap together a bowl of milk and sugar. Another part wants to ask the faerie how many dead snails Erin had to gather to feed all of them. A third part just wants to slap the damn thing.
But all of those parts would just land me in trouble, or at least get me a face full of ice. So I look at the faerie and ask.
“How? A Skill?”
The faerie looks offended. It’s practically their default expression around me.
“A Skill? Pshaw! As if you could bottle knowledge and true magic so easily! Nay, what she did, she did herself and for that she is special.”
Special. Yes. I close my eyes briefly. Erin is special. Stupid and weird as well, but unique in her own way.
I look over. Mrsha is sitting next to me, staring up at the faeries. I wonder what she sees. The other Gnolls are twitching their ears every time I speak, but I don’t think they can hear the faeries speaking.
Part of me wants nothing to do with these faeries still, but they’re different from people like Persua. She’s a coward and a hateful fool, but the faeries at least are honest about their action and they’ve never tried to cripple me for life.
Plus, they’re magical. And I have to know as much as I can about magic. So I open my mouth, however reluctantly.
“I’ve heard of idio—people from my world going out to leave food and gifts for faeries. Do you visit them as well?”
The faerie looks insulted. She raises two fingers in my direction* and sniffs.
*Ah, the lovely V sign. Definitely means she’s from the U.K. or some country colonized by them. All bets are on U.K. though, given their accents.
“Us? Visit your pathetic kind and take your small gifts? We left your crumbling, dying world centuries ago. The earth dies, and death fills the air. We want nothing of it.”
And just like that she drops a bombshell in my lap. I’d suspected the faeries journey across worlds, but ours? We once had…?
And we lost them because of pollution. Holy fuck.
“You mean there were actually faeries on our world once?”
The faerie looks disappointed, and only now do I notice others are floating around nearby. Are they interested in this topic?
“Once. Do ye have no stories left that tell of us?”
They look almost…crestfallen. And I stare at them and remember.
“Excalibur. King Arthur. That story is the backbone of modern culture.”
But the faeries don’t look happy. One of them shakes their head.
“Is that all ye know? Naught of any other stories?”
Cautionary fables, stories about faeries spiriting away children…I don’t think that’s what they’re looking for. I hesitate and rack my brains. Think. Old myths…
“Are you…the Tuatha Dé Danann?”
“Tuatha! ‘Twould be as like to call us Fomoire, you fool, you!”
Great. Now they’re insulted. But again, the implications are staggering.
“So the Tuatha are real?”
Now it’s their turn to hesitate.
“Maybe not in your world, bratling. But each tale has a grain of truth. In another world, perhaps. But ye shall never live long enough to know the truth of it.”
“I remember the old stories. Did heroes like Cú Chulainn once walk our earth?”
The faeries pause, and then a look of infinite regret passes across their gaze. Just for a second.
“Not yours, mortal. Not yours. There is magic in the worlds, but yours has no heroes or legends that ever walked your earth. Nothing true or worthy. All ye have now is dust and old dreams.”
It shouldn’t hurt. It really shouldn’t. But I’d hoped—no. I should have known better. I lower my head, bitterly. It was just a dream of a kid after all.
“No gods, and no heroes. I guess superheroes were only a wish.”
A petty wish from a world too weak to save itself. I close my eyes and turn away. Is that our world? A place without magic or legends?
I stand. I’m done with faeries. I’m going to my tent to lie down. To think. Maybe—
“Wait, wait. What did she say?”
“Superhero? What’s that?”
I pause with my back to the faeries. But I can’t help it. I turn.
“You’ve never heard of superheroes? Superman? Batman?”
I feel silly speaking those names out loud in front of actual beings of myth and legend. But the faeries exchange glances and shake their heads.
“We have not heard of them. But if they are heroes, surely you know their story?”
I hesitate. But now Mrsha looks up me. And slowly, a thought passes into my head, so slowly I can’t believe it.
Of course. If the faeries left right after the dawn of pollution—the Industrial Revolution perhaps—they would never have heard of superheroes or—or anything since.
Well, what does it matter? It doesn’t. It’s just a story, and a stupid one at that. Modern-day legends meant to make money by selling comic books. But I still hesitate.
Once upon a time, there was a girl who jumped around with a red cape made from curtains she tore down. If I didn’t have the pictures I wouldn’t believe it. But it’s true. And if I have to admit it, I still went to see the movies.
Maybe it’s that which makes me turn and sit back down. And maybe it’s because they’re alike a bit, the faeries and I. We might be different in size, temperament…well, not temperament, but in our natures, mortal and fey, but we are alike in one sense.
We can’t let some stories die. We hope. And that’s what makes me speak.
“I do know a few stories. About heroes you’ve never heard of.”
“Hah! They’re probably not good stories anyways.”
But is it just me, or are all the faeries now floating around my head? They’re clustering so tightly that even the Gnolls can see something. And Mrsha is sitting, staring up at me, and I look over and see some other Gnoll children staring at me from a distance.
Well then. Maybe, just maybe…? But what story should I tell? They’re all silly, and culturally they make no sense. How would you even begin to explain half of the things they do?
But another part of me says that it doesn’t matter. They’re timeless stories. The details may change, but the heroes remain. And so I hesitate, and then look at the fire. Which one? Well, I could be feminist, but I never really liked her as much as the other two.
One dark, and one light. A duality. If there were only two heroes in the world I’d talk about to someone who’d never heard of them, it would be those two*.
*And maybe Spiderman. But honestly, I was never into Marvel as much.
And if I’m honest, I always did like him a bit more than Batman. So I look up, to the sky. The dark storm clouds are still there, but they’re clearing up a bit. And is that a bit of blue sky I see overhead?
Maybe not. But that’s the thing. It might be. So I take a deep breath and look at the faeries, Mrsha, and the sky.
“Do you believe…a man can fly?”
“Fools! Any mortal can fly with magic!”
“Anyone can fly for a few seconds if we push them off a cliff!”
They quiet down. And now I have an audience. I take a deep breath. My heart is beating fast for some reason. Why? It’s just a story.
But it’s a good one. It’s one I have to tell. It’s something I cling to, a legend I want to be true. And maybe, just maybe, there’s magic there.
“Once upon a time—no, a long way away, so far you’d never dream of it, there was a boy. And his world was dying. But his parents wanted him to live, so they sent him far, far away. Not by spell or any kind of magic you know. But by a ship. A wondrous ship, made of metal and glass. It carried the boy through the air, higher than mountains and further than the furthest sea, across worlds, through space. His parents sent him away that he might live, while their world died. And their world was called Krypton. But the boy would not know that for a long time. He travelled far, and came to our world—my world, where a young couple lived. They were two Humans, named Martha and Jonathan Kent, and they found the boy in his ship as he landed on their world. And they named him Clark …”
Stories. They don’t mean much to people who don’t listen. But to some, they mean everything.
Perhaps if you live forever you wouldn’t care about the passing of mortal lives, the concerns of those who flicker in and out of existence like mayflies. But I think you’d still care about stories. You’d still care about fables even as history passed you by. Because unlike the fragile conceit of mortal empires, some tales are immortal.
And sometimes, people write new stories which become legend. Perhaps the tale of Superman, Batman and all the other heroes I grew up with aren’t such stories. Perhaps.
But they’re damn close.
I’m no storyteller, and neither do I have a gift for words. Hell, my throat was hurting after the first five minutes. But I had an audience who hung on my every word, tiny mouths agape, and Mrsha and the Gnolls as well. They might not have gotten every nuance, but they understood heroes, and I think they were just as blown away by the idea of a superhero. Not someone with a [Class], but a truly supernatural person, someone who could lift a mountain over his head and had skin stronger than dragon scales and could outrun even the fastest arrow*.
*Look, I had to improvise a bit to explain. And Batman—well, it’s hard to explain a guy who hangs around in shadows and leaps from building to building to a non-brachiating species. I did my best.
Perhaps it was all meaningless, but that day I sat in front of a fire and told stories from my world. Not just for an hour, or even five, but the entire day. The fire in front of me waned, and then grew brighter as Gnolls threw wood on it. The camp bustled, but slowly, quietly, as Gnolls worked and listened.
First superheroes, but not just them. I realized something as I told the first story, and then Batman’s. These people, this world…they’ve never heard these tales. Never. And that’s a realization worth more money than—
I’ll dwell on it later. Some things are worth more than gold, and that’s the look on the Frost Faerie’s faces when I told them what they’d missed.
“To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”
Blake, William, Auguries of Innocence. Print. Not sure about the date or anything – the 1800’s? But the faeries had never heard those words. They had actual tears in their eyes, and some of the Gnolls looked just as moved.
How many years? Two hundred? Three hundred? Something like that. To the fey, I suppose it seems like not any time at all since they left. But how much have Humans made since then? Maybe not much in terms of moral gains or evolution of our bodies, but vast strides in areas like literature.
They’d never heard Lord of the Rings either. Hah. The entire time they swooped around my head, shouting.
“They live, they live!”
“Rings! Forged in darkness to bind souls! Yes! How did the Human know?”
“The small folk! They remember them!”
“To Mordor! To Isengard! To the ends of the earth!”
“Ye shall not pass!”
It was the best of times and the worst of times. Actually, it was just the best of times. I told that story too, and you’d be surprised how emotional Gnolls get. They get pretty physically demonstrative too.
I could close my eyes and remember a thousand times where my audience gasped or cheered or reacted with wonder and awe to stories that I’d nearly forgotten. But one moment stood out to me, as I sat beneath a dark sky full of stars and retold a moment from the Lord of the Rings.
Trick memory. It was just one conversation in a three-hour long film in a quartet of movies, but I’ve always remembered it.
“And Gandalf paused, and spoke. He looked at Pippin with a smile, and said ‘End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.’ And Pippin said, ‘What? Gandalf? See what?’”
I look around. My audience is spellbound. I take a breath.
“‘White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.’”
As I finish speaking, I look up, about to finish the scene and describe the Rohirrim coming to Gondor’s aid. But I pause, and hesitate. I see a speck of something bright and pure and eternal fall to the ground and melt in the snow.
The faerie floating in the air above me slowly drifts downwards, until she’s right in front of me. Eye-to-eye. She stares at me, and her voice is quiet.
“I was wrong, mortal. There are still things in your world worth seeing and hearing.”
Just that. I cleared my throat and kept speaking afterwards. But I sensed the change in the air after that, a lightening. A difference in the way their small eyes looked at me.
Maybe, just maybe, not all stories are just that. I kept telling stories into the night, until the fire was low and everyone was dozing. But I went to sleep smiling.
Some weeks, some months, some years are bad ones. But it can take just one day to turn it around.
One day, or a story. A bit of magic.
It may be all that we brought from our world, but—
It was a bright and clear day when Ryoka shook hands with the Chieftain of the Stone Spears tribe and bade farewell to the Gnolls gathered to see her. She looked nothing like the Human who had first limped into the camp site, injured and weary. She stood straight and tall, and her flesh was healed. And she had something in her, a spark in her eyes.
She smiled at Urksh and bowed her head slightly.
“I owe you a debt, Urksh of the Stone Spears Tribe. I will repay it someday.”
Urksh shook his head slightly as he offered Ryoka a refilled backpack full of provisions.
“There is no debt for the joy you have given us. If you wish to stay, you would be more than welcome, Ryoka Griffin.”
“Three days is more than enough. They’ll get bored and start causing trouble to you if I don’t go soon. I need to keep moving.”
Overhead, the Frost Faeries flew high in the sky, telling jokes, laughing, but for once, not bothering her. Urksh glanced up and shook his head.
“You do not know where you are going?”
Ryoka hesitated, and then showed him the stone with the arrow.
“I think it’s taking me to a [Necromancer] of some kind.”
He looked troubled.
“We know of one Necromancer, but he is dead. And even a lesser one would be terrible indeed. Going by only a stone is dangerous, yes?”
“Hah! Is that what you seek, Human? Why didn’t you say so? We can find your dead-raiser far more easily than that bauble!”
Both Urksh and Ryoka looked up. One of the faeries flew down and gave Ryoka a pointy-toothed smile.
“We can sense where the dead gather. If you wish, we will take you to the one you seek.”
Ryoka looked suspicious, but then her expression changed. She nodded.
“If you know where to go. I’ll accept.”
Something tugged at her shirt. Ryoka looked down. It was Mrsha. The young Gnoll child was tugging at Ryoka’s shirt, insistently. She looked heartbroken. Ryoka hesitated, and then turned and bent. She patted Mrsha on the head, like a kid, ruffling her hair. The Gnoll girl shied away, but looked imploringly at Ryoka nonetheless.
“I’ve got to go.”
Ryoka turned, and—had the Frost Faeries been smiling? It was just a flash, but she could have sworn they’d been smiling at Mrsha. But as Ryoka turned towards them they were wearing their customary looks of mischief or contempt. But that was just an act too, wasn’t it?
“Come on slow Human! We go west now, west towards death! You will tell us many stories as we travel, won’t you?”
The faeries scowled. One flipped backwards in the air.
“Bah! ‘Tis just another way of saying ‘never’!”
“I’ll tell you stories if you don’t bother me, but only after we stop. Deal?”
Ryoka rolled her eyes, but then it was really time to go. Mrsha clung to her leg, but at last Ryoka prised her loose. The young woman turned and waved towards the Gnolls, and set out. It was a clear, blue day and the winter air was crisp and fresh.
She smiled, and waved one last time as the distant figures and tents disappeared from sight. For once, Ryoka wasn’t running from something but to something. And she was following faeries.
Ryoka’s good spirits lasted for fifteen minutes as she ran through the snow. Then a snowball dropped onto her face and she heard a voice in her ear.