She was a [Princess]. She was royalty. She was heir to one of the glorious kingdoms of Terrandria, and she had seen more in her eighteen years of life than most commoners could hope of glimpsing in their entire lives.
And she understood people. People were dreary, dull, and most had small ambitions and smaller minds. But Lyonette du Marquin couldn’t understand the person called Erin Solstice. She was a mystery.
Of course, to look at Erin, one would immediately notice her plain looks. She had a modicum of attractiveness perhaps; her teeth were not crooked and she had no glaring disfiguring features, but she was no courtly beauty.
And indeed, her class was mundane as they came. She was an [Innkeeper]. Only…she wasn’t just an innkeeper.
She played chess, the game of [Strategists] and the nobility. She played it better than anyone Lyonette had seen, and that alone was inconceivable. But more than that, she treated with the lesser races as if they were people, and she employed a vicious, horrible, ghastly undead skeleton as if there were nothing abhorrent about the idea!
And yet, and yet. She was also kind. Grudgingly, Lyonette admitted that fact as she broke her fast on the thick gravy and biscuits. She dipped a steaming chunk of biscuit in the meaty sauce and consumed it ravenously.
This was not the elegant food she dined on nightly in her home. But it was…an acceptable repast nonetheless. That was one small point in Erin Solstice’s favor.
Something snuffled at Lyonette’s leg and she looked down. The young Gnoll cub sat on the ground underneath her table, staring up at Lyonette with wide, curious eyes.
Another point. At least Erin Solstice, for all her myriad flaws, was kind to children. Even a Gnoll child was not without merit.
And this one—
Lyonette glanced around, but the Drake female and Solstice were talking, and the odd City Runner was talking with the horrible Antinium. And the skeleton was in the kitchen. So Lyonette broke off some of her biscuit, dipped it in gravy, and lowered her hand under the table.
Mrsha immediately glomped onto Lyonette’s hand and licked it, which made the girl laugh. Quietly. She’d always loved the dogs that the [Kennel Master] raised, and the Gnoll child was more than a mere animal. She—it had broken Lyonette’s heart to hear the tale. Not for the Gnoll tribe of course; they were ghastly beasts. But the Gnoll child had looked so sad…
What was she doing here? Lyonette frowned as she wiped her fingers and resumed eating. She should be headed north, with as much coin as she could take. Lady Magnolia would surely take her in, despite Solstice’s lies. And then…
And then, Lyonette could find her true calling somewhere else. She could search for adventure, rather than continue being trapped by mundanity.
She would not escape without cost, though. The humiliation Lyonette had already suffered was beyond forgiveness, and worst—she had another class.
[Barmaid]. Level 3. And she had gained a Skill. [Lesser Stamina]. It made napping more difficult, but on the other hand it allowed Lyonette the energy to complete the many irrelevant tasks Solstice forced upon her.
That was the greatest affront of all. Her royal class had been ruined by the addition of a common class. It was an unforgivable occurrence; Lyonette had been sullied. If her father were to learn of this—
Lyonette’s stomach clenched. What did she care of her father? What did he care of her? He had probably only sent search parties as far as the shores of Terrandria, never imagining she would have the courage to book herself passage to Izril. And she had survived monsters, starvation, and even the horrible mob that had cast her out of Liscor to get this far.
She was only staying at this inn because she had no choice. But soon, she would be restored to her rightful position. And perhaps then she would extract some form of retribution upon that damnable skeleton.
A [Barmaid] class. Of all the insults! Lyonette scowled as Mrsha sniffed at her feet and recoiled. It was unacceptable! She was not destined to wait upon commoners like a useless peasant!
But she had leveled up. There was that. Lyonette stared at her food, suddenly less hungry. It had been so long, she’d almost forgotten what leveling up was like. That had been nice.
Lyonette hesitated, and shook her head. No, it was ridiculous. But a thought nagged at her mind as she pushed back her plate. It was intolerable of course, being ordered around, being subservient to another. It was ridiculous that she should level in any class other than [Princess]. But…
But it was better than being useless.
“So, I was thinking, I need to make my inn more popular, you know?”
Erin gestured around her inn as she spoke to Selys. She wasn’t trying to be mean of course; she had a nice inn. Everything had been built by the Antinium, and she even had glass windows. Even Peslas’ inn didn’t have glass windows. But—it wasn’t enough.
“I mean, I’ve got that faerie flower drink, but I need to work on that. I was really thinking, though, that I need more stuff.”
Selys looked at Erin blankly. Erin nodded and tried to explain.
“Remember the acid flies? Well, the Antinium loved those. I had a full inn some nights, and I made tons of gold coins! But now its winter, I’ve got nothing special to sell. And I don’t get many guests. Plus, I made a bit of money selling the acid fly acid, you know?”
“Don’t remind me.”
“But Selys, just think about it! It was so useful—it helped kill Skinner, and you can melt undead with it really fast. Even if it does smell.”
“Where are you going with this, Erin?”
“Well…I was thinking I could sell stuff to adventurers.”
Selys eyed Erin suspiciously.
“What kind of stuff?”
“You know, like seed pod cores. I’ve still got some and they scare those Rock Crabs away. Plus, if I find more boom bark I could maybe sell that.”
“Didn’t Toren blow up your inn with that?”
“Okay, maybe not boom bark. But it could be good business, you know! I just need to go exploring.”
Selys glanced out one window. The snowfall from last night had stopped, but the snow was so deep that there were practically no features to the landscape. Even opening the door this morning had necessitated quite a bit of arm strength on Erin’s part.
“Exploring? In this weather? Erin…”
“I’ll get Toren to guide me. I think Mrsha’s scared of him, anyways.”
Both females looked over and saw Mrsha prowling around after Toren as he mechanically swept and cleaned up the common room. Every time he turned towards her she would scoot under a table, but she kept eying him warily.
“Your skeleton scares me, Erin. Okay, if he’s with you I guess you can always let him fight monsters and run away. But be careful, alright? Shield Spiders still make their nests and [Dangersense] doesn’t cover all kinds of traps.”
“Sure, no problem. But that means I’ll have to leave Mrsha with Ryoka.”
Erin looked over at Ryoka. She was still staring at her plate, although she’d finished eating. Klbkch was watching her, and it looked like Ryoka was in deep thought.
“Do you think that’s wise?”
“Well, Ryoka did bring Mrsha this far.”
“No, I mean, look at her.”
Selys pointed back to Mrsha. The Gnoll cub had lost some of her fear of Toren. She was reaching out and even as the skeleton turned, she grabbed his ankle curiously. Toren whirled, and Mrsha fled, yelping in terror.
“Toren! Don’t scare her!”
Erin went to cuddle Mrsha. She looked at Selys.
“What’s the matter?”
“She needs entertainment, Erin. She can’t stay in an inn all day, and she needs a minder, not…”
Selys nodded to Ryoka. The other girl was still motionless. Toren approached and tentatively reached for her plate. The other girl made no response, even when he waved a bony hand in front of her face.
“Right. Well, what should I do? Maybe I could leave her with Krshia?”
But that would mean she was around Brunkr, and Erin didn’t like that.
“Leave the child with me.”
Both Selys and Erin turned. Lyonette had stood up. She raised her nose at the two of them imperiously.
“What was that, Lyon?”
The girl’s eyes flashed, but she made no comment about her name. Erin liked the sound of Lyon better than Lyonette, anyways.
“I am bored. I will look after the child—Mrsha.”
Erin and Selys exchanged a look. Erin tried to make her tone friendly.
“Well, that’s really nice of you to offer, Lyonette. But…uh, I think…um…no.”
“Why not? I am quite capable of looking after a child.”
She glared as both Drake and Human exchanged a dubious look. Selys coughed into one claw.
“I can take Mrsha, Erin. I’ve got a day off and besides, there’s a playground in the city. She can have fun with other kids there.”
Erin had never seen anything like that, but then, she’d never bothered to explore the city fully. Selys nodded.
“She’ll be safe with me. And I’m sure she’d like to have fun, wouldn’t you, Mrsha?”
The Gnoll cub looked up at Selys. She wagged her tail a bit and sniffed at the Drake as she crouched down.
“She’s sort of like a puppy, don’t you think?”
Erin whispered to Selys as the Drake scratched Mrsha behind the ears. Selys shrugged.
“Gnoll cubs are pretty animal-like. And Mrsha’s young; I wouldn’t worry about it. Drake hatchlings like to bite everything they can fit their mouths around. Aren’t Human children different too?”
Erin thought of screaming babies and toddlers who would eat bugs and sand and poo. She nodded.
“Well…if you don’t mind, that would be great, Selys! Thanks! Then Lyonette can help me and Toren look for cool stuff.”
Lyonette’s brows snapped together.
“What was that?”
Erin called out to the skeleton. He looked over at her.
“We’re going out! Get your sword and put the dishes away, okay? Lyonette’s coming too!”
The skeleton appeared to perk up when Erin mentioned the sword, but when she mentioned Lyonette he seemed to sag. He walked into the kitchen as Erin went over to Ryoka.
“Hey Ryoka, is it okay if Selys takes Mrsha for the day?”
Ryoka didn’t look at Erin. Erin hesitated.
“And uh, I’m going outside. With Lyonette and Toren. I’m going exploring.”
The other girl’s face didn’t change. She was clearly deep in thought, or sleeping with her eyes open. Erin hesitated.
“I will inform her, Erin Solstice.”
Klbkch nodded from his seat. Erin smiled at him.
“Oh, thanks Klbkch! But are you sure you want to stay?”
The Antinium nodded.
“I would like to chat with Ryoka Griffin. Take care while you are exploring. Do not hesitate to run.”
“Don’t worry! I’m going to bring a frying pan and a knife.”
Klbkch stared at Erin. She gave him a thumbs up.
“See you later!”
“It’s cold. And wet.”
Lyonette complained loudly as she followed Erin and Toren through the snow. The skeleton was breaking a path through the deep snow, but even so, Erin had to fight just to keep moving. The snow was deep today, even for someone used to Michigan winters.
Erin had seen snow that went knee-deep, but she couldn’t remember ever seeing waist-deep snow. But in some of the valleys, the snow had accumulated to the point where it made progress impossible.
“Why are we even out here?”
Lyonette complained even more loudly Toren slipped in the snow and face-planted. Erin sighed. She was already regretting taking Lyonette with her, but it was either that or inflict her on Ryoka. And Ryoka would probably kick Lyonette in the face.
Why hadn’t she left Lyonette with Ryoka?
“Come on Lyon, it’s not that bad.”
Erin’s foot found a divot in the ground and she windmilled her arms wildly to stay upright. Lyon stared at her in disgust. But instead of her usual snide remarks she folded her arms.
“Do not mistake me; I am grateful for your assistance in my time of need. But I am not your slave, to be ordered around at your whim.”
“I didn’t say you were. But we’re all working in this inn together, Lyon. I own it, but I need your help.”
“And how is this helping your inn, pray?”
Lyon gestured at the white landscape. She stared at Toren as the skeleton sloughed ahead of them.
“It will take the better part of a day to get anywhere. And what are we even looking for?”
“I dunno. Hunting monsters? Gathering mushroom and rare stuff? Maybe there’s a mine around here somewhere.”
Erin had no idea how mining worked. And the look Lyonette gave her told her that she probably wasn’t going find any gemstones any time soon.
“You. Wish to hunt monsters?”
“Well, want is a strong word. But Toren’s got a sword. And armor.”
Erin pointed at Toren. The skeleton had stopped to watch the two girls argue. He was slowly sinking deeper into the snow as his holey bronze armor weighed him down. Lyonette sniffed.
“That thing fills me with no confidence.”
“Well…I have a frying pan.”
Erin lifted it to prove her point. Lyonette stared at the frying pan.
“…Are you unwell in the head? How will a frying pan kill monsters?”
“Hey! I killed a ton of zombies with a frying pan! Well, not this pan because they get really gross when the brains and stuff get on it but—”
“Wait, you killed a zombie? By yourself?”
“I had help. There was this undead attack and I had to kill a bunch of undead. Some Antinium Workers came to help me, and a lot of people died. Oh, and there was this horrible huge flesh-worm-thing that attacked. And a lot of zombies and ghouls and even these Crypt Lords tried to kill me, so yeah.”
Erin was aware that Lyon was gaping at her. She cleared her throat, slightly embarrassed.
“Anyways, if it’s just a Shield Spider or a Rock Crab we’re fine. I can scare away Rock Crabs and Toren and I can kill Shield Spiders.”
“Well, yeah. You just hit them and keep dodging their fangs. And legs. Oh, and don’t fall into their pit traps.”
This was all normal to Erin. But Lyonette stared at her as if this was all completely new to her. Which, come to that, it was.
“But—Silver-rank adventurers take on requests to slay Shield Spiders!”
Erin scratched her head. Lyon stared at her. The silence lengthened until Erin felt it was time to move.
“Okay, we’ve got to go. Toren, take us to the place you found the mushrooms!”
She turned and began to follow Toren. Lyonette followed them after a few seconds.
It was mercifully quiet for a while, but Erin was beginning to suspect that Lyonette, annoying though she’d been, was right. After about thirty minutes of struggling in the snow, they were only a hundred feet away from the inn.
“Alright, new plan! We’re going into the city!”
Of course, when they got in sight of the gates and the Drake Guardsman on duty, Erin realized that there was another problem.
“Oh, right. Lyonette can’t come inside and neither can you, Toren.”
Both skeleton and [Princess] gave Erin a flat look. She smiled and scratched at her head.
“Um. Okay, Lyonette, you stay outside with Toren. I’ll be back soon!”
Lyonette stared at Erin as the girl shook snow off her boots and proceeded down the freshly cleared streets of Liscor. Then she looked at Toren.
The skeleton stood where Erin had left him. He was staring at the snow. Just staring. Lyonette knew the skeleton’s features never changed, but she got the distinct impression he was upset. He was gripping his sword rather tightly.
Slowly, she edged away from the skeleton and then looked at the guard. The Drake on duty stared ahead, boredom written into every inch of his body and his slowly wagging tail. He’d eyed Toren once, but apparently the guards knew about Erin’s undead helper. Slowly, he scratched at his butt.
Lyonette decided to stand right where she was. After a few minutes of waiting in the cold snow, she sneezed.
Krshia looked blankly at Erin. The Human sneezed again and nodded.
“Yeah. Do you have any?”
Krshia scratched at her furry chin. Today Brunkr was nowhere to be seen, and she’d told Erin that he was still sulking.
“There is not much call for them outside, yes? The roads, they are melted clear with magic spell and many feet. And it does not usually snow so deeply.”
“Yeah. Um. Oops.”
Erin recalled several drunk faeries laughing as the flew out of her inn. She had the feeling that might have precipitated the sudden weather change.
Krshia eyed Erin, but shrugged.
“I may be able to find some. But none that will fit Human feet, yes? They will require resizing. And certainly none for your undead…thing.”
“Oh, I’ve got [Advanced Crafting], and I only need a pairs for me and L—uh, I just need two. Toren can run pretty fast through the snow since, you know, he doesn’t get tired.”
And the snow had a lot less mass to constrict in his case. Skeletons were thin.
“But you will still be quite slow, yes?”
“Yes? I mean yeah, that is a problem.”
Erin frowned. She wanted to get around, at least so she could do some exploring and maybe gather some rare mushrooms like the ones Toren had found. Maybe she could sell them to the faeries for actual gold this time, or use them in a dish. But it was hard to explore when you moved at a glacial pace.
The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] thought as she and Erin stood together in front of her stall. It was nice to be on speaking terms with Krshia again. She always had good advice for Erin.
Let’s see. If snow shoes were too slow, what was faster?
“How about skis?”
Erin tried to explain. Krshia looked blank.
“Snow shoes we have, but these…pieces of wood seem too fragile. Gnolls would not use such things. Perhaps a Drake might have such devices.”
The tone in her voice suggested that only a Human would be that crazy, and even then, possibly only Erin.
“Well…darn. Maybe I could make some, though. Can I buy some wood? I mean, it’d be hard since Lyonette doesn’t know how to ski. And Toren can’t either…too bad we can’t all just—”
Erin paused. Her train of thought stopped, as she switched transportation methods. Okay, skiing might be a bit impractical, but there was another easy way to travel in the snow, wasn’t there?
An idea sparked in Erin’s mind.
“Hey Krshia, do you have any sleds? Can I buy one? No—can I buy one and a lot of wood? And some nails? I have a hammer. Ooh, and some leather. Or maybe rope. And do you have bells?”
The Gnoll frowned at her.
“Wood is expensive in the winter, Erin Solstice. I would not ask, but I have not the coin to make promises to other shopkeepers. Are you sure you have the money?”
“I’ve got gold. Lots of gold.”
Erin reached into her belt pouch and pulled out a handful of gold coins. She slapped them on Krshia’s counter.
Krshia’s eyes bulged. Erin smiled sheepishly.
“I saved up. And Halrac tips a lot. So about those bells…”
“T-there you are!”
Toren looked up at the sound of Lyonette’s voice. The grinding impatience and simmering resentment in what would have been his heart—if he had one—faded for a moment when he saw Erin. At last, his stupid mistress would give him an order and hopefully he would soon be released.
But his hopes were dashed when he saw what Erin was carrying. The girl was trying to lug a huge pile of various types of wood as she dragged a wooden sled on the ground. She had a box of nails and screws precariously next to a saw on top of the load.
“Hey Lyonette! Hey Toren! Sorry I’m late! It took a while to get all this stuff!”
Lyon stumbled towards Erin, her teeth chattering.
“I’m freezing. You’ve been gone for an hour!”
“Sorry, sorry. I really am. But look! We just need to get this back to the inn and we can build some really cool stuff with it!”
“Build? Build what?”
Toren wanted to know that too. Erin was smiling oddly, and he didn’t like the look she was giving him. It was almost as if she was measuring him, and the skeleton’s nonexistent blood ran cold when he saw the bells.
He wanted to run. Something about the glint in Erin’s eyes made him want to run.
“Hey Toren, come here for a second, will you?”
It was a cold, snowy day around Liscor, and on the continent of Izril in general. The snow had fallen hard last night, and so even the most determined travelers like City Runners and caravans following the main roads were moving at a snail’s pace.
The Frost Faeries considered this entertaining. They laughed and threw snowballs at one poor Gnoll who was dragging a toboggan filled with supplies across the snow. Yes, the snow could not be avoided. It was everywhere, making people’s lives a misery. The Frost Faeries felt smug at that thought.
But then—movement. From their position high overhead, the faeries saw something odd making its way across the snowy plains. They swooped down, keenly interested in anything unusual. And as they got closer their tiny jaws dropped and their eyes bulged.
They’d seen sleds before, of course. The Gnoll tribes used them for all kinds of transport, and sleighs were similarly used in colder weather. But this—this was different. No horse pulled the sled that had been mounted on skis, and indeed, this device alone was making quick headway in the deep snow. Because of what was pulling it.
A horse, fast as it might be, could only travel on relatively clear roads. The same went for a dog team; even the best dog sleds would have issues in waist-deep snow. But there was one creature that ignored all temperatures, which could run full-sprint for hours on end without tiring, and most importantly, couldn’t disobey orders.
Erin shouted happily as Toren pulled the sledge she’d built through the snow. The wide and long vehicle she’d constructed with the use of her [Advanced Crafting] class was six feet long and wide enough for both her and Lyonette to sit on it comfortably.
The skis she’d mounted on the bottom allowed the sledge to speed around even in deep snow, and Toren made it all work. The skeleton flailed his arms wildly as he ran through the deep snow, and Erin laughed as the reigns she’d fastened to his body jingled and rang in the crisp air.
A leather harness for her skeleton, a sled for Erin and Lyonette—and they were speeding across the winter landscape with quite commendable speed. In truth, Toren could only pull the sledge about as fast as Erin could jog at the best of times, but it was a pleasant ride, and most importantly, Erin was riding and not fighting through the snow.
Erin flapped the reigns again and Toren endeavored to run faster. She looked over at Lyonette and saw the girl had the same expression on her face as the Frost Faeries overhead had. A sort of slack-jawed stare with glazed eyes for the full effect.
“Isn’t it great?”
Lyonette stared at Erin. Her eyes were fixed on Toren. The skeleton was fighting his way through another thick drift of snow, his jaw gnashing furiously as he pulled the sledge up a hill.
“Go for it, Toren!”
From her position at the head of her ride, Erin stared across the open landscape. This, now, this was what she’d been missing. This was fun. She felt a song coming on, and began to sing, her voice carrying for miles around.
“Dashing through the snow, on a one-skeleton open sleigh, over the hills we go, laughing all the way!”
Erin’s voice echoed across the snowy landscape as the wind rushed past her head. She pointed.
“There! Go that way, Toren!”
She was pointing towards a cave opening in the distance. Toren change directions, and Erin whooped as she felt the sledge shift smoothly on the snow.
“Let us ride! We demand to join in!”
Erin looked up and Lyonette screamed as Frost Faeries flew down from overhead, laughing and pointing at Toren. They settled on the side of the sledge and for once Erin didn’t begrudge their presence.
“What song is this? We must sing along!”
“Sing! Sing for us!”
“Okay! Everyone join in!”
The faeries cheered and Lyonette stared at one as it landed on Erin’s head. The young woman thought of the few Christmas songs she knew by heart, and began to sing.
“You’d better not shout, you’d better not cry; better not pout, I’m telling you why! Santa Claus is coming to town!”
“Ooh, threats! Good!”
“Who is Santa Claus? Does he eat children?”
“Run faster, dead thing!”
Toren staggered as a snowball bounced off the back of his head. Erin looked at the Frost Faeries in surprise.
“Haven’t you heard of Santa Claus? Lyonette?”
No one had. And it was a bit too windy to explain about Santa, so Erin found herself switching songs.
“Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful! And since we’ve no place to go; let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!”
This was a song the Frost Faeries could get behind. They cheered and laughed and started singing along with Erin.
“Let it snow!”
“More snow! Let’s bury yon mountains, sisters!”
“What? Wait! Don’t do that!”
Erin shouted at the faeries as more snowflakes, heavy thick ones, began falling from the sky. The faeries looked at her. So did Lyonette.
“Who are you talking to?”
Erin pointed at a Frost Fairy.
Lyonette stared at the Frost Faerie, and then at Erin with the look of someone who clearly feared she was staring a seat with someone who was insane. Erin remembered Lyonette couldn’t see the faeries.
“They’re faeries! You can’t see them but—they’re little blue people! They’ve got wings and they speak to me and Ryoka! They make it snow, but I’m telling them to stop!”
The other girl edged away from Erin. But the snow had begun to fall and it had also stopped as soon as Erin had complained. The rest of the sleigh ride was filled with more Christmas songs, most of which the faeries sang with Erin. The only one they hated was Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, because they thought he was a freak.
As they reached the cave, Erin leapt off the sledge, still arguing with the faeries.
“He was not a freak! He just had a red…shining nose, that’s all! It was probably magic!”
“Bah! He was an abomination! ‘Twas right of the other reindeer to shun him!”
“How bright was his nose? Bright enough to light up the sky?”
“Who is Santa Claus?”
“Oh hey, this is one of the caves where Toren found all those mushrooms, right Lyonette?”
The [Princess] stared at Erin.
“Good! Let’s go get some poisonous mushrooms!”
The faeries cheered and Erin walked into the cave. She ran out a few seconds later.
It was a sleeping bear, but that was more than enough for Erin to retreat back to her sledge. She pointed at Toren. The skeleton had paused to squat in the snow, probably to take a break from the efforts of pulling the sled, and the jingling harness she had put on him.
“Toren, there’s a bear! You go in there!”
The skeleton brightened up considerably. He reached for his sword—Erin had made him leave his armor behind so he would move faster. She scowled at him.
“Don’t hurt the bear! Just get those mushrooms! And be quiet; don’t wake the bear up if you can help it!”
As she and Lyonette sat in the sledge, Erin listened to the faeries laughing overhead. Lyonette eyed the fuzzy blue shapes she identified as the dangerous and unpredictable Frost Sprites and ducked whenever any of them come close.
“Are we just gathering mushrooms?”
“Well, to begin with. We’ll visit all of those caves Toren found and see if we can’t find something cool, okay?”
Lyonette shrugged and sniffed. She wiped her nose, and eyed Toren as the skeleton skulked back out of the caves, holding two handfuls of discolored mushrooms.
“Are we going to take all of the mushrooms with us? How will we carry them?”
Erin snapped her fingers.
She waved at Toren and hissed at him.
“Toren! Get the rest of the mushrooms quick, will you? We’re going back to the inn! We need jars! Lots of jars! Ooh, and I can make us lunch!”
The skeleton twitched.
The third cave Erin and Lyonette found after a hearty lunch harbored a strange sight. Erin cautiously peered into the depths of the large cavernous hole in the side of the mountain and stared at the shapes moving around in the darkness.
Lyonette hung back. Erin beckoned her closer, and the girl reluctantly approached. She was holding a ball of light—it turned out she knew the spell, even though she didn’t have the [Mage] class.
“I think those are bees. What do you think, Lyonette?”
The girl hesitated. She flinched as one of the shadows flew closer.
“They’re—they’re bugs! I didn’t think any were alive in the winter! Why do you even care? They’re horrible!”
“Yeah, but are they bees or wasps?”
Erin frowned at the bees. She thought they were bees. She could vaguely make out a certain fuzziness about them, and hornets looked different. More evil. So. Bees in the winter. It was certainly something she hadn’t expected to see, especially in a cave. But then, she supposed bees had to live somewhere. They didn’t migrate, after all. Or did they? Were these special winter bees?
The last three caves they’d visited had been uninhabited except for some plant life and mushrooms. Erin had made Toren scrape mold and fungi and pick mushrooms and put them into glass jars. She really doubted she’d do anything with the mold, but she was feeling scientific. And adventurous, which was why she hadn’t immediately run when she’d seen the flying insects in the darkness of the cave.
One of the faeries that had decided to make her own nest in Erin’s woolen hat hissed at the insects. It seemed to hear this and buzzed closer. As it’s features became clearer Erin and Lyonette backed up fast.
It was a bee. A big bee. In fact, it was the biggest and most terrifyingly large bee that Erin had ever seen in her life. She’d heard of the Japanese Giant Hornet which could grow longer than a human finger, but these bees were in a different category altogether.
They were as big as her entire hand—no, bigger. The bee buzzed closer and Erin saw a huge stinger and long legs, and the familiar yellow fuzzy patch around the black carapace of the bug. She froze in place as it approached, seemingly staring at the Frost Faerie on Erin’s head.
And it wasn’t alone. As if they had sensed the intruders, suddenly a swarm of bees began flying over towards the invaders. They were coming out a huge nest that was actually blocking a good part of the cave. The massive hive was anchored to the stone walls and Erin could hear a thrumming from within.
The lead bee buzzed closer and Lyon and Erin froze in place as it approached. Toren stared at the bee curiously, but without a hint of fear. In a situation like this, Erin considered the best move to make was not to aggravate the insect. Any sudden moves could make it angry, but fortunately Toren didn’t seem inclined to attack and Lyonette was scared stiff. They could back away without triggering—
“Wretched insect! Know your place! Begone!”
The Frost Faerie on Erin’s head flew up and smacked the bee on the head. Frost spread from where she’d touched the insect and it recoiled. The bees suddenly became agitated, and the Frost Faerie flew at them, screaming insults.
Erin didn’t need to see any more than that. She turned.
Lyonette was already gone. Toren watched as Erin ran out of the cave screaming and the Frost Faerie retreated, shout insults at the bees as they swarmed after her. The skeleton leisurely walked out of the cave; the bees totally ignored him as they chased the two Humans and one immortal outside.
Erin flung herself into the snow and tried to bury herself deep. Lyonette was doing the same. Above her, she heard the rest of the faeries shouting in outrage and a horrible, terrifying buzzing overhead.
After what seemed like an eternity of tinny voices shouting and buzzing confusion, Erin dared emerge from her snowy cover. She found several dead bees littering the snow around her—all of them frozen, and triumphant faeries laughing and chasing the few remaining bees into the hive.
“Take that, ye craven fools!”
“Trouble not the fae!”
It seemed like there was some definite antagonism between the species. And even as Erin watched, the faerie began eating one of the bees. They tore it apart and—
It took Erin quite some time to pull Lyonette out of the snow. The other girl just screamed and tried to wriggle further into the snow bank when Erin touched her. When she finally came out she was red-faced with the cold.
“I am not going in there again! You can’t make me! I won’t!”
“Don’t worry Lyon, we’re not going in. I promise.”
Erin tried to soothe Lyon. At last, the other girl subsided, and Erin took a few deep breaths to steady herself.
“Well, yeah. Those are some scary bees. And even if the Frost Faeries can beat them—”
“We fear no stingers!”
“Bring out your Queen! We’ll duel her!”
“—I really don’t want to get stung. So. Toren!”
The skeleton looked up. He was gathering up dead bees and stuffing them into a glass jar, a measure Erin wasn’t sure if she approved of. Well, she probably would have told him to do it anyways, but the bees were even more horrific crammed into the jar.
Erin found a big jar and tossed it to Toren.
“Go into the nest and get me some honey! And honeycomb. Don’t do too much damage to the nest and don’t hurt the bees—if you can. Okay?”
Her skeleton stared at Erin with what almost looked like an aggrieved air before he nodded and walked back into the cave. Erin settled back into the sledge and looked at Lyonette.
“He’ll be fine. I think. I mean, he’s dead and a skeleton. They can’t really hurt him, right?”
Lyonette just stared at Erin. She wasn’t hurt, but she was still breathing heavily.
“You are insane! I thought you were just unnatural, but you are clearly—insane!”
“No I’m not.”
Erin was hurt by the accusation. Lyonette shook her head. Erin turned back to the cave and listened.
“Wow. You can even hear them buzzing from here.”
The buzzing from the cave was indeed an audible thrum that could be felt even from here, like a bass beat coming out of a speaker. Erin and Lyonette waited for another minute, and then heard the buzzing change in quality. Suddenly, it grew much, much louder and there was an audible note of menace to the sound.
“Uh oh. Looks like Toren’s at the hive.”
“S-should we hide?”
“Why? He’s the one getting the honey.”
Erin felt rather smug. Even Pooh Bear couldn’t do as well as she could with a skeleton helper. Lyon shook her head.
“But even if he’s unharmed, what happens when they follow him out and find us here?”
Erin stared at Lyonette. The girl stared back.
“Run for it!”
In the sledge, the Frost Faeries laughed as the two girls jumped into the snow and began trying to cover themselves again.
“Hah! Foolish mortals! Let the buzzing things come!”
“Yes, we’ll freeze their wings. We won’t run from any overgrown flies!”
They laughed as the buzzing sound turned into a roar, and then the faeries paused as the bees emerged from the cave. Not just one or two or even a hundred; thousands of bees poured out of the entrance, engulfing something in the center which waved and struggled wildly.
The faeries stared at the thousands of bees congregating around Toren—a swarm so huge that they began to blot out the sun overhead. They exchanged a glance and then dove into the snow with Erin and Lyonette.
Erin peeked up as the bees swarmed angrily. She couldn’t see Toren among all the bees. Where was he, trying to get back to the sledge? But then her eyes widened as she saw him.
Her skeleton was in the center of the swarm of bees. And he wasn’t on the ground—he was in the air! They were lifting him up! The angry bees lifted the struggling Toren off the ground, ignoring his flailing, until he was a speck in the sky. Then they dropped him.
Erin and Lyonette and the faeries saw Toren falling to earth. They felt the thump he made as he smashed into the ground, the snow doing nothing at all to cushion his fall. They saw his bones scatter into the air, and all ducked as the bees flew back into their hive.
It was a long time before anyone dared to move. Then, Erin got up and stared at Toren, or rather, the scattered bones that were Toren. They were wriggling towards each other, over, say, a radius of about fifty feet.
She cleared her throat several times, and looked at Lyonette. The girl had found the jar of Toren had extracted, safe where he had dropped it in the snow. A massive chunk of honeycomb floating in a huge pool of honey. A maggot—or rather, a baby bee was wriggling inside the sticky liquid.
Erin stared at the maggot. She looked around, and found Toren’s head in the snow. The skeleton stared at her reproachfully. The faeries stared at the bee larvae and licked their lips. Lyonette threw up.
“Um. Well, good work everyone. Let’s take a five minute break, okay? And can you look around for Toren’s bits? I think that’s his hand over there.”
Aside from the bees, though, it was really a pleasant ride through the snowy plains around Liscor. Once Toren was reassembled and the faeries had…eaten…the bee larvae, he pulled them onwards and Erin and Lyonette could relax and try to warm up. The honey was delicious, and all things considered, they felt good. Even the Snow Golem attack didn’t bother them much.
Lyonette screamed as Erin found herself pulled off the sledge by a snowman twice her height. Erin hit it with her frying pan repeatedly, but the packed snow resisted her blow. The Snow Golem opened its maw—sticks for teeth snapping at Erin as she struggled—and then bit down on her midsection.
Erin screamed in pain and punched the Golem in the head. His bite didn’t hurt—well, it didn’t hurt half as bad as it should have. His ‘teeth’ were just fallen branches and sticks after all, so while they drew blood as they pierced Erin’s winter clothing, they didn’t do much more damage.
“You jerk! Toren, help!”
The skeleton attempted to rush to Erin’s aid, but two more Snow Golems were blocking his way. They smacked at him with blobby hands made of snow, and tried to bury him with their bodies. And that was it. That was all they could do, really.
Erin raised her fist and punched the Golem in the face. Her [Minotaur Punch] reshaped the Golem’s face a bit, but again, her hand wasn’t exactly the best weapon to use against a creature made entirely of snow.
What she really needed was a shovel. And once Erin realized that, she just dug herself out of the Golem’s grip. Toren was busy slicing the other two Snow Golems apart with his sword, but Erin had little trouble disassembling her own Golem. The only dangerous moment came when he tried to smother her with his body, but by that time she’d realized he had a brain—a core of beautifully white—and cold—snow. She punched that and made the Golem’s head explode into powder and the Golem collapsed.
Panting, Erin got back in the sledge as Toren put his foot through one of the Snow Golem’s heads and tried to get it loose while the other one bashed him repeatedly with a rock. Lyonette offered Erin a towel.
Erin stared at the Frost Faeries reproachfully. They were laughing and placing bets on whether Toren would kill the Snow Golem now or after it had knocked his head off.
“You lot could have helped, you know?”
“Bah. Yon enchanted snowballs are no threat.”
One of the faeries waved a tiny hand at Erin dismissively. Then she cheered as Toren beheaded the last Golem with a slash of his sword. The skeleton did it in a flashy manner—he ducked as the Snow Golem lunged at him, and his body blurred. Erin blinked as Toren’s sword sliced the head off the Golem and the rest of the body collapsed.
“Wow, that looks like a Skill, doesn’t it, Lyonette? I wonder how he did that? Can the undead level up?”
The girl just shuddered and stared at the abominable snowmen. She stared at Erin.
“How are you so calm? They tried to kill you!”
“Yeah, but they’re not that dangerous. Besides, isn’t it so cool?”
Lyon stared at Erin. Erin stared back with a smile on her face.
“Some monsters are horrible, but this is magic. And we’re on an adventure, right?”
“Yeah! Oh hey, Toren, wait!”
Toren paused, foot raised as he prepared to stomp the Snow Golem’s head into mush. Erin frantically waved at him.
“Wait! Give me a jar!”
The unnaturally pure snow in the snow Golem’s head froze Erin’s hands even through her gloves as she shoveled it into the jar. But it was definitely magical, so she filled another big jar with snow. Toren stared at the Snow Golem’s face as Erin finished extracting the contents of its head.
Erin smiled as she held up the heavy jar and stared at it. The snow might melt, but she could see if it was still magical afterwards. Or maybe she’d leave it outside and keep it fresh. Would it create another Snow Golem if it was outside? How did they even form, anyways? Did they eat people? Could they even eat? She breathed onto the glass and wiped away the condensation as she stared at the shimmering white snow inside.
“Snow Golem brain-snow.”
Erin thought about that for a second.
They were quite a ways away from her inn—farther than Erin had ever gone, in truth—when they found the Corusdeer corpses. Erin shouted for Toren to stop the sled and jumped out to stare at the hacked up body parts lying in the snow.
“This is so awful. What could have done this?”
The deer had been hacked to bits, at least ten of them. They’d stained the ground red, but the white snow had covered the bodies partially. Only the area around the horns was melted in truth; even as Erin stared, the horns gave off steam in the air.
“Something killed them, but didn’t eat them. What? An adventurer?”
She couldn’t imagine Halrac picking on poor animals, but maybe they’d attacked him. Toren looked the other way as Lyonette stared at the bodies and the faeries debated whether they were hungry enough to have deer after the bees.
Gingerly, Erin approached and stared at one of the Corusdeers’ horns. She was fairly sure she couldn’t use the meat; it might have frozen, but something could have infested it or…or it could just be rotten. She held one hand out towards the horn and touched it.
It actually burned her fingers when Erin took off her glove to touch it. She sucked at her fingers and waved Toren over.
“I want all these horns. Um, wrap them in something or they might set the sledge on fire.”
Toren stared at the Corusdeer he’d killed and kicked one of the deers’ heads. Then he clattered his jaw and unsheathed his sword and got to work at hacking the horns off the heads. He wasn’t quite wishing the sledge would burst into flames. He was more praying that he accidentally crashed into a Shield Spider pit and they killed everyone at this point in the journey.
“Well, that was fun!”
Erin stretched as Lyonette staggered into the inn and collapsed next to the fire. The girl moaned softly, and Erin turned as Toren lugged the huge collection of jars and the hot Corusdeer horns into the inn. The faeries flew in as well, laughing and in extremely good spirits.
“Where’s Ryoka and Klbkch?”
Both Human and Antinium were gone. Ryoka must have finished her thought, and Klbkch was probably back in his hive. And Selys and Mrsha hadn’t returned yet. Erin stared around the inn, momentarily deflated. Now there was no one to share her amazing discoveries with. She looked at the jars Toren was piling on the table.
“No, not like that, Toren.”
He was creating an unstable pyramid, as if he wanted the glass jars to break. Erin scowled at him and he began putting them in a more stable configuration.
“Let’s see. What did we get?”
She had several small jars filled with different kinds of mushrooms. Some were green, some were purple—one type was a really tall mushroom that came up to knee height and had a spotted crown the size of a car tire. She’d had to cram that one in to the jar. And another was a really tiny mushroom that glowed in the dark. They were all promising, if not edible.
She also had the honey Toren had stolen from the Hive—a huge jar of it that Toren had to use both hands to carry—and another jar filled with dead bees. And she had the Corusdeer horns and a jar of Snow Golem snow.
Erin rubbed her hands together happily. Toren put the bundle of horns in a corner of the inn and folded his arms. Lyonette moaned.
“This is such a great day.”
Not only did she have new stuff to experiment with, she had a new way to travel! Now Erin could actually go places, with Toren to pull her. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of it before, but an undead could pull her around all night! Why didn’t everyone have…undead horses or something, and ride carriages around? Maybe Pisces could make an undead horse for her.
Erin’s mind was spinning with possibilities, but one thing was tugging at her mind. She walked up to one of her windows and stared at the sledge. It was part sled, part sleigh. And it was so useful. But…
Yeah. There was one thing you did in the winter that Erin really hadn’t done yet, had she? She’d been so sick of the snow, and the Frost Faeries that she’d forgotten. Winter was supposed to be fun! She remembered countless days when she’d thrown snowballs, made snow angels, and gone snow sledding. Of course, that was a lot of work—Erin actually preferred snow tubing. Now that was amazingly fun.
Of course, it was only fun because there was this amazing lift you could hook your snow tube to. It carried you up a huge hill and then you could sled down. If you had to climb the hill every time it would get old fast. It was too bad this world had nothing like that.
Toren crept towards the inn’s entrance, hiding his sword behind his back as Erin stared at the sledge. Yeah, too bad. Because it would be amazingly fun to ride down a hill in that. But she’d have to pull it up.
“Unless…someone does it for me.”
Erin’s eyes shifted sideways and Toren froze as he tried to open the door silently. She grinned.
“Hey Toren? I’ve got another job for you!”
The [Guardsmen] on top of Liscor’s high walls were often bored, but today was a bad day where they were not only bored, but cold. They shivered on their posts, freezing despite the modicum of cover the crenelations gave them from the biting wind. A hot drink would warm them right up, but sadly they would have to wait until they were relieved to enjoy such luxuries.
Occasionally, Watch Captain Zevarra or Senior Guardsman Klbkch would come up with some hot drinks for everyone on guard, but it didn’t look like one of those days. Relc had stomped by an hour ago, and one look at his face had discouraged any such suggestions. Besides, that Drake never paid for anything if he could help it.
So the [Guardsmen] were mildly intrigued when they saw the Human young woman who’d already gained some renown in Liscor sitting at the top of a hill. Her skeleton had untangled himself from its harness, and she was staring down the steep incline.
They’d seen her riding around on the sled earlier of course, and they’d remarked on the oddity of the sight. But now the Human was doing something different. She stared down the hill, and then called something towards the skeleton. He ran at the sled and pushed it, and then the [Guardsmen] heard the scream, slightly delayed, as the girl went flying down the hill.
That was the thing. A sled was customary for sledding for one reason. It was actually slower than something like a sleigh or skis. This was important; while speed was preferable, there was such a thing as too much speed.
The guardsmen watched the girl shoot down the hill at a speed faster than any horse could gallop, and heard the shriek of terror turn to laughter. They watched as she waved and hollered at the skeleton, and then saw it run down the hill.
Of course, each Drake and Gnoll on watch had been thinking the same thing: sure it was fun to ride down the hill, but the Human would have to pull the heavy sledge back up, and that would be exhausting. But then as they saw the skeleton run down to the sledge and begin to drag it back up the hill they realized what was going on. Erin shouted and waved at her skeleton as it slowly dragged her back up the hill, and then she slid down again, going even faster on the flattened snow. And she did it again, and again, and again—
Ryoka couldn’t tell if it was envy in her heart as she stared down at Erin, or sheer amazement. She’d actually done it. She’d actually found a way to trivialize even Toren’s existence. From undead warrior, he’d become a glorified dishwasher and cleaner. And now he wasn’t even that.
He was a sled lift.
“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Ryoka muttered the words as she and a crowd of [Guardsmen]—and a large body of Drakes and Gnolls citizenry—watched Erin as she laughed and shot down the hill again.
Selys held up Mrsha so the Gnoll could see Erin. The Gnoll stared with fascination at Erin, and Klbkch just stared at the sight, perplexed.
“That is so stupid.”
Ryoka felt she had to repeat herself, because no one had responded to her comment. She looked down at Erin on the sleigh and hesitated.
“…I want to ride that thing.”
She’d gone snowboard and skiing before, but Erin’s crazed vehicle was another level of crazy. It had all the speed of a ski, but added a good deal of weight to the momentum of the ride. Plus, there was virtually no way to steer the thing, so you could only hang on for dear life and pray like hell you didn’t crash.
If Erin had a stuffed tiger in the back of her ride it would have been perfect, but this looked fun enough.
“What is it? I’ve never seen something like that.”
Selys was frowning at Erin’s vehicle. Klbkch nodded.
“It is not a sleigh, and nor is it a sled. It is some hybrid of the two.”
“It’s a goddamn sledge.”
“It’s something—well, it’s something from where Erin and I come from.”
Klbkch stared at Ryoka and she caught his eye. He nodded slightly.
“Ah. I see. And this is a device used for entertainment?”
“I guess. That’s how she’s using it.”
Her voice was audible even from where they were standing on the battlements. The others watched as Erin shouted at Toren. She was clearly telling him to push her. The skeleton took several steps back, and then ran at the sledge.
“Wow. He pushed her hard.”
Indeed, it almost looked as if the skeleton was trying to push Erin as hard as possible. She shot down the hill in the sledge, going even faster on the compacted snow.
Erin screamed and laughed as she shot down one of the hills, and then screamed in an entirely different tone as she noticed the rock. From their position on the wall, Selys, Ryoka, and Klbkch saw Erin wipe out.
“Wow. She flipped.”
“Head over heels. First time I’ve seen that.”
“She is not moving. Has she been seriously injured?”
“No—I think she’s stunned. Look, she’s starting to wiggle.”
The Human girl was making an involuntarily snow angel in the ground. Ryoka looked at Mrsha and saw excitement shining in her eyes. Yes, this was a ride to bring out the daredevil in any kid.
The crowd below was watching Erin, but already Ryoka could see people peeling off and hurrying back into the city.
“Looks like she’s started a trend.”
Indeed, even the adults were coming back with sleds and things to slide on. Ryoka grinned. It was stupid. It was dangerous. But hell, she was going down there and trying it.
“Hey Mrsha, want to go for a ride?”
The Gnoll child stared at Ryoka. Klbkch stared at Ryoka. Selys looked down at Erin.
“I call the front!”
Erin sat on a hill and watched as Selys zoomed past her, screaming at the top of her lungs. Klbkch stood next to her, watching as Drakes and Gnolls dived out of the way of the uncontrolled sledge.
“I am afraid that vehicle is too dangerous. The other sledders must vacate the hill before it descends or a life threatening accident may occur.”
Erin nodded and winced as she felt at the bruises on her back and butt. She’d gladly given up her chance to ride the sledge after the second time she’d had a major wipe out. Now Selys and countless other Drakes and Gnolls were queuing up for a turn. Toren was tirelessly pulling the sledge up a hill, and he’d already accommodated Ryoka’s request to ride it down ten times.
Ironically, only Mrsha had been banned from using the sledge. Instead, they’d given the small Gnoll a much smaller sled that Krshia had begun to enterprisingly sell to the citizens. Some people had their own sleds, but it was rare for them to have this much fun in the snow, Erin gathered.
“I mean, it’s dangerous to be outside the walls. And besides, it’s a lot of work. But that skeleton of yours is really handy, Erin!”
So said Selys after she returned slightly windblown but unharmed from her exciting ride. Erin grinned and offered her the jar of honey. Selys’ eyes bulged at the sight of the massive jar of sweetness.
“Where did you get that, Erin?”
“From a huge bee nest! Actually, Toren got it, but the bees lifted him into the air and dropped him! It was crazy! And we got attacked by Snow Golems! And we found these horns!”
The Drake’s mouth fell open when Erin showed her one of the horns she’d taken from the deer. She’d had to remove a bit of…flesh, but now it was helping keep her warm as she sat in the snow. The horn radiated heat, which was extremely useful.
“Are those Corusdeer horns? Where did you get all of them, Erin?”
“I found a lot of dead bodies in the snow. They were just lying there, so I found them. They’re a deer’s horns?”
Ryoka stomped up the hill, shivering, Mrsha right behind her. The Gnoll was happily rolling around in the snow and dragging the small sled she’d been riding, but she began sniffing at the air and made a beeline for the honey the instant she saw it.
“What the hell is that, Erin?”
Nothing would do but that Erin explain everything to Ryoka, Selys, and Klbkch as she let Mrsha lick honey from her paws. Selys shook her head in amazement after Erin was done.
“You are crazy, you know that? You could have fallen into a Shield Spider pit, not to mention those bees can kill anything they come across! And the antlers—it was a windfall you found them, you know. Even Gold-rank adventurers don’t like taking on a herd of Corusdeer, and their horns are really useful! I can pay you four silver per each antler. The Adventurer’s Guild sells them to [Alchemists] and [Blacksmiths].”
“That doesn’t sound like a lot.”
“Well, the Guild needs to take a cut, and after all, it’s not like we want people to just go around provoking Corusdeer.”
Selys explained defensively as Mrsha tried to dip her entire paw into the jar of honey. Erin gently grabbed Mrsha’s arm, and then she noticed something wriggling in the honey.
“Why not just cut out the middleman? You can probably get twice that if you negotiate with them directly.”
Selys glared at Ryoka, but Erin shook her head.
“I want to try and use them.”
She saw Mrsha’s eyes following the movement, but save for Klbkch and Mrsha, no one had noticed. Ryoka rolled her eyes, but shrugged. She bent and dipped her finger into the honey.
“Good stuff, though. You can make a lot of treats with this.”
She licked her finger as Erin opened her mouth, and then frowned.
Slowly, Ryoka reached into the honey and grabbed at the wriggling thing. Selys covered her mouth and Mrsha backed away as Ryoka pulled out a huge, fat, wriggling bee larvae. The Asian girl stared at the larvae as it tried to climb up her hand. She stared at Erin, as the other girl gave her a sheepish grin.
Ryoka’s face turned green. Klbkch stared at the larvae with interest, and he spoke at the same time as some Frost Faeries swooped down from overhead. They both asked the same question.
“Are you going to eat that?”