Some call me a messenger. Others call me a barefoot runner. And crazy. Some call me a deliverer…of messages. A few people know me as [batman]. I think of myself as reasonably sane, but most people disagree. They have a lot of names for someone like me. But the little monster blocking my way just barks.
Dogs. I hate them so much. The mangy dog with off-white fur and brown spots barks again, showing his teeth. There’s a definite growl in his tone—he’s not just warning me, he’s telling me he will attack given an opportunity.
That’s fine. If he goes for me I’m kicking him and damn the consequences. I’ve always wanted to kick a dog. I’m not an animal hater, I’m just a dog hater.
Consider my position. I, Ryoka Griffin, am standing in the snow a few miles out from the lovely city of Celum, holding a small wrapped package in my hands as I face down a dog blocking the way towards a house. It’s not my fault I’m here; I’m on a delivery. And I don’t want to get bitten.
I’ve been bitten by dogs before. Twice, in fact. Both times while I was running. Back home, in my world that is, some people like to think their dogs don’t need a leash. I respect their opinion, and invite them to share it with the local animal control officer. Dogs who aren’t on leashes chase moving objects like me. And they bite.
Maybe it’s just my genetics, or something in me the dogs don’t like. Or maybe it’s because I’m often a sweaty, adrenaline-filled unknown threat invading their perceived personal space at high speed that triggers their instincts to chase and attack. I don’t know. But all I know is that every person who runs hates loose dogs.
Plus, I’m a barefoot runner. That means I’m even more anxious about bites, because I have what is for all intents and purposes, ten bite-sized snacks for a dog to rip off. The same problem goes for my hands, although I only have eight available snacks for a dog to chew on. A Goblin bit two of my fingers off a week ago. Fun story. I’m not keen to repeat it.
The dog barks at me again, and this time growls loudly. I hold still, meeting his eyes as he crouches, hackles bared. He’s in my way. I need to get to that house to deliver my package, but the owner hasn’t come out and I think shouting will make the dog run at me. So. What do I do?
Kick the dog. That’s what about 90% of me wants to do. The other 10% is arguing that the dog is only defending his home and he’s innocent and that I should practice restraint. I’m not inclined to listen to that opinion, but a fight in the snow against a dog isn’t what I want right now. He’s not a big dog; that is to say, not as big as a mastiff or a great dane, but he’s not a poodle either.
He’s just a dog. He deserves mercy.
But I really want to kick a dog. He’s going to try and bite me the instant I move. Kick first, ask questions later.
And if I kick him, I’ll have to hurt him badly which won’t go down well with the owner. Not a good idea.
On the other hand, he, or possibly, she, is in clear violation with my longstanding agreement with nature* and I have no desire to find out if he has rabies. I’m still not sure if healing potions have the ability to cure diseases.
*The Ryoka-Nature Accord reads as follows: Get in my way and I will kill and eat you.
This is how my day starts. On the whole, I’ve had better days.
“Hark! ‘Tis a mutt and a lying Human-thing!”
“Girl versus dog! As good as girl versus Dragon! Will there be more riddles?”
And my day just got worse. I glance up as I hear the familiar, high-pitched voices from overhead. Spiraling down out of the grey skies overhead, small, winged creatures laugh and point at me and the dog.
I guess you could say they look like small versions of Humans, scaled down, painted blue and given wings. But that would completely, utterly fail to describe these beings. Because they are faeries. The fae. And they cannot be compared to us so easily.
Yes, the Frost Faeries or Winter Sprites as they are known look humanoid. But their bodies are part crystal, part ice. And they have wings, but they are closer to an insect’s set of wings than an angel’s. And in every facet of every line that makes up their beings, they are breathtakingly beautiful.
Not just beautiful; otherworldly. To look at the Frost Faeries is to believe in magic, because that is the whole of what they are. Even as I watch, they fly around me, laughing and speaking in voices that are also part real, and partly immortal.
“Look, sisters! The dog defends its home!”
“Let’s eat it!”
“Nae, let us give it a charge! The power to destroy any invaders!”
“Are there any cats?”
They fly around me and the dog, poking, throwing snow into my eyes and raining it on the poor mutt. Oh yeah. I sometimes forget, but the faeries helpfully remind me—immortal wonders they might be, but they’re also annoying as hell.
Only, in this case the faeries’ arrival has an unintended benefit. The dog takes one look at the faeries and runs yipping into the house. I don’t know if he can see the Frost Faeries—they’re pretty much fuzzy blobs to anyone in this world thanks to the magic they wield—but he knows better than to stick around where they can get to them.
I’m not so lucky. The faeries fly around me, laughing, calling me names, teasing me. Some land on my hair which immediately freezes stiff, and others throw snow at my eyes. One drops a frozen beetle on my head.
I think they like me. I’ve experienced them not liking me, and this is still preferable. But it is annoying. I curse and swat at them with my injured hand. The one with three fingers.
“Get lost! I’m working!”
“Ooh! Scary! And what if we don’t?”
“Yes, threaten us! What would ye do?”
The faeries know I can’t back up any threats, so I don’t bother making them. I sigh and take my hand away from my belt. I had been grasping another bottle with my finger on the cork while facing down the dog. If kicking didn’t work I was going to hit it with a potion full of eye-destroying pepper concentrate, although that would have been animal cruelty.
I can hear the dog that fled inside the house barking in fear, and now he pokes his head out the half-open door he first charged out at me from. The faeries throw snow at him and he whines in fear, but, credit where credit is due, he still doesn’t want to leave me alone.
A young voice shouts from inside the house. The door opens wider, and now a girl runs out. She’s maybe eight or nine, and the dog anxiously runs out after her, circling around her. The girl takes no notice of the faeries, but stares at me.
“Who’re you? Are you trying to hurt Barky?”
Instantly I regret my kicking-dog thoughts. A bit. The little girl stares at me with big, round eyes that creep me out.
“What are you here for?”
“I’m a Runner. Are your parents around?”
She looks doubtful, so I reach into my pouch and pull out a small Seal of my own. The magic metal and stone forged into a circle glints as I show it to the girl. It’s proof I’m a City Runner; without it she would be right to be nervous.
“That’s right. I have a delivery for your father. Is he here?”
“No—but I have a Seal! I’ll go get it!”
The girl runs inside the house. The dog takes one look at us and runs in after her. The faeries and I wait as I shift from bare foot to foot in the snow. After a few seconds the door opens again and the girl runs out.
“Here, Miss Runner!”
I hand the package over to the girl. She takes it carefully; it’s bulky and wrapped heavily. I have no idea what’s in it, but at least she won’t drop it.
“Alright then, take care.”
“Goodbye Miss Runner!”
The girl beams at me, and the dog barks. I try to smile; fail. Then she looks at my feet and gasps.
“Aren’t your feet cold?”
I look down at my bare feet. They’re resting in the snow which practically covers them, melting the cold ground, but I barely feel a thing. I grin at her.
“Nope. I’ve got magic feet.”
She gapes at me, and I make tracks before she can ask any questions. The dog barks a few more times as I leave, but I’m willing to give him that. So long as he doesn’t chase after me. I check my shoulders a few more times, but he stays with the girl.
Good dog. The faeries on the other hand aren’t quite so well behaved.
“Hah! The waif has a loyal dog! Like the king and the Hound of Culann!”
“What was that she said? Magic feet?”
“How? Where did ye get them, mortal!”
“Yes, explain! Explain!”
They begin jumping up and down on my head as I pick up speed. I try to ignore them.
Despite the cold air and deep snow, I barely feel the chill as I run away from the farmhouse that I was making a delivery to. In the distance, the relatively tall walls of Celum beckon me. It’s just past dawn and I’ve got more deliveries to make. And I’ll make them in record time thanks to—
Someone pulls at my hair and I grit my teeth.
“Stop that! I don’t have magic feet. I drank some soup, okay? Magic soup.”
The tiny voice on top of my head sounds disappointed. So do the rest of the faeries. I guess magic feet isn’t as cool as magic soup. But then I hear another voice.
“I want to try some.”
“Give us the soup, Human!”
“The soup! The soup!”
They begin harassing me again. I try not to pay attention as I run back towards the city.
Magic soup. Yeah.
Did I mention I was in another world?
After the dog incident, I make good time running back to Celum. It’s not as if I was that far away from the city, and I only had two more deliveries to make in the outer suburbs.
Fun fact: unlike the Drake cities to the south, Human cities may have walls, but their actual population likes to live outside the walls in lovely suburbs that nestle right up against the walls in some places. It’s that old medieval-style method of building that allows cities to house a much larger population. If monsters attack, people just run inside the walls until they’re gone and rebuild if they have to.
I wonder how well that worked in Esthelm. Given that the entire city was pretty much razed, I’m guessing there might be a teeny flaw in this system.
But it’s not my job to give architectural advice to people. In fact, the only words I speak are when people open their doors.
“Do you know how early it is? Who’re you?”
“I’m a Runner with a delivery. Do you have a Seal?”
“What? You’re a Street Runner?”
“City Runner. I’m doing local deliveries. Do you have a Seal?”
“That’s…quick. Normally we get messages late.”
“So I’ve been told. Your Seal?”
Eventually I get the Seal and hand the letter over to the person at the door and run away. That’s what my job is all about. The talking and dodging dogs—that’s the worst part. I’m just in it for the running.
Too bad everything seems to get in my way. Of course, that’s my unbiased opinion; what could be more important than me delivering letters to people? Guardsmen on patrol? Merchants and farmers with their wagons?
Bah. All of that is less important than the almighty Runner. I dodge and weave around pedestrians, run down less-crowded back alleys and avoid the hell out of any carts rumbling down the wet streets, all the while being followed by my annoying entourage of faeries.
I must admit, for all I hate their fascination with me, they do help clear the crowds. In this world, the Frost Faeries are simply known as strange creatures that help bring the winter each year. Because they can’t be heard and barely be seen by the people here, they’re generally treated like natural hazards to be avoided at all costs.
Too bad I can see them. I’m still not sure why, but that’s led to me striking up an odd relationship up with the faeries. Namely, they annoy me and follow me about hoping I do something entertaining.
Like slip. I windmill my arms, but I still smack hard into the ground. The faeries—and some of the Humans walking by—chuckle, but I get back to my feet without a word and keep running. I swear that ice patch wasn’t there a second ago.
“Did you enjoy your fall? Be more careful next time!”
“Take care not to slip, Human.”
“We tripped you! Hah!”
Damn faeries. I keep running, ignoring them as best I can. People give me odd looks if I start talking to the air in any case.
“Ooh. So busy! Too busy to talk!”
One of the faeries on my head slaps at my head to get my attention. I grit my teeth and ignore her, although it hurts. Then she pulls at my eyelid.
“Screw you! Off!”
I slap at her and she flies away, cheering. I guess getting me to react counts as a win in her books. Another faerie swoops down and flies around my face, obstructing my vision as she laughs.
“This mortal is so busy. Not too busy to play a game of riddles, though!”
“‘Twas not a fair game, though! She used numbers and lies instead of trickery! Shame!”
The other faeries jeer and yell at me. I keep a straight face, although the fact that I’m being berated by these obnoxious idiots for playing unfair is hilarious. They’re the most unrepentantly vicious, mischievous, and deceitful creatures I’ve ever met, and those are the qualities I like about them.
The Frost Faeries continue to call me names as I run back into the city proper. I get the sense that despite their obnoxious tone, today they’re a bit more annoyed with me than usual. How do I know? A bit more ice mixed in with the snow they toss on me, and a bit too many pinches and pokes than usual.
Normally the faeries respect—well, they’re equally parts helpful as annoying. Twice as annoying as helpful, but they do have limits. But I think they were disappointed in my game of riddles with Teriarch, the Dragon, a while back.
Yeah. A Dragon. I can barely believe it, but I did meet him. I keep telling myself that, although my only proof is the bag of gold at my side and the book of magic spells. Gods, I still can’t believe I walked away with part of a Dragon’s treasure.
It was a wonderful, magical encounter. But the faeries got mad because instead of having a proper Smeagol vs Bilbo game of riddles, I instead hit Teriarch with logic puzzles from my world. Apparently that doesn’t count and they’re mad about it.
Or something. I finally get rid of the faeries as I go one place they can’t stand: indoors. As I run towards a familiar building, all the faeries hiss and leap off my head. They throw snow at me as I open the door to the Runner’s Guild and slip inside. The building is made with nails of iron and it has iron in general inside; ergo the faeries don’t feel welcome and don’t follow. Their rules are bizarre, but I’m glad they exist.
“Done with the deliveries.”
The [Receptionist] at the counter looks up and gives me a smile which I don’t return. I hand her the Seals I’ve been given and she confirms all my deliveries are done.
“That was quick, Miss Ryoka! I gave them to you just an hour ago, didn’t I?”
I shrug. I was given five different locations. I got to them all, and got the seals. And I did it fast, too.
“Yep. Got any more?”
The [Receptionist] glances awkwardly at the board of deliveries. I look over there too, and notice some other Runners congregated around it. Only one or two today, though.
Normally, longer deliveries are posted on the board – these would be city-to-city runs, the kind I normally do. But there aren’t many requests or many of the better type of Runner that can avoid or outrun bandits and monsters—City Runners—around. That’s because of the Goblins. No one wants to run into them, even if none have been spotted on the roads as of yet.
“I’m afraid we’re all out of Street Runner deliveries. You and the other City Runners—”
I glance over and see where the receptionist is looking. The Runner’s Guild has tables and places to sit, and they’re occupied by an annoyed-looking group of younger Runners. They’re all Street Runners, by the looks of them. They’re not as quick as City Runners, and though they might know the streets well, I and the other city Runners can still beat them in speed. We’ve been cooped up in the city, and so we’ve been poaching all their regular deliveries.
Do I feel bad? No, not really. Running, doing deliveries, it’s all a competition in a way. I run fast, and so I get paid more. Maybe I’d try to give them some work if I intended to stay here for a while, but I think this is my last day of running solely around the city.
I turn back to the receptionist and nod.
“Fine, I’ll come back later. Is Garia Strongheart around?”
“Miss Garia? I haven’t seen her yet. Do you want to leave a message for her?”
“Just tell her I’d like to talk to her if she comes in. That’s all.”
“I will do so. Have a good day, Miss R—”
I’m out the door before the [Receptionist] finishes speaking. Was that rude? Yes, it probably was. She was only trying to do her job, but I didn’t want to exchange pleasantries. It’s a bad habit of mine, and I’ve been getting better recently.
But today? Today’s a bit…frustrating for me. Scratch that, I just woke up so I can’t really say it’s been frustrating as of yet. More like I’ve been having problems for the last few days and today it’s just…
I jog down the streets, keeping an eye out for Frost Faeries. They’re probably bothering someone else right now, but I want to get to my destination before they come back to check on me. Sure enough, I spot the familiar building and push the door open.
Unlike the Runner’s Guild, I hear a babble of voices and find a full house the instant I walk in. Barmaids—three of them—bustle about the room, filling mugs and tankards and serving food to the room full of people eating breakfast.
That’s pretty normal for an inn. But this inn is special, if only because it’s under new management. The evidence of that is clear when I stare at what one of the barmaids is serving to the guests.
Yep. They’re crepes alright, complete with sprinkled sugar, and lots of butter. Not any syrup; I guess it’s too expensive for this inn’s budget. But eggs and bacon make this a filling meal—and food choice aside, I can see that each crepe is golden brown and cooked perfectly.
The small inn I’m staying at, the Frenzied Hare, is packed today, just like it was yesterday. Although we’ve only been in the city for a few days, word has gotten around that there’s a new [Innkeeper] who makes great food, and so every day the common room is packed full of people.
Again, thanks to the new management. I’m not sure if she owns the inn, but she acts as if she does and everyone goes along with her because frankly, she’s pulling in money by the bagful. I walk into the kitchen and see the mastermind behind today’s breakfast flipping a crepe into the air. She holds out a plate to catch it, and it splats into the bowl of batter. I block some of the splatter with my hands as she exclaims.
“Ew! I guess [Advanced Cooking] doesn’t help with that.”
She wipes some of the batter off her apron and licks it. Then she looks around and sees me.
“Hey Ryoka! Want a crepe?”
I wipe the batter on my hands and shirt off onto an apron, suddenly realizing that I probably shouldn’t be walking in here with my wet and dirty feet. Oh well.
“I’ll have some food, Erin. Do you want to have breakfast together or have you eaten?”
“Um…I’ve made breakfast, but haven’t eaten. Let me just make one last stack—I think everyone out there is mostly done! I’ll be with you in a bit.”
I walk back out into the inn and try to find an empty table. One of the barmaids who’s name I keep forgetting comes over with a plate of crepes.
“Anything you want to drink, Miss Ryoka? Or is it just hot water again?”
“Hot water. And Erin will probably have milk. She’ll be out in a bit.”
“I’ll be back with your drinks in a second!”
The young woman smiles at me and moves over to another table. I start cutting my crepe apart and eating it. It’s delicious, and the eggs and bacon I manage to get another barmaid to give me are just as good. But my eyes are on the kitchen, and soon enough I see her come out of it.
Erin Solstice. The inn doesn’t exactly stop for her, but somehow she makes her own impression on it. As soon as she comes out she looks towards me. I raise my hand, but she’s intercepted before she even sees me.
The actual owner of the Frenzied Hare, Agnes, has a plate of food in one hand and a huge smile on her face. She’s acting as a barmaid rather than as the innkeeper, but she couldn’t be happier judging by the look on her face as she sits Erin down at a table. She chats animatedly with Erin and other guests come over.
That’s part of Erin’s charm, I guess. She’s friendly, open, and frankly interesting. As an [Innkeeper], I gather she’s quite high-level, especially at her age. You could call her a prodigy without exaggerating, at least by how this world judges things.
Erin has many Skills in the [Innkeeper] class that makes her useful in any inn she walks into, and in a fight. She’s also got great charisma, which is why I finish two plates of food and Erin’s drink of milk before she even finishes her first plate. She’s so busy chatting with Agnes and some other people that I have to wait a few minutes before I can even get her attention.
“Oh, hey Ryoka! Sorry, I must have missed you! Agnes was just telling me I should stay here and help her run the inn forever!”
The woman chuckles as she sits next to Erin, eating the crepes.
“It would be lovely if you would. You’re such a good cook and frankly my dear—you have such a way about you that even Ronald would be jealous of. He’s still so sick—but even when he gets better I could see you being the real manager of the inn. Why, you’re like a second child to me—not that I had a first. I’d so love it if you gave it some thought.”
I roll my eyes as Erin smiles and says something polite and friendly in reply. A second child, sure. One that can do Agnes’ job and her husbands’ without even needing them. Erin is a golden goose and they just want her to stay here and earn them tons of money forever. Even though she’s splitting the profits with Agnes, they have to be earning more in these few days than they would in a month.
Maybe I’m being too harsh. Agnes looks genuinely happy to have Erin here, and so do the other people. But I’m not going to wait until they finish their chat about banal things. I clear my throat.
“Erin. Do you have a minute?”
She looks up at me and nods, while the others look disappointed.
“Sure, Ryoka! Let me just eat one last crepe…mm, this is good! You want another?”
I shake my head and wait until Erin finishes stuffing her face. Of course, that doesn’t mean she and I get to talk right away. Agnes, hovers around while Erin chats with her…and then some of her guests…and then finally has time to talk with me at a table in the corner.
“What’s up, Ryoka? Did you finish your deliveries?”
“A while ago. But I was thinking today you and I should do more planning. We still need to get you back.”
Erin’s smile, present on her face since the moment I saw her today, fades. She looks at me seriously.
“Right. We still need to get back. But didn’t you say that was dangerous? You told me yesterday that leaving wasn’t a good idea.”
I nod. Erin and I are in Celum, a Human city on the continent of Izril. And while we’re surviving well enough here, this isn’t where Erin belongs. She needs to go back to Liscor, a city a hundred miles south of here, and that is an undertaking which has been bothering me since I found her here.
“Right, leaving earlier wasn’t a good option. The gates were locked for the first day, and we were still getting word of what happened yesterday. But there aren’t any reports of large Goblin groups on the move today, so if we’re going to look into getting you back to Liscor, we should start now.”
Liscor is Erin’s home. At least, that’s where her inn is. And her friends. She belongs there, in a sense, and both she and I know it, no matter how much she might enjoy being here.
Erin frowns as she nods and drinks from her cup of warm milk.
“I want to go back, Ryoka, I really do. I know Mrsha must be so worried! But Selys can take care of her, and I really do want to finish up my experiments with Octavia first.”
I frown at Erin. She keeps saying she wants to finish her experiments, but over the three days we’ve been here, she’s gone to the [Alchemist]’s shop nearly every day.
“Aren’t you done yet? Or can’t you finish your work in Liscor?”
“Maybe…but I need Octavia’s help, Ryoka! She knows all kinds of rare alchemical stuff and she helps me with the food.”
Magical food. Only Erin would think of it. But it works—she made a soup that can give me partial immunity to the cold. I clench my teeth as I think.
“If I had to choose between you going now or later…there are [Alchemists] in Liscor, I’m sure, Erin. And maybe we could get Octavia to come with you? She’d do anything for gold.”
“Either way, I want to know that we can get you back, so I wanted to visit places with you if you’ve got time before you go to Octavia’s. There’s a market full of magical items—I want to see if there’s anything you or I could use in case we got attacked on the road—and the Adventurer’s Guild might have a party we could hire to escort us back.”
Erin’s eyes light up at the sound of magical items. She’s still not over magic existing in this world, and neither am I, in truth. She nods eagerly as she finishes her drink.
“I’d love to come along! Agnes says she can handle lunch, so as long as I’m back for dinner—I’m sure Octavia wouldn’t mind if I came by an hour or two late.”
I’m sure she wouldn’t. I nod briskly as Erin waves at Agnes to let her know.
“Fine. First we go shopping, then we’ll ask about an escort and visit Octavia. Sound good?”
“Oh, and by the way, the Frost Faeries are back.”
It takes us a while to leave the inn, but by the time we do, thirty more minutes have passed, and the faeries are waiting for us as we leave.
“Oh look! It’s the duo! The food maker and the story teller!”
“Let’s hit them with snow!”
“Nae, let’s demand food and a story!”
Erin blinks up at the faeries as I groan. The other guests that came out to talk and socialize with Erin immediately decide to go back in as the tiny faeries begin swirling around us again, pulling at hair, laughing, conjuring snow—
“Hey, do you all want a crepe?”
They blink. I blink. But the steaming crepe is in Erin’s hands and she tosses it up to them. Immediately, all the faeries begin to fight over it.
“Give it to me!”
In an instant the crepe is whirled up into the air and bits of it fall down as the faeries fight and devour it, ripping head-sized chunks away and gobbling them down like starving…ladybugs. Well, they’re bigger than ladybugs by a good bit, but you get the idea.
While they’re fighting, Erin and I walk off. I see the door open behind us, and to my surprise, a plate heaping with steamed crepes is placed outside. I see Agnes waving at Erin before she closes the door and the faeries descend on the food.
I stare at Erin as she smiles, walking beside me.
“Did you plan that?”
“Yeah, they like food!”
Why didn’t I think of—I walk along with Erin, shaking my head slightly. Bribe the faeries with crepes. It’s so obvious, and so easy!
That’s the thing about Erin. It’s never boring when I’m with her. In fact, she might have an even crazier life than I do at times.
“So, all of these things are magical?”
Erin and I stand in what I can only call a cross between a flea market and a shopping street, staring at a merchant as he displays a small selection of old-looking rings, amulets, and even a few neatly tied scrolls.
Like all markets, supply is often matched by demand, which is why finding anyone who sells magical items in Celum is actually a harder task than it might seem. There are very few shops that do permanent trade in solely magical items, and most such merchants roam from city to city to find their clientele.
Erin and I were lucky enough to be pointed towards this [Merchant], a man of good repute who offers lower-grade magical items. He’s a richly dressed man wearing countless rings and jewelry that sparkles and gives the impression of magic—although I doubt the rings do much more than emit pretty colors. The effect is nice, though, and the man himself is quite the salesman, trying to get Erin or I to commit to a purchase.
Frankly, I’m not sure I’ll buy anything today. I’ve got Octavia’s potions which are quite useful, and I don’t have any glaring needs for magical artifacts right now. I’m just browsing. Also, from what I understand of how much any kind of enchanted object costs, I can only afford a very basic item even with the eight hundred gold pieces I received from Teriarch.
The man sits on a small wooden chair, watching us with a smile on his face while his two guards watch us and everyone coming near the display with considerably less cheer. Erin stares with fascination at the rings; they just look old and uninteresting to me, except for one ring that’s visibly sparkling with red light. I guess most magical items are designed not to attract attention.
“Ladies, what would you two like to buy? I have quite a small selection today—I was cleaned out a while back, but I believe I have a number of trinkets that could help you with all your needs. In fact, I even have a little potion for romantic—”
“We’re not shopping for love potions. I’m looking for protection.”
I don’t want to know if there are actual love potions in this world. The man blinks at me.
“Protection? Unless you need a weapon—no. Are you a Runner?”
I lift one bare foot. The [Merchant] is eying my un-frostbitten toes, and I can tell he wants to ask about them.
“I’m looking for a ring of protection or something similar. Anything that can help me survive a run-in with monsters or bandits.”
The man smiles thinly at me, and from the way the two guards shift, I can tell they’re amused as well.
“Ah, I’m afraid you might be under a bit of a misapprehension, Miss. Protection is a very general term. There’s no such thing as a ring that simply guards against everything—at least not outside of an artifact worth hundreds of thousands of gold coins—but let me show you what you’re probably looking for in your line of work.”
The [Merchant] gives me a not-at-all condescending smile that makes me want to deck him as he selects a ring from the items in front of him. He shows me the ring; a slightly cracked circle that feels like it’s made of stone.
“This is a wonderful little trinket that I could sell you—for six hundred gold coins, say? It will deflect arrows for one minute when activated. Arrows will swerve as they fly towards you, perfect for a Runner like you to make their escape.”
“Why’s it cracked?”
Erin peers at the ring next to me. She touches the ring along the crack and the man practically snatches it back.
“Please don’t touch that. The magic on this ring is slightly—faded. Hence the discount. But I can assure you it will last quite a long time if not subjected to undue pressure.”
“Like an arrow?”
He ignores Erin and smiles at me.
“How about it? You could weather any storm of arrows—especially ones shot by Goblin archers. I’m sure you’ve heard about the attack on Esthelm? Tragic. But in your line of work, you can’t afford to stay behind city walls, can you? This ring will allow you plenty of time to escape.”
“For a minute.”
“A minute. Yes.”
Erin frowns as she stares at the ring. I keep my face straight and try to sound disinterested—I know how to haggle. But I’m more interested in seeing how Erin deals with this [Merchant]. I’m pretty sure I don’t even want that crappy ring, but I do want to see the show. Erin points to the ring as she questions the man.
“A minute doesn’t sound like much. How long does it take to recharge?”
He grits his teeth, although he’s still smiling.
“Two days. But you can always recharge it if you have the gift, and I assure you—”
“—And what did you mean earlier? Arrows ‘swerve’? Does that mean it doesn’t really deflect them? Wait a second, why would anyone want a ring like that anyways?”
My lips twitch, and I even see the guards grinning a bit. The [Merchant]’s voice is testy.
“It’s true that the ring doesn’t send arrows in the other direction, but it does repel them from your person. If you are running, I’m confident the arrows would fail to hit their mark. It would take someone with a Skill to bypass the protection this ring offers, and again, let me say for five hundred and seventy gold coins, this ring is a bargain.”
“I bet Halrac could shoot an arrow that could beat your ring.”
“Halrac! He’s this guy—a [Scout] that I met at my inn. He’s really good with a bow, and he’s got tons of Skills. What would happen if he shot an arrow at this ring? Would it work?”
The man stares at Erin, brow furrowed.
“Halrac? You mean…Halrac of Griffin Hunt? The Gold-rank adventurer?”
“Yeah, that’s him. He’s a friend of ours. Do you know him?”
For two seconds the [Merchant] stares at Erin. Then he glances at something on his wrist. I look down. One of the gemstones on the man’s bestrewn hands is glowing softly blue. Oho. A truth spell on a stone?
At once, the man’s demeanor changes. He spreads his arms wide, all former irritation gone in a flash as he stands up, now trying to be very welcoming towards us.
“If you know Halrac, that’s different. You know, he bought a very nice amulet from a friend of mine just last year? I’d be very grateful if you’d recommend my wares to him. And for a friend of Halrac, I could certainly offer you…ah…”
He’s clearly trying to figure out what kind of discount and pitch he should give us when I hear familiar voices and groan through clenched teeth.
“There she is! Found her!”
“She can’t run away this time!”
“Ooh! Is she looking at magical items? Look how shiny they are! And how weak!”
“They barely glow of magic!”
Erin looks around, frowning. I’ve already spotted the Frost Faeries—they’re rising in a cloud over one of the roofs. Neither the guards nor the [Merchant] can hear the faeries of course, but they see us looking away and spot the faeries. They’re probably only glowing blurs to them, but all three react when they see the Winter Sprites.
The [Merchant] exclaims in a loud voice, and one of the guards shouts a warning. Surprisingly, every single shopkeeper on the street suddenly begins to scramble, shouting as they grab at their wares and try to get everything inside.
The faeries fly down, laughing at the chaos as the man grabs at his magical rings and amulets, face suddenly hunted. Erin looks confused.
“Hey wait, where are you going? I thought you were going to sell us that bad ring!”
The man turns to us, looking frantic.
“Look, we’ll do business when the Winter Sprites are gone, alright? If I keep my wares out in the open they’ll scatter my goods and chase away all my customers!”
He rushes towards the nearest door, his guards grabbing the rest of his goods. Other shopkeepers do the same and the pedestrians scatter indoors as well, fearing the wrath of the fickle nuisances. In seconds, the street is deserted except for two humans and the faeries.
Erin and I stare up at the faeries. They stare back as they hover in the air, watching us. One of them waves.
After our short shopping trip in the market, the next place Erin and I decide to go is indoors, where the faeries can’t follow. And where we find ourselves is the Adventurer’s Guild. Erin and I stare around the big room as she whispers to me.
“It looks sort of like Selys’s guild, but not, don’t you think? I mean, this place is bigger. A lot bigger.”
I nod as I stare around the Adventurer’s Guild in Celum. This place is certainly a lot bigger, and the room has space for up to six receptionists at once, rather than the single desk for two in Liscor’s guild. I tap on the desk for the receptionist as I ask about hiring a team. She directs me towards the adventurers sitting in one corner of the room. Apparently, hiring an escort is done by contacting the adventurers directly, not through the guild here.
I stare at the groups of adventurers sitting together. Some are Bronze-rank, most are, probably. And others are Silver-rank, whether individually or in teams. A lot of them look tired, cleaning their equipment after some mission, and others look like they’re just here to socialize.
Damnit. Which group should I talk to? What’s the standard rate for hiring them? Can I trust a Silver-rank team? I know none of this.
Neither does Erin, but she has an almost insultingly cavalier attitude towards this.
“Let’s just ask them. If any of them say they can take us to Liscor, let’s try it!”
“You want me to just walk over there and ask them about escort duty?”
I hate talking to new people. I hate starting up conversations, and this is practically my worst nightmare. But Erin just shrugs at me. I grind my teeth.
“What do you expect me to say? ‘Hey, we’re looking for a group of adventurers to escort us to Liscor. Know anyone who might be interested?’”
“That sounds good. Why not?”
I stare at Erin. Well, it might work.
“You say it. I think it’s best if it comes from you.”
Erin nods and begins walking over to the nearest table where two brawny warriors are sitting and drinking together. Halfway there she turns back and looks at me with a smile of realization.
“You know who’d be great, Ryoka? The Horns of Hammerad! Why don’t we just ask them?”
I blink. Oh. Of course. That would save costs or they could redirect us. I walk over towards Erin, but then one of the adventurers sitting at the table raises his voice?
“The Horns of Hammerad? Aren’t they all dead?”
Erin beams at them.
“What? No! No, they’ve reformed, didn’t you hear? After they uh—they lost people at the Ruins in Liscor—”
One of the men snorts. He’s in his late twenties by the looks of him, and he’s got day-old stubble on his face.
“I heard about that disaster. Four adventuring teams dead and only a handful of survivors thanks to a bunch of incompetent Captains. You’re telling me someone’s stupid enough to keep the name after that? They should have quit being adventurers before they ever went on another mission.”
I stop in my tracks and bite my lips. Erin pauses, and the smile on her face freezes. The second adventurer looks at his companion.
“Who survived? I heard everyone got slaughtered down there.”
“At least two made it out. The half-Elf and the Silver Captain.”
“Ceria Springwalker and Yvlon Byres? I wouldn’t join a group with those two even if they were the last team on the continent. Anyone stupid enough to work with them is going to get killed like their last groups.”
Don’t punch them. I know that. Erin’s voice is flat.
“They’re both great adventurers. They’re my friends.”
The two men shake their heads at her.
“They’re idiots and cowards who got good folk who trusted them killed.”
“You might think they’re on your side, but mark my words, girl. Trust them and you’ll end up with an arrow in your back.”
They don’t even bother lowering their voices. People at other tables look up as they hear the two men begin to argue with Erin.
“That’s not true! Ceria’s really brave! So is Yvlon!”
“The half-Elf? I bet she turned and ran the instant she got into trouble. She’s a coward. Calruz was the only real fighter in the Horns of Hammerad.”
“Take that back!”
Erin’s getting mad, and I’m eying the two men seated at their table. They look a lot tougher than the adventurers Erin got into a fight with at her inn. And they’re just talking, not sexually harassing anyone.
But my blood is still boiling. The Horns of Hammerad don’t deserve this. They were all brave, and I could tell them that, but what would be the point? The two sneering men clearly don’t want to listen; the best thing I could do is kick them both in the face.
I could start a fight—
But I close my hand and feel the stumps of my fingers. No. Not here. Not now. We need the help of some adventurers, even if it’s not them.
I put my hand on Erin’s shoulder. She’s tense and glaring.
“Come on, Erin. Let’s talk to someone else.”
“If you want real protection, Miss, you’d best ask us or a real Silver-rank team. Not a bunch of half-wits that can’t even slay a few undead.”
I have to drag Erin backwards. She glares at me, but I manage to pull her back successfully. Five steps. Then I run into someone.
I pause as I stare into a familiar, beat-up face. An adventurer pauses with four of his buddies as they walk towards the receptionist’s desk. All of them look beat-upon; the result of a bar fight they were on the losing end of.
The lead adventurer certainly recognizes me.
He takes one look at Erin and begins edging towards the door. Too late. As my grip slackens, Erin pulls herself away. She walks back over to the table with the two adventurers and smiles at them as she puts her hands on the edge of the table.
“You should take back what you said about Ceria and Yvlon. They’re my friends and they did everything they could to keep everyone else alive.”
“We said exactly what everyone else was thinking, Miss. The Horns of Hammerad—both past and old—are a team of fools.”
Erin takes a deep breath. Her eyes are wide and she gives them a big smile.
“Okay. Fine. If that’s the way it’s gonna be then—table flip attack!”
On the whole, I sometimes wonder if Erin’s the more violent one between the two of us.
“Well, now we’re banned from the Adventurer’s Guild. At least for a while.”
I sigh as Erin and I stump along down the street, followed by a cloud of faeries. I’m resigned to them by this point. They fly after us, laughing about the fight. Erin walks behind me, frowning.
“I don’t regret a thing! Those guys were jerks!”
“Yeah, they were. But now they won’t help us if we need to get back to Liscor.”
“So? We’ll just get the Horns of Hammerad to do it. Ceria and Pisces and Yvlon and Ksmvr can probably defend us against anything we run up against.”
“Maybe. But we don’t know where they are. I can try and make a trip to Albez—or put the word out I’m looking for them in other cities, but it’ll take longer.”
Erin nods, and I glance up at the faeries flying overhead. They look…slightly bored, actually. They’re still laughing and one of them is dropping a steady stream of powdery snowflakes into my eyes, but the rest are just following along, quiet for once.
Huh. I guess even faeries get bored. I shrug and keep walking.
“I’m going to do another delivery—to another city probably. I’ll be back tonight unless something comes up. You okay until then?”
“I’m gonna blow something up.”
“That sounds like fun. Just try not to piss Octavia off too much, okay?”
I try to drop Erin off at the [Alchemist]’s shop, but to my surprise Octavia herself runs out, waving one of her arms at me as if it’s a club.
Erin walks happily into the shop as the stitch-girl confronts me. Octavia looks stressed out, sort of understandable given that she’s going to be babysitting Erin all day today. Again.
“Hey Octavia, Erin wants to blow something up.”
The young woman’s dark skinned face goes pale as she looks back at Erin in her shop. I feel a bit bad, so I try to reassure her.
“She probably won’t. She’s looking forwards to experimenting with new food recipes, Octavia.”
“Absolutely not! Do you know how much she’s cost me already? One day was in our agreement. I could see two days, maybe three in light of our past arrangements and for future business’s sake, but four? Erin’s already cost me a small fortune in ingredients, not to mention all the time I could be making my own potions. If I’ve got to keep helping her out I insist on some kind of reimbursement. I know we had a bargain, but this—”
I have to take a step back as Octavia shouts and waves her hands at me. Looks like she’s hit the end of her patience. Damn. What should I do?
I hesitate, then take the most expedient course of action. Octavia’s ranting slows and stops dead as I start pulling gold coins out of the bag at my side. From the looks of it, it shouldn’t be able to hold all the gold that’s in there, but it’s magical. There’s a massive book inside as well, and that still amazes me.
“Fine. I get it. Here’s more money for Erin, okay?”
I pour the gold into Octavia’s hands as the [Alchemist] gapes at me. Twenty golden coins—pretty darn heavy and glittering in the light, wink up at the girl as she looks from the money to me.
Twenty gold coins. Yes, it’s a lot, but it’s only a fraction of the money I got from Teriarch. And by the way Octavia goes silent, it’s a lot more than she thought she’d get.
“So. Is there a problem with Erin?”
“Erin? What? Of course not!”
“Erin, my favorite customer. I’d be happy to—let me just say that as long as she wants to keep working with me, I’d be delighted to help out. Her achievements really are stellar, and let me tell you that I think she’s onto a real breakthrough—”
“Glad to hear it. Just get her whatever she wants, Octavia.”
I let the [Alchemist] practically skip back into her shop and walk off, shaking my head. The faeries follow me, half imitating my shaking head motion, the other half debating whether it would be more enjoyable to watch Erin blow something up in the shop.
I don’t know. I’m glad that Erin’s happy, and I’m fine with leaving her alone to cause havoc in Octavia’s shop. She’ll probably be fine with Octavia to stop her from doing something too insane.
I’m just a bit tired. At the end of my rope, you could say. It’s not that I don’t have anything to do; I’ve got too much to do.
Time to go on another delivery. I start walking in the direction of the Runner’s Guild again. I might not be feeling at the top of my game, but at least I can always count on running to take the stress away.
“I’m looking for a delivery to another city, but I can’t find any requests. Do you have any?”
The receptionist in the Runner’s Guild looks up at me and frowns. She taps one finger against her lips and nods at last.
“We…have the daily letter delivery for Wales if you’re interested.”
Her hesitation is warranted. No one likes that delivery. I make a face.
“Nothing. Sorry Miss Ryoka.”
The [Receptionist] shrinks back slightly in her seat as I stare at her. After a minute I nod.
“Fine. Give me that delivery.”
I run through the snow, and then onto harder, slippery ground that’s been frozen over and not thawed. I frown and run back into the snow. It might be more constricting, but thanks to Erin’s soup that I took another drink of before I left, it’s easier to run through the grass underneath the snow than the slippery road.
I’m doing the bulk letter delivery to Wales. It’s…well, it’s not exactly anything to write home about. Or anywhere else for that matter.
Bulk delivery. Just like the post office, letters are taken in and a huge bag full of them is sent off with a City Runner each day to the other cities. It’s a standard delivery, and since it’s so easy, it pays next to nothing.
I haven’t done it since I started working as a Runner. Where did all the big deliveries go? Do people just not need anything during the winter months? No, that can’t be true. Must just be a slow day.
But, like always, I’m not alone. A cloud of faeries flies around me, watching me with heavy-lidded eyes as I run at a good pace through the snow. But all the faces of the faeries aren’t filled with their usual calculated expressions of glee or anticipation. Instead, they all look bored.
It’s actually sort of bugging me. I glance around at the faeries. Some are frowning, and I rarely see them do that. Why haven’t they gone to bother someone else? But then one flying furthest from me speaks, and I hear her voice clearly over the rushing wind.
“No. This is boring. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
That’s odd. I stare at the faerie who said that. She has a very unhappy expression on her face. She flies into the center of the herd of faeries and raises her voice as she points at me.
“You’re boring now. Boring. Mortal, do something interesting.”
“I’m no one’s monkey. Get lost.”
I wave at the faerie as she flies around me. She blows ice fragments into my face, making me curse and nearly trip as she shouts at the other faeries.
“See? She does naught! I won’t follow anymore. Not even if a Wyvern flew down and dragged her screaming into the air!”
All the faeries look up hopefully. So do I. Nothing. The faerie makes a disgusted sound.
“I am done. There are other places to be, other mortals to watch and bother. Not her.”
That sounds completely fine to me. Why wouldn’t the faeries go annoy someone else if I’m not entertaining them? They’ve done so before.
But this time, the faerie’s words seem to have a lot more significance to them. The other faeries exchange looks, and then begin to argue overhead.
“But she wants—”
“Nae, I don’t care as well! We’ve done this too long!”
“Yeah! She went to the Dragon and nothing happened!”
“I’m staying. No. Wait. I’m going too!”
“Let’s go bother a King! Or a Queen!”
“I want to eat berries in the jungle!”
The faeries…begin flying away. They flutter upwards in a storm of flashing wings and movement. I stare up at them, my heart beating out of my chest for some reason.
They’re going? Forever? Or will they come back? What they said—
I don’t mind. Not at all. If the Frost Faeries leave me alone, no one will be happier than I…
I stumble on something in the snow. When I raise my foot, I see blood. Cut my skin on a bit of rock. Damn.
Then I look up, and they’re gone. The sky is clear, and the faeries—
The Frost Faeries are gone. The winter they brought remains, but the magic has left. I feel empty. Relieved?
No. Not relieved. They’re gone, and I don’t know why.
I turn back to my run. Don’t think about it. Why would they do that? What did they mean? How was I boring? Was it something I did? What was so wrong about the game of riddles with Teriarch?
A flash of liquid ice to my left. My head snaps around so fast I hear a crick.
They’re not all gone. I see a pale blue shape flying in the air beside me. A Frost Faerie, easily keeping pace with me as I run through the snowy landscape.
One of them is still following. Just one, flying up and to my right, sitting in the air as her wings beat disproportionately slowly to the speed she’s going. Just one.
For some reason, the tension in my heart eases. I feel a bit lighter, although I don’t know why. I stare at the faerie and nearly trip again. She waves at me and grins.
Why is she here? I open my mouth to ask, and then see something to my right. Something closing in fast.
Instantly, I reach for a potion at my belt and slow as I fixate on that, forgetting completely about the faerie. I see a blur—something racing through the snow, and—is that laughter? And I see a pale, pinched face, and catch a glimpse of someone for just one second before she’s past me, speeding down the frozen road at a pace I could never match.
I come to a dead stop in the snow, my feet melting the snow I stand on as I stare at the already distant figure running past me, towards another city.
No way. It can’t be. But I say it out loud anyways.
I have no idea. I think it was Persua. She has that same sallow* face and annoying complexion as ever, and her running form was crap.
*I know sallow isn’t the right word, but I’m still using it for her. Pinched is probably a better word, but I like sallow.
But the way she moved! She was moving faster than I was—way faster. How? No, I know how. A Skill. But can it really happen that fast? Persua was the slowest City Runner I knew, even slowly than Garia because she took regular breaks. And now—
I shake my head as I sit in the small room I’ve rented in the Frenzied Hare. Erin’s got her own room for which I’m grateful; I need the alone time right now.
I finished my delivery. It was an easy thing; I don’t even have to track down the individual recipients myself with a bulk delivery. I just hand it over to the receptionist at the local Runner’s Guild and get my pay.
Easy. And now I’m relaxing in my room, using the few hours I have before dinner to do some studying. Not dwelling on Persua; studying.
I sigh and look back at the massive tome in front of me. A book—a magical spell book lies on the table in front of me, so big there’s nowhere else on the table for me to put anything else.
I’m studying magic. That’s what I’ve been doing every day, while Erin causes havoc in Octavia’s shop and generally runs about the city. I’ve cut back on doing my deliveries to make time for this.
Learning magic. Learning spells from the tome of wonders that Teriarch gave me. And how many new spells have I learned today?
Well, none, actually. And how many did I learn yesterday?
None, again. In fact, ever since I opened the book to this page I’ve been…
I stare down at the page covered with words that are part magic, part language. They shine at me, spelling out secrets in the magical language that I can only comprehend at a snail’s pace. But I can read the words—
I just can’t accept what they say.
I raise my hand, and take a breath. It’s not that warm in my room; there’s not exactly central heating in this building, although heat does come up from the ground floor. But it’s chilly even so, and I opened the window to let some air in, despite the freezing cold outside. None of the windows in this inn have glass, so either I keep the shutters closed and suffocate, or face the weather.
Ignore that. Concentrate. I fix all my attention on my hand and try to push an invisible force into the right place. Let it condense, like rainwater. Make it into a current and push—
I say the words, and try to use the magic. But nothing happens. I stare at my hand, and say the words again.
Again, my hand and the air around it are completely still.
It’s not working. I look back at the page in the book and clench my fists. Another failure.
“It makes no sense. It’s not—”
I take another breath, and try to exhale slowly. No. It’s really not working, is it? I can’t figure it out. This—
This isn’t working.
I stand up and walk slowly around my cramped room. Yeah. I’ve been trying to put off this conclusion for a while. Day after day I’ve done this, but I’m no closer to the answer than I was yesterday. I have to call it. I have to say it.
“I can’t do it.”
This is the real reason why every day hasn’t been great. Stress, Goblins, all of my worries are one thing, but I think I could have handled it all if it wasn’t for this.
I can’t learn magic. I thought I could, but I can’t. I got this book from Teriarch, a complete beginner’s guide to spells that should allow me to learn every spell easily and quickly. Hell, I mastered one of the spells in the book in minutes! But I tried reading more spells before I delivered the book to Krshia and its…just not working for me.
The first two spells were easy. I learned a basic telekinesis cantrip—the ability to lift things up like Ceria and Pisces do. Nothing fancy, and I’d have to really work to lift more than the few snowflakes off the table, but it was easy enough to grasp. And then I figured out how to blow air around, another fun trick. But then I started reading another spell—[Water Spray], a very simplistic spell that’s probably Tier 0, and I got stuck.
I stare down at the page again. There are no pictures, probably because magic isn’t something you can just describe in words. But I look at the meanings described on the page and I know exactly what must be done.
Let the magic condense, coalesce into a liquid, a real thing. Let it pool and grow, into a current and ocean of its own. Hold it, and then let it manifest as you push it outwards into the shape you desire. Magic is like water, a rushing thing to be guided, but never forced. You cannot force the sea to move, but you can give it a channel—
Why can’t I get this? Well, because I can’t believe it works. Simple as that. I understand how the spell goes and how I conjure water out of the air but—
I can’t do it. It violates the basic laws of physics. To cast [Water Spray], I need to turn magic into water, anchor it in a form and then use magic to spray it out. Simple.
But I know that it’s impossible. Magic into matter? It doesn’t work like that. It violates the laws of thermodynamics! What about conservation of energy? The water dissipates fast, but does it evaporate or turn back into magic?
And what about fire? How is it mimicking a natural reaction if it’s burning…magic? Would it still burn in an airtight room?
I clutch at my head. This is all wrong. It should be easy. I get how it works, but now—
I can’t believe it works. That’s the problem. All the science I know, all the laws of my reality I’ve grown up with—they’re telling me what I’m trying to do is impossible, making me doubt what I’m doing and ask questions this book can’t answer.
And magic is partly faith. It must be. If I don’t believe what I’m doing will work, it won’t work. And I don’t believe I can cast this spell. I suppose I just didn’t think about it with the [Light] spell and even when I learned to make fire. But making water out of nothing just doesn’t—
The problem becomes a loop of errors in my head as I struggle to convince myself that I can conjure water out of nothing. But it doesn’t help. I can try to do the spell, but it won’t work. I have to know. I have to understand, and I think…
“I can’t do this.”
Not with this book. I stare down at it, wanting to throw up, or throw it through my window. It’s so easy to learn with this book. It should be. But because I went to school and studied all these damn lessons about how the world works, I can’t believe in these spells.
“Education ruined magic.”
I don’t want to believe that’s true, but I’ve been stuck on this one spell. I can’t move on until I complete it—I just can’t. Even when I look at other spells, all the doubts that popped into my head from this one follow me from page to page.
Maybe if I stare at it longer, something will click. [Water Spray]. Magic turns into water, water appears. I can’t—
I’m so miserable and angry at myself I want to put my fist through something. A wall, maybe. I clench my fingers on my right hand and stare at the deformed fist I make.
Something else to add more depression to my day. I stare at the book and my hand.
Today wasn’t a bad day. Not really. I did some deliveries. I got to see Erin punch an adventurer in the face. I saw Persua—
And the faeries think I’m boring. They left.
All except one.
I look out my window. The sky is gray and the rooftops are filled with snow. But is she out there? Or has she gone too?
She’s out there. I didn’t even realize it at first. But I see something hovering just outside my window. A faint blue shape, holding so still in the air that I didn’t even realize she was watching me.
A Frost Faerie meets my eyes as I stare at her and nearly tumble out of my seat. She laughs at me as I stare at her and feel the wind blow into my room.
She smiles at me, and floats forwards a bit. The wind is blowing hard, but she doesn’t even seem to be affected by the air that blows my hair about and flicks the pages on the spellbook. She’s in a little world of her own, but she stops at the edge of my windowsill.
Oh. Right. I stare at her and the room I’m in. Faeries are a bit like Vampires. They can’t enter unless invited. Do I have the right? I don’t own this inn—
But I am renting this room. I cough and clear my throat.
“Come in. If you want.”
The faerie stares at me for a second, and then nods in agreement. She alights on my windowsill and dances into the room, twirling and leaping onto my desk with effortless grace. Her feet leave frost on the wood wherever they touch, and I can sense the chill from her.
The faerie shivers, although I don’t. She looks around the room darkly.
“Too much cold iron here. ‘Tis not a good place for true magics, or my kind. But then, ye can’t even master a few tricks, so the iron doubtless hinders ye little.”
It’s the first words she says. Not ‘hello’ or ‘how are you?’ or even ‘sorry I was spying on you this entire time’. She just jumps into the heart of the conversation like that. I like that about faeries.
“You mean iron interferes with spells? Is that why I can’t master this one?”
The faerie shakes her head at me as she scoffs at the large tome on my table. She steps on one of the pages and kicks the parchment with a foot.
“Pshaw. The magic yon book teaches is only a fragment of true magic. Ye should know that.”
“I do. But I don’t know real magic. A fragment is better than nothing.”
The faerie nods, and looks at me.
“True. But you cannot learn even that, can ye? I’ve been watching you, and a toad would pick up that spell faster than ye can.”
I bite my tongue. But she’s right.
“I can’t figure it out.”
“And neither will you. You think too much and feel far too little. You look for rules where none exist, and make your own to hold you back. Ye won’t learn magic like this.”
I don’t want to hear that. But the faerie’s words ring true. I clench my teeth again, but—she’s not trying to be rude. Okay, she’s doing it without much thought, but I know enough about faeries to realize she’s being direct with me, and as helpful as she can.
“Thanks for the advice.”
She inclines her head regally. I know I shouldn’t ever thank a faerie, at least according to legend, but she doesn’t seem malicious. Hell, the faeries know my full name and they haven’t done anything to me.
What do they want? I clear my throat awkwardly again as the faerie looks around my little room. Here I am, with a faerie in my room. I should…she’s the last one. I need to ask questions. First though, make her welcome.
“Can I offer you anything? Something to eat or drink?”
“Do ye have anything?”
“Then don’t offer, fool.”
Okay, off to a bad start. I stare at the faerie as she leaps up into the air at eye height and sits there, as if there’s an invisible cushion under her.
“Why are you here? By yourself, I mean. All of your friends flew off.”
“They did. They grew bored of ye, and went to find excitement somewhere else.”
A straightforward answer. But I still don’t get why.
“Is it because of Teriarch and the game of riddles I played with him? Is that why they all left?”
The faerie nods as she scratches at the bottom of her foot with a tiny digit. She yawns widely, showing me sharp teeth.
“My sisters think ‘twas ill done. They dislike the trickery of numbers, but it is just as good as the trickery of words to me.”
“I like such things now and then, and it was well done to win even in losing. We are not all alike, my kin. Does it surprise you that one of us would like the dance of thoughts as much as the dance of tongues?”
No. I should have known not all fairies were alike. I just—okay, maybe that was fairly racist. Speciesist? Why is it that the immortal species, Dragons and fae, tend to leave me thoughtless and speechless? It’s like all of my cynicism and complex questions fade away in their presence. There’s no doubting their presence when they’re in front of you.
The faerie points at something close to falling off the edge of my desk. The bag of holding and golden coins sits innocuously; just large enough for a handful of coins at best, certainly not large enough to hold this magical book. But it can hold a huge amount of space—all my bed covers and two chairs besides, I’ve found. After that it just acts like a normal bag until I start pulling stuff out. I haven’t yet found the courage to put my head inside.
“Yon lies your prize for a Dragon’s duel. Golden coins and a magic bag to hold them. ‘Tis every mortal’s dream, isn’t it? Or did you want something else from the old scales and smoke?”
“I don’t know. Did I?”
The faerie flies forwards and smacks me on the nose before I can blink. I yelp and touch my frozen flesh—she glares at me.
“Either you did or ye didn’t. Don’t answer a question with a question, ye prat.”
Again, I have to restrain the urge to punch back. I’d probably lose, and I know the faeries are prickly. And she’s right. Sort of.
“Sorry. I don’t know what I wanted from him. Maybe I could have asked him to teach me magic.”
“He would have said no. He’s a lazy oaf, that wyrm.”
“Maybe. But I got most of what I wanted.”
She nods, and I fall silent for a second. The real question is burning on my tongue. I have to know, so I ask it.
“Why did you stay when the others left? What do the fae really want with me? With this world?”
She looks at me archly.
“Why ask a question you know I will not answer? You want to know more than you should. You ask a question I could not answer with ten thousand words as if it were a simple thing.”
“Sue me. I’m curious. Is what I asked too broad? Why are you following me?”
The faerie sighs with exasperated patience.
“Why do I follow anyone?”
“I thought you said not to answer a question with a question.”
This time I’m ready and I swat at her as she flies at my face. The faerie flips over my hand with nimble grace and kicks my forehead. For a small creature she hits hard.
“Smart as an ass, aren’t ye? I follow and watch ye in case you do something of worth. You told me and my kin stories, and dared to defy the fates. You bargained with a Dragon, and met one who rules over death. Is there any other mortal I should bother following that’s done more?”
When she says it like that…I almost blush. I clear my throat. It’s so awkward, but the faerie doesn’t seem the least bit embarrassed, and that just makes me embarrassed. She doesn’t lie; she just says what she thinks.
“You’ve been following me for a while, haven’t you? I thought you were familiar—have I spoken to you specifically before?”
She nods and flashes me a smile.
“Oh yes. I followed you with the others as you ran, and I was the one you struck. I listened to tales of Humans from your world, and it was I who warned you of the armies and led you through the forest. I was there when you cast the bargain, and I accepted the second price. I am surprised you noticed; most beings cannot tell us apart.”
I thought so. For the longest time I just thought of all the faeries as one and the same, but this one—she and I have spoken more than I thought. I stare at the small faerie, and feel a sudden connection with her.
“So all of your sisters are gone because I’m too boring and you’re still sticking around. What do you want?”
“What do ye think I want?”
The faerie looks me in the eye, practically daring me to point out her evasiveness. I don’t do that this time. Instead, I think. She’s not answering me because she can’t. Or she doesn’t want to. So what’s the answer?
“Maybe…because you want something of me. Or there’s something I can do for you?”
The tiny faerie rolls her eyes.
Okay, that’s not it. Then there’s something I can do for her. Or—
“Could it be you just want to see what happens next?”
“An obvious answer. I suppose ye are right.”
The faerie shakes her small head, disappointed. I feel guilty, as if I’ve failed an easy test. But what could she want?
I wish Erin were here to answer. She’d have the damn answer in a second, somehow. She’s better with people than I am. She’d be making friends with the fae in a heartbeat—she could probably befriend a rabid bear.
But then—even she’s had problems with the fae before. She told me about their scam with the fake flowers. I’m really the only person who’s dealt with them for a long period of time. The faeries have hung around me, and I even managed to gain their respect.
And this one has followed me a long ways. Even when her friends are gone she’s stuck around? Why? That’s almost like…
The faerie looks up at me. She’d been busy spinning around in the air, but now she pauses, completely upside down and stares at me.
“Is that what you want? A friend?”
It’s a stupid question. And a stupid conclusion to make. We’re not in a kid’s tv show, but maybe—no.
“Friends? Ye would be friends with the fae?”
She scoffs at me, mockingly. But the tiny fae face isn’t as genuinely annoyed as normal, and I see what looks like a smile twitching around the scowl. I grin at her.
“Maybe. I wouldn’t mind having one of you floating about. I know of a certain hero that did that for quite a long time.”
“I’m no pet, mortal.”
“No, but you are interested in me. And if you’re going to follow me about, why not get to know one another?”
The faerie lies down sideways on the air and props her head on one hand as she stares at me. Seriously, this time.
“Do you know what would happen if ye dared to mingle with the fae? There are laws, mortal. Ones that shouldn’t be crossed.”
I hesitate. Now I feel like I’m being tested. But I can only go on what I know of her. I’ve seen so much of the fae, and I think I understand the answer to this question. I nod at her, just as serious as she is.
“There are consequences. I know. Dire ones. But wouldn’t a friend be willing to risk anything for another friend? I’d be honored to get to know you, if you’d let me.”
For a second the faerie’s face is blank. She stares at me from head to toe. And then she grins at me.
“Good! You finally understand a bit. You are such a fool, you, that I thought ye’d never figure it out.”
I blink at her. But the faerie flies closer, and smiles again.
“I’ve grown interested in your kind again, after so long. If you want to talk with me, I suppose a friend would be better than strangers, eh?”
I can’t believe it. But suddenly my heart is beating fast, and I feel a surge of passion and life in my chest. I feel alive again.
“I—of course. I’d be honored, as I said. My name is Ryoka Griffin, but you know that. Can I ask your name or is that wrong?”
The faerie considers this.
“My name—my truest of names—is a secret to all. And ye would not be able to pronounce it even so. But you may call me…Ivolethe.”
Ivolethe. The name rings in my ears for a second. But the faerie isn’t done. Carefully, she extends a small hand towards me. It’s such a small hand, but I extend a finger and let her shake that. For a second, the briefest second I feel coldness, the deepest chill, and at the same time a wonderful cool, a refreshing breeze and the taste of winter on my skin. It’s not at all unpleasant; I could have experienced that forever. But then the touch is gone.
But the faerie remains. Ivolethe flies back and stands on the table. I stare at her, and see her grin again. Pointed teeth, and a gaze older than the world. Her insectile wings fan out, and she begins to freeze the wood under her feet. But she’s here, and she and I are friends.
I’m friends with a faerie.
Suddenly, everything’s okay again.