When Ryoka left the Mage’s Guild she found Reynold waiting for her. The young woman was not surprised; she let the [Butler] fall into step beside her as she walked slowly down the street.
Reynold was not smiling. Not that he was usually beaming; but he normally carried himself with professional impartiality. Right now he was not smiling and it was quite clear he was also not happy.
“Miss Ryoka. I trust your visit to the Mage’s Guild was eventful?”
“You tell me.”
“I trust I conveyed Lady Reinhart’s wishes to you earlier? My duty is to accompany you as an escort—”
“Yeah. But I’ll just bet that I had other people watching me while you were busy with Laken. Stop glaring, Reynold. I’m not in a good mood right now.”
Reynold glared, but he decided to shut his mouth after a second of wavering. Ryoka saw him glancing at her face. In truth, she wasn’t angry. She was more tired. No; tired wasn’t the right word.
Valceif Godfrey was dead. It felt like no one in the world knew or cared. But Ryoka did. She cared, but she had to finish her job here. Then she could go back and—tell everyone. Tell Erin, and Hawk, at least.
“How’d it go in the Merchant’s Guild?”
Ryoka frowned at the sky as she spoke. It was quite dark, although it shouldn’t have been so early. The clouds had completely obscured the sun and snow was beginning to fall. A lot of snow.
The [Butler]’s voice was testy as he replied.
“Mister Laken has concluded most of his business to his satisfaction. A shipment of goods and food has been paid for—and two adventuring teams have been contacted. If all goes well, they should be ready to begin transport this very night.”
“Good. Thanks for helping him.”
“It was my pleasure, Miss Ryoka. It is my privilege to serve others in need of my assistance…whether I like it or not, apparently.”
“Hah. You’re a lot more fun when you’re upset, Reynold.”
Ryoka half-smiled as she turned to look at him. Then she looked up again. Ryoka frowned and prodded at her belt pouch.
“Ivolethe? Hey, Ivolethe. What’s with all this crap floating down? We’re already up to our knees in the snow; why do we need more?”
She saw the pouch at her belt rustling, and then Ivolethe poked her head out. The Frost Faerie grinned as she spread her arms wide at the dark, snowy sky.
“Ah, you see it? Do you see your doom, floating down from above? Prepare for wrack and ruin, ye mortals! This snowstorm will be the greatest in a century, nay, in ten thousand years! The snow will cover the earth and leave none alive! This is the dawn of a new age of ice and woe! Alack! Despair!”
Ryoka stared down at Ivolethe with narrowed eyes. The faerie stared back, blinking innocently.
“What does ah, Miss Ivolethe have to say, Miss Ryoka?”
“She says we’re all doomed.”
The two Humans didn’t react the way Ivolethe was hoping for. She scowled, and then answered in a sulky tone of voice.
“A blizzard comes. You will see it become strongest by nightfall. It will last two…nay, three days at most. If you hide in your small huts of wood and stone, you should be fine.”
“Thanks for the weather update. Buh-bye.”
Ryoka closed the lid on her belt pouch. Ivolethe made a sound of pure outrage; Ryoka winced as her pouch instantly frosted over. The faerie pushed the lid open as Ryoka turned to Reynold.
“Is Laken still at the Guild? I want to speak with him.”
“I believe he has retired to his lodgings for the moment, Miss Ryoka.”
“Okay. Where are they?”
“I regret to say that he did not inform me.”
“Okay. Where are they?”
Ryoka stopped and turned to face Reynold. She folded her arms and scowled at him.
“Don’t play games, Reynold. I know that someone followed them.”
He just shook his head, stepping to one side to allow a group of laughing Gnolls to pass him by.
“Miss Ryoka, you assume that other servants under Lady Reinhart’s employ would be following you. I regret to inform you that this is not the case. There are a finite number of people who serve her, and it is hardly useful to send a [Maid] or a [Waiter] to follow someone.”
Ryoka rolled her eyes.
“Look, Reynold. I don’t have to see someone to know they’re there. I know Magnolia’s type. Someone’s following me, and probably Laken as well by now. Now, we can wander around while you pretend you have no idea where Laken is, or we can skip that and just ask your friends.”
“I’m afraid I cannot help you, Miss Griffin.”
“Right. In that case—Ivolethe? Where’s the nearest spy?”
The Frost Faerie, who’d been poking her head out of Ryoka’s belt pouch, brightened up. She smiled wickedly at Reynold. He was shaking his head almost imperceptibly at her. But Ivolethe ignored that as she gleefully pointed a finger into the crowd of pedestrians.
Ryoka turned her head and saw an old man with a horrible skin condition—some kind of puffy warts on the right side of his face—slowly moving down the other side of the street. She ignored Reynold as he tried to block her and strode right for the man.
The old man didn’t notice Ryoka at first, but he eventually stopped when she stepped in front of him and blocked his way. He swayed back, staring uncertainly at her—and then avidly at her breasts. He looked confused as Ryoka stared at him.
“Eh? What do you want, Miss?”
The young woman ignored the scrutiny. She stared down at the elderly man as Reynold hurried to her side, looking anxious.
“Where is Laken Godart?”
“Who? I don’t know who that is. What do you want?”
He tried to move past Ryoka. She blocked his way again. Now the old man was looking anxious. He looked exactly like an old guy – he even smelled old, if old was a smell. Nonenal, Ryoka thought it was called. She glanced down at her belt pouch, suddenly not entirely certain.
“Ivolethe, I swear, if you’re messing with me I’ll be really pissed.”
“Miss Ryoka, please—”
Ryoka turned to glare at the [Butler].
“Shut up, Reynold. Look, I know you’re in Magnolia Reinhart’s employ. Are you going to give up the act, or do I have to make a scene?”
Ryoka stared down at the old man, not quite making a fist. The old man glanced at Reynold. The [Butler] spread his arms helplessly behind Ryoka’s back. After a second, the old man sighed. He reached for a ring on one of his gnarled fingers and twisted—
A [Maid], wearing a frilled dress and peeved expression on her face, straightened up in the middle of the street where the old man had been standing. The people around her did a double take, but Ryoka just smiled.
The woman was in her late twenties, or early thirties. She had a tight bun of dark brown hair and an expression that naturally lent itself towards severity. Or maybe she just had a Skill that made her look that way. She didn’t quite glare at Ryoka.
“This way, Miss Ryoka. Your friend is staying at the Crag Pig, quite a few streets away from here. If you will follow me…?”
It was a short and uneventful walk to the inn Laken was staying at. Uneventful for Ryoka, that was. Reynold kept his head bowed and shoulders hunched as he and the mysterious [Maid] walked ahead of Ryoka. She could see the [Maid] speaking to Reynold the entire way, and Ryoka was fairly sure what was being said weren’t compliments.
She felt a bit bad for Reynold. But just a bit. Ryoka was grateful for the speed at which both servants walked—they moved fast down the most crowded of streets. Their attire made them stand out, and Ryoka saw them getting a lot of looks as she followed them.
It was funny. Ryoka smiled as she walked. When the two of Magnolia’s servants turned back to look at her, they saw her smiling and staring down at the fat snowflakes swirling down from the sky.
It was a look seldom seen on Ryoka’s face. But Ryoka had just realized the silliness of her situation. She was following a [Butler] and a [Maid] down a street in a city that could have come from her world with a few alterations, carrying a Frost Faerie in her belt pouch.
It was just so silly. And sad. That Ryoka could smile made it a bit better.
She stared up at the inn as the [Maid] led them to it. Ryoka ignored the woman as she stepped away from Reynold and practically vanished into the next crowd of Humans.
The Crag Pig was an inn with the head of, well, probably a Crag Pig mounted on the front. This skull was quite, quite big, and had a pair of tusks that curved slightly upwards. They were long, jagged—and branched, like the horns of an antler. Ryoka wondered if that was because they were useful in the Crag Pig’s natural habitat, or whether the skull being here was a testament to their qualities.
“Well, I guess I’d better have a chat. Reynold, if you would?”
The [Butler] opened the doors and Ryoka walked in. Her first impression of the inn was that it was definitely not as nice as Erin’s. The Crag Pig’s owner must have thought that the name of his inn excused the dirt, or else the name was a warning.
Still, the room was packed and a fire was taking the chill off. Ryoka looked around and saw a man and a woman waiting the tables, but no [Innkeeper]. She shrugged, found the stairs, and headed towards them.
“Welcome, sir! Let me find you a table. Please—I’ll have a seat for you and a hot drink right away!”
To her amusement, Ryoka saw a big man—a former adventurer perhaps—hurry out of the kitchen and accost Reynold as he tried to follow her. The owner of the inn had scars all over his arms, and he was trying to usher the protesting Reynold into a seat.
There were flaws with being impeccably dressed after all. Not that Reynold’s attire would be so dashing if he sat down in one of the chairs in this inn. Ryoka shook her head as she went up the stairs two at a time.
“Now, where’s Laken…? Ah.”
It was the work of five seconds to find Laken’s room. Not because the door was open or Ryoka spotted anyone coming out; there was simply only one room that could conceivably hold someone of Durene’s size. It was probably the master suite.
Ryoka headed towards the door and knocked twice.
“Laken? It’s me, Ryoka Griffin.”
Someone had been talking inside the room. When Ryoka knocked, the voice stopped abruptly. Ryoka listened for sounds of movement, but heard none.
It was a surprise, then, when the door opened and Ryoka saw Durene staring down at her. For such a big girl, Durene could move quite silently.
“Hi. Durene, right? Is Laken inside? I want to talk with him.”
The young woman nodded and tried to walk inside. But a very thick, grey-skinned arm shot out to block her. Ryoka looked up and saw Durene staring down at her.
“Please move. I’m just going to talk to him.”
“You ran away earlier. And you haven’t said why you’re here.”
“Yeah. I had something to do.”
Ryoka stared up at Durene. The half-Troll girl was hostile, but…Ryoka thought it was more than just wariness around Ryoka.
“I don’t trust you.”
Possessiveness, that was it. Ryoka remembered how Durene hovered around Laken. She was treating him like…
A few thoughts flashed through Ryoka’s mind. Dependency? Probably. She could imagine what might occur when Laken had come to this world. Blind guy meets half-Troll. A reverse case of Beauty and the Beast. But the beast is actually a girl who was afraid of losing the one person who didn’t fear her.
“I’m not your enemy. And I’m not going to do anything to Laken. I just want to talk with him.”
Ryoka bit her tongue. Durene’s tone told her there was no good answer she could give. She knew that because it was the exact same tone of voice she used to use when talking with her father.
“Look, is Laken in there? Laken—”
“He’s sleeping. You can come back later.”
Durene shifted so more of her body was in the way. Ryoka stared up at her. Well, there were several ways this could go.
“Can you wake him up? I need to talk to him now. I’m sorry if that’s a problem, but it’s urgent.”
“No. He’s tired. You can come back later. If you try to come in, I’ll stop you.”
One of Durene’s hands closed. Ryoka eyed it and put her hands on her belt. She knew Ivolethe was sitting in her belt pouch, but it wasn’t that Ryoka was reaching for. At her belt, there were several potions Octavia had given her. Ryoka put her fingers on one of them, second from the right.
“Look, I understand you’re Laken’s…protector. And girlfriend. I’m not here to do anything to him, but I need to talk with him. And you shouldn’t start a fight here.”
“Oh yeah? Why not? I could stop you.”
“No, you couldn’t.”
Ryoka sighed. She yanked the potion free from her belt in one move. Durene blinked down at it. Ryoka put her thumb on the cork—
And handed it to Durene.
The huge girl stared dumbfounded at the potion. She peered at Ryoka suspiciously.
“A pepper potion. Toss it at your opponent and they’ll go blind. Be careful—if it gets in your eyes you’ll be screaming about it all day. If you’re going to go around picking fights, at least get some magical items and a weapon.”
Durene looked uneasy as she held the potion.
“Were you going to hit me with this?”
“No, I’d use a spell and blind you first and then I’d hit you with the potion. Actually, I’d probably just blow up this entire corridor and run downstairs while everything burns down.”
Ryoka had two bags of compressed flour and the blaze potions. She didn’t know if it would actually hurt Durene that badly; she had a feeling that would only piss the girl off. But it made Durene stop and think.
“Keep the potion. You’ll probably need it. If it’s you—you could probably pour it on your hands and just punch people in the face. Not that they’re likely to get up after you hit them, but it’s a thought. Just don’t touch your eyes until after you’ve washed them thoroughly—with soap. Can I talk to Laken now?”
Durene just stared at Ryoka. She hesitated, looked down at the potion with bits of red pepper floating in it, and over her shoulder.
“Wait here. I’ll wake him up.”
Ryoka waited patiently. She heard Reynold come up the stairs—the [Butler] looked as though he’d had to tear himself physically away from the innkeeper.
A few voices muttered inside, and then the door opened. Durene let Ryoka walk in, but blocked Reynold.
“Ryoka can talk. Everyone else stays outside.”
Reynold protested, but Ryoka didn’t hear his conversation with Durene. The first thing she saw when entering Laken’s room made her stop in place. Because she’d seen Frostwing.
The baby bird was snoozing on a little platform made into a nest for him. He was surrounded by a warm blanket, and his ‘nest’ was more ripped-up shreds of fabric than actual cloth. It was also stained quite badly with his droppings. But the bird shone in Ryoka’s gaze.
He looked like an eagle. Well, vaguely like an eagle. Ryoka had never studied bird species, but she knew only one kind of bird grew that big.
No—if size was the comparison, than Frostwing was more like an albatross than an eagle. Because he was clearly young, still a nestling, but he was almost the size of a full-grown chicken already.
And he was blue. That was the important thing. Frostwing’s feathers glittered in the light as he opened and flapped his wings, protesting this stranger’s intrusion into his home. Ryoka saw each feather glittering like a jewel; they had a subtle gradient that made the dark oxford blue of the inner part of each feather fade to a brilliant sky blue on the tips.
A blue bird. But not any bird. For a second, Ryoka was lost to the world. She was in another place, sitting on the balcony in her home, ten years old, holding a Gameboy and playing the video game that had defined her life at that time—
“Ryoka? Is that you?”
She looked up. Laken was sitting on the large bed, yawning and turning his head around the room. A young man was standing by his side, offering him assistance that Laken clearly didn’t need.
Laken, and…Gamel, was it?
“I’m here, Laken.”
Ryoka approached the bed. That was a bad move. She was still staring at Frostwing—too long. The bird may have been a child, but it had instincts that made it wary of anything that stared at it.
Frostwing shrieked his displeasure. Durene backed away, covering her ears as Gamel tried unsuccessfully to sooth the agitated young bird. Ryoka just stared as Frostwing spread his wings, shedding brilliant blue feathers onto the ground.
“Oh for the love of—here!”
Laken turned, frowning, and fumbled his way towards Frostwing. He reached out and the bird shut up as one of his hands found a piece of dried meat and offered it to the bird.
“Shh, Frostwing. Shut up. There’s a good bird.”
Laken stroked the crest on Frostwing’s head and the bird stopped shrieking. It tore greedily at the bit of meat and Laken turned to Ryoka, looking sheepish.
“Sorry. Pet bird. I’ve had to apologize to the innkeeper already. At least he wasn’t doing this in the middle of the night this time. It is daytime, right?”
“That’s right. I’m here to talk some more. Sorry about dropping in unexpectedly.”
“No it’s no problem—”
Laken rubbed at his face. He looked tired.
“Can you…get me something to drink? And a snack, maybe? Durene, did I hear someone else was here?”
“Yes. It’s that [Butler]. Reynold.”
“Mister Laken, I apologize for the intrusion. But—”
“Yes, yes. Okay, Gamel, I’ll handle Frostwing. He doesn’t need food—he just needs to take another nap. Durene, please guard the door? I think I need to talk to Ryoka. Alone.”
There was something about Laken. When he spoke, things got done. Ryoka watched the protesting Reynold get slowly pushed out the door. She waved at him before Durene closed the door. Laken sat on the edge of his bed, slowly petting Frostwing as the bird rubbed its head against his palm.
“You have a bird.”
“Yes. Ryoka, meet Frostwing. Frostwing—don’t nip my fingers.”
Ryoka stared at Frostwing. Her eyes turned back to Laken.
“You have a bird. It’s blue.”
“Yes—yes I do. I found Frostwing near Durene’s cottage. I think his mother died of starvation or—something else. I took Frostwing in. I actually have a class from raising him. [Beast Tamer].”
Ryoka stared at Frostwing. She felt like she had to repeat herself.
“It’s blue. I—excuse me.”
She reached for her pocket as Laken frowned. She knew it was stupid, but Ryoka had to do this. She pulled her iPhone out of her pocket and turned it on.
Laken was still a bit bleary from waking up, but he was trying to get his thoughts together quickly. Ryoka was here. That was good. He had so many questions he wanted to ask her, but he had to be careful, didn’t he? He wasn’t sure of her. Not yet. But she was from his world. Or—and here his cautious self spoke up—she was pretending to be. Could this all be a ploy? Her knowing German meant someone had come from another world, but maybe she was using a Skill? Was that possible?
Ryoka wasn’t saying much. She seemed to be fixated on Frostwing. Was it really that special that he was blue? Laken tried to remember if there were other blue birds back home. Obviously he’d never seen any, but…blue birds, what about them? What made Frostwing stand out that much?
Then he heard something. It was faint, muffled, and familiar. Laken frowned.
“Ryoka? Are you there?”
No response. Laken hesitated, and then leaned towards the source of the muted music. His eyes widened.
“Is that…is that the Pokemon theme song?”
Ryoka pulled the earbuds out.
Laken smiled and laughed.
“You’re a Pokemon fan!”
“I was. Once. A long time ago.”
Ryoka shifted, coughed. Laken couldn’t see, but she’d turned bright red. Laken grinned.
“Does Frostwing remind you of a Pokemon that much?”
“Yeah. He looks like Articuno, you know?”
“That’s a Pokemon?”
“A legendary. One of the legendary birds from the original one hundred and fifty.”
“Ah. I never actually played Pokemon growing up. Sort of hard when you can’t see anything.”
Ryoka coughed again, clearly embarrassed. Laken was smiling so hard it hurt. For just a few moments, he felt like he was back home, back in his world.
“You’re a fan. I had no idea. Did you play that new thing coming out? Pokemon Go?”
“I uh, a bit. It was a long time ago. Or it feels like it. I…was teleported here a few days after I downloaded the app, actually.”
The conversation fell flat in an instant. Ryoka shifted as she glanced at Frostwing again. Laken blinked and gestured with his other hand.
“I’m so sorry. Please, sit. I don’t know where the chair is, but I’m assured we have at least two.”
“I see it.”
Ryoka dragged the chair over as Laken tried to make Frostwing go to sleep. He thought it worked, or at least, the bird had given up moving. He turned and sat cross-legged on his bed as he faced in Ryoka’s direction.
“I think Durene gave you some trouble as I was sleeping. Is that right?”
“Just a bit. She’s protective of you.”
Laken smiled wryly.
“She is. Thank you for not hitting her with that potion.”
Ryoka shrugged, and then remembered Laken couldn’t see any of her gestures.
“It’s nothing. Good thing we didn’t meet a month or two ago or I’d have gotten my head pushed through a wall.”
“I picked a fight with a Minotaur one time. That was one of the dumber things I’ve ever done.”
“Minotaurs exist in this world?”
“Yup. They’re touchy and prideful. And fairly rude, but they are honorable.”
“Fascinating. I’ve heard this continent has mainly…Gnolls, is it? And Drakes?”
“They inhabit the southern parts, yes. Invrisil is sort of an exception—it’s a major city so a lot of races come here. But you’ll generally find only Humans in the north.”
“I understand. Durene’s village is totally Human save for her.”
The two sat in silence for another second. Ryoka sat still in her chair; Laken wiggled around, wondering if there was something that he was sitting on. A fork, maybe? Whatever it was, it was poking into his butt.
Unnoticed by the two of them, a third being was present in the room, listening. Ivolethe sat in Ryoka’s pouch, listening carefully. The Frost Faerie considered that her sisters would have hated the conversation between Ryoka and Laken. It wasn’t a thing of majesty or destiny. But it was important.
“I guess we should talk.”
“Yes, I guess we should.”
The boy and girl sat across from each other. They were old, but still young by the way the faerie reckoned such things. They had gone through sorrows, gone through trials. But they were still young. So young.
It was the girl who spoke first. She hesitated as she chewed at a lip, glancing towards the closed doors. Durene and Gamel stood behind it, but Ryoka knew the danger wasn’t something she could see.
“It’s complicated, you know? I want to say what’s on my mind but—”
“You did mention. Watchers and such.”
“Yeah. But if we assume we lost them or they can’t hear us—which I don’t—I’m fairly certain someone’s using magic to listen in.”
Laken raised his eyebrows calmly.
“Well, it’s not like we have anything to hide.”
“Okay, fine. But how are you proposing we solve this problem? I have something I need to say which will clarify things.”
“I’m in the same boat. I can say that I have a friend—Erin Solstice who’s from our world straight off, but the rest is harder.”
“Someone else? You mentioned that—what’s she like?”
“Age wise? She’s twenty. Besides that, she’s…a normal girl. Sort of. She’s American, like me.”
“Interesting. I’m twenty-four. Not American. Can I assume you’re around that age?”
“Twenty one. You don’t look that old. You’re part German. Is there another half?”
“My mom’s German, but she married my dad in France. I’ve grown up all over Europe, though. As to my face—I’m told I have a youthful complexion.”
Ryoka had to smile. She glanced at the door and frowned.
“Good to know. I don’t think any of this is too bad to mention, but the rest…damn, I don’t know. Erin would probably come up with some special way of figuring this out. Flush out the spies with a crazy scheme and dispel the enchantments with an insane trick or just luck.”
“She sounds quite interesting.”
“She’s an [Innkeeper]. Look, I’m getting annoyed. Maybe we should just go for broke. What do you think? I doubt anyone knows German.”
“Wahrscheinlich. But can you speak it? I don’t want to be rude, but your pronunciation—”
“I know. But I’ve got a dictionary-encyclopedia. It’s an app—I might have to ask for spelling, but I can translate short sentences.”
“That’s…amazingly useful. In that case, translate this. Ich bin ein [Kaiser].”
It took Ryoka only a second to figure out what Laken had said. She didn’t need to use her iPhone. Instead, she dropped it. She fumbled around on the ground, heart beating wildly. When she sat back up she stared at Laken’s face.
“I’m not. I know it’s surprising, but it’s true. What about you?”
“I don’t have a class. I’m a Runner without the class. But you—get out.”
Laken smiled. He had no way of seeing Ryoka’s face, but her tone made her feelings clear.
“No, seriously, get out. Run away as far as you can. Do you have any idea how bad that is?”
“Bad? Why? Because of your—your Daenerys-like friend?”
“Yes! Not just her—Ivolethe!”
Ryoka shouted the faerie’s name. Laken jumped, and then gaped as the faerie floated upwards and spoke.
“What do ye want, Ryoka?”
“Go downstairs and flush out the spies. Please? And if there are enchantments, dispel them. Please. This is important.”
The faerie considered the request. Then she reluctantly nodded.
“I shall bring havoc! From the outside.”
She flew out the window as Laken tried to find words.
“Was that—a Frost Faerie?”
“You’ve met them?”
“Yes! Hell, I knighted a few of them. But they helped save Durene’s cottage from an avalanche—or caused it and spared her home. I’m not sure of which.”
“Well, I’m friends with one. Look, sit down. I’ll explain as much as I can—but the Frost Faeries probably didn’t cause the avalanche. They don’t kill, although they do pull horrible pranks.”
Ryoka and Laken sat down as, below them, they heard confused shouting. Ivolethe’s laugher was drowned out as she buzzed by the inn outside, but Ryoka could just imagine her hurling snow and ice into the building.
“Okay, let me begin from the start. The first thing you need to know is that I got here a few months ago. I’d say around…September? A while back. But Erin arrived before me. We don’t know how we got here, but I know there are other people in this world. I also know that not a lot of people know we exist. That woman I told you about—Lady Magnolia Reinhart. She employs Reynold and a bunch of other servants, and she’s one of the most powerful people on the continent…”
Laken listened intently as Ryoka whispered to him amid the sounds of the inn clearing out. He turned to tell Durene everything was fine when she told him the bottom half of the inn was covered with snow, but he mainly just listened as Ryoka gave him an abridged version of what had happened when she entered this world.
And then it was his turn. Ryoka didn’t just listen—she had her iPhone held in her lap, recording Laken’s every word as he spoke. She didn’t mention this fact, and neither did Laken or Ryoka ever mention certain key words aloud.
Words like [Emperor], gunpowder, iPhone, dragon, or a thousand other words from home. Ryoka was glad that Laken understood, and he picked up what she feared from what Ryoka never said.
“It sounds like you’ve had a rough time without a class. I can’t say I understand that bit.”
“I don’t like conformity.”
“You think that’s an issue—wait. I think I get it. Game system, right? But is there a puppet master?”
“Oh, really? How do you know?”
Laken sat forwards. Ryoka hesitated, and then leaned forwards as well. Though she knew Reynold and the other spies in the building were probably gone, she whispered to him in German.
A slow frown was her only reply. Laken sat back carefully.
“I don’t know. But I talked with someone who assures me it’s true. And I believe him.”
“In that case—that is concerning. But still, as far as I understand it, the system is essential. You can’t fight a…a monster without Skills.”
“Yeah. But do we lose anything if we have a class?”
Laken’s voice was thoughtful.
“I don’t know. And honestly, I’m not sure I’d be willing to try and find out, if it were me. But if you want to be the test subject…I’m glad. It’s good to have someone who might be impartial. Especially if what you say is true.”
“I don’t know if they’re connected, but it seems so.”
“Oh, I agree. But really…alive?”
“Yes. And apparently talking about them gives them strength.”
“That’s horrific. Terrifying. But it sounds like this—person—isn’t too active?”
“No. I shouldn’t say lebt. More like…hold on. Schlafen. Aufwachen.”
It was as if he’d taken a drink of water after being dehydrated. Laken felt everything snap more into place.
“I think I get it. Or at least, I have a hypothesis.”
“So do I. Either way? It’s bad news.”
“But from what you say, it doesn’t seem like that’s the reason we’re here. It’s probably a spell?”
“Someone said that there was a summoning spell. In Rhir.”
“Something to look into. I guess.”
Laken frowned and scrubbed at his hair.
“This is all so complex! How are we supposed to figure this out? It’s not as if we can just ask, and we don’t have people we can trust to find out. I don’t, at any rate. You have your [Lady] friend, but I don’t trust her further than I can throw her either.”
“Yeah, I’m not too keen on asking. But those angry ant people I told you about? Their entire race is scared spitless of this one person.”
Ryoka chewed her lip, feeling the same urgent panic rising in her chest when she thought about—
A God. A real God, sleeping under the earth.
She expected Laken to share at least a bit of her concern. But the blind man refused to panic.
“I get the issue. But they’re on another continent, right? There’s not much we can do right now—except spread the word, I guess, and find someone who can do something.”
“So you’re saying we don’t even think about it?”
It was impossible to glare at a blind man successfully. Laken smiled.
“Look, if we’re talking about this—person as a threat, then all we need is a devil, right? Anyone tried blood summoning, chanting in Latin, or hooded robes? Or we could get a few angry atheists. Who knows? It could work.”
Ryoka stared at Laken and then burst out laughing.
“You cocky bastard.”
He raised his hands, smiling and laughing with her.
“Hey, it’s a problem. But it’s not immediate, is it? If I panicked over all of the big things, I’d never get to sleep at night.”
“Fine. I get it. Back to you, then. You’re in a bind. Assuming no one catches wind of what you do, you’re going to need help for that village of yours.”
Laken nodded. He wove his fingers together and tightened his grip.
“I think we’ve got food and protection, but if you know anything about…anything, I’d love to have some help.”
Ryoka had to confess her knowledge was limited.
“I’ve got some information, but it’s all scattered. Ruling a village—good luck. Other than that, technology’s tricky. I’m not giving you the recipe for…well, firearms.”
“Perish the thought.”
“—And I can’t tell you how to make anything too useful. Steam engines, light bulbs…not exactly stuff your village needs right now.”
Ryoka frowned as she tapped a finger on her leg, letting it bounce against the floorboards. Laken found the sound slightly annoying, but he waited patiently for Ryoka to finish thinking.
“Greenhouses might help. If you can get sheets of glass for the roof, you can build the rest of the structure out of other materials. That would extend your growing season—let you get a head start on growing.”
“There’s glass in this world. If you can get panes, or one large sheet—could be tricky, could be worth it. I see some parchment over there. I’ll use that, okay?”
Laken heard Ryoka rustling about and then her fiddling with the inkpot.
“Let me do a sketch. It’s all about keeping the heat in, more than letting it out—on that note, what about agricultural implements? I’d have to do more thinking, but the heavy plough is a good invention to check on.”
“I’m familiar with a plough—sort of. What’s the heavy one do?”
“It’s really just a way to make it better. You have wheels and…nah, it’s really just the wheels that change it. It lets a farmer move faster, reduces the burden, et cetera. See?”
“No, I don’t. But go ahead.”
He heard a chuckle.
“Okay…I’m drawing a diagram, but just ask whether the [Farmers] in your village use wheels on their ploughs. I’ll write down what I know about crop rotation too—”
They continued in that vein for a few more minutes. Then Laken switched the issue over to protection.
“I don’t think a palisade’s going to stop a monster, do you?”
“It’s worth a shot. A wall would be better.”
Ryoka raised her eyebrows as she sketched out the cross section of a wall. Laken had another thought.
“If we’re talking about walls, then what about trebuchets? You wouldn’t happen to know—”
“Hah. If you’re fighting monsters the size of castles, maybe. But they’re a pain in the ass to aim. Just build a catapult; you can probably figure out how. Actually, now that I think of it…a ballista might be easier than an onager.”
“Okay? What’s an onager?”
“That’s a catapult. The classic kind that hurls things like a spoon.”
“Oh. Yes, I could see that being useful.”
“I’ll write down how to make both for you.”
“And that’s not classified? I thought we were trying to reduce the spread of dangerous weapons.”
“I did my research. They’re already in use. The Drakes have them on some of their city walls, and they’re used around the world. The trick is that most people can’t build them. You have to have the [Engineer] class to build one.”
“Ah. No one bothers to learn. They just use a class.”
“Yep. But you can probably whip one together…just be careful with the tension on the rope. Build some prototypes and test them—carefully. Look, I’ll write this down and you can have someone read it. I’m sure your villagers can find some decent rope to use.”
“I’m sure they’ve got something. Okay, how about barns?”
“Do you have a better way of building them, or something?”
“Good point. I can definitely tell you how to make a log wall…that’s just cutting the logs right. Uh…I don’t know about other building techniques. Let me get back to you on that. Shame there’s no metalworking industry or you could try mass-producing things like ring-shank nails…”
“You’re losing me here.”
Ryoka smiled as she bent over the parchment. She was running out of room. But surprisingly, she was enjoying her conversation with Laken. Did she trust him? A bit. A little bit.
An [Emperor]. She couldn’t imagine it. But he sat like one, or—perhaps the beginnings of one. She saw that now.
Emperor Norton. She remembered that story! The crazy guy who declared himself the Emperor of the United States. People might remember that story, but how many would think to do it here?
Not many. Ryoka had never dreamed of that. And it wasn’t just that. Could anyone really just become an [Emperor] by willing it? No. You had to have something else, or anyone could be an [Emperor], right? You had to have…
“The arrogance of a God.”
“Nothing. What was I saying?”
Ryoka went to dip her quill in the inkpot. She wished she had a pen. As she did, she glanced at the window, still ajar. She wondered when Ivolethe would come back—
And she was there. Ivolethe. She was hovering outside the window, watching Ryoka and Laken talk. Just watching. Ryoka froze, quill dripping blobs of ink.
There was something about the way the Frost Faerie stared at her. Something…
She was watching. Waiting. Ryoka felt a chill.
“Ryoka? Is something wrong?”
“I—I don’t know. I think there might be—”
How could she explain it to Laken? Ryoka was grasping at words, when she saw something move in front of her.
It was on the table she’d pulled up to write on. Her iPhone, still recording every word Laken spoke, began to vibrate. It shuddered on the wood surface a microsecond before Ryoka heard the familiar, annoying jangle of her ringtone.
Someone was calling her. Ryoka felt her breath catch in her chest.
Laken reached for the iPhone, but Ryoka was faster. She saw the familiar calling screen, but there was nothing listed under the caller’s phone number, only the option to accept or decline.
“It’s my iPhone. I’m getting a call—”
“It has to be [BlackMage]!”
“The person who—I’m answering it.”
Laken held his breath as Ryoka gingerly tapped the glowing green phone symbol. Instantly, she heard a voice.
“—he’s not answering. Maybe try ag—hello? Hello? Can you hear me?”
Ryoka traded glances with Laken. He missed. Ryoka tilted her iPhone’s speaker towards her mouth cautiously.
“I can hear you. Who is this?”
“Oh my god. Is this—are you [batman]? [batman]’s a girl?”
It was a young man’s voice, excited, with the touches of…an English accent? Yes, it definitely wasn’t American. Ryoka carefully put the call on speaker phone as she and Laken crowded around her device. She put a finger to his lips and he nodded.
“This is great! I’ve tried calling you before and you didn’t pick up. Hi there! This is [BlackMage]! From the chat? Do you remember me? Well, I was calling you to—”
Ryoka heard [BlackMage] pause. She saw Laken glance at her oddly, but she didn’t care. Anxiety had become irritation and anger in a second.
“Go fuck yourself. Do you know how stupid it is to call someone like this? What would have happened if I were in a dungeon, or trying to hide from a monster?”
“You have compromised my damn phone! You know that asshole was trying to find out locations! Do you think he’s really not trying to track us down right now? I’d bet anything that this kind of call can be traced. Now people know exactly where you and I are.”
“Hold on! We don’t know anyone’s tracking this call. I’m with a bunch of [Mages] and they say—”
“Screw what they say. This is dangerous. Didn’t you get that from your call?”
“That’s why I’m calling you!”
The young man on the other end of the line was getting angry. He spoke quickly before Ryoka could insult him again.
“We—the mages of Wistram and I—are trying to find people across the world! I’ve called a bunch of people and we’re trying to bring them here. To Wistram!”
“That is the stupidest—how do you know you’re not revealing their locations?”
“We—we’re using magic in secret.”
“Oh? Well, that makes me feel better.”
“Look, if you’re going to be an arsehole about this, I can hang up.”
“No, it’s too late now.”
Ryoka tried to calm herself down. She took a deep breath.
“Okay, why are you calling? To invite me to Wistram?”
“Yes. We can send help. We can have money sent—or get in touch with a local [Mage] affiliated with us who can help you reach the isle. But I contacted you first because you managed to uncover that fake wanker—[Kent Scott] and warn everyone. Do you know who he is?”
“No. I have no idea. But I was suspicious from the start. Forget [Kent Scott]. How do I know I can trust you, or anyone?”
“I—look, you’re being fairly suspicious of me, don’t you think? I’m calling you—”
“And I don’t trust people who call me out of the blue. How can we prove that these people at Wistram are trustworthy?”
Ryoka heard [BlackMage] gasp on the other end of the line. Laken took the iPhone from her and spoke into it. She stared at him, wanting to signal him, but it was impossible to do visually. She tapped his hand with a finger—he waved his hand at her and then gave her a thumbs up.
“Excuse me? Who is this?”
“Call me L. I’m from our world as well. I just met [batman].”
Laken kept his voice low as he spoke into the receiver. He was smiling as if he was enjoying his conversation with the flustered [BlackMage].
“Wow! You’ve met someone else? Where are you? Do you need help? What’s your class—I forgot to mention we’re keeping a list—”
“My class is secret. So is my location. If you can trace this phone call, well, good luck searching the continent. I’m sorry to be so secretive, but neither [batman] nor I are able to trust you, or Wistram at this point in time.”
“Why? Hey, we’re acting in good faith here—”
“Just think about it.”
Laken leaned back on the bed as he spoke carefully, choosing each word with deliberation.
“You say you want to help us. But how can we be sure that’s the case? Putting aside the reputation of Wistram, we can’t tell if you’re calling from there. You could be impersonating them—we have no way to tell. Telling you our location is dangerous, especially on what could be an unsecured call like this. You understand that, right?”
“I—I suppose I do. But how am I supposed to convince you I’m trustworthy?”
“That’s impossible at this moment. There’s no one in Wistram who could convince us, and a truth spell can’t be used. However…there is a way to tell everyone where to go and not reveal confidential information.”
Laken could feel Ryoka’s eyes on him, even if he couldn’t see her. He smiled.
“Don’t call anyone. But have Wistram—the Isle of Mages, right? Have them send out a proclamation, a message to every corner of the world. Something simple. Something anyone from our world could understand.”
Ryoka nodded as she realized what Laken was saying. That could work. She spoke into the receiver.
“Say something like…‘To all the millennials, the Americans and citizens of the European Union and’—no, wait. That’s not right. Instead…send something in every language you can think of. One word. Come home. 家に帰る.”
“Nach Hause zurückkehren.”
“Ven a Casa. In every language you can think of. Understand?”
“But don’t stop there.”
Laken angled the iPhone towards his mouth and spoke urgently.
“Set it up so that anyone affiliated with Wistram will help someone from our world. But have them ask for confirmation. Something only someone from our world would know. Easy things, for every culture.”
“Like if you’re American—who’s the current president? Actually—shit. Be prepared for different answers. Someone might say Obama and not know who the current president is.”
“Good point! And some people might not speak English.”
“Hold on, let me write all this down!”
[BlackMage] was scrambling to keep up. Laken and Ryoka heard other voices, muffled in the background. She nudged him and he squeezed her arm. There were other people listening to the call.
“Okay, we can do that. Thanks for the advice!”
“No problem. Just be sure you know what you’re doing.”
“…How do you mean?”
“If you do this, you’ll paint a target on your chest for the world to see. Understand—some people who’ve come to this world will not be friends. Just think about it. Assuming everyone who’s arrived is around the same age—you could get anyone from any part of the world. What if you got a radical extremist from ISIS?”
“Or someone from North Korea. Or a kid in a gang, a convicted criminal.”
“…I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Be careful. If everyone’s heading to Wistram, then the real battle becomes getting them there safely…and figuring out who’s trustworthy.”
“We can use spells for that. And Wistram is almost impossible to take by force. There are Golems here, Archmages…”
“If it’s so safe, we’ll find our way there. Eventually. But don’t call us again, understand? If you have to contact us—do it by chat.”
“I understand. And I will…I’ll have to tell the other mages about this, and see what they think.”
“Good. In that case, we’ll end the call.”
“Huh? But there’s so much we have to discuss!”
Laken felt a warning tug on his hand.
“Unfortunately, we can’t be sure who’s listening in. Continuing this phone call is too risky. Contact [batman] later if you have to. Try to find a securer means of communicating. Until then.”
Laken hung up the phone. He handed it to Ryoka and breathed out slowly. His hand was shaking. So was hers as she took it.
“Wow. That was…unexpected.”
Ryoka glanced sideways and saw Ivolethe flying away from the window.
“…Yeah. Good idea, by the way. That was a great thought.”
“It was spur-of-the-moment. But maybe this way word will spread and people won’t get kidnapped. You think it’s a possibility?”
Ryoka shrugged. She wasn’t sure herself.
“There was someone who tried to figure out where we were. Better safe than sorry.”
“Yeah. And one last thing. I didn’t mention it to [BlackMage], but aside from other nations, other factions trying to attack Wistram…if we go there, we’d better have friends. Allies. So we can deal with the mages on equal terms.”
“Can’t trust them, can’t trust anyone, right?”
“Right. Well, some people will be trustworthy, but—”
“How do you find them?”
They sat in silence for a moment, hearts beating. Ryoka looked at Laken and smirked.
“L, huh? Nice reference.”
“What? I’m sorry, did I accidentally do something?”
“Never mind. It’s a reference to a popular—it’s fine.”
Laken spread his hands.
“Okay. What now? That was dramatic. And scary. I may have wet the bed. Where do we go from here?”
“I don’t know. I guess you go back to your village and…do your thing. Gather strength, or something. I go back and tell Erin—and we meet again.”
“Just like that?”
“I guess so. Look, I want to help, but I have to go back. It’s Christmas, and Erin told me to get back in time for the party. And I have…other things to do there as well.”
“Christmas! My God, I’d forgotten!”
Laken slapped a hand to his forehead.
“I should celebrate that with Durene and the villagers! That would be—I wonder if I can get the Merchant’s Guild to find me a bunch of presents?”
“They’d wrap them for you, I bet. Look, I hate to just run, but I don’t know what else I can do. Erin lives so far away, and I never come up here. I can try and return now and then, but it might be we have to communicate by [Message] spell for the moment.”
“We can talk in code—or German, I suppose. I’ll probably be out of touch for…I don’t know how long.”
“We have our own places to be, don’t we?”
“It’s odd, but yes. I have a home now. A…”
An empire. Laken didn’t say it out loud. Ryoka stared at him, and wondered. He was likeable, smart, and he cared about people. But he was an [Emperor]. What would come from that?
They didn’t speak much about the future after that. Ryoka drew a bit more on the parchment, and discussed water mills with Laken. He offered her tips on dealing with Frost Faeries, and she convinced him to make Ivolethe an archduchess.
And then for an hour they laughed and talked about home. Laken told Ryoka about what he did for a living—he was ostensibly unemployed since his parents were fairly rich, but he worked with other people with disabilities and led blind tours as well. She told him about Erin and her own backstory. Mainly anecdotes of her run-ins with authority.
“An American rebel, huh? Tell me you ride a motorcycle and I’ll ask for an autograph.”
And then Durene knocked on the door, and Frostwing woke up, and the moment ended. Ryoka stood up, and Laken did too as he tapped his bird on the beak.
“Hush, Frostwing. Say goodbye to Ryoka. She’s got to go.”
“I’ll be in the city until tomorrow, I think. I have to do something quick. Hell, I might not leave until tomorrow night. You can find me at Magnolia Reinhart’s mansion…it might be better if you wait until I come into the city. I’ll find you tomorrow, how about that?”
“Sounds good. Durene? Ryoka’s going to go, but we have a lot to talk about. Can you call Gamel up?”
Ryoka paused next to Laken.
“You’re going to tell her everything?”
“I trust her. And the less secrets there are in this world, the better.”
“I wish I could be more like you. But I can’t.”
He made a face.
“I think you’re fine the way you are, Miss Ryoka Griffin. Someone needs to be the cynical bastard who watches our backs.”
“I can do that. Good luck. See you later.”
And then she was gone. Laken sat back on his bed, and lay on his back as Durene came back into the room with Gamel. He didn’t look up as Durene sat carefully on the bed and everything tilted towards her.
Ryoka endured Reynold’s sniffling and very hostile remarks as she walked down the street. The snow was falling thickly around them, but that didn’t muffle his acidic comments.
“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t know Ivolethe would go that far. But I did warn you.”
“I’m simply doing my job, Miss Ryoka.”
“Yeah, well, take it up with Magnolia. Or Ressa.”
“I believe I’d rather follow you, Miss.”
“It’s your funeral. Look, it’s one last trip and then we can go home and you can sit in front of a fire.”
“Where to, Miss?”
“Back to Hedault. I have to do something.”
Reynold’s eyebrows rose, but Ryoka didn’t elaborate.
If Hedault was surprised to see Ryoka back so soon, he opened the door readily enough.
“Why have you returned?”
“I’m going to sell you the wand.”
It was refreshing not to have to beat around the bush with him. Ryoka saw Hedault’s eyebrows rise, but the [Enchanter] didn’t miss a beat.
“I can have the gold pieces prepared for you within the hour. I will also provide a second bag of holding as the first will not be able to support the weight—”
“Hold on. I’m not looking for gold. You’re going to pay me something else. Something more.”
Hedault paused. He stared at Ryoka, and then at Reynold, whose jaw was fully open.
“My price is final, and calculated on the wand’s probable value. I will not change it.”
“Don’t give me that.”
Ryoka sighed as she found a seat in the [Enchanter]’s living room and sank into it. He stared at her as she put her feet up. She felt exhausted. Ryoka stared at him.
“Well? Are you going to sit?”
He did, slowly.
“You seem confident that I will agree to whatever you ask.”
“Yeah, well, that’s because I know what’s inside that wand.”
Hedault paused. Reynold scrambled for a quill and inkpot. The [Enchanter] stared hard at Ryoka, but didn’t call her a liar or scoff. He just asked one question.
Ryoka patted her belt pouch.
“Ivolethe? Want to come out? I’m sure Hedualt has some snacks for you.”
The Frost Faerie flew out of Ryoka’s belt pouch. Hedault’s eyebrows shot up and Reynold instinctively retreated to one corner of the room as Ivolethe gazed around the room, grinning with her pointed teeth.
Ryoka smiled at Hedault and nodded to Ivolethe.
“You want to know how I know? My friend told me. She’s a Frost Faerie. A Winter Sprite. She can see magic and she’s lived longer than everyone in this city put together. She told me what was put in the wand’s core.”
“I see. A Winter Sprite. Intriguing.”
Hedualt glanced towards one of the doors and crooked a finger in his lap. Ryoka blinked as a saucer filled with dried prunes flew over to the table and settled down on it. Ivolethe made a noise of pleasure and began attacking the dried fruit, eating far more than her stomach should have been able to contain.
“If you know the contents of the wand, why offer it to me? Unless the value is lower than my estimation?”
“It’s not. In fact, it’s probably higher. But that’s why you’re going to pay me more. Not just for the wand itself, but for knowing what’s inside.”
“And why should I do that?”
Hedault crossed his arms. Ryoka grinned at that. The mage’s face hadn’t changed, but his folded arms spoke volumes about how much she was getting to him. She gestured expansively at the wand, which Hedault had brought out and put on the coffee table in front of them.
“Just think about it. You’ll never know what was inside, and you’ll have to live with the knowledge that it’s being used by some amateur that won’t appreciate it or utilize the wand’s full potential.”
“I ask again. If it is so valuable, why not give it to the adventurers who recovered it? They would surely desire it most.”
“I’m sure they would. But neither of my friends could use it to its full potential—it’s not specialized in the right area for them. But you could. And if you couldn’t, I’m sure you could find a buyer for it. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this the sort of wand an Archmage would want?”
Hedault’s eyes followed the wand. He spoke softly.
“A true [Archmage] would not. But the Archmages of today would certainly use a wand of this caliber if they had nothing finer. And if it is that valuable, I do not believe I have enough funds on hand to pay for it.”
Ryoka nodded, still smiling.
“I know you can’t pay for it. In fact, after talking with Ivolethe, I know you probably don’t have enough gold on hand to pay for this wand. But that’s fine, because what I need isn’t gold. It’s artifacts.”
She sat up, and put her hands on the table. She picked up the wand and felt its weight. Ryoka stroked the cold, metallic wood as she looked at Hedault. Part of her was screaming not to do this, but the rest of her was resolute.
“Here’s the deal. If I give this wand to you, you give me enough armor and weapons to outfit four adventurers. That means armor for two of them—they’re warriors, at least one more sword, maybe a bow, and two wands and a magical robe for the others. Wands, staves…hell, I’ll take a spellbook as well while I’m at it. And more magical rings. And two hundred gold pieces.”
He stared at her.
“Why? This is not a fair trade. Not for a wand of such value. You may approximate the value with lesser artifacts, but no true adventurer would make such a trade. Why are you doing this on their behalf? If this is an act of self-interest, then I will decline. I will have the answer you have failed to give me. Now.”
His eyes were serious. Ryoka met Hedault’s gaze. She thought he was an honest man. A good man, if he cared about adventurers he’d never met. She nodded abruptly.
“That’s right. It’s not fair. But it’s what my friends need. That’s why you’ll never tell anyone what’s in the wand. It’s why I’ll lie to my friends, though I’m giving them a fortune in artifacts. It’s why I’m selling it. Because this wand is powerful—but it’s not what they need.”
“Come on. You understand, don’t you?”
Ryoka gestured impatiently to the wand she held. She thought she could sense something inside of it. Power. Pure power, untapped, ready to be used. It was so tempting. That was why she couldn’t bring it back.
“They don’t need a wand that will make them a target of every magic-user on the continent. They need armor, weapons—and money. They need the gear to become a Gold-rank team, not a bullseye on their foreheads. So you’re going to give me everything I ask for, and then you’re going to write down in a book, or somewhere important that you’ll never forget. The Horns of Hammerad. That’s who you owe. And someday, you’ll pay that back.”
For a while she thought he wouldn’t accept. Hedault stood up, paced around the room, and stared at the wand. He went to the racks of armor and weapons, inspected them, shook his head, and stared at the wand. He muttered to himself about gold and costs, trying to talk himself out of it. But he kept staring at the wand.
In the end, he sat with a sigh across from Ryoka and she knew she’d won.
“Say I pay your price. What arms and artifacts would you require?”
“I don’t know what’s best for an adventuring team that’s about to reach Gold-rank. But I bet you do. And I bet you can get everything I want by tomorrow.”
Hedaut stared at Ryoka incredulously.
“And you would trust me to make such decisions?”
“I trust that you would be honest. You seem like you’ve been on a level so far. And I can check all the artifacts you give me, and make sure it sounds like a fair trade.”
Again Hedault went around the room. This time he came to a decision faster.
“One condition. Tell me what is inside. And then I will make my choice.”
Ryoka held her breath. She stared at Hedault, and decided that he wasn’t going to budge. So she judged Ivolethe as the faerie sat on the coffee table, still chewing down the much-depleted plate of fruits.
“Ivolethe? Do you mind doing this?”
The faerie looked up. She stared at Hedault, and then dropped the bit of prune she was eating. She stood up, and flew over to the wand resting on the table. And when she stood above it, she wasn’t the somewhat evil, somewhat playful faerie that lived in Ryoka’s belt pouch.
She was something else. Something older, that stared down at the wand and touched it with a tiny hand. Ivolethe spoke, and her voice was far away.
“In a forest long gone, there grew a tree. It grew wild, and tall. And free. Ten thousand winters passed as it touched the sky. So tall. So very high. And when it shed the last leaf upon the ground it grew a single bloom. A child, a small one to grow out of the tree’s final doom. But they took it, they stole it, and sealed it away. Here to never grow, here to always stay. For magic thou art, thou small seedling hid. Magic to summon and wield as your owner bids.”
She looked at Hedault, at Ryoka, and Reynold who was staring with wide eyes.
“Ye wish to know what lies within? A seed, foolish mortals. A seed of a tree. A child trapped. The power of the earth, of that which stood through wind and storm and fire and axe. Unbreakable. For ten thousand years.”
Ryoka felt her skin tingle with goose bumps. There was something about the way Ivolethe spoke, about the way she existed that made Ryoka believe every word she said. She stared at the wand and felt her heart ache.
“Living magic. That explains everything.”
Hedault slowly picked up the wand, and stared at it. He ran his hands down the surface of it, and held it as if he thought it would break. Then he looked at Ryoka.
She didn’t need to ask. Ryoka smiled, and stood up.
“I need to go back by tomorrow. Can you have everything ready by then?”
“Yes. It will not be enough, but yes.”
Hedault held the wand and looked at Ivolethe. She stared at it with ancient eyes, and then laughed and flew back to the prunes. He looked at Ryoka.
“I will give you what your friends need. But I will write down the debt, Ryoka Griffin. And when they need to call on it, they need only message me.”
She smiled. It was a tired smile, but sincere. It had been a long day, but Ryoka smiled. Her expression was unguarded, and for once, totally genuine. Both Hedault and Reynold felt a tug at their hearts. For different reasons.
Then she turned and walked out of Hedault’s home.
It was snowing harder outside. Ryoka stared up at the sky and got a big snowflake in the eye for her trouble. She’d seen worse snow days—
Actually, she wasn’t sure if she had. Ryoka stared ahead and found the snow was falling so thickly that she could barely see ten feet in front of her. Already most of the pedestrians were off of the streets.
“It’s disgusting out here. Let’s go to the mansion!”
For once Reynold was in complete agreement. The two set off at a brisk pace down the street, trying not to slip on the icy pavement.
To Ryoka’s unpleasant surprise, she didn’t get to go back to Magnolia’s mansion with Reynold after that. Instead, she and Reynold were caught by a Street Runner, a Dullahan boy who carried his head on a sling as he ran, as they headed towards the place where he’d parked the carriage.
“Miss Ryoka Griffin? You’re wanted at the Runner’s Guild now. There’s a client to see you!”
“A client? Tell them I’m not interested.”
Ryoka wasn’t in the mood, but the Street Runner was insistent.
“They want to see you now, Miss Ryoka! The [Receptionist] told me to get you or not bother coming back. It’s just six blocks away. We can be there in no time if we run. Unless you’re too slow and old?”
Ryoka glared at the Dullahan boy who turned his head to smile cockily at her. She knew it was bait, but that didn’t stop her from beating him to the Runner’s Guild by a solid ten feet. She flipped him off as she walked inside and saw him grin and race away to his next delivery. She quite liked him, on the whole.
The person waiting in the guild was not who Ryoka expected to see. She stared at Laken.
“I thought I was going to see you tomorrow! What gives?”
“Ah, Ryoka. I’m sorry about this, but it couldn’t wait. Have you seen the weather?”
Ryoka grunted sourly. She had snow all over her shoes and Reynold, wheezing a bit as he came in behind her, was brushing snow out of his hair.
“It’s coming down out there. Why?”
“Well, it’s going to be far worse tomorrow, or so I’m told. The snow’s going to cover the roads at least two feet deep—possibly as many as four on top of what’s already fallen if what the [Weather Mages] are saying is true.”
“Fuck. That’s not good. Reynold, how does your carriage handle in deep snow?”
“Fairly well, Miss Ryoka. We should be able to return to Liscor—slowly, but even in deep snow.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
Laken shook his head.
“It may be to you, but Ryoka, the Merchant’s Guild is saying they won’t be able to deliver the food or have the adventurers escort us for at least a week until the roads clear!”
She stared at him.
“Can’t they melt the snow? Hire a mage who knows flame spells?”
“Too costly for me. If I had more money I could, but—no. And we can’t leave right now.”
“So you want to hire a Runner.”
Ryoka nodded. It was the best solution. She glanced at the Runners shivering as they came in from the cold.
“Hire someone good and give them a bag of holding. It’s pricy, but they might be able to beat the snows.”
“It’s a day’s run for the best of them. No City Runner will do it for fear of losing their way, and there’s no Courier I could hire—even if I could afford one.”
Ryoka stared at Laken’s grim face. She got what he was saying and raised her hands.
“Ryoka, please. The village will need food soon, and if I’m away for that long they’ll panic. If you can get to them and send a message—”
“No, I’m not—I’d get lost as well! Hold on, I might be able to if Reynold drives me.”
She looked hopefully at Reynold and Laken turned to the [Butler] as well. Reynold hunched his shoulders guiltily.
“I’m terribly sorry Miss Ryoka, but Lady Reinhart did not authorize me to drive you anywhere but Liscor. Under any circumstances. I believe her exact phrase was ‘if she needs to get anywhere, she can run there herself’.”
“Even to help a village?”
“Even then, Miss. You could try contacting her, but I’m afraid that until then, my orders stand.”
“How long would that take?”
As she asked, Ryoka knew that it wasn’t a good option. Lady Magnolia might say yes, but she’d want to know why Ryoka wanted to help Laken so badly. If there was any way to avoid that, Ryoka would.
“If it is not an urgent issue—and I am afraid that Ressa would not consider this such—Lady Reinhart may not receive your communications for a day or two.”
“And I need to be back in Liscor in two days for Christmas. Laken—”
He stood up.
“I know it’s a lot to ask, Ryoka, but you’re the only person who could do it. I can’t afford anyone else, and I don’t want to leave them alone without word for so long. If you could take a bag of holding—the [Receptionists] assure me you could bring enough food for a week or two and some presents with their biggest bags.”
“Yes. It’s going to be Christmas soon.”
“Yes, it is.”
Laken smiled a bit, but it twisted on his face with anxiety.
“You know, I don’t have a problem staying here. I can buy gifts for Durene and Gamel—after I explain the idea of Christmas to them, of course. But the people in my village need that food now, not after the roads clear. And I’d like to get them presents as well.”
“I know. I know, but—I can’t. I have to get back home and—I couldn’t find my way through a blizzard either.”
The excuses felt hollow in Ryoka’s mouth. She felt a twisting in her gut, but she didn’t see how she could do it. Running was one thing. She could probably run in deep snow—it would be hellish, but she could do it. But getting lost was another issue.
“If it’s just finding your way…”
Laken paused. He frowned, thinking hard.
“Is there a map you could take? Some sort of magical…GPS?”
It sounded ludicrous. Ryoka shook her head as she sat at one of the tables with him. Laken sighed and pushed the small bowl of cheese and crackers someone had given him away. Ryoka felt a rustling at her pouch.
“Is that food? I claim it!”
Ivolethe leapt onto the table and grabbed a slice of cheese and a cracker. She began munching it down. She was getting gluttonous, Ryoka reflected. She stared down at Ivolethe, annoyed the faerie wasn’t taking things seriously. Then Ryoka paused.
“Hey Laken. Ivolethe’s eating your cheese.”
“I don’t m—”
Laken went silent. He coughed and when he spoke again his voice had taken on a thoughtful tone.
“Christmas is coming up, Ryoka.”
“Yup. Santa Claus.”
“It’s a very famous tradition. I used to hear all the old tales every year. The German stories are different of course, but I’ve heard the American classics as well.”
“Oh yeah. All the good ones, I bet.”
“I especially liked Rudolph, although I can’t imagine what the color ‘red’ must look like.”
“It’s not bad.”
“I hate to ask you to run through a blizzard—”
“I’ve done worse. And I’d like to do it. It is the holidays.”
“But the issue is finding your way. Through a blizzard.”
“Yeah. I’d need a guide. Someone who can find their way. Light the way, rather.”
“I take it the color’s off? I’m told that uh, Winter Sprites are blue. Which is, apparently, not close to red.”
“It’s a bit different. But why don’t I think that will matter?”
Laken and Ryoka kept their voices low. They both felt it. A bit of holiday magic in the air, or perhaps just insanity masquerading as good sense. They turned their faces towards the small Frost Faerie gorging herself on the table.
Ivolethe happily swallowed a large bite of wrinkled prune and then realized she was the target of their scrutiny. Warily, she frowned up at the two Humans staring down at her.
“What? What are ye buggers staring at?”