The day after Christmas, Ryoka woke up in a quiet village where the houses were still partly submerged by snow. She got up and after eating a communal breakfast with the villagers, began to say her goodbyes.
“Are you sure you won’t stay, Miss Ryoka? There’s hardly a road to follow, and the snow hasn’t stopped falling. We’d be happy to offer you a place to stay as long as is needed.”
Prost indicated one of the excavated houses they’d let Ryoka stay in for the night. Ryoka, thinking of how she’d been the only person to have a room to herself while the others slept four or more to a room, shook her head.
“It’s kind of you to offer, but I have to be going. I can reach Invrisil in a day even with deep snow. I have a…guide.”
“Just as you say, Miss. But I…we…can’t thank you enough for making this delivery on Emperor Laken’s behalf.”
He took Ryoka’s hand in his callused ones and bowed over it. Ryoka hesitated, and then clasped Prost’s hand.
“It was the right thing to do, that’s all. Your [Emperor] is a good man. He was the one who convinced me to make the journey. Thank him as well. But I have to be off. There’s somewhere I need to go back to, and people waiting for me. Perhaps I’ll return in the future.”
“If you do, our doors will always be open to you. Always. We owe you a large debt, Miss Ryoka.”
That promise was repeated by every man and woman Ryoka said farewell to. Every villager wanted to say goodbye to Ryoka personally, and she had to shake their hands, trade hugs…and also bend down to do the same to the children.
“You take it easy, okay?”
Ryoka looked Anabelle in the eyes as the young girl reached out to shake her hand. The child was still holding the doll that Ryoka had given her. She hadn’t let go of it once.
“I will, Miss. Thank you.”
She looked so small, standing in the freshly fallen snow. Ryoka felt old as she stood and put her gloves on. The wind blew and she nearly lost her grip on one.
“It’s cold. You stay warm and indoors, alright? When the snows melt…Laken will return.”
“I know he will. He promised.”
Anabelle smiled. There was such trust in her expression that Ryoka didn’t know what to say. She looked down at the girl and then at the village.
“You all really love him, don’t you?”
“He saved us, Miss Runner. You did, too. Maybe when I gain a class, I’ll be a [Runner].”
Ryoka glanced down and opened her mouth. She hesitated, looking into Anabelle’s eyes. They were alight, not dull and empty like they had been when she’d first seen them. Ryoka bit back what she was about to say, and knelt one last time.
“You know what? You might be a good [Runner]. When spring comes, eat a lot and run around a bit. Just have fun, and…we’ll see. Until then, stay warm.”
She stood, and turned. It was time to go. The villagers who’d gathered around her in the cold stepped back. But one woman came hurrying towards Ryoka, holding a box in her hands.
It was one of the present boxes Ryoka had handed out last night. Only, this one had been rewrapped in a hurry. Ryoka stared at it and then raised her hands.
“Oh no. You didn’t…please, I don’t need anything. I can’t accept—”
“It’s Christmas, isn’t it? And you gave us so much…please, take this.”
The woman, Prost’s wife, Yesel, handed the box to Ryoka. The girl wanted to refuse, but couldn’t. She gingerly unwrapped the gift and blinked down at what was inside.
It was a scarf. Hand-knitted, thick, it was dark grey, but for a band of blue across the center. The scarf had a complex wave-pattern that saw the blue center rise and fall, like a wave. It looked brand new, and as if it had never been used.
Ryoka took the wool scarf out of the box and stared at Yesel. The woman looked at her, looked at the scarf, and Ryoka knew that it had not been meant for her. But she asked no questions.
It was useful, but Ryoka didn’t want to take it. She was on the verge of refusing when she suddenly glanced up and to the left. Yesel stared, but Ryoka only seemed to be staring at a patch of blank air to her. But then the girl looked down at her and tried to force a smile.
“Thank you. I—I guess I would need this, after all.”
“It’s far too cold to be without. And it’s—a good fit. I’d be happier seeing it on you than going to waste.”
Yesel watched as Ryoka wound the scarf around her face and neck. Normally Ryoka wouldn’t have bothered, but her coat didn’t cover her head, and the wind was freezing. Any colder and Ryoka wouldn’t be able to stay outdoors without goggles or some kind of protection to keep her corneas from freezing. She’d heard of that happening and had no desire to find out what that felt like herself.
“Thank you. When I see Lak—your [Emperor], I’ll let him know you’re all well.”
Ryoka said it again as she walked towards the outskirts of the village. The people gathered and waved after her, calling blessings. Ryoka slowly began to jog, and then run out of the village. She didn’t look back once, and soon, she’d left it behind.
When Ryoka was certain she was out of sight, she slowed her pace a bit. She spoke to the air.
“Ivolethe. Why did you tell me to accept the scarf?”
The Frost Faerie flew down out of the air and hovered by Ryoka’s side as the girl ran on through the deep snow. It was flurrying, the snow blowing down and confusing any sense of direction. It would soon be very dark, Ryoka knew. Only Ivolethe’s light shone brightly in this world of frost and snow.
“Refusing a gift given in good will on the Winter Solstice is ill luck, Ryoka. You should know that.”
Ryoka frowned at Ivolethe. She’d forgotten it was the shortest day of the year today. But then, it made sense. Yesterday hadn’t actually been Christmas, just a day that Erin had chosen to be the holiday. And the Winter Solstice…
“Does that mean the winter’s only half-over?”
Ivolethe shook her head.
“Nay, two thirds. I do not know how such things are reckoned where you hail from, but in this place, we govern winter. And the shortest day of the year marks the beginning of the end. In time, we shall depart. But this day has more significance than just that. That is why I warned you not to scorn the gift of goodwill.”
“Why? Because it’s unlucky?”
Ryoka laughed. But Ivolethe’s face remained serious as she flew next to the girl.
“Do not mock my words. It is the Winter Solstice, Ryoka Griffin. Not Christmas. Not some day of mortal make. There is power in this day, even if it is not celebrated by the races of this world.”
The smile on Ryoka’s face faded. She stared at Ivolethe.
“You’re serious. What, is the Winter Solstice really an important day here?”
The Frost Faerie nodded.
“Today is a day of power. It is the shortest day of the year—a moment when spirits and magic mix and mingle with the mortal plane. Surely you know of this?”
“I—not really. You’re telling me magic is stronger on this day?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. I would not know, since magic is practiced differently by the people of this world. But other things take on different aspects on this day.”
Ryoka slowed down and stopped in the deep snow. She brushed some snowflakes away from her face and stared at Ivolethe.
“Are you telling me that days like the Winter Solstice, the equinoxes, things like the witching hour…are all actual times of power?”
The Frost Faerie flew closer to Ryoka’s face. There was not a twitch, not a single tell that she was lying or playing games. She looked as serious as Ryoka had ever seen her, and that bothered the young woman greatly.
“Time has power, as does place. I say again, be cautious today, Ryoka Griffin. Since you travel, it would be best if you enter no house uninvited nor ask for any favors of those you meet upon the road. Utter no curses, ask for no blessings if ye are unwilling to pay the price. And make no bargains, make no promises. Tell no lies.”
Ryoka stared at Ivolethe. Her humor faded, and she felt just the tiniest bit uneasy.
“I will. But if today’s so important—no, dangerous—would it have been better to stay indoors?”
The faerie shook her head. She cast her eyes upwards at the dark sky and the falling snow.
“Indoors? Hah. On such a day, only a leyline or—nae, a sacred spot would attract attention. Fate will find you no matter where you go, Ryoka. Best to be about your business. But let us hurry on. It will be dark soon, and you should be behind stone and iron before the night is deepest.”
She flew ahead, lighting Ryoka’s path. The girl ran after her. On the shortest day of the year, she followed the Frost Faerie onwards. But soon, both Ryoka and Ivolethe were lost. And dusk came quickly, so that when Erin woke, in the blink of an eye it seemed almost like night.
Erin Solstice woke up late in the day for once. But when she sat up, letting the blanket fall off her shoulders by the smoldering fireplace, she thought she was dreaming.
It was already dusk, and her inn was empty. Erin stared at the blanket someone had wrapped around her, and then looked around her inn. But from the basement to the second floor, there was not a soul to be found.
Even Lyonette’s bee grub was gone. Her inn was deserted. No one was here, but Erin.
The girl walked about, feeling a wave of loneliness pass over her. It was the same feeling as yesterday. As every day, really.
She was alone. Only now she didn’t have anything to keep her busy.
Erin didn’t eat. She went over to the fireplace and sat in front of it, staring into the embers. Someone had added fuel to the fire, but it had burnt low again by the time Erin had woke up.
The girl stared into the fading coals, and then reached for a piece of wood. She slowly placed the log onto the fire, and watched the wood smoulder and then begin to ignite. She put a second piece of wood next to the first, and the fire grew. It reached up to consume the logs, and the wood burned.
The room began to warm. Erin huddled in front of the fire, warming herself. She stared into the heart of the flames and felt the inn echo around her. Vast. Empty.
On the hill, her inn stood, windows shuttered, door closed. It was the one building around. The city lay a small ways off, no doubt full of life. And beyond that, a few villages filled the hilltops before the snowy floodplains gave way to higher ground. Past that was the city of Esthelm, and other lands.
But here, on this isolated hilltop, the inn was the only source of light and life, however faint it may be. And in that inn, a young woman held her hands to the fire. She added more wood, and the modest blaze became a large conflagration, burning bright and fierce.
It was a waste of firewood for one person. But Erin didn’t care. She stoked the fire, feeding it, making it large enough to warm her cold heart and tired body. And the fire grew, and the inn warmed and gained new life.
So Erin sat, warming herself and thinking of nothing in front of the fire. She would have sat there until she slept, but then she heard a sound. She turned, and realized she had visitors.
They were lost. Ryoka didn’t realize it at first. She followed Ivolethe, never doubting the faerie…until she found herself running past a fallen tree that looked too familiar to ignore.
Ryoka pulled down the scarf around her face, grimacing and wiping at the moisture built up on her lips and nose by her breath. Snow blew past her as Ryoka covered her face with one arm, shielding it from the worst of the blizzard. It felt just as bad—no, worse—than yesterday.
“Ivolethe! Where the hell are we!? I could have sworn we passed that same tree a minute ago!”
She had to look hard to see the Frost Faerie’s glow as Ivolethe flew back towards her. Ivolethe was frowning as she stared at the fallen tree Ryoka pointed to.
“It is not the same tree. Your eyes play tricks on you, Ryoka Griffin.”
Ryoka peered at the tree. She hadn’t paid much attention to it, but she felt it was lying in the same place and at the same angle as the last one she’d seen. How many fallen trees were there, anyways?
“Where are we going, Ivolethe? I thought we were following the road!”
“What do you call this, then?”
Ryoka waved her hand at the grove of trees that she and the Frost Faerie were travelling through. It was a forest of some kind, and not one Ryoka remembered going through on the way to Riverfarm.
Ivolethe looked uncertain. She cast about and flew upwards, fighting the strong winds that threatened to blow her away. When she flew back down to Ryoka, she pointed past the tree.
“This is the way to the road.”
The young woman peered doubtfully in the direction Ivolethe had indicated.
“Yes! Now come!”
Ivolethe scowled, unused to being questioned. She flew off angrily and Ryoka cursed and ran to catch up, wrapping her scarf around her head as she did.
“Don’t go so fast, Ivolethe! I can barely see you in all of this! Can’t you make your light red again?”
The faerie didn’t answer, or maybe she didn’t hear Ryoka. The girl ran on, tripping over buried tree roots and cursing as she passed through a spot with low-hanging branches. But then she saw the faint light of Ivolethe’s aura pause. Ryoka caught up to the faerie and halted.
They were back at the fallen tree. Only this time, they were facing it from an entirely different angle. Ryoka turned back and stared the way they’d come. Then she looked angrily at Ivolethe.
“What the hell is this, Ivolethe? Are you messing with me?”
The faerie protested as Ryoka glared at her. She stared at the fallen tree, her brows furrowed.
“I…must have turned the wrong way. But I will take you to the road. It’s this way.”
She pointed in a completely different direction than the way she had before. Ryoka stared at Ivolethe, frowning with vexation.
“If you’re playing games, Ivolethe, I’m not in the mood. I’m cold—it’s getting dark, and—”
“Cease your complaints! I know the way. Follow me and be silent!”
The faerie snapped at Ryoka and flew off. Surprised by the faerie’s outburst—Ivolethe sounded truly angry—Ryoka followed the faerie. But after a few minutes of running she realized something was wrong.
The faerie paused and glared back at Ryoka.
“You’re going the wrong way! You just turned left, towards the way we came!”
“I did not!”
“You did. I saw you! Look—you can see the fallen tree back that way!”
Ryoka pointed, and Ivolethe stared incredulously. It was true. She was headed straight back towards the fallen tree again.
About to make an acidic comment, Ryoka paused as she stared at the Frost Faerie. She’d assumed Ivolethe was playing a prank on her, but the surprise and uncertainty she saw on the tiny faerie’s face bothered her.
“What’s going on, Ivolethe? Why are we going in circles?”
“I…do not know. Hold. I will see where we are. Just wait—”
Ivolethe cast about, and then flew up. Ryoka saw her form flying straight up, and then getting dragged to the left by the wind.
“By the wind…? I thought Ivolethe could read the wind. Or control it.”
Ryoka muttered to herself as she saw Ivolethe fighting to stay in one place. The faerie flew higher, until her light was swallowed up by the darkness. Ryoka waited on the ground for a minute. And then five.
And then ten. Ryoka stared upwards, shivering, calling out.
“Ivolethe! Are you there? Answer me!”
But no response came. Ryoka paced back and forth anxiously. After what felt like forever, she saw the faintest of lights in the darkening skies. Ivolethe flew down out of the sky, shouting Ryoka’s name.
“Ryoka! Ryoka Griffin! Hear my call! Where art thou?”
“Here! Ivolethe, I’m here!”
Ryoka shouted and waved her arms. The Frost Faerie flew towards her.
“Where did ye go? I lost you!”
“I didn’t go anywhere! You went straight up and vanished!”
“No! I flew up and when I looked back to find you, you were gone!”
The two stared at each other, searching for a hint of deception in each other’s expressions. But neither was lying. After a second, Ryoka stared around at the scattered trees and dark landscape.
“What’s going on, Ivolethe? I’m being serious, now. I don’t like what’s happening.”
The faerie looked grave. She flew closer to Ryoka and placed a hand on her small chest.
“Upon my name, Ryoka Griffin, I do not know. I am not lying to ye. Something is afoot and I cannot tell what.”
“Could it be…could it be your sisters, Ivolethe? I didn’t see them when I woke up—is this some prank of theirs? Or someone else…of your kind?”
Ivolethe frowned and looked about. Then she shook her head.
“I would be able to tell if it were a working of my people. Besides, the magic of the fae is mine. I see through all glamours, and can walk through the twisted halls of my land without losing my way. The magic of the Sidhe cannot fool my eyes, any more than a spell of mortal make can. No, this is something else. Something…else.”
That bothered Ryoka greatly. She stared about once more, noting how the sun, still completely hidden behind the clouds, was almost gone. She recalled what Ivolethe had said about the Winter Solstice. A time of power. An important event.
“Look, did you see the road? Can we follow that?”
The faerie looked at Ryoka and slowly shook her head.
“I saw no road, Ryoka.”
“But we just left—”
“I saw no road. Nor any landmarks I recognized. Just trees and snow and darkness.”
Ryoka paused. She felt the wind blow harder, and the chill cut into her flesh. But there was another chill in her bones.
“In that case…we’re lost. And it’s cold. I know you might not feel it, Ivolethe, but if I have to spend the night…I need a fire.”
“I know. And it seems we cannot leave this place yet. Build a fire, Ryoka Griffin, and quickly. Build it high and mighty. I will help.”
The faerie flew past Ryoka, and both girl and fae ran back towards the fallen tree. It was cold, hard as rock, and partially covered by the snow, but it was a good place to start.
Finding a spot that was at least partially protected from the wind, Ryoka set to work trying to build a fire. She used the fallen tree as protection from the wind, and scraped away snow and ice to get to the wet earth below.
There was no hope of building a snow cave out here, despite the deep snow. It was all powder, and Ryoka felt like if she tried to pack it into a buildable substance she’d be working all night. She’d have to dig a trench. At least if she used the tree, she could count on sheltering herself from a good portion of the wind chill.
But first, the fire. Ryoka knew she was very lucky to have burnable, dead wood around her. She took out the knife at her belt that she’d seldom used but always carried, and began hacking at the dead branches of the fallen tree.
She needed dry, burnable fuel to start with. Ivolethe flew out of the storm and dropped more dead wood for the young woman as she stripped bark and the outer layer of frozen wood away, searching for dry wood pulp.
It took Ryoka a long time to set the fire up even when she had enough wood. She didn’t know any fire spells, and the flint and steel she carried were not as handy as a ziplocked bag of dry matches. Or a can of petroleum.
“Can’t you unfreeze part of this place? I know you did it once—you have spring powers, right?”
Ryoka shouted at Ivolethe in frustration after her eighth failed attempt to get the tinder to light. The Frost Faerie shook her head as she hovered a few feet away from Ryoka’s attempt at a fire.
“I have such aspects, but it is not wise to use them without dire cause, Ryoka. And even then…nae. Not here.”
She looked around warily at the dark forest. Ryoka paused and stared at Ivolethe. The Frost Faerie stared back. Her expression told Ryoka more than she wanted to know. It was uncertain, and more than that…Ryoka had never seen a faerie looking uneasy.
The girl bent over the wood and redoubled her efforts to get it to light. At last, after Ryoka’s hands were cramping up from striking so many sparks, one caught. Ryoka immediately sheltered the fire, letting it grow, desperately helping Ivolethe feed it bits of tinder.
And after what seemed like hours of work, there was a fire. Ryoka sat back, gasping with relief as it grew and she fed it more wood, letting it warm her and the wet firewood she’d placed around it.
“Thank god. Thank…jeeze.”
Ivolethe flew around the fire, dropping bits of dry wood into it. She stared at the blaze, and then around at the forest. It was very dark, now. The sky had faded to pitch blackness faster than Ryoka could ever remember seeing, except maybe in a country like Poland, where sunlight might only last for three hours each day.
“The fire is growing. Good. Keep it burning bright, Ryoka. Do not let it go out.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice.”
Ryoka shuddered, feeling herself warm up. But it wasn’t the need for heat that seemed to bother the faerie. She kept looking around the fire, into the dark forest. Ryoka stared around too. And then she felt a prickling sensation down her back.
She didn’t know why, but it felt like they were not alone in the forest. Perhaps it was Ivolethe’s wariness, but suddenly Ryoka thought she was being watched. She stared about surreptitiously, one hand on the knife she’d used to cut the wood. She had potions—some of them were too frozen to use, but Ryoka could warm them at the fire. The girl cursed as she suddenly realized she could have used the ignition potion for the flour bomb that Octavia had given her to light the fire!
But…perhaps it was best she hadn’t used it. Ryoka stared about. It was cold, and she could only hear the blowing wind. But she felt it now, the same as Ivolethe.
Something was out there. And it was watching her.
They were three. They stood in her inn, the closed door behind them. Erin hadn’t heard them come in. She turned, caught off-guard, but the three didn’t seem like they meant to harm her.
“My apologies, Miss Innkeeper. We do not mean to intrude, but the storm outside pushed us in. We come bearing no ill will. May we seek the hospitality of your hearth on this dark day?”
The first who spoke was a man who stood taller than any man that Erin had ever seen. He was not a giant or stretched, like a basketball player was, though. He simply stood as if he looked down upon everyone and everything.
He had a beard, and a face that reminded Erin of Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps it was just the way his features looked? His nose? No—there was just something timeless about his appearance, Erin decided. Like Teddy Roosevelt, someone who defined his time, who stood out.
He had a beard. And an air about him that made Erin forget his companions for a second. But then she saw a man standing next to him, tall, taller than the first, actually, but who didn’t have his presence. He was slightly hunched, and thin. He looked like a librarian, or a scholar, or what such people were supposed to look like.
He held a book in his hands. It was faded and worn and looked as though it were ancient. But Erin’s eyes passed from him to her third guest, because the last man who stood in her inn didn’t strike her as a man at all, at first.
He…it was a he, Erin thought, was not beautiful or handsome. That was surprising, because Erin felt he should have been. But he simply looked like someone Erin vaguely recognized, as if he had the features of someone Erin had known. But she had never met him before, she was certain.
And he looked like a guy. Now Erin was uncertain of why she’d ever thought he was she. Perhaps it was the way he moved. He was graceful in the way the other two weren’t.
There they stood, the three of them. Erin stared at them in confusion, and then smiled.
“Um. Hello. Welcome. I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you come in. Please…welcome.”
The three bowed their heads, almost as one. Erin walked towards them, feeling lightheaded. She hadn’t eaten.
“You look like travelers. Are you lost?”
“Not lost, Miss. Simply weary. I thank you for allowing us to enter your inn.”
The tall, thin man with the book smiled down at Erin. She smiled back, staring into eyes paler than the moon, but deeper than any ocean.
“My door is always open, especially to people who need food and rest. Can I…can I get you something to eat?”
The three spoke almost as one. The man who walked like a dancer bowed to Erin, smiling broadly.
“It has been a long time since we ate anything. Whatever you offer, we will gladly partake.”
“Just a second then. I’ll get what I have!”
Erin rushed into the kitchen. She wasn’t sure what she pulled out, but it felt like she was searching for food, frying and cooking at the same time, and then bringing the dishes out to the three men all at once. How much time had passed? A second? Hours?
The man with the beard declared that as Erin filled the table for them. He and the other two men began to eat, not without manners, but in a way that told Erin they were starved.
“Can I get you anything else?”
She wanted to keep serving them food, famished as they seemed. But to her surprise, the man with the beard bade her sit.
“Come. Eat with us, our generous host. ‘Tis been far too long since we passed the time with anyone else.”
“Are you sure?”
The other two beckoned Erin over as well. So she sat, and began to eat with them. And until that moment, Erin hadn’t realized how hungry she was herself. In moments she was scarfing down the food with the three.
And then…how strange it was. Erin felt like her guests were no more strangers to her than any of her regular customers. She sat and ate and laughed with them as if she’d known them her entire lives. They were familiar, in a way Erin couldn’t name.
When it was over, again, as if in the blink of an eye, Erin sat with the other three around the fire, warming herself. The three men complimented her on her food as she demurred. Then the one with the book sighed as he stared at the sliver of night through one of Erin’s shuttered windows.
“It is dark and cold outside. I fear our companions face the storm alone at this moment.”
“Oh no. Are they lost too? Should we go get them?”
Erin started for the door.
The man with the beard stopped Erin.
“It would not do to venture out in such a storm at the moment. Things lurk in the shadows. They wait. Better to stay indoors.”
“But your friends…”
He shook his head, and the other two did likewise, making the same motion at the exact same time.
“They are lost as we are, but do not fear. We will meet again in time. That is a certainty, and they do not fear the storm.”
“If you’re sure—what are their names? I can put up posters, ask about…”
The three men laughed as if Erin had said something hilarious. The man with the beard shook his head again.
“Do not worry. They will come in time. As for names…it would be pointless to ask. Few remember my name, let alone the others.”
“Your name? I’m sorry, you never said. What’s your name?”
“Some call me Tamaroth, little innkeeper. But how are you called?”
Erin realized she’d never introduced herself, even after all this time! She blushed; sitting with them had felt so natural she hadn’t thought of it.
“I’m Erin Solstice.”
They sighed, hearing it. As if her name were special. The three men stood around Erin, and she didn’t know when they moved. When the next person spoke, it was the graceful man.
“Well then. You have fed us and given us the hospitality of your home. For that, we are thankful. And so we have three things to offer you, Erin Solstice. Three gifts.”
“Gifts? For me—I couldn’t. I—”
“We insist. Three gifts, but you may only accept one from us. And in return, on this day, the solstice for which you are named…we would ask only one thing in return.”
“What? A gift for a gift? Well, okay, but what is it? I don’t have much to give…”
She had coin and food, but she didn’t feel these men needed either. But they wanted something of her. She didn’t know what, but she knew she had it. The three drew closer, smiling.
“You have it right here. All we ask is it for one of our gifts. It is a small thing. Will you give it?”
“What is it I have?”
They told her.
The fire was warm. Ryoka stared into it, and then into the night. By her side, Ivolethe looked around darkly.
“I do not trust this storm, Ryoka. It is…strange. Even to me. I did not predict its coming, and I cannot see what lies in the darkness. Do not stray from the fire.”
She didn’t need to tell Ryoka twice. In the wilderness, the blackness around the fire that Ryoka had built was absolute. Just a few feet away from the fire, Ryoka was sure she’d lose her way instantly. She was glad she’d piled up enough wood to last the night; she didn’t want to move anywhere.
Ryoka glanced into the darkness and shuddered. She couldn’t see the trees anymore. That was how black it was. Pitch black wasn’t close to this level of…oblivion. She shuddered and glanced back towards the fire—
And there they were. Three people, sitting around the fire with Ryoka. They had made no sound, and Ryoka had not seen them move. But there they were.
She scrambled backwards. Ivolethe looked and cried out in astonishment. But the three sat, calmly, hands stretched out to the fire. Three.
One was a woman not much older than Ryoka. She looked scarred, liked a warrior. She turned her face to Ryoka, and the girl saw her smile.
The second was an old woman. She sat with gnarled hands outstretched, greedily staring into the flames. When she looked at Ryoka, it was with a gentle expression, like a grandmother staring at a child.
And the third? The third was not—Ryoka tried to stare at it. Her eyes moved away. It was not—
It was not anything Ryoka could describe. It sat. But sat wasn’t the right word. It was rigid, in a way bodies and…flesh was not. But it was there, too. It sat at the fire, warming itself or letting itself be warmed.
And it too looked at Ryoka. She felt its gaze upon her.
“Who are you? How the hell did you get here?”
Ryoka’s voice shook as she stood, staring at her three guests. They looked at her as Ivolethe clung to Ryoka’s clothing. It was the young woman who spoke first.
“We are cold, and came out of the storm to seek shelter. Would you begrudge us the fire, young traveler?”
The old woman was next. She edged closer to the fire, eyes fixed on Ryoka the entire time.
“We ask for your hospitality and grace in the storm. Will you give it to us, oh lost child?”
The third said nothing, but Ryoka knew it asked the same.
“Say no. Turn them away.”
Ivolethe whispered in Ryoka’s ear. But the girl hesitated. She stared at the three. They looked so cold. Colder than ice, as if they’d been caught in the storm without protection for…
“I—I suppose so.”
The faerie made a sound, but the three at the fire smiled so broadly that Ryoka relaxed her guard. The old woman beckoned Ryoka back.
“A blessing upon you. Come, sit. Share the fire you have built with us. The darkness is deep, and it would not do to let the fire go out.”
There was truth in that. Ryoka sat back down, away from the other three, and cautiously fed the fire another piece of wood. The three watched as the flames consumed the stick.
“How…did you get here? I didn’t hear anyone arrive.”
“We have been here all along. Perhaps it is you who never looked.”
This came from the young woman. Ryoka glared at her, but she stared back with amusement in her eyes, not the least bit deterred by Ryoka’s look.
“Okay. Then who are you? Where do you come from?”
“That is a long story. We can tell it, but perhaps…young woman, would you offer me your hand? I wish to sit next to you and it is cold.”
The old woman stretched out her hand towards Ryoka. The girl hesitated. She didn’t want to sit next to the old woman, but she looked cold…
“Do not do it! Let us be away, Ryoka!”
A voice in her ear. Ryoka hesitated, and then looked at Ivolethe. The old woman frowned at the tiny faerie on Ryoka’s shoulder.
“What is that you have with you, child? It is a thing of ice and dreams. Not good company for the fire.”
“Her? She’s just…Ivolethe. Don’t mind her.”
“She should leave.”
The young woman with the scars said that. And the thing…agreed.
“I will not leave! You leave! Trespassers!”
The faerie hissed at them, her eyes narrowed as she clung to Ryoka’s coat. The three stared at Ivolethe and she made another sound, so guttural and wild that Ryoka couldn’t believe it came from Ivolethe.
But then the three looked away from the faerie and back towards Ryoka. It was the young woman with the scars who spoke next.
“Take my hand, then. I see the makings of a warrior on you, traveler. I see bloodshed in your past, and in your future. Take my hand and I will show you what I know of battle and triumph. Of loss and defeat.”
She reached out towards Ryoka. The girl hesitated. She wanted to take the hand, if only because there was something in the young woman’s eyes that called out to her.
Ivolethe pulled at Ryoka’s ear. The girl yelped and swatted at Ivolethe, but the faerie only fluttered away. She sighed.
“I’m no warrior. Sorry. And I don’t like killing or…battle.”
The hand was withdrawn. Now Ryoka’s eyes fell on the third thing sitting around her fire. It did not move. It did not reach for Ryoka, but she felt the urge to reach for it.
“Ah, perhaps you want to know who our companion is.”
The old woman chuckled, a dry, quiet sound swallowed up by the snow.
“Well, it asks for you to reach out, child. Can you feel it? Can you hear?”
Ryoka…could hear, despite Ivolethe shouting something in her ears. She understood. The thing wanted her to touch it, to…to feel what it felt. To be with it. To know.
Her eyes slid away from what it was. Rigid? It was nothing she could describe. But she knew it was not like the other two. Not…a being. And not a thing. Yet she wanted to touch it. That was what frightened Ryoka the most.
She reached out. She couldn’t help herself. Part of Ryoka wanted to know what it was, so badly. She wanted to touch it—
Ivolethe bit her. Ryoka howled as she clapped a hand to her neck. She felt blood at the tips of her numb fingers and flung the Frost Faerie away.
The three who sat at her fire stared as the faerie flew back towards Ryoka, blood dribbling down the faerie’s chin. Ivolethe wanted to land on Ryoka’s shoulder again, but the girl wouldn’t let her.
“Now here is a thing that need not be here.”
Ivolethe screamed something like a curse at the young woman sitting across the fire. It made Ryoka’s ears ring, but the young woman simply frowned at the Frost Faerie.
“Begone, thing of ice and cold.”
The flames flickered as the wind blew. Ivolethe shouted, but the gust of wind blew her away. Ryoka turned and saw Ivolethe’s pale blue light flying backwards, her wings beating helplessly. Ivolethe was blown into the darkness outside of the fire. And she did not return.
“There. Much better.”
Ryoka was on her feet. She started away from the fire, but stopped as she saw the vast darkness lurking beyond. If she went out, Ryoka knew she would never find her way back. It was too dark.
“Do not worry about that thing. Come back, sit with us. The fire is growing low.”
Ryoka turned. It was true. The fire was dying, though it felt like she had just fed it moments ago. The girl stepped back towards the fire, but hesitated.
Why were the three here? How had they…she blinked and frowned. Her head felt cloudy, and she was tired. And cold. She couldn’t think straight, but the three seemed oddly comforting to her. She took a step forwards, hesitating as she narrowed her eyes. They were so familiar.
“Do I…know you?”
The young woman looked amused. She shifted, exposing scars on her arms and the side of her face. She smiled at Ryoka as if they were old friends.
“We know each other, even if you do not remember. But sit. Sit, and join us.”
“Yes, join us. Stoke the fire, and sit with us.”
The other two echoed her words. Ryoka hesitated, and drew nearer to the fire. It was growing low. The old woman stretched her hand out to Ryoka, staring her in the eye.
“I offer again. Hold my hand, child. Be free of your worries with me.”
She held her hand out to Ryoka through the flames. It was a hand that promised Ryoka relief. A place to sit, somewhere to rest…Ryoka hesitated.
The young woman was next. Her hand was strong and stretched out to Ryoka, scars shining in the fading firelight.
“Grasp your hand to mine, Ryoka Griffin. Fight, and walk with me through a thousand lands.”
Ryoka stared into the young woman’s eyes and saw the same promise reflected there. To struggle, to fight—
She nearly took it, but the third thing sitting at her fire made an offer. And it called to Ryoka without words. It told her to come over, to sit with it, to…know. To find what was missing, to find what never was.
It was there, telling Ryoka to touch it. To let go. To be…
Ryoka took a step towards the fire, and then another. The three waited for her to make her choice. And Ryoka would take one of the hands. Why not? Only…
Something was running down her neck. Absently, Ryoka reached up and touched something wet and warm.
Blood. Her blood. She stared at her fingers and saw the dark liquid on her fingertips. Why? Oh. Right. Ivolethe had bit her.
And seeing her blood triggered something in Ryoka’s head. She frowned as she chased after a thought. Her mind felt foggy, as if she were in a trace, or sleepwalking. But there was something…what was it?
Oh. Yes. Ryoka stared at the three sitting at the fire. She had to ask. It felt so obvious that Ryoka was almost ashamed, but she had to ask. It was important.
“Hey. Why could you see Ivolethe?”
They stared at her. The old woman sighed. The young woman sighed. And the third thing made no sound at all.
“Ah, it is too late. Look, child. The flames have gone out.”
Ryoka saw the old woman’s hand point. She saw a tendril of fire licking at the edge of a stick that was burnt to ash and then—
The fire went out.
The light vanished from the world. There was only the faintest glow, of near-dead embers. Suddenly, the darkness was all around Ryoka, pressing in. Reaching for her. She shuddered and stumbled towards the campfire. She had to ignite it again. She couldn’t be in the darkness.
There were…things out here.
But Ryoka halted. Her feet refused to move as, by the faintest glow of the campfire, she saw who really sat there. Who she’d been talking to this entire time.
There were no people sitting with her. They had never been there. As the light went out, their true forms were revealed.
Dead things sat around the fire. They were dead. But it was far worse than a corpse. Because they were dead but still moving.
Two faces and a…thing stared at Ryoka around the smoking remains of the light. One reached out to her and Ryoka recoiled. The hand that stretched out was not living, but decayed skin, rotting flesh. Bone.
The things were dead. They were rotting and stank of it. They stared at Ryoka, and she stared at them.
It was dark. The darkness was closing in. The embers were fading, and Ryoka could sense things around her. Things not seen, but terrible. Far worse than the thing that sat next to the fire.
She had to have light. But Ryoka refused to go near the fire. She refused to touch the rotting things. But she needed light.
The word was a whisper in her dry throat. But—yes, that was right! Magic! Magic could save her. Ryoka raised her hands. She called out.
Nothing happened. Ryoka stared at her hands. She couldn’t feel the magic in her, couldn’t reach into that wellspring inside her soul and draw it out. It was as if there was nothing there.
“There is no magic here. Only the fire.”
The voice that came from the thing that had been the young woman was rasping, dead. As rotten as the body that formed the words. It gestured to the fire.
“Light it, traveler.”
“Yes, light it. Or the darkness and the storm will take us all. You can feel it, can’t you? They are closing in. They are coming.”
Yes, Ryoka could feel it. She could feel things watching her. Drawing closer. The fire was fading. When it was out completely, they would come. They feared the light. But they wanted her.
Hands reached for her across the fire. Dead things spoke. One looked at her and it knew her name.
“Choose, Ryoka Griffin. Let the fire die and we shall all face the darkness. Or come and sit with us.”
The second hand reached out. It still beckoned. Still promised. But the thing that held it was dead.
And the last thing sat, true form revealed. Ryoka stared at it and knew where it had come from. From beyond the edge of the world. From the places not meant to be looked into. It told her to reach out and enter those places.
She wanted to touch it. She feared to touch it. She did not want to go near the rotting things. But the darkness was closing in. She had no choice. Ryoka had to…
They stood around Erin, holding their gifts. She stared at them, part of her unsure of what was happening. The other part…knew.
All they wanted was a small thing. So small, and yet so precious. It was all Erin had. All anyone had, really. But this was hers.
“What do you want? I mean…what do you want to trade for it? It’s very special to me.”
They nodded. It was special. The three spoke, almost as one. Telling her what they would give her in exchange for it.
The first was the man with the beard.
“I offer an umbrella made from the sun’s light. To bring day into blackest night.”
He handed Erin an umbrella. She took it, and opened it. Sunlight, pure sunlight, the kind Erin had never truly seen, streamed down from under the umbrella’s canopy. She lifted it over her head, and laughed as the sunlight shone around her. For a second, she was warm and she stood in the daylight. So long as Erin held the umbrella open, it would always be bright around her. The light would burn away her fears, burn away untruths and falsehoods. Then she closed the umbrella and the world was dark.
The second was the man with the book.
“I have here a hangman’s rope. For those who live without any hope.”
He handed Erin a long, thick rope with a noose on the end. Erin tossed the end over one of the beams in the rafters and the others helped her tie it securely. She stood on a table, and put her head in the noose. Then she stepped off the table and hung there.
She was dead. Erin hung in her inn, dead. Minutes passed, then hours. Days. Years. When she took the rope off her neck, Erin smiled. No one had known she was alive. They all thought she was dead. While she hung there, no enemy would find her. It was perfect. She let the noose hang over her head as she turned.
The third, the man who danced as he walked.
“I hold a horn made of ancient bone. A thing to protect both hearth and home.”
He handed Erin a horn of pure white bone. It was cold to the touch, but when she put it to her lips and blew, the call echoed through her inn. It was a call that rose above the loudest horns of the battlefield, which travelled the world. Erin knew that in any part of the world, her friends would hear her call. She lowered the horn as the call echoed.
So. There they were. An umbrella that was as bright as the sun. It could chase away all darkness, reveal all lies. No magic could stand against it, and it warmed the skin and brought light. And the second, a noose. So Erin could kill herself and hide from her enemies. She could live in peace so long as she hung from it. And the third, a horn to call her allies and those she loved from wherever she stood.
Three gifts. Each one priceless. Erin stared at the offerings. She stared at the men.
“And all you want is a soul for it?”
They nodded. The three stared at her, waiting. Erin wavered. She stared at the umbrella, the noose, and then the horn. They were so precious. She wanted each one, each for a different reason. And the price was so simple. So small. She had a soul. It was hers to give. Why not trade it? Why not give it?
Her hand wavered as she reached out—
“Did you hear that?”
The young woman looked up, heart beating wildly as she stared around the darkness. The three sitting at the fire looked up.
“I hear nothing.”
“I see nothing.”
“But I heard it. I know I did.”
Ryoka spun wildly, searching for the origin of the horn call. There was nothing. Just the darkness, closing in. She stared back at the fire.
So dark. It was almost completely dark. If it were regular night, Ryoka wouldn’t have ever seen the last glimmer of flame in the coals. But here, there were things darker than black. That she could still see meant there was light.
“Hurry, traveler. If the fire goes out, you are lost. We are lost.”
She knew it was true. Ryoka felt something behind her. She stared at the three. If she drew close they would touch her. But what other choice did she have?
There was something behind her. Not just something. Many things.
“Okay. Okay! I’ll…”
She stumbled towards the fire, away from the darkness. The three smiled as Ryoka drew closer. They reached for her, but before she drew in range of their hands, Ryoka stopped.
“Don’t—don’t touch me.”
“But we want to.”
“Yes, come close. Just a bit closer.”
Ryoka drew back. She knew the things were right behind her now, but she could not be touched. She grabbed for a piece of wood. She just needed to put it on the fire, but the hands…
“I’ll start the fire again. But if you touch me I’ll put out the fire and we’ll all be in the dark. Understand?”
She heard something like a sigh. But the hands withdrew. It was the old woman’s voice, rotted and sighing that addressed Ryoka next.
“Very well. We have time. But hurry.”
Ryoka knew she had moments. She flung the wood on the fire and desperately knelt by it, trying to rekindle the flames. She grabbed at the potions at her belt, threw them onto the flames. She thought she felt a touch on her sh—
The flames burst into life, high and fierce. Ryoka fell back as the fire roared into life. The alchemist’s fire burned bright, but was already fading. Ryoka hurried to toss wood on the flames as the three sighed and drew closer to the life-giving flames once more.
At last, the fire was stoked. This time Ryoka built it high, tossing almost all the wood she had onto it. It could not go out.
The three sat so close to the flames that they licked at their forms. Now Ryoka looked again, the old woman and the young warrior looked…normal. Their skin was intact, and when they spoke it was with soft, gentle voices. But Ryoka knew what she had seen.
“So. The fire is kindled. But it will not last through the night.”
“No. You have not enough wood. Not enough fuel.”
It was true. Ryoka only had a stick of wood in her hands. And the fire was already dying. The darkness was sucking it away. The storm was engulfing the light.
Again, the hands reached for her.
“We can keep them at bay.”
“We can protect you. Touch us.”
Ryoka shuddered. She took a step back and glanced into the darkness. Things looked back at her.
“She wavers again. And again.”
The old woman sighed. But then she smiled. She looked sideways at the third thing and then spoke to Ryoka.
“My companion has a gift for you.”
Ryoka started, looking at the thing that sat next to the old woman and the young one. But yes. It hadn’t moved, but now it held something. It reached out to Ryoka, and she knew it wanted to place it in her hand.
“Go on. Take it. It is a gift, freely offered.”
The two sat back. Something had changed. Ryoka hesitated as she drew near the third.
“What if I don’t want the gift?”
“You must take it. It is ill luck to refuse a gift.”
Neither woman reached for her, despite being near to the fire. Ryoka hesitated, but part of her wanted to know. She held her hand out, palm up, and the thing—
Something landed in Ryoka’s palm. She stumbled back as the other two sat up, reaching for her again. Something was in Ryoka’s hand. Something cold and…what was it?
It was familiar. Ryoka stared down at her palm as she drew nearer to the fire. She couldn’t go too far away or…
The light illuminated two pale, long things in Ryoka’s palm. She thought they were worms, but they were too odd. Too different. What were they? She edged a bit closer to the light and then she realized what they were.
Fingers. Two fingers, curled up in the center of her hand.
She stared down at the fingers in her hand. They were pale with the cold, but familiar. Long and slender, tanned from being out in the sun. And at the place where they ended—
Torn flesh. Bite marks. Ryoka could see bone on the end of one of the fingers. It had been ripped away from its hand. She shuddered, and her hand, her right hand with its two missing fingers throbbed. She curled her hand—
And the fingers moved. They curled up. Ryoka jerked. She stared at them, and slowly uncurled her hand. On her palm, the two fingers uncurled slowly.
“A fitting gift.”
The dried voice made Ryoka look up. The old woman was staring at her, smiling wide.
“Are you not pleased? Is it not what you have lost?”
The fingers lay in Ryoka’s palm. She hesitated. Ryoka wanted nothing more than to throw them away, but she remembered what the old woman and Ivolethe had said. So she shoved them into a pocket, feeling them move as she did.
“Now, child. It is time to choose.”
They reached out again. And this time Ryoka knew there was no choice. The fire was fading.
Ryoka stared at the hands. She stared at the darkness. Both were horrific. Both were…
She said it out loud. The three looked at her. She heard a sigh.
“No? So you choose the storm and the dark. It is not better, traveller. Not better at all.”
The young woman shook her head as she said that. But Ryoka shook her head as well.
“No. I choose the third option. I choose this.”
She had the wooden stick in her hand. Ryoka stuck it into the fire, keeping her distance from the things that reached for her. The end of the stick ignited, and Ryoka pulled a flaming torch out.
The three stared at her, all disappointed. The old woman spoke.
“You will not escape the darkness with that. The flame will go out very soon.”
“Better that than staying here.”
Ryoka stepped back from the fire. She stared at the three things, huddled around the flames.
“You’re welcome to the fire. But I won’t join you. And I won’t get lost in the darkness.”
“So you say. But you had better hurry, child. Your time is running out.”
Already the flame was burning down the stick. Ryoka turned and ran. She ran away from the fire, into the complete darkness around her. She knew things were following her, reaching for her and recoiling from the flame. But she ran and ran, knowing what was behind her was just as bad.
The three sat at the fire, huddling around it as the flames burnt down. And then the fire went out.
Erin reached for the horn. But her hand paused. She turned to the umbrella, and then back to the horn. When she reached out the second time, it was for the umbrella.
The man with the beard smiled as Erin picked it up. He reached for her, but she handed the umbrella to him.
“Here. I’m sorry. But I can’t take it.”
He blinked, surprised. Erin picked up the noose and unwrapped it from the beam. She handed it to the man with the book, and then picked up the horn. She stared at it for a long time and then handed it to the dancing man. All three held their gifts and looked at her.
“Will you not choose one? Do you not wish for any?”
“I want all three.”
Erin said it and meant every word. She wanted all three gifts with a passion she couldn’t describe. She would have given anything for them, even her soul. But—
“But I’m afraid I can’t take any of them. You see, I don’t think I should have them.”
They stared at her. Erin smiled as she tried to explain.
“They’re not for someone like me. You see…I’m just an innkeeper. I’m no warrior. I don’t fight battles. I don’t have enemies. And I have enough light. I’m afraid someone else might find more use for them than me.”
The three men held their gifts, priceless beyond words, as Erin bowed her head.
“Sorry. But I’ll have to refuse.”
The first to speak was the man with the beard. He laughed, and the laughter filled the room. He turned to the others and they laughed too, as one. When he was done, he stood before her, grave.
“So. Three times we have offered and you have refused.”
He pointed at Erin, standing tall and proud.
“Not for pride, she declines.”
The man with the book opened it and wrote in it.
“Not for knowledge she says no.”
And the third man stared at Erin and sighed wistfully.
“Not for others she refuses. So it must be.”
Erin felt bad, but the man with the beard smiled at her.
“It must be. And you have chosen. Innkeeper, I thank you for your hospitality. One day we may meet again. Until that day, I offer you my thanks.”
The man with the book bowed slightly.
The dancing man gave Erin a bow more graceful than a moonbeam. She smiled at them all.
“Thank you. Come back whenever you want. I’ll be happy to serve you again.”
They laughed again at that, as if she’d told another fine joke. And then the man with the beard turned to the fire. He pointed.
“Keep it lit. The night is not over, innkeeper.”
Erin turned. The fire had grown very low. She piled more wood on it, and it blazed brightly. She was about to thank the man for pointing that out. But he was gone.
She turned and they were gone. The three men had vanished without a trace. But in their place, something glinted at the table where they’d sat. Erin went over to it. She reached down and slowly picked up a coin.
It was palm-sized, and looked a bit like silver. But brighter. Whiter. If it was metal, it was none that Erin knew. She lifted it and felt the weight of it in her palm. It was light as a feather.
What to do with it? Erin stared at the coin, and then walked into the kitchen. She looked around and saw the small jar Lyonette kept separate from the main stash. In a dream she put the coin the men had left in the small pot of coins. Then Erin went back to the fire.
It was low, now, despite all the fuel she’d added. Erin curled up next to it, staring at the flames. Her encounter with the three men seemed more like a dream, now. She didn’t even know if it had happened. Erin stared into the heart of the flames and felt a deep exhaustion fall over her. She closed her eyes. In moments, she was asleep.
It was dark. Ryoka ran through the darkness, heart pounding. She couldn’t feel anything, couldn’t see. It was too dark.
There were things around her. They reached for her with appendages. Some were hands. Others were…different. They grasped at her, trying to pull her back. But Ryoka ran on, and the light in her hands pushed them back, kept them at bay.
But the light was fading. As Ryoka ran, it slowly burnt away, fading into the blackness. Ryoka ran on, searching for a way out. But there was nothing around her. No sign of escape.
Just the night.
“Is anyone there? Someone! Please!”
Ryoka screamed as she ran. There had to be something. Some sign that there was life—something else but the darkness. But all she heard was her own voice, and the things closing in.
Her breath was tearing at her lungs. Ryoka had run so far, but now the torch was a flickering stub. She slowed, trying to cradle the fire as the wind threatened to blow it out. And still there was nothing.
Nothing…Ryoka closed her eyes. Something was next to her. It reached for her, and she knew it was over. She saw the last flicker of light die.
And then there was light. Ryoka turned in the darkness and ran for it, ran for the voice that cut through the howling oblivion around her. She turned, searching for the source of the voice.
“Ryoka! Come to my voice!”
Ryoka ran. She ran towards the sound of the voice in the darkness. There was nothing around her. Nothing, and yet the things reached for her, trying to touch her. To…
Ryoka felt something tugging at her neck. She cried out, but the thing hadn’t touched her. It had tangled on her scarf and was trying to pull her back. She fought to get free and the scarf tore loose from its grip. She ran away, towards the voice.
There was light. Faint, in the distance, but as absolute as certainty. In this darkness, even the faintest glimmer was unmistakable. Ryoka ran towards it, shouting and hearing her name called again and again.
“I’m here! Here!”
Again, she heard the call and this time Ryoka threw everything she had into the run. She ran fast, faster than she’d ever run in her life. There was nothing that held her back. If her legs broke, if her body tore and bled—if she fell just a step behind, the things would catch her, and there would be nothing of Ryoka after that.
Now she could see someone running towards her. Ryoka saw a shape, a…woman?
The voice was familiar, but the person was not. Ryoka only caught a glimpse as she ran, but the woman was tall, as tall as Ryoka and lithe. She held something in her hands that shone in the darkness.
A sword. She ran and Ryoka ran with her.
“This way! Do not look back, no matter what! Run.”
The sword flashed as the woman swung it behind Ryoka. And Ryoka ran. She ran, and the darkness followed her. But there was light up ahead. Light and—
And movement. Something ran towards her. Ryoka saw something dash by her. A man? No. Not a man. But someone in armor nonetheless, a…being with a sword that had the same unnatural radiance as his face. It was a he, and he ran past Ryoka.
A warrior. But he was not the only one. Ryoka heard galloping hooves, and cries that made her ears ring. Not one, but many beings ran past her, each one male, or so she thought. They ran towards the darkness and kept it at bay. And she ran and ran—
And burst out into the light. Not the light of day, but rather the light of midnight. There were no stars in the sky and the sun had long set. The clouds were thick and it was snowing and the moon was obscured.
But it was light. Ryoka sank to her knees in the snow, gasping, and then saw the blue radiance flying towards her, and heard her name being called.
“Ryoka! Ryoka Griffin!”
Ryoka struggled to her feet and ran to the faerie. Ivolethe flew towards Ryoka, and the girl cupped her hands so the faerie could land in them.
“How did you find me?”
“Never mind that. Did they touch you? Did anything touch you?”
Ivolethe was looking Ryoka up and down anxiously. The girl shook her head.
“Nothing. What was—what—”
“Do not speak of it. Do not mention what was there, lest you call it.”
Ivolethe put a finger as cold as frost itself to Ryoka’s lips warningly. The girl closed her mouth. Ivolethe studied Ryoka and shook her head.
“Build a fire. You are near death.”
She was. Ryoka looked around for wood, but nearly fell. She could barely feel her limbs. Ivolethe flew off as Ryoka had to sit. She came back with wood and dumped it on the ground. Then the faerie stared at the wood. The color of her body changed and her body shimmered. For a second her crystal skin and living ice body become molten, and her flesh was burning fire—
And there was. Ryoka pulled herself towards the flames and felt the icy chill around her body fading. She huddled near the flames for a long time, until her clothing was smouldering and she felt blisters forming from the heat. Only then did she roll away and look at herself.
Ryoka touched at her throat and shuddered. Only once had the things nearly caught her. She pulled away her scarf and Ivolethe hissed.
“Do not touch that!”
Part of the scarf that Mistress Yesel had given Ryoka had…changed. The waving pattern had warped and altered, the fabric’s stitching switching around. Forming the impression of a…hand…
Ryoka shuddered as she stared at the impression in the fabric. She tore the scarf away and hurled it into the fire. She grimly watched it burn, and then remembered the second horror of the night.
The girl reached into her pocket, hoping that she would find nothing. But her heart chilled as she touched something at the bottom of her pocket.
“That was no dream.”
She pulled out two twitching digits. Her fingers. Ivolethe’s eyes went wide and she flew back from the fingers. Ryoka stared at them. She tried to clench her hand and watched the fingers curl up.
“What the hell was that, Ivolethe?”
The faerie had no answer for Ryoka. None she could give. She stared at Ryoka with mouth tightly closed, staring at the fingers. Ryoka stared at them too.
They were her fingers. She could feel them. If she touched them, she felt the sensation, as if her fingers were back again. But they had been given to her by…by…
They were her fingers. No. They had been. But they weren’t anymore. Ryoka’s hand shook as she lifted the fingers, clutched them tightly. She closed her eyes.
And the she hurled them into the burning fire.
Ivolethe saw Ryoka react as the fingers hit the burning coals, sending up a cloud of sparks. She heard a scream. The girl cried out and doubled over, clutching at the stumps of her fingers. She straightened slowly, gritting her teeth so hard that Ivolethe could hear the grinding.
“Are ye well, Ryoka Griffin?”
Ryoka tasted blood. She felt…she turned away from the fire.
“It’s…nothing. Let’s go. I want to be away from this place. Now.”
Ivolethe nodded silently. Ryoka took off running and the faerie flew ahead. Ryoka left the second fire to die down as she ran through the snow. Her right hand burned and the pain nearly made her pass out. But she kept running, on and on, away from this place. Back towards Invrisil.
And she didn’t look back. Not once.
Erin woke up slowly, to someone shaking her.
“Huh? What’s that? Lyonette?”
The girl was shaking Erin, looking worried. As Erin woke up, she realized her inn was full again. There was lots of people standing around her.
Her guests. Her friends. Zel and the Horns of Hammerad and Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers…
And Lyonette. And Mrsha. The Gnoll licked at Erin’s face as the young woman sat up.
“What’s happening, everyone?”
“You tell us. Erin, what happened to the kitchen?”
It took Erin a few seconds to get up and go to the kitchen. When she did, she could only stare.
The kitchen was empty. Not of people, but of food. All the food in the kitchen was gone. Erin stared at the empty pantry, the ransacked larder, and then at the dishes piled up, and the unwashed pots and pans.
“Did you eat it? All of it?”
Lyonette stared at Erin uncertainly. The girl shook her head.
“No, I—I had a dream, but—”
“You ate everything in your dream?”
Revi stared at Erin incredulously. Ceria shook her head.
“No way. You could have fed us all for days with all the food in there! There’s no way…where did it go?”
Erin had no answers. She only shook her head and stared. After a while, when no answers were forthcoming, the people around her took action.
“I’ll get some food from the city! I mean, I’ll buy some—no, it’s an emergency.”
Lyonette ran out the door and the adventurers who were hungriest went with her to carry things. They left Erin alone, standing in the kitchen.
“Was it just a dream?”
It had felt so real. And yet, Erin felt like the events had to be a dream. Surely it couldn’t be—
Her eyes turned towards the jar of coins at the side of the room. Erin went over to it. Lyonette had grabbed a big handful out in a hurry. So it probably wasn’t…
There. At the bottom of the jar, Erin’s fingers found something other than the regular coins. She slowly drew out a coin that shone white and silver, practically glowing in the light from one of the lamps.
“It wasn’t a dream.”
But then, what was it? Erin stared at the coin. She ran her finger over it and peered at it. There was some sort of inscription on the coin. There was a rough border on both sides…faded imagery…she thought there might have been words, too.
But it was all long gone. Only the metal remained. Erin stared down at it, and then slowly put the coin in her pocket.
She walked over to the windows. Someone, probably Lyonette, had thrown them open. Through the glass, Erin stared out into the night.
“Oh. The snow’s stopped.”
The snow had indeed stopped falling. The drifts of snow were piled up very high, but now the sky was clear. And Erin could look up and see the stars and moon. And the second moon, a sliver of a crescent hanging across the sky from the first. Two moons. Sometimes Erin forgot. They hung in the sky, beautiful, lighting up the world.
Behind her, the fire crackled, burning brightly in the fireplace. Erin ignored it as she stared out across the vast world, up into a universe that was not hers.
But it was hers now, wasn’t it? Erin sighed and saw the windows fog up. Her windows. And this was her inn.
Around her, the snow covered the plains, deep, white. Untouched. To the right the city of Liscor sat, dark, the walls staring down at her. But familiar, nonetheless.
Erin reached into her pocket and felt the coin again. Was it just a small thing? No. Today had meant something, she was certain. It was the end of the winter. The winter solstice. The thing she had been named after.
Something had happened. Even if she didn’t know what. And looking out into the world, Erin knew more things were happening.
The winter was ending. The shortest day and the longest night of the year was over. Soon the world would warm, and then…
Erin smiled. Oh, that was right. If the longest night of the year was over, didn’t that technically make today sort of a new year’s? It was close enough, right? Perhaps that was how this world celebrated such things.
It certainly seemed fitting. Erin wiped at the glass and saw a group of people trudging back towards her inn, carrying what looked like enough food to feed an army. Or a bunch of starving adventurers.
It was just a short moment, but Erin was finally alone. She felt loneliness in her heart, and sadness. And grief. But also hope, and the reassurance that came to her as she stared at the people coming towards her inn.
She wasn’t completely alone. And so Erin walked towards her door and threw it open. She smiled as the night passed into day and the next day began. Everything started today. She laughed as, in the distance, the sun stopped setting and began to rise.
“It looks like it’s going to be an interesting year.”
End of Volume 3.
There’s so much to say. There’s so much I want to say. Let’s begin with the most important stuff for you and then move on. After today, I’m going to take a week long break from writing The Wandering Inn.
That simply means I’ll post the next chapter on Saturday, January 6th, 2018 (or Tuesday, January 9th for public readers). I wanted to time this just right, so that any of you Patreon folks don’t get blindsided and pledge for January while missing a week of updates.
But I’ll get to that in a second. For now, let’s talk about the third volume ending. It feels like just yesterday I was writing Laken’s first chapter, but here we are again. It feels like all that time went so quickly, and yet what a year it’s been for everyone. For the world.
And for me. In one year I went from working a part-time job to self-employment. Which is why it’s odd that I’m taking a break, isn’t it? But this is the first moment I feel like I can truly relax. I have enough money that if some people unsubscribe I won’t be in trouble. And in truth…I need a break.
Just a small one. Here’s the thing. I’ve said that I write both chapters a week in one day, over the course of six or more hours. That’s not a lot of working time if you just counted that, but I spend a lot of time I never measure thinking about what the next chapter will be. Every time I walk, as I’m about to sleep…the chapter consumes my day.
It’s necessary and I don’t mind it. But of late, and especially with the last few chapters leading to the end of Volume 3, I’ve felt like I lost a tiny bit of my edge. I felt like some chapters I could have written a bit better, or I missed certain details. And I just grew tired of writing 10,000+ words twice a week.
In this industry, and I mean that of any online work, web comics, web serials, Youtubers and so forth, you hear a lot about burnout. My goal with the week off is to avoid that ever happening. I’m not bored of the story. Never of the story. But I don’t like writing. I like telling stories. Writing is just the thing I do to facilitate that process. So I’d like a break. Just for one week, and then I think I can write for an entire year without pausing.
Enough about breaks. I’ll enjoy myself and I hope I can count on you to come back. Let’s talk about the story. Volume 3 did feel like set up for other things, but we got good characters and some nice moments, didn’t we? And yet…Volume 4 will be different. Or so I hope.
Let me put it this way. I feel when writing The Wandering Inn as though there are certain types of plots I write. One type is the main plot, the story of stories that I know. I know how it will end, but it moves slow. The second type follows main characters like Erin and Ryoka, the way they interact. The third is individual, and follows Ceria, Pisces, and every character I’ve written.
Mixing and focusing on each type of story makes the volume slow, but it also creates a localized world within the world, a place readers know very well. That’s all good, but there is a larger plot. And so for Volume 4, I think we’ll be seeing the story of the world move forwards. At last, the events that will be marked in history books will take place. Volume 4…should be good.
That’s all for now. I’ve rambled on quite long enough. I can only make the same promise I always do to you: next chapter will be even better. I’ll write my best, and hope that you continue to support me. I’ll see you in a week’s time. Thanks for supporting The Wandering Inn and see you next year.