Where do we go from here? That was probably the name of a song of some kind. That wasn’t too significant; everything was a song title in the end.
But where did she and Erin go from now? After they’d saved Ceria (and Olesm) from the ruins? After they’d lost the others.
Where did they go? What did they do, knowing there were others in the world like them?
For a moment, the sheer enormity of it all struck Ryoka full-on, before she could mitigate the feeling. Where did they start?
The King of Destruction was moving. All the people arriving in this world were probably playing hell with the politics and power struggles of each nation, and besides that, the threat of bringing modern-day technology like firearms into this world was very real. Add that to the possibility that it might be possible for this world to connect back to hers and Erin’s—!
Was she missing anything? Oh yes. On a smaller, local level – on this continent, in short – it seemed like Ryoka and Erin had no shortage of problems. An angry Watch Captain in the city, the Antinium, Lady Magnolia, Teriarch, a roaming horde of the undead, Ceria’s injuries, the Gnolls, and possibly Gazi, although it was anyone’s guess where she’d ended up.
Some of those things weren’t necessarily deadly problems—the business with the Antinium as Erin described it was odd. Ryoka hadn’t read any books on the Free Antinium, so she had no idea what they were doing. She could guess, but—
One problem among many. Where did you start? When the house was burning down, the first step was probably to get out of the fire. But where did you start when the entire world was raining fire from the sky?
Erin was looking at her for an answer. But Ryoka didn’t have any idea.
“We—should probably try to analyze the way the leveling system works. There are a lot of classes. If we understand which ones are valuable, or whether there’s a limit or—or a way to level up faster, that might help.”
Ryoka put one hand on her head as she tried to think out loud.
“We need a map. A better one than this, at least.”
She indicated the rough map on the ground. It was hard to see any meaning in the napkin sitting next to the chess pieces, but now she remembered the names of each of the continents:
Baleros, the mysterious continent of jungles and Gazers.
The Blighted Kingdoms of Rhir, the dying lands locked in eternal conflict.
A kingdom of knights and royalty and damn humans. Terandria.
Chandrar, home to the King of Destruction and a desert larger than the entire United States of America.
And of course, home, or at least the place where she and Erin were stuck. The continent of Drakes and Gnolls and a few humans. Issrysil. That’s what the Drakes called it, but Izril was the only thing Ryoka was willing to pronounce.
They sounded like names straight out of a fantasy game, rather than real life. But then, South America, North America, Asia, Antarctica, Africa, Australia…when you got down to it, it was pretty strange that over half of the continents in her world started with the letter ‘A’.
Ryoka tried to kick her brain on track. But she couldn’t. Her mind would much rather think about why continents were named oddly than focus on reality.
Because reality was a bit too hard.
It was embarrassing. How many times had Ryoka wanted more responsibility, less parental controls, more autonomy, and a real challenge in her life? She’d wanted to have something to work for, to live for.
But this was too much. This was crushing despair and incomprehensible madness. Where could they even start?
“Gathering magical artifacts? Learning spells…? Is there a way we could gather allies?”
“Um. Like in Lord of the Rings?”
Ryoka shook her head. Even saying that out loud sounded stupid. She wasn’t Aragorn son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur and rightful King of Gondor with a magic sword of prophecies. And she wasn’t on a quest to save the world or fight an evil tyrant. She was just trying to survive. She didn’t have anything to offer people. She didn’t even have a pair of shoes, just some boots made for a Gnoll.
“Eighty gold pieces.”
Before Ryoka could fully slump down in her chair, Erin spoke. She didn’t look at Ryoka, but stared at the ceiling. Ryoka blinked at her.
“That’s how much Pisces says it would cost to get some of my cupboards enchanted. Well—actually, he says that it would be better to replace the wood frames first, but that’s not too expensive.”
Ryoka stared at Erin without any expression. Where was she going with this?
“I have a few gold coins from killing—well, there were these Shield Spiders a while back and Gazi and it’s an entire thing, okay? But I need to fix my inn, buy food…I’m running low on money.”
Another problem. Wonderful. At least Ryoka had quite a bit of money from the delivery for Teriarch…which she’d never done. A spasm of guilt and anxiety wormed its way into Ryoka’s stomach.
Erin didn’t notice. She was still thinking.
“You could probably use a lot of gold, too, right?”
“Well, what do adventurers have in all the stories and games? Magic swords. Magic armor. Magic…wands. Magic spell books. Wouldn’t that be helpful when you do your running thing?”
“Runners don’t need much to run. And I can defend myself.”
Ryoka pointed that out in defiance of the fact that she’d been nearly useless in the Ruins. Erin shook her head and explained.
“Yeah, but you could defend yourself. I mean, with spells rather than having to kick everything you see. And there’s other things you can buy. Like, uh—”
“A restoration spell.”
Ryoka’s mind jumped ahead of the conversation and Erin blinked at her.
“There are no [Priests] or people like that in this world. But there are mages who specialize in healing magic. If I—we—could find one who knows how to cast a restoration or regeneration spell, maybe they could heal Ceria’s hand.”
Erin’s eyes widened.
“You think so? Really? Is that possible?”
“I know someone who thought she could fix my shattered leg. And that person knows a famous healer.”
It was a simple goal. But if that was the starting point—
Erin nodded decisively.
“Well, if you’re going to pay for Ceria’s hand, count me in!”
Ryoka opened her mouth to tell Erin she could handle it, or that Erin should save her money for her inn, and then closed it. She paused, and nodded at Erin.
“I’ll do that.”
“So…how much is that going to cost?”
“A thousand gold? At least a few hundred.”
Erin didn’t say anything, but her eyes bulged a bit. Ryoka tried to reassure her.
“I know how to get money. A lot of it.”
“How much do Runners make on their deliveries?”
“I’m not planning on relying on running to get that much. There’s one—no, two, actually—two ways I know I can earn a lot of money.”
Ryoka thought about her options and didn’t like either one. But she had a goal now. Money. It was a simple goal that didn’t take into account politics, world events, or anything else. It was a clear road, and Ryoka was good at running a straight line.
Erin blinked at Ryoka in mild alarm as the other girl stood up.
“I’m going to start now. If I head back to Celum, I should be able to start working by tomorrow. I’ll come back with whatever I earn in about a week, with more news, an idea of what the spell might cost, and anything else I can think of.”
Erin’s face fell.
“What, you’re leaving? Just like that?”
Ryoka stared at Erin, nonplussed.
“Of course. Time is money.”
“Yeah, but time is also time. Which is a lot more valuable than money. Sometimes.”
Erin mumbled into the table, and then looked up at Ryoka pleadingly.
“You just got here. Well I don’t mean you just arrived, but we haven’t talked that much.”
“We got all the important details down.”
For a few seconds, the girl with chestnut-brown hair stared at the table as if afraid to speak. The girl with raven hair stared at her, until Erin looked up.
“I could use some advice.”
Ryoka wasn’t a social person. By choice, as much as inclination. And she was a bad friend. She’d never been a good friend, or even a friend to anyone, really. But she heard it in Erin’s voice. A slight catch, a pleading tone. An unspoken request.
Her inner self told her to go, told her it wasn’t important. But a better part of Ryoka she didn’t know she had told her something else. She hesitated, and then she sat down again.
Being an [Innkeeper] wasn’t something that came naturally to Erin. Or rather, it wasn’t something Erin had ever done. But the first part of that thought was a lie.
She was good at innkeeping. Because being an innkeeper was all about people.
And Erin liked people.
It was odd. She played chess all day, and that wasn’t really a social sport. But you met people playing chess. It was sort of the rule. And she liked talking to people. Because people were different, interesting, and most people were good people.
So Erin had begun learning how to read people. It was still something she was new at, trying to analyze people rather than taking them at face value. But she was starting to get…feelings about people she met.
It was something Erin had only just noticed about Ryoka. In truth, she should probably have clued into it earlier, but in her defense, it had been a very long couple of days.
It was this: Ryoka really wasn’t a social person.
In truth, that wasn’t really a hard conclusion to come to. Whether it was Ryoka’s tendency to hunch inwards when she sat in a crowd, or her silent stares and grunted responses when she didn’t want to talk, she practically exuded a ‘don’t-talk-to-me’ zone.
Plus, she just wasn’t the type to sit around. Ryoka got antsy if she had to sit still, and if she got excited when talking, she tended to get up and pace around. She couldn’t just relax; she had to move.
She was a doer as opposed to a thinker. If Erin had to think of it, she thought of it in terms of chess players. Ryoka was like some of players she’d met who could do 5-second games really well because they were so used to seeing certain pattersn and playing games that they could make the best or close to the best move within moments.
That was at odds with how Erin liked to play it, a bit more calculated and patient. OF course, any good chess player had to mix instinct with calculating the overall impact on the board, but Ryoka had that certainty and ability to jump to logical conclusions that left Erin speechless at times.
Case in point. Ryoka had just explained how ice cream was made, and Erin was excited.
“So that’s why I couldn’t get it to work!”
She slapped the table and looked around wildly. She had all of—well, most of the ingredients still in her inn. She could make ice cream! Ice! Cream! The ambrosia of children and anyone who enjoyed life!
“I can’t believe you thought you had to churn milk to make icecream.”
Erin mock-glared at Ryoka.
“Well, how was I supposed to know you had to heat it up and stir it up like…custard? Who’d ever think of something as crazy as that?”
“Catherine de Medici. Although she probably learned the recipe from the Italians who got it from Marco Polo. And they might have gotten it from the Chinese.”
Ryoka frowned absently as she thought, and then realized Erin was gaping at her.
“Do you…do you have like, a perfect memory or something?”
The Asian girl shifted uncomfortably in her eat.
“Not exactly. I’ve got a trick memory. I remember details and things I think are interesting really well. And I studied quite a bit of history for my AP exams.”
“Whoa. I never took the AP’s. They seemed way too hard, and they weren’t a requirement at my high school. Did you pass your exams?”
Ryoka seemed to hesitate.
“I got a few 5’s.”
That was just another reason to admire her. Erin smiled happily as she imagined eating bowls of the delicious ice cream, even if she could only make vanilla. Well, that was what fruits were for. Flavor.
“You have no idea how helpful that is! I can make ice cream and start selling it in my inn! Or—or make ice cream cones! I’ll be rich!”
So delighted was Erin at the thought of showing Selys and everyone else ice cream that she didn’t realize Ryoka was shaking her head.
“Not a good idea. I don’t think it’ll work.”
“What? Why not?”
“First off: it’s winter.”
Ryoka pointed to one of the shuttered windows that was letting in a distressing amount of cold air through the cracks, despite being closed.
“If you’re going to sell frozen treats, you might as well avoid using sugar because of the cost. Only the aristocracy and rich merchants can afford to buy a lot of confectionaries, so you’d have to raise the cost too high. Also, ice cream is hard to store, especially if you don’t have a fridge.”
The other girl started ticking off additional points on her fingers.
“Given the expense and probably the rarity of milk in the winter, you’d also have more costs in that area. If you’re going to sell anything, you might as well sell snow cones because all you need is some syrup. But even then, you’re going to run up against the biggest problem.”
“Plagiarism. The instant one of your customers goes back to the city, every shopkeeper will be copying your recipe. It might take them a few days, but they can probably figure out how to make most of the foods from our world just from the taste alone.”
“I’m sorry, but this world doesn’t have anything like copyright. Maybe you could hide the recipe for a few months, but…”
Ryoka trailed off and thought for a while. Erin was crestfallen.
“So it’s not a good idea? I was going to make all this food from our world, but if people are just going to steal everything.”
“Well hold on, it’s not a completely bad idea.”
Erin looked hopefully at the other girl. Ryoka was nodding to herself.
“It could work.”
The taller girl lifted her shoulders fractionally.
“If they’re going to copy you, let them. Just make it clear that you were the one who invented the dish and capitalize on rumor and gossip. Keep coming out with new ideas and you’ll earn a reputation as an exciting place to be. Or—specialize. Make it so that your food might not be unique, but you’re the one who can provide the best quality.”
She stopped and eyed Erin. The other girl was smiling at her again.
“Wow. That was so well…thought out! Hey, do you want a job working here? You can be the head innkeeper with all the ideas and I’ll be the innkeeper who does everything else.”
Ryoka said it deadpan. Erin guessed that to her, the idea of being a smiling innkeeper was probably like torture. But Ryoka had good ideas, so Erin pressed her.
“Okay, you don’t have to be an innkeeper. But what about my inn? Is there anything else I should be doing?”
It took Ryoka all of five seconds to come up with an answer as she stared around the empty room.
“Off of the top of my head—you could stand to fix up the inn. Repair all the walls and add some kind of covering to the windows and you’ll stop losing all the heat. Enchanting the kitchen is a good idea, and if you can afford it, more magic would probably help a lot. Other than that—your skeleton needs to be improved, somehow.”
“Toren? What’s wrong with him?”
Erin looked around, but then she remembered Toren was outside clearing snow away. Ryoka shrugged.
“It can only clean and haul things around. It can’t cook, can’t talk to guests or serve them without scaring the hell out of them, and it’s not really a good fighter. It’s just one skeleton. That Ksmvr chopped up at least ten of them on the way out of the ruins.”
That was true. Although, Erin had the sneaking suspicion that Toren was more competent than the other skeletons. For one thing, he seemed to be able to put himself back together whenever he got smashed, unlike his friends. She nodded though, to keep Ryoka happy. Maybe Pisces could do some upgrades, although he’d probably ask for a lot of money.
“Okay, okay. But here’s my most important question.”
Ryoka leaned forwards, intent. She was enjoying the act of coming up with ideas, Erin realized. So Erin took a deep breath and told Ryoka her biggest problem.
“You know that stream that I keep getting water from?”
“What about it?”
“It’s a pain to get the water from all the way over there, even if I make Toren do it. Is there a way to get the water to come over here? Preferably without the evil fish?”
For a second, Ryoka stared into Erin’s eyes. Erin stared back, expectantly. At last, Ryoka blinked a few times. She gestured towards the door.
“I doubt water will be a problem right now. If you need it, you can always melt some snow in a bucket. Honestly, firewood will probably be an issue soon. But about the water…have you thought of a well?”
Erin’s jaw fell open.
In the end, Ryoka left two hours later than she’d intended, just as the sun was lowering past the mountains. Erin wanted Ryoka to stay, and Ryoka was adamant that she leave.
“I need to get moving. If I stay here too long, I’ll just get in your way or we’ll talk too much.”
Erin had the distinct impression that it was the second reason why Ryoka was itching to go. She’d seemed to enjoy talking with Erin, but now it was clearly alone time for the other girl.
Ryoka stepped into the two oversized boots she’d gotten from Krshia and grimaced. She stomped over to the door and turned to Erin.
“One more thing. While I’m gone, try not to tell anyone else about where we’re from. Not that Antinium, and not Krshia. Or at least, don’t tell them any secrets.”
Ryoka stared at Erin until she felt uncomfortable.
“Gunpowder. How cars work. The periodic table. Anything that might upset things.”
“Upset things how?”
Ryoka opened her mouth, and then shook her head.
“I don’t know. Just try to be discreet, okay?”
She raised a finger.
Ryoka stared at Erin. Erin nodded obediently.
“Discretion. Right. Got it.”
Ryoka pulled open the door to the inn as Erin hovered anxious around her.
“You’ll be back soon though, right?”
“In a week or less. Don’t worry. Can you check on Ceria for me?”
“Oh, sure, sure. But do you want something to take with you? A snack? Lunch? Dinner? I can make something.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve got to go.”
“Erin. I’ll see you later.”
Ryoka stood up, pushed her feet into the ill-fitting boots she had to wear to avoid freezing her feet off, and nodded at Erin. She stepped out the door.
It was frickin’ cold outside, but Ryoka let not a trace of that show on her face. She wasn’t equipped for the winter; she was still in this world’s equivalent of a t-shirt and running leggings. But once she started running she’d warm up.
No time to start like the present, then. Ryoka took a few steps into the snow and began to jog. The snow was loose and powders around her boots. It was like running in the sand—and even harder because of the boots. It would take Ryoka quite some time to get back north.
Ryoka heard the voice, but she only raised one hand in farewell. She continued to accelerate until she was going at a decent clip. Soon, the inn was lost behind her as Ryoka ran up and down snow-covered mounds, heading back towards the main road.
That was when the air suddenly blew even more intensely, and Ryoka realized she was no longer alone. She didn’t see them right away, but she heard the voices.
“Look, look! The raven-haired one is leaving!”
“She runs, how slow! Like an insect on the ground!”
Ryoka ignored the shrill voices in the air, and the pale azure shapes that flew down out of the sky and hovered around her head. Even at close range, the Frost Fairies were hard to see. If the sky had been clear and blue, they would have been practically invisible.
They fluttered around her head, laughing, swooping about, smiling with sharp teeth as their bright eyes followed Ryoka.
So beautiful. But Ryoka didn’t want to stop for them. They were dangerous, so she pretended she couldn’t hear them. She just admired them out of the corner of her eyes whenever they flitted past.
“She runs slow! Slow and plodding, like one of the stupid grass-eaters!”
“A cow, a cow!”
Apparently, fairies were rude. Ryoka frowned. What the hell were they? And why—
Ryoka slipped as her boots hit a slick patch of ice under the snow and she nearly toppled over. She heard laughter ringing through the air around her.
The impact didn’t hurt, but the snow was freezing as it melted on Ryoka’s bare skin. She got up, brushed herself off, and began to run, faster. She needed winter gear as soon as possible, or she’d freeze in this weather.
Who would know about these strange creatures? Maybe someone who knew a lot of magic. Like Pisces or—
She’d completely forgotten to mention Teriarch and Magnolia to Erin. Oh well. They weren’t going anywhere, and besides, Ryoka would be back soon enough.
The Wandering Inn.
It was not home, and it never would be. But Ryoka thought—yes, she thought it was still a place to remember. Because she had a friend there.
A friend. Named Erin Solstice.
“Are ye smiling because ye are daft or slow, Human?”
Ryoka glanced up. A fairy was hovering around her head. She smiled at Ryoka as, too late, the Runner pretended not to see her.
“I knew it! Ye can see us!”
The fairy turned to the rest of her flock, or herd, or swarm or whatever they were called en-massse.
“Harken, sisters! This human sees us but pretends we are naught but dust in the wind!”
Ryoka ignored them. The Frost Fairies were nearly a hundred in the air now, a huge mass that whirled around. They were…arguing, or perhaps debating. Ryoka listened.
“Bah. Who cares what mortals think? What fools these mortals be! Let us go and bring snow and ice to the rest of this mudball!”
“No, no! I want to stay at the inn!”
“The running cow interests me. I say we follow her!”
They split up. The majority of the swarm flew up into the air, and blew away, south. More Frost Fairies flew back in the direction of the inn, but a small group of ten or so kept pace with Ryoka as she kept running.
They were pleasant company, laughing, flying around Ryoka, for about one second. Then one landed on Ryoka’s head and bent down until she was upside-down in Ryoka’s vision.
“I know ye can hear me, Human. Say something.”
The best way to deal with people she didn’t like was to ignore them. That was Ryoka’s tried and true method, and she tried it now.
“Are ye a fool? Speak!”
Ryoka’s hand came up and brushed at the fairy. The tiny creature was making Ryoka’s forehead go numb and giving her a headache. The fairy fluttered up, outraged.
Ignore them. Just ignore them.
“Pay attention to us!”
“We grace your filthy ears with words. Answer back!”
One of them landed in Ryoka’s hair and began to pull strands out. She shouted in Ryoka’s ear with a voice that was far too loud for her small body.
“Hey. Heeeeey. Hey! Listen to me, Human!”
Erin sighed. She stared up at the ceiling. Ryoka’s leaving had left her empty as her inn. But she had to keep going. She wasn’t alone anymore.
That put a smile on her face. It was replaced instantly by a yawn.
“Man. I’m tired.”
All that talking and fighting and eye-poking earlier today had left Erin really tired. She knew she should probably do something constructive, but her brain told her the most constructive thing she could do was sleep.
One step at a time. One day at a time. Erin closed her eyes and went to sleep.
[Warrior Level 2!]
[Skill – Lesser Endurance Obtained!]
Sometimes Erin forgot how surprising the disembodied voice in her head could be. She jerked up, lost her balance in her chair, and toppled backwards.
She crashed into the floorboards, which didn’t hurt so much after the first few seconds. Erin lay on the ground and stared at the ceiling.
She thought about that for a second. Then Erin’s eyes closed and she decided it was another thing that the Erin of tomorrow would have to deal with.
Lie on the ground. Go to sleep for a few more minutes. Wake up when the blood rushes to your head.
Get up, brush teeth. Erin kept forgetting that part. Crawl into blankets in kitchen.
Go to sleep.
Erin shot out of her blankets and grabbed the first thing that came to hand and threw it at the person who’d spoken.
Her [Unerring Aim] worked perfectly. The pillow flew through the air and struck Pisces in the chest. He blinked as it fell to the ground.
“Ah. Did I wake you by any chance? My deepest apologies.”
For a second, the dirty mage standing in Erin’s kitchen with robes wet and dripping from the snow was like a dream. Then it became horrible reality and Erin rolled over.
She threw another pillow at him. Pisces looked hurt. He sniffed and wiped at his runny nose with his robes.
“It’s just me. There’s no need to be so dramatic.”
“How’d you get in here?”
“The door was unlocked.”
Erin sat up in her bed, grumpily staring at Pisces. The thing about locking doors was starting to make more and more sense. She glared at Pisces.
“I’m closed. Go away.”
“You were open just a few minutes ago for your friend.”
That was the thing about Pisces. Unlike Ryoka, who didn’t read social cues that well, Pisces could readily pick up on unspoken messages. His problem was that he just chose to ignore them.
Erin wriggled around in her blankets until she could both remain in her warm nest and glare at Pisces.
“Ryoka is special. You’re not. Go away.”
“After all I’ve done for you and Ceria both, this is how you repay me? I came here in good faith, hoping to provide you with custom for your business when I could have stayed in the city.”
Pisces sniffed, hurt. He seemed to be neglecting the fact that he didn’t actually pay Erin for the food he ate here.
“Ryoka gets food if she’s hungry. You don’t. You wait until I’m awake for food.”
Again, the mage sniffed and Erin swore to herself that if he sneezed on her or dripped snot on her head she would stab him.
“Your indulgence in your newfound friend is commendable Although, perhaps you shouldn’t have let her go. She ran into trouble as soon as she left. A group of sprites started following her. I saw her run off with a swarm of them hovering over her head.”
“Swarm? What swarm?”
“A swarm of those…creatures. The sprites. The beings who brought this delightful snow for the winter we’re now experiencing. The, ah, Winter Sprites.”
“Winter Sprites? You mean the fairies!”
Erin was out of her blankets and running outside in a second. She ran outside in her bare feet, yelped, scrambled for shoes, and then there they were.
A shimmering, sparkling cloud of bodies hovered over Erin’s inn. Faint, lithe shapes of fairies hovered and dove as their laugher rang through the air.
“Oh no. They’re here.”
Pisces emerged from the inn. Erin paid no notice to him, although he instantly began urging her back inside.
“Come on. They haven’t noticed us yet. If we stay indoors they’ll go away. They don’t enter buildings.”
“What? No. I want to look at them.”
Erin replied absently as Pisces pulled at her sleeve. He squinted at her and then up at the fairies suspiciously.
“Why? They’re just pests.”
She didn’t reply. How he could call the wonderous beings floating abouve his head ‘pests’, Erin had no idea. Like Ceria, there was an otherworldly, unearthly look to the Frost Fairies. They were beautiful as part of the world, but they were mythic, strange and delightful in all the ways they were not part of the world.
Erin breathed the words as she stared upwards, entranced. Pisces turned and stared expressionlessly at Erin. She waved a hand at him.
“You don’t count.”
He shook his head.
“Horrible creatures. I don’t know what you see in them.”
Finally Erin stopped staring long enough to glare at Pisces. She gestured at the fairies as they flew around, chasing each other and laughing overhead.
“How can you not be amazed by that? Look at them! They look like crystal and—ice come to life! They look exactly like how I imagined fairies would look! How is that horrible?”
Pisces eyed Erin as if she’d lost her wits. He stared upwards, and then spoke in a puzzled voice.
“Fairies? I don’t see any small winged creatures. They just look like fuzzy blobs to me.”
Now it was Erin’s turn to stare at Pisces. She waved a hand in front of his face and he jerked back.
“How can you not see them?”
“See what? Those are Winter Sprites. The children call them fairies, but they’re just floating pieces of annoyance. They come around and bring winter and bother people, but that’s all.”
“No, they’re fairies!”
“Are you insane?”
Their argument had attacted the attention of the Frost Fairies above. They flew down towards Erin and Pisces. He yelped and scuttled back towards the door, but Erin remained still. She stared up, eyes shining as a fairy flew down in front of her.
The creature wasn’t like a Human, or even Ceria in terms of anatomy. For one thing, neither humans nor half-elves were made of what looked like fluid ice and pure crystal. But the fairies had different bodies in other ways as well. They had no breasts or other genitalia, and they had two sets of wings, like a dragonfly. In fact, their eyes were pupil-less, much like those insects. But for all of that, they looked like beautiful little girls to Erin.
That was, until one of them spat in Erin’s eye.
Fairy spit is small, but the creatures were cold as ice. Erin yelped and grabbed at her eye as the fairy started cursing at her. Pisces muttered in a soft voice as he ducked away from the Frost Fairies flying over his head.
The fairy who’d spat on Erin hovered close to the human girl as she rubbed frantically at her stinging eye. She glared at Erin.
“And what are ye lookin’ at? Another mortal come to gawk? Begone with yeh!”
She had a faintly Irish accent. Erin wasn’t actually sure if it was Irish or Scottish, which betrayed her ignorance, but if she had been an expert of a native to Ireland, she would have recognized the Frost Fairy’s accent as Irish. Specifically, since Irish accents differed so dramatically geographically, her accent was vaguely reminiscent of the Monaghan county of Ireland.
But to Erin, it was just an odd way of speaking that seemed to involve saying ‘ya’ or possibly ‘yeh’ with every other word. And what was stranger was that not all the Frost Fairies talked the same. Some had vaguely British accents – West Country, Southern Welsh, North Welsh, Edinburgh – so varied and so thick that Erin could barely make out one word in two when they spoke at once.
And chattering seemed to be the Frost Fairies’ default setting, as they swooped around Erin’s head, talking loudly.
“Look, look! Another human?”
“Can she see us too?”
“It seems like it!”
“Hear how she squealed at the cold! Do it again!”
Despite first contact, Erin was still entranced. She raised her voice.
“No—I mean, I can see you. Can I talk to you?”
Pisces stared at Erin as if she’d gone mad.
“Just who exactly are you talking to?”
The fairies had heard Erin, though. Her words sent them into wild spirals as they flew around her, chattering excitedly.
“She can see us! She can!”
“That makes two! Two humans who can see us!”
“How odd! How strange!”
The lead fairy tossed her head and sent her shimmering hair flying.
“Hah! The bloody twat wants ta talk? Sod off ye wanker!”
She dove at the girl’s head, forcing her to duck. Erin held up her hands, but the fairy darted around them and struck Erin on her cheek.
Instantly, the skin around where the fairy had touched Erin went numb, and then came back to life with pins and needles of pain. Erin clapped a hand to the spot and felt the extreme cold.
“Ow! Stop that!”
“They’re not going to stop.”
Pisces said the words urgently as the fairies laughed and the mean one kept trying to tag Erin again with one hand. Erin tried to fend the fairy off—gently, because she didn’t want to hurt the small creature.
“Why are they trying to hurt me? I just want to talk.”
The mage laughed nervously as he stared at Erin.
“Talk? They’re not people, Erin. They’re just…magical phenomena. They turn up every year. No one knows where they come from. They’re pests that destroy everything they find interesting.”
Something about the way he was talking was really bugging Erin. She glared at him as the fairy stopped attacking her at last.
“What are you talking about, Pisces? Can’t you see them? They’re totally fairies! They just spoke to us?”
Pisces was giving Erin a very strange look. He stared in the general direction of the fairy with the Irish accent, and then at Erin.
“Spoke? To you? I heard nothing.”
He wasn’t even looking at the fairy directly. Erin pointed.
“There, can’t you see her?”
The fairy was laughing, making faces at Erin and rude gestures that would have been obscene if she had human parts at Pisces. The mage squinted, but he was looking a bit down and to the left of the fairy.
“I see a fuzzy shape. It’s blue and white. I don’t hear anything.”
That had to be impossible, because Erin could hear all the fairies laughing now. Their laughter sounded like little bells, but Pisces didn’t even react. He was telling the truth.
Pisces looked at Erin.
“Erin. Are you really saying you can see and hear these things? They’re not just…magical particles?”
“Oh, but she can, fool mage!”
“She sees what you mortals cannot, and have not for millennia! More fools, you!”
Erin nodded slowly.
“But why can I see them when you can’t?”
Pisces blinked and frowned in thought, but it was the mean fairy who spoke. She flew back towards her friends and pointed back to Erin.
“’Tis a good question the fool asks. How can she see us, sisters? The glamor cannot be broken so easily by mortal sight. Just look at the fool who revels in death. He cannot see or hear us.”
One of the fairies dropped down and buzzed Pisces’ head. He ducked, and she laughed and flew back towards the others.
“He does not see! He does not know! But she knows! How?”
The fairies flew around Erin’s head, inspecting her from all sides as they argued. She kept still, half-entranced, half-wary.
“Magic? But the magic of magi is too weak. And she has practically none!”
“If she’s used the ointment of our kind, we should blind her now. Take her eyes, one or both and let’s have done with it!”
Erin stared in horror at the fairy that had spoken. Suddenly, the Frost Fairies had lost all their wonder. The creature swept down close to Erin’s head and the girl raised her hands protectively. But then another fairy spoke.
“Nae. It does not work so in this world. Had she ointment, she would only see our shapes but not hear our voices. It is something else, sisters.”
“Is she a freak? But even monsters and creatures of horror and blight cannot see us!”
“A God, maybe?”
“Don’t be silly! They’re all dead here! All dead and rotting!”
Pisces glanced at Erin’s face. He sidled rapidly over to her and whispered in her ear.
Erin turned a pale face towards him.
“They’re talking about blinding me.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Ah. That would be inconvenient. Stand aside and I will deal with this.”
He raised a finger, and Erin moved away. The fairies ignored Pisces, but he frowned at him. He aimed towards the center of their herd and spoke.
Fire, flickering bright orange and red flames flew upwards. It twisted into a flitting, swift shape and flew at the fairies. They screamed and scattered.
The mage was smirking. He gestured at the flames as it chased the Frost Fairies.
“It doesn’t hurt them, and it’s one of the only ways to get these creatures to leave. I thought it best to expedite the process if they are a threat.”
“It will burn our snowflakes! Our snow gifts!”
“Bah. This mage seeks to play with flame? Let’s show him a true taste of cold, sisters!”
One of the fairies spoke as the herd of fairies flew in panic. In a moment the mood changed.
Erin didn’t see what happened, but one instant the flaming bird or insect of fire was chasing a fairy, and then the fairy had stopped and suddenly the [Firefly] spell went out. In a moment. There wasn’t so much as a flicker of smoke. The fire was just gone.
Pisces frowned upwards as one of the fairies raised a tiny hand. He stroked at his chin.
“Hm. That’s odd—”
It was a feeling as much as sound. The air froze. Pisces’s faze turned white and his robes stiffened. His entire body frosted over.
Erin saw Pisces’s expression change. His eyes went wide, and then he started screaming as his body began to process pain. He turned, fire flaring at his fingertips, stumbling as his muscles froze over. He fell to the ground, stumbled upright, and fled into the inn as the fairies laughed overhead.
“Hah! Serves the fool right!”
“Fire cannot hard us! Ye foolish prat!”
“Now what to do with the human who told him to attack us, eh?”
The fairies began to spiral around Erin menacingly. She raised her hands desperately.
“Wait, wait, stop! Look, I’m sorry about my fr—about Pisces. He’s an idiot. I don’t want to hurt you!”
One of the fairies laughed again.
“As if ye could! We are the fae! But we want nothing to do with you! Begone, human!”
That was a good cue to run, especially after what happened to Pisces. But Erin couldn’t just give up. She reached out imploringly to the fairies.
“Can’t we talk?”
“But I’ve heard so many stories about you! And you’re so beautiful!”
Some of the fairies began to preen, tossing their ethereal hair or swooping towards the sun so it made their crystal bodies sparkle. But the fairy Erin was talking to was not impressed. She flipped Erin off with two fingers in the ‘v’ sigh. Was that an insult?
“Unless ye’ve brought Calabrum with ye ta this world, we want naught to do with yer stories, human.”
That sounded like a definite rejection, but again Erin hesitated. There was a word in that sentence she didn’t know, outside of the accent.
“Um. What’s Calabrum?”
The fairy looked shocked. She glared at Erin.
“Do ye not remember the legendary name? No? Surely ye must. Do you know know of Caliburn?”
Slowly, Erin shook her head. She had no idea what the fairy was talking about. Another fairy looked insulted.
“Don’t you remember the old tales? How can you not know the name? If not Caliburn, do you know of Kaledvoulc’h? Calesvol?”
Erin still looked blank. The fairy looked frustrated.
“Are ye daft? Have your kind forgotten all the old tales, or are ye so daft ye can’t remember? The Sword of the Once and Future King! Escalibor!”
That name rang a bell in Erin’s head. She stared wide-eyed at the fairy, heart suddenly pounding.
“You mean Excalibur!? The Sword in the Stone?”
The fairies looked at each other as if Erin was daft.
“The Sword in the Stone? Is she a fool?”
“Hah! The waif thinks Excalibur is the Sword in the Stone? She jests!”
One of the fairies made a disgusted face as she swooped around Erin’s head.
“Ach. The stripling is plainly thick in the head.”
Erin longed to reach out and touch her translucent wings, but restrained herself with effort. She’d probably lose her hand.
“Wait, so Excalibur isn’t the Sword in the Stone? I always thought—but you mean it’s exists? And what about other worlds?”
They ignored her. The fairies muttered to each other and glanced at Erin. They seemed to come to a decision and began to fly away without another word.
She chased after them, clumsily in the snow.
“Wait, don’t go, please! There’s so many things I want to ask you!”
One of the fairies turned and dove at Erin. Her teeth were bared and this time she began smacking hard into Erin’s face. Parts of her skin went numb and then began to hurt terribly as Erin tried to shield herself.
“Ow, ow, ow! Stop that! Please! Ow!”
The fairy kept attacking, and then fell back with a screech. Erin turned around to see her savior. Pisces was holding of all things, a rusted iron horseshoe. Where had he gotten that?
He waved it up at the fairies, and Erin heard them hiss at him. Pisces shouted at them as he and Erin backed up towards the inn.
“Begone, Cold Folk! Leave this place! You are not welcome!”
It was like a spell had been cast. The fairies shrieked and flew upwards. Erin heard them screaming angrily as Pisces pulled her towards the door. His face and skin were now horribly red with frost nip, but he kept a firm hold of the horseshoe.
“Come on. Inside before they come back.”
Erin hesitated. She put one foot in the doorway and looked back. They’d been so wonderful. And then—
Movement caught Erin’s eye in the distance. She stared in horror over Pisces’ shoulder. He looked around and saw what was coming towards them.
Erin saw the fairies screaming among the raging torrent of ice and snow a second before it hit them. An avalanche of snow blasted through the open door of the inn, sweeping through the tables and chair aside. Erin was tumbled up, down, left, and then stuck at a 45° angle in the snow, her feet kicking wildly as she tried to pull herself out.
Around the other side of the inn, Toren heard the miniature avalanche crash into the inn and paused in his excavation work to look up. The skeleton had successfully cleared out a huge patch of snow around the inn with his bare hands, forming a small wall of snow. He left it now and wandered back towards the front of the inn.
The skeleton saw only vague shapes, blue and white patches of light flying upwards. He heard nothing of the Frost Fairy’s laughter or their remarks, but he did see the inn.
Snow, several metric tons of it had rushed into the inn in one moment. It had packed itself inside, trapping the two poor humans inside. Toren heard Erin screaming and Pisces shouting something. He stared at the packed inn and estimated the density of the snow.
Toren’s mouth opened and he seemed to sigh. Then he walked into the inn and began to dig as the snow began to fall even harder.