I walk because it still hurts to run. I move because it’s just a bit better than staying still.
But yeah. I’m in pain.
Overhead, the sky is clear for a brief window of time, exposing clear skies. But clouds are coming in fast, and there will be a blizzard before nightfall. I’m no meteorologist, but I’ve got a bunch of flying faeries that tell me this is so. And I believe them.
I’m not crazy, I swear.
Some days I think I am, actually. In the past, I was sure I was sane despite what other people thought*. Now though, I’m beginning to wonder if this is all because I’ve snapped and I’m in the straightjacket at last.
*Lots of diagnoses from people with long degrees. What all the talk of social disorders really meant was that I was an uncooperative brat who hated authority figures. I locked a therapist in his office one time and walked out with the key. Good memories.
But as I take another step in the snow, I decide that fantasy doesn’t hurt nearly as much as this reality. My entire body is—
Frankly, it feels like I’ve been hit with a car and then beaten with sticks for a few hours. I feel like curling into a ball and crying every time I move, but that would hurt even more.
The potion Teriarch gave me has worn off by now, obviously. I sort of slowed down about twenty minutes after I drank it.
I say twenty minutes, but what I really mean is this endless blur of motion – all sped up in my head, but at the time it was all moving at normal speed for me. I ran out of that battlefield, and back towards Liscor. I think I covered over fifty miles in those twenty minutes—I could be way off, but I was literally running faster than a car so who knows.
Anyways, after the potion wore off I just fell down. The faeries laughed their little asses off when I started feeling the pain from my legs, but I somehow managed to drag myself into a cave they found for me.
That’s another thing. The faeries were with me while I was running, the entire time. They were actually faster than I was—no, I don’t even think they were having a hard time keeping up. How fast are they really?
Back to the important bit. You know how you can tear muscles if you run really hard? Imagine what running that fast does to your body.
I had several healing potions in my pack before I made it to the Necromancer. They were good quality potions too. They’re gone now, and my body still hurts.
For two days I think I sat in a cave, trying to heal my torn muscles and just—just remembering. After I stopped, for a while I couldn’t even process the world around me. My mind was still too busy catching up from where I’d left it.
Fast forwards to now. I finally left the damn cave and started moving again because I was feeling better, and because the faeries were getting bored and dumping snow into the cave. If I’d left it another day, I probably would have been trapped inside.
So yeah. That’s what my life has been recently. I stumble through the snow, heading back the way I’ve come. It’s a long way to Liscor, but I’ve got plenty to think about.
Like Az’kerash. The Necromancer. The battle, Wall Lord Il—whoever he was, and…
It all happened so fast. I was a runner, and then a prisoner, and then a noncombatant in a warzone, and then…
I led them to their deaths. That was my fault. True, they were chasing me and probably going to hit me a lot and take me prisoner, but—
My fault. There’s no way to escape that. Periss might have been a loyal hound for her master, but she was also brave. And she let me go to fight what she saw as the greatest threat to her people.
The Necromancer. Az’kerash. Perril Chandler. I remember what I saw him creating, and my stomach heaves.
“Oh right. The letter.”
“Fuck that dragon.”
I hate him so damn much. One of the faeries hears me muttering and floats down to laugh at me.
“What’s wrong? Is it not what ye expected?”
I glare at the faerie. How is it that I’ve probably talked to these floating freaks more than anyone else in this world or—most of my life?
“When I get told to deliver—no, when a Dragon casts a spell on me to do a delivery and pays me nearly a thousand gold pieces to send sometimg to a legendary Necromancer, I expect it to be important.”
The faerie laughs in my face. She flips upwards and settles on my head. For some reason they really like sitting there. I’m not sure if she’s one I’ve talked to before; I think she is, but I’m not being racist when I say they really all do look alike. It’s hard to make out frozen features on minutiae, alright?
“If it ‘twas important, the Dragon would have used magic, fool! But he had no wish to break through the dead raiser’s wards and he wished to be polite. More fool you for thinking what ye carried was valuable.”
I grit my teeth, but she has a point. If Teriarch can alter memory and disguise himself as a Human – and if he can teleport me all the way back to Celum in a few seconds – he really doesn’t need even the best Couriers.
Polite damn Dragons. Who would have guessed?
“Fine. Whatever. Get off my head. You’re giving me a headache.”
“Ooh, and what will you do if I don’t?”
I raise my finger and point it at the faerie.
For a second the world around me lights up, and the faerie shouts in surprise. I grin as she takes off; swearing in what sounds like…Welsh? Their accents seem to vary between faeries, which is odd, but not so much if you assume they occupied different parts of Europe. I could swear I heard one of the faeries talking with a German accent, but they might have just been messing with my head.
But of course, any action against faeries prompts a greater or equal reaction. She dumps snow on my head. I swear and flash her again.
With my finger. It shines into the sky, so bright I can see the beam even in the light of the day. It turns out that I can adjust the intensity of the light very well, and so I blind the faerie again.
“Ye daft bugger!”
She flies around erratically, as I shine my light at her, and then she stops, flies back on my head, and grins at me.
“Ah, well. ‘Twas quite a good surprise!”
That’s faeries for you. Insult them a bit and they’ll hound you, but do something like that and they just regard it as a bit of fun. I’m starting to understand them more, but they always surprise me a bit. The faerie on my head doesn’t even seem to mind the light anymore. I frown at her as I walk on, trying to substitute the pain in my head by thinking about faeries.
“Did you just turn off your eyes or something?”
“What? Are ye stupid? Nae. I just saw past the light, ‘tis all.”
Multiple layers of vision? Obviously a faerie might have access to all kinds of spectrums of light. But even that might be too simple; she could very well just ignore the light on my wavelength if she wanted to. Huh.
A tiny head lowers into my line of sight as the faerie grins at me.
“If you really wanted to surprise us, ye’d do better to make the loud sound and noise along with the light!”
“What? Oh—you mean the [Flashbang] spell.”
That was a good one. I had no idea I could do it, but while I was in the cave I started experimenting with the two spells I did know. [Noise] and [Light]. My reasoning was that if I could alter the [Light] spell with some work, why not the [Noise] spell? Hell, why not combine the two?
A day and a half later, and two aching eardrums prove I’m right. The burst of noise and sound isn’t exactly like being hit by a real life stun grenade—and there’s a whole lot less death and injury since this is just light and sound, not actual explosive force like the damn things people use, ‘non-lethal’ my ass—but it works.
Sound and light. Light and sound, just amplified. It’s the easiest thing to remember, especially if you’ve actually seen a flash bang go off*.
*Yeah. Police drug raids, wild party, and I wasn’t actually doing drugs. But try explaining that to a bunch of officers tearing up the place. The one time my father’s connections actually bailed me out of trouble I didn’t start.
It’s a great spell, and I can see how useful it would have been with all those soldiers. Hell, it might have slowed Periss enough—well, the [Flashlight] spell works well enough just to blind people. The [Flashbang] spell is a bit more intensive, and it hits me as well which is a major problem. Since I can’t move the [Noise] spell, it’s always set to friendly fire which sucks. And there’s one more problem.
“I feel sick after using that spell just once. I don’t have the mana to keep using it.”
I glare up at the faerie dangling her cold legs on my forehead.
“As far as I understand it, magic isn’t something I can actively train myself to have more of, unless I want to alter my body somehow. What I have is what I get and I’m grateful for that. Unless you know something about magic that I don’t?”
I’m sure they do. For all I hate these faeries at times, they’re a damn goldmine of information. If they choose to share it.
Which this faerie does not. She sniffs at me, arrogant as a queen despite the fact that she’s naked and tiny.
“Of course we know how magic works. But why should we tell you? And how would you understand? Would ye explain breathing to a rock?”
“I’d give it a shot. And I could try to understand your view of magic. Unless you don’t understand your powers enough to explain it in the first place, that is?”
The faerie pauses, and I think I’ve got her. But then she laughs, clear and bright as a bell. She takes off, and a few more of her friends fly down to laugh at me as well.
“Ooh, look. The plaything is trying to be clever. Take this!”
They flick their fingers at me and I flinch. But no snow appears. I frown, take a step—
And slip on the ice patch they’ve just created. I crash to the gorund, swearing as they laugh and sit on my side as I struggle to get up.
Faeries. But I guess I deserved that? Wait a second, no I didn’t. I just asked a damn question about magic. Screw their opinions about what I should or should not be allowed to learn.
But each time I talk to them, I swear it’s worth it. Bruises and all.
Plaything. That was another word they kept using. Once the faeries have stopped laughing I ask them about it.
“What do you mean when you call me ‘plaything’? I’ve heard you call me that before. Whose plaything am I? Teriarch’s?”
Huh. That makes the faeries stop laughing. They exchange a look, and I watch them. Then one of the faeries shakes her head.
“As if the Dragon would bother with you. Nae, ye are a plaything of greater powers still. But you don’t even know what ye’ve given up, do you?”
“Given up? What do you mean?”
“Ach. How would we explain it? What good can a slave do with the chains on their neck? But you put it on willingly, didn’t ye?”
She looks at her companions and shakes her head again.
“Your…classes, fool! Your levels and foolish things. You are a plaything, and you know not what that means or who plays this game.”
And there it is. Part of the mystery, right there if only I was smart enough to put all the pieces together. I frown, but then I notice the faerie’s expression. She’s…glaring at me. So are the others.
Hm. They really, really don’t like this subject. And I can see they’re getting ready to either fly off or do something nasty to me, not just prank me.
So I look her in the eye and shake my head.
“I’m no plaything.”
“Lies, you are all playthings! Ignorant slaves!”
“You cannot hide the truth!”
Okay, now they’re pissed. The faeries fly around me, and more of them come down. They look angry.
Faeries. Quick to change emotions. And dangerous. I gulp, but hold my hands up.
“I’m telling the truth. I have no classes and no skills. I never leveled. I chose not to.”
They freeze. One of the faeries squints at me.
“Can’t you tell?”
They hesitate, and then shake their heads reluctantly. Huh. Seems like that’s one of the things faeries can’t do. One of them, the first one, I think, floats closer and eyes me suspiciously.
“Do not try to trick us, mortal. Tell us plain: do you have levels? Did ye accept the power of this world?”
I look her straight in the eye. If ever this was a time to be honest…
“I swear it. I swear it on the water, by the grass and earth and sky and on my name. I swear it by honor and life itself.”
I’m not sure if those are the right words. I don’t know any faerie oaths and I’ve forgotten any famous ones in the moment. But it seems to work. The faeries exchange a glance and then look at me. one speaks.
“That is…good. And interesting. It changes much, Human.”
Another one mutters that. Some faeries nod and others shake their heads. For the first time I see them start to argue, but then they look at me. Almost all of them fly out of earshot and the first one—I think it’s still her—remains.
“Would you like to explain any of that?”
She lifts her small nose up at me.
“‘Tis for us to discuss. We will tell you if you need to hear it.”
I sigh. Faeries. Secrets. It’s not as if I’m not used to this already. I glance over my shoulder the way I’ve come. A long, open stretch of snow is behind me, and a small forest seems to be ahead.
“Damn it. Do you at least know where I am? Am I even headed back to Liscor?”
She hesitated, and then nods stiffly.
“You go the right way, Human. You and others march towards the city that floods.”
Wait, what? Two parts of that sentence bother me.
“Me and others? What do you mean?”
She squints behind me. I look over my shoulder, but I don’t see anything. But the faerie does.
“‘Tis a great column of the children of Dragons and the walking dogs following your trail. About a day’s journey behind.”
Oh no. My heart begins beating faster again. I remember Ilvriss and the other one. Zel-something.
“Do you know which army it is? Is it the one who captured me, or the other one?”
She shrugs. Well of course faeries don’t care about mortal affairs. She eyes me as I try to pick up the pace.
“Ye know we will not interfere in mortal affairs.”
“I know. But you seem to interfere a lot in my life.”
She shrugs as she floats by my head.
“Some rules may be broken. Some may not. But we speak to you now because your life is not in danger. We will not save ye if you were to fall off a cliff, say. We do not interfere with death.”
For a second her eyes are ancient again. I shiver.
“Because of the price? Or because it’s forbidden?”
“All things have a price. Ye would do well to remember that.”
Silence follows that statement. I mean, what the hell do I say to that? I clear my throat as I try and force my legs to move faster.
“Well. Ah, I will remember. But thank you for helping me before. With everything.”
I wonder if they broke the rules a bit to help me get to Az’kerash? True, I might not have been in danger of dying until I got in sight of the castle, but—
The faerie eyes me as if she can see inside my head. And if she can see on different planes, why not? But she nods.
“You are a curious mortal. Almost interesting, even though ye art a fool.”
“This mortal does have a name, you know. My name is Ryoka Griffin.”
“Good for it.”
I glare at the faerie. But part of me actually wants her to know my name. This is not like the phone call with the person who wanted to scry on us or Teriarch. This is a faerie. I want her to remember my name and—
“What’s your name?”
I look at the faerie, and realize I’ve never asked. I thought faeries didn’t even have names, but perhaps they do. She looks at me.
“Why should I tell you? Names are important and not to be thrown around lightly, Ryoka Griffin.”
Damn. Was that a mistake? But they can find me and mess with me even without a name. I shrug.
“I’m just curious.”
“Curiosity has killed many cats. Few come back. Besides, ye would never pronounce it.”
The faerie stares at me archly as I raise an eyebrow at her. Okay, it’s clichéd, but faeries don’t know modern tropes and taunting them often works. She opens her mouth, hesitates, and then vanishes.
I blink. One second she’s there, the next…wind and silence. Why? Did I bother her that much? Did I offend her by asking for her name?
Faeries. Let’s see. Names…ah, they’re bad to give to faeries. But I told her my first and last name, and my first name is in kanji, so that would make it difficult for her to control me. I don’t even think they’re that evil, but I didn’t mention my middle name either.
Maybe it’s just because she didn’t want to answer? But even when they get snippy they still talk. So what—?
Hold on. Hold on. The faeries don’t disappear except in one case. When they can’t interf—
I look around. I’ve kept walking as I talked to the faeries. Hell, it’s practically my default state of motion. I’ve gone a small ways into the forest, and the trees were sparsely planted so I have plenty of room to walk between them. All is silent, and I don’t even see any animals.
…And neither do I hear any birds, which I would expect to hear in a place like this. Even in the winter there should be some around.
Immediately I lower my stance. My body’s sore, but it can move. I can cast [Flashbang] if need be, but I have no more potions or bags. I look around warily. Nothing but trees, and yet the faeries are gone.
“I know someone’s out there. Come out!”
Silence. Even the wind is still. I look around.
For a few seconds I’m tense, waiting. I can’t see anything that makes me think there’s someone nearby, but now my skin is crawling and I’m sure there is something there.
And then someone steps out behind a tree that seems far too slim to hide them. A Gnoll walks out from behind the brown, snowy bark, holding a bow in her hands.
She was so invisible that my heart skips a few beats when she moves. I flinch, but if she’d wanted to kill me, she would have while I was standing around like an idiot. The Gnoll is wearing only a few garments despite the cold, and her breath clouds the air. She nods at me, gravely.
“Mrr. Ryoka Griffin. I am Hekra of the Stone Spears Tribe.”
Her bow is lowered, and I relax when I hear what tribe she’s from. I smile at her.
“Sorry. I was wary—are you out hunting?”
“Hunting, yes. But not for game. There are none to be found.”
Some Gnolls are taciturn, but Hekra seems more distracted than anything else. Her eyes flick around the forest, and then to me.
“Were you talking with the Winter Sprites?”
I frown. What’s this?
“Yes. I was. Were you expecting something else to be nearby?”
“I am not sure. There is something in the wind.”
Hekra hesitates, and then points out of the forest, east and to the north.
“It is dangerous to be alone. Our tribe’s camp is that way. I will take you there. Follow.”
I nod, and the Gnoll begins to walk through the snow. Not fast; in fact, she’s silent as she moves through the trees, despite the landscape. I feel like an ox as I blunder after her in my heavy shoes. And her head is scanning left and right as she moves, and her ears are twitching.
She’s listening for something. And looking. For what? A monster? Enemies?
I don’t know, but I frown as I walk after her and try to keep silent. The faeries reappear slowly as I continue moving. Perhaps they didn’t know if Hekra had been a threat or not either. Good to know they’re not omniscient. But their sudden disappearance and the news of the army following me bug me. Almost as much as Hekra’s own wariness.
Is there something out here? Something else? I follow the Gnoll as she leads me towards her tribe’s camp. And now I’m listening as well.
Where have all the animals gone?
“There is nothing out here.”
Ilvriss snapped at Zel as the two Drakes marched through the snow, at the center of a huge column of soldiers and prisoners. Zel Shivertail wondered if he could ignore the other Drake, but politeness dictated he reply. Plus, Ilvirss would remember any slight.
“I’m sure there isn’t. but this is the way the Human Runner went, and I want to follow for a bit.”
Wall Lord Ilvriss glared at Zel. He was a prisoner, as was the bulk of his army. They’d surrendered fast after Zel had charged their lines and they’d realized their leader had been captured. Now Zel was marching with a huge number of them captive among his lines.
He wasn’t worried about the prisoners trying to stage an escape or attacking in his army’s sleep. For one thing, his soldiers were on alert and for another, it would violate the laws of war and Ilvriss’ own sense of honor. Say what you would about the Lord of the Wall, but the Drake was honorable. He’d as soon break the rules of warfare as he would cut off his own tail.
That was also why Ilvriss was marching next to Zel in the snow. He’d even been allowed to keep his armor; it was cold, he needed his dignity, and without his sword Zel could trounce him with one claw tied behind his back.
None of that improved Ilvriss’ mood.
“This is pointless, Shivertail. We should be headed back to your damn alliance cities so I can be ransomed. You are wasting time following a Human who is long gone.”
“She can’t have gotten that far.”
Ilvriss made a sound that in a lesser Drake would have been called a snort. Zel thought of it a snort anyways.
“Didn’t you see her escape? At that speed—”
“At that speed, I’d be surprised if she could sustain it for more than five minutes. And afterwards, she’d have to rest. Potion or not, there are limits to what bodies can handle.”
“The Human’s tracks might be there, but she is still a Runner. She is far faster than this slow army.”
“True, but I want to head this way anyways.”
“Curiosity. She helped me win the battle, if you don’t recall? And there is also the matter of Periss and the soldiers you sent after her.”
Ilvriss looked at Zel out of the corner of one eye. He and Zel hadn’t talked much aside from the ritual offer of surrender and a few short acerbic conversations while they were marching. He shrugged.
“She disappeared. She must have lost the battle.”
“You can’t believe that.”
Zel knew Lord Ilvriss, and he also knew Periss. The very idea that she would have lost a fight to the girl named Ryoka Griffin was ridiculous, and both generals knew it. But Ilvriss just shook his head.
“I will not speculate. I will investigate this matter when I am restored to my city with all the power and resources I have, however. The city we are marching away from as we speak.”
Well, that didn’t bode well for the Human. Zel sighed.
“We can go this way until we hit the main road. Then we’ll start moving south. A day or two of detouring won’t slow us, unless you have another army waiting in ambush?”
Ilvriss shook his head.
“Would I need one? My army would have defeated yours easily. If—”
Zel ignored the Wall Lord as he walked ahead. He’d deployed heavy scouts ahead of his main army. He didn’t know why, but his instincts were telling him to do so.
He was no [Tactician] or even a [Strategist]. Zel had ranks in the [Commander] class, but only that. In truth, he was a [General] who led from the front and he did his best fighting when he trusted his gut.
And his gut told him there was something else. Not just the Human; she was interesting and possible important, but there was another presence in these empty forests and highlands.
Zel tightened his fist and silently assessed his condition. His army might be battered, but they were more than capable of managing the prisoners and Ilvriss. With him, they were more than a match for any army a city-state might field, with the exception of the Liscorian army and a few others. But Liscor had sent their mercenaries far to the south. So what was making him so uneasy?
He didn’t know. But Zel ordered the pace to be picked up. The supply lines could damn well catch up later. He had a mystery to solve.
He hated mysteries. This foreboding he felt reminded him of the Antinium and if it was them—
No Hives were allowed to be constructed outside of the six already present on the continent. Even then, they weren’t allowed to expand past certain borders. It wasn’t beyond belief though that the Antinium might hide something this far out here. How else would the girl have made Periss vanish like that?
It was an outside chance. But if it wasn’t the Antinium out here, he wanted to know what it was.
And if it was an unauthorized Hive…Zel’s claws clenched. If it was, it would mean another Antinium War.
He hoped it wouldn’t come to that. But he had to investigate. So Zel marched onwards, wondering. Listening.
What was it?
Ryoka walked into the Stone Spears camp, smiling as she saw Urksh, the Chieftain of the tribe, standing at one of the huge bonfires the Gnolls liked to make. But that smile faded as she took in the camp.
It was not the same place she had left.
Before, the camp had been sprawling chaos, but organized for all of that. Children had run around freely, and Gnolls had been at work performing various tasks.
Now though, the camp looked like it was under lockdown. The children were nowhere to be seen, but Ryoka thought they were in the tents. Gnolls with bows and spears stood at the edges of the camp, and groups of them moved into the camp and out of it, talking with Urkrsh before heading out again.
Something was clearly wrong, and Ryoka jogged over.
He looked at her.
“Ryoka Griffin. I am pleased to see you well. But this is a bad time for greetings. Forgive me if I do not offer you all the hospitality.”
“No. That’s fine. But what’s wrong?”
Urksh nodded to Hekra and she trotted off to join a group of hunters heading out. Ukrsh watched them go and shook his head before he looked at Ryoka.
“Mrsha. She is missing.”
A hole opened up in Ryoka’s stomach. She stared at Urksh.
“We do not know. This morning she went out to help gather plants from beneath the snow. She wandered from the gatherer with her and we have not seen her.”
“She just left? Did anyone hear anything?”
“No. But that is not uncommon. Young cubs, they wander a mile or two away to help or play.”
That seemed like a risky way of looking after children, but Urksh explained.
“Even if they are a ways away, children may howl. And we take care that they do not enter places where any monsters may lurk. She was only gone for a few minutes, but when the caretaker searched, she was nowhere to be found.”
“Wouldn’t she have said where she was going?”
Urksh shook his head. Ryoka knew she was asking all the stupid questions, but she had to. Her stomach was beginning to churn. Mrsha? It seemed like just yesterday she’d seen the Gnoll rolling in the snow and following her about.
“Mrsha is different, no? She is healthy, yet she does not speak though her throat is undamaged.”
“Is she mute?”
The Gnoll looked at Ryoka, confused. Did they not have mute Gnolls? She shook her head.
“Can she make any sounds?”
“Yelping, growls. Small sounds. She is young, but even children can howl. That we have not heard her is worrying.”
It was a terrible question, but Ryoka had to ask.
“…Could she have gotten hurt? Injured? If a monster—”
The Gnoll instantly shook his head, which made Ryoka feel better.
“If she was attacked, she would have made a sound, no? And if she were dead, we would smell blood. No. Something scared her as she was wandering. That, or else she went looking for something.”
There was an inflection in his tone that made Ryoka hesitate.
“Something? What kind of thing?”
The Gnoll Chieftain did not immediately respond. He looked towards the sky. It was just past midday, but the storm clouds the faeries had warned Ryoka about were closing in.
“A smell in the air. It is faint. And it may be nothing, but some of our hunters feel as though they are being watched.”
He looked at Ryoka.
“Normally we would have more searching. But the miners, they are not back, no? We have not the numbers to mount a search.”
He was worried. Ryoka could tell in the way he changed his manner of speech. Gnolls usually said ‘yes’ at the end of sentences, but they only used ‘no’ when they were upset or angry.
“You can’t get in contact with them?”
“We may howl, but they are a few day’s journey away. If we do not find Mrsha before the storm comes…”
He didn’t finish the sentence. If there were tracks, or…a body, they would be covered by the deep snow. And even if the young Gnoll was alive, could she survive that cold a night?
“Forgive me Ryoka. I must go lead another search. We are combing the mountains where she was.”
Urksh bowed to Ryoka and began to walk off. She didn’t even think. Ryoka caught Urksh’s arm as he started to leave the camp with other hunters.
“Let me help. I can run, and I owe your tribe a debt.”
The Gnoll looked at her, and then nodded.
“You are limping. We have a poultice. Use it and then join us. We will need to move quickly before light fades.”
He loped off, and Ryoka stared around the campsite. High in the air, the Frost Faeries hovered, watching.
Ryoka bit her lip. They wouldn’t answer. Mortal affairs. She shook her head and moved towards one of the tents. Healing poultice, and then she would run. As fast and as far as she could. She owed the Gnolls a debt.
More than that, she wanted to see Mrsha’s face again. But a small part of Ryoka was whispering in fear, and she had to push the voice back.
Let it not be so. It was just an accident, a lost Gnoll. Nothing more.
Everything would be fine.
Ryoka ran through a forest, Gnolls spreading out around her. They ran in a curious bounding motion across the snowy landscape, separating so that each Gnoll could cover a large patch of land.
Normally Ryoka wasn’t anywhere near as fast as a Gnoll, with her heavy winter clothing and boots. But she’d abandoned all of that to give herself some more speed and mobility. She’d wrapped her feet in fur and bound it to her legs instead of boots and she was down to her shirt and pants.
It was risky, and Ryoka could feel the chill in the air. But so long as she got back to the Gnoll’s camp she would be fine.
And she needed to move fast.
Ryoka shouted as she ran through the forest. Frost Faeries flew around her, their translucent forms for once lacking the vibrant energy they normally possessed. They flew over Ryoka’s head, silent, watching. She ran, paused, and called out again.
“Mrsha! Can you hear me?”
Around her, Ryoka could hear faint howls in the distance. The Gnolls were calling out for Mrsha in their own way, pausing to listen. But they clearly heard nothing, because they howled again from different spots a few minutes later.
Where could she be? Urksh had said she was gathering a plant which grew high up on the slopes, and yet the Gnoll child could have ranged down the side of the mountain or in the forests. Normally the adult Gnoll would have smelled or found her instantly, but for some reason she’d disappeared.
She knew not to wander far off, and she would have made a sound if she was attacked. So then why had she gone so far away? Ryoka’s mind was racing as she ran and called out, and each suspicion she had was worse than the last.
The small Gnoll had light brown fur and an inquisitive, curious face. She had always been poking around in Ryoka’s things or touching the Human girl while she was in camp. At first it had been annoying, and then it had been almost relaxing. The Gnoll child was unafraid of Ryoka, and she’d enjoyed bothering the girl.
Ryoka wished she could feel that small claw poking into her back.
“Mrsha! If you can hear me, call out!”
Was there magic she could use? Ryoka ran out of the forest and up a slope, looking for places where a young Gnoll might have tripped or fallen. Pitfalls, a subterranean cave entrance, a Shield Spider nest—Urksh said they’d cleared out all of the nests nearby and marked the ones that they hadn’t, but could Mrsha have fallen into one?
Surely the Gnolls would have checked. She would ask when she got back. Ryoka ran up the slope, ignoring the way her feet slipped and legs cramped up.
The mountain was silent. It loomed overhead, higher and higher, the snow gradually giving away and revealing rock the higher you looked. No sane person would climb that mountain. But would a young Gnoll do that if she was afraid?
Afraid of what?
Ryoka ran upwards, calling out. Frost Faeries flew around her as Ryoka shouted, waiting, hoping for a reply.
But no one answered.
“Rest. You must rest, Ryoka Griffin. Eat this.”
Ryoka looked up. Urksh was offering her something. She reached up and found he had a bone with cooked meat on it. She took it and bit, ignoring the heat and bloodiness of the food.
She wanted to keep moving, but her body had grown too tired. And the Gnolls had come back to camp, most of them, anyways. Ryoka had gone back to see if anyone had found Mrsha, but they had not.
They hadn’t found anything.
Forest. River. The frozen lake. The higher passes. Even the few caves they knew of, both inhabited and not. The Gnoll [Hunters] and other adults had scoured each location, even travelling further than they thought Mrsha could move. But they hadn’t found any tracks or signs of her. And that was telling, because the girl would have left some fur or traces of her passing, wouldn’t she?
And now the mood in the camp had changed again. Instead of the subdued panic Ryoka had sensed earlier, now the Gnolls were silent. Completely so. The [Hunters] still conferred, but there were less of them going out to search. They had few spots left to cover.
They were giving up hope.
Urksh sat with Ryoka by one of the fires as she ate mechanically. She looked at him.
“I’ll head out again after this. Give me a few minutes.”
“You must rest. It would not do to lose you. It is beginning to snow.”
He was right. Dusk had set in, and with it, the storm had finally arrived. Thick flakes were beginning to fall from the sky, and they were only the beginning. Soon, wind and snowfall would make visibility impossible. And then—
Ryoka’s hand tightened on the bone and she nearly burned herself. She let go and wiped her hand on her pants.
“She’s not lost yet. There are places we haven’t looked. Higher in the mountains, perhaps.”
Urksh shook his head.
“She knows that there is death up there. She would not go unless she was desperate.”
“And if she was?”
His gaze was steady as he met Ryoka’s burning stare.
“If she was, she would know that there are many deep crevasses. If she fell into one, we would never hear her or catch her scent. If she survived the fall.”
Ryoka looked away and clenched her fist. Urksh looked at the sky.
“We do not think it is that. Only a monster would chase her so far, and most are too smart to go high up. The ones in the mountain are large enough to spot and smell…but another might have caught her.”
She looked at him. Urksh stared into the fire. He had searched longer than most, as long as Ryoka, and dark sweat still stained his fur.
“A Wyvern can grab even an adult up in seconds. If it swooped down, it would take only seconds.”
Ryoka stared at Urksh. But she saw the same expression on his face. Gnolls were practical. They would keep looking, but if they didn’t find her by tomorrow, then realistically Mrsha would probably be dead.
Humans might look for far longer than that, in hopes of finding a miracle or the remains. But Gnolls had to face facts or die in the wilderness.
“She’s not lost yet.”
“No. And we will search for her until we have lost all hope.”
He stood. Ryoka hesitated, and stood with him.
If they had any, they would have used it. Urksh shook his head.
“Our [Shaman] knows no spells that will aid us. He can heal and fight but little more.”
“A beacon, then. If she’s just lost, maybe we can show her the way back. I have a spell that might—”
Again the Gnoll shook his head.
“She knows where we are camped. And we should not draw too much attention to ourselves. Not tonight.”
He looked at her.
“There is something in the mountains. We have sensed it.”
Ryoka nodded. She had too. She pointed, and the Gnoll looked up.
“The Frost Faeries seem to think there’s something out there too. They disappeared when I met Hekra—I think they were expecting something else. They won’t help if someone’s life is in danger, and there’s that army…”
She’d told Urksh about the army coming this way when she’d remembered. He’d simply shrugged. Gnoll Tribes had their own peace treaties, and the Stone Spears had no issues with any Drakes at the moment.
“If there is something we will fight or flee. We have watchers and there is nowhere to hide in this flat space. But we dare not send the entire tribe out to look any longer.”
“I’ll keep looking. Don’t worry about sending someone with me.”
Urksh looked at her directly.
“You will not find her by searching the same places again, Ryoka Griffin. Do not waste your strength.”
Ryoka bent down and tried to tie the wrappings around her feet even tighter. She’d begun to get frostbite by the time she’d returned, but she’d been able to run far faster like this. It was worth the pain, especially since she could use the healing poultice.
“I have to look.”
“If you had a location, I would go with you myself. But this is a vast wilderness. Who will tell you where she has gone?”
She tried to ignore the voice of reason. Gritting her teeth, Ryoka bent to touch her toes and tried to stretch.
“I don’t know. I just have to h—”
She paused. Who would help her search? Gnolls were experts in this terrain. The Stone Spears knew every spot in the area. Who would be better at tracking than they were? Who could see—?
Her eyes travelled upwards.
The Frost Faeries. They’d been so silent as Ryoka searched. They hadn’t disappeared, but they hadn’t said anything. Normally they’d be showering Ryoka with remarks and jokes, but now they were just watching.
Perhaps they were worried about Mrsha too. They liked children. But maybe there was more to it than that.
“We are forbidden to help in mortal affairs.”
Ryoka said the words very quietly. Urksh looked at her, and another Gnoll’s ears twitched across the camp.
“What do you mean by these words, Ryoka Griffin?”
The faeries weren’t looking at Ryoka. They were staring elsewhere, but she knew they knew she was watching them. And their eyes were good. They could sense an army on the move a day away, and they’d known when the hiding Gnoll was there. They could see through a Necromancer’s enchantments, and even a Dragon’s.
All the Gnolls looked up. The Frost Faeries stared down, faces expressionless as Ryoka pointed at them.
“I want to speak with you.”
One flew down. Urksh’s eyes narrowed and he squinted just to the left of the faerie, but Ryoka just stared grimly at the faerie as she flew in front of the Human girl and the Gnoll Chieftain.
“What do you want, mortal?”
“You know where Mrsha is, don’t you?”
The faerie looked at Ryoka silently. Her face wasn’t filled with mirth or mischief or any of her normal range of emotions. It was old again. Old and timeless and terribly dispassionate.
“What if we do?”
“Tell me where she is.”
The faerie shook her head.
“This is no concern of ours, mortal. And we are bound not to interfere with your lives.”
Urksh looked at Ryoka. She remembered that he couldn’t her. She looked at him.
Instantly, the Gnoll grabbed for the faerie, but she just flew around his hands and froze his paws. He growled, but suddenly all the faeries were around the Gnoll. The other Gnolls in the camp had seized their weapons, but they hesitated as the central fire and then all the fires in the Gnoll camp suddenly went out.
There was a dangerous look on the faeries’ faces.
“We are not bound by your rules, but ours, mortal. And ours are ancient as time itself. We do not interfere with your concerns.”
“What if I offered you a trade? Something worth breaking the rules?”
Ryoka had no idea what that could be. But she was desperate. The Frost Faerie looked at her and shook her head.
“You have naught that would suffice. And the price is too much for you to bear.”
Urksh hissed as he cracked the ice on his fur. He looked at Ryoka.
“What do they say?”
“We don’t have anything they want. And Urksh—I think they’re not allowed to help us.”
He shook his head and stared at the faeries.
“We cannot force them?”
The faeries stared at Urksh dispassionately. Ryoka shook her head hard, noting the other Gnolls and the bows they were not quite raising.
“Don’t try. Please. They might do a lot of damage to you, and I’m not even sure you can hurt them.”
Urksh stared hard at the faeries, but eventually nodded. Bows were lowered, but the expression remained. Now everyone was staring at the faeries, and they were watching Ryoka. Silently.
“There has to be something I can offer. Something you want.”
“You have nothing you can give us, Human.”
And if a faerie said it, it was probably true. But Ryoka couldn’t’ leave it like this.
She turned away from the faeries. Not to leave; but to pace. Urksh watched her silently as Ryoka walked back and forth.
Think. Think of faeries. They made deals. They never gave anything without asking for that much or more in return. They…honored their word.
None of this could help. Not if they didn’t want to make a deal. Or couldn’t.
But stories weren’t enough. Not for a life. Not if this was what Ryoka thought it was. Think. What could she do to faeries? Nothing. She was like dust in the wind compared to them. She had nothing to threaten them. Nothing to offer them. Then, what did they want?
Ryoka looked up. Faeries. She had nothing to give them, but they were still faeries.
“Do you want Mrsha to die? Is that why you’re not helping?”
Urksh stirred. He looked at the faeries. They stirred too. And now there was anger in their expressions. The temperature in the air lowered again, and Ryoka began to shiver uncontrollably as one floated closer to her, eyes narrowed.
“Do you think we are Sluagh, mortal? Do ye think we delight in the suffering and death of innocents? Nae. We are no Redcaps nor Finfolk to delight in death of children. We are not monsters. Speak carefully lest ye offend us.”
It was hard, so hard to meet the small gaze in front of her. But Ryoka did it. She spoke to the faerie defiantly.
“But you’d let a child die.”
“Because there are rules.”
The faerie hissed at Ryoka, and the girl felt parts of her face go numb from the intense cold around her. The faerie was like an avatar of frost, a thing of primordial, endless cold.
“But you could help.”
“You have nothing to offer.”
“But you want to help, don’t you?”
And the faerie hesitated. Just for a second. Ryoka went on, speaking quickly.
“We have nothing to offer, but if there is a price, I’ll pay it.”
“We will. The Stone Spears will bear any price for our young.”
He couldn’t have known the other side of the conversation, but he put a paw on Ryoka’s shoulder and gripped her hard. She nodded at him.
The faerie was silent for a long time. She stared back at her fellows, and then looked at Ryoka. And there was something else in her expression. A bit of sadness?
“You do not know what you offer. The price is too great, mortals. Do not ask.”
Ryoka bowed her head, bowed in front of the faeries. Urksh did the same. Across the camp, she sensed Gnolls doing likewise. The faeries floated above her head, silent judges.
“The price is always the same. Life for life. Death for death. And even if there is not death, you ask much of the fates.”
Fate. The word sent a chill down Ryoka’s spine. Was this all fated? She was too afraid to ask.
“Please. Give her a chance. I’m asking you—as one who called the fae her friend. As someone who needs help. Please. For a child. For life.”
The wind began to pick up. Overhead, the snow began to fall harder. The faerie glowed in the darkness, but not with any light to chase away the horrors of the night. The glow she gave off was terrible and beautiful, but it was not kind.
“Very well. So it is agreed. We promise nothing, but we will offer you a chance.”
Ryoka looked up. Urksh stared at her as she stood.
“What do we need to do?”
“Only follow. And only you.”
She pointed at Ryoka. The girl hesitated, and turned to Urksh.
“I need to go alone. They’ll take me to her.”
He grabbed her. The old Gnoll’s eyes were full of fear, but also hope.
“Go. Please. And take this—”
He hurried inside a tent, barking orders. Gnolls scattered, and then one came towards Ryoka holding a torch. It was wood coated with resin, and the Gnoll muttered words to get it to light. He must have been the [Shaman].
Urksh came out of the tent holding bottles. Potions. He handed them to Ryoka.
“For healing. Take. And this.”
He gave her something else. Ryoka stared at it.
“What is this? A rope?”
He nodded as he helped store it in Ryoka’s pack. The rope was unlike the gear she had seen Gnolls use. It was long and thin and light, and it seemed to coil itself naturally as Ryoka put it into her equipment.
“It is magical. It will stretch a long ways. If you go where I fear, you will need it.”
Another Gnoll came over with a fur coat, and another, small enough for a child. It was hard to wrestle then into her pack, but Ryoka discarded her clothes and everything she didn’t need to make room.
“I’ll go. I don’t know what the faeries will ask or if I might fail. This is like—”
She hesitated. It reminded Ryoka a bit of an old Greek myth, like the tale of Orpheus. Quests involving life and death always ended badly. But she had to try.
“—It could be bad. If I don’t return, don’t send anyone after me.”
Urksh nodded. He grasped Ryoka by the shoulders.
“Go. With all our hopes. Save her, we beg of you.”
He lowered his head. Ryoka grabbed his arm and squeezed it once. Then she turned. The faeries were still floating overhead, watching.
“Follow, then. And quickly. May ye not regret your choice.”
With that, the faerie flew off. North, towards the mountain. Ryoka didn’t hesitate. She ran after them, as fast as she could. She ran across the open plain, picking up speed, and then uphill as the land began to rise.
The air grew colder around her, and the snow began to fall harder. Soon it would be too cold for all but the most determined to survive. Yet even that could not match the cold in Ryoka’s heart. A pit of fear held itself in her stomach, but her body was burning. Exhaustion fled. She ran. She ran with more force in her step than she had put in anything before.
She saw a young Gnoll in her mind, and knew that she could not fail. Ryoka ran on, and overhead the faeries watched her slow progress with eyes that beheld immortality.
In the distance, Zel Shivertail’s army marched onwards, ignoring sense which told the [General] to make camp. His scouts had seen the bonfires in the distance, and even if they had gone out, he was sure he could find the Gnoll tribe. He marched on, listening to the wind and the sound of the foreboding in his heart.
And high above the rest, watching from a distant place, something twisted the Gnoll [Hunter]’s head around and lowered the dead Gnoll to the ground. The other Gnolls lay where they had fallen, arrows sprouting from their bodies, magic-torn wounds gaping open and steaming for only seconds in the cold air.
Dark shadows stood on the cliff, watching as the faint fires of the Stone Spears tribe were rekindled. They looked out, and more shapes moved. Hundreds of them. Thousands. The night was filled with shadows, and as the blizzard began to engulf the land in earnest, the dark shape stood. It bit into the Gnoll and ripped flesh away, chewing.
And then the Gnoll slowly sat up. Lifeless eyes stared at the one who had brought it back, and the Gnoll stood with its fellows.
Waiting. And the blizzard consumed everything and the girl ran on, hoping, praying.
She would not fail. She could not. But the word whispered in her ears again. The word of despair and madness. The word to shatter all hopes and dreams. The word of playthings. The word that meant she could do nothing.
It whispered to her, spoke to her. Haunted her steps.