My heart is beating out of my chest. My legs are burning.
I am fit. I think. No—I know that I’m in good shape. Better than good shape. If you compared me with any athlete from my world, you would find—
My suspicions don’t matter right now. But I know this: I am at the peak of my ability in this world, despite all that has passed. It’s not that I have any Skills or classes, but it is due to the nature of this world. I am more than I was, and that bothers me.
But even if I am quicker, stronger, and healthier by some unknown margin, I am still not superhuman. I can’t move as fast as Gazi, I don’t have the ability to shatter the earth like Calruz. Hell, I only know a few spells that I can cast once or twice thanks to Ceria.
What I have is earned. Even the spells I know are things I had to learn, not things that were given to me. [Flashlight], [Flashbang], [Fl—]
Well, the last one is conceptual. But all of these spells stem from the few things I understand. You can make the [Light] spell brighter, alter its shape, and even toss the orb if you want to surprise someone. But it’s still not a strong spell. I can’t use it to kill something.
That’s the problem. That’s what I fear as I run through the night, flecks of snow stinging my uncovered face, as I stare up into the dark sky at the lights.
Frost Faeries. They glow with a shade of blue and depth to the color indescribable in the words we Humans use. And they fly through the wind and darkness as if neither exists, pausing briefly only to wait for me. They know where Mrsha is, and they’re taking me to her.
But in my heart I fear I might be too late. Or worse, that I might fail. All I get is a chance. A chance to save her life.
I have no idea where Mrsha is. She disappeared while she was gathering food. She could have gotten lost, but—no. No, if she had she would have returned. If she went that far enough away from the Gnoll she was with, it was because she was taken, or she had to flee.
A monster, then. Or something…else. I don’t know. But if that is the case, I might have to fight whatever took Mrsha. And I fear I am too weak to do that.
The faeries fly a bit higher in the sky and I see the ground shifting upwards. I have a torch, given to me by one of the Gnolls. Its flickering lights illuminate the ground in front of me. I could discard it and use [Light], but I need to conserve every bit of magic I have. Casting a single spell tires me, and I cannot slow now.
I am stronger than I was, but I am still weak. My heart is racing, and I am afraid. Not just because of monsters.
From the camp of the Stone Spears, the landscape slopes gradually upwards. They are camped at the foot of a mountain, one of the ones surrounding Liscor. If I look up I can see it, a massive wall of stone and ice reaching up into the sky.
It is vast. I am reminded of the Himalayas, but I wonder if these peaks are even higher. And I am afraid.
If I have to climb that place, will I get to Mrsha in time? How far could a child go?
Right now I’m wearing heavy clothing. Winter gear; boots, padded pants and coats that cut the worst of the chill around me. But this is no ultra-thin fabric from my world. The things I am wearing are heavy, cumbersome, and as I sweat and run through the snow and ice, they grow heavier.
Added to that, I have been running all day, searching for Mrsha. My body isn’t even fully healed from using that potion Teriarch gave me. And I am mortal. If I step into a bad spot and wedge my ankle, I could easily break my foot.
All of these things would make finding Mrsha impossible. And I must find her. I must. But I only get a chance.
Fate. That’s what the faeries mentioned. I look up at them as I run, gasping for air. My legs are burning already. I shouldn’t run so fast.
“Why do ye slow?”
One of the faeries flies down as she notices I’ve reduced my speed. I shake my head, but I need to answer, so I gasp a reply.
I have to. If I go full-throttle I’ll run out of gas far too quickly. And I know I’ll need a lot more in all likelihood.
The faerie shakes her head in disapproval.
“Strange. You mortals have strange ways. Why run slower to run faster later?”
I don’t know if I should talk to her. Wasting energy? But anything I can get out of the silent faeries is important.
“If you know how close I am, just tell me and I’ll run as fast as I can.”
The faerie looks at me, unsmiling.
“Do not ask for more than you were given, mortal. We are breaking a rule now, to give you a chance.”
“But is it fate? Do you know what will happen?”
That’s the question that lurks in my heart. Fate. Is this all some grand scheme? If it is—
The faerie stares at me with cold eyes and flies upwards. I watch her go, frustrated. She won’t tell me. But why would immortals tell playthings anything? If we are that simple, why bother at all with us?
I think I understand why they are so disdainful of us. The real question is why they even bother to talk at all.
Fragments of immortality. Eternal stories. Children. These are the things the fae love. So perhaps that’s why they’re helping.
But either way, the rest is up to me. So I increase my pace, just a bit.
There’s a rhythm to running. I’ve done marathons, and I know enough about running on uneven terrain to move quickly. But I am so slow compared to how I would be barefoot and without all these clothes.
The faeries fly on, overhead. They lead me around a forest, up a slope, and onwards. I recognize where we are, now. I’ve come this way earlier today.
We arrive at the place where Mrsha was last seen. A hill where edible plants hide underneath the snow. Countless feet have trampled the snow, but the faeries don’t even pause when they come to it. They fly north, up from the hill, towards the mountain.
Urksh was right. If there was a place Mrsha ran, it was up there. It’s a place where the Gnolls wouldn’t have searched that hard. Go too high up, and you’d be lost forever. No one can hear or smell you if you get buried underneath an avalanche.
I run upwards, up the slope. My legs—I run up the hill, and then higher still. I can’t stop.
Please, let me not be too late.
She is cold. Mrsha sneezes and whimpers in the place she cannot escape from. She is very cold.
She has never been this cold before. The winter air is freezing her. Normally, she would be back in the camp her tribe makes, huddling with others for warmth in a tent or sitting near a fire, so near her fur would be in danger of catching on fire…
Just the thought makes Mrsha moan, but she’s too tired and frightened to make any larger sounds. At first, she had howled and cried out for aid, but no one came.
She knows she went too far up. She knows. All the elders told her again and again, never to come up this far. She knows they cannot find her here.
But she had no choice. Mrsha glances at the thing lying half-covered in the snow and shudders. She tries to move away from it, but there is no space. And she is hurt.
She sits and stares up towards the sky. It is cold. She is hungry, and desperate. She fears she will not be rescued, now. And she is growing tired. She raises her nose to the air and sniffs again.
There it is. The same scent. Not just from the thing beside her; it is in the air. Mrsha’s nose is keen, even for a Gnoll’s. She can smell the scent in the air, all over the mountain.
They are everywhere. And the thought of them makes Mrsha afraid. But she can do nothing. So she sits. And waits.
If she believed in gods, she would have prayed. But Mrsha knows the gods are dead. So she just hopes. She tries to believe.
But it is so cold.
Higher. And higher still. I am following the faeries as they lead me to the base the mountain. I think they’re trying to guide me on the easiest route, but—
I climbed a mountain once. But that was nothing like this. There’s no road here, no easy path. The ground becomes vertical in places, and now I have to use both hands and legs, sometimes pulling myself up as my feet slip on the snow-covered rocks.
The faeries watch me, stopping to settle on a rock and I pull myself upwards, straining and grunting with effort. Their faces are expressionless, but their eyes are not. I think they’re pretending not to care, but they fly ahead, showing me the way with too much alacrity for me to believe otherwise.
They care. But they fear I’m not going to make it.
One turns back to stare at me as the others fly overhead. She says nothing. I gasp, and cough. I’m moving too fast, now. I can taste a bit of blood where I bit my tongue when I fell, and from my searing lungs.
I don’t care. Faster. I gulp air into my lungs.
“How…far? How much time?”
They don’t answer. But they fly higher. So I grit my teeth and move.
Urksh waits, standing at the edge of the place where the Stone Spears have made camp. He waits, and listens.
But he hears nothing apart from the falling snow, the crackling fires beside him, and the words of his hunter, Hekra.
“More have gone missing. All to the north and west.”
He looks at her. Hekra’s face is still, but her ears and tail betray her agitation. She is worried, and so is she.
“That makes thirteen.”
Thirteen adults, hunters and warriors all who are missing. Three patrols sent out to look for Mrsha that never returned. There is something out there, and both Gnolls know it.
Yet what worries Urksh most is that there was no trace of those who disappeared. No howls to indicate enemies, nothing. Whatever happened to the Gnolls of his tribe happened swiftly and took them by surprise.
“Have every warrior ready, no? All of them. And pack what is needed.”
What is needed. In case they have to flee. He doesn’t have to say that part out loud. Hekra nods and trots off. Urksh looks back into the darkness.
Something is out there. Something. And he can catch faint whiffs of it on the air. It is a familiar smell, but odd. Twisted. He knows he smells his enemy, but there is something wrong with the scent. There is death in the air.
Urksh stares the way the Human named Ryoka Griffin had gone, following the strange, indistinct lights in the air that she claimed were living creatures. Winter Sprites. Frost Faeries.
He hopes she will be safe. But right now Urksh is more concerned about his tribe. To the east, Ryoka Griffin claimed an army was approaching. A force from the Drake cities. It has doubtless camped for the night, but Urksh’s instincts tell him to bring his tribe closer to the camp, regardless of the tension that might cause.
There is safety in numbers, and he is worried. But he dares not move his camp. If Ryoka returns with Mrsha, they will need to find them here.
So the Stone Spears wait, watching the darkness. And the darkness watches back. Silent shapes spread out across the highlands, slowly encircling the Stone Spears tribe’s camp in a vast net, waiting.
How long has it been? I can’t tell. Hours? Just an hour? Perhaps. It feels like hours.
My hands are raw and cut and blistered. Despite the gloves I have on, they’re not enough. The jagged rock and rough handholds I can find cut into my skin, but I ignore the pain.
How high am I? High. I’ve been climbing for a while, and still the faeries lead me onwards. I can’t believe Mrsha got this high up, but the route we’re taking isn’t impossible for a kid, especially not a young Gnoll.
Especially not if she was being chased.
My feet slip, and my arms windmill as I nearly slip down the slope in the darkness. Careful. I push myself back up and look around.
“Okay. Where n—?”
The faeries are gone. One second they were ahead of me, leading the way, and now they’re not. I look around, heart beating fast. It’s dark. I had to toss away the torch the Gnolls gave me a while back to use both hands. Without the faeries, the side of the mountain is full of shadows.
A ball of yellow light appears in my hand and flies upwards. I stare around, but see only rock and dirt where everything isn’t covered by snow.
But if the faeries aren’t here.
I raise my voice and cup my hands to my mouth. My legs are exhausted, but I don’t dare sit. And neither do I dare take any more step. The ground looks stable, but—
“Mrsha! Can you hear me?”
She is going to die. Mrsha knows it. It makes her cry, but she only sheds a few tears because it hurts when they freeze on her fur.
She is going to die. She shouldn’t have strayed so far away. But she’d wanted to chase a snow hare, and then she’d smelled the thing and it had leapt out at her—
She shudders. It is so cold. Her eyes are flickering, but Mrsha knows she must stay awake. But what is the point if she’s not going to be rescued?
The Gnoll child sits with her back against a stone and breathes more slowy. She is so tired. But then her ears hear it. The faintest of sounds, and then—louder.
The Gnoll looks up. There it is again.
“Mrsha! Can you hear me?”
It’s a voice! A familiar voice! It’s not the sound of any of the elders Mrsha knows, or any of her playmates. But she knows this voice even so. It’s from the Human, the one who tells stories.
How is she here? But Mrsha hears the Human shouting, and sits up. Someone came for her.
She raises her voice and howls upwards, desperately. With all her strength.
She wants Ryoka to find her. She wants to be saved. She doesn’t want to die here alone.
Not like that thing.
I’m shouting, but I hear nothing. The wind is blowing around me, and I can’t feel my face. There’s so much snow.
Am I too late? My heart is shuddering. Is that why the faeries left? Because they’ve given up hope?
There’s no response. I’m too late.
But then I hear it. A sound, growing louder. A wild howling, high-pitched and frantic, like and unlike any animal’s call I’ve ever heard.
I stumble in the direction of the call, and then stop.
“Stop damn you…think!”
Think. I can’t blunder ahead blindly. If I die now, she dies.
I raise my hand, and the orb of light floats to it. I can control the light. So I flick my hand and toss the orb ahead. I can’t control it after I’ve thrown it, but it illuminates the ground in front of me.
There! The orb of light sails over a small crest of snow and then reveals that the crest is in fact a precipice. The ball of light reveals a sudden drop as the ground slips, a natural, concealed crevasse in the mountainside. Cautiously, I cast [Light] again and walk forwards, staring at that spot, praying I don’t trip.
The howling is coming from below. I stare over the edge. The light cast by the orb is too weak to illuminate the depths of that place.
She hears the voice, and then sees the light. Mrsha howls up desperately, and hears an answering shout. The light is very faint. But then it changes, and a beam shines down. It sweeps the place Mrsha is in, bouncing off the slick rock walls, and then catches her. She waves her paw weakly.
“I see you! Hold on!”
God. Gods. She’s at the bottom of a crevasse. No wonder no one heard her.
I stare down at the small, brown shape of Mrsha. She’s sitting at the bottom of a crevasse. Not too deep, but far too far down for her to climb back up.
I squint. There’s something—next to her? Some dark shape covered by the snow. But I can’t make it out. It doesn’t matter. I need to get down there.
But god. This is a nightmare. I’ve attended lessons on how to conduct emergency rescues of people trapped in situations like this, and I’ve climbed before, and this is about as bad a situation as you can get.
I need to get to Mrsha, but that means I need to climb down there. I don’t want to try tossing her the rope Urksh gave me and have her pull herself up. I need to go down there.
Down? The sensible part of my brain laughs at how stupid that is. I don’t have the equipment to do that. I don’t have a harness, any climbing gear—hell, I don’t even have a backup!
But I’m already tossing my pack down and fishing things out. The first thing I grab is the furs the Gnolls gave me. It was for Mrsha, but I toss it down on the edge of the crevasse. If I put the rope down, I don’t want it to fray and snap.
Maybe it won’t, if it’s magical. Wouldn’t that be amazing? But I don’t want to test it.
The rope Urksh gave me apparently stretches or lengthens. Good for it, but I need an anchor. I don’t have anything to help me with that, and there aren’t any trees around. I stare around the mountainside, aware of the need for speed, but also the desperate need to do this right.
Okay, okay. First things first. If I’m going down, I need an anchor.
I find one close to the precipice. A rock horn helps me as I loop it around another part of the rock. No way to equalize the anchor points, and all I can do is use more and more rope. I loop more rope into the rock and tie it off and stare at the horrible mess I’ve created.
A constriction anchor. Fuck me. At least this rope is magic, for what it’s worth. It had better be, because with all the rope I used to make the anchor secure, I’m not going to be able to get all the way down, much less do what I need.
Moment of truth. I can hear Mrsha making agitated sounds from below. She thinks I’ve left her. I shout something reassuring down at her, and take a deep breath.
Rappelling without a harness. Okay.
I slide the rope between my legs so I’m holding one end with my left arm and the other end that’s going through my legs with my right. I stretch the rope out, and approach the edge.
This is madness. But Mrsha is down there. So I lean on the rope and step out into the air.
Rappelling. I hold the rope hard with my right hand, and take a deep breath. Mrsha is going insane down below. She’s probably never seen someone climbing like this. Descend, rather.
I jump down the cliff and Mrsha screams. It’s more like a howl. But I arrest my fall and absorb the impact as I kick into the wall. I hold my position for a moment, look down for the next place I want to move down towards, and then jump several more feet down.
Abseiling. I’ve done it countless times, but always with a safety harness and a spotter. What I wouldn’t give for a carabineer…
I’m running out of rope. I see the end, and I pray Urksh wasn’t lying to me. Come on, rope. Do your magic thing. I pull, hoping it will do something—
And it stretches. Or rather, elongates. Rather than running out, I find more rope as I slowly rappel downwards.
Pause. Jump. One second of descent, and then I brace as I land on the wall, showering Mrsha with snow. Pause again. Jump. Each second I’m terrified my hand will slip, but the tension stops me as I jump down again, and again…
My feet touch the ground, and then something rams into my side. I shout, but its Mrsha. The small Gnoll jumps all over me as I have to sit at the bottom of the small crevasse.
I cover my face with my hand for just one second. Then I nearly fall over as Mrsha swarms over me. The Gnolls is licking and hugging me desperately.
“It’s okay Mrsha. I’m here. I’m—”
She’s making small noises. Whimpering, the sounds an animal would make. Or a child. I hold her for a few seconds.
“I’ve got you. It’s going to be alright, okay?”
I’m shaking so hard, but no more than she is. I found her. I found her in time.
But the worst is far from over. And we can’t stay here. Mrsha is freezing, and I need to get her up. Somehow.
I have a plan. And I’m about to tell it to Mrsha when I look over and go rigid. Mrsha cranes her neck to see what’s happened to me, and then she growls softly.
It can’t be. But lying in the snow, half-buried is a small shape. It’s not a rock like I initially thought. No.
It’s a body.
Not just any body. I slowly let go of Mrsha, and she backs away as I hesitantly go over to the shape. It’s lying face-down, but I turn it over and already know what I’ll see.
A Goblin’s face stares blankly up at me, red eyes dimmed, face frozen. He—or she was wearing armor, some sort of scale mail, but it wasn’t enough to save them from the fall. Their neck is bent at a wrong angle.
It must have chased Mrsha. She was out gathering and it surprised her. She ran, and both fell down here. Mrsha got lucky, but the Goblin died.
Goblins. If there’s one, there’s more. And this one is armed. I stare down and see the axe at its belt. Armor and weapons. This Goblin is way more dangerous than the ones I’ve seen to the north.
Danger. But I can’t think focus on that now. I stare upwards. I need to get Mrsha to safety first. And now that I’m down here, I can look up and realize how fucked I am.
The crevasse is only about twenty feet deep. Only. Hah. But it’s a horrible mess. The edge of the precipice actually juts outwards, so that the ice and rock wall is further inside. In short, it makes climbing up with your hands impossible unless you can go nearly horizontal at the top.
I have one thing that will help with the ascent. A rope. And that’s a good thing. But still.
A damn rope. No equipment, nothing else. Just a rope and my two exhausted arms to carry me up twenty feet.
I have no ascender. Nothing to help me climb. I don’t even have any damn knots in the rope that I can use.
I look at Mrsha. She’s staring upwards, hopefully. Maybe she thinks there are others nearby. I hate to disappoint her, but she’s got to know what I’m going to do.
She looks at me, full of hope. I’m the adult here; she’s relying on me. It makes my stomach twist.
“I’m going to get you to safety, okay? But you need to listen to me.”
She nods. I tell her what I’m going to do.
“I’m going to tie a harness around you. Uh, that’s this rope. It will help me lift you up. And then I’m going to climb to the top and pull you up. I’m not going to leave you, okay?”
She stares at me. Does she even get it? But then she nods, a small motion. I take a breath.
“Okay. Lift your arm.”
At least I know how to make a rope harness. I stretch the rope further, looping it securely around Mrsha’s legs and around her groin, tying bowline knots. Now square knots here, fisherman’s knots…
She doesn’t wriggle much, but she stares at the rope harness in confusion. Again, not something Gnolls are used to I guess.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be able to pull you up. Now—”
I stare upwards. Now comes the hard part.
To make all this work, I need to climb to the top of the crevasse. By myself. Without any handholds except the rope.
I can’t do this. My arms are already tired and so is the rest of my body. But I have to.
I hesitate for a minute as Mrsha stares at me, but her eyes are what make me move. Making sure she’s out of the way, I jump up—
And grab the rope.
Immediately, my legs tangle around the bottom of the rope. I fumble blindly with my feet, until I’m wedging the rope between my boots. One boot goes up, and the other steps on the rope, trapping it, giving me a way to stand and support myself. But that’s only if I can climb. So I take a deep breath, lift my hand, and begin.
One hand goes up and I pull myself up. And then another. At first I get up the rope fast, and Mrsha makes sounds of encouragement, running around below until I shout at her to stop. I can’t handle the sway.
It’s been a long time since I climbed a rope. Too long. I haven’t been working out my upper body as much since I came to this world, and hell, I don’t remember the last time I went climbing. And I’m so tired.
Pull. Acquire the rope with my legs. Stand. Pull. Already I can feel the shaking weakness in my arms.
Why didn’t the faeries say to bring anyone else? Why me? Because I asked? How can I do this?
My arms burn as I pull myself up. I nearly let go as my muscles start to give and quickly stand on the rope again.
I can’t do this. My arms are going to give out. But I have to. I have to—!
Somehow I pull myself up again. Impossible. I’m not this strong. But I can do it. This world—what’s happening to me?
Again. And again. Screaming inside my head. Up. I can’t pause or it’s over.
It’s so far up. Just twenty feet? Feels like forever.
I’m wearing too much gear. My winter clothes—should have taken them off. Should have rested. Told Mrsha that. But too late now. I pull myself up again, and see the top.
So damn close. Pull. Grip. Pull. Grip. Pull—
One hand lets go of the rope and reaches around the precipice. I grab desperately, and then pull—
“Up, damn you—!”
Slowly, slowly, my body lifts over the ridge. I hear Mrsha making sounds below me, but I can only focus on pulling myself up. Every fiber of strength I have left goes into getting myself up and over—!
And then it’s over. I collapse onto the ground and crawl forwards, gasping with exhaustion. I don’t know how long I lay there, but eventually Mrsha’s anxious barking rouses me. I poke my head over the side and see her staring up at me, eyes full of fear and worry.
It’s okay. I seize the rope and call down to her. Once Mrsha realizes what I’m going to do, she untangles the rope and sits down. Slowly, I stand and begin to pull.
If the climbing was hard, this is easy. I can lean back, pull her up a bit at a time. I’m heavier than Mrsha, and I can use that to help me pull her up as she sits in her harness, making faint sounds of worry. But she’s safe so long as I don’t let go and she doesn’t panic. And I won’t let go. I would never let go.
It feels like an age, but I brace myself, pulling hard, and then I hear a noise. I pause, and realize Mrsha’s at the edge. I pull, very slowly, and then I see paws scrabbling at the ledge. And then a head.
Mrsha comes over and instantly the Gnoll is bounding to her feet. She tangles in the rope, but then frees herself and leaps at me. I grab her, and hug her.
And she hugs me back. For a second we just embrace, as I feel her shaking slow and my own fears ease. She’s alright. She’s going to be alright.
And then comes untangling the rope harness and getting Mrsha into those furs. She wriggles into them and sneezes as I sit on the ground. I need a minute.
But now Mrsha is safe. I look over the mountainside, across the empty landscape. Huh. We’re pretty far up. Amazing she managed to get this far. But fear will do that to you, I guess.
What now? Well, we’ll get back to the camp. Urksh is probably worrying, and we’re still sitting ducks if a monster appears. It might be hard to find the way back, but the faeries—
The faeries. I look around. They’re still not here. No—they might be, but they’re still hiding. Invisible.
Why? I got Mrsha. She’s safe. It’s over.
Unless it’s not.
My heart begins to pound. Mrsha looks at me as I slowly stand up and stare around. What else could be wrong? But we are in danger. If they aren’t here—
And then I see the sparks in the distance. From our position on the mountain, at first they just look like sparks. But then I realize what they really are.
First one, and then a group. And then the lights spread. Not just one or two or even a hundred. But thousands. Fire flares and spreads as the darkness below becomes lit by countless pinpricks of light.
Mrsha goes stiff beside me as she crouches and stares at the sight. I stare too.
“That’s not the Stone Spears tribe.”
It can’t be. There aren’t enough Gnolls by far for that. The army of Drakes? But this feels different. A chill runs down my back.
What is happening? But Mrsha looks at me, her face full of fear, and the pieces come together.
Smells on the wind. Strange shapes watching. The dead Goblin.
Mrsha whimpers, the smallest of sounds, and touches my leg. And I feel the eyes on me and realize we are not alone.
It can’t be. But they are silent, and
But there they stand. Goblins. They look down upon the two of us, red eyes shining. How many? Twenty? Thirty?
A scout party, perhaps. They might have heard Mrsha and me, or maybe they were following from the start.
What do they want? But I know the answer. They’re all armed, and they’re wearing armor. These aren’t wild Goblins in some tribe.
This is an army.
And they are going to kill us. I see it in their eyes. Goblin eyes might be different than Human or Gnoll eyes, but there is an expression I recognize there.
Pitilessness. Cold wrath. Death.
They look like monsters, but they are all the more terrifying because they look like people. One of them raises a hand and points down at me.
I can’t understand what he’s saying. It’s in the Goblin’s tongue, chattering and incomprehensible. Slowly, the Goblins descend from the rocks, encircling us. They draw their weapons.
I feel Mrsha at my side. The Gnoll is hugging me so tightly I can feel her claws piercing my leggings. I know she’s terrified. So am I.
“We are not your enemies.”
The Goblin in who pointed at me, a warrior wearing chainmail and holding a mace, stares into my eyes. There’s nothing there. No empathy. No sympathy.
They’re going to kill us. Already they’ve encircled the two of us. I glance towards the south. The path down is that way, but there are Goblins waiting there. I have no weapons. I’m exhausted, and Mrsha can’t fight.
Slowly, I raise my hands to my head and above them. A universal sign of surrender. Some of the Goblins laugh, but their leader just watches me.
My heart is pounding out of my chest. I watch as he steps forwards, and then put my hands on my head. No time to think. Just—
You don’t need to use your hands to cast magic. My thumbs find my ears and I shout.
The world goes silent and dark as I close my eyes. The flash passes, and I look around. All I hear is ringing, but there’s Mrsha, lying on the ground as Goblins around me flail and open and close their mouths like silent mimes.
I grab Mrsha. She jerks and claws at me, but I pull her up and throw her over my shoulder in the fireman’s carry. And then I’m running, knocking Goblins aside and charging down the slope, sliding around rocks, praying I won’t fall.
Mrsha is on my back. I think she knows I’m carrying her, but she’s still struggling. She must be in pain from the spell. She screams, loud and anguished. I only know because I can feel the vibrations she makes as I grab her and run. I didn’t have time to tell her to cover her ears or eyes and she’s deaf and blind as I run with her down the slope.
I am, too. I can barely see with all the shimmering shapes burnt into my retinas, but I run anyways. I can hear the Goblins shouting and blundering after me above the ringing in my ears.
And then—a scream. I look back and see two shapes tumbling into the crevasse. Good.
Down the slope. Dodge around rocks. This terrain isn’t right for running, but I slide down and take the impact on my legs and lower body as I crash down the side of the mountain. Run. Run.
They’re following. I know it. I charge down a hill, slipping in the snow, and Mrsha growls anxiously in my ear. I try not to fall, but I’m trying to run at the same time, to go faster.
The Goblins are right behind us.
I can hear them shouting, screaming in that high-pitched battlecry of theirs. They’re following us, and occasionally one tries to loose an arrow or whirl at stone at my back.
But if there’s one thing I’ve got on them, it’s speed. Despite Mrsha on my back I can run faster than they can with their short legs. But I’m still running through the snow and that slows both me and them.
And I’m lost. I run straight now, as the hill transitions to an open plain, but I don’t know where to go. The tribe. I have to get to them. But where—?
Claws dig into my arm and I gasp. But Mrsha is patting my head, growling anxiously and I realize she’s trying to tell me where to go.
Mute. She’s mute. I look around, and see a paw pointing just to my right. I don’t hesitate and immediately take off running that way.
Arms burning. Legs aching. I’m at the end of my tether. But I have to keep going. I can’t slow down, not now.
How many Goblins are around us? The blizzard is still pouring snow, but I swear the sky is orange now, and there are glowing lights on the horizon.
Mrsha screams in my ear and I see shapes ahead of me. More? They’re coming at me, but they’ve doused their torches to try and hide. I run around them and sense something fly past my back. The little Gnoll on my back is screaming.
She’s a target. If they aim at my head, they’ll hit her. But I can’t do anything. I can only run faster.
Mrsha is howling, loud and anxious. I want to tell her to shut up, but she’s trying to call for help, and the Goblins know we’re here already.
She taps my arm and points. That way. I change directions, trying to get traction. But the loose snow is making me slow. And I’m carrying Mrsha. I could put her down and let her run—
No. Keep moving.
A forest ahead. I hesitate. They could be hiding there. But go around? It’s too far. I take a deep breath and charge in.
Something steps out of the trees. Mrsha screams again, but I kick the Goblin in the chest and run the other way. Deeper into the forest. They’re jumping out around me, but I bull rush another and break out of the trees with a horde of them on my tail.
Open plains. We’re getting closer now. Mrsha’s tapping my head again, and she points me further to the left. I run on.
We’re going to make it. I have to believe that. But then I see more torches moving rapidly to my left. So I turn right. But there are more torches that way.
The two groups of Goblins race ahead of us, encircling our position. I slow, and then there are Goblins all around us.
Mrsha is silent. Slowly, I stop, in a circle of armed warriors. They’re closing in.
I guess this is how it ends. I put down Mrsha in the snow. Gently. My heart is thundering in my ears.
“I guess it’s because you’re not a killer.”
Erin’s words echo in my ears for some reason. I stare at the Goblins and slowly pull away my coat. No time to take off any more layers. They watch, silently, as I discard what clothing I can.
Get lighter. Stay out of reach. They’re not shooting up, which is a mercy. But I can see it in their human expressions. They want to cut us apart. Make it slow.
Ah, Erin. For some reason I remember that Goblin she introduced me to. Rags. Would she be part of this? Is this her tribe? I doubt it.
I raise my fists, slowly, as the Goblin warriors advance. Mrsha is at my side, but I nudge her away.
“Stay back. Run if you see an opening.”
Hollow words. Where will she run to? But maybe she has a chance if she can get ahead of them. She outran one.
Erin. If I were at her inn, I could bar the doors and stay safe. Why am I thinking of the inn?
One of the Goblins steps forward. It’s the leader, the one I blinded. He bares his teeth at me.
The inn. My heart is racing. My hands are clenched into fists. It will be hard to kick in the snow.
I really just want to sit in front of the fire again and lose a few games of chess to her. I want to sit in her inn and listen to people talk and laugh. I want—
I want to live.
Their blades are sharp.
And then he runs at me, and I raise my leg—
This is what Mrsha saw. In the dark storm, as snow fell all around her, the small Gnoll huddled close to the ground, watching as shapes and shadows fought in the flickering light.
The Human, Ryoka Griffin, stood alone in a circle of Goblins. They came at her, laughing, one and two at a time, to play with the unarmed Human.
The first Goblin raised his mace as he charged the young woman. But Ryoka raised her leg and kicked out, catching him in the chest, too fast for him to block. He stumbled back, and she pointed at him.
A beam of light burst from her finger, catching the Goblins by surprise. The light was so bright the young Gnoll had to look away. The Human leapt forwards as the Goblins shielded their eyes and struck the Goblin with the mace twice in the face.
He fell down. Ryoka punched him as he lay on the ground and he did not get up. She stepped back, and raised her hand. The Goblins watched her, surprised and now wary.
The Human pointed straight up, into the sky. She took a deep breath, and said a word Mrsha didn’t understand.
Ryoka fired a flare into the night sky. An incandescent red light shot from her hand and flew upwards as the Goblins cried out and retreated. But it wasn’t an attack.
The red light hung in the air, defying gravity as Mrsha stared upwards. Ryoka looked into the sky, her face grim. She fired the flare again, making the snow and landscape grow red. Then the light touched the ground, and the world became dark again.
Mrsha didn’t understand. Nothing had happened. The Goblins looked at the Human, but when it was clear she had no more spells, they regained their confidence. They came for her.
Punches. Kicks. Mrsha had seen the warriors and hunters of her tribe practicing and even fighting with spears and the occasional sword or axe. They had their own ways of fighting, rough, but efficient. But the Human—
She flowed from punch to kick, pivoting, trying to keep her back secure. She fought in ways the young Gnoll had never seen before, holding the Goblins back and hurting them, even without a weapon of her own.
But she was one and they were many. Ryoka pointed and light blinded them again, but they pushed her back, slashing at her wildly. And she was tired.
Every time she raised her finger and light blinded the Goblins, Mrsha saw the Human girl’s face twist as if she was in pain. And then she would be a little bit slower, a little bit weaker.
And the Goblins were many. They ran at her, half-blind but too many for her to stop. Ryoka fell back and Mrsha saw a Goblin slash at her leg. Ryoka dodged the sword, and punched the Goblin. But then he seized her hand and his mouth opened—
Mrsha saw the teeth close on Ryoka’s hand as she tried to pull away. She heard a crunch and a scream, a shout of agony. Ryoka pulled her hand away and Mrsha smelled the blood before she saw the stumps of her pinkie and ring finger.
Ryoka raised her bloody hand and looked at Mrsha. The blood dripped to the snow as the Goblin laughed and swallowed the digits. And the Human’s eyes were full of regret as she stared at Mrsha.
I stumble back from the Goblin who bit me. He laughs, and I look around and see Mrsha, crouched in the snow. And then there’s my hand.
He bit me. He took…my fingers. I stare at my right hand in shock.
Two stumps glisten wetly as blood begins to run into the snow. Automatically, I cover the wound. If I lose too much blood in this weather it would be bad. And it will sap my body heat.
Not good. I—
Another Goblin charges at me with a knife. I turn and kick, and he falls. But then I stumble.
They’re laughing now. The Goblins watch as I clutch my wounded hand, and more slowly advance. I walk backwards, until Mrsha is touching my leg.
Can’t run. Can’t die.
I try to clench my hand, but it’s not right without those two fingers. There’s a gap and I can see straight into my palm. It looks wrong.
A Goblin advances towards me. The one who bit me. He raises his sword and grins around bloody teeth. I step towards him—
And hear a roar.
The Goblin turns, surpise becomining fear, and then his head disappears. I blink. Something flashes in front of me, and then there’s a Gnoll.
Not Mrsha. This one is taller, stronger, male. Urksh. He hacks another Goblin with an axe and the smaller warrior falls, head torn open.
And more Gnolls. They attack from the left, archers and warriors. I see…Hekra, standing with three other archers. She raises her bow and her hand blurs. Two Goblins fall, with arrows in their chests.
I stumble, and a Goblin slashes at me. I step back, but he advances, and now there’s a lot of blood in the snow. Mine.
I punch him in the chest, but he’s got armor on and just stumbles. He raises his sword—
And Mrsha lunges into him from the side. She bits and tears with her small claws and he shrieks. He raises the shortsword and I grab his arm. I twist with my good arm and I hear his arm break.
He screams. I let go and pull Mrsha back. And then the Gnolls are around us, fighting, killing—
“—Griffin. Ryoka Griffin.”
Someone is grabbing me, holding my wrist. I look around. Urksh has me. He’s wrapping something around my hand, putting rough cloth on—
It’s starting to hurt now. But more than anything, it just feels wrong to have something on the two stumps of my fingers. Urksh holds the cloth over my hand and nods to a Gnoll.
“Watch. They are coming.”
The Gnoll disappears. I blink at Urksh.
“I found her.”
He smiles at me, briefly.
“You did. Now we will handle the rest. Do not move. We will carry you.”
Too slow. He lifts me, and with another Gnoll, they run with Mrsha and me. The wind is cool on my skin as I blink around.
“I’m okay. I can run.”
“Rest. You did a great thing. I am honored to have met you, Ryoka Griffin.”
Something about his tone makes me look around. We’re not headed back towards the camp.
“They are coming. We must flee.”
And then I see it, and I realize what despair tastes like. We were closer to the tribe’s camp than we thought, Mrsha and I.
Close, but too far. Too late.
This how it ends. This is how we die.
Hundreds of Goblins—thousands—stream across the plains. They are lit by mage light and torches as they run, firing, fighting with the few Gnolls who stand to hold them off.
The rest are fleeing. I can see over a hundred Gnolls, adults and children, running as fast as they can towards the west. But they’re being harried. Goblins are coming from every direction. It’s as if the world is being consumed by them.
And in the distance I can see the main host. A black tide of shapes, like some horrible flat beast, writing towards us. There are larger Goblins among the main horde. Hobs. They’re firing arrows too.
Urksh runs with me in his arms, tireless as he rejoins the tribe. I look back and see more Gnolls breaking away, charging the Goblins coming at us without fear.
“They buy time. Here. Run.”
He puts me down, face grim, and I understand. A few Gnolls are going to fight. They run at the Goblins, taking arrows, stumbling, many not even reaching the armed warriors. Those that do fall in an instant, cut from every side.
It’s all happening so fast. I can’t process it all. War? It’s so sudden, but then I see a blue glow.
Frost faeries. They’re hovering high in the sky, watching it all. And I wonder why they’re here. But then I realize, it’s because they’re no longer watching me.
Because this is not my story. Not in the grand scheme of things.
The Goblins are pursuing us, an endless horde of them. They’re striking our backs and flanks, trying to bring the adults protecting the children down, trying to block us off. They’re so focused on us, they never see the Drake charging towards them.
His armor is battered, and he has no magical items. Not like the other Drake who’s hot on his heels, holding a shining sword filled with magic. But the Drake in front is different. He has no weapons, yet his claws can cut steel. He runs at the head of an army, and as the Goblins turn, their faces change.
Maybe they can sense it in the moment before they die. Maybe they realize it. How could I not?
But he is a legend. A hero among Drakes. He must be.
Zel Shivertail charges past me and our gazes meet for one eternal second. Then his army and the remnants of Wall Lord Ilvriss’s army crash into the Goblins, cutting them apart, throwing bodies into the air as they rampage through their unguarded ranks.
The entire Goblin mass ripples in shock, but Zel doesn’t even stop. He runs forward, and his hands blur and Goblins fall down, torn, bleeding, dying.
Ilvriss is there as well, swinging his sword left and right, teeth bared. Are they on the same side now? They must be. The two generals cut through the first rank of Goblins and the next, and then they’re charging at the vanguard of Goblins.
That’s when I see the Goblin Lord for the first time.
He’s standing in the center of a mass of Goblins wearing magical armor. It’s not that he’s bigger than the others; he’s actually just a bit taller than your average Goblin, definitely smaller than the Hobs.
But his eyes are a thing of horror. I have seen them once before. His pupils are white, and the rest of his eyes are black. They glow, and even miles away, I somehow see them. He looks at Zel, and as his gaze passes mine, I feel terror in my soul.
He raises a hand, and suddenly the battle shifts again. Goblins cry out, and their ranks form up. Zel’s charge pauses as he finds himself running into a wall of shields.
A proper army, one with formations and tactics. And then I stop running as Urksh spins me around. His teeth are bared, and I look forwards and see more despair in the face of hope.
Hobs. Another army falls on us from the side, encircling the Stone Spears before they can move away. I see Gnolls running back, but the battle is already joined behind us.
And this ambush party is attacking the Gnolls from the flank. Too many Hobs. I see warriors falling, unable to stop their advance. And neither Zel nor his army notice. They’re too busy cutting towards the Goblin Lord.
I shout it at the Drakes and Gnolls, but they’re too busy fighting. No—the soldiers think we’re part of the army, or they just want us to hold the Goblins off while they attack. I see Hobs, so many of them! Over a hundred of them stride forwards in heavy armor, cutting Drakes and Gnolls apart.
How is this possible? I stare up. The faeries. They’re still watching the battlefield.
A Goblin comes at me. I kick him, and look wildly around.
She’s hiding in the snow again. She never made it within the protective line of adults, and Goblins and Gnolls are struggling around her, nearly trampling the small girl.
I push towards her. Goblins in my way, Gnolls too. Someone stabs me in the side and I feel the pain and punch. They move away, and I stumble towards Mrsha.
I grab her, and she clings to me. I turn to run, to find safety, but there’s none to be found. Everyone is fighting. And the Stone Spears are dying.
A Goblin [Shaman] blasts the Gnoll Shaman of the Stone Spears tribe apart with some magic. And then I see his body rise, and I realize what’s happening.
The dead. Not all the Goblins are dead, and some of the Gnolls are beginning to fight against their kind. This Goblin army is raising the dead. The Goblin Lord is another [Necromancer].
And now Zel’s army is being forced back. He is still fighting his way towards the Goblin Lord, but his charge is faltering, and fewer people are at his back. If he doesn’t retreat, he’ll be cut off. But if he kills the Goblin Lord—
Either way, we die. I look up again as Mrsha holds me and sobs into my clothes.
The faeries stare down. One speaks, and it’s a whisper in my ears despite the screaming and clash of weapons around me.
“We have. Would ye ask us a second time? Do you know what the fates will ask?”
“There are rules.”
“We will die.”
I look at them, and see the faeries nod.
“Help us. I beg you.”
“There are rules.”
Goblins around me. I spread my arms. One last try.
“Are the fey slaves, or are you free? Help me! I am Ryoka Dawning Griffen, and I offer everything! Change fate. Save us.”
Someone puts a hand on my shoulder. I look around, and see Urksh. He clutches his stomach, and Mrsha stares in horror as he holds his guts in place. The Gnoll looks up towards the faeries, hovering high overhead.
“We offer everything.”
The world goes silent. I see the faeries overhead. I see Urksh, feel his paw on my shoulder tighten once, and then fall as a Goblin stabs him from behind. I see Mrsha screaming, and a Hob raise his club. I move to block him, and the world freezes.
Zel ran, cutting Goblins apart, trying to force his way through their ranks towards the Goblin Lord. There were only a few ranks left until he ran into the Goblin Lord’s personal guard. He saw the strange Goblin staring at him, eyes pale and unearthly. He was surrounded by Hobs, but Zel knew he could kill the Goblin if only—
He cut left with a claw, and a Goblin fell back, throat opened to the air. Zel threw another Goblin aside, and saw only one thing row of Goblins ahead of him. They were pale. And dead.
They didn’t seem strong. Zel hesitated. His [Dangersense] was going off nonstop, but he could see the Goblin Lord waiting for him. He clenched his fist, and felt a presence at his side.
Ilvriss was injured. Even his magical armor and the weapon Zel had restored to him hadn’t saved him. Zel was hurt too, cut in many places despite his defensive Skills and armor. The two Drakes stared at the Goblin Lord as the leader of the Goblins watched them silently.
“We have to end this now, Ilvriss.”
“Agreed. The world needs no more Goblin Kings”.
They prepared to charge, but then Zel heard a sound and felt the chill. He turned.
Part of the battlefield had turned to ice. No—not just the battlefield. Goblins stood frozen in place in a huge circle around a group of Gnolls. The tribe he’d seen fleeing. They were cut down, only a few adults standing. And while the Goblins around them had died, more were closing in.
And there were children among them. Zel saw another adult go down as she tried to shield two cubs. The Goblins were trying to hack them apart, and his army was too busy fighting the other Goblins to see.
Ilvriss was gripping his sword, and Zel could see the Goblins around him forming up. He would only get this once chance. But the children—
“Ilvriss. That Gnoll tribe is defenseless. Retreat.”
The Lord of the Wall gaped at him.
“Are you mad? We’ll never get another chance!”
“Retreat! They’ll all be wiped out if we don’t push them back!”
Zel turned, and yanked Ilvriss back. The other Drake fought him, snarling, and destiny changed.
One of the undead Goblins had been advancing on the two Drakes. If they had been closer—
The dead Goblin exploded. Zel and Ilvriss were caught on the edge of the blast, and they were thrown backwards, through the air. Only his armor and skills kept Zel intact as he crashed into the ground. He heard ringing in his ears, and sat up.
A huge crater was all that remained of where the undead Goblin had been. But Zel saw another one walking slowly through the empty zone, towards his soldiers. Living Goblins scrambled out of its way, and Zel found the breath to bellow.
His soldiers heard his voice. Zel surged upwards and grabbed Ilvriss, who was crawling around, looking for his sword. He forced the Drake up, and they ran backwards.
Towards the Gnoll tribe. They were all dying. Children, adults—Zel howled as he saw a Gnoll cub being cut down, but he slew the Hob and covered the rest of the children as his army ran to guard them. But they were all retreating now, in face of the overwhelming Goblin numbers. The Hobs had formed up, and a hundred of them were leading a charge. Even experienced soldiers fell before their blades.
Zel seized a child, and saw his soldiers saving the rest. The adults were dead. They lay where they had fallen, teeth bared, bodies filled with arrows, hacked apart. A few stood, undead, now slaves in death to another master.
Something grabbed Zel’s foot as he turned to go. He looked down, ready to kill, and saw an old Gnoll, gripping his leg. The Gnoll mouthed something, and Zel bent to listen. But there was too much noise, and the Gnoll died, half-smiling.
Zel straightened, and looked around. His army and Ilvriss’s forces were running now, the rearguard putting up a defensive line. He would join them. His skills would allow his army to retreat, but the Goblin Lord’s army was unstoppable. He stared at the Goblin Lord and felt those terrible eyes on his.
And then Zel saw a blur of movement. Someone was running, running past the Goblins. A Human girl ran, surrounded by blue lights. She was holding something in her arms. A small, struggling shape. A Gnoll.
She ran and the few Goblins who tried to pursue her froze in place. Zel watched the Human go and saluted her once with one claw.
For luck. He looked back at the Goblin army closing on them and saw only death. Death, those who commanded death, and an army large enough to threaten the continent.
They had to be stopped. But Zel could not do it here. So he retreated, tasting defeat in his mouth as the Goblin Lord stared at the [General]’s retreating back.
Ryoka ran. She ran through the ranks of Goblins, in a world of her own. Cold air blew around her, and the faeries flew in front of her, leading her to safety.
They had done something. Each step Ryoka took felt like ten. She flew across the battlefield, like wind, snow rushing past her face. She was filled with magic.
But her heart was empty and broken.
A Gnoll struggled in Ryoka’s arms. A small shape, a small child cried out as Ryoka left her tribe behind. Two innocent eyes watched as adults and children fell, dying. She cried out, but Ryoka didn’t listen. The Human ran on, until the last lights of the Goblin army were far behind them.
At last, the faeries stopped, and Ryoka slowed, coming to a stop in knee-deep snow. She wavered, her head and body completely empty.
A faerie flew down in front of Ryoka, face expressionless. But there was sadness in her eyes, and Ryoka knew without asking what the cost had been.
“Can you…really see fate?”
Was it all pointless? Was it all preordained? The faerie just looked at Ryoka. Just looked.
“If there is destiny, I defy it. I will not bow to fate.”
They were meaningless words. If there was fate, there was no way she could fight against it. But she had to believe. Tears fell from Ryoka’s eyes. Tears that mixed with the blood on her body. Ryoka lifted her right hand and stared at the two stumps.
A small price to pay. Not enough, though.
Urksh. Ryoka bent down and put Mrsha in the snow. The Gnoll child looked up at Ryoka, and the Human blinked.
“Oh. Your fur.”
At some point in that endless run, something had happened. Mrsha’s brown fur had changed. From the colorful forest brown, it had become pure white, as white as snow. Blood and grime darkened the child’s face, but it was not hers.
“I’m so sorry.”
The Gnoll child said not a word. Her eyes were filled with tears. Ryoka stared at Mrsha’s fur, and then looked at the faeries. She gazed at the faerie in front of her, and saw immortal eyes. Tired eyes. A reflection.
“Next time I will save them all. Or die trying.”
Ryoka thought she said the words. She blinked, and then collapsed, falling face-first into the snow.
Mrsha looked at the fallen Human and slowly reached out to shake her. Ryoka didn’t move.
Overhead, the faeries exchanged a look. They nodded, and began to spin around in a wide circle overhead. Mrsha stared upwards as the snow falling from overhead stopped. And then the air began to warm.
All around Ryoka and the Gnoll, the snow began to melt. The child stared around, wild-eyed as grass and flowers began to grow upwards, creating a soft bed of new life around the two. The air was warm, and for a second, the frozen crystal of the Frost Faeries’ skin changed, and grew brighter. The colors of spring ran through their bodies, bright and green, the color of grass and sunlight and clear blue skies.
But then the moment was past, and the faeries were ice and winter again. They hovered in the sky, above the small sanctuary they had formed. Ryoka slept on, unheeding. A voice spoke in her mind, a toneless, emotionless announcement delivering a message into her mind.
[Barefoot Runner Class Obtained!]
[Barefoot Runner Level 8!]
[Skill – Flawless Stride obtained!]
[Skill – Enhanced Movement obtained!]
[Skill – Dangersense obtained!]
[Skill – Final Run Learne—
“Nae, she will not be learning anything. Not from you at least. Leave the fool alone, ye thing of dead gods. She is different.”
[Level Ups Cancelled]
Mrsha raised her head. She heard nothing of the faeries’ words, knew nothing of what had passed. She touched the motionless Human, and raised her head towards the moon. It shone down around the clear patch of grass and flowers blooming in the center of the snowy wasteland.
She howled up at it, her voice loud and wild, filled with grief.
But no one answered her call. And so Mrsha howled and howled into the night, alone. Knowing that she was alone.
A sudden noise split the silence of the night. Mrsha leapt back from Ryoka, hair standing on end, as something in the girl’s pack began to ring, emitting a strange sound she had never heard before.
The iPhone rang for five whole minutes as Mrsha looked around and the faeries watched silently from overhead. Then it too fell silent.
Far to the south, the Goblin Lord pursued Zel Shivertail’s army, forcing them to run until the Goblins finally gave up on the chase. They gathered once more, to grow and become even stronger, until the northern tribes could be subjugated. They would sweep north, soon.
Across the world, a group of mages stopped casting, and changed their target. Another phone began to ring, on another continent.
None of it mattered. Where Ryoka lay, dreaming of fire and darkness, sleeping next to a small Gnoll who curled up next to the Human, there were no sounds. The faeries hovered overhead, guarding the two into the night.
There was no noise here, no words that could be spoken.
Only the slow, heavy sound of silence.
And the memory.