My slippers proved to be both comfortable and surprisingly durable for the sheer fact that they got me safely to the shop in town without mishap. Word traveled fast among my kind, so I was blessedly spared having to make explanations. I just headed into my favored tailor shop, and the seamstress on call was happy to help me find some decent, sturdy, boots.
I’m not going to lie. They were cute boots, too. Hey, no one ever said function meant a lack of fashion. And since Ginger was very right, I picked over the clothing options as well. My current/relatively normal attire was a regular ol’ dress with this sort of duster thing on top. Great for lounging in a library. Not so great for saving the world.
Okay, maybe I got cute clothes too. I am entitled to look good even in the midst of fighting evil sorceress, damn it. Nice leggings, a decent tunic and bodice, and a warm hooded cloak in the kinds of light pastels that flattered my hair made me a happy princess. My hair is striated white with pink and lavender, should you be so curious. Matched my wings, too. Oh, and the cloak had openings in the back where my wings could go through. Seriously, have you ever tried to fly with a cloak over your wings? You’re asking to faceplant into a building.
My old clothes and froggie slippers went into my Bottomless Bag. I nabbed one or two other changes of clothes as well, and I grabbed a scarf and gloves. Human lands were usually pretty cold this time of year. They didn’t get snow melt-off until summer.
The next stop after the tailor was to get foodstuffs. Non-perishable stuff that I could carry for days would be my primary source, and I could scavenge any fruits I wanted. If I wanted anything in the protein family, an arrow or two would solve that. Or a fireball. Pre-cooked dinner for the win. I also got a decent supply of coffee for Ginger. You do not want to see that furball on caffeine withdrawal.
We were finally set to go, so we bid our farewells and headed down the road that would lead out of town. The next closest city was only about five hours away via foot, but to get anywhere near the port from that locale would be best done with a horse. The Faerie Kingdom had roughly five cities overall, should you wonder, which was fairly average for our world as a whole.
I had half-expected to find trouble on the road, because, let’s face it, my luck has sucked recently, but we made it without mishap to the next town. The walking was definitely already overrated, so my first stop was to find a stable where I could buy a faerie pony. They were small horses bred for us faeries, and they were heavy on the magic content themselves. Their manes were usually silver in color, and there were small wings behind their ears. Short humans and elves could use them too, but it often took a lot of training.
When I got to the stables, the first thing Ginger said was, “Holy crap. Either the faerie pony rodeo is in town, or there’s been a problem with breeding.”
Only a single pony was to be found in the large corral, and there should have been at least a dozen by this time of year. That did not bode well. I hopped the fence and headed for the barn that doubled as a shop. The copious amounts of tack and supplies seemed to imply there was problem getting ponies rather an excess in selling them. “Hello?” I called.
An older gentleman popped up from behind a stall door and beamed brightly as he saw me. “Princess! What a pleasant surprise! What can I help you with today?” His wings fluttered as he flew gracefully over the door and landed on the ground. To look as old as he did, he had to be several millennia in age.
I jerked a thumb toward the corral. “I came to buy a pony.”
“I only have one left, sadly. She’s a beaut, but she’ll cost you five hundred trinkets.”
Ginger’s butt hit a table with a thump. “Whaaat?! Is she made of pure mythanium?”
A trinket equaled one hundred gold. One gold equaled one hundred silver. For comparison, my cute boots cost me fifty silver, and they’re top of the line. Most middle class folks averaged a pay of twenty gold per month. Getting the point? As for mythanium, it was a precious metal that could only be mined from the rocky bumps that grew on the heads of the Happy Turtle Team. Yep, wart ore. Made great weapons if one could survive to even get the damn stuff.
The stablemaster winced wryly and rubbed the back of his neck. “No, but she’s all I have left. There’s been some trouble in the caves not far from where the wild ponies run. The herd has been slowly picked off and eaten by a bunch of ogres. We can’t even get out there to save the ponies without fear of being eaten ourselves!”
Somewhere in my mind, this little voice said, Don’t open your mouth, Liena! Far be it for me to listen to reason. I opened my mouth, and out came, “If I blow up the ogres and save the herd, can I have a pony for less than the worth of my castle?”
If the look Ginger gave me was any clue, she was mentally thinking the same thing I was: I’m an idiot.
The stablemaster certainly wasn’t thinking that. He brightened faster than a farmer at harvest and happily exclaimed, “I would be glad to make that deal! If anyone can handle the problem, it’s the mage who has already mastered Fission!” He dug in a drawer and emerged with a map. “This is the route to the field where the ponies run. The caves are nearby, and be careful when you go! It’s a serious nest.”
It wasn’t metaphorical. Ogres built nests. Weirdest damned thing you’ll ever see, for sure. I took the map, shook the stablemaster’s hand, and headed back out of the barn. Ginger landed on my shoulder and complained, “If you keep this up, your mother will turn me into dinner because you didn’t survive to save everyone!”
“I love you too, Ginger.”
The map proved to be somewhat of a complicated piece. It was more like a piece of art than a useful tool, but once I figured out the directions, I conjured a magical compass to help guide the way. It hovered at my elbow and made a honking noise if I was going the wrong way. It had used to pitch a hissy fit and say ‘recalculating’ over and over again, but some serious study had tweaked the spell significantly.
The field belonging to the ponies was a pretty shallow basin that was usually filled with flowers and butterflies and bees. Right at that time, it was filled with big, muddy footprints that basically declared Ogres Were Here. Ginger flew down to one of the footprints and sniffed at it. “Phooo!” She wrinkled her nose and gagged. “Yeah, that’s an ogre alright. Blech, I can taste the sweat!” She flew up and dove into the Bottomless Bag. “Where are the peppermints, damn it? I’m dying!”
As a point of fact, why, yes, live creatures can fit in the bag. Nothing bigger than Ginger’s size, though. Trying to stick a full-size creature in there usually got them spit out. Maybe the bag didn’t like sweat taste either.
Ginger eventually emerged with a mouthful of peppermints and I let her be as I followed the tracks. It didn’t take any skills for that. Ogres weren’t exactly stealthy creatures. The field ended where rolling hills started, and the tracks trudged around one of the taller hills. There, on the other side, was an opening. Jackpot.
I drew my bow and notched an arrow as I crept inside the cave. I would need to get the first shot off to take down the leader before I started in with the magic on the rest. Ogres and oni alike circuited power between their leader and members. Removing the leader meant the others would be easier to kill. If you left the leader alike, the suckers kept regenerating. Tricksy bastards.
Bones littered the entryway leading deeper into the cave. Most of the bones were from ponies, but it looked like one or two ‘intrepid heroes’ had met their end as a midday snack. They probably hadn’t known about the leader thing. It was, literally, a killer.
A quick magic spell took care of erasing my scent from being detected. The tunnel ended where a large cavern opened, and I ducked down behind a large rock formation. Another quick spell created a magic eyeball that let me see around corners without being detected myself. The cavern was a nest, alright. I counted fifteen ogres, and the big honker in the middle had to be the leader. He also had the horn right in the middle of his forehead; another sure sign.
The two ways to take out an ogre in one shot were to either cut off the horn, or to pierce the heart directly. From my angle and my distance, my better luck was to go for the horn. There was no knowing how thick his skin was on his chest. I selected an arrow with the broadest and sharpest tip and used the eye to take careful aim. He seemed to have a set pattern as he wandered between where some sort of cook was skinning something that had once been alive and what was probably his own nest.
He swung around to wander back, and I let the arrow fly. It struck the base of his horn and sheared all the way through. The horn hit the ground with a thud and turned into a bright red gem. The leader’s body hit the ground, too. The other ogres began to whip around and I rushed around the rock as elemental magic swirled across my body. A fast fireball incinerated one ogre. An ice spell froze another so that it shattered when a nearby ogre accidentally bumped it.
The nice thing about being mana-packed, small, and capable of flight is that it makes it really hard for big things to catch me before I crispy fry them. I can cast and fly at the same time (basically, it’s the mage version of walking and chewing gum), and I’m rather accurate in case it wasn’t obvious. I took out another four ogres even before they managed to reach where I had been located.
Really, everything probably would have kept going just fine if it hadn’t been for one of the ogres getting in a lucky shot with a thrown rock. It clipped my wing, and that hurt enough that I lost lift and hit the ground on my ass with a thud. “Ouch! Okay, that’s it! No more playing nice!” I didn’t bother to stand as I lifted my hands. Fire welled over my fingers and two separate fireballs bounced off each other with warning sparks. I took a breath to breathe magic into my Fission . . . annnd from out of absolutely nowhere, I heard some guy shout, “Stay down, fair princess! I will save you!”
My spell winked out as I and the ogres collectively gaped at the cavern entry. Another faerie had joined us, and the sword in his hand combined with his entrance made me think he was probably safely filed under ‘intrepid hero’ as far as classifications went. He was cute, though. Perhaps not exactly the sharpest pencil in the drawer, but at least he was good for eye candy. Still . . . it wouldn’t be good form to let him be squished into actual candy. “Uhm, I’m okay, actually,” I called.
It could be argued whether he didn’t hear me or he ignored me, but the result was the same. He rushed right into the middle of the remaining eight ogres and proceeded to make every attempt to create mincemeat. He was actually pretty good with that sword, so I couldn’t say much as far as that went. I got to my feet and dusted off my leggings before picking the dirt out from under my fingernails. One thud. Two thuds. Not bad, kid, for sure.
A sound more like a thunk than a thud had me sighing. Yup. He had gotten punted. You never got within punting range of an ogre unless you were intending to cut off their hands first. Amateur. I lifted my hands again and once more the fireballs formed. One of the remaining ogres grabbed my ‘hero’ with the intent of probably eating him whole, and I breathed life into my spell. The two fireballs shot together and merged with blinding flash of light that blew outward in a shockwave. The Fission gouged out the floor and walls, exploded some rocks, and evaporated all of the remaining ogres. Hero-boy, having been some ten feet in the air, landed much as I had: with a thud, a yelp, and a sore butt.
I walked over and scowled down at him. “Nice save.”
He winced sheepishly. “I didn’t realize you knew Fission.” He got gracefully to his feet and dusted himself off. He really was a handsome guy, actually. I couldn’t help giving him a second look; hey, I’m not blind. He had hair mixed between gold and silver, and it (as was normal) matched his wings. He stood an inch or two taller than me, and he had the fascinating blend of softness and strength common in fighting-type faeries. We’re a relatively rounded race since our primary strength is magical. You didn’t muscular faeries except for the ones who were exclusively physical combat—a rarity in and of itself.
Sheepish blue eyes met my lavender ones, and he asked hopefully, “I didn’t make too terrible of a first impression, did I?”
“Hmm.” I thought about it. “I’ll give it a five. I’ve seen way worse, and I’ve seen way better. Next time, listen to the ‘fair princess’ when she says she has it handled, okay?” I patted his cheek and swung around to find the leader’s body. I needed the medal off his stinky clothes to prove the nest was dead. The Ogre’s Blood gem that had formed from his horn was lying near, and I ignored it.
My ‘hero’ had followed me and he asked, “You don’t want it? I thought mages used them.”
“Most do.” I eyed him. “You sound as if you’ve never had mage training.”
“I’m kinda magically stupid.” He grinned. “I’m lucky to use a fireball without a mishap.”
Oh, great. Another Amazonia for me to deal with. No thanks. I kicked the gem over to him. “You take it, then. You need the protection more than I do.” I held my breath and nipped the emblem I needed. I then took several steps back to where I could breathe again. “Blech!” I gave Ginger the emblem to hold as she flew over and landed on my shoulder again. “I keep hoping the dragon half of you will finally make you useful in battle,” I scolded.
“Not with things that much bigger than me,” she complained back. “And until hero-boy jumped in, you were fine.”
“Fair enough.” I gave my ‘hero’ a saucy bow. “See you around, I’m sure. Try not to play with anymore ogres, mm’kay?” I swung around to leave the cavern, and yet I was not wholly surprised when he hurried to catch up. “Who are you anyway?”
“My name is Collin.” He lengthened his stride to match mine. “My family is nobility from the city. We often visit the capitol, and we always attend the parties and celebrations. Have you ever noticed me?” he asked hopefully.
“‘fraid not. You do know how many people attend those functions, right? I’m lucky I notice my own mother in those crowds.” He looked so disappointed that I could only shake my head. Know how you feel when you see a cute puppy with attention disorder? Kinda taken with its cuteness and tempted to bring it home but pretty sure it’ll eat all your slippers and get into any and everything? That was pretty much how Collin struck me.
“I never had the nerve to ask you to dance,” he grumbled. “I’m a hundred years younger than you.”
That would be the human equivalent of him being twenty and me being thirty. Not a big gap, relatively speaking, but decent enough to make me have been an adult when the war occurred and him be born probably right after. Generation gaps weren’t a big deal overall for a long-lived race, but we were of ages where we would still notice. In another hundred years, it would go away. “Collin,” I sighed, “look. I think you’re attractive, you tip toward ‘adorable’ as far as heroes go, and I probably like you more than I should considering how we met. I just also think that you might be more trouble than you’re worth.”
“Liena, please,” he pleaded. “Let me help you! I know I can help you save our world. I’d like to court you, yes, but I’d settle for just helping you.” He grabbed my arm and swung me around to face him. His eyes held mine earnestly. “I’m kinda stupid about some things, okay? I know that. But I just really know I can help you. Maybe not save you, but you could always use another sword, right?”
“I’d feel a lot more secure in that thought if the sword was owned by someone other than a magically stupid faerie,” I retorted. “The first magic fight I encounter with Veronica is going to have you fried harder than those ogres back there. I genuinely appreciate the offer, but my answer is no.”
“Can’t I do anything?”
I thought about it for a moment. “Okay, actually, yes.” I dug in my bag and found a piece of parchment. A flick of magic wrote out a quick letter. I rolled it up and sealed it with a wax spell only breakable by the recipient. “Take this to my mother. She needs to know about the ogre issue because it’s pretty unusual for them to take up residence so close to a town. I’d bet they were driven there from closer to the borders, and that means the sorceress’ reach might be spreading.”
He tucked the scroll safely into his own bag. “I will deliver it right to the queen and return as fast as I can!” he vowed fiercely.
I watched him zip off through the trees, and Ginger snorted hard. “With your luck,” she noted dryly, “your mother will fall in love with him and decide she wants him for a son-in-law.”
I snorted in return. “Oh, hell no. I spend the rest of my life keeping him out of trouble! I think not.”
“You liked him though.”
“Well, yes.” I shrugged as I continued toward the city. “I’d be lying to say I hadn’t. I’d be lying to say that I would not, in fact, be intrigued by an affair with him. He would be a troublesome king or husband, but he would be a fun consort.” I waved a hand in the air. “Moot point. I don’t have time for a consort anyway.”
“A princess’ work is never done,” she intoned.
I ignored that. Once in the city, I headed back to the barn and handed off the emblem. “Ogres dead,” I assured the stablemaster. “I cleaned out the entire nest. I don’t see them coming back, particularly since I sent word to Mother to have her send out some guards for investigating. The ponies should come back soon enough.”
“Thank you SO much!” he said fervently. “As agreed, the filly in the corral is yours. Her name is Starling. She should suit you quite well, Liena. She’s got a quick step to her, and she hasn’t flinched at any spell she’s been exposed to.”
“Perfect.” I sighed. “I will pick her up in the morning. It’s getting late, the day has been long and ridiculous, and I smell like ogres. I’m going to spend the night at the inn and set out tomorrow morning.” I was also starving, actually, and my mana was low. I munched my way through some peppermints as I made my way toward the local inn.
The young girl behind the counter brightened when she saw me and merrily held out a key. “Here you go!”
Ginger and I exchanged a look. “Beg pardon?” I asked. “I haven’t even paid yet!”
“Oh, the nice man who came through paid for you.” She beamed. “He also left a present for you!” She ducked behind the counter and shortly emerged again with a small, gaily wrapped, package. “The dining room opens in an hour for supper,” she assured me.
Puzzled as all get out, I took the package upstairs to my room. Ginger used her lethal claws to slice open the tape and ribbon, and I gingerly lifted the lid. There, inside, was a familiar Ogre’s Blood gem. A note underneath it read only, To my fair rescuer—Colin.
I found myself laughing, and maybe I was a little bit charmed. Once this whole mess was done, I would have to sincerely consider taking him as a consort. I was probably going to need a nice dose of romance to get over this whole ‘world saving’ thing. It was so overrated.