The ice giant roared and slammed his club into the ground to block Helli as she tried to skirt around him. I hid behind a rock and summoned up my Mage Hand. Awk, who could now understand languages, translated for us: “He wants payment for safe passage through his lands.”

I squinted through the snow pelting me, trying to pilot the hand. It was also invisible, which did not help.

“Maybe we can offer him Dronie,” Felegum called. Zeno flashed him a thumbs up. Dronie, after all, looked very cool and could always be summoned back.

But the ice giant was not interested. Again, Awk was the only one who knew what he was saying thanks to the magic of spectral dragon friendship, but the general gist of things seemed like he was wise to that trick. Or just hated monodrones. Hard to tell in translation.

Zeno pulled out a coin, and surprisingly, the giant was not interested in this either. I was settling in for a fight. The giant blew on the massive horn at his side and somewhere around us was a stomping of beasts, heavy and massive just beyond my vision. Someone breathed something about mammoths.

Then Lankin held up the mystery meat with both hands, as though an offering. “Can we pass?”

The giant examined this thoughtfully. “You may pass,” he said, translated through Awk, to Lankin.

“Oh,” Lankin said, frowning. “No, like, I meant, all of us.”

He tried gesturing to everyone, but the giant was very busy consuming what should have been our dinner. He didn’t look particularly emaciated or anything, just enjoying a snack.

So, naturally, on finding that he didn’t particularly have pockets to rifle through, I sent the hand to work on trying to untie his pants, thinking that this would maybe be a good distraction when we inevitably had to fight. Unfortunately, there were a lot of knots.

Helli made a valiant attempt to hide in the blizzard, and Awk made weird mammoth-like noises at the mammoths.

“They say he rarely lets people go,” Awk said, when he was done trumpeting. And then he offered the small jar of jam he’d gotten from Greenrest that I had not entirely given up the idea of stealing from him. So what, we were just giving this guy our stuff because he wanted it?

Just because he said so?

Felegum offered up a rope, which was accepted, and Harry held out a mirror, which was not.

“Come on, Set, just go with it,” the mage said. I frowned, and got to work on the next knot.

“Ooh, ask if I can ride the mammoths.” Lankin tugged on Awk’s sleeve.

“Okay,” Awk said and the groaned convincingly at the massive creatures in the distance. They made a guttural sound back. “The mammoths accept your challenge.”

“But I…” Lankin paused. “…didn’t challenge them.”

Awk rephrased. “They don’t want to be ridden. But you can try.”

“Oh,” Lankin said. “No.”

Harry pulled out a vial of antitoxin and put it up for offer. The giant honestly did not seem to know what to make of this, considering the vastness of the language barrier, and Awk communicated this to us. To help out, Zeno pantomimed suffering the throes of death, drinking the potion, and then being cured. The giant just looked confused at him.

“He doesn’t know what it does,” Awk explained.

Zeno conjured up an illusion of a snake, which did seem to help: the ice giant plucked the antitoxin from Harry’s hands.

Thinking that this was a success, Zeno kicked the snow away and began to play the bagpipes. It was a wistful emotional song, a performance certainly worthy of passage. Or so I thought, until the giant dropped its horn on Zeno. My hackles were raised, but Zeno continued to play anyway, smoke curling out of the top of the horn, swirling dark gray as the bard’s magic emanated out from it.

I would not have been so cool with it.

Pleased, the giant raised the horn. As he blew it, Zeno’s song echoed out eerily across the frozen wastelands and the hair on the back of my neck prickled.

He’d taken that song. Stolen it, something that I didn’t think you could steal.

It was about at this time that I finished the third knot on the drawstring, so I returned to the second, difficult knot. If my experience with people like this had told me anything, he wasn’t going to let us go.

Helli held up a diamond, which was rejected initially: according to Awk, the giant wanted something more personal, so Helli pulled out some wire and brass to put it into a setting. With a stamp of his foot, the giant created an icy workspace for her to work at. It was cool, I had to admit. Zeno even sang a reprise of his new ballad to give Helli the extra push she needed to complete her work.

“He says he’s still waiting for your tribute, Harry,” Awk translated the giant’s latest rumble.

And if there was anything to cement into me that this guy was a whole bag of dicks, it was this. Harry had already paid up. We’d gone through all that rigmarole with the antitoxin, and what had it gotten Harry? Down one vial of something useful and still on the spot.

Harry took a cue from Helli and began carving something into a torch, and alas, my time ran out. Felegum had already, to be fair, been trying to convince me not to persist with this, but I’d done it anyway. Partly because it would have been hilarious, but also because there is exactly one kind of person who, lacking little, extorts “gifts” from those less well off than themselves on pain of death or injury.

Not exactly my speed, but the game was up. I pointed to his almost-undone belt and bowed. A trick. An amusement. An inconvenience.

A gift, of sorts.

It was really too bad that the ice giant did not see things the same way. He demanded more, through Awk, so I reluctantly gave up the pickle jar. He drank it, bitter root things and all, and still demanded more.

My hands curled into fists.

Helli had finished working on her beard ornament for him, made from the diamond she’d previously offered, which the ice giant threaded into his beard. Meanwhile, I suppose for offering two things that were not enough, I was buried up to my neck in the snow. I struggled, but it was pretty useless. Harry set down his carving to try to dig me out, and Lankin even offered his rope to the giant on my behalf (also rejected), though that was kind of him.

Once out of the snow, I tried for a different tack. Taking out my calligraphy supplies and hoping that the paper wouldn’t wrinkle too much as I inked up the brush and wrote in my very best script: Giant of the Icy Wastes of Paripas.

Snow threatened to collect on the page between careful strokes, but I had enough experience doing this that I batted it away without it affecting the quality of the lettering too much. I had been a little worried since I hadn’t done this for a while, and I was pleased to see it coming out well.

However, I had not calculated that maybe the ice giant would not be able to read my writing. Or like it. He took the paper from my grasp, inspected and pocketed it, and returned that cold gaze to me.

I didn’t even need Awk’s translation. “He, uh, wants more. As an apology, I think?”

“Can you fly around?” Lankin nudged me. “Like with your wings?”

I didn’t want to fly for this giant. Not as a sideshow, not as act. That was special.

It was at this point that I got upset. “What, really?” I looked at Felegum as he made de-escalating motions. “Can we just fight him already? Because this is just ridiculous.”

I was seething, hands already halfway to shaping thunder.

“Set, look at me.” Zeno called from my other side. I swung around and instantly felt…calmer. More level-headed. “Look at this in perspective, okay?”

It took a few more tries and rejections, but eventually the ice giant and I came to an agreement on my sick as hell skull necklace. Awk seemed to be stressing that he wanted something that had meaning to me, but I felt pretty confused. I’d given him food. I wasn’t giving up the broom or my boots, and if the giant was talking about emotional meaning, I’d be damned if I let him have Kheryph, regardless of how broken the lizard was.

The giant took Harry’s intricately carved torch, set it aflame, and before he left stared at me so hard that it felt like a snowstorm in the depths of my soul.

The spell faded as the giant stomped off, trumpeting Zeno’s song to his herd and fading into the storm.

“Zeno, I know that was you,” I spat. “Casting spells on me, really?”

The bard waved it off. “Maybe next time don’t act so stupid,” he said, and we marched, once more into the dim light of an early setting sun.

“You know, you’re kind of stupid.”

I was sixteen, jolting to my hands and knees in the dusty alley. A dull line of blood edged down from my burst lip and plipped into the sandy ground as a blurry dark shape effortlessly tossed a red fruit then caught it. I blinked and my eyes stung. He caught the apple again.

“You could’ve just given them what they wanted. I guarantee you they wouldn’t have found the stuff you’d stashed in your pockets,” the other boy said. “But no, you had to go ahead and fight them. For what?”

“I stole it myself,” I whispered. It hurt so much to just breathe. I’d spent the better part of an hour waiting for just the right moment, pocketing apples and flatbreads, leaving the jar of honey even though we hadn’t had honey in months. It would have been so easy, but that grocer had always given me samples and smiled at me when I was a little kid. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, but we were so hungry, everyone was getting so hungry, and it was getting harder and harder to come back with anything for my parents. I rubbed at my eyes. Oh gods, my parents.

“Yeah, I watched.” He was taller than me and definitely older. I squinted as my vision cleared. Maybe in his late teens or early twenties. “You’re not half bad. I just don’t get why you had to make a big stand over a few things you could easily steal again somewhere else. Now look at you. You’re all beat up and you have nothing.”

“They had their own food.” I spat onto the sand. “They just wanted mine because they knew they could take it.”

The older teen shook his head, exasperated. “Kid, it boggles me how you’ve survived this hellhole. You have no sense of self-preservation.”

I scowled, not getting it. “I just don’t like bullies.”

He tossed me the apple, which I caught awkwardly against my bruised stomach.

“You really won’t last long,” he said, offering me a hand up, dark cloak fluttering behind him, “if that’s the hill you’re willing to die on.”

Awk had become a direwolf on and off to avoid getting caught in the snow, but we were still moving really slowly. Pushing the wheelbarrow with the Aegis in it had taken its toll on Lankin, and stopping for the night felt more than welcome after our earlier ordeal. Felegum swept into the motions for setting up our dome, wacky waving into the dusk as Lankin collapsed into a catatonic elf state. It was different from the normal meditations that he tended to go into overnight– he looked truly exhausted.

While I whole-heartedly thought Lankin deserved all his rest, the fact remained that he was also the closest thing we had to a chef in the party. Harry and Zeno’s zombies dragged him into the hut and Awk used his druidcraft to start a fire. Awk also offered us goodberries, so naturally I had a ration instead.

They don’t taste good, but they’re still much better than a lot of other things I’ve eaten.

“Zeno,” I said between bites, struck by inspiration, “I will forgive you for that spell if you put those goggles you got from the guy on Harry’s head.”

“Uh, okay.” The bard narrowed his eyes at me, then warily got out his rose-colored goggles, having already eaten a goodberry and delivered a scathing review on the menu to Awk. “Just go with it,” he said to Harry, putting the goggles over his horned head.

Harry patiently endured this.

“Do you see anything?” I asked. Zeno also realized, no doubt, what I had: we’d found those goggles on a human in the Shark’s Tooth. Aka, a humanoid who couldn’t see in the dark. Hanging out in a dark place. While totally possible that dead dude just lit torches all the time, it seemed not unlikely.

Harry positioned the goggles more comfortably over his eyes, blinked, then leaned forward. He could see, maybe not totally clearly, but a little more, it seemed, than he could before.

We spent an enjoyable first shift together with Felegum, asking Harry about all the cool new stuff he could see in the dark.

Before I settled in, the dragonborn clasped my shoulder. “Grudges,” he said. “Make sure you have them for the right reasons.”

I snorted and jerked my chin toward Awk, whom we were about to wake for the second shift with Helli. “You’re one to talk.”

Harry just shrugged and unrolled his bedroll. “I have chosen my grudges.”

I shook my head and made a little warm space for Kheryph to crawl into. Somehow, Harry had a way of making things that would have sounded like nonsense from most other people seem like they contained deeper wisdom.

Kheryph pulled himself into the cozy crook of my elbow, and we both fell asleep.

The next day was an exercise in collaboration.

Harry took back over on the wheelbarrow and I offered the broom to Helli to ride on, since she was small and kept getting caught in the snow. There was some talk of Helli trying to craft us up snowshoes on the broom while I flew it, and Zeno was, as per his custom, carried as though on a throne by his two zombies.

Helli kindly offered him a pair of her socks to help him keep warm, since his performance slippers really were looking a little sad at this point. The socks, being of gnomish size, were somewhat challenging to slip into, but maybe Zeno just has petite feet. I don’t know and I don’t want to know.

Felegum, the most directionally inclined of all of us, called a halt to our progress once it became apparent that we were going incredibly slowly through the snow. We split into two teams, one to hunt (me and Lankin) and one to make snowshoes (everyone else). Zeno said he’d offer moral support and song.

I felt confident. Before I had more magic, hunting for food has been hard. Now, not so much. I strode in a direction that seemed especially promising. Lankin politely informed me that he smelled something in a totally different direction, and him being a wood elf, I figured it had to be interesting.

And lo, it was: these bizarre antelope dudes with huge noses, grazing on the plains. Saiga. They were far enough away that I couldn’t use my handy Sleep trick on them and even Lankin, fast as he was, had a feeling that he would not be able to catch up to them if they startled.

In what maybe have been one of the more dumb things I’ve used my magic to do, I cast Disguise Self on myself to make me look more like a saiga. I had to walk on all fours, weirdly, and the other saiga definitely noticed that something was up. I’m not sure if it was my crap impersonation or Lankin charging in after them, seeing me crappily impersonate a saiga, but the herd dispersed.

Either way, I was glad to drop that spell. The dumb things I had to endure these days seemed endless.

Initially, Lankin was inclined to go back but I badgered him into tracking the herd down again for us, and this time, with me way up in the air above them, I cast my Sleep spell, rose petals drifting off my fingertips as a mother and her baby fell asleep, nestled together.

I sent a message to Lankin to go in for the kill, he did, and lo, two or three hours later we returned with the spoils: me on the broom with the adult carcass strapped to it and Lankin with the two halves of the baby around his neck. I tried to fly elegantly into the dome, but bounced off (due to not being inside of it when it was cast or whatever) and left a trail of blood from the saiga over it.

By the time, the team left back at the camp had finished five pairs of snowshoes, which was enough for everyone without Harry and my sick boots. Lankin and I figured out a way to cook the meat, and as we were eating, Kheryph crawled up my arm and made little grabby hands toward the finished product.

I, naturally, cut him way more meat than was physically possible for a lizard to eat, and he muscled his way through one meat cube before being sated. It was progress.

Helli took some time to work on one of her projects, I asked to borrow HFVNN, tried talking to him, gave him my rapier, promised I’d never ask for it back, then when I tried to get him to eat something else, he wasn’t hungry. Thinking about response times, I accidentally asked for the sword back and fucked it all up, and then had to hand the bag back to Felegum in shame. It was an unfortunate mess.

Awk, meanwhile, learned how to cook people with the help of his Draconic cookbook, To Serve Man. Tonight’s learning experience? An aperitif.

Honestly? Not super sure about this ghost dragon patron guy.

After two days, the blizzard mostly blew past us and we were once more outside the gates of Paripas. Agreeing that maybe the Aegis was too powerful for the barrier of the city to really handle and not wanting to put the populace at risk, we split into two teams: Team Letitia, which would report to the Mage’s Guild about the quest’s completion and then let the rest of us know what to do with this sucker, and Team Aegis, which would stay outside the barrier, guard the shield, and chill.

Literally. My breath fogged out ahead of me as Zeno, Helli, and Felegum breezed through the paperwork (read: Felegum breezed through the paperwork for them) and headed into the city. I would have been jealous of them getting warm drinks and fine foods, except a shambly, partially constructed goblin vehicle caught my eye.

I turned back to my group. “Would anyone like to go shopping?”

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