Thursday, June 22, 2017

Chapter Fourteen: Whispers in the Dark(Part Two)



"What are we looking for, exactly?" Sam asked, as the freezing night wind hit the companions like a tidal wave. Belthor had to pause to wrap his coat around him a little tighter, though Agnete's rosy cheeks just lifted as she smiled. Belthor liked her smile. 

"I don't imagine we can find two-day old tracks in the snow," Tori agreed.

"Well, no," Belthor agreed. "But the stranger said he saw them head out that way." He pointed vaguely in the direction of the forest. "Several of them were hit pretty hard. I figure if we head that way, we'll find scorch marks from the ones we set on fire, or things the others dropped."

"That's a big guess," Sam observed.

"I can track through the snow better than you," Agnete said. "I have hunted in the North. I will take the lead."

"Sure." Belthor let the drow pass him. He sank his staff into the snow, taking in a deep breath of frigid night air. "We were up there when it happened. I was walking you home."

"Yes, you were," Agnete agreed. "It was very cold. Which I found enjoyable, but you do not."
"You are a strange cookie," Tori told Agnete, adjusting her cap and pulling it down over the cascade of red flowing over her shoulders. "In case no one had ever told you that."

"I have been informed." Agnete sounded a bit sour, but she moved on before Tori had a chance to press her. "You arrived from the town, driving them further to the west. The stranger says that he was in a position to watch them depart, and that is the direction they traveled."

"What's west?" Sam asked, as they paced through fields of white darkened by a lack of sun.

"Hang on." Belthor held his staff up, and a faint green light winked into existence atop it. "I don't have Klamnet's Rune, but I can do a little."

"Good idea." Sam mimicked him, only his light was blue. The combination gave the snowy plain an almost underwater feel. 

"West...west is Agnete's clearing," Belthor said. "I don't think that's where they're from, though, or they'd have come for her while she was there instead of at the town."

"There is not much else around it," Agnete said. "Master Kulkas chose the most out-of-the-way place he could find."

"There has to be something," Belthor said. "We'll head that way and fan out a bit. Sam, you're with me. Tori and Agnete can be in the center. Can you make a light?"

"Sure," Tori said, cheerfully. She held out her free hand, and flames burst up from her palm. "It's prettier than yours, too."

"She's kind of a pyro," Sam warned.

"I'm just too hot for you," the redhead replied. "Besides, this way, I get to be warm too."

"I have never been so jealous of a Gifted," Belthor told her, his teeth chattering.

"Aw. Not even me?" Sam made a very sad face. "I thought everyone wanted to shoot lightning from their fingertips."

"How exactly does that work, anyway?" Belthor asked, as Sam drifted to his side and the girls moved their own way. The four started across the snow toward the looming trees, with their wide-spread branches making them look like demons or devils in the dark.

"I don't know that I can explain it," Sam said. "I just...wish out lightning, and it happens." He shrugged. "It comes from my hands, usually, but I can call it down from the sky too under certain circumstances. It's not good for much that way, since the power's usually inside me, but it creates a thunderclap. Great for parties."

"And your device?" Belthor asked. Sam shrugged.

"I told you about that." He paused to nudge a branch aside with his staff. "My father made it. It's so I don't lose control and start shooting lightning left and right with no plan - all I have to do is wish it, remember? I can adjust the device to suppress my Gift, or to...empower it, I suppose."

"That's cursed," Belthor told him.

"Careful. You'll turn into Theron when you're not looking."

"Is it a very common Gift?" Belthor asked. Sam considered.

"I've never met anyone else with it," he replied. "Especially not the device. Some people can manipulate lightning, but not as well as I can. Not that I'm boasting." He glanced at Belthor. "Have you?"

"Well," he started, "back during everything that happened in Rosa-"

"One of the first rules of hunting, boys," Agnete said, appearing from the darkness so quietly that Belthor jumped mid-word, "is to be quiet."

"Oh. Sorry." The initiate winced. "Just a conversation."

"Caribou do not have conversations," Agnete informed him, which was most likely accurate. "And I do not think the Owned will either. If we wish the element of surprise, we must be silent."

"Yes, ma'am," Belthor said, very agreeably seeing as this was the drow's area of expertise. That seemed to confuse Agnete more than anything, but she withdrew with only a puzzled expression instead of a more vocal query. Belthor gave Sam a glance, but he only shrugged, as if to say I suppose she's right.

They walked. Belthor watched his and Sam's breath come out in great clouds of steam, and the two of them had to pause every so often for one of them to use a spell of warmth and drive the chill from their bones for a moment. Tori and Agnete were over to the left, always visible from the Gifted girl's purple-tinted flame, but occasionally Belthor saw the lithe form of the drow herself drifting through the snow on all fours in a very catlike way. He wondered if they were slowing her down, and morosely concluded that they probably were.

The trees grew taller, and the branches longer. More than once, Belthor gasped when the sudden movement of wood in the wind took him by surprise, or the breeze picked up and sounded like a banshee's howl. He had never been over fond of the dark, and that was before his brothers figured that out and educated him thoroughly on all the predatory and frightening creatures in South Sharan folklore.

And then, after what felt like hours of walking, he saw it.

"Sam." He raised his staff, examining the glint in the dark. The Gifted initiate drifted to his side almost instantly.

"What is it?" he asked, staff upraised to give even more light. Belthor knelt, and with his free hand he took the object from the snow, listening to the crunch of Tori's footsteps as she and Agnete(and her silent footfalls) approached from the dark.

"It's a knife," Belthor said. "It's Yvette's knife, the one she threatened us with."

"How'd it get here?" Sam asked.

"She dropped it," Belthor replied. "She must have dropped it, hurrying along this way." He stood, putting a little more power into his light spell as he examined the little ravine they found themselves in. "The sides don't look climbable. And that's a lot of branches overhead, which rules out any kind of air transportation, like griffons or a dragon."

"A dragon?" Tori asked, raising an eyebrow. Belthor shrugged self-consciously.

"Just keeping an open mind," he muttered. "We don't know."

"So they went straight through," Sam surmised. "Wherever they were going must be on the other end of this ravine."

"It must," Belthor agreed, smiling despite the cold. "We're on the right track." He glanced around. "Let's spread out a bit. Maybe they lost something else - something that can help us pinpoint their location better."

"Right." Tori nodded. Agnete seemed a bit more lost.

"How did she lose the knife?" the girl asked. "I do not understand."

"Maybe she was hurrying and it slipped out," Sam suggested. "Stranger things have happened. I don't know that it matters much how, compared to that she did."

Agnete shook her head. "I think it matters very much. She might have lost the knife in battle, but who was she fighting here?"

"Let's look around and see if we can find out," Belthor repeated. "There's got to be something if there was another fight."

"True enough." And then Agnete hurried off, staying close to Tori and Sam and their lights. Belthor turned his attention back the way they'd come, and without words, each of the four wound up choosing a separate direction to explore.

No footprints, Belthor mused. Makes sense. There's been a lot of snowfall lately. Enough to bury practically anything. He kicked at the snow and poked with his staff, hoping to hear a thump or a clang as he hit a further piece of evidence. That he didn't maddened him: there had to be something more than a lost knife buried under yesterday's snow.

"Yesterday's snow," Belthor found himself muttering. He frowned as he examined the powder, then turned back to his companions, scattered around the ravine hunting in their faint lights. "Didn't it snow yesterday?"

"Yes," Tori said. "Why?"

Belthor glanced around the ravine. "Do you think it snowed here? The overhead cover's pretty thick, but I don't think it's thick enough to prevent snow getting through."

"I think this place got hit," Sam agreed. "What's your point?"

"There's no footprints or anything," Belthor said. He glanced around. "Nothing." He opened his palm to glance at the blade. "Except this."

"And?"

"Why wasn't it buried?" Belthor asked. He turned to Sam and Tori and Agnete, and he felt the sick certainty before anyone could say it. "It was laid here. It's bait."

"Bait for what?" Sam asked. "They couldn't know we planned on-"

"The Owner knows all. The Owner sees everything."

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Chapter Fourteen: Whispers in the Dark(Part One)



Belthor entered the diner, staff at his side as he pulled his scarf down. He glanced around, enjoying the warmth while rather wishing he wasn't going back out into the freezing night so quickly.

"Hello, there," the blonde who'd replaced Yvette said. She swept past him, prancing lightly past a spilled drink while beckoning a young man who appeared to be the establishment's janitor. "Just you today, young man?"

"Oh, my friends are coming." Belthor smiled. "Tori and Sam and Agnete."

"Okay then." The blonde pointed. "That one back there is your usual, right?"

"Usually," Belthor agreed. He hesitated. "I, ah. Didn't get your name."

"Annette," she said, voice light. "Like your friend, but not."

"Oh. Right. Nice name." Belthor chuckled a little. "I'll just-"

"Thank you." And then she was off. Belthor let out a sigh. Why were girls so hard to talk to?

The initiate made his way over to the table, glancing left and right. The diner was well-occupied at this hour, but through the crowd he still saw the stranger, sitting in his usual place with his meal and his glower. He met Belthor's eyes, and the young man hurriedly looked away.

Doing so led him to see another familiar face, and he paused as he recognized Theron sitting alone. He almost went up to his roommate, but when he saw him working on a sketch of a bride in repose, Belthor thought better of it. He was probably waiting for either his date or his study group, and if he was working on a drawing of his deceased love, interrupting him would probably be rude.

He laid his staff in the cubbyhole, after throwing up a cone of silence around his table. He took his seat, pausing to fish in his pockets for a moment. Out came his notepad and a pen, and he paused to dip it in ink and write for a moment before doing anything else. Just six words: I have to go now. Later.

That done, he pulled over the first table decoration he could find and propped the little shard of Ardwal glass against it.

"Spellweaver," he murmured, which was a silly thing since whatever he said would be silent to  the outside world anyway. "Let me see through your twin."

The glass rippled like water. For a moment, Belthor saw nothing, but he knew what Estelle would see if she saw her shard.

Then the glass rippled again, and a crystal-clear picture of the princess' bedroom appeared in it.

Hello, she held up on her notepad, and Belthor winced as he saw she was wearing little but her thin pants and shirt, her Midnight armor lying open on the bed save for one leg and one arm, those being fixed in place on her already.

I didn't mean to impose, Belthor wrote hastily, trying not to look directly at her. If this is a bad time, I can talk to you later.

You are bright red, Estelle observed, giving him nothing but an amused smile. She set her notepad down and moved her other leg into place inside the armor. She gave him an inquisitive head-tilt as she worked.

Not that the all-black form-fitting body armor was going to make Belthor feel any less like a voyeur.

I just wanted to give you a quick update, that's all, he wrote. It's nothing major.
Neither is my business, she replied. What's happening?

Belthor sighed. He quickly wrote down a few sentences giving Estelle the basics on the Owned attack. He hesitated after that, as she frowned thoughtfully.

You're going to do something about it, aren't you? Estelle asked.

Yes, Belthor replied.

Tonight?

He held up the same note again. Yes.

Estelle tightened up her other arm. Be careful, Bel. All this talk of magic and sorcery is alien to me, but I think you might be out of your depth. Certainly I don't suppose you know how whoever did this did it?

No, Belthor replied. Beyond that it must be a potion or spell or both, that is. He fidgeted. There's something else, too. Unrelated. He crossed that last word out. Maybe related.

Estelle tilted her head. Belthor wrote as quickly as he could.

The girl, Agnete. I found out what's different about her. He proceeded to provide the explanation Estelle needed. Her face got gradually more disbelieving with every word she read.

A drow born of a wizard-killer whom Master Kulkas invited to the school of magic because he had a dream, who can create ice at will without a Gift? Estelle asked. When Belthor nodded, she looked up at the ceiling for a long moment. The instant I leave you alone...

She's nice, Belthor protested. I like her.

Estelle smirked. I knew it.

Not like that!

That's what it sounds like.

Belthor sighed. What matters is that the Owned are after her. And I don't understand why, unless it's one of the Masters who's done this to them. I don't trust any of them. Except Master Kulkas.

Estelle regarded him thoughtfully. I know a thing or two about being betrayed by mentors.

I know, Belthor replied. That's why I wanted to talk to you. But I don't know how much time I have.
Estelle nodded. I have business to handle now. We can talk tomorrow. She considered. Do you need anything?

No. Belthor hesitated after writing that. He argued with himself for a moment, and it was only Estelle's raised eyebrow that finally ended the debate. Dutifully, he X'd out the no and wrote: I could use a bookbag, if it's not too much of a bother.

It'll match your coat, Estelle replied, nodding instantly. You'll like it.

I'll pay you back for all this someday, Belthor promised. You're too kind.

I'm the one paying the debt, Estelle replied, with a suddenly very serious expression. I would have lost the battle in Rosa without you, not to mention the other costs you averted. Don't you think you owe me a copper.

Well, Belthor wrote, before his eye caught on a red head of hair storming into the diner. He grabbed his prepared note. I have to go now. Later.

Estelle nodded as he crumpled his sheets into a ball. She stood, snapping her chestpiece in place, claiming her bow from the foot of the bed with one hand, and picking up her helmet with the other. In an instant, the fair face of Lady Estelle Marona vanished, and all Belthor saw was the soulless face of the armored warrior Midnight.

Then the glass darkened at her command, and he stuffed it into his pocket as Agnete reached the table.

"Hello, Belthor." She sat, and the thing Belthor noticed most was what she didn't say.

"Are you all right?" he asked. Agnete eyed the table very intently.

"Nerves," she claimed, not altogether believably.

"You usually spell my name-"

"I am attempting not to do that. It is odd and foolish."

"Agnete-"

"Do you think me odd and foolish?" She eyed him, her gaze sharp and cold like daggers of ice. "Do you think me bizarre and primitive?"

"No," Belthor protested. "Agnete, I didn't mean offense! What on earth happened?"

She blinked. "...oh. I am sorry. I did not mean to snap at you." She adjusted her position. "I do not wish to speak of it."

Belthor took a breath. "Agnete..."

She sighed. "You intend to press me, do you not?"

"I...kind of, maybe," Belthor admitted.

"You were the one who told me that there are some things it is impolite to ask about." She met his gaze. "Are you not?"

"Well, yes, I am," Belthor admitted. "And that's true. But sometimes you have to ask."

"I do not understand." Agnete frowned. "If you are not supposed to ask, should you not ask?"

"Usually, no," Belthor said. "But friends push each other about things like this. If no one talked about what bothered them, they wouldn't get better. We have to air it out. And friends have to help their friends talk about things."

Agnete pursed her lips. "This is very confusing. I finally understand why some questions should not be asked and some knowledge need not be shared, and now you tell me I am still wrong."

"Agnete, I don't mean to say you're wrong-"

"But is that not what you are saying?" It wasn't aggressive. She just frowned, frowned, frowned, like the world made no sense and she was trying to coerce some order out of it. "People should not ask some questions, but when some people ask them, sometimes it is all right? This confuses me."

"Well..." Belthor hesitated as he tried to work through his own logic. "The thing of it is that friends trust each other and want to make each other feel better. And talking helps with that."

Agnete worked through that. She tapped her fingers on the table for a moment, making a noise in the back of her throat. "I suppose-"

"Hello, friends." Tori appeared from the crowd, and Sam behind her. "You ready to brave the cold?" She glanced at Agnete. "I know you are."

"Cold is nice." The drow seemed substantially less flustered than Belthor himself. "I will enjoy spending some good time in it."

"Makes one of us." Sam glanced around the diner. "Just the four of us?"

"The stranger's not coming." Belthor rose, claiming his staff. "And Theron has a date."

"Of course he does." Tori sounded amused. She glanced down at the senior, and Belthor did the same. "What's he sketching?"

"Oh. Um. It's a personal thing. I don't think I should talk about it." The initiate watched as Annette swept over to his roommate's table, delivering a plate and a drink. She said something Belthor didn't hear, and Theron replied with a casual lean and some quip of his own that made her giggle and blush and twirl a finger in her hair.

"I think he gets to cut a new notch in his bedpost tonight," Sam observed. "Annette, I thought better of you."

"Let's leave him to it, then," Tori said. "They can have their night, and we can have our own fun without him. We're the most cursed party on campus."

"Define cursed," Sam objected. "Because that could be bad for us too."

"Hopefully it's the good kind," Belthor said. "Let's go." He cast a spell with his staff and swung his coat and scarf about him. His note sheets he stuffed into a pocket until he could burn them.

And then the four of them were off, marching for the door and the cold.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Chapter Thirteen: Stand Not Idle(Part Two)



"Oh, hey, roc." Theron Greenhaven adjusted his cloak as Belthor entered their dorm. "Was beginning to wonder what happened to you. Almost went out looking."

"I was with Tori and Sam," Belthor explained.

"Ah."

"Do you have plans?" the initiate asked, glancing at Theron's dark clothes and taking an experimental sniff of cologne-scented air.

"One of the things, roc, is that you always have plans," his roommate replied. "It makes you seem like a busy man with much to do. The ladies love that."

"I'll take your word for it," Belthor replied, though that sounded about the opposite of what he thought logical. "Are you saying you have plans for real, or are they illusory plans?"

"I have a study group," Theron replied, which reminded Belthor that the senior did, in fact, take classes when he had free time from romancing the local female population.

"Oh." He shifted his weight. "Well-"

"What?" Theron turned, eyes darkening from their usual cheer. "Roc? You look like something's bothering you."

Belthor hesitated. "You heard that Yvette disappeared?"

Theron nodded. "Terrible. I like Yvette."

"Well..." Belthor took a breath. "Someone saw where she went."

"Really?" Theron frowned. "You planning on doing something with that knowledge?"

"Theron, I was wondering..." Belthor sighed. "It's me, Agnete, Sam and Tori. We could use your help."

"You're breaking a bunch of rules," Theron observed. "Students are allowed to wander, but chasing things like this is a matter for the Masters and the Greenhaven family."

"That's just it," Belthor said. "You're a Greenhaven."

"Wow," Theron deadpanned. "My whole life has been a lie."

"If you come with us, that makes it legitimate," Belthor said.

"You know, I really should report what you're planning to Master Protec, in all honesty," Theron said. He adjusted his cuffs. "I'm not the Baron, roc: that would be my father. If I go with you, I just create a legal debate."

"Theron, I have to do this," Belthor said. "I can't just leave Yvette."

The senior eyed him for a long moment, until he finally sighed and adopted a resigned expression. "You're a troublemaker."

"So, you'll-"

"No." Theron shook his head. "I have a study group, I have a date, I have homework, and at some point I have to sleep. I've got a lot on my plate, and honestly I think I'd be more of a hindrance to you than anything if you did catch up with Yvette's kidnappers." He picked up his staff. "I'm not but so good with this thing."

"I need all the help I can get," Belthor protested. "And you're a senior."

"I'm sorry." Theron shrugged. "I can't. But I won't tell anyone where you've gone or why - I'm no rat. And if you're not back by the time it gets late, I'll know where you went. And I can do something about it." He mustered a smile. "Believe me, roc. I know you did some pretty cursed stuff in Rosa. And if what I heard about that thing the other night is true, you kicked some major Owned rear. I'm more likely to hurt you than the other team in a fight." He shrugged. "Potions aren't exactly a combat magic."

Belthor sighed. "I guess you're right. I just thought that since you're a senior-"

"We train in many things here, roc," Theron said. "Not every wizard is a butt-kicking name-taking magic-powered war machine like Master Kulkas. Like I said, I like potions, and I like history, and I like Gifted studies."

"Do you have a Gift?" Belthor asked. Theron shrugged.

"Haven't found it, if I do," he said, voice light. "I keep trying, though." He laughed. "Imagine if I could shoot lightning like Sam. I'd have to stop saying I'm a noncombatant, huh?"

"Yeah." Belthor mused about Sam and lightning for a moment. "Well, I wish you'd change your mind. We could use you."

"No. You couldn't." Theron shook his head. "I'd slow you down, more than you know." He patted Belthor's shoulder. "I'm rooting for you, though."

"Thanks." The initiate took a breath. He turned and reached for his coat, then paused. Frowning, he stuck his hand out.

The coat twitched, like the wind had picked it up for a moment. It slipped off its perch on the arm of their couch, falling in a pile on the floor.

"Getting there," Theron encouraged. "You'll have it down soon."

"I hope." Belthor summoned his staff with much less difficulty, and made a flicking motion with the tool. That flung his coat into the air, where it opened its sleeves and slid onto his arms easily. "Let's hope we both have successful nights."

"Oh, I know I will," Theron said cheerfully. He adjusted his collar. "And I have nothing but faith in you either."

***

Agnete clutched her bookbag as she walked through the campus, trying to seem for all the world like the infernal warmth wasn't choking her and boiling her inside her own skin. How humans found this pleasant was beyond her, even if she understood things like body temperature and physiological differences.

A Summer drow would be at home here, she thought. They live in volcanoes. Even a Spring or Autumn might not find this heat stifling. She wiped her brow. I am none of those.

And then there was the door ahead, and Agnete gasped in relief as chill washed over her exposed skin. She rather wished she could strip her coat, but she knew no human would accept without question one of their own running about practically unprotected against temperatures that veered into the negative on their scales.

"I like snow," she muttered, as her boots sunk into it. She glanced up at the rapidly setting sun in the sky overhead. "Snow is home."

She hurried into the brush, ignoring the footpaths that were practically invisible under the snow. She couldn't even see any footprints on them, and supposed no one truly cared for the things. Typical of humans to build such convoluted and purposeless pathways.

"No, Agnete," she told herself. "Keep an open mind. Be like Belthor. He has an open mind." She ran his name through her head, frowning as she pictured the letters and the boy alike as accurately as she could. "B-E-L-T-H-O-R." Two syllables. Bel and thor. The O in thor was hard, like or, which made sense. But why were there not two Ls in his name? Bel and bell should not sound exactly the same. What would be the point of the second L if they did?

"Open mind," she reminded herself. "I imagine there's a story to that."
She approached the little brick...it wasn't a wall. It was a drop, about as high as her waist, shrouded in the shade of the trees and bushes on all sides. Agnete idly noted the absolute swarm of footprints going through the area toward Dorm Six and off toward the Hall of Honors.

"Terrible pathways," she muttered to herself. She paused a moment later, as her eyes fixed on something else in the snow.

It must be the new year already. She knelt, setting her bag down, to reach out and fondle the first bulbs of snowdrops growing in the shade. A smile touched her lips.

"I like snowdrops," she murmured. "Snowdrops. S-N-O-W-D-"

"Oh, hey. It's the spelling bee champion."

Agnete jumped. She looked up the rise, pulling her hands back as she saw Hastel Greenhaven and a collection of four or five additional students, all with staffs and bags of books.

"Hello," she said, trying very hard not to be flustered. She claimed her bag quickly. "I was just...hello. I like flowers. Hello, Hastel - I said that already!" She fidgeted, trying to bite her tongue, but she couldn't stop herself. "H-A-S-"

"You weren't kidding," one of Hastel's friends observed. "She really does spell everything."

"What?" Agnete blinked. "I...this is not my first language." She looked around, hoping to see Tori, Sam, Belthor or Master Kulkas. "I was on my way back to my dorm. Excuse me."

"Why hasn't she got a staff?" another of Hastel's friends asked. Terribly rude, Agnete thought, since she was standing right there.

"She almost froze half the diner without one," Hastel said. "Maybe they're afraid she'll freeze the school."

"Please. May I pass?" Agnete glanced at the rise, gauging whether she could slip by.

"How'd you make the ice?" Hastel asked. "What kind of Gift have you got?"

"It...it is a Gift," Agnete said, trying very hard to keep her cool without cooling Hastel. Again. "A Gift is a Gift. I...I do not know that I can explain much further."

"Bet you'd be right at home with drow," Hastel said, which made Agnete tense. He snickered. "Ice-spitter like you."

"May I pass?" Agnete asked. Almost pleaded, really: she felt her veins chilling. "Please, I would like to get inside where it is warm." She almost meant it.

"Sure, sure." Hastel extended his hand. "Here. Let me help you up."

"...really?" Agnete asked. Hastel nodded.

"Since I was poking fun at you. Only nice and all." There was a glimmer of mirth in his eyes.

Do not trust him, the voice of Agnete's uncle rasped in her mind. He will use this against you. He is only human.

Keep an open mind, she imagined Belthor or Master Kulkas telling her. Be reasonable. The people here are kinder than Uncle implied.

"Thank you." She extended her hand and took his. He twitched at her touch.

"You have cold fingers." He pulled, and she braced a foot on top of the drop.

"Yes, I was in the snow-"

"Oops!" Hastel's grip vanished, and Agnete tumbled backward with a cry. She hit the snow and sunk in, almost completely, landing on her bookbag. She clutched her shoulder.

"What was that for?" she demanded, pushing herself up while Hastel and his friends roared with laughter. Several of them clapped his hand.

"Just a joke. A prank, lighten up." Hastel offered his hand again. "For real, this time. Come on."

"No." Agnete swept up her bag and boosted herself up the rise herself.

"Not very polite, are you?" Hastel asked. Agnete blinked.

"You just dropped me in the snow, and you are asking this question?" She wasn't certain she'd heard him right. Maybe this was a colloquialism? Something lost in translation?

It must have been, because Hastel and his friends started snickering. "Odd duck," one whispered, which mainly upset Agnete because she had never seen a "duck" and only vaguely knew what one was. A bird, she thought. A predatory bird? Or was it the flightless one with the long legs? There were so many creatures outside of the North that she couldn't keep them all straight.

"I am not flightless," she replied, cool with irritation as she picked the one she was fairly sure was the duck. "Nor do I bury my head in the sand!"

Hastel and his group erupted into laughter. Agnete twitched. "What is funny?"

"She..." Hastel seemed unable to continue past that. He nearly doubled over, howling with mirth.

"I do not like being laughed at," Agnete said, but she resigned herself to no reasonable answer being provided.

Humans, her uncle's voice told her again. What do you expect? You're a joke to them.

Keep an open mind, she told herself, very sternly. Open mind, Snowdrop. Let them laugh. At least you have spread cheer. Trying very hard to focus on that thought, she turned and made her way off toward Tori and Sam's dorm.

Her open mind didn't stop Hastel's laughter from cutting like a knife.