Author's Note: If you like this story and don't want to wait on periodic updates, the complete novel is now available as a Kindle ebook from Amazon. Just go to www_amazon_com/dp/B00KZ41LHM , or go to the main page and search books for "Fimbulwinter, by E. William Brown".

I probably would have said no, if I hadn't just had the most epically bad week of my life.

It started out well enough. My team had been working round the clock on our current software project, and on Monday we finally delivered the first release candidate to QA. Granted it was just a project management app for the company's oilfield operations, but it was still a good feeling to know we were closing in on the finish line.

Like a lot of software projects the original estimates had been wildly overoptimistic, and what was originally supposed to be a ten-month project was now in its fifteenth month. But another few weeks of bug fixing would see it finally finished, and we all agreed it was going to be nice not to have our managers riding us to work sixty-hour weeks anymore.

On Tuesday management announced that they were pulling the plug on the project. It was too far over budget, and apparently the executives didn't believe us about being almost done. So the last year and a half of my work got flushed down the drain because some pointy-headed boss wanted to cover his ass. Needless to say, I was not a happy camper.

On Wednesday they announced that the whole team was being laid off. The company had decided to outsource future development to some outfit in India that was already happily making impossible promises about future costs and delivery dates. Most likely they'd just bill lots of hours and deliver crappy code for as long as the company was dumb enough to keep paying. But whatever happened, it wasn't my problem anymore.

I had a month of severance pay coming, which was one nice thing about being a senior developer instead of one of the junior guys. But the layoff was effective immediately, and security was on hand to oversee the whole team as we packed up our cubicles and turned over our company laptops before being escorted out of the building. Wouldn't want some disgruntled employee doing something nasty to the network, after all. It was barely afternoon when I found myself unexpectedly on the road home, wondering what I was going to tell Amanda.

I needn't have bothered. I opened the door of my little suburban home to find my wife of three years bent over the couch being enthusiastically serviced by some guy I didn't even recognize.

Needless to say, there ensued a great deal of shouting.

You might think that a woman would be ashamed to be caught cheating like that, but Amanda's rationalization skills proved equal to the occasion. While stud-boy made his retreat she loudly proclaimed that her actions were all my fault because I worked too much, didn't spend enough money on her and generally failed to deliver happiness to her on a silver platter.

I actually had to leave the room so I wouldn't punch the bitch. But that turned out to be a bad idea, since it gave her a minute to call the police and give them some sob story about a domestic disturbance. In our enlightened state the police take such calls very seriously - the current policy is that the male on the scene is automatically arrested regardless of circumstances, just in case he turns out to be a spouse abuser or something. So the last I saw of Amanda was her smug expression as they hauled me off for a night in jail.

Ever been a white, male office worker in a holding tank full of vandals, petty thieves and drug pushers who've been taught all their lives to blame their problems on 'racists'? Yeah, that was a lot of fun. It's a good thing the guys in the overnight cell all think they'll get out in the morning if they behave themselves, or I'd have come out with worse than a split lip and a few bruises.

But I couldn't go home, because the restraining order was served before I even got out of the building.

Surprised? I certainly was. I always thought you needed some sort of finding of imminent danger to get one of those things. But no, apparently my being arrested on a domestic disturbance call was enough to get the judge to rubber-stamp the application. Good thing I'd had my wallet on me when I was arrested, or I'd have really been in trouble.

I managed to find a lawyer and get an appointment for the following day, since things were obviously going to get messy at this point. But the news wasn't getting any better. He told me Amanda would almost certainly get the house, which I'd almost finished paying for, along with half our assets and two or three years of spousal support. Oh, and add in another twenty or thirty grand for legal expenses. Good thing we didn't have kids.

I was halfway back to the motel from that meeting when some drunk asshole in a pickup truck blew through a red light and broadsided me.

So Friday night found me lying in a hospital bed with a broken arm, three broken ribs, a concussion and more bruises than a professional boxer after a tough match. They were probably going to let me go in the morning, but my car was totaled and so was my phone. I was desperately trying to think of someone whose phone number I could remember, and who might not actually believe the stories Amanda was apparently spreading about what a violent douchebag I was, when things suddenly got even more surreal.

"Well, you certainly don't look like much. I suppose I'll have to throw in some instant healing if we can make a deal. Will you bargain with me, Daniel Black?"

The voice was female, cool and controlled with an undercurrent of sarcastic black humor. I looked up, and felt my jaw drop.

You know how the actresses they cast to play badass babes in action movies never quite pull it off? How no matter how hard they try, most of them tend to look like pretty girls playing at being tough?

My visitor could've showed them how it's done.

She was a sleek, statuesque woman of Mediterranean complexion and unearthly beauty, with dark hair and eyes like pools of living shadow. She carried herself with the casual confidence of someone who knows they're the most dangerous thing in the building, an impression that was further enhanced by the fact that her outfit seemed to consist entirely of black leather and knives.

I would've wondered how she got them past hospital security if not for the fact that she was slightly translucent, about a foot tall, and floating in the air above my bed.

For a split second I wondered if I was losing it. But no, people crazy enough to have detailed hallucinations aren't normally lucid enough to wonder about their own sanity. Besides, assuming things are real is generally a lot safer than assuming they aren't.

I closed my mouth, and took a deep breath.

"That would be nice. What are we bargaining about?"

She huffed. "Those idiot Aesir have finally started Ragnarok on a world a few octaves down from this one, and my last living worshipper is in trouble. I need someone to rescue the silly girl so she can grow up and make some converts, and my divinations tell me you're the best option I can reach in time. Will you bargain with me? I need a yes or no on that one, please. Rules of magic."

"Um, sure. Yes. But why me? I'm not exactly a mighty-thewed warrior here."

"I despise warriors," she sniffed. "Give me a wizard or a clever rogue any day of the week. That's why I'm looking here. There's a quirk of the relationship between worlds that will allow me to grant you sorcerous powers during the journey if you agree, without any great cost to myself. So that's my first offer to you. Healing for your injuries, and as much magical power as you can seize for yourself, in return for protecting my worshipper Cerise for as long as she remains my only worshipper."

This was so unreal. But as far as I could tell it was actually happening. I tried to think. What do you ask for when a mysterious woman offers to pay you for a mission to a fantasy world?

"What kind of magic are we talking about?" I asked cautiously. "And who are you, anyway?"

"I am Hecate. But don't be too quick to judge me by my reputation. The victors write the histories, and what do you think the people of Afghanistan or Ukraine will say about America in a hundred years? I'm a nightmare to my enemies, but my own people have no cause to fear me."

"As for the magic… damn, you have no magic at all on this world? But a million speculations, so at least there's something to work with. A 'sorcery' is an instinctive command of any one thing that you can conceptualize as an element. When I drag you through the interspace the energies there will fill you and be channeled by your thoughts, giving you whatever sorcery you focus on. Depending on how quick your wits are you should have time to grab three or four elements at a much higher level than human sorcerers normally get."

"Now quickly, I need an answer. Cerise and her coven-mate are under attack, and we're running out of time."

I hesitated. "Maybe. You said Ragnarok. How do we survive the end of the world?"

"Hah! It's the end of the Aesir, not the world. Flee the northlands and find a hiding place in the south, retreat to the faerie realms, leave the world, hell you could join Loki's army for all I care. A world in chaos is full of opportunity for a man with power. But if you need another carrot, we can shorten the term of your agreement. Protect Cerise for a year and a day, and we will bargain again if she still needs your help. Do we have an agreement?"

I looked around at the hospital room, and thought about what I had to look forward to in the life I was living now. Then I thought about a world full of people in danger, and two witches I didn't know who were probably about to be eaten by orcs or something.

"What the hell. I'll do it."

She let out a sigh of relief. "Excellent! Thank you, Daniel. Do your work well, and I may have other offers for you in the future. Now, let's get this show on the road before it's too late. Just focus on the elements you want, one at a time. No one has ever done this for someone from a world like yours, and I'm counting on you to make good use of it. But you're dropping right into battle, so don't forget to take something you can fight with!"

I opened my mouth to ask for more details on that, but the room dissolved around me before I could speak. Then I was tumbling through a roaring technicolor maelstrom, and a shock like lightning jolted through me.

"Focus!" Hecate's voice sounded urgently in my ear. "Now! You have to give the power an outlet, or it'll tear you apart."

Fear is a great motivator. I gathered my wits and tried to concentrate. An element. I needed an element. An easy one to start with. Earth.

Cold, solid stone and warm, fertile earth. The essence of endurance, but it could be shaped in so many ways. Understanding blossomed from nowhere, along with a power unlike anything I'd felt before. It was instinctive, as easy as breathing, and it grew rapidly as I concentrated. Crystallizing around the concept of 'Earth' as I understood it, manifesting new applications as they flickered through my subconscious.

But a mighty earth mage with no other abilities would be a tad limited, and I didn't know how long I had to do this. I couldn't even think about anything else for more than a split second without risking diverting the process to some other element that might prove useless. Fortunately I've played more than my share of fantasy role-playing games, so I wasn't starting from scratch figuring this out. If this was the character creation screen of a new computer game, what would I look for?


Because I wasn't about to get stuck in a fantasy world without some kind of magical healing, and that was the best way I could see to conceptualize it as an element. I was afraid for a moment that it wouldn't work, but whatever force was behind this process was happy to reduce the dizzying complexity of living organisms to an elemental representation just as it had the quantum-mechanical complexity of solid matter a moment ago. Viewed as an element flesh could be created or shaped just like stone, but it was transformations I was really after. Dying to healthy, poisoned to purified, diseased to... well, minus one type of microorganism, since removing them all would be bad.

The fact that I know a bit about biology seemed to help the process along, forming a scaffolding on which magic-born abilities and senses could anchor themselves. There was no time to be methodical about it, so I frantically wracked my brain for every type of physical affliction, enhancement or transformation I'd ever heard of. A lot of the crazy stuff didn't stick, but I could feel all sorts of odd bits and pieces accreting here and there.

"Halfway there!" Hecate's voice warned me.

No more of that, then. What next?

Force. A wonderfully flexible concept, if you think of it as a way of controlling kinetic energy. Force fields and force blades. Telekinesis fields. Levitation and flight. A solid basis for battle magic, with endless utility applications.

Fire. Just for a moment, because I've read enough Norse mythology to know that Ragnarok is supposed to be preceded by Fimbulwinter, and I'd feel really stupid if I ended up freezing to death. Enough to ignite flammables and conjure balls of fire, maybe a few other minor tricks. Good enough.

Then it was time for a real exploit.

My last element was mana. The stuff magic is made of. A fundamental force of nature, obviously unknown to modern physics, but there must be some relationship to the Standard Model there or I wouldn't be able to exist in the same universe as Hecate. Understanding blossomed as I focused on the concept. The nature of magic, its relationship to the other fundamental forces, how spells work, why they wear off, how to embed them permanently into objects. More insights and abilities coalesced faster than I could pay attention to them, just like with the other elements.

Then it was over, and I found myself sprawled across a hard stone floor.

"Thank you, Lady Hecate!" A female voice said excitedly. "I hope you're ready for a fight, Champion. I don't think Avilla can hold off the goblins much longer, let alone the troll."

I picked myself up and looked around, to find that I was apparently in a cellar. There was a stone altar covered with candles and mystic bric-a-brac next to me, and an elaborate pentagram inscribed in the floor around me. But a good third of the room was taken up by a pile of boxes, a row of shelves covered with jars, and a forest of strange objects hanging from the ceiling that I realized after a moment were mostly strings of vegetables.

I was being addressed by a slender teenage girl with a long mane of coal-black hair, and a face that could easily have graced the cover of a fashion magazine. She wore a simple wool dress that was stained liberally with blood, and held a long silver knife in her left hand.

"You must be Cerise," I said, realizing as I did that I wasn't speaking English. Well, I'd think about that later.

"That's me. Wait, why are you naked?"

I looked down and confirmed that, yes, apparently my hospital gown hadn't made the trip. On the good side, at least my injuries seem to be gone as well. Even the cast and bandages had disappeared.

"Blame Hecate," I shrugged. "She said you were under attack?"

Cerise nodded impatiently. "Yes, but please save my coven-sister too. She's been upstairs trying to distract them while I did the summoning ritual."

There was an amazing commotion going on overhead. I could hear high-pitched voices screaming and shouting, heavy thumps and the sound of breaking wood, a bewildering array of footsteps running around the wooden floor above us, and a roar from something big and angry.

Oh, and I smelled smoke. A lot of it.

"Stay behind me," I told her. "I'll do what I can."

I rushed up the narrow wooden stairs, fumbling for my magic. Fortunately using it was as easy as I'd hoped, taking no more effort than moving an arm I hadn't had before. I threw a force shield around myself just in time, as I found myself entering the kitchen of a cozy little house that was rapidly being reduced to broken debris.

There were ugly little green guys that had to be goblins everywhere, fighting a pitched battle against an army of animated kitchen utensils and furnishings that obviously didn't appreciate their presence. The window over the sink, which I was surprised to see was glass, had been smashed open to admit a steady stream of the creatures. Their entry was contested by a platoon of gingerbread men armed with knives and forks, but the goblins seemed to be getting the better of their opponents.

A huge hole had been smashed through the inner wall of the kitchen, revealing a living room where an animated couch and several armchairs were gamely trying to prevent a hulking mass of green muscle from cornering a buxom young blonde who I assumed must be the other witch. Another swarm of gingerbread men ran around the troll's shoulders, stabbing and hacking at it to little effect.

Oh, and half of the kitchen was on fire. Apparently the troll had gotten angry at the oven at some point, and there'd been a fire lit at the time. The flames had already spread to both the floor and ceiling, so the whole house would probably go soon.

One of the goblins stabbed me with its spear while I was still taking in the scene, so it was a good thing I'd put up that force field. Its weapon just slid off the barrier, although a slight tug at my magic told me there was a limit to how many attacks I could repel like that. Better make sure they didn't get the chance to find a way past my defenses.

I projected an invisible blade of force from one outstretched finger, and flicked it down to cut the goblin in half. The result was every bit as gory as a hardcore slasher movie, and my stomach clenched. I did my best to ignore it as I strode into the room.

Two more goblins met their end in quick succession, before they realized I had an invisible weapon. After that they switched to dodging, although the constant interference from the house's enchanted defenders hampered their movements badly. Several arrows bounced off my shield, and I kicked one goblin into the fire when he got a little too close.

"Avilla! Over here!" Cerise called urgently from behind me. "Cavalry's here!"

The goblins bounced around the room like little green monkeys, and one of them tried to dart around me to get at her. But I threw up a barrier to halt its progress in midair, and then Cerise flicked something that looked like a writhing blob of shadows at it. It went down screaming and clutching itself.

Avilla stumbled, and an overstuffed chair leaped over her to intercept a blow from the troll's massive club. The impact reduced the chair to kindling, but it gave her a moment to scramble across the room and get behind me. Then I was face to face with the troll.

The thing was built like a tank, its hunched back brushing the ceiling two feet above my head. Judging from the hole in the side of the house behind it and the general devastation around me I had no doubt it could crack my shield in short order if I gave it the chance.

I threw a force blade at it as it raised its club, but the invisible projectile just left a shallow gash across its chest. I dodged left as the club came down, and slashed awkwardly at its arm with another force blade.

It roared, and brought the club around in a lightning-fast blow that sent me careening through an end table and into the wall. Wood and brick crumbled around me, and my mana level sank alarmingly.

Ok, so it wasn't clumsy. I threw a spray of pointed force bolts at it as I stumbled back to my feet, hoping to keep it at bay while I figured out how to kill it. But the thing just bared its teeth and charged through them to get at me.

I jumped this time, flinging myself against the ceiling with a burst of force magic in the hope that it wouldn't expect such a maneuver. Sure enough the club smashed into the wall instead of me, but then I found my face inches away from a mouth big enough to bite off my whole head in one gulp.

I breathed fire into the troll's face.

That actually discouraged it. It stumbled back, dropping the club to claw at its face. I hit it with another ball of fire, and dropped to the floor just in time to avoid a blind swing of its clawed fists. That put me at eye level with something that might actually be vulnerable, so I stabbed a blade of force into its oversized privates.

This time its roar was more in pain than rage. The hand over its face came down to clutch at the wound, and for a few seconds it actually stood still. Unfortunately a crowd of goblins chose that moment to jump me all at once, beating wildly at my shield with little swords and axes as they clung to me. I tripped and went down in a heap, and more goblins piled on.

Something struck the magic of my shield, clawing at it and trying to pull it apart. It wasn't terribly strong, but it was yet another distraction I didn't have time for. I reached for fire again, surrounding both hands in balls of flame that I waved frantically at my attackers. Several of them caught fire, which sent them running around the room in a panic. But there were too many of them, and I could feel my shield wavering as the attacking magic ate away at it.

Fuck this. Time to kick it up a notch.

I let go of the shield, knowing it would take a few seconds to dissolve, and focused all my concentrating on forming a ball of whirling saw blades just outside of it. The elaborate force construct took far more effort than a simple blade, and was slower to form.

But I was rewarded by a chorus of shrieks and screams, and a shower of blood raining through the gaps in my failing shield. In a matter of seconds the goblins who'd been trying to dogpile me were reduced to shredded meat. The wooden floor beneath me and a post behind me came apart as well, and the house groaned ominously.

I levitated myself before I could fall through to the cellar, and looked around. Most of the room was ablaze now, and the troll was staggering towards the hole it had made coming in.

"Oh, no you don't."

I launched myself towards it, hoping my sphere of blades would deal with it as effectively as the goblins. Unfortunately it wasn't quite that easy, as the troll's flesh proved considerably tougher than wood. Instead the thing's right shoulder and part of its back were badly shredded, but my spell collapsed as the unexpected resistance drained it of power faster than I could supply more.

I lurched away, noting that it was damned cold outside the house. The night was lit by the glow of burning timber, and there were more goblins lurking about the yard and garden. Beyond that the plot was surrounded on all sides by dense forest, which could easily be hiding hundreds of the little buggers.

An arrow grazed my side, and I threw up another shield with a curse. At least now I had some room to work with, but how was I going to take out that many goblins?

Obviously I wasn't. But maybe intimidation would work instead.

I dropped to the snow-covered ground in the middle of the front yard, and saw that just as I'd feared the troll's wounds were already closing. It had left its club back inside, but when it saw me it growled angrily and ripped a beam out of the porch to replace the lost weapon. The house groaned again, and the beast rushed towards me.

As it stepped off the porch I turned the ground between us into mud six feet deep.

The troll's first step sunk a foot into the sucking muck, and tripped it. It went down face-first with a tremendous splash, and immediately began thrashing about trying to get a handhold to climb out. I gave it a few seconds to get good and stuck, and then turned the mud into stone.

A couple of arrows bounced off my shield, but I ignored them.

The troll strained, but now it was pinned with both arms and two thirds of its body stuck in a solid mass of rock. I walked up to its head, and conjured a sledgehammer made entirely of stone that probably weighed forty pounds. I used a bit of force magic to augment my muscles as I lifted it over my head, and brought it down.

The first blow cracked the troll's skull, but it took two more to properly cave it in. I wasn't sure if even that would be enough, so I pried it open and roasted the tiny brain inside with a sustained jet of flame.

Then I turned to regard the goblins who'd been plinking arrows at me, and raised the gore-streaked hammer.

"Who's next?" I growled.

They ran.

"Fuck, yeah! Look at the little bastards go. I like your style, Champion."

I turned to find a pair of battered and bruised young witches regarding me from the doorway of the burning house. Cerise had a goblin arrow stuck in her shoulder, and Avilla was bleeding from several nasty gashes on her arms, but they were both on their feet. Cerise had acquired a second silver knife from somewhere, while Avilla held a bloody meat cleaver in one hand and clutched a massive tome against her substantial chest.

Cerise was wide-eyed and flushed, giving me a half-crazed look I couldn't quite read. Avilla, on the other hand, wore a fierce expression of defiance that somehow reminded me of a kitten. She was so adorable I just wanted to bundle her up and keep her safe forever, and never mind the bloody meat cleaver.

"You're not bad yourself," I replied wearily. "My name's Daniel, by the way. Daniel Black."

"Well met, Daniel of the Blacks. May we shed oceans of blood together."


"Thank you for saving us, Mr. Black," Avilla put in. "But I have to ask what Cerise offered for your help? Should I be prepared for a ravishing?"

She seemed more amused than worried, so I chuckled.

"I think the ravishing had better wait until we aren't going to be interrupted by another monster attack," I said dryly. "Besides, the house is on fire."

She turned to look up at it, and nodded gravely. "Poor thing. It was granny's home, but it was always nice to me. I tried to stop the shamans from killing it, but between the four of them and the troll it was just too much. I don't suppose you can put out the fire?"

I glanced around at the snow-covered clearing, and then eyed the blazing roof. "I think the house is done for regardless, but a chance to salvage supplies would be good. Let me see what I can do."

Quenching fires was normally a simple task, easily within even my minimal command of fire magic. But this was too big to put out all at once, and house fires can be tricky. I took a deep breath, made sure my shield was stable, and stepped past them into a living room that was rapidly filling up with smoke.

I put out the floor and burning furniture easily enough, but as I worked on the walls the floor began smoldering again. Was the basement on fire too?

I cut away a circular section of floor with a force blade and stepped back, carefully holding the disk of wood in place until I was well away from the hole. Sure enough, tongues of flame leaped up around the edges when I moved it.

So I had to drop into the basement, put that out, and then gradually work my way up. It took fifteen minutes before I got all the fires out, and by the time I stumbled back out the door I was hacking and coughing from the smoke despite having healed myself twice. I collapsed next to the girls, and took a deep breath.

"Are you alright?" Avilla asked mildly. Her arms were bandaged now, and she was carefully extracting the barbed arrow from Cerise's shoulder. I couldn't help but notice how adroitly she wielded the little knife she was using for the task. Cerise looked a little pale, but she was enduring the treatment as stoically as anyone could have.

Avila paused to hand me a spare cloak, and I gratefully covered myself up. It wasn't enough, but it ought to keep me from getting frostbite in uncomfortable places for the moment.

"Yeah, I'm just running low on mana," I reassured her. "Need to catch my breath a minute and let my lungs heal. But the fire's out, so as soon as the smoke clears you two can go back in and collect whatever you need.

She set the arrowhead aside and paused. "You have healing sorcery? Should I be letting you do this? I was just going to sterilize it and sew it shut."

"Hmm. Let me take a look at it."

I leaned over and put my hand over the wound, reaching out with new senses. Yes, I could shape the wound closed easily enough. That didn't completely repair the damage, but with proper encouragement it would be good as new in a few hours. Interestingly I noted that there was already some sort of innate magic working to heal the girl's wounds, or at least... hmmm... was it just making sure they wouldn't scar? Interesting.

"Your magic is warm," Cerise murmured. "Kind of naughty, running all through me like that. Feel anything you like?"

"Ahem. Yes, I think you'll be fine now. Avilla, how about you?"

"I'll be alright," she said a little nervously. "Anyway, don't we have other things to worry about? What are we going to do?"

Was she worried about me discovering some secret if I used healing on her? Well, whatever. She was right, so I could let her keep her secrets for the moment.

"Well, I promised Hecate I'd protect Cerise here for a year and a day, and that covers starving and freezing to death as well as monster attacks. She also told me this is the beginning of Ragnarok, so I think we'd better assume the goblins will be back with friends."

They both grimaced. "I was afraid it was something like that," Avilla commented. "It never snows this early in the year, and it's been coming down for a week now."

I frowned. "Do you two have anywhere to go?

"My mentor died of old age three years ago," Cerise said. "She and Avilla's granny were good friends, so I've been staying here ever since. I don't really know anyone else. Witches aren't exactly popular with the mundanes, you know."

"I've never even left the woods," Avilla admitted. "Granny wouldn't let me go past the yard unless I was running errands with her, and after... after she died, we've just been trying to avoid notice. I know there's a village a few miles down the path, but I don't know if it would be any safer than here."

Cerise snorted. "Hah. Tyler's Grove doesn't even have a palisade, let alone a real wall, and the sheriff and a few retired armsmen are the only people there who can fight worth a damn. Besides, I saw smoke from that direction yesterday. They probably got hit before we did."

I sighed. "Well, we need information at the very least, and big guys with swords are always handy to have around when something is trying to eat you. Is there a castle or walled settlement anywhere in the area?"

"Lanrest has a wall," she said after a moment's thought. "That's about thirty miles down the road from Tyler's Grove, though. It could be a rough trip, especially if the weather keeps getting worse."

"Will we be any safer with people than monsters?" Avilla asked doubtfully. "Worshipping the old gods will get us burned alive if anyone finds out."

"Well, obviously we won't tell anyone you two are witches," I pointed out. "But I assume you have wizards or sorcerers or something like that here?"

"A few sorcerers, and every kingdom has at least one guild for wizards," Cerise nodded.

"Ok. How about we say I'm a traveling wizard, and you two are my apprentices? Any leader with a brain is going to want all the magical help he can get in a situation like this. With any luck we can find a tough group to join up with or a castle that wants a healer on hand."

"I like that idea," Cerise agreed. "No one is going to wonder why a wizard your age has a couple of sexy young girls with him, and then they'll ignore us completely."

Avilla brightened. "Good point. Oh, and if people notice anything strange about us we'll just imply that our 'master' uses us for experiments."

"Hey now, don't go making me out to be an evil nutjob," I put in. "Desperate people will overlook a lot, but if they think I'm a danger to their own daughters they're liable to do something about it."

They two witches shared a look at that, and broke into giggles.

"If they only knew," Cerise chuckled, slipping her good arm around Avilla's waist. "We're the ones their daughters are in danger from."

"Better they don't find out," Avilla chided, leaning into her. "At least, not until after we've infected them with our wicked ways."

Ah, so that's how it was. Well, they were certainly cute together.

"Well, it sounds like we have a plan. So we need gear for hiking in snow and camping in the open, enough food to last a week or so, and whatever supplies you two need for your magic. Plus any portable valuables you can lay hands on, of course.

The both nodded, and rose to their feet.

"Right. Come on Cerise, our brave protector can keep watch while we pack."