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I woke to find myself sandwiched between two sleeping witches. Avilla was cuddled against my right side, her head on my shoulder and one arm draped over my chest. Cerise was curled up in a ball to my left, her face buried against my side, with my arm around her.

I blinked at them stupidly for a few moments, before memories of the previous night's activities caught up with me. Two girls. Two beautiful, eager, playful and rather kinky girls. Who were witches, and seriously involved with each other.

Part of me wanted to thank Hecate for bringing me here, but another part was already worried about just how badly this could go wrong. Less than a week since I got burned by Amanda, and these two were more dangerous than she could ever hope to be.

Of course, they also hadn't made any demands of me. Maybe this was intended as a one-time thing? Or they just wanted to experiment with a man? Or maybe it was just a reaction to the stress and danger of the last few days? I'd read that was supposed to be pretty common.

I always overanalyze these things. Maybe I should just quit worrying and go with it?

A faint odor of cooking meat wafted by, and Avilla twitched. A frown crossed her face, and then her eyes flew open.

"Breakfast!" She exclaimed. "Oh my, I overslept!"

She sat up abruptly, and fumbled for her dress. A moment later she was stumbling towards the door, mumbling something about cooking under her breath as she smoothed down her skirt. She wrenched the heavy door open, and marched off to the hot stone.

"Beri, what are you doing? The wolf flank isn't going to sear properly unless you put oil on it first. Gudrin, don't let that batter sit so close to the heat or the hotcakes will come out all rubbery. Oh, why are you two trying to cook by yourselves anyway? Is Mother Savina up?"

I heard a chuckle, and looked down to see Cerise directing an affectionate gaze towards the door.

"Is she always like that?" I asked.

"Pretty much. I gave up trying to surprise her with breakfast in bed years ago. She won't even let me make her birthday cakes. She can't stand it when people who aren't magically perfect at it try to cook."

"Guess it's a good thing I never wanted to be a chef," I observed.

"Yeah, you've got other talents. Was that some kind of magic last night, or are you just the god of fucking me into a coma?"

Her tone was light, but the way she hugged me was pretty possessive. I couldn't help but feel smug.

"I do have a bit more experience than you two," I pointed out. "I'm thirty-six, and you're… what, maybe twenty?"

"Nineteen," she told me.

I nodded. "Right. But honesty compels me to admit it was mostly magic. I put a general-purpose healing enchantment on this amulet, and it turns out to be kind of indiscriminate about what it considers an injury."

She laughed. "Well, I'm not complaining. I haven't been fucked like that since the time I screwed up an incubus binding, and I really needed it. I had no idea how wound up I was getting."

"Screwed up an incubus binding?" I shook my head. "You must have a lot of interesting stories, Cerise."

"Yep. Keep making me feel like this and I might even share some."

She shifted to rest her head on my shoulder, her lithe body pressed firmly against my side, and sighed contentedly. I let my hand rest on her firm behind, and tried not to smirk.

"Want to get in a little quickie before breakfast?"

She smiled. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm fucked out. Tonight, maybe? If I can feel my legs by then?"

"Deal," I chuckled.

I listened to the sounds of cooking for a few minutes. It sounded like the camp was starting to wake up, although it felt like it was still pretty early. Oh yeah, peasants. They were probably used to rising with the sun.

Still, this might be a chance to get some answers. I reached out with my force magic, and pushed the door closed.

"So, last night Avilla said something about cravings?" I began.

Cerise glanced at the door, and then nodded.

"Yeah, that's probably the essence of Aphrodite talking. Avilla only has a few drops of it in her, but having your soul made from even a tiny fraction of a sex goddess' slut-bomb aspect will have a big effect on you. Ever since our first time together Avilla can't stand to go more than a few days without going down on me, and I guess she's going to be the same with guys now that she's had a taste."

She shook her head. "Granny Havsen was a real piece of work, let me tell you. Spent half her life figuring out how to make an immortal body for herself, and didn't care how many of them she killed in the process. Avilla was her big success, but she still has a lot of weird quirks we've had to figure out."

"Sounds like a classic fairy tale evil witch," I said. "I take it she didn't die of natural causes?"

"Nope. She was getting ready to put her big plan into effect, and that was going to end with her pulling a body switch on Avilla. So I locked the crazy bitch in her own oven and roasted her." Cerise paused, and gave me a nasty grin. "She screamed for a long time, but I just piled more wood on the fire. No one hurts my girl and gets away with it."

I imagined the scene, and suppressed a shudder. "She had an oven big enough to hold a person?"

Cerise nodded. "She used to catch travelers and bake out their essences for her spellwork."

"Nasty. Do you two do anything like that?"

She hesitated.

"I kill things for power," she admitted. "But only monsters. I could do it to people too, but to be honest I've always been afraid I'd turn into a monster myself if I went down that road."

"Hmm. How about Avilla?"

Cerise raised an eyebrow. "Can you really see that?"

"I've seen the way she holds that meat cleaver," I pointed out. "I think she's perfectly capable of killing someone if she thinks it needs to be done."

"Oh. Guess we didn't fool you as much as I though, huh? But no, she doesn't do that. Doesn't want to be like her granny."

"Fair enough. So, does she have any other special needs I should know about?"

"Mana," Cerise answered. "We've been doing rituals every couple of weeks to keep her power up, but if it gets too low she gets wicked horny and starts draining it through sex just like a succubus. She needs some weird stuff in her food, too. Sugar, honey, some particular spices. Obviously she takes care of that part herself, but it could be a problem if this winter really lasts for years. I don't think she can survive on just meat like we can."

"Oh, and we should both keep a close eye on her for a few days. Sometimes when we figure out how to satisfy one of these cravings there are side effects. Nothing dangerous, but she might get weird mood swings or start stalking you looking for more or something."

I chuckled. "I think I could handle that one. But yeah, I'll keep an eye out."

We lay there in silence for a moment.

"Thank you," she said softly. "For being so decent about all this. When I called on the goddess I was afraid she'd end up tying me to some demon or monster or something. But you've been really good to us both."

"You make that pretty easy," I pointed out.

"I guess. You know, Avilla's really worried about convincing you to keep protecting her. But you've already decided to do that, haven't you?"

I nodded. "I like Avilla. I'm not going to let anything happen to her."

"Good. It's been really hard, being responsible for protecting her. Not that she's as helpless as she acts, but her magic isn't much use in a fight. I've pushed myself pretty hard trying to get stronger. A lot harder than I should have, really. But I was stuck being the man for her."

She sighed, and hugged me again. "You have no idea how good it feels to have someone to rely on."

I brushed my fingers through her hair, and she rubbed her cheek against my hand.

"I won't let anything happen to you, either," I told her. "You're a little nuts, but it's a fun kind of crazy. I like having you watching my back."

"Really? Most guys would be afraid I'd stab them."

"Are you going to?" I asked her seriously.

She blinked. "I don't want to," she said hesitantly. "But some of the stuff I've picked up… don't trust me too much, Daniel. Not until we can figure out how to get it back under control, anyway."

"Fair enough. I'll put 'make Cerise's secret dark side my bitch' on the to-do list."

She gave me a wide-eyed stare, and then broke down into giggles.

"Make… your bitch… thank you, goddess! Fuck, nothing fazes you, does it? You get a blowjob for that one." She pushed the sheet down, her hand fumbling for me.

Sadly, someone chose that moment to interrupt us. The heavy door shifted slightly, and Beri peeked around the edge.

She got an eyeful, and blushed.

"Eep!" She ducked back around the door. "Sorry! I'm sorry! Miss Avilla wanted me to tell you breakfast is ready, and the sergeant is waiting to speak to you."

Cerise sighed. "Maybe having servants isn't such a good idea."

"I don't know, Miss Cerise. It sounded to me like you and Miss Avilla need reinforcements, or soon you won't be able to walk."

I chuckled, and sat up. "Well, that's one way to inflate my ego. Where'd my clothes end up?"

Breakfast was strips of wolf meat wrapped in hotcakes, with cheese and a touch of butter. It was mouthwatering as usual, and I reflected that I was going to get seriously spoiled if Avilla ever got a real kitchen to work with.

The snow had stopped some hours before, so once I was fed I headed outside to work a little miracle. Cerise followed me curiously, and Thomas detailed a couple of men to stand watch for me while I worked. I made my way down the bank of the frozen river until I found a decent stretch of flat ground to work on. There was now a good eight or ten inches of snow on the ground, enough to be a noticeable impediment to travel on foot.

"So what are you going to do, master?" Cerise asked eagerly. "Bind a troop of elementals to carry us all to Lanrest? Summon a dragon, and fly us there?"

"You'll see," I answered. "Gronir, I remember someone mentioning that Lanrest is on a river. Is this it?"

"No, milord," the hunter answered. "But the Babbleflow runs into the Summerfall a few miles down. I guess we could follow that to Lanrest, but the way the river bends all around it's a lot longer trip than the road."

"Hmm. Let me check a few things."

I called up my magic, blending three elements to create a simple stone disk enchanted to hover a few feet off the ground. This was the same repulsion effect I'd used to float a stone in my hand the day before, and it looked like it had just the properties I needed. The repulsion fell off sharply with distance, so the stone floated gently a few feet off the ground. Pushing down met with a springy resistance, as the stone was forced closer to the ground and the repulsion strengthened.

I let go, and it bobbed up and down for a few moments before coming to rest at the same height as before. Push down an edge, and it tried to right itself. Push sideways, and it glided silently across the ground like a hovercraft. Perfect.

"So, you're making floating disk things for the baggage?" Cerise frowned thoughtfully.

"Nope. Wouldn't be good enough," I pointed out. "We'd still be walking, and even if I made enough disks for all the old and wounded the rest of us would be slowed down pushing them. But you're getting there."

I concentrated, and the disk grew. This was a tricky bit of work, conjuring more stone and extending the enchantment to cover it, but as long as I took it slow I could do it. I made it self-powered so it wouldn't be a drain on my amulet's energy, and slowly expanded the disk into a rectangular shape about the size of a bus. Then I added a stone lip two feet high and a couple of inches thick around the edges, just to make sure no one would fall off. The floor of the thing was nearly four feet off the ground, so I shaped some dirt into an earth ramp leading up to one side of it.

"Neat. Ok, I can see it's big enough to hold everyone if we're friendly," Cerise commented. "But how does it move?"

"Magic," I replied. She rolled her eyes, and I grinned. Being mysterious was turning out to be fun.

Looking around, I spotted Sergeant Thomas. I'd been working for about an hour, and I suppose he was getting a little anxious.

"All ready, Sergeant," I told him. "Get everyone organized, and bring them over here. We're going to ride into town in style."

I climbed up the ramp and stepped into the floating vehicle. Considering the thickness of the stone the thing had to weigh tons, and my own weight barely affected it. Cerise ran lightly up after me, and eagerly jumped in.

"Are we going to fly?" She asked eagerly.

I chuckled. "No, this is as high as it goes. Free fight is way too tricky for me to try it with this many people involved."

Her eyes gleamed. "Does that mean you can do it by yourself? Or maybe, with one person?"

"Yeah, if I ever get a few days to work on it I'm pretty sure I can build a flight spell. Are you volunteering to try it out?"

She nodded, and leaned in to whisper in my ear. "A lot of demons can fly. I have dreams about it sometimes, and it's awesome. If you can give me that kind of magic I'll owe you some serious 'thank you' time."

"I'll keep that in mind. Why don't you see if Avilla needs any help?"

The refugees were a bit dubious about boarding a floating rock with no visible means of support, but a few brave souls crept up the ramp and cautiously took seats. Then Avilla trooped up with the maids in tow, and a couple of the soldiers followed her in, and we hit some sort of critical mass. Ten minutes later I had a fully loaded hover-barge.

"Everyone, get settled in as best you can," I directed. "You're going to be here awhile. This thing is more stable than a boat, but it's still a good idea not to move around too much. We're going to be going pretty fast, and I don't want anyone to fall off. Gronir, I want you up near the front where you can help with directions if we need it. Is everyone here?"

Nods, whispers and speculative looks. I glanced at Thomas, and he nodded.

"Took a head count, sir. No one's missing."

"Good. Let's see what kind of time we can make."

I pushed off with a bit of force magic, and the floating barge drifted slowly forward. I steered carefully, mindful of the substantial mass of the vehicle. It was like guiding a boat, only worse. With no water to sink a rudder into the only way to change direction was to shift the vector of the thrust I was applying, and even with my new amulet pushing this many tons of vehicle and refugees around took time. So I kept our speed down to a slow walk as I maneuvered us down the river bank.

After the first couple of bends I was starting to get a feel for it, and eased our pace up a little. Then we reached a spot where the ravine narrowed, and I had to steer us over the frozen river.

The thin ice beneath us shattered almost instantly, producing an alarming racket, and a spray of water sheeted out in all directions. The passengers murmured uneasily as the vehicle sank a few inches, and began to bob slightly. But the repulsion field worked on water as well as dirt, and the spray of displaced water was all moving away from us. Good thing, since getting wet in freezing temperatures is dangerous.

"We're fine," I announced loudly. "The noise is just the weight of the barge crushing the ice under us."

The passengers settled down in a few minutes, although the noise was still a bit unnerving. I pushed our speed up a little more, wanting to make sure we wouldn't be in one place long enough for anything to hear us and come investigate. We were up to running speed now, which was fast enough that I had to pay close attention to steer us around the tighter bends.

A thought struck me.

"Gronir, there aren't any falls on this river, are there?"

"Waterfalls, milord? Ain't heard of none. Don't reckon there could be. There's boatmen on the river, in summer at least."

"Good." The thought of taking this thing over a sudden drop of any size was enough to give me chills. If it flipped over anyone it landed on would be crushed, and it certainly wasn't going to float. I resolved to keep a close eye on where we were going.

Avilla and Cerise were settled in just behind me, wrapped in their warmth cloaks and chatting amiably. An occasional glance back revealed that the rest of the group was huddled under blankets in clumps of two or three, but they seemed to be holding up alright. The sky was still overcast, and I hoped we could finish this run before it started snowing again.

Then we passed around another bend in the river, and found ourselves face to face with a band of goblins who were camped out on the bank.

A hue and cry arose, but fortunately they were as surprised as we were. A couple of goblins with bows to hand let fly in our general direction, but one hit the parapet and the other somehow managed to miss us entirely. Several wolves howled, and a troll scrambled to its feet and stared stupidly at us. I threw up a force dome to protect us from further arrows, and gave the barge an extra push.

"Ready spears!" Sergeant Thomas bellowed, and the men scrambled for their weapons. A few more arrows bounced off my shield as we began to pass the camp, and for a moment I thought that would be it.

Then the troll suddenly realized there were humans on the strange floating object, and lumbered out over the ice to intercept us. Stupid thing. I attached an invisible blade of force to the front of the barge just before we struck.

The troll actually tried to grab hold and stop us, but our momentum was far too great for even its strength. The barge floated relentlessly forward, driving the force blade right through the monster's body and cutting it in half. It collapsed, and we passed over it with a thump.

Then the goblin camp was behind us, but the commotion of howling wolves and blowing horns we'd left in our wake had to be audible for miles. A dozen goblins scrambled to the backs of wolves and came bounding down the riverbank after us, catching up quickly.

Thomas cursed.

"Our archers don't have room to use their bows," he complained. "They're liable to get pitched off this thing anyway if they stand up to try it."

"I can keep their arrows from reaching us," I told him. "But it's distracting. What we really need is… ah, finally, some good luck."

The river we'd been following flowed into a larger water course, and this one was both wider and less winding than the one we'd be trapped in.

"Hold on, everyone!" I called loudly, and gave the barge a harder push.

Our acceleration was worse than an overloaded semi lumbering up a steep hill, but it was still more than my passengers were used to. A babble of voices rose up behind me as our speed crept slowly up to match that of the wolves, and kept rising. The faint breeze became a stiff wind of biting cold, and I pulled my cloak tighter.

Cerise leaned forward, wind whipping at her cloak as she gripped the parapet with both hands, and whooped excitedly.

"This is awesome!" She exclaimed. "Look at those silly wolves run. You can't catch us, smelly monsters! Our wizard is way too smart for you."

She whooped again, and a half-dozen voices joined in.

I glanced back to find that while most of the refugees were huddled miserably against the harsh wind of our passage, a number of them were reacting more like teenagers on a joyride. I caught one of the young men bending over to moon the goblins, and even several women were jeering and waving goodbye.

Avilla noticed my surprise, and leaned over to talk in my ear. "The wolf heart, remember? Now we know who it worked on."

I raised an eyebrow at that. "Is it permanent?"

She nodded. "If they want it to be. Most people will reject the wolf nature and lose the benefit in a day or two, but those that accept it will keep the power. Not that it's going to amount to much with as many ways as it was split, but a little extra bravery and vitality can go a long way."

"Can we go faster?" Cerise interrupted breathlessly.

I shook my head. "Not unless you want to go splat when we hit that bend in the river up there. I have to wrestle this thing around by brute force, and that takes time."

She turned to stare at me. "Wait, what? Are you saying your force element is so strong you can just push this thing around?"

I nodded.

A heartbeat later she'd somehow managed to slip under my cloak and plaster herself against me.

"Loki's balls, that's hot!" She purred into my ear. "I so want to fuck you right now."

I rolled my eyes. "So much for being worn out."

Avilla was close enough to hear. She giggled. "Not now, kitten. Be a good girl, and let Daniel concentrate on steering."

"Do I have to?"

Avilla giggled again. "Come here, silly thing."

She held her cloak open, and Cerise reluctantly let me go and settled into her girlfriend's lap. I wasn't sure whether to be relieved or disappointed, but it was probably for the best. I turned my attention back to our surroundings, and tried to keep an eye out for danger.

"Thomas, keep an eye on our passengers for me. We need to keep everyone sitting down, or someone's bound to fall overboard. If they land in open water and slip under the ice we'd never find them in time."

He nodded. "Yessir. Umar, Valdrin, the wizard says to sit down!"

It took him a few minutes to get things back under control, and by then the goblins were far behind us. I noticed Avilla handing Cerise's warmth cloak to Beri out of the corner of my eye, but thought nothing of it. We flew through one long, lazy curve of river and down a mile or so of straightaway, and I let the barge slow a bit. No need to take chances.

An odd sound drew my attention back to Cerise, and I saw that she was hidden up to the neck by Avilla's cloak. She was also flushed, squirming and biting her lip.

"Avilla? What are you up to?"

"I'm just making sure Cerise doesn't distract you, master," the hearth witch said piously. "I know how excitable she can be."

"Right. Insatiable is more like it. Just keep in mind we could be attacked by something else at any moment."

"Not helping," Cerise whimpered. "Danger does it for me too."

Somehow I resisted the urge to facepalm. Those two could be a lot of fun, but they definitely needed a keeper.

Some time later a column of smoke came into view ahead, which dampened the mood considerably. But at least it turned out to be another village rather than Lanrest. We eyed the smoking ruins as we passed, and I slowed the barge so we could take a good look at the scene.

"Doesn't look like giants," Thomas commented. "The buildings aren't smashed."

I frowned. "Good. But it doesn't look like goblins either. They like burning things, and most of the buildings here are intact."

He nodded. "Yessir. Looks like some cookfires got left untended after an attack, and set some of the buildings on fire. Weird thing is, if you look close it ain't just doors that are smashed open. Some windows here and there, and I see a couple spots where it looks like something just tore through a wall. Berserkers with axes might leave that kind of mess."

Cerise sat up, and eyed the ground suddenly. "Does anyone see tracks? Weird-looking ones?"

Gronir pointed. "There, by the river bank. Never seen nothing like that. Looks like a buncha giant chickens or something."

It took me a moment to find the tracks. They were pretty odd alright. A couple of feet across, with three long pointed toes. Crap. I'd seen pictures of prints like that before.

"We need to get out of here," Cerise breathed.

I nodded, and gave the barge a firm push. It was hard to judge distances without pacing it off, but the tracks looked to have something like a five or six foot stride. If the ice was thick enough to support a troll it would probably hold something that size too, and a whole pack of them would be bad news.

"What is it, sweetie?" Avilla asked quietly.

Then there was movement between two of the houses, and a long lean shape eased into view.

"Ungols," Cerise replied.

It looked a lot like the velociraptors from Jurassic Park, but the thing was easily the size of a horse. Its hide was white and grey, perfect for blending into the snow-covered terrain.

It slunk forward slowly as we pulled away, watching us closely. But apparently it didn't like the way the ice constantly cracked under the barge as it moved, because it didn't approach.

I glanced about quickly, and spotted another one on a rock on the other side of the river. As silent as they were I couldn't shake the feeling that there were more of them lurking about that I hadn't spotted. On closer examination it was obvious that they weren't actually velociraptors - their heads were longer and narrower, their forepaws were tipped with long blades instead of normal claws, and their hide was decorated with spines and ridges that had an oddly metallic look. But the general body plan was similar, and I'd certainly hate to be a normal human confronting them on foot.

Our speed rose gradually, but the tense silence lasted until we left the ruined village well behind. Then a babble of nervous voices erupted from the refugees.

"What do you know about Ungols?" I asked Cerise quietly.

"They're Cthonic beasts from the Stygian Abyss, out beyond Tarterus," she replied. "Supposedly even tougher than they look, and smart too. But they shouldn't be here. The path to their realm has been sealed since before Olympus fell. I read something once about a few of them being stuck elsewhere, enslaved to… um… I think it was some group of wizards in Muspelheim, but I could be remembering that wrong. But the Sons of Muspel are basically fire demons, so if they were here it wouldn't be so cold."

Well, the implications of that were obvious.

"Are there a lot of sealed places full of monsters like that?"

"Yeah. No one knows how many, because the gods don't like to talk about it and mortal wizards who go poking around don't usually live long. But Tarterus is some kind of nexus for portals to worlds full of monsters."

Avilla nodded. "That's why the Olympians used it as a prison. They sealed the doors to the Planes of Terror and bound the Titans in front of them, so they'd only need to watch one place."

"Hmm. Well, maybe we'll get lucky and most of the monsters will eat each other instead of coming here."

The girls exchanged nervous looks. "We can hope."

The rest of the trip was deceptively peaceful. We passed mile after mile of snow-covered field and forest, the former gradually becoming more common as we neared the town. We were moving generally south-east, and the land was becoming flatter. At one point a castle was visible in the distance, still flying a banner, but that was the only sign of civilization.

At length a walled settlement came into sight before us. A sigh of relief went through the refugees as we approached, and it became clear that the place was still held by humans. There were guards on the walls, flags flying, and even a group of wagons approaching an open but heavily guarded gate not far from the river bank.

But I noted that the walls weren't all that high, the moat was frozen, and the gates were made of wood. I could see a dozen ways for the monsters we'd been fighting to break in if the defenders ever relaxed their guard, and it wasn't that big a town. Maybe a few thousand people, if it was as crowded as I expected. I was going to have my work cut out for me if we wanted to hold the place for long.

The river bank was steep enough that I wasn't eager to try getting the barge up it, but there were docks where the town met the river. I slowed us to walking speed and carefully maneuvered towards them, looking for an empty spot. There were buildings beyond the docks, and I saw people shouting and pointing at us as we approached. A clatter of chainmail announced the arrival of troops as I carefully pulled up alongside a wooden dock, which proved to be at about the right height for us to disembark.

"People!" Someone shouted in amazement. "There's people on it!"

"Halt!" A nearer voice ordered. "Announce yourselves, strangers."

I climbed to my feet to find a dozen or so armored men clustered at the end of the dock, armed with a motley assortment of spears, swords and bows. The man addressing us was the best geared of the lot, with a pot helm and steel greaves to go with his chain hauberk.

"Daniel Black, traveling adept," I called. "These are survivors from the 5th Margold Foot, along with some of your local villagers. May we disembark?"

"A wizard, eh? Come on ashore then, sir. I'm sure the Baron will want to talk to you. What kind of infernal contraption is that thing?"

He sounded pretty dubious about it, but I suppose for all he knew it was going to start eating his men or something.

"Just a bit of earth magic," I reassured him. "It won't do anything unless I'm controlling it. We ran into a frost giant and a pack of felwolves about twenty miles upriver, and the injured weren't going to make it here on foot."

"Damn. We saw a giant the other day, those things are huge. How'd you get away?"

"The wizard killed it, and the felwolves too," Sergeant Thomas interrupted. "We wouldn't have made it back without him."

"Thomas!" The man called, obviously recognizing him. "Glad you made it. We're going to need every man the way things are going. Ah, the Captain?"

Thomas gestured at the litter two of his men were carefully raising onto the dock. "He's hurt bad, but the wizard patched him up. Says he'll be up and around in a few days."

"Hmm. I'd keep a guard on him if I were you. Alright, sir wizard, if you'll follow me? You have servants? Bring'em along. We'd best get this sorted quick."

"Alright. Let's just tie a rope to this thing so the wind doesn't blow it away."

I added a couple of loops to the parapet of the hover-barge, so we could tie it off to the dock as the rest of my party unloaded. Then Avilla motioned Beri and Tina over, and we set out following the soldier who still hadn't bothered to introduce himself. Avilla positioned herself a step behind me to my right, with the maids immediately behind her and Cerise bringing up the rear. I shot her a questioning glance as we crossed the dock and started into town, and she responded by looking nervously around and then back at me.

So, she didn't entirely trust the situation either? Good to know.

The buildings along the river seemed mostly empty, but the reason for that became apparent when we came to a wall separating the docks from the rest of the town. Beyond that the place was packed, a bustling crowd filling the streets despite the cold. We made our way down narrow, winding cobblestone roads between two-story buildings set so close together they often shared walls. An eye-watering stench rose up around us despite the chill, and it was abundantly obvious that to the locals the streets doubled as makeshift sewers. Lovely.

A square keep stood in the middle of town, surrounded by a small plaza that was mostly full of wagons and improvised shelters. There were campfires everywhere, surrounded by clumps of half-frozen refugees. I picked out a few soldiers here and there as we walked, but no one who looked like an officer.

The main gates of the keep were closed, but a smaller door set into one of them stood open and unguarded. Inside was a small entryway, leading into a fairly large hall. Long wooden tables and chairs were stacked against the walls, but the middle of the room was currently clear and mostly empty. A few men in better armor than the regular soldiers stood clustered around a throne at the far end of the room, apparently in the middle of a discussion. A gaggle of servants surrounded them, rushing here and there on various errands or just standing ready near their masters.

There was a stir as we entered, and our escort took us right up to the throne as the men eyed us curiously.

"Milord Baron? This here's Daniel the Black, a wandering adept. He's responsible for the commotion down at the docks. Rode in on some kinda giant stone horse with a bunch of refugees, and some more of those cowards from the 5th Margold."

Baron Stein was a heavyset man of middle age, with the look of a former athlete starting to go soft around the middle. He scowled at me like he'd caught me pissing in his cereal. Then his gaze wandered to the girls, and fixed covetously on Avilla.

"Damned wizards, always causing trouble," he growled. "As if we don't have enough mouths to feed already. I suppose you think I'm going to hire you?"

I hid my annoyance, and just raised an eyebrow. "I can do any number of useful-"

"Spare me the sales pitch. We'll find a cot for you, but there's no room for the baggage. Get rid of the peasants, and keep that witchy-looking bitch on a tight leash or I'll hang you both. Erica, take the blonde upstairs and get her cleaned up. I'll see if she's a decent fuck tonight."