Multifold Manus Chapter 21

	The whistling of a kettle brought Miss Manus out of her drowsy state. The fey-witch used all six arms to rub the sleepiness and sand from her face before stretching each of them out one by one. From the top bunk, Suzie leapt down in little more than her underwear. She quickly put on a shirt that was too large for her and pulled her hair back, “Mornin’,” The gnome greeted as she put a band in her hair and grabbed a wand, “Another cold day in paradise.”
	“Good morning,” Manus offered her a small smile before sliding out of bed as well. She put on a bathrobe along with her favorite fluffy slippers, “What are we doing today?”
	“Makin' lots of breakfast potatoes and bacon first,” Suzie decided as she picked up her apron, “I think Fredrik has a plan for the rest of it."
	“Really?” Manus ran her fingers through her fluffy messy bed hair, “I never thought him one to have a plan.”
	“I know, right!?” Suzie grinned, “First thing's first. Coffee and tea.”
	The two ladies stepped from their shared bedroom and out into the main room. On the couch sat Galahad, his head bowed over his phone. In the kitchen, Fredrik wore a dragon-like mask with silvery horns and brass scales. He poured the boiling water into a siphon with a filter and ground coffee beans in it. Soon, the scent of bitter coffee filled the room, “A little bit of cream and sugar for you, Galahad?” The duelist had a confused look on his face and did not respond as he read something on his phone, “Mister Loxley?”
	“Huh?” He shook himself, “Coffee? Yes? Thanks?”
	“Good morning, boys,” Suzie greeted as she hurried to the kitchen, “Make me some too, would ya, Goldilocks?”
	“As you wish. Tea, Miss President?” Fredrik asked.
	Manus nodded, “Please and thank you. Galahad? Is aught amiss?”
	The man glanced up and scratched his head, “Well… I got some weird messages from Blud and Rald in our group chat. Blud started to tell me what had happened, they went out into the woods last night, but Rald said to wait till we are meeting in person. So as it stands, I don't know much of anything.”
	“The woods at night?” Fredrik used a spell to levitate a cup of coffee to the duo on the couch and then a cup with a bag of tea in it, “What on earth were they doing?”
	Miss Manus peered into the tea, “I have heard many stories of odd goings on there. There are wild animals for sure, but there must be something even more dangerous there. Monsters perhaps.”
	Suzie blew raspberries, "A monster? No way! Know anything else about this story, Loxley?"
	"Just what is probably the oddest part,” Galahad continued, "Its the people they were with. Carly, that journalist, and Sophia Hamilton.”
	Fredrik cocked his head. Despite the mask, his confusion was obvious, “I saw those two spending some time together before last break. I suppose we will learn about this later. For now, let us enjoy the crisp early morning, friends.”
	“What's the plan for today?” Suzie piped up as she started cooking bacon, eggs, and potatoes.
	“Ah. You know of my next little secret,” Fredrik waved a hand, summoning bright gold flames that sprung forth a scroll into reality. He unfurled it and cleared his throat, “A zeppelin ride to a local ski lodge. Hiking a scenic trail through the mountains. A day spent playing board and card games. We could go into town, it's rustic and halfling made with a bunch of small tourist shops. You may find them cute, Suzie. We would be able to replenish our food stores and eat out at a restaurant. And of course, a snowman and or igloo building competition is in order. On Christmas day we can exchange gifts. Anything else we wish to do? That hot tub and sauna are also mighty tempting. Anything else? Do you three have ideas?”
	Miss Manus glanced at Galahad who had just tossed his phone down beside him, “I wouldn’t mind practicing magic.”
	“Practice!?” Suzie had a bigger coffee cup than the others. She didn’t use creamer, sugar, or milk, “Come on. It’s vacation time! Take it easy! You can sling all the spells you want back at the academy!”
	The duelist frowned, “Yeah, yeah. I know,” He stared down into his coffee, “Reccoa, that sectare woman in my club, recently asked me about putting an open tournament together. I think I will, maybe close to the end of the year.”
	“A wondrous proposal!” Fredrik was obviously beaming behind his mask, “We could have a few brackets based on skill level! You and I could finally have our bout!”
	“Exactly. Change it to the best two of three as well,” Galahad smirked, “But it's a ways out until then.”
	“Yes! You get it!” Suzie pointed an accusatory finger, “Relax for now! Or maybe you want to practice for the dance?”
	“You did not know?” Miss Manus gave him a little teasing, sly smile, “There is a spring dance every year toward the beginning of spring term,” The fey-witch shut her mouth before saying something silly. She didn’t want to ask him about it further, she doubted if he would even go to it. He didn’t seem like the socialite type to her. Two hands wrapped around the hot cup of tea and the other four touched the tips of their fingers to their pair. 
	“I must admit, I haven’t been researching all the goings on at the academy,” Galahad sighed, “Studying and going to classes have been the most important to me.”
	“And dueling,” Suzie teased, “How about we do some skiing? Going to that lodge should be fun.”
	“Will Holmit enjoy that?” Manus wondered aloud.
"He better, he's not here just to drink… and fart!" Suzie yelled at the door to the dwarf's room.
	Fredrik chuckled and moved to help Suzie prepare breakfast, “Let him enjoy the vacation in his own way. But we will try to get him to come up to the mountain and ski down.”
	“So that means we’re getting airlifted to this lodge?” Galahad changed the subject tactfully.
	Fredrik nodded enthusiastically, “Yes! A zeppelin! Like a cruise ship of the air! Have you ever ridden in an aircraft, Galahad?”
	“Well, no. I’ve never trusted planes much, and giant balloons don’t sound quite safe either. I like trains, Fredrik,” The duelist explained as he sipped on his drink. 
	“Fair enough. But I guarantee it will be an enjoyable experience. I will call for them to pick us up in two hours. Please be ready by then. I will wake up Holmit,” Fredrik declared, “But first, breakfast.”

Like a sea of ice, the frozen white ground rushed by underneath the zeppelin. Holmit gripped the handrails in front of the window as he stared out the side of the aircraft. Trees, mountains, and cozy cabins passed by underneath. The zeppelin was slow moving and a very gentle and smooth ride. Fredrik was beaming behind his mask. The gold clad wizard had changed into a thick, yellow snow coat and matching pants. He still wore the dragon mask, though it seemed to shine brighter above the clouds  “Like many zeppelins,” Fredrik began to explain, “This machine, The Sky Dragon, is powered by mana engines. It protects it from high winds and the cold. Hydrogen provides lift, just like the ones from the Great War era.”
Holmit grunted, looking around the private cabin the golden wizard had gotten for them. It had a couch and a dining table atop a plush, red carpet. On the walls were a few lantern shaped lamps letting off a bright orange light, “Fancy,” Was all he mumbled.
Suzie stood on her tip toes and looked over the railing at the scenery with Miss Manus beside her, enjoying the same view, “Yeah, especially when Fredrik shells out for a private room. Are they going to be coming around for lunch?”
"Although a bit early for it, I believe they will,” Fredrik replied, “Galahad? Are you enjoying the view?”
Turning around, the four council members saw their duelist standing against the far wall, hands in the pockets of his enchanted, dark green hoodie, and tightly closed, dry lips, “Eh, y-yeah. Just a-a lot of w-white out there though.”
	Suzie adjusted her purple coat, “Nervous? I thought nothing could scare you after that duel.”
	“Leave him alone, Suzie,” Manus nudged her. She was wearing her usual fluffy cloak and a matching fluffy wool hat. 
	“Maybe some liquor would loosen ya up,” Holmit suggested, “Fear’a heights and all that, I would guess.”
“Flying doesn’t really feel natural. Especially not like this,” Galahad retorted as he slowly moved to the dining table, trying to maintain a stable footing. 
Miss Manus stared at him, not feeling any kind of swaying in the zeppelin. Suzie shrugged, “Whatever you say. Not even flying brooms?”
	“No thanks,” Galahad seemed a little relieved as he gripped the arm rests of the chair.
Miss Manus took a seat next to him, “Brooms seem quite unstable. What about a magic carpet? I imagine it would be a fun ride for two.”
	“Maybe romantic, even,” Suzie added with a smile. 
	Fredrick and Miss Manus both nodded, “I see it in magical themed romance movies all the time,” The fey-witch agreed.
	Holmit grumbled, “Bah,” He joined the others to the table. The dwarf folded his arms. He was sober, much to his dismay. His thinking was a little unclear and he didn’t feel like socializing. He would have loved to stay at the cabin, but Fredrick had dragged him out here. Now, he was liquorless and thirsty. 
	“No taste for love?” Fredrik teased, all five of them now around the table. 
	The dwarf rapped his fingers on the wooden table impatiently, “I prefer the taste of a good mushroom spirit, Fredrik."
	The gold masked wizard chuckled, "I do not doubt that for a second. But I'm sure these three would attest to how sweet it can be nonetheless."
	The dwarf grunted, “Aye. I can as well, but I know how harshly bitter it can be, too.”
	“You do!?” Suzie gasped. Her eyes got wide and the gnome’s eyes seemed to fill with stars, “Tell me about her! It sounds like it didn’t go well, but I gotta know!”
	“Suzie…” Miss Manus frowned.
	Holmit grumbled, his eyes slowly gazing upon each member of his house. Suzie, the ever energetic and excitable gnome was practically hanging off the edge of her chair next to a very uncomfortable Manus. Next was Galahad, face a light shade of green and sweaty. Holmit wasn’t sure the human was listening. Lastly was Fredrik, sitting at full attention, slightly leaned back. The dwarf could see the faintest glimmer of the masked wizard’s eye, “Do not expect me to talk about something so personal, Suzie. I’m too sober for that.”
	“Then we gotta get you sauced up! Where’s the server?” The gnome hopped from her chair and left the private room in search of service.

	A cart was rolled into the room, shining metal domes covering five plates. On the top rack of the cart was three and below was two. This server was a half-orcish man in a white button up, black slacks, and black half apron. His hair was slicked back and his prominent tusks were filed to sharp points. He certainly looked the part of an illustrious steward for a world class zeppelin and carried himself that way. The second server was a ginger haired halfling woman in a similar uniform. She was certainly rounder than the half-orc, and waddled after him. She had to double her pace just to keep up with her counterpart. Strapped to her back was a step ladder that she easily unfolded with one hand while her other arm carried an odd jug. Holmit could tell it was mundane due to how smooth and glossy the surface was. A little shoddy too, it was easy for him to see the misplaced spouts that covered it. It was a big urn with ten different spigots in it at various heights along its construction, each one of a different color. The dwarf was getting ready to complain as he didnt spy drinks anywhere, but before he could open his mouth, the halfling produced five same sized glasses which she filled with water from a blue spout on the urn. The half-orc gave everyone a glass as the halfling began to pour other drinks into various glasses from different spouts on the urn. A tall glass of ale for Holmit, some lemon lime soda for Galahad, iced tea for Miss Manus, a fruity mixed drink for Suzie, and a mimosa for Fredrik. It was a nice little show, making Holmit wonder where the glasses came from, but he was quickly interrupted as the plates were put in front of every diner as the halfling gave them silverware.
	Holmit was first, the mirrored dome was removed from his wide plate. A thick cut of elk meat medallions, grilled and drizzled with a dwarven mushroom sauce. On the side was a steaming pile of fluffy mashed potatoes and gravy with mixed vegetables. Galahad and Manus both had the steak diane, hold the mushrooms, with a caesar salad and mashed potatoes. Fredrik’s was a filet mignon with the same sides as Manus and Galahad. Suzie was last with a large salad topped with salmon and lemon slices.
	The delicious smells of meats, potatoes, salad dressing, and various steamed vegetables filled the room. A few stomachs rumbled as the half-orc placed a small service bell in the middle of the table along with a new basket of warm bread and butter.
	Holmit was the first to dig in, cutting off a mouthful of elk meat. A bit chewy, pretty gamey, with a beef like texture. The sauce with it definitely complemented the already savory taste utilizing a vinaigrette with a tiny bit of tang to it. Holmit suspected lemon. The ale was a bit sweet and fruity along with the bitter taste of alcohol. He was definitely satisfied as he had some of the fluffy and salty potatoes.
	Fredrik cleared his throat, “Do we have any motions to speak of for our house? Any upcoming events?”
	“Well,” Suzie swallowed a mouthful of food before continuing, “There’s the spring dance, we could try to get some house members to go.” 
	“That may be wise,” Manus agreed as she switched to a set of brass silverware from her bag. Holmit assumed the silverware had a high iron content, “What about Galahad’s tournament? Maybe we could help out as a house?”
	“It’s the least we could do for him,” Holmit nodded, “After getting us a much better time and all for our labs.”
	Eyes turned to Galahad. The duelist’s face sagged as he sipped on his soda, “If your ears were longer,” As she tried to stifle a laugh, Suzie put a hand over her mouth, “You’d look like a tall goblin!”
	Galahad gave her a look as she chuckled at how green in the face he was, “I…” His voice was wavering a bit, “I want to do a three level thing. Maybe four," he swallowed, "Four different tiers of skill level.”
	“A grand idea,” The golden masked wizard agreed before adjusting his mask to eat, “Perhaps best of three would be best to lower the length of matches at the higher levels. Maybe the lower ones could be a single match.”
	Galahad just nodded before nibbling on his food. Holmit shrugged, “Maybe we should stop work talk. It's a vacation, isn’t it? Won’t do to not have Todd or Galahad here.”
	“Yeah, he does look like he’s about to pass out,” Suzie continued to tease, “Anything else we want to talk about?”
	“Ah got one,” Holmit put his now drained cup of ale down, “Somethin’ that’s been on my mind. Why’d ya all become wizards?”
	“My path was chosen for me,” Galahad grunted as he finished his soda and ate a few more bites, “When you have parents like mine, there is no other option.”
	Fredrik stared for a moment, “With your natural aptitude and deep mana reserves, I am not surprised you were pushed into it. In my home village, I was the first to show a decent level of magical ability. More than decent, in fact. A druid who was passing through recommended I be sent to school to hone it.”
	“You met a druid!?” Suzie gasped, “What were they like?”
	“I barely remember, honestly,” Fredrik chuckled.
	Galahad heavily put down his silverware, “Wisened, old, probably stank. Beard full of twigs, hair full of birds, cloak of leaves? Used bones and animal blood for his casting. Maybe some magic rocks.”
	She was flabbergasted, “Have you met one too!?’
	“Huh?” Galahad blushed, realizing he had said it aloud while wiping his face off, “Uh, I’ve met one or two. Not uncommon to see them around powerful wizards. Your turn, Suzie.”
	The gnome shrugged, “Parents had money and they wanted their only daughter to become a wizard. My brother didn’t really have the aspirations for wizarding and went into alchemy and artifice. Mom and dad were both sanctioned, practicing wizards with simple degrees. Working as a contracted wizard makes good money, but they wanted to send their kids off to college, to really be able to do something with their gifts. My brother works at that big gremlin run artifice company out west and I’m… here. Fairgarland,” Suzie sighed and leaned back in her chair. 
	Eyes moved to Holmit and Manus, “I became a wizard for someone,” The dwarf grunted.
	“That’s all you have to say?” Suzie scoffed and pouted.
	“For now.”
	Clearly unhappy with that answer, the petite mage played with her hair, curling it around one finger and furrowed her brow, “Hmph.”
	With the clearing of her throat, Miss Manus brought the attention to herself, “I am sure you all know my story. As soon as my magical abilities came to light, my parents sent me off to the academy to hone my skills. Most fey have a touch of magic, but few fey have magic like mine.”
	As her story finished, Fredrik nodded before putting another forkful of food in his mouth. His eyes scanned his friends, carefully examining the faces of each before cutting another bite, “You should all eat. Especially you, Galahad. That soda I ordered you should have calmed your stomach. You will faint on the slopes without the energy it will provide you.”
	“Yeah,” He grunted as he sliced a few bites off his juicy cut of meat.
	“And Suzie,” He continued, “Let Holmit warm up to it. The man is… a bit shy.”
With a smile, the gnome nodded, “Yeah, shy as a halfling at a buffet.”
	“I’m right here, ya know,” Holmit downed the last of his drink and rang the bell for more.

	With full bellies, the group disembarked from the zeppelin together. Holmit eyed Galahad who slowly stepped down the metal staircase onto the landing strip, desperately trying to get to land. He took a deep breath as he got to the ground, sighing with relief as he felt the crunch of snow under his heel. Holmit was glad to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays on his exposed face and beard, not that he minded the zeppelin and its near limitless supply of liquor. Fredrik slapped Galahad’s back, “Feeling better now?” He laughed loudly as the five moved toward the lodge. The duelist didn’t reply, just shook his head and continued walking. It was a large wooden building that seemed to double up as a hotel and restaurant. The wood was unpainted, looking like a massive cabin with lanterns hanging on the outside. On the other side of the lodge, they could see the few mountains that were available for skiing and boarding down. Most, besides the smallest ones, had chain lifts being used by numerous people to easily get to the top.
	Inside the lodge was a comfortable waiting room. A dire bear skin rug covered the floor in front of a roaring fireplace. Benches sat around the walls where people rested with hot drinks after spending their morning in the chilly snow. Fredrik went to the front desk, “Five for Fredrik,” He announced. 
The human woman behind the desk nodded and tapped on her keyboard, “Got it here. You’re all set, Mister Jeoffrey. Feel free to head over to the rental desk if you do not have your own gear.”
The group headed to said desk, past a little cafe and a restaurant. Suzie looked at the others, “Do you all know how to board?”
	“I prefer skiing, but yes,” Fredrik nodded, “Galahad?”
	“Never done either,” He shrugged. 
	“I have not either,” Miss Manus meekly added. 
	Holmit grunted, “Aye, I can glide down the mountain without getting my beard filled with snow. You’d be surprised how many dwarves know how.”
	“That low center of mass must help,” Suzie chidded as she nudged him, “Let’s get the newbies some skis.”
	Galahad eyed the rubber innertubes that hung from the wall. ‘THUNDERER’ it said in red on the black rubber surface. Suzie and Holmit got the appropriate snowboards while Fredrik helped Manus pick out a set of skis. Galahad simply copied Fredrik. Manus got two sets of ski poles just to be safe, leaving her with only one set of unused hands. 
	Back outside, the sun gleamed off the frozen, white ground. Cleared, compacted snow paths led all over the grounds. To the various chain lifts, much smaller hills, and a few areas to sit around roaring bonfires to warm up. Suzie and Fredrik quickly helped the new boarders strap on their skis. Galahad used the poles to scoot around on his skis, nearly slipping and falling on the fluffy snow. Miss Manus’s fey heritage allowed her to gracefully stand atop the snow, almost hovering over it with little resistance. Using her four poles, she slid herself across the snow on shaky legs, carefully keeping her skis straight, “Good!” Suzie nodded, “Keep your legs straight like that to go faster, and then make a V with them to slow down.”
	“Like this?” The fey-witch made a V shape, the opening pointing in front of her.
	“No, the other way, like you’re pointing forward! Like you’re making an arrow!” Suzie quickly instructed, hastily stopping the fey-witch with a flick of magic before she hurt herself.
	Fredrik smiled behind his mask, “Galahad, try to keep the skis straight. Or at least in a V, like a slice of pizza.”
	“Yeah, yeah,” Galahad dismissively grunted, struggling to keep his shaking legs straight, “Then what do I do? What the hell are these poles for?”
	“They help you move forward and stop when needed,” Fredrik put his skis on and demonstrated as he glided over the snow after pushing off with his poles, “Remember to lean forward when going downhill.”
	"Understood," Miss Manus nodded eagerly, "Shall we take to the small slope, Galahad?"
	"Just us?" He was starting to look nervous again.
	“It would not do to force our more skilled friends onto the small slope,” She gave a little smile to the duelist, “I believe that will take us there,” She gestured to a rope pulley that went up to the top of a small, gentle hill. 
	“Yup!” Suzie nodded enthusiastically, “Just grab it and try not to bowl over any kids.”
	“Or hit a tree,” Holmit added with a little chuckle, “I have to bring you back in one piece, Miss President, I promised Todd that.”
	“Galahad can hit a tree though, we shall scrape him off if it happens,” Fredrik added, “I assume he’s tough enough to simply bounce off!”
	The duelist made a face before trying to get himself over to the pulley, “Will you three make do without us?” Manus asked.
	“Of course,” Fredrik gestured to one of the tallest hills, “Hopefully the two of you can join us soon.”
	“Perhaps. I had better catch up to him,” With much more ease and grace, the fey-woman caught up to the duelist.
	Suzie looked at the dwarf with sparkles in her eyes, “Wanna race us down, Holmit?”
	“Eh. too big for me. My heart might give out,” He mumbled, “I will stick to one of the intermediate ones.”
	“Your loss. C’mon Fredrik!” Suzie hurried to the chair lift.

	Holmit enjoyed his time alone. Though he didn’t mind the young folk’s company, he was an old soul. Even if the President was older than him, she felt like a child to the long bearded dwarf. Especially now, much more bubbly and outgoing than she had been all the years he had known her, “Good for her,” He mused as he rode his board down the slope, “Urgh, board’s too light. Can’t get enough speed,” He swerved away from a ramp and rail, nearly bowling into a group of orcs that stood around to make a video on their phone, “Move it or lose it, greenies!” He barked as he slid around a tree. He snaked down the slope and although the cold snow and icy winds cut at his skin, his mind was on one thing. For once it wasn’t liquor and ale, he thought of home. He missed the small, cozy, and warm passages, the feeling of the hot forge, the bronze and gold art, and especially the showing off of long beards with intricate braids and jewelry. The other races of men didn’t get it like dwarves did. Gnomes sort of understood, but they were never in a similar mindset and were difficult to drink with or hold a conversation about crafting or art. They were like small, bearded elves with their odd love of whimsey. 
“Just like Suzie,” A mumble came from Holmit’s lips, “At least she can hold a drink down,” He chuckled. He turned his board and came to a stop after a long slide. From where he stood, with the sun beaming down on him, Holmit stared down the steep hill. A few other riders meandered down it toward the lodge. The dwarf pulled his sleeve back and stared at the bronze, engraved watch in the angular shape of a dwarven face. Its tiny, ruby eyes stared back as the gold plated minute hand ticked rhythmically. The hour hand slowly moved, but the silver second hand was stuck again. The dwarf growled and tapped the crystal cover, freeing the second hand from whatever it was stuck on, “I hope your watch is working better than mine, Beyel’nn,” He whispered to the wind. Part of his cold heart wished she could hear him, “Drinkin’ just ain’t the same without ya.”
	“Hey! Short stuff!” A few of the orcs sped by him on their skis.
	Holmit shook himself out of his thoughts as they sprayed snow in his beard when they careened by, “Ah! Damn orcs!” He growled as he hopped and started down the slope after them, “I’m too sober for this!” He made sure to cover the watch back up as he sped down the snowy mountainside.

	A wind blew across the mountain, the frigid cold bit at any exposed skin. Suzie shivered as the chair lift creaked and groaned while it swung to and fro. A warm cloth was wrapped around her neck and shoulders, “It has a minor ward on it. Should keep you warm,” Fredrik said as he grabbed another from his pocket and wrapped it around his own neck.
	“Thanks,” She sighed as she looked down over the side. The two were hanging about twenty five feet off the ground, “Why do you like skis more?”
	“Well, why do you like to snowboard more?” Fredrik wondered as he stared up at the peak they were steadily heading toward. He held his poles in his lap. 
She could tell he was smug under the mask, “Oh, cut it out,” As she lightly slugged his arm.
“Fine, fine. To answer: I prefer the control it gives me. The board controls just fine as well, but the poles are helpful.”
	The gnome gently kicked her legs, one having her snowboard hanging off of its foot, “I grew up riding my brother’s skateboards. It feels faster, but I’m not really sure if that’s a fact. Any more clues on your secret lover?”
	“My, you are just a secret monger today, hm?” Fredrik chuckled, “Not now. Spring. Near the dance.”
	“Mmmmh,” Suzie sighed, quickly reserving her disappointment. Fredrik would most likely be taking another to the dance, “Sorry. I can’t help being excited over love. You, Holmit– Maybe even Galahad and Manus.”
	“Let all three of them go at their own pace. We will see what they do in the future. If they wish to keep it on the, how you say, down low– we should respect that. Especially if we wish to retain their friendships,” Fredrik warned.
	“Right, right. I know that all too well from those dumb romantic comedies,” Her face turned to her friend, “Race ya to the bottom?”
“You think you can beat me there?” Fredrik chuckled.
“They don’t call me Bottomhill for nothing!” 
Fredrik nodded and held his tongue from making a joke about her posterior.

	Miss Manus had a smile on her face as she felt the wind on her skin. It wasn't a big ear-to-ear grin, it was more  the kind of little smile that came from the happiness she felt when mastering a new spell. But this time it was different, completely different than what she usually did. She was skiing! And having fun while doing it too! The fey-witch coasted back and forth as she neared the bottom of the hill, glowing in the dusk sunset, its purple and red hues covering the hill. She and Galahad had moved from the smallest hill to the third smallest over the course of the day. She felt pride in how far she'd come in a single day. They weren’t 'shredding' like Fredrik and Suzie, but she wasn’t shaking and nervous anymore. 
	She made a V with her skis as she came to the bottom and quickly stopped, “Another?” She asked, looking behind her. No response. She knew Galahad had been a bit slower than her, he was usually right behind her at the end due to not being able to easily slow down. But now the duelist wasn’t anywhere to be seen, “Galahad?” The sun was setting quickly. Darkness was setting in and although some of the slopes had lights, this one was particularly dark. 
Manus waited another five minutes, watching all who came down with a careful eye. Unfortunately, Galahad never appeared. A snap decision made her grab her poles and push herself back to the lift. She took hold and endured the long ride up the slope, keeping an eye out for anyone lying in the snow. This slope was near a wooded section on the opposite side of the lift. Manus took advantage of her extra arms and cast a spell on herself, cat’s eyes. It was a night and day difference as her eyes dilated. The darkness gave way to a black and white vision. Although it lacked color, she could make out shapes which was all she needed.
	Manus took it slow. The four hands that held poles clenched them tight as she inched down the slope. Most other riders had moved to the other slopes or checked in for the evening, leaving her alone to search. Above her, the purple sky turned dark blue then black. The stars twinkled brightly above. Silently, Manus prayed to them, asking to safely deliver Galahad to her.
	Manus swerved back toward the trees, being careful to avoid the rocks protruding through the snow. Each dark lump looked like the last: round, mostly smooth, and thrown off the beaten path. There were spots where rocks had not been cleared. Manus paused as she neared a particularly rocky spot. One of the rocks looked particularly blob-like. She poked at it, feeling her pole go right through it. It wasn’t a rock at all. She cast another spell, giving her a floating light that hovered near her shoulders. In the dim, cold, blue light, she could see the blob was a splatter of blood. She could see ski tracks heading this direction, from up the hill, and then the snow all around was roughed up. The tracks, and drops of blood, seemed to meander into the treeline. Miss Manus swallowed nervously and pushed herself that way. Her four hands gripped the poles, her blue knuckles turning white as she carefully navigated into the trees. 
	Past the rocks and into the trees, Manus saw a ski pole snapped in half. The bamboo had been easily broken over something, maybe even just snapped in half with two hands. The trail continued, the blood and tracks led a bit deeper before stopping. The skis had been discarded along with a second pole. Manus recognized the branding on the ski and its bright yellow and black design. It was definitely Galahad’s. The blood curved around a tree. Slowly, quietly, and carefully, Miss Manus glided atop the snow. In a small, snowy clearing, Galahad sat with his back to a tree, his eyes pointed upwards to the sky. His hands had dried blood on them,his pants had spit open at the knees with blood on it, and his helmet and goggles had been thrown aside. The fey woman dropped her poles and moved her hands, undoing the straps on her skis with a simple magic hand spell, “Galahad!” Manus cried as she got on her knees next to him, her eyes immediately on his injuries, “What happened?”
	The man’s exposed knee was covered in a thicker, very pale skin. The telltale sign of using necromantic healing to stitch new skin atop a wound. The fey woman reached forward to clean the blood from him only for her hands to be pushed away, “Leave me alone…” He grumbled in a voice seeped in disappointment before looking away. Miss Manus felt unable to move as the duelist’s emotions seeped into her. It was like a dagger had thrust into her heart just after receiving the cold shoulder. She whimpered, feeling a real pain in her chest. The man turned slowly to gaze upon the anguish on her face, dimly lit by the waning moon's light. A sigh escaped his lips, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have lost my temper. I'm better than that."
	"I just want to help you…" She sniffled quietly.
	"I-I know. Please, do what you can. It still hurts," He grunted softly through gritted teeth as he writhed in pain. With all six arms, Miss Manus wiped her face before putting two hands on Galahad's knee. He breathed sharply as she applied some pressure. Her hands glowed bright blue for a moment before pulling away, "Feels cold. Numb," The human noted as he moved it.
	Miss Manus took that as a cue to keep going, "What happened?" Her next, speedily casted spell cleared the blood from his clothes.
	As her hands returned to his knee, Galahad grimaced, "I'm just a no good idiot, is all. I've–" He rubbed his face with the back of his bloody hand, "We've been at this all day and I can't even slide down a simple damn slope. I hit some rocks and banged myself up."
	"And dragged yourself here? Did you break that pole?" She gave Galahad some space as her mending spell finished, fixing his pants.
	"Yes and… yes. I lost my temper."
	“For what reason? We are supposed to be having fun. Why would you get this angry?” She took his hand and pulled it closer by gently gripping his wrist, “Did you get blood everywhere– on your face even!” She scolded before procuring a small cloth from within her cloak. She got it wet in the snow and went about wiping him off.
	Galahad sighed, “You wouldn’t get it…”
	“Talk to me. You are in my house, council, and class, Galahad. Your wellbeing is a high priority.”
	The duelist looked into her dark eyes, he paused for a moment and studied the dim, blue glow of her irises. . After a moment he looked back up at the sky, watching the stars sparkle and a few shooting stars go by, “I’ve had so much pressure on me my entire life. Powerful wizard for a father, one of the strongest sorcerers alive for a mother. Those seven sisters and I were all fighting for their attention. Magic came naturally to them, and despite being born under the right stars, the full moon… mercury in retrograde or whatever astrology crap those druids were always peddling, I needed to work so hard at all times. Expectations were always so high, I did everything– everything I could to show I was strong, just to garner their attention. All the eyes on me all the time, every stumble and falter was so much more shameful than any success was gratifying. I had to do well, I had to be great, I couldn’t do anything else in my life. Mom’s temper,” He glanced over his shoulder at the broken pole, “Was unfortunately one of the only things I really got from her. When I can’t succeed in a timely fashion… It boils up like this.”
	Manus discarded the first rag and grabbed another. This time she paused as she got it wet. Her eyes peered into his, easily noting the tears forming at the bottom of his eyes. With gentle care, she wiped the cloth across his cheek, soaking up the blood as she went, “Galahad, I am not your sisters, those onlookers, nor your parents. I would like to believe us friends, even if you are my student. I do have academic expectations for you, but you are allowed to fumble and struggle. Seeing you master new spells in my field is as wondrous for me as it should be for you. I adore watching you study and train. But know this," She drew out a handkerchief from her pocket and gingerly wiped his eyes, "I expect you to be as great as you've shown us, but I do not expect you to be perfect. No one does. I believe the phrase is 'we are all human,' is it not?"
Galahad couldn't help but sputter, a trembling smile on his lips, "Well, at least some of us are… but I don't know about Holmit."
	"I do not–" Manus stopped herself from sandbagging his joke and gave him a soft smile, "I do not know what he is either. At least eighty percent alcohol, hm?”
	"Thank you, Miss Manus…" Galahad smiled back and looked back up at the stars, “You don’t see them like this back at Fairgarland. Too many lights. You can see Orion now.”
	Miss Manus looked as well, then pointed to the side, “I think you can see most of the Fey Queen’s stars this year. They vanish sometimes. They are the red, yellow, green, and icey blue ones.”
	“Yeah…” The duelist slowly and shakily rose to his feet.
	“Careful,” Manus scolded, gripping his arm for support, “We cannot have you falling again.”
	“Right,” As he stumbled again on his injured leg, he grasped Manus’s shoulders with her clasping hands onto his hips, sides, and arms. The two paused, both blushing as they looked into one another’s eyes, “I-is this what dancing with you would look like?”
	The fey-witch’s eyes sparkled above her now rosy cheeks, “Like this,” She removed his hands and put them on her hips then reached up to his shoulders, the sides of his chest, and his hips, “Would you like to dance?”
	“M-my leg…” Galahad protested weakly.
	“I will help you keep balance,” Manus pressed him, her many hands gently helping him keep on his feet.
	He swallowed nervously, “W-well. You’ll need to teach me.”
	With the wave of her wand, the fey-woman summoned a few bright blue sprites who began to hum and whistle a tune for the two. While Galahad did not feel it was dancing music, Manus quickly began to show him how to move his feet to the rhythm. Despite the cold, the darkness, and the pain, Galahad found himself enjoying himself as he and Manus danced late into the evening.

	“I totally schooled you,” Suzie boasted, “You’re gonna have to swap out your gold mask for a silver one!”
	Fredrik shrugged, “I can if you wish. I am surprised how much of a speed demon you are. I was hoping for a relaxing day on the slopes, but you had other plans.”
	“Ahh, you’re just being a sore loser. Come on, I’m ready to head back to the cabin,” The two returned their gear and didn’t have to look far to find their friends as they glanced into the restaurant. Holmit sat at the bar where he sipped on liquor and read from a thick book. Manus and Galahad sat next to one another at a table a little ways away. The restaurant wasn’t very busy with plenty of open seats, but the human-gnome duo decided to climb up next to Holmit at the bar, “Any good reading?” Suzie asked.
	“Bah, the drinkin’s better,” Holmit said as he flashed her the cover of the book. 
	“Encyclopedia of North American Birds,” Suzie read aloud, “Sounds thrilling,” She sarcastically remarked.
	“Are you prepared to make the voyage back to the cabin?” Fredrik interjected quickly.
	With a nod, the dwarf dropped some money on the counter and got down, “Aye. A little too lively here for my liking. I think it's a wine sipping in the hot tub kind of night.”
	“Maybe we can talk about why you became a wizard? And that lady?” Suzie rapidly inquired.
	“Keep trying. The cold feet will melt eventually.”
	“With more liquor, of course. Oi! Bartender! Lemme buy a bottle o’ gin to go!”
	Fredrik glanced over at the other two and slowly approached them, “Did you two hear we would leave soon?”
	Manus nodded slowly as she wrapped a bandage over Galahad’s palm, “Yes, I heard. Thank you Fredrik.”
	“Sorry about the extra charge on your card,” Galahad sighed. There was a small bandaid on his forehead and the eagle eyed wizard could see the uneven stitch work on his knee, “I, uh, fell on it.”
	“I can see that,” Fredrik nodded, “Do not worry about it,” A little smile crossed his hidden lips, “I am just glad you are not terribly hurt. Please, take your time and rest before our return voyage.”
	“Thank you, Fredrik,” Manus gave him a small smile before returning to administering some minor first aid.

	Two days passed on the students’ trip. Holmit spent time soaking in the hot tub and sweating off his water weight in the sauna. Suzie continued to pester him for answers, but spent most of her time working on puzzles and playing card games when she could bring the others into it. Fredrik kept his eyes on the others and made sure the fires maintained the cabin’s warmth. He cut off Holmit when needed, much to Suzie’s dismay. What was the most interesting to him was how inseparable Manus and Galahad now seemed. The two ate together, visited the sauna, hot tub, and even wandered out into the snow together. Only at night did they split, late on into the evening. At this rate he would have to pry them apart when they got back to Fairgarland so they might still fulfill their duties.
	For Christmas Eve, the group had loaded into their rented truck and drove into town, “Alright, I need to get a turkey, or at least a chicken, and some lemons or lemon pepper,” Suzie explained as she rattled around in the car, “We’ll do potatoes for a side, I’m thinking mashed of course, buttered with a bit of garlic mixed in. Cinnamon rolls for breakfast, extra icing. Holmit, can you pick out some drinks? Make sure you get some juices too.”
	“Aye,” The dwarf was already thinking of what he would need for their feast, “What about some steamed vegetables?”
	“I will steam you some fresh carrots and broccoli,” Replied the gnome.
	“Some nice, soft bread would be great,” Galahad noted.
	“Right. Find a bakery and buy some different breads, Galahad, get extra, I’ll make stuffing with it,” Suzie ordered, handing him a very short list, “You and Manus can go together and I’ll group up with Fredrik and maybe Holmit.”
	“Why only maybe?” The dwarf grumbled, having already started writing a list of liquors, beers, and non-alcoholic beverages.
	The gnome gave him a sideways glance, “Because you always do your own thing. Keep doing that. You do it well.”
	“Fine. I can take care of it by myself.”
	“Manus,” She continued, “How about you get some thin sliced hams and cheese? Maybe some fruit?”
	The fey-woman nodded, “Of course. Galahad and I will locate them along with enough bread for our needs.”
	“Good, good,” She returned to going through her list. Miss Manus peered out the window on her side. They had rolled into the small, sleepy town a little after noon. The streets were somewhat clear with only a few families out doing their last minute shopping. It seemed like the Fairgarland students were the only tourists in town, or at least the only ones out at the moment. To one side, was a moderately steep mountain side covered in snow. Upon closer inspection, built into the mountain side were numerous small, round doors and bright burning lanterns near every one. Each was the perfect size for a minute race like gnomes or dwarves. From the round construction of the burrows, Holmit could easily tell they were of halfling make. There were meandering paths leading down the mountain and through each row of mound-houses. Further down the mountain was a row of shops. The burrows were much bigger each with a small, rounded door and a few had large, human sized rectangular doors. Most only had names to advertise themselves along with little signs with decals on them. An exception was a clothing store with tall, ice crusted windows. Behind the windows were a set of halfling sized mannequins enchanted to show dresses and display their price above them in conjured signs screaming about how good of a discount you will get. Every few minutes, the outfits rotated in a poof of sparkles, displaying a new outfit with a different and just as heavily discounted price. Another store with rounded windows had confections displayed in each one, “Buying a cake…” Suzie wrote down, “We should park here.”
	“Uhm,” Fredrik looked around the cleared, cobblestone road and pulled aside next to the stoney curb, “That should do.”
	On the other side of town were the more traditional buildings. Modern human homes, a stoney art deco dwarven hotel, and most importantly a row of tall shops with windows inviting onlookers to peer into them and browse their wares, “There’s a butcher over there,” Galahad noted as he stepped from the car. 
“A general store,” Fredrik said as he looked the other way, “I suppose it is time to split up.”
“Aye,” Holmit rubbed his chilly, calloused hands together, “And I spy the liquor store.”
	The dwarf summoned an iron step stool for himself and gingerly stepped from the truck. He could feel the sting of the winter air on his nose, “I’ll be in touch,” Holmit called as he shoved his hands in the pockets of his thick, wool lined coat. As he walked away, he snapped his fingers and dismissed the conjured ladder. He glanced over his shoulder, watching Galahad help Miss Manus and Suzie down a small set of brass stairs. The dwarf stepped down the snowy sidewalk alone. There were no cars out, only a few horse drawn carriages carrying families or deliveries. Eager to get out of the cold, Holmit looked for the sign of the liquor store: The Frosted Bottle. Unlike many of the other stores, the windows were difficult to look into with their tinted facade. The dwarf pulled the door open, a bell jingling overhead as he began to immediately look around. 
“Hoi there,” A somewhat gruff voice greeted him from behind a short counter.  
	“Afternoon,” Holmit politely replied as he kept looking around.
	There was a short pause, “Looking for something in particular?” 
	Holmit grabbed a few bottles and brought them to the front. The person manning the front was a dwarf with olive skin and a big, bushy blonde mustache. A pipe hung from his lips with an orange smoke blowing from his mouth every so often. His eyes sat behind a pair of small spectacles with adjustable lenses, each one able to be flipped in front from the sides. The dwarves looked at one another for a short time, obviously sizing one another up, “Don’t see many deep dwarves ‘round here,” The store owner chuckled after speaking in dwarven.
	Although the accent was much different, Holmit easily understood him, “Aye. We don’t leave our holes in the ground often unlike you over dwarves and your fancy mustaches,” He replied in dwarven.
	“Ah, don’t discount your ilks’ beards!” He laughed, “You can call me Bromnarnt. Brom for short. What’s your name, my far removed sibling?”
	“Holmit Drak-Hide of the Drak clans. What clan do you hail from, brother?”
	The dwarf nearly choked on his pipe as he started to wheeze-laugh. After hacking up some smoke, he smiled under his blonde beard, “To hell with clans, sibling. Blood ties are one thing, but there are no clans here. We let those die with the old world. Not even the short ones who run this place have ‘em. They’re like a big family, but they’re not commune hippies like elves.”
	“Good,” Holmit chuckled as he returned to finding more bottles.
	“Tell me, Holmit,” Brom rubbed his big red nose, “What brings you out here? From that thick coat it seems you aren’t used to the cold.”
	Holmit picked up a small bottle of vodka, slowly remembering the strange friendliness of his upper living dwarven siblings’ culture, “Ah, a school trip, you could say.”
	“School!?” Brom laughed loudly, “Ya look a little old for that.”
	The bearded dwarf waved his hand, summoning a magical hand that grabbed two bottles of wine off the shelf behind Brom and placed it in his slowly growing pile of bottles, “Wizarding school. Fairgarland, specifically,” 
	“You should have said that in the first place!” The mustached dwarf oohed and ahed at the magical grabbers, “That’s a household name! My wife has talked about it before. A few of her friends talk about wanting to send their gifted children there. I gotta know… not a lot of dwarves go into traditional magic, and you seem like a pro. Why? Why not work with traditional runic spells?”
	"A bit nosey, aren't ya?”
	Brom shrugged, “I don’t see a lotta siblings here, Holmit. Even if we are of different creeds, I always like to know. Those halflings only ever have food on the mind and on the tongue– I should know. I married one.”
Holmit sighed and nodded as he brought the last of his drinks to the front, “True, it is quite refreshing to talk to one of my own kind. I swear I never know what to say to the humans and fey I’m surrounded by. Well, if ya must know… I want to become my clan’s royal wizard. We haven’t had one since the old world.” 
	Brom seemed to pause for a time before clearing his throat, “Those are some big aspirations, sibling,” He whistled and shook his head, “You’ll be a rich one for sure. I’ll bet the ladies will love ya.”
Holmit clenched a fist as he listened to the beeping of the scanner, “Aye. I hope she does, brother.”
“She–” Brom stopped himself, “I won’t ask. Here, for luck,” He slipped a small glass bottle into Holmit’s order, “Somethin’ on the house, sibling.”
Holmit eyed the golden label. He knew those runes, he knew them very well. It was expensive, but it would be rude to turn it down, “Thank ye,” He put on a little smile, “Tell the wife I said hello, hm?”
“Aye, I will. Have a good one, Holmit! See ya around!”  

	With all six hands, Miss Manus reached down and rolled up a few snowballs. After casting a spell, she turned all six of hers into crystalline, translucent, blue arms and hands. Each glowed with magical energies and she raised each ball of snow into the air above her head. With a transmutation spell, she changed the snow’s property into ice as clear as glass with a slight blue tint.
“Wooow!” The halfling and human children around her balked.
“Here,” She handed one to each of the five children who stared at their orbs of ice in awe, “Magic balls of ice, unable to be melted unless you toss it into a fire!”
	Each child immediately began to try to melt their ice balls. Miss Manus chuckled and turned as she heard the door of the nearby cafe open and Galahad squeezed his way out, his height making it difficult to get out of the halfling sized door. He grunted as he rose to his full height on his stiff legs, “And one for you,” Miss Manus gave him a smile as she offered the last of the ice balls with all six crystalline hands. 
	Galahad offered one of the coffees in his hand and quickly traded it for the ice. The cold quickly turned his bare fingers numb, “Gee. Ice. Not like I’m surrounded by that right now,” The sarcastic tone left his voice, “Did you make this?”
	“Correct. Simple transmutation. You should be able to do it as well. Pop quiz: turn it into water.”
 Galahad stopped with the lip of his cup nearly touching his mouth. He raised a brow, “Really?”
“Yes. You said you wanted to practice, did you not?” She smiled before taking a sip of her tea. It was very sweet, just like how most halflings would drink it. Thankfully the hint of lemon sliced through it.
	Galahad closely examined the orb of ice as the two slowly walked down the street. To one side was a row of halfling burrows, mostly tiny stores and coffee shops along with a single large bar, “You definitely put a minor enchantment on it.”
	“Quite perceptive as always, Galahad.”
	A few moments passed before the duelist switched hands to let his now numb hand be heated up by his hot chocolate, “It's not melting at my touch. No water left behind. That’s probably the enchantment there,” Galahad took a seat on a snow covered bench and put his drink down between his feet, “I think I can get rid of this enchantment…” With a snap of the fingers, a flame appeared on the digits of his free hand. Just as he guessed, the freezing enchantment was dispelled and some of the sphere melted off, “I’m guessing you want me to use transmutation and not evocation for this. Let’s see,” The wizard reached into his bottomless bag and pushed past the groceries in search of his staff. With a shiver, he retreated from the bag and pulled a smaller, smooth wand from beneath his coat.
	“A holdout wand?” Miss Manus asked as she sipped on her tea.
“Always be prepared, right? I can’t always rely on a long staff,” He smirked before waving the wand over the slowly dripping orb. A few freezing drops of water rolled down his sleeve, forcing him to withhold a shudder as his skin broke out in goosebumps.
	“I am quite curious why you feel the need to be prepared like this.”
	“A powerful wizard once told me that. It's not like I’m carrying a silver dagger, wooden stake, or even salt at all times. Just a little wand in case I can’t use my staff,” He explained.
	“Spirits, slimes, giant slugs, some outer worldly creatures like devils can be contained by a salt circle,” Galahad explained, “It's not like I’m an adventurer like my parents were. I don’t really need that stuff.”
Miss Manus leaned in close, “Your parents are adventurers? You never said this before.”
Galahad froze, his face looking a little pale, “W-well… It's kind of a private thing. Not like they did much when they were. I-I mean really just a few ghosts and a low level vampire. Not like they were dealing with the fate of the world, ya know?”
	Miss Manus could see a little sweat on his brow as the duo stared at one another. The fey-woman changed one of her crystalline arms to a soft, warm, animal-like hand that she gently placed on Galahad’s shoulder, “The ice is melting, Loxley. Turning it into water with your body heat is not a valid answer to this quiz.”
As if startled, the wizard jumped and looked at the orb, “Right!” He sighed and gripped his staff again, putting his pointer finger down the shaft of the wand, “Aaaaaand…” He waved the stick around the orb, “There!”
The ice turned to water in the wizard’s hand and splashed down into his lap. He jumped again as the frigid water soaked into his already cold pants. The fey-woman couldn’t withhold her laughter as Galahad leaned back and groaned at his misfortune, “Allow me,” Manus giggled as she waved two of her crystalline hands and gently pulled all the snow and water off of him before turning it into another clear, icy ball.
“Thanks,” Glahad shivered, "Y'know, fey or not, I never pictured you as a trickster."
"Oh, come now, Galahad, that was purely unintended," Miss Manus used a magical, ghostly hand to pick up Galahad’s drink and bring it to her hands. With another spell, she reheated the hot chocolate and handed it over, “Here. Warm yourself up.”
	“Right, thanks again,” The wizard sighed and started to sip on his cinnamon laced and much too sweet hot chocolate, “Looks like the snow’s falling again.”
“Indeed. Quite pretty, is it not?”
With a nod and a sip of his drink, Galahad exhaled, steam billowing from his mouth, “Yeah. Reminds me a bit of home around this time of year. Sledding with my sisters and playing in the snow together… Think the others are done yet?”
Manus shrugged, “We could move back to the truck and wait there. Let us finish these drinks first, hm? No need to rush it.” 

	Suzie easily stepped through the small and round front door of the bakery while Fredrik had to duck down to enter the hole in the ground. He had numerous bags on both arms and grunted as he struggled to stand to his full height due to the overhead chandelier. The baker at the front laughed, “We have a side door, sir. More to your height related needs,” He gestured to the side to a separate smaller, but taller area.
	“Ah,” Fredrik put on a jovial tone, “I will refrain from using the second-class stature door.”
	“If ya say so!” The halfling smiled with rosy red cheeks, “What can I do for you both?” She wore a black apron covered in powdery confectioners sugar and a white chef’s hat atop her black curly hair.
	Suzie looked around at all the baked goods. Cookies were by the register in glass displays along with slices of pie and cake. House made candies sat in tall glass containers on the counter, “Oh, man…” The gnomish woman rubbed her hands together, “I absolutely need a pumpkin pie. Let's get a few of those red candies and some caramels. And half a dozen blueberry muffins.”
	The halfling laughed, “Feeding your family for tomorrow?”
	Fredrik and Suzie both blushed, “W-well…” They both stammered a bit.
	Another laugh came from the baker, “Sorry, sorry. I’ll get all of that bagged up for you. Swipe your card whenever you want,” The baker walked into the back, leaving the two alone in the front. 
	“Us? Married?” Suzie scoffed and folded her arms.
	Fredrik sighed and set his bags on the floor, “That is the third time today, is it not?” 
	“Nosy little buggers, aren’t they?” The gnome huffed as she stomped over to some shelves to examine cakes. She stepped onto a small step stool and looked at the colorful baked goods. The cakes definitely weren’t fresh, most likely out for show as they had prices listed next to them. She paused as she saw a white cake covered in white flowers made of frosting. At the top was a groom and bride. Surprisingly it was a human and a halfling who stood on a stool, “Hey, that guy looks a little like you.”
	“Me?” Fredrik glanced at the man, “I would never be caught dead in a top hat or wearing all black. So drab,” He weaved an illusion that he cast atop the little figurines. The figure’s suit turned a glimmering gold and the halfling looked a little more gnomish, “There. Better.”
	Suzie’s face turned red, “Um… Fredrik? Are you…?”
	“Thinking about pre-ordering a wedding cake, you two?” The baker called as she returned to the front.
	Both of the wizards stood up straight and backed away from the cake, “I was just admiring how pretty it is,” Suzie explained quickly as she fumbled with her backpack in search of her wallet.
	“Allow me,” Fredrik’s ever ready credit card was shoved into the machine before Suzie could react.
	The baker smiled, “Are you sure you two…?” She shook her head, “Not really my place to say, but hell I’ll say it anyways. You two are adorable together. Even with one of you in that weird mask.”
	“Haha. T-thanks,” Fredrik stammered as he started to pick up his bags, “Suzie, we should be off.”
	The gnome grabbed her order in a heavy paper bag, “Yeah the others are probably waiting for us. H-have a good one,” She gave the baker a weak smile before the two left through the round door. The baker couldn’t hold in her laughter as the two made their escape.

	The night wound down after a small Christmas Eve dinner. Sandwiches of all kinds had been made and passed around along with chips and smaller sweets. The snow was falling outside, and a freezing wind blew against the cabin. All five of the Karak-Albrac council sat around the coffee table in the living room playing a board game with the fireplace crackling near them. Galahad slipped another small sweet into his mouth as he rolled his two dice. Five. His eyes glanced up to Fredrik’s golden mask as the metallurgist rolled his three. Twelve. Galahad sighed and swiped the last of his pieces off the board, “I’m no good at this.”
	“You merely have no practice, friend!” Fredrik assured him with a pat on the shoulder, “Maybe another time you will best me.”
	“Maybe. I’m headed to bed,” Galahad decided as he grabbed his water and headed to his room.
	“A little early for bed,” Holmit huffed as he moved his pieces towards Manus’s sector. His speech was slurred and his breath reeked of dwarven liquor, “Ssstill more… drinkin’ to be done,” He added in a somber tone.
	“You might have had too much, Holmit. You–” Fredrik stopped as he got a swift elbow to the ribs. Suzie looked up at him with a glare that screamed ‘don’t.’ The golden wizard cleared his throat, “Sorry. We are on vacation, friend. Have as much as you want.”
	“That’s more like it!” He laughed before grabbing his dice. 
	“I am defending?” Miss Manus inquired before rolling the dice. A three appeared on her one die.
	The dwarf rolled his two and got a seven, “Looks like I take yer land again.”
	“Ready to finish me off, Suzie?” The fey-witch asked with a small smile.
	“A-are you sure?” The gnome scanned her areas. Manus did only have one barely defended sector. Holmit and Fredrik had a lot of ground, but she could easily take Manus’s for almost free. 
	“It is merely a game. I am not upset. It would allow me to do some reading before bed.”
	“Alright,” With the rolling of three dice, Manus’s fate was sealed, “There.”
	“Good night, friends and colleagues,” Manus gave a small bow. The others replied with similar pleasantries as the fey-woman returned to her room for the night. 
	“Buncha–” The dwarf burped, “Buncha quitters,” He huffed to himself, “Need sommore dorfsss… They could drank inna the night wif me…”
	Suzie raised her fruity mixed drink, “Here, here!”
	“Aye! There’s that g-nomeian ssspirit!” The dwarf lifted his half-full tankard into the air, “What about you, Goldie?”
	“Of course, I will raise a glass to my friends,” Fredrik raised a martini, “But we are unfortunately not the dwarves with never ending vigor and constitution you grew up with.”
	“Aye…” Holmit slumped in his seat, “Getting to talk to another dwarf today reminded me how far away from home I am.”
	“Th-that was an almost instant sobering,” Suzie balked with wide eyes.
	With a nod, he continued, “An ability of my kind. Can drink and grow fat but can be sober and strong when they need to. I miss them. The holds and the camaraderie with my people. The ale houses, the gambling halls, even the forge and the market. I think I miss the people most of all. Even that human bloke who was porkin’ the brewer’s daughter and that little family of halflings that moved in at some point. We knew everyone, we had rivalries, we had friends… We even had love.”
	One of Suzie’s hands firmly gripped the armrest of the couch she was on and the other held the glass full of her now excitedly shaking drink, “Love?” She squeaked, “Did… you have love?”
	“Aye. My heart ain’t made of coal, Suzie," Holmit spoke softer than usual, "A dwarf knows more'n just crafting and mining, we have other passions jus' like any other."
"I hope we did not imply you did not, friend," Fredrik bowed his head somberly.
"Nah… it's no fault of yer own… Not like ya think ‘love’ along with ‘dwarf,’” He leaned back and reached into a small pouch on his belt. From the depths of the small, bottomless bag, he retrieved a long, thin and square box. Suzie rose in her seat, curious about what he was grabbing. After slicing the seal with a bronze hilted knife, he flipped the box open to reveal that it was full of fresh  dwarven cigars. Fredrik raised a brow beneath his mask, wondering silently what the occasion was for the dwarf to break out such an expensive looking coffin of cigars. Slowly, and as if with the reverence of some kind of prayer, Holmit muttered in dwarvish and cut the end with a simple scissor-like spell. Next, he summoned a small flame to his hand and lit the paper bound tube of pipe-shrooms. The dwarf brought it to his lips and breathed deeply, tasting the old, dried mushroom as he pulled the smoke into his mouth, puffing a few times to get the full flavor. He held it there for a few moments before exhaling a large ring of smoke. With a smirk, he twirled his finger and guided the smoke out the chimney. He set the cigar down in an ashtray on the table, letting the smell of it fill the room.
Suzie found the smell to be slightly sweet and strangely pleasant, nothing like the disgusting scent of cigarettes she had been accustomed to smelling in the city. The gnome didn't know much about smoking, but she was intrigued by the golden, dwarven rune branding on the cigar. Fredrik eyed it for a moment, slowly translating the dwarven, “Drak-Barrig,” He read.
“Aye. Beyel’nn’s father’s brand,” He replied, “Makes my favorite brew too,” He produced a small bottle with a similar label on it. The dark, unopened liquor sloshed about in its octagonal crystalline flask, “Galmek Drak-Barrig… A hell of a brewer.”
	“Beyel’nn?” Suzie echoed, desperate to know more, “A friend of yours?”
	“Ah, ya finally got it outta me, ya cheeky gnome,” He put on a smile and a rosy red color returned to his cheeks, “Have a bit,” He poured the smallest of shots from the crystal flask into two black glasses with a golden rune on each. In the third black glass, he poured himself a full shot. As he snapped his fingers, all threes’ liquor was set alight with sparking green flames, “Mushroom spirits. An old pre-battle tradition. Take part of it, friends. The others will be sad when they hear they missed this!”
	After a moment of hesitation, Fredrik collected his and Suzie’s drinks. The gnome felt her heart pounding, nervously, she took it and stared at the greenish red flames. She looked to the golden-faced wizard who eagerly downed it, “Woah!” He coughed and sputtered as he felt the fire in his chest then stomach.
	Suzie whimpered and blew on her drink, blowing a little of the flames out before sipping it down. She moaned as she felt the fiery pain. Holmit laughed at the two as he downed his full shot, “That’s the good stuff!” He let out a relieved exhale before picking up the cigar again, “Sorry, friends. I might miss home, but there’s no reason to drag you both down. Ah, whose turn was it?”
	“Uh…” Fredrik looked at the board for a few moments.
	“While you figure that out,” Holmit smirked, “You wanna know about her? Don’t ya, Suzie?” The dwarf puffed his cigar again, once more sending his green smoke out the chimney. The gnome just nodded furiously, “She’s why I went’ta school.”
	“You went to Fairgarland for a lady!?” Suzie gasped, her eyes getting wide and sparkling, “That’s so romantic!”
	Holmit sighed, chuckled, and shook his head, “Aye. I suppose so. Well, I was sweet on this girl for a long time. A real long time. Friends forever too. Her father, Galmek Drak-Barrig, was one of the best brewers, cigar makers, and even goldsmiths, in the Drak clans. He was the first to find a perfect kind of mushroom in this world for brewing and another for cigars. It was as if old world fungus had bred with ones from this world. They both–” He stopped and sighed, “Sorry, I doubt ya care about dwarven mushroom cultivation. Anyways, when we came of age, me an’ Beyel’nn I mean, her old man was gettin’ real wealthy. Other clans, halflings and even humans were importing his brew. He had mushroom liquor, ale, and even wine. The old man was wealthy, real wealthy. He was nobility now, royal brewer and jeweler. Ya see, the Drak clan is small but wealthy. We have some of the best liquor already with safe guarded recipes an’ all!”
	Fredrik nodded, “Now you were a commoner and she was royalty?”
	“Like Romeo and Juliette!” Suzie swooned.
	“Aye– well kinda, maybe without the tragedy,” The dwarf sipped his liquor, “But Fredrik’s got the right of it. Her father didn’t want just anyone for his little girl. Her man’s gotta be someone just as powerful or wealthy as his family. See, she was the face of the Drak-Barrig brand now. A real regal, beautiful lady. While we did still see one another behind her father’s back, we both knew we couldn’t be together. But I made her a promise. I’d return in fifteen years and work my way up to royal wizard with a degree from the most prestigious magical university. The Drak clans haven’t had one in a real long time. He’d have to let me marry her then.”
	“She’s gonna wait for you to return? Pushing away other suitors and everything?” The gnome inquired, “I don’t know anything about dwarven courting rituals, is this unusual?”
	“While she is being courted, none will take her hand. Her father turns down many suitors on his own, those that are allowed to speak to Beyel’nn usually get turned down for her own reasons. Generally she does this by giving them some kind of task to complete in a short time. Nearly impossible ones. A chalice full of water from the fountain of youth, an imp’s tears, the smoke of a dragon’s fire…” He trailed off, unable to think of other examples, “Goblin… nose hair, I think?”
	“Can I see a picture of her?” Suzie pleaded, desperate to get away from the topic of goblin body hair.
	Holmit reached into his pocket and procured a small picture from his wallet, “Aye. Here’s her in an old ad when they started selling an ale.”
	The gnome snatched the offered picture and gazed upon the creased cardstock. It depicted a blonde haired dwarven woman in a black one piece swimsuit with golden runes on the chest near the neck. Her cheeks were covered in freckles that drew one's gaze to her emerald eyes. She had a cute smile that stretched between her rosy red cheeks. Her golden locks were done in elaborate braids decorated with green and white gemstones. One arm propped her up and the other held a dark bottle full of mushroom ale, “She’s so pretty!” 
	"She certainly is. Holmit, I think she is too good for you," Fredrik jested.
"True, but not for long." Holmit replied with a determined look in his eyes, “Just a few more years of schoolin’ and they’ll have to make me the court wizard. I’ve been keepin’ tabs on it. No one in my clan is even close to the level of wizard I am right now. None are more than four year sanctioned wizards, nothing high enough to be the royal court wizard.”
	“So you have to be royalty to have her?” Suzie pestered, giving the picture back to the dwarf.
	“Eh, maybe not. But this will be the best path. Keeps her pa happy and keeps her in her family business. I just hope she still loves me when I return,” The dwarf sighed as he returned to gently puffing the cigar, “Not a good enough smith or clothier for that, but I’ve always had a good bit o’ magic in me. Just gotta finish honing it.”
	Fredrik nodded and picked up some dice, “And you will finish it, Holmit. I know your grades are high and your studies are coming along well."
	“Yup!” Suzie nodded, “We’re more than ready to help you at any time, friend. Just let us know.”
	The dwarf smiled and nodded, “Aye. Thank ye. Ya non-dwarves are a lot better than the rest o’ my clan would have me believe,” He smirked, “Care for a cigar, Fredrik?”
“Oh, yes please. Shall we continue our game? How about you have more liquor Suzie?”
	“N-no… no thanks,” She gave a weak smile before grabbing some dice.
	The game ended in a draw after another hour or two as they wanted to go to bed early for Christmas morning.
The soft candle light cast orange flickering lights across the room. From the bottom bunk, Miss Manus gripped the hem of her comforter. She had been awoken. Not by the anxiety of Christmas morning, but something else. As she looked around, her answer appeared: a blue streak outside her window flashed by. Suzie was sleeping soundly on the top bunk, softly snoring as she rolled away from the window. After slowly pulling the blankets off of herself, Miss Manus slipped her fluffy slippers on and a thick coat. Tip toeing to the window, she pushed the curtains aside. Blue lightning streaked across the sky. As the bright light faded, the stars in the sky appeared. There wasn’t a cloud in sight and no thunder to accompany the bolt as it seemingly struck a tree on the far side of the cabin’s grounds. Manus couldn’t see if the lightning was coming from a person or some other entity from where she stood. With a sigh, she grabbed her fluffy hat that sat on the bed side table before carefully stepping over the creaking floor and into the living room.  
	Miss Manus stepped lightly across the floor. It had creaked repeatedly under her friends, but there was not a squeak from the fey woman’s inhumanly light footsteps. Another streak, followed by a second’s light spilled into the main room through the crack in the drawn curtains. Slowly, Manus pushed the curtain aside and looked out. A ways away from the house, through the gently falling flakes of snow, stood a man. Another shot of lightning was blasted at a target on the other side of the cabin’s grounds. If she had blinked, Miss Manus would have missed the next spell. Another bolt flying far and precisely into the target, scorching it once again. The light of the spell illuminated him, revealing Galahad standing alone in the snow. 
Manus’s cheeks got warm and rosy as she saw a glimmer of him again with another spell cast. The man was… shirtless. After a few moments another spell, a very simple light incantation, engulfed the tip of the staff casting a bright blue light across Galahad’s body, shadows forming across his muscles. As if entranced, the fey-wizard couldn’t peel her eyes off of him as he reached down, grabbed a small bottle behind him and drank from it. Against her better judgment, Miss Manus pushed the unlocked cabin door open. The oiled hinges made no noise as she stepped atop the powdery snow outside. Although she could barely feel the cold, the freezing temperatures bit at her nose and long ears. As quietly as a mischievous pixie setting up a prank, Manus tip-toed toward the man. Galahad’s eyes were turned away, focused down the road at his small target.
	The duelist breathed in deeply. His lungs filled with frigid air, his skin covered in goosebumps, and the sweat on his forehead froze in his eyebrows. His nearly numb fingers gripped his staff as he made a shape with his hand. The pinky and ring finger both down and digging their fingernails into the palm. The middle finger was half curled, hovering right above the palm. The pointer was straight up and the thumb was curled in, its side pressing into the palm. Galahad pointed above and to the left before waving his staff, blasting off a bolt which flew in a curved path and then into the target. With almost no time between, he shot another off, this time to the right and down. Once again it swirled through the air before careening into the target. He sighed and shuddered as the lack of mana began to take a toll on his body. The swift casting was drawing way too much, he needed to practice on using evocation like this.
	The wizard turned to grab his drink, “Wonderous form,” A gentle praise came from the darkness. Galahad jumped, turning quickly to face the speaker. 
	CLINK! The sound of glass impacting stone rang out in the silence of the night. Looking down, Galahad could only watch as the blue, salty liquid drained from the now overturned bottle, “Ah, damn.”
“I-I am so sorry,” Miss Manus whimpered as she walked out of the darkness under the trees, “I did not mean to startle you,” She waved her hand and used a magic, ghostly hand to lift up the bottle and return it to the man.
“H-how long were you watching?” He wondered aloud with a nervous look on his face.
	The fey-witch retrieved his clothing next, “Merely a few minutes. I came out to investigate after being woken up,” She paused and looked out at the target, “I had no idea you could speed cast like that. You must be positively drained after doing it.”
	The human blinked slowly, “Nothing else to say, huh?” As he shook his head, he chuckled wearily, “Yeah. I’m dry,” He peered into the bottle and turned it over, showing there was nothing left, “I’d better go find something inside.”
	“Well… if you want to keep practicing,” Manus’s hands felt clammy as she offered his clothes, “I could… give you some of mine, Galahad. As an apology for spilling your potion.”
	“That’s…” Galahad tightly gripped his cloak, “I’m sure you know how intimate that can be.”
	“I– Well– We danced alone in the moonlight, did we not?” Although he nodded, Galahad moved to a bench next to the cabin’s outer wall. 
	“Well, yeah, we did. I–” He ran his fingers through his hair as Manus sat next to him. Galahad rubbed his face with both hands, “You’re not afraid of this like I am.”
	“Humans and most of the races of men are all the same. Your hearts and minds are so clouded by doubt and fear,” Manus chuckled to herself. Galahad eyed her, staring at her admittedly cute, rosy-red cheeks and slightly glowing skin, “It is no wonder you are such good targets for the pixies and their pranks.”
	The duelist smiled, “Admittedly, whenever I’m dealing with something outside of my wizarding I never really know what to do. There is nothing but doubt and fear in there. Maybe some anger too.”
	“Perhaps. But I think there is something else in your heart. Most men simply wish to court me. But I think you are different. You wish to learn, you wish to know me, and maybe you want to be my friend. Perhaps you do not know how much your desire to be tutored meant to me. And our dance… I cannot get that night out of my mind.”
	Galahad paused for a few moments, his breathing was heavy and his body shook before looking into her face all the while. He reached out a hand, “Do you… want to go to the spring dance with me? I would be honored if you would.” 
	The glowing of her skin got a little brighter. The fey-woman nodded quickly, taking his hand in four of her’s, “Of course. I would love to,” Galahad managed to keep his jubilance at bay, keeping himself from pumping his fist into the air. Instead, he put on a small, relieved smile. As a wind blew across the hills, Galahad shivered violently, “Come inside,” Manus ordered, “We need to relieve your mana deprivation and get you in the warmth of the fire.”
	Galahad put up no resistance as Manus bade him rise. He went into the cabin, followed by Manus before quickly plopping himself down onto the couch like a bag of rocks. Manus carefully laid a thick blanket over him. And then another one as she took a second look at him, “Thanks,” Galahad mumbled through his quickly onset exhaustion. The lack of mana was draining his physical energy, “Oh, and uh, Merry Christmas,” He muttered as he slipped one of his hands out from beneath the blanket.
	“A Merry Christmas to you too. Try to rest before the festivities,” The fey-woman smiled as she picked up a book and sat near him on the couch. Manus looked down at the hand, its palm open to her. She looked into her duelist’s face, seeing how pale he looked. She smiled and reached out with one hand as the others held the book or sat in her lap. With the tip of her finger, she lined a rune on his palm. A simple sigil for mana before pressing the ring and middle finger into the center of it. As she read her book– Dante’s Inferno, she reached out with her magical energies, letting the mana out and into Galahad’s near empty reserves. She felt heat as she reached in, a sizzling inferno living inside him that made her physical form sweat. With a small twist of her casting wrist, she let her mana out. A cool and icy sensation washed over Galahad giving him numerous goosebumps all over his body. He mumbled in his half-asleep state, but still put up no resistance as Manus poured in a small, drip fed amount of mana. Minutes turned to hours as she kept herself busy with her book. Eventually the two different temperatures mixed within Galahad and Manus, slowly bringing them to a comfortable level. With a quick glance, the fey-woman saw the color return to her friend’s face. He was fast asleep. She sighed and pulled away, letting him rest in peace for the rest of the night.

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