Strolling through the deep shadows of moonlit night was something I always found relaxing and peaceful, but all that changed with the Winter Lady at my side.
For one, I strode carefully, my footsteps measured, careful, precise; she was literally skipping. For another, I kept my silence to respect the world of the woodland; she was more chatty than my understanding of Faerie Queens had led me to expect, not that I held claim to a lot--or any--firsthand experience.
We spotted lights out in the distance, flickering between the trees.
"So..." she dragged me to a halt. "How do you want to play this?"
She glanced at me askance. "You know, the fun. The game. The leading astray." She paused. "How do you usually do it?"
"If it's spontaneous like this, I follow for long enough to see if they know where they're going. If they do, I slip ahead of them and treat them as if they don't--"
"Though if they weren't going the right way, they wouldn't have stumbled over you."
"Quite. If they are actually lost, I approach them from the rear--"
"Offer to help and then lead them further astray."
She stomped her foot. "How boring! Don't you ever want to mix it up? Try something different?"
"Every case is different. They react differently, resist differently, if they resist at all. There are some lines I hear a lot, and some I never hear twice. But other than that, no."
"Unless I know enough to plan ahead. Set up some illusion magic, put a good scare into them, maybe even do the whole nine yards of devouring the souls."
"You don't just, you know, improvise?"
"Improvisation leads to mistakes. Mistakes lead to failure. Failure diminishes reputation."
"Oh." She sighed. "That sounds boring. Not fun at all. It sounds like--"
"It is work. We can't all be Faerie Queens, you know. But I like the work. And sometimes something unexpected happens, like somebody stumbling across me when I'm resetting my gear--"
"After a planned ambush?" Her eyes lit up.
"Exactly like that."
I strode up next to the gal at the back who looked like a rogue or archer, trying to keep an eye on the rear but failing. It might have been easier if she hadn't been holding so close to her compatriots' torchlight.
"Are you sure this is the right way," I leaned in to whisper.
"If Ody says it's the way we go, it must be, or the right way is wrong."
"Huh. And if it's the wrong way?"
She shrugged. "What Ody says goes. -Hey, who are you?"
Before she could wonder too deeply, I picked up the pace again, sowing a little doubt on my way to the front.
"Excuse me, it's Ody, right?"
He stopped and stared at me. "Who are you and what are you doing?"
"Who I am matters little. I'm just concerned because you seem a ways off the beaten track. I don't often see many folk this far out."
"We're fine, old man. Move along."
"Your friends don't seem to think so."
"My-- Look now." He stepped closer to me, trying to get into my personal space and stare me down. "This is MY adventuring party, one which you are not a member of. And we are most definitely not lost."
"Hey now, calm down. I'm not trying to cause you any trouble. But I do know these parts pretty well, and I can say that some fairly nasty fae live in the direction you're going, and you'd do well not to tangle with them. If that's your plan, don't let me stand in your way." I stepped aside, gesturing for him to walk past me.
He took the bait, striding into the darkness I'd indicated, at a right angle to his previous head. I waved politely as the rest of the party tromped by, and slipped a card of my identity and skillset to their narrator.
Not twenty minutes later, they were back, and I hadn't moved.
"Not look here." He got into my face again. "I don't know what sort of game you're playing, but it ends here and now."
I stepped out of the way and gestured again, this time down their original heading.
"No. We're not falling for that a second time." He led out opposite to my first direction, now in the other right angle.
Half an hour passed and they were back.
"You! It's your fault! What did you do?"
"Stood here, mostly." I shrugged. "I've barely moved since you first confronted me."
"You're a liar."
I grinned suddenly. "I can't lie."
Ody jerked back a step like I'd slapped him, and glanced at his narrator, who nodded. "Faerie," he spat, "I loathe faerie. Attack him."
"It's too late. You're lost and your party is too tired to fight me with any chance of winning, let alone crawling away afterward."
"I'm not lost. I always know what direction I'm facing." He thrust a ragged piece of paper at me, presumably his character sheet.
"That doesn't do you any good if you don't travel the direction you're facing, or perform regular checks. Or if someone uses illusion to throw you off track. Just because you know which way you're facing doesn't mean you know where you are."
The party narrator steps up beside us. "Sorry, Ody, but he's got you dead to rights."
"You are fired," Ody hissed through clenched teeth.
"That's not for you to say." She crosses her arms, her smile dripping saccharin.
"Fine, fine. What's the toll?"
I tilted my head to the side. "Toll?"
"What's your price? What do we give up to get you to let us go."
"I'm afraid it doesn't work like that." I reach under my robe and retrieve my lantern. "I have no need for your trifling trinkets."
"Then what do you want?"
"That's the wrong question."
The rogue from the rear pushed to the front, shoving Ody aside. "What sort of fae are you?"
"There's the right question."
"What are you? Enough of your games," Ody shouted impatiently. "What. Are. You?"
I bowed before them, sweeping my lantern arm wide. "I am a will-o-wisp, and my price is your souls."