A Yurble stole my cinnamon roll! Circulation: 121,679,817 Issue: 245 | 23rd day of Relaxing, Y8
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The Price of Faith: Part Two

by mutedsanity


It all happened so quickly. One moment, I was standing outside the castle, my home, with golden rays of sun warming my back and a familiar face to give me enough guidance to at least point me in the right direction. And the next moment I was all alone, standing in a world more terrifying and brutal that I had ever imagined it.

     I was nearly at the peak of Terror Mountain, and the sky very well could have been pink for all I knew, as it was completely masked in steely gray clouds heavy with snow. A bitter wind pounded across the endless white that stretched out as far as I could see on all sides, tossing my hair and causing me to cling to myself desperately against the intense cold, and stirring up billows of snow off the ground and in little whirlwinds of white in the air. Already I was becoming numb. The howl of the wind in my ears was all I could hear, and all I could see was a horizon-less sea of white below a dark sky, and I could feel nothing but a cold so intense every muscle in my body was totally tensed and I shivered visibly.

     I could hardly even move. I wanted to cry, but I knew my tears would only freeze. I wanted to run, but my body suddenly felt incredibly heavy and awkward. I wanted to lie down and give up now, but I refused to surrender so easily.

     So I did the only thing I could think of. I walked. Each step was a battle against the battering wind and tight-packed snow underfoot, and I constantly slipped on ice or sank in deep patches of snow. I couldn't even feel myself move, and yet I did. I had never even seen snow before in my life, and suddenly I had been thrown into it in the worst way imaginable.

     I can't say how long I walked. I couldn't tell the difference between minutes and hours up there. I could have walked all day, for all I knew. But I was steadily going downward, away from the peak, and I could feel a change in the wind.

     My hope was fading quickly, alongside my energy. I didn't know which way I was going and where it would lead, but all I knew was that I couldn't stay put. I would surely freeze to death. I could see each sharp breath I took in a thick white puff, and each gulp I took of the painfully cold air hurt my throat.

     Finally, I could go no further. I staggered to a halt, and cast a desperate look around. Everything looked the same. Nothing but white as far as the eye could see. I could have been going around in circles, for all I knew, and the falling snow quickly covered any footprints I may have left. My vision began to flicker ominously, and I groped blindly for something to hold on to. But, of course, there was nothing there. And then I crumpled over, the howling of the wind droning out as the darkness closed in around me.


     Who knows how long I was out? All I knew is that it was a miracle I was alive. When I came to, for a few second everything was disoriented, and I uttered a groan of pain. The wailing air currents came back to me full force, and I felt a burning pain from all the cold, my limbs prickly and wings so numb I could hardly even feel them folded tightly on my back. Everything was just how it was before I passed out.

     But then I noticed something else. Something warm against me. I instinctively pressed closer, shivering with the cold, at first not even thinking on what I was doing. But then it hit me. There was something lying beside me. Something warm and, I realized, rough-furred and still. As my vision finally came back to me, the first thing I saw against all that white was something large and brown.

     Taken by surprise, I gasped and recoiled away from it, staggering to the side and failing at my first attempt to stand up. My legs buckled and I found myself on the ground again, staring right into the face of my unusual companion.

     It took me a moment to realize that he was a Lupe. And looked nothing like any of those well-groomed, neat, spoiled Lupes that I had seen back home. He was the scruffiest Lupe I had ever seen, his fur a rough and unkempt mess of short brown, though clearly thick enough to keep him warm in this harsh environment. He was the color of a tree trunk, with a lighter brown on his underside, muzzle, the inside of his back legs, his paws, the insides of his ears, and around his eyes. He had large paws tipped in white claws, a bushy tail, and wore a grin that showed off all of his gleaming white fangs. He was also the thinnest, most fit Lupe I had ever seen. He certainly had a runner's physique, wiry and spry, with a tiny waist and lean limbs. His eyes stood out like spotlights through the falling snow and against his dull fur.

     He hadn't moved at all when I leapt away, and still lay calmly in the snow beside where I had passed out, his front paws crossed and tail coiled around him, his head lifted and ears perked. He watched me with a raise of his eyebrows, offering me a large, gleaming, dangerous grin. "Good to see you too."

     I stared at him in disbelief, as if expecting him to vanish at any moment. Where had he come from? "Uh-what-what are you doing?" I stammered, picking myself up to sit on my legs, once again hugging myself in a vain attempt to fend away some of the cold.

     "Oh, just enjoying the sights. Come on, lady, what's it look like I was doing?" He smirked and shook his head at me. "Not much. Just saving you. You'll freeze out here in that flimsy dress you've got there. You must be some kind of crazy to be up here in that, you know."

     I clutched at my sleeves, unable to come up with any reply to his sarcasm. When one's lost all feeling due to the cold, one doesn't think too clearly, you know? "I-Th-thank you," I managed, stumbling onto my feet. I shook snow off my dress and brushed some out of my hair, watching the Lupe uncertainly. "I-I have to go--" I shook my head quickly, staggering back. I knew I owed him my life. I would have died if he hadn't come along and kept me warm. But I couldn't stay up here. I needed to get that Crystal shard and get out of here as fast as I could.

     He raised his eyebrows, following me with his vibrant yellow eyes alone, not turning his head. "What's the rush?"

     "What's the rush?" I repeated, unable to keep the snappiness out of my voice. This had all made me quite unhappy indeed, so could you blame me, really? "In case you haven't noticed, it's well below freezing out here, and I'm stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a dress and no idea where to go. I can't even tell left from right up here! I have no food, no shelter! And what's with that stupid grin?"

     Said grin hadn't faltered once. "Well, at least it's better than that scowl. You ever heard of the healing power of laughter?" Without waiting for an answer, he stood up and shook off the snow that had gathered on his back, flicking his ears and tail a few times. "Didn't think so. As for your dress problem, the Valley's that way." He inclined his head carelessly to the right. "There's bound to be something you can wear for sale down there. And some food, while you're at it. Maybe you can go all out and even rent a room somewhere. Bold, I know."

     I didn't appreciate that tone of sarcasm and carelessness ever-present in his voice. Perhaps I would have found his attitude amusing in any other situation, but right now that seemed impossible. "I don't have any money," I mumbled, knowing I wouldn't get very far as long as that fact remained. Besides, I was a Darkness Faerie, remember? And I highly doubted anyone on this mountain would be terribly fond of me right off the bat.

     "Boo-friggin'-hoo," was his terse remark, which he topped with another of his odd smirks. They struck me as so strange because they were nothing like the smirks I had come to know. Nothing like the cold, mocking ones of my sister. They were more teasing, more careless, simply amused. No harm intended. And he was sarcastic, but not in a cruel way at all. "That's never stopped me before."

     I frowned and eyed him warily for a moment. Judging by how tousled he was, and that he struck me as someone who had seen just about everything, it was clear enough that he had no home. So did he live out here all the time? I couldn't imagine anyone in their right mind doing such a thing.

     "Alright," I agreed cautiously, slowly nodding. "Show me."

     "You got it." The brown Lupe bobbed his head at me and turned, grinning all the while, and led me off to the right. I was amazed that he could find his way like this. Everything looked exactly the same.

     He made his way through the snow with no effort at all, as easily as though walking on solid ground, loping with the lightness of someone who had been doing this his whole life. Which I could safely assume he had, to know the area so well and handle it like nothing at all. His paws crunched in the snow as he maintained his even pace, which I was having trouble keeping up with.

     I stumbled along after him, constantly faltering and slowing down, tiring easily and doing my best to keep close behind him so as not to lose him in the swirling snow. My hair whipped about my face and I was completely spotted with white. I could hardly breathe, and here this Lupe was humming tunelessly to himself, as though this were just some happy little jaunt through the park, rather than the battle with the elements that I was having not far behind. He was something else, alright.

     After a few minutes of walking, he glanced back at me and raised his eyebrows. "Having trouble?" He had to raise his voice to be heard over the howl of the wind. I happened to stumble again at the moment, and I frowned in reply when he smirked at me.

     "I've never been in the snow before," I replied bitterly, shielding my face with one arm from the swirling white flakes.

     He gave a short laugh and shook his head, looking ahead again. "Then this isn't the most charming introduction to it, I'm sure."

     I didn't respond, just furrowed my eyebrows curiously at his flicking tail not far in front of me. He was so strange. He hadn't asked a single question yet, as though it were perfectly normal to find a lost Darkness Faerie passed out on the top of Terror Mountain. He didn't ask me what I was doing there, how I had gotten there, why, not even who I was. He just randomly helped a complete stranger without so much as a thanks or an introduction. And that really made me wonder.

     I'm not sure how long it took us to get down. I was sure he could do it much faster if I wasn't there to drag along, though. Very few words passed between us. Whatever attempt at conversation the Lupe made was soon lost or dropped, as I was evidently in no mood for small talk. I wanted to get warm more than anything right now. I had never even imagined such an extreme cold in all my life.

     Finally, I noticed the tops of rocks half-buried in the snow in some places. It wasn't near as thick as it had been before, and the wind was much calmer the lower we went. It was getting much easier to breathe, as well, though I was still frozen through. After what seemed to me like ages, though really it couldn't have been all that long, the ground underfoot became uneven with snow-covered stones and a few pathetic shrubs poking up here and there.

     "We can go around the Ice Caves," my guide announced, not looking back at me this time. "I think you'd kill yourself in there."

     Well, he was probably right. I didn't even want to try walking on ice. So when a dark cave appeared before us, I let him lead me off to the side, down a ways off to a crude trail leading around it. It was a thin snaking path that led directly down to the valley, hugging the Ice Caves all the way down, the snow in this area packed down from people walking on it and framed on either side by stones. This was a particularly steep area, as it led from the flat valley to the brutal peak far above. So there would be quite an unpleasant, rocky drop if one were to fall off the side of the trail.

     I found it amazing that this mountain could go from a happy family trip to a death sentence depending on where you were on it. People didn't often realize the sheer power of nature. Not only could someone easily freeze to death up there, but there was always the risk of an avalanche or blizzard.

     The brown Lupe directed me down the steep path, trotting right down the middle and hardly needing to watch where he stepped. He was going a little too fast for my comfort. I was taking one careful step after another, keeping my footing with difficulty on the slushy rocks, clinging to the sheer icy wall to my side, as far away from the drop to my other side as I could stay. Perhaps a Faerie being afraid of falling sounds ridiculous, but my wings were crusted with ice and in no shape for carrying me at the moment.

     Finally, I could see the Valley below us. Heavily clothed figures moved about in the snow, and colorful houses and shops were scattered among all the white. I could see tall snow-tipped twigs that must have once been trees, bushes heavy and white, and a frozen pond. It was such a happy looking place. So drastically different from where I had just come from that it shocked me.

     I could feel the path begin to level out as it twisted down the mountainside into Happy Valley, and finally my caution got the better of me. "I can't just march in there like it's nothing," I alleged, gently biting my bottom lip. "People would panic if they saw a Darkness Faerie walking around, wouldn't they?"

     "Yup," he replied simply, pausing to look down on the steadily approaching shops.

     I furrowed my eyebrows at him and stopped as he did, but didn't look over the edge. I was already freaked out enough, thanks. "Then where will I stay?"

     "Right here." He turned and inclined his head toward a line of shrubs alongside the path, just outside of where the Valley started. "I'll be right back."

     I stared at the undergrowth with a wrinkle of my nose. I was supposed to hide under some plants while this stranger got me whatever he thought I needed? And he didn't have any money, either. So what was he talking about? I looked back at the Lupe with a shake of my head, my frown ever-present. "You've got to be joking."

     "Nope." He flashed a quick grin, and then nudged my leg with his head, pushing me toward the bushes. "I won't be long."

     Well, I was all out of ideas, so why not? I heaved a sigh and reluctantly walked over to the shrubs, having to get down on my stomach to wriggle and slide my way under them, then curl up to stay completely out of sight. I hugged my knees and winced as the cold, damp snow seeping through my flimsy dress, still shivering, though now with twigs prodding into me and unable to see very much through the snowy leaves.

     The Lupe's face appeared in a gap between some branches, grinning down at me. "Nice place you got here. Boy, if I picked a bush to hide under, this would be it." He wiggled his eyebrows in response to my glare, and then backed away. I was quite stuck under there, unable to move without giving myself away. "Don't go anywhere," he added, a tone of amusement in his voice, at which I bit back any snappy remark to. I saw his four paws pad away from sight, and then he was gone.

     He wasn't gone very long, but I spent those few minutes cramped and freezing and starting at every little noise. The ground had more-or-less evened out down here, and the wind had died down, and the snow had stopped falling for the moment. But still, that didn't do anything to keep back the bitter cold in the air. How degrading. A noble Faerie had no place under a plant. When I saw the brown paws in front of me again, I let out a puff of white in a relieved sigh.

     "Good. You took my advice. Didn't go anywhere."

     I snorted at the laughter in his voice, in no mood for his off sense of humor. I managed to get up enough to twist my way out from under the shrubs again, shaking them up and covering myself in snow in the process, and collapsed when I was out. I couldn't believe this guy. I was about ready to pass out again from exhaustion, and here he was, not even short of breath and ready to run laps around the Valley if it was asked of him. He was really something else.

     I rose onto my knees, afraid if I stood up fully someone would see me. I could hear people laughing and walking in the Valley a little too close for comfort, and just about held my breath at every sudden noise. I looked at my companion, who stood in front of me with some things he had brought from who knows where, smirking slightly.

     "Look what I got," he declared, grinning like a pup and stepping aside to show me. Behind him was a sleigh that had had dragged up by a long rope, which had a pile of thick clothing and a few pieces of food on it.

     I couldn't help but smile, grateful for the sight. "Where did you find that?" I asked with a little laugh, scooting closer to touch the clothes. They were soft and warm. I was just about ready to put them on then and there. "I thought you didn't have any Neopoints. And these couldn't possibly be free."

     The corner of his mouth nicked up in a sideways smirk. "When you've got talent, everything's free."

     I stared at him. He stole this stuff? I could just picture him sneaking up in that effortless way of is, and making off with some kid's sled and some clothes or food from the nearest shops. Judging by how he looked and the fact that he had no money and that he knew the mountain so well, I could imagine he had no home and had been doing this for a very long time. So he stole to get by? So he'd be quite good at it, I would think. But for me? Why risk it for a total stranger? He had saved my life many times today, and with nothing in return.

     But now was not the time to question him. I looked to one side, and then the other, anxious to warm up. "Where can I change?" I muttered, casting my fretful gaze back to those welcoming clothes.

     "What, here's not good enough for you?" He laughed when I scowled at him. "Okay, okay. Follow me."

     I nodded and reached for the sled, but he got to it first. He picked up the rope in his mouth and started back up the path, pulling the sled along after him with little effort. The runners hissed in the snow, and I staggered along after him once more.

     He stopped at some bulky boulders off toward one side of the path. Dropping the rope, he turned to look back at me and inclined his head toward the rocks. "Here you go, lady. Our first class suite."

     I sighed and gave the rocks an uncertain glance, but it was really the best we could find, so I snatched up all the clothes and trudged behind the boulders, out of sight. I brushed all the snow off of me and changed as quickly as I could, the moment I had gotten all the clothes on beginning to get some feeling back into my body. I was still shivering, and really wanted something hot to drink or a fire right now, but this would have to do.

     I came back out from behind the boulders, wearing the thick pants and few sweaters I had been given, bundled under a long coat and soft scarf that I had pulled over some of my face. It was all black, and the layers of thick clothing were already starting to help. Most of it was too big for me and made out of materials I had never worn before, but that was alright. Snow dusted my boots as I walked back over to where the sled was sitting, rubbing my now gloved hands together.

     My black and purple hair fell over my shoulders, now rid of clinging snow, but though I had shaken off my wings there was really nothing I could do to keep them warm. I had to rip some of the clothes to get my wings through, which left an unpleasant draft occasionally on my back. But it was better than nothing, now wasn't it?

     The Lupe was sitting beside the sled, which now only had food on it, his bushy tail curled around his paws. He perked his ears and grinned at me as I approached, raising his eyebrows. "Now who can that lovely Faerie be? Certainly not that ungainly creature from before," he commented teasingly, earning himself a small smile from me as I joined him.

     I sat down beside him, letting out a sigh of relief. "Thank you," I said softly, rubbing the cold away from my arms. "You really saved me today. Two or three times, at least." I offered him a small but grateful smile. I would have been lost in the very beginning if he hadn't been there to help me.

     He just grinned carelessly and shrugged it off. "Hungry?" He glanced down at the few things he had been able to get for me on the sleigh.

     "Yes," I admitted, realizing just how good that food looked. I grabbed a roll and bit into it, flicking my eyes back to the Lupe.

     Before I could ask, he answered my unspoken question. "Not hungry."

     As selfish as it may be of me, I was glad of that. There wasn't enough for the both of us. I ate quickly and no doubt with less manners than I ever had before, subconsciously scooting closer to the warm figure of my Lupe hero. It had seemed like a lifetime since I had been warm. And I didn't think it would be possible for me to be warm on this awful mountain, but I was becoming more comfortable in these new clothes and with some food in me. It had seemed like ages since I had last eaten, as well, though it couldn't have been more than day since I was in Faerieland, if that.

     I was done in no time. Just some bread and cheese and a piece of fruit, but I felt much better. I looked back at the Lupe, who had been watching me silently the whole time, and realized that I had unintentionally scooted very close to him. But he didn't seem to care, or notice at all for that moment, as he just sat there casually.

     His grin greeted me once more. "Better?"

     "Yes. Much better." I smiled faintly. "Thank you."

     He nodded in reply, absently blowing a snowflake off his black nose. "So," he said rather suddenly, completely changing the subject, "you got a name?"

     I realized that we hadn't been properly introduced yet. But one could hardly blame me for losing my manners in all that had just happened, could they? I wasn't sure whether I should tell him or not. Even though he had helped me, could I trust him? Uncertainty got the better of me, and I said slowly, "I'm sorry... I can't tell you. But, still, it's nice to meet you."

     "Wish I could say the same for you." He was smirking, but I couldn't tell how he meant that comment. He was so odd. He opened his mouth to say something else, but stopped suddenly, his ears twitching.

     I furrowed my eyebrows curiously and was just about to ask what was wrong, but then I heard it too. Voices, just around the corner. The Lupe reacted far faster than I ever could, and was on his feet in a moment, shoving me with his snout toward the boulders.

     Without question, I hurried over and crouched behind the large rocks, which hid me from the path. He was pressed at my side in a moment, and just in time. Pinned against the cold rock and the cliff wall, I heard two people just on the other side of our hiding place.

     "There it is!" someone exclaimed, and I peeked through a gap between the boulders to see two children. There was a very young yellow Kyrii, bundled up and waddling after her older brother, a blue Kyrii who was smiling confusedly at the sled that we had abandoned in our hiding. "How did it get way up here?"

     He reached out one gloved paw and grabbed the robe, scooping his little sister up in his other arm and setting her on the sled. "Come on, let's go!" He tugged on the rope, and in a moment he had walked out of sight, his sister giggling after him.

     I listened to the runners hissing away through the snow, and when I could hear them no longer I let out my breath in a long exhale. That was a close one. I looked to my side at the Lupe, who had been forced right up against me to stay out of sight. He only grinned in the awkward moment and whispered loudly, "I'm Radom."

     I raised my eyebrows, finding this an incredibly odd moment for him to decide to introduce himself. I just shook my head and waited for him to back up, and when he was out from behind the boulders I followed. I stood up straight and brushed snow off my clothes, sighing exaggeratedly. "You stole that from a couple of little kids?" I asked flatly, giving Radom a blank stare.

     "Borrowed." He grinned and shook the clinging white powder off his fur.

     I couldn't believe this guy. I just rolled my eyes, in no position to point out to him that this was not a nice thing to do. But as if he would listen anyway. Besides, now a bit fed and rested and warmer, I couldn't hang around and make small talk. I was on a mission, and the sooner I got out of here the better. "I should get going now," I mused, absently touching my pocket, where I had tucked the Crystal shard away. "There's something I have to do."

     "I'm coming with you."

     "No you're not." I frowned at him, unused to such bluntness from anyone. What in the world was with this guy?

     "Yes, I am," he countered certainly, an odd smirk on his face.

     Was he serious? I just shook my head and took a step away from him. "Look, I appreciate your help and all that, and I really am grateful. But I can't repay you, if that's what you want. I don't have anything. Besides, this is something I have to do."

     "Who said you owed me anything?" For a moment, I was certain he must be joking. But there was a startling seriousness in his eyes, which took me by surprise. How could he be so selfless for a stranger? Especially someone forced to live out here, in the wild. Surely he had seen more terrible things than most others had. So how could he possibly be like that? "And come on, just think about it," Radom continued, rolling his eyes. "You didn't even know left from right this morning, remember? Whatever you're here for, it'll take you all week to find."

     My upbringing got the better of me. "How dare you!" I snapped, glaring at him indignantly. What he said was true, I know that now, but at the time I was offended that he dare doubt a Faerie such as me. "I am a Faerie from the castle of the Queen herself! And no street urchin is going to question me!"

     Even in the face of that flare of anger, Radom only calmly raised his eyebrows at me. "You're a long way from home, lady."

     Scoffing huffily, I turned on my heels and swept away. Truly, I had no idea where I was going. I had no idea where to start. And if I were thinking reasonably, I would have realized that I desperately needed that Lupe's help. But all that had happened still left me in a confused daze, the unfairness of it all, and I couldn't help but be bitter and infuriated by it all. So I wasn't thinking at all as I hurried away, leaving Radom behind me.

     The weight of all that had happened today hit me all at once with crushing force. I didn't know where I was. I didn't know what to do. I was so lost and confused. And I was afraid. Afraid for my life, afraid for what would happen to me, afraid of what would happen to the Crystal if I didn't get to it in time. I had always been solitary, but here on the edge of the path with nothing but the wind stirring my hair and cold snow crunching underfoot, loneliness washed over me in waves, lapping and pulling at my spirit. I was alone here. Truly alone.

     I had strayed too close to the edge. Suddenly, the snow gave way beneath my feet, and I went toppling right over the edge. Luckily, I hadn't made it terribly far up from Happy Valley. I rolled down the sloping side and landing with a yelp of pain in some prickly bushes down in the Valley. Luckily, it was well behind the nearest shops, but there was still a chance that someone had heard me or seen me fall.

     My body throbbed with a dull pain from the impact, and where I had landed on my arm the bush had cut through the sleeve. Luckily, I had not landed on my wings. I closed my eyes tightly, all of my emotions rushing me at a strangling rate. I made myself roll painfully slowly off the bush, into the slush under it, wincing at the stinging in my arm. I was drowning in my emotions and in the darkness that had been following me around, waiting to close in.

     I jolted at a sound beside me, and snapped my eyes opened to see the brown Lupe standing over me, his eyebrows furrowed. I hadn't even heard him approach. I sat bolt upright, scooting away from him impulsively and clutching my hurt arm. But I couldn't keep the tears from coming. Not at the pain in my body, but in my heart.

     I pulled out a few thorns that had stuck into my coat and arm, unable to keep my voice from shaking as I desperately wiped the tears away from my eyes. "I have to take care of this. It's all up to me."

     "I'll help," Radom said softly, regarding me with intense yellow eyes. Maybe he thought I was talking about hurting myself. But I think he did not.

     I stared at him through hot, stinging eyes, covering most of my face with my hands. As our eyes locked, I felt a twinge of something tugging at my heart. He wanted to help me. He really, really just... wanted to help... "But II have nothing to give-- Wh-what do you want from me?"

     "I'd settle for your name." He smiled softly, a gesture more honest and beautiful than anything I had ever seen before in my life.

     Staring into those radiating eyes, I couldn't hold it back any longer. After holding it back for the last few days, I finally let it all out. I buried my face in my hands, sobbing and letting the tears come freely. "My-my name--" I choked, shaking with stifled weeping. "I-Is... Pa-Pandora."

     "Pandora," he echoed softly, as if tasting my name.

     I heard him move, and looked up through blurred eyes to see him sitting right beside me, meeting my gaze with the kindest and most welcoming eyes I had ever seen. And that's just what I needed to see right now. Kindness. Compassion. Unable to hold myself back, I abruptly wrapped my arms around him and buried my face in his chest, crying quietly into his rough brown fur.

     He said nothing. But he was there, and that was enough. I couldn't have been more grateful for that. And slowly, my crying began to case. The warmth of his fur and the steady beating of his heart against my face seemed to fill me with a new strength. And for a moment, I swear we breathed in unison and our hearts beat as one.

     I was able to pull myself together again in a few minutes. I let go of him and sat up straight, sniffling and wiping my tears away with my sleeve. I took a few deep, calming breaths and was able to look back at Radom, who had not moved once. He smiled gently at me, and I found myself doing the same. "Thank you," I whispered, feeling as though some weight had been lifted off of me. For once in my life, a shoulder had been there to cry on. And I can't possibly say how much that meant to me.

     That teasing grin from before returned, but I could still catch that gentleness in his eyes. "You done getting me all wet now?"

     I smiled weakly. "I'm sorry. It's just..." I trailed off, my frail smile fading. I couldn't possibly tell him.

     Radom simply shrugged it off. "Well, if we're quite through here, I say we get back out of the Valley before someone sees us. I'm going back up, anyway. You coming?"

     I only hesitated for a moment before nodding slowly. "I'll come with you, I suppose," I said softly, carefully bringing myself back onto my feet and brushing myself off yet again.

     "Don't do me any favors." He smirked and winked lightheartedly at me. Then he stood up, shook himself off briefly, and was on the move once more. I followed close behind, moving at as low of a crouch as I could to avoid being seen too easily.

     He slunk soundlessly along the slope of the mountain, his eyes scanning for the safest way to get back up onto the path. I could hear people bustling about a little ways to our side, and the backs of shops were too close for comfort. It was amazing nobody had seen me yet. I kept my wings as close as possible and clung to my long coat to keep it from stirring up too much snow or snagging on anything.

     Just as the base of the winding path was coming into sight, I heard snow crunching under somebody's running feet close by. Radom, as usual, was the first to react. He ducked into the nearest ditch in the snow and kept low, his ears flattened and eyes following the sound, and I soon joined him. I slid in beside him, but the ditch wasn't very wide and only a few feet deep, so we both had to twist ourselves up to remain low.

     The crunching was close now, and over the edge of the ditch I caught sight of two figures starting up the path. They were the two Kyrii we had seen earlier, the older one pulling the sled that his sister sat on, and soon the two of them had laced their way around the corner and out of sight.

     Once again, that was too close for my liking. I let out a sigh, as I had been holding my breath as they passed, and glanced at Radom. Honestly, what could a couple of kids do? But I wasn't going to take chances on them causing a scene and getting me in trouble. I had been given enough trouble already, thanks.

     But as I saw Radom all twisted up in an awkward position, I couldn't help but smile a little. "Comfortable?" I teased, wriggling my way out.

     "Oh yeah. This is so comfortable. You can just pitch a tent around me." He smirked and stood up, shaking some clinging snow off his pelt, and then padded out of the pit after me. "Well then. Before we were so rudely interrupted..." he trailed off, glancing up at the path. But then he looked back at me and quirked a brow. "Before we go any farther, I think you ought to tell me what it is we're looking for here."

     I bit my lip, hesitating for a moment. I knew I shouldn't tell him much, if anything at all. I had no idea who to trust or not here. But he had helped me so much already, and I doubted I could find the shard here on my own. So maybe getting a little help for my first time couldn't hurt. "Well..." I tucked my hand under my coat and into one of my pockets, and soon drew out the Crystal shard. It wasn't glowing, but it was still obviously tinted yellow. "I'm looking for something that looks like this. It's here somewhere." I held my opened palm out to Radom, who tipped his head to one side at the shard curiously. I was just grateful that he didn't press or question.

     He simply nodded. "Piece of cake. We should start down here, then, and work our way up."

     "No, it's not down here." I stared down at the Crystal, carefully choosing my words to avoid saying too much. "This will glow when we get close."

     Radom's eyebrows arched, but he nodded again. "Okay then. Up we go." He inclined his head toward the path, then turned without another word and started toward it, his tail flicking once behind him.

     I was so surprised that he would agree to such a thing when he knew nothing about it. For all he knew I could be leading him into a trap or a death sentence, and yet he didn't even doubt me, simply helped without so much as a second thought. Everything about him made me wonder.

     I followed close behind, once again staying low, but when we reached the path Radom stopped. "Let's try the Ice Caves. We haven't been in there yet." I followed his gaze up the side of the mountain, off of the path. The path led around the caves and right up to the rest of the mountain. But up a steep slope of white I could see the entrance to the caves well above us.

     "There's no path," I mumbled, wincing to myself. Of course. Just my luck.

     "Nope." He flashed another of his brief, toothy grins, and before I knew it I was stumbling after him as he started up the side of the mountain.

     I have no idea how I made it up in one piece. I found myself half-crawling through the deep snow, bowing to keep my balance and avoid getting blasted in the face by the wind, which became fiercer the farther we got. Radom was just as effortless as always, weaving his way through the snow as easily as brushing aside water, way ahead of me and constantly pausing to wait for me to catch up or to give me something to hold on to on the many occasions that I nearly fell.

     By the time we reached the slab of ice jutting out of the mountainside, surrounded by an endless sea of white above, below, and to either side, I was shivering and wheezing in the bitterly cold air as I tried to catch my breath. I didn't want to look up and sea the rest of the towering mountain, or below to see the tiny valley I had left behind and the distance I had climbed. Instead, I focused on the slab of ice underfoot, and the gaping entryway to the cave in front of me, like the mouth of a waiting monster.

     "Wonderful," I muttered bitterly, glancing down at Radom, who wasn't even short of breath.

     He grinned up at me as though we had just gone on a cheerful walk rather than a huge climb. "Are you scared?"

     I scowled at him. "I'm not scared."

     "Then what are you?"

     He met my frown with a smirk, and I had to look away. I wasn't sure how to react to this odd Lupe. Instead I looked at my boots, but could see the translucent ice underfoot and had to look back up. "I'm just a little worried about... falling," I admitted, finding this a perfectly reasonable thing to be scared of.

     "Well, if it's any consolation, I tell myself it's not the fall. Falling doesn't hurt. It's when you stop," was his terse reply, topped with a sideways smirk and a wink.

     "Gee, thanks," I muttered sarcastically, rolling my eyes. "How comforting."

     "Here to help." He grinned and wiggled his eyebrows at me in response. Then he flicked his ears up and started toward the gap in the wall, leaving me to hesitate out in the opened for a moment longer.

     For a moment, I was alone. But then I realized... no, I wasn't. Now he was here. Now I had Radom. And suddenly I had the strength to keep going again.

To be continued...

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» The Price of Faith: Part One
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