So this is a prequel to "Try as I Might, I Can't Escape You" because I've been listening to the Crane Wives way too much and these characters have taken over my brain at the moment, so this is my official apology.
Rye Bardsleye considered themself decent at business. Their mom owned a little shop back in their home village, and they helped her manage it until she died. They also liked to think that they were decent at keeping on the move and keeping their head down. That’s what you did when you had animal features and lived in a world where said features were just common enough to be hated. It was a bit like being a werewolf, but less hairy and more constant. Except Rye wasn’t a wolf, they were a rat, and that was even worse. At least with a wolf people assumed you were loyal and loved your pack. Heck, most other swiftstrides were more feline. Rye was a rat, however, and most people assumed that because they were a rat, they were going to chew through walls and steal things.
Rye didn’t chew through walls. They could if they wanted to, depending on the material, and it had come in handy in the past, but they didn’t. They also didn’t steal. They were an honest, hard working person just looking to experience the world and all it had to offer, and to do that, they needed money. So they did odd jobs here and there, picked up whatever coin they could, and they bounced from town to town. It wasn’t the best life, but it was good enough for Rye.
Then they met the wizard, and things started to get weird.
“Step right up! Fortunes told, futures revealed! Learn your fate, or purchase magical items from my collection of wonder! All are welcome!”
The wizard, because it was obvious he was a wizard, was standing in front of a cart. People were giving him a wide berth, and Rye wanted to laugh at his sorry attempts to sell stuff. Then the wizard saw them.
“You there! In the hat and the mask! Come forth and discover your destiny!”
Rye took a step backwards, holding their hands up in surrender and shaking their head.
“Are you afraid? Because fear not, I’m a professional!”
There were people watching now, some brave souls encouraging Rye to go forward and see what the crazy wizard was trying to sell. There was too much pressure, and Rye crumbled. They stepped forward and the wizard smiled, “What’s your name?”
“Why do you need it?” Rye shot back. The wizard laughed, grabbing on to the side of his cart for stability.
“Oho! A challenge! Let me look into my magical crystal ball here and all will be revealed.”
The wizard pulled a crystal ball out of the cart and held it up, waving his hand over the top. The inside went foggy, and the wizard let out a hum, “Your name is Rye, correct?”
Well that was slightly terrifying. No wonder there was a wizard council in control of making magical laws. Imagine if a magic user could walk up to you and glean all your secrets without facing any consequences.
“Yeah,” Rye said, “So what’s my future?”
The wizard squinted at the crystal ball, “I see… a life of great adventure. Daring escapes from danger, and pockets lined with wealth!”
“That’s so generic.”
The wizard scoffed, “Well if I told you in detail, the Fates would strike me down where I stand. Good things are coming your way, Rye Bread. Just you wait.”
“That’s not my last name.” Rye turned to start walking away, but the wizard cleared his throat.
“You know, my services aren’t exactly free.”
Rye whirled around with a retort on their lips, but was cut off by a group of guards running around the corner of the street.
“Stop right there, wizard! Where are your permits?”
The wizard made a high pitched noise in the back of his throat, “Well, that’s all for today folks! We’ll meet again!”
He and his cart disappeared in a puff of blue smoke, and Rye disappeared into the crowd. They would be leaving town the next morning, and they’d likely never see the wizard again.
Three days later, they saw the wizard again. They were between towns, getting hopelessly lost in the woods, and there he was. Tangled up in a net hanging from a tree. Rye kept their head down as they walked past, but of course the universe wasn’t kind.
“Rye Bread! Hey! Hi!” the wizard twisted around in the net, reaching out for them, “A little help here?”
Rye froze, “Did you just call me Rye Bread again?”
“Well, yeah! ‘Cause your name’s Rye and-” the branch the net was tied to bent, and the wizard’s eyes widened, “Okay, okay, forget the Rye Bread thing, just get me down from here!”
“What’s in it for me?” Rye asked, examining their nails and leaning against a nearby tree.
“Uh- well- you owe me money from the fortunes told, futures read thing!” the wizard exclaimed, “So just get me down from here and we’ll consider your debt paid!”
“Tempting.” Rye eyed the big pink wizard hat on the ground, “Throw in the hat and we’ll have a deal.”
“Oh, you’re a tricky one, aren’t you? No, I’m afraid I can’t give up my hat. It’s where I store all my power as the world’s most charismatic magic man.”
The branch made a cracking sound, and the wizard yelped, “If you could just catch me-!”
With a snap, the branch fell, and with it came the wizard. Rye rushed forward, catching the wizard in their arms before he could hit the ground and get hurt. He was much lighter than he appeared.
“Oh! My hero!” the wizard was quick to start detangling himself from the net, “Thank you, kind Rye!”
“You are by far the strangest man I’ve ever met.” Rye deadpanned, dropping him on the ground and heading back to the path.
“Oh, uh- bye, I guess?” the wizard called after them. Rye didn’t look back. Seeing him again had been a fluke. They’d surely never run into him again.
In hindsight, Rye shouldn’t have gone to a big city. Especially a big city that had banned all magic and magical creatures in the name of the Church. It was not a surprise they got found out almost immediately, nor was it a surprise when they were thrown into jail.
No, the real surprise was their new cellmate. Although given the way the universe seemed to be using Rye as its personal punching bag lately, maybe it also shouldn’t have been surprising.
The wizard peeked over the edge of the top bunk in the cell, “Rye?”
“What, no Rye Bread this time?”
The wizard waved his hand dismissively, “Eh, you don’t seem to like it.”
“Since when has that stopped you before?” Rye plopped down on the bottom bunk, “This is a nightmare.”
“What, the jail or me?”
Both, probably, but Rye couldn’t deny the fact that the wizard’s presence was a little comforting.
“So, what are you in for?” they asked. There was a soft hum from the top bunk.
“Magic without a license, shoplifting, magic without a license in a strictly no-magic city, selling magic goods without a permit and in a no-magic city, and stealing a window from the Church.”
Well that was quite a list of crimes. Rye was barely able to process them before the wizard leaned over the bunk to look down at them, “How about you?”
In lieu of response, they took off their hat and their ears twitched at the sudden freedom.
“Oh. That’s…” the wizard was silent for a moment, “That’s actually kind of cute.”
And that wasn’t at all the reaction Rye had been expecting. Most magic folk didn’t actually care that they were a swiftstride rat, but none had ever called them cute because of it. It should’ve been demeaning, but somehow Rye could tell that the wizard didn’t mean it in that way, and that was Weird with a capital W.
“So yeah, they saw a rat and because they can’t really purify my soul or whatever, they threw me in here.” Rye gestured at the cell vaguely, “With you. The illegal wizard.”
“You can call me Wynfir, if you want,” the wizard- Wynfir- said, “I’ve gone by a lot of names recently, but I think I like that one the best.”
Great, now they were on a first name basis with someone they didn’t want to keep running into.
“Why haven’t you tried to escape yet?” Rye asked, ignoring everything Wynfir had just said about his name.
Wynfir sighed, “You know it takes concentration to keep a spell going? It’s why most wizards have familiars or apprentices. Someone to manipulate the spell itself, and someone to manipulate the real world.”
“Why don’t you have a familiar?”
“The wizard council and I aren’t on good enough terms for me to be allowed to summon one.”
Rye hummed, “Okay, well, what if you did your magic and I helped you out of here?”
Wynfir stared at them for a moment before his face broke into the most blinding grin Rye had ever seen.
“Now why didn’t I think of that?”
Why hadn’t Wynfir thought of that, actually? He was the one who knew how magic worked. Rye was just the shifter. Wynfir hung upside down off the top bunk, his hat falling off his head and his untucked shirt riding up underneath his robes.
“What spell to use is the question… oh! I’ve got a great idea!”
Before Rye could question this so-called great idea, Wynfir was leaping off the top bunk and grabbing the bars of the cell, “Hey, the person you guys threw in here is convulsing on the ground! I think the evil spirits are leaving them!”
“That’s not going to work.” Rye rolled their eyes, but Wynfir kept it up until a guard stomped over.
“What in the name of all that’s holy is going on here?” the guard boomed, pointing his sword threateningly at Wynfir. He didn’t get to say anything else, as a spectral fist socked him in the face so hard he hit the ground and didn’t get back up. The hand pulled the keys off his belt and unlocked the cell door before dropping the keys and disappearing. Wynfir scooped his hat up off the ground, “Now for the hard part.”
“You haven’t even explained the plan yet!” Rye shot to their feet and Wynfir grabbed on to one of their hands tightly.
“I’m going to cast a couple of illusions, and you are going to guide us to our stuff and then out of this place. No one will ever know we’re gone.”
“They’re going to see right through it,” Rye grumbled, but didn’t attempt to pull away. Wynfir muttered the spell, and nothing changed.
“I thought you said you were casting an illusion!”
“You’re inside it!” Wynfir exclaimed before flinching, “Oh, damn, I’ve got to redo it. Just trust the process, Rye.”
So Rye kept their mouth shut, and at Wynfir’s tight nod, they started guiding him slowly through the halls. The other prisoners they passed didn’t say a word, and when they went by a guard, he didn’t even react. Rye looked up at Wynfir, watching in silence as his brow furrowed in concentration. They didn’t want to see what would happen if that concentration broke, so they hurried along.
Rye’s bag was in a pile of personal items from other prisoners. They didn’t see anything that looked like it belonged to Wynfir, and considering last time they saw him all he had was his hat, they figured he had his stuff stored away on some other plane of existence. So with all their items, Rye led Wynfir out the front door of the prison building. The sudden noise of the busy street startled Wynfir, and his grip on Rye’s hand tightened.
“Now we run,” he said, barely giving them any time before taking off. The two of them sprinted through the streets together, Rye being dragged along behind due to the fact that their legs just weren’t as long as Wynfir’s. Behind them, Rye could hear the guards shouting as they attempted to catch up. Perhaps Wynfir was using another spell, or maybe the guards were just uncoordinated, but Rye and Wynfir were out of city limits and running for the woods before they could be caught.
They stopped to catch their breath deep within the forest, off the beaten path. Rye finally pulled their hand away from Wynfir’s.
“That was insane.” They braced themself on a tree as their lungs strained to pull in enough oxygen.
“Honestly, it shouldn’t have worked as well as it did,” Wynfir said, sounding no worse for wear. He shrugged at Rye’s glare, “But it did! Yay us!”
Rye should’ve walked away. Every instinct they had was telling them to just leave the crazy wizard behind. Instead, they looked down.
“We make a decent team.”
“We do,” Wynfir said with a nod, “And we keep running into each other everywhere we go, so why don’t we take the hint?”
“What hint?” Rye asked.
Wynfir grinned, “If we’re going the same directions anyway, we might as well travel together.”
Oh, this was not at all what Rye wanted. They hadn’t wanted to speak to Wynfir back when he was reading futures, and they didn’t want to travel with him now.
“Might as well.” was what came out of their mouth instead of the millions of refusals they should’ve said. Why were they agreeing with this? Was Wynfir doing magic on them? Was that why their hand still felt warm where he had been holding it so tightly?
“Great! See, I told you I saw your future!” Wynfir’s smile was so bright Rye could feel their skin burning.
“You and me, Rye! Great adventure, greater riches!”
Rye sighed heavily, “Yep. Adventure and riches. Just no more jailbreaks, okay?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” Wynfir swore, “We’re going to have so much fun together.”
Maybe it would be okay. Wynfir didn’t seem like the worst traveling companion, and his spells could probably come in handy.
“So, what’s your opinion on some casual breaking and entering? Because there’s a village about three days from here that has this temple made entirely out of stained glass, and I’m not saying we take all the glass, but if we could just get some I could pretend they’re actually healing crystals and sell them. People are always looking for healing, so as long as we don’t get caught we could live like kings!”
On second thought, Rye should’ve run the other way the first time they ever saw Wynfir on the street.
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I feel like I need to say that the whole stealing glass to sell as healing crystals is something I absolutely did in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. The DM told me there was nothing left in the house to steal and I said "bet" and left with the windows. Also that same DM kind of inspired the character of Wynfir because they once told me about an idea they had for a wizard character that can only cast fireball but it's an aerosol can and a lighter and I absolutely stole the vibes from that and ran. That's all.